Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?

October 28, 2013 · Print This Article

A dispatch from the Creative Time Summit (NYC), The Association of American Cultures (Providence, RI), and Hand in Glove (New Orleans): August – October 2013

Rick Lowe and Nato Thompson“Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?”: This question posed by Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses in conversation with Nato Thompson at this years Creative Time Summit, Art, Place & Dislocation in the 21st Century, was a crystallizing moment in a series of gatherings and convening I’ve been part of the last few months. Addressing “gentrification,” the thematic buzz word of this year’s Creative Time convening, Lowe said that to really talk through the issue of gentrification, we must also address our issues with race. As he put it, communities of color are talking about race all the time as part of inescapable component of everyday experience, whereas conversations with white people results in a sort of “shadowboxing” in which one dances around the issue without addressing it head-on. To illustrate, he brought up the media coverage around the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case in which Juror B37 said on Anderson Cooper that the case had nothing at all to do with race, a sentiment echoed by many commentators in our mainstream media outlets. This in stark contrast to the conversations he was having (as many were) where race was the central issue in how that case was tried and decided and which had vast implications for communities of color.

And how does this play out in the cultural context of presenters at the Creative Time summit? Well, for place-making initiatives, another buzzword running through many Creative Time presentations, he cautioned that we must be careful to not obfuscate what is really at stake. It’s easy for well-meaning place-makers and artists to reach out to places in need, it’s a lot harder to reach the actual people because, understandably, not everyone wants to join the vibrancy index. As arts advocate Roberto Bedoya pointed out in his presentation, place-making has a colonizing history as well, lest we forget Japanese internment camps during World War II, the Chinese exclusionary act of 1882 and the current militarization of the border near where he lives in Arizona. In addition to that, strategies of community engagement and participatory art have a long history in community arts, albeit with an explicit social justice mission that is often missing in the language around creative place-making today. Recent social practice MFA-ers and platemaking gurus be warned, these strategies have long been employed by the field of community arts, and though they may not fit all the current buzzwords we would do well to heed their experiences.

Not to knock MFA-ers because students deserve the generosity of being taught without always being criticized for their naivete, but the Creative Time Summit shows that there is a startling shift in the field where socially engaged artist initiatives (student ones as well) are walking the walk and talking the talk of community arts, without necessarily the community investment or social change mission. As Risë Wilson, founder of The Laundromat Project and moderator of the “My Brooklyn” panel at the summit, says, race is also a question of power and privilege. And if, as she asks, our larger goal is social, political and economic equity, then we each must ask ourselves, what is our privilege and what would we be willing to give up in the name of that equity? How does the often explicit social justice mission of community arts and grassroots political organizing square with contemporary artists, seeking to be relevant outside the arts and inside “communities” while at the same time retaining authorship and cultural capital at the same time? And for the MFA student, with their rising cost of education, crippling debt, and precarious jobs waiting on the other hand, the less advantaged are often not the ones inside schools getting to know those buzzwords to leverage those new opportunities for funding.

The Creative Time Summit has a “big tent” solution to bridging these divide. In other words, if you place all these working methods alongside each other, then maybe a new audience is articulated that sees cultural work outside of disciplinary silos and finds ways to talk to each other. And I’m not the biggest fan of TED Talks eight minute format but there is an agenda smuggled in there that I recognize, in which Creative Time occupies an interesting, contradictory, paradoxical position between the people in the grassroots arts and social justice sector and those in power and tries to act as a pipeline between those worlds. In other words, the TED Talks are an amplification technique to make these complex projects accessible. One can debate whether or not that should be the goal, but it’s also a goal worth addressing. For instance, this year’s Leonore Annenberg Prize For Art and Social Change of unrestricted funds, which was awarded to the well-deserving Laurie Jo Reynolds/Tamms Year Ten and Khaled Hourani, also comes with a think-tank retreat facilitated by Creative Time and the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands that will bring together policy-makers, lawyers, other artists, philanthropists, to discuss how to work towards solving the issues of injustice that these artists address. So along with the ceremony and pizazz of the summit, Creative Time is also engaging in our other form of contemporary power-broking, the invitational retreat. President Barack Obama himself hosted President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China for an official working meeting at Sunnylands last June.

