Over the past several years Spudnik Press has become a staple for Chicago printmakers and printmaking education. The space and scope of the project continues to grow; the latest expansion occurred about 6 months ago when an adjacent space in the Hubbard Street Lofts building became available. Spudnik director Angee Leonard jumped on this as an opportunity to have a more dedicated exhibition space and also to broaden the focus of the Printshop. This new space, called the Annex, is a center for writing, bookmaking, and self publishing. It houses a growing small press library, as well as a xerox machine, guillotine cutter, selectric typewriter (which I am a big fan of), hot foil stamper, long arm staplers, as well as a supply of bone folders, awls, linen thread, and other book binding materials. Programming includes writing, book making, paper making, and self publishing classes, as well as one day workshops, such as the zine making community workshop taught by Bad At Sports’ own Caroline Picard this past week. I have also been lucky enough to be involved in teaching classes and workshops at the Annex since it opened last fall.
As more of a “clean” space than the printshop next door, the Annex also provides an expanded exhibition space for Spudnik. Curatorial duties rotate between Spudnik coordinators. The most recent show, Charlie Megna’s Lost Tribes of Renni, which opened last night, was organized by Luke Daly – a Spudnik member who has been a driving force in developing the Annex. Luke co-edits and runs the small press arrow as aarow. I also co-teach a class with him at the Annex, which will be running for the third time in the fall. Charlie Megna is the director of the Peanut Gallery and a founding member of the Peanut Collective. His show will be up through early August.
Over the week leading up Charlie’s opening, Luke and I exchanged emails about his involvement with the Annex and the new show, which is the first in a series that creates small-press publications to accompany exhibited works.
Bailey Romaine: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved with Spudnik and about your current role there.
Luke Daly: I’ve been involved with Spudnik in one way or another since pretty early on, when it was still running out of Angee’s apartment in Ukranian village. We started doing a reading series there which we then transplanted to the new space when Spudnik moved over to the Hubbard building. Around that time I took a screenprinting class and started printing there. Then last summer I approached Angee with the idea for what would become The Annex, which she and I developed together and worked on translating into reality. Now my title is Book and Writing Projects Coordinator. In this role I work with Angee on classes and programing, I recruit teachers, teach, design classes, and work to include Chicago’s literary community in what we’re doing and vice versa. Very recently a lot of my efforts have been directed towards programming for Printer’s Ball which we’re hosting at the end of July. I also curate our library of small press and artists books and curate three gallery shows per year, which like Charlie’s show will all coincide with the making and publishing of an artist’s book that somehow extends the work being shown in the gallery.
BR: It seems like things really came together in an amazing way with the Annex – it all happened within a really short time frame. There were classes being offered and a show up within a month if I remember correctly. The small press library is really exciting for me. It seems like what you are developing is pretty unique in Chicago, in terms of what is essentially a study collection in a small non-profit space for making.
Can you talk a little bit about this curatorial project you have undertaken – both in terms of the library and the exhibitions? Did you know before seeing Charlie’s work that you wanted to begin publishing books to accompany the gallery shows?
LD: Yeah, the library was an important part of thinking about what the Annex could be from the beginning. Mainly I was interested in having a physical home for small press, mostly very small-run and handmade literary books, since they are such an important part of the history of alternative or experimental writing in the US, and because they are so tactile and really need to be seen and held to be appreciated. Of course Chicago has places where similar things are available, like the Read/Write Library or Quimby’s, but the focus of the collection that I was interested in putting together at the start was slightly different in that it sought to foreground small, specifically literary publishing from around the US.
Since I’ve been putting together the collection, my interests have developed in an organic way, and I’m finding myself interested in the intersection that seems to be going on between comics, zine and literary cultures. It seems like those categories are learning from one another, and people are doing work that very interestingly exist at the intersection of those different conversations. I’m finding myself more and more drawn to work of this nature. And always work that looks beautiful but that is made simply, since in the end we are a space that’s built around making, and it’s great to be able to have this collection here to show students or to consult for ideas when getting started on a project.
As for the Book Arts Series, which is the series of exhibitions that I curate at the Annex, my idea to pair gallery shows with the publication of artists’ books started to come together while I was researching people who I thought would work well to show here. I knew that I was interested in work that was operating at the intersections of language work and visual work, but often the work that I was encountering that extended this as it’s main goal or focus never totally hit home for me, and I started to feel that placing work at a crossroads of visual and literary could very well be a slightly more involved and creative curatorial task than just seeking and finding artists whose work, as is, fit with my own conceptual goals of the Annex.
When I had the idea of doing a show of Charlie’s work, I think that these ideas clicked, and that his work helped me to articulate to myself what I was interested in doing curatorially. Charlie was really excited about creating physical artifacts, tools, symbols, alphabets, and languages for his Renni tribes, and I was really excited about the idea of creating real material things that have been retrieved from an imaginary, non-physical world.
It reminded me of one of my favorite writers Henri Michaux, who wrote factual travel writings of impossible imaginary places, or Borges, who wrote intensely detailed scholarly accounts of imaginary texts, places, histories, people, feuds, conversations, etc. I knew that a book would further the fact of having Charlie’s work existing in multiple planes, and it was exciting for me to locate his work in a place of literary imagination, and have that translation become the intersection that was being investigated or developed. I’m interested in doing books that extend the work that’s being shown somehow, or that translates it across, so that it exists in a different kind of space (physical space to literary/imaginary space perhaps), or in multiple spaces simultaneously. I like the way that the books can live on and grow and complement and play off of one another in a series after the shows are long past.
