to gaze without sight / blind in the museum

Last Thursday marked Liz Glynn’s 2nd performance for Engagement Partyat MOCA Los Angeles, “Like a Patient Etherized on the Table.” The performance was part of a residency by Glynn titled “Loving you is like Fucking the Dead,” a tribute to the goth metal band Type O Negative, and follows “On the Destruction of the Crystal Palace,” the first performance in the series of three. Both pieces so far have used the museum as muse as well as setting, deconstructing the very nature of seeing, preserving, and idealizing the museum and analyze the museum as cultural construct.

"on the destruction of the crystal palace"

Glynn takes her title from a T.S. Eliot poem, “The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock” from 1919, keeping us squarely in the time period she summoned for “Crystal Palace,” the turn of the 20th century. This period has obvious implications in terms of her use of museum history and art theory given the nascence of the museum as preserver of the world’s art and cultural artifacts and the emergence of new technologies that inspired oft-cited essays such as Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” But, I get ahead of myself, let’s first delve into the actual event of the evening, Glynn’s orchestrated blind-stroll through priceless works of art.

Blindfolded visitors

Upon entering the museum, visitors were given a note that explained the process for the evening, that they would follow the sound of jangling keys and stop when the sound stopped. Upon agreeing to the terms, the “viewers” were blindfolded and their stroll began in earnest. Guards and museum staff led the way, jangling their keys, conjuring the idea of authority figure and groundskeeper, the constructors of our communal experience in the institution. At each stop along the way the blindfolded were treated to time-period appropriate lines of poetry selected by Glynn as far as I can tell to emphasize the experience of darkness more than to elucidate the works on the walls or the specter of the surrounding museum. Visitors were given no clues as to where in the museum they were, or what images happened to be on the walls, in fact many were surprised to find out that in fact the lights had been on the whole time. They were then led either to an elevator or to stairs (depending on the timing of their tour–the elevator gave out about half way through the evening) and into the lower level auditorium of the museum. Once in the auditorium visitors were directed to sit and were instructed to take off their blind-fold whenever they wished and to stay as long as they liked. Upon opening their eyes, they were greeted by an illuminated blank white screen, no sound, no image, no instruction.

Duchamp's coal bags

Hearing about this performance, my mind went directly to something I was told long ago, that Duchamp at one of his art openings, instructed for the lights in the gallery to be turned off and, handing out flashlights to visitors, asserted that no one looks at art on the walls during the opening anyway. Thinking about this piece, I did a little research and learned I had heard this inaccurately, in fact, this was a reference to Duchamp’s curation of the 1938 International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris where he hung the ceiling with over one thousand coal bags, obscuring the normally well-lit room and forcing visitors to use flashlights to see the works on display. For another exhibition, First Papers of Surrealism, Duchamp entangled would-be viewers in one mile of twine, limiting greatly their ability to approach any art. About his flashlight experiment, Elena Filipovic points out in “A Museum That is Not” for e-flux, “the viewers got close to the art, leaning forward to focus their hand-held electric lights–an act in distinct contrast to the notion of ‘proper distance,’ disembodied viewing, and the ‘enlightening’ clarity of the traditional museum or gallery… One notes a concern with perception and a continuation of that assault on visual autonomy that so interested Duchamp… the interrogation of the

Duchamp's twine

autonomy of vision went hand-in-hand with a rethinking of that site so invested in maintaining it–the Cartesian exhibition space.” Clearly we see here a connection to the assault Glynn performs on visitor’s visual sense in her piece, “Like a Patient Etherized on the Table.” Glynn, to the same end, is analyzing and realizing the limitations of the museum and the structures of museum viewership as well as considering the essence of the museum itself as preserver of our cultural heritage and artistic legacy.

Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, also discussed the space between object and spectator and its implications. Just as Glynn looks at the destruction of the institution that was meant to preserve in her first piece and subverts the visual in a space tending toward extreme ocularcentrism in the relationship of viewer to artwork in her second piece, Benjamin also assesses what it means to preserve and the cultural need for historic validation as well as the function of physical closeness to, and originality in, works of art. Much is made of the idea here of the aura of the work of art, and Benjamin’s feeling that the aura is predicated on direct contact and originality. I see in Glynn’s piece, however, also a “talking back” to Benjamin, and an answer as to how to preserve the experience of the creative aura of works of art, by eliminating the very overused sense on which we normally rely, the ocular experience.

For Benjamin, “the contemporary decay of the aura… rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of hte masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” Uniqueness is linked to permanence completely in this essay, and Glynn also seems to be playing with both of these ideas, a loss of permanence in the destruction of the museum as institution and the assertion of uniqueness as the temporality of experience rather than the “domain of tradition” inherent in the objecthood of the original work of art. In the first of his perceived two planes of art work reception, Benjamin points out that “artistic production begins with ceremonial objects… one may assume that what mattered was their existence, not their being on view.” My question for visitors leaving MOCA upon experiencing Glynn’s piece was, “Did it matter that you were among works of art?” In other words, I wonder, was the knowledge of the “being there” of the work important to the experience for the visitor. Despite the common response of having been affected by the knowledge that they were in a museum, I do feel that their experience would have been different had they been told that the priceless works had been removed for this event than it was knowing that the works were just inches from their bodies. The knowing physical closeness had to have had an impression just as much as the institutional influence of the museum as place. Glynn, by orchestrating this experience of closeness and cult value of the work of art through blindness to the actual works, subverts Benjamin’s erosion of the aura caused by increased experience and exposure to reproduced work.

It is no surprise that Benjamin asserted the Dadaists, with their passion for reproduction even as a part of the act of original creation, and their ceaseless closing in and unending examination of the work and experience of art, were chiefly responsible for the destruction of the aura. Duchamp’s darkness led to greater closeness and focus, while Glynn’s darkness leads to a stepping back to the experience of the work’s cult properties, the building back up of the aura through the idea of the art’s physical legacy rather than the specific work’s manifestation as image. Susan Buck-Morss in “Mythic Nature: Wish Image,” points out that “Benjamin was reluctant to rest revolutionary hope directly on imagination’s capacity to anticipate the not-yet-existing. Even as wish image, utopian imagination needed to be interpreted through the material objects in which it found expression, for it was upon the transforming mediation of matter that the hope of utopia ultimately depended: technology’s capacity to create the not-yet-known.” Perhaps it is really through the aura an not the vision of art works that the next imagination is realized. Possibly, this is the blank screen for Glynn, the canvas for the imagination of the participant upon interaction with the aura of the work, the landing point and launching point from which to continue the utopian thought experiment itself.

