Sunday, November 29, 2009

Contemporary Korean Photography

The MFA in Houston has an interesting exhibit of contemporary Korean photography. The above image is by a photographer called Sungsoo Koo, and it's titled Tour Bus.  Most of the photographs in the exhibit were very large, very sharp color photographs like this one.

But this one was not my favorite:  my favorite was by an artist named Won Seoung Won. I could find nothing about her on the internet, but her photograph was a digital collage that showed a fantasy world with a castle, a dragon of some kind, and two little girls, one riding a dolphin in the water below the castle, and the other riding a carousel horse on the land.  The photograph is called "War of Sisters," and the wall plaque says that the photographer wanted to make a piece about the rivalry between her two little nieces.  The younger one is cuter and gets more attention from the grownups in the family, which makes the older sister jealous.  Won Seoung Won imagined a world where the younger sister could rule the sea, and the older sister could rule the land. The charm of this photograph is that the scene looks entirely convincing, as if she actually photographed it rather than collaged it together, and so it looks like a photograph of the world of mythic struggles that children inhabit in their imagination.  The older sister is wearing a Snow White costume straight out of the Disney cartoon, but she's not a cartoon character.  Somehow the juxtaposition of these cartoon elements and real little girls is powerful and wonderful, as if somebody photographed a dream.

The color photographs show a Korea that is much like the United States:  an affluent consumer society.  Sanggil Kim's photograph, "Offline Burberry Internet Community," shows a group of Koreans who met online because of their fascination with Burberry plaid products.

I had just read an article in The New Yorker about people starving in North Korea, forced to eat weeds and corn cobs just to fill their stomachs.  Estimates vary on how many people starved to death in Korea in the nineties, but some estimates go as high as 2.5 million people, 10% of the population.  So it was strange to see these photographs of South Korea, where apparently people live in a fully modern, high-tech, consumer society.

There were a few black and white photographs too.  One was truly monumental:  about seven feet tall, and its subject was the pine trees around a temple in Korea.

I thought a lot about how this photograph by Bae Bien-U was made. I think he must have used a panoramic camera set up vertically.  Then the film was scanned and printed with a digital enlarger, like other large color photographs are printed these days, but with silver gelatin paper and chemistry rather than C-print paper and chemistry.  I think there are a few labs that do this in the states.  I liked it a lot.

The Korean landscape is apparently spectacular. Another photographer, Kim Young-Sun, photographs the many dolmens in Korea. I had no idea that dolmens were found in places other than Europe. They look very much like the dolmens in the UK and France:  standing stones and also post and lintel structures like Stonehenge.  They  were erected around 3000 BC.  Korea has about 25,000 megalithic dolmens, but it once had as many as 80,000.  Some were destroyed by development.  I couldn't find a copy of the photograph in the show online, however.

Korea is undergoing rapid transformation and development.  A tryptich called "Lights of Weolgok-dong" by Ahn Sekwon shows the destruction of a shanty town on the outskirts of Seoul.  The brightly-lit shanty town gradually fades as bulldozers destroy it to make way for more construction:

This shanty town, built on the side of a hill, looks very much like the busy shanty towns of Lima, Peru, which I saw in the summer of 2005.  Steep pathways cut up a hill with densely packed neighborhoods of cinder-block buildings and jerry-rigged power lines.

South Korean photographers are obviously ambitious and technically very skilled.  We can only imagine what their cousins in North Korea could be photographing if they had access to cameras, photo labs, and an audience.  Maybe some day we'll find out what North Koreans were looking at while South Koreans were busy buying Burberry accessories.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Cool Globes in Houston

There's a show at Discovery Green in Houston called Cool Globes.  Fifty styrofoam balls about six feet in diameter have been decorated by artists to illustrate various themes related to climate change and the environment.

It seems that each artist or group of artists got to pick a theme from a list, as no two themes were alike.   There was one about windpower:

And one about the curse of the car:


The car one reminded me of an art car, in that it had a lot of little cars glued to it. Art cars frequently have a lot of little things--sometimes other cars--glued to them.  (The Art Car is a special Houston art form, and we have a big parade and contest in the spring of Art Cars.  There's also an Art Car Museum in Houston.)

This one was about biofuels.  It had a nice painting of a corn stalk on it, but it didn't really examine the ethics of using corn for fuel instead of to feed people:

In my view, perhaps the most important thing we could do to "save the Earth" is to stop making so many new people.  It's hard to get away with saying this, though, because people think that means you want to kill babies or something.  I was glad to see that there was a globe about population growth. It had different colored dots on it, and presumably the dots represented a certain number of people, but there was no legend with it, so you couldn't really tell how many people an orange dot represented in India, for example.  But at least this globe had a kind of elegant minimalism about it.

This one was about recycling, I think.  I liked it because it had a kind of Rauschenberg combine style:

Usually I think that overtly didactic art doesn't work very well. This exhibit proved me right, I think.  It's really hard to make something with a  clear political message that doesn't beat you over the head with its message.  There's so little ambiguity and room for interpretation that the Cool Globes come across more as propaganda than art, albeit propaganda for a good cause.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Art Zone

At the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, there's a show called No Zoning. The name alludes to the fact that Houston is the only large city in the US that doesn't have some sort of zoning, and that that creates a kind of creative anarchy that artists thrive on.

