Guest Post by Jessica Cochran
This year’s Whitney Biennial curators Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer cast the net so far beyond Chelsea that New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz lamented “curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.” Elsewhere, however, in the pages of the more academically inclined Artforum, Emily Apter took the biennial’s discursive turn away from New York centric art objects as an opportunity to consider the “liminal space” of a museum biennial “replete with printed matter, writing, texts of all sorts—in short, with words.” “The textual object,” she writes, “demands to be seen as a live, or “living,” work, an interface of bio and res.”
Its true, the archival impulse is what set the tone and struck a chord this year, particularly in the work of Chicago-based Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors (founded in 2007 by Marc Fischer), both curated into the biennial by Anthony Elms. Each taking as their subjects the lives of a deceased creative individual and his personal belongings, their projects build meaningfully on the Whitney Biennial’s recent history of both deceased artists and artist-curated “sub exhibitions,” notably from the 2012 edition the inclusion of George Kuchar (died, 2011); Robert Gober’s presentation of work by Forrest Bess; Nick Mauss’ curation of queer-oriented work culled from the museum collection; and also discursive contributions, such as Andrea Fraser’s essay No Place Like Home.
Joseph Grigely’s project The Gregory Battcock Archive, 2009-2014 is a mini exhibition of ephemera culled from the archives Gregory Battcock that Grigely recovered himself in the storage area of an artist studio building. Battcock was an intrepid New York critic (something of a reformed artist) who was mysteriously murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980 and known for his writing on minimalism and other emerging genres of conceptual art. The Whitney display, with postcards, photographs, manuscripts and scribbled notes organized into vitrines, is an extension of Grigely’s own text driven practice, specifically the project Conversations with the Hearing. For the art workers among us, this glimpse into the world of a dynamic talent and fastidious thinker gives pause for reflection: how will my activities live on after I am gone, and who is going to care?
In scholarship on artist’s books, much has been written about the concept of paratext as it impacts a book’s concept and meaning. An artist’s reflexive manipulation of the book’s gutters, typography, headers and index, for example, impact the text’s meaning as it is delivered to the reader. So too in Grigely’s presentation of the Battcock images and texts in the real dimensional space of the gallery, a different kind of paratext becomes important: the vitrines as support structures and the aesthetic arrangement of the material. The vitrines, “each made of a different hard wood, a different shape and height” and “composed as an irregular modular sculpture,” inform the way we maneuver through and consume the text. Because, as Grigely told me, “no archive is disinterested” and in an extension of Joseph Albers’ articulations of color theory, “you can’t put one document beside another without changing both.”
Public Collector’s biennial contribution was dedicated to a different kind of archive—the recordings, ephemera and images of Malachi Ritscher, who, Fischer wrote in a publication for the project, was a “Chicago-based documentarian, activist, artist, musician, photographer, hot pepper sauce maker, and supporter of experimental and improvised music.” Deeply respected and liked throughout the Chicago music community, Ritscher spent years independently recording thousands of live free jazz, experimental and underground improvised live shows at venues throughout Chicago, in addition to his day job as a union engineer and anti-war activist. On November 3, 2006, he self immolated in front of the Flame of the Millennium sculpture by Leonardo Nierman in full view of the Kennedy Expressway just north of Chicago’s busy loop interchange. As he wrote in texts found posthumously and displayed on a poster in the exhibition, “If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world.”
Unlike Grigely, for Public Collectors, “directing attention to and caring for the creative work of under-recognized people like Ritscher” is at the core of each project they mount. Amidst the presentation of recordings and ephemera, a recorder and a small paper sign, which Ritscher used to record and temper dialogue around him in the clubs, hangs above a series of brown suitcases: “Your cooperation (i.e. restraint) is appreciated.” This statement drips with melancholy. Because while his protest suicide was carefully recorded and it was his hope that it would circulate widely, the video of his death was entirely suppressed; and the reporting of his death, much less any discourse generated, was subdued and grass roots, covered minimally by local and national papers.
“In this space of affection, navigate the inappropriately cared for and the tossed aside particulars.”[i] In his catalog essay, Elms argues for Deleuze and Guattari’s “close vision”—or a notion of curator as custodian of a culture that is micro, idiosyncratic, ineffable, and eminently forgettable. Though a growing trend in curatorial practice, this decidedly counters the “bigger is better” ethos of the contemporary biennial as a perfectly and purposefully in-graspable thing. It also departs from the biennial’s value system as rooted in the empire building world’s fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries—many call London’s Great Exhibition of 1951 held in a dramatic crystal palace the “first” biennial—designed to give viewers a deeply overwhelming “great mass and jumble of things” (commodities, mostly) as “a challenge to make sense of … unimaginable diversity; to find or invert a “perspective” on the whole so that objects could be made to “stay and lie orderly.”[ii] Anything but orderly and still, Grigely and Public Collectors’ presentations animate the individual, allowing visitors to, in Grigely’s words, “draw and draw out”[iii] the subject because, as Elms points out in his essay, “hearing is not the same as listening.”
Most biennials are to some extent about nation building and nation branding—Prospect in New Orleans as a response to Hurricane Katrina is an American example—and in doing so the confrontation or processing of deeply entrenched national trauma. In the Whitney Biennial, however, the work of Grigely and Public Collectors amplifies a particularly American trauma of the self actualized yet alienated creative individual who is ultimately alone, forgotten, desperate or dislocated. Instead of healers, however, we might call them thieves. In his essay “The Curious Case of Biennial Art” Jan Verwoert asserts that one paradigmatic biennial artist is a “thief” who (as opposed to the fairly straightforward “jokers” and “scouts”) uses their understanding of the economy of desire to deal in the secrets of a mirage of cultural identity centered around an undecipherable trauma that glints like a ruby in the dust when one tentatively points a spotlight in its direction.”[iv] Battcock and Ritscher may be dead and gone, but their ideas are alive thanks to the illuminating work of Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors. And as the art world grows ever bigger in size and speed, one can only hope that the Whitney Biennial continues to make room for the discursive, textual and “tossed aside particulars.”
