I have many favorite stories â€” some of which were never written down, but for instance, end up being repeated by close friends to other close friends, as though in repeating and remembering those stories we become closer for our shared history. One of those stories, which happens to have been printed, is Homer’s old epic poem,Â The Odyssey. That book centers on Odysseus; his adventures are vibrant and colorful and occupy the most prominent space of the book. Over the years I have grown more intrigued by Penelope’s position and life â€” that segment that remains on the periphery. What we know is that she stayed at home, her house grew full of suitors who waited for her to give up on her husband’s return. We can suspect they ate and drank and reveled the hours away. We know she led them on while always keeping them at bay, unrequited but ever hopeful. She Penelope promised to choose one of them whenever she finished her tapestry. And, of course, we also know she wove and unwove the same piece of fabric for many years. When first told the story it seemed like she did this to protect herself, to assuage their pressures. Now think she made that game for herself. Because she was undecided, unwilling to either rebuke or encourage the men in home. We might imagine that she kept these suitors to flirt with and cajole and take comfort in. But never to commit to. The act of weaving is connected to time (think of the weaving fates, for instance) and Penelope kept herself in suspension. Undecided, fickle, old and young at once. When I saw Judith Brotman’s show at The Bike Room, time felt similarly suspended. These works seemed caught between mid-breath, a moment brought into focus with stitches and cracked plaster putty, as bones and limbs and celluloid surfaces.
Caroline Picard:Â I feel like there is a real engagement with the physical body, in your work. How has your sense of the body changed over time, as a system to engage via sculpture?
Judith Brotman:Â A few years back, I made a number of deliberate attempts to try to eliminate or minimize references to the body in my work, thinking it would prove to be an interesting experiment. The most interesting result was that my efforts proved to be futile. In fact, the harder I tried to remove these bodily references, the more they seemed to appear. In a way, this has been liberating, as it suggests that I have the freedom/luxury to â€œlook away,â€ and manifestations of the body will still be present; they seem to be key/core concerns of mine. Working with the body as a referent has indeed involved shifts/changes over time. The older I get, the greater my awareness of the bodyâ€™s fragility. Paradoxically, itâ€™s also the case that the body is absurdly resilient and bounces back repeatedly from all manner of things…until it doesnâ€™t. I find it really interesting that the fragility & the resilience are both true, and that there is such a delicate balance. There are all kinds of things we can do and choices we can make to try to tip the balance in favor of strength and longevity, but there are other factors, including luck and random events, that impact what happens. My sculpture pieces and their precarious-but-still-standing aesthetic tend to reflect and respond to this paradox. I donâ€™t, by the way, recommend leaving everything in life to chance & luck. Actually, quite the opposite.
I was also a bit of a latecomer to making art, having originally planned (approximately since birth) to be a doctor. My father was a doctor, and this was back in the day when patients would actually call our house for appointments and graphically describe all their ailments, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the person answering the phone was 10 years old. I worked in my fatherâ€™s office for years.Â Sometimes patients left his office, claiming to already feel much better, which implied that there was something in addition to medicine/treatment that impacted perceptions of wellbeing. An awareness of illness, health, & the body are part of my earliest memories. I was actually a pre-med student for 2 years before realizing that I had virtually no interest in becoming a doctor and left school for a time. An improbable series of events happily led me to the School of the Art Institute where I enrolled in Anne Wilsonâ€™s Intro Weaving class; it was life changing. I spent much of my undergrad years working in the Fiber Department â€” I had an interest in work that was process-oriented and in ritual garments and textiles. I also spent years, going to the Field Museum and making drawings of tools and objects that were useful/useable and relate to a lived life/the body. Those drawings seem quite related to the work in my current Bike Room show, although the function of my objects is never clear.
I now look back & refer to my first few years of art making as the honeymoon years, although I wasnâ€™t necessarily calling it that back then. Keeping in mind that I had never so much as held a pencil, everything was brand new and filled with unlimited potential. Perhaps it still is, but as the years pass, this seems increasingly difficult to remember/know/see. It almost takes a bit of work to hold this thought, although, I confess that I still retain an unabashed pleasure in studio time. The paradox here is that although Iâ€™m long past the honeymoon years, I do have more clarity about what I care about in my work. And there also comes a point in working with a material when you begin to know what it does/what it does not do. Thereâ€™s a big pay off after the extended getting-to-know-you process especially in conjunction with years of thinking about the same/similar forms. The work starts to feel more fluid/less forced. Iâ€™m less concerned about the work resembling anything in particular.Â Sadly this magic moment is almost certain to be fleeting!