In the end, I wonder whether the gaze of the viewer upon the work and the perceived being gazed upon of the viewer by the work of art can be achieved without sight itself. Is the gaze enough caught up in the aura of the object, the feeling of closeness and the perception of historical object-ness, that blinding the viewer can actually aid experience and connection to the work? In other words, perhaps the contemplation allowed through engagement in this way, rather than the distraction of seeing the actual works themselves, provides a more authentic experience and a greater aura to be present. The sense that the gaze is returned may be amplified without an actual ability to “look” upon the work. Glynn is clearly interested in other aspects of the museum experience as well, utilizing security officers to read poetry and guide experience is bold in itself, but I find fascinating the choice to place blindfolded viewers beside great works of art. I almost wish she had left the piece at that.

 

 

 

image/series

My background is as a fine art photographer and today I’d like to talk about photographic work and its propensity to the series. Sometimes the art in photography is the series as in an image book, sometimes the art consists of individual works that together become a series, sometimes the series is all taken together as one individual work as in a collage or installation. These categories clearly aren’t rigid and become even more complicated as we think about media and curatorship and publication, i.e. who in fact decides on the series. Perhaps it is in the artist’s imagination (as in the work of August Sander) or perhaps it is an impulse post-fact of a third party who upon viewing the work finds threads of meaning (as often happens in curated retrospectives). This topic comes up for me not only because I certainly struggle with it in my own photography, but I also have had the opportunity to explore the exhibition Under the Big Black Sun at MOCA Los Angeles in depth for the last few weeks, especially several series of photographs created during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Lets start by talking about the artistic process, although diversity among artists makes this by no means a simple trajectory. Personally, I begin often with an image or a thought, that thought transforms into an image or the image transforms into a thought. From there I explore the thought further with more images or explore the image further by expanding my sights. Sometimes this leads to a group of images that all look somewhat similar but truly were conceived individually, and sometimes this means that I come up with a group of images that only together fully realize the original intention. At other times I find myself exploring images that may be disparate and because of some level of chance perhaps, I find that they work together to express some other idea that I hadn’t even considered during exposure. These become an image in themselves, a collage made up of individual images that may or may not have been used in other projects previously but that now function as pieces of this new whole.

August Sander

It is common for artists of all media to work in series. Some painters have a general theme or utilize a unique process to create a series, but generally each of these works stand on their own. For photographers it is a little more difficult because often the end result of our work is realized in multiple forms (and multiplicity!). Photographic work may end up on an album cover, in a book, on a poster, it may be reproduced endlessly, it may be limited to a production run, or it may be completely unique. In this way, the series become far more important to the idea and function of photographic work than it is in other media. An artist like August Sander, who I mentioned earlier, conceived of his great project as a massive series documenting types of German people. This work was displayed as a series by Sander and printed into book form under his watch, but it was only through the utilization of his images as individual portraits and art pieces under the curation of Edward Steichen (in The Family of Man) and others that the idea and identity of Sander as auteur was born. The artistic acclaim of Sander as artist/image-maker was created through downplaying the staunchness of his own categorization of photographs within a series. Under the Big Black Sun offers us the possibility to directly compare different way of working with photographic art as/within the series.

Joe Deal

Separated in the museum space but conceptually quite similar, the works of Chauncey Hare, Joe Deal, and Lewis Baltz all utilize the series in a similar way. Hare photographed people as if they were office fixtures for his series “This Was Corporate America” from 1976-77. These black and white works each depict an office worker as a cog within the space wherein they work, surrounded by typical office paraphernalia from the ubiquitous file folders to the glaring lamps and cubical partitions, humanity sometimes confined to a portion of a head peeking up over the furniture as they become completely overwhelmed by the surrounding workspace. Deal’s series, “Diamond Bar: Recently Occupied Homes” from 1980 depicts the tell-tale signs of suburban occupation and development so prevalent during this period. Carefully manicured backyards fight to maintain their composure against the unoccupied chaos of neighboring grounds. Similarly but with a more clear political bent to his series, Baltz depicts the same expansion of humanity in “The New Industrial Parks Near Irvine” from 1974. These works more

Lewis Baltz

clearly juxtapose the stark walls of new development against the rambling weeds of the formerly natural grounds. All three of these photographers make a point by combining a grouping of similar photographs all shot with the same intention and always meant to be a part of the same series. Whereas these works on their own may hold some power and beauty, the political or ideological intention of the photographer is only really realized through their combination.

Another path may be seen through the works of Gronk, Hal Fischer, and Jim Goldberg, again separated spatially in this exhibition but similar in many ways from the way they use the series to, in the case of Fischer and Goldberg, their combination of text and image, and, in the case of Gronk and Fischer, their thematic

Hal Fischer

similarity. Gronk, who is better known for his large-scale mural work, created a series of black and white photographs from 1972 to 1978 that explored his life, world, and identity as a gay man. Fischer’s series, “Gay Semiotics: A Photographic Study of Visual Coding among Gay Men,” created in 1977, explored the modes of non-verbal communication in San Francisco’s sub-culture as a way to raise consciousness of the burgeoning gay rights movement in that city and elsewhere. These images combine text and imagery to underscore the photographer’s intentions. Goldberg, also using image

Gronk

and text but in this case asking the subjects themselves to create the latter, created his series “Rich & Poor” between the conspicuous years of 1979-1985. As anyone protesting today in the Occupy movement will probably be able to tell you, these years began a great disparity of wealth that continues and has expanded to this day. Goldberg’s images depict people as people within their own space and often give the feeling of the sitter having dictated the time, place, and posture of their posing. The handwriting makes it quite clear that it is the sitter’s own hand and the sitter’s own words that have been immortalized rather than the photographers although, clearly, through having orchestrated the making of the image, it is really the photographer’s intention that comes through especially through the juxtaposition of several of these compositions situated

Jim Goldberg

beside one another. In these three series, we see that the photographers have created works that stand alone yet say something more when they are positioned together. Gronk’s “Twins” makes it’s point without the other images in the series, but is so much stronger with their attachment. “Rich & Poor” just isn’t as telling without multiple stories, but even one image can introduce you to a world you wouldn’t have had access to without the photographer’s insight. And where each of the semiotic images give us a piece of the puzzle, the complete series gives us the whole picture.

