The Painter’s Other Library, oil on Alupanel, 36 panels, each 16 x 32”, 2014
Guest Post by Anne Harris
Matthew Girson is out of step. In our era of split-second digital dissemination, he paints meticulously crafted still lifes that are impossible to reproduce. His subject: books on shelves. After visiting his exhibition, The Painter’s Other Library, now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, my students emailed him a series of questions. One asked, “Do you ever hurt your eyes painting like this?” His response: “YES! I get headaches. My drawings are so pale that I sometimes go snow-blind….” Although the paintings in this show are the opposite of pale, they are, like his drawings, hard to see. All live in the darkest realm of the gray scale, with distinctions so narrow they initially don’t exist. This work tests our willingness to focus, and risks being lost in the quick looking, quickly summarizing I-saw-it-at-the-opening-but-will-look-at-the-website-later tempo that sums up much of today’s viewing. Fluorescent lighting doesn’t help, as first impressions reduce the show to elegant black rectangles hung low in the beautifully proportioned but coldly glowing space. Once filled with library stacks—the CCC being our original public library—it consists now of bright white 30 ft. high walls, looming narrow arched doorways, flat gray carpet, and enormous windows blanketed by black drapes. The effect is a stark chic. This positions the work as contemporary, but risks blanching its quiet presence.
The Painter’s Other Library, North Gallery, Installation View
That said, these paintings are indeed present. They have the kind of intensity made through subtlety found in work meant to be slowly experienced—taken in through the senses and felt, rather than glanced at and catalogued in terms of image and idea. It was a pleasure to see my students vigorously looking; the paintings required a surprising amount of motion from us. Full frontal, back away, then stick your nose in, try to bend your eyeballs around the back of the painting to understand its construction, now angle sideways for a diagonal view, then back off again, images emerge, surfaces shift, color shifts, the space shifts, even the design seems to shift when the pieces are seen askance from variable angles. My class was enthralled by the smudged gray circles optically shimmering midst the grid of paintings in the farthest room (“a happy accident,” Matthew told us). My funniest experience—when I turned away and then looked over my shoulder, two pieces in the middle room kept dropping their stripes. The center voids expanded, which startled me. Very sneaky! If you seek out work that insists on long looking, if you (like me) are seriously frustrated that Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is still not hanging at the AIC (it’s been years); if you speed through that room filled with Richters that are always up to reach the one Vija Celmins that is sometimes up; if you find yourself flattening your head against the wall trying to understand the surface of Jack Whitten’s Khee II, then this show’s for you.
Untitled (Reference) #1, oil on canvas, 40 x 80”, 2013
You’ll note the paintings I’ve just mentioned were all done before 1980. Girson teeters on a 40 year-old edge, the now non-existent divide between representation and abstraction. A line can be drawn from Girson back to the Parthenon’s friezes, to include Morandi, Mondrian, Poussin and Piero della Francesca. Their common denominator is the subjugation of subject matter to classical structure, the belief that purity of form in a work of art will bestow profundity on its contents. This thinking shaped David’s The Death of Marat, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and the fascist art and architecture executed under Mussolini and Hitler.
This brings me to subject matter, and to a point in Girson’s work that I struggle with. The first piece one meets in this show is an outlier, called Allegory, Allegory, Part 1, it includes a line of twenty-four 8 x 16” painted panels. They repeat, in lush glossy black troweled over smooth matt black, an image of a fire. They’re seen in relation to their source, a mostly silent video of a bonfire, a small section of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. Girson’s goal is ambitious, to weave together the multiple uses of classicism in relationship to political thinking, from the age of enlightenment to the “endgame of modernity,” as Paul B. Jaskot calls Hitler’s aesthetic ideals and monstrous deeds, in his fine essay for this show. I’ll add, this is the piece whose idea most intrigues me, but that interests me least in the flesh. It’s the most literal, the paint refuses to transpose, and it’s the only piece I looked at quickly. Today, in representational art, it’s typical to assume that the subject is the point of the painting. A more sophisticated viewer might look for subject in relationship to idea, but the understanding of painting as visceral experience tends to be reserved for non-objective work. So Matthew’s paintings are discussed and positioned in terms of subject and idea, while their form is only considered support for those things. Thus, dark libraries and dark books represent acquired and withheld knowledge—enlightenment and repression. Geometric structure is equated with fascism, repetition with entrapment, darkness with inaccessibility, and so on. It’s assumed that Girson’s choices are symbolic, that they function as allegory. Certainly his titles support that.
The Walls Were Full of Books. The Books Were Full of Ideas, oil on Alupanel,16 x 32”, 2014
Yes, these layers of meaning exist in this work, but placing them in front is misleading. I propose that the subject of Matthew Girson’s paintings is actually light, not books. Dark light. These paintings contain and emit dim luminosity. They’re filled with it. The longer we look, the brighter they become. The paradox of dark light is that over time we see more: our pupils dilate; we attune to the finest variations in value, temperature and hue, these grow through our concentrated focus. We’ve all entered dark rooms and waited as our eyes adjusted, but I’ll use a different parallel to describe this experience. Try staring through the insides of your closed eyelids. At first what you see is matter-of-fact blankness, an eclipse of your field of vision, but soon motion occurs, blooms of light, shifting shape, color, and eventually images. Stare long enough and your inward vision takes over, your sense of self, memories, the narratives of your life both public and private, all of these things exist within the intimate all-enclosing space behind your eyelids. This is where Matthew’s best paintings lie. They’re not symbolic. They’re metaphoric. Experiential. Starting with the intellect drains this away. By accessing this work first through sensory, sensual experience, the meaning deepens and opens, complex and contradictory. These pieces are best entered as we do all great fiction, imagination first.
