My review of the Dorksy Gallery’s group show, “Recipes for an Encounter,” appears in the latest issue of Art Practical. Also featured are reports from Sydney and Los Angeles, as well as reviews of interesting spaces like Steven Wolf Fine Arts and Altman Siegal Gallery and neat conceptualists like Michael Guidetti.
Yesterday, during a dialog at Sight School, Julia Hamilton mentioned the pleasure she found in familiar objects.
I experienced this delight, over and over, when I visited Junk Pirate, Pete Glover‘s solo show at The Compound Gallery. Glover works at a junk store (when he’s not co-directing Rowan Morrison Gallery with Narangkar Glover).
Over the years, he’s amassed an impressive collection of objects. He’s lovingly composed these objects into shadow boxes, picture frames and vitrines. The show is a collection of collections, filtered through an unabashed love of popular culture and humor. It’s like the garage sale of a fabulous window display artist.
The objects are nostalgic, curious, and insouciant. Some are truly visually arresting, particularly a composition of fluorescent orange water guns in a black shadow box. Art history buffs might enjoy a chuckle as they recall Claes Oldenburg’s Ray Gun Mfg. Co. in relation to this work.
A few works suggest glimmers of the transgressive or anti-social, such as a found photograph of a man with one eye, or a class photograph in which every kid’s portrait has an “x” drawn over it. But despite his participation in street/skate culture, Glover rarely indulges in cred-proving, candid “how effed is that” photos. His eye for the peculiar is more amusement-arcade than in-your-face.
In yesterday’s dialog, featured guest Glen Helfand suggested the idea of “added value.” That is, an artist might start with something cheap and through the investment of labor, creativity and display, the object gains value, both monetarily, visually, and perhaps psychologically. In contrast with the whimsy of oddities in Wunderkammers, Pete displays a fanboy’s attention to Complete Sets. This unabashed embrace of sentiment and nostalgic 80s amusements reveals itself in his devotion to tokens, cards, video game controllers and jokily branded popcorn bags. Kitsch, promotional collateral and residue of material life collide.
The show is largely about appropriation, popular memory, composition and display. Scented stickers, for example, are framed without glass to encourage interaction. The most successful works include vitrines of board game characters and “nipples” sorted by color. The results are graphic, striking, miniature and absorbing. These offer more to read, infer and return to.
What I love about Junk Pirate is that not all the cases are art. They are all clearly re-configurations of recognizable things. A few objects transcend their humble origins to become a dynamic hybrid of art/collections/decoration/keepsakes. In a brilliant stroke, Glover extended the gaming theme to the pricing of the works, so that a roll of a die determines the price to be paid. This reinforces the objects/collections non-art identities, and refers back to the chance in Glover’s procurement process of discovering and identifying treasures in mounds of detritus.
Junk Pirate is the Compound Gallery’s first show at its beautiful new location on 65th Street. The gallery is housed in a grand foyer complemented by lots of windows and two side bays: one holds a tiny gallery for drawings; the other houses Professor Squirrel Shop, an adorably appointed indie mart with properly twee décor and accessories for sale. Fittingly, Junk Pirate is sited perfectly between a commercial (albeit indie) venture, and an exhibit of fine art.
I think what’s incredible and incredibly maddening about the art world is its openness, its idiosyncrasy, its nebulous criteria. The lines between art, non-art, craft, kitsch, high art and low art, are all blurred—yet, people like what they like and defend their tastes. So be it.
I read art reviews to learn about exhibitions, but I’m always aware of critics’ subjectivity. In fact, my favorite critics, like Holland Cotter of the New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York Magazine, balance descriptive exposition with opinions and a discussion of praxis—helping viewers see how artists put theory into practice. The feeling I get is that they aren’t writing because they have a deadline to meet, but because they have something they want readers to know.
Some critics, though, are primarily descriptive, revealing their own position only implicitly. I thought this was the modus operandi of East Bay Express staff writer, DeWitt Cheng, so I was surprised to read a recent review:
The comedian/actor Will Rogers once dismissed communism as “one-third practice and two-thirds explanation.” One might similarly criticize a fair amount of contemporary art that is conceptual rather than visual in its orientation, thus requiring some explanation on behalf of viewers. The idea that priorities are askew is especially problematic when the verbiage seems unsupported by the artwork, or inflated.
