Guest Post by Lise McKean
Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams
Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Galleries 182-184)
Until May 18, 2014
In Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, 10 scroll paintings hang throughout the galleries from ceiling to inches off the floor (10 x 6 feet). The scrolls (casein tempera on canvas) are painted and stenciled with figurative, decorative, and verbal evocations of Kashmir past and present, of daily life during times of violence and peace. They fill the galleries with color, form, and movement, with sorrow and delight.
Over decades of artistic practice Sheikh’s initial modernist orientation accrued layers of contemporary and art historical references. Engagement with South Asian regional painting practices as well as with artistic production including textiles, stencils, and calligraphy further enriches her visual and technical repertoire. From the start Sheikh’s work beat with pulse of its times and environs. For example, the murder of a girl she knew gave rise to When Champa Grew Up (1984). This series of 12 works brought image together with Gujarati poetry, making visible—and felt—in a new way the realities of child marriage, extortionate dowry demands, and the burning to death of brides by husbands and in-laws.
Sheikh’s work in her 2003 exhibition at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, The Country without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali, was inspired by Ali’s poetry. That is, readings of Ali fostered her development of a visual language for Kashmir. For example, her use of the bhand, a narrator-like figure of satire and buffoonery in Kashmiri folk theatre. The title of the Art Institute’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, is drawn from a line in Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” Eight of the show’s scrolls were created between 2003 and their 2010 exhibition at Gallery Chemould. Sheikh created an additional two, We Must Bear and Hunarmand (one with a talent or gift) for this 2014 exhibition.
When talking with me about her work, Sheikh said she prefers “sizes and scales that have potential for extension and openness.” She added that this potential is not linked to size alone, and noted that miniature painting has structures within it that allow for adding on, extending, and moving from one pictorial space to another. In her view, the scrolls’ life-size scale allows the space to be traversed as in mural painting and set design.
About her methods, Sheikh said that sometimes she made preparatory sketches and studies for the scrolls, but that the process of painting them was improvisational, adding, “I make changes as I go along.” Collaboration is vital to Sheikh’s approach. She has longstanding artistic partnerships with sign painters and stencil makers, particularly sahji stencil makers Sanjoy Soni and the family of Vishnu Prasad of Mathura. She also spoke about the “workshop” character of her studio, in which current and former students provide “people power” for the labor intensive work of preparing, stenciling, and lettering the large scrolls.
Valley is the first painting the visitor sees when entering the gallery and was Sheikh’s first work in this series. Valley is a lyric portrait of Kashmir, gorgeous and green with meandering rivers, lapis blue lakes, evergreens flanking a tall plane tree, and hills rising to distant mountain peaks. Ornamental geometric and floral stenciling whispers its presence like the rustle of silk.
Contrasting with Valley’s visual harmony, the narrative and pictorial structure and use of color in the scroll, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, brings to mind the syncopated rhythms and fragments of dreams. Here, rectangles and squares frame figures—the bhand, two musicians beneath a golden tree, an elongated woman looking over her shoulder—slices of landscape, and textile-like stenciling. A vertical swathe of midnight blue encompasses a domed building with darkened doors, an abode of sleep, dreams, and cauchemar.
Hanging from the ceiling rather than up against the wall, Sheikh’s two-sided scrolls descend into the galleries. The viewer can circumambulate each one, moving from its image-filled front to textual materials on the back drawn from poetry, myth, legend, and historical archives. The text on each scroll introduces viewers to diverse undercurrents in Sheikh’s historical imagination—ideas, experiences, and memories that animate and flow through the work. Yet textual reference is not a formal basis for her image-making. She develops her own vocabulary of image, material, and technique in response to specific visual and aesthetic concerns.
Sheikh’s scrolls pose complex questions about present and past, about what is lived, dreamt, suppressed and forgotten, and about what needs to be seen, remembered, and felt. She is as leery of historical interpretations that invoke Eurocentric views of progress as she is of those invoking timeless tradition and undying enmity. When speaking of the ideas and concerns underlying the series Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, Sheikh told me, “The work has been a learning process to make visible various worlds.”
The scenes on some of the scrolls evoke the violence assailing Kashmir in recent decades and centuries past. She shows violence stalking daily life and prowling in myth and legend. Weapons abound—demonic claws, daggers, ax, mace, sword, and guns. A goddess hurls a mountain to destroy the demon menacing Kashmir. Nearby a lion’s claws tear into the underbelly of a bull. Elsewhere a demon dangles a sword over a picnicking family. Pearl-like tears stream down delicate faces of cloud goddesses as they mourn Kashmir’s lost paradise. A kneeling woman weeps red tears in a corpse-strewn field.