What will result from there remains to be seen, but it is clear that scaling-up these political art projects is the goal. Unfortunately what also results from such a tactic of accessibility at the actual summit is that often presentations slide into pitch mode, in which social good is promoted, great work is being done, and we can all go home inspired. But admittedly, I actually was inspired by some of the presenters. Lucy Lippard, Torolab, Antanas Mockus Å ivickas, Tamms Year Ten crew, to name a few, are totally amazing. And there were some confusing bits too. I was looking for some substantiative connections between documentary activism and socially engaged artist projects on the “My Brooklyn” section and the “Flaneurs” panel was an odd mismatch of projects. But I assume, this is all about throwing people together and seeing what sticks.

So why do we need all these entrepreneurial sales pitches? Why is Creative Time one of the only ones out there madly facilitating between all these huge gaps? Or are they the only ones thinking big? I’ve been thinking through these questions of diversity and relationships between socially engaged art/place-making rhetoric of today and community art’s history through two other recent gatherings that I’ve also been a part of. In August of 2013, I moderated a panel at The Association of American Cultures conference (TAAC) in Providence, RI and in October 17-20, I spoke on a panel as part of the second Hand in Glove conference, which I co-founded with many others in Chicago in 2011, this time in New Orleans and organized and hosted by Bob Snead of Press Street/Antena Gallery and his team.

TAAC was founded in 1985 on the values of multiculturalism and social equity in the arts and today by and large encompasses culturally specific community arts organizations, as well as the funders and arts councils that seek to support them (there is a summary of the proceedings here). After a three year hiatus, they are gathering again as a national dialogue and much of that conversation was about that issue of redefining multiculturalism for a 21st century audience. The logic goes, multiculturalism brought new voices to the table through the 1990s, but at this point, who’s table is it? What is the fate of the community arts and cultural specific institutions when the dominant language of creative economies and creative place-making are telling them to innovate or die?

Umberto Crenca at AS220's Free Culture murals

Umberto Crenca at AS220’s Free Culture murals

At these different kinds of gatherings, I am fascinated by the similarity of languages that are now used across contemporary art gatherings and nonprofit community arts. For instance, one of the activities of TAAC was a walking tour of downtown Providence with the founder of AS220, Umberto Crenca. Founded as a one-room alternative space in 1985, AS220 has played a major role in the revitalization of downtown as a cultural district, encompassing multiple buildings with small-business incubators, artist live/work spaces, youth programs including for those in custody of the state, a gallery, music space, and its own bar and restaurant. It’s staggering what they have been able to accomplish, all the while paying all full-time workers (including the Executive Director) the same salary and sustaining themselves for many years without major foundation support. But also their goals of downtown expansion have been able to align with the rhetoric around creative economies. Closer to home, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between a project like this and Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, both led by charismatic hometown boys with goals of social empowerment and benevolent capitalism while drawing their entrepreneurial chutzpah from radically different traditions and being held up as success stories by different venues. Is this a time for that big tent? What about those that don’t have such a great sales pitch?

Martha Wilson, keynote at Hand in Glove New Orleans 2013, Den of Muses

Martha Wilson, keynote at Hand in Glove New Orleans 2013, Den of Muses

In New Orleans at Hand in Glove, a gathering of artist organizers and artist-centered non-profits addressing at the national level the pragmatic and conceptual challenges faced by alternative spaces and artist-run initiatives, a similar question of ambiguity and belonging emerges. Who sees themselves as part of this particular conversation? What do artist-run galleries, socially engaged artist platforms, and nonprofits have to say to each other? And what about community arts, are they part of our field as well? When Hand in Glove met in New Orleans to hold panel discussions on ways of organizing and sustaining ourselves on October 17-20, Free Southern Theater  (one of the most amazing socially-engaged artist organized projects of all time) was also having their 50th anniversary gathering that same weekend. Our gathering was amazing, generative community-building and too complex to go into here, but for the context of this musing on bridging the divide, I found myself questioning if there was some substantiative way of bringing the worlds of Hand in Glove and Free Southern Theater together to talk about what’s really at stake and how to support the work of artists that are truly challenging and experimental in form. That in addition to acknowledging the legacy and knowledge of my own field. I’m looking for too much I realize, but as our Hand in Glove group is interested in building national networks around arts organizing and bringing in a diverse set of practitioners and we can see the disciplinary boundaries become shifting ground between our feet, we have to ask what we share with these other traditions and where do we diverge. We owe it ourselves, especially at places like the Creative Time Summit, at Hand in Glove, at TAAC, to not merely applaud our efforts but to actually challenge our own terms.