Jessica Cochran is a curator living and working in Chicago
[i] Anthony Elms, “Sentences sometimes are impediments,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 155
[ii] Donald Preziozi, “The Crystalline Veil and the Phallomorphic Imaginary,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 45
[iii] Joseph Grigely, “The Gregory Battcock Archive 2009-2014,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 185.
[iv] Jan Van Verwoert, “The Curious Case of Biennial Art,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 190
Guest post by A.Martinez
Kate Ruggeri is a Chicago-based artist, DJ, and curator who has shown at Roots & Culture (Chicago), Green Gallery East (Milwaukee), Western Exhibitions (Chicago), and Important Projects (Oakland). She is one of those people who exudes a humble cool, yet is enthusiastic about all she’s committed to, and excited about life and the people and things in it. After a handful of years of staying in touch from afar, I wanted to connect more closely to ask Kate some questions about her life and her work before she moves to New Haven in July to pursue her MFA at Yale.
A.Martinez: Were art and making art important to you from a young age?
Kate Ruggeri: Oh, yeah. Totally. My parents were always really encouraging. In elementary school I started taking drawing classes outside of school. I won a few poster contests. I used to do this thing every year called The Olympics of The Visual Arts, which is a New York State program. Pretty much you assemble a team, work on a year long project, and then compete against other teams. When I got a little older I got really into dark room photography. You know, carrying a camera around all the time and developing film in your bathroom. My mom and I took figure drawing classes together. A lot of colleges have art classes for kids during the summer, so I was always doing that too.
Martinez: How long have you kept a journal? And what does this practice of journaling do for you and your art practice?
Ruggeri: Since elementary school. I think my first one has a little lock on it. I never really stopped. It’s actually super important, to clear your head, to drain it. I try to write every day. I feel very scattered if I don’t. For art making, it’s good for me to work through ideas and to understand impulses I have. Often I make something and I’m not sure why I made that decision or was drawn to that form. Writing brings everything to the surface. It brings clarity. Studio work is one way of thinking and writing is how I detangle everything. Not just artwise, but life wise. It’s all the same, of course.
Martinez: How long have you had your own studio space? What does it look like?
Ruggeri: After school I had a tiny studio in a building across from Moonshine on Division. It’s been torn down since. I’ve been in the spot I’m at now for a little over a year. It’s a co-op at Damen and Fulton. I moved in there after my old spot on Elston burned down. We have an entire floor that is divided amongst us. My studio’s a mess. I see other people’s studios sometimes, and they have a turntable and little plants and it’s very cozy. My place is like a construction zone. I like that better. It lets me focus on the work.
Martinez: What is a typical day in the studio like for you?
Ruggeri: Nights are better. I like working when no one is around. You can play music loud. I believe in a witching hour. It really depends, though. I usually am working on one sculpture and 4-5 paintings at the same time. If I just finished something big or just installed a show, I draw and watch movies at home. I don’t really have a routine. Ben Medansky once described his ceramic studio as being around a million crying babies. That’s how I feel in there. I work a lot in series, so I just treat 6 pieces at the same time, and then have some experiments going. Right now I have some exercise balls I’ve been sort of doodling on. Then I’ll carve on these wood paintings until my hand hurts. Then I’ll cut some wood shapes out to paint. Or dump plaster on something. It’s a mix of working on very planned pieces and experiments. Everything always changes though.
Martinez: How do you begin a painting?
Ruggeri: Putting something down, anything! I break it in. I try not to think about it too much and just get the ball rolling. Usually it’s a good color.
Martinez: You work in both 2D and 3D- how does a piece become one or the other?
Ruggeri: When I was in school I used to trip myself up with that question. I can say now that they’re all paintings. I’m a painter that has sculptural impulses. I try to feed both ways of making. I try to be democratic about it. The larger sculptures can be exhausting to make, so there is often a down period of just painting and drawing before starting one again. Material, color, and mark making can drive a piece to be 3D or 2D. Finding a good object. Seeing a particularly inspiring show of painting or sculpture.
Martinez: What artists inspire you?
Ruggeri: Philip Guston, Mike Kelley, Matisse, Picasso, Claes Oldenberg, Cy Twombly, Franz West, Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Giacometti, Sterling Ruby, William J. O’Brien, Jonathan Meese, Mary Heilmann, Huma Bhabha, Gerhard Richter, Howard Fonda
Martinez: You have a pretty extensive record collection and DJ monthly at Danny’s. Do you feel there’s a connection between your music endeavors and your art-making?
Ruggeri: Yes. It feels very connected.
Martinez: What musicians inspire you?
Ruggeri: Parliament/Funkadelic, Dead Moon, Congos, Minutemen, Bad Brains, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Sparks, Beach Boys, Lee Scratch Perry, Roxy Music, De La Soul, Neil Young, Patrick Cowley, Big Star
Martinez: What do you typically listen to while in the studio working?
Ruggeri: It’s different every time, chosen for the day and mood. But Nas “Illmatic” gets played a lot. J.Dilla, Shuggie Otis, Pastor T.L. Barrett, Skip Spence, Velvet Underground. Mixes from friends. Jorge Ben, Milton Nascimento, Witch, Amanaz are all good…
Martinez: Do you do collaborations with other artists?