Guest post by Eric Asboe
As a curatorial department of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), the Minnesota Artist Exhibition Program (MAEP) is “dedicated to exhibiting and supporting artists living and working in the state of Minnesota.” Begun in 1975, the MAEP is a creative partnership with the MIA, “founded by a group of regional artists interested in creating an innovative exhibition and programming space. What began as a year-long agreement has been extended into an ongoing relationship between the Minnesota artist community and the MIA.” An elected artist panel representing the Minnesota arts communities selects artists from open calls who exhibit within the MIA. The MAEP is an integral part of the MIA’s broader efforts to “enrich the community through art,” expanding beyond its galleries, engaging audiences in ways that effectively utilize the assets and strengths of its collection, while continuing to question how that collection can continue to enrich Minnesota artists and visitors in new ways.
The current MAEP exhibitions embody and transform the MIA. In Posture is Everything, Kristina Estell gathers sheets of molded silicone across a series of armatures. The armatures seem to have caught the simultaneously flowing and visibly weighted silicone, interrupting the gravity we suddenly notice more intensely. On closer inspection, the silicone has been carefully layered, applied, and manipulated by hand. The manipulations of the silicone and the human presence they reveal disguise the fact that the area of the silicone sheets is exactly the area of the MAEP gallery floor. Estell subtly lures the visitor into examining the materiality of the museum, inviting visitors to question what they see and the environment in which they stand.
Allen Brewer‘s exhibition Verbatim begins with the MIA collection. MIA visitors were asked to describe any piece they liked in any way they chose. From those descriptions, Brewer created new works, continuing to solicit and create work throughout the exhibition. The conceptual framework leaves Brewer a lot of room, but, in the exhibition brochure, Brewer explains he preferred to work with “objective definitions, like ’round’ or ‘black.’ Words such as ‘beautiful’ are unusable to me.” Brewer playfully uses the objective words of the descriptions to create his works (e.g. the colorfield of “Lucretia” described by Sandra, the rigid shapes of “Linear Still Life” described by Katie Van Zante). The new works are diverse, and they show Brewer’s close attention to the nuances of language and the difficulties of defining aesthetic experiences.
With the MAEP, the MIA asks and lives through difficult questions about the role of artists and arts institutions in the future of the arts. How can contemporary artists work within encyclopedic art museums? Through nearly forty years and over 180 MAEP exhibitions, the MIA has been dedicated to exploring the role it can play in enabling contemporary art, and it continues to be a unique model to other institutions. With free admission year round and a broad appeal through its collection and programming, the MIA exposes its many visitors of all ages and locations to vital contemporary Minnesota artists.
What role can local artists play in a global museum? MAEP exhibitions are far more than an experiment in thinking locally. The exhibitions are dynamic; the artwork is excellent. More importantly, by supporting an artistic peer selection process, the MIA helps build a community of artists, specifically in and with the resources of a major art institution. Alan Brewer’s exhibition pushes the question further. When I met with him in his MAEP exhibition, he stopped to talk to a visitor, an older man who had written a description. They discussed his description and possibilities for recreations. The transformative power of that individual conversation and the way Brewer has empowered all visitors to the MIA to engage in completely new ways with its collection demonstrates to me the MIA is not just asking how local artists can shape a global museum, but, more importantly, how we can all shape the museums of the future.
Last weekend, Northern Spark, the all-night arts festival of the Twin Cities, a project of Northern Lights.mn, happened for the third time, 8:58pm Saturday to 5:26am Sunday. It is impossible to capture a festival with over 75 projects, multiple sites, and tens of thousands of visitors in words that do all of it justice. Those visitors, however, were the key to and strength of the festival as a whole. The visitors were the focus of many of the projects, whether learning (screen printing, letter press, cyanotype), watching performances (music, dance), or engaging on an individual level (soundscapes, sunrise boat cruises). Inside and around the Saint Paul Union Depot, the projects called for more than passing engagement. Hundreds of people joined in Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine, twirling hula-hoops. I saw multiple families camped at astronaut spirit academy, with children asking to return late into the night. The air in the Union Depot Carriage Way, under the main plaza, was thick with spray paint from hundreds of taggers participating in Underpass of the Eyes of Freedom. Piotr Szyhalski’s sprawling, riveting performance, Permanent Labor, invited visitors to celebrate “the round of production and consumption, of making and using.” The layered movements and labors of the performance, washed by waves of drumming and singing, were a stark contrast to the people waiting in the long lines for the nearby beer tent and food trucks for a different type of labor.
In a very different context than the MAEP, Northern Spark asks difficult questions about the place of arts festivals in the landscape of contemporary art. How can an arts festival shape our vision of a city? Northern Spark was focused in the Lowertown area of downtown Saint Paul, an arts and cultural district with artist live/work spaces, Saint Paul’s only art museum, and the Mississippi River hidden on its border. The creation of a new light rail line through the middle of Lowertown, increased focus on creative placemaking, and the expectations of what an influx of the creative class might do are shining a bright light on Lowertown and downtown Saint Paul generally. Northern Spark’s presence in Lowertown this year, the number of people who attended, and the economic impact of those visitors will continue to play a part in the area’s ongoing development.