As part of a recent symposium on the legacy of Culture in Action, artist Daniel Joseph Martinez commented that two heydays have passed: the alternative space and the culturally specific institution and with that an alternative life course for the non-commercial artist. This is admittedly hyperbolic, but I think what he was getting at was that there was a certain moment when operating outside of the mainstream was a viable choice and a great promise, and then the Culture Wars hit big and in a way we’re still recovering. With the steady encroachment of the razzle-dazzle of place-making, creative economies, and social practice, we’re in a moment where seemingly alike projects get radically different receptions and resources, legacies are in danger of being overlooked, and underneath all these TED talks and success stories we need to squint really hard to find the ethos and values being articulated.

The Relationship Between Developer, Player, and Protagonist in Half-Life and Gone Home

October 28, 2013 · Print This Article

In one of PC gaming’s most famous series, Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman.  Across numerous games, the Half-Life series sees its hero traipse through dangerous environments, mostly as a result of an initial scientific accident that calls forth alien hordes. Throughout all this, Gordon is an obvious example of the “silent protagonist.” The silent protagonist is one who, quite literally, remains silent. Even in conversation with another character or the face of apparent death, Freeman makes no sounds.

The opening sequence of Half-Life is famous for an engaging establishment of its environment. The player, as Freeman, is transported via a futuristic railcar to a desert facility named Black Mesa, an amalgamation of shadowy government experimentation. As Freeman, the player takes in vague sights and listens to the monotonous drone of a pre-recorded speech extolling safety procedures. The first character Gordon Freeman interacts—and I use the term loosely—with is a security guard. The guard, upon opening the railcar door, greets him: “Morning Mr. Freeman. Looks like you’re running late.”

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This bit of dialogue is one of a small collection of identifying information about Gordon, but ultimately, it doesn’t reveal much. All the player knows is that he has a prior line of history and existence with this facility. In essence, the player knows he is returning to his day job. The comment is an allusion to this character’s constant existence, his place in the game’s narrative.

In games, characters, narratives, and environments are essentially defined through two aspects. The first is that which already exists, coloring the history and environments that define the in-game world and people within it. The second is that which colors the player-character’s present, which is intrinsically tied to the game’s action—essentially what we as players see and experience. A more important distinction between the two is that the history and narrative are defined by the developer or creator, while the present of the game and the character’s present, is defined by the player and his or her actions.

As he is silent, Gordon’s interactions with other characters are defined solely by the dialogue and intent of those that interact with him. Freeman meets a variety of characters on his journey through the games, and some even develop close relationships with him. Just as the security guard’s comment solidified his history as a scientist, those interactions which occur during the actual game fill out his nature as perceived by both the characters around him, and the environment in which they exist—all as predicated by the developer. Developer-dictated detail and narrative is that which the player cannot affect, but only know and learn passively.

This is the opposite of that narrative detail which is defined by action, and as a result, the player. A large part of what begins to define the character relies upon and is determined by player action—and this action sometimes occurs in direct opposition to character history.

When a player plays as an established hero—say, Batman—the action that occurs during the player-defined portion is usually entirely in agreement with that character’s history. That is, when a player controls Batman and beats up a gang of thugs, this action is fully in line with what players expect from Batman’s colorful and storied history. His historical, developer-defined narrative transitions seamlessly into the player-defined action.

What’s perhaps most odd about Gordon Freeman is though his established history is scarce, what shines through results in direct opposition with his player-controlled present. Gordon’s day job is that of a theoretical physicist. His physicality—prominently displayed only on some editions of the box art, in the game’s menu, and briefly during spin-off games—paints him as an obvious ectomorph. Yet his player-defined narrative has him leaping over pools of caustic acid, wielding numerous firearms with incredible accuracy, and dispatching hordes of aliens and marines alike.

Freemanmenu

This isn’t an argument that the game should have been a scientist simulator—one that, given the events of the game, would have probably ended in premature death or hiding in a reinforced closet. But the developer-defined aspects of Freeman as a character—his history and his relationships—don’t come together with the player-driven narrative to create a complete, acceptable portrait. And when this happens, the relationship between the protagonist and player is not as fulfilling. Rather than portraying Freeman, the player is portraying a fantasy, and Freeman is merely a replaceable vessel.

