Becoming The Successful Artist

January 24, 2014 · Print This Article

Just over 6 months ago, after 8 years of being a practicing contemporary artist, I graduated with my MFA. Though I knew my post graduation time would be full of unexpected ups and downs, and the struggle would be trying, I still had little idea of what it be like. Here I am with my degree, job hunting, making work and participating in the arts community like I knew I would, but there were a lot of things I was unprepared for. One of those things is just how shocking, depressing, uplifting, relieving, trying, exciting, lost, hopeful, and full of opportunity it would all feel. I know I’m doing well and trying as hard as I can, but it’s still hard to keep afloat.

So I think what I’m writing about is something that is not openly talked about. How when grad school is over, even though you get a lot out of the experience, somehow you’re also hitting the reset button and starting the climb all over gain. It’s a love/hate experience. I was even hesitant to write about it because maybe if I admitted it hasn’t been that great it will reflect poorly on me. But I was also lucky to have mentors to talk to who know there are many like me, struggling to get by in a depressed economy where the rules just aren’t the same as they used to be. It seems like every job is something I am not experience enough for, or too experienced for, Its like being stuck on a bridge in a traffic jam. I’m going to a place I can’t get to, leaving a place I can’t go back to and the bridge is packed with cars all going the same way.

Many in our modern era look at the pursuit of art practices as selfish, and worthless endeavors. If you went through college as an art major, you’ve already had to face it over and over. The same friends and family that encouraged you to be creative, expressive and a follower of the obscure thing called “your dreams,” then cringe when you tell them you are an art major. You are told that you better make a back up plan, and you’ll never make a living as an artist. Yet I can’t help but wonder, perhaps if we felt more supportive of the arts there would be more support there. The student studying to be an entrepreneur is often told what a brave contributor they are while the artist students are often told what a mistake they are making. To get through it, no matter who you are, you had to face discouragement from friends, family, teachers, councilors, bosses, the government, and in general the world is just not invested in you. Yet despite continuous discouragement for this hugely impactful and important cultural force we call art, you became an artist.

Part of the reason this post-school transition becomes such a struggle is the ever-present stigma of a successful artist. What exactly is the benchmark for being successful as an artist? Others often remind me that the probability of becoming a famous artist is very low. I respond by saying I never want to be a famous artist; I want to be renowned in the art world for what I do in a way where my practice is accepted but not famous. On some level my disinterest in fame has to do with a paradox that affects an artists once they rise to a certain level of fame.

Once in my undergrad while taking an honors art class with Haim Steinbach we were critiquing work and he said we needed to keep experimenting and not get stuck in one way of making. He explained that we were lucky, because he was now what he called a “dead artist” and we were not. As he was a famous and active artist, at first this first seemed like an impossible thing to say. He explained that once your artwork is found, the public/art market begins to push you towards remaking that one piece you became famous for. That even when you want to explore different avenues, it’s very difficult as a famous artist to get shows, funding or acceptance if you aren’t in some way reproducing the work you have become known for. And this is the moment, he explained, when you become a “dead artist”. By achieving the fame his work became constrained to it’s own commodification, killing his practice and in turn his art.

Haim Steinbach froot loops 1, 2007  plastic laminated wood shelf; 2 rubber dog chews; 3 "Froot Loops" cereal boxes  28.25 x 62 x 13.5 in. (71.8 x 157.5 x 34.3 cm)

Haim Steinbach
froot loops 1, 2007

So what do we do when trying to forge our own way and build our careers after school? There are answers out there if you keep talking about it, and I am thankful for those out there who will discuss this openly. Understanding it takes time. You really are beginning again, but know that you are better off than where you began before. Plant seeds everywhere. You never know what is going to sprout and where it will lead. Say yes to everything you can, as you never know where it will go. Keep yourself humble, you’re not too good for any job. Keep yourself proud, no job you take is a shame to have as long as you are keeping your practice up. Keep moving forward every day. Make plans, improvements and goals. Know you are not alone and you are doing the right thing. And how do you measure your success? I’ve got to say when I take everything into account, knowing of course that success is a very personal reflection, I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles you still keep making art. No matter how your practice changes, or where you are, or what job you have, or how stable you are financially, or wherever your life may lead: being a successful artist has nothing to do with that, but rather with you staying an artist. The continuation and advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.

 

Special thanks for thier support and inspriation: Charles Rice, Mark Jeffery, Bradley Litwin and Haim Steinbach

REMINDER: We Are Perceiving Bodies: Observations of Four Works on View in Atlanta

January 23, 2014 · Print This Article

In keeping with my interests and research in phenomenology and embodiment, this article addresses four disparate works that are currently on view in Atlanta. Drawn from four separate shows — Coloring and In Translation at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC), Live Amateurs at MINT Gallery, and Gyun Hur – A System of Interiority at Get This! Gallery — these installations address and provoke bodily experience. Unlike the other works in these shows, other than possibly Anne Lindberg’s at ACAC, these works invite the viewer to inhabit the space they create. Each of these installation-based and -esque works instantiate a world within the particular gallery space. Broadly, these four pieces can be grouped into two categories: color fields/dimensions and bodily encounters. Rutherford Chang’s We Buy White Albums at ACAC and Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority at Get This! both open to the viewer an experience of color. Jonathan Bouknight’s Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other at ACAC and Maggie Ginestra’s Angel of the Interior Heaven at MINT create moments of encounters with the human form, its materiality, and that of our own.

