A string of questions: What is the discourse of power that we subscribe to? Is it constrained by capital or physical strength? Is it supernatural or material? Where is it located? Who participates?
Further: What are the material conditions that underpin these power plays? The currencies, objects, commodities? How physically present are they? Or, how virtual are they?
In Atlanta, three recent shows and a dance performance provoked these questions concerning the dynamics of power structures. Varying in methods of representation and subversion, the works materialize the many ways in which power pervades the multiple facets of our lives: spiritual, physical, economic, electrical, corporate, digital. While each of these, the exhibitions and performance, taken on their own offer a perhaps more simplistic notion of power, limited to a particular variable (some more limited than others), taken together, these works can lead the viewer to consider the complexities of our contemporary globalized world’s power structures.
Let this be an argument for synthesis. Individual artists and works do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an assemblage which the artist, discourse, institution, and viewer create. In keeping with my experience attending the 9/50 Summit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center which brought together arts organizations from around the southeast region, it seems important to address the issue of making connections. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the region determines the shows and the works within them.
Something that seemed to sit beneath the words spoken at the panel “Does Regionalism Exist?” at the Summit was the acknowledgement of one’s power or lack thereof. I realize how redundant and out-of-date this may sound in its Foucauldian inclinations and hints of institutional critique. However, I can’t deny that the ways in which I saw these works as an assemblage prompted the question: What is the meta-discourse here? As both a practicing visual/performance artist and a writer, I am always attempting to make sense of what I’m looking at, why it’s been placed before me, or why I’m before it. Sometimes it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it.
The institutions that house the exhibitions/performance I mention here run the gamut – from DIY resourcefulness to larger budget non-profit institution. Layers of authority and administration surround these works many times over — the specific histories, practices, and objects addressed as well as the sites in which they lived temporarily.
Simone Leigh’s solo show Gone South at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers the most complex rendering of power relations, providing the viewer with an image of the materiality, social history, economics, and spirituality of the South.
In Leigh’s installation Cupboard, she directly references the Mississippi restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard which is featured in the 1941 Edward Weston photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi. Using steel as the armature, Leigh creates what would be the skirt that the viewer/restaurant-goer walks into. However, instead of taking a seat and ordering pancakes, the viewer confronts Leigh’s 2013 work Topsy Turvy, which here reads as female reproductive anatomy. Since this biology is made from symbols of currency (the cowrie shell), stepping inside the skirt provokes anxieties. In the installation’s juxtaposition of histories, economies, infrastructure, and architecture, Leigh makes apparent the complexities of labor that undergird our current structures of capital.
Simone Leigh. “Cupboard.” 2014. with “Topsy Turvey.” 2013. Courtesy ACAC.
The video work my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, made with Chitra Ganesh, seems to solidify this reading in its juxtaposition to Cupboard. We see a woman’s exposed back and then notice that her head is covered in stones. The back’s subtle movement shows she is breathing, but it seems only barely so. In contradistinction to the suspended cluster in Cupboard, the cluster of stones weighs the woman’s head to the ground, burying her.
Across town at The Low Museum, a potted plant in a virtual corporate office makes its way into actual space. In one instance, the potted plant is blocked from view by window blinds. A Starbucks cup is turned over in a virtual church. In an interplay of the virtual and actual, the digital and IRL, Cara Mayuski’s Area Moments confronts the viewer with a cheeky corporate (i.e., anonymous) visual language.
Commodities, if we’ve learned anything from Marx, have become virtual objects, divorced from the materials and labor that went into producing them. While Mayuski might not intend for this reading, (instead she focuses on the digital/IRL experience dichotomy), expanding the discussion of the virtual and actual makes for a compelling take on our everyday experience, with all of its social, political, and economic dimensions. She notes that in her research of spaces that have a “public or communal aspect to them,” she discovered that when she brought elements of these spaces together, they “created highly impersonal spaces that were culminations of mass produced and familiar elements.” 
Installation shot of Cara Mayuski’s “Area Moments.” From left to right: “Untitled (indoor plant II), “Origin,” and “Untitled (pool screensaver). 2014. Courtesy The Low Museum.
