“Modern art was once deemed serious because it derived from an avant-garde, and what the garde was in avant of was the market.”
– Searching for Jean- Michel, by Stephen Metcalfe, The Atlantic, July/August 2018
The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988). It’s a tender, heart felt search for the substance of genius and an answer to the artist’s premature death. Metcalfe turns up the usual suspects: poverty, abuse, mental illness, random circumstance that would drive the average person to despair, but against which talent and intelligence not only provide defence but turn desperation to advantage, only succumbing to the poison of excess.
A bunch of unconvincing cliches (who but a critic could say that Basquiat couldn’t draw or imagine that art derives its value from “deep study”?) riddle the piece but the history of Basquiat the person and artist developing in the midst of an art market catching fire is insightful and seems true to the times (that miserable decade, the 1980s).
By article’s end, you feel like you are standing before the paintings, stroking your chin and nodding beside Metcalfe: can’t explain it, the money is crazy, but that is truly something to behold.
Another most quotable quote, attributed to Picasso: “For paintings to be worth a lot of money, they must at some point have been sold cheaply.” But that is a topic for another day.
What is the relationship of representation to reality? Does a painting titled Vong Cổ Blossoms capture (as for posterity) the appearance of blossoms of a plant called Vong Cổ. What if Vong Cổ is not a plant of any sort but a modern musical style of Vietnamese chamber music, invented in 1919, a melancholic melody on which variations are played? And what if vọng cổ is, moreover, a Sino-Vietnamese word for 望古, literally meaning “yearning for the past” or “nostalgia for the ancient ways.”
Painting then, by virtue of its naming, means to function or operate like music or language, not merely referring to but also being the thing itself (variations), the play of yearning; not picturing, or at least not as we usually think of it.
Vọng cổ (literally “longing for the past”) is a Vietnamese song and musical structure used primarily in the cải lương theater music and nhạc tài tử chamber music of southern Vietnam. It was composed sometime between 1917 and 1919 by a Mr. Cao Văn Lầu (also called Sáu Lầu or Sáu Làu), of Bạc Liêu, a province in southern Vietnam (Trainor 1975). The song achieved great popularity and eventually its structure became the basis for numerous other songs. The tune is essentially melancholy in character and is sung using Vietnamese modal inflections.
Onward, to the painting identified by the word-title Mammutus, which refers to an effect, an appearance, the result of nature at work. It is not a picture but an event, or the residue of a blistering, bubbling event. The artwork is unleashed from externalities, from the burdensome context of art discourse, more comfortable here with extra-disciplinary, global parallels in observation, nature, science.
Finally then (for now), Obeli, the plural of obelus: not text, not symbol but cipher. A typographical mark used to point to, as if to cut away, a dubious passage or not matching transcriptions.
There is the cutting away, the taped masks and the inky prehistoric shards of cutting tools, a script made up exclusively of edits.
“A dagger, or obelisk (†, †, U+2020) is a typographical symbol or glyph. The term “obelisk” derives from Greek ὀβελίσκος (obeliskos), which means “little obelus”; from Ancient Greek: ὀβελός (obelos) meaning “roasting spit”. It was originally represented by the ÷ symbol and was first used by the Ancient Greek scholars as critical marks in manuscripts.”
There is nothing easy in this exhibition. Hence it’s title Nervous Trellis. The artist has created a fragile framework to which we may extend, however tentatively, tendrils of understanding.
RL: This work consists roughly of boards covering the windows of the Convenience Gallery with some posters and graffiti. How did this work come about?
AA: I think it would be really indulgent to make work without considering the context, the neighbourhood, the viewers. My first urge was to re-double the storefront window across the street, to mirror it. And my second thought was to do something for the people at the bus stop that’s right outside the gallery, something with text that talks about waiting.
RL: How did you end up, between the mirroring idea and the waiting idea, doing something that is quite different than either?
AA: If it’s a facade, it has to be more than a window display. I’m interested in windows but I have a lot of anxiety about window design. It’s something art can fall into; it can become either theatrical, coercing you to feel something, or just a decorative window store display. I have done quite a lot of work dealing with the entrances to galleries. My early work had a lot to do with domesticity and trauma, the politics of the nation state enacted in the family – father on mother, mother on kids, kids on pets – so I ended up doing a lot of work about the home, moving from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom and then gradually to the window and beyond, like the piece I did in Hank Bull’s apartment in Vancouver, with curtains hanging out of the window. It just looks like he forgot to pull them in, but in Vancouver’s gentrified neighbourhoods, you’re not allowed to have your curtains flapping in the wind.
