By Kevin Blake
“Ahoy down there” I yelled, acting out a drama I had seen before and would see forever–over and over. Again and again.
I thought I was calling down to her from the top of a gigantic sand dune. From the peak of the tallest mountain. From the apex of the world. Only she could hear me. She would call up to me in response, “ahoy up there.” The image of her I create now, for that memory, is one from a picture I have of another time. It is the only picture of her in my possession–one I have carried with me. From home to home. Place to place. Year after year. She was undoubtedly younger on the beach–as was I. In the picture she is wearing a matching pink. Pale. Soft. Sheer. Pants, of course, I don’t think I ever saw my grandmother’s legs. Her top fit like a sweatshirt, though it was short-sleeved. It was puffy like, with some sort of white pattern embroidered in the middle–likely flowers. She has a full head of curly hair–hints of a dirty blonde tinting a grey field. Her hands are folded atop a stack of importance. At the bottom of the pile is her purse–a black leather clutch with a gold clasp. Then a little pouch that housed her Pal Mal cigarettes and lighter. The lighter facing up for easy access and to avoid an uneven surface had it been facing down. Her hands complete the stack. Smoking hand on top. A burning Pal Mal protruding from her fingers. In the photo she is still. She is stoic. No smile. She didn’t know how to smile for a photograph. In the memory she is alive. She is present. She smiles. I’m satisfied with this being all I have, because it is somehow everything she was.
The way we see is historical. Cultural. Social. The way we see is created by our experiences and over time. It is perpetually evolving. The way we recall our memory of these experiences is also a product of this same evolution–we associate memories with images. Images that are not necessarily adept at defining the memory, but rather serve as a stand in for the lost pictures of experience. When a memory is continually visited, the images become unusually vivid, as if actually visible. They become our understanding of our world and our time in it.
In Claire Sherman’s most recent exhibition at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, I saw this kaleidoscopic vision of the way one sees conflated with the imaginative experience of being present in one’s memory. On these canvases, Sherman seems to be at once a native of the places depicted–an observation of the self within the physical act of making a painting–and a stranger trying to find the natural world at work in her own psyche.
The main gallery is draped in predominately white canvases that wrap the room like stone monoliths–their energy–creating a circular movement in a rectangular room. For a paint enthusiast, this room is almost overwhelming. One painting would be plenty to satisfy the most robust appetites–the rest are a gratuitous banquet for the glutton. These paintings are top notch–a fine example of an artist hitting their stride–finding herself in her work.
Funeral Mountain is a real place. A real mountain. It has histories–some of which, we cannot know from any written words or photographs. The name of this range, that makes the eastern border of Death Valley at the California/Nevada boundary, is born in myth. Lumberjack folklore. Casket-headed beasts with wobbly legs that travel in herds and walk in procession is to credit for the Funeral portion of its title. In myth, there is often truth. The climate is challenging here, and no doubt, crossing death valley may have ended with many funerals in the mountains beyond. It is arid. It is hot. It is unforgiving.
This climate is felt in the main gallery. From afar, the paintings appear to be dry flat grays with the jagged edges of rocks. Powdery whites and chalky pastels. The room feels bare and stark. Naturally lit by a hot sun bearing down through a cloudless afternoon sky. It is this picture and this feeling of place, that I carry with me through the exhibition.
As I approach the first painting that is beaconing me, Rock Wall 2015, I realize how important this action is to understanding this exhibition. The in and out. The perspectival changes. The idea of making paintings versus making images. The threshold between representation and abstraction is somewhere in the middle of this room. The closer you are to these works, the closer you are to entering a smaller world of direct experience, indirectly known through the symbolic language of painting.
Rock Wall appears, from a distance, to be exactly what the title suggests, but it has a vortical flow insisting the viewer nearer. There is a lot of impact in this painting–both small and large– generously buttered onto the canvas to depict the striations and gradients of stone. Working wet paint into wet paint, Sherman achieves the deep cracks and fissures that penetrate the stone of the mountains by penetrating the wall of paint she has amassed on the surface. I get the idea that Sherman is using her photographs of these spaces she visits as a way of situating her memory of her own experience, but uses the paint to feel the place again. And again. And again. These paintings in the main room place the artist outside looking in-an alien’s approach to an unknown landscape.