Ruggeri: Sure, I’ve done it a few times. Right now I’m working on a collaboration with Alex Valentine. He gave me these plates to draw on, and then we’ll print them together on newsprint, and then use them to paper mache a sculpture. It’s great because Alex is primarily a printmaker and I know barely anything about the process. I love the idea of making a sculpture made out of drawing. A perfect hybrid.
Martinez: In 2012, you co-curated a show, “Quarterly Site 11: Line-of-Site“, at Western Exhibitions. How did you land this opportunity? What was the experience like for you? And do you think you’ll curate more shows in the future?
Ruggeri: Jamilee Polson Lacy asked me to do it. She’s been doing these curatorial series for a while now, asking artists to curate a show at a different gallery. It was great. I got to work with Alicia Chester and Karolina Gnatowski. It’s fun to be on the other side of things, and it gave me an opportunity to create a show entirely different from my practice. I really wanted to see a show of top notch performance work. Curating is a lot of work, but I would love to do it again. I think the trick is when you start to think, “Why isn’t ___ kind of work being shown? Why hasn’t someone curated a show about ____?” is when you should get on curating a show. I’m starting to feel that, but I would need the right time and space.
Martinez: You and I actually met while undergrads at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is something that has stuck with you from your education and experience there about being a painter, artist, or person?
Ruggeri: Something that always stuck with me is remembering how I felt there: supported, invigorated, and that changing the world was definitely possible. It’s good to protect that enthusiasm, even when you’re working 9 to 5 and feel too tired to go to the studio.
Martinez: How has your experience at Ox-Bow School of Art as student and then again as a fellow affect your art? How long were you there total?
Ruggeri: Ox-Bow. Oh, man. I first went in 2007 as a student, and pretty much tried to take as many classes there as I could. If you got work study, you just had to pay for the credits, which I needed anyway. I went three consecutive Summers and one Winter. The Summer of 2010 was great, I took a class with Jose Lerma called “Expanded Painting, Expanded Sculpture.” Not hard to see it was a big influence on me. I was really lucky to receive a Joan Mitchell Fellowship this past Fall and I was an artist-in-residence for 5 weeks. As a student, classes meet everyday. I also had to wake up every morning to clean toilets for work study. This time, as a resident, it was like being at a beautiful retreat. There were only other residents, I had my own studio, and I got to structure my own day. It was incredible.
Martinez: Congratulations on your acceptance to the MFA Painting program at Yale! What are you most excited about in starting this program in the fall?
Ruggeri: Thanks! I’m most excited about a fresh start. And making better art.
Martinez: What do you think are some interesting things happening around the city of Chicago art-wise?
Ruggeri: Ryan Travis Christian has a show up at Western Exhibitions that I need to get over to. William J. O’Brien at the MCA. Isa Genzken at the MCA. Alexander Valentine has a show at 3433 coming up.
Martinez: What are you currently working on?
Ruggeri: I’m finishing up a re-make of a sculpture I lost in the fire. It’s a harp. I just wrapped up these brooches I made for the Three Walls Gala coming up in June. Starting some new paintings. I keep thinking I need to stop because I’m moving, but I have some projects I want to do before I leave. I have an ongoing series of fake album covers, and I have a photo shoot coming up for the next installment.
Martinez: Your recent show, “Tropical Depression” at LVL3 just closed May 4th. Do you have any other openings coming up?
Ruggeri: No, thankfully! I’m moving to New Haven end of July. I’m trying to tie up loose ends.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Ruggeri: Say yes to all opportunities offered to you. Avoid excessive thinking about the past and future.
To find out more about Kate, her artwork and her upcoming shows go to http://kate-ruggeri.com/
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL. She is currently working on a performing arts summer festival called The Living Loop, and will release her first book of poetry this summer.
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Keith Mayerson is a painter, born in 1966 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Stuart Comer curated Keith into the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where we stood in his third floor hanging of My American Dream for this interview on May 4th. The night before our interview, I dreamt of musical interludes throughout the conversation, and in real life there were musical interludes – broad, brass instrumental sounds from the installation next door and distant vocalizations from the museum stairwell.
Leland: How many years ago did you come to New York?
Mayerson: Not to age myself and make my hair fall out but ‘88.5 is when I graduated from Brown and traveled around and I got here in the Fall of ’89 and I was submitting ten cartoons a week to the New Yorker. My second job was at Robert Miller Gallery when they were in the Fuller building on 57th Street and Cheim and Read were the directors. Getting to talk to Alex Katz and stepping over Basquiats and Alice Neels in the back, I realized that fine art was about bringing up ideas aesthetically just like cartoons were.
With a comic, I think about a single image that’s distilled and repeated and refined over three to four frames, or maybe thirty frames. Is there a repeated image in that sense that you work with? Or a painting that you’ve made maybe five times in slightly different ways?
When you have one panel next to another panel, and your mind creates the ultimate content between those two panels – your mind becomes an accomplice. I do have repeated motifs – I painted James Dean a whole bunch of times –
But he appears one time here.
No, three! This is the James Dean crash site here. He died when he was 24 after making only three films. As a method actor what’s really important for me about him is that he would really be able to cathect his own life into his role. I also always loved the Beatles, always feel that they were sort of the first post-modern band because they always spoke through avatars – they weren’t The Beatles, they were Sgt. Pepper, they weren’t depressed, it was Eleanor Rigby.
So like a method actor, is this new for you to base your work on your own life, in the last few years?
I realized there was one moment I looked around my studio and thought “You know the source images for all of these came from somewhere else. Hopefully, I’m putting my own spin on them.” Ingrid Sischy at Interview hired me to cover the haute couture shows in Paris, and they move so fast, I couldn’t be merely a sketch artist, I had to take a lot of photos. And so from those photos I ended up doing paintings that ended up in her last issue. I realized that having that connection with the images that I took was really amazing and having the autonomy of authorship, of being able to create that image, and directly work from the image that I made gave me a great feeling.
