Post-Minimalism for All

In yesterday’s New York Times, Roberta Smith champions painting, and states a formal history of–and argument against–the idea that painting is dead (“It’s Not Dry Yet,” March 26, 2010).

This is a positive follow up to her negative opinion, “Post-Minimal to the Max,” (, February 2, 2010), in which Smith takes aim at the current slate of exhibitions at NYC’s major museums. Exhibitions of the work of Gabriel Orozco, Roni Horn, Urs Fischer, and Tino Seghal

…share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand.

…Instead [of individuation and difference] we’re getting example after example of squeaky-clean, well-made, intellectually decorous takes on that unruly early ’70s mix of Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism. Either that or we’re getting exhibitions of the movement’s most revered founding fathers: since 2005, for example, the Whitney has mounted exhibitions of Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner, Gordon Matta-Clark and Dan Graham. I liked these shows, but that’s not the point. We cannot live by the de-materialization — or the slick re-materialization — of the art object alone.

Smith put it rather bluntly (I don’t think we could live by expressionistic painting alone, either), and I relate to feeling bored by monotony in exhibitions. At the same time, however, I take issue with her points, and my reaction is grounded in my identities and environment.

First, if the post-Minimal programming of New York’s art institutions sync up, who cares? In the end you still got to see the Tino Seghal show at the Guggenheim, and the Urs Fischer show at the New Museum. The phrase “embarrassment of riches” comes to mind.

Second, this is a generational and coastal difference, but I never really perceived any serious threat to painting. San Francisco’s unique history in conceptual and performance art is known amongst specialists, but many more know about Barry McGee, and the San Francisco Mission School of painting that he helped to popularize. I found the arguments against the death of painting fatiguing in my studies–along the same lines as eye-rollers like “So what is art?”–so I find it perplexing that Smith would take up arms for painting now.

To state the obvious, painting’s not going anywhere. The Everyman still considers “painting” and “art” synonymous, to the exasperation of non-painters everywhere. Most art museums house room after room of paintings. Most art stores feature a prominent aisle of paints and brushes. Ask people to draw the idea “art” and I guarantee that three of the top 10 responses you get will be: a palette with paints (you know, the round one with a hole for your thumb), gilt picture frame and canvas on an easel. Extending “pictorial history” is just not my priority, nor should it necessarily be curators’.

Third, I’m reminded of something the artist Paul Chan enigmatically said in his SFAI lecture, about “those who’ve been left behind by Modernism” — subcultures who are developing their own Modernisms, not to speak of tackling Post-Modernism (or Post-Minimalism, for that matter). I think that if thousands of tourists and students get to see the retrospectives by Roni Horn (the only female artist on Smith’s lists) or Gabriel Orozco (the only artist of color and person from the Global South; not splitting hairs about Gordon Matta-Clark, OK?), good for all of them.

Smithson, Matta-Clark, Graham and Weiner form like a board of directors of Post-Minimalism, and though I’d wonder what makes a Weiner show urgent or necessary, I’d guess that scores of art students and artists are grateful for the chances to see Smithson’s, Matta-Clark’s and Graham’s work in person, a small ameliorative for the feeling of being born too late to see Earth works and site-specific interventions of the 1960s and 70s. Smithson and Graham are significant influences for young contemporary artists, especially when you look at the resurgence of cheeky Romanticism in the curatorial work of Lawrence Rinder, the earthy Transcendentalism of shows like Alchemy at Southern Exposure and the emphasis on viewers in social/relational art.

Art & Development, Community

first set of referents for 2010

Lacey Jane Roberts, Building it Up to Tear it Down, Southern Exposure
Lacey Jane Roberts, Building it Up to Tear it Down, Southern Exposure

Now through February 20, see three solo shows by Genevive Quick, Lacey Jane Roberts and Andy Vogt at Southern Exposure. Quick‘s optical devices constructed from paper and foamcore are phenomenal, pretty, and pretty phenomenal. I’m also looking forward to Mike Lai‘s one-night only performance on February 26. I honestly can’t remember being this excited for Chinese New Year because of art. Lion Dancers, a dance battle, giant fists! If there’s a new year’s cake (buttery mochi baked to a golden brown), I’m gonna freak out.