The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm, oil on canvas, 80 x 60”, 2010
This past Monday, I visited the show again. As I looked and took notes, I was joined by the museum guard, Michael Hill. He’d just spent three days with Matthew’s work. I asked him to point out his favorites and he indicated Allegory, Allegory, Part 1 (he disagrees with me!), saying that he didn’t understand it until he saw it at an angle. He then pointed to The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm and told me that he instructs people to “look at it from the bottom up.” We moved to the back room to look at another of his favorites, The Walls Were Full of Books, The Books Were Full of Ideas. Just then, a man walked in, looking perplexed. He asked Hill, “What are these? Holograms?” Hill responded, “No sir. These are paintings.” The man’s eyebrows contracted, “What? What! What kind of paintings are THESE!” Hill had no answer, so he smiled. The enigma of Hill’s response perfectly mirrored the mystery of this extraordinary work. Come see it. Take an hour. Look very slowly.
Anne Harris is a painter who also teaches and curates. She’s Chair of the Exhibition Committee at the Riverside Arts Center, and currently teaches MFA and BFA students in the Painting and Drawing Department at SAIC. Her work has been exhibited at museums such as The National Portrait Gallery at The Smithsonian Institute and The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. Awards received include Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships. She lives in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago.
Guest Post by Lise McKean
Tom Denlinger, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland
Terrain South, Oak Park
June 1 to June 29, 2014
Victoria Fuller, Nature2
Packer Schopf Gallery, Chicago
June 6 to July 12, 2014
Current shows by Tom Denlinger (Terrain) and Victoria Fuller (Packer Schopf) bring to mind the opening scene of Blue Velvet. At first glance, their works seem friendly with their eye-catching colors and curious configurations. But on closer look the viewer senses something more menacing.
Let’s start outdoors with Denlinger’s installation, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland. The work consists of two panels (acrylic and paper on canvas), one larger than the other with a swathe of grass between them. The panels are stretched across the lawn of an empty lot between two early 20th century houses. The installation measures 12 ft. x 19 ft.
Denlinger covers the canvases with large, layered forms, shaped like capsules or bacteria. The layering hints at perspectival space. But flatness prevails, especially since viewers look down to see the work. Just as scientists use fluorescent dye to study bacterial activity with fluorescent microscopy, Denlinger uses yellow-green fluorescent paint to distinguish a subset of the forms. Other elongated oval forms are painted taxi-cab yellow and emergency orange, or are black and white photographs affixed to the canvas. What’s more, the intense colors trick eyes into seeing the white as purplish, as if under black light.
Chicago’s residential streetscapes, i.e., parkways, sidewalks, front yards, and lawns intrigue Denlinger. On and off over the past couple decades his work has explored this Möbius strip of public and private space. With his Terrain show he occupies the very space that fascinates him with a work whose dimensions replicate the front yard of Terrain founder, Sabina Ott.
The concept of umwelt, local or surrounding environment, developed in the 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll, a biologist and pioneer of biosemiotics, figures in the thinking behind Denlinger’s When Worlds Collide. Umwelt is the totality of an environment as subjectively perceived and experienced by an organism. Since it’s subjective, another’s umwelt whether familiar or not is essentially foreign territory. But von Uexküll proposes that it’s possible to better understand alien environments by inventing “images” of them through art or photography.
Of the many umwelts Denlinger might have chosen to image, his work brings us the human and the microbial. In fact, the Kingdom of Monera isn’t a legendary land, but rather the taxonomic realm of one-celled organisms, of bacteria. The collision between the umwelts of bacteria and humans sprawls across his installation. Discarded cucumbers fill the black and white collaged photos, Romanian scapegoats of a lethal outbreak of E. coli in Europe.
When Worlds Collide is a skewed reference to the expansive, energetic, and frequently optimistic space of modernist abstraction. Denlinger’s is a distinctly twenty-first century umwelt. Splayed next to the sidewalk in living color, the work can’t but grab the attention of passersby. And in exchange, Denlinger’s installation—staked to the ground and speckled with dirt, crawling with ants, fading under the June sun, and changing hue in the long twilight—evokes a lifeworld all its own.
Fuller is known for work that uses everyday objects, e.g., electrical cords and outlets, doorknobs, faucets, books, and shoes, to create sculptural works that can be metaphorical, allegorical, and whimsical. For example, her 2001 exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center included Bad Plumbing (2001), a sculptural installation made of copper pipe, mop, gourd, suitcase, rope, books, horn, microphone and sound.
Nature2 diverges from this established practice in that Fuller combines everyday objects, and particularly pipes, faucets, and hoses with representational objects of her own creation. Unlike Bad Plumbing where she used a large coil of real rope, Rope Trick (2014; resin, epoxy clay, and acrylic; 18 1/4″ diameter x 8 1/2″) looks like real rope—except the coil’s start and finish morph into the front and end of a snake. It’s Fuller’s twist on Ceci ne pas une pipe.