Traces of Color

In our everyday existence, our perception of color does not correspond to a geometrical color wheel. We do not necessarily examine the red of a fire truck when we see it wheeling towards us in our rear view mirror; rather, the red speaks to us, telling us to pull over, signaling to us that there is a fire, a situation, somewhere that needs to be tended to. In this confrontation with color, the pure red that exists as a particular wavelength does not concern us. The object, the red firetruck, exists as a phenomenon in our everyday being. Both Rutherford Chang’s and Gyun Hur’s installations create situations where objects are allowed to rest in their object-ness and our perception of their colors in their particularity are brought forth.

Rutherford Chang. "We Buy White Albums." 2006 - ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Rutherford Chang. “We Buy White Albums.” 2006 – ongoing. Image courtesy the ACAC.

In the case of Rutherford Chang’s installation We Buy White Albums, included in the show Coloring at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the color white, which, depending on which theory of color and perception you choose, may not  be a color at all. Chang, in his use of a white object, exemplifies the ways in which bodies and objects collide, rub off on each other, imprint themselves upon the other. If white here is considered the gathering of all light on the spectrum, we can push the metaphorics of accumulation and negation; white as a manifestation of maybe both of these. By a process of collecting first-presses of the Beatles’ White Album, Chang presents us with cultural signifiers that have visibly and explicitly been shaped and affected by bodies. Though each of these vinyl covers is white and was released in 1968, the installation presents the viewer with a range of color, wear-and-tear. Some of the album covers have drawings on them. Some have stains and spills. Some have an exaggerated impression of the vinyl disc lying inside; years of pressure worn into the album sleeve. The wall installation, though not touchable, allows the arranged albums to resonate with touch; the fingertips “feel” the cover without touching it; the fingertips can sense those who have touched the album before. Apart from the wall are album bins that the viewer can sift through, allowing her to touch these objects with her own hands, connecting to the hands that have touched this very object before. The signs of history and others’ beings are traced, etched, scuffed, buffed, and impressed into these seemingly identical and mass-produced commodities. Accompanying the installation is an audio piece that is a layering of 100 copies of the songs from the White Album on top of each other, which illuminates the subtle differences between each of the albums; the “various scratches, dust, and differences in the pressing of the records.” [1] Even though these commodities are machine-made, the audio points to the object’s own materiality and the ways in which the body’s handling of them further affects their material conditions. In a way, Chang’s piece illuminates the ways in which, as Merleau-Ponty states, “each object … is the mirror of all others.” [2]

Gyun Hur. "A System of Interiority." 2013. Image author's own.

Gyun Hur. “A System of Interiority.” 2013. Image author’s own.

At Get This! Gallery, Gyun Hur’s new installation work A System of Interiority creates a constantly changing experience of color for the viewer through its use of multiple constructed layers. Built in an L-shape against two walls of the gallery, the work consists of a structure made of glass panes resting on columns of bricks with mirror panels connecting the glass to the cement floor. On top of the glass panels are three piles of hand-shredded silk flowers and powders in magenta, yellow, and orange. Underneath the glass panes, on the cement floor, is a ground of brown/black dirt and another material that sparkles. Above, a lighting system in three parts: a two-sided color-changing track, a standard can light, and a panel holding a grid of naked lightbulbs. This installation does not give itself easily to any vantage point; it requires exploration. Sitting on the ground at the vertex, the point where the two large glass panes converge, I witness the piles multiply in the mirrors against the back walls and those on the ground partially covered in dirt. Peering under the panes, into the dirt directly, a miniature landscape opens up that gives the illusion of a highway underpass; the stacked bricks transformed into concrete columns. The earthy brown contrasts with the black sparkles that reflect the lights above. The magenta, yellow, and orange piles, radiate color on top of the glass while the mirrors underneath them reflect other, more muted colors. The ways that the surfaces of glass, mirrors, piles of powders, and dirt reflect each other and the viewer, opening a field of tranparently-opaque relations, which according to Merleau-Ponty is a certain translucence: “The fully realized object is translucent.” [3] We delve into it in our perception of it, but only to a certain extent; not all of the object is perceptible at once; it hides something within itself.

Constructed Bodily Encounters

In our everyday experience, when we see bodies, we recognize them as human bodies like that of our own. However, Descartes (in)famously states in his Meditations of First Philosophy from 1641 that those bodies wearing hats and coats he views from his window could in fact not be human bodies at all: “But what do I see aside from hats and clothes, which could conceal automata?” [4] In art works that make use of the human body, particularly that of the living, breathing, fleshy human body, the problem becomes how to regard these bodies. Since they are part of a work of art, what is their status as objects of my gaze? Who are these people I am looking at? Is it ethical for me to gaze upon their forms? How should I contemplate them?

