Adam—at once ideological and post-ideological, vaguely engaged and profoundly spectatorial, charming and loathsome—is a convincing representative of twenty-first century American Homo literatus. He is a creature of privilege and lassitude, living through a time of inflamed political certainty, yet certain only of his own uncertainty and thus always more easily defined by negation than by affirmation, clearly dedicated to poetry but unable to define or defined it (excet to intone that poetry isn’t about anything), and impicitly nostalgic for earlier, mythical eras of greater strength and surety. He has long suspected, for instance, that he is incapable of having “a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.” Insofar as he is interested in the arts, he tells us, he is “interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”
—James Wood, “Reality Testing,” (New Yorker Magazine, October 31, 2011) a review of Ben Lerner’s new novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House). The book’s narrator is Adam Gordon, a poet.
If I were a purveyor of fine sentences I would stock gems such as these.
In his post comparing jury duty to conceptual art, art critic Glen Helfand wrote on SFMOMA’s Open Space (“Justice Redux,” June 22, 2011):
Here’s my account of the case to which I was assigned: Ms. E drank something troubling, a crystal clear bottle of water with its Harrah’s label intact. It may have been standard transparent plastic, but was corrosive all the way down. She described burning up inside, but not as dramatically as her lawyer, who also relished, in words and sometimes pictures, the horrors of esophageal surgery….
What might be the real costs of a Drano cocktail, in PTSD dollars? It was as if there was a short circuit in my thinking patterns—all of a sudden, this was capital R real. Unlike forming a critical position on the Gertrude Stein exhibitions, our decision would have some measurable impact on someone’s life.
Lots of pleasing word-smithing here. The double duty of “capital”—both financial and figurative—is nice. Plus it’s nice to take the enterprise of criticism down a notch sometimes.
Though critics do articulate fine ideas too:
the seemingly infinite archive of world events produced by photography conflates surface appearance with psychological depth, iconicity with memory, publicity with history….
Eva Díaz paraphrasing critic Siegfried Kracauer in a review of Drawn from Photography at the Drawing Center, NYC (Artforum, Summer 2011). Díaz goes on:
Artists… hand-copy photographs and photo-based media, thereby lengthening the duration of the image’s production and, for the viewer, transforming perception by fastidiously rendering what once presented itself with glossy immediacy.
Also in Artforum, Catherine Wood previewed the Manchester International Festival and this summer’s iteration sounds equally high-brow and low-brow—and totally fun. Adding the MIF to my bucket list.
One more Artforum goodie*: Graham Bader considers Roy Lichtenstein’s Brushstrokes paintings. In doing so, he quotes David Joselit, who characterizes painting’s “reification trap” thusly:
maximum prestige with maximum convenience of display
which means, as Bader writes,
[painting] is inevitably and intimately linked to the commodity.
The Brushstroke paintings are Ben-Day dot paintings depicting painterly strokes. Very cheeky. They are funny and interesting because they’re quotations, and I can’t help but think about Jerry Saltz’ recent rant against tired postmodernism:
The beautiful, cerebral, ultimately content-free creations of art’s well-schooled young lions…
…many times over—too many times for comfort—I saw the same thing, a highly recognizable generic institutional style whose manifestations are by now extremely familiar. Neo-Structuralist film with overlapping geometric colors, photographs about photographs, projectors screening loops of grainy black-and-white archival footage, abstraction that’s supposed to be referencing other abstraction—it was all there, all straight out of the seventies, all dead in the water. It’s work stuck in a cul-de-sac of aesthetic regress, where everyone is deconstructing the same elements.
in his reaction to the Venice Biennale on Artnet. (Though he did like some things, including an installation by Argentinian Adrián Villar Rojas, who made a massive beached whale for Moby Dick at the Wattis in 2009. Congrats to AVR, and to his collaborator Alán Legal!)
