Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Casein: Shades of Transparency

Whether they use them or not, most people are at least familiar with the three primary painting mediums: oil, acrylic, and watercolor. They may not be able to decipher the differences among them, and they probably do not know about the technical distinctions that apply to each painting process, but they know that these are the types of paints artists use. In actuality, these are just the three most well known forms of paint. Acrylic is actually quite recent. Before oil paint was used artists preferred encaustic (wax-based), tempera (egg yolk-based), and even fresco (painting on or in plaster). There are certainly other types of paint, too.

There are reasons why an artist chooses a particular painting medium. Sometimes this initially happens by accident. Perhaps this was the medium a teacher in high school or college preferred. It may be the medium he or she learned while taking a community art class. Eventually, an artist most likely uses a specific painting medium because it possesses certain qualities that are intrinsic to his or her painting process.

For me, the use of casein paint was a combination of things. I saw this water soluble paint, mixed with transparent watercolor, used in a demonstration during my freshman year of college. Some watercolor artists are purists and refuse to mix any opaque paints with their transparent ones. I liked the effect produced by this artist’s demonstration, so I purchased a tube of white casein and experimented.

I tended to stick with oil paint during most of my time as an undergraduate. However, I chose to use watercolor and casein for a pivotal work during my senior year. Taking Salvador Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus as a point of departure, I devised a crucifixion that portrayed a Christ not floating before cubes, but, himself, segmented into squares that floated off the gallery wall. This was really unlike anything else I was creating at the time. In many ways it was the impetus for the work I created during graduate school, and much of the work I have completed in the last decade.

What I discovered as I worked on that early piece was that there was a unique, visceral quality to the combined watercolor and white casein. I could achieve that subtle variation of bluish veins just beneath the surface of the skin in oil paint, but had not found a suitable equivalent with watercolor. The process allowed me to create "fleshier" works, but I was still only using it on occasion.

It was not until the end of the 1990s, when I began to paint on book pages, that the mix of watercolor and casein became a more common medium for me. My work with oil on book pages had revealed that a combination of transparency and opacity were essential when creating a substantial figure that still allowed the text to show through. The layering of transparent and more opaque colors was similar to my work in oil paint.

The main difference between the oil and watercolor work is that I am able to paint directly on the book pages when using watercolor. Works in oil sit on the surface of the paper. Pages must be coated with a clear acrylic medium so that the oil does not create a halo around the image and eventually deteriorate the fragile pages. In a way, when the watercolor stains the book pages the image and the page become one. The words and images are combined into a single unit so that they are closer to the incarnational concept that remains such an integral part of most of my work.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Arshile Gorky: Tales of Transition and Tragedy

There used to be a bias in the art historical analyses of some Modernists. It was a persistent leftover from earlier periods that suggested the evolution of visual art was moving in a straight line, with a somewhat logical progression. Coincidentally, the pinnacle of achievement in this theory was pure abstraction—the very work those Modernists favored. What a convenient confluence.

Luckily, the lenses of critical theory and Postmodernism’s pluralism have shown that history looks very little like a linear route. The interconnections that can be traced across time tend to unravel more like a knitted sweater, heaped in a jumble of looping strands. And yet, there remain some figures in the story of art who are clearly synthesizers—transitional figures who act as a bridge between periods.

Arshile Gorky, though far from a household name, was one of those key transitional figures. He was also quite a tragic one. It may be the adversity that both brought the best out of Gorky and eventually led to his downfall.

In some ways, Gorky was far from significant or original in his early paintings. One finds the mimetic paintings of his early career to be the same fare as his amateurish contemporaries. Gorky made his way through the pantheon of prominent artists and painting styles of the previous fifty years. His works appear as re-presentations of Cezanne and Picasso. Those familiar shapes and color schemes are simply his method of learning the visual language of Modern form and composition.

Though an Armenian immigrant, Gorky was determined to reinvent himself as a previously accomplished Modernist upon his arrival to the U.S. His state-side name change was meant to strengthen the credibility of his claims. His early geometric abstractions were reminiscent of Russian Modernists like Malevich and Kandinsky. The latter he had even claimed to study under. Yet Gorky was not content to import the styles of the Europeans alone.

The American answer to Picasso’s Cubist forays was found in the jazz-like compositions of Stuart Davis. Davis had landed somewhere between Picasso and the late works of Matisse. Gorky picked up on the hybrid of styles in Davis’ work while he was completing a mural project for the WPA. It was one of many brief stops on his way to the creation of a truly innovative and original style.

Gorky was not the sole European of Mediterranean immigrant artist of his age. The wars in the first half of the twentieth century displaced scores of artists. A large portion of them ended up in New York City and it was in that rich cultural stew that Arshile Gorky simmered. The influence of the Surrealists became the primary element that pushed Gorky into original motifs. It was during this period that he finally began to swap roles—some other artists began to emulate Gorky’s work.

While there were still similarities to the works of Miro, Masson, and Matta, Gorky was beginning to craft his something unique. Paintings like Enigmatic Combat and They Will Take My Island even prefigure the earlier abstractions of Jackson Pollock. Gorky was fully intrigued with Surrealism. He association with the artists of the Julien Levy Gallery allowed him to analyze and experience the major tenets of that movement. But Gorky could never completely adhere to Surrealism’s devices. He liked the idea of automatism, but it was too detached for his tastes. Though his late work appeared to be non-objective, Gorky always favored a classicism that actually led to concepts of mythologizing. This linked his work to the past as much as to his own time. It was his melding together of multiple elements that eventually brought forth a visual language completely his own.

The fluidity if Gorky’s paint, as demonstrated in works like Waterfall and One Year the Milkweed, was clearly an influence on the stain technique of Frankenthaler—and Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, in turn. But this is only one aspect of Gorky’s mature work. The haziness of forms paved the way for Mark Rothko. The haphazard, yet controlled, brush qualities were the model for every stage of de Kooning’s painting.

Unfortunately, Gorky modeled not only a painting style, but a lifestyle for some of these same artists. He peaked at a fairly young age and then his life spun out of control. After his father’s death in 1947, Gorky learned that his wife was having and affair with a Surrealist painter (Matta). He first began talking about suicide in that year. In June 1948 Gorky suffered severe injuries from an automobile accident with gallerist Julien Levy. Within weeks he had hanged himself.

These tales bring to mind the stories of both Rothko and Pollock. Perhaps for all of them, the newfound art world fame was more than they could take. Gorky’s work had a dark cast in his later years—consider Agony of 1947—that would once again appear in Rothko’s late paintings. Both artists ultimately ended their own lives. Tales of Pollock’s out of control behavior that led to his fatal car crash are similar. With each artist the existentialist search for meaning in the work itself seemed to come up empty. So, sadly, they all came to profound visual discoveries that balanced themes of mythology and spirituality, yet failed to satisfy their longings. It makes the work bittersweet and reminds us that art may lead us to the profound ideas of life, but it does not provide a sufficient substitute for real meaning.

"Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective" runs through January 10, 2010 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It then travels to the Tate Modern (London) and the MOCA (Los Angeles)

Monday, November 30, 2009

Permanent Fixtures

It is somewhat intimidating to begin a new series of paintings. This is especially the case when work seems like sure a radical departure from other current or existing work. And while style changes can prove a greater risk than subject matter, the fear of a lack of acceptance by critics and collectors presents itself like that nagging miniature devil on your shoulder—berating you for attempting anything new, different, or otherwise unacceptable.

