December 3, 2014 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” These famous words from James Joyce’s famous character Stephen Dedalus, in his famous novel, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, embody the idea of an inescapable infiltration of history in our present reality. For Joyce and Dedalus, the “nightmare of history” may have been rooted in an existential conception of history, or the universal fact of inevitable death, but the transcendent quality of the phrase acts as a directive in the form of an optimistic metaphor for rehashing history as a means of creating a better future.
George Santayana was more direct when he said, “those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” At first glance, these collective bits of wisdom seem obvious. They seem correct. They seem true. And though I would agree, that the repeated fragments, phrases, images, and sounds of the past have the ability to communicate warnings for the future, our methods of assimilating these legends have just as conspicuously perpetuated the nightmare. The recitation of our traditions awakens us TO the nightmare, not from it. As we are wrapped up in contemplating evidence that either rejects or accepts the histories offered to us–through the vast network of delivery systems (books, the internet, television, etc….)–we become more in-sync with the legend itself. Thus, we succumb to visualizing the nightmare more clearly as an insurmountable obstacle. Through incalculable attempts to shed ourselves from our antecedents, we see our legends reinsert themselves more deceptively in each subliminal iteration in the present.
The paradox here is that rational thinking–as it is defined by those who have developed a science that diagnoses irrational thinking–has delivered us to the most preposterous circumstances. The problem lies in an inherited trust in the clairvoyance of tradition. Of religion. Of science. Of government. Of culture. To wake up from this nightmare that we’ve been led to believe is a dream, we must stop chanting the legend and start pursuing delusional thought.
Artists have always been at the forefront of delusional thinking. Leonardo da Vinci, now celebrated as a rare genius, was not considered an educated man by the standards of his day–he did not attend a university and he was not versed in Latin(both requirements in fitting this mold). His deficiencies–in the way of this criterion–limited his ability to read the classical texts, which may have been an advantage in his development as an artist, architect, and engineer. He was employing the scientific method in a multitude of arenas long before it became a staple of science. In a revealing passage in one of his sketchbooks da Vinci notes, “First I shall make some experiments before I proceed further, because my intention is to consult experience first and then by means of reasoning show why such experiment is bound to work in such a way. And this is the rule by which those who analyze natural effects must proceed; and although nature begins with the cause and ends with the experience, we must follow the opposite course, namely (as I said before), begin with the experience and by means of it, investigate the cause.”
Had da Vinci been educated and reading the natural philosophies of Aristotle (the then guiding principles of nature), he may have never arrived at such methodologies. It is through this ignorance that his ideas and process surpass accepted forms of knowledge and transcend time.
Science will downplay how long its own adolescence actually lasted, but it wasn’t until a 16th century intervention by Galileo Galilei that forced it to take a hard look at itself. The Italian astronomer and physicist Galileo was trialled and convicted in 1633 for publishing his evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. His research was instantly criticized by the Catholic church for going against the established scripture that places Earth and not the Sun at the center of the universe. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for his heliocentric views and was required to “abjure, curse and detest” his opinions. He was sentenced to house arrest, where he remained for the rest of his life and his texts were banned. Galileo wasn’t the only figure in history to be persecuted for their belief system–suppressing knowledge has been an active ingredient in human civilization since the beginning of recorded time.
In an age when information has never been more fluid, knowledge–in its infinite variety–is abundant. Available. Easy to acquire. Because of this access, no one can escape disenchantment. As Galileo’s delusional and sacrilegious idea about the earth’s place in the galaxy dissolved the idea of the cosmos as the locus of spirits and meaningful powers within the realm of religion, so too, does it empower the picture of the universe as governed by universal laws–laws written by the same authority whom condemned this revelation in years prior.
This marks the point in history when science co-opts the subversive position. Persecution (in science) evolved from blatant acts of abuse carried out by the church, to a dissolution of potential theoretical projections through brandishing theory as law. Science has become in an institution which thinks of itself as a meta-theory through which all ideas must submit through its system. Simultaneously, science is the beneficiary and catalyst of the disenchanted which creates a system of “rational” thought.