A few days before writing this, I made a refresher visit to the exhibition. A South Asian family was sitting on bench outside the gallery—a man and woman with their two-month-old daughter sleeping in her carriage and the man’s grey-haired parents. When I asked if they had seen the Sheikh exhibition, the son took charge and answered yes. He had heard about it and since they were coming downtown for an immigration appointment, they came together to see it. He told me they’re from Pakistan and he has Kashmiri friends at home. For him Sheikh’s exhibition shows how Kashmiris in India are suffering. After a moment he added that the dispute over Kashmir hurts everyone in both countries because they’re neighbors and it keeps them from being at peace.
Indeed, Sheikh doesn’t avert her gaze or ours from Kashmir’s plague of violence, loss, and sorrow. Yet she refuses to reduce Kashmir’s present to violence or its history to battles and brigands. Her scrolls also make visible other histories of Kashmir—times when antagonism between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, did not afflict Kashmir. Imagining other possible presents and futures for Kashmir, Sheikh alludes to Kashmiriyat, a centuries-old belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence among the region’s ethnic and religious groups. Construction Site, with its scenes of making and building presided over by the towering bhand, extols another vision of Kashmir. Anonymous laborers build cities and terrace hillsides using their intelligence, energy, skill, and tools. Here, constructive collaboration has the upper hand over violent conflict and destruction.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is visible outside of the gallery, and its size and curious detail might beckon visitors into the exhibition. This work also is closest to the exit, and thus positioned as the exhibition’s final scroll. This scroll echoes Sheikh’s Rozgar series (2011), which draws on a nineteenth century manuscript illustrating Kashmir’s professions. Hunarmand celebrates the many ways that Kashmiris manifest their talent and skill: as ironsmiths, farmers, weavers, embroiderers, papier mâché makers and painters, carpenters, dancers, musicians, boatmen—and even a scribe. Unlike the other scrolls, the relaxed grid structuring the space on Hunarmand’s front side includes large chunks of text alongside its images.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is a painting inspired by legendary Kashmiri works of art commissioned by the king to be bestowed as royal gifts. Teams of artists took years to create incomparably beautiful shawls embroidered with a map of the Vale of Kashmir. History tells us these precious gifts brought prestige to their recipients and acclaim to the king and gifted artists of Kashmir.
Sheikh’s scrolls and their details photograph beautifully. However, the vitality and complexity—and yes, aura—of these works of contemporary art exceed digital or verbal capture. Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams generously rewards face-to-face viewers, and especially those who slow down and look closely. When talking about the aesthetic sensibility that infuses her work, Sheikh commented, “Beauty isn’t an end in itself. Within every language, a work comes together to make beauty possible. Created by a hunarmand whose talents are at full strength, Sheikh’s scrolls make visible nuanced and moving worlds while giving rise to others in the imagination. In response to my question about the conjunction of beauty and violence in the scrolls, she replied, “You don’t have to use violent forms for violent things. You can talk about pain tenderly.”
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Aandrea Stang in her office, which sits waist-level with passing-by students on their way to the dormitory across the way, twice. The second time, I brought her a raspberry glaze cronut from the donut place near my house, which, like most donut places in LA, is called LA 24-Hour Donut or Donut 24-Hour LA or LA Donut 24-hour or something like that. Their cronuts are truly marvelous, and their donuts are great. Their coffee is terrible. I asked Aandrea about the program she now runs at Occidental College, a small, residential liberal arts college nestled the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles. That program, OxyArts, is currently presenting We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a participatory sculpture project by Los Angeles-based artist collective Finishing School in collaboration with artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher (on view through May 9), and The Trouble Between Us: An exhibition organized by Kenneth Tam (on view through April 19). Watch a time-lapse video of the installation of We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a full-size replica of a MQ-1B Predator drone aircraft that was covered in mud over the course of two days by participants from Occidental College and beyond, here.
JW: Do you have free reign over all aspects of what you’re doing here?
AS: Do I have free reign to do whatever I want here?
AS: Can you narrow the question please?
JW: I guess that’s just a really roundabout way of asking what you’re doing here. What is OxyArts? What are you meant to be doing? What is its relation to the school? It looks to me like it’s the sort of thing that an art institution—a museum—that’s attached to a college operates, like the Wattis [at the California College of the Arts] or whatever, but there’s no museum here—I mean I guess there’s the gallery, but…so is it an offshoot of the gallery?
AS: Well, the college president is really interested in the arts. He was at the New School before he came here, and he likes contemporary art—he has a stumbling-on-a-Jenny-Holzer story that he likes to tell. He really is interested in seeing the college’s arts programming be more visible, and he’s also interested in the college having a greater relationship to the arts community in southern California. So, as the one urban liberal arts school in southern California, and perhaps in California and possibly—I mean, I don’t know how many residential urban liberal arts schools there are—so the president really wants to take advantage of that and position this school as having a partnership/relationship with the arts community in southern California. There was a strategic plan written for the college several years ago and the arts were really strongly written into the strategic plan, and they saw my availability as an opportunity.