There’s a Mystery There: Sendak on Sendak is on at the Contemporary Jewish Museum closes January 19. Unfortunately, I went on a weekend and could hardly see a thing. Sendak’s empathy towards children’s emotions and vulnerability, and his fantastic line, color and typography have always been dear to me. It’s a treat to see original drawings on tracing paper, quick dummy mock-ups of books, and photo-ready art — acetate line work over watercolor on paper. Overall, though, Sendak is a hugely prolific artist, and I would have liked to see much more space allotted to the exhibition, some attention to his lettering, and proper screening rooms for the videos. Three videos are online, but many more interviews with Sendak are only viewable on monitors in the gallery with single headsets.

A lot of arts presenters are creating quality interactive content, but very little of it seems to escape the gallery walls. The Tate Channel and partners working with are wonderful exceptions. Quality videos featuring artist’s projects and interviews are great resources for art students, and they help the public appreciate contemporary art.

The 75th anniversary exhibition at SFMOMA had a lot of “greatest hits.” Having visited the collection galleries before, I was familiar with many of the works on display. There were some nice surprises: a selection of very elegant modern typewriters and their wonderfully designed poster advertisements, a television show produced by the SFMOMA to help their early audiences appreciate modern art, photographs by Will Rogan documenting “public sculptures” such as a Sainsbury’s bag stuck in a fence, and the gallery on Bay Area Figuration — one of the few places you can see several of David Park’s drippy, barely figurative paintings.

Another pleasant surprise was Jennifer Sonderby’s gorgeous exhibition signage: neat columns of matte black vinyl text, set off from the gallery walls with subtle fields of Tuftesque flat cream. I often wonder why proven conventions in print design (such as columns no wider than 60 characters) are disregarded in exhibition signage. I’m starting to believe that anything less than great visual design in modern or contemporary museums is inexcusable. There’s just too much design talent and typographic sensitivity among mass audiences for graphic design to be compromised.

A less pleasant surprise was the decision to organize a few rooms to honor specific early donors. I get that many museums were founded by philanthropists whose embrace of modern art should be acknowledged, still, when I consider the 20th century, I can’t ignore that wealth and power was often consolidated with the aid of discriminatory gestalts. Art exhibitions are ideological. It may not always be explicit, but curating rooms to honor donors sure makes it apparent.

To date, only the second floor galleries were open. An exhibition of photographs is forthcoming. I’m looking forward to visiting prints by Larry Sultan.

I also had the chance to visit the ICA Boston recently. The building was stunning, so much so that the art inside sometimes paled in comparison.

Damián Ortega: Do It Yourself is a great overview of conceptual strategies: improvisational sculptures made of everyday materials, serializing and re-ordering mural-painted bricks to create chance compositions, photographic taxonomies of building materials, formal examinations of cubes. His installation of an exploded view of a VW Beetle did not disappoint. I was surprised by the striking experience of perception in three dimensions. I also adored an installation of nine looped 16-mm film projections of domino-effect bricks in various wild and semi-inhabited landscapes. But the show also illustrated the risk of making work that doesn’t seek to please: sometimes the sum is underwhelming.

ICA Collection: In the Making confounded me: I thought ICAs are ICAs because they are not museums/collecting institutions. It was also hit-or-miss: I thought a small-sized gallery neutered works by Cornelia Parker and Roni Horn, but the show redeemed itself with transcendent, ethereal installations by Tara Donovan.

