Friday, October 28, 2011

Humans are the new medium

If you live in Los Angeles and write about art, it's likely that all-things-Pacific Standard Time are leaving your fingertips. And no, I don't mean the time zone, but the title of an initiative spanning Southern California that aims to explore the L.A. art scene from 1945-1980.

A recent PST foray brought me to the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica, a sort of mini art colony that has workspaces, studios and an exhibition gallery. Their current show, "Collaboration Labs: Southern California Artists and the Artist Space Movement," is thought-provoking and immersive with its video installations and vintage photographs. The exhibit ventures to explore just what the title implies: artist-run spaces, specifically as an alternative to the gallery space, in the 1970s. In a decade rife with instability, such collaborations reflected not only political and social concerns, but also a desire to cooperate and collectivize.

One of the period's seminal artists, Barbara Smith, caught my eye. Born in Pasadena, CA and known for her performance art, Smith stole my heart with her 1972 work "Nude Frieze." Captured in a series of black and white photographs, the performance involved suspending naked people to a wall with nothing but duct-tape. (Since the photos are pretty explicit, click here to see an example; to whet your appetites, I included a PG-13 image above.) A highly orchestrated affair, Smith served as a sort of "conductor," directing people through a microphone to tape her nude subjects to a wall. After remaining suspended for a given period, the nudes broke free. The end result? A wall of flaccid tape revealing some suggestion of the bodies it once adhered--a sort of relic of the performance.

Smith's work is rife with allusions, from the Crucifixion to the sculptural friezes of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Here Smith is the sculptor, modeling her "material" for the purpose of enacting a vision. Her vision involves a form of sacrifice, albeit a cooperative one, where the subjects have consented to be painfully adhered to a wall. Unless you're into S&M, I have a hard time finding physical joy in this experience...

The impact of Smith's work can undoubtedly stand alone, but I can't help thinking about a
similar piece made a decade earlier. Yves Klein, a sort of conceptual artist from France, launched a series called "Anthropometries" in the 1960s. Under his supervision, a tuxedo-clad Klein directed nude women to cover themselves in paint and impress their bodies atop a large canvas. The entire performance was accompanied by a live classical orchestra and audience; one can only imagine the spectacle. Ultimately, the sole remnant of this event was the imprint of women's bodies on a canvas, similar to the wall of tape from Smith's "Nude Frieze."

It's hard to deny that Smith was engaging in a dialogue with Klein. There are, of course, differences, but the general theme of supervising a human "medium" is hard to ignore. Whether Klein's work is collaborative is questionable, but he did not forcefully compel his subjects to participate--they were consciously and willfully involved in the process, even if to ultimately follow the artist's directions. However, the gender element is ridden with controversy, a tone that isn't as potent in Barbara Smith's work. By re-enacting the tradition of the empowered male artist and quite female muse, Klein is clearly playing with gender roles. It's comically ambiguous, though, since we can't identify whether he is critiquing this dynamic or celebrating it.

If you want to fully experience the glory of Barbara Smith and some of her collaborators, the 18th Street Arts Center is worth paying a visit indeed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An art-rospective journey

Some things beg to be interpreted as phallic. The Washington Monument, lipstick, water bottles...they all elicit a semblance of this shape. In fact, an industrial designer friend tells me it is more difficult to avoid than you'd think.

A sculpture that I recently saw at the University of Alabama solidified her comment. Assembled by artist Craig Wedderspoon in 2010, the work is a construction of aluminum squares mimicking a textile pattern. While the components align with its title, "Argyle," the shape they form is another story. Twisting and undulating from the bottom up, this dynamic sculpture, well...looks like a penis. (I don't think I need to enumerate on the details--see right.)

Then again, maybe I'm jumping to conclusions; there is more than one way to look at art. I sat and stared at the sculpture for a while, legitimately trying to get my head out of the gutter. The best interpretation I could muster up was a gourd. Pitiful. After muttering some self-deprecating thoughts, I conceded to my initial impression. I got tired of trying to see beyond the phallus.

Now having reconciled with this undeniably suggestive sculpture, I ventured to experience it from other angles. Located at the intersection of a thoroughfare, I found that people had to interact with it in some capacity. I noticed a couple folks graze against it out of sheer laziness; one passerby brushed his hand across the sculpture--a friendly gesture of acknowledgment. I took great pleasure in watching people engage with the artwork, and wondered if the feeling was mutual. I did have quite the begrudging expression for a while.

