“Perhaps [Dorothea] Lange’s fears came from a deep consciousness of her responsibility. After documenting nearly a half-century of crises and the lives of those most deeply affected by them, Lange understood, possibly too well, the enormous responsibility that comes with telling any story, but especially the story of other people’s struggles. Fear is an embodied knowledge, an almost physical intuition of possible outcomes learned through past experience. It can spin into paranoia, paralyze us, shock us into impassivity. But it can also be a powerful drive, as I suppose it was for Lange, who with all her “darkroom terrors” was still able to document what many others had not yet seen or wanted to see. Fear allows us to give shape to things that we were unwilling to see or unable to name. Fear is a specific form of intelligence that comes when hindsight, insight, and foresight collide.”
Category Archives: Impressions
Exhibitions and other things I’ve seen
On Aging and the Perils of Perfectionism
“I was not quite 40 but felt, in many ways, older. My hair, once as heroically thick as the David’s, had begun to thin visibly, and I felt sad about this, and I also considered my sadness to be its own failure, because I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t care about superficial, middle-age things….
“My youthful pursuit of David-like perfection had gone, shall we say, not terribly well. I had turned out to be a strange person, not anything like an ideal. My life was littered with awkwardnesses, estrangements, mutual disillusionments, abandoned projects….
“Perfection, it turns out, is no way to try to live. It is a child’s idea, a cartoon — this desire not to be merely good, not to do merely well, but to be faultless, to transcend everything, including the limits of yourself. It is less heroic than neurotic, and it doesn’t take much analysis to get to its ugly side: a lust for control, pseudofascist purity, self-destruction. Perfection makes you flinch at yourself, flinch at the world, flinch at any contact between the two. Soon what you want, above all, is escape: to be gone, elsewhere, annihilated.”Sam Anderson, “David’s Ankles,” NY Times, August 17, 2016
Top Seven: Syllabus, Glass Blowing, Parasite, Color Pen
Seven things I’m loving right now.
1. Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor
The simultaneous experience of looking, reading, and thinking in this mostly-hand-lettered and hand-drawn notebook explaining her curriculum and lessons on leading classes combining image and word made me want to reach out for my notebook and pencils and fill every page with abandon. I’ve been using exercises in my own studio to loosen up, and filing away other ideas to try with future workshop participants. Syllabus is published by the illustrious Drawn and Quarterly. I am working my way through it, to savor each section.
You can see Lynda Barry’s Face Jam Exercise on the NewYorker.com. It’s from another book of Barry’s, Making Comics.
2. Parasite (Bong Joon-Ho)
You don’t need me to tell you that Parasite is masterful, and very much worth viewing on the big screen. I’ll say it anyway, since I’ve been enjoying more films lately, especially films by people of color. It’s also really cool to see a foreign language film embraced by US audiences in record-breaking numbers.
3. Blown Away
This Canadian reality TV series was released on Netflix this summer, and I just binge-watched it this week. Despite the fact that it’s a formulaic competition show with goofy hosts and oddball challenges, I loved it.
There have been other artist reality shows before, but none have necessarily revealed so much craft and skill. My heart went out to the glassblowers. Many were extremely skilled, and really deserved honors for their accomplishments, which were not afforded by the structure of the show.
My only other qualm is that the show didn’t show enough glassblowing technique continuously. They could have followed each individual project from start to finish for a half an hour and I would have loved every minute. The makers are casting for season 2. I hope they reconsider having students as assistants—it’s far too much pressure on the competitors and the students.
Blown Away made me yearn to blow glass again. I only did hot glass for two semesters in undergrad. It’s very addictive, like wheel throwing—once you get the bug, you just want to be blowing glass, challenging yourself, and being in the zone all the time. I miss that sense of being in sync with the material. Also, there were tools and techniques I never saw as a beginner glassblower that I wanted to try. I never pulled cane, or used a soffietta!
4. Pentel Color Pen Markers
The other week I was using markers from my set of 36 Pentel markers, when I realized that I’ve probably had this set of markers since 2015 or 2014. That would make these markers nearly 5 years old. All of the markers are still going strong. Granted, I don’t use them often, and usually only in small bursts for lettering, not for coloring. But still, that’s pretty impressive. I’ve had many ballpoint pens, gel pens, and calligraphy markers dry out or stop working; it’s refreshing when art supplies last.
I just found, that on the Pentel site, you can purchase individual markers for 99¢ each. So even if one of the colors did run dry, you could replace it and not have a horrible gap tooth in your rainbow palette.
