Impressions: Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys @ the Wattis

_____ness, overexamined.


Longtime New Yorkers, including Martha Rosler, like to point out how suburbanized New York City has become. However, I could argue that, as real New Yorkers, they do not truly know suburbia. I thought about this as I stepped off the SFO-originating BART and into the slow, foggy town of my teenage years, where, over the coming days, I would complain about how the Home Depot’s layout is backwards from its usual lumber-on-the-right floor plan, and, for even the most middling of needs, visit Target  at a mall whose property line would encompass two subway stops on the N/Q. No stranger in a strange land, I’m a prodigal daughter in an ur-burb. I mull “basic culture”—the concept, terminology, and usage, and all the classism and cultural elitism it entails—while consuming it too.

With this in mind, Tram 3 struck me as extremely _____, in multiple ways. Here, rather than a symbol of purity, it’s a non-color, a normative default, nothingness. It pervades the works with the angst of pointlessness.

For Tram 3, the Wattis is a large, airy, sky-lit cube immaculately painted in matte, cool _____. Nary a patch glinted. Several oversized, oversimplified human-like cutouts populate the space. They’re simply constructed from steel plates, but are painted so matte and so _____ that they could well be Sintra (a rigid foam board). Casually taped on them are quick sketches of portraits on _____ paper, drawn as if the artist was short on graphite and time. On the walls are similar drawings of trams and tram riders. They’re framed but unglazed. The whole space is luminous with soft, reflected light. Even the track incandescent lighting approximates ambient fluorescents.

In a cavernous neighboring space, the artist’s video, Die Aap van Bloemfontein [The Ape from Bloemfontein] (2015) plays. Or, rather, the media advances. It’s a spectacle of inaction, a series of painfully long shots of tableaux in which actors imitate motionlessness. The actors are all _____. They are shot under hot lights, in unflattering, tight close-ups. Moles glisten. Crooked teeth are bared. A narrator’s voiceover describes transformations of objects into subjects and back. Rather than magical, it’s passively futile. Nothing happens, acutely. It’s not liberating Zen; it’s oppressive sameness. It’s monolithic culture, Northern European social order, and suburban predictability. It’s ennui born of (first-world) boredom. Sartre flat-packed in IKEA.

The exhibition signage is black text in Times Roman, a signature that Wattis director Anthony Huberman imported with him from the Artist’s Institute in NYC. Simple, black-and-___, and open is a quietly loud differentiation from predecessor Jens Hoffman, who with graphic designer Jon Sueda gave each exhibition assertive identities via color, typography, and architectural interventions. Under Huberman’s lead, the Wattis’ collateral has become restrained and cerebral. The website features no images, as if to say that art is not objects and visuals, but a series of open-ended ideas and exercises best experienced temporally and ephemerally. Thankfully, the exhibition brochure is written with concision and wit. While it ascribes absurdism to de Gruyter’s and Thys’ work, I didn’t see this lightness. If there is humor, it’s only black.


Through April 18
Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys: Tram 3

Wattis Institute
San Francisco, CA


Community, Research

Points of reference

For artists and/or fans of Borges and Calvino:
Cynthia Ozick reading “In the Reign of Harad IV,” a wonderful short story by Steven Millhauser, about making, visibility, and recognition. On the New Yorker‘s fiction podcast.

For fellow cognitive science and psychology dabblers:
“Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life,” by David Brooks (yup, that David Brooks, the NYT columnist), a summation of loads of psychological and cognitive science research, including thoughts about flow and happiness.

For those who need an optimism booster shot:
Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, by Dasher Keltner (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009).
The UC Berkeley psychology professor’s theories on how to live a balanced life of “completing the good in others.” Interesting discussion of the intellectual lineage from Darwin to Ekman (a facial expression researcher profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker). The author’s long hair + references to Eastern philosophy = high hippie dippy quotient, but Keltner is an informed and lively writer. Those seeking cynical, burdensome academic texts ought look elsewhere.

For those seeking art that touches on psychoanalysis:
Jonathan Solo: Shadow
Catherine Clark Gallery
January 8 – February 19, 2011
see also: Carl Jung, Shadow

For those obsessed with happiness and/or mapping:
Mappiness, an iPhone app that asks users to rate their level of happiness at random moments throughout the day. Developed by London School of Economics PhD candidates, it’s a fully realized, popular version of what I had hoped to do with, a project I started in grad school and hadn’t yet returned to. My enthusiasm for visual and symbolic systems has not evolved into the motivation to learn more about statistics and programming… yet.

For art-seekers in San Francisco:
Works by friends and supporters:
Three solo exhibitions: Jaime Cortez, Kenneth Lo, and Ginger Wolfe-Suarez
Southern Exposure, 3030 20th St., San Francisco, CA
January 7, 2011 – February 19, 2011

For art-seekers in LA:
Collective Show
January 21-23 and January 27-30, 2011
995, 997 North Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA

For art-seekers in Liverpool:
Nam June Paik
Tate Liverpool
17 December 2010 – 13 March 2011

For typography nerds:
The flyer for the symposium at the Nam June Paik Art Center. Nothing wrong with type-based solutions, no.

For design-seekers in San Francisco:
A show curated by the super-talented, super-humble Jon Sueda
The Way Beyond Art: Wide White Space
January 20–February 5
CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art