In contrast to Denlinger’s exploration of perception and subjectivity, Fuller investigates complex systems invented by humans with processes and effects that permeate our daily lives. She explicitly takes on the behemoths of industrial agriculture, food production, and resource extraction—and their collisions with nonhuman creatures and systems. For example, Everything Is Connected (2014; wood, acrylic, plasti-clay, artifical plants, chain, and gas pipe; 24″x30″x6″) is the first sculpture inside the gallery’s entrance and could be the show’s subtitle. From its subterranean fungi to the dandelion popping up on top with spewing smokestacks in between, Everything Is Connected offers a 3D portrait of global warming.
Deep Down (2014; carved wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, and acrylic; 16″ x 8″ x 8″) can be seen as a riff on cubism, using five faces of a cube to reveal multiple perspectives on life above, on, and beneath the ground. A chipmunk is curled up and cozy in its burrow and ants carve their passageways underground. Plants shoot up and their roots reach down while snake and earthworm straddle above and below. There’s no sign of human activity and nothing seems amiss or at risk.
Fuller draws on the visual languages of the educational diorama, mechanical schematic, and flow chart, as well as a host of materials and a lot of ingenuity and wit to create the show’s nine mixed media sculptures. With its solitary bee and empty honeycomb cells, Spelling Bee (2014; craft fur, epoxy clay, acrylic, resin, mylar, and chloroplast; 33 3/8″x 19″ x 2 1/2″) combines organic form with tactility, fuzzy and smooth, and an ecological reference to complete colony collapse, an epidemic afflicting honeybees.
Factory Farm (2014; wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, acrylic, resin, found objects, paper, and metal tube; 45″ x 34″ 17″) is particularly apropos for an artist based in Chicago, the corn belt’s metropole and profit center of what environmental scientist Jonathan Foley calls the corn system. Fuller creates a compelling narrative of the system’s moving parts, complete with feed lots, pigs behind bars, colony collapse, GMO-corn, and a molecular model of high fructose corn syrup. I’m grateful to Fuller for prompting me to learn more about the corn system. For example, large-scale honey producers maximize profits by feeding honeybees high fructose corn syrup, and bacteria and fungi are two of the enzymes used by industrial bioscience to manufacture high fructose corn syrup, the gooey backbone of processed food.
Fuller’s work brings to mind Margaret Wharton, another immensely inventive artist whose posthumous show recently closed at the Riverside Arts Center. From the craft fur on the giant bee to the erector set fracking rig and plasti-clay mushrooms, Fuller’s artistry ranges across a wide repertoire of media and adroitly melds form and content. What’s more, her assemblages accomplish the rare feat of being at once playful and polemical.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Keith J Varadi—artist, poet, writer, performer, and Associate Director at Greene Exhibitions—at the HMS Bounty, one of my favorite bars in Koreatown. We began by talking about Lance Stephenson’s conduct in the recently-concluded NBA Eastern Conference Finals, athletes behaving badly, athletes as role models, and artists as role models, which led me to ask Keith a question in which I confused the term “digressive” for the term “transgressive.”
KJV: Well, I hope that nobody’s looking up to anybody for digressing. I hope that people would look up to somebody for transgressing. If you’re going to be an artist, isn’t that the point? To be transgressive and push boundaries and fuck with people’s expectations. If artists owe anybody anything, that’s what I’m saying artists owe. I was actually talking about this with a friend of mine about a week or two ago: What do artists actually owe people? Do they owe apologies? Do they owe their “souls”? Do they owe donations to benefit auctions? Do they owe anything? I don’t know, but I think that at the very least, they owe intellectual rigor. If we’re coming to your exhibition, or if we’re coming to your panel discussion, what are we actually, really getting out of this? And it’s important to think of what it means to be transgressive these days? What are new ways of being transgressive? Tino Sehgal—whether or not you or I or anyone at this bar like or would like his work—he’s an artist who has actually changed “the game” in some way. He has stopped people in their tracks. People walk around an art fair, drinking expensive drinks, double-cheek-kissing people they haven’t seen in a couple of weeks or months, looking at each others’ handbags, and it’s like, “Oooh, that’s a nice painting!” But when he’s doing some freak-nasty shit at Marian Goodman, they want to go see what that’s all about. That’s interesting. There are plenty of artists in this current market, and in the last boom, and in the boom before that…there are plenty of young, white, straight dude painters who are making the system work for themselves. They tend to also make abstract paintings. How do you make painting interesting? I still think it’s possible, which is why I make paintings, and why I think artists I dig make them. But it’s like…if all you’re going to do is smear paint around a canvas like cream cheese on a bagel, yeah, you might get $50,000 a pop, but what are you contributing? What are you gaining other than money in the bank? Does this artwork need to exist?
JW: Does Tino Sehgal’s artwork need to exist?
KJV: Well, it barely exists.
JW: It’s very low-impact. Is it punk? What is punk?
KJV: I have a particular personal history with punk, and my own particular understanding of what that means. I started talking about suburbia before, which I don’t want to talk too much about because I think that conversation about suburbia is boring. But when you do grow up in a suburban area, the first time you do hear anything or see anything that is somehow disruptive—and for a lot of people in suburbia, that’s punk—that can be a really exciting, uplifting feeling or sensation. I was always conflicted. I played basketball for a long time—I was a point guard—but I also skated—I was a skateboarder. I played in punk bands and I made sketch comedy videos with my buddies…
KJV: Yeah. I was in a few punk bands at first when I was younger. I played guitar. It was the equivalent of what you make in Painting I or Painting II or Sculpture I or Sculpture II: none of that shit matters! It’s about fucking around, getting weird, picking up some skills. Very rarely does somebody with master skills make any real sort of impression on me. But if you’re going to try to make paintings and you don’t know color or composition, that’s probably going to be a problem. If you’re going to try to make sculptures, you don’t necessarily need to understand how to weld, you don’t necessarily need to be great with any saw, you just need to intuitively know things like: How does this shit fit together? When I assemble these things, is it going to fall to shit? So basically, it’s like dick around a little bit, pick up some tools, learn how to paint or sculpt or make videos or sound or whatever, enough so that once your ideas and sense of self develop to a more sophisticated place, you’ll better be able to articulate yourself. So I feel like I was able to do that by being in those punk bands, and that led me to eventually be in free jazz bands and noise bands and far more punk things as far as I’m concerned.