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of drawings component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight’s installation, included in the show In Translation, also at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, consisting of a video monitor on one wall and five 7.5 ft tall drawings on the opposite wall, is a manifestation of the problematic experience of watching moving bodies and then viewing a seemingly static representation of them. The piece, part of Bouknight’s Gaze Series, the work’s process creates multiple possibilities of embodiment. The video depicts two dancers; a man and a woman, wearing grey – the woman in a grey top and shorts, the man in only grey shorts, bare-chested. The angle of the video, at first disorienting, allows the viewer to penetrate the space between these two bodies that are at times intermingled, at times only touching. The layers of drawings on 7.5 ft tall pieces of butcher paper gaze at this video. Each day of the exhibition, Bouknight works in the installation space and draws the video. In order to see the video, Bouknight has to turn his back to the drawings, thus making them blind contour. The drawings, made using black acrylic paint, have a movement all of their own. When focusing on the drawings, the audience is not able to see the video, and vice versa. This limited perception, intentionally created by the artist, allows the viewer to see each aspect of the work on its own – the drawings are not merely illustrations of the video. They are a layered exercise in line and movement. The viewer can lift one drawing to reveal more layers of drawings underneath. Each layer a manifestation of a particular viewing experience that is translated onto paper. Both these aspects of the work produce certain corporeal consciousness and affectivity. The layers of drawings bring about a similar weightiness that is felt when attending to the video of the two dancers; a play of movement, shifting arrangements, and physics enter into my own bones, muscles, and sinews.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of "Angels of the Interior." 2014. Image by Jill Frank courtesy of Ginestra.

Maggie Ginestra. Performance view of “Angel of the Interior Heaven.” 2014. Image by unknown photographer. Courtesy of artist.

At MINT Gallery, within the jam-packed show Live Amateurs, lives Maggie Ginestra’s performance and installation Angel of the Interior Heaven #s 1 – 4. A card table with four folding chairs surrounding it is in a back corner of the gallery. On the table is a plate of nibbled on cookies, cards, and hand-felted scarves. Now, these chairs are empty. They were complete with sitters at the opening on January 11, 2014. They will remain empty until the closing of Live Amateurs on February 7, 2014. During the first performance, the sitters, naked save the hand-felted scarves, conversed with each other over cards, cookies, and wine. Other than trips to the bathroom, these nudes remained inside a privately public space; audience members were onlookers except when sneaking a cookie. These bodies, so exposed to the viewer, yet also so distant, provoked otherworldly and mystical imagery. They might have been those gods sitting atop Mount Olympus watching the mortals below. However, these gods were not concerned with we mortals; they seemed indifferent to our presence. These performers, on display for us, elicited somatic responses. The viewer was faced with the decision to gaze — perhaps only a sidelong glance, a glance perhaps engendered in our gender. It was not necessarily the initial confrontation with the naked human form that created a moment of discomfort; something else in this arrangement blocked my gaze. Perhaps something related to the poetry Ginestra provides with the performance/installation: “For the angels of the more interior heaven are able to speak with men by means of spirits of the interior heaven, thus this is effected mediately.” (Emanuel Swedenborg, from The Spiritual Diary (1747). The terms “interior” and “mediately” being most important here. The gallery during an opening is usually an openly voyeuristic place: we gaze at the art on display and the other patrons that for the night share our space. But in this case, it was uncertain what my role here was: mere onlooker, voyeur, participant; there is an unease provoked by this ambiguity. Do these beings want me to interact with them? Am I supposed to serve as a sort of mediary between their internal space and their external surroundings? Or, do they want me just to leave them be? This is the moment of decision that I have to grapple with, which demands me to negotiate my bodily arrangement and positionality.

Return to Our Perceiving Flesh

Perceiving artwork is a bodily experience; the viewer is always perceiving the work from somewhere in some body, in some particular embodiment. This is not only true for installation work that more or less explicitly invites the viewer’s body into the scene, but also for paintings, digital work, and etc. In Heidegger’s essay “Origin of the Work of Art,” he describes a painting of peasant shoes made by Van Gogh as the creation of a particular world that we gain access to; we can imagine the possibilities of these shoes and the way they become equipment for the person wearing them. [5] I’m interested in how works are able to create new worlds for us to inhabit, on the micro scale — Chang quite literally creates the space of a record store in the gallery that we can peruse, though we always find the “same” record with every turn, and also on a macro scale — Ginestra’s “angels” trace out an almost ethereal world that we cautiously navigate. These installations make us hyperaware that in our viewing of them, we have to negotiate the space the works carve out and the other viewers’ bodies that are also present. In doing so, we are forced to return to our contoured, fleshy, perceiving bodies.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of "Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other." 2013-14. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Jonathan Bouknight. Installation view of video component of “Two Dancers; One Carries the Weight of the Other.” 2013. Image courtesy the ACAC.

Both In Translation and Coloring are on view at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center until March 8, 2014.

Live Amateurs is on view at MINT Gallery until the closing reception on February 7, 2014. Maggie Ginestra will stage another instantiation of Angel of the Interior Heaven during the closing reception from 7-11pm.

