Paper planes

Paper Louise Tiny Fishman Rock

Institute of Contemporary Art

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2016

 

Exploring this exhibition meant looking at paintings done on carpet samples.  Abstractions developed in response to a staple, on a rusted metal surface or scrap.  Tiny sculptures dotting white shelves, covered in pigment or plaster, carefully held together by wire.  There were some large abstract paintings on the wall, too, a presentation that is more common and familiar for this mode of working.  But there were tiny paintings also, barely the size of a few postage stamps, with pieces of canvas missing.  Or display tables that were literally covered in piles of smaller paintings, and long accordion books, with grids carefully drawn in pencil.

Size can create competition in some shows, larger works demanding more attention than small, but these more typical relationships were somehow absent from this show.  Holes were drilled into the sides of display armatures, perfectly framing a small Fishman sculpture covered in paint, encouraging the viewer to look.  You did not get the sense that you were supposed to spend less time looking at the smaller things.  Bright colors in swatches, aggressive paint strokes in bursts, on every surface, everything both quiet and loud at the same time, somehow. 

There was much emphasis on process in this show.  The display was with littered with studio objects, wooden stools and sculptures meant to inspire, a clear impulse to swirl paint on any available surface or scrap.  Again the more predictable hierarchies collapse.  Cardboard and ancient carpet samples are in no way less important than paper or canvas.  All are armatures, holding paint and pigment at different angles, brush strokes wide and small.  Objects and surfaces growing out of the space from which they are made, refusing to dismiss small bits of cardboard as garbage, inviting them into the language of abstraction, commanding attention always.

It’s subversive, you realize.  The texts accompanying the show confirm it.  Fishman’s voice developed within an art world dominated by males, her command of paint as a medium growing in a context where scale, material, and abstraction as a language had already been assigned a gender.  In interviews with the show’s curator, she speaks of her relationship to what had been deemed at that time as “women’s work,” her involvement with the fight for gay rights, and the project of feminism.  The contemporary art world benefits from more collapsed boundaries, media that are somewhat freed from these overtly gendered boundaries, and woman artists and abstractionists like Fishman were an important part of this eventual transition.

Which is why you go around again, spending more time with the small things and the larger ones, materials both stubborn and fragile, humble and massive.  The hand that is so present in her paper books, in places held together by staples, dabbed in watercolor, fluid pigment navigating around fragile grids.  You stand in front of large canvases with dark colors scrubbed into the surface, studying the spiky brush strokes, radiating energy.  A show revealing a space that was carved out of history long ago, with sets of tension still on display, continuing to move.

Take me to your river

Great Rivers Biennial

Of Color, Lyndon Barrois, Jr.

Of Color, Lyndon Barrois, Jr.

CAM, St. Louis, MO, 2016

It has been a minute, since writing.  This summer has been moving, for me at least, at borderline lightning speed, rushing ahead without a break, disappearing.  I spent the first half of it leaving whenever I could, collecting mini trips like it was my job, hurtling towards a new place before I even had a chance to digest the first, absolutely and literally unable to stand still.  Things have calmed down a little, at least, and I find myself in Philly for more than just a few days at a time, and I have to say that it feels kind of nice, even with all of its contrasts.  Moving fast feels like a dance at times, a part to play, a badge of honor in a place that honors speed.  Sometimes you can get lost in it, forgetting that there is another way at all, forgetting to even come up for air, until something interrupts.

I went to St. Louis a few weeks ago to see friends and to revisit old stomping grounds, and it was the perfect interruption that I almost didn’t know that I needed.  I insisted on going to CAM, the contemporary art museum whose openings I used to go to religiously, because my friend Lyndon Barrois currently has work on display there.  Lyndon’s piece featured a basketball hoop with a handmade backboard that looked like a painting, delicate cardboard sculptures that looked like people, covered in images pulled from magazines and popular culture, and an asphalt floor that was installed right inside the Museum.  Lyndon’s work often deals with memory and memorabilia, a carefully curated collection of handmade objects that is meant to transport you to another place or encourage you to think about race, representation, and culture in a different way, and thus it was important that Lyndon allowed the viewers to stand right on the asphalt, and inspect the work up close.

Lyndon’s work is featured in this year’s Great Rivers Biennial, a Museum exhibition featuring the work of three carefully selected St. Louis area artists.  Artist Tate Foley created large sculptural assemblages for the show, using text-based protest language to cover fractured wooden pieces that stood upright on complex supports.  The pieces are well designed, almost looking like cut up billboards or pieces of webpages, reminding the viewer of a surrounding culture that is obsessed with language, words on smart phones, more sentences and posts than any one person could ever read, repeated out to the point where it feels a little foreign, and the meaning is open for interpretation.

