Thursday, June 25, 2009

Andy Warhol—The Voyeur and the Viewed

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Time Keeps on Slippin’… into the Future

One summer, which I suspect to have been about 1985, I spent several weeks at my aunt and uncle’s in Ohio. They live in suburban Dayton—though I’m not sure Dayton itself can actually be considered urban. My aunt fondly recalls being on the verge of packing me up in a box and shipping me home—media rate. This was mainly because I was an overachiever when it came to inciting my two younger cousins to perform acts of mischief. But in my defense, they never needed all that much encouragement.

This was the summer that I first began to picture myself in the role of an artist. My cousins and I were watching either Bob Ross or some other “You too can be an artist” personality on PBS one day. I agreed with the sentiments of the show. I knew that I could be at least as good of an artist as that person, who played one on TV. Within a couple weeks after returning home I was attempting my first paintings—still lifes in poster paint on typewriter paper. Only the most archival materials for me.

Outside of my early forays into painting, there was another interest of mine that developed that same summer. My aunt and uncle’s next door neighbor held a yard sale while I was staying there. The only item I remember from the yard sale was an old grandfather clock. It didn’t work and that was part of the intrigue. I wanted to fix it so that it would work again. Needless to say, it was out of my adolescent no-income price range. Even if I had been able to buy it there was no way to get it back to Michigan in my parents’ car.

When I am searching through antique shops and flea markets clocks and watches are always on my list of possible purchases. The greater the disrepair the better. And I really have a slight obsession with pocket watches, too.

I can’t fix these devices. Having the ability to fix them is no longer part of the attraction. I like inspecting the mechanics of the time pieces. The gears and springs are similar to the inner workings of the human body, but without the blood and mess. So I have found that clocks and watches, and their internal organs, have come to exist as a personal metaphor for the human body.

The brokenness of the clocks is a representation of some form of brokenness in our lives. It can represent physical brokenness, and ultimately death, but it is more apt to symbolize relational brokenness. Even the disrepair of our inner dialogues, our states of psychological and spiritual well-being, can be exhibited through this mechanical brokenness. And of course, the temporal is an automatic association. Though we exist in time, these broken clocks appear to relate to an existence that is timeless.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Allison Luce—From dust you have come

It seems that the feminist movement needs a new publicist. Perhaps some of the more outrageous antics of a few first generation feminists are to blame, but a feminist stereotype has emerged. The shame within the art world is that younger artists may be apt to dismiss some of the groundbreaking work of their early feminist colleagues. The broader concerns of the movement are thus left unexplored, or at least under explored, by these young artists.

The reclaiming of imagery based on the female body runs the gamut from Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings to performance artist Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll. Yet the body of a woman is but one part of the entire feminist project. Artists like Faith Ringgold, Miriam Schapiro, and Judy Chicago tackled the place of women in a patriarchal system, in part, by the very media and materials of their art. In fact, Judy Chicago’s famous Dinner Party blends overt female imagery with the use of clay, a material that held a traditional position as a craft medium, a lesser medium.

Contemporary clay artist Allison Luce follows, in a more subtle fashion, the pathway of Judy Chicago. Luce’s early dual training in painting and art history has greatly impacted her ceramic endeavors. The same themes have been recurrent from the work of the 1990s until the present. The concept of the physical body as a vessel, a shelter, for the human soul is preeminent.

When I first encountered Luce’s work I was most uncertain of her intended conceptual agenda. While the underlying structural material was indeed fired stoneware, the surface treatment did not reveal this. The surface of these works was covered in glitter. The disparity was actually quite fitting. The artist herself proves to be a dichotomy, not conforming to the typical feminist stereotype, but engendering a far more common and culturally expected female appearance. Yet her work clearly exhibits a kinship with O’Keeffe, Chicago, and other first generation feminists.

These glittering works were directly connected to a series of paintings from the same period. In each, the viewer is confronted with forms that reflect Gothic and Renaissance architecture—shapes gleaned from her familiarity with art history. The peaking, steeple-like shapes recall the facades of European cathedrals. The paintings utilize color to convey an open interior or void. The sculptural works go a step further by creating a box-like container for this void. These dazzling interiors are fitting containers for an eternal soul.

