Art & Development

Musings on artifice, optimism, and synthetic happiness

Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

Cute ___ Calendar, 2010, collage of found calendars, 12 x 12 x 0.5 inches / 30 x 30 x 1.2 cm

In my most recent work about happiness, such as Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), I thought about being unafraid of artifice. Since optimism, in my view, is a choice, deliberately choosing to find and take the optimistic perspective in any given situation is a bit artificial. Rather than making optimism seem less genuine, it made me think that optimism is more accessible. I may not have been born an optimist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t become one.

In a similar vein, the objects I constructed were blatantly about pleasure. People seem to have a hard time with that; their skepticism colored the work with futility. But I do really see these objects, for all their cheap materials and modest ambitions—maybe something as innocuous as to brighten one’s day—to also express my sincere interest in optimism and the benefit of small pleasures, no matter how naked their (modest) ambitions.

We synthesize happiness, but we think happiness is something to be found.

We believe that synthetic happiness is not the same as what we might call “natural” happiness. What are these terms? Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted. Synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. Why do we have that belief? Well, it’s very simple. What kind of economic engine would keep churning, if we believed that not getting what we want would make us just as happy as getting it?…

I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is just as real and enduring as the kind of happiness that you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for… (Dan Gilbert, “Why are we happy?” delivered at a TED conference, 2004)

I recently just finished a new series of works on paper using more discount store goods. This time, I made 18 works using only stick-on flags arranged on “neon” paper. (As dollar-store goods are wont to do, the packaging’s promise fulfilled expectations from its own alternate universe—in other conditions, the blue and green papers would be considered pastel. I’m not complaining: “Neon” paper isn’t really neon anyway; inert gasses wouldn’t make good collage substrates.)

Working with the materials, I discovered their small potentials: while the number of available colors was very limited, the flags’ translucence and adhesive—which enhances saturation—creates the illusion of a wider color spectrum. The flags’ matte surfaces also draw attention to the paper’s reflectivity. It’s amazing how even cheap, everyday materials can convey exuberance and pleasure.

Flag Snowflake No. 2, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake No. 12, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, #12, & #17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake No. 17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

Flag Snowflake #2, #12, & #17, 2010, stick-on flags on neon paper, 8.5 x 11 inches / 21.5 x 30 cm

To support Kearny Street Workshop, I’m donating the above three selections from the Flag Snowflake series to One Size Fits All, an online sale. Bid on works by 48 artists who created 8.5×11 works on paper—all for the stunningly affordable price of $100 each. Artists include Jenifer K Wofford, Mike Arcega, Stephanie Syjuco, Weston Teruya, and many, many more.

Kearny Street Workshop is the nation’s oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization. They have supported me in the past by exhibiting my work in their emerging arts festival, inviting me to present my work, and in 2008, supporting the development of all new work for a three-person exhibition. They have been continuing their work with the dynamic leadership of Ellen Oh—recent projects include partnerships with the de Young Museum. I’m very honored to support KSW, and hope you do too if you can.

Especially for artists: Some thoughts about setting goals and heeding cautions—

Yes, some things are better than others. We should have preferences that lead us into one future over another. But when those preferences drive us too hard and too fast, because we have overrated the differences between these two futures, we are at risk. When our ambition is bounded, it leads us to work joyfully. When our ambition is unbounded, it leads us to lie, to cheat, to steal, to hurt others, to sacrifice things of real value. When our fears are bounded, we’re prudent, we’re cautious, we’re thoughtful. When our fears are unbounded and overblown, we’re reckless, and we’re cowardly. The lesson I want to leave you with, with these data, is that our longings and our fears are both overblown to some degree, because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience. (Dan Gilbert, “Why are we happy?” delivered at a TED conference, 2004)


Art reviews: Steven Barich, Scott Kildall and Victoria Scott, Pae White

After knocking out a new screenprinted edition (see it at the Headlands Open House July 12, or at The Kiss of A Lifetime in Newcastle and London) and attending the artists’ talks at the Headlands yesterday, I decided to knock off and go enjoy some galleries this Friday afternoon.

