For The Ladies

January 6, 2014 · Print This Article

You’ve only got a few more days to catch Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, on display through January 9th at the Art Institute (http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/violence-and-virtue-artemisia-gentileschi-s-judith-slaying-holofernes). The painting is not to be missed, on its own merits, but its content coupled with Gentileschi’s biography also invites a broader discussion on artists who are also women. I’d like to think that this conversation is over, that the playing field is level and we can all just be artists regardless of what we’ve got under our underwear, but reminders to the contrary are all to common: this month marks the one year anniversary of George Baselitz’s unfortunate remark to Spiegel online that “women don’t paint very well.”

Of course pretty much everyone with a pulse derided Baselitz for his opinion, and Sarah Nardi wrote an excellent piece for the Chicago Reader pretty much excoriating Baselitz with a side-by-side comparison of his work with that of some female painters (http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2013/02/05/women-cant-paint-and-neither-can-georg-baselitz). Baselitz is old news by now, but it’s only a matter of time before someone else says something equally stupid in public, and we’ll have to have this conversation all over again. We could save ourselves a lot of trouble if everybody would just go and take a look at Judith, because it’s pretty much impossible to argue with.

One person I would really like to have had corner Baselitz in front of Gentileschi’s painting would have been Grace Hartigan, the late painter and director of the Hoffberger School of Painting when I was a graduate student there. Grace was a female painter in the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist scene, and she certainly held her own with the boys. Grace’s relationship with gender was a bit complicated; she once exhibited her work under the name George Hartigan. We asked her about it, but I never quite understood her reasons for doing that.

Hartigan once said something interesting about how for a long time she refused to participate in all-woman shows. Her reasoning was essentially that by participating in a show consisting entirely of women, she would have implied an acceptance that she couldn’t compete with her male counterparts. She seemed to have softened her views before her death in 2009; her work was included in an all-female exhibition curated by Leslie King Hammond which I saw in New York sometime between 2005-2007. I’ve curated an all-female show, myself, and I believe they can have value: for example, when the work has something in common other than the genetalia of its makers. Nevertheless, her argument has stuck in my memory.

While from time to time, a group show of female artists can present something drawn from a commonality of experience they share, or a common concern, it should by now be clear that women need no handicap to stand on their own as painters, or artists in any medium, in Chicago or anywhere else. While for most of history women have been treated like a “minority,” albeit one comprising 51% of the population, and I think John Lennon had something to say about this, in today’s Chicago art scene women are well-represented in just about any role there is to be played.

It doesn’t take any time at all to think of a female Chicago-based critic (Lori Waxman), gallerist (Linda Warren, Rhona Hoffman, Monique Meloche), or as we are all increasingly becoming, multi-role cultural facilitator (Michelle Grabner, Shannon Stratton, Claire Molek). Female artists, while I’m not going to do the math on what percentage of gallery rosters they form, certainly form at least half of my favorite artists in Chicago: Lauren Levato-Coyne, Jenny Kendler, and Deb Sokolow do amazing work; Noelle Mason, although she’s living and working in Florida now, cut her teeth in Chicago and still shows here.

If you’ve been to at least a couple of shows in Chicago in the past year, you’ve probably got your own favorite artists in mind, and odds are that more than a few are women. Some artists make work that isn’t particularly gendered; it could as easily have been made by a man as by a woman. In other cases, though, artists draw on their own gender, and the unique experiences that come with it. This is true of male artists as well as female. A recent example was Chicago painter Julia Haw’s “Pussy Power,” from last year. Artemesia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is another piece that draws its power from its creator’s gender. It is impossible to separate Gentileschi’s biography from the image, especially when one compares it with treatments of the same subject by male painters (most notably Caravaggio). Its presence in Chicago is a rare opportunity to see one of the most important and powerful works of the Seventeenth Century, and there is no excuse not to see it. Wind chill temperatures that feel like fifty degrees below zero come close, but bundle up and make it out to the Art Institute in the next couple of days to see it before it’s gone.