We have seen now photographer’s who use the series to tell a story, and photographer’s who tell a story within each image but tell more through grouping the images together, now let’s talk about photographers who create images in a series that, in my opinion, could each stand alone and tell the full story. The two that come to mind who are shown in Under the Big Black Sunare Robert Heinecken and Peter Reiss. Heinecken’s series,

Robert Heinecken

“Inaugural Excerpt Videograms” were created in 1981 by pressing photographic paper up against a television monitor during the gala and inaugural address of Ronald Reagan. The color images are blurry and dark, only giving the viewer a hint of the familiar body and head that we all somehow still recognize. Heinecken’s often revealed political agenda is more murky in these images but nonetheless, the ominous way in which the incoming president is presented is in itself telling. Reiss’s images of children housed at Mt. Vernon State Hospital and Heinzerling Children’s Institute in Ohio for his series, “Severly and Profoundly Retarded Individuals,” is no more clear and certainly no less unsettling. These photographs show us children and young adults with very severe

Peter Reiss

disabilities and abnormalities in their own spaces and presumably with their consent given the intimacy of the relationship between photographer and viewer. In a world where most people have never come directly face to face with a person so different, the confrontational nature of being forced to look at these difficult images is tempered with the clear empathy the photographer is able to infuse through closeness and avoidance of rigid formality in favor of a more casual aesthetic. In each of these cases, the photographers create images that are each complete tales. Just one of Heinecken’s videograms allows us entry into the world of political murkiness he is immortalizing, and just one depiction of an individual imparts the confusion of feeling that Reiss so masterfully captures.

Finally, let’s briefly mention the artists who combine images together to create one piece of art work. For these photographers, and perhaps they aren’t even really photographers any more but installation artists, the individual photograph is raw material in service to the greater whole of the piece. Here the work of Ellen Brooks and John Baldessari comes to mind.  Brooks’ contribution to Under the Big Black Sunis her piece, “Adolescents” from

Ellen Brooks

1975, an image collage made up of “fourth generation” photographs of pre-pubescent children, first photographed on film, then printed on paper, then xeroxed and transferred onto wax paper and affixed to the wall as a grid. From a distance the wall is a formalists’ study in black, white and gray while closer up the images become more clear and the quiet discomfort of these culturally taboo and meaning infused images takes hold of the viewer. Baldessari also commandeers a wall with his piece, “Virtues & Vices (for Giotto)” from 1981. Depicting characters from popular films under titles such as Chastity or Greed, Baldessari re-conceives Giotto’s 14th century frescoes for the

John Baldessari

modern faith-ambiguous viewer. The authority of the church is questioned with humor and through his use of popular culture within the morality tale, Baldessari’s levity allows a window for the viewer to examine heavy ideas of faith and authority on their own terms. These photographers allow the images they use to become a part of the larger whole, each photograph could be a part of any other set but through their combination in this particular way, on this particular wall, they become a part, a piece of the greater whole, the art work.

Clearly, the series functions in many different ways. I remember as a young artist applying to schools we were told that admissions committees wanted to see that you had a strong vision, that your work was a cohesive body. With this in mind, it is difficult sometimes for artists to get out of the series, to explore images on their own and within their own context, not considering how they “fit” into a series or body of their work. In fact, the most masterful artists allow themselves the space to let images play, to make things on their own terms. On the other hand, unfortunately some artists who become well known for a certain body or series of works have trouble ever leaving that series. Once you receive critical and commercial success for a series it is quite difficult to move on to something that may be less popular and instead you end up replicating yourself, a shadow of your own former artistic impulse spread across multiple canvases rather than an authentic spark that might fizzle but also might develop into the brightest fire. The series is like so many paints or emulsions, a tool in the artistic toolbox, meant to be utilized but not to incarcerate authentic artistry.

art and creation/ creation as art?

Yesterday a performance artist, Marni Kotak, gave birth to her son in a special birthing room she constructed at Microscope, a New York gallery. The process and artistic impulse that brings a woman to give birth as a performance piece are under some scrutiny but I really want to talk about what having children is and means to artists, these personal, private acts of creation juxtaposed with the public act that is art-making, and the reasons why Kotak felt the birthing process should be installed as an art piece.

Kotak is quoted as saying “I am showing them, as in my previous performances, that real life is the best performance art, and that, if our eyes can be opened to it, all of the meaning that we seek is right there in our everyday lives.” This is truly astute and certainly an age-old wisdom espoused also in Hindu and Buddhist teachings on mindfulness and meditation. A friend recently posted on Facebook that she doesn’t understand why forward-thinking and planning is frowned upon in these traditions, that happiness can be found as much in expectation as in immediate experience. Some would say, however, that the obsessive anticipation which characterizes modern life stops us from truly having and exploring experiences as we encounter them. I think Kotak is tying to do just that, but in our modern world, the way we know how to experience events is through capture and documentation. Her birth was thoroughly photographed and videotaped and will be played on a loop throughout the run of the exhibition. In some ways, I wonder if the point ends up being missed. In her attempt to draw attention to real life in everyday activities and focus on the magic, beauty, and meaning of those experiences, she has ended up taking what should be momentary and fleeting and instead making it reproducible and sustaining thereby ignoring the true beauty that is life’s passing nature.

