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.

Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Make a Spectacle of Yourself

There was an instance when I was in high school when I skipped classes for a day. I acknowledge it as an instance because it was not a common occurrence and I was always the type to strictly follow the rules. I had an orthodontic appointment early in the day and just didn’t want to return to school. I stopped by my mother’s kindergarten classroom on my way and actually asked permission. When she was satisfied with my answer, that there were no tests or pressing assignments, I was allowed to skip.

So what does a teenage kid do when skipping school? Head to the mall—the temple of American Consumerism. The purchase I made that day caused a certain amount of tension within my family unit. I had purchased a pair of non-prescription glasses. The rest of my family has to wear glasses. I, however, chose to wear them, more like a fashion accessory. "Why," they demanded, "would anyone choose to wear glasses if they didn’t have to?"

I only wore the glasses intermittently over a period of about three years. The taunts from the rest of the family persisted long after. "You’ll be sorry. One day you’ll have to wear glasses." I was constantly reminded that, "When I was your age I had perfect eyesight, too. Just you wait." I still have perfect vision as time marches on. They still have to keep getting their prescriptions changed once or twice a year.

The further torment for them will be when the assemblage/altarpieces with antique spectacles reach points of completion. Maybe the laws of God and nature will have caught up with me by then, but I doubt it. Accumulations of wire rimmed spectacles might suggest a slight mockery of their degenerating sight, but I have better reasons to use them than that.

The proposed accumulations are somewhat reminiscent of the assemblage work of Nouveau Realiste artist Arman. He was part of the French equivalent of Pop art. Arman is best known for his accumulations of identical objects. I don’t recall if I’ve ever seen a piece of his incorporating eye glasses. I do acknowledge that my use of these will bring, to some, associations of Jewish Holocaust photos. There are several historic images of piles of discarded glasses, shoes, and other personal items of victims of that genocide. I assure you, this is not my goal.

The mass accumulations of objects more forcibly assert the presence of the object. The viewer then is confronted with the importance of that object within the assemblage. Because my constructions contain additional objects, text, and painted passages, connections among the disparate elements need to be made by the viewer.

Glasses are worn to help us see more clearly. They help us, literally, to focus. While many people wear glasses to correct general vision problems, others are known to wear "reading glasses." For this very reason, there remains the unconscious—though sometimes openly stated—stereotype that people with glasses are bookish and somehow smarter. Of course, the derogatory concept is that those with glasses are "nerdy."

In the instances where I have chosen to incorporate eyeglasses and other lenses (magnifying glasses, cameras, movie cameras, Viewmaster viewers, etc.) the viewer needs to pay closer attention. More "reading" needs to be done. Perhaps that reading is part of what is being regarded within the piece as a whole. It is a signal as to how the viewer should approach all the works, not just the ones with the lenses. To understand—to enjoy the work—is to interpret it, to read it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

James Ensor: Toward the Absurd

The exhibition "James Ensor" is on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, June 28–September 21, 2009

How do we know when a culture truly values its art and artists? This can be a difficult thing to gauge. Is it generous arts funding? National support of museums? A prominent role of the arts in school curriculums? These may all be indicators, but value is the key word here.

Before the introduction of the Euro as the monolithic form of continental currency, Belgium placed one of its most famous artists, James Ensor, on its paper currency. This was only fitting since Ensor was a master etcher and the method with which currency is printed employs similar metal plates.

Ensor is an artist’s artist. In other words, his work is known and respected by artists, historians, and critics, but he is virtually unknown within the general population. Like the Norwegian, Edvard Munch, Ensor was an artist much misunderstood in his own time, but highly revered by artists in the decades following his most important period of production.

Narratively and symbolically Ensor’s work continues to befuddle viewers. One can only imagine what his contemporaries first thought of his painted accumulations of masks and skeletons. While these were not entirely new elements for paintings and prints—Renaissance and Baroque compositions had no lack of them—their use in the era of Realism and Impressionism was confounding.

The deception and trickery associated with masks marks the work of Italian Mannerists such as Bronzino (consider his Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time). Yet skeletons and skulls are equally significant in Flemish art of the same period, and that is the tradition which Ensor continued. The etching and woodcut series prints, by Northern artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, depicted the theme of the Danse Macabre (Dance of Death) in which Death, as a skeletal form, comes to individuals of all walks of life, not respecting their, age, gender, class, or station.

Skulls and masks are also evident within the tradition of the still life as memento mori. This was a major sub-genre of Dutch and Flemish still lifes of the seventeenth century. An overwhelming array of objects found their way into these still lifes, not merely for their interesting shapes, colors, and textures, but as symbolic references to the brevity of life. The skull even shoes up in unexpected places in seemingly straightforward paintings of the period. Again, Holbein is a fine example as his portrait--The Ambassadors--contains a prominently displayed anamorphic image of a skull in the midst of an otherwise typical scene.

But that was all closer to the age of Rembrandt than the age of Monet. The symbolism of Ensor's work predated the Symbolism (as an art movement) of artists like Paul Gauguin and Ferdinand Hodler. As the color explorations of the Impressionists were beginning to find traction within the broader population, Ensor was turning the painting style on its ear by revisiting ideas and imagery of the past. Because of the shifts in themes in art over the preceding century, Ensor's work stands as one of the earliest examples of the appropriation that has marked so much twentieth century and contemporary art.