From a theoretical perspective, I considered Wedderspoon's work as an intersection of gendered associations: the penis (a pretty obvious one) and the craft of knitting. Indeed there is a Michigan-based artist, Mark Newport, who emulates this concept with his hand-knit, adult-sized super hero costumes. His works represent the convergence of a traditionally feminine craft and a largely masculine domain. Perhaps Wedderspoon had something similar in mind.

My brief research on "Argyle" led me to a recent article on the proliferation of phallic symbols on campus. It turns out everyone else's mind is in the gutter. Some of these like-minded folks, however, are calling for their removal. Says one professor of "Argyle": “I’m just tired of looking out my window every morning and seeing a giant penis. We need to ensure we are practicing safe architecture.” Is there something inherently dangerous about a penis? What is more, if you can't re-frame the connotation of a piece, you can at least try to re-frame your experience of it. Instead of being offended, why not see it as a source of light-hearted humor whenever you look out the window? I don't mean to sound high and mighty--you're entitled to take offense to whatever you'd like--but this artwork has alot to offer. Least of all, it presents an excellent reminder that life shouldn't be taken too seriously.

If you'd like to see more sculptures at the University of Alabama, see this map of the public art on campus, a project developed by the Department of Art and Art History.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The desert is not so lonely

After living in Death Valley I learned that the desert is more compelling and unpredictable than I gave it credit for. The night sky is so visible you can actually see the curvature of our planet; summer temperatures average at 120° and it's drier than the L.A. River yet there are waterfalls to speak of. The nearby ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada offers another seemingly out-of-context wonder.

Located at the entrance to Rhyolite is the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an exhibit of seven large-scale sculptures by various Belgian artists. Intent on finding a place where they could work freely, the artists chose the Mojave Desert as their spatial muse. The on-site sculptures that resulted, from a mosaic sofa to a colossal blonde nude, have transformed this expanse of land.

In an otherwise vast and lonely setting, the artworks evoke a sort of animating quality. Their contrast with the natural environment heightens visual acuity, provoking awareness of the art and space around you. I may never have studied the intricacies of Sofie Siegmann's mosaic couch or noticed the mineral deposits of the nearby mountains if not for this incongruity. (For a similar contrast effect, read on an exhibit at Versailles that integrated the anime-style art of Takashi Murakami into the 17th-century Baroque palace.) Though initially disarming, the desert sculptures assume a rightful presence in this harsh but captivating landscape.

Just as the Goldwell artists celebrate a unique workspace, so too can we celebrate uniqueness of movement. There is something invigorating about viewing art outside the controlled space of a traditional museum. It is easier to engage with since you aren’t being over-stimulated by imagery. You don’t have to feel anxious about crossing the invisible line since there’s no guard to scrutinize you. You can frolic in the shrubs and no one would care. Every now and then it's nice to view art unrestricted.

Upon indulging in these freedoms I took a special liking to Venus of the Desert by Hugo Heyrman. She is a huge, cinder block sculpture with a presence that teeters on the spiritual. Simplified in form, her most distinctive features are her breasts and hair, including the dainty tuft of yellow on her pubic region. She kneels with her arms at ease in quite the ambiguous gesture.

A reference to the ancient Graeco-Roman goddess of sexuality and love, Venus has been appropriated by artists for millennia now. As the archetype for the classical female nude she has inspired works such as Titian’s 16th century Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia of 1863.

Heyrman’s work is a reinterpretation of the classical nude form, a popular undertaking by modern and contemporary artists. Among them is Pop artist Tom Wesselmann, who parodied female objectification in his Great American Nude series from the 1960s. Like Wesselmann's nudes, Venus of the Desert is not soft and languorous but anonymous and industrial, from her lego-like formation to the cinder blocks that shape her. She resembles not a traditional goddess but a blonde bombshell—a goddess of modernity, if you will.

Heyman's work is not completely distinct from ancient practice. The sculpture's monumental size echoes the large-scale statues Greeks and Romans erected to the gods, serving both as protectors and objects of worship. Additionally, the kneeling pose of Venus is suggestive of prayer and thus her mythological origins. Ultimately Heyrman's work captures an intersection of ancient and modern conceptions of sexuality and art.

