Sunday, July 31, 2005

Fear and comfort in art

Thoughtful post at Zero Degrees Art. In Travelogue 34 Mery Lynn McCorkle writes
The concept of the avant garde is based on the superior/prophetic perception of the artist. In times of complacency, shaking up the bourgeoisie through confrontation is a good growth mechanism. In times of fear, though, at least for centuries in the past, art was about offering comfort and perspective, trying to discover and share the harmony and order of the universe. And order, even in mathematics, is indelibly connected to the idea of god. Einstein overtly equated the order of the universe with god. So don't pooh-pooh comfort. It isn't about providing an opiate to the masses. It's about ameliorating fear through changing the viewer's perspective of life events. Fear, as politicians and religious leaders know too well, can be an effective motivator. When it crosses a threshhold, though, fear physically impedes hearing. Literally, physiologically. Offering a way of de-escalating fear and stress is not a shabby job to have.
And, I would add, not an easy one. De-escalating fear cannot be done merely by distraction from the fear - the fear has to be acknowledged somehow. I should be using "fine" art examples here, but as I'm brain dead (and have been ensconced on the couch all weekend) I'm going with the pop culture. Compare how recent television shows deal with the terror of becoming an adult: Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. regular teen-angst shows like Beverly Hills 90210 or The OC. Buffy at first glance is more unreal, a genre show, and easily dismissed (though really the same could be said for the other shows mentioned - not exactly Big Drama). However, it manages through metaphor to get at deeper fears than 90210 every could - fears that adults don't always have the answers (and are often part of the problem), and that the monsters in the closet might really eat you. But it also shows that young people have power to live through and overcome these fears, and the comfort of knowing that others are going through the same things you are. These are kind of lame examples to use after Mery Lynn's lovely writing, but hey, that's where I'm at today. Plus, I'm a nerd. For more nerdy goodness (or ridiculousness, depending on your perspective) listen to the NPR report or go to Slayage.


Not feeling well today. I had wanted to go to Lenny Campello's lecture at the Warehouse but that's not going to happen. If anyone out there attended, would you fill me in on how it went?

Saturday, July 30, 2005

desert of posts

sorry. This week has been busy somehow - I finally got my new laptop (shiny!) and have been tweaking it. I don't know how I've lived this long without a laptop. It's a bit ridiculous, I spend 9 hours a day at work in front of a computer screen and can't wait to get home and spend more time at a computer. My eyes are about to give out today.

Anyhow, I'm finishing up my draft of the Seven review. The two published reviews I've read haven't given the show much time (or space) which I think is a shame. Though not without it's flaws, Seven is worth the time for anyone who wants to support DC area art.

Curator Lenny Campello's lecture is tomorrow afternoon at 2pm at the Warehouse.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Not art, but wow...

Safety Announcement. You have to see it to get the impact. I have no words.

Bioart, the new terrorist threat

Okay, so this art sounds a bit out there even for me, but is it really a threat to national security? See the article Terror Hysteria Gone Absurdist.

See also Critical Art Ensemble's Biotech Projects.

Haven't had time to look through the site, but it's interesting.

The Corcoran had a show in 2002 called Molecular Invasion. From the press release :

For the Molecular Invasion project, CAE will grow Monsanto RoundUp Ready cash crops (canola, soy, and corn) in experimental and control groups in the gallery for the duration of the exhibition. According to CAE, RoundUp ready crops have already become a super-pest in North America and they continually threaten to contaminate agricultural biodiversity around the world as their sales and distribution increases. CAE’s project provides a model for amateur molecular intervention through the application of a simple pyridoxal compound on the experimental group of plants. If successful, the compound will essentially reverse engineer the genetic modifications made to the plants, thereby making them vulnerable to the crippling effects of RoundUp herbicide.

Is it art? Is it gonzo mad science? I have a biology degree I've never used so I'm fascinated. This has to be the first hardcore overlap of art and science I've seen.

Friday, July 22, 2005

[insert gleeful screeching here]

This is totally not art related, but my new computer should arrive in a few days, and I'm geeked. So is my housemate, I'm sure, since I keep hijacking her laptop.