Gyun Hur’s A System of Interiority is on view at Get This! Gallery until March 1, 2014. The gallery will stay open until 7pm on Wednesdays in order to experience the light change to night in the installation.

Notes

[1] Rutherford Chang’s statement for Coloring.

[2] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 71.

[3] Ibid.

[4] René Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy” [1641], trans. Donald Cress, in Philosophical Essays and Correspondence, ed. Roger Ariew (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett, 2000), 112.

[5] Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993).

 

EDITION #22

January 21, 2014 · Print This Article

Amelia Peláez

Amelia Peláez’s Havana Hilton Hotel mural, ca. 1957. Cuban Heritage Collection, University of Miami Libraries.

Travelogue: Three Cities, Three Retrospectives

It’s been a wild winter break, but What’s the T? is back in Chicago in time for dibs season and motivated by the artists brave enough to exhibit in the tundra. For those of you holed up in your apartment licking the radiator for warmth (like I am), here’s a recap of some shows outside of the snow globe.


Closing next Sunday, February 2nd (with a performance by Kim Gordon), is the exhibition that’s been blowing up my feed since it opened at PS1 in October of 2013. Mike Kelley’s retrospective is a 40,000 square foot sprawling colossus of an exhibition. Although I could have lived without the seemingly endless rooms of Kandors (a reference to the miniaturized capital city of Superman’s rival Brianiac) on the first floor, the exhibition impressively filled the sprawling school house and gave me a new appreciation for the artist.

Birdhouses by Mike Kelley

Birdhouses by Mike Kelley at PS1.

Never before in my life have I seen so many swastikas and phallus and felt pretty ok about the whole thing. Arguably the greatest mindfuck in the entire exhibition (taking up an entire floor, the cacophonous a/v installation Day is Done was a close second), Pay for Your Pleasure, a corridor of large portrait paintings and quotations from famous intellectuals effectively complicated the relationship between violence and creativity. By the time I reached the end of the corridor I had completely lost the ability to tell right from wrong.

Mike Kelley banners

Kelley’s banners in the hallway at PS1.

The oft-posted Deodorized Central Mass With Satellites was among the least interesting rooms (also the one with the longest line). Watching people pose in front of the hulking mass of leftover toys, I wondered how Kelley himself might have felt about powerful installation’s transmutation into a selfie photo-op. I did pop a huge boner for the dysfunctional birdhouses and the artist’s drawings of his own name. Most disappointing though was PS1’s lack of snacks. The M. Wells Dinette conceptual Mike Kelley menu was admirable, but would it kill PS1 to sell a girl a croissant or fruit cup? I traveled all the way to Queens for this.

Mike Kelley signatures

Mike Kelley at PS1.

Thankfully, we missed the Turrell retrospective at the Gug (heard the lines were unbearable even if the hole was amazing) in favor of seeing the exhibition in full splendor at LACMA. Apparently the artist, an LA native, made moves to stem the line issue by limiting the amount of guests allowed through the exhibition each day (and no photos allowed!). By the time my party of 5 arrived at LACMA , the $25 exhibition was completely sold out for the day. It was only through the loophole of student membership and my lovely friend, Conor Fields, that I was even able to see the exhibition. The antidote to the packed Kelley exhibition, my first glimpse of Afrum (White), the exemplary white cube that is the first of many light installations, was as religious an art experience as I’ve ever felt.

#today in (art) history

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems, The Assassination of Medger, Malcom, and Martin, 2008. Archival pigment print, 61 x 51 inches. Courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The Weatherman Report

Benjamin Bulter, Leafless Trees, 2008, Oil on canvas, 16 1/10 × 19 9/10 in. Tomio Koyana Gallery.

Other works, such as “Bullwinkle,” a modest projection in the shape of an antique television screen, featured plaques helpfully suggesting minimal viewing times to aid visitors in experiencing the desired effects of Turrell’s complex combinations of light and color. Guests moved leisurely through the exhibition. The immersive installations were smartly punctuated with wall-based work, such as the artist’s delicate aqua-tint etchings and hologram series. Despite the 20 minute wait, the paramount moment of the exhibition was Breathing Light (2013), a absorptive environment that mindfucks you in an entirely angle than Kelley’s Pay for Your Pleasure. Heats of eight are invited to take their shoes off, don booties, and spend five minutes in the space which features rounded walls and a deeply saturated bath of LED light that slowly gradients between red and blue. Shout out to the world’s best docent, Rikki Williams, for doing an impeccable job at keeping the antsy visitors to Breathing Light in check (and for letting me stay an extra minute).

LA’s other most famous dude, Frank Ghery, also deserves a shoutout for the unbelievably well designed Calder exhibition in the same building as Breathing Light and the other (reservation only) large-scale immersive Turrell spaces. Having seen a couple of attempts of shoving a bunch of mobiles and stabiles into a large room (including the MCA’s most recent attempt), I can truthfully say I’ve never seen a better presentation of the artists work. Ghery’s specially built pedestals wind around the gallery and create niches that isolate and accommodate each piece. His specially designed walls and plinths allow the viewer to see the delicate balance present in individual works instead of a mess of primary colored circles and wires hanging everywhere.