CP:Â On the heels of that question, I want to ask about the ethereal quality of your work:Â it’s whiteness â€” almost as though (aside from the sewing wire interventions) it has been blanched â€” it’s fragility, it’s almost precarious balance; much of the work looks like it might fall apart given a strong enough breeze. Somehow you’ve managed to conjure corporality and dreamlike-ness at once. Is your work defiant, somehow? Suspended? Magic? Do you think about the body and the non-body at once?
JB:Â Not only does my work look like a strong breeze might blow it away, but it is often the case that I will leave the studio & return the next day, and everything has collapsed!Â The work tends to look best right on the edge of â€œanything could happen when you turn your back.â€Â When I set up work in a show, I have to force myself NOT to over-stabilize the work &/or pin it in too many places.Â I am, on the one hand, wanting the work to stay hung throughout the duration of an exhibition, but also keep it on the edge of toppling over.
CP:Â How do you think about sculpture â€” Â a field that historically gives humans a chance to leave large iron footprints in a landscape â€”
JB:Â My very short answer to your question is:Â I am far more inspired by the work of Eva Hesse then by the work of Richard Serra.
And then thereâ€™s my longer answer. I think itâ€™s a fairly common human response to want to leave a footprint…art or otherwise. Weâ€™re only around for a comparatively short time, and we never really know how our own story will end. We also want to be remembered. I do think that contributes the desire to leave something that will outlast us. That is a very reductive & simplistic view, and I do not think itâ€™s the sole reason artists want to make work. Neither do I think itâ€™s the sole reason people have children. But I do think it can contribute to the desire for either or both. Iâ€™m a bit pragmatic about this: Iâ€™m not going to live forever and thereâ€™s no way around that. I donâ€™t have children & my work is very impermanent. (Please note: 1) I make vast distinctions between artists and parents.Â 2) I frequently admire the contributions/dedication of both.)
Iâ€™m visiting New York City now & have spent a disproportional amount of time at The Met, looking at Greek & Roman sculpture: figurative, monumental, stunning. Personally, Iâ€™m glad they didnâ€™t fabricate those works out of paper or something fragile, or I wouldnâ€™t be seeing them now. But despite the fact that they have endured for centuries quite a few are pretty messed up in a variety of ways. Many of them are broken and held together with steel rods & other modern day fabrications. Some of the heads & other body parts are missing. We no longer know who many/most of these people are â€” let alone the identity of the artists who made these pieces. They havenâ€™t completely succeeded in eternal life. Furthermore, most of these sculptures were stolen from their countries of origin. But they are gorgeous. I could stay in those galleries for days.
Immediately before working with paper, I fabricated my sculpture pieces out of industrial felt â€” not marble or steel, but stronger (& itchier) than my current work. The work was fairly dark in both tone (referenced armor, bondage toys, prosthetics, and animal traps) and color. I switched to mainly white paper after that (I was already integrating touches of it in my industrial felt pieces) for several reasons. For one, the tone of my work usually is somewhere on a continuum of dark/quirky/curious and I was interested in using an opposite kind of material, primarily to focus on the details. Everything resides in the details: the crumple, the sheen, the decorative flourishes, the distress, the bit of map information (I use atlas pages in some of the work). This is something of the reward or payoff you get from careful looking. I am aware that my work can be taken in at a glance â€” a lot of white, a lot of paper, some odd/eccentric stitches. I like that there is extra visual information available if you stop to look. I suppose there is a defiance about that, particularly as people typically spend about 11 seconds (on a good day) looking at art work. And I suppose there is a defiance â€” quiet defiance? â€” in making such ephemeral work. I recently threw out a huge installation of paper pieces. I had shown it once as entire immersive environment and selected a few individual pieces to exhibit a few other times. I started re-hanging the pieces in my studio this summer, and they looked like hell. They had lost their â€œbodyâ€ through the hanging/re-hanging/packing process; they were limp in an uninteresting way.Â I would leave the studio and hope I was mistaken, willing them to look better the next day. But, of course, they never did. When I finally threw the whole collection out, it felt really good & very right. Somehow the new work began to come with greater ease. The bottom line for me in terms of materials Iâ€™m currently using: white paper, wire, thread, modeling compound, packing tape â€” is that they seem to be the right choices for the implications and contradictions of my current work.
CP:Â Could you talk about your interest in alchemy and how that has influenced your practice? Does the quest for gold somehow translate into a quest for aesthetic fulfillment?
