Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beast? Beauty? Bewildering.

Somehow, I simply can’t bring myself to watch Bridalplasty. In television’s latest bastardization of Pygmalion, women compete for the opportunity to have plastic surgery prior to their wedding. They receive this benefit after a series of competitions, they form alliances, and we watch as our culture slides further and further into the realms of the ridiculous.

Almost fifteen years ago I wrote an essay entitled “Rewritten on the Body” in which I explored the sudden expansion of progressive advertising targeting both men and women, encouraging body alterations and ‘improvements’ through plastic surgery.

The notion of this process isn’t anything new. It has been represented, artistically, through works such as Andy Warhol’s ‘Nose Job’, or, as I mentioned previously, through the ongoing body alterations that mark Orlan’s entire practice.

In a sense this transition from ugly to beautiful is classically American. Ours is a culture marked as much by the notion of the instant fix – think here of the Jordan Chase character in the just completed season of Showtime’s Dexter – as it is by a complex belief that outer beauty is identical with inner beauty. This is not to suggest that in certain instances there is a correlation between the two, both for physical and psychological reasons. But somehow, somewhere, when a group of women compete for surgery as part of a reality series, taking the process steps further from both its many predecessors (The Swan, Extreme Makeover, Dr. 90210), the process itself seems somehow more tawdry, more meaningless, and more unnecessary.

Somehow, culturally we are so far removed from Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, that we can barely imagine a face that would make us walk across the street. Instead, we are trapped in the cultural freakshow that gives us the genius of Diane Arbus at the same time that it gives us the shallowness of Bridalplasty.

Perhaps for 2011 a resolution should be that we move away from the constant aggrandizement of the equation ugly duckling to swan, and towards something that is altogether more complex, more valuable, and more meaningful.

Visit a museum. If you want to see a moving image, try “The Artist’s Museum” on display through January 31 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. For a more contemporary New York approach, try John Currin’s takes on beauty until December 23rd.

Whatever you do, remember that the ongoing mass media reconfiguration of the ideals of beauty hinges on a willingness to give it value. Imagine the discussion that is taking place – Wife: “I’m going on Bridalplasty to make my boobs bigger.” Husband: “Great, and at least we won’t have to pay for it.” Oh wait, you’ll pay, we’ll all pay, for the ongoing visual trauma as we lose our abilities to make any discerning decisions about beauty or value with out the intermediacy of the TV.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Are You Allowed to Have Some Candy?

We are living in a strange time now – strange, because the more we assert our freedoms, the more we restrain them at the same time. Rights, responsibilities and obligations are like an interwoven tapestry that is fraying at the edges.

What is strangest is that while the flyover states, in general, become more and more insular, the slightly outside the mainstream media continues to shower us with articles, essays and images of semi-debauchery that, while not necessarily representing the metaphorical fall of Rome, at least making its stumbles more salacious.

Consider, for example, Vice Magazine, and its VBS.TV. Where else would you find a link that suggests, “Click here for War, Politics, Economic Turmoil and Sweeping Global Havoc on Every Front.” There, interviews with Japanese serial killers are interspersed, inexplicably, with stories on gorilla survival. It’s as if our culture’s fetish for the macabre, coupled with our progressive values, somehow congeal into this digital realm between voyeurism and activism. Strange space.

This similar type of revelation is interwoven into the photography pages of both the Village Voice and LA Weekly, basically bastard twins of the same media organization. There, Nate “Igor” Smith, Mark “The Cobrasnake” Hunter, and others, document a range of events tagged with the ever-enticing NSFW label. The Voice, its Slide Shows ever so demur, highlights its image of a well-known lesbian dance evening with the title “Choice C-words”, somehow finding the true title too forthright for the link on the splash page even though it appears immediately below? The NSFW fantasmagoria continues with the Erotic Photographers’ Fundraiser and the Exxxotica Convention 2010, among others.

What is so surprising is that in a country to afraid of the human body that basic television is fined when it shows a breast, many media outlets recognize that in larger cities people are interested, somewhat after the fact, in the freedoms certain of their neighbors are able to express on a regular basis.

One of the most consistent examples of this realm of documentation comes from Merlin Bronques and his site Last Night’s Party, which asks the question “Where were you last night?” Probably not at the exclusive poolside Miami bash replete with disheveled models in various states of dress and deportment. I imagine that the wannabe hipster in the Midwest probably imagines that he or she could be there, but somehow they probably won’t, and this dissemination of the experience probably serves not so much as a means of inclusion, but merely as a reference to how exclusive this type of expression probably is.

I ask these questions because there seems to be such a chasm between our desires for complexity, whether visual or written, and our support for it publicly when that representation appears. Publications such as Vice, the Village Voice and LA Weekly, and sites such as Last Night’s Party, probably serve as the known but unknown underpinnings for more complex dialogues about these desires as the public response to the David Wojnarowicz work at the National Portrait Gallery serves as a focal point for censorship in the fine arts.

