Guest post by Noah Hanna
Kerry James Marshall: Mastry; the first major museum retrospective of the artist’s work opened on April 23rd at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized collaboratively between the MCA, The Met, and LAMOCA, the exhibition gathered national allure prior to its opening; and it seems only appropriate that B@S join in the discussion.
The MCA website proclaimed Marshall “one of the greatest living artists, and he responded with perspective, telling the Chicago Tribune “I’d take a James Brown introduction, ‘hardest working man in show business.’ ” At 60, Marshall is regularly seen meeting and greeting avid fans at the museum, always with his infectious smile, warm eyes, and kind demeanor. It is easy to admire Kerry James Marshall simply as a person; and then there’s the work he creates.
One could only assume the considerable pressure felt by Marshall upon opening this exhibition. To start, the title, “Mastry” is a formidable expression that no self-respecting artist would dare assign to their own body of work. The concept of the retrospective itself is foggy in contemporary art. The term connotes a fixed span of time with an inevitable conclusion; an indication that the artist whose work is on display has reached his creative climax. Frankly, retrospective usually denotes the work of an artist who is no longer creating. So what does this mean in contemporary art which defines itself by its association with the living? Does this mean that the artist who is given a retrospective within his lifetime is considered finished? Much to the contrary; Kerry James Marshall and Mastry have important work to do.
Kerry James Marshall is a painter, and a figurative painter at that. It feels appropriate that a mode constantly questioned for its validity in the twenty-first century should be the one Marshall employs to push the medium forward. His use of Renaissance and Baroque compositions, scale, and themes are apparent and necessary. Motifs of spirituality, strength, domesticity and the human condition come to serve as the foundation for his work, much as they did for Titian or Carracci.
Since the late 1980s, Marshall has been identified as a painter focused on the representation of people of color; but ample care is given to the history of painting itself. Marshall’s Beauty Examined (1993) draws close comparison to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) in its depiction of a black woman laid out as an anatomical exhibit. Reference points across her body indicate areas of beauty in the subject; and the words “Beauty is only skin deep” rest in the curvature of her frame.
Though Marshall has a deep admiration for the work of Renaissance masters and his own paintings draw heavily from their conventions, the depiction of the black figure is his passion. In the large-scale School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall paints the interior of a beauty salon that can be seen from the outside in a 2003 painting from his studio window, 7 am Sunday Morning (also on display in the exhibition). While the scene is brimming with references to Black Nationalism and power, including posters of Lauryn Hill and Chris Ofili, I found myself most captivated by the skewed and elongated image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty affixed to the floor. In this imagery, Marshall invokes a 1533 painting entitled The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In the classic painting, as two men proudly pose for their portrait, a skull rests below them in the same elongated form, perhaps as a memento mori. As the young ambassadors face the inevitable but obscured prospect of death and decay, the exuberant clientele of the salon face the unspoken expectations of white female beauty that lies just below them; a very young boy cocks his head to observe the face on the floor in the correct perspective.
Much of Marshall’s work addresses domesticity and celebrates the mundane nature of everyday life. There is a keen awareness that images of black lives simply do not exist in art, and that those of color who do appear within the historical canon are portrayed as servants, concubines, or villains; I am reminded vividly of Manet’s Olympia when I say this. Marshall masterfully captures reality in his paintings; images of gardening and camping are paired with expressions of intimate, unencumbered love. There is a palpable urge to smile when looking upon Marshall’s smitten lovers.
However with reality comes an acute awareness of history. It’s in this dichotomy that Mastry excels above and beyond. There are several cathartic points within this exhibition, images that speak volumes to American history, both past and present. At times I found myself astonished at Marshall’s apparent prophetic imagery. Lost Boys (1993) commemorates two young boys whose childhoods were abruptly cut short. One boy glances at the viewer, a brightly colored pink toy pistol in his hand, referencing a report Marshall had heard of a child killed by police for brandishing the toy. A frame from Marshall’s ongoing comic series Rythm Mastr sees a black man confronting a television reporter following a shooting. “I saw the whole thing and it wasn’t nothing like they said!” he exclaims. While we see these today as painfully indicative of a recent incident that occurred in Cleveland, and others throughout the country, I find myself forcing to remember that Marshall does not possess the sage wisdom of prescience and that rather he depicts life as it is.