The June 27th issue of the New Yorker is a good reminder of why I’m a subscriber. Rebecca Mead’s profile of Alice Walton, the Walmart heir opening a major museum in Arkansas, is quintessentially New Yorker. It’s about an individual of influence, yes, but the story is far from the stuffy Upper East Side. That I’ve yet to hear about this museum via typical art channels makes it even more intriguing. I’m also looking forward to reading Adam Gopnik’s essay on drawing. But in the meantime, Ian Frazier’s Talk of the Town contribution counterposes events in Harlem: a mostly-POC poetry reading and a mostly-white Socialist film screening. The description of the latter setting will ring a bell among radical buddies in Berkeley:
At a counter by the entry, racks of densely printed leaflets, the left’s traditional accessories, sat near new paperback editions of books by Leon Trotsky….
“O.K., everybody, can we all sit down…?” The last words were pronounced in the hopeful, rising tone that might be called the Leftist Exhortative….
The watchers in Freedom Hall roused themselves for a lusty booing and hissing of Dick Cheney when he came briefly into the frame….
…even the familiar pleasure of hating horrible things didn’t seem to buoy the Freedom Hall crowd. In the flickering dark, a palpable gloom.
Having been to a few gatherings like this myself, I found Gopnik’s humor winsome. The activists’ pessimism in the final couplet is too close for comfort. I suppose whatever inspired me to make the Activist Complaints drawings in 2007 still resonates with me.
*This issue of Artforum is called “Acting Out: The Ab-Ex Effect.” Talk about tired of Ab-Ex.
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 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 Hedonimeter.net, 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:
January 21-23 and January 27-30, 2011
995, 997 North Hill Street, Los Angeles, CA
For art-seekers in Liverpool:
Nam June Paik
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
This 1997 photo by Lars Tunbjörk is pretty great. It’s from his series on corporate offices. He’s got a great eye for narrative — the feeling you get is one of hygenic oppression, like Robert Longo’s indicting drawings of white collar workers. I really like the abstraction and sense of space in this picture, and the cheeky realization that it’s the most mundane of mundane things, a garbage bin.
I’m also pretty happy to discover invisible thread. It’s not really invisible, and it’s not really thread, if you think of finely wound fibers, because it’s thin monofilament. It worked great in hand-sewing and in my sewing machine. Brush up on your knot-tying skills with animated demos by Grog.
Small victories in procurement, the art activity I love to hate: For my recent sewing/craft projects, the fabric department at the big CVS (formerly Longs/Payless) in North Oakland has been great. A $4 Fiskers portable scissor sharpener (a sharpening stone in two blade guides at the perfect angle) proved its worth within a few minutes. For more specialist items, visit Discount Fabrics in West Berkeley.
Did I mention Calvin Tompkins yet? His profiles of contemporary artists in the New Yorker have been fascinating. Recent subjects include Julie Mehretu (read the abstract), Urs Fischer (read the abstract) and Bruce Nauman (read the abstract). I found the profile of Nauman most interesting, maybe because his career and work is so unconventional, and the expressions of his psyche so singular. The Fischer and Mehretu profiles operate on surface levels more often, but readers interested in the mechanics of art star careers will find them fascinating.
Museo-rama: Joint Member Day, SF, CA
Tomorrow, Saturday, March 20 is Joint Member Day. If you’re a member the Asian Art Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Contemporary Jewish Musuem, Museum of the African Diaspora, Museum of Craft and Folk Art, SF Camerawork, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, you and a friend can visit participating museums for FREE admission, special events and exclusive discounts.
I’m curious about Dispatches from the Archives and The View From Here photography exhibition at SFMOMA. I’m all for exhibitions that help Americans understand China’s pluralism, and the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum introduces the cosmopolitan city through its Western-influenced hybridized modern art and design (with a few pieces of contemporary art). Still, I thought the didactic texts shied from the mention of colonialism; this westernization seems possible because cities were forced open to British trade by the Treaty of Nanking after China lost the First Opium War. Also, pop culture afficionados: don’t expect to see lots of vintage-kitsch Shanghai lady adverts; those make up only a small fraction of the exhibition.
It’s A Sign: New Bohemia Signs at Adobe Books’ Backroom Gallery, SF, CA
Design nerds ho! The immaculate hand-painted stylizations of New Bohemia Signs, San Francisco’s own anachronistic, fedora-donning, sign painting shop, are on view at Adobe Books’ Backroom Gallery through April 3. It’s like Steven Heller’s New Vintage Type came to life in shiny, seductive enamel paint. You can purchase individual functional signs for your indie mart or design tchotchke shelves, or larger aggregations for the aesthetics, and to make an undeniable statement about your good taste.