5. Feeling Good, Mel Day’s Wall of Sound Project
Mel Day is a California-based artist who as been collecting videos of individuals singing and compiling them into installations. She’s been scaling up (way up!) lately, by partnering with San José Athletics, Marching Band, Choirs, athletes, fans, students and community allies to create a new, “evolving series of participatory massed choral video works and half-time live singing events” around Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.”
You can contribute by recording your video from the comfort of your own home. You don’t have to be a “singer” to sing! Learn more at wallofsongproject.com.
6. Museum of Capitalism at the New School, on view through December 10
Spoiler alert: The Museum of Capitalism is a speculative project that invited artists to imagine the artifacts leftover from capitalism in a post-capitalist future. I saw the original iteration in a sprawling Oakland building a few years back. (I am still moved by Packard Jenning’s installation of a guided meditation for riot police de-escalation.)
A new iteration was is on view at the New School, including contributions by friends Related Tactics and Nyeema Morgan.
When I visited the exhibition, it felt to me that I hadn’t seen anything like it in NYC, that I hadn’t been in conversations in NYC that envisioned post-Capitalist perspectives.
There’s only a few more days to see the show. Find the address and hours here: https://www.museumofcapitalism.org/museum-of-capitalism-new-york-city
7. Batalá NYC
Batalá is an “all women Afro-Brazilian Samba Reggae percussion band. Batalá New York is a part of a global arts project made up of over 30 bands around the world.” I recently heard them play as they accompanied an Afro-Brazilian dance class. Wow! The beat is palpable in your chest. There’s something so cool about seeing women embracing power and massive volume, with unity and coordination. Check out their videos on YouTube.
Batalá NYC are currently raising funds to travel to Brazil. Consider supporting their GoFundMe.
Points of Reference: Public Servants
How I know what I know about social practice.
I’m collaborating on a participatory project and advising a social practice grad student right now. It’s made me think about how I know what I know, and why I approach and shape projects the way I do. I didn’t major in social practice—I majored in printmaking, working with Ted Purves as a thesis advisor. Though I sometimes wonder what I might’ve learned had I majored in social practice, it’s gratifying to come across references that are intellectually stimulating because they resonate which my existing practice.
Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source: MITPress.MIT.edu.
The dialogue spurred by Ben Davis’ “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What Does It Mean to Be a Political Artist?” still poses fresh, relevant questions. Originally published in 2013 on an activist website, Davis’ critique generated a remarkably thoughtful debate on Facebook between Deborah Fisher (director of A Blade of Grass), Nato Thompson (then artistic director of Creative Time), Tom Finklepearl (NYC Commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs), artist Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and many others who have dedicated their life’s work to socially-engaged art or social practice.
This debate was reprinted in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon (MIT Press, 2016). [That an MIT Press book would reprint a Facebook thread is sort of amazing.]
The debate spans:
- Weighing the political efficacy of social practice projects versus their symbolic power. Davis provocatively asks if social practice projects are a distraction from activism. Many respond by defending the importance of the symbolic power of art, and the “need for a poetics of social change” (Fisher).
- How socially-engaged projects relate to power, privilege, appropriation, and exploitation.
- Projects should be guided by ethics, specifically, treating people with care and respect and not being co-opted by power it intends to reshape (Fisher).
- Be wary of when the image of social consciousness is used to gain social capital (Thompson) [in other words, “performative wokeness“].
- Does a project help or harm? Is it merely tolerated? (Fisher)
- Socially-engaged art is not inherently good. Likewise, neither is creative place-making. Indeed, developers use artists to create “vibrancy,” rather than critically-engaged projects, and resources can be diverted away (Lowe).
- Social practitioners shouldn’t get too “self-satisfied” (Davis) because social practice cannot replace activism and organizing. [I would argue that no one person or role builds a people’s movement. It wasn’t explicit but the solutions hinted at seemed Alinskyist.] Davis says that artists have an important role to play in political struggle, but they don’t have special access to political wisdom. [I think any artist who’s read any writing by Davis or Gregory Sholette knows that political education is a serious endeavor distinct from art practice.]
- How to assess socially-engaged art, such as through ‘participatory action research’ and ‘collaborative action research’ and involving stakeholders (Elizabeth Grady). While you don’t want to rely only on artist’s first-person accounts, you can define efficacy first in terms of artists’ goals (Fisher).
- The impossibility of not being co-opted by capitalism and the possibility of momentary acts of resistance. Davis cites Rosa Luxemburg on how many small victories and tiny inspiring acts are needed in the building of a movement.