Can an arts festival attract more than artists, and can an all-night festival move past spectacle to real engagement? In the largest single event of the festival, thousands of people stood in the rain to watch Chris Larson’s Celebration/Love/Loss, a full-size replica of a Saint Paul home designed by Marcel Breuer burned to the ground. The house was simple and beautiful, and the burn was awe-inspiring. (This video shows the house before burning, but this video shows how massive the flames really were.) Some of the quieter, less explosive projects, however, truly showed the possibilities of engagement. The all-night Singing From the Sacred Harp, organized by the Minnesota State Sacred Harp Singing Convention, brought home for me just how the conversations, techniques, and tools of an all-night festival can last far beyond that night. Sacred Harp Singing encourages people of all experience levels to sit together in an inward facing square to sing four part hymns and anthems without practice. During my first Sacred Harp experience, I was told that the most important part of singing is how loudly you sing. Since that time, I have rarely experienced anything as moving as a room full of strangers singing together perfectly, and the power of Singing From the Sacred Harp at Northern Spark was similarly palpable. The square of chairs was tucked away at the top of a little used stairway; all of the passers-by stopped in rapt attention at the beautiful music, the wide smiles, and the astonished laughter of the singers, even though it was well past 3am.
Eric Asboe is an artist, writer, and cultural worker. Asboe’s creative works prioritize process over product and explore the boundary between practice as improvement and practice as way of life. Forthcoming projects include ubuwebtopten.com. He currently lives and works in Minneapolis.
Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹
While social evidence that the rich is dividing farther away from the poor becomes more & more unavoidable, it seems that at the same time the art world is inversely nudging the them closer together. Traditional distinctions between “high” & “low” art are fading. In his essay “Comrades of Time,” discussing the definition of the term “contemporary,” Boris Groys states that “…at the turn of the twenty-first century, art entered a new era-one of mass artistic production, & not only mass art consumption.” Art-making is no longer restricted to a higher, educated or professional class. With the encouragement of advancing technologies from the ball point pen to the smartphone & increased visibility of the individual creative practice via the internet has reified this notion of art as “mass-cultural practice” ad infinitum (probably to some ad nauseum). To track the currency of art between upper & lower economic & academic classes & attempt to elucidate the creation of connecting middle classes of art, for instance independent comics & publication as well as social media experiments, it may be helpful to recognize the presence of commercial aesthetics in all classes. By following this reciprocal currency of consumerist media to high art & back, there are many significant signs pointing to a possible future of a classless art world.
Imagine this daisy in an advertisement for a department store chain. Now imagine it in a comic made by a peer. Lastly, imagine (or remember) this daisy in a contemporary art museum, as a part of a painting, a 300-editioned print of which is sold for more than $1,000. Of course this image is fairly well known- it was designed by artist Takashi Murakami in the mid-late 90s & repeated throughout his career in various incarnations (in carnations……….). What is unique about this daisy, however, is that to the unfamiliar eye its origins & environment could believably be in any of these three locations, or strata of art. It is difficult to say this of other contemporary arts images- a Jeff Koons sculpture, a performance piece by Marina Abramović, a photo by Wolfgang Tillmans (although this might be grounds for an interesting project). Most can’t be conceived in the commercial sphere-until the work becomes safely art-historical, when they can be reproduced on consumer goods & sold to a nostalgic or young audience-until then they are works intentionally too “conceptual” or “difficult” to be at home in a consumer setting where expediency of communication is paramount.
Murakami was/is famously aware of this & was actively attempting to collapse gaps between high & lowbrow art communities. Naturally, other internationally renowned pop artists like Lichtenstein & Warhol & more recently Philip Guston & Yoshimoto Nara have exercized a similar style. I stop at Murakami, not because I’m particularly fond of his work, but because his conceptual “Superflat” agenda is well articulated & aware of the collapse of economic boundaries. “When comparing a half a million dollars to ‘free,’” says Murakami, comparing to his blind-assortment collectible figure series (‘free’ with a purchase of candy) to his life-size statues of the same characters residing in contemporary arts institutions, “there’s an overwhelmingly different sense of values, almost a confusion of values.”² This “confusion of values” intellectualized by Murakami in the art scene in the late 90s/early ’00s is a significant checkpoint in the travel of commercial aesthetics, but this consciousness not exclusive to artists of highly educated stature (according to Wikipedia, Murakami has a Ph.D. from the Tokyo University of the Arts) but also in artists in so-called lower, consumer target-market classes.
Before I continue, here’s quick review these “levels of art” as crookedly defined for the purpose of this essay:
1) High Art (elite)
2) “DIY” or “Low” Art
3) Commercial Art (consumerist)
“High Art” referring to work usually made by career artists & found in the gallery, museum, & similarly institutionalized art biennials, fairs, etc., with a prestigious milieu of critics, buyers, curators & so on. For level 2, I’m wont to trade in the negative term “low” (granted this negativity is a badge of pride for some) for “DIY,” which as an adjective has come to encompass the “mass practice” of unprofessional quotidian participation in the making of art (“unprofessional” or “quotidian” not as pejoratives, but as neutral descriptors)-including student work. Level 3 is one populated by masters of an aesthetic practice but whose products are intended to be consumed by an unassuming hoi polloi. Although this stratum by nature lacks the conceptual, self-aware qualities arguably integral to defining something as “art,” certainly artistic techniques are employed (& exploited). Not only this, but it is common for early-career artists to hold jobs in this industry for obvious financial reasons, allowing them to coexist on both levels, while to varying degrees keeping their personal work separate.