Even if visitors like myself did not come to Rhyolite seeking a Mecca, Venus lends to it the air of a pilgrimage site. In fact most of the sculptures have a mystical presence, largely a byproduct of the unique space they inhabit. This collection is a reminder that we can interact with nature and art in a unique and non-disruptive way, and above all that you are never alone in the desert.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I'm a journalist kind of

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Not everyone buys abstract art

My relationship with football is far from intimate (probably a result of conditioning--my high school mascot was a unicorn), but the FX sitcom The League has been transformative. Starring a dysfunctional group of friends consumed by their fantasy football league, their self-absorption and lack of moral compass is in the same vein as It's Always Sunny and Arrested Development. Andre, a successful plastic surgeon who is tolerated for his resources, has an offensive taste for fashion and all other things material. In a typical feat of distaste he purchases a $25,000 painting by an artist he calls Kluneberg, no first name (Season 2, Episode 4, The Kluneberg). Upon proudly unveiling it to his friends, Andre explains that the painting spoke to him when he was in a gallery in Telluride. His friends retreat in confusion at Andre's decision to buy this ugly painting. Taco, the tactless airhead, proclaims "It's a penis bird attacking ass mountain!" The friends reach a consensus about this dead-on observation, and Andre gets defensive: "There's no penis here, it's abstract.... It's art, there doesn't need to be a reason. Use your imagination, except for the part that makes you think it's a penis bird." To add insult to injury, Taco cannot reconcile with the painting's astronomical cost: "You can get pictures like that for free on the internet," to which Andre retorts, "No it's art, it's colonialism and you'll never get it."

The Kluneberg exchange satirizes the naiveté of contemporary art consumers. Andre obviously had no idea how to justify his expensive purchase ("colonialism"?) save for the fact that it spoke to him and that it was legitimately "art" by virtue of being in a gallery. I'm not suggesting that anyone need justify a purchase, but rather that Andre's decision speaks to the frivolity of consumers which the art market exploits. It also comments on the hotly debated boundaries of art: according to Andre, if it is art it can do or say or look like anything. This is a point of contention for many traditionalists, as I discussed in an earlier post about the art market.

On the flip side of the coin, one can interpret this exchange as a satire of "bourgeois" folk who don't see the value in owning a physical work of art nor are sophisticated enough to relate to abstract art in a profound way.

So, who is this elusive Kluneberg, anyway? I have no idea. He must be someone important--the episode is named for him, after all.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Emasculating the Abstract Expressionists

Fun tie-ins with the previous post:

The drawing on the right is by cartoonist Mike Dater, the text at the bottom reading "Abstract Expressionist Painting What He Sees." Dater, like artist Bill Manion (discussed in the previous post), is satirizing the Abstract Expressionist manifesto that promoted creative inspiration from within. Here the artist's 'vision' has become a part of the landscape, taking the form of a color hodgepodge hovering in the sky. He gestures upward as if acknowledging his source of inspiration (see nearby canvas), clearly a delusion since hovering blobs of color are not a natural phenomenon. When contrasted with the recognizable landscape, the artist's creativity suddenly seems playful and, in the context of Dater's commentary, unsophisticated.

The artist's immunity to his external surroundings is in striking contrast to the Impressionists (Manet, Renoir...) who were reputed to work outdoors--including urban parks--and relied heavily on landscapes for subject matter. The Impressionist vs. Abstract Expressionist experience could turn into a debate over the subjectivity of reality and I'll leave that for readers to think more about.

The lower image is an oil and magna (a variety of acrylic) on canvas by Roy Lichtenstein, entitled Yellow and White Brushstrokes (1965). This is a rich piece that comments on more than just the Abstract Expressionists, but there is a strong reference to them here. The brushstroke was sanctified by the Abstract Expressionist, known to wield his brush with fervor and in turn leave the canvas with a tangible mark of his presence. The mechanical tone of Lichtenstein's painting subverts this emphasis on tactility. Moreover, the thick, black outlines of the brushstrokes and Lichtenstein's signature BenDay-dots lends to them a comic-like quality. Click here for an extended analysis on the painting to which I can't do justice!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

We Contain Multitudes

Have you ever been "boxed" before? By this I don't mean literally contorted into a UPS package, but rather categorized based on your appearance and mannerisms. Though a necessary social tool, categorizing can result in narrow or unrepresentative judgments. The Hybrid Identity exhibit at Columbia Art League both reveals our human proclivity to "box" and encourages us to operate beyond it by exposing the many identities that dictate our self- (and collective) understanding.

In what amounts to portraiture, the exhibited artists explore their fantasies as action heroes, their seemingly incongruous identities, and the (sometimes scary) recesses of their subconscious. While some identities are accepted or rejected, others are in the process of negotiation and exploration. Some artworks are straightforward like Tom Stander's Twisted wood sculpture, while others like Lauren Orscheln's mixed media work, Where Is the Way to the Dwelling Place of Light?, are mysteriously ambiguous. Through a variety of mediums, these artists attempt to visualize a concept that so strongly defines us, abstractly and manifestly.

