Thursday, December 1, 2011

Meghan Boody, "The Lighthouse Project"

Houston Center for Photography has a show on right now called "Magical Realism in Photography." It's one of the most interesting shows I've seen there in a long time.

Most people associate magical realism with literature, particularly with Latin American literature. But it seems that the term was actually first used in relation to visual art, in the 1920s in Germany. A German art critic named Franz Roh came up with the term, "Magischer Realismus," to describe the post-expressionist, hyper-realistic painting that was being done in Germany at the time by painters like George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann. The funny thing is that when you learn about these painters nowadays, they're usually introduced as part of a movement called The New Objectivity, or Neue Sachlichkeit in German. But these paintings are far from realistic in the normal sense of the term. Fantastic elements sit side by side with hyper-real, very sharply delineated painting of people and objects. For example, in this searing but satirical picture of some war veterans playing cards, their hideous war wounds and prostheses are painted with devastating clarity and sharpness, but the scene itself is not "realistic" in the sense that its perspective is distorted.

 Neue Sachlichkeit grew out of the terrible violence of World War I and the meaningless slaughter of millions of men, along with the maiming of millions more. It seemed imperative to depict this horror in visual art, yet somehow without implying that the suffering was in any way ennobling or meaningful in a larger, heroic sense.

It's likely that magical realism in literature serves the same purpose: it's a way to depict the  true story of, say, colonialism in Latin America in a factual way, while also implying that this historical reality was so extreme that it violates one's normal expectations of how things will be. We live now in a time when new events are occurring that do not seem possible: American skyscrapers being brought down by Arabs in jets, European countries on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, humans changing the climate so that it will eventually revert to the climate of the earth in the time of the dinosaurs, the industrial revolution and Western "progress" coming to an end. Magical realism fits our need for a strong dose of reality coupled with a sense that this reality is somehow unbelievable.

Photography is a perfect medium for magical realism, as the photograph has a strong claim to being the most "real" representation of visual reality. Photographers have always manipulated negatives and prints to create fantastic scenes, even in the 19th century. Henry Peach Robinson was already using "combination printing" to create invented scenes from multiple negatives in 1858.

In the 1970s, I thought Jerry Uelsmann's photomontages were very cool:

I've played with photomontage myself, using the Holga camera to superimpose exposures on top of one another in the negative:

But the magical realism tool par excellence has to be Photoshop. The power is awesome. We can take any image, from anywhere, and put it in anything. The possibilities are so endless, and the process so relatively quick and easy compared to the way Uelsmann made his prints, that it's almost paralyzing. When you can do anything, what should you do?

This show has some answers. There were seven photographers represented in the show, and I hope to have time to write about more of them later, but the one who impressed me the most was Meghan Boody. She has done what I wanted to do when I first started playing with Photoshop: tell a magical realist story.

Boody's three enormous photographs in the show are from her series, The Lighthouse Project. This project imagines the story of a young orphan girl who escapes from confinement in the orphanage and goes out onto the heath, almost like Lear. It's not clear from the images exactly what happens, but the story seems to be a composite of many Victorian orphan stories, from Jane Eyre to Agnes Grey. ( I remember as a child being struck by how many English children's books involve children who are either orphaned or separated from parents by war: The Secret Garden, the Narnia stories, and many of Dickens's novels. It's an archetype that centuries of war and turmoil have seared into European brains, apparently.)  There are fifteen photographs in the whole series, and they are composed like history paintings: huge set pieces with many costumed characters and elaborate sets. Boody photographs the people--often young girls--in her studio, and then she places them digitally in the gorgeous landscapes and great manor houses that she photographs separately.

Here's one from the show, "East o' the Sun, West o' the Moon."

The lighthouse was photographed in Ireland, and the young girl heroine was photographed in the studio. The same girl serves as the heroine in all the pictures, but at the beginning of the series she is twelve, and by the end she is sixteen. The lighthouse keeper at the far right is a sort of romantic, yet fatherly figure that "saves" her for a time, apparently.