JW: I feel like my bad feeling about punk is from hanging around people who just used punk to identify all the things they didn’t like, including and especially other people who call themselves punks.
KJV: Right, but I don’t think that that is by any means particular to punks. Any type of group is going to be like that. “That’s not punk enough,” “that’s fake punk,” “I’m not a hipster.” These conversations are inane, yet we all end up participating in them. This sort of talk bums me out. If I’m going to define what I think punk means to me, it’s being able to get to a place where you feel confident enough and mature enough to not have that conversation.
JW: To not give a fuck.
KJV: Yes. To not give a fuck. I mean, look at me…I’m wearing J. Crew chinos! You think I give a shit whether any mohawked ding-dongs think I’m punk or not punk? I mean, the point is: my art, my poetry, my critical essays, my painting, et cetera et cetera, they’re punk.
JW: It’s not like: “I’m wearing a leather jacket, therefore I’m punk,” it’s like “I have an attitude, therefore I’m punk.”
KJV: That’s all that matters to me.
JW: That helps.
KJV: Altman: punk director. Cassavetes: punk director. I mean, Cassavetes was like the most dapper man, too!
JW: I’ve never seen a picture of him, but his movies are fucking crazy.
KJV: He’s probably my favorite director. Have you seen Husbands?
JW: No. Have you seen The Long Goodbye?
KJV: Yeah! And what’s-his-face, Elliott Gould, you know what his other big role was? I mean, aside from Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, you know what else he’s really known for? Being Ross and Monica’s father on Friends…!
KJV: Yeah. That’s Elliott Gould from The Long Goodbye.
JW: I love the use of one song as the soundtrack.
KJV: Repetition! A lot of my favorite artists use repetition as a very effective device, and it’s something that I have definitely recognized—the power that it has had on me, seeing certain films. Spring Breakers is one of my favorite recent movies, and there is so much repetition in that movie. Spring Breakers will kind of put you in a trance. I think Harmony Korine is a really interesting example of a punk, or a transgressive artist, in the sense that I’m talking about these things. He’s just an interesting figure, period. He had all those sequential visits on the Letterman show, where he totally freaked out Dave—have you seen those?
JW: No, I haven’t. But tell me about them.
KJV: He went on a few times in the mid-late 90s. He was just “being himself,” whatever that means. But Dave couldn’t even try to understand or access his persona or vibe. He was later accused of snooping around Meryl Streep’s purse backstage during one of his visits. You know, people use the phrase “thrust in the spotlight,” but I feel like artists or athletes or whoever might get to that point (“the spotlight”) most likely wanted that their entire lives. There was probably a point where they were like, “I would love to be on the David Letterman show,” or “I would love to show at David Zwirner” or “I would love to play for the Yankees.” When you’re at that point, you know what you want and you’re just figuring out how to get it. For me, another thing that’s important is how you deal with that position: you’re placed in a position, you have volition, you have autonomy—if you want it—it’s there for the taking…
JW: What do you mean by autonomy?
KJV: You were talking about archetypes earlier, in whatever field, and how there are certain roles you’re supposed to play, certain duties or obligations you’re supposed to fulfill, but the best artists, the best athletes, the best musicians—or rather, my favorite artists, athletes, musicians, or whatever—don’t fulfill those duties or obligations; they redefine the roles, they try to figure out how they can determine their own destiny, as opposed to thinking that things actually need to be so predetermined. This is a major problem for me: “I chose to be an artist, so therefore I need to get my BFA from RISD; I need to get my MFA from Columbia; I need to go to Skowhegan; I need to do the Whitney Independent Study Program; I need to show at a gallery in the Lower East Side; then after two shows, I need to show at a gallery in Chelsea; after three shows, I need to…” It’s like, “Holy shit! It doesn’t have to be this way, guys!” I mean, it can be, and there is nothing wrong with that—I think certain artists who have followed that trajectory are really interesting artists that we should all pay close attention to, but a lot of them are very derivative and predictable because they follow this path that they feel has been set out for them in order to be a successful artist. And I think the same thing goes for film directors, musicians, athletes, whatever. Dennis Rodman, “The Worm,” is one of my favorite athletes ever. I mean, the guy averaged upwards of 20 rebounds a game for a large portion of his career and he did press conferences in wedding dresses, he dated women like Carmen Electra, he has had people like Phil Jackson say he’s one of his favorite players he’s ever been privileged to coach, that he’s the most athletic player he’s ever coached. And Phil has coached Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal. These are without a doubt some of the best players ever, and he was like, “That dude is a freak beyond freaks!” I admire the shit out of Dennis Rodman. And another example, Matt Korvette, the frontman of the band Pissed Jeans…he’s one of the better performance artists I’ve ever seen. That dude’s a wildly entertaining man and one slippery fish. I’d rather watch him do his thing on stage or in some basement than watch most people who are invited to perform at this or that biennial do whatever it is that they do. And I mean, Korvette comes from punk roots, too. But now he’s a claims adjuster, singing about going bald and having car problems. But it’s the attitude with which he presents the material that gives him agency and charms his fans. I think a lot of these self-righteous punks that you talk about having issues with, they seem to be the types of folks who believe the most punk thing you could ever do is to “kill your idol,” to “fuck shit up.” But actually, I think someone like Harmony…he fucks shit up, for sure, but he also gives a lot of respect and pays a lot of dues. He references the history of cinema, he references pop culture and includes pop cultural figures in his films, and he even does things like get Werner Herzog to star as a brutal father figure in Julien Donkey-Boy. For him, it’s not just about killing idols, it’s about understanding them. I think that’s a major thing that I respect about Harmony Korine. He seems to have a strange sense of empathy. People sometimes think he’s just a smartass, thumbing his nose and mocking people, trolling the hell out of Hollywood. But I think he has more curiosity and self-reflexivity than most people in his position. I just saw an ad for Dior that he directed, which was kind of hilarious to me. And he also recently had a solo show at Gagosian. For him to be able to get away with having a solo show at Gagosian and doing an ad for Dior, and neither of them totally sucking…that’s pretty punk. No?