—DeWitt Cheng, “Tangible Modern Art,” East Bay Express, December 23, 2009
I think when critics articulate their positions, it’s fantastic. I’m for transparency in the art world. Having a position explains why critics review some exhibitions or venues and not others. It also suggests to readers and young artists who may not know any better (poor things!), that critics are not objective, do not speak for the art world as a whole, nor are they authorities whose opinions are exempt from questioning.
These institutional structures that we kneel and bow and defer to are not inviolate institutional structures…. They’re not entitled to exist without challenge…. So you have to put yourself in a position where you are capable of knocking them off the position they occupy, because we are not bound to defer to anything that exists. Everything is available for critique—and also displacement….
—From Kerry James Marshall lecture at SFAI (via podcast)
Furthermore, readers would be well advised to seek out multiple critics, including ones of different critical positions. In this case, critics whose interests in visual art extend beyond art with “visual orientations” could make the East Bay contemporary art print journalism more balanced. (Some places to start: Artopic, ArtPractical).
My position is well documented on this blog (the world’s most rambling critical statement?). Another way to sum up my boosterism of art that is not primarily visual in orientation might be articulated in Lee Johnson’s recent interview with Ryan Gander:
LJ: Has your artistic practice i.e. the aesthetic of your work, been effected in any way by the turbulent economy?
RG: Not really, in the beginning I worried about it, but it had no effect. I don’t think the type of collections that buy my work stop collecting, people don’t buy my work for investments, they buy it because they want to own it, share it with others, or take care of it. They are collecting and preserving art history in the making in some way. I guess it would have more effect on artists that make things that sit pretty in people’s homes. The things I make are a bit beyond that, very little of what I make looks good, the things I make are by-products of the idea, so the Collector has to fall in love with the idea, not the thing.
LJ: Your practice draws on multiple layers of fact and fiction, and you work in a variety of different media including photography, printed word, film, performance, intervention and sculpture. Is it vital for your life-force and inspiration that you mix things up in the way you do, and keep surprising people?
RG: Its the nature of art making, it is in fact the only way of making art. I don’t trust anyone who starts everyday knowing they will make ‘a photo’, or only ‘a painting’ to be an artist. Art has to precede craft otherwise it isn’t ‘art’, its ‘the arts’. I love painting, it makes me sincerely happy, but I can’t do it everyday! I am an artist and I have a job to do, and the process of painting doesn’t fit every idea and starting point (in fact very, very few – only really ones that talk about the history of painting itself). I see being a painter, or a photographer in contemporary art like masturbating a bit, just pleasing yourself, really selfishly, but sharing nothing.
Gander makes his position undeniably clear. It seems grounded in a belief shared by many conceptualists: that the art medium has to be appropriate to the idea; that to work in a visual medium because the artist is most interested in its visual orientation, without considering its appropriateness to the idea or content, is conventional and inexcusable, perhaps even willfully ignorant. I don’t include Gander’s comments to knock our dear, much-maligned painter friends and uni-disciplinarian artists, but to help explain that art of a visual orientation, too, is subject to criticism, and can fall short when you consider different criteria.
Finally, two other ideas to explore—to know one’s position as a critic might be to also recognize the limits of one’s subjectivity. I am a young writer, and writing intelligently about work I don’t like or understand is challenging. Further, to take a position as a critic is to identify the work you’d gravitate to, as well as that which would leave you unaffected. But the third kind of art—arguably, the reason we keep looking and writing—is that which surprises you, and challenges your assumptions.
In a nice counterpoint to the typical gallery-going experience filled with ho-hum pretty, salable pictures, I had a great weekend that was filled with art as well as experiences, friends and community.
M and I skipped over to San Pablo Ave for Blankspace Gallery‘s annual Holidayland sale. The gallery is set up as an indie mart featuring affordable knickknackery and small works of art, which tends to be more cute and lifestyle-y than my tastes in art usually run, but perfectly appropriate for gift-giving. I thought Misako Inaoka‘s small guoache paintings on paper were extremely great values. M beamed–he’s always happy to support small businesses in Oakland. We really appreciated Blankspace’s reasonable prices and community-minded partnerships (such as the photo diorama, whose proceeds will be donated to art in Oakland schools).