JB:Â An extremely brief intro to alchemy for anyone who doesnâ€™t know the history: Â The alchemists were the precursors to our modern day chemists. Their intention was to transform ordinary metals â€” through a series of processes like heating, cooling, and distilling â€” into gold. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful. They did, instead, frequently start fires, cause explosions, and some of them lost their lives. I would argue they were as interested in their on-going experimentation as in actually realizing their goal. Theirs was a lifelong pursuit and like all lifetime pursuits, the actual achievement of the goal can be overrated, or at least, anticlimactic. There are a number of things I really respond to about the alchemists. First and foremost is the concept of transformation which was central to their experiments and to my work. Material transformations have been a part of my work since my weaving days. And a central theme of my work is the pivotal moment when something could, but might not, happen.
I do also really love alchemical images; they are strange and wonderful. They include a weird symbolic language in which the union of opposites (in the form of sex between â€œthe king and queenâ€) results in the desired transformation. Everything is somewhat cryptic and coded; theirs was a secret language, philosophy, and society. Â I am intrigued and a bit inspired by their love and devotion to process. And although they didnâ€™t ever create gold, or anything close modern day science owes them a debt of gratitude. Donâ€™t get me wrong, I love a good finished product! Iâ€™m not sure I could be as committed to my art practice if each and every thing I made was exactly the same failure as the last time. But I love the fact that Iâ€™m never done or finished…that each body of work unfolds one to the next. Iâ€™m also rather grateful that my art practice is a way of learning and understanding the world around me. Itâ€™s a kind of â€œonion skinâ€ of delving deeper that fascinates me about the alchemists and my own art practice. Â I would say the â€œquestâ€ â€” for me â€” is for successive bodies of work to dig a bit further into core concerns. And to not (literally) blow anything/anybody up in the process.
CP:Â Can inanimate objects possess drama? Is that something you are interested in? How does it manifest?
JB:Â I do believe inanimate objects can suggest a kind of drama â€” sometimes more literally and other times a bit more metaphorically. Long before I started working with paper, I would give my students an assignment in which they take a huge stack of copy paper, an especially innocuous material, and separately transform each and every sheet. Drawing on the paper is not allowed. The paper can be ripped, torn, cut, or shaped, and only the use of scotch tape, white out or white thread is permitted. Â This assignment, which I call â€œThe Something From Nothing Project,â€ is not necessarily my most popular one. But there are always a few students who clearly respond to it and find it expands their notions of making art. Many students lose patience/interest before they even get started â€” what is there to do with a sheet of crappy paper? But the ones who persist and are curious find that a fold or a cut can convey meaning or that a heavily twisted sheet of paper can carry the â€œmemoryâ€ of the hands that created the impression on the paper â€” I find this a kind of embedded action or subtle drama.
In my past installations, (not so much in my current exhibition at the Bike Room), sculpture pieces were interconnected and/or set up in conversation with each other; often they faced off in dramatic or tense moments.Â I am particularly inspired by love stories ranging from Othello to the soap opera, All My Children. (the latter is now cancelled, & this has nearly broken my heart) Â I am really interested in short stories as a genre as they tend to hinge on a climatic ending. I considered the sculpture forms in my immersive environments to be characters in somewhat theatrical situations â€” sneaking up upon, ignoring or confronting each other. Delineations between inside and outside were fluid, and the viewer, too, could unexpectedly become part of the drama.
In the past few years, the drama of each installation does not reside solely within any given object or even in the relationship between objects. It is additionally a function of how the objects respond to the architecture of the space. The activation of the sculpture pieces â€” the tone of the exhibition â€” is increasingly determined by the space. The Bike Room has been a particular pleasure to respond to â€” the space is quirky and raw and has a variety of nooks and crannies. There are a couple of hidden sculpture pieces that you might or might not notice; how they were hidden was totally a function of the oddness of the space.