In the adjacent smaller gallery, two large paintings act as the antithesis to its counterparts in the main room. These works place the artist inside looking out–emerging from womblike darknesses into a world of painted light. In, Cave and Sky 2015, an electric blue commands the space of the physical room and flattens the surface of the painting at a distance. Again, a movement toward the painting reveals more. Manic brushwork in the dark, mixed purples, and reds make the black of the cave walls. The blue covers you. The painting unfolds by enveloping you–you feel the darkness on your sides as you stand at center covered in sky. It is sublime.
The history of landscape painting is vast. The sublime in nature is an abyss of discourse concerning abstract ideas, easily congruent with most attachments. To read a bare list of names, theories, and ideas of lore is to become aware of a widely distributed and loosely tied family resemblance of contingent traits that would merely undercut this body of work. We can always find the history of constructed things, if thats where we look to define something new. To me, this work is about encountering oneself in an eidetic place–a place that exists between one’s ears, and made real by the act of painting. It is about the power of memory to fill in the holes that inevitably crater our reality. Sherman finds just enough memory to reproduce a feeling remembered. That dialogue continues over and over–from paint to place and back again.
Having finished his speech to the visiting journalists, Christian Ringnes picks a beer from a large bucket of ice and retires to a chair. The bottle has his name on the label. And perhaps if it wasn’t for his ownership of Norway’s largest brewery none of us would be here. Indeed beer, and interests in restaurants and hotels, have allowed the Oslo businessman to amass one of the world’s largest private collections of art. Just as they have allowed him to spend $70 million on the sculpture park that the UK press are here to see.
Ekeberg Park is on a hill to the East of the Norwegian capital. It commands views of the stunning modern opera house which sits on the edge of the nearest fjord. After lunch, Ringnes shows us round a few of his favourite pieces, a Dalí here, a Rodin there, a good showing from Scandinavia, a skyscape by James Turrell, a pavilion by Dan Graham. The philanthropist scrambles around the wooded hillside in suede shoes, oblivious to the drizzle, with evident glee about his collection.
Some 40 miles north is sculpture park Kistefos, which is expanding at the same rate as Ekeberg. Two days after Ringnes unveils new work by Damien Hirst and the Chapmans, rival and friend Christen Sveaas, is cutting the ribbon on a monumental new piece of steel engineering by Philip King. The colourful arrangement of beams and struts may be symbolic of a family unit but there is nothing homely about its juxtaposition with the forested landscape of Oppland county.
Subsequent to the applause and the de rigeur gasps, the assembled crowd, comprising some of the wealthiest people in Norway, make their way to the complex of museum and gallery buildings for a charity auction. At this former mill, they are raising money for water supply in the developing world. A man from Sotheby’s rattles through 49 lots while the guests drink prosecco and bid five figure sums, as if for fun. A smaller piece by Philip King goes for more than half a million Krone, almost $70,000. And when the final bid is sold, we are rewarded by a set from a local covers band.
Kistefos is another family business, an investment company which began life in the lumber business. Visiting their offices on the waterfront in Oslo, the contemporary paintings are wall to wall, all of them monumental. A suite of mirrored clouds by Tomas Saraceno has just been installed in the atrium. And the company employ a young man in an impeccable suit to direct the company’s art holdings on a full time basis. We have been in Oslo for no more than 48 hours and already it is clear that wealthy collectors are thick on the ground.
A few hundred yards along the waterfront, Astrup Fearnley glitters in the sun: a private art gallery with a private beach. This space stems from a merger between two foundations, the founders of which both descend from shipping magnate Thomas Fearnley, born in 1841; his father, another Thomas, was one of Norway’s preeminent Romantic painters and the family’s chief love remains collecting art. Unprepared visitors may be surprised to find Jeff Koons’ iconic statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee has made it this far north.