I cannot deny that myself and many of my peers have been blessed with the privilege to be detached bystanders to these realities: holding onto trivial facts concerning isolated incidents of unrest in Los Angeles in the early 1990s; a basic curriculum knowledge of the racial movements of the late 1960s; and a junior high school reading of Christopher Paul Curtis’ 1963 book The Watsons Go to Birmingham. This is why the Kerry James Marshall retrospective matters now and why his works are such an accomplishment. Marshall’s ability to create figures who possess intricate personalities gives them their poignancy, the stoic civil disobedience and ardent steadfastness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unrepentant power of Malcolm X, a combination that seems both at odds and as imperative as the two leaders were. The violence of Marshall’s images of Nat Turner and The Stono Rebellion are subtle, and Marshall adamantly makes sure it is not the focus of the work; the figure and its identity are foremost.
Nothing within art exists within a vacuum or free from what has come before it. Even an action in condemnation of the past is a response to it nonetheless. Art is a beautiful and equally bitter amalgamation of human history. Very few artists capture this better than Marshall. We cannot change the art historical canon any more than we can change the past, but we can build on it. Painting an ever more crystalline and inclusive image of our shared history. I can only hope that Kerry James Marshall, the faces he so magnificently paints and the stories he tells, enter into the scope of art history so that they may be looked on in the future with the admiration and eminence that they so rightfully deserve.
Guest post by Brent Fogt.
Glass geodesic domes play a leading role in Christine Tarkowski’s “Chthonic Void” at Devening Projects. The domes symbolize utopian ideals and their failure to take root. The exhibition, by contrast, is an unqualified success.
The main gallery features four of Tarkowski’s glass sculptures, two of which rest on pedestals in the center of the room. Unlike the monumental scale of some of Tarkowski’s past work, the scale of these sculptures is closer to architectural models. Made of stacked, softball-sized glass domes, the sculptures are covered with shiny black liquid that brings to mind chocolate syrup. The stacks seem simultaneously precarious and grounded, unstable and solid, animated and static.
This tension between movement and stasis is repeated in two enormous paintings that surround the sculptures on opposite walls. Composed of overlapping diagonal stripes that form moiré patterns, these paintings vibrate, ripple and bulge the longer you look at them. When the eyes feel fatigue, rest is available at the edges, where raw canvas is left unpainted.
On the wall next to the paintings are two small, embossed works on paper. These pieces, which also contain overlapping patterns, create a subtler moiré effect. This quieter approach is an ideal counterpoint to the larger, more intensely hued works on canvas.
Down the hall from the main gallery is a room completely devoted to Tarkowski’s glass works. The space is stunning. Eleven black sculptures, all a combination of glass on glass or glass and steel, lie on all-white pedestals that span the center of the white room, creating vivid contrasts not only between light and dark but also between glossy and matte.
The sculptures resemble unearthed architectural ruins that have been exposed to extreme heat and are melting, dripping and decaying before our eyes. Some of the drips form pools over sunken areas of the geodesic domes. Others are as thin as string or spaghetti and drape themselves over tenuous, broken grids of steel.
“Chthonic,” in fact, means subterranean—in, under, or beneath the earth. In classical mythology, “chthonic” refers to spirits that dwell under the earth. The show title “Chthonic Void” is especially fitting, because Tarkowski’s glass sculptures seem both worldly and otherworldly—both part of, and separate from, the earth itself.
Exhibition on view at Dan Devening Projects, 3039 W Carroll Ave.