Using the overhead balcony walkway of the performance space, Erik Thurmond and Nicholas Goodly created a viewing experience reminiscent of a Roman gladiator spectacle in their new work Meh Meh; the audience watches from above, the dancers move in the pit. At first Thurmond and Goodly, the dancers, displayed feats of physical prowess, strength, and agility. During this time, the two of them circle the floor, make eye contact with the audience, and point up towards particular members of the audience. As a commentary on masculinity and desire, Meh Meh brings together physical competition and gay club cruising. Meh meh means kiss kiss. However, when Thurmond and Goodly say it, scream it, at each other, the affectionate tone drops out and a bellowing of “ME” takes its place.
Erik Thurmond (left) and Nicholas Goodly (right). Lighting by Kevin Byrd. Fiber art by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Audio by Ben Coleman. “Meh Meh.” 2014. Photo by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Courtesy the artists.
It seems important to mention where the piece premiered: the Druid Hills Baptist Church, a place that hosts the Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre, artist studios, and performances, notably that of Thurmond and Mary Grace Phillips. What are multiple levels of power plays here? Between the dancers? The dancers and the audience? Meh Meh and the church?
Meh Meh is a DIY and self-funded project that subverts many of the Atlanta arts funding institutions. It lies on the periphery of what is available to artists. Funny how this takes place in a church – the church standing in for one of the oldest economic and political institutions.
For Rich Gere, he started with a flashlight. He said that during the Millennium Juried Art Show (The Art Market Gallery in Knoxville, TN), he realized that “if the lights go out, we’re going to need light.” The flashlight: what you turn to in an emergency, a beacon of hope perhaps.
Gere says that this is all about the “management of power,” something that he has previously noted in interviews. This is apparent in the lightbulb of the flashlight’s beacon turned warning signal in the 2012 works We the People – Ideologies: four joules and We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts. Each Installed in a corner of Kibbee Gallery’s side gallery for his show Power Failure, the sculptures project audio at each other. For We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts, the audio is sourced from tape recordings of JFK’s and RFK’s conversations with the Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, during the James Meredith Standoff. Also included are recordings of LBJ in conversation with James Meredith. For We the People – Ideologies: four joules, the audio is sourced from a 1929 recording of Charley Patton, a Mississippi Delta blues musician who was oftentimes barred from recording studios because of his race. The recording featured in the sculpture was made in Wisconsin, a place usually easier for black musicians to access.
Rich Gere. “Ideologies: ten thousand watts.” Part of “We the People.” 2012. Courtesy the artist. For video documentation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elv7BSmIs2A.
While the gallery installation wasn’t particularly compelling, I find the gestures towards both optimism (the flashlight as symbol) and despair or regret (the historical fact of JFK/RFK/LBJ/Patton) to be important. Issues of access and economies of power are still critical to examine in our supposedly post-race country, something that Gere describes. 
Refusals and Competition
I’d like to end with gestures of refusal: Two of the works in the Simone Leigh’s Gone South show make reference to Southern spiritual traditions while rendering their intended functions obsolete. Her sculpture Jug, made from lizella clay that is found and produced locally, references face jugs, whose American history originates in 19th century slavery, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Her sculptural installation Tree also makes reference to the warding off of spirits; the collection of glass bottles is reminiscent of the Southern, particularly Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. However, these works of Leigh’s do not perform the task they are meant to. Jug is not adorned with a face that will scare the spirit. Tree’s bottles and jars hang right-side-up; only upside-down bottles are successful at trapping what should be trapped.
Simone Leigh. Detail of “Tree.” 2014. Courtesy ACAC.
In terms of the constellation of sources and symbols in Gone South — the cowrie shell, which is made from molds of watermelons, the mammy skirt, the plantain in wedgewood blue, the face jug, the bottle tree — Leigh’s simultaneous use and abuse of these symbols yields a potent historical/cultural/post/colonial mélange. This interplay, one that also incited Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, forces us to pay attention to the intricacies of what we decide to use as visual markers.
