Good god damn, summer in Chicago! The storms, the ‘fests, the beautiful bodies, the fruit flies, and most of all the regular monthly blog posts. This year’s most tolerable season in Chicago has brought with it plenty of new beginnings and other moves: artists, having used up their two year grace period after grad school, are making their destined migrations to one coast or another; galleries are closing, opening, and relocating; and rents are increasing everywhere. Together, you and I will track these changes, along with all what other what there is in What You Should Have Noticed in July.
Other shuffles were written up by Jason Foumberg for an article at NewCity: Jessica Cochran is leaving the Center for Book & Paper Arts for the private sector, Jamilee Polson Lacy is saying goodbye for a sweet gig at the Providence College Galleries in Rhode Island, Joel Keunnen is leaving ArtSlant Chicago for ArtSlant New York City, and Cortney Lederer is leaving Chicago Artist Coalition for her own venture, CNL Art Consulting; you can check the article for the rest and more. More bad news too – Edie Fake is leaving for Los Angeles! And Sofia Leiby for somewhere else! And Kate Ruggeri for Yale! Madeleine Bailey is out too! Julia Hendrickson is already in Austin! This happens every year!
In darker news, scientists at Surrey Nanosystems made headlines this month by revealing their latest product: Vantablack, or nanotube black, a coating of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes capable of absorbing more than 99.85% of light, thereby creating the blacking black to ever black. While artistic applications are still forthcoming, you might imagine a cross between a Katharina Fritsch and those monsters from Attack the Block: a sculpture as shifting silhouette, flattened into two dimensions by the absence of interior lights and shadows, like a black hole in illuminated space.
Genesis Art Supply Moving
In lighter news, the family owned retailer Genesis Art Supply, beloved to Logan Square and the blue line neighborhoods, will be moving from its endearingly crowded space at Western and Fullerton to new and bigger digs on Elston, near the Riverfront Plaza – you know, by the big Target! Set for an October ribbon cutting, the new space will provide later hours, more parking, and a brand switch to ArtSupply.com, owner Rich Goldman’s longtime online storefront (and where I purchased the very same desk where I am currently typing this article). The current location at 2517 N. Western Avenue is having deep cut sales, so be sure to go notice the hell out of it before the good stuff is gone.
Peanut Gallery Moving
In darker news again, Peanut Gallery is leaving its convenient home beside the California Clipper in Humboldt Park, after being forced out by new development in the area. The funky studio collective / exhibition space, led by Charlie Megna and Kelly Reaves, will be replaced by a cozy pie and ice cream space, a generous move by landlord Gio Battaglia to satisfy the city’s need for more independently run, alternative venues for emerging dessert culture. While the gallery is seeking to relocate (perhaps to Logan Square? But that’s some T for some other article), the other victim of the same neighborhood vitality it basically created out of blight or at least obscurity, Knockbox Cafe, will be shuttered this fall forever.
Obituaries: On Kawara
This month we learned that Japanese artist and quiet pillar of Conceptual art, On Kawara, passed away in late June in New York City. Most famous for his meditative date paintings, produced in a maximum of one day on various days in the artist’s life, as well as for his earlier and perpetually haunting “I am still alive” telegrams, Kawara’s passing marks both the end of a life and the end of an art more intimately tied to life than most.
Chicago Cultural Center Unveils DCASE Residency
You know, because I publish this article on the last Friday of every month, I court the possibility of months like this one, where the article falls on the earliest possible Friday of the month, the 25th, meaning I’m really only sharing what you should have noticed in three and a half weeks. I worry that Saturday morning will have some big news – like maybe the opening of another Ed Paschke Art Center – and history will wonder why I’d left it out. Other times, like right now for example, I’m glad that I can reward the present and direct your noticing eyes to a subject before it is too late: the DCASE (Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events) residency at the Chicago Cultural Center, also known as the Studio Artist and Curatorial Residency Program. The program looks fantastic, offering six residencies (either public or private) along with two curatorial fellowships to artists at all levels of their career. Both residencies come with the support of the Cultural Center (technical, promotional, and PR), a $2,000 / month stipend for three months, and more. While big news for the present – you still have six days left! – the residency is also perhaps the first really major investment in the city’s visual arts from DCASE, which formed in 2012 from the slaughtered slurry of the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. Cheers for the new program, and good luck to the applicants.
Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Artist Housing Open for Applications
Are you an artist of some kind? Theaster Gates is looking for thirty two tenants at the Dorchester Art+Housing Collaborative, his new Grand Crossing artist’s housing and studio compound on Chicago’s south side. Check out details at Rebuild Foundation, or call (773) 324-2270.
And that’s it! Other notable mentions include those weak ass white flags in Brooklyn (project whatever meaning you wish upon them), Jaume Plensa‘s new and pretty impressive addition to Chicago’s Millenium Park (which already features giant heads by Plensa in his Crowd Fountain sculpture), wars, and Rokudenashiko’s 3D-printed vagina scandal in Japan. Until next month, keep watching the skies!
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Curated by John Marks and David Petersen, with work by Luke Aleckson, Allen Brewer, Casey Deming, Kristina Estell, Katelyn Farstad, Isa Gagarin, Peter Happel Christian, Jess Hirsch, Jonathan Kaiser, Tynan Kerr, Andie Mazorol, Ben Moren, Michael Mott, Stefanie Motta, Scott Nedrelow, Natasha Pestich, Andy Sturdevant, and Pamela Valfer.
Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
The Painter’s Other Library, oil on Alupanel, 36 panels, each 16 x 32”, 2014
Guest Post by Anne Harris
Matthew Girson is out of step. In our era of split-second digital dissemination, he paints meticulously crafted still lifes that are impossible to reproduce. His subject: books on shelves. After visiting his exhibition, The Painter’s Other Library, now on view at the Chicago Cultural Center, my students emailed him a series of questions. One asked, “Do you ever hurt your eyes painting like this?” His response: “YES! I get headaches. My drawings are so pale that I sometimes go snow-blind….” Although the paintings in this show are the opposite of pale, they are, like his drawings, hard to see. All live in the darkest realm of the gray scale, with distinctions so narrow they initially don’t exist. This work tests our willingness to focus, and risks being lost in the quick looking, quickly summarizing I-saw-it-at-the-opening-but-will-look-at-the-website-later tempo that sums up much of today’s viewing. Fluorescent lighting doesn’t help, as first impressions reduce the show to elegant black rectangles hung low in the beautifully proportioned but coldly glowing space. Once filled with library stacks—the CCC being our original public library—it consists now of bright white 30 ft. high walls, looming narrow arched doorways, flat gray carpet, and enormous windows blanketed by black drapes. The effect is a stark chic. This positions the work as contemporary, but risks blanching its quiet presence.
The Painter’s Other Library, North Gallery, Installation View
That said, these paintings are indeed present. They have the kind of intensity made through subtlety found in work meant to be slowly experienced—taken in through the senses and felt, rather than glanced at and catalogued in terms of image and idea. It was a pleasure to see my students vigorously looking; the paintings required a surprising amount of motion from us. Full frontal, back away, then stick your nose in, try to bend your eyeballs around the back of the painting to understand its construction, now angle sideways for a diagonal view, then back off again, images emerge, surfaces shift, color shifts, the space shifts, even the design seems to shift when the pieces are seen askance from variable angles. My class was enthralled by the smudged gray circles optically shimmering midst the grid of paintings in the farthest room (“a happy accident,” Matthew told us). My funniest experience—when I turned away and then looked over my shoulder, two pieces in the middle room kept dropping their stripes. The center voids expanded, which startled me. Very sneaky! If you seek out work that insists on long looking, if you (like me) are seriously frustrated that Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is still not hanging at the AIC (it’s been years); if you speed through that room filled with Richters that are always up to reach the one Vija Celmins that is sometimes up; if you find yourself flattening your head against the wall trying to understand the surface of Jack Whitten’s Khee II, then this show’s for you.
Untitled (Reference) #1, oil on canvas, 40 x 80”, 2013
You’ll note the paintings I’ve just mentioned were all done before 1980. Girson teeters on a 40 year-old edge, the now non-existent divide between representation and abstraction. A line can be drawn from Girson back to the Parthenon’s friezes, to include Morandi, Mondrian, Poussin and Piero della Francesca. Their common denominator is the subjugation of subject matter to classical structure, the belief that purity of form in a work of art will bestow profundity on its contents. This thinking shaped David’s The Death of Marat, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and the fascist art and architecture executed under Mussolini and Hitler.