JW: What is the strategic plan a strategy towards?
AS: I haven’t read the whole thing, but it talks about where the college is ideally headed. Before this president came in, there was a lot of tumult; there was three or four presidents in two years. The economic downturn impacted the endowment. The school wasn’t in an ideal place, so the strategic plan was written to move forward—to aggressively move forward. [Occidental College president Jonathan] Veitch wanted to have the arts included. So I’ve been brought in to manage the brand of the arts, and especially the presenting component of the arts, on the campus, to the campus itself and also to a larger audience outside the campus. The overall list of things they want from this office is pretty long…
JW: Were you able to whittle down the list of things? It sounds like you’re asked to do everything.
AS: Yeah. For example they’d like me to be in charge of the college’s collection, which is currently housed in special collections in the college’s library, and given the pressing responsibilities the collection’s going to have to stay there until plans and policies are created. Additionally I am overseeing the gallery program and they are interested in seeing interventionist projects occurring on campus.
JW: Are you supposed to write any curricula or teach any classes? Or is it mostly an administrative position?
AS: For right now it’s an administrative position. We’ve talked about my teaching—and I adjuncted before I came here, teaching a class on how LA became a modern and contemporary art city—but it was agreed when I signed my letter for this job, while it was presented to me as a job description, that what I was signing was the description for my office, not for my job.
JW: It seems like you have some qualms—how much you’re being asked to do. Were you sort of trepidatious about working here, or…
AS: No. I’m not afraid of hard work, that’s fine. I was nervous about coming to an academic institution and what that meant—
JW: What does that mean?
AS: At MOCA, there was an acceptance that anything presented there was art. You know, you’re at MOCA, this is a project that’s being produced by MOCA, usually what I was doing was within the bounds of MOCA—not always within the physical space—but it was a museum project and therefore it was accepted as art. Here, the art department is small. Overall there are about 2000 students and I would say maybe 30 of them are art majors, or visual arts majors, so when you’re putting on a big project like Finishing School’s We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust or Liz Collins’ Knitting Nation, people don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at. Since this campus is used so much for film shoots, half the time the students assume that an artwork is part of a set.
JW: Wow, ok.
AS: Welcome to southern California. This was California University for Beverly Hills 90210, and it’s been every college campus you’ve ever seen in the movies and on TV. Part of my learning curve is understanding that that’s the dynamic here.
JW: I noticed that the first couple of things you did here were in the gallery.
AS: The first thing I did was Liz Collins’ project, Knitting Nation, which I did with the sculpture professor [Mary Beth Heffernan] She and her sculpture students were very involved in the project—one of the course assignments was to work with Collins on the project. I was more involved in a managerial, administrative, logistical role. Going into the project I didn’t know Liz, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but it was a good first project. We got on well and the collaboration with Mary Beth was a supportive way to ease myself into how things work at Occidental.
JW: How is OxyArts funded? Is it funded entirely by the college’s endowment or are there also private donors?
AS: One of my constraints here is budget, so I can’t do a lot of big programs until I have proper funding in place. Fortunately a generous family foundation is supporting an artist-in-residence program that’s starting this fall. Lucky Dragons is going to be our first semester-long artist-in-residence, which we’re really excited about. The foundation was interested in seeing the Artist in Residence program start last fall but since I had just started at Occidental I explained that it was too soon to put an effective plan in place. Their response was remarkable. They asked what kind of projects we could do for the coming year. We discussed these smaller residencies, which they were very amenable to. That’s when I began to consider what was possible.
JW: Do you think people receive these projects differently here than they would have had you done them at MOCA?
AS: Yeah, well the first gallery show [Devon Tsuno: Watershed] was really well received. It was comprised of lush beautiful paintings and other attractive elements. The show that’s up now [The Trouble Between Us organized by Kenneth Tam] doesn’t appeal to a general audience as much, but it starts an interesting dialogue. The students studying time-based media are mostly working in either documentary or fictional narrative, so this show has been an interesting teaching tool for their professors. I don’t know how the drone would have been received had it been sited in an art environment. It may have been perceived as didactic. Here I think it works. Here it is pedagogical. The artists understand their audience. When I was told that there is one military veteran enrolled on campus, that made me that much more interested in doing this project. The airmen controlling the drones—or playing the videogames that control the drones—are the same age as the students here. And if there’s a class thing that you accept about who’s in our military now—that’s not the student body here. It is my assumption that the Occidental student body doesn’t have much of a relationship with our present-day military. I think making that actually tangible is an interesting thing. And there’s the whole making it tangible part, having people come and put the mud on it.
JW: To be part of this celebratory social experience of putting a drone in mud.