As the work matured, into some of Luce’s more recent series, she persisted with this sheltering concept, but chose to obscure some of the more grandiose references to the spiritual realm. The spaciousness of the hollow interiors is not always evident. Some works, like Adumbration, share similarities with seashells, pushing the concept of the body as a physical shelter—or shell—for the soul in a more obvious direction.

Other works form the Serpent Tree series appear as if solid throughout. These seemingly solid works more fully align with the unconscious patterns of our human interactions. The physical being is what we often unconsciously consider the "person" in daily interactions, yet, upon death, we recognize the frailty of that body and reassure one another that the "real" person has departed in the form of the soul.

This series takes obvious cues from the Judeo-Christian creation account. Works like The Beginning offer expectation and hope in the verdancy of new life. When compared with Vertigo, the grayness of which signals death, the viewer senses that something is afoot. Vertigo appears like a human heart, with downward facing arteries and valves, drained of all life. Metamorphosis and Edict suggest bone-like structures. Their previous stages of growth are now hardened and calcified. The series follows a logical cycle that seems to end with The Fall, a downward facing trumpet form in blackened tones that signal death.

Between the extremes of The Beginning and The Fall are a range of more sumptuous and enticing works. Both Eve and Forbidden Fruit are finished in seductive red hues. It is also within works like these that one can find streams of Luce’s feminist heritage. These pieces and others retain the natural slumping of clay slab work that bears considerable resemblance with primary physical female sexual characteristics. They are not quite as obvious as Judy Chicago’s dinner plates, but they do not neglect the idea of female sexuality, either.

What is sensed when viewing multiple works by Luce is her tendency to create pairings, pieces that relate to one another. Immortal Mortal is a pairing, a doubling of the same form, within a single work. One side appears as the fragile earthen vessel, worn and scuffed, while the other is its pristine ideal. The hour glass form that results in the void between them suggests their relationship to one another, based on a temporal plane.

Eve and Forbidden Fruit could be a pairing based solely on their coloration. That is a more common association one finds in Luce’s work. The other is a similarity in shape, with one piece often seeming to exhibit decorative flourishes that extend from a more stable inner structure. Metamorphosis and Edict exhibit this relationship. In this type of pairing gender roles come into question. But which piece stands for which gender? One might assume that the frilly extensions of Edict represent some aspect of culturally dictated female cosmetic expectations. Yet the flourishes could also relate to the rule of nature, wherein the male of the species is more apt to have extravagant coloration or plumage in order to attract a mate. This ambiguity is really at the core of Luce’s feminist leanings. The pairs suggest relational interdependence but do not conflate that with some predetermined and steadfast cultural gender roles.

The last type of pairing again exists within individual pieces. These more recent pieces, like Ambiguous Ambit, exhibit unnatural pairings. Ambit feels more mechanical and synthetic than natural. It is still formed essentially from clay but the addition of an electrical cord somewhat confuses the viewer. Other works have incorporated artificial foliage and even faux fur.

The tension in these works is an avenue by which the artist forces the viewer to consider what is real and what is not. What is authentic and what is a deception. In these works the voids are filled with materials. Where there was once room for the spirit there is now inauthentic material that spills over onto the physical shelter.

In each phase of Allison Luce’s work the viewer is confronted with traditionally held dualities. These may be in the form of male/female or body/spirit, but they all question what is authentic and what is inauthentic. The strength of the work is that it poses questions but offers ambiguous answers. Didacticism rarely produces great art.

What You See is What You See

I once had work in an exhibition in Salem, MA. It coincided with an exhibition at Salem’s Peabody-Essex Museum that featured the work of Joseph Cornell and was curated by the museum’s chief curator Lynda Roscoe-Hartigan, who is the preeminent scholar on Cornell. The work in this other exhibition was by artists who were influenced by Cornell in one way or another.

I am not overly cautious about the handling of my altarpiece constructions when simply driving them down the road a few miles. Some parts of the works are breakable, but they are quite sturdy in general. What concerns me more is their presentation.