CP:Â What is your experience of distance (metaphorical or narrative or geographical) and time?Â
JB:Â The passage of time, the distance between moments and/or decades, is more relevant to my work than actual geographical distance. On Kawara is a huge inspiration to me although there is seemingly no connection between his work and mine â€” certainly not a visual one. I am incredibly moved by his date paintings and the dedication of counting all the days of his life. I am also awed by the objectivity of his documentation, as I possess little to none of this quality. The counting of days, the passage of time, how the past typically informs the present except when it doesnâ€™t â€” these are of great interest to me. Iâ€™ve talked about my interest in pivotal moments and potential moments of transformation, but Iâ€™m intrigued by the fact that we donâ€™t necessarily recognize them at the moment we experience them.Â Â There are certain marker events in our lives â€” the days we look toward as the big moments:Â graduation or wedding or major exhibition, just to name just a few. But itâ€™s likely that we donâ€™t recognize the most critical moments of our lives when we first stumble upon them; theyâ€™re often quiet and not announced with bells and whistles. Â The work in my current show is more of a reflection or response to the ordinary extraordinary. The title of the exhibition, â€œI Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed,â€ is excerpted from a longer prose piece I wrote, a rumination on what happens during a typical (or at least MY typical) day or week, and so on. The works in the show are stitched drawings (some on mylar, others on packing tape) and mixed media constructions (paper, thread, wire, modeling compound). Most of the objects do not look new and many look as if they have just been casually hung in the space, without too much thought. Things look a bit haphazard at firstâ€”two drawings, one object, etc., but if you spend a bit of time, hopefully you see that there’s an echo from one object to the next. Most of us have the notion that we keep changing throughout our lives; hopefully thatâ€™s true.Â But itâ€™s a bit like reading your old diary or looking at your old art work. In some respect, you might feel like you no longer know the person you once were. On the other hand, there are these eye-opening moments where you realize that what you were thinking about years and years ago seems identical to what you were thinking about just yesterday. I find these moments quite stunning, and in a way, oddly comforting, too.
If youâ€™ve been reading my â€œCultural Divideâ€ contributions over the past several months, youâ€™ve gathered that I go to great lengths to try to deliver evenhanded criticism. So much so that a few have accused me of being an apologist for everything from hunting to performance art. My on-the-one-hand-on-the-otherness isnâ€™t a righteous stance of journalistic integrity but rather a reflection of a sincere belief that the terms of cultural difference in America stem from very basic misunderstandings about the structural composition of various cultures, which if inventoried, might bridge the widening divide.
An example: Many of my culturally agnostic New York friends adamantly oppose organized religion, yet they remain open to the most phantasmatic, shamanistic, quasi-religious conceptualism in the high cultural milieu. A Lutheran service severely disturbs their enlightened senses of rational propriety, but theyâ€™re more than happy to attempt the leap of faith needed to appreciate Richard Tuttle, Robert Wilson or Trisha Brown. Likewise, most of the parishioners at a Lutheran church in Wisconsin gladly throw their worldly faith behind a 2000 year-old fairy tale about a prophet conceived without intercourse, yet they walk into a contemporary art museum and feel a Duchampian readymade or a Specific Object by Donald Judd is part of a conspiracy dreamed up by cabals of elitist charlatans from Vassar trying to control their minds.
The two scenarios sound pretty similar to me.
The Lutheran church isnâ€™t as religious as many would have it.
The High Art world isnâ€™t as secular as many would have it.
Religion is culture. Culture is religion.
But none of that is my point. My point is that even though most of a particular cultureâ€™s eccentricities or attitudes can be written off to relativity, some canâ€™t.
My wife told me last week that I came down a little hard on the tapas bar in northern Wisconsin that served jalapeno poppers and truffled popcorn. She said it was a little snotty of me and that in the process I tipped my hand a little. Sometimes a guy has to pass some judgment.
On the flip side, for the past week New York Public Radio has been running a series of commercials whose appalling arrogance makes me embarrassed to have participated in their pledge drive. Itâ€™s the kind of navel-gazing, self-satisfied righteousness that turns people off to New Yorkers and their near monopoly on advanced culture. New Yorkers have taken the blind patronage by the rest of America for granted. Sold out Broadway theaters and stuffed contemporary art centers arenâ€™t a right, though. If New York dismisses everyone whose dinner conversations arenâ€™t about Philip Glass, people may stop making the trip. Instead of traveling to New York for its wealth of culture, theyâ€™ll stay home and invent their own, spreading praise amongst themselves. Ever wonder why NASCAR is the most popular sport in America?
As a cultural producer Iâ€™m not ready to completely alienate the 20 percent of the country who hasnâ€™t defected to NASCAR and Captain America. We, at least I, need the 60 million Americans who might rather go to a Dodgers game, but still begrudgingly visit LACMA like a good boy eating his Brussels sprouts.
So here it goes: 15-yard penalty on New York Public Radio for Unnecessary Smugness.
(The spots are read by Stanley Tucci)
“There are people who need you to explain things to them. They don’t understand about things like food co-ops and sleep deprivation in children.”