I willingly admit that that little apparition spent a good deal of time on my shoulder when I considered a new venture in painting. After all, who would accept Tyrus Clutter as something other than a figurative artist? Isn’t that the brand that has been established for nearly twenty years? Then I had a little discussion with said devil that consisted of arguments on behalf of assemblage/construction works (which are increasingly approaching something far different from traditional figure painting), as well as this proposed series which actually alludes to the figure, though it doesn’t depict it. It was all part and parcel of the same agenda, so there was little point in talking myself out of it.

Nevertheless, I knew that I would need to make a case for the work, and that is what I am doing here. So I begin with the subject matter. Bathroom fixtures. Urinals in particular. I first became interested in depicting them when there was a show at my school (Olivet Nazarene University) during my freshman year of college. It wasn’t all urinal imagery. Only a couple drawings in the exhibit displayed them, but the artist took them out of context and allowed one to see that they did have some aesthetic characteristics that made them beautiful, not just functional. The other thing that has stayed with me from that year is the use of casein paint—a medium I observed in that same exhibit or another. I transferred after the one year, but I am glad to have gained something from the experience.

The question arises—why urinals? It may be more difficult for the female of the species to understand this, since she doesn’t use urinals, but there is an intimate relationship that men have with these objects. They directly relate to our anatomy. They fit us. It may seem rather crude, but it is the nature of the relationship. They openly accept us in our most humble state.

It is when standing before these porcelain structures that men are most vulnerable. We are literally exposed and unable to defend ourselves if need be. All our primal fears rise to the surface. Often, there are partitions between each fixture to create a semblance of privacy. When there are multiple fixtures lined up with no separating partitions it is basically a waste of money since most men observe the unwritten rule that they can’t stand directly next to another man in this vulnerable posture. An open urinal must reside between two men.

Even with this allotted space, the proximate presence of someone else may prove so intense that the intended task cannot be performed. Some men blatantly break the unwritten statutes and engage in idle chit chat with their neighbors. This breach of restroom etiquette can be nerve racking on those with the proverbial "shy bladder." It all reminds me of the time I stopped into a McDonald’s in Amsterdam because public toilets were almost non-existent. I knew McDonald’s would not let me down. They did, however, have an attendant who required a monetary tip for use of her facilities. Luckily, I was able to perform my task even though this attendant walked in to wipe down the sink and counter mid-stream. I was protected because my back was to her, but we weren’t in the red light district so I wasn’t expecting to have to pay someone to observe this very private act. It was unsettling.

You wouldn’t think such a variety of emotions would be attached to such a simple porcelain device. The absence of the figures serves to illustrate the male psyche. It shows how connected our minds (spirits) are to our frail human bodies. We are not dualities but integrated beings.

This series is more about the contemporary American male than that gender in a very broad brushstroke. The discomfort with our bodies is not new, but there is a particularly contemporary strain observed here. Only with the removal of the physical bodies in these images is the full weight of the mental and spiritual completely exposed.

The Puritan strain that runs through American culture makes men quite different from our contemporaries in other world cultures, as well as from men of the past. Americans are far more obsessed with our physical bodies while still overwhelmingly prudish about their functions and processes. We are at once overly sexualized and startlingly priggish at the same time.

This series was created to make this point in a somewhat roundabout way. When an object can convey so much about the people in a culture, in the absence of those very people, it may be time to attend to some things.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Robert Gober: There’s No Place Like Home

It is the universal qualities of art that draw us to it. The ostensible contradiction is that some of the most obscure and highly personal works and themes can allude to this universality. And if the work does not stem from the personal experience of the artist, it will be less likely to deeply connect with viewers. The best work finds a way to subtly bridge the gap.

Robert Gober’s idiosyncratic artistic vocabulary is one of the most unique among artists of the last few decades. His language is not impenetrable, but it tends to be somewhat obscure. Being heavily based in personal experience, it cannot be fully know or completely translated. Yet the overwhelming humanity in the work produces a felt empathy, even when we fail to digest the broader complexities.

The very human characteristics in Gober’s work are often found in the wax body parts that populate his environments. Legs, injected with real hairs, produce an eerie likeness to actual human legs. Placed in corners or protruding from walls, they draw associations with Dorothy’s visit to Oz (minus the ruby slippers) as well as with dismembered corpses.

In Gober’s figures we tend to find only bits and pieces, never complete bodies. Placed in odd diorama-like settings, these produce dream-like dislocations in which the elements of the bodies elicit recollections of persons or experiences, nearer to flashes of suppressed memories. The dismembered figures signal the traumatic. When one considers that most of the work also contends with domestic life, the work is even more unnerving.

The domestic arena, for Gober, presents a contradiction to our concepts of security. The home is the place when children crave safety and form their understanding of life’s systems from what is lived out before them. The security in Gober’s works is skewed. It can sometimes mutate into a form of containment. Often, we find the adult, the parent, or the guardian presence compromising the safe haven.

Gober’s X Playpen provides an obvious example of this contradiction. A playpen is produced as a structure of safety that inhibits the range of movement of the child, so that he or she does not come to any harm. Gober’s structure of restraint not only inhibits movement, it suggests a prison and an apparatus that might even inflict harm. Still, this is a very physical example of what Gober more often advances through clever psychological means.

The disembodied wax legs touch on various psychological traumas based in the domestic realm. They come in many formats. Sometimes clothed with trouser legs, socks, and shoes, at other times they are bare. The separation of the limbs from the body can be conceived in several ways. The head is almost never present in Gober works. If the family is viewed like a body—a living organism whose parts are dependant on each other—then the absence of the head can be seen as an absence of the authority in the family. The deficiency of direction normally provided by the head leaves the remaining members lost.

The dismemberment may also be read like the psychological phenomenon of splitting or suppressing memories. Multiple personalities are the extreme of this, but we all do this compartmentalizing to some extent. When trauma is present the individual may dissociate the event or black it out. This becomes the security for the wounded or injured psyche. Psychological splits—severings—are the coping mechanism.

On the other side of this dismemberment of the family lies the tragic instigations by the guardian figure. Gober’s reconsideration of traumatic domestic settings reveals a dereliction of duty. The parent figure, the one entrusted to provide security, has abdicated that role. Instead of self-sacrifice on behalf of beloved offspring, the authority figure has chosen self-preservation (consider Gober’s image of a fireplace fueled by a set of child-sized log/legs). It is this dynamic that provides a recurring theme for Gober’s work, though the intricacies and personal provocations manifest themselves in a variety of iconographic forms.

This dismemberment coincides with a concurrent track within Gober’s work—Roman Catholicism. The Catholic faith, like several other belief systems intermingled from his youth, is something the artist has jettisoned from his life. Still, it provides a structure on which he rebuilds. The inconsistencies of the institutional faith are critiqued, yet held in reverence.

A 2005 installation by Gober, at the Matthew Marks Gallery, is a primary example of his strained relationship with Catholicism. The central element of the work is a life-sized, crucified, cement Christ figure. The figure is not only "broken" because of its crucified state; it is beheaded. This brings to mind the beheaded statues from the Protestant Reformation. Like the iconoclasts of the 16th century (and the practitioners of countless ancient religions) Gober has rendered this deity mute and powerless. Like the family analogy above, the Church has been likened to a body, with Christ as the head. Here, the authority of the Church is, at the very least, brought into question. The real presence of the institution’s actual power is gone.

