What You Should Have Noticed in October

October 31, 2014 · Print This Article

Welcome to this month’s edition of What You Should Have Noticed, a monthly article wherein I try to hit the highlights of art news from the last four days. This month is mostly whining, counter-whining, and regional defensiveness, but what’s new? As for October, the ghosts are out and the weather is finally getting awful: for us with the colorful cuticles, this means less motivation to get to the studio but more motivation to stay once you’re through the worst of it, so enjoy the wash. For now, pour yourself a hot toddy, plug in that dusty space heater, and cuddle up for this month’s What You Should Have Noticed in October.

Ken Johnson vs. Michelle Grabner

On October 23, 2014, Ken Johnson of the New York Times reviewed Michelle Grabner’s latest show at James Cohan Gallery in New York City. The exhibition was Grabner’s first with the gallery and her first major opening following the 2014 Whitney Biennial she co-curated with Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer. It featured several of Grabner’s new works, including her laborious paintings inspired by patterns and pattern making, a hanging sculptural made in collaboration with her husband, Brad Killam, and several paper weavings. Johnson wasn’t impressed, however: in his review, he laments the “unexamined sociological background of the whole”, namely the artist’s modest and comfortable life (as shown in the exhibition’s video by David Robbins called “A Few Minutes With … Michelle Grabner”) wherein she teaches at the School of the Art Institute, paints at her lovely home studio, hosts openings at her backyard gallery space (The Suburban), and hangs out with her kids. Glossing over the artwork, Johnson points out the humorless banality of Grabner’s un-ironic, un-self-fashioned status as a “comfortably middle-class tenured professor and soccer mom.”


Within the minor world of Chicago’s art world, Michelle Grabner is something of royalty. More than the obvious alliances and good favor earned here among students and artists she’s placed in exhibitions, Grabner’s multi-directional ambitions – as a writer, a curator, an artist, an educator – have inspired a significant number of this city’s better artists, who, without Grabner as an example of many-hats success, might otherwise have focused their way out of all sorts of contributions to art and culture. Beyond her own accomplishments, Grabner is a role model for those who would participate in serious artistic culture while remaining outside of art’s central spaces.

All of which probably goes to explain why my social media feed caught fire this month from the heated accusations leveled at Ken Johnson over his dismissive, ad hominem, motherfuckery review of Grabner’s exhibition. In her article for Art F City, Corrina Kirsch lambasts Johnson’s narrow vision, which apparently cannot conceive of work that “doesn’t abide by some bad-boy-postmodern-ironic stance,” and which hews closer to the experiences that produced it. In two articles for Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel, Mary Louise Schumacher champions Grabner’s inspiring place among the DIY art world, while challenging Johnson’s sexist clichés and lack of serious engagement with the work. The most heated response came from artist Amy Sillman, who allegedly wrote a letter to the New York Times criticizing Johnson for his pattern of sexism, racism, and an over-focus on the person of his subject rather than that subject’s artwork in his reviews. Sillman goes on to questions the newspaper for publishing such an insulting review.

Insofar as this author is entitled to make a statement by way of conclusion, I’ll offer this: of course Ken Johnson’s review was a lazy shift of focus away from Michelle Grabner’s artwork (which is either superficially nice or complex and challenging depending on a viewer’s generous curiosity) to the artist’s life as presented in Robbin’s video work. However, the presence of said video makes that shift a little less egregious than when art writers google the sex, race, or background of an artist in order to drag in a cheap insight into the artist’s work. All that middle-class midwestern motherism was in the mix of Grabner’s show from the start. The fact that Michelle Graber was more interesting and offensive than Michelle Grabner’s artwork speaks to Mr. Johnson’s narrow tastes and lack of engagement.


Monika Szewczyk and Dieter Roelstraete Are Curating Documenta 14 

Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany, will host the fourteenth Documenta exhibition in 2017, which will be titled “Learning From Athens.” The fair will be directed by Adam Szymczyk, who in an article for Artnews published on October 6th, announced a curatorial team that will include partners and recent Chicago transplants Dieter Roelstraete, who joined the Museum of Contemporary Art as its senior curator in 2011, and Monika Szewczyk, lecturer and visual arts program curator at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts since 2012. Whether and how their participation in Documenta will affect Roelstraete and Szewczyk’s institutional duties is yet to be announced, but Bad at Sports celebrates the news nonetheless.


