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, Community, Travelogue

Late Summer, Cross-Country Points of Reference

I’ve just crossed the country from San Francisco to New York by car. That’s three thousand, eight hundred miles in 14 days: camping, sightseeing, a few gallery visits and more than a few BBQ meals. The experience increased my appreciation for friendliness, waving at strangers, America, the grandeur of the West, the rich musical history of Tennessee, the quaint main streets of the lush Eastern seaboard—and most of all, the astounding diversity. I love that so many people can epitomize being American, while freely espousing indigenous, foreign, and home-spun cultures without a sense of paradox. From West to East, a few of my strongest visual impressions:

Dockside with Friends
Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA

A gathering of friends on a beautiful July evening at sunset. Celebrating friendships and the blessed life I’ve enjoyed since moving to Oakland in 1994.

landscape with road, arizona
The West
I’m California-born and raised, but I haven’t really seen the “West until now. It’s stunning. My fears that the world is crisscrossed with interstates and civilized with Walmarts are not completely warranted. The drive from Las Vegas, N.V. to Santa Fe, N.M. showed me that much of the West is still wild; the dramatic red bluffs are nothing short of breathtaking. I snapped some pics, but they fall terribly short; you have to be there to experience sense of scale and grandeur.

Santa Fe paper mache
Santa Fe, New Mexico, America
M and I played tourist in Santa Fe, seeing sites in the historic downtown (and crashing a church festival for some G.O.A.T. carne asada tacos). Santa Fe is gorgeous, scenic, historic, and bursting with culture. Tons of visual art, Native American art (so many images from art history classes come to life: black-on-black pots by Maria Martinez, squash blossom turquoise-and-silver-necklaces), Spanish colonial architecture, and fun stuff like Native American papercuts, paper machê crafts, and—yes, ya’ll—Southwestern regional woodcut artists (and why not?). Our brief visit was far too short; I was struck with the feeling that I could easily spend more time there. So I’m putting it out there, Universe: Have Me Back To Santa Fe.

The Dissolve: SITE Santa Fe’s 2010 biennial
Santa Fe, NM

A strong show of videos made and manipulated by 30 contemporary international artists, including biennial-circuit usual suspects (Kara Walker, Paul Chan, William Kentridge) and more. Thomas Demand’s video of raindrops hitting a glossy concrete floor is another impressive feat of stop-motion paper animation, very sweet in its mundanity. Robin Rhode’s short video in black and white, largely about inversions, race and light, is another favorite of mine. I just didn’t have time to see the whole show (which would have taken days), but many of my impressions were influenced by the forceful exhibition design, for better and worse. The first room successfully featured scrims dividing roughly equal-sized screening rooms.* But the exhibition design of later rooms overpowered the ther works. The light and audio seepage in the cyclorama-like oval were missteps, as was the integration of solo viewing booths into a bench in theater with one dominant screen. The experience was unpleasantly akin to screen-in-screen browsing; I could focus on neither screen in front of me. I think this kind of overwhelming media experience is fine for solo shows, but in a group show, it shafts the artists who’ve drawn short straws. It’s a strong curatorial statement to feature 30 videos, and it would be a challenge to any institution, but you have to wonder what the architects were thinking. SITE Santa Fe had some flaws but it was energetic, now, and smart.

Who Shot Rock & Roll?: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present
Brooks Museum, Memphis, TN
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum with guest curator Gail Buckland

Who Shot Rock & Roll is a large, highly enjoyable exhibition of photographs of rock and pop musicians from the last half-century. The celebrity, glamor, pop culture, and sensationalism appeals. Those who dig deeper will find insightful captions about the technique, ingenuity and chance that went into the making of the famous photographs. Having spent my fair share of adolescence studying trippy album covers, I also appreciated the didactic texts and displays about the surreal, pre-Photoshop images by artist-designer Storm Thorgersen and Jean-Paul Goude (of superhuman Grace Jones, natch).

