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:

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

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:

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

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:

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

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.


Hope balloons by Tim Etchells

Tim Etchells' hope balloon installation

Tim Etchells' hope balloon installation

Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixere!
(May they perish who have expressed our bright ideas before us.)

I don’t actually wish harm upon Mr. Etchells; his hope balloons are simply good. I look forward to showing alongside him, as well as longtime art-hero of mine, Glenn Ligon, as well as others, in a forthcoming exhibition called T_XT_ART at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in New York.


Surprises at the MoMA

I visited the MoMA yesterday, on the last day of The Original Copy: The Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Working with studio-based compositions of sculptures and sculptural arrangements, Brancusi’s suite of beautiful b/w photos featured glints of light, while Jan de Cock [see his innovative website]‘s Studio Repromotion series were unaffected, curious color 4x6s. Cyprien Gaillard‘s Analogous Geographies (a series of groups of sixteen random Polaroids, all shot at 45 degree angles, and arranged to create composite landscapes) had a neat presentation (the photos were lain on a concave matboard-like surface in deep frames set at a low angle). Robin Rhode‘s Stone Flags (in which the illusion of flag-waving is carried out in a kind of live-action stop-motion hybrid, using real stones and a real figure) captured the heavy burden of statehood on personal identity. I was also happy to be introduced to Brassaï‘s Involuntary Sculptures, large b/w macro shots of materials like balls of dust or smeared toothpaste. The questioning of the nature of sculpture, and the embrace of chance, seems very contemporary. The cherry on the cake, though, was one of Duchamp’s valises of miniatures of his sculptures and paintings.

Still, while I toured other shows around the museum, I was most affected and impressed by three videos. This is a rarity for me. I haven’t got anything against video, it’s just that I don’t often have the patience it takes to watch enough videos to see the great ones. In this case, all three were very powerful, shared some similarities, yet are completely different.

Glenn Ligon‘s The Death of Tom (2008) is elegiac. It’s impressive because it seems to convey no content, yet ample clues point the observant viewer towards a very specific historical and cultural moment. [It’s so good I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll add a SPOILER ALERT here. Skip to the next graph if you don’t want to know.] The short film consists of unintelligible streaks of white light; a hazy, nebulous, shifting blur creates sort of a monochromatic, animated Rothko. It’s unclear what you’re looking at, and when, if ever, the video will start. Yet a beautifully-recorded piano accompanies the light; its riffs and rhythms allude to vaudevillian tunes. The composition is nostalgic and playful and yet, interpretive, heavy, burdened and woeful. Being familiar with Ligon’s work, and his interest in race and the representation of Black Americans, I surmised a connection to blackface and the co-mingled feelings of liberation and weight. It’s a very powerful piece that connects strongly to Ligon’s paintings about illegibility and misreadings. Jason Moran, the pianist and composer, provides clues, context and grace in equal measure. It’s on view through May 9, 2011.

In a prime example of the multi-polarity of artists of color and ways of working, unflinching Vietnamese documentarian Dinh Q. Lê and his collaborators present a completely different video that concerns racial and national politics as well. Their giant, three-channel video is at times emotionally heart-wrenching, bombastic, borderline propagandistic, and completely unnerving. The Farmers and The Helicopters (2006) features interviews with a handful of survivors of the Vietnam War and their experiences with helicopters: elderly ladies who were terrorized as children, a militia man who fired on them, and a perplexing, passionate, self-taught mechanic, who, enthralled with helicopters and their utilitarian and humanitarian potentials, built a helicopter from scrap metals with a farmer. Le Van Danh’s and Tran Quoc Hai’s handiwork is on view in the gallery adjacent to the video. It’s massive, white like an angel, and mind-blowing. The Farmers and The Helicopters is on view through January 24, 2011.

The third video I liked was features only color fields, similar to Ligon’s black-and-white-blur, yet is aggressively gripping like Lê’s. Paul Sharit‘s Ray Gun Virus (1966) is a film consisting of rapidly interspersed fields of color, accompanied by a loud, brain-invading mechanical drone. Finding the screening room empty, I proceeded to break all normal viewing protocol: standing in the projection throw, observing the awesome retinal after-images (or colors) that occurred, and generally zoning out. I thought about looking straight into the projection when more visitors came in, and I resumed my normative viewing role. A structuralist filmmaker, Ray Gun Virus was Sharit’s first “flicker” films which aimed to alter consciousness. He succeeded. See a visitor-created YouTube video. Also on view through May 9, 2011.