This year saw the release of The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Much has been written about Gone Home, and for good reason—the game deals eagerly with a non-violent plot and consists of relatable family life complete with uncomfortable discovery, a 1995 setting with a Riot Grrl soundtrack, and celebration of sexual identity.

But in addition to that—which alone makes the game worth exploring, ten times over—it offers a refreshing version of the player-defined narrative, one that creates a unique relationship between player, protagonist, and environment. One of the geniuses of Gone Home is that its environment is not only entirely unknown to its player, but that its environment is also entirely unknown to its protagonist. The protagonist, Kaitlin (or Katie) is an elder daughter returning from an extended overseas trip. In the meantime, her family (a father, mother, and younger sister) have moved into a house willed to them from the father’s estranged uncle. Her return finds the house empty, leaving her and the player without a guide or character with which to interact.

This single aspect defines the environment an exciting way: one that is entirely unknown to both the player and the protagonist. This allows for the player to more closely identify with Katie as a protagonist, sharpening the relationship. And when the relationship is a closer one, the player-driven action becomes more relevant in moving towards meaningfully defining a character and world.

Gone Home is essentially a story about relationships, told via intelligent discovery and modern archaeology. As the player-as-Katie moves through the home, mysteries unfold via papers left out. Notes from Katie’s younger sister Sam provide the central narrative, while crumpled notes, pamphlets, and other documents fill out the mother and father in addition.

welcomehome

What’s interesting about Gone Home isn’t just the unified developer-defined narrative, but the narrative that develops as defined through the player’s action. Rather than shooting aliens or (gleefully) breaking crates as in Half-Life, Gone Home’s interactivity is defined by searching and discovering. While the player’s actions on a most basic level defines Kaitlin as a snoop without any sort of respect for boundaries, they, perhaps more importantly, serve to define the environment around them. Much of the game’s content is bound up in secrecy, waiting to be unleashed, and only with careful searching does the world come into focus.

Historically—and in games such as Half-Life—the environment and the characters within it are developer-defined, and as a result, the protagonist’s history is as well. But in Gone Home, the lack of external characters ultimately means a lack of active developer-driven meaning, and instead the player finds something that feels more personal.

And while of course, all of the content in Gone Home has been placed there by the developer—they are still the writer and creator of the game, after all—the player’s action is what actually serves as the access point. Though the player in most games propels the action simply by playing—in the same way a reader reveals the action by reading—the player in Gone Home serves as a more active propellant of the slow reveal of the environment and its characters.

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What begins to develop, then, is a picture of Gone Home as a game where the player-as-protagonist is the driving force for the narrative. This is because Gone Home’s player-action is one that paints a picture of the protagonist and the relationships around her in the exact way the protagonist would on her own. This allows the protagonist, and the resulting player/protagonist relationship, to feel incredibly powerful. Because when the player-as-protagonist defines the narrative or the environment, the player/protagonist’s action defines the way in which that entity interacts with them. In a sense, they become the driving force behind the game’s emotional impact. When a player-as-protagonist feels as though they have the power to drive forth the narrative, defining the environment and protagonist through their discoveries and actions, gaming as a medium truly shines.

But perhaps more importantly, as the player gains control and the ability to define the narrative through the interactivity of the medium, the developer appears to exert less control. And when the developer wields less control, they fade from the experience of the game, allowing it to stand on its own. While the relationship between the player and the developer is an interesting one (and well worth exploring at another time), they happen to be at direct odds with either’s direct relationship to the game and the protagonist. In a sense, the developer must be able to release full control of their creation, their child, to the player, and allow them to determine the protagonist’s existence and relation to the game as a whole.

Week in Review

October 28, 2013 · Print This Article

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James Elkins’ does it again! Listen to this week’s podcast! Episode 425 yall.

Avery Young and Cecil McDonald have a shared studio space, the floor of which was laid out with Avery’s work for Groun(d), a solo show now up at the Incubator.

Avery Young and Cecil McDonald have a shared studio space, the floor of which was laid out with Avery’s work for Groun(d), a solo show now up at the Incubator.