The first time I came into this room was also the first time I saw your work, and my first thought was “Oh, several people painted these paintings.”
They’re mostly from the last ten years, but a few earlier works – this police painting. This Jesus Christ Superstar. This circle painting. And this Ty Cash painting in the corner were from my first ten years. I’ve been exhibiting about twenty years, but you know Picasso said if you draw a circle without the aid of a compass, it’s imperfection is your style, or if you copy old masters, how it’s not like the old masters is your style.
That’s what I noticed looking at them longer – a worked-over, back and forth painted mark, and I wondered, is that your primary language? Is that the way that you’ve made marks since you’ve started painting?
When I broke out in the early nineties, I was appropriating different styles, via different eras. An epiphany really for me was seeing the Rembrandt Caravaggio show at the Van Gogh Museum and realizing the old masters were able to micromanage a lot and then in little pockets have their subconscious spill out. I think style to me is about painting something, or rendering something, however you render something, the best way that you can, and it comes out looking like that.
It comes out like what you imagine.
Yeah, and that’s your style – I published this graphic novel in the early 90s with Dennis Cooper called Horror Hospital Unplugged and it was really neat to get the graphic novel out and, you know back at that day, it was very queer and so on and then I was googling myself one late night of insomnia and found out some people in the Netherlands had made a movie of it, and I was like oh my gosh, you know, I could use a film still –
This film still was a recreation of your graphic image?
Mm hm. It’s at the end where Trevor the Machine kind of falls, he collapses on the stage, at the end of their version of the book. It was a fold-over book, so on the right hand side it would just say “Some Else” and maybe just look like a kid collapsed on the stage but then if you unfold it, it becomes sort of an angel, and you see – if you just read the back it says “I Is One” but as an angel it says “I Is Some One Else” and it actually emulates an angel if you wave it back and forth, but I love that quote, because Rimbaud is saying “Woe to the piece of wood that finds itself a violin, or woe to the piece of metal that finds itself a trumpet.”
It’s a disregard of language, or detachment from language.
Right, and of course, speaking through avatars all the time, in my own work and especially in this installation, I felt that would be a great way to begin it. If My American Dream is somewhat autobiographical, which of course in the micro-managed narrative it is, “I Is Some One Else” begins it.
Had you always intended to hang this many paintings in the Biennial?
Stuart Comer had known my salons in the past. It’s posing as a salon, but it really is like a giant comic on the wall.
That’s a painting of Louis Bourgeoise, right?
Did you go to her salon?
Yes, I did. A bunch of times. When I was teaching at NYU, I felt like, you know, if we were alive in the 50s in Paris, we would visit Giacometti with plaster in his hair. And they were exquisitely boring kind of long days that would start at three and they would kick everybody out at seven, and they’d always be a little over warm with over warm liqueur being passed around and chocolate that she liked, but you would come up and present to her, and if she liked it, she would say “Very good,” and would send you to the moon for weeks, you know, and I would go there on my own for gratification. I asked her if I could take her photo to make a painting and luckily she acquiesced and I got to do that while she was still alive. You know, in the background is her whole cosmology.
When I first asked you for the interview, I mentioned that I was also really interested in the David Foster Wallace interview written for tennis player, Roger Federer, on the fourth floor, about Federer’s physical tactics in tennis, and I have one favorite question that he asked: “There is a thing you do at the start of service motion – you place the ball only for a split second in the fork of your racket’s throat. Are you aware of this? Do you know when you started doing it?” Is there a comparable action, a physical or personal tick, that you’ve become aware of through painting?
Sure. I lay out my pallet, you know I use CMYK colors, only primaries, but a whole bunch of the primaries, light yellows and dark yellows, reds and dark reds and so on and the violets, and I want to set up a scenario where I’m looking at my photo and letting my hand go where it wants. And so, I hold my photo in such a manner that it’s almost like a music stand, where it’s right in front of me, and I find, that a lot of times my brush is almost like a brush behind the photo. I don’t perceive my hand. There’s a sense of remove. And I find that my hand is just moving, and it’s working, and it’s doing its thing, and kind of like a state of dreaming, I find myself watching myself paint.
Based in New York, Erin Leland is an artist using photography, writing and video. She has recently exhibited in the group exhibition, White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart at the ICA in Philadelphia and in her solo exhibition, Everything is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas. Upcoming, a new series of photographs will be included in the group show, Psychic Panic, in Pittsburgh, opening May 16.
Guest Post by Lise McKean
Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams
Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Galleries 182-184)
Until May 18, 2014
In Nilima Sheikh’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, 10 scroll paintings hang throughout the galleries from ceiling to inches off the floor (10 x 6 feet). The scrolls (casein tempera on canvas) are painted and stenciled with figurative, decorative, and verbal evocations of Kashmir past and present, of daily life during times of violence and peace. They fill the galleries with color, form, and movement, with sorrow and delight.
Over decades of artistic practice Sheikh’s initial modernist orientation accrued layers of contemporary and art historical references. Engagement with South Asian regional painting practices as well as with artistic production including textiles, stencils, and calligraphy further enriches her visual and technical repertoire. From the start Sheikh’s work beat with pulse of its times and environs. For example, the murder of a girl she knew gave rise to When Champa Grew Up (1984). This series of 12 works brought image together with Gujarati poetry, making visible—and felt—in a new way the realities of child marriage, extortionate dowry demands, and the burning to death of brides by husbands and in-laws.