After a gut-busting stop at Juan’s Place in West Berkeley, we wobbled up San Pablo to the Pacific Basin building to catch the end of Ice on the High, a series of feral experimental events organized by Kim Anno, Maggie Foster, and Aida Gamez. After watching video projections on empty storefront windows, the chilly air lent us the nerve to try the door to an darkened, empty storefront. To great relief, this led us to a sublime installation of mylar and sundry scraps of digital light in the back of the unfinished space, and on to open studios. Kim’s studio was thoroughly engaging, for her gorgeous paintings on aluminum (recently on view at Patricia Sweetow Gallery) as well as her newest work in a wholly different media. We were ushered back to the unfinished storefront for a live video and sound performance. M gamely looked and listened, and I found my brain responding to the Cagean sounds with the unselfconscious unfolding unique to attentive listening. I missed Joshua Churchill‘s performance, so I’ll have to make a point to stop in to his show at NOMA Gallery off SF’s Union Square.
The next day I popped in to David Cunningham Projects for Jigsawmentallama, a group exhibition featuring contemporary San Francisco artists as well as emerging and established international artists. I like DCP for its local/international blend and conceptual/installation/video/performance bent, so I was saddened to hear that the shop is closing and this will be the last exhibition. DCP’s going out with a bang-on show, however.
There’s a selection wall works — including San Francisco-based artist Keith Boadwee‘s beautifully produced, seemingly improvised, visceral photographs exploring the potential of fruit for torture — and some fantastic prismatic Polaroids (look for a witty one of Buckminster Fuller). The show includes an impressive number of videos for such a compact space; many of them trade in psychedelic imagery, but the space doesn’t feel overpowering. Skye Thorstenson‘s high-wattage overdose of color via found footage was installed precisely on a vintage television facing a corner; in effect, it is an exercise in tolerance under a barrage of sound and grotesque pop imagery. I also enjoyed Ireland-based artist Austin McQuinn‘s video in the far back viewing room. In it, a man donning a goofy primate mask mixes clay on a kitchen table, sculpting mountains and finally a ‘man’ in his own image. The kicker is the grandiose orchestral soundtrack, a stark contrast to the video’s poor production quality. I think most artists recognize the implicit egotism in our creative acts; McQuinn’s parody captures this feeling that the artistic act is both slightly supernatural and yet somewhat fraudulent. Don’t miss the installation hidden behind black felt by Swedish, Berlin-based artist Sonja Nilsson. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but I will say that it’s got a pop song, hologram-like effects and a (literally) stunning surprise.
Finally, I also went to Exercises in Seeing, a exhibition to which I contributed a new work, curated by the Post Brothers at Queen’s Nails Project. The premise of the show was unusual — it was a one-night only exhibition held in the dark with 31 local and international artists. The event was spirited, experimental and experiential. I enjoyed watching visitors make their way into the dark, and explore the show as their eyes adjusted. The rules of standard operating procedure had been thrown out; many visitors were liberated to touch and smell the works, while others forged into the darkness with their cellphones held out aloft, both examining and determining worth of examination within milliseconds. Visitors were meant to explore the exhibition with the aid of an audio guide, written in characteristically speculative high style by David Buuck. The audio guide lent much desired in-“sight” to the works on display to me. It’s a pity that more viewers did not take advantage of it in the venue’s party atmosphere, but it’s not too late to download the audio guide and take an audio/visual(ized) journey.
The show seems to be a collection of experiments in art- and exhibition-making, with artists and viewers freed from their conventional roles and responsibilities. I appreciated artists and viewers who were able to run with it.
Though the experience of the artists’ works in the show was limited (due to visibility as well as the nature of group shows in general), I find the work of many of the international artists to be cool, conceptual and witty — here’s a list of the artists’ names with links to their sites or their galleries’ sites.
Eric Gill is the man behind the sublimely timeless Gill Sans. He’s also one of the 20th century’s notable wood-engraving artists, handling line and form in geometrically-stylized, gorgeous English Arts and Crafts way. He was a bit of a fanatic and nutter (what the gracious might call an eccentric, or what the unpretentious might call a freak).