Art & Development

odds and ends

I think the conceptual artist Glenn Ligon is fantastic. And I, for one, think Americans should be proud to have the Obamas in the White House. So it totally floats my boat that the Obama family has selected a work by Ligon for display in their home.

I was right! Fred Tomaselli’s lecture was great — brisk, jocular and razor-sharp. Again, there’s nothing like hearing a thoughtful, well-spoken artist share his narrative of artistic development. Plus, his work is so stunning! My colleagues and I were unanimously impressed and inspired.

This coming Monday, October 12, Xu Tan, who’s currently showing his Keywords project at YBCA, is speaking at SFAI.

Pae White’s exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum closes in 10 days. I saw the show’s iteration at New Langton Arts, where it blew my mind.

It seems to be a good time to read.
Research is critical for my studio momentum. Here are texts I hope to synthesize into my art practice soon:

Calvin Tomkins’ profile of Bruce Nauman, “Western Disturbances,” The New Yorker, June 1, 2009, p. 68
(Reassuringly, Nauman’s studio practice also involves a lot of sitting, reading and thinking. I also love how the author characterizes Nauman’s work as “uningratiating.” I am driven to make work that’s also rather unspectacular, though I’ve yet to shake the urge to apologize for its visual paucity. It seems pointless and maybe a bit classist, but it’s true, people still like big, colorful, spectacular art.)

In “Thinking literally: The surprising ways that metaphors shape your world” (Boston Globe, September 27, 2009), Drake Bennett describes psychologists who are uncovering how metaphors are crucial tools in human thought. I find the writing style a bit too commercial, but I’m enjoying the idea that scientific research can validate the intuitive decisions involved in making phenomenological installations. Perhaps there is a sensory, non-literal, common ground through which an installation artist can communicate with her audience, without an intellectual interpretation….

I think this idea might work well in parallel with “Against Interpretation” by Susan Sontag.

Benedict Carey’s “How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect” (, October 5, 2009) seems like another great, timely reference, because it touches on the ideas of aberrations (which I’ve been thinking about since the Galaxy show at BAM), and seems to related to the slightly-off effects my viewer-oriented installations aspire to create.

Community, Research

Text-based art + Light-based art = Yum Yum!

I’ve been underground (metaphorically and literally, sort of: my studio’s in a basement), preparing for Galleon Trade at Bay Area Now/YBCA. So I’m emerging to view other shows, just in time for the fall art season! (As Anu pointed out on her blog, Why do we all still live by the semester cycle?)

The exhibitions at the Wattis can be theatrical and unconventional, but I was pleasantly surprised with rewarding experiences at the new evolution of Passengers and the brand-new The Wizard of Oz exhibition.

Carsten Holler installation at the Wattis Institute's The Wizard of Oz exhibition

Carsten Holler installation at the Wattis Institutes' The Wizard of Oz exhibition

Really, even if I weren’t a light bulb freak (I dreamed of blue LED displays and reflector bulbs this morning), who wouldn’t love Carsten Höller‘s Wonderful signage, with a timed light-show sequence? Cans in the shape of letters with crystal clear incandescents. It’s nostalgic for the 20th century, which is only eight years ago when you think about it…

Glenn Ligon's installation at the Wattis Institute's The Wizard of Oz exhibition

Glenn Ligon's installation at the Wattis Institutes' The Wizard of Oz exhibition

I was delighted to stumble into this in a far room of the Wattis. I am a huge (yooouj!) Ligon fan, and came to appreciate his black-ed out neon work more after reading a great critical and phenomenological response to “Negro Sunshine,” (Richard Meyer’s “Light it Up, or How Glenn Ligon Got Over,” Artforum, May 2006). Blacked-out neon America: Brilliant! I like the outlined typewriter typeface, it’s somehow appropriately spook-y.

One of my favorite quotes is about oscillating between the container and the contained (from the Fluxus artist Daniel Spöerri), so of course I also was thrilled to come across this neon piece on Regen Project’s website too.

Claire Fontaine installation at the Wattis Institute's Passengers exhibition

Claire Fontaine installation at the Wattis Institute's Passengers exhibition

Brick-books of theory. The Wattis, of course, is housed on the campus of my alma mater, so for purely personal reasons, critical theory book wraparounds on cinder blocks are a riot. Of course, with all good conceptual art, the more you know, the better it gets. Fontaine is not an individual, but a French collective, and the installation is a meditation on the Paris 1968 riots, where a brick was more than a building material, but a weapon, a symbol of revolutionary actions. While anarchist communities are still active today (you will know them by their bicycle bumper stickers), it’s nice to be reminded of the once-obvious connection between critical theory and direct action.