Who Suck Now: Jerry Saltz, David Byrne, and Richard Prince Suck

Richard Price opened a tired, shitty, sexist show of Instagram photos and Paddy Johnson wrote for Artnet news that it – no, he – sucks. (How’s that for ad-hominem criticism?). Jerry Saltz liked it enough to write 1,400 words praising it, which makes sense because Saltz is another aging dude for whom the utterly pointless nuances of social media promises endless revelation and intellectual curiosity, an observation which dovetails perfectly into my desire to mention the whipped-to-bleeding ladyass Saltz posted to Facebook on October 12, with the tagline, “This is what your critic does to artists who have been very berry bad.” He quickly deleted the post, but Eyebeam’s Arjun Ram Srivatsa archived it for us.

If you’ll permit me another paragraph of petty art world sniping, David Byrne wrote a stunningly out of touch article on October 7, in which the Talking Heads genius (though let’s not neglect to give Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz their two thirds share) complained that the type of art he sees while jogging around the West End of London is catered to the rich. I could have too much fun with such a ridiculous observation, but Ric Kasini Kadour got to it first in an excellent article for Hyperallergic, wherein the author pointed out the tiny horrible cash-wet corner of the art world that Byrne – and many others – focus on when readily dismissing today’s art. As the abovementioned Dieter Roelstraete wrote for Frieze in 2013, just go already.

in Sector 2337 Opens in Logan Square

The wonderful men and women who brought you The Green Lantern (Caroline Picard and Devin King) are back with a gorgeous new space on Milwaukee Avenue called Sector 2337. Functioning as a for-profit business complete with limited liquor license, gorgeous exhibition space with regular programming, and home for Green Lantern Press, Sector 2337 is a welcome addition to the neighborhood’s visual art scene. Read more in Matt Morris’ article for NewCity Magazine.


Paul McCarthy’s Tree Destroyed in Paris

Having sufficiently freaked the squares, Paul McCarthy’s Tree, an 80-foot-tall inflatable sculpture of either a Christmas tree or a butt plug but really a butt plug, was slashed by on October 18 by unknown Parisian assailants. The previous day, the 69-year-old artist had been physically attacked while installing the piece in the Place Vendôme. Tree had been a commission for the 2014 Foire internationale d’art contemporain (or FIAC). The artist expressed the wish that the sculpture not be re-installed, citing the possibility of “clashes or physical violence.”


And that concludes this month’s ever-unpredictable and delightfully illustrated What You Should Have Noticed in October. Tune in next month for another edition. Happy halloween!


October 27, 2014 · Print This Article

Arnold Johnson as Putney Swope.

Comedian Shows Funny Movie

Yesterday afternoon we took a trip to the new Black Cinema House space on 72nd and Kimbark to see the 1969 film, Putney Swope. The screening featured an introduction by comedian, Wyatt Cenac, who was wearing a knit sweater like you wouldn’t believe. Cenac’s choice for the screening felt uncanny in the gorgeous new home of the Johnson Publishing House archives, including a very 1970’s light up table from their offices.

BCH Program Manager, Penny Duff, introduces the film with Wyatt Cenac.

After the film was over a robust discussion started on the reception of the film when it was originally released, Robert Downey’s dubbing of Arnold Johnson’s voice, blacksploitation films, hip hop history, education and possible proscriptions for current day cultural production.

Cenac was an excellent moderator, letting others direct the conversation. Amongst other insightful contributions, Pemon Rami, Chicago’s first black casting director and the current Director of Educational & Public Programming at the DuSable Museum, discussed his impressions of the film having seen it in ’69 and again Sunday at the Black Cinema House (he mentioned he was fazed by the “buffoonery” on his recent viewing).

Black Cinema House is hosting more great programming at their beautiful brand spanking new space throughout the rest of the year, including hosting experimental filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu on November 14th. Check out their calendar of events here.