The impulse to document and draw from our everyday lives is undeniable and ubiquitous in the history of art, what is challenged is how close to documentation one gets in their application of experience to aesthetics. It is reasonable and advisable to be inspired by the life around you, but when you actually take that life to the page, canvas, photograph, or performance space, the value of the work is often determined differently. In one portfolio review, even before I opened my case, the reviewer asked me in a disparaging tone, “now, these aren’t going to be pictures of your kids, are they?” Well, yes, they were, but it’s not like that, really! As an artist/mom I do involve my children in my work, and even when they aren’t directly imaged, my experience and being as a mother is intrinsic now to my creative process. Many artists have aligned the act of artistic creation to the act of physical creation, either seeing them as mutually exclusive as in the case of Judy Chicago, or as deeply inspiring and specific, as in the case of Kotak. Artists from Julia Margaret Cameron, to Sally Mann, to Catherine Opie have depicted mother-hood and their own children photographically, all differently and all to great ends. The difficulty is that every single parent in the developed world has probably photographed their children and their experience as parent as well. This is the challenge as an artist working with an encompassing subject and especially in an accessible media such as photography.

Beyond the difficulty of taking on such a role as parenthood and how that affects one’s ability to have any professional life whatsoever, as artists is it possible to be inspired and creative when so much inspiration and creativity must be utilized in the simple process of raising little people? I am still trying to find balance here and for me that means channeling some of my child-rearing creative efforts into art-building creative efforts which becomes manifest at times by my children’s physical presence in my imagery.

These concepts move beyond parenting, of course, to any other creative endeavors that are a part of our lives and activities. Artists have to look at the world around them and truly try to experience life as art, I think, in order to make art that is tangible and accessible to an audience. Artists point out the patterns and beauty, the sublime and the ordinary, they teach us to focus our attention or to ignore focus and take in the greater moment at hand. If artists ignore or try to compartmentalize their own personal and private moments of creativity and passion, what does that do to the art they produce?

Check out this nice article on motherhood and art making by Sharon Butler: http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/12/artseen/neo-maternalism-contemporary-artists-approach-to-motherhood

For information on Kotak, check out this article from the Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/live-birth-performance-artist-marni-kotak-delivers-healthy-baby-boy/2011/10/26/gIQAsUxoIM_blog.html

Julia Margaret Cameron, "I wait" 1860s

Sally Mann

Catherine Opie, "Self-Portrait/Nursing" 2004

Bad Art

I spend a lot of time on this blog talking about looking at art and viewership, but today I want to talk about what looking at art does to/for artists in particular. I recently took a brief sojourn to Chicago for the Filter Photography Festival and had the opportunity to see the good, the bad, and everything in-between while visiting the city. If you haven’t had the chance to visit Chicago recently, it really is the most wonderful place to be an artist and to see art, it is a city that supports and physically embraces the arts. I had the pleasure of coming of age as an artist in this city attending the School of the Art Institute for my BFA and I think, as a place, it allowed me to develop an eye and a passion that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Back to the topic at hand, however, as I strolled through 2nd Friday opening offerings st small galleries for emerging artists in Pilsen I started to think about what looking at bad art does for the artist/viewer and this concept was further brought to my attention with a later visit to the Art Institute to see some of my favorites from my days as a student.

John Baldessari, in his conversation with Chris Knight at the Hammer a few weeks ago, mentioned his reason for living and working in Los Angeles, “I live here because L.A. is ugly… If I lived in a great beautiful city, why would I do art? I always have to be slightly angry to do art and L.A. provides that.” Does the same hold true in terms of viewing and being exposed to bad art? First we have to think about what makes art bad. I’m not talking about art I don’t like when I say “bad art,” I’m talking about art that may be conceptually uninteresting, aesthetically unappealing without reason, contextually inappropriate, or just conceptually and physically mismatched, but to such a degree that it is unredeemed by any underlying respect for the artistic impulse that inspired its creation. In a discussion on the Museum of Bad Art located in Dedham and Somerville, MA, published in Architecture Boston, Louise Reilly Sacco, the Permanent Acting Interim Executive Director of MOBA, asserts that bringing high school students to MOBA and then to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston “frees kids to laugh and point, to have their own opinions and argue about things. Then they take the experience to the MFA, where they might otherwise feel intimidated… Maybe the ugly… frees us.” There may absolutely be a point to this in terms of novice viewership, but I wonder if this freeing reaction is different for artist/viewers. Artist/viewers tend to already be (or feel) expert enough to analyze art on their own terms, and, for them, does looking at bad art upset the “input” function to art progenesis, or, as Baldessari might feel, does looking at bad art in fact inspire through its excitation of anger, confusion, or distaste, an impulse toward art making so essential to that progenesis?

On the other hand, good art… Does looking at good art, beautiful art, inspired art, fascinating art, respected art, inspire creativity or stilt it in the recognition of the already-done-ness of almost every concept and form the mind can create? Some might say that looking to great art for inspiration, visiting museums holding works you love and respect during the process of creation, is in fact courting the disaster of mimicry in the artist’s own work. As artists, the things we see and learn go into our work whether consciously or subconsciously. In many ways, I feel that the predominant and excessive reading of internet-eze causes poor expressive fluency on the part of even educated speakers and writers. To the same end, I truly wonder whether prolonged exposure to bad visual input taints the aesthetic well from which creativity springs. In terms of reading and writing, a heavy dose of literate prose can counter-act the damage done by our text and twitter heavy cultural linguistics, so perhaps the same is true for the visual arts. There is so much visual stimulation in our modern environment, can we temper it through consistent exposure to historically important and aesthetically fluent works? For me, the space of the museum and the concentration on works of art that it permits, allows me to re-set my viewing eye that becomes lazy in our ocularcentric culture just as reading critical, historical, or poetic literary works resets the mental laziness inspired by our entertainment obsession.

In the end, looking at art and thinking about art is never truly harmful, whether good or bad. Some people are inspired by beauty, some by ugliness. The reasons for creation are as numerous as practitioners. For me though, I find that the greatest art comes from people who had an active visual life, who maintained positions among groups of artists or libraries of great works, who looked intentionally and allowed that to become a part of their own work.

material nature–the nature of materials

I’ve been blogging a lot about shows around town but today I thought I’d take a little break to talk about art itself, and the nature of the materials we use to create.  As someone who has a background in the creative arts as well as museum studies, I often am conflicted in terms of how I look at the material nature of the craft.  On the one hand, art is creative, often messy, and very much physical in its creation (well, most–I’ll save the discussion of the artist’s “hand” in art for another blog…).  In art institutions, however, emphasis must be placed on preservation and therefore distance between viewer and viewed, whether that manifests in how many weeks of the year a piece may be shown (very short for works on paper including photography) or the physical distance at which a viewer must stand from the work.  In my mind this creates a conflict in terms of the relationship between the artist’s intentions and the viewer’s experience and we might even extrapolate that this creates a tension for any modern viewer of art between seeing and experiencing the work.

