Monday, August 28, 2006

New Links for you enjoyment!
The Museum Of Ephemerata (Austin)

Pes Movies!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

An Announcement

In the future, when we refer to bands that don't have variety in their music, we will drop the plural.

(even the picture doesn't have variety, and i grabbed this at random)

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Love miniatures, but think art about artists is a big yawn? Check out Aida Millet at Mixed Greens. They aren't perfect. They sit in the middle, refusing to be perfect like a miniature and refusing to be janky and low-tech like a contemporary sculpture. And they are obviously camera-vehicles and not objects, and this fact is not fully considered in their making (why make outsides to the houses at all?).

But whatever. I liked walking in and seeing the repeated form. I like the reference to William Christenberry, one of my favorite artists of all time. I like the playfulness of the imagery, and I like the way that playfulness and sweetness mixes with the horror-movie undertones. Sweet and sinister is good. Evocative. I like artists who are making art about an unknown space between two knowns.

I look forward to seeing what Millet does next time.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Power v. Tyrrany: Serra Interlude

Because Barney is all about sculptural power, it is impossible to talk about Barney without talking about Serra. And modernism.

Richard Serra: Power.

Serra is the king of sculpture power not because he uses massive amounts of weight, and not because he is stern looking and has meaty forearms. It's what he does with all this weight and meat. He uses weight to describe, activate and electrify specific negative spaces. Nobody else really does this in the same, elemental way. My favorite things about Richard Serra dovetail nicely. He is extremely intellectual and knows that what he is doing is more than formal, and he can write about this in a very clear way. But he doesn't really need to. His work manages to be quite generous. I have never taught an art appreciation class in which Serra wasn't immediately understood by non-art majors. He does one thing that everybody else does, too: displaces space. And he does it again and again, honing as he goes, making baby steps. He comes across all kinds of other things to do with space in his journey: he carves up space, describes elevations, which are vertical space...

And this is a concept the average ninteen-year old accounting major can easily grasp. It's elemental--we all displace space with our own flesh all day long.

Serra's generosity as a thinker lies right here, in this act of taking on weight itself. And of course to anyone who went to college in the eighties and beyond, this reads as just beyond arrogant because nothing is elemental. Artists in the postmodern academy are taught to stay the fuck away from the very idea that we share experiences because it's almost never true. One person's truth is another's tyrrany, know what I mean?

This is as it should be--I'm no Hilton Kramer. The very fact that my skinny little female self can do whatever I want with big tools is a testament to the fact that Serrra's worldview changed. I am a product of pluralism, and so is Barney.

But what about power?

In some ways, Barney's contemporary take on power is right on the money. Working with impossible materials, using restraint, a disaster-management aesthetic--these tactics resonate, and manage to project as much humility as power. The physical world is not at our beck-and-call the way Serra thinks it is--it's much more fluid than ten tons of cor-ten would have you believe. Barney has this fact in his grip and is not letting go, and that is good.

But there's the logoisimus, Barney-as-brand, obsession with getting viewers to decode personal mythology and personal narratives--all the ways Barney manages to use his zeitgeist to create a whole new tyrrany of the self.

Punchline: Serra manages to be much more generous than Barney is about power, because he is working toward what we share.

Serra's work does not collapse into tyrrany because of this basic generosity. He makes more assumptions about his power over the world as a human. But he also makes critical, correct assumptions about the way in which this experience of displacement is shared. Barney, because he's smart about power, sees that we share very little. But this means that Barney's freaky truth gets to become my tyrrany. I never think about myself in terms of freemasonry, the Chrysler building, hacking my legs off and turning into a whale, or being able to cajole Richard Serra into flinging vaseline. All this obtuse mythologizing is digging a moat around Barney, and because this is art power and not political power, that's a bad strategizing. This kind of power is boooring.

Matthew Barney, are you going to use your power-gift for good or evil? I prefer the Barney that keeps his eye trained on what we share. So few people are doing that.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Matthew Barney--Outsider?

So I went and looked at the show again, and don't feel particularly gypped for doing so. His sculpture is getting better as his filmmaking is getting worse. Less propshop, more active search for meaning in the making of things.