Reading is Fundamental

  • Chloé Griffin presents Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. Tomorrow night get yourself to Quimby’s to see and hear one of our favorite local writers, Britt Julious discussing the life and legacy of actress, Cookie Mueller, with author Chloé Griffin. Tuesday, 7PM at Quimby’s. Free, our favorite flavor.
  • Inside Views: Micro Publishing at Spudnik Press. Featuring artists Charlie Megna, Veronica Siehl and April Sheridan and the The Perch, this Wednesday evening event is a no-brainer for lovers of community based art making and publications (like ourselves). We’d be loathe not to mention the world premiere of the short animations of Fred Sasaki’s & Fred Sasaki’s Four Pager Guide to: How to Fix You!. The Sasaki guides are already killer, and the film promises to knock you off your socks (and to fix you, of course!). Don’t forget to RSVP!
  • Fred Sasaki’s “Table of Value” prep for Wednesday. Stolen from the writer’s instagram account.
  • What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees? Sometimes trends are actually important and right now, statistics are #trending. If you haven’t seen the BFAMFAPHD video report yet, let us help you get up to speed. Watch the video, then listen to B@S interview Caroline Wollard. You should probably also read Abigail Satinsky’s questioning “Who Pays Artists?” and possibly also this statistics filled response from the Washington Post. Caught up? Ok, great. Now let’s do the damn thing!
  • We’re pretty sure you know what Mexico-based artist Andrew Birk is talking about in his comment above. But if not, here are the pieces on Grabner and Prince. Talk amongst yourselves.
  • A Poet on Drake’s Poetics. So you know it must be true. Read Dorothea Lasky’s ode to Drake, where she sings the praises of his direct address on the occasion of the Canadian actor turned something like a rapper’s birthday. We feel you, Dorothea. But if you’re looking for some “real” poetry, check out her killer new book of poems, ROME.

The Weatherman Report

Sunday Thoughts by Clay Hickson from the artist’s tumblr.

Happy Dog Resurrects for Film Release

Talk about a #tbt. When was the last time you visited Happy Dog? The former SAIC party rocking spot is way cleaner than you remember and the bathrooms have upgraded from their former horror-movie quality. Oh, and they hosted last Saturday night’s extravaganza for the DVD & VHS release of Lindsay Denniberg’s Video Diary of a Lost Girl.

Monica Panzarino’s video installation featuring Erica Gressman. Photo by Mikey McParlane.

The evening started with performances by Denniberg and self-surgery maven Erica Gressman aka Boogita. The space was scattered with video installations by Monica Panzarino on stacks of TV screens throughout. Happy Dog’s head dog, William Amaya Torres, had gigantic inverse prints of what appeared to be sketchbook pages installed throughout the house. We hadn’t seen work from Amaya Torres since our days at SAIC together. His prints were bold and appealing, they also had the benefit of darkening the space for the screening.

Alongside VDoaLG in the program was first year UIC MFA, Jimmy Schaus, with a 16 minute short titled Kangaroo. Schaus is the protagonist in the surreal dream scape of a film, which vacillates between the main character’s boring everyday life and the business casual demons who haunt him. Kangaroo impressively manages to riff on VHS effects and color distortion without being cheesy. We hope to see more from this budding filmmaker in the near future.

The world premiere of Kangaroo by James Schaus.

Video Diary of a Lost Girl looked better than ever Denniberg’s handmade VHS packages. We highly recommend getting your hands one of these beauts, even if, like us, you don’t have a VHS player. Yes, they are that cute. We’re not really sure where they’re available aside from in-person, but the filmmaker’s website is probably a good start.

T around Town

We loved this exhibition by Daniel Arnold in Paris London Hong Kong, that’s the Billy Goat Tavern in the photo!

The current crop of Art Admin MAs at SAIC hosted mural making an other arts & crafts at the Logan Square Comfort Station just outside of the penultimate neighborhood farmer’s market.

Greg Stimac and his coy grin at his Document opening on Friday night. We’re so in to those we’re gun sculptures that look kind of like legs!

Sense of déjà vu overwhelming at photo exhibition.

We’re not really sure how, but Paul Germanos (the man with the camera and the motorcycle) somehow managed to assemble an impressive array of artists and makers for his exhibition at Antena Gallery in Pilsen last Friday night. Artist sat casually under photos of themselves, and as participators ourselves WTT? couldn’t help by snap a few re-takes.

Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter pose in front of themselves at Antena.

Daviel Shy and Hope Esser creatively interpret their photo on the wall. Cute!

Erik Wenzel does the Wenzel in front of his small likeness in the corner.

Who pays artists?

October 24, 2014 · Print This Article

Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 100 Posterworks, 2009-2013; printed poster; 11 x 17 in.

Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen. 100 Posterworks, 2009-2013; printed poster; 11 x 17 in.

In a recent review in the New Yorker of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of local art, “Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” Peter Schjeldahl singles out BFAMFAPHD as puncturing the effervescent mood of the exhibition, saying that, “The collective BFAMFAPHD (the initials of academic degrees) spreads a homeopathic wet blanket on the show’s high spirits with statistical documentation of the hard lots of current graduates — the staggering number of artists, debt burdens, iffy prospects. The bonus bummer of a group discussion among veteran local artists, in the show’s catalogue, circles the drain of Topic A in the daily life of art anywhere: real estate.” While I don’t really care too much about the over-celebration of Brooklyn as a creative context, this snarky tidbit has a little bit of truth —- the hard lots of current graduates is indeed a quite epic bummer and not just in the over-capitalized art scenes of New York.

But besides being concerned about the harshing of Schjeldahl’s mellow on the wonders of Bushwick, and I didn’t see the show, the questions around who can afford to be artist in today’s economy and concurrent debt crisis is a central concern to today’s generation of artists. How can we talk about this situation openly, honestly, with some well-deserved finger-pointing around the exploitation of artists by institutional culture and a little self-reflexivity about why artists do indeed deserve to get paid (all artists? for what kinds of services?) and who should pay them?


image via Arts Report Back, BFAMFAPhD, 2014, p. 7

With the recent efforts by collectives BFAMFAPHD asking “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?”, W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator which aims to set standards for artist compensation based on organizational budgets, and from a slightly different angle Brooklyn Commune, “a report on the state of the performing arts from the perspective of artists” (all New York based) providing perspective with some hard numbers to back it up, it’s an exciting time to think about artist-driven efforts to research and fundamentally change the systemic exploitation of artists.

4.17_Standard_Deviation_broadsideFrom the opposite coast, in San Francisco where rapid gentrification is significantly and meteorically changing the culture of the city, there have been a number of other efforts to talk through the working economy for cultural producers and how to stop the prevalent culture of working for free. These include illustrator and designer Jessica Hische’s online diagram Should I Work For Free? (which I came to through Christian Frock’s recent article on KQED, which also talks about these efforts), Helena Keefe’s Standard Deviation, which led to a symposium that I also participated in at UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center and an issue of Art Practical on Valuing Labor in the Arts, as well as The Compensation Foundation, a project much like W.A.G.E., which aims to collect data on whether visual artists are compensated for their work, though not as specifically aimed at particular organizations like the WAGE compensation calculator. Who pays artists  is also an online aggregation of anecdotes, which I don’t find particularly useful but perhaps is a good place to share anonymous stories, and then in the recent past, Temporary Services put together the great Art Work, a national conversation about art, labor and economics, which also has its own bibliography.


The Compensation Foundation

I should say first that I completely support these efforts and advocate for their proliferation and I work at an organization, Threewalls, which has always had an ethos of paying artists and adheres pretty closely to the WAGE compensation calculator based on our budget size. I believe that non-profits should be fighting tooth and nail to keep artist pay in their budget lines and I am against what seems to be a recent trend by organizations to charge artists for vaguely defined professional development opportunities and networking beyond school. People that can pay, should. But what I’m also excited by is the opportunity to really talk about the “who” in who pays artists. As in, who cares about art? How does this speak to our perceptions of “the market” or “the state” or “the nonprofit sector” and whom do we believe is responsible for our social welfare? and, perhaps most importantly, how do we create a shared ethos rather than a shared professional standard?

Because if we do agree, yes artists should get paid, what then? Who are our choruses directed at? We can change standards in the field (and I mean the field of grassroots to mid-size artist-centric organizations because that’s where I operate from, advocates from the museum world also have to start standing up for this) but how can we create a discourse alongside shifting standards that says why its important to do so. And lets not forget the racial and class dimensions of who gets to be a professional visual artist nowadays. Roberto Ferdman, wrote about BFAMFAPHD recently for The Washington Post blog, “If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white”, that “The thing about racial diversity among working artists in America is that it pretty much doesn’t exist.” Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, in her great piece about the myths and preconceptions of artists as gentrifiers on Createequity, writes much along the same lines, but implicit here is some caution about overly narrowing our definition of who working artists might be,

“When we talk about issues of power, social inequities, or “the politics of belonging and (dis)belonging,” as Roberto Bedoya so eloquently frames, I want us to remember that artists, on average, have low incomes, and that they are not all white. The NEA’s Artists and Arts Workers in the United States (2011) reveals that musicians, dancers and choreographers, photographers, and other entertainers’ median salary is under $28,000. Despite artists’ high levels of educational attainment, the average salary for all artist occupations (including architects) is just over $43,000. Over twenty percent of artists are racial/ethnic minorities. And these statistics are only for people for whom being an artist is their “primary” job.”