Things get more unexpected in Asrtup Fearnley’s temporary exhibition space. Here lie holdings by another magnanimous collector, Erling Klagge. This famous character has published his own book on purchasing art. It figures he is also a lawyer. You might just buy the fact he’s a philosopher. But if you’re not Norwegian, the fact that Klagge is a polar explorer to boot is fairly hard to swallow. No one in the UK is so adventurous and at the same time as discerning, as this additional Oslo player.
In short, the capital of Norway is rich and rich in art. There are collectors with money to spend, plus an educated audience with time to kill. At the Office of Contemporary Art (OCA) we even learn that, despite having less than a million inhabitants, Oslo has among the highest numbers of artist led spaces of any major city. As the National Gallery and Munch Museum move to larger premises in the city centre, they bring with them two versions of that famous scream. If Munch could see the city now, he might have had no complaints.
A multi-site performance art festival.
Performances occur at various locations. Rapid Pulse runs from Thursday 6/4 – Sunday 6/7 and Thursday 6/11 – Sunday 6/14.
Work by Jillian Mayer.
Aspect/Ratio is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Art Paul.
The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art is locate at 2320 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Claire Sherman.
Kavi Gupta Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Saturday, 4-7pm.
A project by Negative Jam
Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm. RSVP on website.
Ed. note: This is the second in a four part series hosted in collaboration with The Ladies Almanack, a feature-length experimental narrative film written & directed by Daviel Shy, based on the novel of the same title by Djuna Barnes. The second post of the series is by actor, Brenna Kail.
It’s been said, “one generally takes Loy – or does not – as one takes a vow”. I believe she would find this most pleasing: the clarity within a simple statement that brings truth. I would describe Mina Loy as a truth seeker of sorts, not for her own satisfaction, but to pick up the lids of the world’s sleepy eyes. The tone of her poetry is so matter of fact, like “how could you be alive and not see this world around you?” As Loy in The Ladies Almanack, I say lines like “Oh come on!” and “You know it…” Lines that stay true to her disposition. Daviel says she wrote these lines for me, but I think they are an elixir that we all are drinking. All of these characters/humans are opening ideas that have worn a tight lid for so long.
Mina Loy wasn’t trying to make waves or ruffle feathers; she was being without effort. After all, this type of effort would be a waste. She could and would be no other. It was her nature, pure and simple, that created the disturbance she knew best. Mina used written words to sing her song. She belonged to a community, but I’m not so sure she really ever wanted to “belong”. When you have a vision, or a sense of responsibility which drives you, it’s difficult to see reasons for this type of need. Without effort, she attracted booming voices which exclaimed her convictions. She, herself, need not shout, when others did it so well.
However much I wasn’t looking for this doesn’t matter, because it found me. Already feeling like an outlier among these self-identified “artists,” could I cross over into a world which looked so different from mine? I honestly had made up mind beforehand that we wouldn’t mix. I spend my days following rules, while this group is redefining them. I’m so used to having to plead my case first, before I am able to be understood. What I didn’t know was that I was tired of this. I’m pushing and moving as well. I want to start from a mutual understanding. I had thought that this “pleading” was how I could make a difference. I realize now that communities are strong and forceful. Just being already there, together.
Filming in Paris awoke my desire to take support without judgement. When you forget this, it’s easy to box yourself in and become protective of your desires. Instead, doors opened, minds questioned, arms curled, intellect was exchanged, energy was respected, beauty was expanded, life became pure. My host Welela’s low lights, perpetually burning incense and purple sheets, became my home. I consumed, eagerly, the energy which showed me its face. The Ladies Almanack, Paris Edition, set the stage for me to evolve through these characters and humans. I rarely stumble upon unconditional support like this, outside of my family, who have set the bar high.
Am I representing this person? Am I this person? Is this Daviel’s made up version of this person? My mother asks me these questions and I’ve attempted numerous answers. Each time disagreeing with myself as the words leave my mouth. I look up at my mother and see a tight-lipped, nodding head. My answer was incomplete. Finally, one day I overheard Daviel answer these same questions and it turns out the answer is “yes”, to all.
What a relief.