A New Samarkand: Regionalism in the Age of Globalization

December 2, 2013 · Print This Article

Bazaar in Samarkand, an illustration from Jules Verne’s novel “Claudius Bombarnac”

I should say now that I have never been to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and that my views of it have been shaped almost entirely by its mythical role in Clive Barker’s novel Galilee. A quick bit of slacker research, though, reveals the essential nature of that city to match Barker’s description pretty well. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a city of wonders, the ultimate crossroads, a center of commerce as well as of art and culture. People came from thousands of miles to experience the wonders of the city itself, but more so, to meet and trade with one another.

It sounds like the perfect sales pitch for globalization. What city wouldn’t want to model itself after old Samarkand? Open to all, a place where one can find anything, from anywhere, yet possessing its own unique character, its glories and wonders its own, Samarkand strikes in our imagination the perfect cross between melting pot and salad bowl.

Did Samarkand itself ever live up to this ideal? This is probably unknowable. The tendency to romanticize history is undeniable, and certainly our own cosmopolitan cities fall short of this utopia. Diversity is assimilated into a global monoculture which is then exported, and we end up feeding our client states the predigested remains of their own children. (Metaphorically speaking. For now.)

This cynical, CrimeThink version is also incomplete, of course. I’ve eaten Chinese food in Berlin and Ethiopian food in Baltimore. The first time I had a Big Mac was in Tokyo. I haven’t researched Taco Bell penetration in Mexico, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, but I do remember walking past a bar in San Miguel de Allende and hearing a pretty badass cover of a Metallica song, the lyrics sung in Spanish. (I don’t remember what song but this was 1996, so most of the shitty ones hadn’t been released yet.). It is impossible not to think of William Gibson in these moments, and it has a surreal magic about it.

On the other hand, there is perhaps a danger in the ubiquity of the other. Is it a disincentive to travel, when so much of our destination has been brought to us on a plate? Does, in fact, this single-serving multiculturalism blend the rest of the world into the homogenously labeled “World Music” aisle of an obsolescent record store? (And reflect, if one goes into a music store in Beijing, does American pop go in the “World Music” aisle? Most likely not, and the reason is the problem. We have exoticized the others, even to themselves.)

Why travel, then, if anyone, anywhere, can buy a didgeridoo, a foo lion, and a Panang curry? “To see the place itself!” some argue, or “To meet the people!” And this is good, so long as it is remembered. So have fun in Miami, but remember, it’s just another art fair, unless you see the Everglades while you’re there.

Art fairs are a sort of microcosm of the Samarkand ideal in its imperfect manifestation, actually. I’ve written about them before as have many others, but never before in the shadow of the tents of the bazaars of Samarkand. Imagine! An art fair that stirred the senses with the sights and sounds and smells of the exotic! What Tony Fitzpatrick described in his play, of the grand market in Istanbul, a thousand guys chasing him down, shouting, “Pashminas!” And one guy shouting, “Tube socks!”

But we don’t get that, at least not at any art fair I’ve been to. (And to be fair, I need to make it to some international ones.) So far, what I’ve seen at American art fairs is pretty much the same roster of blue chip galleries selling to blue chip collectors, damn the locals, who cower in the shadows of the big boys. Exceptions, sure. I’ve seen great, unexpected work at art fairs. And some Chicago dealers have sold to out of town collectors at Art Chicago and at Expo. Local collectors do buy work (I have been on both ends of this transaction as an artist and as a small-time collector), but far too many of them are like the tourists visiting a Moroccan antiquities dealer I saw on Anthony Bourdain recently. “We call them penguins,” he said, waddling comically. “Their hands can’t reach their pockets.”

Homogeneity is the death of art. If a piece is expected, it’s pointless. Someone, I can’t now recall who, said, “If two artists are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.” There is something to this. The old world of the Twentieth Century, the “Age of -isms,” decade-long proclamations of new world orders, each to be replaced by the next like the procession of coups in a string of Third World dictatorships, really ended with Pop Art. By the 1990s, Art History textbooks pointed to the future with a vague reference to pluralism and a prayer that wherever we were headed, Kenny Scharf wasn’t the one leading the way.