Well, maybe. It also means that some people have to live right next to refineries, but so what, if it results in great art? Besides, the people that like to go to the CAM and buy the book about the show are not the people who have to live next to the refineries.

The show itself, in the cavernous dark spaces of the CAM, is a bit depressing. There's a big ark of a disassembled house in the center of the space, put there by Dan Havel and Dean Ruck. They took apart a bungalow that was about to be razed, and moved part of its insides to the inside of the CAM for us to look at. It's kind of interesting, and that's about all you can say about it.

Somewhat similar is a boat-making workshop in another corner of the space, where apparently a boat was actually built by Benjy Mason and Zach Moser, but it was gone by the time I got there.

The handrail outside the museum was decorated with some knitting done by a collective of knitters called KnittaPlease. They "tag" signs, handrails, fire hydrants, etc with knitting. It's as if they make cozies, or socks, for various metal things sticking up in Houston. It reminds me of a jokey poem I heard once:

"In days of old when knights were bold and rubbers weren't invented,
They tied a sock around their cock and babies were prevented."

Sadly, the knitting is very ugly: the yarn is awful acrylic and they knit it on huge needles, so there are lots of holes when it's stretched over whatever metal thingy they're covering, and it doesn't look very good. Also, it's never cold in Houston so it just looks strange, and not in a good or edgy way; just in a sort of cluttered, trashy way.

The best thing in the show is the allusion to the work of the Flower Man, Cleveland Turner. I found out about his house shortly after I moved to Houston. His house was covered with fake flowers, dolls, toys, stuffed animals, and just anything colorful or shiny that he could find. I loved it immediately. But sadly, it burned a few years ago.

Then Cleveland Turner moved to a house of his own (rather than a rental) and began working on a new installation, near Project Row Houses in the Third Ward. We drove by it today on the way home. It's not as ornate and baroque as the previous place was, but it's getting there. It sustained some damage during Hurricane Ike, but volunteers helped Cleveland Turner repair his installation.

The CAM invited the Flower Man to make a similar installation outside the museum. Some of his objects were displayed on the lawn in front of the museum, but the rest were locked up in a sort of shed in front. An employee of the CAM told me that Mr. Turner comes by on Saturdays sometimes and gets the stuff out of the shed and arranges it around on the lawn, but he didn't come today because it looked like rain. This is somewhat ironic, because his real installation, on his house, is there to get rained on and bleached by the sun all the time, and that's part of its appeal: the way it has weathered.

The effect of the Flower Man's installation outside the CAM was nowhere close to the way it looks at his house. At the house, the sheer amount of stuff, the crazy juxtapositions of stuff, the wild color and sparkle of it, and the rich texture is what makes it great. At the CAM, there just wasn't enough stuff and it wasn't close enough together.

The theme of "junk" was repeated throughout the CAM: another artist, Bill Davenport, made a mock-up of his junk shop in the Heights, called Bill's Junk. I used to live in the Heights, but he started the junk shop after we left last summer, so I haven't seen it yet. But the Heights has always had great junk shops, and I'm sure his is no exception. Still, the fake one in the museum wasn't particularly interesting.

Downstairs there was another show by an artist named Jason Villegas. Again, it was made out of junk: mostly old tee shirts from thrift stores it seems. It seems as if there is a lot of this kind of sculpture around: assemblage made from stuff that would have otherwise been thrown away. The work in the show I reviewed at the Blaffer last week was largely made out of old toys and stuffed animals. There's nothing wrong with this idea; after all, it goes back to Picasso and Braque, who sort of invented modernist collage. Assemblage is just the three dimensional version. But not everybody can pull this off. A lot of times it just looks like...a pile of junk.

The problem, I think, is the palette: too often a pile of old tee shirts is used willy nilly with some plastic tarps and some painted lumber, and the colors of all this trash don't really go together. It's important to pay attention to formal elements like color even if you're using junk as your medium! The people that do pay attention to color are the ones that do this most successfully I think: people like Thornton Dial, who sometimes uses the junk as texture and then paints it all one color; or people like Jason Villegas, who is careful in his selection of his old tee shirts.

This particular piece looked a bit to me like a Tibetan thanka, or some other artifact of an Asian religion of some kind. The little flags looked like prayer flags to me, and the whole thing looked a bit mandala-like. But the video running next to it made it clear that it is also meant to allude to a used car lot, and the little triangular flags that for some reason always adorn them. The piece is called "UB Sales Banner." So, maybe consumerism is like a religion for us? On the wall a sign said that the objects are "totems that speak to the zealousness of want and the consequence of waste." Ok, maybe. But nobody would want most of the stuff that these "totems" are made out of; the second part seems more plausible, about the "consequence of waste." What it looks to me like is, some future dystopic civilization making use of what it can find, after the apocalypse, to make religious emblems with.

Houston is a junky, ugly place. It's amazing when somebody can make all this junk look pretty good, as Cleveland Turner does. But it's not easy, and most of the artists featured in this show don't really succeed. The Art Guys married a tree, for example, as part of their participation in No Zoning. I'm not sure what this has to do with anything.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Adobe Abode

A show of some of my photographs is opening this weekend at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Abilene, TX.