This brings me to subject matter, and to a point in Girson’s work that I struggle with. The first piece one meets in this show is an outlier, called Allegory, Allegory, Part 1, it includes a line of twenty-four 8 x 16” painted panels. They repeat, in lush glossy black troweled over smooth matt black, an image of a fire. They’re seen in relation to their source, a mostly silent video of a bonfire, a small section of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. Girson’s goal is ambitious, to weave together the multiple uses of classicism in relationship to political thinking, from the age of enlightenment to the “endgame of modernity,” as Paul B. Jaskot calls Hitler’s aesthetic ideals and monstrous deeds, in his fine essay for this show. I’ll add, this is the piece whose idea most intrigues me, but that interests me least in the flesh. It’s the most literal, the paint refuses to transpose, and it’s the only piece I looked at quickly. Today, in representational art, it’s typical to assume that the subject is the point of the painting. A more sophisticated viewer might look for subject in relationship to idea, but the understanding of painting as visceral experience tends to be reserved for non-objective work. So Matthew’s paintings are discussed and positioned in terms of subject and idea, while their form is only considered support for those things. Thus, dark libraries and dark books represent acquired and withheld knowledge—enlightenment and repression. Geometric structure is equated with fascism, repetition with entrapment, darkness with inaccessibility, and so on. It’s assumed that Girson’s choices are symbolic, that they function as allegory. Certainly his titles support that.
The Walls Were Full of Books. The Books Were Full of Ideas, oil on Alupanel,16 x 32”, 2014
Yes, these layers of meaning exist in this work, but placing them in front is misleading. I propose that the subject of Matthew Girson’s paintings is actually light, not books. Dark light. These paintings contain and emit dim luminosity. They’re filled with it. The longer we look, the brighter they become. The paradox of dark light is that over time we see more: our pupils dilate; we attune to the finest variations in value, temperature and hue, these grow through our concentrated focus. We’ve all entered dark rooms and waited as our eyes adjusted, but I’ll use a different parallel to describe this experience. Try staring through the insides of your closed eyelids. At first what you see is matter-of-fact blankness, an eclipse of your field of vision, but soon motion occurs, blooms of light, shifting shape, color, and eventually images. Stare long enough and your inward vision takes over, your sense of self, memories, the narratives of your life both public and private, all of these things exist within the intimate all-enclosing space behind your eyelids. This is where Matthew’s best paintings lie. They’re not symbolic. They’re metaphoric. Experiential. Starting with the intellect drains this away. By accessing this work first through sensory, sensual experience, the meaning deepens and opens, complex and contradictory. These pieces are best entered as we do all great fiction, imagination first.
The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm, oil on canvas, 80 x 60”, 2010
This past Monday, I visited the show again. As I looked and took notes, I was joined by the museum guard, Michael Hill. He’d just spent three days with Matthew’s work. I asked him to point out his favorites and he indicated Allegory, Allegory, Part 1 (he disagrees with me!), saying that he didn’t understand it until he saw it at an angle. He then pointed to The House Was Quiet and the World was Calm and told me that he instructs people to “look at it from the bottom up.” We moved to the back room to look at another of his favorites, The Walls Were Full of Books, The Books Were Full of Ideas. Just then, a man walked in, looking perplexed. He asked Hill, “What are these? Holograms?” Hill responded, “No sir. These are paintings.” The man’s eyebrows contracted, “What? What! What kind of paintings are THESE!” Hill had no answer, so he smiled. The enigma of Hill’s response perfectly mirrored the mystery of this extraordinary work. Come see it. Take an hour. Look very slowly.
Anne Harris is a painter who also teaches and curates. She’s Chair of the Exhibition Committee at the Riverside Arts Center, and currently teaches MFA and BFA students in the Painting and Drawing Department at SAIC. Her work has been exhibited at museums such as The National Portrait Gallery at The Smithsonian Institute and The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. Awards received include Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships. She lives in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago.
