The painting’s on the wall

Bricks and Murals is a group currently raising funds to have a series of murals executed in downtown Westerly/Pawcatuck, the twin towns that cross the border from Connecticut (Pawcatuck) to Rhode Island (Westerly). The two communities meld together at the state border, and often run events and more jointly. The mural project is to be executed by so-called “Walldogs,” a group of volunteer artists from around the world, who work together (for free, though the project leaders and their assistants will get a stipend while the work is ongoing) on mural projects celebrating local history. The fundraising is to pay for the necessary supplies and establish a fund to maintain the murals. There will be a festival with music and food vendors, etc., when the murals are executed, which is scheduled for September 13-17, 2017.

Now this is all well and good. These two towns – especially Westerly, which grows considerable (and grows a lot wealthier) when the summer residents arrive – should be able to reach their goal of $160,000. (Their FAQ is here.) Insofar as I applaud any attempt to bring public art to every town, this is commendable, but does it go far enough?

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Claes Oldeburg’s Clothespin is a well-known Philadelphia public sculpture.

Many cities have public art, from isolated examples to ongoing annual projects. I have blogged about New London, CT’s murals: Philadelphia has many public sculptures; Colorado Springs, CO, has an annual Art on the Streets festival, with new works and events. There are a lot of other examples. But many of these celebrate the whole spectrum of art, from classical sculpture to the latest in abstraction. Bricks and Murals is devoted to the past, and comes across as tame and unrevealing. The risk when only celebrating the past is it suggests that the present might not be so interesting. I am extremely doubtful of Bricks and Murals assertion that “…Bricks and Murals will serve as an economic driver – attracting people into Westerly-Pawcatuck to enjoy a year-round, town-wide living gallery…” It’s unlikely that an unchanging display of pleasant but unremarkable murals will generate much of anything. 

Should their fundraising efforts come up short, I hope the powers that be will aim even higher, and propose a series of murals that speak to the vibrancy of today’s town. Portraits of locals along the lines of some New London murals; social commentary, even a set of walls that are repainted in new designs every few years. Playing it safe produces are that is easily ignored, and what’s the point of that?

I like the way the Walldogs recruit local artists to work with the project leaders, though I wonder if the locals could design works more interesting than those proposed – you can watch this promotional video to see the designs. Small towns want small-town art, and there’s nothing wrong with that. For $160,000, though, every town should be sure it gets its money’s worth.

Note: as of today (June 19, 2017), they have raised about $70,000 toward their goal.

Within the context of too much context

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The facade of the Wadsworth Atheneum with Sam Durant’s “Like, Man, I’m Tired (of waiting)”, 2002

In May of 2002, I was at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, attending a talk on their latest Matrix exhibition. Matrix is the Atheneum’s ground-breaking program of small, focussed exhibits of contemporary art, often single-artist shows. In this case, the exhibition was a series of works by L.A. artist Sam Durant. (You can read the brochure for the show here.)

Durant was showing a series of backlit vinyl signs, including a large one mounted on the museum’s front facade. These signs were drawn from photographs of protest signs carried during marches in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The words had been carefully copied onto the colorful vinyl sheets, but without their original context, their meaning became obscure. Durant included drawings based on the original photos to show the lettering in its original – yet, as they were drawings of photos, not wholly original – contexts.

Among the people in attendance were an older couple with the unmistakable look of former hippies. Perhaps it was something about their hair, or the man’s resemblance in build and manner to Pete Seeger (though Pete was no hippie.). They walked around the gallery, their faces wrinkled with concern. It was clear they felt something was missing. They sought the connection to the past, to the struggle, and found it missing. That was Durant’s intention – the name of the show was “7 Signs: removed, cropped, enlarged and illuminated (plus index)” – but this couple had trouble accepting that. To them, these signs were inseparable from the reasons for which the originals were created. Durant’s works bothered them because they were protest signs without protest.

I was bothered for similar reasons. Stripped of their meaning, the ambiguity could read as humor or be applied to other issues, but it could just as easily be applied to nothing. The signs advertised nothing, protested nothing, until it became hard to warm to no meaning.