The photographs are about an adobe house near Presidio, TX, that was built by the Adobe Alliance and Simone Swan in 1998. The house belongs to Simone, and in the fall of 2007, my partner and I visited Simone and photographed the house. We were spending a couple of weeks in Marfa, TX, and our visit to the Swan house was a side trip. It was a very special evening: we went to Ojinaga, Mexico, across the border for dinner, and this was my first visit to Mexico. Then we slept in the domed out-building, where moonlight streamed in through the tiny skylights in the adobe dome roof. The next morning I got up and photographed the house at daybreak.

Simone's house is different from most of the other adobe houses in the area, in that its roof is also adobe. There are vaulted roofs and one domed roof. Simone learned the technique of adobe vaulting from the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who wrote Architecture for the Poor. His idea was that if the poor folks of Egypt could built their houses entirely of mud, rather than having to buy wood and other materials for the roofs, they could be houses very affordably. The Adobe Alliance has taken the same approach.

Simone's house is also entirely off the grid, powered by solar panels and a windmill. Water comes from an underground well.

The vaults and domes are very beautiful. When we first arrived on Halloween night, the house and its outbuildings were bathed in the rosy glow of the setting desert sun. I photographed Simone beside her house that late afternoon.

The next morning I photographed the view from the roof, across the border, where I could see the lights of Ojinaga twinkling right before sunrise.

In two weeks I am going to travel to the Swan House again for an Adobe Alliance workshop. I am going to document the raising of an adobe vault and talk to members of the Adobe Alliance about their work, in order to write an illustrated article for Cite magazine in Houston.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Not Beauty?

Why is that contemporary artists have such disregard, even scorn, for the beauty of the ordinary world, or of anything? In my last post I wrote about a horrible show at the Blaffer Gallery that revels in ugliness. A recent review of a Vermeer painting, by Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker, is about what art can do when it acknowledges and adores the beauty of the world, of visual experience.

I remember when I was in art school, I asked, "Why can't we make a photograph about visual experience?" The teacher told me that that would be too boring and not "critical" enough. But visual experience is not boring at all. It's a big part of what makes life worth living. This is what Schjeldahl says about Vermeer's "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher": "Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world." Exactly! Visual art is supposed to make us more alive to the glory of visual experience. Eyeball kicks. Even Neil Cassady, orphan of the Denver streets, knew that.

The Met has another Vermeer painting on view right now: "The Milkmaid." Schjeldahl doesn't love it as much as he loves "Young Woman with a Water Pitcher," but still, Schjeldahl says, "it exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with." Part of the virtuosity is in the color, but it's also in the almost photographic, yet mystically transformed, realism of the painting. Look at that bread, and that copper thing hanging on the wall. What about the wicker basket! No wonder Vermeer only produced two or three paintings a year: the detail in this is as painstaking as one can imagine.

Amazingly, Vermeer painted this when he was twenty-five. Schjeldahl says that the sublimity of this painting resulted from Vermeer's absolute loyalty to "a perceptual realism as thorough-going as the medium allowed." Schjeldahl quotes another critic, who wrote, "Something well worn in Dutch art (like an old shoe) has become something never seen before (like a glass slipper)." Schjeldhahl adds: "That's beauty in action."

The message is that the world is incredibly beautiful, often for only a moment in a certain light. But you have to be alert to those moments. And that's what the subject of art should be: these transformative, illuminated moments. I don't believe that we aren't capable of this, in the 21st century. Of course we are. But we don't seem to believe in the value of it, if our art is any indication.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

L'Enfer, C'est les Autres

Sartre's famous dictum could be the title of a current show at the Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. Sartre's words are usually translated, "hell is other people," but in this case you'd have to say, "hell is other animals." Maybe there's not much difference.

Jon Pylypchuk uses bits of junk and "scrap," as he terms it, to make paintings and sculptures about a horde of little ferret-like animals who all hate each other. They are constantly fighting and cursing at each other, in the most painful way imaginable. In this dystopian world, fighting is mainly what the inhabitants do, physical fighting that is, interspersed with bouts of insults. Very occasionally, one of them comforts another one with a touch or word, but this is very rare.

The paintings are well-composed. Other than that, they are very ugly. Garish, clashing colors and revolting textures created by disgusting bits of mangled fur are the order of the day. One almost feels as if one needs a bath after seeing this show: it feels unhygienic.

I remember once I found a dead rabbit on my farm. Whatever had eaten the rabbit had left its head. On a whim, I put the head on a stick, a la Lord of the Flies, and paraded it around the neighborhood. I sneaked up behind a neighbor and patted her on the bottom with the rabbit's nose. She jumped, but she didn't scream, to her credit. After this exercise, another neighbor said, "Go wash your hands!"

That's how I imagine Jon Pylypchuk must feel after working on his pieces. Or maybe not. He seems to take pleasure in rubbing our noses in the ugliest sides of human nature. Because in fact animals are rarely as mean-spirited as his little cartoon animals are, or not for long anyway. The worst thing I've ever seen a dog do is take a bone from a smaller dog. Animals don't engage in exchanges like this:

"Cut the act you phony cripple."

"You try living with your legs bent up."