Not all of the photographs include overtly magical elements. There's one that has a ghostly figure of a woman gazing out from a doorway. But most of the images are not in the realm of the paranormal. The sense of magical realism--"this is real/this couldn't be real"-- comes, I think, from the fact that we seem to be seeing actual scenes from the 19th century, apparently photographed with incredible fidelity and sharpness, but they're in color! And they're really big! (The biggest photographs of the 19th century were only 20x24, and they were virtually all black and white.)  It's as if Thomas Struth had been teleported back to 19th century rural England with an 8x10 view camera and a scanner (or a high-end digital Hasselblad), and a Fujiflex Crystal Archive ultra-wide digital enlarger. The medium appears to be partly 19th century, possibly using a large-format film camera, and partly 21st century, since these huge color photographs could only have been produced by modern high tech digital printing. This juxtaposition and blending of technologies from different centuries creates a confusing, yet pleasurable sense of real-but-impossible.

The huge photographs--50 by 70.5 inches--reward a lot of careful looking. The details in the ground--the grass and rocks--are amazingly sharp, hyper-real, as befits magical realism.  They are gorgeously colored and composed. There is much pure visual pleasure in them, as well as the frisson of suspense and dread that seems to permeate the story. The viewer--I almost wrote "the reader"--is forced to invent the in-between scenes of this "movie" or novel. It's as if you received a beautifully illustrated book for Christmas, with fifteen color plate illustrations in it, and you paged through the book looking at the illustrations, imagining what the story might be before you get to read it. Only you never get to read it: you have to make it up.

Actually, the story seems to end with "to be continued." We see the young girl, now sixteen, in the last picture, standing against a wall in a fancy drawing room. She and the girls next to her are plainly dressed, whereas the foreground people are richly dressed. It's as if she's a servant in somebody else's household, much like Jane Eyre.  Will she ever marry the rich heir to the estate? Or will she get pregnant by him and be cast off, sent back on the road, as if in some tragic George Eliot novel? Magical realism doesn't lend itself to easy, Regency novel-style resolution. Like real life, it's too strange for that.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Toward a Theory of Thanksgiving (pace Freud)

I went to art school in 2003, and my school was really big on what they called "theory." This word seemed to refer to pretty much any long-winded writing that was inscrutable; it didn't have to be about visual art at all, really. The argument for this course of study was that back in the 1980s, there was a lot of theory-driven art. True enough. It didn't seem to matter that most people hate theory-driven art, and that nobody was making any theory-driven art any more. Academic art is by definition twenty years, at least, behind the times.

So every week we read hundreds of pages of prose I would never have read except under duress. With one exception: Freud. I really like Freud. He's not really that inscrutable, and he's all about sex, of course, and he has a wonderful 19th century writing style, with long, meandering, thoughtful sentences. At least it's wonderful in translation. (It could be horrible in German for all I know.) Like the best Victorian writers, Freud manages to be both prim and salacious at once. He describes the most perverse goings-on with a clinical detachment that barely masks his delight in them.

  His writing style is also wonderfully parody-able. So one time, when we were assigned to write an essay about "Totem and Taboo," and it happened to be around Thanksgiving, I was inspired to write this "theory of Thanksgiving turkey-eating." I hope it's funny even if you haven't read "Totem and Taboo" recently.

The inhabitants of the continent of North America have some
strange customs, which, nonetheless, psychoanalysis is able to elucidate, if not penetrate.  Perhaps the strangest is their custom of murdering and then devouring millions of turkeys on the last Thursday of November of each year.  The Americans do not eat turkey at any other time of year, or only rarely.  And, they do not commonly murder turkeys individually, as the wild turkeys of that country are practically extinct, and the domestic turkeys are known for their propensity to shit upon people’s porches, as they love to roost on the porch railings. So, turkeys are not much kept as domestic pets.  Indeed it could be said that the Americans have a taboo against killing turkeys individually (which certain white male inhabitants of the rural South ignore completely, as they do other taboos generally).   How, then, can we account for the mass murder of turkeys each November? 

First, it is important to know that the inhabitants of the United States, for the most part, have only been in that country for a few generations, with few exceptions.  They are of European, African, Asian, or South American extraction, whose ancestors came to the North American continent as recently as last week, or as long ago as the 17th century.  We are excepting from our survey of this population the native people, who were practically exterminated between the time when Europeans first arrived, bringing diseases to which the natives were susceptible, and the late 19th century, when the last of the native people were exterminated.  Nonetheless, some of their genes doubtless survive in the present population of the United States.