April 3 –May 14, 2016
I recently visited the Adolph Gottlieb show at the Hunter Museum of American Art, A Painter’s Hand: The Works of Adolph Gottlieb. The show is composed largely of monotypes created in the last year of Gottlieb’s life. The monotypes are spare, and the entire show unfolds slowly, rewarding long, repeated looking.
The works demonstrate a dedication to questioning, to building an understanding through the process of making. Smaller, intimate, deliberate marks overtake grand gestures. The visual language that unfolds within the monotypes repeats itself. The shapes and lines subtly shift, providing a foreground for the materiality of the paper and precise colors to show their variety. The beauty and interconnectedness of the work accrue over time, mirroring Gottlieb’s process.
The white cube of the gallery is a stark contrast to the vibrant, sunny, blossoming world outside. Exiting the spring profusion into the contemplative space of Gottlieb’s works makes me think of the context of his work – the turmoil and unrest of the early 1970s, a life that had experienced both World Wars and the Great Depression, a stroke that had limited his mobility. I think about what Gottlieb wrote in 1947:
Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.
In a moment of fractured aspirations, of irreconcilable ideas of directions forward, what, then, is the realism of our time? It is abstraction of a different kind – the abstraction of promises made from the campaign trail and the debate stage – the abstraction of eighteen months of announcements, debates, and endless news coverage – the abstraction of hundreds of millions of dollars flooding into television ads, internet banners, and targeted emails focus grouped to find us all – the abstraction of decades of historical and political maneuvering that has left us feeling small and powerless in the face of what we are told is inevitable.
We live in a world that is unrecognizable in the rhetoric and grand gestures of the election cycle. Sweeping pronouncements about what should have been done during the financial crisis do not change the fact that we have to wake up to take care of children and go to work. Promises about economic growth and schools and healthcare do not help us find more time to learn about the world around us and connect with our neighbors. Our world is dramatically shaped by politicians, the policies and laws they create, and the long-term impacts of their decisions, but the visual language through which we are able to view them attempts to erase the differences between them.
The stage (for debates, concession speeches, victory parties, displays of branded steaks), the giant wall of screens, scrolling red-white-blue corporate logos, and glowing podiums repeat from city to city. Ideas and thoughts are not spoken; speeches are directed at hundreds of audience members and beamed to millions of viewers. It is the aesthetic of stated import, a visual language that is meant to convey gravity and authority without offering specificity. That faceless aesthetic belies the tremendous effect and power these people have and will continue to have over the shape of our daily lives and the seriousness with which we should treat their words. We must recognize the entire political apparatus, from the endless news cycle to the aesthetic of the next debate as a creation of a false normalcy, a stage from which to broadcast widely not connect deeply.
Gottlieb’s abstraction reflected what he saw as the realism of his time. It is time for us to shine the reality of our time onto the abstraction that surrounds us. If we can bridge the gap between the real and the abstract, if we can recognize that the past is as flawed as the present, if we can transform politicians and voters into humans, perhaps we can discover ways to invigorate and enliven the political process into something more than an empty aesthetic, something that reflects the people it serves.
By Kevin Blake
There is a natural reaction to becoming something when one realizes their own metamorphosis. As adolescence is whisked away by time, the memory of how one arrives in the present is often blurred, fragmented, and skewed toward whatever end the individual has made for themselves. Though actions make memories, so too, does the memory create actions. In his current exhibition, “La Paz” at the Hyde Park Art Center, Rodrigo Lara Zendejas, investigates his memories to locate the beginnings of his practice–a practice rooted in a garden.
Kevin Blake: I have followed the evolution of your work for the last two years and what continues to astound me, is your ability and willingness to traverse material disciplines with a sort of unflinching loyalty to your ideas. This show really runs the gamut–from installations that consider four-dimensional space, to works that hint at traditional observational painting. Can you talk about your relationship to your materials, and why you have chosen to have such interplay between them?
Rodrigo Lara Zendejas: I have been working mostly in three-dimensional work for the last 17 years, and exploring installation work for the last 6 years; in many cases I am interested in the connection between 2-D and 3-D practices. When I had the opportunity to schedule the exhibition at HPAC I immediately thought about pushing my boundaries and exploring different approaches in my practice, but it was also important to me to examine a deeper balance and conversation between different media.
