The Realism of Our Time

April 19, 2016 · Print This Article

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.

La Paz: Rodrigo Lara Zendejas @ HPAC

April 11, 2016 · Print This Article

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.

Installation View of “La Paz” @ HPAC

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.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

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.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

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.

Installation View “La Paz” @ HPAC

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.

Takeover or Hijack: Alberto Aguilar on @artinstitutechi Instagram

March 14, 2016 · Print This Article

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.

This is a takeover. I am Alberto Aguilar. This will last one week.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

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.

I am @albert0aguilar. This is a takeover. I will locate secret doors beneath artworks.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

I am @albert0aguilar. This is #alexbradleycohen. This is one of my formative works. This photo was taken by @pfagundo.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

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?

As I prepare to exit I give you part of a song performed by Madeleine and Paolo.

A video posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

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.

Ellsworth Kelly's Red Yellow Blue White and Black over Charring Cross Bridge, London by Claude Monet. For: @razorbackcarole From: @albert0aguilar

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

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 He was a contributor to Fielding Practice podcast, a collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art21.


February 29, 2016 · Print This Article

Right now, poetry is everywhere in the art world. Its resonates locally in murmurs and shouts, ranging from Diana Fridd’s whispered eulogies –for which she mines obituaries for nuggets such as “We Have No Words For This In English”—to Cheryl Pope’s hollering “Just Yell!” Globally, it culminated this winter, with Ugo Rondinone’s summa cum laude tribute to his friend, lover, and mentor, in “I <3 John Giorno” at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I<3 John Giorno!” at Palais de Tokyo, October 2015 Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen.

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I<3 John Giorno!” at Palais de Tokyo, October 2015 Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen.

The show opens with the gratefully nihilist mantra “Thanx 4 Nothing,” a meditation on “letting go” so profound it is like yoga in a bottle –but without the spandex and the body shaming:

may all the suicides be songs of aspiration/thanks that the bad news is always true/may all the chocolate I ever eaten/ come back rushing rushing through your blood stream/and make you feel happy/thanks for allowing me to be a poet/a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.

The piece builds up like a crescendo until that moment, you fully realise what you have known all along: “Damn! Donna Summer was right! We are all ‘Full of Emptyness.’ Brimming in fact. Overflowing.” So much so, that when you enter the next room your minds eye is already dilated sufficiently to receive the message “I Want To Cum In Your Heart.” Gulp!

Taken as a whole “I <3 John Giorno!” is a sumptous, luscious, and yes, orgiastic, tribute to a life well (albeit sometimes reluctantly) spent, out- but mostly inside the flamboyantly gay New York art scene of the late 20th century. Its monumental scope, archival depth, and intimate tone, gives the viewer a feeling of being a peeking-Tom into art history in the making. But above all, it is a lesson in—if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this could be!

Where John Giorno’s poetry mainly flows inward, and takes you on a journey to the bottom of your heart, the borders of your mind, poetry equally willingly travels in the opposite direction—out into the chartered territories where art meets community in a battle to win our hearts and minds—while fixing a neighbourhood, a public school education budget, or a prison reform in the process. These are tricky positions to navigate.

Poetry’s appeal to the art world is easy to spot: it’s fresh, it is angry, it is credible, it is appealing, it is endearing, it is gritty, it is rousing, it is sincere and it is portable and pocketable; all the things “art world art”—with its cluncky logistics, inflated production budgets, and art fair schmucks—is forgetting how to be. The art world’s appeal to to poetry? Not so much. Caution must be advised if you are considering adding a little youth poetry to your art event, lest the effect will be that of a gospel choir at a Madonna concert—the sincerity of their little prayer drowned out by the artist’s blonde ambition.

To avoid such embarresment, I greatly encourage you to visit “Louder Than A Bomb 2016.” This, the Largest Youth Poetry Festival, not in the city, the country, but in the world (and probably the universe), is entering its sweet sixteenth season featuring 120 teams with participation of more than 1200 youth from 60 different zip-codes. Its umbrella organisation YCA (Young Chicago Authors) was recently awarded a McAuthor fellowship in acknowledgement of the leagcy of this program and others like it.

The festival is the brain child of Kevin Coval, who declares: “this is the best theater in Chicago, and I think it’s the best political platform in Chicago.”