The last room I inspected was dark, with a few benches in the center, surrounded on three sides by enormous video projections that ran in a loop.  I sat in the center with one of my good friends from graduate school, learning later that Nanette Boileau was the name of the artist who created it, and I could not stop watching.  The moving figures were caring for cows – or cutting grass, or moving the animals, or giving them medicine.  And I could not.  Stop.  Watching.  Even when the footage had something kind of gross in it, like a broken umbilical cord.  Even though I literally can’t remember any other time in my life, where I was so fascinated by cows and grass.  The farmers and the ranchers and the animals were not in any incredible rush.  They moved at their own pace, a speed that was determined by some unknown factor, and I was hypnotized by it.  I wanted to be the woman with the video camera, riding around in the mower and asking questions but relaxed, in an arena filled with yellow grass and a bright blue sky.

I haven’t seen any cows while in Philly, or spoken with any ranchers, or mowed any grass.  But I have been trying to savor all of it a little more – the last few weeks of summer, enjoying and being present, rather than letting it just run through my fingers, disappearing in a fleeting explosion of heat and light, sliding away right after arriving.  And so I had a great time at Great Rivers, in part because I am incredibly proud of my friend, but also because I would have never expected in a thousand years that cows could be capable of teaching me how to stand still.

This must be, pop

Oiran, Ushio Shinohara, 1968.

Oiran, Ushio Shinohara, 1968.

International Pop

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2016

 

To start, I absolutely and positively adored this show.  I knew that I would going into it, since I read a ton of information on consumer culture and visual expressions of capitalism while in graduate school, and for this reason I kind of avoided writing my reactions to it in exhibition form.  I still think it’s harder to write about something you really like, which I know I’ve mentioned on here before, and the last thing I wanted this entry to turn into was some mashup of articles past, a version of my thesis abstract with image titles mixed in, a narrative that basically consists of LOOK AT THIS PERFECT EXPRESSION OF THIS THING I RESEARCHED THREE YEARS AGO.  Instead, it will probably be more fun for all of us if I focus on all of the things I didn’t know about prior to seeing this show.

Thankfully, there was a lot of that.  This exhibition did of course include some projects by the most famous American pop artists, featuring the iconic paintings of cartoons and sculptures with carefully reproduced logos by Lichenstein and Warhol.  There were also many projects that I wasn’t already familiar with, including a super interesting store installation by Robert Watts with sculptures of fruits and vegetables flocked in velvet or cast out of metal, directly across from a display with a rack of custom raincoats in front of colorful wallpaper designed by German artist Thomas Bayrle.

The international scope of the show provided me with names of artists I had never previously heard of from Brazil, Japan, and other countries, and I found that the relationships the works created within the exhibition were able to frame the American works in ways that you might not have considered had the exhibition focused solely on American work.  Works by Brazilian artists Wanda Pimentel, Anna Maria Maiolino, and Antonio Dias explore pop aesthetics in a political context, using graphic visual language and bright colors to discuss acts of war, violence, and overwhelming interaction.  Plain reference to political topics serves as a reminder to the viewer that pop has political ties, even in its most aesthetically pleasing expression, and considering such a dialogue forces you to see the other power structures at play.  Edward Ruscha’s Standard Station features visually stunning aesthetics and captivating experimentation with exaggerated perspective, but it could also be included in a conversation about American oil companies, advertising, branding, and, ultimately, money and power.

On the surface, American pop is bright, visually appealing, and at times seemingly naïve in its representations of 50s advertisements, commercials, and tv dinners.  For a viewer that experienced the 1960s as a child, as was the case with my parents who came with me to see the show, there can be a nostalgic response to these images and a strong connection to a piece stemming from this familiarity.  Yet International Pop also featured pieces that directed a darker, more emotionally charged conversation on global topics while simultaneously embracing enticing pop aesthetics.  Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo utilized the bright colors and graphic elements of pop in the piece entitled Olympic Winners Platform, which also features sculptural representations of severed body parts as a means of referencing nuclear energy and violent fragmentation. 