Jerry Saltz says Barney is practically an outsider artist in his review of DR9, and Saltz is showing both his provincialism and the devaluation of sculpture as a practice with this remark. Barney fits nicely within the discussion LA sculptors Charles Ray, Jennifer Pastor and Liz Craft are having. And Barney is pushing that discussion into strange new places, mostly as a function of his ego. This is not a value judgement. In fact, I wish all four of them could share Barney's ego, so that a little fucking momentum could build up under their joint project. These four people are working at figuring out the world through the discipline of sculpture. All four of them are riding the line between representation and a very specific kind of process-based thinking. They are all asking the same question:

what is it because I am making it?

This question is powerful because humans make so much and depend so much on the built world we have surrounded ourselves with. With this question you can go dig up a lot of meaning that you just can't find anywhere else. You can look at the Hoover Dam and turn it all around in your head until it becomes a weird spatial puzzle--a representation of the sculptor trying to figure out how the damn thing works. Jennifer Pastor's will to do this, to represent a thinking state of mind in three dimensions, is rich and beautiful and points to a specific existential truth: yes, I am always clawing for the chance to give the world inside my head a life outside.

If you ask what it is because you are making it, you can represent a car too much and make a weird, vibrating, visually strange thing that is a total fucking mystery until you find out that it's weird because each part of the original car was handmade and put together again. Of course it's not going to fit exactly right, and so Unpainted Sculpture becomes a meditation on this space between things. Charles Ray excels at probing this specific space for meaning. He is a creator of queer abutments, mental and physical.

Of the three, Craft is the best at playing actively with this question, relying least on rigorous formulas. She prefers to just make really freaky shit. But this freaky shit would not work if she didn't have a disarmingly earnest and straightforward relationship to material that is more intuitive than Pastor or Ray's approach, but just as smart. She makes bronze fresh because she makes stuff that must be bronze in order to make any sense at all.

When Barney is at his best, he gives himself over to process as completely as Charles Ray, but with less rigor and much more acceptance of the unknown. The Deportment of the Host is by far the smartest piece at Gladstone right now. Rather than lapsing into propshop, it actively presents itself as an answer to the question: what is it because Barney made it? It is explosion management. It is a feat of moldmaking and material innovation, and these technical facts of making are allowed to become a gesture. A moment blanketed and set, frozen in time, a state of becoming. It is a treat to see that meaning delivered sculpturally, to see sculpture not as artifact or a simple word that denotes three-dimensionality, but as a set of ideas that govern our relationship to making, to the things we make, to the meaning we create when we turn raw materials into something else.

This aspect of DR 9 was gorgeous. Not ponderous. I don't care that the sculpture he was making over and over again was his logo. The attention lavished on the spaces between things, the differences between materials, and bodies in space was worth it, worth every minute of my life that Barney took. I trust Barney as a sculptor.

I wish Barney trusted himself as a sculptor. Jerry, if he was an outsider, he would embrace this sculptural vision and bore us less with these aggrandized mythologies. No, let me rephrase that. He can aggrandize himself all he wants: sculpture is an arrogant act and sculptors are arrogant people. But putting all of this personal mythology into everything, especially because he depends on a linear format for much of his sculptural thinking, crosses the line. It is tyrrany of the self. If he gets up thinking these fantastically creative thoughts about his love of Bjork and wants to make some sculpture, or even a film about sculpture, that is based on these symbols and narratives, he should go for it. But rather than ask us to get the symbols and narratives, he should be guiding us toward understanding the sculpture. Because the thing Craft, Pastor and Ray get, the thing they can really get across to Barney, is that whatever egomania that pushes them to make is relatively unimportant to viewers. They are pushing their selfish bullshit through a translating machine, making it our selfish bullshit, pretty consistently, and that is the generous gesture most often lacking in Barney's work.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Matthew Barney--Power

It's Matthew Barney Season...
And it's time to carefully pull apart Barney's...what should we call it? Sthick? Oeuvre?

So I will start, and I am going to start in a way designed to get Kat's goat. I have written that I think Barney is important. That he has good intentions, that he is working hard to move the Sculpture Discussion past the Minimalism v. Fried argument. Yes, yes, he bungles constantly and is so in love with his pretty face onscreen that he makes awful choices often. But he is reaching for something enormous, and that is what distinguishes him.