As any ACRE alumni knows, the screen printing studio is one of the most utilized facilities at the residency. It takes a printing and organizational maverick to deal with the onslaught of projects from residents who realize the potential for t-shirt making inside of the humble studio.
Print Rules and print rules!
During Session 1, artist Carrie Vinarsky left an indelible mark on the studio. Affectionately dubbed “Print Shack” by Vinarsky, the studio experienced a renaissance. Never has such organization been seen in the tight quarters of the studio. Among her many improvements, Vinarsky championed the baby oil method and encouraged the use of the Print Shack porch for printing and socializing.
Resident, Bobby Aiosa, reppin’ the shack.
Even in the face of much automotive adversity, Vinarsky kept the Print Shack a little old place where we could get together. Print Shack, baby.
“Sorry I’m Late” by Nicholas Frank.
Morality, Sledding Uncommonly Conflated at Residency
Residents ponder the meaning of Ice Luge
The Posey/Sweet Family Cemetery located on the grounds of the ACRE Residency is known as a place of individual contemplation. Maybe the site of the odd grave rubbing or two.
During the first session of this summer’s residency the cemetery has seen more action than it probably has since 1855. First, visiting artist, Nicholas Frank, held a discussion on animation, rocks, ticks and morality near the big tree in the cemetery the morning of Thursday, July 17th. Attendants considered turning the world upside down and whether or not rocks are baby or grandfather mountains.
“Frank” conversation in the cemetery.
The Weatherman Report
For Stueben WI
John Ripenhoff, Plein Air (ACRE), 2014. Acrylic on canvas, 12 × 18 in.
Frank later held a candlelight procession to a new grave site next to the residential lodging where he placed a stone with an inscription that reads “Sorry I’m Late.” Other residents chipped in their own anecdotes of special rocks to bury. In Frank’s words, “Sometimes just being alive can feel like an accomplishment.”
During open studios on Saturday, Shawn Landis, held a solemn performance at high noon where his fellow ACRE-ites pulled him up the hill at the entrance to the cemetery. Once at the top, Landis slid down the hill on a surprisingly sturdy sled made of ice, wooden slats and fabric grips. Later that afternoon, Landis lightened the mood in the cemetery and invited others to slide down the hill on his ice sleds.
John Ripenhoff on Landis’ ice sled.
Landis was last seen at the foot of the Posey Sweet hill wearing a baby blue speedo.
Winter Visits Summer Residency
Will it ever end?
With rumors of the polar vortex returning to the Midwest, residents couldn’t shed their S.A.D. A collaborative from Minneapolis, Negative Jam, embraced the chilly weather and put it to work last Friday night when they hosted Christmas in July. The dinning area was festively decorated with elaborate garnishes and the stage was decked with boughs of holly (and a fake Christmas tree).
Just like real Christmas, arguably the best part of the evening was the gift exchange. Residents engaged in “Secret Santa”, gifting each other crystallized rocks from around the ACRE property and various trinkets probably scrounged up at World of Variety in Boscobel. Dancing and merriment ensued.
Lauren Walsh keeping warm and browning at least 6 marshmallows at the same time.
Not to be out-wintered by a bunch of Christmas-loving performance artists, artist Shawn Landis, of Seattle decided to take winter into his own hands by fashioning sleds made of ice residents used to “Chill Out”.
Trending: Homegrown Manicures
No mistaking Etta Sandry for anything else but.
Residency Not Confined by Physical Reality of Universe.
Work by Brookhart Jonquil.
Header image features people having a ton of fun on the bank of the Kickapoo River.
This summer WTT? is going straight rural and spending July and August at the ACRE Residency in beautiful Stueben, WI. Look out for what’s trending in the sticks and what happens when artists stop being polite and start really missing Wifi connection.