So, acknowledging that the history of the United States is rooted in a murder, nay, a genocide of several million of the original inhabitants, what connection could this have to the ritual murder of millions of turkeys every year?  The ritual murder at “thanksgiving” is no less than the commemoration of this “original sin,” which the Americans have largely forgotten, of the murder of the ancient ancestors of their land, the native people.  These people are, as it were, the “ancestors” of the present inhabitants, in the sense that they owned and controlled the motherland. In order for Europeans to gain access to her fertility, the ancient native patriarchs had to be destroyed, and even devoured.  We see this cannibalistic destruction in the pictures of the first thanksgiving, displaced, however, as the native ancestors are portrayed as “guests” at the feast rather than as the dinner itself.  In fact they were the hosts, who ended up giving their own flesh as food to the Europeans.  But such an unpleasant and disagreeable thought is not palatable at the thanksgiving table; thus the European Americans represent themselves as the hosts, the Indians as their “guests”, and the turkey as the meal.

What drove the European Americans to commit this atrocious sin that they now cannot contemplate, and have even forgotten?  Lust for the land that the native people controlled, is the only possible answer, as psychoanalysis makes clear.  The Europeans felt excluded from the use of the “rich virgin wilderness,” as they described it.  They felt that the native people monopolized her fertility, and didn’t even use it to its fullest.  The native people were mere hunters and gatherers, the Europeans thought, rather than sophisticated farmers like the Europeans.  Thus they justified the murder of the patriarchs and the seizure of their fertile virgin motherland.

But once the murder had been accomplished by the end of the 19th century, remorse set in immediately.  The band of Europeans remembered how quaint and picturesque the native people had been in their full regalia. They found themselves unable to mate with the female natives, and in fact they erected a taboo against Europeans mating with dark skinned women of any race. It is as if, by murder of the Indian fathers and by the seizure of their lands, they had in fact become the kinsmen of the Indian women and new members, initiated by violence,  of the same turkey clan.  Similarly, they began to lament their own destruction of the once-great forests, the despoliation of the streams, and the destruction of the prairie grasses.  Almost immediately they began to set aside the most beautiful of the lands they had seized as national parks, which were never to be touched by any white man for his use. The analogy of land use with mating thus becomes explicit, as the incest taboo is operative even environmentally.

Now we can see the strange custom of mass turkey murder in its full meaning.  The turkey, it will be seen, stands for the ancient ancestor, the patriarchs, the native people of the Americas who were themselves murdered en masse so that food could be grown for Europeans on their fertile motherland.  In that sense, the native people became, as it were, the food of Europeans. The turkey is the perfect, although unconscious, symbol for the Europeans of the native people that they exterminated:  it is a bird native only to the Americas and was not known to Europeans before they came to this new continent; and it has a reputation of being a somewhat guileless bird, easy to hunt and kill, although somewhat shy and very elusive in the wild.  Therefore, in celebrating its murder and devouring every year, the European Americans are re-enacting their original sin, both celebrating their defiant triumph over the former holders of the land, and propitiating their totem, the bird, which they revere even as they slaughter it.  For no less a person than their beloved Founding Father Benjamin Franklin proposed that the turkey be the totem animal of the newly created United States. In fact the official totem bird is the bald eagle; however, psychoanalysis easily recognizes the bald eagle as nothing other than a displacement of the turkey into a form that is more palatable (no pun intended) to the American mind, being less of an explicit reminder to the European Americans of the bloody origin of their nation-state.  The totem animal—whether turkey or eagle—embodies their community, which is the true object of their worship. And yet also the embodiment of their sin:  “in the beginning was the Deed.”

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sky Space

On Saturday we went to a gathering at the Live Oak Friends Meeting House in Houston. This Quaker meeting house has an installation designed by James Turrell, an artist who works primarily with light. He grew up as a Quaker himself, and he remembers going to the meeting house with his grandmother, who said they were going to "look for the light." Quakers no doubt mean the light within, but Turrell took this metaphor rather literally, and he has been searching for ways to represent and frame light ever since.