What Nicodemus is pointing out is that we can widen our scope of artists included in this conversation, and think in terms of solidarities without losing the primary target of fighting against exploitation. Pointing this out does not water down what these initiatives are doing, its just to ask what it means to make art your job and who wants to do so? Because then we can start talking across a spectrum of geography, scale and intent.

What if art is your job in Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, and not in New York? Is it possible to value and not overly romanticize a day job that allows you the freedom to have an artist space in your garage, the kind of space that doesn’t have a website, isn’t a white cube, and believes in a kind of diy punk spirit? And which artists should get paid? Deciding on compensation standards, in the model of CARFAC Canadian Artist Representation, founded in 1968, also demands that artists define themselves along professional lines — exhibition records, institutional affiliations, presentations at prestigious venues. What could be some alternative standards of value that could make this process more interesting, more open, more responsive to the needs of all kinds of working artists?

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (10/24-10/26)

October 24, 2014 · Print This Article

1. Middle Gray at Document


Work by Greg Stimac.

Document is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.

2. Goodbye Stranger at Paris London Hong Kong


Work by Daniel Arnold.

Paris London Hong Kong is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.

3. A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose at Aspect/Ratio


Curated by Scott J. Hunter.

Aspect/Ratio os located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.

4. Paul Germanos at Antena


Photographs of Chicago’s art scene.

Antena is located at 1755 S. Laflin St. Reception tonight, 6-10pm.

5. Garden of Emoji Delights at Kasia Kay Gallery

Gannis large image

Work by Carla Gannis.

Kasia Kay Gallery is located at 215 N. Aberdeen St. Reception tonight, 6-9pm.

Swimming Tiger Lotus Envy

October 22, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Then, we tried to name our babies

But we forgot all the names that

The names we used to know

But sometimes

We remember bedrooms

And our parent’s bedrooms

And the bedrooms of our friends

–Arcade Fire 

This one goes out to the first gay guy to break my heart. (He did warn me!) The bed we shared for a few months in the linoleum floored dorm of the Folk-high-school of Art at the windswept island of Langeland (Danish for Long Island), was nothing more than our two pinewood bedframes that we had shoved together under a makeshift canopy adorned with an antique gilded mirror in the shape of the sun. We painted our heels red, as was the costume of Louis XIV and drank our instant morning chocolate out of a golden tea set that we had set out on the blonde nightstand. Here comes the sun king and his well-heeled, head-over-heels (or need we say headless) apprentice.

One morning as we were studiously pouring over his-and-hers Vogue Italia, he put his head on my shoulder and pointed to a centerfold of a Bengali tiger swimming in the Ganges amidst a field of white lotus flowers with, in the background, a funeral pyre set ablaze by a party of sari clad mourners in orange and magenta. He sighed and said: “Don’t you just wish that you were that tiger?” It was clear from his sighing, that this was another kind of coveting than our morning lecture would usually inspire –that of a glamorous life far away from the countryside of Denmark—but instead aspiring to a higher longing: to know the beauty of the world from the inside out.

Soon after I found myself in India, in a quest for this insider’s knowledge of beauty. By the Ganges I imagined the wild tiger’s roar, but everything else was just so. This was in the days before Facebook hence I had no one to share it with, and had to devour this savage beauty all by myself.

I wrote a letter to my absentminded friend, the poet. He responded that I was a better writer than artist and published my letter in a literary magazine he was editing –together with (on my insistence) a dry needle fantasy of a pair of copulating angels I then considered “my art.” I was furious with him for his honesty, while in retrospect I have to give it to him that he saw my bosoms, but raised me my brains –such gifts are the unexpected oranges that life throws in undeserving young-girls urban turbans.

