Points of Reference: Choice Cuts, Wintry Mix

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,


Some words and meanings of import to me this week:

I love it when an exhibition looks pitch-perfect. It brings me great satisfaction as a preparator to execute a changeover with immaculate results. Galleries have an unspoken ambition to sustain a highly artificial state of perfection; it works best when you feel that no other visitors have been there, with their grubby hands or floor-scuffing feet. Coming from this mindset, I was startled by this:

great art, though, is rarely perfect.

(The fragment has lodged itself in my brain, orphaned from its source. I think it’s from the New Yorker, but having been out of town for much of the past four months, I’m working my way haphazardly through the backstock, and finding the source seems an impossible task.)

I’ve been mulling this over—what allows art to be imperfect, what things/activities ought to result in perfection (crafts? services?), and why I’d forgotten that art has this privilege of imperfection (perhaps seeing too much art in sales-oriented commercial spaces, internalizing the feeling that art should look expensive)?

I stumbled onto the website of Trapped in Suburbia, a fun design firm in the Netherlands, that had an exhibition about happiness.

You’d think that an exhibition about happiness would capture my attention. But their motto, pulled from a Chinese proverb (go figure) was what ultimately spoke to me:

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

Fine, it’s an aphorism, and thus designed to impart wisdom with concision and rhythm that makes it seem profound. (For similar reasons, I find writing tweets unsatisfying.) It works for me in the context of a recent discussion I had about whether the relationship between what artists make and what artists make happen are equal or not. I think what artists make happen gains meaning through the shared experiences that artists make happen. The aphorism sort of mirrors what I mean to explain about the creative and aesthetic process: ideas without manifestation are intangible or intransient; objects can hold those ideas but remain inert without active attention; but by producing spaces/situations, possibilities and engagement, the ideas and objects take root in people’s minds and lives and experiences and memories. They live on in a larger way than personal experiences with objects.

From 2003 to 2011, Haim Steinbach led a seminar at the University of California San Diego called The Object Lesson. He instructed his students to chose an object—any object—and bring it to class every week. Over the course of the semester, they would consider these objects from every possible vantage point….

For ten weeks, three hours a week, they looked at the same fifteen objects. Again and again and again….

…students took turns responding to things they desired and despised on the table. Steinbach pressed them week after week: Is it a real object? An ideal object? A love object? A conceptual object? An object of desire? An actual object? A virtual object? An art object? While discussing the aggression of a piece of wood or the phallic quality of vampire teeth, students came to see how much the analysis hinged on their own projections and desires.

The Artist’s Institute, a Hunter College project, recently selected the work of Haim Steinbach for consideration. In doing so, they published a PDF with the above text and organized a show-and-tell. I love Steinbach’s class exercise, and am inspired to try it with like-minded artist-friends. I know what I would bring: a printed celebration ribbon from a party store.

This dovetails nicely with the proverb above—the meanings of objects take root in us when our own “projections and desires” fit with them. It’s like what differentiates a space from a place—the personal meanings that accrue (Yi-Fu Tuan).

Very short, very sweet stories and pics on imbuing objects with meanings/personal experiences. Reader’s photos of souvenirs at “What I Brought Home,” (NYT).

I’ve been trying to convey the complexity of happiness. Here is Zadie Smith distinguishing between joy and pleasure (thanks JKW):

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Zadie Smith, “Joy,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013



Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry

Courage is envisioning and articulating freedom that is yet to be actualized. Angela Davis talks about this—imagining change is the first step of making change. One year after his release following months of detainment without due process, Ai Weiwei wrote:

I often ask myself if I am afraid of being detained again. My inner voice says I am not. I love freedom, like anybody; maybe more than most people. But it is such a tragedy if you live your life in fear. That’s worse than actually losing your freedom.

…none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion. China has not established the rule of law and if there is a power above the law there is no social justice. Everybody can be subjected to harm…

Stupidity can win for a moment, but it can never really succeed because the nature of humans is to seek freedom. They can delay that freedom but they can’t stop it.

(“Ai Weiwei: to live your life in fear is worse than losing your freedom,” Guardian, June 21, 2012):

Further, even as a known target of one of the world’s most secretive and repressive governments, Ai remains an optimist:

What I gained from the experience is a much stronger sense of responsibility, and an understanding of what the problems are and how one can understand what’s happening and remain a positive force. You have to see your own position from the other side. At the same time you have to maintain a passion for what you are doing. You have to have sensitivity and joy. If you don’t have that, you will be like a fish on the beach, drying up on the sand….


It’s a joy

On Tuesday, I drove 240 miles to de-install and pick up my work from Catskill, NY. Today, I spent over 2 hours in transit going to Chelsea and back to photograph my installation. After this, I’m going to color-correct the photos, then work on a residency application. (Meanwhile, my latest studio project has been untouched—frozen in a state of incompletion—for the past 1.5 weeks.)

There is little joy in schlepping. The transit left me knackered, and feeling not especially productive. But I want to contrast these niggling feelings about artists’ extrastudio activity with a different sentiment about being an artist, to make space for an attitude adjustment.

When I visited Michael Arcega’s and Stephanie Syjuco’s studios in San Francisco last Friday, it felt like this is where they report to work, because it’s their jobs to be artists. This is less about occupations—Arcega and Syjuco both work as teachers—and more to do with the seriousness and intention of their practices, of their drive to be making and exhibiting as artists. The visits made me want a bigger studio, and somehow restructure my life so that I can spend more and more of my time being an artist. I left feeling inspired to be more ambitious, diligent, and committed.

I savored this sense of forward momentum. During my long drive to Catskill, I came to this realization: Being an artist for a day—working on your art, managing your art career, even undertaking extrastudio activities—is a gift.

Artists often want to focus on studio work—most of us probably became artists because of the pleasures of creativity and discovery. But there is much more to being an artist, and rather than disparage the extrastudio work—the unending grant applications, the mounting rejection letters, the mindless schlepping—I thought about being grateful for it. There are countless other things competing for our attentions—but we choose to be artists, and therefore the activities we engage in are of our volition and intention.

A few points of reference come to mind:

Lee Pembleton, in my interview with Earthbound Moon for Art Practical, said,

We pour our resources in to the work. Of course, it is not a suffering work, but an ecstatic one.

The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is about finding pleasure, satisfaction, purpose, and happiness in one’s work. I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that there are spoken words in this nearly silent film, and they are of lasting import to me.

Yes, there is little pleasure in schlepping. But perhaps I can approach this work, in all of its facets, however transcendent or mundane, exciting or tedious, in terms of finding satisfaction and purpose. From that perspective, the ability to be an artist—the capacity and circumstances—are delights in themselves.