Ai Wei Wei

You’re okay too, Wei Wei.

Not to be outdone by other major metropolitan areas massive surveys of mostly male work, the Perez Museum of Art Miami (still known to me as the Miami Art Museum) opened it doors in December with an inaugural retrospective by Ai Wei Wei. While the exhibition has a few highlights, I found the smaller retrospective of works by little known Cuban modernist, Amelia Peláez, to be a far more compelling and apt exhibition for the brand new bayside contemporary art museum.

Amelia Peláez

Painting by Peláez at PAMM.

I thought the inclusion of the furniture was a little much, but I loved the objects made by Peláez herself. Her ceramic work epitomizes the bright colors and modern, bold markings of her still-life paintings on shapely vases and cups. I would take the espresso set. The show was thoughtfully put together and I was delighted to learn of the artist’s life and work. Now I just wish I could go back in time to Cuba and see her Havana Hilton Hotel mural.

Amelia Peláez

Adorable.

Amelia Peláez

These too.

Back in Chicago, I’m waiting on my invite for what will be either the awesomest or worstest retrospective in Chicago history: David Bowie Is. Stay tuned.

Reading is Fundamental

  • The Return of Steve. Local critic, Steve Ruiz, has finally returned from his extended jaunt across the pond! Not only has his Chicago Art Review site been ressurected, he’s also jumped right back into the scene with this meditation on Sofia’s Leiby’s recent exhibition The Drama of Leisure for Daily Serving.
  • Sofia Leiby at Devening

    Leiby in coversation with Anthony Opal at the closing of her exhibition last Sunday.
  • Alicias take on Faith. Threewalls just opened the ambitious Faith Wilding: Fearful Symmetries Retrospective. If you’re looking for a historial feminist context take on the exhibition, check out Alicia Chester’s review on ArtSlant. Bonus points to Chester for managing to fit #Beyoncé into the review. More interested in the techno future of feminism? Try Alicia Eler’s piece for Hyperallergic surveying the re-performance of Wilding’s “Waiting.
  • Faith Wilding Performance

    Still from Faith Wilding’s “Waiting” performance as seen in the 1974 film “Womanhouse” by Johanna Demetrakas, (1974, USA, 47 min.) (courtesy of Johanna Demetrakas and Three Walls Gallery).
  • The Weekly debuts with hilarious email chain. Sunday was a big day for Chicago poet, Anthony Opal. Not only did he trudge through the snow to talk drama with Sofia Leiby at Devening Projects, he also launched The Weekly with some “Revolutionary Interactive Storytelling” by the very entertaining and all around solid dude, Fred Sasaki. Enjoy.

Off the Wall, Through the Surface, and Around the Painting: A Conversation with Zoe Nelson

January 20, 2014 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Abstract painting is coming off the walls. It is evolving. Zoe Nelson talks with Bad at Sports about her engagement and participation in the evolution of abstraction, which appears in her work, to be a deconstruction of traditional painting parameters. Through a physical dismantling of the images’ supports, Nelson blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, creating perpetually shifting spatial dynamics.

 

The Chase, 2013 oil on canvas, metal, holes 16″ x 12″

Kevin Blake: Chicago artist Sophia Leiby recently turned me onto an essay in the Brooklyn Rail, Worlds With Us by Katy Siegel, in which she suggests, “In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.” I’m wondering how you have arrived at abstraction. It seems to me that artists arrive at abstraction out of some sort of necessity that is the resultant of a struggle with conceptual as well as formal frameworks. As I was looking through your archives on your website, I could see a departure from representation, and it occurred to me that this was a relatively common evolution for abstract painters. Abstraction does not seem like something you just set out to do one day. I’m wondering if abstraction, for you, has been a product or a solution to struggling with the idea of representation and abstraction as polar opposites.

 

Zoe Nelson: When I started grad school at Columbia University in 2007, I was working on a series of portraits of friends with their demons. Imagining what my friends’ (and my own) demons might look like if they were externalized allowed me to begin to think about the entire space of the canvas as a loaded psychological space, with all parts of the canvas (foreground, background, demon, person etc) having the potential to be equally descriptive of the psychological state of the person. It was at this point that a shift occurred and I started to become more interested in the potential of the “background” or psychological space around the person than in the portrait. As a challenge to myself, I decided to try to remove the figure from the work, while continuing to make an interesting painting. I’d say that my first conscious plunge into abstraction occurred with this initial act of negation–the negation of the figure. Absence and negation continue to be strong conceptual and formal frameworks for my work, as you can see in my current body of cut-out paintings. What is cut-out or not depicted in my work is often defined by- and defines- the form and content of the painting.

Going back to your Katy Siegel quote, I would agree on the importance of deconstructing a binary understanding of abstraction and representation in painting. I arrived at abstraction through representation, and in some ways one could say that I am currently working through abstraction to arrive at a type of active, moving representation: a representation of liminal psychological spaces and shifting states of being.

