Wednesday, November 28, 2007

d.c. diary

I spent the recent holiday with relatives in some desolate D.C. suburb, which honestly was not so much fun. But I did get the chance to consume a couple stray bits of culture. Some brief notes then.

First, and most significantly, I saw Morris Louis Now, a small retrospective, at the Hirschhorn. I have nothing original or intellectual to say about the man or his work right now. (I have too many other writing projects at the moment. Also, I'm just at a loss for words.) But I will say that these stained acrylic on canvas abstractions are among the most gorgeous things that I've seen this year. Their combination of cool analytic order and deeply sensuous color is intoxicating. I wish I could go back. I particularly like the wide empty spaces of his late late work (bare canvas!).

My favorites might be the so-called "unfurled" series, in which the artist dripped diagonal rivers of thinned (but saturated) color from the side edges. Here is an example. It's an intriguing compositional device; I'm not sure where else in the history of art it can be found. In Chinese painting, perhaps?

From the museum site linked to above:
The exhibition presents major paintings dating from the early 1950s until his death in late 1962, the years Louis developed an innovative method of painting by staining his unprimed canvases with thinned washes of acrylic pigments. The artist, who was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1912, studied at the Maryland Institute of Fine and Applied Arts. As a young man he painted in a realist manner; only in his forties did he find his signature style. Even in cramped quarters in Washington D.C., Louis was able to make large paintings, achieving an exuberant, lyrical celebration of colors hovering in white space. Louis became an inspirational figure for other artists in the Color Field movement in the 1960s, notably Kenneth Noland and Helen Frankenthaler.
According to the same source, Louis has not had a retro since 1986 (when I was a kid), which is shocking. Needless to say, I am unable to compare this one with others. But the size and selection felt perfect to me, given that a little of his work goes such a long way.

And I read a short novel: Mark Dunn's fun, wordplay-laden Ella Minnow Pea. The book is written as series of letters, most of them between two teenage girl cousins: Ella and Tassie. The events described therein take place on Nollop, a fictional island off the South Carolina coast. The island is named after Nevin Nollop, the author (also fictional) of the sentence "the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which is a pangram, containing all the letters of the alphabet. As evinced by the exchanged epistles, with their alliteration and ornate, precious usage, the islanders have an unusual fondness for language. (This is entertaining some times and annoying at others.)

Nevin is worshiped as a godlike figure, and when letters start falling off of his memorial statue
off of the pangramthey are successively banned by the superstitious, tyrannical Council. First time offenders get off with a mere scolding, but a second violation brings a choice of flogging or the stockade. A third time brings expulsion from the would-be linguistic utopia. The novel tells of the progressive devolution of the society as a result of communicative breakdown and the departure of people (voluntarily or otherwise). The letterswith some exceptionsfollow the law lipogrammatically, with humorous results. Later sections are clouded with increasingly evasive, absurd substitutions and mispellings.

Ella must demythologize Mr. Nollop in order to discredit the theocracy. To this end, she endevours to find another pangrammatic sentence with 32 or fewer letters. She is assisted in this task by others, including the renegade councilman Rederick Lyttle (hah) and Stateside scholar Nate Warren (with the predictable love story between Tassie and the latter). I'm sure you can guess how things turn out.

Ella is lighthearted and light-weight as a satire of theocracy and censorship. The wordplay, and the writing more generally, was however, a joy to read.

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Lewis Hine, Sunday Morning, March 7, 1909, Morris Herowitz, Ten Years Old, 1909, gelatin silver print

Alfred Steiglitz, The Steerage, 1915, photogravure

Arthur Rothstein, Girl at Gee's Bend Alabama, 1937, gelatin silver print


Alongside its big video-art extravaganza, the Johnson is showing a modest gallery-full of still camera images. Evidence: 150 Years of Documentary Photography is quiet and mostly conservative. Only a single work is in full color; two are in sepia and the rest are black and white. Their scale is intimate, book-sized. Most of the work is by established 20th-century photographers, American and European.

The Steerage (1907), by Alfred Steiglitz, is among the best-known pictures in the show. Although Steiglitz is not usually thought of as a documentarian, his photo does provide a strong (even overstated) formal analogy for class stratification. It shows the side of a boat packed with American immigrants; the wealthy are on the deck above and the poor below. The angular, cubist division of the scene suggests instability.

Sunday Morning, March 7, 1909, Morris Herowitz, Ten Years Old is by Lewis Hine. Among other subjects, Hine famously covered the sordid condition of early 20th-century child laborers. Newsboy Morris looks more dignified than most. Standing on a step, slightly to the right, he wears dark trousers and a buttoned blazer over a striped shirt. Under his left arm, he carries a stack of papers. Along with his stoic-looking face, these contain the lightest tones. Behind him is a corner entrance to a stone building. Reflected in the glass of the double doors are dark, silhouetted trees and buildings. Hazy off-white frames the left and bottom edges. The condition of the paper detracts from the strength of the image—the sheet is wrinkled and the bottom edge torn.