This commercial universe, simultaneously seductive & repulsive, has provided us a strange key to a universalized art practice. It consists of a language instantly readable & in turn available to all to appropriate (throw legality into the wind). The visual toolbox of late capitalist propaganda is one of monumental typography, drop shadows, heavy outlines, over-emotive caricatures, light reflecting textures, shining sparkling neons, pastels, & primaries, & supreme cleanliness, (even when portraying something dirty). Whether you want simple geometrics or complex mechanics there is a commercial toolset for you. Anyone born in a first world country (& to a lesser degree, beyond) in the past 50 years has come to age in a society increasingly saturated by this imagery & fast motion. Having been the target market of any number of advertising campaigns at every given moment of a lifetime, a significant number of artists, whose headcount increases with the approach of the contemporary period, have co-opted this style in more radical ways than simple parody. Take for example (moving beyond the household names of 60s pop artists) Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats collage series, the gradients (among many other things) of Cory Archangel or the clusterfuck of American commercialism in Ryan Trecartin videos. All of this work is, while certainly of high conceptual &/or critical value, speaking with a language that is, though perverted, immediately legible or familiar to anyone who has experienced pop culture.
This artistic momentum is surprisingly well represented by the current proliferation of amateur comic artists, many of whom are vocally & visibly aware of the high art world. It’s safe to say that comics, originally a consumer product, have become widely accepted as an outlet for personal expression, like photography, that has become recently emancipated from its irreproducible commercial status to the disposal creatives of all ages & classes. The beginnings of this can be attributed in significant part to movements like the underground comix scene in the 60s & 70s with artists like Rick Griffin & R. Crumb (among many others) carrying through to cartoonists of the 80s & 90s such as Gary Panter & Raymond Pettibon. These cartoonists, along with experimental anthologies like RAW & Weirdo expanded comics into experimental territory, communicating more with high art logics than their syndicated predecessors/counterparts (psychedelics are a shortcut to philosophy!?). Counterintuitively, while extending the medium into traditionally elitist domains (psychedelics are a shortcut to the philosophical!?), they simultaneously introduced comic-making to a wider, younger, & unprofessional bracket. Now, comics were not only an art to be consumed, but an art practice to actively participate in, as much or as little as one consumed them.
The alternative comics community today is expansive to say the least. Contemporary DIY comics anthologies like Mould Map, Sonatina Comics, & Happiness (to name just a tiny fraction of those existing today), tumblrs, & conventions (Brooklyn Comix & Graphics Fest (although recently discontinued!), CAKE, TCAF, etc.) document hundreds of artists per year. Comics have gradually become another near-neutral visual alphabet or option for people to represent themselves with: similar to how everyone with a camera can now be a photographer/self documentarian, anyone with a writing tool can now be a comics artists/self documentarian.
Despite this hyperactivitity & close relationship to the art world, independent comics remain largely ignored by institutionalized critical artistic discourse. While there’s no shortage of books, journals, & blogs dedicated to dissecting comics culture & composition, they remain intended for readers interested in comics specifically & lack a serious concern for communicating with the larger contemporary art world. In other words, while the artwork straddles all strata of art, the reception does not (or does so very disproportionately). When consulting with a few active comic artists about this, many of them responded with reference to a class-related animosity between the comics & high art world in one direction or another, or rather, to the anti-intellectual/elitist (respectively) attitude either of the two fosters. On the one hand, comic artist & editor of the Happiness comic anthology series, Leah Wishnia states, “…art/alt/underground comics are a rejection of the elitism propagated by the fine art market, and the institution behind the fine art market may resent this and therefore, continues to label the majority of comics as ‘low art.’” At the same time, comic artist Blaise Larmee expressed a disillusion at the contemporary alt-comics sphere for its perceived blandness to outside audiences & Austin English admitted to looking to fine art for more inspired organization of text, characters & figure drawing. Unsurprisingly, the comics blog “Comets Comets” (the name a riff on the popular “Comics Comics Mag” (now also defunct) ran by Dan Nadel of Picturebox Publishing, Tim Holder, & Frank Santoro) maintained by Larmee, English, & comics artists Jason Overby & Carrie Bren was one of the only (if not the only) sources of writing that started to look at comics in a conceptually analytical way.
“Where does form end and content begin?
American comics came from newspapers and manga from ukiyo-e. There was no preciousness about the drawings that led to the printed matter until more recently. Original art can be beautiful to look at, but it’s beside the point: comics are perfect objects that have been formed by combining the raw material of an individual’s (or group of them) vision with the machines of mass production (computers, these days). They’re able to (like other modern media) lack the Bodhidharma-style transmission of artistic consciousness “Art” traffics in and allow many people to have and enjoy the same content cheaply.”
Due to the internet visibility of artists at all moments in their careers, we are more aware of this in-between group of young artists, concurrently existing in all levels of art, & in turn the levels are more connected, regardless of said existing tensions. Artists emerging from the 90s Providence Fort Thunder junk-art-music-noise-space-universe like Brian Chippendale, Matt Brinkman, & arts collective Forcefield are a few examples using this new form of commercial art inspired neo(n)materialism in a way that has caught the eye of institutions such as the Whitney Biennial & new galleries. Vancouver-based artist Chris Von Szombathy utilizes cartoon, illustration & commercial vernacular to communicate severe & conceptual topics beyond what’s normally associated with their style. Austin English put together a show at Baltimore Open Space exhibiting young artists with comic-influence such as James Ulmer & Leif Low-Beer. Strange (reciprocal?) lateral appropriation (to borrow a term from Sean Joseph Patrick Carney) is happening between artists inside & outside of the comics world not only in places conducive to such activity like tumblr but also in the gallery space. All of these instances are notable because they are garnering attention while they are happening, while they are “contemporary” rather than after they have become art historical (the art world is not lacking in Gary Panter & R. Crumb shows).
