Although the summer does not seem to end, the mornings have a barest scent of fallen leaves. The angle of light at mid-afternoon has changed. The responsibilities of work and school and life have returned. This last gasp of summer is its most painfully sweet moment. It concentrates long, drawn out summer months into shortening days; it overwhelms us with sweetness while acknowledging its own limits. These limits, these glimpses ahead at fall are reminders that the trees and houses that have stood hidden, robed in summer splendor persist underneath the green.
Last week, the Hunter Museum of American Art hosted Art Alive!, a night of conversation and performance inspired by Helen Frankenthaler’s Around the Clock with Red. The large painting was the backdrop for the evenings activities. Assistant Curator of Education Rachel White led conversation about the painting, placing the work and Frankenthaler into a larger historical context and the context of the museum and the other paintings in the gallery. Kayla Mae Anderson’s performance with four dancers and the conversation that followed extended the time spent with the painting and invited wide ranging interpretations from audience members.
I left the museum, filled with the discussion, the movement, thoughts of what type of attention I paid. The evening stayed with me as I moved through the week, eating lunch, looking again at Frankenthaler’s other paintings, checking the mail, and it followed me through the gallery walk last weekend, accompanying me through crowded receptions of small talk and open studios.
I visited Around the Clock with Red again a few days later, still holding the evening, the performance, the conversation, and, as I looked at the painting again, I realized that more than the evening, I had been living with the painting. It had not changed. Its paint was as static as ever. The textured reds still anchored my eyes while sending them towards the edges of the canvas. The large apricot swath across its middle was as raw and exposed as before, still making me feel as if the top of my head were taken off. The multitude of gestural languages Frankenthaler speaks were as compelling as the first time I saw them. The painting persists through the other layers built up around it. I saw the same painting with the same eyes, but the permanence of the painting, its lasting objectness stripped away the layers I had built around it.
The historic, economic, cultural, and other frameworks Around the Clock with Red and any painting have accrued over time are inescapable. We cannot separate it from the art market with its presence in a survey museum and the reminder of who the donors were. We cannot view it outside the structures of power and cultural domination inherent in a museum and the white male dominated art world that Frankenthaler knew and we still know. We cannot lift it from endless cultural consumption which thins our attention every direction we look.
Saying the painting still lives within those layers is obvious and facile, but, within that statement’s simplicity, we should not forget the power of an object to leave us breathless, to move us beyond words, to help us carry and share the weight of those frameworks. There is work to be done to identify and name the structures that support and enable our cultural and civic institutions and our personal lives. We must acknowledge that we continue to exist within a series of large and small, more and less noticeable frames. We are not erasing those frames by recognizing and celebrating the objects they contain. We revel in our bodies precisely because we carry our skeletons around with us wherever we go.
Entering whitespace gallery from the hazy, sweltering Atlanta noon, escaping the cascades of kudzu and endless advertisements of the coming millennials, I walked through a wall of cold air into the artist talks for Soft Eyes, a group exhibition curated by Pete Schulte. I was shocked into re-seeing by the spareness and order of the exhibition. The show, a translation of an online exhibition, realizes an austerity and distancing of the internet. The works resist easy entry, forefronting carefully crafted surfaces. Each artist works with a unique language that feels distantly related to others spoken around the gallery.
There are limitations to the digital world and distinct advantages to pulling these physical works together. Cracks and fissures form in the reserved surfaces, drawing in the viewer. The resonances arising from the juxtaposition of Julia Fish’s pieces slow the crossing of the threshold they span. The vibrancy of Andy Moon Wilson’s colors and dense patterns call from across the room. The friction Katy Fischer describes between the arrangement of her small paintings and objects and their highly-studied and finely crafted surfaces compels close viewing.