My training is for a classical sculptor. In addition to that, I am a musician: I play drums, cornet and clarinet. In my studio practice, I feel a similarity between playing an instrument and the execution of the artwork. I find the rhythm and cadence of the materials when I am working, when I am shaping or implementing. The body actions are sometimes sudden and rapid, sometimes subtle and slow. In both scenarios I sit on a chair, and execute specific body actions utilizing my two hands and wooden sticks. Therefore, technique, preparation and the execution of the work are essential aspects in my practice.
This exhibition relates to my grandparent’s garden, which I consider my first studio at age 10. I spent a month developing forms out of adobe and soil mixing them with found objects and plants. My grandfather, a miner at the time, as a serious hobby painted numerous catholic motifs. Inside their house, I was exposed to examine several paintings and charcoal drawings he made. I asked him to teach me how to paint during that summer; he refused, however. “You are too young to understand color theory,” he said. In the absence of receiving painting lessons, I continued modeling and developing an interest in forming sculpture out of whatever materials I found in their backyard: soil, wood, found objects and plants. Therefore, I wanted to combine media treating the materials, including painting and sound in a similar methodology.
KB: I’m interested in how you consider the garden your first studio. The historical narrative points to the obvious connection to the first garden of Abrahamic yore (the religious motifs abound in this exhibition), but the metaphorical relationship of the garden to an artist’s studio practice seems equally relevant. Can you expound on the idea of the garden as a metaphor for a studio practice?
RLZ: It is very important to me to approach this metaphor of the garden as a studio practice. As a child, I was aware that my grandfather was a painter, but I did not know that painting could be a way of life–I thought it was just a hobby. I wanted to go back to that space where there was complete freedom to create what I wanted, but now with formal training in combination with conscious and unconscious technical approaches to the materials, concepts and processes.
It is true that there is a similarity on the idea of that garden is connected to my studio practice but also it was very similar to being part of a residency program. In which an artist explores and improvises with materials and tools available in situ; therefore, the maker is able to develop ideas and concepts.
It is also true, that there are several religious motifs in this installations and pieces, referencing the theatricality of the characters poses and facial expressions, as well as the installation arrangements being similar to altars, memorials and sacred praying precincts. In addition to that, According to Catholicism, God created the human race from a piece of clay, which later came to live. On the other hand, my grandmother would tell us stories about children in “La Paz” who obsessively played with their toys at all times. As a result, they would disobey their parents, then the toys would be possessed by the devil and come to live and start talking to those kids. I was scared and also fascinated by both stories.
KB: I’ve heard of the bedeviled toys and I do get the sense of this narrative not only in the scale of your figurative sculptures, but in the anthropomorphized nature of their features. The predominately human bodies have animal parts and the animal bodies have human extremities (i.e. the duck’s beak on the altar boy or the human hands on the dog). To bring back to the garden, however, I wonder what parallels exist between the human’s relationship to the foods we grow or the plants we feel we dominate, and the objects we project our consciousness onto. It seems obvious that both endeavors, gardening and making objects, begin with the assumption that you, the individual, is in control of the outcomes. Yet, a simple thought experiment would bring you quickly to the conclusion, that this is far from the reality of the matter. In the ordinary course of events an acorn becomes a tree, but it often becomes squirrel food. So, do you see this phenomena of becoming, whatever it is you are evolving into(in and out of the studio), something within the realm of your control? How much do impulse and intuition dictate outcomes in your studio?
RLZ: In previous series of work I would make conscious decisions beforehand. Controlled results and concepts would be analyzed previously. In this particular series however, I was interested in creating memorials of specific moments or situations in my childhood as a starting point, and combine that with the present. Therefore, I would start with precise ideas; from there I would investigate and create particular scenarios. According to the materials I knew I would utilize, I allowed ambiguous compositions to evolve during the making process; as a result, unexpected outcomes will manifest, sometimes more controlled results would take place. I would see that connection to the way a plants grow and the way people would take care of them, as you mention, we might think we are in control of the result but in La Paz I wanted intuition to take place.