The piece elicits a highly emotional reaction, ultimately forcing the viewer out of the television nostalgia haze and into narratives constructed in response to thoroughly distressing global events occurring at exactly the same time in history.  And in my opinion, this was the incredibly important opportunity International Pop offered to its viewers.  It put you in a position where you were unable to dismiss pop as a fluffy, surface-y, and naïve American genre, instead forcing you to consider this visual language as it related to some of the most sobering and serious topics of its time.  The viewer gets drawn in, in the way a well-designed ad forces you to look, but the difference is that the ad is telling you to buy a certain kind of laundry detergent, and the art featured in this show was ultimately sending out an entirely different message.

It was a show that I was meant to respond to, works that anyone who is vaguely familiar with my art could have predicted that I would spend time with.  And so, I had no choice but to write a glowing, fan girl review in response to it.  But at least I warned you that I would, right from the start.

The Wheels on the Bus

Mary Mehelic, Crane Arts, Philadelphia, PA

January-March 2016

 

On a cold night in February, I found myself walking down Thompson Street in a corduroy dress with sequined sleeves.  I had donated an artwork to a charity auction for Inliquid, and I walked with my sister to attend the benefit with a comp ticket saved in my phone, to see the art and to talk with strangers and friends.  On my way inside the Crane Building, I saw something that was basically the last thing I ever would have expected to see in front of such a place.  Is that a Donald Trump bus?  Parked outside of an art exhibit in Philly, of all places?

The disbelief lasted until I saw a slogan on the side of the bus that read ‘make fruit punch great again,’ and in that moment I realized a) this is an art project and b) using a Donald Trump bus as material in said art project is absolute genius.  The project is the result of a collaboration of artists called t.Rutt that utilize the bus in subversive projects, offering a political commentary that is especially relevant in the chaos of the presidential election.  The piece perfectly captures the various tensions at play in such a turbulent political display, and the opposing feelings you experience while watching a debate or reading an article about whatever crazy thing that happened that week.  At times the projects embrace humor, and maybe part of you wants to laugh at the Trump bus, but then another part of you recognizes that the campaign really isn’t funny, at exactly the same time.

Mary Mihelic is one of the participating artists in the Trump travelling project, and Mihelic’s work was also featured in a show of drawings and installation on display inside Crane Arts during the same three-month period.  Mihelic’s drawing exhibition, entitled 53 Running Girls, features a series of large scale drawings on paper that are tacked directly onto the wall.  The pieces almost function like posters due to this presentation, lacking frames entirely except for a few scraps of black paper that hang from the wall precariously, and in moments fall completely to the floor.  The drawings feature gestural representations of figures in motion, represented in colored lines in a variety of media, surrounding fading bits of images and fragments of words.

Are the girls running to something, or from something?  It is hard to tell at first glance.  Before reading any of the contextual information that accompanied the pieces I dearly wanted the running to be an expression of freedom, a story ending in empowerment, though the subject matter at play is far more sobering.  The show is covered with notes, some handwritten on lined paper torn from a notebook, informing the viewer that the running girls depicted here ran to escape a kidnapping at their school in Nigeria, and they are still missing two years later.  The pieces depicting them are not portraits—you can’t see any of the faces, their speed is too great, and the background surrounding the gestural figures is absent of suggestions of landscape or architecture.

It was an emotive show, heavy in subject matter, but offering important reflections.  The notebook motif recurs throughout 53 Running Girls, reminiscent of school supplies but also as a means for documenting.  This project seeks to freeze a moment in time, to prevent you from maneuvering away from these stories with the click of a mouse or a swipe on a smart phone screen.  Yet ultimately both installations are transient, on the move and designed to be that way, hurtling towards a future that is unknown and unstable.    

We Built This City

Kevin Beasley, Untitled (Harlem Matriarch II), 2015

Kevin Beasley, Untitled (Harlem Matriarch II), 2015

Greater New York

PS 1, New York, NY

 

Every so often, I make the decision to see an enormous group show with friends.  These shows tend to be in New York, meaning you wait several weeks or even months to see them, and you spend a lot of time afterwards comparing them to other enormous group shows that you saw at earlier times.  I saw this one in February, during a particularly fitful bout of wanderlust and caged-in winter feelings that resulted in a grand departure from Philly and a taxi ride to Queens.

I want to start my assessment of this show by stressing, first and foremost, that there were some truly incredible works in this show.  I watched a video by Ben Thorp Brown about a factory that makes strange trophies that are given to employees by corporations, featuring a Mr. Rogers style view of the factory machinery that was almost hypnotic.  There was a huge installation called Kiosk that featured strange objects in precarious plastic shelving units, revealing the curated collection of a very strange store in a space with extremely narrow hallways.  There was a pretty consistent impulse here to comment on capitalism, presenting you with several examples of these store-like mashups and corporate juxtapositions, and it was an impulse that seemed to be relevant and place-specific to me.