The scientific method, who claims its roots in rationalism, is actually conceived in the most scientifically irrational production. Rene Descartes, the founding father of modern science, created the scientific method after having a dream in which an angel appeared to him and told him that the conquest of nature would be achieved through mathematics and measurement. This isn’t the tale we are taught. Science typically delivers the primary observations. The gathering of data. The major insight. It rarely reveals the trace of the idea, which was the impetus to execute study and experiment.
Artists have developed a stigma over the great expanse of time. If an artist projects a theory developed through a visit with angels, no one is surprised. It is expected. It is as easily shrugged off as the outlandish theory itself. The focus of the artist’s ideas assumes an aesthetic echelon that more often than not, omits theory and potential through a relegation to discourse that is painfully self-referential. Art, in many circumstances, appears to be a conversation about itself that serves itself and its initiates.
Within this system, an aversion to delusion is born much in the same way it is perpetuated in science and religion. The properties may vary. The classifications, categories, and rankings may change and represent an entirely different value system on the surface, but the problem is equally polarizing. In all our defining social systems, we are required to make a leap of faith. We are required to believe in the universe exploding into existence from an unidentified singularity. We are required to believe that there is a bearded white man coaching earthlings from another dimension. We are required to believe that the art hanging in museums is the “stuff” we need to reference in determining the value of all future manifestations of the human brain which would like to gain entry into the big Art game.
To change the conditions of the big game, we must advocate for innovation. Real innovation occurs at the concrescence of delusional thought. It occurs when existing conditions prompt individuals to reject linear values which means to reject the idea that innovation can only occur within the realm of technology, science, and mathematics.
Oliver Wasow, an artist working in the Hudson Valley area of New York, has a peculiar art practice that has evolved from a background in traditional photography to what might be considered an ongoing social media experiment that utilizes photography as the foundation of social critique. The idea that it could be an experiment rather than simply an art practice is of particular interest to me as I spin this web. Whether this is the intent of the artist or not, doesn’t really matter. The results of his experiments, his daily practice, and the response to it-exist as a data set much in the same way as a census tells us something about the population.
Wasow’s delivery system is social media–predominately Facebook. Daily, he posts found photographs or images conjured in his studio and curates a thematic based on his personal interests. The art, however, is not committed solely to the aesthetic quality of the image. The innovation occurs in the ensuing dialogue. The comments section is where the magic happens. It is where people expose themselves through all manner of projections that reflect their interpretations of the image, their intuition, and their impulses–all of which say much more about the people who comment than the image itself. It is like conducting interviews with the masses without asking any direct questions. The curation element that classifies each photograph within an album of related visual elements seem to be the substrate that defines the line of questioning upon which his friends are given a platform to respond.
As an art object(s), Wasow’s social media production defies standard procedure and institutional critique. It toes the artificial line that defines what IS and what is NOT considered art, and it is in that boundary where I find the most interesting practices. Within the trajectories of defiance we may find the ability to detach from the “nightmare of history.”
In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde notes, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” If admiration of aesthetics and the constant reference to tradition is all we have as a result of art production, then I would agree with Wilde wholeheartedly.
Maybe I’m delusional, but I think art can DO more.
November 5, 2014 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
“Four score and seven years ago,” is how my mind tells me to start every essay I sit down to write. This is my memory at work. I remember the tone of the words that follow in Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. I remember the cadence. I remember that it was taught as a triumph. As a novel speech from a novel man. I can see the address in a block quote in a semi-thick American history textbook. It was highlighted in blue with Lincoln’s portrait in the top right corner of the elongated box, at the right side of the page, and at the end of a chapter covering the Civil War. I was given the task of memorizing the words and reciting it to my classmates, but all that remains are the first words. The image of the words. The feeling of time passed.
When I am staring beyond my computer screen–perhaps out the window–searching for the right words to begin with, Lincoln’s words make up the phrase that my mind tells me to jot down. It seems as much a method of mocking myself for my own distrust in my ideas and the effectiveness of recording them in this way, as it is a natural beginning. A way to set the tone. A point of abstraction. Only now am I realizing that the attention I have paid to it–in this introduction–may either eradicate its insistence in my writing regiment, or forever disturb any ingenuity it may have had. Today, the words are there and I’m responding to them.