That's the dialogue that goes with the following sculpture:

I can't imagine why the Blaffer gallery decided to exhibit this work. Apparently Pylypchuk has a bit of an international reputation, but that doesn't make it right. The Blaffer has repeatedly shown a preference for "confrontational" (read: ugly and offensive) work like this. I suppose that's because fifteen years ago, ugly art was kind of fashionable and a new idea. But now it has become the academic art of our time. Witness Jessica Stockholder, who also had a show at the Blaffer four years ago. Stockholder teaches sculpture at Yale.

Stockholder's work, while deliberately ugly, at least doesn't add the element of interpersonal abuse that Pylypchuk seems to revel in. I suppose he sees this as progress in the pursuit of ugliness.

Now, it is true that there is a certain representational bent to all this ugliness, particularly in Houston. Houston is ugly. People in Houston frequently treat each other in very ugly ways. It's a Hobbesian, dog-eat-dog kind of world, and Pylypchuk's little and big animals could represent the ids of Enron executives and other gangsters. But Pylypchuk doesn't seem abhor the violence of their interactions. He not only records them; he revels in them. He's much worse than Weegee, photographing a crime scene; he's not just a voyeur; he's a participant.

So what's wrong with this? Weegee was a reporter. Maybe Pylypchuk sees himself as a reporter of sorts, but he's also a dramatist and a fabulist, creating sordid fictions to add to the pile of sordid truths. Worse, he finds himself cool because he's so "honest" about the way humans interact. He identifies with the little furry self-pitying animals; they are his alter egos.

The above painting is in fact titled, "my life would be good if I didn't have so much to complain about." One of the little animals in the painting has a piece of white paper emerging from his mouth with these words written on it, like a scroll emerging from an angel's mouth in a Renaissance painting. Obviously, this is meant to demonstrate some self-awareness and wry humor. But this one moment of irony can't outweigh the preponderance of self-pity in the rest of the show.

The real irony is that artists get recognition, fame, and sometimes even money for indulging in their "complaints." One would think that after almost twenty years of artists doing little else, they would be tired of it. The fact that this show is in an academic gallery, though, maybe reveals the bankruptcy of this aesthetic of complaint and ugliness: it's academic art, encouraged in MFA programs, but it's old, it's tired, and it's time for it to go.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Big Lectric Fan

I'm back in Houston, and it's hot. The air conditioner runs pretty much all night to keep us cool while we sleep. I have thought a lot about what it must have been like to live here before air conditioning was everywhere. I guess people had Big Lectric Fans.

Wayne White has been thinking about this too. He's a Tennessee-born artist who has made a career out of making puppets, for PeeWee's Playhouse and the Weird Al Show. Now he's made a huge puppet head of George Jones, one of his heroes and one of mine. George Jones recorded the old song, "Ragged but Right," in the 1950s. The lyrics mention a "big electric fan to keep me cool while I sleep." It's a great song in its original old-time music incarnation. It was cleaned up a bit for George Jones's recording; the persona in his recording is much more of a family man than the persona in the original song, and much more of a family man than George Jones himself was for most of his life.

The fifteen-foot puppet head is in the Rice Gallery at Rice University. This gallery specializes in site-specific installations built especially for the gallery. Wayne White visited the gallery in June of this summer, when the temperature outside was 102. He says that he was lying in his air-conditioned hotel room, thinking about what it was like to live in Houston before everybody had air conditioning everywhere, and the George Jones song, "Ragged but Right," kept running through his head, especially the line about the big electric fan. He remembered that he had a small puppet head of George Jones that he had never made into a puppet. When he got home, he made a small macquette of the Rice Gallery and placed the head in it. Voila! That would be his installation.

When you enter the foyer of the gallery, you see the huge fifteen-foot head lying on its side. The eyes rotate so that sometimes they're open and sometimes they're closed:

Also, there's a rope in front of the piece that allows the viewer to open and close the mouth. When the mouth opens, a snoring noise comes out.

Walking around to the back of the head, you walk past George's flat-top crew cut, which is made out of hollow tubes. Then you see a little hole in the back of his head. Why not look inside? Why, there he is! A puppet of George Jones, inside George Jones's head! A dancing, string puppet, apparently inside a low-rent honky tonk.

Finally, at the base of the head is the eponymous Big Lectric Fan:

There's also a room off to the side called The Ice House. It has a big carved piece of white styrofoam in it, bathed in a bluish light.

The whole effect is fun, funny, and a bit mysterious. There is a video in the foyer in which Wayne White talks about the piece and shows the process of building it. It's basically made out of carved and painted styrofoam. He says that the head reminds him of a relic of a lost civilization that worshiped country music stars. I suppose he means that it looks like an Easter Island head, and it does. And, our society, particularly Houston, does seem a lot like Easter Island: we're consuming ourselves out of existence, and building huge, wasteful monuments to ourselves that require enormous amounts of energy, just as the Easter Islanders did.

The irony is that back in the days of Big Lectric Fans, and at the time George Jones recorded "Ragged but Right" in the 1950s, Houston was still on the cusp of its explosion as a megalopolis devoted to the wasting of energy. In the 1950s, the US consumed about a third of the energy that we do now, and we still were big producers of energy, according to the DOE.
(But, I bet it was hot at night.)