It is a blend in which one could not do without the other. This may be a proper theme for The Ladies Almanack. I’m still figuring out how to blend these on film, though. It makes sense in my head, but we are still getting to know each other, Mina and I. I have learned that Mina needs me, and I need her, to make this relationship work. I wait with anticipation to see and feel us entwine during the upcoming shoots in Chicago. We all needed this and each other for so many crossed over reasons. When I think of Paris, I can still see the rainbow of energy bouncing among us.
Well, last month’s column was a little dark. What can I say? I was in a bit of a mood. I do stand, mostly, by what I wrote then: I’m pretty sure we’re all fucked. It was pointed out to me, though, that it may only be awareness that is on the increase, not existential threats themselves. After all, things looked pretty apocalyptic when we Europe lost a quarter of its population to the Black Plague, and we made it through that all right.
If we are going to survive the next few decades, the next century, it seems pretty clear that some issues are going to need pretty immediate addressing. The two biggest threats to the survival of civilization as we know it are, I would argue, militant Islam (in the short term) and climate change (in the long term). Artists have addressed both sets of subject matter. The question, however, remains: can artists actually play a role in crafting a solution to the issues, or do artists merely document this moment in civilization’s crisis without meaningfully altering the outcome?
I have written previously about the problems with political art: when too overt, too direct, it fails as art, falling into the role of propaganda, but generally lacking the mass media distribution of actual propaganda, it falls short of the goal of communicating a message clearly to large numbers of people. In some cases, politics may inspire a great work of art (e.g. Guernica), but the artwork doesn’t change the world (the Spanish Civil War still happened). The question is, need this always be the case? Can a work of art actually have the power to alter the course of history, allowing us to avoid these potential threats to the world as we know it?
I have already written about the threat of militant Islam in a previous article, and so I think it fitting to focus here on a few artists who deal directly with environmental themes in their work, and who might stand a chance of making an impact on the world.
Jenny Kendler’s work routinely addresses the idea of engangered species. Very often this subject matter manifests itself as aesthetically beautiful images or objects, quite successful as art objects in and of themselves. The question remains as to whether these images or objects can do anything to save the creatures so endangered. In most cases I am skeptical of their influence, but in at least one case, Jenny found a way to engage viewers/collectors in the actual building of awareness with regard to an endangered species.
In February 2012, I attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, where Kendler told me about an event she was involved with, In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists, at UnSpace Ground. This was situated in the outdoor plaza in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where CAA was taking place. For this event, eight artists and one biologist collaborated to create 35 art works representing endangered species living in southern California. In order to spread awareness of the endangered status of these organisms, viewers were invited to sign up to take custody of a work of art, in exchange for a commitment to learn and care about the species represented, and to reproduce or represent the artwork online. I wrote an article as my fulfillment of the pledge that I took on that day (this paragraph is a condensed extract from that article). The format ran something like a silent auction, with viewers selecting the work and species they wanted to care for, and signing up on form. As the event unfolded, Jenny announced each species, artwork, and its new caretaker, auctioneer-style. Both Stephanie Burke and I took custody of pieces by Jenny Kendler, a friend of ours whose work we have admired for a long time. Kendler’s work frequently addresses issues of ecology and conservation, but what I’ve always appreciated about its soft, quiet beauty, which has always reminded me of the animated film The Last Unicorn. This delicate aesthetic carries through her drawings and paintings, her sculptures, and makes an important subject palatable, avoiding any possibility of being called shrill or preachy. It is pretty with a purpose.
Kendler’s contributions to In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists were rendered in graphite and watercolor on little circles of paper, which were then mounted on vintage ribbons, like one might get for Best Pig at the county fair. They are similar to, although I believe separate from, an installation called Selection: 23 Endangered Species, executed in the same medium and also mounted on ribbons. Stephanie took custody of Muntz’s Onion, and I went for the Southern California Steelhead Trout.
This project, unlike most environmental art, required viewers to actively engage in the issue of endangered species, not merely to gain an awareness themselves but to share that awareness with others.