JW: There’s a lot of bad performance art or things in galleries happening made by actors.
KJV: Well, he’s a director. And the show was a painting show. He had a painting show at Gagosian, and it was quite good.
JW: It wasn’t bad.
KJV: It was good.
JW: It was good? I’m impressed.
KJV: The paintings are actually good; they don’t just “not suck.” Generally speaking, I think he’s actually paying homage to folks, while also trying to carve his own path, which is radical to me, given the current circumstances of things. There seem to be plenty of naïve purists and distracted cynics who won’t acknowledge the benefits of accepting influences in the creation of one’s work. I mean, if you’re hanging out with good painters like Rita Ackerman and Christopher Wool, you’re going to notice a few things. But don’t just ape someone else’s style. You know?
[Roy Orbison comes on]
JW: I love it when Roy Orbison comes on.
KJV: You missed it. Before you came in, I was sitting here by myself and they played “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi, which I think is kind of funny given the stuff we’ve been talking about tonight. But anyways, I think the apprehension that it seems like you’re feeling as a result of punk, and directed towards punk is valid. I sort of address that at the beginning of the “Biting the Hand that Feeds You” essay, when I illustrate this teenage mall punk narrative. I think that certain people are unable to or feel like they lack the ability to grow out of that mentality. It’s one thing to have those tendencies or proclivities if you’re a 16-year-old brat, but if you’re a 32-year-old brat who thinks you’re fucking shit up in Barstow, California, get a grip. Seriously, man, get a grip. And it’s the same thing with graffiti culture, you know, tagging. The actual art form—graffiti art, well, what it has been turned into, that is “street art”—is, as far as I’m concerned, some of the worst art on the planet—but the culture surround tagging is fascinating to me.
JW: What’s the dividing line?
KJV: Having a city dictate or map out things out for you. “Hey, Pratt student or SFAI student, we’re designating this zone as a safe zone for you to do your thing, and make something really beautiful and colorful and vibrant that appeals to the community.” It’s like saying to a sculptor: “We have this park, why don’t you put a sculpture in it that won’t offend anybody, but that’s kind of big and expensive?”
JW: And even if it does offend somebody, it’ll be in a sculpture park, so people will encounter it expecting a certain offensiveness.
KJV: Basically, as long as there’s not a dick and there’s nothing political, it’s deemed acceptable. That’s why Richard Serra can make public sculptures, because it’s just like big sheets of rusty stuff. Or Mark di Suvero stacking I-beams. It’s just stuff. It’s the worst, man. We don’t need that shit. And we don’t need any more supposedly zany, but in reality, tepid wannabe Cartoon Network crap on the side of some building in Bushwick. I mean, come on. The chase, the allure, the territorial disputes, the swagger—that’s what’s interesting about tagging. But if you’re a 37-year-old, still just tagging? Yo dude, you need to stop. It’s not about tagging not being a valid art form or graffiti culture not being a valid art forum. But like…don’t you want to take it further? Don’t you want to go somewhere else? If all you’re doing is getting in disputes, if you’re just calling people out, at a certain point…it’s like, “Who cares? What’s the point?” Pusha T is a good example of what I’m talking about. He’s a guy who’s defining what progression means to him. And nobody is really questioning his legitimacy. That dude is legit, no doubt. But he’s also like, “Hey man, A$AP Rocky wants me to be on a track? Okay, that’s cool, whatever.” Or he’s like, “You want to put me on a track that’s going to be on Power 106? Word.” I mean, that’s like next level gangster—or punk—where you say, “I’m going to continue writing these lyrics and projecting this image that I’ve been working really hard at pushing forward all these years, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that, but on the other hand, if you’re going to give my persona and my product more visibility, hell yeah, I’ll take it.” That’s rad to me. Or in the case of Tino Sehgal, it’s like, “You’re going to pay me six figures to not give you anything tangible, and it’s going to be in cash? Fuck yeah. I’m in.” That’s rad, too. That’s some gangster-ass punk shit. The punks you’re talking about can’t really escape living in a world of capitalism. It’s like, okay…on the one hand, you can say there are certain punks who are not filling up their car with gas from Arco or BP or wherever. Instead, they’re putting some type of corn oil fusion whatever in the tank. Oh, and don’t forget…their car was definitely purchased used. And the only clothes that they purchase are from Goodwills and consignment stores and otherwise, they just wear hand-me-downs. It’s the same thing with freeganism and whatever else. You brainwash yourself into thinking that you’re doing the “right thing,” but in the end, you’re still driving a car, a car that at some point was produced by one of the more laissez-faire companies in the world! If you’re a freegan, you didn’t purchase those Levi’s, but who made those Levi’s? Whoever made them probably made them in the 70s, and labor laws were even worse back then! Instead of devising a system or making up rules that they think everybody else ought to abide by, they should maybe reconsider all of the contradictions inherent and apparent in their ideologies. And that’s the thing—they feel like the rest of the planet should be obliged to deal with their parameters they set up: “This is the right way of living, and anybody who would not acknowledge the merits of this belief system is out of their mind.” They’re the ones who are delusional. There is no distance. There is no self-reflexivity.