As I navigated this exhibition, I spent a lot of time trying to decode the logic behind placement of works and the visual relationships that were created between the pieces.  These relationships didn’t always seem to be thematic to me—at times, the connections seemed to be based more on a material relationship, as with the room of large sculptures right across from the Kiosk space.  The struggle to curate an ambitious yet calculated collection of objects and then taking the steps to arrange them in a thoughtful way is emblematic of the enormous group show.  In these conditions, it can be difficult to make a real assessment of this kind of show: how does one decide if a show of this nature is successful or not, and what would the criteria be?

Anytime I feel a little lost inside a show and start to wish for some sort of map or clue, anything at all to grab onto, I tend to turn to the explanatory text that accompanies a show to see how the institution decided to frame it.  There were a lot of clues here that were helpful, including the explanation of the move to include older artists to avoid falling into the obsessive pursuit of youth and newness that enormous group shows tend to celebrate.  I responded pretty well to this idea since it’s a refreshing take on this kind of exhibition format, though the decision to remove the commonality of time from a show could make it a little hard to navigate.  Pieces that have all been made within the past five to ten years all have at least that in common; when you remove that, you are again back to the question of what organizing principles are at play.

If you return to the exhibition text, it will tell you that the ultimate aim here was to combine a sort of nostalgia for an older version of New York with cultural obsession of newness.  And I think that out of everything I experienced through this show, the incredible works and the steps to figure out the puzzle of the arranging, all of which I kind of enjoyed—through all of it, I struggled most with this idea of nostalgia and I still continue to struggle with it.  For me, a non-resident of New York whose “experience” of the New York of the 70s or 80s is accessible only through popular culture or fantasy imagery, the nostalgia idea is off-putting simply because I can’t relate to it.  I don’t really know the place the nostalgia is referring to, if I’m being really honest, and so it’s hard for me to elicit a response to it. 

Is it possible to miss something that you’ve never experienced?  In the end, even with the nostalgia confusion, I find that I am interested in this question.  In a show about making in a huge city like New York, with all of its glamour, mystery, and fantasy, perhaps a nostalgic reference to a place embellished with imagination isn’t totally off base.  And if we were to expect a huge show to present the experience of the New York artist as a balanced and harmonious whole, with clear curatorial goals and clean execution, that would probably end up seeming a little absurd. 

I found myself considering how nostalgia is defined by our culture and subsequently embraced or pushed away, long after I left the halls of PS1.  It was an experience that was probably meant to confuse me in moments, but cities are confusing places.  And making can be confusing too—but in my very biased opinion, it’s probably one of the best kinds of confusion there is.

Welcome Back

Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere

Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, PA

February 3—March 27, 2016

 

I’m back to the page, after a mini hiatus filled with holidays and rapid changes and many months of not really going to museums.  The end of a year is always majorly reflective for me, filled with hours of sleepy contemplation and a fair amount of looking backward, but it’s been good lately to move forward and focus on what’s ahead, and to start filling my eyes and head with art and exhibitions again.

I went to the ICA in Philadelphia on a sunny Saturday, and was completely blown away by the collaborations I saw there created by artists Angel Nevarez and Valerie Tevere.  I went to the show without having any idea about who they are or what they make, and I managed to accidentally work my way through the show backwards instead of forwards (whoops), though I actually think that this ended up working in my favor, in a very unexpected way.

I accessed the show from the ramp space and made my way up to the second floor from there, instead of utilizing the steps in the front.  Because this was backwards, I didn’t start this exhibition with explanatory wall text, the printed material that described the thematic content in more detail, or even the proper spelling of the artists’ names.  Instead, I stumbled into a dark room with a large video screen and was immediately confronted by a masked character in a suit, walking nonchalantly on screen around a city that looked suspiciously similar to Philadelphia.

I was immediately drawn in by this video, and even sat down to watch all of it, from start to finish, which took a pretty decent chunk of time.  If you know me, and if you’ve seen shows with me, you’ll know that this is pretty out of the ordinary for me and I can typically only watch video pieces for a few minutes before I want to move on and look at something else.  This piece, entitled Memory of a Time Twice Lived, featured a layered narrative that connected seemingly disparate scenes and characters in a winding loop that revealed itself only by sitting with the piece, and spending time with it.