Hatch Show Print

Photo: Michael Yap

Hatch Show Print
Broadway, Nashville, TN

In our improvised gander at Nashville, we stumbled into a beautiful, huge, working letterpress shop and storefront. Downtown Nashville is anchored by a shiny new country music museum, the usual Hard Rock Cafe and BB King blues club, so I wasn’t expecting to see such historic, indie culture. But there it was on touristy Broadway, with its fittingly nostalgic relief prints, cheeky and upbeat typography, and endearingly worn sign type. While we were browsing the wares, I overheard the proprietor mentioning CCA and the SF Center for the Book!

Roanoke, VA
That the two most interesting contemporary art exhibits on my eastern migration (the SITE Santa Fe biennial and Rock & Roll) were curated by New York curators/institutions was not a good sign for the idea of a de-centralized contemporary art world. So it was a pleasant surprise to come across SF Bay Area artists Binh Danh and Primitivo Suarez in, of all places, Roanoke, VA. Danh (whose solo show opens at Mills College Art Museum August 21) mentioned that he was doing a residency, but I forgot until I saw his artist’s talk advertised in the local paper. Suarez has a large installation on view at the Taubman Museum of Art, a swooping steel-and-glass trifle that contrasts sharply with the colonial railroad town.

roadside America
roadside America
Roadside America
Shartlesville, PA

Perhaps M was right—this is a tourist trap. Or maybe I’m right—a miniature village hand-crafted by two brothers at mid-century, which sprawls over several thousand square feet, loaded with electric trains, lights, fountains and a waterfall is art. Or at least it is artistic production worth a visit, because it says something about tinkerers, hobbyists, miniature culture, maker culture, and the urge to create and reflect the world you see. In either case it is odd and wonderfully preserved, though you get the sense that it is anachronistic enough that its future is in jeopardy, and you feel lucky to have seen it.

Brushy Lake State Park, Oklahoma

National Forests and State Parks
Despite serious weather (lots of thunderstorms, and threats of flash floods, hail, tornadoes and severe heat), our car-camping trip was safe, fun, and scenic. Here’s a brief round-up of our stays made possible by the U. S. of A.’s government-run, social programs:
·Coconino National Forest, A.Z.: Friendly park hosts, beautiful pine grove at elevation that brought the oven-like southwestern heat to nice cool temps. Absolutely pristine and sparsely populated in a way that you’d never see in California.
·Ute Lake State Park, N.M.: Your basic horseshoe campground in a great plain. Curious and friendly park hosts and RV campers. Apparently we visited during monsoon season; hot, humid, windy.
·Foss Lake State Park, western O.K., and Brushy Lake State Park, eastern O.K. Oklahoman reservoirs tricked out for RV camping and water sports, a study in contrasts. The former filled with empties-throwing, nappies-leaving, jet-skiing yahoos and not a ranger in sight; the latter, alcohol prohibited, but quiet, scenic, clean and staffed by a generous host.
·Edgar Evins State Park, T.N.: A unique campground situated on a steep hillside. Sites were wood-plank and I-beam pads jutting out from the road. The reservoir was clean and calm, great for swimming. Fireflies abounded.
·Hungry Mother State Park, V.A.: Hands down the best park: natural lake with diving boards, lots of swimming, lots to explore, cute discovery center. The only downside was that the sites were too close together, but the neighbors in our RV subdivision were nice enough.
·Fort Frederick, M.D. Self-pay, no water, no bathrooms, lots of rules, and a train passing nearby. The fort itself had a neat history (at one time owned by a formed slave) but the campsites weren’t nothing special.

A pleasant greeting
Queens, NY

My new neighbors shouting from the patios of their tidy brick townhouses:
“Welcome to Astoria!”

[*In a previous version I got my German filmmakers with the initials L.R. mixed up, committing a cardinal sin of be-smirching an innocent leftist with Nazi support. It was a mistake. Apologies.]