One cannot neglect, however, the reason that these objects originally made an appearance in the artist's work. He lived nearly his entire life in the rooms above his mother's curiosity shop in Ostend. Aside from the skeletal forms and masks, shells and Chinese porcelain make recurring appearances in Ensor's work. His skill was in recognizing the importance of the objects and their continuity within his cultural artistic lineage.

Again, like Munch, Ensor predated the work of the German Expressionists, as well as other continental forms of Expressionism. The Expressionists had an interest in more primitive forms of art, which for them included medieval imagery. Artists like Kandinsky, Heckel, and Nolde gained a certain permission to embrace the more macabre imagery that Ensor had developed with his skeletons and grotesque masks. And while the Expressionists were obviously the rightful heirs of Ensor's legacy, they were not the only group of Modern artists who benefited from his precoscious talents.

Both Surrealists and Dadaists found an ally in Ensor. The Surrealists deepened Ensor's forays into earlier forms of art by seeking to distill the essential, primal elements of art within our common human psyche. The Dadaists, on the other hand, took the absurd nature of Ensor's images of skeletons--apparently conversing or performing some dramatic act--to a higher level of absurdity. Dadaist dramas and imagery pushed the illogical to a level that was not reached again until the late 1950s and early '60s.

For Ensor, the appearance of stage-like settings and carnivalesque imagery were equally natural as the appearance of objects found in his mother's curiosity shop. The artist's hometown of Ostend still plays host to the carnival the artist frequented more than a century and a half ago. The swirl of activity accompanying a carnival is mimicked in the pulsating crowd that fills the streets of Ensor's most recognized work--The Entry of Christ into Brussels.

This work, and others from the last decade of the nineteenth century, owe a debt to the English painter JMW Turner. Turner was also an anomally within the field of painting in his day. He was not exactly what one would consider an Impressionist, but his atmospheric effects certainly owe a great debt to the French painters who were his contemporaries. The swirling, undulating scenes that Turner masterfully depicted share similarities with Ensor's pressing crowds. Even the loose drawing quality of Ensor's etchings exhibits Turneresque compositional elements.

While Ensor's work may seem little more than weird, slightly off, to the contemporary viewer, it is essential to place it in the context of the late nineteenth century. Flanders may have been a fertile region for artists centuries earlier, but other than Rene Magritte, most are hard pressed to name another renowned Belgian artist from the past century. This is why Belgium justly celebrates Ensor. He was such a unique and quietly influencial figure and a figure worth reconsidering in today's art world.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Life Among the Thistles: A Prickly Proposal

When it comes to woodcut imagery there are really two artists who have had the greatest influence on my style. The first is Albrecht Durer. He certainly set the high bar for all Western style woodcuts. I've even had some people tell me that my prints remind them of Durer's. That is quite an overstatememt of my abilities. If I spent the remainder of my career devoted solely to woodcuts I still doubt I could compete with Durer.

The second artist is a twentieth century master--Leonard Baskin. The darker, more tragic themes that run through Baskin's work were a barometer for the absurd and catastrophic events that marked the past century. Baskin, in my opinion, was the main reason that relief prints retained a viable place within the late twentieth century (that is relief prints of the more classical, highly crafted variety, not the cruder forms favored by the German Expressionists, which have their own aesthetic charm). The most prominent contemporary printmaker to continue Baskin's legacy is my friend Barry Moser. His style is somewhat different, but Barry learned the craft of wood engraving directly from the master.

Some of Baskin's large scale woodcuts, like Hydrogen Man and Man of Peace, are no less compelling today than when he created them six decades ago. The line quality in these works and others seems to mimic the circulatory or nervous systems of the figures, making them appear flayed and in a more heightened state of torment. Aesthetically, the themes are certainly positioned on the sublime end of the spectrum.

The second piece of art I purchased for my collection was actually a Baskin print. This wood engraving entitled Death Among the Thistles evoked the same sublime cultural and spiritual angst as the above mentioned works. The agony of the moon-like face in a field of thorny thistles alludes to a torture and pain far worse than mere physical anguish. Baskin was able to present the intangible spiritual weight of the past century in pieces like this.

I have contemplated this piece for about a decade now. I would look at it almost daily to study both the deftness of the artist with the medium and the aching quality of the tortured figure. I always thought that thistles would be an interesting subject for a print, but never knew when I would really make that happen in my own work.

Recently, I came across a spare piece of linoleum in my studio and thought that it would be a good time to try my hand at some thistles. Wood engravings and linoleum blocks print the same way, but they are carved with different tools. Wood engravings can utilitze very fine lines that are simply not possible with the softer linoleum. So, with a small block of linoleum it is more difficult to produce a greater range of values. I decided, halfway through designing this piece, that I would produce it as a reduction block. This means that I cut away some areas, printed the block in gray, then finished cutting the remaining areas on the same block, and printed black on top of the gray. It allowed for more subtlety.

I decided that I would call this piece Life Among the Thistles. Baskin could get us to feel the weight of the tragedies of the twentieth century in his works. The desperation is right there on the surface. What I wanted to show was that life is really a huge field of metaphorical thistles. The events of our lives produce moments of deilcate beauty coupled with pain. We get pricked, scratched, and scarred. That is part of what it means to be human. Without those painful times to contrast with the joyful times, the joyful times would not be so precious.