This past weekend I had a chance to visit MOCA grande with my 2 1/2 year old twins.  In some ways, kids are just completely honest when it comes to the viewing experience and I truly love introducing them to contemporary art because it leaves so much room for them to interject their own emotions and experiences.  I really enjoyed the Personal is Political show because it included many of my favorite artists such as Annette Messager but for them, the highlight was the Lynda Benglis exhibition.  Benglis created sculptural works that are extremely tactile and approachable.  The works create spaces around the actual material that embrace the viewer and intrigue the eye and my little ones immediately sensed and enjoyed the physicality of the works, especially the dripped paint piles in the middle of the floor, but they became slightly frustrated, asking again and again why they couldn’t touch or walk on the the pieces.  The answer is absolutely true, you can’t touch the work because if everyone touched it, it would no longer exist, the piece would be destroyed by the interaction.  At the same time as I say these things though, I am myself frustrated, because the work calls out to be touched, the materials are sensuous and intriguing and the works are most interesting in the imagined experience of physical contact.

Duchamp’s important work, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” is often cited in terms of the importance of material and acceptance of its nature as part of the work itself.  Duchamp spent years working on the piece which was painted and etched on glass.  When the work was broken during shipping, Duchamp repaired the piece but embraced the unintended change of the web of cracked glass as part of the nature of the material that was intrinsic to the art itself.  Today the piece is closely guarded and protected at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The protection is essential given the historical importance of this work, but again, we must just think about how it changes the art to be so removed from its own material nature.

Earlier last week I mentioned in passing the work of Doug and Mike Starn, photographers who have built a huge market following for their often art historically inspired collaged photography.  I first became acquainted with their work in the early 1990s when they were first achieving prominence and major prices for their art.  At the time, I remember one of the big debates and issues being that they had used non-archival materials like scotch tape for their early collages and that these were starting to come apart and mark the photographs.  The materials used were tearing apart the works of art and, obviously, no one is going to spend that kind of money on something that won’t last!  The market drives our obsession with the archival nature of art and to be “museum quality” is the goal for all photo papers with non-color-fade lives of at least 100 years.  I suppose this was the point of photography in the first place, to create something that would freeze and preserve a moment in time (much like taxidermy, Annette Messager famously insisted).  On the other hand though, it is the time-sensitivity of the media that has always intrigued me, that we can preserve a moment but for only so long, that all life eventually fades and the age and time of a work as well as its material nature are all a part of what makes the art… well, Art.

As a photographer by training, I am accustomed to the white glove treatment in dealing with art prints and works on paper despite that fact that my own work has often been sewn, stitched, painted, manipulated, punched out and shredded.  This is in part why it was such a shock the first time we visited Cuba and met with very well known artists who stood with cigar in hand quickly flipping through their own paintings, prints, and drawings bare-handed and encouraged us to do the same.  What originally felt strange and awkward began to feel exciting and drew us further into the works we were viewing.  My experience became more aligned with the the artist’s, the act of creation that much closer to my act of viewing, my own physical presence that much closer to the artist’s.  It is still a shock to see the works of some of these artists preserved in museums and galleries today.

I still enjoy most the works that engage me as a viewer on that physical plane, the ones that incorporate some part of my physicality, whether through an auditory sensation, an immersive experience, or a tactile component to the work.  I think the more a viewer is touched and engaged on that level, the more likely they are to be moved by a work.  The closer we get to the tactile nature of art, the closer the viewer can come to understanding the materiality of the image or sculpture that they are viewing, the closer they are to feeling the artist as a part of that work, and to understanding the work, the art, itself.  Ah, but in the end, the part of me that is a historian and theorist just can’t let the art in our world be destroyed even in search of an authentic experience of the work.  Is knowing and preserving more important than feeling and understanding?

"The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)," Marcel Duchamp

imported culture

Last night the Hammer Museum presented a conversation between John Baldessari, “conceptual artist,” and Christopher Knight, art critic for the LA Times (among other things).  Baldessari came off imminently likable and immensely quotable and left me with many ideas to ponder.  A recurring theme, obvious to anyone who knows Baldessari’s work, was what makes art Art, and what and where the art exists.  In his use of painterly and photographic tools, the artist has worked through these ideas physically and mentally throughout his career.  One of the more interesting statements he made was actually something once stated to him as the speaker entered his studio to find books and magazines bearing works of art and theories surrounding his work-space, “oh, so you import your culture.”  Baldessari grew up in National City where he wasn’t exposed physically to art and his early paintings included text written by a local sign painter.  He and Chris Knight pondered the importance of being exposed to the real works of art later in the discussion and another lovely quote arose, “a lot of art gets done by students who are just looking at reproductions; a lot of art gets done by art being misunderstood.”  Knight brought up technology and internet access to great works as expanding this phenomena but fell short of really heading into a discussion of authenticity and aura in art.

Of course this makes me think of many contemporary photographers, notably the Starn twins who I mentioned in my last blog, and Joel Peter Witkin, who are influenced by and even utilize in whole, the iconic images of western art history in their work.  This dimensionalizing of images, and focus on the fact or myth of reproduceability has certainly been a common thematic trajectory for fine art photographers in the late 20th century.  Baldessari himself considered these ideas in his photographic work, as he says, trying to understand why photography and art has different histories and trying to understand what made something art (as he puts it, “it had to have canvas and stretcher bars,” and later “it had to be done by the artist.”).  These are complex ideas, not light things, and Baldessari himself plays with them rather than espousing them.  On the one hand, he felt at a point that art had to be done by the artist, while at the same time he was employing a sign-painter to execute his conceptual works and for other pieces he heavily incorporated found imagery into his painting (or, hesitant to call himself a painter, his post-studio work).  The question is not only, what and is there an aura of the artist’s hand in anauthentic work of art, but also whether and what the ubiquity of reproduced imagery has done to art making today?