Pluralism, though, can become a homogeneity all its own. The art world embraces diversity not like Tamerlane (once the ruler of Samarkand) but like the Borg. “Your biological and technological uniqueness will be added to our own.” Less the great bazaar, and more a strip mall that had both a Taco Bell and a Panda Express. It is an arms race in which we each struggle to strip mine our culture and experience faster than our competition, and we find that global monoculture is a cloud with a lining not of silver but of Strontium 90.

So everybody knows the the fight is fixed, but what are you going too do about it? Revolution loses its luster once you’ve seen the sweatshops where they make the Guy Fawkes masks. And the obvious counterpoint to globalization, regionalism, has its own obvious failings. Living here in Flagstaff, Arizona, I see proof enough of that every day. Native crafts, particularly jewelry and ceramics, are strong here, but will always have to sit at the kids table of “fine craft,” that is when they aren’t called “outsider art.” Among the non-Natives, imitations of these styles run strong (as, it must be said, do very good and original creations in these traditional craft media). Photography? Sure, as long as it’s of a mountain. And God help you if you can’t sell a painting of a raven in this town.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hairy Who, the Monster Roster, and the Chicago Imagists. Chicago, I know, is sick to some extent of their legacy, if only because they dominated the local scene so heavily for so long. But these three related movements did something unique in their time, diverging both from the Modernist, Greenbergian Ab Ex that was the status quo at the beginning, as well as from the slick, clean Pop Art going on in New York. Chicago had, for a time, its own thing, as rare and exotic as a screeching monkey, an ivory carving, or a previously unheard of spice. This kind of regional movement with the teeth to hold its own on the global stage could emerge again, anywhere, in any city, any town, and if it did, might provide the kind of true diversity that could make possible a Silk Road of the art world, a bazaar of the unexpected, a new Samarkand.

What Costume Shall The Poor Girl Wear?

November 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Titling this post with a Velvet Underground quote, you might think I was going to talk about Lou Reed and his recent passing, but I’m not. That very worthy topic has been well covered by many others. Actually, it just seemed like a fitting quote, because I want to talk about costumes.

Of course Halloween has just come and gone, and that is the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “costume.” Costume, though, plays an important role in many aspects of life, including art. The word costume can be used to refer to any article of clothing or manner of dress. Usually, though, it implies something outside of the everyday. Depictions of historical costume is an important aspect of art history, whether it is the significance of the color of the Virgin Mary’s dress in an icon, the meaning of the steel gorget in a Rembrandt portrait (e.g. the one hanging in the Art Institute), or the absolutely pippin’ fur collar in Albrecht Durer’s later self portrait (as well as that prison striped number with the lace on sleeves in his earlier one).

In some contemporary art, though, costume takes center stage. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films feature ornate and elaborate costume and makeup effects throughout. In some cases these merely reinforce characters, such as Richard Serra in his workmanlike coveralls, or the opera singer in her baroque gown. In other cases, the costume creates the character, particularly when prosthetics and makeup effects are involved. Specific examples include the woman with the glass leg, who is then transformed into an anthropomorphic cheetah, and Barney as faun or satyr. Makeup and costume also hit at the heart of Barney’s subject matter with numerous characters featuring prosthetically applied, bizarre genitalia. Their rubbery flesh evokes the rubber crotch demanded by censors for Linnea Quigley in her role as the punker chick Trash, dancing nude on a grave in Return of the Living Dead.

Some artists create costumes which transcend the body inside them to become wearable sculptures. The most obvious example is of course Nick Cave, whose “soundsuits” are frequently exhibited as static display objects. It could be argued that they reach their full potential only when inhabited, for massive group performances in which their sound making properties are harnessed, but most of us encounter them hung on armatures, evoking Bruce Wayne’s armor collection from Tim Burton’s Batman. They remind me in particular of the one that Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) called “King of the Wicker People.”