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I met Lane Relyea, chair of the Department of Art Theory & Practice at Northwestern University and author of the recent book Your Everyday Art World, at the Edgewater Lounge on the north side of Chicago. While we talked, Brazil lost to the Netherlands 0-3, an event that neither of us commented on, although we did discuss the upcoming Germany-Argentina game. The bartender walked outside frequently to ask us if we were ok or to smoke. I had been wanting to talk to Lane since reading his book in the fall…
LR: A lot of the excitement behind the book was trying to use characterizations of information to start rethinking all these kinds of things you wouldn’t think of in terms of information. Information exists to be instrumentalized. I mean, you can think of knowledge as a thing that is instrumentalized, but information is the ur-form of instrumental knowledge. And it’s limited in that way: it’s only good in use. It’s just there to be handled, it pushes on you and you push back on it. The light turns green and you hit the gas, an email comes and it’s either saved or deleted or forwarded or file-name-changed, put in a certain folder, kept in this kind of file tree. It’s how Eve Chiappello talks about labor itself, it can be put on hold, it can be deleted, it can be retrieved instantly—that’s how I now see artists starting to operate more and more. It opened things up in terms of studio visits with my grad students or with artists I know, especially painters. Painters do blogs, they curate, they run an apartment gallery—painting is something that they get to when they can, you know? It’s one of the things that they operate in a field of instrumentalization. They’ll have a lot of things going on. And they’ll move them around and link them up in different ways. It’s a manipulation of spheres, activities, intersections, and so on. You really see its impact with casual painting, the new casualism that Sharon Butler talks about or the provisional painting that Raphael Rubenstein talks about. More and more LES shows are that kind of painting, and group shows are that kind of painting, and things in apartment galleries in Chicago tend to be that kind of painting, and in Bushwick, or in Memphis.
JW: Do you place a value judgment on that? Is it good or bad or whatever?
LR: Yeah, I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to judge it per se. It’s just characteristic of this moment. Any art that’s going to be powerful has to speak its moment, you know? It has to speak to present conditions of experience. Or else it becomes academic. That’s the problem with having a transcendent rather than an immanent critique, you start dismissing things categorically—the problem of these people who are like, “I’m still into modernism” or something. That’s like saying I’m going to make Carolingian art. That’s not a choice. We don’t live in that age anymore. So what you’re doing is just academic. Trying to hold onto values in some kind of pure form and move them back into time, rather than trying to convey or get into their state now. There’s this great Michael Fried line about Frank Stella’s paintings, like “he wants to be Velazquez, but he lives now,” you know? Unlike Velazquez, we have 18-wheelers that sometimes you walk in front of. We don’t have belief systems and so and so forth, we have material reality constantly almost running us over. With today’s sensorium, if you want to paint like Velazquez, you paint black stripes, because you can’t ring somebody’s bell under present conditions if you’re painting like Velasquez. We need a characterization of art today that feels more pressing and relevant. That’s what I tried to do in the book: you know, there was minimalism which exteriorized the art object so that it was now about the room it was placed in, and therefore about the institution that built that room, and there was the influence of conceptual art and its foregrounding information and circulation and systems of distribution and so on and so forth. Today you find these developments in their most advanced state in social practice. Instead of objects that are exteriorized, it’s subjects that are exteriorized!
JW: The person of the year is you.
Exchange between Josh Abelow and Lane Relyea
LR: Yeah, the person of the year is you, and mobility is driven to an optimum condition as it nears the state of information, and people are about the most mobile heavy object you can find! They’re the most information-like object.
JW: The thing that’s always been exciting to me about social practice is that, whether a given project or artwork or whatever explicitly does so or not, social practice operates on the acknowledgement, implicit or otherwise, that social relations can and are being acted upon. So I can make a piece about how you can or should act, or how you are acting, in a given situation and it makes sense—it’s possible—because we’re used to the scenarios we enter determining the ways in which we act.
LR: The individual who’s interacting in social networks maps on really nicely to the way that people talk about minimalist objects being no longer about internal relations, like composition or whatever, but rather external relations, how it works with things around it. The individual goes from being a person with a core, an essence, to being somebody who is performative. I’ll be like this with you, now, in a half an hour I’ll be with my parents, and then I’ll go to my AA meeting, then I’ll go meet my parole officer, and then I’ll go to my Log Cabin Republican meeting—I’m no longer being ironic when I’m a different person in each situation. I’m just being exteriorized, performative, on-demand, just-in-time. I’m feedbacking with my context. And that’s the optimum, that’s what everything’s driving towards: optimal feedback within your specific context of the moment.