I recently admitted to a habit of writing my articles the day before the deadline, and since then, I have been stewing over the probability of procrastination. I’ve been questioning my routine and routinely questioning the validity of the way I think, rationalize, and project my ideas. I am forever convincing myself that my ideas are valuable and that the time I have spent Not preparing this article, has been used to decompress the information that has consumed me in the month prior. I am often successful in my persuasion, however, there also exists an acute awareness that convincing is essential. Therein lies the paradox. Therein lies the necessity for crackerjack acumen–or the ability to form enterprise with intuition and memory despite one’s rational concerns that may encourage otherwise.
I’m constantly waiting for a bolt of lightning to electrify my thoughts–to send a signal from brain to stem which results in an action–in this case writing. Molly Zuckerman-Hartung revealed to me the genesis of the lightening bolt as Hans Hartung’s signature. He believed the lightning bolt was especially for him, and that its form (the zig-zag) represented spontaneity in a way that was true to the idea of what spontaneous action might look like–erratic pivot points descending from above a surface it will eventually contact. It will be surrounded by other bolts (they come in storms), and will offer the conscience a choice at every zig and every zag, eventually determining where the bolt will be grounded.
Last week I was struck at Devening Projects by the drawings of Monika Bartholomé. Before reading any literature about the work, I felt the drawings had allowed me to access very intimate spaces that were not only intimate in their portrayal of domestic interiors. Though there is ample information to suggest that these drawings are simple representations of the artist’s habitation, a closer look reveals imaginative brushwork, a keen understanding of light, and most importantly, an uncorrupted investigation of memory.
My memory of the Gettysburg Address and the application of it, is a corrupted memory in the way it has manifested in this piece of writing. It was stimuli that has since been captured, dismembered, and postulated as metaphoric reasoning. We reason from metaphors in our attempts to make sense of ourselves, our actions, other people, and the physical world around us. We engage in metaphoric thought processes simply because much of our experience is metaphorically structured, and it is from our experiences that we reason. It is through this type of reasoning that I have abstracted more rigid or formal strains of logical connections to perpetuate my ideas, and to understand Monika Bartholomé’s drawings through my own narrow framing device.
When I visited Devening Projects, Bartholomé’s drawings had the zigs and the zags of the lightning bolts. I could see choices being made. I could see the movement of the brushes as well as her hand, and I felt a connection to the impulses that drove those decisions. I envisioned the way the brushes moved across the drawing surface and quickly made jagged sloping turns to radiate in a resting place. In each conglomeration of intuitive marks, a space would emerge. These spaces are ultimately derived from memory, but are defined by the hand’s memory rather than metaphoric representations of existing places. The work seemed to be about the impulse to move the hand from one place to the next using a tool that makes a mark on paper and leaves a trace that creates a dilemma for the maker. This dilemma and the response to it, is how her images are made. Everything else is corruptible. Every attempt to create, rather than respond, would be a false step in the process of creation.
Looking at the drawings that materialize as living spaces, one can see how the hand’s memory is as familiar as the mind’s. Bartholomé makes repetitive decisions in similar situations. When she reaches an edge, one can see the pressure applied to the brush gradually subside. As the hand recognizes its place in space, it makes adjustments to the tool. The tool, in turn, responds with a trace of that impulse–a mark of muscle memory and the basis for the next drawing move.
Bartholomé has an incredibly efficient economy in her mark-making strategies. However intuitive it may be, it is also learned. The labor and reduction required to arrive at such simple, yet elegant, descriptions of space doesn’t occur on a whim. In her essay, “The Eyes Following the Hand,” Bartholomé describes the marks she makes: “…they do condense into pictorial language by means of abstract abbreviation…The lines bring something into the open that I once perceived, for the most part unconsciously and incidentally, and that is recorded here in whatever form. To be able to get what has been recorded, to the connections that the perceived thing entered into, and then create a place for it and be surprised by it–this is what interests me, among other things, in the medium of drawing.”
Bartholomé’s drawings seem to posit that metaphor is a pervasive, yet indispensable structure of reasoning that calls into question some deeply rooted views about the nature of knowledge and understanding. This balancing act is at the heart of her work. The artist is both visible and absent. The spaces are both intimate and ordinary. Recognizable and abstract. Reductive and chock full of imagery. These drawings are easy to get lost in, but only a few steps backwards will bring your eyes back to a reasonable place.
I’m at that place of reason right now after having written this piece. I’m standing in a place that is far enough from the image I have created, and it seems to make plenty of sense–at least to me. My distortions of Baratholomé’s work are my attempt to regurgitate her production schematic–letting memory serve as the metaphor that describes the process.