I was interested in the Convenience window because it is a space on the periphery, between the household and the street, so there was the adjacency to domestic space and the neighbourhood. I was very aware of the political moment: the space was across the street from a polling station [for the May 2nd federal election] and I’m not a supporter of the right wing movement so we moved the opening from the 3rd to the 2nd, hence the title, 2nd May Day. May Day has resonance with worker’s national day, activist uprising and also there’s the distress signal May Day doubled, “May Day May Day,” hence the title “2nd May Day.” In this work, like more recent works, my practice is more and more mimetic, taking things and displacing them to different locations. And I’m interested in ‘realness’, pitching realness that is not “art real.”
RL: This kind of fake real is interesting. On the viewer’s side there’s a kind of fakery, fooling them into believing what they are seeing is something it’s not.
AA: I’m not interested in tricking the viewer but in getting them to read it as non-art so they’ll read it as ‘real’, so it’s about bridging the gap, in sort of a historical nostalgic way, like art that looks like life. I have an iconoclastic relationship to making work. I don’t like creating new images or figuration. If I am projecting a narrative onto the work that is otherwise absent from the work, it kind of corners you but hopefully it doesn’t push a meaning onto you. Like the curtains in Hank’s window, they’re just hanging out the window, but in Vancouver this accident was like a flag, waving against the new economical etiquette. Often people don’t read the work as art, as in the case with the laundry I hung outside my studio in Spain – the colours corresponded with the flags of the countries playing against Spain during the soccer finales. I wanted to talk about patriotism, but did not want to hang flags. So since it was laundry exposed in a very rich neighbourhood, it was read as indecent or unbecoming and as I hoped, the laundry was read as obscene and viewers found it extra offensive because of their heightened patriotism, yet the colour coding was subtle enough to insert doubt in the reading of the work as flags.
The work is made to be read as art and hopefully as something beyond it, for example the piece with flowers, there’s something about memorial accidents or accidental memorials, there’s text on the buckets of flowers that says “Everything must go.” So people would take flowers or leave flowers, and the city didn’t try to take it down; it couldn’t be read as vandalism.
Aside from the curtains and flowers at Western Front, I also placed shoes just outside the building entrance. The flowers were based on something I saw a few blocks away where somebody had placed flowers on the boulevard where an accident had occurred and the shoes were based on the dance studio at Western Front where I saw people leave their shoes outside the dance studio. I repeated that in the entranceway. After leaving a few pairs of shoes there, visitors to the gallery would remove their shoes before entering the building.
So at Convenience I was thinking about hurricanes and the Harper government’s policy towards the environment. So there’s a reference to boarded up windows before hurricanes where people write things like “Earl blows” [referring to Hurricane Earl] on the boards. In this case, with the election, I spray painted “Steve blows” on the boards, which had another kind of resonance with [Toronto mayor] Rob Ford being against graffiti. Then there’s also reference to homophobia, which with Scott and Flavio [proprietors of Convenience Gallery] was also provocative. And there’s a reference also to funding cuts to the arts: the idea of the gallery being boarded up. And also to the G20 when downtown shop windows were boarded up with sale signs spray painted on them. And then I’m also interested in the story of the Big Bad Wolf, “I’ll huff and puff and blow your house down.”
RL: I saw the work for the first time when I was riding my bike over to visit my friends who live just down the street. I always look forward to seeing the gallery window on my way there but this time when I saw the wood, I said to myself “Oh no, somebody has thrown a rock through the window.”
AA: At first my urge was to cover up the window from the outside, but that is too literal, it’s not implicated, so I put the boards directly behind the glass. You go through this sort of editing process. It’s about being in a visual relationship to protest, not a literal one. I put posters on the inside and also on the outside hoping that other people might poster the windows. I don’t know what it needs to do in order to explain to people what it’s doing. It’s a bit confrontational I guess.
RL: It’s not a megaphone broadcasting a message, but it’s carrying a meaning. It’s low tech. Anybody paying attention to the gallery would get what it is, that it’s an art exhibit.
AA: We aged the sign for the show that’s beside the doorway so it looked like it was from an older show, months ago, the last show before the gallery closed.
RL: Yeah, that definitely gave rise to doubt; it made me think twice. It was so faded and curling, it looked like a sign for a show from some months ago, so that is when I got very clearly that it was the idea of the closed gallery. Within this iconoclasm, I wonder why artists don’t go all the way; if you are against art then why don’t you just stop making it?
AA: I am not against art but I’m totally against the spectacle of it. I am interested in the lowness of the work. Often I’m not interested in high tech. For this kind of work it is important that, like Martha Rosler says, you don’t use a video camera to its full capacity, you use the media for your own purposes and not the other way around.
RL: There are many clues in the work that there’s something else going on.
AA: There’s a kind of iconoclasm. We might read it as “no image”, “no art,” “no window,” like “post no bills.” A woman came off the bus at the stop beside the gallery and she paused, then she went up and touched the glass. There was like some kind of slippage. She had to see if it was real. And that’s when the work is still ‘art’, and not the real thing. A friend phoned me to tell me that my work had been vandalized after she saw spray paint on the window.