The conversation brought up a lot of big issues in brief segments, Knight and Baldessari only spoke for one hour, and Knight was clearly trying to give an overview of the full 30 year time period of Baldessari’s work, from the 50s through the 70s.  Another of the important topics they glossed was the role of money and the marketplace in art.  A quote that was all over twitter immediately following the talk was, “there should be a new dating system for art, Before Money, and After Money.”  In this case, the 0 year being sometime in the late 70s or early 80s.  Baldessari brought this up directly after positing that the tipping point for California art came with the students from CA schools deciding to stay and not flee to the art mecca of New York.  His claim being that this greater talent pool staying in Los Angeles brought an influx of galleries to sell their work.  This is the reverse of anything I would think; my impulse would be to attribute the expansion of the gallery network in Los Angeles to the great growth of creatives with money from the entertainment industry who were looking to adorn their sprawling homes with contemporary art works, and these more local galleries being a draw for artists to end up staying in town rather than needing to head east to develop representation.  I guess in the end it is a bit of a chicken and the egg discussion, do patrons inspire a market which inspires artists, or do artists inspire a market which inspires patrons?  No matter which way it goes, however, clearly something happened during that period on the west coast where the legitimization of the arts here through the development of not only a marketplace but also funded arts institutions, allowed artists to stay and flourish and inspire and change the face and history of Los Angeles for artists that followed.

Two more little quotes from Baldessari bear repeating today.  Asked about the “occupy” protests and what he thinks, the artist was interested but less than enthusiastic about the outcome, saying “I’m reminded of the late 60′s, when we thought the world would change.  It didn’t.  Now there is that discontent again.”  When Knight expanded the question to ask what role artists might play in civil movements, Baldessari responded a little more hopefully, saying, “art does change things–it may be preaching to the converted, but it can surreptitiously worm its way into people’s unconscious… in that way it can have an effect.”  Again, this is one of those concepts that I keep coming back to in this blog, how art can change people and that in order to do so, it must find an “in” with the viewer, be it through beauty, through masquerading behind mass culture, or by catching one unaware in a moment of openness and reflection.  Some of the most political art, however, is meant to shock the viewer and to confront them with an idea or image that is uncomfortable or disgusting, and I truly wonder whether this kind of work can have any effect to those uninitiated when all it makes them really do is turn away?

The conversation ended with a question about what inspires the great artist, he responded, “everything inspires me – a chance comment behind me on an airplane seat or in a restaurant– I don’t even know what it refers to… it is just a part of a thing.”  He claimed that he is inspired by music or art, but could be just as inspired by a hot dog he ate for lunch.  This is not surprising coming from a man who claims that if he lived in a beautiful city, he wouldn’t make art… but it was truly an inspiring thing to hear.  Those who meditate regularly understand the concept of mindfulness in everyday life, but many of us lose this in our daily activities and obligations.  Baldessari’s comment reminded me: be aware of the world around you, even something that initially seems irritating (those people talking loudly behind you on the airplane) might lead you to something inspiring in yourself.  With that in mind, I drove home along the typically congested Los Angeles roads and rather than being frustrated, I tried to appreciate the drives between cultural institutions for the think-space they provide.

John Baldessari, Terms Most Useful in Describing Creative Works of Art, 1966-68

John BaldessariJohn Baldessari, Terms Most Useful in Describing Creative Works of Art, 1966-68

the curated art fair

Obviously art fairs are nothing new especially in a city the size of Los Angeles, but Art Platform this weekend was truly something unique.  As we entered the fair space, I was struck by the differences between this fair and many others I have attended in the city, including Contemporary Art LA, Art LA, and Photo LA.  First of all, the show felt more manageable than some others, it seemed more contained and more clearly laid out.  Art fair booths are always a maze, but something about the larger size of the booths and the flow of the spaces was much more welcoming here.  Usually, the spaces are laid out in little cubes that are filled with each gallery’s most well-known artists, in this case the walls merged into one another at times, and although it was clear which galleries were representing which artists, the gallery was not the first nor most prominent impression.

I was truly impressed by the breadth and beauty of the offerings by each of the galleries, they were shown clearly and the galleries seemed to have kept their offerings concise and limited to one or two artists.  By doing so, viewers were given greater space, mental and physical, to consume each image.  I do realize, of course, that art fairs are not meant for viewers, but rather for buyers.  I am not in the business of art, but this show truly appealed to my viewing personality and I believe it was also successful for many of the galleries who participated in terms of their sales.  It of course helped that these seemed all to be legitimate and well-established galleries already!

In the end, it seemed like the aspect that made this show imminently viewable was the fact that it was de-facto “curated” by its role as part and patron of Pacific Standard Time.  Each gallery seemed to make a point of playing to that general theme of California artists both from the time period focused on in the larger initiative of 1945 to 1980, and those artists who have been influenced by the artists who are part of PST.  A few exhibitions around town have given us a grand view of the city’s art history during that time, especially those at the Getty and MOCA’s “Under the Big Black Sun,” but this art fair added that element of what came next.  If you read this blog, you will remember that that was an aspect I particularly appreciated about the inclusion of Heather Cassils’ piece at the LACE show earlier last week (her performance/video “Cuts” evoked the work of  Lynda Beglis and Eleanor Antin in a modern voice).  The history and trajectory of the time period 1945-1980 is absolutely fascinating and has been eye-opening for me as a scholar and artist, but I also love seeing how that period and those artists continued and influenced the next generation.  I’m just sorry that this show lasted only a weekend!

I can’t wait to see if participants in Contemporary Art LA, at Barker Hanger in January, follow suit with this kind of focus to their offerings.

Some real highlights included gorgeous photographs by Jim Cambell illuminated and animated by LED lights that added an eerie dimensionality that I have never seen before, presented by Bryce Wolkowitz, New York.  I also always love Doug & Mike Starns whose collaged images have matured so much in theme and material through their careers, presented by Hackelbury Fine art, London.