I have to admit that each of these shows needs more words. Each taken on their own would provide multiple other readings and engagements. In a self-conscious disclosure of power, what I claim here institutes a precarious authority.
Though these shows don’t necessarily speak the same language or even share the same discourse, I find it intriguing that multiple shows within a brief span of time all examine some discourse of power that suggest underlying economies of desire and material resources. This may seem like a vague topic, and in a sense it really is. However, in an attempt to identify a guiding thread that might indicate some sort of collective unconscious, this is where I’ve arrived. Considering the limitations that constrain Atlantan artists and art institutions, a problem that is not atypical for artists and organizations in the US, it seems to me that these works make apparent the overarching economic, and therefore social, infrastructures which limit. Many artists in Atlanta are both energized by what appears as endless possibilities, yet frustrated by certain constraints, namely, I would say, competition amongst artists for a limited pool of resources; the “winner” is usually easy to predict and tends to stay the same.
Why do HAGs have such a bad rap? We don’t know, but we’re glad that Portland-based artist, Jenny Vu has decided to rehabilitate them. Her ongoing series H.A.G.S. (Have a Great Summer) depicts summer and it’s most devout fans at their best and most ridiculous. There will be farmer’s tans.
Vu writes, “Currently i’ve been thinking a lot about SUMMER (duh), being a HAG/becoming a hag/the power of the hag/destroying the negative connotation surrounding the “HAG”.Enjoy!”
Because really, if you’re not on Facebook and the phone while eating watermelon and putting a bird on it, then you’re not doing it right. You can see more of Jenny Vu’s work on her Tumblr.
A Multi-tasking HAG.
Work hard and play hard this summer, art babes!
Get Real or Get Out.
British Artist to Re-imagine Chicago Underground
Chicago History Nerds Rejoice!
Vertical Gallery in Ukrainian Village is drilling down with the debut US solo show from Xenz. The London-based graffiti artist has taken a shine to images of Chicago from the 1800’s and early 1900’s and the organized crime that was spawned by the network of subterranean alleyways that were created as the city became more, well, vertical at the turn of the 20th century.
Work by Xenz.
We’re not really sure why a London-er is so keen on the history of Chicago, but he couldn’t have picked a city with richer history to dive into. Xenz’s exhibition is based on the book “The Outfit,” by Gus Russo, in which he describes pre-fire Chicago and its rat-filled underworld.
Grime-y Chicago history? That’s right up our seedy underground prohibition-era alleyway. “Building the Dream” will feature an opening reception with the artist on July 5th from 6-10PM and will run through July 26th. Vertical Gallery is located at 1016 N Western Avenue.
The Weatherman Report
For Chicago IL
Lianghong Feng, Abstract 45-10, 2010. Oil on canvas, 47 × 39 in.
Ever dreamed of having your own ACRE glow-in-the-dark cup? Dreams can come true!
Just don’t get got.
We would say that the benefit season is winding down, but with CAC’s Starving Artist photobooth images just hitting Facebook and the 2014 MoCP Fine Print Release party popping off at Untitled tonight, that would be straight up untrue. It’s an artist eat artist world out there guys. Here are some non-party related opportunities to give and get that ca$h and make your art world a better place.
If you’re a fan of What’s the T? (and if not, what are you doing here!?), that pretty much makes you a default fan of ACRE (that glorious artist residency where WTT? was first conceived). But even if you’re not a T fan and you live in Chicago, you’ve probably been privy to no less than a billion* fantastic exhibitions, concerts, screenings, block parties, Halloween shindigs, etc. ACRE gives us all so much throughout the year, now it’s time to reach deep down into your heart wallet, and give back to them.
My video co-stars & 2014 incoming residents, Diana Harper & Danny Giles. Click above to see the real thing.
If giving money isn’t your thing, why not try to get some? Before you resort to spanging on the street, why not do us all a favor and hit up the Propeller Fund Info Session next Wednesday, July 2nd at Threewalls. If group info sessions are also not your thing (man, so picky!) you can schedule a one-on-one info session with a Threewalls staff member. There’s 50 G’s up for grabs here artists! Don’t sleep!
