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.
Ingrid Burrington recently spoke at the 4th Floor, “a public laboratory and educational facility with a focus on information, design, technology, and the applied arts” at the Chattanooga Public Library. She talked in detail about her research into the physical internet and the ways in which we can interact with that physical presence, including Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide. My infrastructure seeking eyes that follow power lines and stormwater overflow and ears that stop at buzzing transformers and traffic signal cabinets have been renewed by Burrington’s investigations and provocations.
Chattanooga has one of the fastest internet speeds in the world. That internet is advertised widely and its impacts on development and gentrification within the city are readily apparent. The infrastructure of that internet is, however, still hidden in plain sight. Burrington reminds us that the powerful forces that mold our lives and are felt in the lived experience of the city are rooted in physical places and pipes and wires. Vast hidden networks, systems, and bodies power and maintain our daily lives. We can begin to see the full richness of the world and understand how to change it by questioning and attempting to see through the built world, by noticing the infrastructure under our feet, over our head, within our walls.
Similarly, we can begin to see the full richness of artworks by questioning and attempting to understand the context of the gallery and the museum that hold them. It is no surprise the wall color, the lights, the temperature, the presence of other bodies affects our experience of artworks. The context of the museum exists in plain sight, if we know how to look for it and if we are vigilant in investigating the traces that cannot be erased.
Gajin Fujita’s solo exhibition opened this month at the Hunter Museum of American Art. It is centered around four large, vibrant paintings that dominate the gallery. His paintings are bright and action-packed, and they reveal increasingly complex layers as they are unwrapped. They blend the figures, faces, themes, and composition of Japanese woodblock prints, contemporary pop cultural references, and graffiti culture. They mirror the digital world of anonymity and multiplicity. Beneath the flat, richly patterned, and layered surface, they reveal serious questions about the boundaries of appropriation and collaboration, formal cultural institutions and street art, traditional craft and the porousness of digital life.
A quote from Fujita on the wall above his painting K2S Crew reads, “Collaboration plays a role in my larger works…I invite friends from my crews to come in and tag the backgrounds. I started doing this because I wanted to mimic how we work on the street …the yard walls became heavily layered with graffiti, and I wanted to recreate a small piece of that within my paintings; the layer over layer over layer look.”
The paintings visually reflect that process, but the paintings themselves are far removed from the context of street art. The white walls of the gallery are sparsely hung; the paintings have labels explaining historic and contemporary references. Visitors are reminded that the gallery contains mature content. The “friends” and “crews” remain as anonymous as they would if they tagged buildings, yet Fujita is the only named and celebrated artist within the exhibition. The context of the Hunter is inextricable from the experience of Fujita’s work there, but I have questions about the work that can only flourish outside of the museum. I want to know more about Fujita’s process, the lived experience of co-creation, and the ways in which the infrastructure and people of LA intertwine with his work beyond the surface.
Fujita’s work, and all art, must live in multiple locations, within white cubes and out among the blooming trees, the pipes that carry sewage under our feet, and the electromagnetic waves that fuel our daily lives as they pass through us. We have hidden the world from ourselves, and we hide artworks within museums and galleries. It is the physical form of the internet that facilitates our simultaneous experience of locations around the world. How will museums and galleries help us experience the artwork they contain with similar simultaneity?
If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?