Somehow, in the depiction of religion, we have become so culturally afraid, and so immediately reactionary, that our capacity to consider the intentions of the artists simply falls away. In our desires to both reflect upon and simultaneously reject images of the human body, we find sites that fall within our realms of acceptability, as well as ones ones that simply respond and report. Somehow, we all know outwardly and inwardly that the intricacies in weaving a dialogue about the erotic versus the pornographic, for example, is one most of us will never have.

We could reconsider the critical dialogues that ask these questions, from essays such as The Pornographic Imagination by Susan Sontag through The Story of the Eye, by George Bataille, but in each instance we would somehow fail to fully comprehend what is at stake. What is at stake is not a battle against interpretation, as Sontag might suggest, but one that is against representation. We move further and further away from the image as the site of dialogue, and closer and closer to the moment when the image becomes merely the moment.

We watch helplessly as the capacity of an image to generate a discourse becomes more and more in danger of having any relevance whatsoever. Imagine the day that Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ ‘A Corner of Baci’ becomes impossible to exhibit because it contains sugar, it could promote unhealthy eating or, in an unintended moment it could lead someone to suffer from a glycemia related issue.

Artists, be warned, the space for discourse is shrinking. Each time artists, organizations or institutions fold like a house of cards, we each reinforce the belief that the questions we ask, and the answers we propose, have little or no value or meaning.

Consider this the next time to hesitate before supporting anything that pushes, gently, the boundaries of our shrinking freedoms. Look at the Slide Shows at the Village Voice or LA Weekly. Click on over to Last Night’s Party. Buy a complex work by Sontag, or Bataille, or any other number of writers. Or support a publication that tries to highlight the fact that representing the body isn’t always already the same as making pornography. Otherwise, we’ll be back to covering Renaissance statues to protect their propriety, and the hemline index won’t have anything to do with economics, but it will have something to do with the restraints of our freedoms.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dear John

When John Fields first told me about “Dear Chuck: A Love Letter in Five Parts,” I wasn’t sure what to think. I thought it was a joke…maybe.

I think the issue, the challenge, the question, was where to situate these works. Obviously, these five paintings can’t be a joke, because no one would expend so much effort on making a one-liner. And no gallery would exhibit something without significant artistic merit. But where can we site these pieces? Are they homage? Are they appropriation? Are they something else entirely?

I begin here because the simple fact of the matter is that I’m not sure where these works reside. Perhaps one of their closest ancestors would be Andy Warhol’s works based on the writings of Truman Capote, fifteen pieces Warhol exhibited at the Hugo Gallery in 1952. Or maybe it’s just that Fields considers Chuck Close to be an enigma, a cipher, an icon, an artist whose works are so emblematic yet so ubiquitous that it is difficult to determine where the affection, or maybe the affectation, begins and ends.

Stylistically these works are more complexly detailed than those in his most recent previous exhibition. He has expanded his range of blacks and greys from ten to roughly thirty, creating more tones, more subtleties and more variations. The scale, which borders on immense, is both enticing and repellent at precisely the same time. Somehow, the flatness of the images and the distillation of tones into simple blacks, whites and greys gives the works as much in common with death masks and other face coverings as they have with Close’s most restrained palettes. Obviously, the lack of color simply serves to shift the focus to the ‘love letter’ itself, which, when read in its entirety says:

“Dear Chuck, you complete me. Love, John. XOXO. PS – you never call anymore”

Lovers of pap popular movies will of course snicker at the Jerry Maguire reference, but here it is something else entirely. Here Fields is suggesting that Close’s deconstruction of the practice of portraiture into its discrete elements – into a series of tones, delineated by a grid, and arrayed across a canvas – gives Fields a freedom that he never expected as a painter. It is as if Close himself has given the finger to the whole practice of academic painting, and this is the reason that Fields loves him. What Close did, and the lineage Fields wishes to continue, is one in which the discourse of painting doesn’t revolve around outdated or outmoded ideas of perspective or representation. Instead, in the lineage of what we might even term the flatliners, Close, Warhol and Alex Katz, Fields is able to lay it all on the surface. That’s something worth loving anyone for.

So the true subtlety lies in the shift from the idea of love for a person to love of the creative practice that they represent. It is as if Fields is writing an artistic ‘thank you’ note, one in which his ongoing reiteration of the mantra thank you, thank you, thank you is evidenced by the layers and layers of pigment that he brushes across the canvas he is painting upon.

I think it is a great challenge for viewers of Dear Chuck to make this distinction. It would be altogether simpler to try to lump Dear Chuck into the pastiche of post-postmodern works that refer to something that becomes a commentary on an appropriation of an appropriation.