Several images illustrate the lives of the Great Depression poor. Although some of these are quite striking, their abundance suggests the clichedness of the subject (not the fault of the artists).

Arthur Rothenstein’s Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama (1937) is a standout. Standing in front of a rough log-cabin window is a young girl with her arms on the ledge. She faces left toward the back of the window covered in newspaper. Although the paper serves the practical purpose of insulation, its purpose in the photograph is symbolic. The cheerful advertising contrasts ironically with the evident poverty of the child. (Bruce Davidson’s 1965 Women In Cabin, Alabama makes use of the same device). The paper is also interesting as texture, torn and layered like artistic collage.

Girl bears comparison with Marion Post Walcott’s Unemployed Miner’s Wife (1939), who leans over the railing of a balcony on a rickety wooden building. Her head too is framed by a window (covered this time). Unlike the girl, with her earnest, pained expression, the woman smiles as she looks down at the camera.

A macabre scene by Margaret Bourke-White (shot in 1945, printed in 1965) is titled Hitler’s 1000 years stopped short for the Leipzig city treasurer. He gave his family poison when he saw American tanks under the window of his office. The viewpoint is from slightly above and at an oblique angle. Along with the sharp contrast of a dark interior and a bright exterior, this gives the piece a cinematic feel. Three people are dead. By the bottom left corner sits a man slumped over a paper-strewn desk, his body oriented rightward. In the middle, a dark-dressed woman is arched over a leather chair, her feet under the desk. A couch (also leather) up against the right wall holds a Red Cross nurse in a dark coat and white cap. Above her is a romantic landscape painting. Three tall windows flanked by skinny drapes line the back wall. The furnishings—an oriental rug and a chandelier among them—are lavish but the overall effect is austere.

Landscape in photography often tends towards the romantic and the pastoral. The gritty realism associated with the documentary appears less commonly, at least in self-consciously artistic work. Perhaps this helps explain why the handful of landscapes—with one exception—seem like curatorial afterthoughts.

Richard Misrach’s Dead Animals # 1 (1987) is an anomaly. It is the only piece in color and one of the few by a living artist. It is also the largest picture, although modest by the artist’s standards. The subject matter is exceptional as well. Dramatizing a destructive human presence, it shows a pile of animal corpses on a slope in the Nevada desert. Joined by metal barrels and other man-made detritus, the cows and horses form a large arrow pointing left (the base covers most of the right edge). Above and behind them, near the upper-left corner, is a pile of raw, bloody entrails. The ground is mostly sand, although patches of grass punctuate the far background near the top edge. It is a powerful scene but it feels stranded, both as a picture and as social commentary.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I found these animations on YouTube while looking for dB's related material (see my brief mention of the band below, tenth paragraph). The video for their song "Big Brown Eyes" features animation by Emily Hubley. I like the song quite a bit but the visuals not so much. Further browsing of the nets revealed her to be the daughter of pioneering husband and wife animators Faith and John Hubley. (Her sister is is Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia.) I'm posting some of their stuff because it looks intriguing.

The couple married in 1955 and founded the collaborative Storyboard Studios the same year. As the top video suggests, they too worked with some of the most exiting musicians of their time. See also this entertaining outing with Dizzy Gillespie and cohorts. Faith continued making films after her husband's death in 1977 and the video below is one of these "solo" efforts. I like its synesthetic free-association and the drawing style, which reminds me of the underappreciated Romainian surrealist Victor Brauner (and Miro, more obviously). And yes, I have a taste for whimsy. Faith unfortunately passed away in 2001.

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eye in the sky

Early publication in the Times this week, due to the holiday:
Jay Hart comes to the world of art from that of science. The Trumansburg artist comes out of a career of several decades in map-making and in the study of geomorphology (the processes by which land-forms acquire their shapes). He has long been fascinated by the beauty of the land, and that of the pictures we use to represent it.

Recently, he has turned his skills and knowledge toward the making of more purely aesthetic images. The world seen from space is his subject. He is currently showing samples of his "terrain art" at Cornell University's Mann Library. These are large-format digital prints, many human-size or larger. They have been mounted to foam boards and are directly exposed rather than being protected by the expected glass. Each print is part of a limited edition.

Along with the differently colored Plains of Tidikelt, both Transitions and Greater Somalia were made using only color-coded elevation data. Although perhaps scientifically interesting, these two are less aesthetically rich than the others. White and violet mark the highest spots, green and tan the middle range, and reddish orange the lowlands. Hart has chosen to make bodies of water an uninflected black. This helps these images quite a bit by offsetting the sharp, punchy 3D effect of all those tiny ridges and valleys (especially in the former piece). Still the overall affect of these gradations feels cold and mechanical, ill-suited to the grandeur and intricacy of the subject matter.