Washington DC Art News posted a link to the WP review of Seven, which was unimpressive. What's the point of taking up column inches if you're not going to say anything worthwhile, positive or negative? Read the review here. I guess at least it's press for local art, half-hearted as it is.

I shouldn't be too harsh, since it's taking me a ridiculously long time to write my own review.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Lipsey on art and the spiritual

Two more Lipsey quotes from An Art of Our Own : the Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art. I like the way he puts words together.

Art accepted a special mission in virtually every preindustrial culture: to depict the sacred. The sacred is the realm of the larger truths surrounding and conditioning our lives or dwelling within; it is the realm of the hidden, and therefore the revelation. (p.12)

Universal meaning finds its way into art with or without discursive intellectual effort, but it requires a certain receptivity from the artist who turns toward that level of meaning, that aspect of his or her inner life.(p.26)

I'm not sure I agree that there is "universal meaning" as such, I've absorbed too much postmodern thought for that. But if you replace it with something like "a sense of the sacred" I think it works.

Is the sacred necessarily universal? Eliade Mircea and Joseph Campbell would maybe say yes. Though the manifestations of the sacred would differ there would be universal patterns, and some of these patterns would show up in art. I don't know how much this applies to modern and contemporary art, even art about the sacred. We'll see what Lipsey has to say.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Politics of Ground Zero

Josse Ford's Art Journeys and Conversation has an interesting link to the controversy surrounding the Drawing Center and the developing memorial at Ground Zero. See New York Times Champions The Drawing Center.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Tyler Green on Robert Smithson

Modern Art Notes always has great writing. Tyler Green posted a short piece on the Robert Smithson retrospective(currently at the Whitney). Tyler writes:

Smithson was the major early figure of the earthworks movement that redefined art as something that could exist outside an art gallery. Feeling that traditional art media (such as painting) were inadequate for showing work that would last, Smithson made his best art out of steel, mirrors, rock and chalk. For Smithson, 'lasting' was a matter of context: He didn't want his art to share a lifespan with museums, he wanted his work's endurance to be measured against the time frame of geologic processes.
The image below is Smithson's Spiral Jetty from the Whitney website.

Also, Tyler plugged my blog, so he's even more my hero. Thanks Tyler!


Joseph Barbaccia sent me an image of his latest piece, Spirit. This mixed media sculpture is constructed of wild Tamarind wood, brass, and salt.

Joseph is one of the artists in Seven at the Warehouse complex.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Talking (and writing) about Art

Found this great post on Todd Gibson's blog From the Floor - Five Simple Rules for Talking About Art. I think the rules can equally apply to writing about art. Gibson says
One of the best compliments I ever received on a gallery talk came from a visitor who approached me at the end of a presentation and said, "That was so interesting. It was just like reading a novel."

I now use that compliment as a touchstone for evaluating a talk before I start giving it. If it doesn't feel like a novel--with a theme, a plot line
based on discrete components linked together with transitions,interesting visual description, and rich contextual support--I know I need to do more work on it before I roll it out.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

"Organizing Artists In A Post-Utopian World"

Interesting post from Noah Simblist at Zero Degrees Art.

An excerpt:
How do American artists see themselves in relation to the rest of the world? Does the war in Iraq and Afghanistan affect this in any way? How are we implicated not just as citizens but also as artists? This war has also increased polarizations beyond the generalities of east and west. It has pushed forward religious and social issues such as concepts of morality and a global idea of feminism. It’s odd to think that both George Bush and Shirin Neshat can speak adamantly about the role of women in Islamic culture. Religion dominated much of the history of western art and it has recently made a resurgence on a cultural level in the US. What reactions do artists have to this? We often take these things for granted, preaching to the converted in art schools, art magazines or panel discussions about the evils of the religious right and the wrong-headedness of warmongers. But how are we as artists affected by the social and political currents of today? And how does our work participate in this larger cultural reality? It’s best for us as artists to talk to each other and see what happens.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Tim Wagner Glass

Tim Wagner, one of my colleagues at A. Salon, has created a lovely new website. Tim combines glass with other materials such as rope to create unusual tensions in his work. Check it out.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Coming a Blog near You

Really, I will finish my review of Seven soon. I still don't have a replacement for my computer, which got zapped a few weeks ago, but one should be coming soon. So basically I'm updating my blog in short spurts when I can borrow a computer or at lunch at work. Longer, more thoughtful work (like reviews) has been delayed.