Sheikh’s work in her 2003 exhibition at Gallery Chemould in Mumbai, The Country without a Post Office: Reading Agha Shahid Ali, was inspired by Ali’s poetry. That is, readings of Ali fostered her development of a visual language for Kashmir. For example, her use of the bhand, a narrator-like figure of satire and buffoonery in Kashmiri folk theatre. The title of the Art Institute’s exhibition, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, is drawn from a line in Ali’s poem, “I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight.” Eight of the show’s scrolls were created between 2003 and their 2010 exhibition at Gallery Chemould. Sheikh created an additional two, We Must Bear and Hunarmand (one with a talent or gift) for this 2014 exhibition.
When talking with me about her work, Sheikh said she prefers “sizes and scales that have potential for extension and openness.” She added that this potential is not linked to size alone, and noted that miniature painting has structures within it that allow for adding on, extending, and moving from one pictorial space to another. In her view, the scrolls’ life-size scale allows the space to be traversed as in mural painting and set design.
About her methods, Sheikh said that sometimes she made preparatory sketches and studies for the scrolls, but that the process of painting them was improvisational, adding, “I make changes as I go along.” Collaboration is vital to Sheikh’s approach. She has longstanding artistic partnerships with sign painters and stencil makers, particularly sahji stencil makers Sanjoy Soni and the family of Vishnu Prasad of Mathura. She also spoke about the “workshop” character of her studio, in which current and former students provide “people power” for the labor intensive work of preparing, stenciling, and lettering the large scrolls.
Valley is the first painting the visitor sees when entering the gallery and was Sheikh’s first work in this series. Valley is a lyric portrait of Kashmir, gorgeous and green with meandering rivers, lapis blue lakes, evergreens flanking a tall plane tree, and hills rising to distant mountain peaks. Ornamental geometric and floral stenciling whispers its presence like the rustle of silk.
Contrasting with Valley’s visual harmony, the narrative and pictorial structure and use of color in the scroll, Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, brings to mind the syncopated rhythms and fragments of dreams. Here, rectangles and squares frame figures—the bhand, two musicians beneath a golden tree, an elongated woman looking over her shoulder—slices of landscape, and textile-like stenciling. A vertical swathe of midnight blue encompasses a domed building with darkened doors, an abode of sleep, dreams, and cauchemar.
Hanging from the ceiling rather than up against the wall, Sheikh’s two-sided scrolls descend into the galleries. The viewer can circumambulate each one, moving from its image-filled front to textual materials on the back drawn from poetry, myth, legend, and historical archives. The text on each scroll introduces viewers to diverse undercurrents in Sheikh’s historical imagination—ideas, experiences, and memories that animate and flow through the work. Yet textual reference is not a formal basis for her image-making. She develops her own vocabulary of image, material, and technique in response to specific visual and aesthetic concerns.
Sheikh’s scrolls pose complex questions about present and past, about what is lived, dreamt, suppressed and forgotten, and about what needs to be seen, remembered, and felt. She is as leery of historical interpretations that invoke Eurocentric views of progress as she is of those invoking timeless tradition and undying enmity. When speaking of the ideas and concerns underlying the series Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams, Sheikh told me, “The work has been a learning process to make visible various worlds.”
The scenes on some of the scrolls evoke the violence assailing Kashmir in recent decades and centuries past. She shows violence stalking daily life and prowling in myth and legend. Weapons abound—demonic claws, daggers, ax, mace, sword, and guns. A goddess hurls a mountain to destroy the demon menacing Kashmir. Nearby a lion’s claws tear into the underbelly of a bull. Elsewhere a demon dangles a sword over a picnicking family. Pearl-like tears stream down delicate faces of cloud goddesses as they mourn Kashmir’s lost paradise. A kneeling woman weeps red tears in a corpse-strewn field.
A few days before writing this, I made a refresher visit to the exhibition. A South Asian family was sitting on bench outside the gallery—a man and woman with their two-month-old daughter sleeping in her carriage and the man’s grey-haired parents. When I asked if they had seen the Sheikh exhibition, the son took charge and answered yes. He had heard about it and since they were coming downtown for an immigration appointment, they came together to see it. He told me they’re from Pakistan and he has Kashmiri friends at home. For him Sheikh’s exhibition shows how Kashmiris in India are suffering. After a moment he added that the dispute over Kashmir hurts everyone in both countries because they’re neighbors and it keeps them from being at peace.
Indeed, Sheikh doesn’t avert her gaze or ours from Kashmir’s plague of violence, loss, and sorrow. Yet she refuses to reduce Kashmir’s present to violence or its history to battles and brigands. Her scrolls also make visible other histories of Kashmir—times when antagonism between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, did not afflict Kashmir. Imagining other possible presents and futures for Kashmir, Sheikh alludes to Kashmiriyat, a centuries-old belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence among the region’s ethnic and religious groups. Construction Site, with its scenes of making and building presided over by the towering bhand, extols another vision of Kashmir. Anonymous laborers build cities and terrace hillsides using their intelligence, energy, skill, and tools. Here, constructive collaboration has the upper hand over violent conflict and destruction.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is visible outside of the gallery, and its size and curious detail might beckon visitors into the exhibition. This work also is closest to the exit, and thus positioned as the exhibition’s final scroll. This scroll echoes Sheikh’s Rozgar series (2011), which draws on a nineteenth century manuscript illustrating Kashmir’s professions. Hunarmand celebrates the many ways that Kashmiris manifest their talent and skill: as ironsmiths, farmers, weavers, embroiderers, papier mâché makers and painters, carpenters, dancers, musicians, boatmen—and even a scribe. Unlike the other scrolls, the relaxed grid structuring the space on Hunarmand’s front side includes large chunks of text alongside its images.