KB: As the garden acts as a metaphor for your first studio, the works within this garden act as a self-portrait of its grower. Often times, a portrait of you is embedded into these individual pieces, but like your other figures, you’ve bastardized the form. For example, in the largest painting in the exhibition, you have painted yourself sitting into the portrait of another man and becoming part of the space. This form actually seems to reappear in at least one other painting. Obviously the narrative of this show is very personal to your experience, but can you speak to the fragmented nature of the self-portraiture occurring throughout this exhibition?
RLZ: In order to remember important public figures, monuments have been erected around the world. However, each of us has our own firsthand figures to memorialize. The fragmented figures and narratives within the installations and paintings are conscious decisions during the process. However the references and memories are very personal, the way of leaving fragments, the viewer is encouraged to complete gaps and create their own narratives. The juxtaposed and bastardized figures, questions the idea of temporality, connecting reminiscences to the present. I am interested in the work by Jaume Plensa and Mark Manders, the idea of memories about particular objects in particular moments and specific scenarios.
KB: I’ve always had a particular interest in memory and how it functions in creating personal narratives in the present. Most discourse surrounding memory focuses on the earliest stages of development as if there is an incubation period in which the individual experiences the downloading of his/her default settings–settings that they will be working with/against for the rest of their lives. Do you get the sense that the more you recall, or rehearse, or put to work, a particular memory, the more prolific those memories become in your work and your life? How has this process of recall and transformation within the limits of this exhibition changed your approach to your work?
RLZ: The more I have been thinking about that idea for the last few years, the more I agree with this notion of the incubation period you mention. Recalling that period reminds me of the freedom of expression and execution in the work, there is not particular rehearse, neither being afraid of failure. Particularly in the process, that is the reason why in many pieces there is an intimate connection to the viewer. Pieces are unfinished or in progress, in a few cases you can see the evident finger marks and body motions on the materials, instead of traditionally expected final textures. The viewer is able to observe the material as it comes from the factory. As an example, there are two pieces in which you can clearly see the squared shape of the clay as it comes in the bag, even the wrinkles that it produces. I wanted to continue this exploration in ‘La Paz’ series; however, I started that notion in the previous installation I made called ‘Chapel’ currently on display at 6018North. The experiences of the viewer are like coming into the studio space, becoming a witness of the process. In a way, this is a similar approach that Manders uses in his work. In his case he mimics clay with bronze, instead, a few of my pieces in ‘La Paz’ I mimic bronze with clay.
KB: Your approach to calling attention to the materials by means of exposing their commercial production is a methodology deeply entrenched in the collective discourse of painting. I had the sense that this was an idea you were wrestling with in your painted surfaces. There are places in the largest painting, for instance, where the under painting is left in its infancy. As you traverse material boundaries, do you feel the necessity to dig into painting tropes or do you see the way you are using materials solely outside of that discourse? Also, the two paintings on pedestals at the ground level seemed out of place to me, but they also seemed to possibly indicate a direction for future work. How do those two more traditional perceptual paintings fit and is painting something you are moving toward?
RLZ: In a way, some of the pieces are a response to comments from my grandfather, who was a painter. The portrait in the largest painting is a reproduction of a graphite self-portrait he maid when he was 18 years old. I remember spending time admiring the quality of the lines and shades. I decided I would memorialize that drawing by making a painting juxtaposing the garden plants with the unfinished layers and process of my own self-portrait, leaving traces of metaphorical and technical temporality.