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“Scaffold” by Sam Durant. I got this photo off the internet; I believe it comes from Documenta 13, in Kassel, Germany, from 2012, in which it was shown.

The recent controversy, in which Durant’s sculpture, “Scaffold” was constructed at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, only to be met by complaints from Native American groups, was not hard to predict. “Scaffold” is a conglomeration of various gallows, joined together into a macabre installation that people were invited to climb up on and explore, like an Addams Family version of a jungle gym. “Scaffold” has been praised by some (here’s critic Blake Gopnik’s review of it when it was shown in Germany in 2012) but in Minneapolis it hit too close to home. Among the scaffolds Durant drew from to create the sculpture was the one used in an infamous 1862 hanging in which 38 Dakota Sioux men were executed. That execution took place an hour away from the Walker Art Center, in Mankato, Minnesota. The Walker’s Director, Olga Viso, Durant, and Dakota Sioux leaders met, and it was agreed that the sculpture would be dismantled and burned. (Update: burning is still under debate)

The Walker has a pretty good reputation both with the arts community and with Native Americans, but the controversy caught them by surprise. I guess they saw the context as something that had been removed and repurposed, just as the signs back in 2002 had been, and saw the work primarily as a sculpture with a variety of meanings. But when the original context is close to your heart – perhaps you marched in that protest; perhaps your ancestors were among the hanged – time holds tight to what is important. Like the controversy over Dana Shutz’s painting of Emmet Till in his coffin (I blogged about that here) it hit too close to home. Durant could redesign it: he gave the intellectual rights to the work to the Sioux, and has promised never to incorporate the Mankato hangings in any other work.  If he has sense, he’ll take a long time and a lot of thought before offering something like this again.

 

The problem with self-righteousness

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The untitled Jean-Michel Basquiat painting above, painted in 1982, sold for $110 million at Sotheby’s on May 18. This was a record-setting price for a Basquiat, and for any art made after 1980. The buyer was Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire who also holds the previous record for a Basquiat – $57.3 million.

Basquiat died in 1988, far too early into his career – he was only 27 years old. Being dead, I suspect he is little interested in how much his works sell for. In fact, most of the people I know who are artists or art critics are little interested in the news. Yes, it’s good to see an African-American artist commanding prices previously held by white men, but that’s looking at the issue from the wrong angle.

This is not a story about art, but about money and its familiar demon, greed. Scarcity raises the value of commodities, so it’s a good marketing strategy for an artist to die young. That sounds heartless, because it is. Markets are about money, not people, ideas, or history. Maezawa has said he intends to include the Basquiat in a museum he wants to build to house his collection. Single-collector museums are monuments to the market and the collector’s ego – Look! I could afford to buy all this, and build a museum to house it in!

It annoys me no end when the art press, which should be writing about art, spends time on a peripherally-related topic that is mostly bout money. Leave that to the business/financial writers and their audience. Art writers may feel justified to write about this as though they were not really motivated by the sale, but that’s a transparent argument.

Problem is, by voicing this complaint I’m as guilty as anyone else. I’m writing about this painting (not really, as I haven’t written a word about the piece itself) because it sold for so much.

I can’t address the issue without being part of it.

Crap.

Seeing the ordinary

“We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” Robert Walser, “A Little Ramble.” 1914. Translation by Tom Whalen. Included in Girlfriends, Ghosts, And Other Stories, New York Review Books, New York

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Wassily Kandinsky, Blue Segment, 1921. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

I’ve written about Robert Walser before (read it here). His writing, with its leisurely, yet finely observed, viewpoint, and his eccentric discursiveness, fascinates me. The above quote, included in a new collection of Walser’s short pieces, got me thinking. Good thing, too – I have a blog to maintain.

I chose the Kandinsky above as a good example of what Walser is writing about, although I think he would disagree with me. So many of Walser’s pieces are about moments, seemingly unimportant ones that are elevated by his close perceptions and deep feelings. If his writing is any indication, he lived a life of intense emotional awareness, a rare privilege. At first you might think Kandinsky an odd choice to go with such a quote. I could have used a Pollock or Joan Mitchell, or any of a thousand others. They are not at odds with Walser at all.