We could not go in the Turrell installation at the Nasher Sculpture Center last weekend because it is being renovated, so it was nice to be able to see a similar piece in Houston. The sky space is a rectangle cut into the roof of the Friends Meeting House, with a retractable roof that rolls back over the hole if rain threatens (which, in Houston these days, is practically never). It was open when we got there.

The ceiling of the meeting house is curved, so the rectangular sky space sometimes doesn't look rectangular when you look straight up:

Also, as afternoon progresses into evening, the color of the sky begins to change rapidly:

It's amazing how entertaining it is just to watch these colors slowly change. It is similar, although better I think, to the tunnel at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston that Turrell created: it too changes colors gradually, although the effect is created by artificial light rather than by the natural light from the sky.

There is more entertainment to be had from watching the clouds and jet trails move across the sky space.

The effect is very contemplative. It sort of conflicts a little with the hard pews in the Friends Meeting House, which are more like the pews in the Grand Ole Opry House than like the sort of chaise lounge that would have been perfect for sky gazing.

Turrell talks in an Art 21 segment about how the idea for this wonderful space came about. He talks about the fact that the sky space seems to bring the sky and the atmosphere closer, just by framing it (and framing the horizon, trees, and buildings out). He says that by looking at the sky space, you realize that the sky is close to you all the time; in fact you're walking around in it! You're in the atmosphere! I think that's a really accurate description of how it feels to watch this space: it creates a kind of intimacy with the sky. And that's important these days, given how imperiled our atmosphere is, and by implication, the whole biosphere. You begin to love it a little more, rather than just taking it for granted or ignoring it.

The sky space also gives a city dweller an opportunity to experience what residents of the wide-open spaces of the Far West feel all the time: the beauty and importance of the sky. When you're out in the Big Bend, for example, there are places where there seems to be almost nothing but sky.  In the Chihuahuan desert, you can see the horizon around you for 360 degrees, and then there's this enormous bowl of the sky inverted over the apparently flat Earth. At night this bowl becomes alive with stars and meteors, and it's a show more impressive than any puny thing that happens on the ground. The spectacle sort of puts things in perspective.

At the meeting house, though, after it got dark, the roof rolled over the sky space, and an artificial light show came on, which was also pretty nice. You can't see stars in Houston anyway.

Turrell is working right now on a decades-long project at Roden Crater in Arizona. This is a huge volcanic cone that Turrell is remodeling to be the Mother of All Sky Spaces. It will be a sort of Stonehenge of contemporary American art, if the drawings are to be believed. I can't claim to understand Roden Crater really, but I hope it opens soon so I can go try to understand it. The Dia Foundation is supporting its construction in large part. It's a natural project for them, given their interest in earth works and the legacy of Minimalism and Donald Judd.  It's good that the wealth created by oil in Texas has contributed so much to monumental projects like Roden Crater that could not be built without a lot of support. But it's also great to have smaller, more modest, yet sublime pieces like the sky space in the Friends Meeting House.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Nasher Sculpture Garden; Tony Cragg

We had a nice time at the Nasher Sculpture Center on Saturday morning. It was  a free admission day and there were dozens of small children running around the shaded lawn of the garden, trying desperately to touch the sculpture that they weren't allowed to touch, and sometimes succeeding.

One of our objectives had been to go in the James Turrell piece, which is a kind of underground kiva. You look up at the ceiling, and there is a square opening through which you see the sky. Sometimes it's a blue rectangle; sometimes clouds scoot by. If it rains, the rain comes inside, but you can sit on benches around the edge of the kiva and not get wet. The benches are warmed by internal heaters, and they are deliciously sensual to lie on, even though they are hard. But sadly, the installation was closed: Turrell is re-designing the kiva to take into account the presence of a new tower that blocks the view of the sky. The Dallas Museum of Art is building this tower to lure its members to live in the area, apparently in the hopes that the same  people will bequeath their art collection to the museum when they die. Apparently the ceilings of the penthouse apartments are 18 feet tall, to accommodate these prospective tenants' art collections. We all know that art these days has to be big to be any good!

This cross section gives you an idea of how the kiva works.

And this is what it looks like when there are a few clouds in the sky.

But as I said, we couldn't go in. However the area right around the kiva is quite lovely:

The featured exhibition was by a sculptor from the UK called Tony Cragg. I had never heard of him before, but I liked his work quite a lot. There were somewhat biomorphic shapes made out of all kinds of things. The ones I liked best were carved laminated wood.