I don’t believe this is the case here. For in Dear Chuck, Fields asserts himself as the author by his appearance in the initial image, practically mirroring Close’s Big Self-Portrait (1967-1968) that is in the collection of the Walker Art Center. In Fields’ painting the cigarette is on the other side, flipped reversed, we could even call it mirrored. He, like Close, is staring out at the audience, smoking a cigarette, après le diner, après sex, après something.

Of course the other challenge is to consider how Fields, like Close, uses his friends in the images. In 1970, Close remarked, “I don’t want the viewer to see the head of Castro and think he has understood my work.” Fields doesn’t want the viewer to think this either. He wants the viewer to question just what the love letter is actually ‘telling’ Chuck Close.

Maybe the fact is that these five paintings don’t tell him anything, that they exist outside the realm of his experience, and Fields understands that - just like we always understood that most fan letters aren’t really answered by the stars. So when we look at the works we get drawn into the deception. It’s almost like a secret, and we know something that Chuck Close doesn’t.

All five portraits reflect this theme, with text scrawled across the apparently shirtless chests of Fields’ male and female subjects. It is as if he is inscribing his appreciation on himself, and others, because there isn’t a way to represent its internalization and actually still see it. All five stare blankly into the lens, Chuck Close style, as if the indifference or lack of emotion somehow had the capacity to remove the intimacy of the process. Remember, this is a love letter in five parts. Yet ever ironically, Fields makes the ‘letter’ a pastiche of clichés, icons, something that borders on the emotions he might be feeling if we were able to believe him. I think the more complex dynamic is between Fields and his sitters rather than between the artist and his desired audience.

Strangest of all, I believe that everyone who appears in these paintings probably does ‘love’ Chuck Close, and I believe that the artist loves him the most of all. But I imagine Chuck Close, in his studio, trying to formulate a response. I imagine he writes, “Dear John: You adore me. Love, Chuck. XOXO. PS – it’s almost the sincerest form of flattery.” And then he tries to title the work. “Dear John: A Love Letter in One Part.”

Monday, December 6, 2010

Actions Speaking Louder than Words

National Portrait Gallery Director Martin Sullivan’s acquiescence, apparently against his better wishes and at the instruction of Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, to remove David Wonjarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” highlights the challenges faced by institutions and their reticence to actually engage in complex discourses. This reminds me of an exhibition curated by the artist Joseph Kosuth, for the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1990.

Well before the museum became a repository for solo exhibitions by popular reality show contestants, it was actually a site of some complex critical discourse. For “The Play of the Unmentionable,” Kosuth was allowed to delve into the museum’s storage, extracting and exposing, if you will, pieces that would have possibly been deemed offensive in many contexts.

Strangely, the cover of the book is blurred on both Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s websites. Strange because the subject of the book is precisely this type of occlusion, obstruction, tendency towards the hidden.

Museums and galleries are trapped between an assertion of freedom and a commitment to its visual expression. In many instances, their response is to purchase challenging works, simply to bury them in their archives never to be seen again.

Consider, for example, the Larry Clark exhibition “Kiss the Past Hello”, currently on view in Paris. This exhibition has so enraged some viewers that not only has it actually received a ‘rating’, but there are ongoing and continuous calls for its closure. Minors under the age of 18 are forbidden from viewing the exhibition’s contents. In all likelihood they could find similar material in any number of accessible popular publications on newsstands all over Paris, but allow them to view this material in a gallery? Non!

Clearly, the forces of censorship continue to triumph over the assertions of artists’ rights. Museum professionals have both the capacity and the responsibility to protect these rights, but often they, like Martin Sullivan, simply fold like a house of cards.

This type of passive censorship is no more dangerous, no more insidious, and no less threatening than censorship that is active, assertive and continuous. It is time for arts professionals to take a stand – in the US, they may do so under the protections of the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is on display at the National Archives and Records Administration, which, I would note, is not a member of the Smithsonian Institution’s group of museums. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan might want take Mr. Clough on a walk over, and they could spend a few moments considering the document's contents. My understanding is that a trip from one location to the other is under half a mile, and could be driven in one minute.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Slap that Stereotype...Hard!

Jonathan Hicks’ “Kill Dat Stereotype”, on display at Birmingham’s Roam Projects, highlights the challenges young artists face as they explore complex ideas from a range of directions, each time, hopefully, aiming at the same target.

For those familiar with Birmingham’s gallery scene, the works in “Kill Dat Stereotype” have been exhibited before, but never as a group and never with an overarching conceptual context.