I spent more time in Seven this afternoon, hanging out with J.T. Kirkland while he gallery sat. Check out the photos of the opening at J.T.'s blog Thinking About Art. I need to get a digital camera so I can add nice images to my blog, otherwise the text gets a bit boring.

It was good to meet J.T. and hear about his experiences blogging about art in DC. It's a bit bizarre how uptight people can get about art, getting worked up about one person's opinion, especially one expressed within a personal webpage. It's also bizarre how much of a positive response you can get by expressing those opinions... Anyway, J.T. has been very encouraging.

While at the Warehouse I briefly met another Seven artist, but I'm afraid I can't remember his name.

If any of the other artists in Seven would like to discuss your work I'd love to hear from you.

Spirituality and Abstraction

I finished Gablik's Conversations Before the End of Time. Now I'm reading An Art of Our Own : the Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art by Roger Lipsey. It's a kind of alternative history of abstract art, tracing the influence of spirituality in the work of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich and beyond.

Lipsey discusses two types of seeing as found in a Sufi text: seeing with eyes of flesh and eyes of fire.
Eyes of flesh perceive the world and mankind as densely material; in such eyes life is a losing struggle for permanence, although sometimes full of beauty. Eyes of flesh acutely perceive details of time, place, person, action, and idea, but in relation to one another rather than to anything beyond them.

Eyes of fire perceive each thing as the outer sign of an inner fact, or the local sign of a distant power. For such eyes nothing is lonely matter, all things are caught up in a mysterious, ultimately divine whole that challenges understanding over a lifetime. Eyes of flesh focus on the thing itself, eyes of fire on facts but still more intently on their participation in a larger meaning by which they are raised. (p.17)
So far Lipsey's book is not too dense, enjoyable but still fairly scholarly. I don't know much about early abstract art so it should be interesting, especially since a few of the artists to be discussed are in the Visual Music show.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Musings on Greenbergians

Since I've been referencing Suzi Gablik (the anti-modernist) I thought I should throw in a view from the other side of the fence. NewCrit is a bastion for believers in High Modernism as understood by Clement Greenberg. John Link, one of my former professors, is a cofounder of the site.

An interesting paradox is how adherents to this branch of modernism go on at length about the quality of prehistoric and Renaissance art. If I understand their thinking, quality is based solely on what your eye sees and has very little if anything to do with content. See Jules Olitski's essay for a sample.

Olitski writes :
Throughout the ages (and most particularly in Hellenic art) beauty and excellence were premier goals, until now, when, like Gresham's Law, the question is, will low art drive out high art?
What troubles me about this view is that for the artists of prehistoric times through the Renaissance the visual quality of their work was only important as far as it conveyed spiritual meaning. Yes, the Greeks and Egyptians cared about beauty and excellence in the crafting of their objects - but the first priority was to make objects that fulfilled their beliefs. During the Renaissance this began to change, but even something as simple as a still life was viewed as vanitas, as a symbol of death-in-life.

Through Gablik's lens you can view the period after the Industrial Revolution to the present as the exception in the world history of art - art stopped being a part of life, a part of the spiritual beliefs of the culture, and slowly became isolated to the point where it has little value to society except as a commodity.

If, under this Modernist paradigm, true art is by definition isolated from and independent of life, how then can it be favorably compared to the art of the past, which was decidedly part of life and in the eyes of the creators gained value from its place in that life?

Perhaps I'm oversimplifying the Modernist view. I have not studied much Greenberg. I'm not saying I totally disagree with them, just as I can't say I completely agree with Gablik's strenuous opposing view. I have an affinity for Arthur Danto, who at least allows that these movements can co-exist. The funny thing is, both the Modernists and Gablik see pure post-modernism as decadent. I guess they agree on something after all.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Holy ground in a landfill?

