Art & Development

points of reference, starting with the rückenfigur

Yesterday with ABC, I re-visited Glenn Ligon: America, the beautiful mid-career survey at the Whitney. It’s a stellar show, and I experienced anew this installation:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

The word rückenfigur refers to portraits with figures looking at a landscape with one’s back to the viewer, as in the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting below. Rückenfigur is one of Ligon’s  masterful America neons, and it’s an elegant use of text, in title and in form. Ligon’s neon features individually-reversed letters; the word is clearly “America” at first glance, but it is not backwards, yet individual letters, like the “R” and “C,” clearly are. This causes an experience of uncertainty, of not comprehending what is plain before you, similar to trying to grasp the vast culture of the US.

Additionally, the sign is painted black on the back side; viewers see no soft glow on the wall, just hard linear neon, an effect that is extremely rare among this nearly ubiquitous type of sign. Listen to the audio guide that accompanies this work.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

The rückenfigur also appears in Ligon’s self-portraits, installed as a series of five photographs rendered in screenprint on canvas. Of the five images, four are of the back of the artist’s head.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist  ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

ABC—always an inquisitive and passionate interlocutor—and I discussed these images. She guessed that they were gestures of turning towards a landscape of sorts. I surmised that the artist was giving us his back, refusing to be identified, pinned down, or boxed in, or perhaps, embracing or representing the anonymity or blankness of social perceptions. They seemed to be about ambivalence, or making the viewer project his or her own assumptions onto the image to me.

Ligon is an artist of remarkable subtlety; the exhibition tells a compelling story about an artist who expresses pointed political stances through others’ language. The show is gorgeously paced and installed; I even became fond of the Marcel Breuer-designed galleries, to which I was indifferent to (though I’ve always loved the lobby, with its grid of chandeliers with half-silvered bulbs). America continues through June 5 at the Whitney, then travels to LACMA in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. Mark your calendars.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

In thinking about the rückenfigur, and the negation of turning one’s back, I recalled the Claude glass, or black mirror, which I’ve blogged about before. The Claude glass is a pocket mirror of black glass that Romantic painters would use to restrict the tonal range of the landscape. To use the mirror, painters would turn their backs to the landscape and reflect the landscape in the glass. They’d paint the reflection, not the actual landscape.

Thanks to Google Images, I came across a series of beautiful photographs of a Claude glass in action by Carter Seddon. The site is under construction, but if these photos are any indication, I’d advise: Get it together; the pictures are good.

 Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror” single comes to mind. View the arcane and lovely filmic video on YouTube.

Detail, untitled, 2008, site-specific window intervention: window film, gels, acetate

Late one night in 2008, I was installing Activist Imagination at Kearny Street Workshop. One of my projects required tinting a window with black film. After nightfall it was much easier to see my reflection than it was to see what I was doing. The Arcade Fire single came on, and my mood surged; I was overjoyed by the coincidence.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

Memory and time…. Earlier today, I participated in the artist’s talk for The Black Portrait at Rush Arts Gallery in NYC. It’s an exhibition to which I contributed mirrorsblackportrait, a kinetic sculpture of two mirrors, one painted black on top, one painted black on bottom. During the talk, I mentioned the Claude glass, and the idea that suppressing perceptions might have the paradoxical effect of opening up a space for viewer’s experiences. Then, I had the good fortune of receiving kind and thoughtful feedback from other artists in the show. KO told me that as the sculpture turned, his mind stitched the memory of the lower reflection with the memory of the upper reflection. SS added that in revisiting a memory, it becomes strengthened. In this sense the work is also about time and recognition.

KO also mentioned a fascinating project of his involving flea markets, and how the lives of objects often outlast the lives of their owners. This reminded my of my favorite Daniel Spöerri quote, which is just as fresh and relevant to my practice now, as it was when I first read it five years ago:

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?—and it is in between these two poles of the inseparability of the two that my anxiety of finding a definite solution will oscillate, which could be interpreted positively as the desire for instability and change.

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

To this, SS added her memories of going to the racetrack as a child. She recalls it as a site populated by outsiders, rife with belief in luck, superstitions and talismans. The idea of imbuing an object with magic or meaning carries over in to so much of what artists aspire to do.

Another attempt to refine a sensibility: CV recently pointed out that my work is not about optimism and pessimism per se, but that it’s about the moment of discovery. I think she meant that my work offers experiences that elicit responses, which highlight optimistic or pessimistic tendencies.

As my work has shifted towards happiness and sentiment, I’ve encountered skepticism—disbelief of my earnestness. And as a viewer, I am not always sympathetic to earnest works of art. Social practice gardening, for example, can seem a bit cutesy, and not very thought-provoking to me. So how could I expect or encourage viewers to take my earnestness at face value, and to not assume that sincerity is antipathetic towards criticality?

I recently posed two questions, and received two very good responses from friends. As I interpret it, AV answered in terms of what an artist or his/her work of art should exhibit to a viewer.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AV: Genuine commitment.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AV: Naive idealism.

AR answered with what a viewer should bring to the work of art.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AR: Courage.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AR: Fear.

Demonstrating genuine commitment in my inquiry seems like a more tangible goal than cultivating courage in viewers.

Whimsy, earnestness, sentiment and insignificance… On a somewhat related note, I recently came across Charlotte Taylor’s 2005 article in Frieze about whimsy. The article counterposes The Believer‘s intellectual whimsy against n+1. In the process, Taylor identified these observations:

…whimsy triumphs when the import of the apparently insignificant and the relevance of the random are discovered.

Like camp, intellectual whimsy is not best understood as ironic: it places a premium on unabashed sincerity while at the same time treading a fine line of self-parody. It often signals this self-parody by appropriating typographical and design conventions from the past… The provocative or unexpected becomes the precious….

For the editors of n+1 whimsy signals a dismaying lack of conviction and encourages the conspicuous squandering of energy on trivialities rather than issues of substance….

Wes Anderson’s films are whimsical because their unexpected juxtapositions are imbued with sentimental significance.

…whimsy values the ability to appreciate the aesthetic harmony possible among myriad incongruent objects. It draws attention to the act of perception and the sensibility of the perceiver. This is why intellectual whimsy can readily become grating—it invites you to be pleased by the innovations of another person’s taste.

Ironically, the style of these Points of Reference posts is to draw connections between seemingly incongruous ideas. Though I’m still sorting them out, I believe these points relate and that finding their similarities can be a productive exercise to advance my studio practice. I’ll leave you with a paraphrased quote, from today’s NYT video of friends pitching in to save one Alabama man’s house from flooding. As they built levees against a rising river, a friend expressed, without contradiction, his simultaneous feelings of futility and determination:

It may seem like a wasted effort. But it would not be for lack of effort.

Standard
Community

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.

re:con-figure
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.

Standard