Soft Eyes rewards slowing down at these entrance points to extend our vision beyond the individual artworks. Each of the works in the show ultimately unveils a depth of care and time that results in their quiet, reserved surfaces. The time spent laboring over the work is evident in Leah Raintree’s finely detailed, topographic map-like drawings. Time invested generating an artistic practice blossoms in Amy Pleasant’s reinvestigations into moments of creation and life buried within her studio. Each of the artists has honed a language uniquely their own, singular in its application yet resonant with the other languages that fill the gallery. All of the works are deeply considered, and, as with the best translations, Schulte has allowed each work the space and time to breathe lives from the others that would otherwise remain unspoken.
In closing the artist talk, Hamlet Dobbins talked of art being a river of time — teacher to student, artwork to artwork — each arising from and forming the river. This analogy, reflected in the multi-generational, multi-relational show, is comforting, as summer heat continues with no end in sight. I need reminders of time’s continuing presence and slow passage — tardier sunrises, grey hairs that suddenly appear, the rise and fall of a dog’s breath as we sleep and wake to slow accretions of a life built together.
I continue to live with Soft Eyes, exploring the depths and truths contained within its layers, and I have begun to modify the analogy to think of art as an oceanic current, flowing through the dynamic ecosystems of the world, pushing and pulling bits of plastic and phytoplankton into and out of its flow, one part of a water cycle so vast and far reaching into our past and future we no longer know if we are clouds or raindrops or ocean water shaping the course of the world around us.
Soft Eyes is on view at whitespace until September 12.
I have been distracted in exhibitions recently. My eyes are drawn from the work on the walls to the wall color, the arrangement of work, the lighting, the electrical outlets near the floor, the shadows and conversations of other viewers. I start by looking at the work, earnestly engaging with it. I slowly notice my gaze drifting to the frame around the painting, print, photograph, and, once I notice the frame, my eyes do not return.
This distraction came to a head at a painting show, full of people gathered to see the handful of big-name painters, neglecting the rooms full of excellent but lesser known works. I wandered the rooms almost alone enjoying the large and small canvases, the studies and prints, and, as I turned into the crowded rooms, the frames around the paintings shifted register from relatively simple, muted wood frames to filigreed, gold-leafed extensions of the paintings that domineered more than simply framed them.
Frames protect, augment, enhance, overshadow, and fundamentally alter artwork. The extra-artwork environment is a series of frames, more and less explicit — traveling to the exhibition, entering the gallery, negotiating the others in the room, moving along a particular path from one work to the next. Entering each frame primes our mind and our bodies for the experience we are about to have. Some frames are explicit (the frame, the matte, the wall color); some frames we control (how much coffee we have had, whether we brought a sweater to guard against the air conditioning); others are too hidden to register as present, minimized by the more visible, convenient frames we have learned to see. We cannot and do not need to control all of the frames we enter, nor should we necessarily be concerned at the fact that they are too numerous and subtle for us to understand.
The problem with frames is that the obvious frames, the gold-leafed, filigreed painting border and the white cubes that contain them, can lull us into believing that we are fully aware of the multiple frames that surround us, that we are objectively observing and seeing a truth beyond all frames. Observing the painting border does not mean that we recognize the institutional framework that guides the artists shown and the artists never selected. Noticing that lively street corners and good restaurants make for places we want to spend time does not mean we know the history of urban planning, revitalization, and gentrification. Acknowledging the explicit racism of individuals does not mean we understand or can dismantle the structures of white supremacy that surround us that are designed to operate without conscious and explicit approval.
In a brand new book, I found the first page of the third chapter dogeared, placed back in position but creased, the surrounding pages mirroring its folded imprint. This book is, of course, not brand new; it did not arrive in my hands straight from the press, the bindery, the guillotine. I imagine the lives it has known, the many people in whose hands those pages have breathed to life, the minds who call it into being — the packer, lounging on a smoke break with the book half-hidden from supervisors, the bookstore clerk, sneaking it below the register. Everyone finding solace and freedom, a way out of their mutable existence into the ever-constant life of the book. This human touch, this reminder that I am not alone in this vast world, helps me step back from the books’ frames, to connect through time and space, to reach out through the interconnected, interwoven frames that buffer us, isolate us from others navigating their own frames, to touch another life, not through exceptional effort or awareness of those frames, but rather through the very act of accruing our lives one moment at a time.