Titles of poems such as “Islamophobia,” “How to get into College,”“Crafting Your Gender,” “How to Friend a Suburban Black Girl,” and “The Rage of the American Dream” speak to the breath of topics being not only explored, but deeply felt and internalized, and to the urge to, as one poet put it: “pick up your pen and change society!”

To really drive home the impact of the written word, showmanship, choreograpy and performance is added, hightened by the additional excitement of scores awarded. The public participation is what makes this theatre truly one of the greatest in Chicago; judges are cheerd, boohed or given the unsolicited advise to “Listen To The Poem!” and the atmosphere at times is so rowdy it is hard to remember that “The Point is not the Points, the Point is the Poetry!”

The preliminary bouts are in full swing as I write this, and by the time you read it the scores are in. But fret not: tickets are already on sale for Quarter Finals (Malcolm X College 3/5/16), Semi Finals (Metro Chicago 3/13/2016), Indy Finals (Du Sable Museum 3/17/2016) and Group Finals (The Auditorium Theatre 3/19/2016) via the YCA website.

My favorite so far (and I am biased, yes, but not alone in this opinion) is team REBIRTH’s “If Hogwarts was an HBCU.” Speculating on the all-star faculty of a Historically Black Magic Academy, this fun, timely, and above all, incredibly DOPE piece is infused with such much swag, that before you know it you will want to enroll in the LTAB lifelong learning program. I guarantee you will walk out of the theatre, not believing, but fully knowing, that if we all knew more about psychology, sociology, and (Black) history—but above all, if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this would be!

Team REBIRTH warming up. LTAB, Chicago February 2016. Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen

Team REBIRTH warming up. LTAB, Chicago February 2016.
Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen



Lise Haller Baggesen is an artist, writer, and proud poetry-mom, living in Chicago. Her book “Mothernism” was co-published by Poor Farm Press (Milwaukee) and Green Lantern Press (Chicago) in 2014, and her Mothernism show is currently touring the United States. More info on the work and writing by Lise Haller Baggesen can be found here:

feeling fleshy

February 27, 2016 · Print This Article

The heavily securitized apartment towers of Interlomas rise out of the northwestern hills of Mexico City, soulless, securitized phalluses that house (protect) the soulless, tacky rich of Mexico. From many of their windows, surely double, even triple strength windows, able to sustain whatever paranoid fantasy their occupants dream, whatever dirty penetrating outside force that haunts their nightmares, that delivers the worrylines they must botox out, you can see the slums of Huixquilucan. I wonder how many tired businessmen look out of their reinforced windows, backs to their boring, soulless interior design, and think of jumping, gently floating down from their towers, navy blue ties flapping gently in the wind, gold rings glinting in the moonlight, falling gently into the cesspool that they must, in some goldplated compartment of their soft minds, know is of their own making. What is the texture of their ambivalence?

I went to MACO last year, but not this year, but I can’t imagine it felt much different. Airy, vague, moneyed, depressing. Material was in a different place this year, and set up differently, in fact in this wild bleeding maze by APRDELESP that made it hard to tell—I mean, not that hard—what wall went with what gallery, where you were in the scheme of things, etc. As in it was kind of disorienting, physically, in a way that felt, sure, ambivalent, but leaning more towards laughing loudly than violence. I think, maybe I hope, that one of the directions one can go, when one finds oneself in this ambivalent intersection I am talking about, where one can slide deeper into one’s soft fleshiness and just laugh real hard. That it’s not a slippery slope so much as many slippery slopes.