Some thoughts expressed exceptionally eloquently:
“A great artwork embraces paradox and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. …this quality… gives a great socially-engaged art project the ability to reframe, reshape or, for a moment, redistribute power.”
Fisher also described the Rolling Jubilee as:
“a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance.”
This “profound elegance” is my primary criteria for successful social practices: how they balance relations and forms, through process and ephemera. The projects I most admire are ethical and non-exploitative. They honor participants’ dignity, agency, intelligence, and time. And they are enticing and welcoming.
At the same time that I want to hold artists accountable to high standards, I also think it’s important to let artists be creative, experiment, and fail. The rules and forms of social practice aren’t codified. We don’t need any more predictable art or social relations.
The Public Servants editors wisely end the chapter with a passage from Louisa MacCall, co-director of Artists in Context, which connects artists and non-artists to collaborate on addressing issues. When I read MacCall’s words, it was like she was describing the goals in my practice (emphasis mine):
“What if we consider artists as researchers who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production?
“To regain our sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society—we must consider the different kinds of questions and outcomes artists are proposing as indispensable to our systems of knowledge production.”
I’ll keep diving into Public Servants.
I’m also looking forward to the US Department of Arts and Culture’s “Citizen Artist Salon: Art & Well-Being” this Wednesday which connects social justice and wellbeing.
“how social justice is a chief indicator of individual and community health; how art can nurture well-being; and what you can do to build a culture of health.”
Points of Reference: Embodied Memory
Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.
I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.
Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.
On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:
“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”
“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”
Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.
On the connections between mapping and memory:
The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”
“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”
I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.
Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:
“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”
“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”
That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.
The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.
Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:
“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**
Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.
“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”
—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.
These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:
“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”
—Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).
I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:
“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”
—Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016
This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.
*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013
**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.
See: Ebony Patterson, Gina Osterloh, Houseplants
Two shows I like, and one I’d like to see.
Through April 3, 2016
Ebony G. Patterson: DEAD TREEZ
Museum of Arts and Design, NYC
A visually dense show of custom Jacquard tapestries embellished with glitter and toys, and an installation inspired by Jamaican dancehall dandies, shown in floral print-wallpapered galleries. There’s also a terrarium-like installation of the museum’s jewelry collection. [Full disclosure: I freelance here and helped install the show. And you know what? I really enjoyed meeting and working with Patterson—she was engaged, down-to-earth, and hardworking. Big points for learning the crew’s names and feeding us patties from Jamaica.] I’m excited about this show for MAD; I hope future programming reflects similar youthfulness, urgency, and color.
[This winter’s a promising time to visit. There are some amazing pots and insanely intricate minatures in the Japanese contemporary ceramics show. Takuro Kuwata’s pots are knock-outs.]
Through December 19, 2015
Higher Pictures, NYC
[The solo show of a super talented and skilled friend from LA. She’s good; you don’t have to take my word for it.] Quiet, meticulously-crafted photos of paper-crafted sets exploring the body. A triptych of photos of hand-painted lines forming warped grids conjures an industrial bathroom floor or the subway; the queasiness of the distortion in the leftmost image seems to offer relief of the more rationally ordered grid in the right image. There’s a mesmerizing film of the artist tracing her own shadow on the wall—she’s framed at a distance, and the gestures are controlled, yet the experience is oddly intimate.
[Also, while you’re in the foyer at 980 Madision, take a minute to enjoy the large Ed Ruscha painting of three masted ships, courtesy of Gagosian.]
Through November 21, 2015
Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening
Sector 2337, Chicago
If I were in Chicago I’d check out this show about how plants “trouble human structures.” It looks like a brainy show with a diverse array of approaches to this subject matter. While there, I’d also get to know Sector 2337, an artist-run gallery, bookstore, and press, as well as a modest studio residency program.
Writing Waves Indeed
The many reasons why Jay Caspian Kang’s “Writing Waves”—part memoir, part book review of William Finnegan’s “Barbarian Days”—in the New York Times Magazine resonated with me.
Kang starts out by researching writing about surfing and pondering its difficulty, locating at the crux one of my favorite topics:
“I concluded that writing about surfing was impossible because surfing elicited happiness, and it is impossible to write about happiness.”
I think positive psychologists would argue that the sciences and humanities can intersect productively with happiness. It’s not impossible, it’s just very hard to do without cliché. Kang says Finnegan
“was the first person I had come across who could write about surfing without schmaltz or weighty metaphors.”
