Some artists are bad at sports, some artists are good sports. Feminists are artists. Some mothers are feminists, some artists are feminists and mothers. As mammals, we’re all born from mothers. Mothers and mothering make the world go round and keep the wheels of life spinning. And life is messy—it’s full of bodies that ooze and wheeze, splatter and spurt. Solid, liquid, and gaseous, bodily matter creates a viscous sphere of reality for mothers and motherers from pregnancy and childbirth through infancy, childhood, and on to the grave.
Curiosity about properties and behaviors of matter and the manipulation of it, whether playful or null-hypothesized, are hallmarks of artistic and scientific creativity. How about cutting it in half, smashing it, or welding it together, turning it upside down, making it bigger or smaller, louder or quieter, hotter or colder, lighter or darker? The decision-making rolls on from one work to the next.
Of course artists don’t have to be mothers to be interested in exploring embodiment and connections to others. The impetus can come from loving a partner or a pet, teaching yoga, being ill or caring for someone who is. That is to say, any artist can make the decision to foreground the exploration of bodies and connections between them. Large cadres in the realms of institutional art—museums, art schools, commercial galleries—evince a phobia about these interests. An artist coming out as a mother or motherer makes some folks positively squeamish. Especially those who perpetuate machismo conventions that transmute art work into commodities.
Like any other strong lineup of shows, this lineup features work variously engaged with abstraction and figuration, forms and materials, scale and dimensionality. The works in these shows embody their makers’ irrepressible determination to create art that enlivens the space it inhabits. In this regard, the recent installation of Judy Ledgerwood at the Graham Foundation, Indira Johnson’s mushrooming Buddha heads, and Sabina Ott’s current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center also come to mind.
Let’s start with Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey’s show, The Surface and Below, curated by artist and mother-to-be Angela Bryant. The works in the gallery’s almost demure manorial space twist and shout with blazing color and pneumatic girth. Harvey affixes spray foam, string, and spandex onto her painted canvases. These materials are more than another form of mark making. They transform the canvas into a sculptural object. Sometimes the foam takes leave of the motherboard altogether and takes on a life of its own. With or without a canvas, the works at once suggest gestural abstraction and forms as familiar as a vacuum cleaner hose, sea slug, entrails, or excrement. With her distinctive melding of ideas and materials, Harvey’s debate with figuration and abstraction becomes altogether visceral.
The work of either Harvey or Ashley would more than suffice for a solo exhibition. Yet seeing them together adds the context of contrast, and creates a dialogue between the two bodies of work. Ashley’s air-filled creations are made of ripstop nylon and PVC (polyvinyl chloride)-coated canvas tarpaulin. She spray paints them in funfair colors. What’s more, some are attached to a wearable backpack that holds the air supply. This means they can be literally embodied.
Whatever way they’re deployed, Ashley’s works play nicely with Harvey’s spray foam and summertime palette. Harvey’s string-wrapped foam forms and Ashley’s inflated ones—along with her small soft creaturely figures crammed through holes in plywood—all proclaim a showdown between exuberance and constraint.
Ashley’s bloated forms are way larger than life and billow like the canvas of a pirate ship at full sail. Two of them bulge out of their alcoves. The larger one is an assemblage that resembles a pillow with armrests known to New Englanders as a husband. Ashley’s digital prints hang nearby with festive blurs of color. They’re the result of another approach to scale and space: she makes tiny objects out of colored clay, photographs them, and blows up the photos. Their flatness punctuates the puffiness of the objects that engorge the gallery.
Moving from the leafy enclave of River Forest to the urban streetscape of Division and Milwaukee brings us to Edra Soto’s show, Say Everything. Walking into her installation on a miserable cold night felt like coming to a tropical beach at sunset. Spotlighted in a room purring with coral-pink light, greenish silkscreen banners hang from the ceiling. Geometric motifs from the flags of the US, Puerto Rico, and Chicago repeat themselves across the fabric, at once rhythmic and heraldic. With fans positioned around the room, the banners undulate creating the sense of rustling palms and rolling waves.
Soto extends her beach references by taking PVC stalwarts—molded plastic chairs—and covering them with jungleprint towel-tapestries that are sold further west on Division. Yet Soto’s work isn’t for just for lotus-eaters. Her rays of tape on the windows draw attention to them and the world beyond the gallery.
Next on the lineup is Queen Bee at Terrain. Curator Allison Glenn brings together work by visual, literary, and performance artists. Her essay sets out ideas coursing through the show—identity formation, rhizomatic forms of interconnection, and non-hierarchical collectivity. In relating these ideas to feminism, she takes pointers from Nikki Minaj’s 2012 single, “Beez in the Trap,” and artists associated with the Feminist Art Program at California College for the Arts during the 1970s.