The other startling oddity in the Christ figure is that the nipples are open and act as spouts for a continual flow of water that empties into a hole in the floor. The imagery is as paradoxical as Christ’s statement that he is "living water." This fountain relates to many other Gober works that also utilize water—or even bring water to mind through that element’s absence. Like the sacrament of baptism, the water in a Gober work is connected to a ritual cleansing or purifying.

The difficulty in assessing Gober’s full body of work is figuring out if this is a mute symbol—an ironic nod to the futility of a ritual act of cleansing—or an honest grappling with the form. Of course, it may be both. In the myriad sink sculptures (fabricated from enameled plaster with hand-crafted, cast pewter or bronze faucets and drains) many of the sinks lack plumbing. Their convoluted basin configurations often preclude the containment of water. They hint at the transition from dirty to clean—death to life—but they lack the means by which to enact this transformation. Again, they are flawed objects from a domestic setting/system that fail to live up to their promises.

Elsewhere, the presence of water provides further contradictions. Water is a key element in Gober’s 1997 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (now in the permanent collection of the Schaulager Museum in Switzerland). The central image of this installation is a nearly life-sized figure of the Virgin Mary (again, in concrete, like the image of Jesus—concrete defined by its cold, immoveable, and unforgiving nature) with a drainage pipe bisecting its abdomen, and standing over a large storm grate. There is no actual water present within this figure, but it is still part of the equation. Mary is literally a conduit. But of what? The gift of the incarnate deity? Grace? Our prayers and supplications? It is hard to know.

Water is, however, an active part of the rest of the installation. Inset in the wall behind Mary is a doorway that reveals an ascending wooden staircase. Rushing down the stairs and emptying into a hole in the floor are countless gallons of water. Is this a stairway from heaven that represents Christ’s journey from heaven to earth? Ascent of the stairs is treacherous, if not impossible. Maybe the cleansing act is found in the near impossible journey heavenward. But if our ascent is blocked by water, so is our descent.

On each side of the statue of the Virgin is a vintage suitcase, open. Peering into these we find storm grates in the floor. Beneath the surface can be seen aquatic plant life and a partial view of a man and child. All of these are submerged in water and all are studio fabricated elements. The scenes appear somewhat Edenic, but our full visual access is blocked by the storm grates. These are surely passages. They allude to a journey through their access via the suitcases.

We find wondrous things when looking beneath the surface. It is a world teeming with life. It is almost untouched by the hands of humans. Still, this is also a sewer. The water runoff surely contains all the impurities washed from the surface above. It is difficult to discern which environment is better—the one above or below. And this uncertainty is a reflection of Gober’s investigations of the domestic environment. Often, what first seems true and right might contain inconsistencies and vagaries.

Gober’s iconography draws enough associations with reality that we can decipher some of the artist’s intent. His exhibitions are like a Rosetta Stone, providing a key to translate the language of our contemporary culture and the obstacle course of the domestic setting. Gober’s work is not didactic. It reveals inconsistencies and uncovers our common questions. It does not seek to answer those questions, but reveal them. The answers only come when we begin to ask the right questions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Travels Along the Road of Life

The spike in gasoline prices over the past couple years has certainly put a spotlight on transportation costs. Those living in major metropolitan centers have long been accustomed to mass transportation. While some of the debate includes proposals of alternative energies and less individual automobile use, the reality is that some parts of the U.S. will simply cease to be inhabited if we have to cut back on automobile use (not to mention pickup and SUV use).

These places are just not walkable. Personally, I like to live in a walkable area. This is one of the things I love about Boston. Whether I would drive into Boston and park or take the commuter train, I would usually walk from place to place and take the T (subway) if I had to go very far. Once, when my cousin was visiting, we ended up walking most of the Freedom Trail, starting in Boston Common and walking to the North End and back, then to the South End and back. It was a great way to see the city and I never would have found one of my favorite bow ties if we hadn’t passed an out-of-the-way men’s store on foot.

I will confess, however, that my primary joy in walking is the discovery of odd stuff along the way. I’m not an outdoorsy person, so my walks do not typically involve any investigations of the wonders of nature. I prefer walking through urban areas where I can come across some of the strangest objects you can imagine.

This scavenging for trash started at an early age, much to the dismay of my parents. We lived two houses down from the elementary school where my mother taught. Once, just days after school let out for the summer, my sisters and I happened upon an overflowing dumpster at the school. I no longer recall what we brought home, but something beyond repair, which had once, no doubt, been in my mother’s classroom, was probably among the newfound treasures. It was matched the excitement of a trip to the candy store and toy store rolled into one.

In Florida, I have to wait until the winter months to go on these trash hikes. It is not as enjoyable to search for these items drenched in perspiration while developing a severe sun burn. I did manage to pick up a few items on a recent walk. I have been considering incorporating a mosaic made from the shattered remnants of taillights and turn signals. which tend to collect at intersections. I did find some bits for that on my five mile trek, but I need to clean up several accident sites before that project can go into production.

The best find on that journey was parts from a couple different cell phones. They are obviously a little beaten up, as one would expect with something found on the side of the road. I always imagine a scenario that accompanies roadside cell phones. It involves a teenage couple—or perhaps a very immature couple in their twenties—in a heated argument inside a car. Likely, one is jealous and when that one wrong person calls, the phone is apprehended by the jealous party and tossed through an open window of the moving vehicle. Maybe this is another indictment against our gasoline powered culture, but I think it has more to do with selfish people who can’t manage their relationships.

Cell phones are a nice convenience and I am grateful to have one on a long roadtrip, as insurance if anything goes wrong. However, cell phones are one of many elements that comprise the broken state of contemporary interpersonal communications. We do not connect deeply and effectively in our relationships. Quick, needless cell phone calls and many text messages often do more to erode our relationships than strengthen them. And I’m not even touching on the inherent problems of email.

Even the best advances of technology become mute hunks of plastic and metal when they end up under the tire of a car. Quick, short communications have become commonplace. These virtual conversations often take place in public settings and tend to cause the persons involved to momentarily abort their in-person communications. How often is a Twitter message more important than a business lunch or the one-on-one conversations people have on a date?
It seems that many in our contemporary society fear real intimacy. It takes time, effort, and concentration to really get to know another person. It takes the same effort to be known by another. Communications technologies provide the illusion that we are deeply communicating. However, quantity of communication should never be confused with quality. And the very private details of a life that are sometimes broadcast on Facebook and Twitter are a far cry from true intimacy.

Maybe all this is why I like to walk. These days walking is intentional. We often do it because we want to, not because we have to. We move at the pace of the natural world. Perhaps it is time to remember what a human pace really is. Living in our physical bodies is not convenient, but it is a life based on the parameters that we have been given.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Frances Trombly & Conrad Bakker: The Value of the Overlooked

For centuries, two primary and essential qualities of artworks produced in the traditions of Western cultures were that they were highly mimetic and well crafted. For many, these still remain definitive elements for any artwork. Once artists began measuring the quality of a work by additional and alternative standards, however, the game changed. Materials came into question. An intentional, apparent lack of craftsmanship held weight as a legitimate conceptual concern. And, of course, representation became only one of multiple options.