We all make decisions about our appearance on a daily basis. Our motives may include vanity, status, the desire to attract sexual partners, or an appreciation of fashion as an aesthetic experience. I’m known to those who don’t know me personally as “the guy in the kilt,” and while it started as a personal decision to wear something I thought looked cool, it has certainly helped to make my appearance more memorable to others as well. Incidentally, since moving to Flagstaff, I’ve been rocking the kilt 24/7. I mean, I take it off when I sleep, but it has been over three months since I’ve put on a pair of pants.

Some others in Chicago’s art scene have distinctive aspects to their appearance. My wife Stephanie Burke’s asymmetrical hairstyle (which I do for her) is one example. Anna Trier always wears two different earrings. Jenny Kendler was just voted Chicago’s best-dressed artist, a title I’ve attributed to her for years. Wesley Kimler has his bright red suit, invariably paired with paint spattered shoes.

Many others dress more or less like everybody else. I was once at an opening at Pentagon, and was surrounded by a half dozen artist friends of mine, each and every one of whom was wearing a flannel and blue jeans. They prefer to reserve their creativity for their artwork, apparently. Even if one doesn’t put much thought into one’s appearance on a daily basis, Halloween is an opportunity to reflect on the role of costume as an alternative creative outlet, at least once a year.

Let’s talk about James Turrell…

October 7, 2013 · Print This Article

Let’s talk about James Turrell.  Yeah, its been a while, hasn’t  it?  He’s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater.  Turrell also has a major retrospective up right now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I recently had the opportunity to see that show.  It was the first time I’d really gotten to experience Turrell’s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it.  It is really unlike any other art viewing I’ve ever experienced.

James Turrell:  A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts.  Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s.  Afrum (White) from 1966, is a projection of white light into the corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional cube suspended in the space of the room.  We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, it’s trippy, it looks like it’s 3d.  We were about to move on to the next room when the surprisingly helpful and friendly security guard volunteered the optimal way to view the piece.  Following his advice, I started over.  Closing one eye, he’d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you what’s closer and what’s farther away).  I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped.  The basic principle at work here is that a projected beam of light hitting the corner of a room, at a diagonal, the beam spreads out more and more as it nears the corner, because its farther away.  This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective.  The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room.  Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room.  By the time I reached the wall, looking along its length at the projection, it appeared totally to be a hovering, glowing box, floating off the wall.

The rest of Part 1 continued generally in this vein, early pieces mostly consisting of either this kind of projection, or of backlit cutouts into the walls.  Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAIC’s holography program.  But the real money shot is in Part 2.  We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend who’d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer.  Entering Part 2, we walked past the “Perceptual Cell,” a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light.  Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrell’s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA.  (Even the remainder of Turrell’s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but we’d bought ours in advance.)

For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa.  After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer.  A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage.  We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited.  Opposite the bench was a ziggurat dias of carpeted steps, leading up to an aperture in the far wall, through which we watched the preceding group of viewers experiencing the piece beyond.  The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color.  I have no idea how this works, but for example when the light in the space was blue, those inside it seemed to have green halos around them.  And then it was our turn and we were called into the space.

Purusa consists of a large room with the cross section of a rounded rectangle, so no corners are visible.  Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back.  The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately.  The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit.  The result has been described as being that of a physical screen, in the shape of a rounded rectangle, hanging in the space of the room.  I could see this, but (perhaps in part as a result of having had it thus described) I saw it less as an object and more as a portal (as it is), but opening not into a shallow face blocked by a wall, but rather opening into a vast, featureless expanse.  Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth.  It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel.  At least at first.

Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish.  I removed my eyeglasses, mostly to get the frames out of my peripheral vision, and faced a wall so that no other viewers were in my field of vision.  And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light.  It occurred to me that looking at Turrell’s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting.  In Washington DC, I think it was the fall of 2005, I went to the National Gallery, and somewhere they had a room full of Rothkos.  I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and that’s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko.  I approach the Rothko from across the room, forming a quick visual impression but not really lingering until I am close enough that the margins of the painting become lost in my peripheral vision.  Aah, there it is.  Now you can look at it.  Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look.  If you wear corrective lenses you might take them off; petty details like the scumbled paint and the weave of the canvas, which those nose-to-the-surface would-be viewers take to be so important, are in fact entirely incidental.  Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint.  He paints like he wishes it was light.  And, after a few minutes of staring, that’s what it becomes, that’s what it is.  It occurs to you, that you aren’t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light.  Photons, particles or waves, hitting you in the retina, through whatever intermediary barriers of nerves, aqueous and vitreous humors, lenses, cornea, and intervening air, but ultimately it’s just light hitting your brain.  That’s how you look at a Rothko.  It’s drugs, man.  It’s drugs.

So you step inside the Turrell and everything’s weird, you’re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and you’re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes.  You suspect gradients, and question relationships.  Look behind you, back through the door by which you came.  Come on, art school kids, you’ve done this before.  You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white I’d call “Institutional Incandescent.”  The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isn’t changing now.  And you remember simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon by which colors shift towards the complement of adjacent colors, in the same way you have more game if you have an ugly wingman.  And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory.  The room is blue right now (and now blue was your color) and so of course when you look back, the outside room is going to be orange.  But it’s not.  It’s green.  It’s fucking green.  Green is its color.

So Turrell’s inside your fucking head, and he’s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and he’s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens.  And you don’t know whether he knows.  Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly?  Or is he more like some demonic Clive Barker villain or H.P. Lovecraft bumbling hero, offering to show us heretofore unseen worlds, but perhaps at some terrible cost?  Of course not.  That’s fucking silly.  He’s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe we’re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard.  Maybe he’s a wizard.

There is, undeniably, something about Turrell’s work that makes you feel like there’s an experiment going on, and you’re not sure if you’re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data.  In this there’s something a lot like Olafur Eliasson, who in his semi-recent (last few years, look it up) exhibition at the MCA Chicago provided a similar sort of experimental, experiential exhibition.  One was a round walled enclosure of changing colored light, which one viewed in a way similar to the way you experience Purusa, albeit on a more modest scale.  Another was a corridor filled with amber light, to which ones eyes become so adjusted that, upon leaving, the whole world is bright goddamned violet.

So anyway, Turrell’s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona.  And you can’t go there.  Neither can I, for that matter.  It’s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret.  I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrell’s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs.  So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you “know somebody,” are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works.  As for the general public?  It’s anyone’s guess.  Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewing…in 2007.

Lenses, Frames, and Mirrors: Optical Devices as Metaphors in Art Criticism, Theory, and Beyond

August 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Reading a bit of art theory or criticism, it won’t take you long to find an author talking about viewing something through the lens of third-wave feminism or seeing something in a Modernist frame. The lens and the frame are referenced metaphorically so often in today’s writing that their presence is nearly ubiquitous, almost as though a piece of art writing is incomplete without the presence of at least one such optical metaphor.

Certainly, the lens and the frame are useful as metaphors, but as used, they are also quite limited. As an experiment, the next time you see one used, replace “frame” or “lens” with “context,” adjust the necessary conjunctions, and see if any meaning is lost. If in a given piece of writing, “seen through a queer lens” could just as easily be “seen in a queer context,” then the optical device isn’t living up to its potential as metaphor.

The chief ways in which optical metaphors can be improved in our writing are through diversity and specificity. These go hand-in-hand: the more diverse our optical metaphors become, the more specific they are able to be. Lenses, for example, can be convex-convex (the usual “lenticular” shape, which incidentally I suspect of being where lentils got their name, though I’ve done no research on this), but they can also be flat or concave on one or both sides. So, some lenses are plano-convex, others are convex-concave. These lenses behave differently and have different applications, and so could be employed in a diverse range of metaphorical applications.