The visual art engages with Queen Bee’s formal and conceptual concerns: Victoria Martinez’s found objects transformed into flags; Krista Franklin’s wearable sculptures of handmade paper, gold leaf, synthetic hair and acrylic fingernails; and Erin Minckley Chlaghmo’s elaborations of organic forms into kinetic patterns. On September 14, the art works doubled as sets for Terrain’s front porch stage that featured compelling, i.e., kickass performances by C.M Burroughs, Lise Haller Baggesen, Reshayla Marie Brown, and Krista Franklin. The day’s closing performance, a reading by Baggesen from her recent book, Mothernism, left listeners with no doubts about the glass ceiling and other things broken by Margaret Thatcher and her cronies. And if you missed these performers, take heart. They’re Chicago artists with more shows to come.
Whether it’s called mothernism, tidal wave feminism, or any other name, the need for it is born again with each generation. When contending with motherfuckers, sibyls of corporate success say lean in. These Chicago artists take a different stand: they use mother wit to make art and space for it—and then invite us in to play.
The Surface and Below: Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey at O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, until October 31, 2014
Say Everything: Edra Soto at Lloyd Dobbler Gallery, until September 30
Queen Bee: Lise Haller Baggesen, Rayshayla Marie Brown, C.M. Burroughs, Erin Minckley Chlaghmo, Krista Franklin, Victoria Martinez at Terrain and Terrain South, until September 30
Lise McKean is an anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
Guest post by Nicole Mauser
I recently visited the studio of Indianapolis-based artist, Lauren Zoll. Her work oscillates between drawing, painting, sculpture, video and installation.
Throughout the studio visit some large and reflective black latex paint sculptures bulge and sag and lean against the wall, at once mirroring and abstracting the spectator and the surrounding space. Our conversation in the studio touched on the concept of fugitive color, which we used to refer to the sculptural objects’ foregrounded reflective black latex paint. Furthermore, we used this phrase to propose an alternate meaning, something more akin to the literal phenomena of fleeting color that refuses to be pinned down.
The sculptural panels—each a bit larger than a doorway—act as analog television screens perpetually turned off, reflecting the quotidian around them in acts of defiance against their technological intention to project entertainment into the viewer’s space. We discussed the use and appearance of black mirrors throughout the history of painting. Originally, they were utilized to look behind or over the shoulder of the painter while simplifying values into discernable general tones. Zoll’s panels, which bring to mind the scale of Gerhardt Richter’s grey glass mirrors, further activate surface by using photography and recorded video on the surface to capture morphing reflections made by manipulating still life in the studio. Because the process of making seems very much in tandem with the idea of making these panels, I’ll refer to Zoll’s words on why and how she does it:
When I close my eyes, I see black. Closing my eyes is my starting point, a springboard by which my creative process begins.
When you close your eyes, textures, patterns and colors begin to emerge from the black. All of this is happening in less than one sixteenth of an inch. It is a surface of infinite potential.
This action has led me to create a body of work that includes black paintings and black and white drawings. In both of these works, the formal characteristics take flight and the complexities take over; ultimately showing color, radical depth, and unforeseen narratives.
The paintings begin by pouring multiple applications of black latex paint onto board or drywall panels. The paint dries slowly and creates different levels of gloss and reflectiveness. Once the painting is cured, I begin the process of filming and photographing the surface of the painting. I focus my camera on the dynamic, flickering and colorful reflections that come from the surrounding installations that I create.
I began this process when I realized that paintings have the ability to see. If a paintings existence is to always be looked at and seen, then surely the painting possesses its own ability to see. I document what a painting sees by photographing the image that is in the painting. I then produce chromogenic prints, which become both a document and the art. My most recent series is a collection of portable black paintings. I am fascinated at how placing these paintings on easles in an environment speaks to the transitory nature of Plein Air painting and further connects it to the history of art. I plan to continue this trajectory by making an installation of multiple black paintings on easels in site-specific locations and capture what they see.
[The black and white drawings were] created by covering white paper with drywall finishing tape and then painting over the tape with black paint. This drawing series was inspired when I tried on black and white checkered flag like eyeglasses. Realizing the context of checkered flags in Indianapolis, I set out to make an investigation that used the methods, materials, and semantics of a “finished” work via black and white checkered patterns. These works currently are on standard size drawing paper. The next phase of this series is to create a large scale drawing installation, directly on to white walls reacting to the space, structure and architecture. In conjunction with the drawing installation, I will continue to keep the remnants of the tape to weave, fold, and join the pieces together to produce a three-dimensional woven structure.