In the brochure accompanying the show, Wayne White writes, "The sleeping figure is one of the great subjects of art....My big puppet head also references Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason.' The peep show inside the head is the unleashed demons." Goya's print read, "The sleep of reason produces monsters." One could say that, again, this puppet head is thus a perfect metaphor for Houston: our ability to reason about where the energy will come from to drive our Big Lectric Fans (which are now Big Lectric Air Conditioners and Factories and Light Rails) has gone to sleep. We think we can invent our way out of the end of peak oil, but we are possessed by the demons of wasteful consumption, those dancing, manic puppets in our heads that are manipulated by advertising and Big Energy.

Wayne White goes on to say, "An all-night, unstopping fan is the merciless and eternal cycle of everything. The puppet head has a moving fan appendage which morphs man and machine into a surrealistic symbol of anxious existence."

At first I thought this was just more artistic bloviating. But wait a minute. Houston DOES feel like an all-night, unstopping fan. I can hear it whirring all night long: trains, planes, and automobiles roar by and vibrate the house. The refineries never stop refining. People never stop moving. The city feels like a machine, and we humans feel like small parts--appendages--in this giant machine. The fan on the puppet is where its body should be; all that's left of the human is the head. The machine IS the body: in Houston, all our bodily needs and functions are fulfilled by machines. We don't grow food; we drive to the grocery store and buy food that has been produced by machines. We don't have to take care of our wastes; we flush them away with a machine. We don't walk anywhere; our car machines take us places. We don't sing or play music; our tv and computer machines entertain us.

And then, for some of us, even our heads and our thinking are controlled by machines. They pull the rope; our mouths open and close. The machine whirrs; we open and close our eyes. Inside our heads, somebody pulls the strings that make our inner demons dance.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Exquisite Corpse

Dash Snow, on the High Line in Manhattan

I had never heard of Dash Snow when he died last month of a drug overdose in a Manhattan hotel. But when I read the story in the New York Times, I became immediately fascinated by him: here was a guy who was exactly my son's age, who had been living on his own in Manhattan since the age of 14 or so, and who was an established artist. What's more, he was a scion of the Menil family, the family someone has described as the American Medici because of their enormous patronage of the arts, especially contemporary art. But according to the article, he was in more or less constant conflict with his illustrious family, and he saw himself as a rebel against their patrician lifestyle. Was he? I wondered how much of Dash Snow's life and work could be understood in light of the family he came from.

In June, I visited the Dia Foundation's Dia Beacon gallery in upstate New York. The Dia Foundation was started by Phillipa de Menil, Dash Snow's great aunt. The Dia Foundation funded a lot of Donald Judd's work in Marfa; it takes care of De Maria's Lightning Field in New Mexico. Phillipa's sister, Christophe, is Dash Snow's grandmother. The family's money comes from oil, and their museum in Houston, the Menil, is the most beautiful buildings in the city. The collection centers around ancient artifacts from the Mediterranean, and Surrealist works from Europe.

Collage by Dash Snow

There is not a lot of Dash Snow's work to be seen on the internet. What I could find was a few photographs--Polaroids--and some collages. The collages did remind me of work I've seen in the Menil museum in Houston, in Mrs. de Menil's Surrealism galleries.

The polaroids seem to be more influenced by Dash Snow's immersion in the Bohemia of the downtown art scene than by the art that his family collected. There is almost a tradition now of photography about this scene, the most famous practitioner of that tradition being Nan Goldin, who photographed her friends shooting up and dying of AIDS and being starving artists. Dash Snow was no starving artist: he had inherited enough money to live without a job, it seems, and enough to do quite a lot of drugs, including heroin. His addiction was a cause of conflict with his mother in particular, but his grandmother seems to have remained close to him. There was some suggestion, in the stories I read online, that his mother thought that his grandmother was enabling his addiction.

It seems that Snow went into rehab multiple times, beginning when he was a young teenager. His most recent stint in rehab had been this past spring. When he got out, friends noted that he looked healthy and happy. He had a partner, and together they had a young daughter, age two. But by late May he had relapsed again, and it seems that the overdose might have been a suicide. Did he despair of ever breaking away from his dependence on his family? Or on heroin? Was he ashamed of his freedom, and his lack of real work in the world? He had a lot to live for: apparently he loved his partner and his daughter.

This sad story seems to suggest that there is such a thing as too much money and too much freedom, too early, even for an artist. Most artists dream of having unlimited time and resource to make things without worrying about whether the work would sell or not, and without having to work a day job. Dash Snow never worked a day job in his life, and sold little. But his oeuvre seems to have been pretty small. Granted, nowadays making a "hamster's nest" out of shredded phone books and living in it for a few days is an art work, as is running around spraying graffiti on the city; so maybe if you count those things, he worked harder at art than it seems. Still, one can't help wondering if a need to work could have saved Dash Snow from himself. A much older friend, Jack Wall, said in one of the Times articles, "In my day...when we wanted a fix, we had to go work--we couldn't just sit around getting high for three straight weeks."