The University of San Francisco (where I’ve had the pleasure of sitting in for E., a faculty member) holds a broad collection of Gill’s prints, books, bookplates, blocks and even a little sculpture. They’re on display in the Thatcher Gallery in the USF library through December 20. If you can make it through the imposing swipe-card turnstiles (hope the desk aides look your way, so you can inform them that you’d like to see the exhibition), you’ll find dozens of fine, detailed prints to peruse.
It’s a pleasure. I’m not one to warm to religious art easily — like Howard Belsey in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, my tastes in art are secular — but Gill’s prints are winsome. He employs the Arts and Craft’s simplicity and elegance of line with a rudimentary, stylized geometry echoing Byzantine icons, yet Gill’s resolutely-embodied figures are lithe, muscular, and slightly Medieval in appearance. The result is a mythological aura, suiting fables, moralism, the life of someone seeking transcendence.
The artwork veers between deeply religious to sensual to erotic. I found the bookplates and illuminated letterpress blocks to be the most delicate, whimsical and endearing. These, according to a didactic banner, were considered by the artist to be mere decorations, “flowers of the graphic designer” or some such utterance of regret. Yes, they are illustrative, but one in particular, with a large, well-balanced drop-cap “O,” featured a captivating illustration of a subterranean skeleton pulling at roots while a man tugged at leaves of the same plant. Free of its movable body text, the image perplexes, and its message, however unspoken, is still communicated confidently and clearly.
I also enjoyed two prints, with the texts, “THEN” and “JESUS,” in which figures populate a landscape formed by the handsome roman capitals (his Perpetua typeface, perhaps). After leading a typography crash-course in my Sketchbook class at ASUC last night, it was a treat to see top-notch text and image compositions.
On view are also a number of intaglio prints, as well as Gill’s carved blocks. These are finely detailed, and bring, even in their reversed, inky pitch-blackness, Gill’s precision and craftsmanship to life.
The exhibition was produced with the help of a number of USF departments. Upon exit, do browse the interactive design on a computer near the entrance — it’s thorough and nicely designed (and unfortunately, it’s not online). In contrast, I found the installation — even accounting for the architectural limitations — to be wanting; I’m just tall enough to study the tiny prints hanging on what seemed to be 59″ or 60″ centers. Still, it’s too high for such modestly scaled works. Yet Iconographer creates a great dialogue with the papercuts of Nikki McClure, and, across town at the Wattis Institute, the wood-engravings by Gill’s coeval, the American Rockwell Kent.
Just got back from Los Angeles, where I de-installed my work at Tarryn Teresa Gallery. A few notes from my mental scrapbook:
Packing tools? I’ll never doubt you again, needle-nose pliers and extension cords! I should expect map pin heads to come clean off by now. I should know better than to rely on the palm sander’s cord. Thankfully, I erred on the side of caution, and it paid off.
NPR and classic rock. Apparently there’s no public radio along the I-5 in Fresno and Merced Counties, or they’re all run by evangelicals. Sans audio books, my substitute of choice was a Bakersfield-based classic rock station. If you could forgive the gratuitous misogyny, you’d discover a playlist spanning Zep, GNR, Def Leppard, Van Halen, Metallica, and Journey. Those bands once inspired repulsion in me, but I think we can all agree now that hair bands made some pretty great pop music. Last week, I heard Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town” on an early morning grocery run, and it instilled a good mood that lasted hours. So I’m reclaiming this music from the heshers/burnouts/metalheads/bullies who gave it a bad name in high school, and you’re welcome to join me. For those about to rock…
Charles Burchfield at the Hammer Museum. I couldn’t see what Robert Gober, the contemporary hyper-realist sculptor, would see in a mid-century painter of landscapes. The Hammer exhibition, however, is fantastic. It makes clear that Burchfield was vastly under-recognized and portentious. His interest in abstraction, background in Asian-influenced Art Nouveau wallpaper design, experience with social realist pictorialism, and probable mental illness (see Dave Harvey’s great write-up in the LA Weekly) led to an innovative body of paintings that manages to embody countless references (to traditional Chinese scroll painting, Japanese woodcuts, OCD doodling, Cubism, and modern-day fantasy art) while forging a distinct visual language — psychedelic, immersive. I also admire his sheer conviction — after a successful stint as a Regionalist painter, Burchfield wrote in his journal,
“It seems to me, more than ever, imperative that I somehow get these fantasies into finished concrete form even tho there is not sale for them. How we will live, I do not know.”