 

KB: Literally cutting sections out of the painting seems like an almost radical action against representation–in the sense of negating recognizable imagery–and simultaneously, it might be seen as a way of evoking a discussion about the state of being represented. Opening the canvas to view the guts of a painting, so to speak, allows the viewer to look past the painted surface and into the physical space behind it, calling attention to its objecthood. In your recent show at Western Exhibitions, some of the paintings protrude from the wall rather than hanging flush on it, further interrupting the spatial dynamic while creating a dialogue with it. Can you talk about the paintings existing in the third dimension and how do these issues perpetuate this idea about abstraction and representation being more of a consequence of one another rather than visually articulated opposites?

 

Installation View Western Exhibitions,
Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz

 

ZN: As I cut into the canvas, I uncover parts of the stretcher bar support, which inevitably opens up a whole chain of questions regarding the relationship between support, canvas and the physical space behind and around the paintings. Each painting deals with this relationship in a different way, I believe, and the double-sided paintings evolved as a natural extension of the work becoming more sculptural. When the frame is exposed, all of the sudden there are edges and different physical planes to consider, and the next logical step was to consider the “back” of the painting as well. Through privileging all sides of the painting, I hope to destabilize the hierarchy of front over back, and hanging the work perpendicular to the wall is a playful invitation for the viewer to walk around the paintings and take part in this process.

The paintings and installation at Western look completely different depending on where you stand in the room, and these shifting states are integral to the form and content of the series. If multiple people are in the room, you might see a hand or head or shoulder through the cuts in a painting, and these people (or body parts) momentarily become a part of the work as well. Blurring the lines between artist, painting, and viewer in this way is conceptually exciting for me, and I think circles back around to how the current work still references back to my initial interests in representing the body and psychological states of being, albeit in a performative way, and while operating within a realm of abstraction.

 

Installation View Western Exhibitions
Image courtesy of Western Exhibitions, photograph by James Prinz

KB: The first time you cut a painting, was it due to what you perceived to be a mistake? Looking at the evolution of your work, I sense a strong influence of painter Amy Sillman whose work seems to depend on the occurrence of mistakes and even more so on the corrective production emerging from those mistakes. Does your work engage with that dialogue?

ZN: Whenever I move to a new location, or even a new studio, I find that my practice often shifts with the move. After graduate school, I spent a year working on a series of process paintings about the idea of unwinding. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved to Chicago, that I was able to take the project a step further and actually start to undo the surface of the painting through cutting into the canvas.

Although my initial cuts into the canvas were not exactly a mistake, they did stem from a place of anxiety and fear. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I didn’t know the city at all, barely knew the art community, and only had a couple of names of friends of friends to contact. Everything around me seemed unstable, unknown and overwhelming that year, and the studio was the one place that I was able to channel all of that anxiety and fear into artistic risk-taking.

I worked with Amy Sillman in grad school, and she continues to be a huge influence for me–both her work and in the smart discourse that she engages in around her practice and painting. I’ve noticed in my own practice that if I have an idea for a painting, and I execute that idea really quickly, the work often doesn’t hold up a few days later. I think this failure ties back to the importance of the mistake: perhaps the reason that these paintings often don’t hold up, is because that struggle–of making, identifying, and working-through the mistake–hasn’t yet occurred. When the work falls short like that, there is often a part of the painting that has seduced me, and it’s only through literally cutting out or removing the seductive part that I am able to rework the painting as a whole, rather than as a showcase for one special element.

I think that the importance of the mistake also ties into the importance of feeling and intuition. Amy Sillman has an awesome zine, the O-G v3, in which she challenges the hierarchy of mind over body when discussing and making paintings. At the end of the zine, Amy advocates for the conceptual possibilities of painting specifically through “the radical merging of mind and body!” While it is often easier to talk about formal or conceptual concerns in painting rather than trying to find a smart way to talk about intuition, I am of the mindset that the two are not mutually exclusive. In my practice, intuition, feeling, mistakes, and elusiveness are just as important to the process of painting as the formal painterly concerns that I am also responding to.

 

KB: When I listen to other artists talk about their work, I always look for a takeaway-something useful to apply to my own practice or in this case regurgitate as a means of preserving the idea in my frontal lobe. I recently listened to artist Cesare Pietroiusti speak in Boston, and of the many things I retained from his talk, he said something profound that resonates in relation to our conversation. He said, “when there is discomfort, fear, and anxiety-go there.” It seems you have intuitively done just that and this impulse has yielded some positive results. Have you been able to abandon these themes as you have gotten settled into Chicago and more so into the community? Or do they continue to be the driving force of your work?

 

ZN: Anxiety and discomfort continue to be strong themes in my work, though the driving force (or one driving force–there are definitely many) has become the work itself. I have grown to love living and working in Chicago, and have met fantastic artists and worked with great galleries here, such as Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and most recently Western Exhibitions. I think that anxiety, fear, and crisis are all incredibly powerful emotions (or psychological states), and they hold an equally powerful potential for risk-taking in an art practice. That said, I also think that it can be hard to issue rigor and restraint in a place of real anxiety or crisis, as everything has such urgency and there is a lack of control. Thankfully, I am more settled now and I find that the work is organically building on itself. Each painting opens up a new set of questions and formal challenges, which lead to new decisions and new paintings. Right now I am in the exciting place where I have a number of ideas for new paintings and specific installations, and am juggling these different trajectories in my practice. I am able to continue to explore themes of anxiety and crisis while mitigating those states with humor, play, and pleasure in the work. Of course waves of anxiety, failure, and fear play a part in this process, and no matter how thoroughly I conceptualize a painting before I start it, the beginning almost always feels like a shot in the dark.

