Monday, May 18, 2009

The Art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres—The Now and Not Yet

When the concept that art can be subversive is first acknowledged images of overtly political or propagandistic art might form in the mind. The feminist politics of an artist like Barbara Kruger are fully apparent when viewing her work. Even her heavy handed use of stark images, limited to black, white, and red, betrays her political agenda. This overt stance is certainly the model at times, yet some artists wield the tools of contemporary art in much more subtle, if not equally effective, ways.

The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a master of subtle symbolism. His art is brazenly political though his complex vocabulary requires a certain degree of deciphering if one wishes to receive the messages he sought to convey. His Leftist politics exemplified the stated decline of American culture that the Religious Right vigorously battled during the height of the culture wars in the 1990s. Still, Gonzalez-Torres proved that one might have an agenda akin to something like Robert Mapplethorpe’s without visually assaulting the sensibilities of the general population (*which is not to say that ALL of Mapplethorpe’s work did this, nor to state that his photographs are not technically superb).

Though not a founding member of Group Material, Gonzalez-Torres was asked by Tim Rollins and others in the Group to join their collaborative projects in the 1980s. Their collaborative-conceptualist works were both political in content and process. The individual political ideals of the Group aligned with Gonzalez-Torres’s own and the democratic nature that defined the group process guaranteed that a more liberal agenda would be set forth. However, he continued simultaneously creating individual works because his unique perspectives were somewhat muted in the collaborative process.

Where many derided artists, casualties of the culture wars, found their opponents on the Right as nearly sub-human, Gonzalez-Torres respected their tactics. Raised Roman Catholic, strict religious systems were not foreign to him. Some residual elements of his Catholicism even influenced his work. Upon reading that the director of the Christian Coalition promoted a form of guerrilla warfare that would only be apparent to those with a liberal political agenda on election night, the artist embraced the subversive tactic. He claimed that he also wanted to be a spy—a Trojan Horse his opponents could not initially detect.

Indeed, preliminary examinations of Gonzalez-Torres’s work seem to only reveal a spare conceptualism. Rooted in minimalist forms, incorporating everyday objects as the preferred media, there is nothing on the surface to expose the artist’s larger mission. As an openly gay artist during the height of the early AIDS epidemic, it was not unusual that Gonzalez-Torres would create art that brought related topics into focus. In fact, the artist eventually succumbed to the disease, following the death of his partner, also from AIDS related complications.

If Gonzalez-Torres’s art was not explicitly about sexuality and desire (though he might have stated it was), it was certainly about relational dynamics. These relationships were both private and corporate and their blurred boundaries were a main thrust of the thematic totality. The artist questioned boundaries. Cuban born, but living mostly in the U.S., physical boundaries were only one possible reading for Gonzalez-Torres.

Works like the "stacks"—unlimited posters printed by a commercial printer and stacked in a minimalist column within the gallery—often questioned the boundaries between private freedoms and government policy or intervention. Not only were the messages printed on the posters political (i.e. concerns about federal gun control policies and the rate of deaths by gun violence), the nature of the works’ structure was a political statement in terms of art world commodification.

The stacks consist of an endless supply of identical images. Viewers are encouraged to take one. Thus, each stack is slowly diminished throughout every exhibition day. The gallery or museum staff replenishes each stack as the prints dwindle in quantity. The swelling and receding stacks mock the valuation of art. The unlimited supply, from which viewers take and do not purchase individual portions, is an affront to the gallery system and the presupposition that art is only for a wealthy, elite minority. This art is free to all.

Similar to the stacks are the "spills." Placed in corners of the gallery or in minimalist influenced rectangular "blankets" on the gallery floor, the spills are composed of individually wrapped hard candies. The Untitled (Placebo) of 1993 relates directly to the AIDS virus. As Gonzalez-Torres helplessly watched his partner slowly die from the effects of AIDS, he was acutely aware that the prescribed treatments were little more than a delusion in the face of an incurable disease.

For Gonzalez-Torres the spills represented the gradual loss of one who is dying. Little pieces of his partner were lost daily, just as viewers take pieces and literally eat away at the installation. This odd mixture of life and death, a dead body consumed by the living, has often been linked to the Eucharistic symbols of the artist’s Catholic heritage. These works are nearly alive, breathing organisms. Yet they are always diminishing, dying.

The stacks and spills mimic our relational lives. In our personal interactions we constantly take little pieces of others away with us. When those people are eventually dead and gone we still hold on to the memories, the pieces. They are not the whole of the person, but a portion. Gonzalez-Torres realized this and even defined the parameters of works by assigning them ideal weights (such as the combined weight of the artist and his partner).