JW: I guess it’s like any system that functions needs entropy, needs a part of the system that doesn’t function at all—and from that non-functioning, the system gets better. So any sort of life system or economic system or ideological system needs the things or the people that are fucking it up, but it needs those things to be fucking it up in a way that’s predictable and predicted by the system. So what bothers me about punk is the extent to which punk only fills that role that the system needs in order to continue.
KJV: But that’s such a caricature. That’s a misrepresentation. If you’re a real punk, you’re not trying to fuck up someone’s day. What you’re trying to do is fuck with their current perspective. But you’re still a real person, trying to make rent, or you’re trying to pay for your kids or fill up your tank of gas to go back to work the next day. The people you’re describing don’t have this realization—it’s kind of cliché—but the realization of: “Oh my god, I’m becoming my mom” or “Oh my god, I’m becoming my dad.” They don’t have the realization of “Oh my god, I’m becoming the idol I tried to kill.” Angst has an expiration date.
Keith J. Varadi is at keithjvaradi.com.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. “Scripting Misperformance, Misperforming Scripts,” an essay co-written with Byron Peters, appears in the current issue of Fillip. objet a, a collection of improvised duos with guitarist Shane Perlowin, was released by Prom Night Records in May 2014.
“Out of the Mouths of Artists” is a new bi-monthly series on the Bad at Sports blog. The series presents a space for guest artist bloggers–of varying career statuses–to write, to reflect, to pontificate on their current situations, failures and/or successes, and ideas on what it means to be an artist. “Out of the Mouths of Artists” also gives readers a glimpse into artists’ portfolios and studios.
The Man who saw the Man who saw the Bear
Guest Post by Michael Gimenez
For my first trip to the United States in the summer of 2000, I accompanied a contemporary dance company on tour in several Michigan towns as their photographer. I was afraid to live this journey through the visual prism of thousands of hours of American television series and movies that had saturated my mental images. I promised myself that I would look at each thing with virgin eyes, cleaned of any cinematographic references. Upon landing in Chicago, the view offered up and framed by the plane window struck me: I clearly remember having the impression of traveling through a TV screen, materialized by a yellowish haze and a myriad of swimming pools.
My very first vision of the American territory was exactly like a thousand other shots I had seen on television series. An aerial shot above a sunny metropolis.
Baseball fields. Traffic. Highways. Reflections. Skyscrapers. That was a bad start.
Twelve years later, some of which were spent in the School of Fine Arts of Montpellier in France and some producing art in Prague in Czech Republic, I planned a second trip to the United States. I had decided to fulfill a desire growing inside of me since first viewing motion pictures that had been made in the U.S.A.—a desire that 95% of French boys from my generation secretly wished to achieve. A road-trip across America. Skyscrapers. Spanish moss. Dusty roads. Red sunsets. Close encounters?
July 2012: Before I leave, my friends tell me that during their stay in a campsite a few hours from New York, they saw bears sneaking around their tent and eating their food. They tell me to be careful because I will probably cross paths with some during my trek.
For this trip, I also aimed to start a film project questioning why we still want to see and represent Native Americans as imaginary Indians. For this reason, I decided to stay a few days on the Pine Ridge reservation in Wounded Knee, which would be my last stop before dropping the car off that I had borrowed in Chicago. Wounded Knee is a highly symbolic place within Native history. It’s where more than 150 men, women and children were massacred in 1890, and it later became the catalyst of the American Indian Movement. The day before I hit the road to Wounded Knee, I looked at one of the movement leaders’ Wikipedia page—born in Pine Ridge, activist but also movie actor, Russell Means. I was surprised to see a date of death beside his name, thinking that it was a mistake. I was immediately stupefied to learn he had died that very day. For lack of meeting Russell Means in person, I would go to his funeral. He had returned to the reservation to die. A missed encounter.
September 2012: While I’m stopped in Marfa, Texas, the young French girl who is hosting me tells me all about the beauties of Big Bend Park, where she and her friends had met a bear, and how it was wonderful.
I recently started creating 3D models of edifices and monuments to incorporate into Google Earth. I started it somewhat spontaneously after finding out that the factory chimney towering over my hometown of Rive-de-Gier, which is classified as an historical monument, didn’t exist in this virtual world. The chimney is more than a century old and is as high as the hills that surround the industrial valley where I grew up. At one point in history, it was the tallest chimney in all of Europe, standing 360 feet tall. The landmark is visible from many spots over town, even from my parent’s house. My dad worked in the metallurgic factory connected to the chimney for 45 years.