 

KB: The end result being a complete departure from the pre-conceptualized form makes me think about conflicting loyalties. You have loyalties to your methods which allow all the nuances and intuitive moments to take place within the process of making a painting, and being loyal to yourself in these allowances is an important if not essential part of your practice. However, you also have a loyalty to what you might still do, or what the painting might still become, which always seems to be connected to the pre-conceptualized form. How do you negotiate conflicting loyalties in this sense? Are your sketches or ideas of a final product just a jumping point or do you struggle to maintain those forms throughout the process of making a painting?

 

ZN: When I start a new painting, I usually try to either identify a psychological state, or a feeling attached to a specific moment, that I want to articulate. I then respond to this initial idea by imposing a set of formal parameters on the work, which also define the subject matter. For example, the painting “Skype Breakdown” started with an idea to make a painting about frustration, blocked communication, and distortion. I made the painting (and most of the work up at Western) this past fall, while I was at a wonderful six-week residency called the Lighthouse Works. The residency was on a small island off of NY with spotty internet connection, and after looking at my partner’s frozen and pixilated face on the computer screen for the umpteenth time, I decided to channel my frustration (and objective interest in the abstracted image on my screen) into a painting. Using the idea of arrested communication and distortion as a starting off point, I began the painting by first making mask-like cuts into the top layer of canvas. Any discernible figure or face is cut-out and totally abstracted, and this act of negation also becomes subject matter.  Circling back to you initial question about juggling pre-conceived concepts with method and intuition, I’d say that I try to stay true to the initial motivation and abstract idea behind a painting, while being open to chance, intuition, and the unknown in the process of making a painting.

Skype Breakdown, 2013 oil on canvas, holes 34″ x 30″

 

KB: Speaking of making new paintings, what are you currently working on, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?

ZN: I am working on a few different projects at the moment, including a nascent but exciting collaborative project with a composer, and paintings for a couple of installation ideas. Just a few days ago I was asked to take part in an artists lecture series called “Artists Now” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next spring, which should be a lot of fun, and I am working on an exhibition proposal for the fall of 2014 at the moment. Having the show at Western has allowed me to take some time to reflect on the work, and see the paintings in a different context. I am particularly excited to hole-up in my studio as the show comes to a close, and make some new work!

 

Flashes in the Dark

January 19, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise McKean

The Lightning Testimonies, Amar Kanwar (2007)

Art Institute of Chicago (Modern Wing, Gallery 291)

Extended until April 20, 2014

Cropped Header Image      All photographs courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Lucky for us in Chicago that Amar Kanwar is no stranger to our city. The Renaissance Society brought him in 2003 after Susanne Ghez, a co-curator of Documenta 11 saw his video, A Season Outside. Like gallery goers here and elsewhere, I’ve been following Kanwar since his Documenta/Ren debut. The sensuality and aesthetics of his work intrigue me—along with the heart-mind that infuses it. A longue durée of roaming, studying, and living in India further whets my interest in Kanwar. The past four months I’ve shared this interest with over a dozen friends, arranging visits to see and talk together about The Lightning Testimonies along with Artemisia Gentileschi’s formidable painting, Judith and Holofernes.

The Lightning Testimonies premiered in 2007 at Documenta 12, and since then it’s traveled the world. The School of the Art Institute invited Kanwar to Chicago in 2011 for its visiting artist series. He spoke about and screened past and current work, including Torn Pages and The Sovereign Forest, an ongoing multimedia, multi-site project. The Chicago opening of The Lightning Testimonies in October 2013 coincided with Kanwar’s delivery of the AIC’s annual Speyer memorial lecture on contemporary art. In the lecture, Kanwar talked about the big ideas he explores through his work—the passage of time, loss, and memory, violence and its celebrations, crime, evidence, and the struggle for justice, nationalist ideology and state power, poetry and prophecy.

Viewers get to The Lightning Testimonies after walking through two bright white galleries adorned with colorful artwork. White text on a black wall announces Kanwar’s piece. A dark passageway gives eyes a moment to adjust to the dim light. The Lightning Testimonies is a multi-channel video installation: 8 screens on 4 walls; color and black and white synchronized video running 33.5 minutes in a loop. As director, Kanwar gets the lion’s share of credit, but he’s quick to acknowledge editor Sameera Jain and Ranjan Palit on camera for their integral artistic role as long-time collaborators, and the whole crew’s invaluable contributions.

Image 1

The work begins with the title page appearing on all 8 screens. Briefly a succession of images fills all the screens simultaneously. Then a dispersal begins as different images begin to fill each screen that consist of written fragments of spoken memories accompanied by footage, photos, drawings, and archival images that connect each memory to a specific place on the Indian subcontinent and to a particular moment in historical time. This multiplicity across the screens continues for about 20 minutes until 7 screens go black and the screen that’s alone on its wall remains live until the title shot fills all the screens again.