Sculpture has been a meditation on power for millenia. Magical fetishes are imbued with it; monuments embody it; Serra personified it; Bourgeois tickles and smacks it. Sculpture became largely irrelevant as a medium and began this "post-medium condition" stuff-in-a-gallery phase when using power became a lame intellectual strategy and critiquing power structures fully took over. (Sorry, Rosalind, I don't buy that this is a media thing. I think it's a power thing.)

Barney is interesting to me because he smacks of power. Often failed power, and usually self-absorbed small-minded power that has a lot to do with Barbara Gladstone's power and his own good looks. But it is this (often awkward) embrace of power in all its forms--including the power of celebrity, logo/branding, money, high production value, baroque overmaking, process, scale, size, and... I hate to say it... gravitas--that makes me think he could actually do something one day. I say that because he is not his elders. He understands that he is not living in modernism (which is why his work is, IMO, so tedious and couched in these booorrring personal mythologies that ground his power squarely within the self). And he understands the power structures of now. He's not fighting for truth or goodness for all. He's fighting for his corporate identity.

What is he doing with this power? Well, I have to admit that I don't know. I have guesses, but I may just be projecting my hopes and fantasies about what I would do if I had MB's resources.

I think he's making films because sculpture has an extremely slippery relationship to time, and he's hoping to pin it down.

And I think that his obsession with self could be rooted in a similar desire to explicate the relationship between sculpture and the body. (Although it is more likely that he is a raving narcissist).

But is his sculpture any good? And what is the difference between the sculptures and the movies? Delving deeper next time...

Friday, April 14, 2006

After the Deluge by Kara Walker at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I have always appreciated Kara Walker's work, but have never really liked it very much. She is good at what she does, but her work is overly graphic for my taste, and depends too much on too few formal elements. And it doesn't surprise me. For all its shock value, it tells the same stories over and over again. It's easy not to look at it very hard. So I was pleasantly surprised by After the Deluge, an exhibit curated by Walker that consists of her own work paired with selections from the Met's collection. The exhibit, inspired by Hurricane Katrina, is a visual treat that gave me a whole new appreciation for Walker. She is a powerhouse! It is satisfying to compare her work to historical masters of the silhouette like Auguste Edouart, and indulge in the way she manipulates a rich set of conventions that govern precisely how gentility and savagery are flattened into cutout representations. It is also a delight to watch her play as a curator, and I mean that in the richest, most intense sense. Love Walker's work or hate it--it is apparent that she is always having a really good time. Her maniacal close eye and strong hand are everywhere here, assembling an essay in objects and pictures that presents no new stories, but thickens old ones. In this context, it became clear that much of Walker's work was lost on me. Cutouts are, by their nature, thin and flat. Walker depends on the way she references other worlds: this rich antebellum history and a contemporary culture that is still infected by it. The knowledge, assumptions, stereotypes and experiences viewers bring to her work are what breathe life and dimensionality into it. I really enjoyed having Walker do some of that heavy lifting for me. I left the Met excited about Walker's prowess and ready to engage in a conversation with her.

And all week long I have been staring at a blank screen, thwarted and thwarted again.

Walker is masterful on so many levels, and I have been struggling with this power because much of it is gained through that systemic dishonesty pervading all discussion of race. Frankly, it's made for a frustrating week. I am eager to engage with anyone who has the technical skill and grace to whip around all this madness and badness and make my eyes drink it up. And I am deeply grateful that she has the balls to play with race within the mostly white art establishment. I love that she is not just recording racism in a didactic Adrian Piper kind of way. She is focusing all her playfulness and perversity on the single most destructive aspect of racism--the too-tight grip on slavery's legacy that wedges itself between white and black people, a constant unspoken rift that makes progress and healing impossible. And so here we are, Kara Walker and I, a black woman and a white woman wrestling in the muck.

Walker constructs the history of slavery and its constant, nagging present tense in terms of inside and outside space. She starts with the black subject as a container for what she terms "pathologies of the past," and then moves outward as this container overflows to create a muddy, treacherous social landscape infected by this degrading past. This sense of inside-outside is severely flattened in her own work, reduced to positive and negative space. She often winds up talking about a container when what she gives us is a flat black shape. This time, she gives us the whole container by pairing her own work with lots of juicy bits from the Met's collection. The black subject here is exoticized in Edouart's South Sea Islanders, backgrounded in Copley's Watson And The Shark, alienated in Winslow Homer's The Gulf Stream...