On the other hand, the two paintings placed on the floor were made after photographs of a visit I made to my grandparents house a few months ago (now abandoned for about 10 years) in which I am also memorializing their personal effects such as the telephone and the wooden furniture. Most important, I am treating sections of the oil paint as if I was working with clay, utilizing the same methods and tools. Particularly, that technique was executed for the architectural surfaces. I remember my grandfather telling me stories about his father and him building the house with their own hands, utilizing adobe blocks. This is the same way the whole town of ‘La Paz’ was built. At that time I was amazed by the fact that the houses in town were made out of basically soil and plats, being those the same elemental materials I was playing with in the backyard. In a way, thru those paintings I am also making a portrait of the house, displaying them as self-standing memorial architectural objects. I have been exploring the connection between two to three dimensions in the work, idea in which I will continue exploring.
KB: What is on the horizon for you in the studio and beyond?
RLZ: I am currently focusing on the three following projects: A two-person exhibition opening on May 20th at Fernway Gallery in Chicago, as part of my ACRE residency in 2015. The exhibition will continue the exploration of the “Chapel” series. On the other hand, I am working on a Solo Exhibition “Cachirules” at Kruger Gallery in Marfa, Texas for the Chinati weekend Oct. 7-9 2016. In early 2017 I am working on an exhibition curated by Julie Rodrigues Widholm at the DePaul Art Museum, also related to the “Chapel” series.
guest post by Dan Gunn
Alberto Aguilar announced his Instagram takeover of the @artinstitutechi feed in a bathroom mirror selfie. He positioned the cellphone to obscure his face and captioned the post with the deadpan statement “This is a takeover. I am Alberto Aguilar. This will last one week.” With that single post already several people vowed to unfollow until “the art returned”, while others were convinced that the feed had been “hacked”, while still others lamented that selfies “degraded” the museum.
The Chicago-based artist Aguilar is the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2015-2016 Artist in Residence for Museum Education. He was chosen because education features prominently in his artistic practice through his professorship at Harold Washington College. The residency includes an on-site studio housed embedded in the Ryan Education Center, various opportunities to lecture and conduct public events and the Instagram takeover at hand. From January 11th to the 18th Aguilar regularly posted his activities within the museum and selectively interacted with the Institute’s followers. That his actions could provoke such an extraordinary response, both positive and negative points to the power of social media and the effectiveness of Aguilar’s approach.
The takeover phenomenon itself comes from a marketing strategy wherein corporate brands partner with “influencers” in order to heighten their credibility and deepen their “brand engagement” with consumers. Influencers are considered influential because they are authentic and credible examples of the brand image to the brand’s target audience. In this case Aguilar is a living example of an artist in a museum that celebrates art. The Art Institute of Chicago, which declined to comment for this article saying instead in an email that they wanted to “keep the focus on Alberto’s practice and his ownership of the creative process on the Instagram project” presumably wanted the artist to perform contemporary art for the audience.
The two previous AIC social media takeovers from LA-based artists Frances Stark and Charles Ray delivered tepid posts. Charles Ray seemed largely disinterested and Frances Stark’s output was subsumed by her already voluminous social media presence. Aguilar approximated a living specimen of an artist inside the hallowed repository of mostly dead-artist’s art, like a genetically engineered T-Rex on view next to Sue at the Field Museum. Why then would people prefer to view the plaster casts when the real thing was available? The takeover and its response charts a competing trio of interests between the venerable museum, an irascible artist and the expectant Instagram audience.
rosiefomalley @artinstitutechi what kind of horseshit
For Aguilar’s part he was given the account for Instagram for a week without restrictions. The canon for Instagram artworks is still being written but his approach was unique in several ways. The most comprehensive work to date is probably by the artist Amalia Ulman who over the course of months believably transformed her feed into a record of her life as a vapid LA impresario. Photos of brunch and breast enlargement scars were all faked for a scripted 175 post drama presented as if it were her real life. The piece called, “Excellences & Perfections” functions as both feminist and social media critique unveiling the double desire to share and to craft one’s image at the same time; a.k.a. to not really share.