Transitions depicts the Finger Lakes area. Appropriately enough, Ithaca is in the center, although visible only as an orange tail on the south end of Cayuga Lake. The southeast part of Lake Ontario silhouettes the top left corner. Pennsylvania is to the south, highlighted by what look something like loose strokes of transparent paint—the Appalachian Mountains.

Most of the pictures in the show combine the elevations with one or more satellite images, added as a translucent layer. This gives them a greater range of color and texture which is much more aesthetically compelling. The color seems more naturalistic. We can also see human traces more directly. These images feel more concrete.

An analogy can be made with painting, and with abstract painting in particular. Traditionally, the earth has been a primary source for the pigments that give paints their colors. Synthetic pigments imitate their properties. The interaction of minerals with more fluid substances generates most of the forms seen in Hart's pictures. Although intentionally manipulated by the painter's hand, painting can involve similar natural processes. A number of abstractionists have made such processes central to their work. For example, Larry Poons' poured paintings and the "abstract landscapes" of local painter Barbara Mink come to mind. Similarities of shape and texture with Hart's work are in some cases quite remarkable.

The panoramic Al Kidan, with its painterly layering of copper, turquoise and cloud-like white, is a stunning image. Its also one of the most impressive pieces of trompe-l'œil that I've seen in a while. From a few feet away, it looks as if a striated pattern of copper pigment blobs has been applied, or has accreted, on to the smooth photographic surface. But no, the blobs are actually sand dunes in the Saudi Arabian desert. They cover most of the surface, save for a bit around the right edge.Their rich variety of density and direction reflects the changing of the winds. The effect is reminiscent of some of Gerard Richter's abstract paintings. If you look closely, you can see a network of roads and other signs of human habitation beneath. The piece is roughly human-size; if it were laid on the floor, you could sleep on it. Like several other pieces in the show, the piece is unconventionally oriented. To the left is north.

In Cape Farvel, left is south. The piece shows the southern tip of Greenland, with the bottom of the eastern shoreline running across near the bottom edge. The water is blue and turquoise. The land is mostly white, except of course around the shore, where it is pale gray and brown. Punctuating the coast are many lengthy fjords, with a wild cluster toward the middle. The scene looks something like a row of burnt out trees—an interesting shift of scale and perspective.

The installation of the show could have been better thought out. Several relatively small pictures are hung well above eye-level, overlooking an area where the gallery area transitions to stacks of books. This makes it impossible to get a suitably close look at the intricate details.
From the same issue: Wylie Schwartz's profile of local artist-writer Stephen Poleskie touches on aerial art of a rather different sort. Also check out these two paintings from his early-sixties realist period.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

rise and fall

This past Thursday evening, I attended the Cornell screening of a rough cut of a documentary film by Long Islander Jake Gorst. It is entitled The Rise and Fall of Books and is being planned for PBS. (See Wylie Schwartz's piece in this week's Times.) Its title is somewhat misleading, since the main subject is really Cornell professor Buzz Spectorthe man and artistalong with his recent book installation project, the "Big Red C."

I prefer to think of the "C" as an abstract, monumental arc. (C for Cornell? Or for "community," as someone suggested at the screening? This seems like a contrived jingoism and besides, the piece didn't even feel that much letter-like on-site). The piece was made up of over 800 books, all of them supposedly the work of Cornell humanists
professors, students, or alumni. Shapes and subjects ranged from children's books and coffee-table science books to classics (with new introductions) and ponderous-looking theoretical texts (reference). The shape was like a curved staircase: almost touching the floor on one end, the height of a child on the other.

Spector and a group of students constructed the form in a Cornell-owned building in Chelsea during the second week of January this year. The piece was rebuilt on-campus (using the same bo
oks) for an April exhibition. I saw it then at the Kroch Library and I liked it, despite my unease with some its symbolic aspects. (Disclosure: Buzz has been very friendly to me, which is impressive given our relative statures.)

The film was indeed rough, full of awkwardness that could be resolved by better pacing and arrangement. It centers around footage Gorst had shot with the intention of merely documenting the piece and its initial construction in NYC. But Gorst soon realized that he had the makings of a feature length film and so he went for it. The movie also features Buzz interviewed in his office (at Cornell, I believe) talking about some of his past work and how it related to his biography. These segments could be fleshed out and better integrated. Indeed, Gorst told the seated audience that he plans to do another interview.

Buzz as long worked with books, "both as subject and as object." As well as piling books and photographing them, he has worked extensively in altered books. One piece shown in the film was a book from which pages had been carefully torn
nearly the whole first page was missing, with more and more of the page present as one goes through the book. It seems clear to me at least that this is a man as in love with his medium as any painter.

He spoke movingly of his works relation to his biography (perhaps working against his stereotype has a cold, cerebral artist). He spoke of his mother's disapproval of him making art out of damaged books and how she eventually came around after recalling a childhood incident in which he sat by the waterside arranging stones to trace the lines made by the receding waves. He and she both saw an intimate connection between this and his mature artistic expression.