Some contemporary artists have brought these traditions full circle. For them, the irony associated with a return to the representational, through high levels of craftsmanship, results in a fitting commentary on culture. Two American artists, one female and one male, are currently utilizing this approach as a way to call the viewer back toward an attention to detail.

Miami-based Frances Trombly produces work that is firmly rooted in the Feminist art of the 1970s. Her materials and processes are an extension of that aesthetic. For earlier artists, such as Miriam Schapiro, the utilization of fabric, sewing, and embroidery was directly tied to the traditional place women were assigned within society. These female artists used processes considered to be "women’s work" as an avenue to call attention to the lesser state to which women had been relegated. The intricacy and attention to detail of such works proves that these, and the works of their anonymous forebears, deserve equal scrutiny and accolades among the traditionally accepted artworks within the canon.

Trombly employs similar processes as the first generation Feminists, yet her considerations cover a broader range. There is a tinge of environmentalism, though probably a deeper concern with consumerism. The artist relies on processes that would traditionally be placed within the category of craft. She weaves the cloth that composes the substrate for additional embroidery work. In other works she knits or crochets non-utilitarian forms that appear, at first glance, to be consumer goods.

Consider both Garden Hose and Extension Cord. Each crocheted tube is produced as a stand-in for its namesake. The reproduction of a mundane, practical object, through time-intensive and craft-oriented means, is a nearly opposite strategy than that employed by so many other contemporary artists. Tim Hawkinson, for instance, has used actual orange extension cord—woven together—to create a pair of shorts. Both artists are fashioning somewhat innocuous items to be designated as objects of fine art. Trombly, however, seems to establish objects within a more camouflaged, everyday experience and environment.

Many of Trombly’s other works bear witness to the disposable quality of contemporary culture. These works may be camouflaged even more successfully because they initially appear as cast-off items--debris. Their placement is an essential consideration for their success. Paper Corner consists of what appear to be more than a dozen sheets of lined notebook paper, crumpled and tossed into the corner. In reality, these are sheets of fabric that the artist has woven on a loom. The likeness, in both thickness and coloration, to actual notebook paper disguises the work so effectively that one would likely bypass it if not for its location within a gallery. Receipt (Publix) exhibits the same properties. In this instance, not only has the artist woven the thin length of fabric, she has also meticulously embroidered the tally of supermarket items on the faux receipt.

It is in works like these that Trombly best calls into question the perceived disposable nature of our culture. What else do we bypass in our daily routines, considering it as unimportant and of no value? To press the issue further Trombly has produced several garbage bags or trash can liners. These drawstring bags are composed of hand-woven fabric which is then sewn together into fully functioning objects. She goes so far as to place one inside an actual garbage can (Trash Can)—making it ready to receive authentic trash.

The subject of trash receptacles and garbage bags manifests itself within the work of Conrad Bakker, as well. Bakker’s work fails to exhibit the qualities of Feminist ideology so integral to Trombly’s, though concepts of consumerism and commodity are a priority. Bakker seeks to camouflage his works, too, but he often places pieces into situations and surroundings of everyday life so that they may be used or "consumed." But these are mute items that fail to function as their prototypes. Under the general heading of Untitled Projects, these works turn the concept of consumerism upside down.

Untitled: [Dumpster] is a full-sized construction dumpster sculpted from wood and painted to look exactly like the real thing. Placed outside of the School of Art building on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago, the sculpture was ultimately treated as its prototype when refuse was tossed into it. Again, as with Trombly, it takes more than perfunctory recognition to understand that this object is not what it seems.

Bakker’s garbage bags appear in the guise of a box of "Hefty" trash bags, again, sculpted in wood and painted to appear to be the genuine item. The artist retains a certain amount of the hand crafted in these works. They are not quite as slick and smooth as mass produced products would be. These "commodity" works are placed on store shelves next to their real life kin, photographed, and left. So the unique object, considered as culturally and economically valuable, is offered at the price of the mass produced consumer good.

More pointed references to the consumerist basis of a capitalist society are found in a more recent work entitled COMMODITY [Capital]. This sculpture mimics a volume of "Capital" by Karl Marx. Interestingly, this work, shown at the exhibition The Irresistible Force at the Tate Modern, finds its placement in one of the world’s most elite contemporary art venues. The Tate’s role in the rise of the YBAs (Young British Artists) through the Turner Prize provides an evocative foil against which to consider Bakker’s work. The trends toward excessive pricing and realized auction amounts, so often associated with YBAs like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, is countered by a work that calls our systems of valuation into question.

One final work by Conrad Bakker fully exhibits the playfulness and generosity that resides at the heart of the Untitled Projects. REFRESHMENT [Art Chicago] was equal parts installation and performance. Produced for the Art Chicago art fair, the work consisted of a simulation of a child’s lemonade stand. The card table, sign, cups, and Kool-Aid were all carved from wood and had painted to mimic a refreshment table for the wandering art connoisseurs and collectors.

Bakker sat at the table and sold individual cups of painted, wooden Kool-Aid to passersby for twenty-five cents each. There is obvious humor here, as there is in Trombly’s work. Refreshment provides an interactive component that more fully engages Bakker’s target audience. Those in attendance at a contemporary art fair know the rules of the game. They get the ironic references in contemporary art and are aware of the enormous sums paid for some of those same works. In a system where the middleman—the dealer—is often the contact person for the collector, Bakker has removed a layer and provided a confrontation that is not simply between the art and the collector, but with the artist himself—the originator of the idea.

In all the works discussed the hand crafted, representational nature is employed to hide the work from view. The viewer is caused to question not only our systems of valuation in the marketplace, but our unconscious valuations of life’s intangibles. The exquisite properties of those things that do not shout loudly for attention are possibly those things we most need. Family, friends, and those people who perform the lowliest tasks of life are truly the needful things.

The work of Conrad Bakker is also discussed, along with the work of several other artists, in Tyrus Clutter's essay Material Presence: The Sacramental in Art, featured in the SEEN journal, volume IX.2, 2009.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Affliction of Job: Hope for the Battered and Bruised

I began planning my Affliction of Job series in 2003. That was the year I took the reference shots for the paintings. I didn’t actively paint works for the series for several years. I drew the images but time constraints kept me from completing them. I have recently been finishing up this project and have been able to digest the concept more thoroughly. The ideas always evolve over time.

I have been painting on a variety of old book pages over the past several months. The way each book’s pages reacts to the watercolor is unique. Some pages are slick and the color sits on top of the words, pooling up in halos of pigment. Other pages are over-absorbent. With them, it is difficult to control the intensity of the color and retain precise edges.

The Hebrew Bible pages used for the Job series are brittle with age (printed in the 1880s). They can crack or chip. They are also yellowed from time which causes the outer edges of the pages to produce a duller color than the one applied. The fragile quality of the paper is a perfect match to the story of Job. Our frail physical bodies are pushed and pulled in this world, showing the effects of time and wear to all who observe.

This series was always about suffering. And while the human body is utilized as the primary vehicle for the expression of that suffering, the works do not solely reflect the physical. The full anguish of Job was presented in the entanglement of his physical pain, along with the losses of material possessions and beloved family members. It was psychological and spiritual grief, too.

The solitary images of the Job figures, shrouded in darkness, convey his lonely plot in life. He suffers alone. His wife and friends abandon him. They cease to console him as insult is added to injury. At last, Job is isolated in an abyss where he finds that it seems even God is mocking him.