Jim Cambell, presented by Bryce Wolkowitz, New York

Karl Benjamin presented by Louis Stern, Los Angeles

Doug & Mike Starns presented by Hackelbury Fine Art, London

I love you robert heinecken.

Friday was the first day of the opening weekend for Pacific Standard Time here in Los Angeles.  I had the pleasure of being able to tour a private collection in Pasadena that morning then off to the Norton Simon museum and to round out my sojourn east, I swept through a sneak preview of the exhibition “Speaking in Tongues” of works by  Robert Heinecken and Wallace Berman at the Armory Center for the Arts. These two artists both worked in the same neighborhood at the same time in Los Angeles and were both working to some degree with photography as a base medium.

The show reminded me of something I talked about in my last blog post about performance art, the need to draw in the viewer before the artist can convey their personal or political message.  In this case, Heinecken in particular was able to accomplish this feat by utilizing mass media images and conveyances.  I certainly must confess to having a soft spot for participatory art, or art that forces or requests viewers to engage with the art in some way.  This kind of work can have profound effect on viewers and society especially when it takes the message outside of traditional institutions and into the streets, living rooms, and hands of lay viewers (those not already interested and open to art viewership).  One of Heinecken’s most interesting works, and one to which the Armory show devotes substantial space, is his series based on the photograph of a Cambodian soldier holding two decapitated heads.  Heinecken plastered this gory image of the smiling soldier over the insides of news and fashion magazines and then placed these in such innocuous places as dentists offices and back on the shelves of magazine stands. This and many other collage works are certainly worth viewing in the exhibition and the collaborative nature of Berman’s work is inspiring to artists working today (see my blog post on “free art” to see what I have to say about collaboration).

Heinecken and Berman also are touted in the exhibition as addressing the sexism and violence in media images through their work.  They certainly do address these large issues in their many manipulations and collages but I am struck, especially after having just seen the LACE show, at the difference between how men engage with sexism in popular culture and how women dialogue with these topics in their art.  It feels like for men it is more about admitting to their own obsessions than reviling them. To this point, two video pieces in the exhibition, one by Heinecken and one by Berman, are unique in their titillation alongside condemnation.  The piece of Berman’s was shot over ten years and configured post-mortem into the image structure we see presented whereas Heinceken’s was installed by the artist during his lifetime and has been re-figured on several occasions in different ways throughout the years.  Heinecken’s work is presented as in a living room with commercial images flashing on a television through the image of the torso of a nude woman plastered to the surface of the screen.  Despite being utilized to point out to the viewer the abundance of sexualized imagery and violence on television and in popular culture, the female body by being shown decapitated and powerless, becomes and enforces male fantasy as well, in many ways belying the attempted criticism.

In the end, despite the issues inherent in their version of addressing sexism, the beauty and complexity of the images is certainly worth viewing.  As artists we all have those fellow artists who, when we look at their work, are like visual soul-mates.  Looking at Heinecken’s work for me has always been like coming home to an aesthetic that is comfortable and complete, something that is just so right and close to my own that I can’t view it critically.

More to come on many of the other shows opening this weekend in Los Angeles – whew, how inspiring this all is!

Heinecken from series using image of Cambodian soldier

Wallace Berman's veritfax TV with nude woman

what happens when performance art isn’t performed?

I hit up the Los Angeles Goes Live show at LACE in West Hollywood on Tuesday night and it gave me a chance to think about performance art.  Several galleries in Los Angeles are attempting to give us an overview of their own history as part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative.  Cirrus opened last week with an ode to their own exhibition history, and that was essentially the case at the LACE show as well.  Both shows had a wall covered with notes, letters, and receipts giving us a peek behind the scenes of some of their most important events and exhibitions.  At Cirrus, this piece of the puzzle was tucked away through the hall that leads to the back patio and another exhibition space upstairs, at LACE it took up the entire left wall as you enter the first of three rooms in the gallery.  It really is interesting to have access to these glimpses into what makes the art come alive, but for someone who wasn’t there and isn’t privy to the details of the pieces mentioned, it is a little difficult to enjoy thoroughly.

This feeling continued for me throughout the LACE show on Tuesday. The exhibit did a great job of giving viewers access to pieces of the history of performance art and context as to the history of performance art, but I was left wondering about the actual art.  In the second room there were costumes from some pieces and short didactic panels that contained the artists’ names and the titles of the pieces but I missed a real description of the piece itself.  Obviously I recognized many of the names, but having not been in Los Angeles in the 70′s and 80′s I didn’t have the reference to be able to fill in those blanks.  This section was curated by Ellina Kevorkian  and is intended to posit “clothing or objects used in a performance [as] not remnants but a sculptural void holding an inherent performance to be fulfilled.” The third room brought some of this together with three large screens that rotated pictures of performances from this time period.  Some of these photographs showed the costumes from the second room in action, and others were not referenced elsewhere in the exhibit.  All in all I didn’t feel like I came away from the show understanding the connections between these artists nor did I feel like I really understood what the performances looked or felt like during that time period.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t mention of Los Angeles’ contribution as unique, in terms of performance art, to what was going on in the rest of the country and world.

Along with the exhibition of performance art documentation, LACE has also commissioned re-stagings of several performance pieces.  This, I feel, is the most successful way to update and document performance art for a new audience.  These performances will be spaces out through the year of PST, and there were two on the opening night. Cheri Gaulke’s “Peep Totter Fly” took up the right wall in the first room of the exhibit with multiple pairs of red high heels in various sizes, meant to be worn by audience members as they walked through the space.  This was accompanied by a short performance wherein several people clad all in white synchronously put on shoes and marched along Hollywood Boulevard.  A bit innocuous given Hollywood Boulevard’s usual crowds, but an interesting moment none-the-less.  This was accompanied by a video of high heels marching in natural environments that could have been larger on the wall, but was beautifully shot and a nice addition to the contributory performance of the heels on the wall.  I must mention that Ms. Gaulke was my teacher in high school and so I’m a little biased given that she was inspirational in my early years as an artist…

In the last room we were treated to a video installation (that ran between the montage of photographic images I mentioned earlier) of a Heather Cassils piece, “Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture.”  Cassils draws from two well-known performance works from the 70′s and 80′s, Eleanor Antin’s “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” and Lynda Beglis’ “Advertisement in Artforum.”  We were shown short video snips of Cassils’ earlier works and then the two channel video of “Cuts,” wherein she documents herself transforming her body through hormones, bodybuilding, and a strict diet.  The transformation was extraordinary and the photography and video truly allowed us into the performance (probably because it was conceived as a video project and not just a performance).  This ode to the history of performance art conceived and produced for a contemporary audience was a wonderful addition to the show, I just wish there had been a didactic panel giving the viewer more information about what the Cassils piece was referencing.