The reverse side of Hunarmand is a painting inspired by legendary Kashmiri works of art commissioned by the king to be bestowed as royal gifts. Teams of artists took years to create incomparably beautiful shawls embroidered with a map of the Vale of Kashmir. History tells us these precious gifts brought prestige to their recipients and acclaim to the king and gifted artists of Kashmir.
Sheikh’s scrolls and their details photograph beautifully. However, the vitality and complexity—and yes, aura—of these works of contemporary art exceed digital or verbal capture. Each Night Put Kashmir in Your Dreams generously rewards face-to-face viewers, and especially those who slow down and look closely. When talking about the aesthetic sensibility that infuses her work, Sheikh commented, “Beauty isn’t an end in itself. Within every language, a work comes together to make beauty possible. Created by a hunarmand whose talents are at full strength, Sheikh’s scrolls make visible nuanced and moving worlds while giving rise to others in the imagination. In response to my question about the conjunction of beauty and violence in the scrolls, she replied, “You don’t have to use violent forms for violent things. You can talk about pain tenderly.”
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.
Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Aandrea Stang in her office, which sits waist-level with passing-by students on their way to the dormitory across the way, twice. The second time, I brought her a raspberry glaze cronut from the donut place near my house, which, like most donut places in LA, is called LA 24-Hour Donut or Donut 24-Hour LA or LA Donut 24-hour or something like that. Their cronuts are truly marvelous, and their donuts are great. Their coffee is terrible. I asked Aandrea about the program she now runs at Occidental College, a small, residential liberal arts college nestled the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles. That program, OxyArts, is currently presenting We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a participatory sculpture project by Los Angeles-based artist collective Finishing School in collaboration with artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher (on view through May 9), and The Trouble Between Us: An exhibition organized by Kenneth Tam (on view through April 19). Watch a time-lapse video of the installation of We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a full-size replica of a MQ-1B Predator drone aircraft that was covered in mud over the course of two days by participants from Occidental College and beyond, here.
JW: Do you have free reign over all aspects of what you’re doing here?
AS: Do I have free reign to do whatever I want here?
AS: Can you narrow the question please?
JW: I guess that’s just a really roundabout way of asking what you’re doing here. What is OxyArts? What are you meant to be doing? What is its relation to the school? It looks to me like it’s the sort of thing that an art institution—a museum—that’s attached to a college operates, like the Wattis [at the California College of the Arts] or whatever, but there’s no museum here—I mean I guess there’s the gallery, but…so is it an offshoot of the gallery?
AS: Well, the college president is really interested in the arts. He was at the New School before he came here, and he likes contemporary art—he has a stumbling-on-a-Jenny-Holzer story that he likes to tell. He really is interested in seeing the college’s arts programming be more visible, and he’s also interested in the college having a greater relationship to the arts community in southern California. So, as the one urban liberal arts school in southern California, and perhaps in California and possibly—I mean, I don’t know how many residential urban liberal arts schools there are—so the president really wants to take advantage of that and position this school as having a partnership/relationship with the arts community in southern California. There was a strategic plan written for the college several years ago and the arts were really strongly written into the strategic plan, and they saw my availability as an opportunity.
JW: What is the strategic plan a strategy towards?
AS: I haven’t read the whole thing, but it talks about where the college is ideally headed. Before this president came in, there was a lot of tumult; there was three or four presidents in two years. The economic downturn impacted the endowment. The school wasn’t in an ideal place, so the strategic plan was written to move forward—to aggressively move forward. [Occidental College president Jonathan] Veitch wanted to have the arts included. So I’ve been brought in to manage the brand of the arts, and especially the presenting component of the arts, on the campus, to the campus itself and also to a larger audience outside the campus. The overall list of things they want from this office is pretty long…
JW: Were you able to whittle down the list of things? It sounds like you’re asked to do everything.
AS: Yeah. For example they’d like me to be in charge of the college’s collection, which is currently housed in special collections in the college’s library, and given the pressing responsibilities the collection’s going to have to stay there until plans and policies are created. Additionally I am overseeing the gallery program and they are interested in seeing interventionist projects occurring on campus.
JW: Are you supposed to write any curricula or teach any classes? Or is it mostly an administrative position?
AS: For right now it’s an administrative position. We’ve talked about my teaching—and I adjuncted before I came here, teaching a class on how LA became a modern and contemporary art city—but it was agreed when I signed my letter for this job, while it was presented to me as a job description, that what I was signing was the description for my office, not for my job.
JW: It seems like you have some qualms—how much you’re being asked to do. Were you sort of trepidatious about working here, or…
AS: No. I’m not afraid of hard work, that’s fine. I was nervous about coming to an academic institution and what that meant—
JW: What does that mean?
AS: At MOCA, there was an acceptance that anything presented there was art. You know, you’re at MOCA, this is a project that’s being produced by MOCA, usually what I was doing was within the bounds of MOCA—not always within the physical space—but it was a museum project and therefore it was accepted as art. Here, the art department is small. Overall there are about 2000 students and I would say maybe 30 of them are art majors, or visual arts majors, so when you’re putting on a big project like Finishing School’s We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust or Liz Collins’ Knitting Nation, people don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at. Since this campus is used so much for film shoots, half the time the students assume that an artwork is part of a set.
JW: Wow, ok.
AS: Welcome to southern California. This was California University for Beverly Hills 90210, and it’s been every college campus you’ve ever seen in the movies and on TV. Part of my learning curve is understanding that that’s the dynamic here.
JW: I noticed that the first couple of things you did here were in the gallery.