Job is that first literary figure to experience a dark night of the soul. He is the shining example of one confronted with the inevitable truth that we are utterly alone in the universe. Well, maybe not fully alone. You see, Job realizes that, while he needs people, he can’t ultimately count on them. He also understands that he is more than a mere physical body. When his frustration gets the better of him he presents his argument to God. God’s response is that Job is not the Creator nor the Sustainer of life. His mortal existence cannot fathom the intricacies of the universe and the reasons why life might seem unjust.

One thing that marks this series is that Job, as a figure, is never fully separated from God. Like the pigments on the paper, he is pushed and pulled. His form becomes misshapen, flattened, wrinkled, and flattened again. His form bears the marks of this abuse and in his torment and shame, he hides his face from view. Yet Job, like all of us, is never abandoned by God. The very words of God are woven through his being. And this is the hope of the story of Job—no matter how abandoned and dejected we feel, we are never really alone.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Subdodh Gupta: Reflections of a Culture in Flux

The global economy is here to stay. Often, we are unaware of just how much globalization impacts nearly every hidden corner of our lives. While we all became more cognizant of the effects of a world market on our individual lives and fortunes when the stock market took its massive dive, most people are unaware of how globalization has impacted the contemporary art market. The steady growth in the importance of contemporary Asian art has been a prominent topic within the art world for a decade. Most of the conversation tends to focus on art from China. Even though China is the recognized economic powerhouse, the economy of India has seen a similar expansion.

A popular theme for many of the contemporary Asian artists is the rapid industrialization and Westernization of these cultures, along with the impact that has had on societies that were overwhelmingly rural until quite recently. These are also societies that were steeped in philosophical and religious traditions far different from their Western counterparts. The ensuing culture clash has placed these societies on somewhat shaky ground, while the art of these cultures has been catapulted to an almost equal footing with that of leading Western artists.

Subdodh Gupta, an Indian artist of international renown, produces work that traverses this tightrope of a culture in continual flux. Gupta, now in his mid-forties, grew up in a more traditional, rural village in India. The span of his lifetime has witnessed incredible shifts and changes in Indian society. Gupta uses the language of contemporary art, along with materials from traditional Indian life, to weave together works that investigate these cultural paradoxes.

The tradition of the Readymade—popularized by Dadaist Marcel Duchamp—is often referenced when critics discuss the work of Gupta. Duchamps’s Readymades, which brought into question the suitability of materials and the choice of the artist in the designation of an object as art, set the agenda for much of the work produced in the twentieth century. It is Duchamp who is ultimately responsible for the abundance of contemporary artworks that, in the eyes of many viewers, do not actually seem to be "art." Because Gupta incorporates everyday objects into his sculptural works this is a fair assessment. However, Gupta’s penchant for compiling multiples of similar objects is better compared with the works of Arman. And like Arman, the masses of everyday objects take on a heightened sense of significance within Gutpa’s sculptures and installations.

One of the perennially favorite objects that Gupta places in accumulations within his works is the metal cooking and storage vessel—the tiffin pot. The vast majority of contemporary Indians have carried their lunches in these pots while growing up. They are also used for food storage within the home. In many ways the pots act as an equalizing element within the artist’s work. Indian citizens from all different classes or castes would have a personal relationship to these pots. The mass quantities allude to the burgeoning industrialization of the Indian society. Their shiny metal appearance—in stainless steel, aluminum, copper or brass—is more in keeping with a technologically advanced society than a rural, agrarian life.

That reflective surface is not just a seductive aesthetic element but the mirror that Gutpa places before his fellow Indians. What does the contemporary Indian see when gazing into the reflections of these vessels? Images act like a house of mirrors at the carnival—they are distorted and seemingly unnatural. The images bear a resemblance to things known but they are cast into new and unfamiliar forms. Indians see their not so distant past in light of a rapidly transforming present.

Many assemblages of tiffin pots are simple recontextualizations of the materials. Like Tracey Emin’s infamous bed, Gupta’s pots bring the contents of the home into the gallery. Unlike Emin’s work, the pots are void of personalized nuances. These are not Gupta’s private cooking pots but the kitchen utensils of the millions. They are blank canvases upon which each individual Indian places his or her own memories of a life that is disappearing and a culture that is in a constant state of flux.

While Gupta may incorporate pots into assemblages that appear like transplanted corners of a modern Indian kitchen (similar to Damien Hirst’s Pharmacy works) others transcend the day-to-day utilitarianism to become something else. Cheap Rice gathers dozens of tiffin pots with another familiar object from Indian society—the rickshaw. The seat for the passenger in this rickshaw is overflowing with pots. There is barely room for someone to even pedal the mass of pots to a destination. Again, thoughts of caste are brought to mind. The wealth and position of those in a higher caste—those who have the means to possess an overabundance of food—is pitted against the poorer, lower caste worker who would provide this kind of transportation. Yet the rickshaw can also be seen as the vehicle of modernization that is pulling the masses within Asian cultures into an industrialized, mechanized, and technologically advanced world.

Very Hungry God (2006) may well be Gupta’s answer to Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007). Instead of creating a skull from diamonds, Gupta, once again, utilizes the tiffin pots. The concept of vanitas is part of the theme of both works. Interestingly, Gupta is co-opting this concept from the West. True, the skull makes appearances in Indian art from the past several millennia, but the use of a sparkling skull made from reflective surfaces cannot be separated from the history of art in the West. This is one of the aspects of the global art world that is being worked out day-by-day. Postmodernist theories had already begun to break down the barriers between cultures over the past few decades. The internet and the world economy have diminished further distinctions.

Art and artists of the West began to highly value elements of Eastern culture and society in the twentieth century, and even as early as the mid-nineteenth century. Artists like Mark Tobey studied Asian calligraphic techniques as they perfected their own brands of abstraction. And now the reverse is happening as the East has opened more and more to the West. The hybridizing may be pushing us to a "world art" that lacks the distinctions that were natural when physical borders kept cultures in isolation. That isolation is all but forgotten now. The click of a computer’s mouse puts people from around the globe in touch with elements of cultures that were overwhelmingly unknown decades ago.

What Gupta’s work is able to do is focus on some questions. Like the best art in any culture, it doesn’t answer questions so much as ask the right ones. Is this rapidly changing world where cultural distinctions blur good or bad? Does the homogenization allow us to take the best from each society to make a better overall human experience, or does the loudest voice with the biggest bank account win out? It doesn’t matter so much whether be reside in the East or the West, these are the questions that need to be considered as we move forward in an ever-changing world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saints, Sinners, Martyrs, & Misfits

We don’t hear much about saints anymore. Every now and then we hear about someone who is considered a hero. For instance, a common citizen may risk his or her life to save another in harm’s way. Though we are more likely to hear about a figure in the world of sports who is a hero to young children, most of those “role models” do not accurately fill the role of hero. Still, in a world where few figures seem to don the attire of the saintly, we would do well to consider what a saint actually is.

I began investigating the concept of the veneration of saints about a decade ago when I was in the planning stages of my altarpiece constructions of personal saints. Not having been raised in an environment where the idea of canonized saints was ever entertained, I had to do a bit of research. The definition of veneration is: “to look upon with deep, honor, respect, or reverence.” As I looked at the lives of the traditional saints I began to understand that these were folks who were equally flawed as the rest of us. They were not some race of superheroes. The canonized saints were simply people who had aspects of their lives that were considered holy or “Christ-like.” Those are the attributes that we should be considering and striving to emulate in our own lives.