Bailey Romaine wrote about her experience during on a South Side gallery tour with Monique Meloche:

Last month, in the midst of the crazy Expo Chicago extravaganza, I had the pleasure of going on a tour with Gallery Weekend Chicago. GWC was founded by Chicago gallerist Monique Meloche in 2011 and offers annually a weekend of private gallery and museum tours. I went on the Sunday tour which took us down to the Washington Park and Hyde Park neighborhoods on the South Side and made stops at the Arts Incubator, the Smart Museum, the Renaissance Society, and the Logan Arts Center.

The Arts Incubator in Washington Park was the first stop of the day. This space, part of the University of Chicago’s Arts & Public Life Initiative, was conceptualized by Theaster Gates, who is now director of the project. The Incubator is home to an artist residency program, a community arts education program for teens, as well as an exhibition and performance space.

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Shifter Magazine’s latest issue, Other Spaces came out this week. Which is exciting.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

James Turrell. Aten Reign. 2013.

Meredith Kooi reflects on James Turrell using Heideggar as a lens:

Nancy Marmer’s 1981 review of Turrell’s exhibition at the Whitney, James Turrell: Light and Space, focuses on the “chilling art of deception” which is Turrell’s “more rigorous, even didactic, aspect to [his work] that tends to be ignored.” [14]  This attention to illusion or deception isn’t specific to Marmer. From that same year, Wolfgang Zimmer’s review in ARTnews is titled “Now You See It, Now You…” [15]  This is important. Questions about being and truth are glossed over when the work is only described as illusion and deception, simple plays of perception. This is too simplistic to fully describe Turrell’s work. Rather, it is the interplay of appearance, semblance, and phenomenon (in Heidegger’s sense: of something showing itself from itself in itself). It is not a simple either/or situation, where you either see the illusion, or the “true” material conditions of the piece. The totality of this situation of being-with the piece is the truth of the work, its unconcealedness in the disclosure of Dasein, our being as being-in-the-world.

"As Close As Near is Far" Work by Daniel Baird, Edmund Chia, and Laura Hart Newlon at Adds Donna;

“As Close As Near is Far” Work by Daniel Baird, Edmund Chia, and Laura Hart Newlon at Adds Donna;

Stephanie Burke’s Top 5 Weekend Picks!

Shane Walsh,“Red Display” Acrylic on Canvas, 38” x 38” 2013

Shane Walsh,“Red Display” Acrylic on Canvas, 38” x 38” 2013

Shane McAdams discusses a painting show in Milwaukee curated by Shane Walsh; on the way, however, he ruminates on the Renaissance with a call for letters from any and all of You:

Our current notion of the renaissance wasn’t codified until Jacob Burckhardt did so in the middle of the 19th century. And the treasures of art that signify that rebirth weren’t substantiated until the wheelings-and-dealing of mercenaries like Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen canonized them only more recently. The subsequent narrative about the primacy of Italy has been reinforced by a century of lectures from auditoriums dimly lit by the pale glow from Kodak slide projectors loaded with Fra Angelicos and Mantegnas.

Despite the gospel to which we’ve willingly subscribed, rolling Pico Della Mirandola, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Cimabue, Giotto, Raphael, Titian, etc. etc., into a tidy narrative that spread Northward, I had to wonder at the Met whether, if we could press ‘reset’ on the Game Cube of Western Civilization, we would end up listening to adjunct professors recite an alternative story of the North, of Erasmus, of the Hussites, of the Hanseatic League, and Martin Luther and Gutenberg…and of course in art, of van Eyck and van der Weyden, with Da Vinci, Tintoretto and Titian relegated to supporting roles?

If History is a story of overcoming tradition and inventing change, the North seems to have a good case for preeminence.

Art Historians, address your letters to me not to the Bad at Sports’ offices.

And once again, the week closed out with a list of job-and-writing type opportunities.

 

Endless Opportunities: Jobs/Writing Here Now

October 26, 2013 · Print This Article

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1. Assistant Professor – Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University

The Department of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University seeks to hire a tenure-track Assistant Professor with an interdisciplinary focus in digital art and in print media beginning Fall Quarter 2014. Candidates should be prepared to teach 2-D studio, digital, and seminar art courses in the department’s core curriculum as well as art courses for majors and non-majors in the university’s Liberal Studies program. Additional experience in interdisciplinary artistic practice in a particular field, such as digital imaging within the Mac platform, book art, and/or traditional and non-traditional non-toxic printmaking, etc. is encouraged. Candidates must have the appropriate terminal degree, expertise in teaching, and an extensive record of exhibition and/or ongoing creative activity. The teaching load is two courses per quarter with three quarters per academic year, and there are service and research expectations. read more and apply here.

