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.