There is much more to say & countless more artists to consider in the economy of aesthetics between the different classes of art. It brings to mind for example the many lives of anime character AnnLee traded between artists Pierre Huyghe & Philippe Parreno (her latest incarnation by Tino Seghal at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair, discussed here & many other places), the universe of fan art (recently considered here in Hyperallergic), “designer” vinyl toys & statues, & the time-based worlds of animation, photography, & film. The entirety of DisMagazine seems to be dedicated to promoting alternative use of commercial aesthetics.
I recently walked into a new-ish local gallery space called Beginnings in Brooklyn to find a show exhibiting 3 artists: a painter, a photographer, & a writer. The painter, Jamian Juliano-Villani immediately caught my eye as her work subscribed to a neon(n)materialist agenda, reappropriating known graphics like animation smear-frames & 70s illustrations by Moscoso with updated dayglo color schemes. The photographs, initially seeming unrelated, were by Jan Kempenaers & documented the abandoned Yugoslavian monuments to the socialist republic. This visual work was punctuated by framed essays referring to the rise & fall of democratic capitalism, written by Wolfgang Streeck, director of the Max Planck Institue for the Study of Societies (MPIfG), based in Cologne, Germany. The sheer variety of this show, while on second look (& after discussion with curator Matt Giordano) managing to be cohesive through the themes of ideological criticism, along with the newness of the gallery I think attests to novel locations in which commercial aesthetics can now comfortably exist & will appear more frequently in the future. Sternberg press, who published the original “What is Contemporary Art” e-flux edition from which I extracted the Boris Groys article quoted in the introductory paragraph recently posted on their tumblr an upcoming volume on “Altcomics.” All of this, while egos will never completely allow a true socialist art world, is evidence that surprising juxtapositions & convalescence of all three classes of art are becoming more possible & will bring artistic practice & hopefully also criticism to more audiences without losing conceptual value or legibility.
H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC & a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design.
1. Many thanks to Matt Giordano of Beginnings Gallery, Blaise Larmee, Jason Overby, Austin English, & Leah Wishnia for taking time to chat with me about these subjects & providing important examples. Thanks also to Chris Von Szombathy who discussed this with me about this at length in 2011.
2.© Murakami, Takashi Murakami: Company Man, by Scott Rothkopf pg. 137
Guest Post by Jamilee Polson Lacy
I’m wrapping up my stint as Inaugural Curator-In-Residence for the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City. My final project, rises Zora, a multi-venue visual and performing arts exhibition, explores Kansas City as an urban labyrinth. While the labyrinth as a thematic premise initially seems a little hippy-dippy, it’s one that actually encompasses and incorporates so much historically, philosophically, artistically, and more. Theories of the labyrinth—and there are many which span the ages of Greek and Roman mythology to early Christianity, Karl Marx to Umberto Eco, Cervantes to Borges and Calvino—demonstrate the thing as both concept and literal form that ultimately represents time. The labyrinth is an infinite series of choices to be made through time and space, and we get to decide whether to be conscious of those choices or not. I think the city, which quite obviously mimics a literal labyrinth, presents a plethora of choices—some exciting and dangerous, some banal and commonplace—so it’s nearly impossible not to think of it as a conceptual labyrinth as well.
Kansas City has an interesting history that accommodates a show like rises Zora. It, like most cities inland west of the Eastern seaboard, was designed on a grid, which, according to its first known utilizer and urban planner Hippodamus of Miletus, is society’s attempt at ordering the labyrinth. So, in the simplest sense, Kansas City features lots of beautiful right angles that repeat from the street level Jeffersonian grid into the design of enormous buildings and neighborhood squares. But what is more interesting, are the random parts of the city—those which don’t conform to this guiding grid, this attempt to order the city and its users’ navigation and time within it. Places where the highways meet and tangle up or where the parks and the rivers and the construction disrupt the perfect patterns are great of examples of how the labyrinth can’t be controlled by a grid or a society. And in every case, there are multiple labyrinths that overlap and collide as neighborhoods, cultures, and ways of existing in the universe all configure as complex webs of time’s effect on everything. These systems’ inability to control the labyrinth’s physical manifestation correlate to humanity’s ultimate powerlessness to control or change the actual course of time. Only time changes us; we can never change it.
This idea of time as a series of labyrinths—also mazes, matrices, and networks, which are all versions of the labyrinth concept—emerges again and again in contemporary art. Artists, like Theseus navigating his way through Daedalus’s labyrinth to its center in his efforts to conquer the Knossos minotaur, traverse complex, even confusing problems of time and space to reach some sort of goal. At that point, the artist must pass through one labyrinth to another. In other words, the artist comes to a rite of passage. Italo Calvino, my favorite labyrinth expert, metaphorically discusses this rite of passage in every novel. In Invisible Cities, from which the rises Zora project title is taken, we see Marco Polo artfully describe and navigate the mysteriously international labyrinth that is Venice to the great Kublai Khan. In If on a winter’s night a traveler, the reader, which may or may not be you or me, must navigate the labyrinths of literature, language, and lust. And in the under-appreciated Mr. Palomar, we experience alongside a man, Mr. Palomar, the many rites of passage that come with middle age and the realization that death is a real thing just like every other life event/labyrinthine transition.