My interest is in the specific situation. I can’t ever reshow this work. I like doing site-specific work and I think it can be read as anti-careerist. Even for applications, it takes so much to explain the work. There are so many micro-politics that inform the work. Typical applications give you no space to explain, they are designed according to conventions of what art is supposed to be, like painting, no context, just title, dimensions, and medium.
RL: Speaking of grant applications or applying for exhibitions, this raises another question: how much do you write? All MFA graduates today are educated to write. It’s a peculiar post-1970 part of art practice. At the time of the Group of Seven, nobody wrote much about their work. It’s kind of shocking to learn that artists just didn’t do that in those days. It’s too bad because nobody’s alive today to recount the history. Somebody should have been doing the research in the 40s and 50s but it’s taken until today and now it’s very hard to reconstruct what was happening then.
AA: I have a confession. I’m a really bad reader and writer. I mean I do read and write but it’s more like I enact research. I read but mostly it’s a time for daydreaming, and I walk a lot and that’s when I think through things, or I learn through talking with friends. Reading and writing is just a small part of my research.
RL: Do you have an ambition to write, as in art history or theory or criticism?
AA: I don’t have that kind of intelligence. I’d like to write criticism but I don’t do that. I do give artist’s talks. I talk about other artists’ work. But I do wonder where’s the critical writing these days; it’s all like catalogue essays.
RL: There is no critical writing right now. Writers seem to think their job is to explain the work but also to validate it. This is understandable because it validates the writer’s position academically or within curatorial circles.
AA: But it’s too often like a sales pitch.
RL: Yeah, but within the historical idiom. I used to think this was more of an issue than I do now because it’s hard to imagine a context in which criticism would be meaningful right now. If you go back to the days when Don Judd was writing criticism for Arts Magazine and Art International, he’d see all the shows in New York and he wouldn’t pull punches. He’d say, for example, something like “this work has been done before, it’s not that interesting.” But it’s problematic because that kind of journalistic criticism is often completely wrong, dismissive, and over time turns out to be irrelevant. From an artist’s point of view, what would you want criticism to do that’s it’s not?
AA: If the work is rich enough, the criticism should be a window to other things the work wants to talk about as opposed to just what the work is about. So much criticism is just descriptive of the work. Somehow the curator-artist relationship overshadows everything. The closest thing I can think of to explain what we don’t have is food critics, people who are willing to put their reputation on the line.
RL: What about curating?
AA: I don’t do that either. Despite my schooling, I am not of the Vancouver school that writes, curates, shows, critiques, etc. Sometimes that can be fruitful, but sometimes that can be read as an assertive self-insertion into multiple discourses, multiple histories – giving way to master narratives.
RL: I find that I can’t really relate to the Vancouver school either, despite their strong conceptual underpinnings. I don’t understand it really.
AA: During a talk in Vancouver, Martha Rosler described Vancouver as the land where artists have become stars, and progressively moved onto becoming kings, millionaires, empires, and so on.
RL: I wouldn’t want to criticize artists for whatever success they can achieve. But I’m interested in the art economy, how artists make a living or don’t. For example, in the book I’m working on I’m hoping to do a chapter comparing sports to art because athletes experience the same kind of precariousness artists do.
AA: For athlete’s it’s about exhausting the body, and it does expire. I’m not sure it’s the same for artists. Artists can (hopefully) keep making work into old age.
RL: Persistence used to mean more than it does now. I think it used to be that if you hung in there and at 50 or 55 or 60 you were still making art, people would pay attention. I’m not sure it works like that anymore. There are so many artists. How much do you think about these things?
AA: Every day. I come from a poor family. I have student debt. I have mixed feelings about commercial success. I have a dealer, Third Line in Dubai, but most of my work is shown in artist-run-centers and museums. And when I did my last show at Third Line, they were incredulous that I wanted to do an installation that seemed impossible to sell. It was a map of Dubai done with imitation gold leaf on the gallery wall. The wall was priced relative to Dubai property values and the prices increased as more sections sold, just like real state. We basically sold sections of drywall, removing each piece as it sold. As the show progressed and sections were removed, the work changed, giving way to another map, one showing the desired areas of Dubai but also revealing the shows success or failure. So the economy of gold, the land, the gallery, and the art market was all woven into the structure of the show. I did other work for the show, photocopies of images showing the pre-oil economy of Dubai, date farming, sheep herding, etc. Each photocopy had parts gilded by hand with 22 Carat gold, however the images were made in endless multiples. I was interested in the artist as gilder rather than originator but also reflecting on the economy of the photocopy. People didn’t like the repetition, didn’t think the work was unique enough and as I predicted, the multiplication devalued the work.
RL: The legacy of art against the economy goes way back and the question raised by people like Isabelle Graw is that every effort to oppose the institution or the spectacle or the economy gets absorbed.