Another artist frequently discussed by Suzi Gablik is Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who has worked with the Department of Sanitation in NYC for many years. She had started a reclamation project for Fresh Kills landfill when 9/11 happened. Read Leftovers: It’s About Time for Fresh Kills for her thoughts on how the re-opening of Fresh Kills for the 9/11 debris impacts her project.

She writes (in 2002) :
What will happen to all this debris? There will definitely be some kind of memorial for the catastrophe: for the people; for the attack on US soil; for the towers that we feel have been torn out of us. This will be at Ground Zero. But what about the dust at the Fresh Kills Landfill? It's not about the body parts that are found. They'll remove the identifiable fingers and toes, run DNA tests, and return them to families. It's the flying dust that is full of thousands of unfound, incinerated human beings. This will be their graveyard.

Project proposals and planning information are located here.

The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward

One of the more interesting public art pieces memorializing 9/11 I've heard of so far - at the NYT, you may need to log in or use Bug Me Not to read the article.

More Gablik

Found a very short summation of Suzi Gablik's beliefs here. The hosting site looks interesting - it's a collection of environmental artists.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Role of Museums

Mery Lynn McCorkle has posted a thoughtful essay at Zero Degrees Art on the practice of charging admittance to museums and the changing role of museums in society - are they for entertainment or education? See her Travelouge 33. This is an increasingly controversial issue, with institutions like MoMA now charging $20 and the LA County Museum basically renting their space for a blockbuster exhibition by a private company. Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes has written about the LACMA issue better than I ever could.

Of course, I work for the Smithsonian, which is free, so I'm a bit biased about this. I know museums are struggling for funding, whether they are publicly or privately financed (or a bit of both, in many cases); but when does the admittance price become a hindrance to even middle class visitors? Bringing a family of five to MoMA now sets you back $100, unless you go on the free night (four hours on Fridays) which in my experience is ridiculously crowded.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Suzi Gablik

I found a short article on the web by Suzi Gablik that nicely sums up some of her thinking about art. Since I've discussed her writing in several of my postings it might help to get a sense of where she's coming from.

Read The Nature of Beauty in Contemporary Art.

The Nature of Reviews

While reading Suzi Gablik's Conversations before the end of time I got to thinking about my approach to the art reviews on this page. The first review (Tim Hawkinson) was primarily a thumbs up or down kind of thing. The second judged the show on how well it met the curator's intention, not necessarily on the aesthetic qualities of each piece of art individually. My initial notes on Seven at the Warehouse have included both kinds of judgements - thoughts on the success of the show as a whole (compared to the curator's intentions) and opinions on specific pieces within the show.

Why do people read reviews? I guess a better question is why do I read reviews? It may be to get a sense of a show I was unable to attend, due to geography or time constraints. It may be to decide whether or not the show will be worth my time (I read movie reviews for this reason). After viewing an exhibit (or a movie) it could be that I'm curious to see what other people thought of it, to bounce my ideas off of theirs, if only in my own head.

However they're presented, reviews are the product of one person's opinion. How established the person is translates into how much influence his or her opinions have. In my area, Blake Gopnik at the Washington Post has the influence. However, Gopnik very rarely reviews anything other than museum shows (last year's Art-O-Matic being a controversial exception). The City Paper does a much better job of covering local art, but recently blogs have been filling the vacuum in an interesting way. J.T. Kirkland's Thinking About Art has featured great discussions about this topic.

Art reviews may be a form of art criticism, but they're usually too short to really explore any large issues or theoretical ideas the way art criticism can. Arthur Danto's reviews for The Nation typically incorporate this additional level. I don't feel I'm quite up to writing any grand aesthetic theses here, but I'd like to start instilling my writing about art with more than the Siskel and Ebert "two thumbs up" mentality.

Technical difficulties

I'm trying to figure out this whole HTML thing to make it so my longer posts are expandable - I've got that part down, but for now all the posts (even the short ones) have the little "Read more!" link at the bottom, regardless of whether there is more to read or not. So for now I guess I'll include a note confirming that there's more in the body of the post.

Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti at apexart

J.T. Kirkland of Thinking About Art was kind enough to post this yesterday.

Another in a series of rather belated reviews of shows I saw while in New York last month...

Spirituality in art seems to go in and out of fashion cyclically. Currently it doesn't have the bad name that, say, straight figurative art has - but neither is it a topic you see represented often in the major galleries. Surprisingly, spirituality has percolated beneath the surface of the last three major shows at the Hirshhorn - in the earthy paganism of Ana Mendieta's ritualized multimedia work, the contemplation of eternal forces in Isamu Noguchi's sculptures, and most recently the underlying interest in Theosophy and eastern religion that ties together many of the artists in Visual Music.

In the Hirshhorn exhibitions the art comes before any concept, and spirituality is referred to tangentially. They may have been a motivating force for the artists, but an understanding of their specific beliefs is not necessary to appreciate the products of their explorations. Suzi Gablik's Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti fails in this essential way : the essay that accompanies the show is more interesting than most of the art it describes, and the art in turn often undermines her concept.

Click the "Read More!" to read on.

I've been a fan of Gablik since I read Has Modernism Failed? during college. I don't always agree with her theory that making art for art's sake in the age of impending environmental catastrophe is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but her writing always makes me think more deeply about art and its place in our culture. Over the past twenty years Gablik's work as a critic has focused on theorizing an art that is responsible, community-based, interactive, and that fulfills the spiritual needs of society. Gablik works toward the re-enchantment of art - a call to bring back the "ability to feel the divine in all things" to Western culture.

Gablik's exhibit at apexart features the work of artists Hank Foreman, David T. Hanson, Kathy Pinkerton, Jane Vance Siegle and collaborators Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson. With Opening to Shakti, Gablik intended to highlight art that is
"worldcentric": it embodies an expansive and nuanced spirituality, liberated from rigid ideologies and the stultifying dogmas of organized religion.
While the influence of the various strains of Catholicism in the altars of Foreman and Pinkerton and Hinduism in the photographs of David T. Hansen and Jane Vance Siegle's paintings are obvious even to the casual viewer, Fern Schaffer is the only artist who gives the impression of working from such a liberated position. The other artists merely riff on various cultural traditions - constructing art out of the imagery of an existing religion.

The creation of personalized altars is not unique to these artists. The practice is common in both Latin American Catholicism and Wicca. The altars in Opening to Shakti remind the viewer of the work of outsider artists such as James Hampton's Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly without the unexpected beauty and the intensity of divine conviction.

Hank Foreman's Madonnas have been installed in a crammed corner of the exhibition, making it difficult to differentiate the four separate altars. His Tsunami Madonna, while formally attractive, lacks the sense of gravity the subject begs for. His choice of materials adds to this - the altar is hung with plastic sea creatures and other flotsam. A more compelling approach would have been to strip the altar of everything but the central lawn Madonna. Foreman has covered this familiar figure with sparkling salt crystals, giving it an impenetrable, deathly beauty. The symbols Foreman has chosen for his altars - snakes in particular - are at this point common cliches in art respresenting the Goddess, emptied of their mythic significance.

Kathy Pinkerton's large altar occupies one entire wall of the exhibition, a sprawling collection of objects of obvious personal significance to the artist. An attempt to show the "presence of the divine in all things," the alter comes across as a display in a curio shop rather than a spiritual emanation. The objects may have significance to Pinkerton, but the very size works against it for the viewer, ruining any intimacy.

Like Foreman's work, Jane Vance Siegle's paintings never rise above the decorative surface. Composed of layers of imagery from Eastern religions, the paintings swirl with intense color and incorporate the occasional aged piece of hand woven fabric. Any sense of the transcendent is overshadowed by the unavoidable impression that this is a Western artist borrowing the beliefs of another culture (in this cast mostly Hindu) to take a stab at creating "spiritual art."