I have concurrently worked on some portraits of “non-canonized saints,” painted with watercolor on book pages, and with gold leaf halos. This started as a different avenue to consider some of these “personal saints” but began to evolve, as art is prone to do. I wanted to branch out into some new directions with the series. However, some of the people I began to consider were going to be a stretch for many. They seemed much less saintly, sometimes even to me. That is when the idea of Saints, Sinners, Martyrs, & Misfits came to me.

Some of the figures are people that I have recognized many Protestants unknowingly venerating. Take C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, for instance. Evangelical Christians hold the same kind of reverence for these two figures that many a Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christian would for the canonized saints of the past. And that isn’t a bad thing, but let’s call a spade a spade, here. We all have people in our lives that we look up to—people we wish we were more like. I don’t mean those people who are wealthy and seem to lead “the good life,” but those whose character is something that truly impresses and inspires us.

So when I start featuring figures like Andy Warhol, the plot thickens. Much has been written about the place of religion and faith in the life of Andy Warhol. The big picture of his biography does not suggest that he was the most saintly man, in the traditional sense. Still, there is something intriguing about his regular attendance at church services. There is also something endearing about the way he seemed to be a father to the rejected and dejected individuals who made their way to his Factory. In a certain way, he was a bright spot in the art world for several decades.

Without spoiling the surprises of future subjects for this series, I need to offer some comments on the Sinners and Misfits portion of the title. The individuals all fit that description to a certain degree. None of them were or are perfect. None of them were fully comfortable in this world. This is all part of the scheme. None of us feels like we really fit into this world, and we all know the mistakes we make, the wrongs and hurts we inflict on others. The Sinners and Misfits are equally the Saints and Martyrs, and vice versa. These people bring us all hope. The hope based in the fact that we are not in this life alone. There are others who live in some ways better than us, but in other ways worse than us. We muddle through together, and sometimes we are the saint to someone else.

Monday, October 12, 2009

God in the Gallery: Dan Siedell's Thoughts on the State of Modern Art

Daniel Siedell’s recent book God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art (Cultural Exegesis)is based on a premise that has been, in his opinion, largely overlooked within the field of art and faith. According to Siedell, the Christian community has tended to offer scholarship on art and faith from primarily two perspectives: theology and philosophy. While these are both valid lenses through which to view modern and contemporary art, the author argues that the rift between traditional Christian faith and the contemporary art world is in large part due to the lack of engagement with the art world by Christians via the established structures of the subculture of the art world (i.e. art criticism).

Siedell grounds the discussion in an evaluation of the enigmatic figure of the “Christian artist.” He suggests that the term, as it is currently understood or misunderstood, arose out of the work of Francis Schaeffer and Hans Rookmaaker in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While not diminishing the importance of these men in reengaging evangelicals in the Christian calling to the arts and culture, Siedell argues that the result has been a parallel “Christian art world” that offers an alternative to the presumed destructive Modernism of which Schaeffer and Rookmaaker were so critical. This alternative art world, safe within the embrace of the church, has been nurtured and expanded, in Siedell’s estimation, through institutions such as Christian college and university art departments and organizations like CIVA.

The author suggests that there is indeed an auxiliary route that artists and scholars within the church may pursue than this parallelism. The production of artwork and criticism using the vernacular of the art world, without the caveat that it must serve a specific evangelistic purpose, is one possibility. In terms or criticism, Siedell offers an overview of the two main paths of criticism that have continued since the mid-twentieth century, those of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.

Refreshingly, Siedell advocates an art criticism that is nourished by Nicene Christianity. Using this approach the critic may acknowledge the transcendent qualities of works that, while not necessarily created by professing Christians, may function as a window to the eternal, much in the way that a Byzantine icon does. In fact, Siedell draws this very comparison and gives a stirring commentary on just how similar ancient icons are to many forms of contemporary art. Among the numerous examples of this practice is a chapter based on Siedell’s 2005 presentation at the CIVA biennial conference on the artist Enrique Martínez Celaya.

While this is essentially a book on and about art criticism, it is also a book that is somewhat critical of the current state of Christianity in relation to art. Siedell offers more questions than he answers but this is indicative of this period in which a shift is beginning to take place within the so-called “Christian art world.” Whether or not one agrees with his hypotheses, this volume is a welcome and essential addition to the literature on art and faith that has been written since the days of Rookmaaker and Schaeffer.

Daniel Siedell’s God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Arts was published by Baker in 2008. This book review first appeared in the CIVA SEEN journal, volume VIII.2, 2008.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Floating to Earth: The Multifaceted Art of Carolyn Shadid-Lewis

Art exists to put into visual form something that words alone cannot express. Sometimes it is actually a combination of elements that come together to create this expression, but when the various pieces are amassed, something much larger is uncovered. It is a privilege to see those elements coming together. Few have the benefit of observing this somewhat private practice. I had the opportunity to view the various stages of production of a recent work by Carolyn Shadid-Lewis. The following is a glimpse of her creative process.

Shadid-Lewis is an interdisciplinary artist. Her background as a child growing up in a military family weighs heavily on her art production. Particularly during a time of war, this insider’s view provides a tenderness that is often overshadowed by artists who are prone only to protestations of military action. While the work may expose the devastating toll that war takes on individuals, it does not dismiss the magnitude of the honorable service provided by those same persons.

A prelude to the recent piece was a site-specific installation Shadid-Lewis created at the National Cemetery at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. In this work the artist gleaned from her background in music, as well as from her religious heritage. Extended on a Cursed Tree (2006)—the title of the piece—is an excerpt from a hymn. The artist hung various texts, outtakes from hymns that were stamped into dog tags, on the branches of a tree in the cemetery. The text-based work is reminiscent of works by artist Jenny Holzer. Both artists take snippets of longer texts out of their original contexts and require the viewer to rethink their meanings in light of a new context. In the distance of Shadid-Lewis’s piece are the endless rows of white grave markers. They are similar to the rows of white crosses one conjures up when thinking of the National Cemetery in Arlington.

In the video footage of this piece, dog tags sway gently in the breeze as rows of graves assume the role of an audience in the background. Each grave is a symbol of sacrifice. Like Christ, these service men and women were willing to be placed in harm’s way—willing to be sacrificed for the good of countless others. Christ and those represented by the grave markers are the appeasement that purchases the freedom of others.

It is in From Twilight Til Dawn (2009) that Shadid-Lewis is able to show the fullness of her interdisciplinary talents. The installation is one part drawing, one part music, one part documentary, and a whole lot of ephemerality. The work was created while the artist was working on her MFA at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. I visited her studio as the piece was in progress. Small portions of the project were in various states of completion about the room, but the room itself was a determining factor in how the piece was eventually resolved. The room was draped in ripstop—the fabric from which parachutes are constructed.

Even at this stage of production a video was a major part of the concept. The artist wondered whether or not projecting onto the fabric was the way to go. I assured her that it was an important consideration. The wispiness of the fabric was an indicator of the ephemeral nature of our existence. The billowing of the fabric, produced at the slightest movement of air currents, was like the pulsating of blood through the body.