The problem that arose with this exhibition was that work had to be delivered to one location but was to be installed at another. I just don’t trust others with putting all the pieces back together in their proper positions. I was given a special dispensation and a half hour window when I could reorganize the elements of the works displayed. I was glad to have this because the sticky notes I found with sketches on them concerning the placement of the objects mentioned the "bottles with cookies in them." I suspect these were drawn up by the woman with—and I’m not kidding here—lavender hair.

Curious hair color choices aside, I have had several people question me about the glass jars and their contents. The intended purpose of the bottles expanded after the first few pieces were completed. In all of them you will find at least two bottles—one with wine and one with unleavened bread (or cookies, if you’re so inclined). Since the original intent of the work was that pieces seemingly function as portable devotional altarpieces, the portability needed to account for the lack of an actual altar and the need to contain the Eucharistic elements.

The wine and bread will likely continue to be a part of the format of these works. They suggest an element of interactivity, a participatory aspect for the viewer. Their purpose began to expand in works like the Altarpiece and Reliquary of St. Joseph. The bottles in this work hold items such as olive oil, scraps of text cut from book pages, and a broken light bulb. Each is a symbolic reference to this St. Joseph.

Past the objects that are held within the bottles themselves, I needed to consider whether or not the bottles were simply an homage to Cornell or if they expresses some greater, and more personal idea. As containers, sealed containers, they can sometimes seem to prevent the viewer from actually participating in the work. You can see the elements of the Eucharist but you cannot ingest them.

Rather than prevention, the sealed bottles can be viewed as a form of preservation. In the same way that an actual reliquary preserves the objects associated with a particular saint, these bottles preserve objects. They are necessary objects, in a sense. They are somewhat sacramental because they suggest a purpose that is greater than mere symbolism.

Related to the bottles are cordial glasses. While there are not yet any completed pieces that incorporate the glasses, there are several underway. These objects were derived from Cornell works, too. For my pieces, I needed to determine their relevance before placing them. To simply borrow the object would have been irresponsible and rather uncreative.

The glasses can contain objects just as the bottles do. They also appear in broken forms. Their brokenness is sometimes a reference to other forms of brokenness conveyed in the larger piece. It can also represent an openness or a release. Materials in these broken glasses are more available to the viewer than those sealed in the bottles. Yet they are also unprotected and more susceptible to decay.

Of course, none of these ideas may be apparent to the viewer. One thing that is apparent, whether viewers consciously consider it or not, is that glass is transparent. The objects in both glasses and bottles can be seen, they are not hidden. The objects become another layer, like paint and text. Each is an equal participant in the full meaning of the works. Viewers may obtain the meaning when considering the interaction of the layers.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tim Hawkinson—Neo-Neo-Platonism in Post-Post-Modernism

(click on the image to the left for a larger view)

When the term renaissance man is applied to an individual there is invariably one particular renaissance man who comes to mind—Leonardo da Vinci. The term is probably applied too liberally if the standard to match is da Vinci. Not only was he one of the leading artists of an era, his broad knowledge of the sciences and proclivity for inventing spectacular mechanical devices placed him on a different creative strata than others.

When applying this same term to contemporary artists most fall sadly short. If we are keeping to the Leonardo model the numbers are greatly diminished since most do not share the master’s breadth of knowledge and experience once they cross outside the borders of the art world. One Los Angeles area artist, Tim Hawkinson, is an exception.

Hawkinson has proved to be one of the most inventive artists of recent decades. His 2005 mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provided a substantial glimpse into his creative meanderings. The current self-titled exhibit (May 8 – July 25, 2009) at PaceWildenstein Gallery recognizes that Hawkinson’s exquisite creative talents remain far from depleted.

Somewhat reticent and reserved in person, Hawkinson’s work vacillates between the demure and disorderly. His use of materials is equally varied; so much so that it has sometimes been difficult to recognize a specific style. His work falls within a contemporary trend called Do-It-Yourself art. Hawkinson’s non-traditional materials come from anywhere and everywhere and his conscious choices of media denote multiple layers of meaning and symbolism for viewers.