Burchfield’s final paintings are really tremendous pictures. Some of them are breathtaking. The show is accompanied by extensive notes which provide welcome keys to the artist’s process, thoughts, doubts and motivations.
Nic Hess’ Hammer Project. Pretty great too. Masking tape drawings, a ton of vinyl decals. The placement of imagery in the space was cheeky and unexpected.
Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis at the Hammer. I always feel the same way after viewing Crumb’s drawings: slightly dirty and tawdry, like I’d stayed at a cheap motel and watched Entertainment Weekly. More of my base self and less of my ideal self. It’s brilliant for Crumb to do a literal interpretation of the first book of the Bible in all its wretched, meaty drama. Of course Crumb can draw like no other, and there’s something vaguely appropriate, like Chick Tracts, to visualize this content in a sensational manner. The curators took pains to point out Crumb’s attempts at historical accuracy in regards to robes and architecture, but his comically zaftig female figures seem excepted from revision.
The historical exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum. I went for the Giant Robot Biennale, but two items from the historical exhibit were like punches to the stomach. First: a small girl’s cape. An internee mother modified a disused Navy peacoat for her daughter. It makes tangible the completely deranged skewing of context (where giving old military coats to forcibly-relocated families is like compassion; where modifying said coat is an act of love and resilience). Second, a massive diorama reified the scope of the internment camp at Manzanar. It was conceived and created by Robert Hasuike, a Mattel Toys model maker. It was effective and, by extrapolation, nightmarish.
Exhibition in Pasadena featuring some high-profile artists from the past 20 years of the institution’s programming. Ambitious show, disappointing reality. Only a few works emerged unscathed from the poor presentation and compromised spaces. I think the less said about this exhibition, the better. So I’ll pose, then, a series of questions:
1. When you’re an artist, and have identified artists you admire who embody rigor, quality, thoughtfulness and professionalism, and you see their work suffer due to poor presentation, how does that make you feel? Do you have similar experiences in your own history so that you can relate to these established artist’s possible regrets? And does this make you hopeful (that you’re not alone) or sad (that even established artists can’t avoid partnerships with presenters who don’t deliver)?
2. Is it the artist’s burden to accept the limitations of a non-commercial presenter? Or is it the artist’s responsibility to push them to expand their capacity and raise the level of exhibition installation and management towards professionalism?
3. When you’re a viewer and your expectations of an exhibition are raised by professionally-produced promotional collateral, who is at fault when the actual show’s installation reads on a lower level of quality, like student-grade?
On Whinging. This post is a bit more critical than usual, but I do grapple with these questions and criticisms wholly. I’m invested—I drove all over LA on a beautiful holiday afternoon and selected a a few shows to focus my attention on. I don’t set out to be critical of these shows—I try to keep an open mind and hope to be surprised for the positive.
First Stop: London
I’d love to skip back over the pond to attend the Frieze Art Fair next week in London. Yes, it is a marriage of art and commerce, but it’s also more than that — newly commissioned art projects, featuring the fabulous Stephanie Syjuco, the delightfully perplexing Ryan Gander, and a fellow named Mike Bouchet, whose project involves hiring a motivational speaker to address an audience at the Frieze Talks — love it! There’s also a programme of killer talks, including a Q&A with John Baldessari, a lecture by James Elkins (the esteemed author from Art Institute of Chicago, who I’ve posted about before) as well as a timely talk on the role of state funding for the arts in a recession.
I’d leave my Clone in San Francisco
Of course, I’d have to clone myself first, so I could also be here in San Francisco for Southern Exposure‘s Grand Opening and the opening of the exhibition, Bellwether. The exhibition is shaping up really nicely, with a huge site-specific balsa wood installation by Reneé Gertler, a DIY survivalist’s shed by Whitney Lynn, an outpost for Lordy Rodriguez’ First Colony, among others. I’m also really looking forward to Liz Glynn‘s Banner Year project, which sweetly reminds me of Jeremy Deller’s Procession in Manchester this summer. Don’t miss the festivities October 16 and 17, at 20th and Alabama Streets.