AS: Yeah, and having it be this sort of generous, barn-raising kind of moment where you’re patting down hellfire missiles. I think that has had a pretty provocative impact on the community here. On Friday I had an art history student in my office who was asking for some direction about a job after college. It wasn’t a conversation she was particularly comfortable having with me, a stranger. We got to talking about the drone project, and her whole demeanor changed. She went from being very reserved to very honestly and comfortably expressing her excitement about the project. There’s a student in either history or politics doing a paper on it; one of the Diplomacy and World Affairs professors used it for her drone unit. It’s getting some traction. I think in a museum I might’ve pushed the artists away from a project like this.
JW: Because it was too didactic?
AS: Yeah. And here that gets flipped around and handled well. The setting of a beautiful college campus, the fact that every movie gets shot here because it looks like Joe College, that works to the advantage of this project. If you’d put this in front of something that looks like what we think a contemporary art museum looks like, how exciting would that be? I mean it’s still a big giant airplane covered in mud with Hellfire missiles, so it would still be exciting, but I think the setting…
JW: And it’s not even in front of an art building, it’s in front of an auditorium, right?
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it works here.
JW: How would you say the work you’re doing here relates to the work you were doing at MOCA?
AS: Engagement Party—how to answer this?—it’s really interesting to look at this from the other side. You know, when we got the funding for the project I was really excited, and I had also been at the museum for eight years at that point, so…
JW: What had you been doing until then?
AS: Public programs. That had started to stretch into other programming. We received funding from the Irvine Foundation, as part of their Artistic Innovation Fund. At the time they were inviting the big cultural institutions in California—not just museums, but the symphony orchestras and the big theaters—to apply for projects that would be innovative in terms of both the artistic program—in how the institution interacted with its audience—and also innovative in a managerial sense. A lot was asked of this program. I had been interested in what we now think of as social practice for a long time. I had been looking at community-based art-making—what it was in the 1970s and 80s, what it became in the 90s, and how that transmogrified into what we think of as social practice. At the time of the application I was very involved in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, working towards remaking his Happenings as part of the exhibition. For the year leading up to the exhibition opening I had been studying his work. As a result one of the things that I thought was important was to think about the idea of innovation broadly: how in a collecting museum do you support non-object-based work? On the managerial side of things, MOCA had always claimed that it was committed to hiring artists and other culture workers. That idea influenced how I selected the project team. I chose either front-line or junior-level staffpeople—in some instances, middle-management—from most departments. This group collectively was responsible for both the managerial and curatorial oversight for this project.
JW: How long were people on this decision-making board?
AS: As long as they wanted to be. There were some people that were on it from beginning to end, four of us I think. For various reasons other people rotated out and were replaced, usually by people from the same department. We tried to keep a representative balance.
JW: And it was a consensus-based decision-making thing?
AS: Yeah. And you know, museums are pretty hierarchical spaces and it was really hard for a lot of people to accept the flat management within the pyramid, to cut the line thorugh the triangle. It was interesting to me who wanted to be involved, who didn’t want to be involved, and which department heads were willing to have their people be part of the project. In some cases, the people who I thought were going to be totally behind it, didn’t want to give up that much of their person’s time, and…
JW: How much of a person’s time was it?
AS: It was a an hour and a half meeting each week. With each cycle, as we drew closer to project dates, there were more things to do and more of the group members’ time was needed.
JW: How big was the group?
AS: The original group was thirteen people including one full-time staff person dedicated to the project.
JW: How did a typical meeting go? Was it you present a project and then talk about it and then vote?
AS: It was everything from soup to nuts. When we first started, I presented the group with the framework of the program, explaining that as a group we would have to complete the program design. At the same time—because of the limited timeline—we were working on the program design and making decisions about what artists we were going to be selecting. During the selection process for the first artists with whom we’d work, I was scheduled to go on vacation to Montana. I let the group know that while I was gone they needed to make a decision from the final two or three artist groups. It wasn’t a tactic on my part. I was going to be away, my voice was one of thirteen and we needed to keep the process moving. I got back, they had chosen the artists, and they understood that I was serious when I said that the program was a going to be a consensus-based management process and that they were really part of it. It wasn’t intentional; I was just going to Montana because I needed some time away.
JW: Where did the name come from?
AS: One of the educator’s husbands came up with it. We were trying to come up with a good name, and I asked widely for help. I don’t like having my picture taken and I can’t come up with interesting names for projects. Bonnie’s husband came up with it. Thank you William.
JW: It’s a good name.
AS: It’s a good name. It’s sort of a double-edged sword, though, because the artists doing the projects wanted to be taken seriously and if the work is part of something called Engagement Party is it really serious?
JW: Well, for one thing, there’s also political parties and those are pretty serious.
JW: But also I feel like something that’s nice about Engagement Party is that, at least in the social practice environment now, looking back at Engagement Party, it’s nice to see something that isn’t being weighed down by overly—it’s not couched in terms that are only accessible to people that are within this very small niche of social practice within the art world.