Tim Hawkinson is far more like Leonardo da Vinci in attitude than style. For Hawkinson there is no apparent divide between the invention and the art. They are one in the same. Works like Signature (1993) are created from common household goods. The artist employed materials outside the parameters of typical mechanical engineering when he constructed a machine that endlessly writes facsimiles of his own signature. Viewers are encouraged to take one from the pile left on the gallery floor.

A work like Signature ties into a recurrent theme in Hawkinson’s work. The signatures are an extension of the artist’s physical body and its processes, even while they retain an element of his personality. This is another specific parallelism with da Vinci’s output. Leonardo’s famous drawing of a man inscribed within both a circle and a square—the Vitruvian Man—visually expressed the Neo-Platonic philosophy that dominated Florentine art of the Italian High Renaissance.

Leonardo clearly expressed the first century Roman architect Vitruvius’s theory that ideal architectural works should be based on proportional relationships found within the human form. By the time of da Vinci the Greek concepts of ideal forms were being revisited. This Neo-Platonism was then blended with the prevalent Roman Catholic thinking in Italy. In light of this, the body is seen not only as the measure on which buildings are based, it is a building unto itself. The human structure is equated with the temple of God (I Corinthians 3:16-17) and Leonardo expressed the Christian unity of body and spirit through the merging of the perfect forms of the circle and square, each containing the crowning achievement of God—man.

Much of Hawkinson’s work is directly connected to his own physical body. It is not simply autographic in the egoist mode, a tendency that can often exemplify contemporary art. Hawkinson’s work reveals the physical body epistemologically, as a means by which we know. One of his most recognized works incorporating this thinking is 1999’s Pentecost. The figures represented in this large installation are all based on the artist’s own body. The three dimensional modeling was achieved in a rather low-tech manner. As Hawkinson laid within a bathtub, photographs were taken of him from above as ink filled the tub at incremental levels. The revealed body at each of those levels was then replicated in sheets of foam to form nearly identical self portraits in a variety of poses.

The figures in Pentecost populate the branches of a tree made from hollow cardboard tubes. The work is kinetic and aural. When one enters a room where the work is installed he or she is greeted with a pattering of drum beats. Upon further consideration the sound is found to be the tunes of old church hymns tapped out on the tree branches by the figures. The sound is the Holy Spirit, which came to rest on the apostles on the day of Pentecost, providing them with the ability to speak in unlearned foreign languages. These physical beings are not only connected through the tree (the Tree of Life? after all, it is the mechanics of the tree that give the figures a life, a voice) but through a common spirit.

The use of the term Pentecost is a more overt reference to Christian terminology and theology, but Hawkinson provides subtle hints to the same throughout much of his work. A trio of Lilliputian works from 1997 also touches on these entanglements between physical and spiritual realms. More than both Pentecost and Signature, Bird, Egg, and Feather actually incorporate the physical matter of the artist. The diminutive Bird is a replication of a bird skeleton utilizing clippings from the artist’s fingernails and toenails, glued in place with super glue. Both Feather and Egg are made from the artist’s hair. In the case of Feather, super glue was once again employed to fix together single hairs into the form of a bird feather. The hair was ground into dust and made into a paste to form the shell for Egg.

Again, the bird references are acknowledgements of the spiritual. The dove is a traditional symbol of the Holy Spirit in Western art, but birds of all types are seen in many cultures and religions as messengers of the spirit. The use of the egg, in particular, can provide a symbol of birth, or even rebirth and resurrection. When one considers that Hawkinson is using the obviously dead parts of his living self in these works, bringing new life to cast off materials, resurrection is not an untenable symbolic reference.

More recent works revisit this avian symbology. The concept of an ideal physical form is considered from a different vantage in Bather (2009). Hawkinson incorporated actual egg shells when fabricating this replica of the Paleolithic Venus of Willendorf. Conceptions of ideal physical forms have not always remained the same throughout time. The fact that the natural curves of the eggs so easily mimic the curves of the ideal stone age woman suggests that ideal forms are tied directly to the natural world. There is an innate link between the physical and spiritual.