I don’t want to ruin anything, so just trust that this video somehow managed to combine La Jetee, the Wagner Free Institute of Science, musicians, accordions, a masked figure posing in front of Philadelphia’s Rocky statue, a T-shirt featuring a Mexican wrestler named El Santo, Mexican museums filled with memorabilia, and a bunch of murals in a convincing, poignant, and thought provoking way.

Everything connected somehow, and it was super entertaining to figure out how, and the artists masterfully refrained from revealing all to you at once, showing rather than telling, dropping in a character or scene and choosing to wait until later to tell you why.  The slow reveal is something this pair does very well, and they have an impressive ability to encourage a viewer to take their time and pay attention (even when their view is a restless, antsy ball of energy that wants to rush ahead all and look at all the art at once, like me).

Another room in this exhibition that made a deep impression on me was also dark, and had three screens on opposing walls, and circular couches on wheels that you could move around and share with strangers.  When I first walked into this room, I saw a blonde singer performing with an orchestra for a few fleeting moments, then applause, then nothing.  I caught the seconds right before the end, but was intrigued, so I sat and watched two additional videos just so I could see the beginning of the first.  The orchestra video was called The War Song, and it featured the Norwegian Radio Orchestra covering a Culture Club song that was rearranged by a composer.  The piece ultimately offered reflections on awards for peace during times of war, combining the orchestra that performs at Nobel Peace Prize celebrations with a cultural moment that is rife with war and instability, and a really beautiful and jarring performance, all at the same time.

In the end I think the strength of this work was present in these juxtapositions, the lenses and filters that cultural artifacts and experiences passed through, offering a measured reflection that built upon itself and could therefore offer a rich experience.  For me, it was the perfect show to experience after coming up for air following a phase of massive reflection – a show that caused me to stop, think, and linger in a space that was unfamiliar rather than revisited, exterior from me but then becoming personal, a history that folded in on itself.  Repurposed, recomposed, refigured, rewritten, at times exuberant, at times haunting. 

Algae Ecosystems & Noodle Soup

Mattress Factory, Current Exhibitions, Pittsburgh, PA 

Detail from Trace of Memory by Chiharu Shiota.

Detail from Trace of Memory by Chiharu Shiota.

I recently went to Pittsburgh to visit my sister, and I made the decision to visit the Mattress Factory without even knowing what exhibitions were currently showing there.  I have fan girl responses to this institution, discovered the first time I saw the permanent installations by Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell, and these feelings are reinforced every additional time I visit.  The institution spans several buildings, rather than showing work in one large and imposing environment, and the specific nature of this spatial presentation seemed to be particularly important during my most recent visit.  The outdoor walks to individual structures stood out, and not just because it was raining and then a strange sort of freezing rain, almost hail-like, started falling from the sky the minute we decided to drive to Squirrel Hill for lunch.  This did happen, and it was strange because I visited Pittsburgh in October, and the retelling of the story creates a memorable image.

The Mattress Factory is an institution that repurposes buildings, spreading art through former domestic and industrial spaces that are distributed in the surrounding community, and during this visit the particular relationship between repurposed space and the resulting artworks really stood out.  My sister made a comment about the installations we saw that day, wondering aloud why we hadn’t seen works like this in other museums in other cities, and I think a large part of it is linked to the impulse to show work in a space that offers clues about its former use.  There is a memory of history that artists can respond to in such a space, and an inclination to alter the structure because the institution has already made the decision to embrace that.  This resulted in several installations currently on view that alter, subvert, and comment on domestic or repurposed space in a way that just wouldn’t be the same in a different kind of institution. 

I was blown away by the installation at the newly acquired 516 Sampsonia Way, a house that was transformed into a gallery that is currently showing an enormous installation by Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota.  The installation spanned several floors of the space, and consisted of incredibly intricate webs of yarn that covered the walls in elaborate and hauntingly beautiful structures.  The yarn webs highlighted the domestic architecture, which was preserved but not pristine, capturing carefully selected pieces of isolated furniture and objects that were selectively lit.  The space was spooky and lovely at the same time, recalling a frozen moment or absent history, and the piece would only have this emotive power in such a space.  Here, the absent memory or the dusty bits of history were as much a part of the piece as the yarn fastened to the walls and the carefully placed domestic objects.   