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2. Director of Communications at the Renaissance Society

The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago is seeking a Director of Communications to create, implement, and manage an integrated public relations and marketing strategy for all exhibitions, educational programs, events, community initiatives, and all other museum programming. Duties also include managing the department staff and budget, developing outreach efforts to expand the museum’s current visibility and attendance, and overseeing communication campaigns over multiple media channels. The candidate should have an in-depth knowledge of contemporary art complimented by a background in communications. Must be well informed on recent developments in contemporary art both locally and internationally. The ideal candidate will have experience of scholarly and/or critical writing on art. More info here.

3.  Comics Program Assistant

The Scuola Internazionale di Comics has recently expanded to include a 10th location in Chicago’s West Town and we are looking for a Comics Program Assistant to help us coordinate and schedule our workshops, update our website, and promote our programs. The ideal applicant will have excellent administrative and organizational skills as well as experience in the American Comics market–have you worked at a Comics store, written Comics reviews, or drawn your own comic? We want to hear from you. A strong background in the visual arts is highly desired. Graphic and web design experience is a plus. Knowledge of Spanish or Italian would be highly helpful. Read more about SIdC and how to apply here.

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4. Henry Moore Institute Critical Writing Prize: £200  Deadline: 30 October 2013

This year we launch a new Critical Writing Prize for an unpublished text of 1,000 words. The Prize is open to anyone. The brief is to develop a text on a single work from the Leeds sculpture collection or archive of sculptors’ papers, which are managed in a partnership between the Henry Moore Institute and Leeds Museums and Galleries. The collection focuses on sculpture made in Britain, spanning 1850 to the present. It comprises sculptures, works on paper and archival materials, with sculptors represented including Auguste Rodin, Keith Arnatt, Phyllida Barlow, Helen Chadwick, Shelagh Cluett, Tony Cragg, Jacob Epstein, John Flaxman, Eric Gill, Daphne Hardy Henrion, Barbara Hepworth, Phillip King, Bruce McLean, Claes Oldenburg, Eva Rothschild, and Bill Woodrow. Essays should be submitted by email with a cover letter indicating which prize is being applied for and course of study, where appropriate, and sent to Kirstie Gregory (Research Programme Assistant): kirstie@henry-moore.org

5. Frost Place Chapbook Competition Live, write here for a week, and get published. (Oh, there’s also a $250 prize, publication, and a fellowship.)

The Frost Place Chapbook Competition is accepting submissions through December 31, 2013. In addition to publication, the winner receives a $250 prize, a full paid fellowship to the Frost Place Poetry Seminar (valued at $1,500), and the opportunity to live and write for a week at the Frost Place Museum in Franconia, NH. This year’s judge is David Baker, author of ten books of poems and four books of prose about poetry.  Among his awards are fellowships and prizes from the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Mellon Foundation, Ohio Arts Council, Poetry Society of America, Society of Midland Authors, and the Pushcart Foundation. Each submission must be accompanied by a submission fee of $25. Visit The Frost Place for details on the competition.

 

 

From the Curb in Milwaukee: Usable Space

October 25, 2013 · Print This Article

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, ca. 1430 Jan van Eyck and Workshop Assistant (Netherlandish, active by 1422, died 1441) Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Crucifixion; The Last Judgment, ca. 1430
Jan van Eyck and Workshop Assistant (Netherlandish, active by 1422, died 1441)
Oil on canvas, transferred from wood, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It was a schizo week of art viewing for me that started with a trip to New York last Friday. I had been excited to hit the Lower East Side with the taste still in my mouth of Jerry Saltz’s assault in New York Mag on the Neo-Mannerist painting that has taken over the Lower East Side and Bushwick (though I don’t think he pins the tendency to a specific area). Reading it on the plane it struck me as a bit ironic that the fate of the LES art scene, whose life expectancy is often a subject of speculation even as galleries continue to mushroom there, should be so fastened to the the success of painting, an art form with five centuries on it, and which has risen from the dead more times than the number of years most of the LES artists have walked the planet.