AA: I think it is nearly impossible to negate the art market when you show in a commercial gallery and live as a full time artist, but I think one can complicate that relationship or render it visible or at the very least be critical of it.
RL: But isn’t it the case that there is a gain in your cultural capital as an artist in proportion to the critique or resistance in your work. Isn’t that the gamble?
AA: I know a lot of artists that are trading in critique and doing really, really well. If you make digestible work, like all the current “Middle Eastern looking” art works that cater to the market – the aesthetics of politics – they do really well. Carpet factories… a demand-supply relationship. It’s really easy to slip from jester to clown. Ideally you want to be wedging the circle open, not occupying the space assigned to you.
RL: I don’t think most artists preconceive their work that much, as if there’s a space there for me to occupy so I’m going to go there. But you are more conscious of that kind of contrivance than most and of the art world as a market, so you are working harder not to fit into the conventional spaces.
AA: I’m not interested in being a curator’s artist, doing work that makes other work look good.
RL: That brings up the idea of the artist’s artist. There used to be artists who were appreciated by their peers but didn’t fit into any of the current trends but I’m not sure that exists anymore.
AA: There are artists who are like that for me, like Marina Roy, who lacks a signature style and is not making a brand. She chose to teach and make work. She is a great artist and a great teacher. I taught at Emily Carr and liked it, but then I had this dream of being a full time artist, so I came to Toronto with no money. And since I could not find a job, I just became an artist; it was like jumping in and then learning to swim.
RL: Paul Butler once told me, if you take the plunge people respect that. But it’s hard. I don’t know that I have the discipline. You’ve done a huge number of shows since graduating. You must be very self-disciplined.
AA: There is no blue print or structure, so I make it up as I go. I don’t spend that much time making work but I am working all the time in that when I am not making, I am thinking. If I take on a project, it’s intense. I won’t sleep to get the work done in like six days. You talked about the suffering artist and I was prepared for that, but I woke up one day and I was just scared. I didn’t expect that.
I’ve been thinking a lot about flags lately, red flags in particular. A red flag is an alert. It can also be something meant to provoke, like a toreador’s cape. Black flags, white flags, nation flags, naval flags, you don’t need to be a vexillolophile to know flags are meant to be read, especially red ones.
Kristina Lee Podesva’s recent work at Open Space, Victoria, part of the exhibition Like Some Pool of Fire throws the messaging capabilities of flags into doubt. Had she chosen a different colour like green or yellow or blue there might be clear associations – ecology, cowardice or optimism for example – but brown?
Podesva developed a distinctive colour palette some time ago with the project Colour School (which has its own Facebook page) and has spun it throughout her work ever since, for example this globe or this poster. If the palette were less unusual, you might say she was creating a brand. Instead, it’s more… a parody of branding, a wry reflection on communication, something sublime.
It hardly matters now whether AA Bronson is successful in having his work withdrawn from the Smithsonian exhibition Hide/Seek, thereby collapsing the show. The censored work of David Wojnarowicz, Fire In My Belly, has received more exposure than could ever have been hoped for it. Furthering that project, MOMA has acquired a copy.
This is generally a good thing though the goodness of it is focused on the rights of the gay artist rather than the merits of his work. In case we need to be reminded, a work of art is not “good” only because it is controversial. Courting controversy can be an aesthetic strategy of course, related to art’s truth-telling function, and it is always difficult to say where for a particular work controversy became as an end in itself vs. something incidental to a difficult truth we didn’t want to hear. If this distinction sounds thin-ish, consider the Shock to the System episode of Work of Art: The Next Great Artist where contestants were challenged to make “a controversial work,” or critic-historians like Isabelle Graw who observe that controversy has become almost necessary for younger artists to get attention in today’s highly competitive, flooded marketplace.
I’m not sure whether Wojnarowicz’s Fire warrants closer examination, though I started down that road with a discussion of its “power” effects here. The whole controversy has certainly thrust his work into that space of uncertainty where thoughtful reconsideration becomes helpful, even essential.
The controversy around censorship has also drawn attention toward another artist in the Hide/Seek exhibition, AA Bronson, who has asked that his work Felix be withdrawn from the exhibition. Coincidentally, the January issue of Harper’s magazine arrived carrying a story by John Berger about Claude Monet in which was reproduced the painting Monet did of his dead wife, an unmistakable parallel with Bronson’s photograph of the dead Felix Partz.
Berger has this to say about Monet’s painting:
“His first wife died at the age of thirty-two. We see her head against the pillows, a head scarf around her face, her mouth and eyes neither shut nor open, her shoulders limp. The colors are those of shadows and of fading sunlight on a hillock (the pillows) on which snow is falling. The lancing brushstrokes are diagonal. We are watching Camille’s immobile face through a blizzard of loss. Most deathbed paintings make one think of undertakers. Not this one, which is about the act of leaving, about going elsewhere. And it is one of the great images of mourning.”