Next Stop: New York
Then, after that, I’d attend Three Pieces, a one-night multidisciplinary event at PPOW Gallery in Chelsea, where Color&Color, a new publication by Amanda Curreri and Erik Scollon, will be unveiled (along with a work of sound and a work of language/performance. I submitted two images to the inaugural publication — can’t wait to see it.
I’d stick around in NYC for another night to attend The Creative Time Summit at the NY Public Library, which is kind of like a TED Talk for contemporary art. There are so many huge names on the roster, like Alfredo Jaar, Mel Chin, Liam Gillick, Julieta Aranda, the list goes on and on…
A recommended virtual stop: Los Angeles Times art review
Of course, if I had a transporter, I could save myself a lot of staring at the I-5. Since we haven’t got one — yet! — we could have a look at Leah Ollman’s L.A. Times review of Palimpsests, a three-person exhibition I’m in at Tarryn Teresa Gallery through October 29th.
My Art Practice as Enthusiasms Unbounded
“Enthusiams unbounded” is neither grammatically correct nor concise, but it’s the best linguistic capsule for my sentiment: that many aspects of being an artist can be seen as exercises in honoring curiosity.
I love my life in art because I’m constantly learning new things; I made a decision to cultivate areas of knowledge and skill, and they’re accumulating more or less every day. When I look at it this way, art practice is even more satisfying.
I’m starting to think that being an artist means studio work, as well as enacting one’s enthusiasms at will, anytime and anywhere. To borrow examples from my own recent past, this manifests via browsing exhibition catalogs about shopping, learning how to use a nail gun (powered with air: brilliant!), getting over my fear of hand-held circular saws, and savoring donut shop typefaces. My enthusiasms fuel my art practice, so as an artist, it’s my job to follow them.
An Observation on Mentality
My friend Stephanie pointed out that longevity in art can often be attributed to sheer determination. In other words, success in art is partially a war of attrition (especially for women, as my friend Jenifer would add). Stephanie vowed to make art, no matter what. I want art in my life, but I need happiness too. And I think there’s a way to cultivate both:
I suspect that another secret to longevity in the arts is good morale, which requires (at least) two skills:
1. The ability to welcome and accept all forms of validation. I think it’s along the lines of being a connoisseur, not an addict, of the tangible evidence of success. That means blocking out mithering resentments or bitterness in light of any successes, and not letting hang-ups limit the extent of one’s satisfaction.
2. A high tolerance, or the quick ability to recover. May the stings of rejection fade quickly. May the forgettable exhibitions be soon forgotten. May petty resentments pass, along with all the reasons to be jaded about the art world.
The goal, it seems, is to make optimism and happiness “sticky,” and to let all the rest roll off your shoulder. Duckin’ and weavin’. Stick and move.
A cursory look-see of downtown galleries less than stunning, with two major exceptions:
Kim Anno’s paintings on metal are pretty and formal — two things I’m not usually that wowed by. But I felt that feeling of worship that I think overcomes many art lovers when I looked at her paintings — my God, the light! The works are pure abstraction, with large expanses of white paint nestled by wisps of translucent color; they “read” quite simple and gestural and yet there are passages upon passages of textures, patterns, marks and contrasting surfaces. The whites revealed themselves to be rich in color as well. They’re works that continue to reward the act of looking. Expertly executed.
I first saw one of Bruce Connor’s miraculous black-and-white inkblot pattern drawings in Lawrence Rinder’s Galaxy at Berkeley Art Museum a few weeks ago, so it’s a treat to see more of them so soon. I absolutely adore them. There are several tiny ones on view, as well as a generous series of leaf-shaped inkblots and a few fuddy-duddy assemblages. The inkblots, though, are sublime. Completely abstract, moments of recognition appear and fade away, with a variety of textures, media and mark-making devices that result in an surprising magnitude of visual experiences — some lent the sensation of solarized photographic prints, others are clearly tactile acrylic, still others suggested small infinities. They strike a balance between meticulous compulsion and the fine art of knowing when to stop.