JW: The scary thing for me about that is that the way that each context exists becomes overpowering. I don’t like having these interviews in coffee shops because I feel I’m overpowered by the way I’m supposed to talk about art in coffee shops with another person. I talk in a different tone of voice, I can hear myself using the word “interesting” more than I usually do…
LR: It’s the story of the postmodern subject, where the exterior is more important than the interior. You’re defined within your contexts. But in an information age, that just becomes the contact point of operationality, manipulation, being a good worker. Having labor value means that you’re always plugged in. Most studios I go into now, they feel relevant partly because they have four or five things going on; their labor is fragmented, their identity is fragmented. They don’t talk about painting as an identity. It’s more performative, it’s like “sometimes I make paintings.”
JW: Well, I think it is an identity. I mean, it’s like “I am a painter” insofar as the painter now curates shows, goes to parties, looks at similar visual stimuli and responds in a similar way. It’s not for nothing that the paintings you’re describing as relevant are appearing in Bushwick, and LA, and Memphis, which are, you know—the weather’s different.
LR: This is precisely how the social identity of the painter can be salvaged and recuperated for today: by reconceiving it as the painter who always goes to parties, curates shows, writes a blog. Somebody who’s like, wow, when does he ever have time to make those paintings? And the paintings look like it. They’re small, they’re more sketchlike in a way. Did you want another beer?
OH! ABELOW installation shot
[Lane goes inside to get a second round]
LR: The way that Boltanski and Chiappello talk about the new labor is much like how Robert Morris talked about his new artwork in ‘66. It’s not that the artwork is less important, it’s just less self-important. And that’s the new labor management idea: you transcend categories as your different contexts ask you to be different things. That’s a parallel between business literature and artworld discourse. The free agent and the social practice artist are both talked about as transcending categories, and the problem is—there are those people who get paid handsomely, who make a great living off doing that: hedge fund managers, venture capitalists. They’re the people that do precarity well and win at it, but it’s the same system that produces the people who don’t do so well. The hedge fund manager does a million different things and on the other side so does the person who works twelve different jobs in order to make one paycheck and has to be available 24/7 in case Walmart wants them to work the late shift or over the weekend. It’s precarity. Individuals who transcend categories are not only part of the system, they’re at the center of it. Then you’re not talking about the institution in the same way. In an information world, the institution is not brick and mortar. It’s discourse, it’s connections, it’s networks and moving around certain data in terms of its valuation—whether it’s hot or not or passé. If the old discourse about the old institution was about objects, if you came to terms with the institution by thinking about the context around objects, then the new primary unit is the subject, and you have to talk about the context around the subject.
JW: When you look at art, what are you looking at?
LR: One thing that I just wrote about on my blog was that I never get asked that question anymore.
JW: Really? It seems like a reasonable question to ask you. You’re an art critic.
LR: I guess the thing that I’m thinking is that there’s a way in which the ecology is more interesting than any one part of the ecology. A lot of times I’ll run into somebody and they’ll be like I’m doing this show, here, and the most interesting thing is like how the show was done, why it was done here, and how they reached that agreement. And then there’s artwork in it, but that’s maybe third or fourth down the list of interesting things about the whole project. There’s so much social labor poured into being an artist and reproducing the art world, whatever art world or art worlds you’re in, that the actual objects seem less interesting to talk about.
JW: Do you talk about the objects or the way in which they’re presented?
LR: One of the ways I’m talking about painting now is trying to talk about these little casual abstractions that look like something a painter could do when they can find a few hours in the studio when they can actually perform the role of the painter, instead of the residency-runner or the blog-poster. That’s talking about the work, but trying to talk about the work within its context. And more and more, the context tends to override the object. The object is “dividualistic,” to use the Deleuzian term, so you have to talk about its orbits, its intersections, how it differentiates, fragments, mingles horizontally…
JW: So why make an object?
LR: A lot of people don’t have to anymore! But I don’t even think that it’s a thing about objects not being necessary or whatever. It’s that the objects gain the same state of existence as everything else, which is existing like information, in the sense that an object is always a jigsaw piece that works with other jigsaw pieces at that moment, for a certain arrangement or performance or event. It’s always a part or a fragment. That’s why craft and material handling are not anachronistic or resistant to current conditions: information is nothing without manipulation. Communication is just manipulated information. The idea that the whole world of manipulated information is about an individual moving around a screen a digital hand with an extended finger that animates programs, and algorithms, that produces action, is exactly about the perfect intertwining of individual-based material manipulation and an information-heavy context. So the person who can go in and do a little kiln thing this week, and can go and do some rock-carving next week, that person chimes perfectly with a subject made for this kind of world we live in. Because the person is able to execute in a lot of different contexts.