I wanted to like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s …Out of Here: The Veteran’s Project, because it’s so rare for contemporary artists to address current political issues. But the installation, which simulated the experience of being in an Iraqi neighborhood that falls into a chaotic combat zone, was loud, cinematic, and manipulative. If its goal was to make me feel vulnerable, it succeeded. But the fact is, I wasn’t actually there; I was in a gallery on the Boston waterfront getting shaken up by digital animations, voice actors reading a script, and sound effect artists having a field day. It was heavy handed, and yet, no more meaningful or revelatory than a video game.

But R.H. Quaytman‘s thoughtful, cheeky exhibition of paintings blurred the lines between painting, printmaking, sculpture and installation. They called into question the narrative inherent in exhibition-making, modernist tropes, museum storage and display, optical effects, and surface treatments and materials. It might have been neurotic painting-about-painting, yet it resulted in a curious, thought-provoking experience that I didn’t wholly understand, but enjoyed nonetheless. Ironically (or perhaps predictably?) Quaytman’s exhibition is part of a series featuring emerging artists. The show gave me hope that there’s still more to explore in contemporary art.

The Survival Annex, shop within shoppe
At the Curiosity Shoppe, 855 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Grand opening just past, not sure how long exhibition/shop is on.

Front + Center: Weather Streams
Headlands Center for the Arts, Marin Headlands
Opening Sunday, January 17, 2-5pm
Thru Feb. 28

Ellen Harvey: The Room of Sublime Wallpaper (II)
Art Production Fund LAB
Wooster Street, NYC
Jan. 16 – Feb 20, 2010
Reception: Jan. 16, 5-7pm

Super Diversity – Who Participates Now?
Discussion on the phemomenon of ‘super diversity’ in the visual arts
INIVA, Rivington Place, London
Feb. 2, 2010, 6:30pm

Art & Development, Community, Travelogue

thameside art highlights

Shadows and lights on the Queen's Walk, Thameside, London. Sorry, none of the exhibitions allowed photography. What you see is what you get.

Shadows and lights on the Queen's Walk, Thameside, London. Sorry, none of the exhibitions allowed photography. What you see is what you get.

Some highlights from my recent trip to visit museums in London. It seems like there’s never enough time in London, but I hope to make it back for galleries and more fun.

Annette Messenger
Mark Wallinger Curates The Russian Linesman
Hayward Gallery

Messenger is amazing. The exhibition makes evident how she was influential in the development of installation art. The work highly symbolic and theatrical — “a dreamscene tableaux,” as Claire Bishop might describe it — so it’s not exactly my favorite type of installation art, but I was profoundly moved nonetheless. In particular, I really liked “Articulated/Disarticulated,” (see a photo on Urban Landfill blog) a recent, room-sized installation where stuffed human and animal forms were mechanically tortured. It really captured the essence of her dichotomies — both comical and horrifying, humorous and tragic, magical and corporeal. “Casino” is a giant installation — the most phenomenological of the works on view, I think — and it’s stunning.

Wallinger curated a show that probed perception and thresholds. Artifacts are mixed in with contemporary and historical works. It’s a really perceptive show. Fred Sandback’s space delimitations looked fantastic. I knew that the rectangular outline was comprised purely of black string, not glass or some other solid surface, but I tried to bring myself to interrupt the immaterial plane and I couldn’t. Good stuff.

Wallinger’s also got some of his own work, mixed in with a series of 3-D viewfinders of historical photos. They set a high expectation for excellence for the show, and it doesn’t disappoint.

Roni Horn
Rodchenko & Popova
Tate Modern

Horn’s work is highly idiosyncratic. I’m still mulling it over — especially the strange groupings of photographs, including the signature weather/model image — but two things immediately stuck. First, of course, I enjoyed “The Opposite of White” dyad — giant, solid cast glass sculptures in transparent glass and opaque black. Two irreconcilable, but true facts: white reflects light, hence its opposite is transparency; or is its opposite that which absorbs light (black)? Second, you have to see Horn’s hermetic, strange drawings. Reproduction doesn’t do them justice. They’re extreme — a pattern is loose and gestural, pencil marks diagrammatic, and cuts and inlays mechanically precise. They’re astounding, quiet feats, really.