Although not quite justifying the title, he argues for the continuing value of the printed word in an increasingly digital world. He explains that some forms of printed literature will disappear, for example the phone book. But others, such as novels and books of poetry will prevail. The case is made largely based on a emotional appeal to appreciation for the mate
rial and tactile aspects of reading. There were, however, some suggestions that younger generations might not be as appreciative. A longtime friend of Buzz's (whose name I forget, and who is identified vaguely as a "writer") emphasizes the old-fogginess of this perspective. A child at the opening for the C carries what looks like a hand-held video game.

Buzz is also enchanted by analog photography. He owns an impressive large-format Polaroid camera, which he uses to photograph his installations. In Rise, he compares the materiality of the resulting prints to painting. These he considers art (you would to, if you saw them in the flesh) as opposed to the numerous digital shots, which are mere documentation.

The main focus of Rise however, was Spector and his students in downtown Manhattan. They drive around in a van, unpack boxes, sort and arrange books. There is a time lapse sequence in which the sculpture is put together in a minute or two. There are brief interviews with a handful of students, some of them awkward or annoying, others endearing. Some bits seemed to drag on too long or felt out of place, but again, this is a matter of arrangement. The basic material is strong.

The film features a rocking soundtrack by dB's, which effectively conveys the feeling of being young (or young at heart, to use the cliche) in the big city. Some of the songs were newly written for the project. As Buzz explained after the screening, he had designed early album art for their predecessor group, the Sneakers back in the 70's. Their involvement in the documentary was a lovely coincidence. Unfortunately, the music was less suited for some of the more reflective moments.

As I mentioned in the discussion following the screening, my main difficulty was the exclusion of Cornell University as subject. The sense given by the film was Buzz playing hooky with his students in the big city, which is all well and good as far as it goes. It might come off as square or boring to mention the institutional connection. But it does seem awfully willful to ignore the facts: the project was planned by a Cornell prof (formally the director of the art department, now on leave), executed by Cornell students for credit, built out of Cornell books, and presumably funded by university funds. We see an alumni studded reception at the end of the film. Ostensibly, the piece represents the unity of humanities scholarship at Cornell (I'm not sure that I buy this either though). I can understand how personal artistic goals and connection with students are more interesting and important than all of this. Certainly, non-Cornellians like me and Gorst are most likely to latch on to such aspects. But still, it does seem willful. I spoke with Buzz a bit after the event and he did seem receptive to my comments.

UPDATE (11/19/07): Buzz tells me that he in fact rents the camera (of which only around 15 exist) from the Polaroid 20X24 Studio in New York. Apologies. Also, the "writer" mentioned above is Reagan Upshaw, a New York poet and art dealer.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

josh dorman on his paintings

Part of the public television documentary There is a Bridge, on Alzheimer's disease. This segment features painter Josh Dorman.

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wakon yousai

For the Times, not a review:
Wakon Yousai is somewhat unusual for the Upstairs Gallery, where painting is the usual focus. The exhibit highlights the rough, elegant ceramic vessels of local artist Momoko Takeshita Keane. Complementing these are two miniature tabletop “gardens” by her husband Marc, a landscape architect and a writer. The work mixes cultural influences: Japanese and Western, traditional and modern, craft and fine art. The show’s title is a pun on a 19th century Japanese expression expressing the goal of reconciling traditional values with the new Western technologies. In the Keanes’ version, the phrase—pronounced the same way but with two out of the four kanji characters changed—takes on a related but different meaning: Japanese “roots” combined with western “color”. The literal colors though are traditional: earthy and restrained.

I recently spoke with both artists at the gallery. Momoko’s English was limited, so much of the time, Marc spoke on her behalf. Our conversation was informal and meandering; the following is an attempt to distill the most relevant parts.

Both artists have deep roots in the culture and aesthetics of Japan. Momoko was born in Kyoto and studied her craft there and in the well-known Japanese pottery town of Shigaraki. Most of her teachers and peers were men. Eventually she set up a studio business in Kyoto. Marc spent a period of eighteen years studying and working in Japan, where he met and married Momoko. In 2002, he took a one-year teaching position at Cornell. The couple moved to Ithaca, along with their son. They were planning to go back but they liked it enough to stay. About two years ago, they completed a studio where Momoko now works. Importantly, this is her first solo show since then.

Momoko has found the change valuable. She stresses the greater openness and “exchange of information” (Marc’s term) among the local art community. In Kyoto, the system was rigid and hierarchical, with masters and apprentices. Here things are more fluid. There is less pressure here to stay within a medium, something borne out here by a group of small crocheted copper wire bracelets. There is also less pressure to make functional pieces, as a grouping of doll-sized clay jackets hints. But both artists also stress the ongoing importance of Japanese skill and knowledge for their work.