On return from my travels to India (which I mostly loathed, if only for the fact that I was constantly being looked at, which tends to obstruct your outlook) I travelled to Rome in search of a beauty closer to home. After that, I moved to Copenhagen to go art school, thinking that was perhaps the place to get to know beauty more intimately.

According to David Hickey, my timing was just right, as we were about to embark on the Nineties, and while I was travelling the world in search of beauty, he was preaching to the reluctant choir assembled in a university auditorium somewhere deep in the heart of darkest America, that “The issue of the nineties will be beauty!”[1]

In the introduction to his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” he revisits the event:

“I began updating Pater: ‘Beauty is not a thing,’ I insisted. ‘The Beautiful is a thing. In images, beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficiacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!’”[2]

By equating beauty with agency, Hickey animates the world around us, imbuing these images –and by extension “anything” that causes us pleasure from the mere occasion of us looking at it—with an attention seeking willfulness.

The scopophilic pleasure we are granted in return for giving in to the whims of this beautiful world, is by its retinal nature often spiked with envy. An envy of fully possessing this beauty, of internalizing it, of an ever hungry eye that is left wanting more. More images, more wilderness, more beauty. (But also –as we embark on the quest for beauty, our nose in the scent trail still wet from our first whiff of it –with the gratification of knowingly knowing it when we see it.)

Beauty can, in fact, be experienced in the muddied rained out countryside of Northern Europe, just as well as anywhere else. And this particular envy can, in rare cases, be inspired by visiting an art show: Not the usual petty “OMG, I wish that was me showing my work in [insert major art venue],” but the real, un-adulterated swimming-tiger-lotus-envy of “OMG, I wish I had made that!” –of being so unexpectedly enthralled with the surface beauty of a body of work, you wish to intimately and organically know it from the inside out.


Josef Strau’s The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

This happened to me, when visiting Josef Strau’s The New World: Application for Turtle Island at the Renaissance Society.

In the gallery, clustered objects are laid out in rectangular grids, some on tabletops and some directly on the floor in little islands, resembling house altars for the worshipping of homely deities. Ceramic conch-shells and brightly colored tiles are the gods’ favorites, it seems. Textile prints with text passages from Buddhist and Native American religious and spiritual practice are laid out by way of both explanation and offering. Behind a low metal fence, a Buddha caressing a cat in his lap with one green hand, sits on a blanket of black polyester lace. One brightly sequined lampshade bears Pocahontas’ portrait and another that of the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, while others again are decorated with images of turtles, exotic parakeets in flight, or cuddly toys.

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

On the surface, his makeshift tableaux’s work not much different than our own primitive interior decoration back in the day: the beatifically pimped-up lamp-shades do not belie their discount store origins, their inner workings exposed and their cables only half heartedly hidden by shoddy duck tape.

(It’s a Barnum-and-Bailey’s world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.)

This make believe world is home to the winsome couple Bear and Wolf (I wonder who among the two is the king, and who the jester) and represents the Turtle Island where they roam and reign. Sometimes travelling together down the lazy river on a primitive float, then in chains, but still together. Their togetherness seems prerequisite to their adventure, as if the beauty of the new world they are discovering is not in the eyes of the beholder, but in the eyes of the other. We recognize them from the lampshades, which immediately elevate their status to that of the divine, and their tall tales to mythology. A longing back to some indigenous Eden, in which all of nature sings with symbolic gestures and coded messages, or, as it happens –in the Queen’s English.

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

A poster announcing the exhibition with quotes from Pocahontas and Nezahualcoyotl, is also announcing it’s own genesis; after wrestling with finishing the work for the exhibition, the artist breaks away from the “photoshop bureaucrazy” on his computer, to take a stroll in the park:

“… so I took myself and the color striped jacket out of the house and walked down and when I came to the first flowers I already started thinking they talked to me and they said make posters again. simple posters. Of course I argued with them a while, why the simple poster ways would be wrong and maybe not doing enough for the project. […] But the flowers were in a soft way stronger than my arguments. I felt. It was as if they said, don’t think of representations, think of the real things and about the relations to them, keep doing the same things but at the same time not thinking about representations, the representations are evil ways.”[3]