October 1, 2014 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
I drift. A good drift. A perfect drift. One that will catch a nice trout. I swing my rod overhead and flick the tip upstream. Mend. Mend. Recover and drift….fish. My memory takes me downstream and the water sweeps my feet from underneath me. I allow the current to drag me away from here.
As I rush past the shores of my recollection, I realize that it may take a lifetime’s worth of attention to learn the secrets of the river. I realize that each section of the stream requires a different understanding and consequently, a different approach, to unlock the mysteries of each pool, eddy, and riffle. I’m reeling but not too aggressively. I don’t want to lose this fish.
Fly fisherman, like painters, have an uncanny ability to liken any conversation to their pursuits with a rod or paintbrush, on the theory that the essence of anything is in how it relates to their quests. In Kim Piotrowski’s show, Catch and Release at Linda Warren Projects, this perpetual metaphor is alive and well and permeating from the walls of the gallery. The rush flows from one piece to another. The fish spook and swim under rocks and stay there until I walk away, only to emerge again as I distance myself from the work–forcing me to return and throw another glance at the image. These are freshwater works(predominately made with water-based media), bottomless and infinite–their currents creating a generative energy for their creator that seemingly erodes her immediate boundaries and transforms those limits into the conditions upon which the next work is made.
I lodge the toe of my boot underneath a submerged log as to brace myself for another run. It’s trying to get away from me. I hold my rod high and behind me with my left hand and keep my right hand on the reel. My body twists to make the position possible. I’m adding line as fast as the fish rips it off. The cold water makes new seams around my legs, adapting to my temporary damn. I watch my line tighten. The fish changes direction–and once again–I’m reeling.
I stand suspended in the gallery, surrounded by effort–large and small. Piotrowski has transformed the space to not only display her achievements, but to advance her inquiry. In her debut exhibition with LWP, Piotrowski casts her lines in every direction. Her massive site-specific painting done directly onto a gallery wall that spans 43 feet, is a glowing example of her fearless attempts to allow opportunities to be the source of her invention. She has titled the piece Tide Tango and in her words, it represents “the dance we do with the rush of thoughts as life runs over and through us.”
Like the river, Piotrowski’s paintings meander, dash, swirl, and coalesce in spaces that cannot be confined by the limits of the page. She recognizes the necessity to expand the space into different formats(see Corner Lot, 2014), providing new borders to break free from and allowing new puzzles to emerge.
Piotrowski’s paintings remind me of Matthew Ritchie’s complexly scaffolded spaces that find organization in chaos. The ability of arbitrarily small occurrences to greatly affect the outcome of a painting is particularly present in both artist’s works. Though Piotrowski seems to be making the paintings with much less discrimination. Less rules. Less fuss. More risk. Yet, in both artist’s work, there are common mark-making strategies, similar viscosities in paint applications, and there is an ever present familiarity in the natural locomotion of fluids on the surfaces they paint on. While Ritchie seems to be interested in corralling those fluids to work within his system, Piotrowski seems to let paint go where it wants, and her next move is a response to its uninhibited resting place.
I’m bringing him afoot. The line is tight but loosening. As the fish lays down, I pull him softly toward my free hand. In an instant, before I could grab him and at exactly the moment our eyes meet, he gives one last fit of terror and snaps free of the fly.
Fishing and painting are matters of timing in a changeable universe, and even when one returns to a place or moment of success, its doubtful that it will be under the exact conditions. Having broken the rhythm of a brilliant performance, it’s possible to never go back at all, and one shouldn’t go back–forward is the only worthwhile direction. The next hole upstream holds a trophy too, and its there that Piotrowski seems to be constantly aiming.
Life is a dangerous and unmanageable mess, but somehow these paintings have achieved a different description. Piotrowski’s description of life and linear time, is something much more approachable. Catchable even. As life runs over and through her, Piotrowski stands in the river waving a stick, trying to catch the catchable and upon success, immediately releases it back into the water for the next fisherman to stumble upon.