Here’s Kang quoting Finnegan’s description of Ocean Beach:
“San Francisco’s ‘giant gray,’ ‘ominous’ waves”
I can picture those waves, and OB’s riptide warning signs, posted at every entrance. It’s there that I watched M surf, in the same years that Kang surfed there daily.
Kang, inspired by Finnegan, even considers intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. To find flow, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, one should participate in activities that are worthwhile in themselves.
On clean, January days, surfing, even badly, was enough to give me a purpose in life. But on choppy, stupid days in September, as I paddled futilely straight into the first line of white water at Ocean Beach, I would think about Peewee’s vision of silent, simple doing over Doc’s vision of daily, ritualistic heroism. I did not really believe surfing was nothing more than surfing, but I hoped I might one day get good enough at it to drop all its sentimental trappings.
He seems to be yearning for an un-self-consciousness state of engagement, where one’s skills are matched well to the challenges: flow.
He also covets Finnegan’s freedom to solely pursue surfing, not unlike my jealousy of Matisse’s lifetime of art-making:
A surfer feels an even mix of nostalgia and envy reading that passage. The boundlessness of Finnegan’s wave chasing now feels at once out of reach and dated, in the manner of Kerouac’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty.
I’m intrigued by the humility, insight, and craftsmanship from both Kang and Finnegan. I adored Finnegan’s “Off Diamond Head” in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, and now am especially eager to read “Barbarian Days.”
Impressions of Amsterdam
Exhibitions by Matisse, Goedel, and Kentridge.
A few months after I put up a map of the world with the loose intention of inspiring more travel, M surprised me with a short, spontaneous trip to Amsterdam for two of our favorite things—riding bicycles and seeing art and design. Here are my highlights.
The Oasis of Matisse at the Stedelijk Museum
As a young art student I was deeply inspired by Matisse’s paper cutout collage. I loved how they were joyful and expressive, and full of movement and freedom. I missed them when they were at the MoMA, but it is just as well as the Stedelijk wasn’t very crowded last Friday afternoon.
There are two segments of the show. Downstairs, smaller galleries identify Matisse’s stages of development, often correlated to periods of travel, and show works alongside others by Matisse’s contemporaries. It was like a who’s who of early 20th century art, with Fauvists, German Expressionists, Supremetists, and more. I thought a lot about luck and privilege—the happenstances and conditions that contributed to Matisse’s development—being born in a certain country and period, of a particular race and gender, with the means to travel and devote oneself entirely to studying and making art, within a milieu of likewise-enabled artists, interested patrons, and a tolerant government. I thought about how these probably shaped Matisse’s psyche, and his confidence and ambition—the aspects of his art that are most striking. The exhibition leads up to Matisse’s late-in-life cutouts. It seemed that every stage was a step towards this fullest expression of the master artist. I couldn’t help but feel a pang of jealousy, of all the time he was able to devote to his own artistic development.
Upstairs, a large gallery displays Matisse’s cutouts, often using his signature fig leaf motif. I loved the color palette: rich, vibrant ultramarine, an even more vibrant magenta, black, red, yellow. These high-key colors underscore the graphic sensibility, yet the papers are hand-painted and improvised—you can see where the cutouts were cut and moved around again. Some of the collages are massive. You could spend a long time in this gallery, noticing how one’s eye moves around the musical compositions.
While I was familiar with many of Matisse’s works, including his design for a stained glass window (above, left), I was surprised to see a number of ceremonial capes. These were lovely translations of Matisse’s free, expressive cutouts in satin appliqués. The palettes, designs, and relation to the body were satisfyingly unified wholes.
Finally, another large gallery is devoted to Jazz, Matisse’s book of cutouts and handwritten pages. While I admired how the cutouts were slightly textured as prints (and appreciated the validation that handwritten pages could make an interesting exhibition), I was interested to read that Matisse was disappointed in the result—he found the prints lifeless, and the experience helped him realize that the cutouts could work as artworks in their own rights. Even “master” artists have to take risks and fail (even if such works are not perceived by others as failures). It underscored the sense that one could use a whole lifetime to fully realize one’s potential as an artist.
Noémie Goudal: The Geometrical Determination of the Sunrise at FOAM
This show—with a series of large photographs, a photo-installation, stereoscopic images, and two short videos—was a stunning introduction for me to this young French artist’s work. She’s concerned with architecture that is related to the sun, and fabricates what look like xerographic constructions that she shoots as immaculate black and white analog photographs. They’re quiet and wonderfully strange.