The difference between a lens of any type and a frame is that we are directly aware of the ways in which lenses alter the image we are seeing. A biconvex lens held at the right distance from the eye will magnify the image. (At this distance, the image is not inverted; held out further, the image inverts, but the reason why is beyond my ability to explain from memory, so go Google a diagram.) This is the classic magnifying glass. Other types of lenses, such as eyeglasses, subtly alter the focal distance of our eyes (or rather, adjust the image to account for a flawed focal distance). Multiple-lens apparatuses like binoculars and microscopes magnify and can be focused. The point is that we are immediately aware of this alteration of the image we are seeing, because it is inherent to the function of the lens-based device.

Not so the frame. The untrained viewer thinks of the fame as a neutral context, setting the image off from its environment, perhaps, but not altering the image itself. Training in design and composition conveys an understanding of concepts like simultaneous contrast, which holds that a black frame can make an image look lighter in the same way that we can appear taller by standing next to a shorter person. Even to a highly-trained viewer, however, the frame, assuming it is a subtle, appropriate frame, becomes invisible, and it exerts its effect on the image outside our conscious awareness.

Metaphorically, then, the frame can serve more as an unconscious bias, changing an image indirectly, by the context of its presence, and without the viewer’s conscious awareness. When you see something in a given frame, that frame alters what you are seeing, but does do without your knowledge or consent. It takes alertness and training to become aware of the influence of the frame, and even with this awareness, its influence may not be negated. To return to the initial example, seeing something in a Modernist frame may mean unconsciously minimizing the political, activist, Conceptual, gendered, or other meanings of a work, and perhaps emphasizing the rapturous and sublime, along with overt formal analysis which is the ostensible goal of this frame. If the intention is to directly change the meaning of the subject, then the frame may be the wrong metaphor; perhaps a lens is intended instead.

A lens serves more as a conscious agenda. The function of lenses and lens-based devices tends to be to magnify, to enhance, or to focus a blurry image. Alteration of our perception of the original is the intention of the device. When used as a metaphor, then, the lens is a much more aggressive, but also honest, recontextualization. The effect is more direct, less subtle, more provocative, less manipulative. When we view something through the lens of third-wave feminism, we aren’t subtly altering that thing by its context. Instead, we are asserting, perhaps radically, that the original was either too small or too distant to be perceived accurately, or else that it was out of focus: essentially, that our subject was fucked up, and that third-wave feminism provides the necessary means to fix it.

These differences between the simple lens and the frame are only the beginning of the linguistic possibilities of the optical metaphor. Someone better versed that I in the effects of different types of lenses could apply those effects metaphorically. Devices composed of multiple lenses, such as telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, and riflescopes each have their own potential applications. Viewing the work of an international artist through the telescope of globalization may bring their work closer, make it more accessible, but at the cost of a reduced field of vision, that is, the obfuscation of the cultural context in which the work was created—not to mention that as a monocular device, the telescope eliminates the viewer’s depth perception, so that while it appears to bring the subject closer, it makes it impossible to tell exactly how far away that subject is.

These classic, purely optical devices aren’t the only possibility for optics-based metaphors. For example, consider the fact that a viewer’s experience of relational art may be clouded by their participation in it, yielding a subjective response that is no less valuable, but is uniquely personal, because of their involvement. We might say that a viewer-participant sees relational aesthetics “through the glare of the fingerprint-streaked touch screen of their participation.”

In reading art theory and criticism, and even more so in writing our own, let’s consider the diversity of optical devices and viewing contexts that exist in the world, and the specific meanings that can be conveyed by this diversity. Consider critiquing works of art through the pinhole camera of Minimalism, distorted by the funhouse mirror of racism, or fractured by the prism of semiotics. What could these mean? I don’t purport to have the answers, but by way of example, I once compared a thematic group exhibition to the compound eye of an insect, producing an image of its subject by combining a large number of images produced by slightly different points of view (the artists in the exhibition). I’d like to see more, and hopefully better, metaphors like this, in which writers consider all manner of viewing devices as potential linguistic devices, rather than immediately, lazily defaulting to the lens or the frame, out of habit rather than specificity.