Rodchenko & Popova is a major survey of the dynamic output of two pre-Stalinist artists. Paintings, graphic works (pleasingly tight in pen, weirdly wonky in color crayon, of all things), letterpress publications, films, textile design, furniture, posters, 3-D constructions, photographs and did I mention motion graphics?—means that there is loads to look at and appreciate. I really ‘get’ the Constructions in Constructivism now, and formally appreciate the simple compositions of repeated lines and circles. Most of all, I came away with the sense of avant garde fearlessness, as the couple was unafraid to make clean breaks from previous art styles, even their own. They formulated many new platforms and embraced integration and service to the public.

Tate Britain

Nicolas Bourriaud curated this triennial of mostly British artists. Bourriaud has coined “Altermodern” to describe an in-progress theory about the globalized, interconnected epoch to follow Postmodernism. He casts the artist as “homo viator, a traveller whose passage through signs and formats reflect a contemporary experience of mobility.” When I turned my gaze from the Tate Britain’s impressive pediment towards the Thames (where it’s easy to recognize the seat of imperial power), I wondered how fully a British art institution could embrace a new, multi-polar, Zakarian world. My skepticism was corroborated, when, in Global Modernities, the coinciding symposium, Walter Mignolo labelled the theory “a Eurocentric critique of Eurocentrism.”

I think altermodern an interesting term, and it may be useful for categorizing some existing themes in art — transitional sites (e.g., Walead Beshty’s FedEx boxes, “transit-specific works” as Galleon Trade colleague Eric Estuar Reyes would put it, see video at the Whitney 2008 Biennial site) and liminal states (Spartacus Chetwynd’s beanbag installation with psychedelic performative video, or Gustav Metzger’s crystal light show — I shit you not). The triennial is sort of, well, triennial-y: giant, well-executed spectacular installations, some big names, and limited thematic connections. Here’s what stood out:

Franz Ackermann posits what seems to be a critique of immigration and national identity. (Pics on ArtNet.)

Darren Almond delivers surprising, stunning photographs as usual.

Peter Coffin‘s staged projection- and installation-based museum exhibition, where photos and videos are projected on works from museum collections, e.g., bees on a painting by Joseph Albers. A virulent strain of MJT uncanny.

Navin Rawanchaikul‘s hand-painted Indian-style movie billboard is a riot; the accompanying documentary video of interviews of Indians who’ve relocated to Thailand seems pedestrian and conventional by comparison.

Bob and Roberta Smith create a “junk space” (as identified by Irit Rogoff, the consequences of global modernity) littered with disused stuff and the characteristically ironically upbeat-but-sad-sack enamel signs. One, “I wish I could have voted for Barack Obama,” (pic on ArtNet) is paired with a colorful plastic tricycle, highlighting the wishful thoughts of Britons. Smith pointed out that the exhibition is meant to be interrogative, but I think it’s pretty cool to have an explicitly didactic space within it via his signs. Extra points to Mr. Smith for avoiding the common UK mispronunciation of Barack (“BER-rick,” as opposed to “Buh-RAWK).

Simon Starling illustrates his brilliant reduction of forms with a series of desks commissioned by emailing low-resolution photographs to furniture makers. There’s more to it, of course, having to do with Francis Bacon and others, but the gesture is pure poetry.

Tate-to-Tate ferry
Brilliant, easy, scenic, affordable. You know, art institutions usually have short hours, so minimized travel during open hours is appreciated. Also, “Tate-to-Tate” is a nice sounding phrase, like a mirror, and also reminds me of the 1980s TV show, “Hart to Hart.”

Reconnecting with Mediha

This quote.
As an existentialist, I tend to agonize about my art/legacy/life becoming fodder for “the dustbin of history,” so it was surprising to hear the ever-optimistic M.D. say: “The great thing about history is that things disappear” in regards to the dominating influence of Conceptualism and Minimalism in contemporary art today.