The work also brings to mind Swiss artist, Adrian Schiess, who uses video and large-scale body-sized aluminum panels and glossy digital prints installed on the floor to explore the intersection of perception of time, texture, color, and light. Schiess was featured at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) in 2008. Zoll pushes the visceral aspects of the materials diverging from Schiess’ clean lines. Interestingly, Zoll’s panel sculptures and video installations were featured in a solo exhibition at the IMA in a 2013 solo exhibition called Something Is, an experience about which she spoke a little:
I feel that the IMA show enabled me to dive into the work, where I might not have if it were not for the support from the museum. The contemporary art department has historically been dedicated to collecting contemporary works, and in this case, it had a direct impact on contemporary art being made now. Which is a very bold, strong place to be. It had an impact on art today, which is so different from waiting a couple of years to see if the work is safe or largely accepted.
The show gave me an invaluable lesson: How [do you] work with a museum? Or, how [do you] suddenly work with 15 people when you have been working alone in a studio for years? I think for most artists that is a challenge, and now I can go forward feeling a lot more mature [now that I have that] set of tools now.
In discussing this solo presentation at the area’s most important contemporary art venue, our conversation turned to what is it to be an artist in Indianapolis, both the benefits and drawbacks. According to Zoll, one benefit is uninterrupted time and space to think and produce work. A drawback is an incomplete artistic ecosystem where there isn’t much of an opportunity. But there are unique things going on in Indianapolis. One excellent example is The Art Assignment, a new weekly YouTube video series produced in collaboration with PBS and the Indianapolis-based duo comprised of independent curator (and former IMA curator) Sarah Urist Green and fiction writer John Green. In addition to numerous emerging and established artists around the country, Zoll’s approach to artmaking is featured in episode 9 of The Art Assignment:
And see more her artwork at:
Lauren Zoll’s works have been included in exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; School of Fine Arts Gallery at Indiana University; Ise Cultural Center in New York, N.Y.; Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art; DaimlerChrysler offices in Farmington Hills, Mich.; Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit; and the Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, N.M. Zoll is a recipient of the Indiana Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission, the Bertha Anolic Fine Art Travel Award and a Merit scholarship for Ox-Bow workshops from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Zoll is an adjunct professor at the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis. She received an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art after earning a BFA from The College of Santa Fe. Zoll lives and works in Indianapolis.
Nicole Mauser (b. 1983, Indianapolis) currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. She obtained a MFA from The University of Chicago (2010) and a BFA from Ringling College of Art & Design (2006). Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally. Mauser was a 2011 recipient of a Post-MFA Teaching Felllowship at The University of Chicago and a recipient of a Student Fine Art Fund Grant for travel and research in Berlin from The University of Chicago. Exhibitions include Ft. Gondo Compound for the Arts (St. Louis), Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), The Dolphin Gallery (Kansas City), H&R Block Artspace (Kansas City), DOVA Temporary Gallery (Chicago), Gladstone Community Center (Gladstone, MO), Center for Art+Culture (Aix-en-Provence) and AR Gallery (Milan). Collections include The Alexander (Indianapolis) and The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Overland Park, KS). Mauser’s writings have been published in 8 ½ x 11 and Art Practical. Mauser is also a co-founder of the artist run gallery, PLUG Projects and co-founder of the Kansas City Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC).
Guest post by Lise McKean
Voyage à Nantes, until August 31, 2014
Thanks to my husband who’s from the Atlantic coast of France, I’m a regular visitor to Nantes, a city the size of Boston on the estuary of the Loire River. I just got back from there and besides long days and lingering twilight, another good reason to visit in summer is to take in Le Voyage à Nantes. I first saw it last summer, and 2014 is the third edition of this two-month arts festival. Voyage creates visual and conceptual conversations between contemporary works, cultural treasures from local museums, and the sites themselves. Alongside centuries of architectural, urban, and riverine forms, installations resonate with green innovation and spaces–Nantes was Europe’s Green Capital in 2013.
Voyage activates the city’s green identity. A fluorescent green line painted on the pavement leads voyagers to exhibition sites and suggests destinations to everyday flâneurs. The 8-mile line branches into three circuits covering 42 sites in central Nantes. Another route brings visitors further afield by bike, boat, car, or bus to see Estuary, a collection of permanent installations occupying industrial and natural sites near the river between Nantes and downstream at St. Nazaire.
Like any trip, some sights and moments on Voyage appeal more than others. The 2103 and 2014 shows aren’t padded with works so obvious that they’re slam-dunk crowd pleasers. That is, thankfully the organizers don’t mistake facile for accessible–a problem less savvy large-scale public exhibitions pose for art connoisseurs. One year to the next artists and curators create installations that produce different experiences of the same indoor or outdoor spaces.
For example, the works occupying the expansive Place du Bouffay in central Nantes in 2013 and 2014 enliven the space very differently. Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal for Voyage 2013 is at once large and small: the installation takes up a lot of the plaza, yet it’s the fit-in-your-hand personages dotting the work’s gravel and rubble that grab the attention of viewers and passersby alike. Cordal’s little, grey-suited, briefcase-carrying men look like they rained down from a Magritte painting.