– John Berger, Harper’s, January 2011
We could say something similar about Bronson’s Felix. We watch his immobile face surrounded by, not a blizzard but perhaps a cacophony of loss. It is another great image of mourning and we are fortunate that it has been brought to our attention, even if under wrong and painful circumstances of absence (of the Wojnarowicz piece from the exhibit) and tragic loss (of moral principle and institutional integrity).
By all accounts the 2010 Toronto International Art Fair was a success. Despite its re-branding as the characterless “Art Toronto,” I spent more time this year than ever, visiting with different friends, each one giving me fresh perspective.
Who knows what next year will bring, but common thinking holds that the art world is immune from the vicissitudes of the marketplace. That would be challenging to prove but, according to gallerist Ed Winkleman, it has something to do with balance between market savvy (for any commodity) and knowledge of art history. Winkleman is one of the editorial team behind Artworld Salon (launched July 2009).
Be that as it may, a couple of things stood out at this year’s event. First there were a remarkable number of artworks picturing books, covers or text in books or just plain text. Evidently a lot of artists are “thinking” about “reading,” though what they are thinking is a bit mystifying. It’s one thing to refer to the book or text as such, a kind of cleverness, and another to actually use or comment on the conventions of reading in some more challenging way.
“Best of show” for me goes to Ron Terada’s “Jack,” gorgeous excerpts from Jack Goldstein’s chapter from the book Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia that warranted reading and re-reading and just plain looking at. Image and some thoughts on the piece here.
Another interesting feature at this year’s fair were a few booths that were totally designed, conceived almost as artworks in themselves. Whether this is a trend we’ll see more of in the future–booth as carnival fun house, library, coffee house, movie theatre–the possibilities are intriguing. Even if veering dangerously close to spectacle, the idea of art as an immersive experience is gaining momentum with artists like this year’s Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz taking a page from our own Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installations.
For me, the award for “Best Booth” goes to AGYU, whose plywood warehouse chic not only complimented the art of Colombian artist Mateo Rivano on display but also thumbed its nose at the pretensions of the art fair idea in general. If only they had sold more. The art was cheap cheap cheap, as a good as any at the fair, though coming from a somewhat different place.
It’s hard not to notice the growing controversy at the National Portrait Gallery, a wing of the Smithsonian, over the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s work, Fire in My Belly from the exhibition Hide/Seek. Thanks to AA Bronson’s persistence in his request, in protest, to have his work removed from the exhibition; it’s hard to just turn away. One wants to look at the works in question, (links to various versions below) and to talk about it.
But what do we talk about? What is to be “read” from this situation and the works? Wojnarowicz’s work is not particularly disturbing. Turns out, this is not the original work but, according to Mr. Bronson, in an interview on Jian Ghomeshi’s CBC radio show Q, an edited down version of the original 13 minute video, PLUS an added soundtrack. Even the original work is not that disturbing.
It was the last version with the compelling soundtrack by Diamanda Galas that got to me, piqued my curiosity, and then, from the YouTube next suggested video: a reading by Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist. What surprised me was the aesthetic similarities: the same gritty black and white, emotionally loaded effects. E.g. Crowley reading The Call of the First Ćythr. Like with Wognarowicz, Crowley’s “spooky” effects are not so disturbing today. But still there is something there not to be ignored, something about the aesthetics of power and how evocative they are.
There is something disturbing in the aesthetic itself, like the Third Reich and Albert Speer’s architecture or Leni Riefenstahl’s photography. One cannot easily dissociate it from its source. It does not want to function autonomously, neutrally or only intellectually. It is, for lack of a better word, enmeshed.
Few artists have attempted to mine this aesthetic: Jack Goldstein and Robert Longo come to mind, an aesthetic brought forward by the New York gallery Metro Pictures in the 80s. There is a very obvious explicit portrayal of power in their work, lightening or nuclear explosions, for example. There’s also the literal reductiveness of black and white, and perhaps something compositional as well, though that would be harder to pin down. These are things at work in the Paul Strand photograph this post started with.
But there’s a difference between power then and power now, power represented, power used to provoke vs power in tow to ideology. Isn’t there?
I recently posted some thoughts about power in the work of Attila Richard Lukacs, attempting to unravel where exactly the “power effect” in his work comes from. Serialization, chiaroscuro, subject matter… Then, more recently I discovered the similarly “powerful” work of artist Tim Gardner, who not too surprisingly developed his chops working in Lukacs’ studio and who is now mining this same territory of power, power effects, the look of power.
We all know about speaking truth to power. But then, as we can see, aesthetically there is also the possibility of speaking power, power qua power, power as such. And in Wojnarowicz’s case not only speaking power, but addressing that speech somewhere, speaking power to power.