From the outset, let me say that I appreciate Hicks’ works. Some more than others, and some, more problematically than others. Perhaps the biggest difficulty any critic today faces, or even anyone writing on contemporary culture, is that the overarching signifiers – “blackness”, “whiteness”, “queerness”, for example – each create such a loaded discourse that critical engagement becomes problematic at best, impossible at worst. At its best, it teeters on the apologistic, at its worst, on its perceived insensitivity.

With this in mind, as a mid-forties, middle-class, educated, white male, I will consider “Kill Dat Stereotype” not so much in terms of its authenticity of ‘blackness’ or the black experience, but from the perspective of its consistency, its capacity to convey meaning, to emote, and to express.

Perhaps the biggest challenge Hicks faces is that, like many young African-American artists, there is no clear distinction between pieces that are about identity and pieces that assert identity. The casual spectator then simply lumps everything into work about the black experience, and moves on.

I’m not sure, also, whether Hicks is really killing dat stereotype, or in fact using it to reinforce his assertion of its existence. Most powerful are the images in which he washes the blackface off himself, only to reveal the fact that he himself is black, calling to mind the uncertainty of William Faulkner’s “Light in August” where Joel Christmas’ ‘blackness’ is always oscillating, always waiting to be defined, always something to be moved away from.

So when Hicks photographs himself, hooded, in fabrics reminiscent of African tapestries, with a noose around his neck, it is as if he is asserting the history of black consciousness, but maybe not necessarily moving its discourse forward. Here, Hicks himself is passive, almost as if he is enslaved. Is he enslaved by the history of the black experience? Is he enslaved by a creative process that compels him to remain precisely within this dialogue? Does the discourse become simply self-reflective? These are all issues that Kill Dat Stereotype seeks to address, but somehow what we become left with are beautiful images that are in danger of being overwhelmed by their own technical artistry.

Several years ago Hicks regaled me with stories of nighttime jaunts across Birmingham, Alabama, roommate in tow, stopping to photograph said roommate, nude, with a noose around his neck, in locations public and private. Somehow, the odd juxtaposition of black man photographing black subject contemplating horrific black experience publicly in Birmingham, Alabama, provided these images with an immediacy and an unnerving quality that Kill Dat Stereotype may lack. It is not a question of better or worse, but merely a question of external versus internal, of trying to represent a cultural experience versus trying to explore a personal one.

I think this is where Jonathan Hicks is now, exploring the chasm that can exist between the two. I am not sure he, or anyone, can necessarily Kill Dat Stereotype. I think he might give it a good left hook, go crunk on it, give it a bitchslap, knock it down…but it is the person who perpetuates the stereotype, not the person who it represents, who is the only one who can kill it.

Framing Nostalgia Locally, Buying Globally

Tonight, in Birmingham, Alabama, Bare Hands Gallery hosts its final opening, before closing December 30th. I can only imagine it will be a huge night, with well-wishers, collectors, artists, the curious, the caring and the casual all pouring out onto the sidewalk on 21st Street South. While the forthcoming display of love and care will be touching, the demise of Bare Hands Gallery simply illustrates the difficulties of art organizations in middle-tier cities, and the challenges they face.

Problematically, many artists in smaller cities approach the business model differently than an artist represented in a major city might. In the former, the production, display and sale of works forms the basis of a “more is better” equation in which the greater the output, the greater the opportunity for sales. In a city like Birmingham, apart from monthly exhibitions, artists have the opportunity to participate in Magic City Art Connection, ArtWalk, the Moss Rock Festival and other similar events. Then, in many instances, they seem bewildered by why their works don’t seem to sell as well at galleries when they have their biannual exhibition or are included in a group exhibition.

This isn’t an argument for availability or scarcity. Instead, I believe that the actual art-buying public is reasonably small. In many instances, worldwide, artists trade their works with other artists rather than each purchasing them in commercial spaces. Many artists have studio sales. Time and again, the opportunity to saturate a limited market may satisfy the legitimate need of an artist to make a living from their work. But somehow, this simply can't be reconciled with partnering with a commercial gallery to exhibit the same pieces and create the same sale opportunities.

How do we address this disparity between artistic production as day-to-day supply item versus artistic production as limited availability object that creates increased demand, and therefore increased value. It is a basic economic argument, a relationship between supply and demand.

I love Bare Hands Gallery. My wife and I had our first real meeting at an exhibition opening. Over the years, we have purchased pieces by a number of artists. But like someone said recently, “If your idea of supporting a space is putting three dollars in the tip jar and drinking a few beers, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out why someplace is closing.”

Galleries close every day. It is a fact of business as much as it is a fact of life. I encourage people to buy something from Bare Hands Gallery during its final month, but out of a desire to support local art since it’s too late to save this local business, it would seem. And remember, nostalgia for something after it’s gone is nothing like supporting something while it is here. Just imagine if we’d all bought something last week, or last month, or last year.