From there I walked with my sisters and brother-in-law to Factory Installed @ 1414 Monterey Street, a huge exhibition that included room-sized installations by eight different artists.  There was a gorgeous piece by Anne Lindberg that involved an intricate system of colored thread, and an assortment of beautiful furniture and complex glass pieces filled with microalgae in an ambitious installation by Jacob Douenias and Ethan Frier.  The impulse to alter space was clearly present Julie Schenkelberg’s piece entitled The Color of Temperance: Embodied Energy, where the artist pulled an imagined domestic space to bits in a colorful, ordered chaos.  Schenkelberg’s walls were turned inside out, painted and covered with material, and the scene was littered with broken objects that ordered themselves in clean lines just often enough to keep you looking. 

Schenkelberg describes her work as an attempt to document forgotten history, and her work on display at the Mattress Factory had an effortless synergy that reminded me of seeing Mike Kelley’s work at PS1, a former school building in New York.  At the end of my visit I waited near the windows downstairs at 1414 Monterey, hoping that the blobs of freezing rain would stop falling onto the sidewalk, all while standing next to the glowing microalgae structures that were hanging from the ceiling.

It was, all in all, an incredibly interesting afternoon, culminating with a bowl of really delicious noodle soup that we found in Squirrel Hill, and I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

How Much Wood

Detail from When I am 64 by Laura Petrovich-Cheyney.

Detail from When I am 64 by Laura Petrovich-Cheyney.

Process: Wood IV

 Philadelphia Sculpture Gym Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

I stopped by this show with a friend after work on a Thursday.  We were about to eat pizza and see a play, but first, my buddy Jen insisted, we must see the show about wood.  I waited outside on Frankford Avenue for a few minutes, Jen was on her way, and was immediately welcomed inside by the people watching the gallery that night.  I’ll admit that this was my very first impression of the show, before I even saw it.  The attitude was, get in here.  It’s cold outside, and we have art inside and places to sit down.

The show featured several projects by different artists, all utilizing wood in some way and demonstrating impeccable craft.  There’s an opportunity here, I think, to work through some associations that can come to mind when people imagine wood as a material.  The way most people encounter wood on a daily basis is not as a fine art material: it’s as a building material, a floor that needs to be dusted or the insides of a wall that needs insulation, an exposed beam in a refurbished apartment, stacks and sheets of dusty material in trucks or home improvement stores.  When I think of wood, I think of it as something rough, something that gave me splinters as a kid, the material I had to cut through in art school using intimidating machinery.

This show reveals examples of the endless possibilities inherent in wood, the emotive and visual qualities it can take on, and moments when it can become vulnerable or even delicate.  Karen Aumann’s piece Nymph explores the tension between delicate and rough, built and natural by combining a split open maple log with a ceramic pipe, an LED light, and a small piece of ironwork.  The piece does a good job of mixing up your expectations, and playing off associations we bring to certain materials; a ceramic pipe splitting open a wooden log seems impossible, and at first glance the small iron piece attached to the log doesn’t even appear to be made of another material at all.  The dim, blue light in the bottom recess of the piece lends an almost spooky quality, something that hits against the mythological content of the piece’s title but is, ultimately, manufactured by a light bulb.

Alex Schechter’s piece Relequary features wood objects arranged and determined by an algorithmic system; the brightly colored, almost playful looking objects spill out onto the floor close to the entrance.  Each one is an object you would love to pick up and take home; they are lovingly crafted, beautifully painted, and seem at home on the floor, not so delicate that you worry they will be damaged by shoes or dust.  Like most twenty somethings, the algorithms I encounter on a daily basis are those embraced by social media sites that curate our experience online, the ones that determine images we see and the stories we read and the people we interact with.  The digital algorithm is supposed to be invisible, but this piece instead offers a wooden one, right by the door, one that you have to physically walk around to navigate the space.

Laura Petrovich-Cheney’s When I am 64 embodies the emotive quality wood can capture; the piece utilizes salvaged wood from Hurricane Sandy to create a patchwork, painterly wooden combine that hangs on the wall like a quilt that’s meant for show.  The design of the piece breaks down into a grid, and each unit features colored wood that is worn by varying degrees and functions like its own framed mini painting.  The piece is fashioned out of wood that looks like it could have been a building material, siding that flew from the side of a house or building, and there is a loss and sadness that is associated with this the minute you read about the material’s origin on the label of the piece.  It packs a powerful emotive punch, but the piece itself is brightly colored and beautifully crafted, transforming the debris altered by the violence of a powerful storm into something else. 