By Kevin Blake
I have an incredible ability to scare myself. To retreat from my ideas. To sprint in the opposite direction of responsibilities I don’t care to recognize. I have an incredible ability to demobilize myself. To put my action at bay. To halt my creative process. To suffer from external fears without hope of escape. These fears are a construction–a product of institutionalized art making and thinking–yet that knowledge does not offer freedom from its grasp.
Reality is a difficult reality. The reality of being an artist today is one I’m perpetually trying to negotiate. Beyond the much publicized and widely discussed art school debate and the massive debts these requirements accrue, there are myriad legitimate reasons to grow leery when met with the decision to keep making art in fear of things not working out. Its not only artists, however, whom are dealing with the economic conundrum that forces them into careers they never imagined due to overpriced corporate educations whose products often transport its patrons into saturated fields of under-paid positions that result in the inability to crawl out from underneath the oppression of student loan debt. This is a viral condition and an alarming state of affairs. It is also not a revelation–we know the facts and statistics before we sign the dotted lines and do so with that special kind of hope that the success stories of others and our egos will instill in us.
This phenomena poses questions that create debilitating anxieties for an artist–for me. Though unlike other specialized fields, artists are expected–even taught–to understand that they will be broke, busted, and holding onto coattails until the pieces magically fall into place. Conversely, it is also stressed that if your career is to be a success, magic will have nothing to do with it. Statistically speaking, the reality is this: its not going to work out–not the way you had hoped, but thats not the worst of it, nor does that assume there will be no highlights. Its just the reality.
I am not alone. My anxiousness is something shared. In Chicago, this collective anxiety is amplified through the idea of geographical displacement from a centralized art world, the lack of collectors, the shortage of funding, and the scarcity of opportunities–to name a few. Yet, artists in Chicago press on or move on. They create their own opportunities, or abandon this place in hopes of more on either coast. Chicago artists watch their creations grow to a ceiling–a roof that represents the limits of possibility in this part of the world. That canopy is clear from afar and can cripple you. Or it can help you discover ways around it. Through it. To raise the bar.
In Chicago, this anxiety is in the work. It is in the air. It is underscored, coded, subliminal, and refined to resemble a product suitable for trending discourse somewhere else in the world. In Chicago, the narrative dominates–it always has. Even work that seems overtly formal–like Michelle Grabner’s for instance–still emits a story. Her story is one of carving out space and time to devote to an artistic life in the face of a reality that probably encouraged her (at one point or another) to quit and pursue something more practical for the good of her family. I can see that story in her work. I can see the anxiety in the obsessively handled paintings and in the domestic quality of the patterned works. I can relate to how those exercises in formal abstraction can be a departure as well as a response to being a parent with an impractical pursuit and the guilt that may accompany such a seemingly narcissistic endeavor. However, her persistence prevailed. Her hard work won out. Her relentless commitment will be her legacy.
I understand that this is my reading of her work–one aligned with the web I’m spinning–and that to Grabner, the work is probably something entirely different, and could take place under completely different conditions. Though, there is the possibility that the work is exactly what I think it is, and either way it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that her background is her foreground. That’s what we talk about. The multi-tasker. The teacher. The mother. The spouse. The writer. The curator. The entrepreneur. The artist.
Deb Sokolow is another Chicago artist whose works seem to exude anxiety. Sokolow, to me, is like a small mouse living in a world full of big rats–quietly maneuvering through a complicated network with great tact and professionalism. It is partly her personality, her physical stature, and friendly nature. However, it is mostly her work that makes my metaphor more real–to me anyway. She is a voyeur of grand narratives made small by her fiction. Her anxieties are amplified and delineated in humor and conjecture of grandiose scale. She seems to trust her anxieties as the stew from which she extracts and distills her stories. It is her way of understanding the world and ultimately herself. Whether the story she tells is about some kind of conspiracy theory or a salisbury steak–for me–they are representations of anxious thoughts and of the productive possibilities that can result from mining them.