Finally! We’re pleased to present a for real ‘Who wore it better?’ Alison Reimus at Gallerista‘s first installment of SOLO @ CIRCA, featuring Reimus’ work OR MZH at the opening of the Whitney Biennial.
Calling all undergrads! Learn more then you ever could at school by interning at LVL3.
It is summer already, and I am on early vacation, driving through the West, living some version of the American dream involving fast cars, tops down, endless sunsets, and the long slow rise of mountains from the two-dimensionality of plains.
I map my understanding of city landscapes through walking. I slowly gather the layers of lived urban experience as I travel through neighborhoods – the clanking of dishes being washed through open windows, the constellation of droning lawnmowers growing and shrinking, the blue flicker of late night televisions. My map of the urban landscape, however, is limited by my physical access. The boundaries between public and private realms are complex, but they correspond to the physical limits of my body as it encounters walls, fences, and manhole covers. My mind is only as free as my body as I move through urban space.
I have spent more time in a car in the past week than I have in years, reveling in the freedom of landscapes unfolding over miles and the understandings of skyscapes not possible from tree- and building-confined urbanity. Driving frees my mind to expand outside of the physical container of my body as it rushes along the highways. I imagine climbing the mountains, walking along wooded ridges, foraging with the bison, antelope, and bears whizzing by. Driving long distances is exhausting because your mind roams far and wide among the vast landscapes you survey. Your body is stiff from the disjunction between the exploration the mind has envisioned and the cramped position the body has rested in.
The wilderness I have explored combines the walking of the urban environment and the freeing vision of driving. I have been walking on groomed, maintained trails that wind through pine cathedrals, disclose the beauty of windswept meadows, and open to vistas of glaciated mountains. My mind expands to place me within all of these inaccessible locations. I clamber over rocky cliffs, descend cascading waterfalls, creep along animal paths far above the tree line, but my body is confined to the explicitly manmade paths carved from the landscape to preserve the wilderness. My mind is freed, as my body is confined. My understanding of the world expands as I navigate the limited and controlled space of physical interaction with the wilderness.
These different modes of exploration pull me back to the art landscapes through which I have passed. Summer brings vacations as much as it brings art fairs, open studio tours, and outdoor arts festivals. My mind has been so occupied with landscape, with the sublimity of natural beauty that I cannot bridge the gap between it and the recent open studio tours in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and the multiple arts walks I have happened upon during this vacation. I struggle to know how to site the vast array of work I have seen; the excellent studios I revisited and the galleries and storefronts full of horse paintings struggle to coexist with the moose calves nuzzling against their mother as they stumble along the stream and the mountain peaks breaking through mist to catch the first rays of daylight. By leaving my normal life behind, I am reminded that I need new and different ways of learning, of experiencing the world that expose the mental and physical constraints of my normal life, that replace the known experiences and people that populate my days with the possibilities of the futures I do not know how to envision. I hope we can all get away, rejuvenate our minds and our bodies even if we cannot leave town. Change your world by experiencing something new, something unexpected, something beyond what is in front of our eyes every day. Let’s all leave the art world for a moment; it will look radically different when we return.
Part of VERSION14. Part 1 (Saturday) 1pm: Contested Territory with Multiuso, The Graffiti Institute and 96 Acres, 2pm: Tactical Urbanism 101 with Rik Adamski, 3pm: ArchiGO with Paul Durica and Nick Fraccaro, 4pm: A Free Frame with Robert Herbst, 5pm: Presentation TBA by Krisann Rehbein. Part 2 (Sunday) 1pm: Why Aren‚Äôt We All Developers By Now? with Charles Vinz, 2pm: Wicker Park Bocce Club with Alex Gara, 3pm: Space-taking and place-making with Sean Starowitz, 4pm: Fertile Substrate: the down and dirty job of placemaking with Nance Klehm, 5 pm: Hypercities, Bangkok with Logan Bay.
Mana Contemporary Chicago is located at 2233 S. Throop St. Discussions 1-6pm Saturday and Sunday.