I saw Bradford a few weeks later, at a barbecue, actually a barbecue that I had forgotten about, so when we got there we had just been to a barbecue restaurant, this place Porco Rosso which is some kind of decent approximation of Kansas City BBQ, maybe, although I’ve never actually had Kansas City BBQ. Great brisket, unimpressive everything else. Also an unimpressive sense of geographic BBQ specificity, as no Kansas City BBQ would have St Louis ribs on the menu, right? Anyway, Bradford and I were agreeing about how we liked the mazelike, kind of unnerving setup of the fair—it wasn’t airy and vague like MACO or pretty much any other art fair I’ve been to, or that we had been to—I mean, he’s been to a lot more, Bradford has—anyway Material was stuffy and sloppy, you kept on finding yourself in weird places, or a new place to have a mezcal. I kept on not knowing where I was and backtracking, fixating here and there on this or that. Bradford and I also agreed that we were generally unimpressed with the work at the European galleries and the New York galleries had brought, something about the work seemed totally non-self-aware, which became suddenly very ludicrous and pretentious-looking in the particular architecture and the atmosphere it produced. For whatever reason textiles seemed to make the most sense, maybe because of their looming physicality, or maybe just because rugs can get musty: Yann Gerstberger’s rug-like banner/tapestries that nearly obscured the entirety of the Lodos, or Caroline Wells Chandler’s exuberantly perverse woolen vaginas.

Yann Gerstberger at the Lodos booth at Material

Have you read No Future, that book by Lee Edelman? It is a difficult book. Honestly I’m not sure it’s worth reading: it is very spiteful and stuffed with Lacan quotes, so much so that it feels more like a disorganized Lacan primer with angry queer spit on it than a book about anything in particular. The best line in the book is this, and it comes early, in the intro: “Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.”

I don’t even have the book anymore; it didn’t make it with me to Mexico. It might be in a box, somewhere, or it might be at the Out of the Closet on Sunset in Echo Park. Maybe somebody bought it or threw it out. I remember distinctly that the line comes in the intro, though, as if the book is planned to accoplish the thing it advocates, to prematurely ejaculate and block any future of a reader, of being read. Like you should just read that line and go, ok.

I can find the line because it’s in Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts. It’s on page 75, which is not the intro. I read The Argonauts on the Amtrak, I think. The whole day was a blur. A man told me everything about his life and I didn’t want to know any of it. I wondered, is this mansplaining? and made point to get that Rebecca Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me. In that book, Solnit explains to us that the term “mansplaining” was not her invention and that she has been surprised, maybe alarmed, but rarely dismayed, by the proliferation of the word. On the train I wrote a lot about how violent I thought mansplaining is. Now I don’t think it’s violent, and I don’t think what the man on the train was doing was mansplaining, especially because he wasn’t actually explaining anything to me, at least not anything specific, just his life, and anyway, can a man ‘splain to another man? But it was something similar, something close; similarly nonviolent, but similarly close to violence.

He told me that he had been on the Amtrak for four days, beginning in Lancaster, PA—near Philadelphia—and that he was eventually going to Seattle. He had bought the ticket because it was a deal. He has never been to Mexico, but he has been to Venezuela. He winked knowingly as he explained how disorganized, late, but ultimately industrious Venezualans are. He said he lived in Venezuela for two years, but never learned Spanish. He told me he lived in Micronesia, that at least Micronesians were organized, but that there is no water. A plane flies in water once a week. He lives on the big island in Hawaii. He used to drive freight workers around.

I neither asked for, nor invited, any of this information. When I sat down, I was looking at my phone, reading—or at least trying to read—a profile of Vijay Iyer, the pianist and composer. I had gotten to a part that was more interesting than the rest, George Lewis was talking about Iyer as a improviser, and improvising in general. As he began talking, and continued to talk, unbidden, I sent gentle hints that I did not want to talk. I didn’t ask very many questions, except when I outright didn’t believe him—Marshall Islands?—mostly responded with “ok!” or “huh” or maybe “wow.” At each pause, I would look back at my phone, hoping to read more about what George Lewis thinks about improvisers and/or improvising, maybe scroll a little bit for emphasis.

I didn’t want a confrontation. I think the thing that’s unnerving and angering about this kind of speech is that it refuses to acknowledge nuance, especially nuance that emanates from the interlocuting body. There is an unwillingness to see another, to acknowledge their nuance. A blinkered avoidance of shimmers. A hard, mean shell of arrogance.