The signs are really cute. They are examples of great graphic design, but ultimately, just signs. I had hoped to make some smart-sounding statement about semiotics or wayfinding (especially in relation to “The Secret Language of Signs,” Slate’s recent series on signs), but really, style and legibility seem to be the main point of the work. If there is something more interesting to tease out, it’s probably in regards to context: A shop selling books (so antiquated!) exhibiting hand-painted signs produced by another independently-owned, brick-and-mortar small business, and the printed/painted letters they love.
Rockin’ Paper, Swingin’ Scissors at Rowan Morrison Gallery, Oakland, CA
Sort of in the same vein of totally adorable/collectible is Ryohei Tanaka’s show of papercuts at Rowan Morrison Gallery through April 3. Ryohei’s based in Tokyo now; I went to CCA with him in the late 1990s. Back then, he was a total drawing maniac, whose work was characterized by density and a cuteness that was simultaneously attractive and appalling. Now, his explosive prolificness has resulted in figures, monsters and robots in cheery colors and a traditional Asian folk art/paper craft. Small cuts start under $100; if that sinks your battleship you can walk away, as I did, with a navy screenprint of assorted figures on a white cotton rectangle (I think it’s a Japanese work scarf or tea towel) for $8.
The website for Scott Oliver’s Lake Merritt project is up!
COMING SOON, to New York:
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.
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” (NYTimes.com, 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.
Constellations at work:
my interest in the end of the American Century
my absurd two New York-centric magazine subscriptions
has led me to
“The Dystopians: Bad times are boom times for some” by Ben McGrath in this week’s New Yorker Magazine. The article profiles Dmitry Orlav (blog), author of “Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects” (2008).
Orlav writes about Peak Oil…
…(an obsession for studio neighbor Eric Hongisto)…
…survival strategies, which is strong in the post-Katrina, pre-major recession air. By way of spousal osmosis, I’ve been watching instructional videos by survival experts like Bear Grylls, Les Stroud, Ray Mears, even southern bro NuttinFancy on YouTube. These guys have either military or camping backgrounds (something about manhood and father-son relationships, in addition to the man-nature relationship), yet for all their straightness I feel like there’s great potential for bridging political divides between these guys and progressive, ecologically-minded hippies. After a major economic collapse, people will need skills from both these domains: building a fire, waterproofing a shelter, starting a garden, consensus-building… I get why urban lefties love Octavia Butler, and I’m starting to see how they might eventually stock a cellar in Montana with rifles and MREs.
In complete contrast to such grim realism, there’s optimism-the-cultural-trend becoming optimism-the-marketing-trend. See New York Magazine’s “You Gotta Give them Hope,” the recent profile of the singer Antony Hegarty, who cites his tenets as “heavy sincere-ism, and aggro-sincerity, and non-cynicism.”
The accompanying photo is all big brown eyes, scraggly bangs and a single, decaying-but-vibrant shape like a butterfly wing. A reduced color spectrum pushes the photos’ blacks into purples, lending a psychedelic feel. It seems completely in line with the utopic nostalgia in contemporary art (which Jerry Saltz scathingly critiqued, in NY Mag too), which seems poised to infect the mainstream. (Inevitable. Like how Kanye West’ Heartless video is Superflat, like Kota Ezawa‘s work.)
I’m still trying to wrap my head around Pepsi’s naked co-option of Obama’s “day break” campaign logo, and even the typeface choices: with Gill Sans, Pepsi gets a similar look to the Obamaian Gotham by Hoefler & Frere-Jones. (Too bad Gotham’s gone mainstream, like Shepard Fairey’s schtick, and subjected to ubiquity and poor usages like shitty condo ads.) I find it distasteful that Pepsi is adopting the informal, corporations-are-your-friend voice, like IKEA’s upbeat cheer and Wamu’s “Woo hoo!” campaign. Ugh– shivers. Corporations are not our friends. Hello? Where’s Kurt Cobain when we need him?