Count your blessings, starving artists.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Isamu and the Giant Peach

When we visited the Storm King Art Center, the first sculpture that I really wanted to look at carefully was "Momo Taro," which is on a little hill near the house at the center of the Storm King Art Center campus. It was made in 1977-78 by Isamu Noguchi, who was then in his seventies.

At Storm King, they're always telling you not to touch anything, so I didn't touch "Momo Taro," or only a little. Later I found out that Noguchi intended it to be an "interactive" sculpture. One really wants to crawl inside that cozy hole. I wish I had done that.

"Momo Taro" is made out of granite. (A somewhat earlier piece, above, "White Sun," in the Princeton University Museum of Art, is made of marble.) The Momo Taro name comes from a Japanese folk tale about a giant peach that came floating down a river. An old childless woman found it, ate some of it, and instantly became young again. Her husband ate some too, became young again also, and they made love. She had a baby, named "Momo Taro," or Peach Boy. Later variants of the tale had the boy emerging from the peach after the woman brought it ashore. In Japan, peaches are thought to resemble a woman's buttocks. (In my neighborhood, I recently learned, they are thought to resemble women's breasts.)

After Noguchi got the Storm King commission, he went back to Japan to look for a stone to place on the chosen hill. He found a big round stone, but it was too big to haul back to his studio in one piece, so his helpers split the stone in two. Inside they found this hollow space, and that made them think of the tale of the Peach Boy, Momo Taro, who had sprung from the inside of a giant peach.

That tale in turn made me think of the great Raoul Dahl story, James and the Giant Peach. I don't know if Dahl knew of the Japanese story; I think not, because his story was originally called James and the Giant Cherry. Anyway, in Dahl's story, a boy escapes his terrible childhood by getting inside a giant peach, which rolls away from his mean aunts. Eventually he flies to New York inside the peach. The inhabitants of New York see the giant peach flying through the air and mistake it at first for a nuclear bomb! Maybe Noguchi knew of the Dahl story, because it was written in 1961, fifteen years before Noguchi made his Giant Peach. I wonder if the giant stone "peach" that Noguchi found in Japan was flown to New York, or if it arrived by ship.

Noguchi apparently also visualized the split, hollow stone as an image of the sun, and as a mirror. There are eight other stones surrounding it, and they look somewhat like seating for some esoteric ritual. The whole arrangement looks a bit like a small stone henge, although the stones are not arranged in a circle.

I had a strong desire to spend some time drawing the stones and the shadows that were cast inside the hollows, but we only had a short time at Storm King and I didn't have time to do that.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Andy Goldsworthy

I've been a fan of Andy Goldsworthy's work for a long time. But I only knew it from books, photographs of his ephemeral works. I gave the book I had to a young friend who was beginning to make works out of sticks and rocks himself, at the tender age of ten or so. The impulse to make sculpture out of natural objects--sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, and water--seems to happen sometimes in young men who grow up in the country. Goldsworthy grew up on the edge of Leeds, England, a landscape I remember myself from the time we lived in Leeds in the early sixties. Little did I know that Andy Goldsworthy was my neighbor then, sort of, although he was a few years younger than I.

On my recent trip to the Northeast, I got to see two works by Andy Goldsworthy in person. The first one was at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It was called "Roof," built in 2005. It consisted of shiny black slate that had been stacked into domes, with a hole, or oculus, at the top. But I didn't know about the hole at the top until I got home and looked at an article about the work on the internet. You can't see the hole from the ground floor of the National Gallery's East building: you can only see the sides of the dome, and you can't tell that it's hollow. Most of the domes are in a sort of courtyard beside the museum, but two of them penetrate the glass separating the courtyard from the atrium. I think it's unfortunate that a large part--and point--of the structure of these domes is not discernible from the main space in the museum. Goldsworthy was interested in recreating the ancient structure of the cantilevered dome, a structure that was used in the beehive tombs of Greece, and to build homes in the British Isles in Neolithic times, but you wouldn't know that unless you are looking down on them. Maybe you can do that from another place in the museum that I didn't find.

My sister told me that when she and her children visited the National Gallery's East building, her son Jack desperately wanted to climb the sides of the dome that protrudes into the atrium, and a guard positioned himself between Jack and the dome!

The second Goldsworthy piece that I saw was at Storm King Art Center in New York state, "Storm King Wall." This piece is actually earlier than "Roofs"; it was build in 1997 and 1998, while Goldsworthy was working on a similar piece in England called "Sheepfolds." Both pieces are based on vernacular rural structures: stone walls. Stone walls are an important feature of the landscape in rural Yorkshire, and in rural New York state as it turns out. (My surname, Stoney, was allegedly adopted by our ancestors who built stone walls in Yorkshire, when the time came for everybody to get a last name.) "Sheepfolds" was started in 1996. Rather than build original structures from his own designs, Goldsworthy "fixed" sheepfolds that were already existing. (A sheepfold is a small pen for sheep, sometimes attached to a stone wall.) Of course, the "fixing" sometimes included new elements, such as stone arches, added to the four-square or round shape of the original sheepfold. Similarly, in New York state, he took the stone from a falling-down old stone wall and fixed it up and re-imagined it. The new wall starts out conventionally enough, straight down a hill, and interrupted by a space for a gate. But then it dives down into a pond and emerges on the other side! Now, it's not unheard of for farmers to fence across creeks here in TN. But a submerged fence makes you think: what is it for? In this case, it is art: it's not for anything except to look at.