The key here is the word “ordinary.” What does that mean? Kandinsky struggled with letting go of representation – one of the reasons he is so valuable to art history. You can see the progression as his work breaks free. But in doing so he freed the component elements of nature – line, color, contrast – and allowed them freer play. No longer was the artists limited by the shapes and colors of pre-existing objects. (This didn’t begin with Kandinsky, obviously.) You could interpret Walser’s statement to refer to ordinary objects, but what could be more ordinary than the colors and shapes and contrasts that make up our perception of these objects? For the painter, that is the palette, the repertoire that makes up the ordinary.

To Walser, I would say that “[w]e don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary” is, for artists, an impossibility. We see the ordinary as extraordinary, just as you did. The components of the world are extraordinary enough, even when we do not make them into mundane objects – if there are such things.

Drawing Day 2017

If you’ve been on social media today (May 16, 2017) you might have seen people posting drawings with the hashtag DrawingDay. It seems that we are required to have a day for everything, but in this case I’ll curb my cynicism because I love drawing. I’m not much good at it myself, but I can revel in the works of others.

We are tactile creatures. Despite the importance of conceptual art, which minimizes the individual artist’s technical skill, and the rise of computer-generated imagery, I cannot believe that drawing will ever lose its central place in art-making.

We try to capture the world in many ways, always cognizant that it slips past us in the bittersweet flow of time. Drawing allows us to capture impressions of the world in ways no other technique can. Artist and subject collaborate with medium(s); there is an argument to be made that drawing captures this collaboration even more than painting, but this is a post about drawing. I’ll elaborate on the argument some other time.

Van Gogh drew with paint as well as with pencil or pen. His painting style is a direct descendant of his drawing style. Nothing looks quite like a van Gogh, and as a result we enter a world no one else saw:

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Kathe Kollwitz tackles the classic self-portrait with precision and energy. Her arm appears to embody creative action. Outside of the photograph, only drawing is capable of this much immediacy:

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Kathe Kollwitz, Self-Portrait, 1933. Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Drawings not only illustrate stories, they become the medium through which the stories are told, as in the comic strip. (Below, the first episode of Lyonel Feininger‘s The Kin-der-Kids, May 6, 1906)

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Drawing continues to be our introduction to art, in children’s crayons and colored pencils, and even in computer drawing programs. It doesn’t matter if you have little talent; drawing trains your eye to see everything as art. And when you see the world that way, you become more aware of the beauty and fragility of the world, and your respect and love for all creation deepens. Don’t take just one day to celebrate drawing. Do it all the time.

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Vija Celmins, Big Sea II, 1969

Nominees, please

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

I was tickled by the news that sculptor and installation artist Cornelia Parker has been chosen as the official artist of the 2017 election in the UK. It’s a bold choice, even bolder from the American view, as Parker is an artist whose work often carries a political charge. The Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, whose Parliamentary duties include selecting the official election artist, made a good choice. The Committee has been selecting artists for this purpose since 2001. Parker will watch the election closely, and produce a work that will enter Parliament’s collection.

I’m a fan of Parker’s work; her Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson), from 1999, had a big impact on me when I first saw it at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Debris from a burned-out building, hanging suspended in space, continues to evoke thoughts of loss and violent transformation. Here it is below:

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Cornelia Parker, Hanging Fire (Suspected Arson), 1999. Charcoal, wire, pins, and nails. Gift of Barbara Lee, The Barbara Lee Collection of Art by Women. Photo by Charles Mayer Photography. © Cornelia Parker

Parker will document her progress on the Instagram account Electionartist2017.

I can’t help but wonder what sort of artist a committee of American Senators or Representatives would have chosen for last year’s election. There are art collections connected with each branch of Congress – the Senate and the House – but never have they chosen to allow one artist to, in effect, speak for them. Considering the intermittent culture wars – fanned, if not started, by politicians – and the current assaults upon the National Endowment for the Arts, it seems unlikely such an position would be created, let alone filled. But who would it be? How daring (not a word normally associated with Congress) would they get?