This year, Vincent Mauger created Résolution des forces en présence for Place du Bouffay. It’s large, spiked, and wooden. It could be described in terms of natural forms: hedgehog, reclining pine tree, spiny sea creature. Medieval weapons enthusiasts might see the piece as the gigantic head for nasty armaments such as the morningstar or holy water sprinkler. Its size and spikes might seem menacing, but the tentative way it rests on only some of its phalanges invites an imaginary journey à la Nantes luminary Jules Verne–might it roll like a log or crawl like a scorpion across the plaza?
Taking the green line to the Temple du Goût brings visitors to a temporary exhibition space that was built in the 1750s as a commercial and residential building on the quay of the Loire and the epitome of the era’s lavish taste. Going from the bright sun into the building’s subdued light and damp interior feels like stepping back in time–or into a dungeon. Last year Cordal’s work filled the Temple’s gallery spaces with Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery). The title resonates with the site’s history: the port of Nantes was the epicenter of the Atlantic slave trade in France.
With eyes still adjusting to the darkness, visitors pass into the first exhibition. Cordal’s little men aren’t in their outdoor wasteland anymore. And the change isn’t for the better. Here they sit or slump at desks that are lined up inside animal cages that in turn are piled atop and beside each other. It’s like looking through Loop office windows from Chicago’s green line and seeing cubed workers in the ghoulish glow of fluorescent light. The savage eloquence of the installation’s stark materials and repeated forms wrenches the gut. Cordal’s additional Temple installations also explore contemporary anomie, placing the little men and other figurines and objects in different settings, but with less visceral effect.
This year the Temple du Goût offers visitors another sensibility with Curiositas, a subset of Voyage exhibitions that is unified by the interests of curators from the Nantes Musée des Beaux-Arts. A line-up of bird specimens and an Inuit kayak (1836) are near the entrance. Turn the corner and it’s another world: Alighiero e Boetti’s painting Il Progressivo Svanir della Consuetudine (1974) fills a wall with ballpoint blue. Nestled adjacent to it is a small painting by Yves Tanguy (Untitled, 1927), responding to the Boetti with its own swathe of blue.
In the next rooms a sculpture of the python spirit by the Nalu people of Guinea consorts with Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (Personage with Blue Eyes, 1954) by Gaston Chaissac. This Chaissac gem is from the Nantes art museum; one hour away, Les Sables d’Olonne’s magnificent beach is matched by collections of Chaissac and Victor Brauner at its Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix. Anne and Patrick Poirier’s Phantasma, a site specific work in the Temple whispers archeological spells while sparkling in the dimly lit room. Last last year Cordal held forth here with a fortress of briefcases.
Voyage gives old and new works summer homes to bring them closer to locals and to bring tourists to Nantes. And visual art isn’t the only attraction. Voyage offers a couple months of classical, jazz, folk, and pop music concerts, along with the Electropixel Festival and a rooftop place to watch movies, consciously riffing on old-time American drive-ins. And this being France, art extends to food: visitors eat locally produced food and wine at artist-designed picnic spots and cafés along the green line, and chefs with stars prepare dinner for 200 in a local vineyard.
Voyage also brings Nantes’ best-known sights into its orbit with works commissioned for these spaces. For example, last year Cordal’s little men were bobbing in the moat at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne. Installations also pop up around the Parc des Chantiers, where the Compagne Machines de l’île builds and operates its grand mechanical creations on the grounds of former shipyards. On this island in the Loire, Royale de Luxe also creates monumental mechanical beings, and brings them to life as street theatre in Nantes and beyond. Just maybe one day Royale de Luxe will make its way across the Atlantic and work its magic on us here in Chicago.
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
Guest post by Sofia Leiby
In early 2014 Chicago-based painters Sofia Leiby and Josh Dihle had a conversation about painting, about Dihle’s painting in particular, at Adult Contemporary, an artist-run apartment gallery in Logan Square.
Sofia Leiby: So, how did you come to paint plants?
Josh Dihle: The plants are the things I do while I’m making the painting. They are the scenery, what populate the space. So whether I’m making a bunch of paper mâché groceries (as with Roger’s Grocery in 2011), or I’m painting little ferns, it’s about the act, the irrational act, that propels the image which makes the painting. And there’s a labor component, not as a display of labor, but labor towards a density.
SL: What sort of density?
JD: A density like the framing of the painting that points to itself, as in Dark Moss. It’s about the creation of a black hole for attention… Not attention in the theatrical sense, but a kind of focus. That one hung in my bedroom across from my bed for a while.
SL: What’s your painting timeline? When do you work?
JD: I just left one job [at an art gallery] because I wanted more time in the studio, so I have four days a week to myself. Among other things, I had done Miami Basel [art fair in Miami Beach] and talked to people about paintings in a kind of sales-y atmosphere.