The process of visualizing identity is not always a cake walk, and Jane Mudd reveals this reality in her oil on canvas, Muddled Face.
In this painting about painting, Mudd captures herself in the process of making a self-portrait. We are given the impression that she is standing before a mirror in an attempt to create a likeness of herself. The comical expression on her face--a combination of struggle and haphazardness--makes it difficult to keep a laugh in. The artist's expression and said-muddled state suggests her difficulty with self-portraiture, provoking the viewer to consider the labor of art-making and in turn de-romanticizing the artistic process. Mudd's transparency is refreshing and reminds us not to take a completed artwork for granted.

Similarly amusing is Bill Manion's Abstract Expressionist Cartoon. It satirically alludes to Jackson Pollock, a figurehead of the 1940's and 50's Abstract Expressionist movement that championed
personal expression and the use of big, manly canvases. Pollock was a paragon of masculinity and self-inspired creativity who made a name for himself with his action, or "drip," paintings. Invoking both control and chance, he splattered paint across a canvas in a manner that was physically engaging and considered heroic by some. Manion's cartoon parodies the masculine bravura characteristic of Pollock. Clad in home-made jean shorts and what has come to resemble a tie-dye shirt, our painter looks like a cross between a hippie and surfer dude. A glass of wine has replaced Pollock's signature cigarette, lending to our cartoon artist an air of dainty civility. Manion likewise subverts the active, heroic gestures of the Abstract Expressionists and their strong physical involvement with the
canvas. The cartoon artist looks askance at his painting, appearing more concerned with his wine and the activity beyond his workspace. Another jab at the Abstract Expressionists is Manion's integration of high and low art, which to loyalists of traditional art is a form of heresy. The work produced by figures like Pollock was considered "high art," while comics, etc. were considered "low" since they were readily available to the masses for consumption. By blending these categories, Manion is thumbing his nose at Abstract Expressionist purists and perhaps criticizing the boundaries of high art.

To continue in the realm of parody, Susan Taylor Glasgow's "You Are My Sunshine" Cookie Jar from glass and mixed media is more than appropriate.
In this clever and suggestive piece, Glasgow parodies the sexually inhibited 50's housewife by means of a hybrid woman-cookie jar. The upper torso of a housewife erupts out of a jar bearing a frontal hole. The woman peers down with an innocent, happy-go-lucky expression, apparently in response to the hand reaching inside the jar for a cookie. The hand is feminine and banded, presumably hers. By synthesizing woman and jar, Glasgow plays up the woman's reduction to the role of homemaker. Moreover, the jar's dual function as a cookie receptacle and lower torso allude to the maternal and sexual functions of the female. If we consider the jar as a metaphor for the woman's womb, Glasgow has essentially chosen a vessel to represent a vessel (Cookies in a womb. Hm.) The jar alludes not only to the child-bearing capacity of the woman; the suggestive location of the opening offers new meaning to the woman's pleasure as she peers down at her hand.

The above three works are a mere fraction of this large exhibit, yet they convey the diversity of ideas explored. Like our own identities, the works themselves can sometimes be hard to read, suggesting that we can only garner so much information from the surface before becoming intimate with a person's inner complexity. Moreover, identities are not solely a product of our own making; other people and institutions contribute to our self-understanding. Glasgow's cookie jar, for example, reflects how social constructs can inflect a woman's identity. Ultimately the various identities confronted in the exhibit results in a collective heartbeat that leaves you feeling more attune to the realities of human-ness. Sure, we all know that everyone has a dark or confused or hopeful side, but seeing them visualized makes this knowledge more tangible.

Hybrid Identity is on exhibit through February 26, 2011.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Trash Talk, Ctd.

Thanks for all of your insightful comments. One reader aptly noted that Pfannerstill's works address the marketability of art, which brought to mind my recent debate with a contemporary art-cynic. Apprehensive about the marketability of something he could do himself (Pfannerstill's craftsmanship being an exception here), I counter-argued that this perspective wasn't fair--if a skilled artist held the same view, would s/he ever find art that was worth calling "art"? I admit that marketability isn't solely determined by quality of craftsmanship or content; critics play a substantial role in dictating what's hot right now. Art critic Robert Hughes laments over this phenomenon in his 1984 essay in the New York Review of Books:
There is no historical precedent for the price structure of art in the late twentieth century. Never before have the visual arts been the subject - beneficiary or victim, whatever your view of the matter - of such extreme inflation and fetishization. (
This structure doesn't only involve the participation of art critics. There is a sort of feedback cycle that happens in the process of valuing art that involves multiple parties: artist, critic and consumer. When an emerging artist is elevated by a critic, collectors and art venues race to get so-and-so on their walls. A precedent has been set for so-and-so's ingenuity, and the supply and demand snowball amasses itself from there. I find the process somewhat analogous to paparazzi photos: Sure, the guys are relentless slimeballs, but who do you think is buying their material? It's gossip and tabloid magazines, which are bought by consumers like you and me (or at the very least glanced at while standing in the check-out line).