Also there was a boat with all these hooks screwed into it, almost like barnacles. For some reason both Tom and I really liked this piece. It just bristled with energy, and it had a kind of light-hearted humor about it.

Cragg's work is quite varied: some is straight-up sculpture, cast bronzes and carvings and the like, and other stuff is Rauschenberg-like combines (the boat), or assemblage, like these bottles.

There were also some drawings. The drawings of sculptors are always interesting: how does a person who thinks mainly in three dimensions work in two dimensions? Cragg's drawings, as one might expect, have a strong sense of depth and space.

The drawings did not seem to be preparatory to any particular sculpture, but rather just explorations of ideas that might lead to a piece of sculpture. The one above seemed to relate to a piece made out of dice. It was like a huge coiled basket with a lid. The photograph below barely hints at the size of this object: it was as tall as me, made out of thousands of dice glued together very precisely. The example at the Nasher is just one of many pieces Cragg made out of dice.

One great thing about sculpture gardens is the opportunity to draw things that stand still: sculptures.

I made a drawing of a Calder piece called "Three Bollards." I had to look up the word "bollard." It means a post by a quay for mooring ships to.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Great Show at the Frist Center in Nashville

The Frist Center is just going from strength to strength.  Each show that I see there seems better than the last.  Right now, there's a show there called The Birth of Impressionism, with paintings from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

Some of these paintings are familiar, like Manet's The Fife Player:

And "Whistler's Mother," which is really called Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1, or The Artist's Mother, 1871:

One important thing to notice in both these canonical paintings is how there are large areas of basically flat, relatively unmodelled shapes.  When you take an art history course, you learn that this was a new thing in mid to late 19th century painting, especially in Manet.  Apparently French painters were inspired by Japanese woodblock prints, which had large flat unmodelled areas.  But this show makes this innovation really jump out at you, because the first room is full of Salon-style paintings, which were highly modelled and much more "realistic," except for the fact that they included so many winged cherubs and mermen, and the fact that none of the women have any body hair except on their heads (Ok, maybe not so realistic, but realistically modelled.)

Impressionist painters and (big R) Realist painters like Courbet were reacting against the silliness of these paintings of mythological subjects.  They preferred portraying peasants and ordinary people, like the exhausted haymakers below:

These two paintings, though worlds apart conceptually and thematically, are both equally huge.  So painters like LePage, who painted the haymaking scene, were stating that ordinary people were as heroic in their own way as the gods and goddesses of mythology.  Some of the paintings of peasants at work remind the viewer of Soviet realism, with its  idealized portraits of muscular peasant women.

I have always been sort of ashamed of the fact that English and American painting could never rival that of France in the 19th century, and well into the 20th century.  But a wall plaque in this show pointed to the influence of Constable on French landscape painters, particularly on the Barbizon school, the members of which painted in a forest near Paris.  But Renoir ventured further afield, to Algiers:

This kind of painting--devoid of narrative, a "painting of nothing"--drove the academicians and traditional painters in Paris crazy.  But you can see what it owes to Constable's
Dedham Vale, painted in 1801, eighty years earlier:

  But the Impressionists of the late 19th century had an advantage over Constable, namely, new colors!  When you enter the room with the Algerian painting, everything suddenly lightens and brightens up.  The colors are fresher and clearer, fewer shades and more tints, and the tints are very pure hues.  This is due to the presence of colors like viridian (a clear green), aureolin (yellow), cerulean blue (a greenish blue) and a new, cheaper synthetic ultramarine blue.  These are colors that I've taken for granted my whole painting life, but they were brand new toys for the Impressionists.

Another advantage for the Impressionists over their mentor Constable:  paint in tubes.  Constable had to mix his own paints and store them in little skin containers.  But Renoir could carry his colors outside in tubes, as we do today.

There are many more interesting things to look for in this show, such as the influence of photography on the way painters cropped their paintings; the appearance of "art within art," as in the painting of Whistler's mother; and the effect of the disastrous Franco-Prussian war on the nascent modernism of French painting.  We in Middle Tennessee are lucky to be able to see these paintings from the Musee d'Orsay in Nashville.