At the core of the video is an interview with a WWII era paratrooper. His stories are interspersed with interviews with the artist’s father and vintage footage of hundreds of paratroopers wafting toward the ground. There is a stillness and serenity that comes from observing the earthward journey of the jumpers. But there is also a tension. The viewer recognizes that this is a time of calm before the storm. Once on the ground that serenity will be rudely interrupted.

In the final state this video is projected onto a plastic screen adjoining the ripstop fabric. Again, the peaceful though fragile state of human existence is mimicked through a room draped in parachute fabric. The fragility is enhanced through the blackboard style drawings that are interspersed with the shots of paratroopers and interview footage. The animated stop-action drawings bring to mind the work of William Kentridge. Shadid-Lewis relies on the ephemeral quality of these drawings to bolster the message running throughout the work. A particularly poignant segment comes near the end when the retired paratrooper fades from the screen. After emotionally stating his perennial question, "Why me? Why did I survive instead of others?," he fades from view. The chair where he was sitting comes into focus as a chalk drawing and that drawing is slowly erased to nothing. Though he is an elderly man, the viewer realizes that life is a fleeting thing, no matter how long we live.

The rewind effect that takes place in this segment, and in others near the end of the piece, is highly effective. We rewind scenes from our lives over and over in our minds. They are always with us, yet they are also fleeting moments in a timeline spanning much more than our solitary lives. The time-based nature of the installation, coupled with the presence of the flowing fabric, produces a more physical reaction to the work. Shadid-Lewis is able to utilize the inherent qualities of several media into one overwhelming and powerful message. One message that would be muted without the support of various elements together.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Art: Not Just for the Fun of It Anymore

The romanticized concept of the isolated artist, misunderstood by society and toiling away during fits of creative ecstasy and inspiration, has been equally damaging for both our broader society and artists. I have often had conversations with students concerning this misrepresentation of the life of the artist. Their preconceptions frequently provide a seemingly satisfactory scapegoat when a given project for a class is either stalled or unfinished at the time of critique. The excuse comes in the form of blaming the muse—i.e. they didn’t “feel like” creating at that particular time; there was no inspiration.

Art school provides a slap in the face to some, or at least a wake up call. The making of art is like the other things people go to college to study—it is work. Being an artist is like being an accountant, a doctor, or a lawyer. It is a job and you do it even when you don’t “feel like it.” Once the convenience of that excuse is gone an artist can finally get on to business. The hard work, day after day, starts to reveal that real art is serious and not just for the fun of it, not just for the enjoyment of the art maker.

This always leads to the next logical conversation with my students. At this point they question my authenticity as an artist. “Don’t you enjoy making art? Isn’t it fun for you to make it?” Evidently, that is why one wants to be an artist—it is fun. I have to explain that it is work. And while I can’t possibly conceive of another vocation that would ultimately bring me the same kind of satisfaction, the making of art does not always provide hours of pleasure, or fun. There are some boring and tedious tasks that must be performed. Sometimes the work leads you into modes of working that are not “fun” but are essential for a body of work to be completed. Such was the case when my work shifted style when I was in graduate school. And this is the example I always share.

I never lacked an intense work ethic as an undergraduate student. I was an overachiever and was constantly working on my own side projects in addition to the ones assigned for my classes. When I settled on painting as my area of emphasis it was, in part, because I really enjoyed the process. Painting was a natural fit for me. During that period I was painting in a more pre-expressionist or post-impressionist system. These terms really only pertain to paint application. The color was mixed on the palette and applied fairly thickly to the canvas without much blending after that. It was a use of “juicy” paint, as my painting professor always stated. I love to paint this way and if I am painting just to paint, with no preconceived objective except to paint the object, person, or scene before me, then this is how I paint.

In graduate school my paintings eventually were composed of multiple segments instead of single canvas images. The first few remained life sized, but then they all shrank to small canvas panels. (Some of these images can now be seen on my website) When this happened I ran into a problem. The smaller scale prohibited me from painting in that beloved style. Instead, I began painting with a more traditional glazing technique. The technique isn’t nearly as immediate and it provides me less instantaneous pleasure, but it was necessary for this type of work.

Those segmented works were difficult to hang on a wall and I soon realized that they were somewhat impractical to continue, even though I liked the effect. At the same time, I decided that the varying depths could be extended by going deeper into the wall space. I achieved that by framing the works and creating a backing or “wall” within that framed space. All this construction was so far afield of “painting” in the more traditional sense. I liked the end results but some of the points in between brought me less pleasure. They were the sacrifices made for the sake of the work.

My students can start to comprehend at this point. Like most things in life, you have to go through some unpleasant portions to get to the best parts. Otherwise there is no way to tell the difference between the two.

From the segmented works my progression soon turned to the altarpiece constructions. This has provided a better example of what I am trying to relay to students and others. It takes years to complete these works. I had to teach myself techniques in woodworking and antiquing and aging objects. The actual painting is a minimal part of the whole process. The box constructions go through several distinct stages and the processes are extremely tedious, though essential for the intended end result. But there is that end result. Though style may changes over time, I feel like I am in the place I am supposed to be with these constructions. Their completion brings great satisfaction, as does the way things are uncovered in the process of making them. They aren’t fun, but they are achieving the things that make the vocation of artist worthwhile.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Blessings of Self-Imposed Restrictions

In an era when freedom of expression is valued above many otherwise essential things, the notion of limits and parameters in art can be considered taboo subjects. This seems illogical since the very existence of limits is what leads to creative solutions. If there are no boundaries to bend then there is little need for innovation. I have often found that working within certain parameters--whether self-imposed or external restrictions--allows me to seek solutions I would not have otherwise imagined.

This type of limitation is what led to my first experiments with watercolor on antique book pages. I had already been painting with oils on book pages (covered with clear acrylic medium) as part of my altarpiece constructions. To paint directly on the pages was intimidating. There wasn't much margin for error on these fragile pieces of paper.

Here was the circumstance. While I was teaching in Idaho I spent three years as the director of the campus galleries. The region is quite conservative overall and the climate of that campus was even more so. After a bit of on-campus political jostling, I was fittingly fatigued as to seek no further battle over the appropriateness of displays of nude artwork within the galleries. The problem was, when my solo faculty exhibition came around, I simply had no new work that could suitably be exhibited in the galleries.

My solution was to create an entirely new body of work--in the span of three months. The exhibit referenced a bifurcation that I was feeling. I decided that I wanted to continue the work on book pages, and that I would attempt it through a more spontaneous method with watercolor. With such a small annual budget there was certainly no way I could justify using gallery funds to frame the show. I wasn't about to foot the bill myself, either.

That is when I decided that this provided an excellent opportunity to push the boundaries of the region's conservative gallery-going public in another direction. These galleries had never hosted anything remotely like an installation. I devised an installation that would still be comprised of fairly traditional painting. Representational painting.

No work was hung on the walls themselves. In fact, a good two thirds or more of the gallery space was not utilized at all. Instead, muslin fabric was hung from ceiling to floor in the central interior of the gallery. The individual book pages incorporating watercolor self portraits were floated on the fabric, adhered with linen tape. The fabric walls billowed in the breeze created when viewers walked through. One side of the narrow corridor consisted of images on pages with Hebrew text, the other with images on Greek text.