Recognizing the frame, acknowledging its presence as an integral context and portion of artworks and our lives is simply the beginning. Art does not live outside of context, outside of our experience(s) of observing, absorbing, consuming, and participating in it. We must use the moment of observing the frame as a way to move through and past it, placing it within the larger context of the world through which we move every day.
This morning, I lay under a scanner at the doctor’s office, a robot arm buzzing and whirring above me, a technician explaining the mathematical models they use to interpret the results. I stared at the mass produced, calm-inducing pastel print hung before me in the dimly lit room, and all I could see were the frames surrounding it — the white matte and thin silver frame, the bibles and golf magazines on the waiting room tables, this long and short life we have, its present moments ever-elusive, ever-escaping our notice as we peer into the all too clear past and the darkening future. The frames surround us; we are never outside of them, yet we are not held prisoner.
I recently visited The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Their permanent collection is well worth the visit, but I was lucky enough to see a pair of exhibitions: Man Ray — Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models.
The centerpieces of Human Equations, Ray’s series of paintings Shakespearean Equations, are simple compositions, but they resist attempts to enter them. The paintings’ titles push back, resurrecting Shakespeare’s ghost in the titles of his plays without grounding us in the plays. They toy with the question of the authorship of the plays, linking to Modernist tomes that slowly reveal layered meanings in the lengthy end notes, but the doors they seem to reveal remain locked. This feeling is compounded by the incomprehensibility of the objects depicted in the paintings — undulating, vaguely organic — a referentless surrealism. These veils over the paintings fall away, however, in the context of the objects and photographs throughout the exhibition.
The mysterious objects in the paintings are three-dimensional renderings of mathematical equations – Real Part of the Function w=e ; Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Elliptic Function; Algebraic Surface of Degree 4.The objects were first photographed by Ray at the Institut Henri Poincaré years before he made the paintings. The objects and photographs of those objects bring the exhibition to life. I could not take my eyes from the vitrines filled with the models, absorbed in the physicality and human touch of these immaterial mathematical concepts made tangible. The models demonstrate that the paintings are the culmination of a long process of many individuals engaging with these mathematical concepts over years, places, and materials. The transformation from concept to object to photograph to painting exemplifies a deep engagement with the many manifestations of mathematics — the idea, the manifestation, the lived experience. The multiple individuals considering, crafting, photographing, and painting these objects layer a human experience onto these distant, complex concepts. Ray’s paintings are one iteration, one exploration of what it means to live with these ideas.
Sugimoto’s spare exhibition is stunning in its starkness and simple beauty. He presents photographs of models similar to those in Ray’s paintings and machined aluminum sculptures of computer-modeled mathematical concepts. His prints magnify the human touch and imperfections of the handmade models. The sculptures are perfect beyond human observation. If Ray’s paintings exemplify a layering of meaning iteratively accrued over time, Sugimoto’s sculptures embrace a further step beyond the human into a technological age in which humans can produce objects that surpass our understandings of perfection. However alien they may seem, Ray’s paintings are decidedly human; they attempt to make sense of the worlds we cannot see. Sugimoto simultaneously memorializes the human and enshrines an ideal which we will never be able to perceive.
In contrast to the cerebral, contemplative temporary exhibitions, Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone — where are you going?), permanently installed in The Phillips Collection, surrounds and envelopes you. The small room is enclosed by walls and ceiling completely covered in beeswax, illuminated by a single bare bulb. The scent is overpowering, as you approach and enter the small room. It saturates your nose, immediately reminding you how little your nose is purposefully stimulated in this context.