SL: “Sales-y,” that’s a really cute way to talk about Art Basel. I worked there in 2012. I thought I’d go and think “Oh my god, this isn’t the world I want to be in.” But that wasn’t my reaction. It was more like, “Wow! Look at this Chris Wool from 2013!”
JD: There’s a lot of good stuff to see. The best times for the fairs are when no one has arrived or everyone has left. I was there for eight days and my show was going to open the next week, so I made this painting while I was there. I’d go back to my Air BnB studio apartment and work on this painting at night, and I called it How to Get Fancy with the King because I was thinking about the power relationships at play between buyers, sellers, makers, and viewers.
SL: You’re the king?
JD: The king is the power holder. For me, this is a silly and obnoxious painting, as I was thinking about the airs one puts on for the ones in power. The plants are too big, they are falling over and they’re all pointy and kind of unpleasant, the colors are a little nauseating: I saw myself as the court fool who is having to wear a lot of bells and silly things in order to get into the fancy place, wherever that might be.
SL: That’s funny. You’re going back to your hotel and painting. It’s like the opposite of what an artist normally does during Art Basel.
JD: I know.
SL: With a lot of this melding of art and life and having to have a career, these things get really muddy. It’s two kinds of productivity. The productivity of making, versus the painting, versus networking around the painting. There’s this thing about artists working for galleries, is it problematic, does it help, is it good for making connections… You’re purposefully putting up a wall, saying, “I don’t want to engage my job at the gallery in that way.”
It’s curious to me, and really admirable. It’s almost like you were a musician working in a chemistry lab. Like you have nothing to gain from your profession but you do at the same time.
JD: It’s not that I don’t want to network; I’m just not interested in it. I have to think about the fact that making the paintings is something of personal necessity. But I actually am paying close attention to what is happening out there. These paintings attest to that attentiveness, but they are still of a personal nature and are reflective of my own tendencies and peculiarities. Not that they are all so unique. I don’t even think the whole originality thing is part of the rubric for me.
It’s funny, in one of the first episodes of [art podcast] Bad at Sports, Michelle Grabner, talking about young artists, says she wouldn’t put her approach [as a curator, writer, artist and educator] up as an exemplary model for everyone, advising that some people should just make their art. I’m somebody who has curated, and I do write, it just doesn’t go out the door… I’d love to be the polymath that she is. But she said to just make the work. I thought that was pretty great advice.
SL: What about the black painting [Dead Elephant]?
JD: Oddly, How to Get in Fancy with the King has the most going on in it and it was by far the quickest painting in the show. Everything else was months of work. In Dead Elephant, you can see all the background stuff, the scoring into it. I continued to winnow everything down and glaze in and add these folds on top of it until the last visible part was the elephant’s head. The elephant is the closest I’ve come to the figure in a while. It represents the eternal innocent to me. It can be the stand-in for a relationship, or something you don’t want to lose steam around. It also carries a lot of cultural references.
SL: The elephant seems to be in contrast, then, to the plants, which are something to do whilst you paint. It seems more symbolic. Do you think about it differently?
JD: I started thinking about the elephant when I got out of a long relationship, and needed something more concrete to hang this weight on.
SL: Right. And the heaviest thing you can think of? A dead elephant!
JD: Right. So without having the seismic-level shifts [like a breakup] going on, I deal with the day-to-day freneticism that I feel in my life in the studio. The plants or obsessively worked abstract paintings become became the alternative mode to something like the elephant. But it’s not like I’m trying to make that one plant stand directly for every human woe.
When I first painted the elephant, it was part of a more complex, lush jungle. It didn’t assume that singular spotlight role until later. It was a decision making that happened more additively.
SL: I like that your decision making, adding to the painting and darkening the stage, so to speak, by adding the foliage around the elephant, is part of the life or narrative of the painting. It contains both process and symbolism.
JD: Yes, exactly. I love that you’re saying stage. I think it was [Philip] Guston who said his paintings are like a stage after all the actors walk off. I have been thinking about these paintings as depopulated. They’re nothing but the scenery; in this case, it’s the scenery around an elephant, but the viewer provides the figure. You yourself are there.
SL: This is a bit of a deviation, but I’ve been thinking about this idea of “virtual space.” Looking at this painting by a friend of mine the other day, I was trying to describe the space between these two layers. There’s this thing, and there’s this thing behind it. Can I measure the distance [between those two]? I thought about it as analogous to when I’m holding my phone. This distance between the screen and my face, I don’t know how to measure it because my head is there and the screen fills my space. And the same thing with a laptop, where does your body start interacting with a device and where does it stop? Are you interacting here, or here [at different proximities between body and machine]?
JD: Painting is a thing of the mind. That’s the saying. So that type of space contributes to the nebulous, ambiguous bodily relationship to a painting that proves that you don’t need to be completely inside of it to experience it.