“These reports—they describe a soft, fleshy world shellacked by a hard, mean shell of arrogance,” writes Jennifer Doyle in her searing essay on the violently ambivalent intersection of shame, homophobia, misogyny, and bureaucracy on college campuses, Campus Sex, Campus Security. The reports in question are those issued by internal and external investigative bodies looking at Title IX or other sexual crimes on campus, reports “haunted” by anxiety, by what Foucault calls, in an earlier citation, “the dark shimmer of sex.” In this particular example, the possibility of consensual sex between men darkly shimmers on the edge of college football culture: “these football coaches, fraternity members, and college presidents…do not know how to narrate the centrality of sexual-coercion-by-men to their formation as men, or what it means to affirm that non-consexual sex forms the bedrock of their masculinity. They do no know how to reconcile their hatred of women with their desire for intimacy with men, and with their certainty that they are not gay.” It is this anxiety that kept the child molester Jerry Sandusky safe on the Penn State campus for twenty years. It is a similar anxiety that drives UC Davis chancellor Katehi to call in the police, a decision the police questioned, because “…there could be a party or something could happen to them”; it is, perhaps, the same anxiety that drives the very way that criminal justice is handled in the United States: in the name of the state, rather in the name of the victim. As an abstraction, as an avoidance of bodies doing things to each other. A hard, mean shell of arrogance around a soft, fleshy world; “an abstracted relationship to the flesh and the world—in which nothing has meaning.” A vanishing of the feeling future.

In the ancient canals in Xochimilco, a World Heritage Site until UNESCO gets tired of all the slums there and dumps it, there should be a species of salamander called the axolotl. The axolotl become adults without going through metamorphosis; as in, they don’t actually become adults, the way most amphibians do. It’s like if a tadpole just continued to be a tadpole, but was able to reproduce, etc. Anyway apparently the axolotl doesn’t go through metamorphosis because it lacks iodine. If you inject the axolotl with iodine, it goes through metamorphosis and becomes an adult. Then, according to legend, it kills itself. The axolotl hates the future. The axolotl is extinct in the wild.

hating the future

Maybe if I had said to Jack, my non-buddy on the Amtrak, look Jack, I don’t want to talk right now, I was actually really looking forward to 14 hours of solitude, of hanging out with the California seaside and reading, maybe—maybe—writing a little, maybe if I had said that he would have said, “oh, ok,” and stopped talking, or maybe he would have called me ungrateful, or something like that, or maybe he would have strangled me, in the dark, on the first floor of the train, near the empty luggage racks swinging lewdly like sex swings. These all seem probable, unsurprising. Last week a man in Kalamazoo picked up an Über passenger or two in the midst of a murder spree. The proximity that is terrifying is not the temporal one, that at, oh I don’t know, 7pm he shot somebody, 8:30pm he picked somebody up, 9:15pm he shot somebody. The proximity that is terrifying is the short distance between the feeling body—the body that feels empathy, that senses nuance, that knows itself to be soft, fleshy—and the unfeeling body: the hard, mean, shell of arrogance.

When I was in Oakland, I had lunch with Ian. We met at a closed Chinese restaurant, then walked to a closed Vietnamese restaurant. Two doors down was another Vietnamese restaurant, where everybody was laughing loudly, eating noodles. We got sandwiches. They weren’t very good.

As we were walking towards Ian’s studio, he said something about “that kind of grubby feeling you get when you’re sitting at your desk, eating lunch, looking at somebody else’s work online.” Or he said something like that. The word “grubby” stands out, as does the image of eating some shitty lunch at your office desk, scrolling. I was hungover in a floaty, flighty way. I think I said, that’s funny. Ian showed me candles he’s been making, with poems inside, many of them burned or torn in places. One with studs on top. I couldn’t stop thinking about that Miguel Gutierrez piece, one I never saw, but I think Christine did, where he sits down on a candle, ceremonially inviting it into his asshole. It’s an image that has always remained unfinished in my mind: I can see Miguel sitting down on a candle—it’s thick, ivory/yellow, melting—I think actually in my mind it’s lit, which would be terrifying in real life, I’m sure that isn’t what happened—it’s center stage, which it probably wasn’t, foreground, which maybe it was, but again, I kind of doubt that, too. I have no idea what he’s wearing, where he is, or whether there are other dancers on stage. The light is medium. I haven’t seen a piece of Miguel’s in a long time. I remember offering to buy him a drink and him telling me he was, still is I’m sure, sober. I used to be uncomfortable around sober people; that was dumb.