I tend not to divulge the full meaning of this show. It represented a deeper analysis than a mere critique of censorship of the most mild forms of nudity in art. The simple fact that the full impact of the installation was lost on large segments of the viewing public was part of the point. Attitudes and understandings of contemporary art were at the core of this show.

The most unusual piece in the exhibit was also a self portrait, but it observed a different set of limitations. Like the portraits on texts from two languages, this double self portrait referenced the same bifurcation. The piece is completely composed of my old, cast-off clothing. The backing panel of this quilt-like object is white undershirts. The two portrait busts are formed, on one side, from cloth in solid colors, and on the other side, in plaids. The intimacy of clothing--something alluding to both our physical bodies and personalities--is most fitting for a self portrait. The hand-sewn panel was like a physical proxy of the artist within the exhibit.

It is highly unlikely that I would have ever chosen to turn my old clothing into a work of art had an obstacle not been placed in my path. Once the medium presented itself I had to develop my own set of limitations so that the work made sense within the context of the larger show. This is what art continues to be: innovative reimaginings of the elements and materials of design to express some of the same age-old questions that still need asking.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ann Hamilton: Changing History One Book at a Time

You hear it all the time. People are outraged to discover that American children are being taught “suspect” or “alternative” accounts of American historical events. The stories many of us grew up reading in our history textbooks are now vigorously debated and sometimes swapped out for transformed accounts. Having a broader historical base is a great thing, but we all seem to recognize that time marches on, adding to history, and some events are ultimately going to be covered less thoroughly because there is only so much space in a textbook and time in a school year.

The impetus for many of these changes comes from the philosophical precepts of Critical Theory. Most folks outside of academia have no idea what critical theory is, yet it impacts us all in nearly every facet of our lives. The art world is no exception. The various viewpoints of many contemporary artists are indebted to their study of critical theory, and the acknowledgment of that fact provides an enhanced understanding of the art of the moment.

The work of Ohio-based artist Ann Hamilton stands as an appropriate primer for those seeking a visual route to understanding critical theory. While Hamilton’s non-conventional media and materials could be suspect to those accustomed only to traditional art forms, analysis of the varying components of her work provides a nuanced discussion that is deeply informed by critical theory.

Having studied both fibers (or textiles) and sculpture, Hamilton soon expanded the scope of her work to include the contexts of larger installation settings that often include performance aspects, as well. The questioning of our accepted written historical accounts is at times a thematic element within the works.

Indigo Blue, an installation originally conceived for a location in Charleston, SC in 1991, is an extensively referenced Hamilton work which exhibits the artist’s tendency to question how those in power choose the way history is written. Indigo Blue was one part of Places with a Past, a larger, city-wide exhibition showcasing various artists. Hamilton had initially intended to produce a site specific work that addressed the specter of slavery in the American South. She changed her mind when she came upon an old auto repair shop located on Pickney Avenue—named after the woman who introduced the cultivation of the indigo plant to the U.S. This shop became the initial site for the work.

Aside from the primary color, the term “blue” had the additional connotation of “blue collar.” This was represented by a massive pile of 48,000 neatly folded shirts and pants. Yet the reference is not simply to the working men whose physical labor is the back bone of industry in this nation. Hamilton goes past the nameless, faceless male physical laborers to the support system behind them—an equal number of nameless and faceless women who mended and laundered the clothing of those blue collar laborers.

The artist enlisted a number of women, including her mother, to meticulously fold and stack the enormous pile of clothing. There was an additional performative element each day of the exhibition. A woman sat before the pile of clothing erasing words from an old history book. Not only does this reference the secondary coverage of women in recorded history, but the fact that the stories of these women, with each passing year, are forgotten and erased by time.

Hamilton employed a similar system of historical erasure for her 1993 installation, Tropos, at the Dia Foundation. Tropos provided a more transformative environment. The space was converted into a type of sanctuary, similar in conception to a gothic cathedral. The windows of the exhibition space were draped in a deep magenta colored silk. Not only did this provide a darkening, a quieting, of the light in the space, the pinkish hue also referenced the feminine. (note: the images shown here with silk covered windows are from Hamilton’s 2004 installation Corpus at MASS MoCA)

Visual cues were not the only indicators of a space set apart for “sacred” acts. The floor was covered with animal fur. The material tied the installation to the natural world and the soft undulations of the ground underfoot expressed something far afield from mere carpeting. The relation to animals, almost sacrificial in nature, again expressed a near religious environment.

Sound was also implemented in Tropos. It was the first form of language that one encountered. The recorded voice(s) broadcast through speakers were at times audible, though in this setting they came across in muted tones like chants or prayers. The other component of language, again, appeared in the form of a woman erasing words from a book. This time an electric tool was used to singe or burn the lines of text from the book.

Tropism, the term that provides inspiration for the installation, refers to our innate inclinations to react in particular ways toward certain stimuli. It is seen in plants when they lean toward a source of light . For Hamilton, this is exemplified by her greater trust in our “physical knowledge” than in our mental reasonings. Our bodies both learn and know how to respond over time. Those immediate responses—our natural responses—can often be trusted more than our mental gymnastics, employed to solve a problem or resolve a situation.

In Tropos the performing figure was doing more than merely erasing or changing historical accounts. Her actions were shamanistic or priestly. She was symbolically standing in for those history has forgotten. The smoke that rose from the ritual burning of the text acted as incense that cleansed us and our forebears from our sins of omission and commission. It is the ritual act—this very physical experience in a specific, almost sacred space—that speaks to our senses in a way that all the theoretical jargon of critical theory can only suggest in abstractions.

All Hamilton’s installations are meant to transform the spaces they occupy and transport the viewers past the thinking of our ordinary lives. In the fall of 2005 the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden presented the installation Palimpsest (originally produced in 1989). It was contained in a smaller space than other Hamilton works, but the transformative quality was just as great. To enter the space one was required to remove shoes and then place sanitary medical footies over bare or stocking feet. A guard positioned at the entrance ensured that no one entered without succumbing to this ritual. Before ever seeing the interior of the room the viewer was prepared to enter an alternate realm.

Like the supple floor of Tropos the floor in Palimpsest was more like earth than concrete beneath the observer’s feet. The walls of the room rippled with loosely adhered newsprint sheets with handwriting scrawled across them. The floor contained “tiles” of similar newsprint sheets, but these were encased in beeswax. The use of beeswax acted as both a form of preservation for the fragile messages, but also obscured the messages and created a buffer between the viewer and the work.

A palimpsest refers to a manuscript that has been written, erased, and written upon once more, with traces of the original text still visible. The exhibit literally displays this, but does much more. With only a few visitors allowed to enter at any given time, the space, like most of Hamilton’s works, seems quietly sacred. The other element included in this space was a glass vitrine with two heads of cabbage slowly being devoured by twenty snails. This slow process of eating away the vegetation left paths and traces, as well. The slime trails of the snails covered the sides of the vitrine, and the paths they took while eating the leaves were very present, too.

Palimpsest is perhaps even more telling a work. It expresses, via somewhat odd elements, Hamilton’s response and relationship to historical accounts. History leaves a variety of messages for those who come after. There are many trails to follow and bits and pieces of many messages compose the fullness of what has transpired. History is written and re-written as new stories come to light. In the end we have a ravaged corpse (the cabbage) but that is the closest thing to truth we can conceive. No one person (or snail) possesses the complete, true path of history. Hamilton masterfully challenges us to consider the various viewpoints that compose our past.