This ideal is also found in Platonic philosophy. Plato’s famed "cave" relates our experiences in this physical world to shadows viewed in the recesses of a dimly lit cave. We only catch glimpses of what is real, what is ideal, in this, our current state. These installations reflect an ideal and perfect state for the artist, but they can never assume that ideal state. Even when candies are installed at this weight the piece is incomplete until viewers partake of it physically. And when they do, the fluctuation, the ebb and flow of the component parts, competes with the ideal.

This process can be likened to another concept in Christianity—the Kingdom of God as the Now and Not Yet. Jesus explained to his disciples that the Kingdom of God was here. He claimed he had fulfilled the Law of Moses so that humanity could once again dwell with God. But heaven was not yet here on earth. It was still to come at the end of time. The perfection of things that Felix Gonzalez-Torres sought through politically infused art was always just out of reach. The fullness of relationships could never be attained since we are all dying a little each day.

At the heart of these works and others is a sense of desire. This may be a desire for the other, but it is also that desire for perfection, completion. It is that desire for the "not yet." Another signature work that reflects this longing is the artist’s Untitled (Clocks). Two simple, unadorned wall clocks are placed adjacent to each other on the wall. Their sideways figure eight recalls the symbol for infinity. The clocks are set in perfect time, down to the second. They are like two people, a couple that is perfectly in sync.

But there is soon trouble in this perceived paradise. The clocks eventually fall out of rhythm. The infinite love of this united pair can fall out of step. Inevitably one clock will stop ticking. One heart will stop beating. No matter how perfect the relationship, this "now" is temporal and mortal. So we continue to seek that immortal perfection of the not yet.

The deceptively simple artwork of Felix Gonzalez-Torres continues to hold a powerful influence in the contemporary art world for more than its political power and status. For some it holds a certain importance for its message of sexual equality. For others the attention brought to certain social issues is paramount. Still, the primary reason Gonzalez-Torres’s work continues to be exhibited is that it touches on key elements of our human existence, as all great art must.

To End at the Beginning

I have worn a variety of hats in my professional life: teacher, administrator, curator, art critic, and more. No matter what my official title is at any given time, there is one title that always remains—artist. It is something that is integral to my personality and the artist’s mind and mode of seeing cannot really be turned off at will. That means that new and in-process works are always rambling through my head, often when I least expect them.

There are certain times when I am actively seeking ideas and inspiration. When I visit flea markets and antique shops I have a couple goals. I tend to have a mental list of items I’m seeking. Odd objects that will become relics within larger altarpieces are often located on these excursions. No matter how the idea for an altarpiece originates—from an object I have already found or an idea that came from something I read or heard—I tend to envision additional objects as I sketch the design. A rooster (really just a chicken), a lamb, a doll’s head, a platter, a honey dipper/dripper. All of these have been on my list and were found on one of these trips (Of course that elusive chameleon is still on my list! I think it is just blending into its surroundings).

I now stick by the rule that if I find an item, even when I’m not searching for it, I better get it. When I lived in Massachusetts there was a great flea market I sometimes attended on Sunday mornings before church. My friend George and I would get up at 5 AM in order to paw through the assorted trash and treasures before heading out to mass. I will be incorporating my finds from the Todd Farm flea market for decades to come. My other reliable haunt was the antique shops in a small town in New Hampshire. That is where I learned the lesson to buy it right when you find it.

On what I would guess was my second trip to these antique shops, I happened upon one of those life-sized Christ child statues/dolls that churches often display in a manger around Christmas. Mind you, I was not in the market for one and I also had no idea what I would do with the thing if I bought it. I do recall that it was priced higher than what I was really willing to pay. I was drawn to the worn quality of the object. It was missing fingers and had scars and abrasions over its surface. So, I gathered the objects I planned to buy, made my purchases and went home without baby Jesus.

The Christ child would not leave my mind, however, as Jesus is often want to do. I tend to be enchanted by objects no one else would, so I returned later that week expecting little Jesus to be there waiting for me. I was wrong. I still didn’t know what I would have done with it, but I was greatly disappointed that I didn’t obtain it when I had the chance.

Several months later I returned to the New Hampshire antique shops with my friends Barry and Kathy. We had spent the previous day in meetings and part of my thank you to them was this trek to our immediate north. Barry is known for his assemblage work and I knew he would be delighted with the shops. He ended up filling his suitcases for the return flight to California and I even had to mail an additional box of items to him later.

I picked up some old cameras, a bunch of skeleton keys, and some old iron claw feet from a bathtub. I figured I would find a few items but I didn’t expect to be fascinated with an object I was not actually seeking. Inside a glass display case I spotted an antique German doll. It wasn’t exactly that missing baby Jesus, but it elicited a similar response. This doll was made from pressed metal. The head and legs were detached from the torso and the parts were piled in a wooden cigar box. It was also placed in a price range I was reluctant to enter.