The rite of passage has a long history in tandem with the labyrinth. Though we think of the labyrinth as inherently Greek in its roots (which isn’t incorrect as the first reference to the labyrinth is the oral tradition that tells of Daedalus’s architectures), it too is found throughout time and across geographies as part of pagan and tribal culture. Indeed, labyrinths as mystical symbols and ritualistic structures marked communal and individual life transitions including harvest, friendship, protection, love fertility, adulthood, death, and the list goes on and on. In Central and South America the Aztecs and smaller lesser-known tribes constructed the most elaborate hedges and mountain wall labyrinths, while in Scandinavia the Middle Age citizens built Troy towns to protect their maidens. In many cultures there is the walk about, for which the labyrinth is materialized as a vast geographical expanse of the unknown, within which one must learn to make choices outside their cultural context. I mention the walk about specifically because in two weeks a few of Charlotte Street’s Urban Culture Project (UCP) Studio Residency participants will open a thoughtful group show at their designated gallery space called WALKABOUT. The UCP Studio Residency program is unique in that it provides an important opportunity for Kansas City’s young and emerging artists to have the space in the form of a free downtown KCMO studio and exhibition venue to develop their work and the professional practice. The program operates on an academic yearly cycle, and is therefore winding down for this year’s residents. Featuring five artists who will leave the residency transformed in one way or another, this WALKABOUT exhibition strikes me as the perfect metaphor for the rite of passage they will soon experience.
Another exhibition in town, Barry Anderson’s The Janus Restraint: The Ascension at The Studios, Inc. directly considers rites of passage as Anderson himself as an artist, a father, and a citizen of the great big universe experiences them. The Studios, Inc. is another residency program in town that provides free space to artists. Unlike the UCP Studio Residency, this one is for mid-career artists who have developed studio practices in Kansas City over a considerable period of time. Artists are given a huge space for three years, with the possibility of renewing for a second three-year term. The space and the artists tenure at The Studios, Inc. is subsidized both by The Studios, Inc. board/organization and a local patron, who both in exchange for their generosity receive an artwork from the artist for their respective organizational and personal collections. Perhaps the most exciting organization in town because it nearly bursts with possibility to be something more, The Studios, Inc. operates on the most interesting model and really does support some of the city’s most interesting artists with space. Unfortunately though, the organization lacks vision in that their collection is rarely shown and, other than providing free workspace and an exhibition (in an on-site gallery space that could be really remarkable if its exhibitions were professionally curated and also sprinkled with some out-of-town flavor to contextualize/expand the production of Studios, Inc./Kansas City artists), they do little to promote their residents on a national or international scale. Anderson’s exhibition, though it consists of entirely new work, feels like a retrospective precisely because it seems like it should be so pivotal to the artist’s career. In some capacity, each artwork—photography, video, sculpture, and installation—takes on Anderson’s personal, professional, and existential transitions. The show even has an urgency as it practically screams, “What am I going to do next?!” A serious question considering that this glorious exhibition isn’t likely to be reviewed outside of Kansas City. There is no national/international coverage here, no critics with freelance relationships with Artforum, Art in America, Frieze, or the likes, and it seems to me like no one in town is working to do anything about this serious problem. (I actually hope that when I leave KC, I’ll be able to create a rite of passage for another to provide KC-specific commentary on Bad at Sports.) After this year in Kansas City, I can very confidently say that amazingly prolific artists like Barry Anderson are plentiful here, but who will ever know, and more importantly, who will ever care if no one writes about them for the rest of the world to see? Though Anderson’s solo show beautifully mines a variety of rites of passage on many fronts, there seems to be none in sight for him in this respect.
There do finally seem to be pathways opened up for new blood at Kansas City’s art museums, which, though I hate to say it, present some of the most inconsequential contemporary art programming in the country (with the exception of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, an incredibly smart contemporary art museum and private collection that lives miles away outside Kansas City in Johnson County, and KU’s Spencer Museum, which lives 30 minutes far away in Lawrence, is pretty good, too). The Nelson-Atkins Museum is the biggest game in town. Much of the community’s patronage goes into this institution, though it reflects very little interest in that same community that supports it. There is no regular local contemporary art feature or commission, and there are very few quality or comprehensive contemporary art exhibitions to expose the city’s prestigious art school—the Kansas City Art Institute—population. The Nelson-Atkins has appointed a new Curatorial Director, Antonia Bostrom, who I hope comes to the museum with at least a little interest, respect, and enthusiasm for art being made today. Also, the Kemper Museum, a private collection and exhibition program of contemporary art run by one of the city’s wealthiest families, finally hired a curator after last year’s layoff scandal calmed down. Given the banal sensibilities and rigor-lacking qualities of the exhibitions chosen and organized by the museum’s current senior-level administration, I doubt (but really hope) that this curator, Erin Dziedzic, will bring with her the clout needed to integrate local and cutting edge art and issues into the programming plans and change the museum. But, I’m holding my breath that this rite of passage will include local artists because I’m an optimist!
Maybe it’s because I’ve reached my own transition point in that I’m finishing my own residency and leaving this city—and thus passing through a formative stage of my life—in mere weeks, but I feel like there are identifiable rites of passages happening all over Kansas City right now. In recent months, three of the city’s arguably biggest contemporary art players have announced that they will transition out of their longtime roles in the contemporary art world.