On the verso to this recto, Strau declares: “ I wish I could say that my whole project is dedicated to the Americas, but I for sure don’t know what I’m talking about, so I better not. I wish my whole project could be dedicated to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. But I might have become too shabby a soul to proclaim my name and my word so very next to her, and as well, in connection to the, at least to me, such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas. […] Anyways, the better question to ask myself before going public, is why does it mean so much to me to capture this outside or alien perspective, while at the same time there is nothing I desire more than morphing myself into a true Turtle Island citizen (American of many American nations) myself? Probably it is because I was always a bit of an alien too, wherever I was, wherever I will go, and therefore it would be better that I live there myself.”[4]

Josef Strau's exhibition poster and text for The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s embellished exhibition poster and text for
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

The first time I visited America I had no ambition to live there myself, but as I flew in over the suburbs of Saint Louis with all its swimming pools glistening in the summer heat, I had to admit that the aerial view had a stunning American Beauty. On my next trip I found myself in the snowy mountainside of Boulder, Colorado, where the wild mountain lions are. A relative of a relative, whose chalet we were dining at, inquired with a smirk what it was “like to live in Amsterdam?” I assured him that not all the good citizens of Amsterdam like to enjoy their soft drugs before lunch and continued: “… just like all Americans don’t have a gun tucked away in their bedside table drawer.” He looked puzzled: “but we do have a gun in our bedside table drawer?” His wife butted in, trying to alleviate the awkward silence: “Yes, but now that we have a baby on board, I gave him gun locks for Valentines Day, so that our little one doesn’t have ‘an accident.’” I assured her that was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, but the conversation had stalled. From both sides we were staring into a cultural divide, the size of an abyss.

Now that I do live here, I frequently feel this chasm opening between me and my friends and family back in Europe who like to generalize along similar lines about what Americans and life in America is “like.” From a European perspective, America is often perceived as a bully: lacking of history, uncultured and crass, while I find myself everyday surrounded by “such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas” and such unadulterated American Beauty.

In her ode to America “Oh Beautiful,” Detroit rapper Invincible sings:

Oh Beautiful

With your spacious skies

I want to love you

But you hide behind

A fake disguise

Oh Beautiful 

I dunno. I see where she is coming from, but I suspect that the true American beauty lies in its fake disguise, its artifice. Glitzy Faux-Italianate facades on plywood and cinderblock structures from whose derelict backsides exposed telephone and power cables spill into unsavory alleyways. State-of-the-art plastic surgery boob-and-lip-jobs paid for with the 2nd mortgage or the 7th divorce settlement alimony by has-been Hollywood starlets m/f, now rendered so unrecognizable that a return to the silver screen would more aptly be called a reincarnation, was it not for the fact that the meat on those bones have been all-but-replaced by silicone. Etc. Etc.

Like in the cosmology of Terry Pratchet’s fantasy novel series Disc World — in which the world resides on the shield of a giant turtle, standing on the shield of an even bigger turtle, living on the shield of a more enormous turtle yet, traversing the shield of a gargantuan turtle, etc. etc. –this Turtle Island is “turtles all the way down.”

I’m writing this on Columbus Day: You don’t know what you’ve got till your gone. I forget how American I am (becoming) until I find myself wearing the only red jacket in a black sea of Scandinavian winter wear. In Copenhagen, the only people wearing varsity wear are the pushers. You will find them on Pusher Street. They are trying to look “ghetto,” because we don’t have real ghettos in Copenhagen –or we like to think so. In America you are considered fashion forward for knowing the cardinal rules of color coordination: All black always work we all know. The color-blocked flatness of modernist monochromes we all know. Yet I crave billboards on my shirt palm trees and sunsets landing strips and desert highways disappearing into my solar plexus. The illusion that you can just blend in and be one with the landscape like tromp-l’oeil, like camouflage.

On our way to school this morning, my pearl of a girl suddenly exclaimed:

“Art class has been good to me this year!”

Although absentminded, I asked her to elaborate. She told me about a collaborative class project, in which a scrapped subway car (imagined, I imagine) is thrown into the sea. Nestled on the bottom of the sea, as the corals do their thing and the fish move in, the subway car muses to itself: “I used to live in a city, but now a city lives in me.”

As we all know, you can take a girl out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of the girl. As those of us who paid attention in art class will know, once beauty has known you from the inside, you will find beauty’s inside, where you least expect it.

Art class has been good to us so far, indeed!


[1] David Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 1.

[2] Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 2

[3] Josef Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island (poster)(Chicago: Te Renaissance Society, 2014)

[4] Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island

Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.