â€œThere are people who count on you to be witty, at least smart. They donâ€™t know what to think about Goldman Sachs or fracking in the Catskills. They expect you to tell them. And if you let them down, who knows what will happen to the worldâ€¦or at least New York, which for some people is the world. You owe it to them to listen to WNYC all the time, so please donâ€™t do a half-assed job, thatâ€™s not like you. WNYC. Never turn it off.â€
This Week: An interview and guided tour with photographer and teacher Dawoud Bey.
Dawoud Bey: Harlem, USA
Wednesday, May 2, 2012â€“Sunday, September 9, 2012
In 1979 African American photographer Dawoud Bey (born 1953) held his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, showing a suite of 25 photographs titled Harlem, U.S.A. Bey had been in residence at that museum for one year, and he had made the surrounding neighborhood a subject of study since 1975. Though raised in Queens, Bey and his family had roots in Harlem, and it was a youthful visit to the exhibition Harlem on My Mindat the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, that had given Bey his determination to become an artist.
Harlem, U.S.A., which has never been shown complete since the Studio Museum exhibition, appears fresh today partly in its manifest difference from much of Beyâ€™s later work. The prints are not large, not in color, and do not come in multiple parts; the subjects are not all adolescents, and they do not â€œsitâ€ for the artist but were found by him on the street. And yet all these photographs are sensitively composed and radiate an emphasis on the calm and dignity that would become hallmarks of Beyâ€™s approach. Like August Sander, Bey wanted to show the â€œtypesâ€ of Harlemâ€™s residents: the barber, the patrician, the church ladies, the hip youth. He was searching for a way to combine the specificity of photography, which only knows how to record details, with the diversity of Harlem, a neighborhood as varied as any in the country. And he wanted to do this without courting stereotypes.
Thanks to the efforts of more than 20 patrons, led by Leadership Advisory Committee members Anita Blanchard and Les Coney, the complete vintage set of Harlem, U.S.A. has been acquired by the Art Institute. A further five photographs from that time, never before printed or exhibited, will be donated by Bey to the museum this fall. Complementing this exhibition are a selection of permanent collection works in Gallery 10 curated by Bey as well as a career survey of Beyâ€™s work presented at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago from May 13 through June 24.
Dawoud Bey is a professor of art and was named Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998. Bey studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and holds an MFA in photography from Yale University. His work has been the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Walker Art Center (1995) and a four-year traveling exhibition, called Class Pictures, mounted by Aperture and first shown in 2007 at the Addison Gallery of American Art.
A catalogue accompanies the exhibition with images of the entire photographic series and essays by Matthew S. Witkovsky, Richard and Ellen Sandor Chair and Curator, Department of Photography, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of the monograph Harlem Is Nowhere.
Work by Dan Mills.
Chicago Cultural Center is located at 78 E. Washington St. Reception Friday, 5:30-7:30pm.
Work by Ethan Rose.
Experimental Sound Studio is located at 5925 N. Ravenswood Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Tania Shcheglova and Roman Noven.
Public Works Gallery is located at 1539 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Curated by Michael Rea, with work by Chris Naka, Matthew Hebert, Kate Ruggeri, Kassie Teng, Zach Meyer, Ethan Gill, and John Phillip Abbott.
Ebersmoore is located at 350 North Ogden Ave, Suite 100. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by John Vogl, Landland, and Casey Burns.
Galerie F is located at 2381 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Bad at Sports is back with another “Fielding Practice” podcast produced especially for the Art21 Blog! We haven’t done Fielding Practice in a couple of months because we’ve been working on a series of projects, most notably Bad at Sports’ summer residency/exhibition at Columbia College’s A+D Gallery (clickÂ hereÂ for details). If you’re in Chicago, come by the A+D GalleryÂ tonightÂ for our CLOSING FESTIVITIES and RECORD RELEASE PARTY! July 19, 5-8pm,Â 619 South Wabash Avenue.
On this month’s podcast, Duncan, Richard and Claudine discuss three exhibitions on view in Chicago this summer:Â Peripheral Views: States of America, at the Museum of Contemporary Photography; Â “Color Jam,” a summer-long, outdoor public installationÂ byÂ Jessica Stockholder; and we also take a look at “Zachary Cahill: USSA 2012, The People’s Palace’s Gift Shop,” an exhibition-cum-intervention in what was once the giftshop at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Click on over to the Art21 Blog to listen to the episode, and, as always, thank you so much for listening!
Doug Rickard. “#82.948842, Detroit, MI.,” 2009. On view in the exhibition “Peripheral Views: States of America” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago.