Points of Reference: Choice Cuts, Wintry Mix

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,


Some words and meanings of import to me this week:

I love it when an exhibition looks pitch-perfect. It brings me great satisfaction as a preparator to execute a changeover with immaculate results. Galleries have an unspoken ambition to sustain a highly artificial state of perfection; it works best when you feel that no other visitors have been there, with their grubby hands or floor-scuffing feet. Coming from this mindset, I was startled by this:

great art, though, is rarely perfect.

(The fragment has lodged itself in my brain, orphaned from its source. I think it’s from the New Yorker, but having been out of town for much of the past four months, I’m working my way haphazardly through the backstock, and finding the source seems an impossible task.)

I’ve been mulling this over—what allows art to be imperfect, what things/activities ought to result in perfection (crafts? services?), and why I’d forgotten that art has this privilege of imperfection (perhaps seeing too much art in sales-oriented commercial spaces, internalizing the feeling that art should look expensive)?

I stumbled onto the website of Trapped in Suburbia, a fun design firm in the Netherlands, that had an exhibition about happiness.

You’d think that an exhibition about happiness would capture my attention. But their motto, pulled from a Chinese proverb (go figure) was what ultimately spoke to me:

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

Fine, it’s an aphorism, and thus designed to impart wisdom with concision and rhythm that makes it seem profound. (For similar reasons, I find writing tweets unsatisfying.) It works for me in the context of a recent discussion I had about whether the relationship between what artists make and what artists make happen are equal or not. I think what artists make happen gains meaning through the shared experiences that artists make happen. The aphorism sort of mirrors what I mean to explain about the creative and aesthetic process: ideas without manifestation are intangible or intransient; objects can hold those ideas but remain inert without active attention; but by producing spaces/situations, possibilities and engagement, the ideas and objects take root in people’s minds and lives and experiences and memories. They live on in a larger way than personal experiences with objects.

From 2003 to 2011, Haim Steinbach led a seminar at the University of California San Diego called The Object Lesson. He instructed his students to chose an object—any object—and bring it to class every week. Over the course of the semester, they would consider these objects from every possible vantage point….

For ten weeks, three hours a week, they looked at the same fifteen objects. Again and again and again….

…students took turns responding to things they desired and despised on the table. Steinbach pressed them week after week: Is it a real object? An ideal object? A love object? A conceptual object? An object of desire? An actual object? A virtual object? An art object? While discussing the aggression of a piece of wood or the phallic quality of vampire teeth, students came to see how much the analysis hinged on their own projections and desires.

The Artist’s Institute, a Hunter College project, recently selected the work of Haim Steinbach for consideration. In doing so, they published a PDF with the above text and organized a show-and-tell. I love Steinbach’s class exercise, and am inspired to try it with like-minded artist-friends. I know what I would bring: a printed celebration ribbon from a party store.

This dovetails nicely with the proverb above—the meanings of objects take root in us when our own “projections and desires” fit with them. It’s like what differentiates a space from a place—the personal meanings that accrue (Yi-Fu Tuan).

Very short, very sweet stories and pics on imbuing objects with meanings/personal experiences. Reader’s photos of souvenirs at “What I Brought Home,” (NYT).

I’ve been trying to convey the complexity of happiness. Here is Zadie Smith distinguishing between joy and pleasure (thanks JKW):

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Zadie Smith, “Joy,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013



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