All in all I was taken back to my early days in art school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I hung out with many performance artists.  I remember always being so interested in what they were doing, and thinking so much of the interventions they were making in social preconceptions… but, really, I don’t know that I truly understood much of it.  I pranced up and down Michigan avenue dressed in my best goth attire, went in and out of fancy high-end hotels wielding a metal chain menacingly for a friend’s video project, but I’m not sure that we really did anything with these performances beyond amusing ourselves.  The thing about performance art (and, really, all art), is that it must draw the viewer in to some degree, before it can confront them.  The performance pieces that I observed on Tuesday were able to do this.  Gaulke’s piece through humor, personal engagement, and beauty before the dull pain of wearing those heels set in, and Cassils’ piece through fascination and awe at her transformation, before the idea of bodily change and preconceptions about beauty, strength, and sex took hold.  I still can’t claim to be someone who truly “gets” performance art, but I can say I still revere those who utilize the medium to great ends.  I look forward to experiencing more from the series!

PST is just getting started here in LA – check out the full schedule here:

http://www.pacificstandardtime.org/exhibitions

To find out more about programming at LACE – check out their web site here:

http://welcometolace.org/

Cheri Gaulke's 1978 performance, "Broken Shoes"

Heather Cassils Performance "Cuts"

 

Beauty Culture

On Saturday I finally got around to visiting “Beauty CULTure” at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City.  This was an exhibit I had looked forward to since the first light post banner went up months ago.  The idea of a major institution presenting a thorough and revealing look at the beauty culture, especially in a city so embracing of, and reliant on, the proliferation of this culture, was extremely intriguing.  Needless to say, it went the way of every movie I’ve ever spoiled for myself by reading the book first, it fell far short of my expectations.

Upon entering the space, one views two large images, on the left a Herb Ritts of 5 traditionally gorgeous nude women embracing one another in a classical pose, on the right a Leonard Nimoy mirror image of 5 women who fall outside of our culture’s magazine standard of beauty.  Good start, right?  I love the juxtaposition, the confrontation of two similar images, both black and white and similarly posed, begging the question of what and where is beauty in the individual and in the art.  Unfortunately, the next segment consists of a long hallway jam-packed with salon hung images of models shot by almost exclusively magazine and advertising photographers.  With the exception of a very few images that are by more traditional fine-artists (most of whom have a reputation for chauvinism and a background in magazine work – I’m looking at you Man Ray), these are pages right out of any fashion magazine.  The didactic panel prefacing a long wall of photographs of extremely well-known models presents us with text that would imply that the history of beauty in the fashion industry is complex and has changed greatly over the years.  They tease us with an idea and then present a hodge-podge of images that in no way support the thesis on the panel.  This section could have been powerful had the images been hung with a greater focus on the assertion made in the panel, and with text that clarified the ideas with each photograph.  Instead we were treated to text on the gossipy image panels that told us of the models’ reality shows and selling figures.  Beyond this, the photographers are barely addressed, despite this being a museum of photography, and the images are incredibly hard to examine in any detail given the proximity of the viewer to the images, the salon-style hanging, and the great height to which the images are hung with traditional gallery lighting that ended up reflecting glaringly off most of the higher hanging works.

The exhibit then went on to show us images of “women of color” and “women of size” mostly sticking to the typical magazine shots again, with a few well-known women of color, but very little to guide us or to critique the industry visually.  Lachapelle’s image “Miss Anna don’t like fat people” being the main exception in it’s critique of the industry that produces these images.  Overall the didactic panels and the imagery presented felt like they belonged in two different shows.  The idea behind beauty culture is so strong, and the imagery in the art photography lexicon so strong, that I was disappointed by the great reliance on standard magazine imagery with very little dialogue between these images and the critical images of fine artists like Carrie May Weems, Alex Sandwell Kliszynski, or Aziz & Cucher.  These contrasting works are instead tucked away on the last wall of the show, poorly lit in their position beside the looped half hour documentary by Lauren Greenfield.  The whole space takes on an inside/outside vibe, with the outer walls densely packed with glossy pin-ups and super models and the inside walls vibrant with Greenfield’s insightful documentary and more critical photographic fine art works.  I only wish that the “inside” photographic pieces could have been displayed with as much thought and honor as the documentary project, but I guess most of those didn’t focus on celebrities and, after all, this is Los Angeles!

Overall I am glad that the Annenberg Space chose to put on the show and I’m confidant that the exhibition has inspired some dialogue on topics of beauty and power in American culture.  I guess I was just really hoping for more of a critical dialogue than a display of the predominant norms that we are all aready confronted with every day.  Also, who says that the beauty culture only affects women?  Perhaps the curators addressed their decision to include only a vision of feminine beauty in the exhibition but I did not come upon any explanatory text.  The imposition of beauty and the pressure of external norms do not exist solely in the female realm.

The whole show brings up for me the issue of photography as a medium.  Photography serves so many different purposes in today’s world that I almost feel like we need several different words rather than the one term.  In fact, many exhibitions now call for “lens-based art” rather than photography.  What is photography now, and what is the role of a photography museum?  As an art historian, I want to see an examination of images, not just subject.  As a cultural theorist, I expect a thorough grounding in the psycho-social context of the image-maker.  Finally, as a photographer I am drawn to the visually seductive.  We all want to view beauty, but it is through the sublime that we are challenged and transformed as individuals and as a culture.  The Annenberg center takes us back to the curatorial tradition intrinsic in The Family of Man as curated by Edward Steichen.  In these shows, it is the curator who ends up being the artist rather than the photographers included.

Alex Sandwell Kliszynski