In the National Portrait Gallery situation, power was evidently, somewhat surprisingly, listening, or at least certain powers were. What is unfortunate now is that all the attention and pressure is being exerted on the Smithsonian. Of course they should never have capitulated in the first place. Perhaps they should have gone to the press immediately and revealed the bullying threat they were under. Of course they should now put the Wojnarowicz work back. It’s the only reasonable course; the one that goes to the core of the issue.
Now it is a mess which the media are making only muddier. The Washington Post is calling for heads to roll, without, appallingly, in this article even naming the bigots who are behind this outrage. It is those small, mean minds, the censors — the Catholic League‘s William Donohue and certain Republican lawmakers — who must be addressed. The question should be who is going to do it; who has the power to speak power to those powers?
Mr. Bronson believes it is the Smithsonian, and is accordingly asking for his work “Felix” to be taken down, exercising his right to not have his worked impugned by its inclusion in a censored exhibition. This is the artist’s power speaking to the museum’s power, in the hope that it will move the museum to direct its own considerable power where it should rightly be directed: fighting back against censorship. However it plays out now, something must give because the Smithsonian is dying over this issue.
The situation today ironically mirrors David Wajnarowicz’s own experience in 1989, withdrawing his work from an exhibition in protest of fellow exhibitor Mark Kostabi’s anti-gay remarks. [story on artinfo]
This documentary would no doubt be worth checking: Annette Mangaard’s General Idea: Art, AIDS, and the fin de siècle, interviews wtih musician Diamanda Galas, painter Attila Richard Lukacs and media artist Paul Wong on the potential to effect change through cultural intervention.
It is a wonder that the content of Wojnarowicz’s work is all but forgotten in the debate. Shot in Mexico, he shows in brutal fashion the macabreness of a culture of disenfranchisement: the violence and poverty suffered there — from mock masked wrestlers to cock fights — circumstances that today seem almost trivial in comparison to the ever worsening conditions as Mexico descends into lawlessness. There is a this other issue simmering there that also warrants discussion.
Reading art is one thing but what happens when the art includes text? What exactly is it in text-based art that is to be “read?” Let’s take two great examples of art that uses text.
Billy Mavreas is a gifted draftsman, a master of asemic writing whose work spans cartooning, graphic design, drawing, collage and visual poetry. His art is challenging to describe: it reflects a kind of view of the world as cipher. For Mavreas, it’s as if “things” are building blocks of meaning—letters, words, phrases, chapters, books—in a world that is tenuously held together by our ceaseless effort to make sense of it all, to “read” things. His practice is immersive, diving at times to depths where imagination becomes hallucinatory, seemingly splitting reality. His practice is also idiomatic, working within genres that are familiar to us: illustration, music posters, correspondence art and (more or less) underground comics.
“This is a book I’m writing.” is a text handwritten over a salvaged canvas reproduction of a Tom Thomson painting, “Afternoon, Algonquin Park” of 1914. Mavreas’ “painting” begs several questions: what is a book, what is writing, and who is writing. For example, the work is part of the unfolding story that is Mavreas’ lifework, a book in progress as it were. It also implies that the act of creating an artwork, any artwork, is a kind of writing, a contribution to the story of art perhaps, another book in progress. It is also an invitation to read the underlying painting by Thomson (and, I might add, its shamelessly poor reproduction) as another kind of story or stories, the story of Thomson’s life, the story of Canadian art or of art in general. And finally, this piece has a remarkably coincidental meaning for me personally because I have begun to write a book, Artists Anonymous, in which Thomson figures large, so Mavreas’ “This is a book…” is, for me, a literal symbol or cipher of that project (and, one might imagine, of the ongoing publishing projects Thomson’s enigmatic life and untimely death continue to inspire.)
Ron Terada is a Vancouver conceptual artist who grabs text from elsewhere and puts it into a different context where its meaning slips, creating a lacuna–a gap or silence–that resonates artfully. Terada’s works with existing cultural forms and, by twisting their context, calls attention to their status as signs, symbols, language as such. He is not quite as fluent as Mavreas but nevertheless something of a polyglot, moving easily between different “languages,” using gallery, city and government signage, posters, brochures and even exhibition soundtracks.
In his recent “Jack” series, Terada takes his process to a new level by reproducing, on exquisitely crafted canvases, a full chapter of first person narrative by Montreal-born American painter Jack Goldstein as it appears in the book Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia (Minneola Press, 2003, ISBN: 978-0964016545, 223 pages). Terada’s “paintings” capture many tragic, personal stories from the life of an artist who came to prominence in the 1980s, struggled with addiction, was left behind by the artworld and, like Thomson, came to a tragic end, committing suicide in 2003. Like Mavreas’, Terada’s work begs many questions about what a book is, whose story it tells and who is telling it. Terada is more than just copying a text; he seems to identify with the story, but so do we, the way all readers invest in the stories in books. And insofar as “Jack” talks about the harsh realities of Goldstein’s life, it’s of personal interest to me because one of the main themes of this blog is the economic reality of the art world.