Photography, hardly a medium commonly referred to as spiritual, makes up the most compelling offerings in the show. David T. Hanson has contributed two sets of photographs of shrines, while collaborators Fern Shaffer and Othello Anderson's images of Shaffer's ritual performances occupy the gallery's back wall. Both installations are filled with a sense of spiritual reverence that the other artists fail to create - Hanson by photographing spaces heavy with the accumulated worship of countless believers, Shaffer and Anderson by creating their own ritual rooted in the archaic beginnings of worship.

David T. Hanson's images of sacred shrines are exquisite in their depth of color and shadow. Too expressive to be merely documentary, Hanson manages to peer beneath the sometimes shabby physical presence of the spaces and lets the sublime glimmer through. However beautiful, in the end Hanson's photographs fall into a similar trap as Siegle's paintings. The viewer cannot escape the notion that however lovingly he captures the spirituality of the spaces he photographs, Hanson is an outsider recording the faith of another culture.

Fern Shaffer's ritual work was featured in Gablik's The Reenchantment of Art, a book which heavily informs the essay to Opening to Shakti. Shaffer and Anderson's photographic stills of these rituals best embody Gablik's curatorial vision for the exhibition. Shaffer is shown wholly covered in a sheath of wheat colored raffia that echoes the shapes of the roots of the huge swampy trees she dances among. The images carry power even without the essay's explanation that the artists "view the earth as sacred, invoking it as an altar and transmitting healing energy to specific landscapes under threat." The echoes of Ana Mendieta's performances in nature made me wish that like Mendieta the artists had filmed the shamanic dance, to better get a sense of the movement which the photographs can only hint at.

In the end the problem of much "spiritual" art comes when the imagery becomes either too personal or too universal. Too personal and the work fails to engage the viewer in any way, spiritual or aesthetic. Too universal and the work loses any specificity, becoming merely an indicator of the spiritual instead of an embodiment of it. The best spiritual art across cultures and time, the work that still enthralls us, combines the personal touch with a greater sense of something beyond the individual - not universal but transcendent.
Of all the work in Gablik's exhibit, that mystery is reflected in Hansen's photographs and made flesh in Shaffer's rituals. With Opening to Shakti Gablik hoped to bring together the work of artists
who work from a different level of consciousness - a consciousness of inclusivity and interconnectedness that appreciates and honors the contributions of all cultures.
While most of the artists in the exhibition succeed in honoring several cultures by appropriating their imagery, with the exception of Shaffer and Anderson's photographs the art never overcomes the old cliche that imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Sacred Wild : Opening to Shakti, curated by Suzi Gablik, was at apexart from May 25-June 25, 2005. All quotes in this review are from Gablik's essay in the accompanying brochure.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Opening : Seven at the Warehouse Theatre and Galleries

Thursday night was hhhot, but I braved the humidity and walked after work from the National Mall to the Warehouse Theatre and Galleries complex for the opening of Lenny Campello's exhibition Seven. The Warehouse galleries are an eclectic group of rooms in varying stages of decay - the farther you ascend the stairs the less finished the gallery. I find this a refreshing change from the monotony of the ubiquitous white wall, but it must pose a fairly steep challenge to curators. The labyrinthine rooms were jam-packed with sweaty bodies - the only Warehouse space with air conditioning is the fun cafe - but despite the heat the crowd was enthusiastic. It's odd how you seem to see the same fruit and vegetable trays wherever you go in the art world (I suspect it's due to their convience and cheapness), but really that's the only complaint I can dredge up about the experience. Lenny must be pleased at the reception he got for his Herculean effort to create a show out of so many diverse artists in such an off the wall space. I'm going back to the show to view it in less cramped circumstances before I write a true review, but off hand I think he succeeded in pulling together an absorbing show that gives a sense of the breadth of DC metro artmaking without seeming like a mere checklist of area talent.

[Edit : upon returning to the show on Saturday I discovered that the galleries do indeed have air conditioning - it must have been overwhelmed by Thursday's crowd, the unfinished upper gallery, and the fact that all the doors stood open.]