This transformative power is evident throughout this small group show in Philadelphia, a strong showing of talented artists and proof that a two by four or sheet of plywood can be cut, sanded, and sculpted into something else entirely, an object that stops you in your tracks on a Thursday night and makes you forget about everything for a couple of seconds, the stresses from your day job and emails on your cell phone, even pizza.   

Big Magic

Recently, I finished a book by Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.  I was drawn to it initially because it discusses a lot of the struggles creative people come across as they continue to try to build their practices into their lives, which as I have admitted to you previously is something that I think about a lot.  Overall I enjoyed this book, since I think the information was relevant and most of the topics hit pretty close to home for me.  Gilbert discusses the fear that can be linked with making pretty early on in her descriptions, which is a topic that is also covered in depth by books like Art and Fear if you find yourself especially interested.

This intersection interests me a lot, mostly because it seems to be almost universal, since the uncertainty that is linked with making can at times freak out just about anyone.  I also find it interesting because I think it’s a strong example that can be used to play one of my favorite games, one that I discovered in graduate school, that I like to call Switching out the Terms.  In this particular version of the game, you can choose a subject or term and substitute it for ‘art’ in all the most popular artistic stereotypes.  For the creativity = fear situation, it’s kind of fun to switch out the term for another random interest to see if it seems odd to make the same assumptions.  For the fear one it doesn’t always work, since it’s so subjective and a topic like ‘knitting’ could be totally relaxing for one person and totally stressful for another, but it’s still a funny thing to try.  ‘The uncertainty of fishing is too much for me.’  ‘I don’t know if I can continue to study pickling, it’s killing me.’

The fun continues, because you can pair this game with any number of negative or dramatic comments that are often used to discuss creativity and the pursuit of making things.  ‘If you keep playing darts, you will ruin your life.’  ‘Taking classes in French means that you will be poor forever and will have a terrible future.’  Gilbert spends a lot of time talking about artistic stereotypes in her book, and I think she does a good job of debunking them.  She describes the myth of the destructive, tortured artist well and challenges the notion that art must be born out of pain, sacrifice, martyrdom, and suffering rather than joy, curiosity, and imagination.  Listening to Elizabeth Gilbert speak slowly in a soft voice makes all of it seem more possible somehow, like you can find the time and reframe the negativity to carve out a space for creativity in your life, even if it’s smaller or more marginal than you might like.

There were only a few parts of the book that I struggled with, particularly the ‘magic’ parts where she describes creativity as a metaphysical substance that gets transferred through the air and in potentially crazy ways from person to person, and while I could go along with this to a point sometimes it became too much for me.  However I think my least favorite part of the book was when she kind of hated on MFA programs, which in my opinion is one of the most exhausting and boring conversations there ever was (for examples, type ‘should I get an MFA’ into any online search engine).  Honestly I couldn’t figure out why this chapter was even in this book, since prior to that it was all about personal pursuits of creativity and the power that comes with defining all of that for yourself.  Too often, I think the MFA conversation dissolves into all involved parties defensively defending their own choices and trying to convince others to do what they did.  Most of the time I don’t think it’s interesting, and I almost always question how productive it is.

Of course I would be the person that would take issue with the MFA = bad argument since I did decide to get one, but to take it one step further what I started to think about while reading this book was one of the first things I discussed in this blog – community.  While anyone could attack MFA programs for being expensive and for not always resulting in an A + B = C job path, you can’t argue that it builds communities - or at least, they have the potential to build them, and the good ones offer a level of criticality and focused dialogue.  At times it almost seemed that Gilbert’s text encouraged the reader to make in a hermetic space and ignore harsher forms of criticism, which I couldn’t bring myself to 100% agree with, even if you remove the MFA thing from the discussion entirely.

All that aside, she had some really amazing insights on this topic and I would recommend the reading to anyone that is trying to build creativity into their life in a way that is positive and constructive.  Among my favorite things that I took away from this book were Gilbert’s descriptions of the paradoxes inherent to creative making.  To paraphrase her ideas, we need to think our creative work is one of the most important things in the world to us, but not so important that we get intimidated by it or become kind of insufferable; we need to seek out art and other creators, but we also really need to sit down and get to work; and we need to ignore toxic critics of our work that could convince us to stop making, but then we still need the good feedback and community and sense of belonging dialogue encourages.  Creativity at times truly is all of those opposites at once, at least in my experience, and I don’t think I ever read anything that described that maddening and fascinating idea so well.