Both “This is a book..” and “Jack” have a lot to tell us about the artist’s life. Both refer to the stories of the lives of artists who came to tragic ends. Thomson was murdered in 1917 in a dispute over money, or so concludes Roy MacGregor in the most recent book on Thomson’s mysterious death, Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him (Random House Canada, 2010, ISBN: 978-0307357397, 357 pages), while Goldstein committed suicide in 2003. At the end, Thomson and Goldstein were both isolated and destitute. Mavreas’ and Terada’s works have embraced these harsh realities: impoverishment and withdrawal is embedded in them. For Mavreas it’s in the salvaged faded reproduction, a certain of ambiguity about authorship created by his text, and the simplicity of the handwriting. For Terada it’s in Goldstein’s sad story, ambiguity about authorship created by his wholesale use of Goldstein’s words, and a similarly spartan presentation.
But another compelling reason to compare these works is how they reflect the contexts in which the artists work. Terada enjoys the shelter of high art but also suffers somewhat from isolation in high art’s rarefied discourse: a kind of insider cleverness, with art (Terada’s “Jack”) referring to art (Goldstein’s powerful black and white early paintings) referring to art (Goldstein’s biographical reflections). Mavreas on the other hand suffers by standing outside the heavy gates of the high art world but enjoys a less mediated and, arguably deeper engagement with a broader and more diverse audience. There’s poetry in his work that is more difficult to value because it crosses categories and does not fit as comfortably within the contemporary art gallery or the professionalized discourses of high art.
It is impossible to reconcile these works or these two artists or declare one superior let alone the victor. Were it not the case that the art economy is so drastically skewed towards the professionalized high art world, one might not want to.
With disappointments about this year’s event bleeding all over the web, I thought I should post a few thoughts before the forgettable becomes completely forgotten.
Like a premonition, the lights flickered and went out a few hours before Toronto’s 2010 Nuit Blanche start. Evidently somebody plugged Dan Lanois’s light show into the wrong socket. Of course the power came back a minute later but the warning had been delivered. To bad I didn’t listen.
Agnes Winter’s “Monument to Smile” project was an embarrassment. Vacuous, subtended by the insufferable Smile music (words by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons and music by Charlie Chaplin), it amounted to little more than a commercial for Holt Renfrew, whose logo dominated the wall of projected images, and not a very good one at that.
Dan Lanois’ “Later That Night At The Drive In” came closer. People seemed to like lying on the platforms of the tent-film screen structures, the films—fragmentary, abstract, b/w—were interesting and the music came and went with them. The air was sweet with smoke which maybe helped. Let’s just not call it art okay?
Was anyone able to find Dan Graham’s piece?
Experimental music at Chalmers House, the Canadian Music Centre, curated by John Osborn with drawings by Chiyoko Szlavnics. A woman singing softly to the stacks in the library, a ukulele player accompanying prerecorded industrial noise before switching instruments, blowing into a vuvuzela softly (as if that were actually possible), a classical guitarist studiously playing a 20th C composition, two horn players bleating sporadically upstairs in a hallway. What’s not to like?! Reminds you what creativity is all about, and for.
Kim Adams’ “Auto Lamp” at the corner of Yonge and Queen was both sexy (in a lacy Victorian sort of way) and dazzling, the light perforated van creating an oddly pensive moment despite its setting: critical quiet in the midst of a storm of spectacle. I would have liked to get closer. Adams smartly adapted his art to the situation. At night you have to use light (if not both light and sound) and you have to elevate the work so people in throngs can see it.
Works I might have seen if we hadn’t been completely worn out by the walk down acres of pavement from Yonge to Queen without a single work of art visible all the way: Davide Balula’s The Endless Pace (variation for 60 dancers, 2009 at Commerce Court.
Next year, maybe I’ll start around 2 a.m. to avoid line ups and hopefully get some private time with the art. Or maybe go early, like 3 and watch them finishing up the installations.
Things good and bad you might expect next year:
more building size works and works at heights so everyone can see them
indoor works in spaces that can hold a lot of people and have lots of access and exit doors
signage on the main streets pointing to where the works are and maybe even mentioning who the artists are or, gawd forbid, what the work is about
on the street we might expect to see more individuals running around in costume (who was that Dean guy on the bike with the light suit?), which is both terrifying and somehow amusing, and more commercial pirates junking up the place (what was that stupidity outside Hart House?) (Please people, do we have to call in the art police?)
Final thoughts: fences – startling contrast between the G20 foot monsters and the little ones blocking streets here even though it was pretty much the same people. And as my friend Andy said, crowds can be cool, just don’t ask me to line up in single file.
Julian Schnabel’s back in the art world, apparently never left, has been as prolific as ever as a painter, with a retrospective on now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Schnabel will be interviewed by Jian Ghomeshi on Q this Friday, the first time (correct me if I’m wrong) a visual artist has appeared on the show. (Schnabel’s arguably more famous as a filmmaker, his latest film Miral debuts at TIFF, so that’s a qualifier obviously, but still, it’s welcome progress in terms of recognizing the importance of the visual arts.)