In his studio, we looked at these dioramas of sorts that he had been making, making these weird arrays in generic IKEA storage bins, the sort of thing people use to put old clothes in or to do DIY kitchen worm composting, because of course nothing saves the future faster than plastic bins. Anyway I was hoping he would send me a picture of this one that was super weird, with this dripping, nasty streak of purple paint in it, but he sent me a different one, one where he inserted some dollhouse windows and some dollhouse faux wood flooring in the bin and put a My Book hard drive box in it. The box has some dollhouse windows installed too, through which you can see something. Ian didn’t remember what.

I’m glad he sent me this one, though. Because I think I can use it to describe what I mean about the ambivalent intersection of noncomplimentary forms. Each of these forms, physical or social, carry with them specific, but different utilities and/or social connotations: IKEA storage bins, DIY worm composting, dollhouse building, sculpture, digital storage. And then I guess you can add vitrines, lightboxes, dioramas. Some of them have something to do with each other, physical or methodological similarities, maybe they are surrounded by similar cultures or whatnot, but they, in general, not complementary. Each item has a different trajectory. When you put them together, the result isn’t cumulative, it’s something more mushy, porous, slippery and grey.

Ian Dolton-Thornton, my (2015).

There’s a feeling I get sometimes, usually when I’m working on something I either don’t want to be working on or that is stressing me out. It’s a computer thing, usually. When the computer or the internet starts to stutter, I get this feeling. It’s kind of slackness, a dark slackness. It’s like, “oh, maybe now I’ll do something perverted.” That’s usually when I scroll through something—porn maybe. Always scrolling. There’s something anxious to it, but it’s slack, grubby. A dark shimmer? A flab in time.

Nelson thinks of Edelman because she has recently birthed a child, because she is queer and is reconciling the act of having a child with her queerness, worrying that because she is married and has two children she is somehow not queer enough, worrying at how at how that word, queer, that identify or that movement, has calcified into a simple set of attributes: not child-bearing, not married, not having-a-mug-with-a-picture-of-your-family-on-it. And I mean, she’s right, obviously, if being queer is something claimable, a position from which you can bully others about how they’re not doing it right, etc, well, that fucking sucks. What about those of us who identify as queer because we identify with nuance, with shimmers dark and light? And anyway, what hates the future more than neoliberalism? The erosion of public services and public education, the driving of a wedge between the rich and poor, the erosion of the rule of law by blaming everything on the “government,” the consequent camouflaging of the government and its actions that results from a government blaming everything on the government, not on itself but on its phantom other…it’s like what Edelman describes in his book is not some kind of radical punk queerness but the day to day reality of the world as it exists under neoliberalism.

uh-huh, installation view

I had the good fortune of seeing Juliana Paciulli’s show, Uh-huh, at Greene Exhibitions in Los Angeles. She gave me a pin; it says “uh-huh.” I wear it on my jacket now in the hope that it will prevent things from getting too serious. The show was undeniably funny, in this kind of disconcerting, flippant, eyeroll, uh-huh kind of way. The staged photographs were all against the same off-white background, set far enough forward in the frame that perspective skews and lends an uncanny depth to each image, a depth that disappears online, that can only be felt in person. The show’s lone sculpture was a shattered coffee table with an iPad playing a slideshow of vaguely revolutionary aphorisms in decidedly Pinterest fonts, the iPad’s awkward white charging cord snaking down one of its legs. Keep calm and keep drinking Sprite. Let’s make a subculture of sub-par excellence and totally commit to it! The effect of the show as a whole is consistent with Juliana’s past work, this kind of pre-linguistic deep body discomfort that unnerves attempts to draw conclusions, put forth narratives, and so on. This narrative discomfort is actually articulated very well by Jonathan Griffin’s humorless and patronizing review of the show, in which he can’t figure out who the protagonist is or what she wants, or if an archetype is at work, and if so which one and in what way. He can’t figure out “where Paciulli is trying to lead her viewers.” In the final sentence—”Such, perhaps, is the indecision of youth.”—you can almost see his patronizing smile, what Rebecca Solnit describes as “that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy horizon of his own authority.” A hard, mean shell of narrative. An inability to feel nuance, to find the wonder in feeling kind of weird, indecisive, grubby, too close to too many things. A soft, fleshy, silly body.