Her technique is largely traditional, typically involving coil-building and firing over several days in a wood-fired kiln. She is a traditionalist when it comes to materials too. There is little glazing in her work here, although the ashes from the firing give the pieces different patterns in browns and grays. She also prefers the rough, minimally processed quality of traditional Japanese clay. We spoke about the difficulties of finding similar materials from the northeastern United States.

This show has been an opportunity for Momoko. The onion shaped Scarf Vase 1 is tan and reddish brown in color. A pair of small, drop-like ash markings huddle together on one side, highlighted in cool, shiny white. Its size is typical of the work in the show, roughly the size of a basketball. Like many of her pieces here, it has a sculpted scarf wrapped around its neck, an anthropomorphic feature Momoko describes as a feminine touch.

The piece was recently purchased for the Johnson Museum, where it will join an excellent collection of Asian objects. Both the museum director Franklin Robinson and the Asian Art curator Ellen Avril were at the opening on the 30th of October. Avril saw the piece and thought the museum should purchase it. A couple, Bob and Kazuko Smith—acquaintances of the Keanes and established donors—stepped in and bought the piece directly for the museum, sidestepping the usual complicated acquisitions process.

Marc’s work here has a supporting role. He refers to his tabletop gardens as bontei, “tray gardens." The two pieces feel cramped and awkward in the gallery space. The Ploughman’s Dream II is the more impressive of the two. Encased in a a circular steel stray is a microcosmic landscape divided by a wavy clay wall. One side is inlayed with long, precisely cut slate blocks arranged in rows. The other side is oak bark. According to Marc, the piece is meant to represent a dialectic of wild versus cultivated furrowing. His other tray piece echoes traditional Japanese rock gardens and is framed in wood. He too spoke of his working method, which involves improvising with found materials.

Also by Marc is a series of clay kanji, attached to irrregular, plate-like forms. These he made in Momoko’s studio.The intent was to make the characters fluid and expressive, more like ink or paint than clay. He plans to make more, enough to spell out sentences. These he tells me are a purely modern invention, without historical precedent.
Below: Scarf Vase

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

links and announcements for a sunday afternoon in november

* Mr. Schjeldahl and Mrs. Smith on the Seurat drawing show at MoMA.

*"The Twelve Devices of Peanuts." (via)

*A hand-drawn map depicting most of the traversable terrain in the classic computer game Zork.

*MIT is suing Frank Gehry. They are alleging negligence in the design of their 300 million dollar Stata Center, which opened back in 2004. (via)

*Mark Steyn on Allan Bloom on rock'n' roll. (via)

*The Great Pumpkin.

*From this weekend's Ithaca Journal: Carol Kammen on blogs as popular history.

*Nancy Geyer on the big video art extravaganza currently taking up most of the Johnson Museum's temporary exhibition space. I need to get up there and see it myself.

*Local artist Jay Hart is showing examples of his "terrain art" at Cornell's Mann Library Gallery. The show will be up through January 10 with a reception taking place this coming Tuesday from 5 to 6 in the evening. I do fetishize aerial perspective in art and there seem to be at least a handful of local artists working (with various levels of abstraction) in this vein. More on this sometime, I think.

*Speaking of which, my hero, the Queens painter Josh Dorman has taken part in a television documentary, There is a Bridge. The show, narrated by Mr. Robert Pinsky, deals with some of the social and humanistic aspects of Alzheimer's disease. From their website:
Josh Dorman, a nationally recognized artist living in New York, came to Alden Town Manor Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Cicero, Ill., in August 2005 to create five paintings based on the imaginative and emotional landscapes of five people with advanced dementia. Assisted by Michael Verde of Memory Bridge and two social workers from Northwestern University, Josh spent six hours a day with five residents of Alden Town Manor. The thoughts, feelings, memories, dreams, and whatever else residents chose to share with Josh provided him the imaginative material from which he created his paintings. Josh earned a B.A from Skidmore College and an M.F.A. from Queens College.
You can see the paintings here. They incorporate literal portraiture, something I don't thing I've seen before in Dorman's work. (There is an interesting parallel here with some of Barbara Mink's recent work.)

The show is airing on various public tv stations at different times; depending on where you live, you may have missed it. Locally, it can be seen on WCNY on the 18th of this month, at 11 in the morning. I hardly watch television, but I will be making an exception.

*I Am Sitting in a Room (more), a classic sound piece by experimental composer Alvin Lucier:
I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

out of focus

From this week's paper:
Juried group shows are familiar fare for Groton's Main Street Gallery. Annual shows highlight paintings, photographs and quilts. A local guest juror is invited to lead a selection from submitted work. Recently, submissions have been taken from across the country.

There are advantages and disadvantages. A positive aspect is the possibility of surprise. Area gallery exhibits are strongly weighted towards area artists. While it is important for locals to be able to show locally, this can also result in provincialism and a limited horizon of influences. Introducing artists from around the country in a rather random manner mixes things up. Unfortunately, this randomness often results in shows that feel arbitrary and unfocused. National Photography '07, juried by Cornell professor Stan Bowman, is typical in this regard. Of course this is hardly the fault of the artists, several of whom contribute fine work.