AS: That was the whole intention—and I think coming out of an education department had a lot to do with that. We thought a lot about and worked on how to present work that would garner the interest of the younger art world set, but would also will be something that a wider audience could participate in.
JW: Why were these audiences not already going to MOCA?
AS: They were, but the point was to try to get them more invested in the institution, not just as a place to visit but as something they were a part of, and what makes you feel more of a part of something than social practice?
AS: A place like MOCA needs to accept that it is an elitist institution, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—if you have an extremely limited amount of leisure time, unless you’re deeply dedicated to art, MOCA’s not going to be your first choice of what to do. Coming here was stimulating to me because that notion of audience is completely turned around, and I’m really interested in exploring that. Not everybody’s coming to the projects with any kind of aesthetic language, much less the same one—or they have an aesthetic language, but don’t know what it is, and I find that a really motivating challenge.
JW: How to make things make sense to people—how to make them intelligible as art?
AS: Does it matter that it’s an artwork? If a bunch of people are knitting on mechanical knit machines, and students are walking through the same space, what is their engagement? Are they there to watch, are they there because their economics professor wants—to talk about things, including labor…
JW: Like labor practices? Like people knitting as labor? Were they being paid?
AS: The artist was being paid, the non-student participants were being paid, and the student participants were there as part of a class assignment and were not being paid.
JW: Huh. Sounds like that would make a good class about labor practices.
AS: With Devon’s exhibitions, one room was painting, and one room had sculptural objects that looked very mundane, very banal, but were all hand-produced. I think Devon’s show was a really good moment with the students because I think they started to understand that a lot of things are artwork…
JW: Or a lot of things could be artwork…I guess maybe that’s the exciting thing about being here, is that a person can just walk by the drone and not think about it. Like inhabit the same space as it, but not notice it as art or even think to notice as art, not be an audience or a participant or a viewer or whatever—just be walking by.
AS: Last Friday, the senior media majors showed their final projects, their films. They had a reception beforehand in the plaza in front of that auditorium, where the drone is sited. Every person attending the event was forced to interact with the project in some way. Some people were just trying to move around it—in a Tilted Arc kind of way. But many people were really engaging it.
JW: Is that something that you—are you always interested in what’s going to happen? Is that something you look for in projects? The possibility of a scenario where you don’t know what’s going to happen?
AS: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the product of too much time spent with Kaprow. I don’t know how happy I would be working in circumstances where I know what the end result is going to be. I like working on projects that have some element of random chance. As a result, working on the exhibitions in the galleries has been interesting for me—exploring how that fits into what I’m thinking about. I like not knowing the outcomes of an art project. That said, I can appreciate people that go to the symphony to see the same piece of music many times. Whenever I go to MOMA I tend to go see the same works. And there’s comfort in that—but I don’t always like to be comfortable. Of course, I say this from this place where…
JW: We’re sitting under a veranda in comfy chairs with birds singing.
AS: Right, I find that a little—I don’t know. Look at what Pussy Riot is doing, or any number of political art groups—you know, they’re uncomfortable! I’m not uncomfortable.
JW: It seems like the experience you’re seeking here, with the projects you’re setting up, is this sort of aesthetic discomfort. Students walking into the gallery and seeing a milk crate that isn’t a milk crate introduces the idea that any milk crate might be a work of art, which is a different possibility. It’s a different sort of discomfort, which I guess is valued differently—because, you know, we like heroes and dying and all that—but it’s discomfort nonetheless.
AS: Yeah. I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of their situation. Sometimes something’s just a shopping cart, sometimes it’s not. Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork. Does looking at a Donald Judd make you look at ductwork differently? Kind of.
Aandrea Stang is the recently appointed director of OxyArts, a newly created multidisciplinary arts programming initiative at Occidental College. From 2002 until 2012 she served as Senior Education Program Manager at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) where she developed and produced the museum’s public programming. From 2008 to 2012 she oversaw MOCA’s Engagement Party program, which offered Southern California–based artist collectives opportunities to make new artworks, interacting with the museum in unexpected ways. Stang has held positions at local government and community-based arts organizations and served on the boards of several arts organizations.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. His recording with guitarist Shane Perlowin, objet a, on tape cassette and for digital download, will be released by Prom Night Records on May 6th, 2014.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Dallas Day article, artist Brittany Ransom dishes on what she, a recent Midwesterner-cum-Dallasite, finds exciting about the Big D.