Once the stone wall emerges from the water on the other side of the pond, it snakes and curves through the woods, around trees. It becomes serpentine. At this point, you could say that the wall is still functional: farm walls also snake through the woods to some extent. But this wall seems to exult in its curves and snaking, more so than a purely functional wall would. This makes it very beautiful and delightful. Its business seems to be to celebrate the trees that it snakes around, rather than to keep cows in.

This sculpture was my favorite thing at the Storm King Art Center, which is full of other wonderful things. (Storm King is there to provide exhibition space for monumental sculpture and earthworks.) I think I loved "Storm King Wall" the most because it was so humble, so ordinary, so rural, so vernacular, so respectful of the ordinary beauty that ordinary rural people have created for centuries, and yet it took that to the next level with a dash of exuberance that was pure art.

Monday, June 15, 2009

William Christenberry

Yesterday I went to see a show at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville that was a retrospective of the work of Willim Christenberry. Christenberry is a painter, sculptor, and photographer from Alabama, and his work is about rural Alabama and his memories of growing up there as a child.

Christenberry began as an abstract expressionist painter, and there were a few paintings in the show. He moved away from pure abstraction in the 1960s and began to make a kind of landscape painting about the subject that would obsess him for the next forty years: the house in the rural landscape. These houses are often abandoned farm houses, often derelict, and sometimes disappearing back into the woods of which they were made, over-run with kudzu vines. The houses in his paintings are pretty abstract, though, and it's hard to tell exactly what kinds of houses they are.

When you enter the Cheekwood show, the first thing you see are tall sculptures: white pointy steeple-like things that are vaguely menacing, but also rather like church steeples, arranged in a kind of installation. Christenberry calls these "dream houses." In the late seventies, after the theft of a body of work about the Ku Klux Klan, Christenberry had a vision in a dream of a tall, pointy house with no windows or doors, covered with signs like some of the old grocery stores in his photographs. This image has recurred in his work ever since. The tall white dream houses seem to evoke all the themes of his work: old buildings; the hooded head of the Klansman; and even the trees that surround the abandoned houses he loves to photograph. The lack of windows and doors seems to indicate a kind of blindness: the buildings have no "eyes" to see out of, and the viewer can't see into them. Perhaps this indicates a certain mystery, or a secret, about the Alabama landscape and its history.

Christenberry started photographing with a small Brownie camera that had been in his family. But Lee Friedlander persuaded him to try photographing with larger view cameras. He uses both a 4x5 camera and the 8x10 camera to shoot his color landscape images. But Christenberry uses the larger cameras in the same way that he uses the Brownie camera: he doesn't use the tilts and swings, or even the rise and fall of the front standard very much. His photographs have the very four-square look of the buildings themselves: they are simple, matter-of-fact, nothing fancy, but despite the surface simplicity, they contain a weird pathos and a kind of menacing tension.

After photographing some of these rural buildings for years, repeatedly going back to the same spot to rephotograph the building and record its changes, Christenberry started making "sculptures" of these buildings. They seem to the viewer like models of the buildings, although he insists that they are not literal models, because he often creates them from imagination as well as from reference photographs. But they looked like pretty meticulous models to me. At first I didn't understand why Christenberry felt compelled to make a model of the green warehouse that he had photographed yearly for 20 years. What did the model do that the 20 photographs, arrayed in a grid, did not already convey? Then I realized that the point of the photographs--that the warehouse is gradually decaying, being overgrown by vines and trees--is offset somewhat by the model, and that there is no inconsistency in this: human artifacts like warehouses are transient, and nature wins in the end, but art is a way to make something permanent out of all the flux. In the end, when the real warehouse is gone, the model will be a "dream house," a work of memory and imagination. On one of the wall panels in the show, there is a quote by Faulkner about this: "The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life."

The models may also have something to do with Christenberry's love of actual objects, as opposed to images of objects. Some of the most powerful pieces in the show are made from objects he has collected. There is a collection of nearly identical Tops Snuff signs, in various stages of decay. The wall panel noted that it was sort of like Warhol's soup cans, only the opposite. I guess that means that Christenberry did not make an image of a soup can label; he took commercial signs and made an image out of the actual signs. In that respect, he is working more like Rauschenberg in this piece.

In another piece involving found objects or "ready-mades," he framed the pages of a calendar that belonged to his grandfather. His grandfather had a 1947 calendar, advertising various patent medicines, hanging by his bed. Over the years, he penciled onto the calendar important dates in the family's history: the date of his mother's birth in the 19th century; the date of his son's death; the date a tree fell down in the front yard. It is a bit like the ledger books that the McCaslin family keeps in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses. The juxtaposition of the very personal family history with the artifacts of early consumer culture is somehow moving. One is exhorted by the calendar to take "Black Draught Laxative," on the same page that a marriage, a birth, or a death in the family is recorded.