SL: Although, these may be too flat for me to enter. The space is so tight that I’m not really there, but I do experience a tilting forward wherever the horizon line is, that it’s falling onto me.
JD: As far as my formal space in these works, it’s not like the curve of space in a Lucian Freud painting, like when his model is spilling down off the couch in front of you and gravity is sucking her down. These paintings are more about a space where there’s only one part of the horizon that recedes, and you understand everything else to be flat. But from top to bottom there is no scale shift. I have a big one in the studio that’s five and half feet tall and it’s painted very much in this way. The shadows, the way the light sits, this plant is casting a shadow straight down, but this plant here, the shadow is going straight back from it. So there’s that Cubist goofiness and then it’s also like wallpaper, without a plot. If there were deep space, there would be more of a plot to it. It’s more about the performance of the painting.
SL: Formally, I also just love those aloe plants. Plants do that sometimes, grow one long arm and somehow, it’s so disgusting. Or sometimes the sun is over there and it points toward it. You’re like, you’re not supposed to do that! You forget that plants are not decoration but are living things.
JD: Plants do not have their own sentience, but they are heliotropic, they grow toward light. It’s like a formal consciousness. Maybe this is how my consciousness resides in the paintings. The thing to remember about these plants is that I’m making them all up.
SL: So you don’t draw them from life. You don’t have plants in your studio?
JD: I have a plant in my studio; it’s rapidly dying. But no, in this case, no. There is no real plant like that. And if you look at them, they all have the same form, they all have this star with an elaboration coming out of this central point.
SL: They disappear into that little hole. It’s disturbing. Because you [wonder] where is the part where it descends into the ground. And it’s not even a whole, it’s a point; it’s empty in the middle. It’s almost like it came together underneath and then sprouted, breaking through the plane.
JD: Yes, so it’s the outgrowth of an isolated studio behavior, not the outgrowth of a rational, observed reality. That’s the distinction. So, no, these plants are not conscious in the way that you or I am conscious but they are heliotropic…there is an awareness, there is some kind of responsiveness in their being.
SL: Right. They are reaching toward each other but just missing. I like the cherry-blossom colors of this one [Meridian, 2013].
JD: They used to be dark trees, but I painted everything out and repositioned them, so there are ghost trees underneath. It disrupts the presumed sequence of the narrative. You assume that this painting was a linear march toward its completion, but it was a total Clyfford Still abstraction for a long time.
SL: It’s like if you took a Clyfford Still and put seeds all over it and then waited for two months. You left it in an abandoned lot.
JD: He would have hated that, too.
SL: I really like the thought of this being an abstract painting that weeds just started growing on, like it was outside for too long.
JD: It’s fair to say that if I happen to switch into the gear where I get really obsessive and repetitive, then there’s a very good chance that it will become a representational painting with the plant form in it. It’s bearing down. I’m a fucking worrier and I’m obsessive. That’s my nature and I’m finding it to be irrepressible in my studio.
SL: “Obsessive” is such a subjective formal qualifier though. We’re talking about a fairly airy painting for example.
JD: The decision-making is what’s obsessive for me. But the actual look of the thing can be pretty open. It’s not obsessive like a [Michelle] Grabner.
SL: People deal with obsession in different ways. You obsess over decisions; she obsesses over forms.
Guest post by Sonja Hornung
If Manifesta 10 has a curatorial focus, it came into being through conflict. Dubbed the ‘Manifesta without a Manifesto’, Europe’s roving biennale opened late June in St Petersburg. Manifesta 10 has been shaped by conflict: not only armed conflict between Pro-Russian Separatists and the Ukrainian government, but also an oppressive set of homophobic laws introduced last year in Russia, compounded by rising rates of violence against its LGBT community. Amidst calls for boycotts from the international, Russian and Ukrainian artists and activists, Manifesta 10’s curatorial agenda arose out of a series of on-the-fly statements from curator Kasper König, parallel responses from its director Hedwig Fijen and side-notes from Mikhail Piotrowsky, host of Manifesta 10 in St. Petersburg’s legendary Winter Palace, the Hermitage Museum.
The whole situation is a public relations disaster. Kasper König underlined the importance of ‘artistic freedom’, complexity and richness, urging participating artists to sidestep ‘cheap provocations’ and avoid ‘just making a particular political statement’. Hedwig Fijen, on the other hand, used a rhetoric of ‘engagement’, seeing the work of Manifesta as one of ‘debate, negotiation, mediation, and diplomacy.’ Compressing König’s and Fijen’s arguments together is a little like forcing together two misfit pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The pressure of the boycott situation forced some skillful PR cement gun action. The subtext of the press releases was something like this: in Manifesta 10, contemporary art comes from a place of autonomy, complexity and freedom, but at the same time, it justifies its presence by provoking some sort of dialogue, by pushing change on the ground.