...and of course there's a problem with looking at Walker's black subject. This looking is rather trecherous and loaded. Roberta Smith writes in her review of After The Deluge:

"That she (Walker) is an African-American woman seems to be the last thing on her mind: one of her central messages is that slavery visited degradation equally on all concerned and that its tragic legacy poisons life for all Americans."

This is bullshit--a classy sidestep when you just want to get your 1000 words in without any fuss. Walker is representing a specific black subject that is writhing and seething and spilling, caught between the existential burden of being human and all the other burdens of being 5/8 of a person. A book detailing the survivors of the Amistad is chilling and gorgeous. Take the time to get as close to the vitrine as possible, to see the considered, distinguishing detail in each silhouette profile of each individual. Read the completely un-ironic descriptions of who these people are, what their parents do and where they came from. What they were doing right before they were sold into slavery. Compare the bizzare excess of Walker's hyperstylized black subject in her 2001 series American Primitives to the Amistad book's sensitivity. To Edouart's reliance on conventions of whiteness and gentility, like very tiny feet.

Descent Into Hell, in the style of Hieronymous Bosch, is not representing whiteness here, nor is Joshua Shaw's Deluge Towards Its Close. Edouart's capturing of whiteness is here to bounce off of what Walker is doing to similarly conventionalize and exaggerate blackness. This is not about unity, and to miss this is to sidestep the meat of this exhibit. Because what I can really sink my teeth into is how Walker's choices so deftly point, again and again, to that inside/outside problem. To this specific and hideous past that fills the black subject and spills out of it. This gesture--not water, not specifically Katrina but the way the levees were not high enough---predominates. This is not a show about water, it is about what water does and describes. It is about the pressure of being defined by an atrocity that is no longer happening but that we can't stop thinking about. That is a very specific kind of flood, and that flood moves through the body and fills the space we share.

Walker is so good at representing this particular social landscape in which the past flows into the present, and it is a landscape that I am intimate with. I work with a crew of manual laborers that is exclusively slave-descended African American. I have no choice but to navigate this constant need for my colleagues to see things in terms of slavery, and it makes everything so tricky. I have worked hard with them for the better part of a year, and most of them are still not my friends, despite my best efforts. Most of them do not trust me because they keep thinking I have power over them, even though I am their colleague, not their boss. We wind up doing a high-stakes dance, in which they keep giving me power I don't have and then resenting me for it. And I keep failing to resist their power-shove and not understanding what the problem is. Really dumb stuff, like whether I am wearing a baseball cap or my wide-brimmed "overseer" hat, can make all the difference in the world. These guys are not stupid--the situation is just that visual and deeply coded. And try avoiding references to slavery when you actually are slaving, when you are breaking rocks in the hot sun! Conversations, especially requests, grow thick underbellies of subtext. And because I am no good at subtext, I get it wrong all the time.

Walker is interested in the "story of Muck." And my work life is muck, a very specific muck that Walker mines and perverts and throws back at the (mostly white) viewer. And this, because the muck is so visual and because it is so difficult to talk about, could be the single most revolutionary thing any person dealing in race ever did. It could blow a hole in the wall of polite, ineffective silence that dooms day-to-day interactions between white and black people, that drives racism underground where it becomes a million little sulfurous hotsprings of mutual contempt. And since I happen to love my job and hate this one tiny part of it, I really want this work Walker is doing to be meaningful. I want it to be as powerful as Walker is.

But it's not. It's just not. I don't think I am asking too much. I don't want Walker to become the Unity Fairy, or even the lady at the Helpful Advice for White People About Blackness booth. She couldn't cure racism for me, and shouldn't even if she could. Art is not about that. All I want her to do is follow through on what she starts. I know this is a tall order. I know that I am not calling anyone out at work because I would rather just wear the wide-brimmed hat.