In the recent show Figurative vs Abstract, at the Hyde Park Art Center, Anne Harris–a Chicago artist and teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago–exhibited a group of paintings that at first glance are a departure from the type of work that one might expect to see, given her history. Though a closer reading would suggest that this work is a sensical extension of previous paintings. Going against the grain and venturing into uncharted territory, for an established artist, can be a scary prospect. Anne Harris weighed in on this idea on her Facebook page:
Struggling with change–reaction to a death, reaction to the sense of invisibility, fear of vanishing, work unseen, me unseen. Fear that doing this will tank my career, such as it is (What the hell is she doing? Says anyone who has every expected a particular something out of me.). And if something feels risky for me, is it risky for real, or just risky in my own little world? The fear of being another woman making “modest work” (thank you for that term, Altoon), the desperate desire to be seen, respected, challenged. How much of being unseen has to do with personal reticence? How much has to do with the work? How much has to do with being a women? Voice too soft, body too soft, too small, not trained to advocate for me, no self-promotion, making “difficult work” but not up to the difficult task of defending it. Now what?
A lengthy conversation ensued, revolving around the idea of fear and anxiety in the production of art and how these traits were almost universally felt amongst those peers involved in the dialogue. In the work, Harris’ vulnerability is ever present. She is succinct. She is clear. She is anxious. I think this work is top notch. Anne Harris appears to have an incredibly introspective practice but the work is strong enough to communicate that her self-reflexivity is likely a way of life extending beyond the studio. Her work, like the work of most artists (the artists that interest me anyway) is a blueprint. A method for understanding the types of things that scare her. That make her worry. That influence the way she lives her life and ultimately makes her work.
I heard the artist Tony Cokes speak, whose production foregrounds social critique, at Boston University a few years ago and he opened his talk saying, “I am not original. I do not have original thoughts. I am not special.” He was right, in every sense of his words. His videos were so repulsively mundane that I couldn’t help but retain his message: Practicality is a construction. It is created by markets. Markets that control consumption by creating necessity. Necessity by creating beliefs. Beliefs through messages. Messages through the senses. These created necessities are consumed through every orifice of the human body–everyday for everyone. The human body is an absorbent machine–soaking up anything in range–including his videos.
I hated Tony Cokes’ work that day. It was hard for me to watch. A friend of mine that sat next to me during the lecture loved it–probably because he understood what was happening in the moment. It washed right over me like a tidal wave–drowning me with images and text. Dazzling advertisements and jarring transitions. Disjointed sound affects and miscued music. I couldn’t help the flashbacks to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’s ‘aversion therapy’ scene, where a man is forced to watch a similar video with his eyeballs clamped open. I absolutely could not take anymore–I felt assaulted by his work. I say this now, as I reconsider the work, and reevaluate its permanence in my memory. It lasted. That is rare. I not only remember it vividly, but I remembered the words that accompanied the videos. His words. “I am not original. I do not have original thoughts…” This work resonated. This work had value. I hated it and it was just as good, if not better, than so much art that I adore.
Tony Cokes, whether his intention or not, embraces our collective anxieties. He points to the systems that oppress us–that tame us. He forces us to look at those things we know about the world that we typically repress because they are either too painful or too difficult to approach. He points to the structures that limit us from reaching our boundaries. Post-modernism told us–unequivocally–that we weren’t very special at all–that our boundaries were no longer made by an internal schematic that was constantly evolving. Tony Cokes reminds us that the parameters that identify you at present, are created by systems that are beyond singular control.
Despite all of this, however, there are infinite reasons to keep plugging away–to keep producing art. While the world grows fearful, artists are meeting anxiety–some collective anxieties–with productive reproach. They reject those fears or accept them by seeking their origin and expounding upon the energy that anxiety creates. They respond to their chosen territories by investing their lives into exploring the depths of themselves–a product of today’s world in addition to the inherited and transcendent qualities of yesterday. Instinctually we are compelled to understand our inabilities–our flaws, our incapacities. An investigation that maps our boundaries is our intuitions telling us how to understand those faculties that ultimately aid in our survival. Creating the capability to discern between the two is our eternal calamity and our providence–if one invests their time in attempting to achieve it, despite knowing it is an impossible feat. We will not survive no matter what we know. The point of our efforts are to grow–to learn about ourselves. The point is to learn how we exist in the world, by understanding how we make objects. The “why” of things is simply the anxiety that drives us, and the location of new ideas. It is essential–anxiety is utterly contemporary. It always will be. What is important, is the object. The object tells the tale and the tale teaches.