AS: The first thing I did was Liz Collins’ project, Knitting Nation, which I did with the sculpture professor [Mary Beth Heffernan] She and her sculpture students were very involved in the project—one of the course assignments was to work with Collins on the project. I was more involved in a managerial, administrative, logistical role. Going into the project I didn’t know Liz, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but it was a good first project. We got on well and the collaboration with Mary Beth was a supportive way to ease myself into how things work at Occidental.
JW: How is OxyArts funded? Is it funded entirely by the college’s endowment or are there also private donors?
AS: One of my constraints here is budget, so I can’t do a lot of big programs until I have proper funding in place. Fortunately a generous family foundation is supporting an artist-in-residence program that’s starting this fall. Lucky Dragons is going to be our first semester-long artist-in-residence, which we’re really excited about. The foundation was interested in seeing the Artist in Residence program start last fall but since I had just started at Occidental I explained that it was too soon to put an effective plan in place. Their response was remarkable. They asked what kind of projects we could do for the coming year. We discussed these smaller residencies, which they were very amenable to. That’s when I began to consider what was possible.
JW: Do you think people receive these projects differently here than they would have had you done them at MOCA?
AS: Yeah, well the first gallery show [Devon Tsuno: Watershed] was really well received. It was comprised of lush beautiful paintings and other attractive elements. The show that’s up now [The Trouble Between Us organized by Kenneth Tam] doesn’t appeal to a general audience as much, but it starts an interesting dialogue. The students studying time-based media are mostly working in either documentary or fictional narrative, so this show has been an interesting teaching tool for their professors. I don’t know how the drone would have been received had it been sited in an art environment. It may have been perceived as didactic. Here I think it works. Here it is pedagogical. The artists understand their audience. When I was told that there is one military veteran enrolled on campus, that made me that much more interested in doing this project. The airmen controlling the drones—or playing the videogames that control the drones—are the same age as the students here. And if there’s a class thing that you accept about who’s in our military now—that’s not the student body here. It is my assumption that the Occidental student body doesn’t have much of a relationship with our present-day military. I think making that actually tangible is an interesting thing. And there’s the whole making it tangible part, having people come and put the mud on it.
JW: To be part of this celebratory social experience of putting a drone in mud.
AS: Yeah, and having it be this sort of generous, barn-raising kind of moment where you’re patting down hellfire missiles. I think that has had a pretty provocative impact on the community here. On Friday I had an art history student in my office who was asking for some direction about a job after college. It wasn’t a conversation she was particularly comfortable having with me, a stranger. We got to talking about the drone project, and her whole demeanor changed. She went from being very reserved to very honestly and comfortably expressing her excitement about the project. There’s a student in either history or politics doing a paper on it; one of the Diplomacy and World Affairs professors used it for her drone unit. It’s getting some traction. I think in a museum I might’ve pushed the artists away from a project like this.
JW: Because it was too didactic?
AS: Yeah. And here that gets flipped around and handled well. The setting of a beautiful college campus, the fact that every movie gets shot here because it looks like Joe College, that works to the advantage of this project. If you’d put this in front of something that looks like what we think a contemporary art museum looks like, how exciting would that be? I mean it’s still a big giant airplane covered in mud with Hellfire missiles, so it would still be exciting, but I think the setting…
JW: And it’s not even in front of an art building, it’s in front of an auditorium, right?
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it works here.
JW: How would you say the work you’re doing here relates to the work you were doing at MOCA?
AS: Engagement Party—how to answer this?—it’s really interesting to look at this from the other side. You know, when we got the funding for the project I was really excited, and I had also been at the museum for eight years at that point, so…
JW: What had you been doing until then?
AS: Public programs. That had started to stretch into other programming. We received funding from the Irvine Foundation, as part of their Artistic Innovation Fund. At the time they were inviting the big cultural institutions in California—not just museums, but the symphony orchestras and the big theaters—to apply for projects that would be innovative in terms of both the artistic program—in how the institution interacted with its audience—and also innovative in a managerial sense. A lot was asked of this program. I had been interested in what we now think of as social practice for a long time. I had been looking at community-based art-making—what it was in the 1970s and 80s, what it became in the 90s, and how that transmogrified into what we think of as social practice. At the time of the application I was very involved in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, working towards remaking his Happenings as part of the exhibition. For the year leading up to the exhibition opening I had been studying his work. As a result one of the things that I thought was important was to think about the idea of innovation broadly: how in a collecting museum do you support non-object-based work? On the managerial side of things, MOCA had always claimed that it was committed to hiring artists and other culture workers. That idea influenced how I selected the project team. I chose either front-line or junior-level staffpeople—in some instances, middle-management—from most departments. This group collectively was responsible for both the managerial and curatorial oversight for this project.
JW: How long were people on this decision-making board?
AS: As long as they wanted to be. There were some people that were on it from beginning to end, four of us I think. For various reasons other people rotated out and were replaced, usually by people from the same department. We tried to keep a representative balance.
JW: And it was a consensus-based decision-making thing?
AS: Yeah. And you know, museums are pretty hierarchical spaces and it was really hard for a lot of people to accept the flat management within the pyramid, to cut the line thorugh the triangle. It was interesting to me who wanted to be involved, who didn’t want to be involved, and which department heads were willing to have their people be part of the project. In some cases, the people who I thought were going to be totally behind it, didn’t want to give up that much of their person’s time, and…
JW: How much of a person’s time was it?
AS: It was a an hour and a half meeting each week. With each cycle, as we drew closer to project dates, there were more things to do and more of the group members’ time was needed.
JW: How big was the group?
AS: The original group was thirteen people including one full-time staff person dedicated to the project.
JW: How did a typical meeting go? Was it you present a project and then talk about it and then vote?