Currently, I am finishing a model for the gate and memorial of the Wounded Knee cemetery. Next, I will make the Haymarket Square Memorial. On May 1st of this year, I found out that International Workers’ Day originates from the workers’ struggle to install an eight-hour shift right here in Chicago, back in 1886. Many of them were killed. These types of edifices also need to exist on the virtual globe.
Mid-September 2012: While crossing the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, I give a ride to Native hitchhiker who is going back home to Kayenta. When he gets out of the car, he tells me to be careful because there are a lot of wild animals on the road. I won’t see a single one.
For the past three months, I have been working on a documentary about a movie that made a mark on me when I saw it in the nineties, and didn’t receive fair recognition. Clearcut is a great thriller, but it primarily presents an unseen and non-stereotypical characterization of Natives. The Canadian film was actually made by Polish director Ryszard Bugajski. In April of this year, just before leaving for Chicago, I met and interviewed Ryszard in Warsaw. His analysis regarding the way his film was received in North America—very well by Native people, very badly by Canadians—was revealing for me. He defended the proposition that a European person would actually be in a better position to depict a sensitive and typically American issue like Native genocide. Ryszard himself had to flee Poland to Canada to escape the Communist regime; he knows about oppression. Empathetic, but impartial. Free of guilt.
End of September 2012: I’m in California, halfway into my road trip. The grizzly waving on the state flag is the only bear I have seen so far.
The more I learn about the United States, the better understanding I have of European history. Because I lived in Central Europe for several years, I can now see the Polish, the Czech and the Hungarian influence on the construction of American history (especially on cinema) and on Chicago, which houses the largest Polish community in the U.S. and the artists’ neighborhood Pilsen.
October 2012: I stay for a few days in Yellowstone Park, set on seeing a bear. Bears are extremely active in the fall because they have to fill up before going into hibernation. The park is overpopulated… with warning signs explaining how to hide your food and stay alert, et cetera. Instead, I venture off treks with my camera as my only weapon. Not a single fur.
I also approach my work by focusing on new formats generated by what we call “the Internets”. I make use of different on-line media (comments, forums, YouTube, Google Earth, newspapers, etc.) as raw material to incorporate in my installations. For instance, in the installation Punctum Remotum, I wrote a short novel narrating various YouTube videos. And in the video Drammatical, I transformed the user-comments of an online USA Today article into a multi-dialogued video.
November 2012: Just before I return to Europe, a friend takes me to the Chicago Zoo so I can at least see a real-life bear on American soil. It’s already very cold, and the zoo seems to be asleep. Most of the animals are trying to keep warm. We finally reach the bear neighborhood to find the other side of the fences completely deserted. We run to the polar bears’ swimming pool—it’s empty. Even the polar bears are cold in Chicago? Anyway, they’re invisible. At least until spring.
Today, two months after landing in the Windy City for the fourth time, I’m starting to seriously get used to the idea of living, working and creating in this city. Then my girlfriend is offered her dream job—a job that will take us away for three years to Glasgow. Scotland. Back to Europe.
I look at the red carnation that has been poised in a glass jar on the kitchen table for more than two weeks. Its petals haven’t quivered. In this country, flowers don’t rot. The red flower is mocking me as if she knew she was just a picture. Eternal. Virtual.
Now, I think back to a typically French expression used to define a person who speaks of things about which he doesn’t know: “the man who saw the man who saw the bear.”
Michael Gimenez (b. 1977) received a MFA from the School of Fine Arts of Montpellier, France. Recent exhibitions include ‘Rio, Ano Zero’ at 37a Mostra Internacional de Cinéma, São Paulo; ‘Global Locals’ at Galerie NTK, Prague; ‘Drammatical’ at ETC gallery, Prague; ‘Exuvies’ at Galerie 35, French Institute, Prague; ‘Punctum Remotum’ at Galerie Living-Room, Montpellier; and ‘C’est mieux si on reste amis.’ at Galerie Saint-Ravy, Montpellier. See more of Giminez’s work at www.michaelgimenez.com.
Guest post by Erin Leland
Staged inside the 2014 Whitney Biennial, three operas, originally written and scored by American composer Robert Ashley, and currently directed by Alex Waterman, took place: Vidas Perfectas, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, and Crash.
A floor to ceiling mirror forms part of the stage backdrop in both Vidas Perfectas and The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer, and in Vidas, video cameras shoot around and behind the actors through mirror reflection for in-camera image overlays. E.S.P. TV, an organization dedicated to live studio broadcast, real-time edits the multiple camera angles and transformations into the live-feed television taping in front of the audience. The live feed composition changes according to a written score, melding shots of the performers with scenic footage from a town, coordinated in time with the language spoken on stage.Vidas Perfectas is the seven episode Spanish version of opera-for-television, Perfect Lives, performed live in varying incarnations since 1978. In July, Vidas Perfectas will be performed in El Paso, Texas; Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and Marfa, Texas.
Actors enter the scene with their lines printed in hand. Strict memorization is never a part. Memorization of lines might be impossible. Plot premises are visible right away, however hypnotic the scripted effect. In Vidas Perfectas, there is a bank robbery, a marriage, a getaway, a distraction – the plot endlessly ropes. Yet, the plot twists fall away, and as it seems – none of it ever mattered. Only the plot’s textured details are omniscient: the returning Bartender, virtuoso piano playing, gossip. Plot is a regurgitation of a television drama through a border town.