Dallas Is Hot
Guest post by Brittany Ransom
I arrived in Dallas in the fall of 2011 and my first thought was “Dallas is hot.” I happened to move here just in time to land in the middle of a sweltering 60-something day streak of temperatures climaxing over 100 degrees. There was not a cloud or drop of rain in sight. I moved to Dallas to work as an assistant professor in the Division of Art at SMU specializing in Digital/Hybrid Media. After a few years, I now see my role at-large, as both an artist and educator, as straddling many lines institutionally and within my work. My practice depends on being able to regularly engage with engineers, scientists, technology enthusiasts, other artists, and the insects in my back yard (often my favorite collaborators in the mix).
As a born and raised Midwesterner, I naively had never heard the term “metroplex”, which is the word that is used to commonly refer to the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Now that I call Dallas my home and the place where I continue to build my art practice, I am invested in this metroplex and its ‘scenes’ in numerous ways. I am often asked by new acquaintances and former colleagues (most those based in the Midwest) where I live and work. I am frequently met with seemingly questionable gazes when I respond “Dallas.” These gazes are generally followed by vague responses that include something to the affect of “Oh, I hear Austin is cool…” And while Austin, Houston, and San Antonio (among many other Texas cities) are also ripe with artists and institutions doing interesting things (the Texas Biennial was a good survey of contemporary art happening throughout Texas this year)there are a number of things that have made me come to appreciate the heat in Dallas.
Dallas is filled with so many driven visionaries, emerging and established spaces, studios, and collectives that it is impossible to name them all here. Important to me are a handful of experiences and resources that I think point to the upward growth of Dallas. This city is undoubtedly filled with many ‘big hitter’ institutions, such as the Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, Kimball Art Museum, and the Ft. Worth Modern, among others. I can say that I have had a lot of active engagement with the Dallas Museum of Art and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, both of which have given me the opportunity to expand my exhibition portfolio as well as my practice. Currently, I am working on a digital mural project with the Team Dallas Learning Lab, a group made up of students from local high schools, all of who are interested in exploring the intersections of science and art. Team Dallas Learning Lab brings in artists like me as guides to produce work that promotes knowledge and skill sharing. More importantly, the model employed by this group encourages various concentrations of creative practices to come together through experimentation and risk-taking. These types of programs exists at institutions throughout the city, and they are instrumental in helping artists engage a multitude of audiences.
As an artist specifically working with(in) “New Media” (dare I use that term…), I do find Dallas (like a lot of small cities) to be a bit behind the times; however, it’s showing promise by supporting artists who use code/computing/digital technologies within their work. The increase in these areas has definitely been at the forefront of many of the universities in town. I find myself among a great number of smart and exciting artists who are also working in New Media and the need for spaces to support this type of work to be growing. I have participated in events like Dallas Aurora since its initial debut in 2011, and it is becoming a truly exciting event that allows artists from all over the world to use the Arts district as a space for interactive video, sound, and performance-based work. There are other spaces and collectives, too, which support emergent disciplines and practices– Oliver Francis Gallery, Beefhaus, and Womanorial, to name a few, have been progressively curating physical and online exhibitions that exist beyond the typical ‘white cube’ shows that one might see in the city’s more mainstream design district.
Of course, this post presents just a skimming of what has been important to me as an artist, especially one who is relatively new to Dallas. Regardless, I will give this statement in summation: I have found Dallas to be a city that is refreshing in its willingness to support local artists, to take risks that make artists’ ideas and visions come to fruition, and to create a community of people who are genuinely interested in and supportive of each others’ work. It may be hot here, but I can say that I am happy to be in the heat of Dallas right now.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Dallas Day article, curator Leigh A. Arnold tours the Dallas sites.
Guest post by Leigh A. Arnold
I moved to Dallas over eight years ago, which by all accounts qualifies me as a true Texan. Though, to be honest, Dallasites are so friendly I am certain that the moment I signed my first apartment lease, I was considered one of their own. Regardless of how Texan I may be, eight years is unquestionably enough time to gain some perspective on the area arts community. What is interesting to report is that unbeknownst to me when I arrived in Dallas in 2006, the city’s art scene was on the cusp of a major upswing in activity. Since my arrival, Dallas has seen the development of several key contributors to our current state of affairs: the establishment of the vital CentralTrak: The UT Dallas Artists Residency, the continued progress of the Dallas Arts District, Dallas Contemporary’s move to the bigger digs in the Design District, the Dallas Art Fair, and most importantly: the development of what I would tentatively describe as an “underground” or at the very least, grassroots art scene at the hands of some of the area’s most talented young artists. Lumped within this “underground” development are a variety of collectives, individuals, galleries, and alternative spaces that have built and sustained a community that is grabbing national headlines.
My awareness of the local arts scene was magnified during my tenure as a researcher and curator for the Dallas Museum of Art’s 50-year art scene retrospective titled DallasSITES. The project sought to accomplish for the Dallas area what the Pacific Standard Time initiative did for Southern California, essentially the recovery of recent art history specific to our local geography. Not only did my research for this project familiarize me with the rich history of contemporary art in Dallas, but it also pushed me to explore what was happening in the now. What became increasingly apparent is that history does indeed repeat itself, if in slight incremental improvements. Artists’ concerns are universal and timeless – issues of space and support (financial, creative, emotional) continually plague Dallas artists, as they do nearly everywhere. But for every problem presented to Dallas artists, creative solutions abound.