Previously I have discussed the reasons for boycotting the Sydney Biennale, suggesting that although it may not have immediate concrete outcomes, the boycott interrupted the art world’s publicity machine and addressed the disgust many artists felt when it was revealed the Biennale’s private sponsor was making business out of the detention of refugees. In St. Petersburg I was surprised to learn that Manifesta 10 and Sydney Biennale share the same PR team. They certainly didn’t have an easy job in either case.
PR disasters are great. They’re the only time when advertising possesses the rare quality of honesty. The fine line strung between by König’s instistence on artistic (and curatorial) autonomy and Fijen’s push for a more site specific approach is a tightrope walked by all biennales. Global art events must maintain the freedom demanded by global contemporary art, but they must also address the local scene. Without local relevance for St. Petersburg, Manifesta 10 would just be about power: the implementation of power within the art world, and the instrumentalisation of cultural freedom to legitimise Russian state power. In order to avoid this, contemporary art must promise change on a local level. It must have an emancipation project.
This is why press on Manifesta 10 tends to focus on the overtly political art, regardless on whether it approves of or damns the biennale’s presence in St. Petersburg. Nicole Eisenman’s paintings of lesbian sex. Marlene Dumas’ portraits of Great Gay Men, tastefully retitled Great Men for the St. Petersburg authorities. The reenactment of Marilyn Monroe’s death, impersonated by Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe in delightfully trashy drag. Wofgang Tilman’s suggestively homoerotic photographs. Images of these works were distributed in the lead-up to the Biennale via the press mailing-list. Such works touch pressure points relating to gender politics inside Russia rather than the war outside – with the exception of Boris Mikhailov’s social realist snaps of the Euromaidan protests. Yet in the scheme of the sprawling exhibition, political provocations appear as carefully placed afterthoughts.
Far more present in my thoughts as I left St. Petersburg was a work by Belgian artist Joëlle Tuerlinkckx, who painted sheets of paper red and then stuck them face-down to every available wall surface, a wistfully hermetic gesture. In her statement, the artist wrote: ‘Art and power have nothing to do with each other.’
The tension between autonomous and emancipatory art is no stranger to Western art. It has its origins in the role of the artist in the Enlightenment, perhaps most lucidly expressed by German playwright Friedrich Schiller. In a series of letters written in a state of utter disappointment about the failure of the French Revolution, Schiller argued that humanity, constrained by the necessity of having to feed so many mouths, was simply not yet ready for freedom. When Kasper König calls for the importance of artistic freedom, he is (knowingly or unknowingly) drawing on the Schillerean tradition. For Schiller, freedom is play, and play is the true expression of what it is to be naturally human – before necessity and law intervene. Pure, purposeless play is the activity of the artist, who occupies a state of ‘aesthetic liberty’ autonomous from the necessity for survival, the daily grind. Accordingly, many states, Russia included, have legislation protecting artistic freedom of expression, allowing artists (in theory) to say and do things that are not permitted in normal circumstances to the average citizen. Most artists, when you ask them, consider artistic freedom to be different from the political freedom of the everyperson. The rest of humanity can only aspire towards this state by contemplating art, the product of pure play. Thus the freedom of the artist becomes a pedagogical tool for anticipating the universal state of liberty to come.
In the post-post-modern condition embraced by the artworld mainstream, Enlightenment thinkers such as Schiller (and by association König) may appear old-fashioned, elitist or patronising. However, Schiller’s conception of the pedagogical role of art remains embedded in the Western conception of artistic freedom. In this line of thinking, art’s apparent ability to sit outside of power justifies its appeal to the ethical betterment of humanity. Piotrowsky, who invited the Biennale to the Hermitage, reiterates this thinking when he says: ‘a person’s conduct is usually regulated, not by the prosecution office or the police, but by the person’s good taste. And good taste is often defined precisely by art’
Perhaps art might define good taste, but more often than not, good taste defines art, and the most controversial works of art are tamed by the most controlling narratives of taste, the signifier of cultivation. Estonian/Russian artist Kristina Norman’s work Souvenir was commissioned by Manifesta 10 for its Public Program, curated by Joanna Warsza. Norman has made a giant steel Christmas tree, a copycat monument citing the Christmas tree left half-built during the Euromaidan protests in Kiev last November. Out of place and out of time, the sculpture stands awkwardly in the quiet of the Winter Palace square, impeding on St. Petersburg’s own civilised silence about the escalating situation in Ukraine. Norman’s gesture brings the symbol of resistance against Russian expansionism back to the symbolic heart of Russian power. However, on the day the Christmas tree appeared in front of the Hermitage, the museum posted the following incredible misinterpretation on its website: ‘Maidan caused chaos. We hear the alert spoken in the language of art: be aware! Disturbances can be borne (sic) out of innocent entertainments…The unfinished Christmas tree near the festive holiday is an alert, a reminder…how a merry square has turned into a plug-ugly dump.’