There are plenty of unofficial election artists. Do we even need an official one? While debating that, think about whom you would choose. Be bold, because you know Congress wouldn’t be.

The Whitney Biennial 2017 catalog reviewed

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I had thought of reviewing the 2017 Whitney Biennial catalog in context with other recent examples, as though they had some linking material, but that turned out to be a frustrating and unrevealing task. The Biennial catalog is not like a scholarly journal; its findings are matters of opinion and can seem arbitrary, not to mention the function of a catalog to support the show. Bias is only natural. Besides, the ever-changing curatorships make each Biennial catalog the first issue of a one-off publication, rather than a true series. There are general similarities, but the changing nuances of each Biennial’s theme would only make comparisons harder.

I can, however, judge each contributor on their writing skills and the overall aspect of the catalog as a component of the show. Each Biennial catalog has a plethora of gamuts to run (in case you wondered what a group of gamuts was called), because the rules of good writing and the unwritten rules of art-speak are often at odds. I myself am biased, in that my favorite living writer, Rebecca Solnit, wrote an essay for the 2008 Biennial catalog, and I am still waiting for another writer to reach her standard. Ah well.

On the whole I am not fond of the interview format, but in this case it worked well, as curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks discussed the show with Scott Rothkopf, Deputy Director at the Whitney and head of the Biennial’s group of curatorial advisors. Their conversation was informative and informal, giving us a chance to peek into the workings of such a show. (Did you know that this is the first Biennial in which every artist received some sort of compensation for participating? I didn’t. It’s welcome news, and a precedent I hope is repeated.) The interview also made a welcome opening to the book, a way to ease into it. The Director’s introduction and acknowledgements are the real first parts of the book, but as they are required gestures, we know the game doesn’t start until they finish – the ceremonial first pitch of the catalog.

The essays by Lew and Locks do what curatorial essays are supposed to do: introduce the audience to the artists and placing them within the show’s contexts without going into detail. Both curators write reasonably well, with only occasional bits of jargon. My eyebrows did rise in reaction to Lew’s referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson as “Our New World Polonius.” He seems to mean that as a compliment, which might be the nicest thing anyone has said about Polonius in a while. Not sure Emerson would feel complimented, though.

Gean Moreno, a Biennial advisor and curator of Programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, Florida, has the next essay, and comes dangerously close to derailing the book. He knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm is infectious, but it nearly carries him (and us) away on Brobdignagian sentences that are roller-coaster rides of clauses and often unsupported concepts. An example, from page 46: “We form constituencies that, while savvy in the calculus of social-status distribution, are delinquent in their duty to establish paths of disorganizing retreat from a dead center, and deaf to the simpler task of galvanizing disgust so as to endow it with operational capacity, even if only as a battering ram in lieu of being a line of reorientation.”
The catalog is important as the only surviving official record of the Biennial, save for press releases and related videos, which naturally only capture elements of the whole. But exhibitions like this are by nature complicated and time-consuming, and there is the risk of reaching publication date before all the necessary information is complete. Even contemporary history has its lacunae, I guess.

For example: Tala Madani’s animated video “Sex Ed by God” is not mentioned in the catalog, neither in the artist’s bio nor in the checklist at the back. It must have been a late addition to the show, but its absence is doubly frustrating as it was the only one of her works I found interesting. And I was not alone; when I visited, people walked by without giving Madani’s paintings a second glance, while the video had a small crowd around it. (Understandable, as her paintings were weak and drably executed, while the video was odd and amusing.)

The artist’s entries, written by a team of 16 writers, do their job efficiently. Each artist gets a page, which is to say a column, due to the page layout. The photographs, of work from the show where possible, or other notable work, are perfectly adequate. It’s now on the shelf with its antecedents, and a pretty row of books they make, too. If you go to the Biennial (which runs until June 11) I recommend the catalog. If you don’t see it, the book will have limited appeal, but it will remain important as the one work that carries the show in context.

You can buy the catalog from the museum here.