Another friend of mine who makes work addressing environmental themes is Osvaldo Budet. Osvaldo is a Puerto Rican artist who has, in his recent work, been specifically interested in the warming of the Arctic. He discusses this at length in the artist statement on his website:
Beneath the scenic surface of this frozen landscape lies another history rooted in human exploration and exploitation. European explorers, sailers, hunters, fur trappers and whalers used these shores for riches as early as the 17th century. But the Arctic wilderness is also rich in natural resources and has long been dotted and scarred by coal ming communities and structural remains. Through these lands, above and below the surface presents a remarkable story of twentieth century man’s struggle against the elements and our present technocratic society’s challenge to fathom the speed and implications of this changing place. In conjunction with the ‘Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar and Meeresforschung’ and the ‘Hanse-Wisseschaftskolleg Institute for Advanced Study’, I embarked on a month long expedition as artists in residence to the ‘AWIPEV-Koldeway Station’ Arctic Research base in Ny- Ålesund, Svalbard. Here I lived and worked with the community and the scientists working there to respond to the physical and political dimensions of the changing polar environments stressed by profligate human activity. Using the mediums of painting, photography and documentary film making I used this white stage of the Arctic to explore the idea that the landscape is a construct or reflection of our culture and interests of the system we inhabit. I photographed the visible scars and human impact of the landscape with the intention to then construct a ‘new reality’ in the studio and artificially ‘clean’ and change the images to create vistas that encompass the beauty of the wilderness we may expect to find in this region. By digitally eliminating any visible human activity in the landscape I aim to question the the social and political implications of our technocratic societies management of our resources and lands in such fragile part of the world. These fictitious places I create in my photos are imaginary vistas of grandeur and serenity; the ideal Arctic which we project in our collective memory and expect to find there in the flesh. In opposition to these romantic looking photos, my simplistic graphite line drawings of out of place and awkward structures and people, dwarfed in white space of the sheet of paper describe exactly that which has been eliminated, void or missing in the photographs. These drawings record the missing human dimensions of the photos and all at once the graphite and ink drawings point to unreal looking situations and an even stranger reality. Playing with reversals of imagination, construction and elimination these photos and drawings invite us to discover contradictions and connections, continuities and breaks which are a contradictory experience to the harsh reality of the places I seek to evoke.
Osvaldo’s partner Shonah Trescott works with similar themes at times, and the two have collaborated on several pieces including the artist residency that involved an expedition to the Arctic. Their work generally fits the traditional gallery model in which artists makes commodities for wealthy collectors to purchase, and therefore while inspired by and based on a vital environmental concern, the works themselves may not reach a wide enough audience to alter the course of climate change. (That being said, Osvaldo is fairly well recognized internationally, and his prominence may bring some additional attention to the issue.)
However, Osvaldo has also worked in documentary film, and he and Shonah were the subjects of a BBC short documentary called “Drawn Into The Light.”
The documentary film ‘Drawn into the Light’ follows the artists Shonah Trescott and myself on expedition to the high Arctic to live and work for a month in the most Northern Settlement of the world. Featuring interviews with the artists, international scientists, policy makers, builders, researchers and ordinary citizens. The film asks, “Who is allowed to shape our landscape, and what are the criteria for these decisions? Questioning the well-documented concerns that we are in the throes of a climate crisis that threatens life on Earth as we know it. I delved into a world of ice and snow, to tells a story woven in ice, revealing the heavy human ties which bind us all with this fragile region of the world.
Documentary film is an excellent medium for activism, and by its wider distribution may reach audiences that the artworks themselves do not.
A final artist I would like to mention in closing is Grant W Ray. I wrote about his 2010 exhibition at Spoke in my former project, the Chicago Gallery Snack Report at Art Talk Chicago. Ray’s piece in which viewers were invited to attempt to clean pieces of coal with a toothbrush and soapy water was hilariously Sisyphean, and made the point (that coal will always be a dirty fuel) in a fun, playful way.
Despite my earlier doomsaying, there are some artists who see the problems facing humanity in our future, and are not dismayed, but rather encouraged, in that they see the situation as being resolvable with sufficient effort. These artists are making work that is not only based on environmental concerns, but represents a real effort at working towards a solution.