There’s also an anamorphic installation of pieces of plate glass with cutout photographic imagery of an interior space. There are stereoscopic images of natural landscapes, like snowy peaks shrouded in clouds.
The exhibition is really rounded out by two short videos. Both are single, continuous shots from afar of a large architectural structure, wherein identically costumed humans commence and end a repetitive task. In the first, workers in white bunny suits descend ladders inside a massive, dark factory space, coming from a skylight and dropping beneath the floor. In the second, divers climb up and dive from a diving tower in a river foregrounding a distant mountain. There’s only about a half-dozen of them, and they cycle on for minutes, becoming more tired, and finally stopping. The videos function like moving image photographs of an architectural space, or like little scenes about an unidentified place. There is a sense of myth, detached from any specific time and place.
The Goudal show is excellently paired with Katy Grannan’s The Nine and The Ninety-Nine, portraits and scenes from a video-in-progress of the down-and-out in and around Modesto, CA.
William Kentridge: If We Ever Get to Heaven at the Eye Film Institute
There are three works in this knockout show: a 2008 single-channel stop-motion animation, a 2011 video installation with multiple channels, More Sweetly Play the Dance, a new commission especially for the Eye that is a 45-meter-long, multi-channel, synced panorama. The first two contextualize how Kentridge arrived at the third.
The video is a blend of Kentridge’s characteristic charcoal animation forming the background (I liked the restrained use of his signature style), a few puppets, and many live actors carrying props made by Kentridge. (The props are on view in an adjacent gallery, and are totally scrappy. A few are installed with the back towards viewers, to show their fabrication of corrugated cardboard, ink, hot glue, and bits of wood for reinforcement and handles.)
The actors form a parade, which starts out with a brass band in ornate dress and dancers. The tone is joyful. I appreciated the combination of expressive looseness and high-production value. The staging of the filming must have been a massive undertaking, yet the props are simple, roughshod cardboard elements. The score, audio recording, and audio playback are very well done, yet the projections do not match up edge-to-edge, echoing the collage-like feeling of Kentridge’s animations.
As the film continues, however, the parade morphs into a darker, mournful procession. The sick push IVs, goaded along by others wearing head to toe plastic protection gear. There are gravediggers carrying shovels. One might think of Kentridge’s work in the context of the fallout of apartheid—something of the past, of a specific nation (though there’s a different resonance in the Netherlands, as South Africa was colonized by the Dutch)—but there are larger narratives, having to do with Ebola throughout Africa, that implicate all of us. More Sweetly Play the Dance is a powerful example of Kentridge’s ability to blend the specific, the poetic, and the topical.
In the exhibition essay, Kentridge is quoted as saying:
Every act of enlightenment, all the missions to save souls, all the best impulses, are so dogged by the weight of what follows them; their shadow, the violence that has accompanied enlightenment.
While I’m not totally comfortable with the futility and pessimism in the statement, it made me think about the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, in contrast with the persistent institutional racism and denial of privilege going on in the US now.
A few asides:
We also went to De Appel Arts Centre, the Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam (project space) and the Huis Marseille Museum of Photography. Cool spaces, but I personally didn’t connect with the current exhibitions.
Privilege the viewing experience. While I had aspirations to visit the Van Gogh Museum, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with the long lines and crowds. I’m not interested in elbowing my way into a clear sightline around a famous, expensive painting as other tourists snap photos. It’s too stressful and unpleasant. It’s not a good way to experience a work of art, and I am glad that I know myself well enough not to visit out of a sense of duty only.
I did have the odd feeling of recognizing works from art history books at the Matisse show. The reproduction does detract from the aura of the original, but more so does hype.
Safety first, and all that follows. I really like riding a bicycle but I rarely do. There are too many reasons not to—fear of being hit by a car, truck, or bus; concerns about personal safety after nightfall; poor bike lanes; not enough bike parking; bike theft; and aggressively car-centric attitudes in general. When you eliminate or minimize such reasons, it’s liberating. I enjoyed the integration and espousal of bike culture in Amsterdam during my short stay, and wonder how living in such a bike-friendly place impacts your lifestyle and psyche over the long term. We saw thousands of bicyclists everyday, including parents toting one or more children, and very few private cars on the road. Bike lanes were protected and clearly marked. When lanes are shared, drivers were almost always patient and respectful. A tram stopped to let us cross the street. That feeling of safety is maybe one of the most foreign and novel things I experienced—such a contrast from the outright aggression that cyclists face and have to psychologically armor themselves against when riding in NYC.