Rooftops, Gaudi, a gelatin-silver mosaic by John S. Tilney, is a standout. It gives a fragmented, multi-perspective view of the Catalan art nouveau architect's well-known Casa Milà, in Barcelona. The wavelike, surreal apartment building was built in the first decade of the 20th century. Today parts can be visited by the public. One such section is its rooftop terrace with its sculptural protrusions loosely resembling armored knights. It is these, along with rows of small windows (themselves curiously helmet-like), that dominate the foreground of Tilney's image. (Although this can't be seen in the picture, the windows overlook a large central courtyard). The piece is divided into a grid of squares: five high by eight wide. White space surrounds each. Most of the squares are duplicates (or near-duplicates, look closely). A cloudy sky covers most of the top two rows; its haziness contrasts with the clean lines of the building. The piece captures the Gaudi's fluidity while imposing a more rigid architecture. The grid of Rooftops is echoed by the finer one of Red Channel # 5, a pinkish portrait of a young woman. Each adjacent square has a different overall tint, masking the facial features. This effect flattens the image in a bland way.

Bob Gates' digital Last Picture Show shows the front of an old-fashoned, well-worn movie theatre at night. Lights are incandescent, giving the picture a golden glow. Towards the left, under a marquee advertising the theatre ("Island") and the show ("Transformers"), a distant looking woman leans against a lit-up (but empty) box office, gazing leftward. In the center, facing the other way, a middle-aged man in a white shirt and dark tie carries a film reel out onto the sidewalk. Toward the right is an antique-looking streetlamp partially obscuring a pair of movie posters. The posters provide color contrast: green and blue. Above the marquee is a curtainless window; inside is a dimly lit room from which a reel has yet to be removed. The story and mood are compellingly presented.

The female figure is a recurring theme (males are strangely under-represented). Chloe, a gelatin-silver print by Polly Chandler, shows a young girl in a pale dress, her eyes closed beatifically. Her lower body is blurred, as is the strange building in the background. The effect is a bit contrived but works reasonably well. Another gelatin-silver, Body Fear, Leah in the Tub, is by a local artist, Julie Magura. The diptych shows two views from above of a girl bathing. On the left she too is closing her eyes while on the right her head is disturbingly cut off. Excepting the romantic couple Musings at Dusk (Lyn Gardiner), portrayals of grown women are less intimate and less interesting.

Toys and figurines make compelling protagonists in several photos. A kitschy, lit-up greenish Gnome (digital, by Allen Palmer) stands against a bathroom wall between a toilet and sink. An electric cord tethers it to a socket near the upper right corner. Weirder yet is Susan Steinfeldt's Parking Lot Dollhouse. The two-story house, pink and white, stands parked in the middle of some suburban commercial wasteland. The pavement is damp, the sky cool and overcast. The perspective is low, as if the viewer was a child. The house stands in for a car, but it also suggests a human presence in an otherwise desolate setting.

National tries too hard to cover all the bases. Some of the work is both miscellaneous and weak. For example: the lurid digitally-altered Pansies (Richard Montemurro), the bland, birds-eye playground abstraction Summer Fun (Joyce Solberg), and the faux-painterly Now and Then (Eric Hoffman). Other pieces, such as Erin Gleeson's vivid arrangement of found color Voyage to India Collage are strong but feel isolated. Regrettably, this is what tends to happen when your source material comes from whomever decides to respond to an advertisement.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

amusing myself to death

As you all may or may not know, this month's Art in America contains a roundtable discussion lead by art critic Peter Plagens and featuring some top tier art bloggers. The topic, naturally, is art blogging itself. I haven't read it yet, although I picked up a copy at the newstand yesterday. (I've allowed all my art magazine subscriptions to lapse, mainly from lack of interest). Although not selected for the piece, Kriston Capps over at Grammar.police has taken it upon himself to answer the questions himself. He also challenged "a few select bloggers" to do the same. Kindly enough, he chose me. So here it goes.

What's the purpose of your blog?

I use it to put together thoughts, mostly informal, about the visual arts and other miscellaneous subjects. My focus is on things that I like. I do this for my own sake, as a record, and for the sake of anyone else who might be interested. I also use it to bring together things from elsewhere on the Internet, some of them created by myself. I'm not much of a media pundit, though; I prefer to write about things I've seen with my own eyes.

What are the boundaries of your blog?

I write about what I feel like writing about, which changes. There aren't really any formal constraints. I don't go into much detail about my personal life, although I'm not particularly consistent on this. Mostly, it's about visual art, which is what I feel most competent to write about.

Tyler has cited Joy Garnett's NewsGrist blog as doing a great job of "placing art within a sociocultural and political context." What I see on NewsGrist is a magazinelike interspersing of short profiles, exhibition reviews, op-ed pieces on how other people are covering things, and Village Voice–like political takes. But what does Tyler's comment mean to you, and why are blogs in general better positioned than print to do what he describes?