But alas I didn’t have the chance, so I traveled to the artistic opposite of the LES where, I targeted the Met’s newly overhauled European wing. The giant Tiepolo remains on the left at the top of the main staircase, but inside, the galleries are completely restructured, and the shuffled deck of masterpieces forced me into a complete reevaluation of the story of the Italian Renaissance:

Pardon me for a moment while I digress toward the conspiratorial.

Our current notion of the renaissance wasn’t codified until Jacob Burckhardt did so in the middle of the 19th century. And the treasures of art that signify that rebirth weren’t substantiated until the wheelings-and-dealing of mercenaries like Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen canonized them only more recently. The subsequent narrative about the primacy of Italy has been reinforced by a century of lectures from auditoriums dimly lit by the pale glow from Kodak slide projectors loaded with Fra Angelicos and Mantegnas.

Despite the gospel to which we’ve willingly subscribed, rolling Pico Della Mirandola, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Cimabue, Giotto, Raphael, Titian, etc. etc., into a tidy narrative that spread Northward, I had to wonder at the Met whether, if we could press ‘reset’ on the Game Cube of Western Civilization, we would end up listening to adjunct professors recite an alternative story of the North, of Erasmus, of the Hussites, of the Hanseatic League, and Martin Luther and Gutenberg…and of course in art, of van Eyck and van der Weyden, with Da Vinci, Tintoretto and Titian relegated to supporting roles?

If History is a story of overcoming tradition and inventing change, the North seems to have a good case for preeminence.

Art Historians, address your letters to me not to the Bad at Sports’ offices.

That was the ferment in my head as I flew home the same evening to Milwaukee. The very next day I inadvertently got the antidote to the Met in Bayview, that I missed on the LES.

Opening reception, Information Processors, curated by Shane Walsh

Opening reception, Information Processors, curated by Shane Walsh

In a semi-improvised gallery called Usable Space at a studio building at 1950 S. Hilbert Street, on what might be the very same narrow footprint of any gallery on Ludlow in NYC, stands a modest painting show that will remind naysayers of the enduring thrill that comes from pushing pigment and binder around a canvas with a brush. The show, “Information Processors” curated by Shane Walsh serves up meat-and-potatoes painters that celebrate the gooey joys of the tradition, with more than a few eccentric, non-traditional moments to keep us on our toes. Notable are Michelle Bollinger’s naked and luscious abstractions, which recall everyone from Franz Kline to John Lasker to Thomas Scheibitz, to the deliciously strange sprayerbrusher, Trudy Benson, without losing their singularity.

Michelle Bolinger: “Positive Negative” Oil on Board, 30” x 32” 2012 “Tug of War” Oil on Board, 30” x 32”  2013

Michelle Bolinger:
“Positive Negative” Oil on Board, 30” x 32” 2012
“Tug of War” Oil on Board, 30” x 32” 2013

Janet Bruhn’s “Melting Jello Cake” is too representational a title for a painting that first smacks as an abstraction with gorgeous marbled painting inside an unexpected perimeter of languid brushwork that I only eventually realized was a container. Without the title telling us, we would have naturally inferred the sense of a confectionary orgy, even if we didn’t identify the subject matter directly.

Shane Walsh,“Red Display” Acrylic on Canvas, 38” x 38” 2013

Shane Walsh,“Red Display” Acrylic on Canvas, 38” x 38” 2013

There are other high points in the show, so go see it for yourself, but I’ll fittingly conclude with Bradley Biancardi’s “Crystal from Berwyn (after Titian)” which seems less Titian than Matisse…with a Dash of Alice Neel and David Hockney, but inspiration is inspiration.

Still, c’mon, Titian? No Van Eyck. Maybe Biancardi’s influence reaffirms the triumph of the Italian Renaissance. Thinking of Titian made me doubt my musings about alternative histories. But whatever the real foundations of the last half-millennium of Western painting, it’s great to see that there are still plenty of practitioners willing to carry on the legacy, willing to approach canvases without guile or cynicism, and do their best to keep the gravediggers at the art cemetery leaning on their shovels. This experience will make it easier to stomach the ailing Neo-Mannerists at the Orchard Street hospice next week.