Take for example, the issue of space. Fortunately for artists here, the old adage “everything in Texas is bigger” is true and unlike New York City or Los Angeles, big spaces do not necessarily come with outrageously expensive rental rates. Thanks to the support of several real estate developers around Dallas, exciting projects are happening. In the area known as Deep Ellum—historically recognized as the birthplace of early jazz and blues in Dallas—the artist duo Jeff Gibbons and Justin Ginsberg, also known as Apophenia Underground, have been hosting the curatorial project Deep Ellum Windows. Through an agreement with the neighborhood property owner, the duo have extended space to curators and artists who in turn have converted otherwise vacant storefronts into challenging and thought-provoking exhibitions. Past shows have included the work of Dallas-based artists Cassandra Emswiler, Stephen Lapthisophon, and Brandon Kennedy, alongside national and international artists Kristin Oppenheim and Rachel de Joode. Active for over a year, Deep Ellum Windows represents the kind of possibilities that can happen when enterprising artists connect with open-minded property owners.
Another example of this kind of synergy is happening in the neighborhood of West Dallas, a stone’s throw (or five minute drive on the freeway) from Deep Ellum. Previously blighted by lead contamination and a history of neglect from the City of Dallas, this area of town has recently undergone a complete renaissance with the development of neighborhoods like Trinity Groves and Sylvan/Thirty. Restaurants, shops, and new dwelling units are helping to gentrify the neighborhood and artist Arthur Peña’s various warehouse projects are making West Dallas a hot spot for the Dallas art avant-garde. Peña is an Oak Cliff native, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design for his MFA before coming back to his home town. Since his return, he has managed to develop the exhibition/performance venue Ware:Wolf:Haus, as well as the concert space Vice Palace, all while pursuing his own artistic career. On any given weekend night (and an occasional weeknight), Peña’s spaces are pulsing with energy, from the art scene regulars stopping by to check out the latest exhibition to the beats from the latest incarnation of Dallas performance artist George Quartz and his band of misfits and back-up dancers.
Apart from Deep Ellum Windows and Peña’s West Dallas projects, the city has also seen a revitalization of artist-run spaces and alternative galleries. By now considered Dallas’ standard go-to for challenging work and off-the-wall installations, Oliver Francis Gallery located in East Dallas, started in 2012 as a labor of love for UT-Arlington grad, Kevin Jacobs. With the energy of a school boy, Jacobs curates his modest space with artists from his gallery roster (which includes Peña, Gibbons, Jeff Zilm, and Moreshin Allahyari, among others) and also willingly hands over the keys to artists seeking to explore their own curatorial concerns, most notably, the artists of DB14: Dallas Biennial: Michael Mazurek and Jesse Morgan Barnett. Jacobs’ day job as the Assistant Curator at the Goss-Michael Foundation uniquely positions him to have access to the ever-elusive institutional support. Through his position there, Jacobs is able to cross-pollinate his artists with those in the Goss-Michaels galleries, in effect putting his artists’ work in front of some of Dallas’ most well-known and deep-pocketed collectors.
Operating outside the concerns of collectors, i.e., commercialism, Karen Weiner’s wonderfully intimate and cerebral space, The Reading Room, located around the corner from Oliver Francis Gallery and facing Fair Park, provides the kind of quiet, yet powerful programming that fills a void in the Dallas art community. With a focus on the influence of language on the visual arts, Weiner’s single-room gallery has hosted exhibitions by artists like Matthew Cusick, Rebecca Carter, Amy Revier, and The Art Foundation – a curatorial collaboration consisting of Ryder Richards, Lucia Simek, and Andrew Douglas Underwood, alongside programs and performances like a reading by Kenneth Goldsmith, a performance of Robert Ashley’s work by the sibling duo Nicolas and Andrew Miller, and even an exotic mushroom demonstration by local produce purveyor Tom Spicer.
What Weiner’s space and those of Jacobs, Peña’s and the Apophenia Underground duo’s prove is that support need not be top-down for an artistic community to thrive. For all of its accomplishments, the Dallas arts community is still a very self-conscious one, as the recent response to Artforum’s society-page-worthy recap of the Dallas Art Fair will attest. Yes, Dallas boasts a very active and internationally-known collector community, but that community is largely absent from any of the spaces/events mentioned above. This is in part due to the city’s persistent need to feel validation, and in the case of the deep-pocketed collectors, that validation must come from the outside, before it will garner any kind of support from them. Until those collectors feel secure enough in their own ability to make decisions about what to acquire/support, this divide between the collector class and the artist class will persist. Fortunately for Dallas, the artists here do not seem too concerned with bridging that gap. They are too busy making exciting things happen.