Check it out if you want, or listen to the audio book, which is what I did, since she reads it herself and she has a really soothing voice that’s nice to listen to.  It’s also great to drive to, especially in moments when you’re feeling really uninspired, or when there is a ton of traffic and you’re on a really boring highway.  It’s really, really great for all of that.

The New Whitney

Installation of Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Installation of Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

America is Hard to See

Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

I saw this show on a rainy afternoon in September, after talking about it for months and finally making the pilgrimage to New York from Philly just a couple days before the whole thing was taken down.  I’ll admit that I was expecting to like it, after reading positive reviews about the installation and the beautiful new space, and the show did not disappoint.  The space was saturated with work, all of it strong and curated well, but somehow the sum total of all of it did not feel claustrophobic.  Maybe it was the timed tickets, maybe it was the walls of floor to ceiling glass, maybe it was the generous inclusion of outdoor decks and lounge areas that made you feel like you could actually stop for a second and think instead of getting pushed along an invisible conveyor belt to make room for someone else.  There was lots to like, and everyone I was with seemed to feel it.

The show intended to present a survey of American art from the 20th century to the present, working to represent more than just the predictable art historical canon and referencing a Robert Frost poem in its title to account for the shifting landscape of American art, evasive and hard to pin down for longer than a moment.  In this, I believe that the show was successful, though I will admit that prior to seeing it I wasn’t sure just how exciting a survey show could be.  I expected that the title had a story behind it, I expected that the Whitney could find great examples of American art that would relate to it, and I expected that they would be able to articulate the complexity present in American art throughout the decades in a thought-provoking way.  A survey show could embody boring territory pretty fast, and the last thing I wanted was for this particular show to be predictable.

For me personally, America Is Hard to See was all about the moments that I was totally surprised, taken aback, or shown something that I was not expecting; the exciting part was in the Robert Frost reference, in the atypical combinations and the works you hadn’t necessarily seen already.  For me, the show’s strength was in the decision to display a light installation by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in a stairwell, causing me to actually want to be in that stairwell for several minutes rather than in the main galleries.  It was in the decision to include videos with Sonic Youth songs and incredible paintings by female abstractionists and a landscape piece by Cory Arcangel featuring Nintendo clouds, all in the same exhibition.  It could deliver, even to a person who knows a lot about art history or a lot about the typical art historical canon, who might think that a survey show on American art might not have a lot to teach them.  And to a person who isn’t as familiar with American art, this could definitely be an exhibition that would make them want to learn more.

Sometimes, I think it’s easier to write about an exhibition that you weren’t crazy about: when you really like something, it can be hard to find the words.  My pilgrimage to the new Whitney ended by sitting in neon chairs; first in those Mary Heilmann chairs, which are somehow still cheery even when it’s raining, and then in the bright yellow chairs in front of the entrance, where I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with friends and watched the storm clouds.  When all was said and done, I really was very impressed.  Here’s hoping I feel that way again about a museum show very, very soon.   

Beginning

Here it is, a space for reflections on art and adventures and basically everything I care most about.  I should have started this months ago, but put it off endlessly, until finally the moment arrived where it seemed like a good place to start.  I decided to start writing again for a lot of reasons, mostly because my writing practice basically died after graduate school and I really started to miss it, but also because since leaving the comfy bubble of an MFA program I’ve been thinking a lot about community.  How they are made, what they consist of, and where they exist, both in real time and in digital in-between space. 

There are countless articles that suggest that a lack of community is one of the major reasons most artists stop making work after they leave school.  It’s something I’ve always thought about but have been thinking about even more now, when it seems like there are thousands of things that can get in the way of making work as you grow and how the older you get, it almost starts to seem amazing that anyone keeps making work at all.  I’m certainly not the first person to write about such a phenomenon, but it’s definitely something to consider and to hopefully feel comfortable enough to discuss.

I suppose that an attempt at creating community, reflection, and discussion is one function that I hope this jumbled collection of writing ends up having, even if it’s in the smallest possible way.  Maybe I haven’t found a community yet to follow the one I found in school, but if writing and sharing and being open and honest in any way creates a community I imagine it’s worth it, even if it’s totally miniature or exists only for a single moment.

So here’s to checking in every now and again, when I see a crazy good show or get excited about some idea or other, finding the sentences in the moments between job shifts or loads of laundry, notes scribbled on the backs of to do lists while on lunch breaks, making space and time for art, and searching for the words and images to match.  And then sharing them, because that’s probably the most important part - even though I find, often, that it’s not always the easiest.  

Excited to see what happens.