The siren call of the dismantled infant eventually proved irresistible and I purchased it, having no idea what I would do with a dismembered doll. The doll lounged in its cigar box daybed for several months. I passed it daily and contemplated its meaning. Since it had reminded me of that baby Jesus I had passed by, I kept mentally interrogating its purpose within my studio.

One day, while working through the sketches for a crucifixion piece I was developing, the meaning of the doll struck me clearly. This small object was the complete history of Christ. It was the miraculous birth of the incarnate God, yet it was also the foreshadowing image of the adult Christ. Here, the infant of the Christmas story was also revealed as the object of ultimate sacrifice and salvation for all humanity.

As the relevance of this relic for an unknown altarpiece construction revealed itself the other elements of the work quickly fell into place. I learned a good lesson with the doll. Trust your instincts. I see many objects at antique shops and flea markets that spark an interest, but few have captivated me to this degree. I now understand that when they do I need to bite the bullet, spend the cash, and wait for the next artwork to reveal itself. These unconscious symbols surround us. It is the role of the artist to connect the dots and uncover their hidden meanings.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tim Rollins—A New World Evangelist

On a warm fall evening I made my way along 23rd St. in New York’s Chelsea district. After a day full of business meetings I was looking forward to the possibility of a relaxing chat with an artist friend. We had already missed each other earlier in the day because he had an interview somewhere uptown. No definite plans were confirmed for that evening, but I had a hunch I knew where to find him.

Down a few steps, through the door, and to the left. Sure enough. Dressed in his requisite black attire, with the signature black hat, Tim Rollins was already holding court at his favorite bar. The first time he brought me there he described it as a type of Cheers. True, everybody there knows Tim’s name and that evening they sat rapt, encircling the bar, as he offered up tale after tale.

After a few minutes of catching up, and into Tim’s second Beefeater martini, another artist acquaintance of Tim’s walked in. We were introduced and soon the artist began to explain his current project. It was an interesting proposal for which he sought models from a great variety of ethnic backgrounds. He mentioned that he needed several more African Americans. Without hesitation Tim invited him to church that Sunday. Tim attends a black church in Harlem. His is regularly one of the scant white faces in the crowd—swaying, shouting, and singing as energetically as anyone else. Tim could certainly round up a dozen or more willing models. This conversation and the invitation to church are typical of Tim’s generous interactions—his modus operandi.

Rollins first gained attention for his work with Group Material, a politically motivated art collective formed from students nearing graduation from the School of Visual Arts. They produced a body of work in the 1980s. The individuals met in conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s seminar class at SVA and, from the first, their joint efforts took on a similar conceptualist flavor.

Julie Ault, another founding member of the Group, has explained that the democratic process of their work needed a bit of harnessing. Though the members had their own private art practices and interests, they worked within a different dynamic when collaborating. Tim Rollins became an agent of much needed focus for their collective ideas. His natural charisma and experience working with young students in the New York City burroughs thrust him into some leadership responsibilities.

Rollins possesses a talent for bringing out the best—the untapped creativity—within others. He also has a boundless enthusiasm that is contagious. These qualities caused him to relentlessly question the bureaucratic roadblocks placed in his way when teaching in the Learning to Read Through the Arts program within the New York City public school system. He refused to place a low bar before his students simply because they came from less than promising circumstances. Inspired by the hope and optimism that empowered the Civil Rights work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Tim refused to consign the minds of these young people to the trash heap.

About this time (1981) Rollins began an after school program called the Art and Knowledge Workshop; the art he and those students produced in collaboration eventually was to be known as the work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival—what the young people dubbed themselves). From the first, these collaborative works were marked by Tim’s insistence on the creative and intellectual potential within the Kids. The work, to this day, is typically characterized by the use of painting and drawing media upon single book pages or multiple pages adhered to stretched canvases.

The literary works mined for both artistic and transformative potential include Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, and The Creation oratorio by Haydn. These works could provide a challenge for the average junior high school student, yet Tim dove into the texts along with his young artists. Together, they searched for the relevant elements of human struggle and potential in each work.

As with the work of Group Material, Tim’s work with K.O.S was often a political endeavor. He may have chosen the texts for the group to read and discuss, but the students were responsible for shaping the artwork. They could find the injustices relayed through a work of fiction. They could also recognize these injustices in their own lives—in their neighborhoods. Again, a somewhat democratic process allowed for the vetting of ideas and concepts. As in Group Material, Tim functioned as a facilitator in this process.

Reviews of the work have often been mixed. It has stood the test of time for over twenty-five years. The work has also earned a coveted place within the pantheon of contemporary art. For those who might offer complaints about the style of the work—stating that its form has not progressed beyond the paintings on book pages—a reminder that consistency in style is a necessity for nearly any other contemporary artist is in order.

Criticism has also been leveled against Rollins as an exploiter. The claim is that he has used these young people as his means to art world success and fame. The story of collaboration with underprivileged youth would then be little more than a way to tug at the heart (and purse) strings of over privileged collectors. This could be the case if one disregarded the actual person of Tim Rollins.