1) John O’Brien, owner and director of the Dolphin Gallery, one of the city’s few commercial galleries, has decided to get out of the business. This is a huge blow to many artists who already feel the suffocating grip of an almost non-existent art market in Kansas City. But poetically and poignantly, O’Brien’s daughter Caitlin mounted the last show at her dad’s gallery, showing that a family tradition for contemporary art will likely bare fruit in Kansas City some day. One hopes that O’Brien’s labyrinth which holds numerous Kansas City artists of all stripes could spill into the realm of Bill Brady KC, a gallery run by the New Yorker, but given Brady’s lack of interest in the local folks, I don’t see that passageway being paved anytime ever. I do hope, however, to see a young townie open her gallery doors with a roster that promotes a collection of Kansas City’s emerging and longstanding artists alongside the international talent with which they are equal stock.
2) Margaret Silva, the Hallmark heiress, has announced that she will close the city’s most nationally relevant venue, Grand Arts, a kunsthaus-type space that she funds mostly on her own dime. To me, this news brings the most despair. In a city that is home to some incredibly experimental cultural production, there must be a place where artists can see the work of other leading conceptual artists—their international contemporaries. Grand Arts brings in some of the best artists in the world to present challenging, provocative exhibitions and social practice programs. Unfortunately, the organization is much too quiet—they hardly market a thing—and their programming schedule is inconsistent not to mention thin. I’ve been here nearly 11 months, and though they have a number of part-time and full-time employees, I’ve seen two shows there (with many months-long gaps in between them). But man, when Artistic Director Stacy Switzer finally gets a show up and going, it’s darn good. I’ll be sad to see this place close its doors in 2015.
3) And finally, Charlotte Street Founding Director David Hughes, Jr. (full disclosure: Hughes is one of my bosses, for lack of a better term) will step back from the organizational helm over the coming months. Hughes, in collaboration with the organization’s diverse board and savvy Charlotte Street Co-Director Kate Hackman, has been instrumental to the success of the city’s most experimental and ambitious artists through the facilitation of Charlotte Street’s Visual and Performing Art Awards (aka thousands of dollars unrestricted CASH for artist winners), in addition to numerous exhibition and professional development opportunities for artists and others (like me!). Hughes will stay on with Charlotte Street in an advisory role, but he will pass the reins to a new executive director yet-to-be named.
Hopefully, these folks will expand the matrices that currently exist in Kansas City to accommodate new paths for contemporary art. While I know that many in town are worried, and they should be, I’m sure that the rites of passage between these folks and venues will pass on to someone ready for the challenge. And me, I have accumulated Kansas City artists into my own labyrinth, which I can’t help but take with me everywhere I go. And the new Charlotte Street Curator-In-Resident, whoever s/he may be, will likely do the same because Kansas City artists and their work are magnificent and relevant. After all, the labyrinth is just time. And again, because I’m an optimist, I’m sure that time will keep moving along and shifting to open one passageway after another for Kansas City contemporary artists.
Jamilee Polson Lacy is an artist, curator and writer based in Chicago. Currently, Lacy is the Inaugural Curator-In-Residence for Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, where she organizes exhibitions, educational programming and publications for Charlotte Street’s Crossroads District gallery, la Esquina. In Chicago, Lacy additionally operates as the founding director of Twelve Galleries Project, a transitory, collaborative exhibition experiment. She has engaged in solo and collaborative projects with many creatives and institutions, including A+D Gallery at Columbia College Chicago, The Black Visual Archive, Chicago Artists’ Coalition & Hatch Projects, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Western Exhibitions and Quite Strong, among others. In addition to numerous catalogue essays, interviews and articles, Lacy has published Color: Fully Engaged, a book of interviews and essays, and written series for Flash Art’s Umelec Magazine, Art 21 and now, Bad at Sports. Lacy holds two undergraduate degrees in studio arts and art history and a Masters of Comparative Literature and Arts from Northwestern University.
Since self-publishing his wildly successful first novel Clumsy in 2002, he’s created numerous other painfully funny autobiographical comics, co-written the 2012 star-studded film Save the Date (starring Party Down’s Lizzy Caplan and Mad Men’s Alison Brie) and penned a hilarious series of graphic novels that explore the challenges of being both Darth Vader–ruler of the evil Sith empire–and a single dad.
Brown’s newest Star Wars-themed book Jedi Academy (out on Aug. 27), is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Roan and his adventures mastering the Force while juggling all the issues that come with being a middle schooler.
Jeffrey Brown: I had grown up reading comics and always dreaming that I’d grow up to make them myself, so it was a natural move for me when I made it. While at art school I had become increasingly frustrated with my own work – my paintings didn’t feel like they were expressing the ideas I really wanted them to. I figured the most fun I ever had making art was drawing comics when I was a kid, so to clear my head a bit I just started drawing some comics, and that clicked and felt more right for me than any painting I had done.
BAS: What audience did you begin creating graphic novels for?
JB: My first audience was myself, and after that my friends – that first project (Clumsy) was drawn for my own amusement, essentially, and then I was just showing it to friends. Beyond that I had only thought a very little about showing it anywhere else, but I did have one idea of having the sketchbook I was drawing in being exhibited, rather than a comic that was mass produced.
BAS: Your comics are heavily autobiographical, and draw from your own personal romantic experiences. Has an ex-girlfriend or anyone else ever been upset with you over how you chose to depict them or your relationship?
JB: Not yet – I think they understand that as much as I’m using our real lives and events that happened, what the books are really about is the situations, about life, and finding meaning and understanding it. The comics aren’t really about me or them or any one else that shows up in them. The most upset someone has been was something that was more a misunderstanding than anything, I think, where they were reading something into the story that they took personally, and which I certainly didn’t intend.