I think blogs are better suited to explaining the micro-level context: what goes on at a street-level, what goes on in small galleries and artist's studios, what goes on in obscure parts of the world. Bloggers can be found in places where the mainstream media fears to tread (often with good reason). As for the national and international level, I don't know that blogs have any particular advantage. Certainly Tyler does a fine job over at Modern Art Notes, but it seems to me that he could do most of what her does online in print. No doubt there are political issues with working in big journalism, but it ought to be possible, in theory, to work around them. Of course, I can't speak from personal experience here.

Why can't blogs go further, to the point where there's hardly any discernible difference between artist and critic/commentator, blog and work of art?

They can, in theory at least. Certainly, these boundaries are being blurred, to a greater or lesser extent. But the differences will persist, because many people in our society continue to find them valuable, myself included.

What scope and degree of editorial control do you exercise over your blog?

Aside from reader comments, total control.

What about posting comments from readers, and what about anonymity?

I don't have an active culture of regular commenters. Certainly, I would welcome it. Anonymity is acceptable, although I've seen it abused on other blogs. In a sense, anonymity is the basic condition of people on the internet. Anything more is a privilege. Even with people that I think of as blog "friends", my actual familiarity is quite limited. I know almost none of them in real life.

What's "trolling," and why don't some of you allow it?

A troll is somebody who comments on an online forum (be it a blog or whatever) with flagrantly anti-social intent. They stir up trouble for the sake of stirring up trouble. People disallow it for the same reasons they would disallow such behavior in "real life" situations. It hasn't been a problem for me, since I get very few comments anyway.

Is trolling really so easily identified and universally bad? Is having posters register a solution?

Yes to the first two questions and a probable no to the third one. It might work, but unfortunately, most comment welcoming bloggers would find it to cumbersome. It impedes any lively back and forth and it creates unnecessary work for the blogger.

What about liability coverage?


What's the economic model of your blog?

It's part of a gift economy. Having found other blogs (art related and otherwise) to be interesting and informative, I feel motivated to give something back in return, no matter how small. I do so to the extent that my time and motivation allow. It costs me basically no money and I make none in return.

That said, my blog has lead me to a fairly regular paying gig writing reviews for my local weekly paper, the Ithaca Times. I welcome further paying opportunities, although I haven't been seeking them out actively.

How do you see your blog's relation to the established print art media?

One useful thing about blogs is that they can act as an intermediary between the media establishment and the informal chatter of artists, critics, gallerists, and others. But this leads to confusion and distrust from both sides. The former group accuses blogs of being too chatty, too subjective, or too informal. There are accusations—not without basis—to the effect that blogs merely feed off of and recycle the original work of trained traditional journalists. The latter group sometimes sees art blogs as being too stuffy, too aridly intellectual, or too disengaged from worldy concerns. There is truth there as well.

To me though, there is something exciting about a network that has the potential connect big-name gallerists and art critics with the struggling artist next door. Perhaps this is just my youthful idealism (which is now beginning to fade).

As for my own blog, the situation is a bit confusing for me, since I started it before beginning art-reviewing work for an established print publication. There is a marked conflict between my original and enduring impulse to write as an amateur and my newfound sense that I should be respectable and write as a representative of an organization. I have staid mostly in the formal role, perhaps because my lack of formal journalistic qualifications.

Tyler and Regina, what's the relationship between your blogging and your work in the print media?

I can answer this as well. My work for the Times has been mostly limited to reviews of art exhibits. My blog lets me write about other things: about books and music, about my social and cultural environment, and about my personal life, for example. It allows me as well to write about art in ways that avoid black and white judgments—this is good and that is bad. Obviously, it allows me to converse with people, which the paper does not.

How do you attract readers/posters other than by word of mouth?

Posting smart comments to other people's blogs is a typical way of getting attention. If people like what you have to say, they might follow the link back to your site. Certainly this strategy is ripe for abuse. There are a lot of "hey look at me" type comments, which are generally frowned upon.

In general, is blog art criticism more open and liberal, and print criticism more closed and conservative?

I'm not sure I get the drift of this question. Art criticism isn't like partisan politics, or at least it doesn't have to be. From what I can tell, there is a wider range of positions and writing styles online than in print. This isn't necessarily a good thing; it takes some work filtering the relevant from the irrelevant.

Some people say that there's a dearth of art criticism at length on blogs. Is this true? If so, does it have more to do with reading on a computer in general, or with art criticism in particular?

It appears to be true, although there are no doubt exceptions out there. I re-post my Times pieces on my blog but otherwise write full-length reviews only sporadically. When you are able to get paid for doing something, the motivation to do it for free tends to disappear. The paper reviews aren't that long, either: no more than 800 words. They are however more formal and thought out than most of what I blog.