The masterwork of the current exhibit is Sherpa (2008). Looking to nature, Hawkinson observed that an ostrich plume recalled the graceful curves of a Harley Davison gas tank. From that initial correlation he searched for feathers from other birds that suggested specific additional elements of a motorcycle. The completed form is both concrete and ephemeral. It is not simply the substance of the feathers, but the aerodynamic styling of the completed form that alludes to a speedy journey—a path taken by the spirit.

These observations represent but one conceptual aspect of Hawkinson’s work. The majority of works coming from his studio have no connection to birds, though their recurrence conveys the importance of this theme. The examinations of physical and spiritual natures, their interrelations and particular properties, remain a thread that runs through all the work. The surface readings of Tim Hawkinson’s various projects produce a dizzying diversity of materials, methods, and subjects. Without commonality among those elements, the thematic underpinnings exist as a way to find cohesion within the full body of work. That, and his inventive approach. Hawkinson’s pursuit for new approaches to answer age-old questions reveals that the spirit of renaissance thinking is alive and well in L.A.

Tickling the Ivories (or Plastics)

My apartment in Massachusetts was not only shelter, it was a place for entertainment. Aside from my landlord—the first floor resident during my initial year there—the rotation of neighbors made for some rather laughable events. There was the twenty-something stoner kid who regularly yelled the most unspeakable obscenities at his mother. There was also the lovelorn girlfriend/ex-girlfriend who came storming into my downstairs neighbor’s apartment late one night in a rage that was eventually followed up by a visit from the cops. Even my own apartment had some suspect activity when a prowler tried to break in on July 4th/5th at 1:30 AM—though that one wasn’t quite so humorous.

Typically, the activity was on a much more subdued scale. Either that, or I just missed much of it because I spent little more than my sleeping hours there. I believe I was asleep when the stray moose wandered about near my car during an autumn with unseasonably high rainfall. I adopted the mindset that nothing should surprise me. Still, I was a little shocked when my neighbors moved out and left an upright piano sitting outside, exposed to the elements. I figured that they were coming back for it soon, but after it sat through three rain storms I concluded it had been abandoned.

It wasn’t an exceptional piano though I suspect it had been decent enough. After that much rain it was in sad shape. Most of my family possess some musical ability. I even played about five different instruments at various times. That imprinted a great respect for musical instruments in me. This abandoned piano conveyed a sense of tragedy. Even so, I am ever the scavenger for art materials and I decided that I would dismantle the ruined object for wood and the keyboard.

It was a noble idea, It was. I could only arrange the task of demolition for a Saturday and the Friday night before my scheduled dismantling I found that my landlord (or more likely his father) had beaten me to it. The keyboard was gone, as was much of the wood. What remained—for a couple weeks—was the soundboard. I worked at that in vain. It was too heavy and well constructed to bend to my feeble attempts with hand tools. I salvaged some choice pieces of wood and sulked in my failure.

The piano keys remained as an object that haunted my subconscious. I don’t even know what it is about old, battered musical instruments that fascinates me. I had no specific plan for those keys. I often have no preliminary plan for objects that seem likely additions to an altarpiece/construction.

Once in a lifetime opportunities are sometimes not so limited. You can imagine my delight when I spotted an organ abandoned behind a thrift store down the street from wher I currently reside. It wasn’t quite the same thing as the piano, but it was a close second. I waited several days on the organ. Once the rains came I figured the organ was destined for the landfill. I then asked the manager of the store if I could remove the keys and she complied.

These two keyboards, from a rather cheap 1960s or 70s era organ, were not quite as lovely as the piano keys. The poor craftsmanship made for a much easier job of dismantling, though it still took a few hours. I had to take apart nearly all the larger component pieces to get to the keys. I was actually kind of doing a favor for the thrift store since the remaining parts were now ready to be thrown into the dumpster; the staff didn’t need to arrange and pay for a special trash pickup.

This is the part of the story where I normally explain some detail of how the object or item will be used in an altarpiece. Sorry to disappoint. I’m not there yet. I’ve worked on some preliminary sketches but everything feels forced so far. It may be a couple years before the concept congeals. I do know that something unique will come from the discovery. When a coveted object makes itself available—twice—you have to trust that it will be used in the right time.