What happens to Norman’s tree throughout the duration of Manifesta remains to be seen. As an uprooted symbol it is volatile: it may provide the empty framework for protests to come, or perhaps it stands in for the impossibility of protest at all. The Hermitage’s response shows that the moment artistic freedom is claimed on a platform provided by oppressive power, it courts being instrumentalised by that power.
In the above-mentioned interview, which was first published in Russia’s Money Journal, Piotrowsky continues: ‘I believe Manifesta in St. Petersburg will help to improve the global image of Russia.’ If the emancipatory mission of Manifesta 10 relies on a set of assumptions drawing on the Schillerean role of the artist, this mission is invested in the flailing legacy of liberal ideals, and their link to state power. The historical legacy of the Enlightenment has gained new currency as it is subsumed to the PR campaigns of governments. In a June report about the ramifications of the Ukraine conflict, the ECFR noted that Putin ‘presents an essentially illiberal vision of world order that he claims to be more realistic, based on spheres of influence…a direct opposite of Western ideas of liberal order.’ Meanwhile, other non-Western countries perceived that ‘the West enjoys an unjustified position of privilege in the international system’, simply using Liberal ideals as a front while it pushes its own interests through international financial institutions and outsourced conflicts. This narrative is having an impact: it forecloses the slow but steady rearrangement of global finance, with the BRICS nations recently forming their own, smallscale version of the West-dominated IMF and WTO banks. Discourse of a Western liberalism debauched by territorial and economic interests is also shared by the intellectual Left in Europe, North America, and Australia.
So long as its appearance is controlled in the right way, the freedom represented by the artist can be put on a pedestal to divert a crisis about the nature of political freedom itself, in both non-Western and Western states. As we look to Sao Paolo for the next biennale and to UAE for the opening of a complex of international museums on Saadiyat Island, questions raised by the instrumentalisation of art are only going to become more urgent.
While the art system is certainly affected by such ideological shifts, it seems it is only half-aware of them. Manifesta 10’s firm belief in the infallibility of artistic freedom appears to be a mutual and willfully naïve cover-up in the context of Russia’s ambivalent (to say the least) attitude to the catastrophic war in Ukraine and the EU’s slowness to react. Either that, or Manifesta is clinging to a nostalgic reiteration of the emancipatory vision of liberalism. The fact that so many art critics have swallowed Manifesta’s PR campaign, despite its contradictions, suggests such nostalgia is certainly rife in the art world. However, as Ekaterina Degot points out in her recent text on the fetishization of freedom and censorship in Manifesta 10, in reality ‘this whole system of mutually beneficial relations between several social and political groups is based on a mutual understanding shared by all sides involved of the rules of the game.’
The boycott itself, the ultimate act of refusal, is indicative of artists’ wishes to remain separate from corporate power and the whitewashing of crimes of the state. This stands true not only of Manifesta, but also of the Sydney Biennale and Creative Time’s Living as Form exhibition at Israel’s Technion Institute. Boycotts, in this final sense, are the last cry for a clean platform for artistic expression. But although Manifesta 10 proposes to open dialogue about change in Russia, it hardly expects itself to be changed by the local Russian scene. The one reliable promise of Manifesta is continuity itself: the two-yearly rhythmic institutional blip of the biennale. Boycotts might therefore best be understood as an opportunity for contemporary art to revise not its PR, but its fundamental self-understanding. Perhaps it is possible to build a ‘clean platform’ yet. Or, perhaps the notion of contemporary art needs to be reformulated so that the ‘clean platform’ is no longer required.
Tired Atlas is the name of the performance made by Russian collective Chto Delat‘s School for Socially Engaged Art. The School provides a group of outspoken young artists and activists with an unorthodox education in an underground antifascist bar in the heart of St. Petersburg. Although Chto Delat withdrew from Manifesta 10, its students decided to participate, in an irregular sort of spontaneous, last-minute manner, in the Biennale’s Public and Parallel Programs. For their performance, the students chose the portico of the New Hermitage, an imposing piece of neo-Baroque architecture. A row of enormous, black figures hold up the roof of the portico, mimicking the pose of the Greek Titan Atlas, who was condemned by Zeus to bear the celestial bodies. The Atlasses tower over the street, blocked by around 250 onlookers who gathered in anticipation of the performance. This was the only time I saw a large public gathering during my week-and-a-half-long stay in St. Petersburg. Each student came forward, took the position of an Atlas, shouted out their experience of the oppression of the state, and then joined their colleagues, forming a massive, trembling orgy of unstable Atlasses: a crumbling pedestal. The performance was nervy and rough and nobody cared, because it was honest. The sense of collective trust was palpable. Strength in anonymity. No PR.