This dearth has nothing whatsoever to do with computers or the Internet. It has to do with blogs where the pressure is to produce a steady flow of material and to keep it topical. There are magazine-type art publications online that appear on a regular and typically less-frequent basis. These can provide plenty of full-scale art criticism. For example, there is the Boston-based Big Red & Shiny, for which I have written myself.

Art magazines come out once a month. Newspaper art reviews usually appear once a week. Blogs appear more or less daily, and sometimes have updates by the hour. Do you think that the faster pace of blogs will start to affect the pace of art-making.

It is conceivable, although probably only for people who blog and make art, both an regular basis (something I have yet to manage myself). There are plenty of pure artist's blogs out there, ones about the writer's art and little or nothing else. There is a pressure to present readers with new work constantly, which might encourage prolificness, for better or for worse.

Tyler just said that there's more good art being made by more artists in more places than at any time in history. Is this true? And if so, what's the reason?

This seems likely, given the increasing number of artists. To know for sure would require both the aesthete's sensibility and the social scientist's commitment to hard empirical facts. Needless to say, this is a difficult combination to come by.

Do blogs help correct the geographical bias in print art criticism, i.e., the tendency to think that most of the important stuff happens in New York or Los Angeles, and the difficulty of art outside those places to get national attention?

Yes. As I like to remind my readers, I live in Ithaca, New York, a small Upstate college town. Although not a hotbed of artistic activity by most standards, the community does have more than its fair share of talented artists. I believe that I have made some modest progress in giving them wider exposure, although probably more as a curiosity than anything else. I think that this goal requires me to play more of a cheerleader role than might be appropriate for a larger scene. Still, I try to cheerlead only for those artists and groups that I believe deserve it.

More generally, I think its great that you can find out what is going on anywhere (although of course language barriers inhibit a truly world-wide scope). The fact that most visual art is tied to direct encounters with physical objects does act as a limitation though. If you have never seen an artist's work it person, that limits the relevance of writing on that work. I sometimes worry about this, about the fact that many of my readers don't have this direct link. This makes blogging about paintings and sculptures importantly different from blogging about (for example) books, where everybody has access basically to the same material.

One index of a city's gravity as an art center is young artists—perhaps recent MFAs—from elsewhere coming to set up shop. Is that happening in Philadelphia and Portland?

In Ithaca? No, not it any significant numbers, although I do know some people.

Is there any constructively negative edge to your blogging and, if so, what is it?

Not as much as I'd like. I think my relative isolation—both geographical and Net-wise—makes it harder and less rewarding. I have my enemies or would be enemies, but there isn't the sense that other people would care much if I lashed out at them. So things are pretty friendly, for the most part.

Let's throw something back into the mix: naked human ambition. Unknown bloggers want to be little bloggers; little bloggers want to be bigger bloggers; and bigger bloggers want to be called, as is Tyler's Modern Art Notes, "the most influential of all the visual-arts blogs" by the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, of course. Vanity does play a major role, especially since most of us are doing this for free.

Where will your blog be in three to five years?

If I'm still doing it—which I'd like to be—I imagine that it would still have the same basic character. I hope for change in terms of numbers: more frequent posting, longer posts, more readers and more comments.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

ink spot

The Ink Shop is holding what looks to be a promising show: Selections From The Experimental Printmaking Institute, Lafayette College. It opens tomorrow, with a reception from 5 to 8 in the evening. Institute Director Curlee Raven Holton will be giving a "Talk Print" lecture on November 29.

Ithaca definitely needs all the exposure it can get to artists of wider prominence and import, so good for the Shop, getting the likes of Grace Hartigan and Sam Gilliam. Seeing Gilliam prints will be especially interesting after seeing the abstract painter-sculptor's retrospective at the Corcoran in D.C. a couple of years back (before the time of this blog). I found that show to be somewhat hit or miss, but with some fine work, much of it in a more straightforwardly Ab-Ex-like manner than his signature draped cloth hangings (those I found mostly uninteresting, particularly the larger ones).

Anyway, do check out the show. I'll have more to say about it.

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here and there

Over the last few days I've been hashing out some ideas about formal quality and artistic value over at Franklin Einspruch's See this post and this one. Unless you want to read nearly 200 (not necessarily relevant or readable) comments, I particularly recommend those by me, Franklin, and Opie. I'm working on a more lengthy response post, but I wanted to direct people to the discussion in the meantime. The argument appears pretty much closed, which is all the better for dissection.

To summarize in the crudest and most misleading of terms, while I am not a conceptualist and I value strictly formal appeal as central and necessary to visual art, I also consider myself a pluralist and want to remain as open as possible to the multiple forms of value that art can and does provide. I strongly suspect that hard-line formalist world-view that characterizes the culture of Franklin's site does not do this adequately. And while I value my interactions with Franklin himself very much, I'm afraid the responses of his readership leave much to be desired. In particular, there has been an an inordinate amount of harping over my choice of words. This approach is not conducive the free exchange of ideas.

This is also being discussed here.

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