Schnabel entered the film scene with Basquiat (1996) and, as Jeff House has pointed out, went on to tackle political themes like anti-gay policies in Cuba at a time when progressives were silenced (Before Night Falls, 2000) and another about persons who, through disability, have to learn to “speak” with their eyelids (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007). Personally, I’m hoping Jian will ask more questions about Schnabel’s paintings than his films, or perhaps the confluence of the two, but that’s just me. Some questions that come to mind:
1. The 70s when you were starting out as a visual artist was a pretty turbulent time artistically. In music, for example, punk pretty much turned things upside down. There was a very anti-commercial drift. Your Wikipedia entry says you did the Whitney Independent study program and that your application included slides of your work sandwiched between two pieces of bread. Was that a comment on the economics of art? What were your influences at the time and how did you arrive at painting finally?
2. You emerged in the mid to late 70s along with other New Yorkers like David Salle, Germans like Anselm Kiefer and Georg Baselitz and Italians like Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi and Francesco Clemente. How aware were you of each other’s work?
3. This work of this group was quickly labeled “neo-Expressionism.” Critics like Donald Kuspit and Achille Bonito Oliva and dealers like Mary Boone became synonymous with the movement. Was this in some respect orchestrated?
4. One of the main criticisms at the time was that painting was dead, superseded by conceptualism, installation art, what would soon be called post-modernism. You took a lot of criticism then and have pretty consistently since. Yet today painting stands shoulder to shoulder with other artistic practices. You’ve had major retrospectives. Do you feel vindicated? Do you think the critics back then missed the point, and that in doing so did permanent damage to their own role in the art world?
5. The art world boomed through most of the 80s but there was a major economic retraction in the 90s. Mary Boone was selling off some of her personal collection and moved her gallery in 1996. It was around that time that you started making films. Was that a kind of retreat then, in response to poor market conditions?
6. Your paintings–the stark compositions, the bold gestures–are very powerful. Is this something that just comes out of you or is it more self-conscious, like a strategy to achieve a certain aesthetic effect?
7. The scale and confidence of your mark making clearly speaks to mastery. And many observers remark on your personal confidence. Yet you refer to so many other great artists, poets, writers, etc. in the titles and accompanying texts and in the subject matter of the paintings themselves. That’s often been interpreted as egotistical but it could as easily be interpreted as revealing some underlying insecurity. How do you see yourself in relation to other artists and to history?
8. The huge size of your paintings is breathtaking. They are very theatrical. Almost filmic. Is bigger better? Are scale and size synonymous for you?
9. In this country, there is a very small market for visual art. Certainly there isn’t the same kind of money as you have in the US, but also what money there is here doesn’t flow the same way. Fortunately we have a pretty good system of government support for artists and public galleries but it’s hard to imagine a Canadian painter rising to the rank of someone such as yourself. How important do you think local or indigenous artists and art scenes are?
10. The art world today is increasingly global. Global means more than Europe, the US and the UK today and includes the far and middle East, the Saudis, South America. Is that changing the kind of art being made and how we view art?
11. Your generation was perhaps the first after Warhol to achieve celebrity early in your careers outside the confines of the art world but since the late 90s things seem to have moved to a whole other level. You had the Young British Artists (YBAs) in the late 90s, Jeff Koons in the US, Takashi Murakami from Japan. Artists like Damien Hirst have made headlines in the popular press worldwide. Does this kind of celebrity help or hinder art?
12. There’s a charming video on the Art Gallery of Ontario website about the portrait basketball star Steve Nash commissioned you to paint of his daughters Bella and Lola. [here] During the Vancouver Olympics earlier this year and since then, there’s been some discussion in this country about the careers and economic situation of athletes, which is not dissimilar from that of artists. There’s a ton of sweat equity and sacrifice that goes into becoming a top athlete and the same is true for artists. What do you guys think about the star system and the fact that there are so many talented people struggling to climb the pyramid but only so much room at the top?
13. It’s not such a new thing for celebrities to become friends and do projects together but what is interesting is that it seems to be more public these days. It’ s not just tabloid journalism either. We are seeing celebrities more publicly engaged in the world generally, supporting various causes and speaking out on various issues. Do you think our celebrities should be playing this kind of leadership role in society? And how far do you think that can go?
14. With your work in film and art, you’re clearly a Renaissance man, but we noticed in our research that you recently took on yet another field, designing and building Palazzo Chupi, a luxury condominium in New York City. As always it seems, it’s been controversial but the design is lovely, clearly inspired by Italian architecture. It’s been well-described as handmade and human looking. Early in your career, you went to Europe and were inspired by Gaudi among others no doubt. Can we expect to see more architecture from you in the future?