I interviewed a performer in Vidas Perfectas, Raul de Nieves, and asked: “Originally, Perfect Lives was set on the Illinois and Indiana border. Is Vidas Perfectas set in a particular place on the Mexican border, or is it anywhere or everywhere on the border?”
Raul: “I think it’s anywhere and everywhere on the border. Vidas Perfectas, the Spanish version of Perfect Lives, to me is more like songs. I remember the first time I crossed the border here, when I moved from Mexico to California. Once you cross, you can’t go back, or you could, if you have papers. Borders, they do exist. It’s a very important piece of land that divides everything.”
I also spoke to Elisa Santiago, a performer alongside Raul in Vidas, “You played more than one character in the play?”
Elisa: “Everyone plays a few voices. Sometimes more percussive, sometimes more airy, sometimes more determined. And Alex (Waterman) always insisted that sometimes we are speaking from the character’s voice, but sometimes we are speaking from the landscape.”
Raul played several characters – the Captain of the Football Team, the Bartender, and as he said, “the way it was explained to me was, I was one of these voices that are supposed to not be there – ”
Erin: “Part of a chorus?”
Raul: “Like those voices in the back of your head that are telling you what to do or what not to do.”
Qualities in common between the three operas are slowed speech in stark surroundings, an onslaught of talking. Intermittent information leaks into the set from the world – a discussion of statistics, footage of a rolling highway, photographs of talent agency advertisements, and questions, like, “Have you ever used the telephone to falsify your identity?”
Ashley writes operas about being ill at ease. The scripts are composed largely of conversations. Either the plot or the conversation, depending on the opera, becomes hard to follow. For example, The Trial of Anne Opie Wehrer presents a person on trial – in the original it was performed by Anne Opie Wehrer, a friend and collaborator of Ashley’s. The new version put four distinct personalities on trial over four performances during which the tone changed from combative to manic to squeamish. Elisa: “In the Trial, for instance, there are proxy characters and interrogators – the proxies could answer real answers from their own lives, or answers through Anne’s story. They had really researched Anne’s biography and her answers, and they could give her answers.”
Interrogators sit behind the person on trial and ask questions, until, at some point the question-askers begin to become the answer-givers, forming a interrogative chorus from behind. An interrogative meditation.
Elisa Santiago described Ashley’s method for writing scores, “Some thoughts are very short within a longer thought. There is the thought, and the reaction to the thought, in one line. It’s almost like he is asking something and answering it in the the same line. Almost talking to himself.”
Robert Ashley scripts are speech patterns built, at times, from Ashley’s own, real-life speech impediment. Ashley learned to speak slowly in order to calm a stutter. He replicated his own mannerisms in written scripts for actors to perform. The performers learn to speak by beats.
A most pronounced example comes from Crash:
The Journal [Year 2]
At two years old I got e—
I was a baby sitting in water in an iron tub on a metal t—
There’s an electric wall plug right there and wh—
Next thing is that some part of me is up in the up—
upper southwest corner of the room,
watching my mother and my grandmother
shaking my body and c—
I keep wondering why the up—
upper southwest corner.
The other day I read about a man w—
who got electrocuted by accident.
He says he was in the up—
upper southwest corner.
“Our safe anchor is the page,” said Elisa, “but you can be a little open. Even though time is very specific – you never want to lose that beat, if a piece is in 5 or in 7, we don’t want to lose the 7, but sometimes things get more circular. It’s always not so sharp. If we drift a little in this thing, becoming a little more open, then as a listener, you don’t know where the 7 goes, and that’s when I love it the most. As a dancer and as an improviser, I always loved that moment when you have time so in you, when you’ve been counting a little too much, almost you can stop counting. The beat – it’s inside. And you can be above it.”
I asked Raul, “You were usually speaking in time with another performer, Elisa. Did it help you to keep time with someone else?”
Raul: “It’s actually harder. If either of us jumped a page or a couple of paragraphs, I’d wonder, how do we get back? You have to silence yourself to get back.”
Erin: “And then did it have a lasting impression on you to have learned how to speak someone else’s voice?”
Raul: “Yes, I’ll be doing my own work and then suddenly my voice starts sounding different. You know, especially when I’m just performing in front of someone, it’s almost like it’s already in my head, and it wants to come out again.”
Ashley’s final, autobiographically-derived opera, Crash, debuted in the Whitney Biennial shortly after Robert Ashley died this year at 83. Three kinds of dialogue form the script: a catalog of each year of Ashley’s life, from age one until age eighty-four, each year journaled in a two or three sentence summary; a telephone conversation about researched superstitions, for example, a person’s height as it relates to success, or the female – ten, and male – fourteen, year life cycles; and finally, a melodic and detached retelling of a man’s collapsing spells in social settings, especially around people thought to be important.
At the time of Robert Ashley’s death, numerous memorial postings appeared on the internet featuring remembrances. One in particular brought to mind an image of Robert Ashley standing on the border of a crowd – composer Alvin Lucier wrote, “I remember standing with him at gatherings in the Midwest, simply listening to people talking. He once remarked that, to his ears, the dull roar of many people talking was symphonic.”
Based in New York, Erin Leland is an artist using photography, writing and video. She has recently exhibited in the group exhibition, White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart at the ICA in Philadelphia and in her solo exhibition, Everything is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas. A new series of photographs is included in the group show, Psychic Panic, in Pittsburgh, on view through June 29.