But you know, I tromp around a park trying desperately to get along with a handful of big black men from Astoria Houses. I do not have a show at the Met--a show that forcefully portrays the black body in turmoil and seething with rage. And I am not the one openly calling the viewer Massa and in all caps shouting CROUCH DOWN IN THE NIGGER TRENCHES! calling out to the black middle class for a race riot with one breath and politely suggesting that there is possibility for rebirth with the next. Kara Walker is too powerful to get away with this racist doubletalk. I do not buy her worn out conceit that she is the Met's House Negress and that playing out the dynamic she represents--soothing Massa with one hand while the other hand is a clenched fist that then explodes somewhere else, somewhere safe--is part of the concept.

I have no problem with her rage. It's the fact that she refuses to own the rage--to use it to step outside this hurtful system of pandering and resentment that turns me off. After The Deluge is comparatively strong because much of the soothing happens in the wall text, leaving the gallery a strongly angry and devastated place. This relative directness gives her power that I didn't think she had. She has the power to turn the Nkisi nail-fetish figure into a portrait of a black body in turmoil, negating the figure's original purpose as a magical transformer. She has the power to make an inferred black subject loom over The Deluge Towards Its Close. And she is strong enough to put herself and her own hand at the center of this madness, all nappy hair and pointed shark teeth and huge feet and billowing smoke that for once is not just a paper shape. Her Text Cards, which I have previously found tedious because I hate being called a Massa, cement this show, make it abundantly clear that her subject is rage. So what is with all the sidestepping in the essay on the wall? Why move away from the horrific and racialized particulars of Katrina to focus on more polite topics like water in general? Why claim that this show has any content about renewal or rebirth?

The only really powerful thing art does is create distance and new perspectives on what we see every day. Walker halts this process halfway. She undoes this revolutionary act of looking by doing exactly what she sees. Her wall-text works too hard to make me feel okay about what I am looking at. And Walker's reliance on the Met's collection winds up functioning as just another code in which to speak. All that art history puts viewers (and reviewers) at a disadvantage. Is the correct reading what it all looks like or what I learned in school? Or, in the case of Copley's Watson and the Shark or Homer's The Gulf Stream, is the correct reading based on newer afrocentric texts that I haven't read? For every single ounce of power Walker displays openly in After The Deluge, she counters with a dose of backpedaling or obfuscating detail. Every image culled from the Met's collection is so rich. The dense salon-style hanging and sheer breadth functioned in the moment as a shock-and-awe tactic. It heightened my visceral response to the show to be confronted with all this work--a big, slow-moving, well telegraphed punch in the eyes. But as the time comes to really sit down and think about what Walker is doing, each image becomes its own little rabbit hole down which I am constantly slipping and losing the real question:

What is Walker doing when she is not hiding behind these images and histories?

I want Walker to stop diluting this rage. I want her to just fucking say what's on her mind. I want to be able to trust and believe her. I do buy that the rage I saw at the Met--the rage that I don't think I am supposed to actually talk about because it is so shifty and encoded--is completely real, and that it is rooted in this twisted, uniquely visual legacy of slavery. I absolutely buy that there are demons and skeletons and people fucking and sucking and beating and burning locked inside Walker's black subject. And I want to see it. I don't want to see all of this pain and rage because it's exotic, or to make me feel better about my whiteness. I want to see it because in my life all that rage is a huge boil that needs desperately to be lanced, and I have no power to lance it. I buy that Walker is angry, and that she has a gift, and that this gift is being able to hold her anger far enough away from her so that she can play with it, twist and sculpt it.

What does one do with such a scary gift? What if Walker just put together After the Deluge and let it sit there, writhing and slithering and lashing and fist-pumping? What if she did no apologizing on the wall text whatsoever, and left us at crouching down in the nigger trenches? With her own naked words? What if we had to interpret these images ourselves, visually, without relying on wall-texts and art history to save us from the rage Walker wants so desperately to represent?

Well, then she would be making a definitive statement of what is actually going on. And if she did that, I could, as a reviewer, turn it into a dialogue. I could say something with integrity. I could say, "I had no idea what all this pain feels like until you showed me." or "We are more alike than you think" or "I'm not your Massa and resent being forced into this position as much as you resent always winding up a Slave."

As After the Deluge stands, covering up its rage in layers of historical detail and bracketed by downcast eyes saying that the unifying element is water, which it is not, and that the water is cleansing, which it is not, it is still falling flat, merely a monologue about the Great Historical Wrong that will never be overcome, that we can never move past because we can never admit that it is truly there.