BAS: You’ve also done illustrations for films. You drew the movie poster for the film adaptation of the novel Shoplifting from American Apparel, and co-wrote the screenplay for Save the Date. How did you become involved in those projects?
JB: For Shoplifting, it was through director/producer Pirooz Kalayeh, who I first got to know when he interviewed me years back. I’d previously drawn the poster for another film he produced, The Human War, and with Shoplifting I drew the poster as well as some drawings used for the g-chat scenes. I was already a fan of Tao Lin’s books, and had been corresponding with him for a few years, so I was happy to be involved with that adaptation. Writing Save The Date came about because of producer Jordan Horowitz, who emailed me to say how much he liked how my autobiographical books handled quiet, intimate moments, and asked if I’d ever considered writing something for film. Film was an interest for me from early on – I once considered a career as a storyboard artist, even – so this seemed like a nice opportunity to give screenwriting a try.
BAS: How does the process of creating graphic novels different from screenwriting?
JB: Writing and drawing my comics is a much more solitary experience, especially the autobiographical work, which is so personal there isn’t even much room for editorial input. I was fully prepared heading into screenwriting knowing that it would be collaborative, and that whatever my initial vision or idea was, it would change and evolve with everyone else that would necessarily work on the final product. Jordan put me together with Egan Reich, who helped immensely in not only clarifying ideas I wanted to touch on, but adding his own, as well as doing the grunt work of formatting the screenplay properly and guiding the structure to film. Structure is another big difference between comics and film. The way I write my comics is often closer to poetry in terms of how the narrative is broken up, and doesn’t translate as well to film.
BAS: How selective are you about the types of projects to take on when commissioned?
JB: I’ve been extremely fortunate that for a long time, I said yes to nearly every opportunity I had, and it was basically always been something I wanted to do. Mostly the selectivity comes into play just with what the deadline is and what else I’m already working on. So as I’ve become busier now, I’ve been forced to be pickier. Still, I’m amazed when I think about how things have worked out for me, where being selective has rarely come into play.
BAS: I had the chance to speak to filmmaker Michael Mohan, one of the cowriters of Save the Date. Can you tell me a bit about how you met him?
JB: Mike first contacted me about drawing a commission as a wedding gift for his wife, something I used to do when I had more time – a way to connect more closely to the people reading my autobiographical books especially. So I had drawn a short comic for Mike to give to his wife, when she got in touch with me about doing the same thing for him, having no idea that he had done that. I debated on saying no, wondering if it’d be weird for them to essentially give each other the same gift, but in the end decided to do it, and it was well worth it. After they exchanged the wedding gifts, they commissioned me to make one more drawing, of them opening the gifts and being surprised. After that we kept in touch, with Mike continuing to read my books, and sending me his films to watch.
BAS: How did Mohan become involved in the project?
JB: Mike had already read an earlier draft of Save The Date that someone passed along to him, and let me know how much he liked it. The film was all set to be shot in Chicago with director Joe Swanberg, but fell apart at the last minute. When Mike heard that, he got in touch with Jordan and let us know he would love to be, as he said, at the bottom of the list of potential directors. I knew Mike had a sensibility and personality similar to mine, and also respect for my work in comics and what Egan and I had created with the screenplay, and I let Jordan know I thought he’d be a good fit. Mike set about reworking the screenplay one more time, consulting with Egan and I, and I think I can say we were all pretty happy with the result.
BAS: What’s something about Mohan you think people would be surprised to know?
JB: That’s a tough one – I think Mike is a pretty straightforward, heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy, so I’m not sure I can think of something too surprising… he really is nice, down to earth, and humble.
BAS: How did you come up with the storyline for Save the Date?
JB: The initial idea was based on my own life, and then I tried to mix in other things – my wife’s relationship with her sister, for example. Egan and Mike brought their own perspectives, changing characters a lot from that initial start, and reshaping events so that much of what happens in the film never happened in my own situation, At the same time, there’s a lot of little moments that are completely accurate – tiny exchanges, looks between two people, awkward exchanges – the film is totally true in emotional terms to me.
BAS: What was the most challenging aspect of making Save the Date?
JB: For me, the hardest part was just rethinking my ideas to make them fit to film, but at the same time that ended up being less of a challenge once Egan came on board, which was fairly early in the process. My involvement ended up being fairly easy and carefree, and I’m smart enough to realize how incredibly lucky I am to have the people who ended up working on the film, and have it turn out in a way that I’m so happy with.
BAS: What are you working on now?
JB: As always there’s a ton of ideas I’m kicking around for the future, but the main projects I’m working on right now are more Star Wars – a follow up to Darth Vader and Son and Vader’s Little Princess, and book two of my middle grade reader series Jedi Academy.
BAS: Were you concerned about disappointing fans of the original movies in any way when you began creating the Star Wars-themed graphic novels?
JB: I wasn’t really concerned, no. I sort of figured that the book would really only reach the fans who would be interested, and any fan who would be disappointed would probably already be avoiding the book. I also knew that I was approaching the material as a fan myself, and wanted to be careful to be true to the spirit of the movies and my own experiences of them. So I created the books with a lot of love, and I think any fan of the movies will get that.
BAS: What are some dream projects or collaborations you’d like to take on in the future?
JB: I’d like to write more for film – I’d be happy to work with Egan and Mike again on something, if our schedules ever align. I have a lot of ideas for film, comics, and children’s books that I’d like to get to someday, and really my dream is to just be able to keep working on whatever projects I’m interested in at the time.