Steven Barich: The Logic Stone and other new work
Rowan Morrison Gallery
Oakland, CA

steven barich the logic stone rowan morrison gallery
Image source: Rowan Morrison Gallery.

Steven Barich‘s show at Rowan Morrison is comprised of a series of mostly-compact graphite drawings of logic stones, in which the stones themselves are rendered in a pixelated greyscale grid. The images in reproduction look flat, but the drawings have a lot of “hand” in them; the teeny scale of the pixels seems to point your attention to the tooth of the paper, the grains of graphite. “Technology v. Nature” seems to be an overworked thread in contemporary art, but Barichs’ drawings depict as well as enact this dichotomy. The labor of representing a machinelike perfection in pixels is contrasted with the labor in representing the baroque carvings of the stands. It’s also interesting to notice that so much pixel-based hand-made contemporary art uses full color spectra, whereas Barich’s work is limited to shades of grey. I imagine it’s not an easy task to create random patterns with only value contrast to work with. While the premise behind The Logic Stone may seem straightforward, these deliberate reductions reveal a tight conceptual and technical approach.

Kala Art Institute
Berkeley, CA

no matter scott kildall victoria scott
Scott Kildall and Victoria Scott, Pot of Gold. Image source: No Matter website

Kala’s new gallery space on San Pablo Avenue is spacious, with high ceilings, a nice balance between open space and smaller nooks, and great walls and good lighting. The current exhibition, re:con-figure, features the work of several past Fellows or AIRs, who exemplify a certain Bay Area contemporary art diversity. On view were video-papercut-installations, mixed media collages, photo-sculptures, performance-installations and kinetics-installations (and noticibly, not a whole lot of traditional printmaking per se. re:con-figure seems to announce that Kala is a contemporary art presenter, in case you still thought of it as a intaglio-oriented printmaking atelier.)

I really enjoyed Scott Kildall‘s and Victoria Scott‘s No Matter project of humorous cut-and-fold assemblies. The objects appear to be inspired by Kildall’s ongoing interest in virtual reality; the planar, crappily-colored objects bring Second Life hokeyness into “first life” materialization. This project is similar to eTeam‘s (Hajoe Moderegger & Franziska Lamprecht) Second Life Dumpster , but No Matter embodies the cheap crappiness I found lacking.

The renderings in 3D animation can be woefully inadequate, so to create 2D prints that cut and fold into truly 3D counterparts is a brilliant rhetorical gesture. Even when the wood-grained Contact paper-wrapped shelves and chalky inkjet paper announce their media a bit too obviously, it works with the spirit of the piece, which seems to saying that Second Life is Camp, and the artists intend to honor to the spirit of the Camp with its own oblivious pretensions. The ridiculousness is appreciated, since by acknowledging the artifice of virtual reality, the artists might be acknowledging the artifice of artmaking itself.

Pae White: In Between the Outside-In
New Langton Arts
San Francisco, CA

pae white in between the outside-in
Image source: New Langton Arts website

Pae White’s show at New Langton Arts may be one of the most surprising art experiences I’ve had in the Bay Area in the past two months. It’s killer. So killer, I’m shocked and dismayed how little press I’ve seen on it, and how no one has told me that I have to see the show. So I’m telling you now: You have to see the show. Especially if you like how the self is brought to the fore in installation art, have any interest in digital animation, or, like me, you find disorienting perceptual experiences and your resulting hyper-awareness to epitomize the best that contemporary art can offer. It’s Earth Art, yes, but unconventionally so, and it seems to be fully Romantic in nature, in the sense of presenting a techno-digital-Sublime that’s otherworldy and quite possibly terrifying.

I’ll add that the show ends July 18th, and say no more.