This piece--the framed collection of 12 calendar pages, juxtaposed with the grandfather's handmade walking cane--turns both Warhol and Rauschenberg on their heads in a very Southern way: here we have Pop art, sort of (the advertising); we have a combine, sort of (the calendar pages plus the cane). But the impersonality and slickness of Pop art and the surrealistic humor of Rauschenberg's combines have been transmogrified into something that's both more serious and less "arty" than Pop art or postmodernist art: the piece is like a magical totem, something ancient, more like folk art than fine art, a piece of a person's family history that goes back a hundred years. It has almost nothing to do with Duchamp, it seems to me. Something that seems at first like an object on the wall of a Cracker Barrel restaurant, once one examines the tiny penciled-in narrative in the squares on the calendar, becomes more like an ancient book or epic poem.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sam Wagstaff

Mapplethorpe (standing) and Wagstaff

I watched a movie last night called "Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe." Every photographer knows who Robert Mapplethorpe is: the creator of immaculate black and white photographs of flowers and naked gay men. But I had never heard of Sam Wagstaff.

Sam Wagstaff was only a casual photographer and probably didn't call himself an artist. But many of the people interviewed for this documentary thought that Mapplethorpe would not have had a career in photography if it had not been for his friend, mentor, and lover, Sam Wagstaff. (Both were also involved with Patti Smith in the seventies.) Wagstaff was 25 years older than Mapplethorpe and Smith. He came from a patrician New York family, went to Yale, served in the Navy during WWII, worked in advertising for a while, and then went to graduate school in art history. He served as a curator of painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, and then at the Detroit Institute of Art.

But then in 1973, Wagstaff suddenly decided that photographs were more interesting as an art form than painting or sculpture. When his mother died and he inherited quite a bit of money, he began collecting photographs frenetically, especially 19th century photographs. I was amazed to see, in the film, how many really important 19th century photographs he owned; I saw a lot of the photographs that are in textbooks about the history of photography. I kept saying to myself, "He owned THAT?!?"

In 1984 Wagstaff sold his collection of around 30,000 photographs to the Getty Museum in California for $5 million. He died in 1987 at the age of 65 from AIDS.

Wagstaff put together a book of photographs, the highlights of his collection, called A Book of Photographs from the Collection of Sam Wagstaff. But unfortunately, the least expensive copy I could find online was $250! Maybe the library at the University of Houston has it.

Wagstaff's great contribution to our modern understanding of photography stems first from his willingness to see it as an art form, which, in the early seventies, it barely was. As Bruce Hainly said in a review in Artforum of a 1997 show of Wagstaff's collection, he rehabilitated photography from its "disreputable position." Although Wagstaff embraced what he called "pleasure" and beauty in photographs, his collection contained some photographs that are still difficult to look at: medical pictures of deformed people and amputees, horrible skin diseases, and the bloated bodies of soldiers on a battlefield. Hainly wrote that "he ultimately foiled photography's domesticity by embracing its vicious nature." Mapplethorpe's study of these "vicious" photographs influenced his style, as we can see in his photographs of sado-masochistic sex.

It's nice to know that the man who made photography less "disreputable" also kept it from becoming "domesticated," and that a central part of his interest in photographs was the pleasure of looking at them. Since the mid-eighties, in certain theoretical circles, pleasure in looking has itself been considered "disreputable." But photographers photograph things that they long to look at again and again. We all have our "vice," as Wagstaff called his collecting, the vice of a compulsion to collect the things we love to look at in the world by photographing them. This may in fact be somewhat "disreputable," like so many pleasures.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Phillip Toledano photography

I have been wondering about how I was going to write about contemporary art in a place like rural Tennessee, where there are lots of eyeball kicks from nature, but few from art. I'm not worried about that anymore. The internet has made art, especially photography, available to everybody in the hinterlands, as well as to the cognoscenti on the coasts.

I found a beautiful piece today by Phillip Toledano. Somehow I got there through the Aperture magazine site. Toledano's piece is a very personal memoir in photographs with text of his time with his father, when his father was very old, until he died at 98. Toledano's mother had already died, but his father had trouble remembering that.

The photographs are square format, so perhaps they were shot with film. They are presented beautifully, on the right of the screen, with text on the left. You simply click on the image to progress through the images. It's like turning pages in a book.

Many of the things that Toledano says about his elderly father rang true for me: the alternating sadness and humor in very old people; the shock at seeing their very old face in the mirror; the constant looking for beloved people, even those who have died; the loss of inhibition in talking about sex; and even the occasional flash of real joy, love, and gratitude for life and having lived.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Eyeball Kicks

Neal Cassady and Jack Keroac

"Eyeball kicks" was a phrase coined by Neal Cassady, the original "Beat," on or about 1945. It meant anything cool to look at. So it seemed appropriate as a name for a blog about contemporary art.

Cassady wrote,
"Now, eyeball kicks are among the world's greatest, second to none actually in terms of abstract thought, because it is thru the way you handle these kicks that is what determines your particular conclusion (in abstraction in the mind) to each moment's outlook....
"I looked out into the world as one looks into a picture. My field of vision then became like a canvas & as I looked, I saw 4 corners of the frame which held the picture. Since then, at any moment when I feel the slightest ennui, I simply look up from what I'm doing & note carefully the particular scene before my eyes.
"(Right now--to my left the fat greasy neck of the blubbery fireman, carefully picking his nose.)"--The First Third, p. 196.