Even if eyes can adjust quickly to the change in light, most viewers—myself repeatedly one of them—can’t prepare for what’s to come. Odds are that the viewer enters at a point when different images fill 8 screens. The absence of an obvious pathway through this work understandably challenges and unsettles those viewers who prefer more certainty about where to direct their attention.

The video formally starts with a short, stark black-and-white title shot. Soon comes the only time we hear Kanwar’s voice. It asks, “How to remember what remains and what gets submerged?” The 8 screens blossom into a blaze of red poinsettias. Later the screens fill with yellow sunlight ricocheting off the window of a moving train. Throughout the work beautiful images come and go. We see the lush green perpendiculars of rice terraces, dewdrops balanced on tips of grass, delicate faces of young women. But it doesn’t take long to realize the picture isn’t pretty. Iconic black and white images of the subcontinent’s 1947 partition appear that show a moving train bulging with people and a woman being pulled to its packed roof. On another rooftop under laundry fluttering in the breeze, a baby lies on its back vulnerable and alone.

Image 2

The Lightning Testimonies doesn’t show images of the violence it interrogates. By citing the words of those who remember it, the work evokes a hair-raising sense of its pervasiveness, its lurking menace, and the impunity which it normally meets. For example, one witness rues, “Do you wonder sometimes how the attackers could be so brutal? Why they were not afraid. Is it because they knew they would not be prosecuted?” Images and words continue to pile up like survivors on a lifeboat. Just when you think it’s going to capsize, the different fragments of testimony on the eight screens start here and there to loop. If the viewer stays long enough, this screen-specific looping might allay anxiety about where to look and how much is being missed.

Whether it’s the rhythm of the rails, crackling fire, temple bells, plaintive saxophone, or the blood-curdling cry  “Ma Ho” by acclaimed Manipuri actor Sabitri Heisnam as she rehearses and then performs her role in Draupadi, the sound design by Suresh Rajamani gives viewers an aural guide. It also complements and augments the work’s visual effects. Perhaps taking a cue from the grieving mother who wove an exquisite pattern into cloth to commemorate her daughter and the long struggle to bring her murderer to justice, image and sound are the warp and woof of The Lightning Testimonies.

The climax of the work—and this is where it especially resonates with the sure hand of Gentileschi and her Judith—is the unforgettable footage of women protesting in the northeastern state of Manipur outside the gate to an Assam Rifles post. The protest echoes Draupadi as the women decry both this paramilitary force for decades of criminal violence and the government of India that abets the violence by refusing to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1958). The protesting women’s rage and pain are even more searing than Indian poets and singers in Kanwar’s Night of Prophecy (2003).

Image 3

With so many ways for voices of authority to stake questionable claims—for example the Assam Rifles official website asserting, “Through its long deployment in the tribal belt, the Assam Rifles have developed an ethos primarily based on friendship with the people of the region and have earned their complete confidence,” or a pair of Columbia University professors rehabilitating the reputation of Prime Minister hopeful Narendra Modi in a letter to the Economist—I’m immensely grateful for Kanwar’s deliberative work. As for the relevance of the professors’ letter, Kanwar attributes the explorations resulting in The Lightning Testimonies to his shock at the celebratory response to the rampage of rape, mutilation, and murder in Gujarat that took place in 2002 when Modi led the state as Chief Minister.

I’ve heard viewers criticize the work for being overwhelming, hard to follow, didactic, too documentary-like, and other aesthetic missteps. In the end our aesthetic judgments are based on our experiences of the work and mine tell me that this finely tuned team of artists succeeded in its complex, heart-rending, and hugely humane endeavor. Although Kanwar said he wasn’t familiar with Images in Spite of All, The Lightning Testimonies breathes life into Didi-Huberman’s ideas about montage and makes them visible: “Montage is valuable only when it doesn’t hasten to conclude or to close: it is valuable when it opens up our apprehension of history and makes it more complex, not when it falsely schematizes; when it gives us access to the singularities of time and hence to its essential multiplicity.”

In his Speyer lecture, Kanwar asked, “If a crime continues to occur is it invisible?” And later he said, “It does come down to the way we look, how we perceive.” His montage starts in South Asia yet reaches wherever there are men and women. Whether we see them or not, signs of violence against women and girls are all around us all the time. Maybe it’s a glamorous ingenue’s broken forearm or a woman on Michigan Avenue the night of the Speyer lecture begging for bus fare to a domestic violence shelter. Or just possibly it’s a trucking company forgoing its usual leprechaun and shamrocks to create a mobile testimonial: a truck painted the funereal purple of domestic violence awareness crawling through morning rush hour on the Eisenhower Expressway. It announces the name of a woman and the year of her birth and death. It’s a co-worker’s lament and memorial for his cherished friend whose life was stolen by a murderous man.

Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago. In 2013 she curated StreamLines, an exhibition of contemporary art in Vaishali, India.