Alberto Aguilar instead reinforced the believability of the Instagram image by performing simple actions in the recognizable space of the museum and by responding selectively to the instructions of certain followers. He roamed the galleries opening telephone panels, propping open doors, overturning chairs, placing a half styrofoam cup in front of a Magritte, arranging a floor full of doilies in the room with the paperweights and other forms of aesthetic littering. Aguilar’s approach to objects is inflected by Minimalism, frequently using simple geometries like grids, lines and zig zags that make the actions seem deceptively matter-of-fact more akin to crossing items off a to-do list than making a drawing. This functional relationship between his activity and the resultant situation bolstered the trustworthiness of the feed at the expense of artifice.
Aguilar describes this approach as “using a regulated form in a very regulated building in order to have a moment of intimacy myself in this space.” Aguilar’s language in the posts also plays to this calculated blankness. “I don’t like being overly poetic. I like when I state facts and those things act as poetry also.”
rs_gould Sweet litter. Good thing you got that MFA
Not that Aguilar’s practice doesn’t also rely on metaphor. In one of the earliest posts he and fellow artist Alex Bradley Cohen held up homemade cardboard signs that read “Trouble Maker” or “Problem Solver” as an introduction to the takeover. Other works refer to issues of accessibility by opening “doors” or creating “bridges” within the museum experience. Here the artist functioned as a surrogate museum goer, a tester of the institution by filling voids, mimicking gallery architecture and associating objects of the present with the past, culture outside the museum with culture inside and personal history with art history.
The inclusion of his personal life was another source of audience annoyance and yet another way Aguilar aimed to disarm them. When Alberto wasn’t in the museum, he was frequently at home.
“People were annoyed about the home photos and would try to tell me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see. So I thought that it would be funny to put a picture of my kids all playing [the board game] Trouble while my wife was sleeping just because I wanted my family to be recorded forever on the Art Institute’s Instagram feed. Because anybody would want to make their presence known! Right? Isn’t that what Instagram is all about? That’s also why I kept saying “This is a takeover”. Someone who was angry called it something else, they said this is a hijack!” So the next post I used that. “This is a hijack.”
The pedestrian nature of Alberto’s life, indeed that of most working artists when viewed up close, was off-putting to people who tuned into the museum’s feed for Culture with a capital “C”. The personal moments presented within his factual, monotone voice were disarming to the point of becoming intimate. The high point of this being a touching snippet of song performed on ukulele by Aguilar’s two kids on the final day. What becomes clear through reading comments is that the dissenters find Aguilar’s lowering of the Art Institute’s high cultural voice disrespectful. But why is this act disrespectful when the institution has invited him to do it?
andiamojoe @mimi_marg @eggwithoutyolk @artinstitutechi all that wonderful art around should be inspiring to this feed, the content is lackluster and not representative of the great works and artists within one of the greatest art museums in the world… Step it up or face a mass unfollow!
The answer, at least partially, seems to be that the Art Institute was operating outside of its understood brand identity, or were purposefully trying to expand it to encompass more contemporary art. There was a general tone in the comments of dissatisfaction, not with the idea of a takeover per se, but with the particular type of plain dealing, found-object arranging, conceptual social practice that Aguilar uses. The only charge directed at Aguilar as a person was that of self-indulgence. Presumably this was for the posts that actually contained his image, not for posting his artwork because that was at least part of the point.
robby47 Blame Andy Warhol. But compared to this, Warhol looks like freakin Rembrandt.
Aguliar’s “lazy Dadaism” as one follower put it, in turn led to charges of “pretentiousness”, where pretension is understood as thinking oneself important when in fact you aren’t. These commenters saw no value in his use of simple arrangements of recognizable material through easy to replicate gestures. As a counterfactual, it’s hard to imagine any controversy over a representational artist painting museumgoers as they tour the galleries, a kind of museum-cum-landscape.