The smell says that we enter the realm of bees, but we have again entered the realm of humans. The visual texture of the walls does not resemble bee hives or at least what we think of as the perfection of bees’ work — stacked hexagons and danced communications. The room does not evoke the ideals of community and industry of Langstroth hives that dot the sides of farm roads or the skeps on Utah’s highway signs. The mottled, fleshy walls are imperfect, fragile, human. The clinging weight and scent of the walls is palpable, grounding us in the human experience of flightlessness, as it reminds us of the manifold power of its winged pollinator originators. We do not enter the world of bees, as we enter Wax Room. It does not help us understand them and everything they do for us. It lays bare the folly and destruction of mankind as we continue to believe we can control and manage the abilities of billions of lives without consequence.
Laib reminds me that it is hot and humid in our world; he grounds me in the messy, complicated days I wake up to and fall asleep in. My lived reality cannot exist solely within the frigid, perfect world of mathematics and its representations. I need tools and experience and compassion that can move beyond perfection to encompass my human failings. I leave those rarefied worlds behind, but they pollinate my mind. I await its fruit.
I am sitting outside on a porch. Although, I know there is much more to come, it already feels like the height of summer – hot, humid, rumbles of distant thunder, tomatoes and cucumbers ready to be harvested. I have a lot to learn about my new home. If I had moved here 250 years ago, it would have taken weeks to hear about the Stamp Act, and it would have been even longer before I learned about the opening of the Uffizi. We are fortunate to live in a time when it is easy to connect with people and activities around the world. We virtually see exhibitions across the country; we draw connections between seemingly isolated acts of police violence; we link weather extremes, changing temperatures, and global water crises into a new epoch; I follow art sales and art fairs in New York and London and Shanghai.
I have been tantalized, enthralled, and engaged by the seemingly endless streams of photos from NADA, Frieze, and other fairs – the paintings that are not paintings, the snack-cum-knapsack, the crowds and crowds rubbing shoulders, drinking, filling the fairs with that mutable substance that enlivens them long after the lights are off and booths packed. We remember the laughter, handshakes, the attempts to meet and be met long after the objects on the walls have transformed into new objects. That conversation about the relevancy of painting will return next year with new paintings; that objet du jour will be replaced with something else of the moment, but the people and the relationships built and maintained are what last, build, and enliven these events. This moving, living, breathing series of moments is not and cannot be transmitted in tweets, favorited photos, or lenghty write-ups. I keep up with the news, but I miss the substance. I see what has happened, but I cannot experience it happening. For all of the speed with which I receive the information, I am not present.
To reconnect with that presence, with the lived experience of making and co-living, I recently went to the Chattanooga Zine Fest. I met vendors and zine makers from across the country. I touched and read the painstakingly written, photographed, photocopied, printed, folded books, pamphlets, zines, and stickers. Each object held a story in its creases and staples, in its hand drawn cover and intimate looks into experiences of depression, motherhood, anarchism, or robots. These connections, conversations, and shared experiences enliven the objects in my hands. They unfold the complexity, longevity, and deeper understanding that I cannot experience online. They magnify those digital experiences, transforming words and images into the artists, gallerists, collectors, reporters, revelers, and visitors I know live behind them.
I am more connected to the global contemporary art world than ever. I have the luxury and privilege to have that multitude of information at my fingertips. I can be in multiple places around the world in seconds, yet I wake up in one bed among the mountains. I live in a world where someone can easily buy a painting for more money than I know how to imagine, yet I see the daily lives of people trying to move from one to the next. I see highlights of art fairs, exhibitions, and performances from across the country, yet I live with creators, makers, and doers who intellectually, creatively, and financially sustain themselves here. Holding those contradictions while moving through, with, and beyond them towards the future that is continually made real by us is the great challenge before us. The mosquitoes are biting, leaving red welts along my mistakenly bare ankles. The condensation from my glass is dripping onto the ground that has been continuously inhabited by humans for 12,000 years. I have a lot to learn about my still new home; I have a lot to learn about this life we all lead.