Rollins’ personality indicates that his journey through the art world could have been none other than what it is. He is an evangelist—a high octane backwoods preacher. I propose a variety of meanings with this analogy. As stated above, Tim might readily invite any casual acquaintance to church with him on any given Sunday. He fully believes in the experience that he and others share in that zealous setting.

Tim is also an evangelist for justice. He views Dr. King as a hero. Much of his drive comes from a desire to unmask the disparities and inequities present within our culture. He works with the forgotten and the disenfranchised. Working with children that society may write off, he guides them to revelations of their true worth. Providing them with this kernel of truth is essential if any are to truly become Kids of Survival, reaching past their meek circumstances.

Not only does Tim’s zeal positively impact the outlook of the K.O.S. artists, it impacts a larger culture. Tim uses art and literature to open the eyes of the children. He then turns around and opens the eyes of the culture to their personal complicity in a system that weighs these children down in the first place. That makes him an advocate and not an exploiter. And for this reason the larger project of Tim and K.O.S. can be nothing short of political. Yet it can also be viewed as spiritual. Tim’s fervor and zeal comes from a New Testament faith. A faith that impacts how he interacts with all people. The teachings of Jesus saturate his personal interactions. A love for others is at the center of it all.

Though the art is provocative in its own right, the backstory is equally compelling. The forceful visual language of Modernism thoroughly engages the viewer. But the work is not merely some abstract wallpaper. Just as the process of creating the work is transformative for the artists, it can be transformative for the viewer. Rollins and K.O.S charge viewers with the responsibility of entering the art, completing a cycle of communication and action. The work is a testament to the adage that anything worth our time in this world is also worth our sweat and toil.

The Pilgrimage: Unforeseen Journeys

As I prepared for a one month teaching stint in Italy in 2006, I had a list of artworks, altarpieces, and locations with and at which I planned to spend some quality time. I had been in Italy for a little more than a week in 1991, but that was before I had ever taken an art history class. In the intervening years I had taught art history to hundreds of college students and the altarpiece had become a significant form within my own work.

I was lucky enough to have a friend from Boston who was living in Florence at the time. So I spent a few days with him and planned my schedule so that I could see as many works as possible. This, however, did not include entering Florence’s domed cathedral (the Duomo) or visiting the Academia to see Michelangelo’s David and Slaves. I had already seen these works and, though they are worthy of multiple extended visits, I knew there were some less widely known works I had not previously seen that would prove to be better stops during this pilgrimage.

I spent the better part of one day in the Uffizi Museum. One morning was devoted to the convent of San Marco with the frescoed cells of Beato (Fra) Angelico. The final morning found me crossing the Ponte Vecchio bridge to see Pontormo’s masterful Deposition and the Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine.

At both the Uffizi and the museum at the San Marco convent I did the type of sketching I had anticipated. The frames on various altarpieces and smaller devotional works were intricately carved and gilded. Reproductions in books never do these details justice since they are flattened. Some books even leave the frames off completely. Though I don’t try to make the constructed portions of my own altarpieces quite like their renaissance era predecessors, I do gain valuable information from studying them closely.

What I had not expected was the impact reliquaries and medieval wooden statuary would have on me. I came across these beautiful and curious objects in unexpected places. In Florence, I did not shun Michelangelo completely; I visited his Medici tombs in San Lorenzo. Like many of the churches in the city it also has an adjacent museum. The gilded bones and odd possessions of long departed saints were encased in complexly designed, jewel encrusted structures.

Back in Orvieto, where I was spending most of my days, I visited the museum of the city’s cathedral. It had an exhibit of work by Simone Martini. His international gothic style Annunciation has always been inspiring as an altarpiece form. Some of the other works on display, but not in that exhibit, were what really drew my attention. Several worm eaten wooden sculptures of saints simultaneously possessed a sense of decay and a tender, life-like presence. I took detailed notes concerning their condition. Later, on several visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, I studied similar medieval statuary. While they intrigued me, I wasn’t sure how these sculptural works related to what I was presently pursuing in the altarpieces.

When I found a broken wooden hand mannequin—the kind artists use when sketching out hand gestures—I began to see it as a reliquary object. It was on clearance at an art supply store so I picked it up for future use. It is becoming a hybrid form, and is still in process. The wooden sculptures I had been studying are typically painted (polychromed) in life-like colors. Reliquary objects are often coated in gold. This hand resides somewhere between these two forms. It is both worm eaten, weathered wood and a mystical golden relic. It connects to an ancient past but is also of this contemporary moment.

What the hand means within the larger context of a specific altarpiece will be up to the viewer to conceive. I have my concept for this relic, but I don’t want to reveal too much about the work before it is finished. Keep reading future posts for further details.