JW: But how do you critique that? Do you just present it? Is presenting it enough?
LR: Well, one critique would be to talk about how that subject is produced by the society for its ends, rather than expressing some sort of heroic, romantic ability to transcend social determination. It’s a very determined subject, a subject that manifests the ends of that society—which are unfair, injust, so on and so forth. It’s not a condemnation—I think it’s very, very familiar. To go back to the Frank Stella black stripes thing, I think that those paintings are beautiful, but their beauty is not that they transcend present conditions, it’s that they express them. That’s beauty under current constraints. That’s beauty aware that it’s trying to define a moment of free expression in a situation of unfreedom. And that’s a basic art thing. Art is always supposed to be about free time. You just do things for their own sake. And that’s got a real labor aspect to it: who has free time to just do things for their own sake? You’ve got to pay rent, you have to eat. So painters have this problem, where you’re working for the system, in the system, but at the same time your whole identity is about living freely. So the social practitioner has this problem too. Why is that surprising? It’s to the benefit of all to acknowledge that contradiction. It doesn’t have to be self-defeating or annihilating.
JW: It’s annihilating to the concept of the artist as this mystical free agent who can drop in at will and relieve social problems…
LR: Yeah, but I’m fine with that going away. One of the few times Marx talks directly about art, he talks about the Greeks. Greeks had slaves, thus they had art. I’m sorry, but that’s how it works, the surplus time they got from having the slaves do all the work is what made possible the production of art. But maybe there could be a more equal distribution of the surplus. The Senate could have just voted to alleviate your student loan debt, but they didn’t, they sided with the banks—that’s an example of your self-contradictory existence as an artist. You went to a social practice program, you got a degree, and you went out in the world to be a free agent with your $85,000 loan debt. Welcome to freedom!
JW: It feels great.
LR: So of course we’re going to have art, because we’re a society of surplus, but we’re also always going to have art that talks about the inequality of the distribution of that surplus.
JW: I feel like I sometimes feel really bad about having gone into such deep debt, but if I had never gone to that school I would have never thought about or read. I’m much more aware of my position in the world than I was before, which I think is incredibly useful from a personal vantage point.
LR: Yeah, I can’t tell my students to not go to grad school. It’s how the system works. Who wants to martyr themselves on some kind of purity? You’d just be fucked, you wouldn’t be relevant at all. It’s about trying to resituate what counts as relevance, so talking up the fact that social practice is now producing young artists with huge student loan debt is not an argument for it to be shut down and banished from the face of the earth. On the contrary, that’s what grounds it, that’s what makes it of this society and of this world. It’s not a condemnation, it’s a description. Don’t you feel like, you know, in terms of being a subject—being an artist, so somebody who gets to think about their subjectivity—do you feel these problems in your bones? It’s not like you’re coming at it from some kind of theoretical space.
JW: It makes me feel incredibly bitter towards a lot of social practice.
LR: It also makes you incredibly representative, of not just artists, but of a larger society. And your bitterness can be politicized. It is political! You’re getting fucked! We all are! And then there’s this very small percentage of people skimming the surplus off who want to perpetuate this fucked condition.
JW: Do you feel that way? Do you feel these problems in your bones? You talk a little bit about being part of this adulation of a punk rock aesthetic in 80s and feeling a bit rueful about it…
LR: Oh yeah, I made some really bad statements. About some zone of freedom that people could inhabit if they just gave up Time magazine and primetime broadcast TV or museums, if they worked within small local communities, or within anarchistic self-organized postal art systems. Statements I made right in the teeth of the Reagan era of de-regulation, of cutting back on all sorts of social programs, of cutting back on the NEA, that was not so cool. But again, I didn’t transcend my time. Even in the past, whether writing about painting or not, I always wanted to see art in a social context. I never believed in or felt a real affinity with a kind of beauty discourse or aesthetic discourse. And it’s not that I don’t value beauty, I do, but my valuation is based on pop music. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My sense of beauty is based on bands, which always had a social context, just like books or movies. You never talk about a book or a movie being beautiful in a kind of thumbs up/thumbs down way, it’s beautiful partly because it expressed alienation or anxiety or brutality or it was absurd or it was tragic or comedic. It was never this kind of up/down, on/off switch, which so much art discourse is plagued by. There’s no modulations or modalities of beauty in art discourse.