Other moments pitted the artist’s interests more directly against that of the institution. The museum has always catered to the civic pride of Chicago through various means, including the decoration of the famed entry lions with whichever sports team is prospering at the time. Recently that has been the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. An ill-advised attempt to find common cause with fans in anticipation of a Stanley Cup playoff game resulted in an image of a Medieval knight’s helmet adorned with the Blackhawk’s logo being posted to the account. Considered alone, the Blackhawk’s logo is controversial enough, but to layer onto a stereotype of indigenous peoples an item symbolizing the systematic religious violence of the Crusades defies common sense.
Aguilar at this point had been “building bridges” between separate time periods of the museum collection by holding up gift-shop postcard images in front of related artworks. Now he responded by holding up a phone with the Instagram of the knight’s helmet in front of a display of a Native American ceremonial headdress and pressed the send button. The image pits the legacy of American oppression of indigenous peoples through caricature and confiscation of property against the museum’s desire for greater mass media relevance beyond expected elite cultural circles. The reaction from the audience was swift and intense and for the first time Aguilar himself felt conflicted about his usage of the takeover.
“People were confused as to what I was trying to say. I didn’t want to offend Native American people, but that’s what started happening right away. There was this young Native American commenter who took it out of context and didn’t realize it was a takeover. He was angry at the museum for putting up this image and began swearing in his comments. So the museum’s social media manger deleted them which I was told is regular practice whenever people swear in comments. And he would come back and wonder why he was being censored on top of being offended by the image. I went to sleep and had a terrible dream that night. I woke up and decided that I was going to delete the image all together. I just didn’t feel right about it anymore, mainly because I was offending Native Americans but also because I didn’t think that it was fair to the institution that had given me this freedom.”
Aguilar did in fact delete this post, though at the time of publication the original Blackhawk knight’s helmet post still remains.
The ingenuity of this takeover is the way that it placed the artist at the ethical intersection of several public discourses.
Who is the artist responsible to represent? For Aguilar, what began as an attempt to confront an ethnic stereotype instead ended up propagating it. The museum, for it’s part, has the difficult task of picking artists as influencers because of the legacy of avant-gardism still ingrained in contemporary art. They will be critical of their museological handlers, which both present dangers for their brand identity and simultaneously reinforces the credibility and authenticity of the influencer. Meanwhile the audience has to decode the layered experience of these images and deal with their frustrated expectations. Social media seems to give viewers a sense of propriety over the institution that is illusory. What ability does the Instagram public have to shape museum policy or image? Not much. The tradition and cultural prestige of their brand expectations had been substituted with contemporaneity and uncertainty.
“People were telling me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see, they were angry. I said something like “This is a takeover. I will decide what is shown.” Then I said “I will use whatever is around me as a tool. I was referring to the physical objects around me I used as a tool for revealing and concealing but also to the camera which can serve the same function. I’m wasn’t trying to be arrogant, but the truth is that it was a takeover, I did have control but I also personally have control of what I show and don’t show of myself.”
The ironic thing is that the space of institutional (or branded) social media requires an audience, no matter how inflexible. The commenters certainly weren’t worried about the authority or appropriateness of their comments in their ill-conceived defense of the museum. The social media space requires a back and forth in which Aguilar fully engaged. He would take suggestions from the comments about what to do next actually giving the audience some ability to interact with the museum that they love. Instead of getting into a comment tit-for-tat he would perform actions just to show them that he was open to their input. And for all of the dissenters there were also people who appreciated the unique perspective on the museum that Aguilar came to offer. The masterful nature of the takeover was the way that it revealed the contours and fissures of the public’s relationship to 21st century institutions. It showed the historical problems and contemporary possibilities while insistently, even stubbornly, keeping the approach intimate and personal.
Dan Gunn is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Chicago. Dan writes about Chicago art, including a history of alternative and apartment spaces in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center’s “Artists Run Chicago” exhibition and the Artist Run Digest published by Threewalls and Green Lantern Press. Dan has written for for Bad at Sports, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Depaul Art Museum, Loyola University Museum of Art, Newcity Magazine, Proximity Magazine and ArtSlant.com. He was a contributor to Fielding Practice podcast, a collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art21.