Accepting art market puppetry, a dissident of contemporary art might still ask, "What happened to art that was aesthetically pleasing and accessible?" While I can sympathize with this concern, I find it admirable that contemporary artists are playing with the historic boundaries of art that we've been conditioned to accept. Moreover, contemporary artists are not the first to push the envelope. It is hard to believe that canonical artists like Caravaggio or Van Gogh were once controversial, but indeed their work challenged the aesthetic boundaries of their time. Perhaps a century from now artists like Pfannerstill or internationally-acclaimed ones like Damien Hirst will be considered universally accessible.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One Person's Trash...

In his "From the Street" series, currently on display in PS:Gallery's new exhibit, Looking Back, Moving Forward, Tom Pfannerstill gives new meaning to the art of trash. Adhered to the wall are recognizable products such as a Coca-Cola cup and Chinese take-out box, surely byproducts of a person's lunch; compressed and smudged, these containers have been discarded and fulfilled their purpose. But no! They are in fact handcrafted representations, made from wood that has been carved and painted by the artist. (I promise.)

Pfannerstill's works have myriad implications, one being their evocation of Pop Art. A favorite movement of mine, Pop Art was notorious for celebrating commercialization
and the everyday object, often with amusing and ironic results. Claes Oldenburg's Soft Fur Good Humors (yum) is a case in point. In a manner reminiscent of Oldenburg's, Pfannerstill has handcrafted replicas of commercial products. The sculptures are so realistic it is easy to take Pfannerstill's artistry for granted, a careful process that contrasts with the mechanized production of such objects in reality. Pfannerstill's used and abused consumer products have met their expiration date and entered Life, Part 2: Elevation to Art Object, an optimistic narrative for the unglamorous Chinese take-out box. Whether his works celebrate or decry commercialization (if either) is open to interpretation; regardless, they contribute to the Pop Art dialogue on mechanization, consumerism, and the boundaries of art.

Pfannerstill's series also addresses the self-revealing value of trash. As a former Master's student in archaeology, I know well that trash is an archaeologist's best friend. Discarded materials, whether in the form of ceramics, animal bones, or even pornographic material that your great-grandmother confiscated from Grandpa, convey information about rituals, values and the everyday. When confronted with Pfannerstill's replicas (if I may call them that), we are provoked to consider what these artifacts say about our own culture.

The framing--both literal and figurative--of artifacts is integral to the relationships we form with them. This is especially apropos to the display of archaeological material, Pfannerstill's sculptures being a case in point. Simply adhered to the wall, the blunt presentation of commercial trash is mildly offensive, owing to the effects of decontextualization. Bypassing such trash on the street would result in little or no response from the average person because we expect to find trash on the street (unless you're in Switzerland). However, by virtue of being handcrafted, Pfannerstill's works are actually in their appropriate context; they were arguably made for the very purpose of being exhibited. With this knowledge, their presentation somehow becomes reconcilable. (The debate over the relevance of intention is worth considering, and I hope knowledgable readers will chime in here!)

Lastly, there is an unexpected socio-economic resonance to Pfannerstill's works. In environmentally-progressive countries like Denmark, trash is coveted as a source of converted energy. In Burkina Faso, farmers pay municipal waste personnel to dump unsorted waste on their crops as fertilizer. Pfannenstill's symbolic gesture of turning trash into art signifies American luxury, and perhaps overconsumption.

When considered in light of the exhibit's theme, Pfannerstill's works speak to the power of re-framing and transformation. The sculptures can be a source of inspiration for this process, since the artist ascribes to them a memento mori (Latin: "reminder of death") function due to their used and discarded nature. Identities can shift and so can perspectives, as long as you seize the opportunity to step out of the frame.

"Looking Back, Moving Forward" will be on exhibit through February 7.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Race for the Title

Did you know that Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is warning various charitable organizations against using their trademarked phrase, "race for the cure?" I feel fortunate that I'm only in search of a title, on which note I'd like to seek recommendations for one. This may be a blogging faux-pas but my sole readership in the beginning is going to be friends and family (I heart!), so I can reconcile with it. The two obvious criteria: the title should include the word "art" and also be catchy. All I've got so far is "d'ART board," which isn't perfect but you get the gist. Friends in school, please take this as an opportunity to procrastinate; friends with full-time jobs, be thankful for your employment and help a jobless citizen out. Thank you!!