JW: You just kind of say whether something is beautiful or not.
LR: Yeah, whether it’s beautiful or not. I’ve been working with SAIC’s painting department for about 15 years now, and I feel like the discourse has moved more towards a purely formalist kind of discourse. Paintings are beautiful or not, they’re tasty, they rock, or they don’t. I’ll be invited to be the guest at a critique or something and I’ll be like, what do you think is the social destiny of your painting? Where do you want it to show up, and how do you want it to function in that place? What does it do there? And they’ll be like, “I don’t know.” Not like, “that’s a good question but I don’t know.” More like “I don’t care.
JW: Why not? Why don’t they care? Do they ever say? Do you ever ask?
LR: Mondrian wanted to model a future socialist society. Ad Reinhardt did too. Morris Louis made paintings that were bigger than any wall any painting collector had in their home, and his dealers were like please make these things smaller so we can sell them, so they can fit in somebody’s house. He said no and it was a deliberate, conscious choice. And Chris Wool, who was just at the Institute, wanted to very deliberately bring a kind of painting into the museum that was centered not in easel-painting—I mean, they’re about easel-painting insofar as they’re all the dimensions of portraits—but he’s mainly basing them off of graffiti, sign painting, stuff that happens on the street. A mass, cheap, budget-engineered decor. That’s thinking of how you get the outside world into the painting, that’s how you get the painting to represent the conditions it’s made under. But when I bring this up at critiques, it’s like I’m speaking Swahili most of the time, I’m just irrelevant. Part of it is because the artworld imaginary right now sees artists making work not in society but in things that are more local and performative, more temporally local as well as spatially local—cliques, friends, hangouts—in the zone of everyday life, which relieves people of having to think of high and low, or about privilege and elitism. Which, in parallel, feeds the romanticizing that happens in social practice with the déclassé, with these pockets of dispossession that artists will come in and somehow alleviate or enlighten.
JW: But the everyday is not some neutral vacuum! It’s not devoid of privilege, of class, of hierarchical structuring elements….
LR: No! It’s like with Detroit now. Detroit becomes a big art city as soon as it falls off the class radar, as soon as it goes from being the biggest unionized town in America to being the Amazon.
JW: So a painter can make a painting and not think about the painting, or a social practioner can make some—I don’t know—benevolent gesture, and not think about who benefitted or on what terms. Or I can move to Detroit and not think about class. It’s just there.
LR: It’s its own form of casualism. If I was going to be judgmental, that’s an impoverishment. It’s an impoverishment in that these people don’t recognize that even their doing that, their making art in something nonchalant like everyday life rather than in some larger entity like society, that itself speaks to a social condition that is filled with tragedy, absurdity, comedy—but not so much romance. I just see a lot of practice undertaken with a real naiveté, and it is not good for the art being made.
Lane Relyea’s essays and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines including Artforum, Afterall, Parkett, Frieze, Modern Painters, Art in America and Flash Art. He has written monographs on Polly Apfelbaum, Richard Artschwager, Jeremy Blake, Vija Celmins, Toba Khedoori, Monique Prieto and Wolfgang Tillmans among others, and contributed to such exhibition catalogs as Helter Skelter and Public Offerings (both Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1992 and 2001 respectively). He has delivered lectures at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University, and the Art Institute of Chicago among other venues. After teaching for a decade at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where he joined the faculty in 1991, in the summer of 2001 he was appointed director of the Core Program and Art History at the Glassell School of Art in Houston, Texas. He is currently editor of Art Journal and his book Your Everyday Art World was published by MIT Press in 2013.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighbourhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. What We Want is Free: Critical Exchange in Recent Art (2014), for which he was an associate editor, is published by SUNY Press.
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