By Kevin Blake
It doesn’t feel right to report on this exhibition in a digital format–a piece of writing that will likely never be tangible evidence of its existence. The only proper way to engage with this work seems to be on a typewriter, with words scratched out and penciled-in corrections. Next to me, should be a waste basket overflowing with crumpled up pieces of disregarded words in a room only half-filled with light from a blinded window. I should wear spectacles too–the ones that magnify my own words to inexorable sizes and hang on the precipice at the bridge of my nose. I should chain smoke cigarettes and smash half-smoked butts into a circular plastic ashtray–a relic in its own right–that is as sated as my trash can. There should be an industrial era lamp hanging over my workbench where the smoke pools in its conical mouth piece. This work transports me to another place, and another time–indistinctly not my own. Yet somehow, I feel like I know it well.
Walter Hamady’s most recent show entitled, “Merit Badge” at Corbett vs. Dempsey is a colossal exhibition with meteors of information contained within small vessels. It serves as a miniature survey of a man’s career–though after reading the exhibition catalog, I get the impression that this show is but a small sample of a lifetime of prolific production in a variety of media. Whether working in collage, assemblage, bookmaking (in its own infinite capacities), or his personal diary, Hamady seems to have relentlessly recorded his life. His perspective. His place in space.
When looking at the work, I read each individual object as a beginning, a rudiment, or a part of a whole which has not yet materialized. The work is suspended between ideas and does not admit the viewer beyond its physicality, nor does it posit answers to proposed questions. The total procedure forms a well-articulated system of knowledge for the maker, that seems to be independent of the histories that would claim a stake in its material manifestations. This work is not about art. It is art. It is not about an art-historical vernacular that co-opts an object’s meaning and intention. To me, this work is about magical thought and the type of operations that this way of thinking requires: adventure, risk taking, and an aloof position to the world in which it exists, while maintaining an acute awareness of it.
Magical thought should not be reduced here to the immediate associations that it may suggest–a peripheral and imaginative realm that may create only flippant trajectories of reason, that solely exist outside of tangible reality. Walter Hamady’s life work, seems to be a parallel form of acquiring knowledge–a distinctly individual methodology for understanding one’s position in the world. He seems to constantly question his own worth, the value of the work he makes, and the institutions in which the works seeks to gain acceptance with striking affect.
Hamady’s work exemplifies a relentless production schematic that operates as forced attrition seeking to thwart an inherit skepticism of all that aims to discourage him. It is a tale well-known by artists–one of denial, rejection, exclusion and the occasional acceptance. In the rare moments of approval, the artist acquires critical nourishment that helps propel their operations. In the exhibition catalog, there are several journal entries included as a glimpse into the way this artist recorded his life. One such entry is from April 15, 1964 in which Hamady alludes to the gravity of acknowledgement from artists whom he admired: “…and Robert Creeley was standing right behind me and had heard everything that I said and Keith introduced me as a ‘good, young poet’…and Bob put his arm around me and said, “Come on in I’ll buy you a drink.” And I went in, and of course, he signed my book and we talked…and I told him I was doing a book…and he said he would like to see it. So it was a very, very, very moving day for me…very critical.”
I get the sense that Hamady gathered an equal amount of critical sustenance from objects and solitary moments of engagement that provided him with the impetus to make something, to write something, or to simply etch a moment into permanence by jotting into his diary. On February 10, 1974 Hamady recorded a moment that may have required such permanence: “Coming in from sawing that oak I took the trail we cleared and came by the place in the drifts where we had fallen in (on purpose) that night of the full moon when we were out walking. That was a pleasure indeed to just fall with abandon & be surrounded by the enveloping coolness, firm holding you in the random position of the drop, the light of the moon, the invisible push of wind through the oaks tinkling the leaves. I think I would like to die this way.”
In almost every sculptural work that is included in this exhibition there is an eye. A critical eye that is staring at the viewer. I can’t help imagining these eyes as staring first and foremost at Hamady himself–as a reflection of a person looking within to describe what is without. This self-reflexivity makes this exhibition a monumental description of time and of the sense of control that can be acquired through an articulate understanding of one’s capacity to record it. Walter Hamady is constantly striving for life’s merit badge, or more simply, the feeling of accomplishment one might have from doing something well. To me, “Merit Badge,” is about the constant inner dialogue every artist seems to have–a back and forth battle about the merit of one’s own endeavors. To earn that badge, one needs a little magic and Walter Hamady seems to have a surplus of it. See the show. See it twice. Grab a catalog.