Work by Dan Attoe, Elijah Burgher, Lilli Carré, Ryan Travis Christian, Courttney Cooper, Nicholas Frank, Richard Hull, Dutes Miller, Rachel Niffenegger, Paul Nudd, Robyn O’Neil, Stan Shellabarger, Geoffrey Todd Smith, Deb Sokolow, and Ben Stone.
Western Exhibitions is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Friday 5-8pm.
Closed for a decade, the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam‘s national jewel, finally reopened in mid-2013. The extensive restoration returned the massive building’s interior to its original 1885 charm. We started our visit with the “Gallery of Honour,” which is where you will find all of the paintings you might think would be in the Rijksmuseum. This is my favorite gallery, not because of the Vermeers and Rembrandts, but because it contains many lush Dutch still lifes that I am startled to find I’ve come to love after decades of thinking, “So what?” Pheasants, rabbits, random game, all dead. Dogs, both hunting and companion types, all living. Fruits and vegetables, featuring most spectacularly white asparagus. Fruit, much of which I cannot recognize. No surprise here, but tulips. And I would be remiss if I forgot to mention the lemons. Really, it’s like no one had ever painted a lemon before the Dutch.
We returned to the Rijksmuseum the next day to see the exhibit Art is Therapy by practical philosopher Alain de Botton and philosopher art historian John Armstrong. Really, this is best described as a meta-exhibit, essentially a contemporary show overlaying selected works from the permanent collection. The Post-Its start as soon as you enter the museum. At first, I didn’t even identify them as the exhibit I was there to see–that is, until I started reading. As you walk through the museum, you’ll occasionally see large Post-It notes next to an artwork. They are jarring, especially in contrast to the old masters. For me, this incongruity of oversized office products in the midst of a museum drew me to them, but I noticed that many other people simply ignored them.
These yellow notes provide, not factual information, but instead philosophical insights into the nature of art itself. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising considering de Botton might be best known for his book How Proust Can Save Your Life. Still, it was an odd experience to read commentary on the purpose of art as well the experience of viewing art right there next in the museum. For example next to Vermeer‘s View of Houses in Delft(1658) the Post-It reads:
“In one of the side galleries of the Rijksmueusm’s Gallery of Honour, probably behind three rows of people, hangs one of the most famous works of art in the world.
“This is bad news. The extreme fame of a work of art is almost always unhelpful because, to touch us, art has to elicit a personal response–and that’s hard when a painting is said to be so distinguished. This painting is quite out of synch with its status in any case because, above all else, it wants to show us that the ordinary can be very special. The picture says that looking after a simple but beautiful home, cleaning the yard, watching over the children, darning clothes–and doing these things faithfully and without despair–is life’s real duty…”
It is a great gift to be yanked from the malay of Vermeer fans right into the work itself. I suppose the painting alone should do that, but it didn’t. For me, it took these words to place me in the picture. For that alone, I am impressed.
The Rijksmuseum offered up all the Dutch Masters I anticipated and I wasn’t disappointed. What I wasn’t expecting was an historic museum to be so thoroughly modern. Art is Therapy prods the museum-goer into engaging with the works in a more authentic way. This contemporary way of thinking about art does not end with the physical museum and its works. More than 120,000 images from the collection are available at the Rijksmuseum website with the ultimate goal of eventually having the complete collection online. These high-resolution images can be downloaded to do with what you will. Also available are many guided tours that you can load onto your phone through the Rijksmuseum app to help you navigate the, quite honestly, intimidatingly large collection. They offer free wi-fi throughout the building, which makes it easy to use your phone for the tours. We took the tour for Art is Therapy, narrated by Alain de Botton himself. I’m glad I took advantage of this offering because it brought me to sections of the museum I likely would have forgone, like the room of Asian ceramics, the suit of armor, or the room of nautical miniatures. As I finished the tour, I realized that with the tour app and the high-res images, it was possible to take this tour from ones home computer. Of course, it isn’t the same, but I think it would be worthwhile anyway. Besides, you’ll probably get a better up-close view of that Vermeer from your livingroom than packed behind three rows of people.