AS: It was everything from soup to nuts. When we first started, I presented the group with the framework of the program, explaining that as a group we would have to complete the program design. At the same time—because of the limited timeline—we were working on the program design and making decisions about what artists we were going to be selecting. During the selection process for the first artists with whom we’d work, I was scheduled to go on vacation to Montana. I let the group know that while I was gone they needed to make a decision from the final two or three artist groups. It wasn’t a tactic on my part. I was going to be away, my voice was one of thirteen and we needed to keep the process moving. I got back, they had chosen the artists, and they understood that I was serious when I said that the program was a going to be a consensus-based management process and that they were really part of it. It wasn’t intentional; I was just going to Montana because I needed some time away.
JW: Where did the name come from?
AS: One of the educator’s husbands came up with it. We were trying to come up with a good name, and I asked widely for help. I don’t like having my picture taken and I can’t come up with interesting names for projects. Bonnie’s husband came up with it. Thank you William.
JW: It’s a good name.
AS: It’s a good name. It’s sort of a double-edged sword, though, because the artists doing the projects wanted to be taken seriously and if the work is part of something called Engagement Party is it really serious?
JW: Well, for one thing, there’s also political parties and those are pretty serious.
JW: But also I feel like something that’s nice about Engagement Party is that, at least in the social practice environment now, looking back at Engagement Party, it’s nice to see something that isn’t being weighed down by overly—it’s not couched in terms that are only accessible to people that are within this very small niche of social practice within the art world.
AS: That was the whole intention—and I think coming out of an education department had a lot to do with that. We thought a lot about and worked on how to present work that would garner the interest of the younger art world set, but would also will be something that a wider audience could participate in.
JW: Why were these audiences not already going to MOCA?
AS: They were, but the point was to try to get them more invested in the institution, not just as a place to visit but as something they were a part of, and what makes you feel more of a part of something than social practice?
AS: A place like MOCA needs to accept that it is an elitist institution, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—if you have an extremely limited amount of leisure time, unless you’re deeply dedicated to art, MOCA’s not going to be your first choice of what to do. Coming here was stimulating to me because that notion of audience is completely turned around, and I’m really interested in exploring that. Not everybody’s coming to the projects with any kind of aesthetic language, much less the same one—or they have an aesthetic language, but don’t know what it is, and I find that a really motivating challenge.
JW: How to make things make sense to people—how to make them intelligible as art?
AS: Does it matter that it’s an artwork? If a bunch of people are knitting on mechanical knit machines, and students are walking through the same space, what is their engagement? Are they there to watch, are they there because their economics professor wants—to talk about things, including labor…
JW: Like labor practices? Like people knitting as labor? Were they being paid?
AS: The artist was being paid, the non-student participants were being paid, and the student participants were there as part of a class assignment and were not being paid.
JW: Huh. Sounds like that would make a good class about labor practices.
AS: With Devon’s exhibitions, one room was painting, and one room had sculptural objects that looked very mundane, very banal, but were all hand-produced. I think Devon’s show was a really good moment with the students because I think they started to understand that a lot of things are artwork…
JW: Or a lot of things could be artwork…I guess maybe that’s the exciting thing about being here, is that a person can just walk by the drone and not think about it. Like inhabit the same space as it, but not notice it as art or even think to notice as art, not be an audience or a participant or a viewer or whatever—just be walking by.
AS: Last Friday, the senior media majors showed their final projects, their films. They had a reception beforehand in the plaza in front of that auditorium, where the drone is sited. Every person attending the event was forced to interact with the project in some way. Some people were just trying to move around it—in a Tilted Arc kind of way. But many people were really engaging it.
JW: Is that something that you—are you always interested in what’s going to happen? Is that something you look for in projects? The possibility of a scenario where you don’t know what’s going to happen?
AS: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the product of too much time spent with Kaprow. I don’t know how happy I would be working in circumstances where I know what the end result is going to be. I like working on projects that have some element of random chance. As a result, working on the exhibitions in the galleries has been interesting for me—exploring how that fits into what I’m thinking about. I like not knowing the outcomes of an art project. That said, I can appreciate people that go to the symphony to see the same piece of music many times. Whenever I go to MOMA I tend to go see the same works. And there’s comfort in that—but I don’t always like to be comfortable. Of course, I say this from this place where…
JW: We’re sitting under a veranda in comfy chairs with birds singing.
AS: Right, I find that a little—I don’t know. Look at what Pussy Riot is doing, or any number of political art groups—you know, they’re uncomfortable! I’m not uncomfortable.
JW: It seems like the experience you’re seeking here, with the projects you’re setting up, is this sort of aesthetic discomfort. Students walking into the gallery and seeing a milk crate that isn’t a milk crate introduces the idea that any milk crate might be a work of art, which is a different possibility. It’s a different sort of discomfort, which I guess is valued differently—because, you know, we like heroes and dying and all that—but it’s discomfort nonetheless.
AS: Yeah. I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of their situation. Sometimes something’s just a shopping cart, sometimes it’s not. Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork. Does looking at a Donald Judd make you look at ductwork differently? Kind of.
Aandrea Stang is the recently appointed director of OxyArts, a newly created multidisciplinary arts programming initiative at Occidental College. From 2002 until 2012 she served as Senior Education Program Manager at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) where she developed and produced the museum’s public programming. From 2008 to 2012 she oversaw MOCA’s Engagement Party program, which offered Southern California–based artist collectives opportunities to make new artworks, interacting with the museum in unexpected ways. Stang has held positions at local government and community-based arts organizations and served on the boards of several arts organizations.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. His recording with guitarist Shane Perlowin, objet a, on tape cassette and for digital download, will be released by Prom Night Records on May 6th, 2014.