Leigh A. Arnold is a curatorial fellow at the Nasher Sculpture Center and consulting curator for the exhibition Robert Smithson in Texas at the Dallas Museum of Art, on view through April 2014. She has previously held the position of research fellow at the Dallas Museum of Art for the special project DallasSITES: Charting Contemporary Art, 1963 to Present, which culminated in an exhibition and online publication in the spring of 2013. In addition to her professional endeavors, Arnold is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she is writing on Robert Smithson’s relationship to Texas.
All images courtesy Andi Harman
Guest post by Daniel G. Baird
Tony Tasset’s artworks consistently aim to destabilize and question our understanding of value. Often perceived as humorous, whimsical or playful, the works poetically allude toward confrontations with mortality, timelessness and cultural awareness through slick pop-art fused objects. With a keen eye toward popular culture and extra-ordinary moments, Tasset is able to create works that engage viewer’s latent memories with familiar cultural and iconographic forms. In his use of the everyday and mainstream as artistic materials, the transient is able to transcend the boundaries of time, allowing us to enter into a reconsideration of the objective world.
In a 2004 piece, a pile of dirty Chicago snow sits like a time-capsule in a storefront window wearing the grime of the city on its tabula rasa-like surface while simultaneously celebrating the engagement that everyone necessarily has with this winter material. A handmade crushed cup sits at the base of the pile locating the works age through the Coca Cola logo that was used 10 years ago. In “Magnolias for Pittsburg,” a pair of hyperreal faux magnolia trees sit motionless and forever in bloom as the world passes from season to season. That moment of rebirth and creation held perpetually in suspension like a photograph. Or in recent works where the moment of recognition is through the domestic kitchen or cleaning product. Utilizing these materials for their color, the works recall an accidental spill of material. Yet in these works the accidental lifts itself into the authority of a precisely calculated artistic gesture. Each of these works point toward a desire to commemorate and preserve a familiar moment by transcending the flow of time.
In a work from 2009, titled “My Empire,” Tasset pokes fun at the prototypical self-portrait, that artistic trope that every artist wrestles with at least once. A chaotic accumulation of detritus, piled up and shimmering from an all over coating of resin sits on a found pallet. Upon closer inspection, it is revealed to be found objects and knick knacks that all hold personal associations to both Tasset and ourselves. Toy cardboard bricks commonly used to build forts as a kid, an old discarded cell phone, fragments of older projects, clown shoes and a cast plaster model of the artists hand are among the numerous objects covered in resin that pepper this accumulation. It is unabashedly abject in its presentation yet holds a sincerity in what it presents. We derive a feeling of nostalgia in the familiarity of the objects and can sympathize with the chaotic mess.
With “My Empire,” Tassets world of symbolism, meaning and reference is presented on a single palleted unit and ready for movement through the world. It is a personal cosmology tethered to its transportation device. In the same way that the dirty snow pile shows us the grime and debris under the facade of a smoothly operating city, “My Empire” shows us the messy creative process under the facade of a pristine art object.
For his inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Tasset created “Artist Monument,” a monument which is the vehicle of cultural commemoration and preservation, honoring artists who, like himself, work to capture a moment of time in an object. Affixed to two shipping containers docked at the base of Chelsea, the names of 392,486 artists are packed onto the surface of multi-colored acrylic panels. Alphabetized and etched in the same font size, any discernible form of hierarchical structure between the listed names is abolished. Recognition of the well known becomes blurred in a sea of information. Artists of historical significance and ones toiling in relative obscurity are equalized as one and the same gesture calling attention to the shared pursuit all artists have in the creative process. It is a monument to the heroic pursuit of becoming. At the root of the piece is the desire to be radically democratic by creating the ultimate group exhibition of all the artists known on the date the list was sourced.
Like all monuments, the “Artist Monument” is a register of a historical moment. It functions as a time-capsule and an ark to the creative process of this moment.
Daniel G. Baird (b. 1984) received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Recent Solo exhibitions include ‘Strata’ at Andrew Rafacz gallery, Chicago; ‘Vestige’ at the Institute of Jamais Vu, London; ‘Has the World Already Been Made? X4? at both Roots and Culture, Chicago, and Hedah, Maastricht; ‘Meridian’ at Robert Bills Contemporary, Chicago; ‘This New Ocean,’ at Appendix Project Space, Portland. Recent Group exhibitions include Bowling Alone, Andrew Rafacz Gallery; Merge Visible, Prairie Productions, Chicago, and Panoptic Measures, Elizabeth Foundation, NY. He will present work at LVL3 this spring and at Leeds College of Art and Design in 2015.