Work by Erik L. Peterson.
Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Stevie Hanley, Esau McGhee and Hui-min Tsen.
Chicago Artists Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Curated by Stephanie Cristello with work by Anthony Bragg, Irmak Canevi, Andy Giannakakis, Suzy Gonzalez, Michael R. Leon, Jon Merritt, Whitney Oldenburg, Sarah R. Pater, Fernando Pezzino and Katie Darby Slater.
Western Exhibitions is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Amy Chiao, Suzy Amakane and Geoffrey Todd Smith.
Hidden Dog is located at 2151 W. 21st St. Reception Friday 6-10pm.
Work by Alice Konitz, Lasse Schmidt Hansen and Sterling Lawrence.
Document is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
I have been distracted in exhibitions recently. My eyes are drawn from the work on the walls to the wall color, the arrangement of work, the lighting, the electrical outlets near the floor, the shadows and conversations of other viewers. I start by looking at the work, earnestly engaging with it. I slowly notice my gaze drifting to the frame around the painting, print, photograph, and, once I notice the frame, my eyes do not return.
This distraction came to a head at a painting show, full of people gathered to see the handful of big-name painters, neglecting the rooms full of excellent but lesser known works. I wandered the rooms almost alone enjoying the large and small canvases, the studies and prints, and, as I turned into the crowded rooms, the frames around the paintings shifted register from relatively simple, muted wood frames to filigreed, gold-leafed extensions of the paintings that domineered more than simply framed them.
Frames protect, augment, enhance, overshadow, and fundamentally alter artwork. The extra-artwork environment is a series of frames, more and less explicit — traveling to the exhibition, entering the gallery, negotiating the others in the room, moving along a particular path from one work to the next. Entering each frame primes our mind and our bodies for the experience we are about to have. Some frames are explicit (the frame, the matte, the wall color); some frames we control (how much coffee we have had, whether we brought a sweater to guard against the air conditioning); others are too hidden to register as present, minimized by the more visible, convenient frames we have learned to see. We cannot and do not need to control all of the frames we enter, nor should we necessarily be concerned at the fact that they are too numerous and subtle for us to understand.
The problem with frames is that the obvious frames, the gold-leafed, filigreed painting border and the white cubes that contain them, can lull us into believing that we are fully aware of the multiple frames that surround us, that we are objectively observing and seeing a truth beyond all frames. Observing the painting border does not mean that we recognize the institutional framework that guides the artists shown and the artists never selected. Noticing that lively street corners and good restaurants make for places we want to spend time does not mean we know the history of urban planning, revitalization, and gentrification. Acknowledging the explicit racism of individuals does not mean we understand or can dismantle the structures of white supremacy that surround us that are designed to operate without conscious and explicit approval.
In a brand new book, I found the first page of the third chapter dogeared, placed back in position but creased, the surrounding pages mirroring its folded imprint. This book is, of course, not brand new; it did not arrive in my hands straight from the press, the bindery, the guillotine. I imagine the lives it has known, the many people in whose hands those pages have breathed to life, the minds who call it into being — the packer, lounging on a smoke break with the book half-hidden from supervisors, the bookstore clerk, sneaking it below the register. Everyone finding solace and freedom, a way out of their mutable existence into the ever-constant life of the book. This human touch, this reminder that I am not alone in this vast world, helps me step back from the books’ frames, to connect through time and space, to reach out through the interconnected, interwoven frames that buffer us, isolate us from others navigating their own frames, to touch another life, not through exceptional effort or awareness of those frames, but rather through the very act of accruing our lives one moment at a time.
Recognizing the frame, acknowledging its presence as an integral context and portion of artworks and our lives is simply the beginning. Art does not live outside of context, outside of our experience(s) of observing, absorbing, consuming, and participating in it. We must use the moment of observing the frame as a way to move through and past it, placing it within the larger context of the world through which we move every day.
This morning, I lay under a scanner at the doctor’s office, a robot arm buzzing and whirring above me, a technician explaining the mathematical models they use to interpret the results. I stared at the mass produced, calm-inducing pastel print hung before me in the dimly lit room, and all I could see were the frames surrounding it — the white matte and thin silver frame, the bibles and golf magazines on the waiting room tables, this long and short life we have, its present moments ever-elusive, ever-escaping our notice as we peer into the all too clear past and the darkening future. The frames surround us; we are never outside of them, yet we are not held prisoner.
In an article written in early 2012 for Frieze, Lars Bang Larsen wonders if the problem with social practice, or any art that bases itself in or on “the social,” as it were, is its contemporaneity. For Larsen, it is—or at least was, three years ago—the shifting identity of who and/or what constitutes society and sociality that robs art based in the social of its mooring in history. Although I am wary of mourning the loss of History, some kind of hegemonic accounting for time and/or quality that fluctuates along the same lines as the social, I understand Larsen’s worry in terms of horizontality. The social sphere “privileges space over time, presence over form,” Larsen writes: it is “a concept without speed and virtuality.” This can be seen in the mirrored intents of much socially-based art and much self-help or managerial-behavior advice as being in a, or the moment. When is the moment?
More insidiously, the understanding of the social of the 2010s—the contemporary of now, versus the contemporary of 1960 or 1850—is that of an abstract mass that can be easily atomized into other abstract masses and monetized. If presence is more important than form, if being there is more important than knowing why or in what capacity, one’s ability to look across one’s situation and analyze it is deeply compromised. If I believe it is more important to agree to my high-efficiency, assymetrical work schedule than to become agitated over the loss of my workday, a form that unions and activists have been fighting to define and hold for the last 150 years, then I have forfeited my right to live for anything other than profit margins and capital. When I agree to working from 12-9 on Monday, 9-6 on Tuesday, 4-12 on Thursday, and 8-5 Friday and Saturday, I am almost certainly not doing so because I actually believe that I will ever share in those profit margins or own for myself any of that capital, as such beliefs are increasingly ludicrous in times as inequal and undemocratic as our own. Rather, I am either agreeing out of total desperation or for the good of the team.
One of the defining characteristics of the social turn that art began to take in the 90s—and that it continues to take like endless donuts in a Walmart parking lot—is that is has been, and continues to be, mirrored by a social turn in workforce management. Just as artists detourned quotidien forms like dinners, drinking beer with friends, storefronts, etc into artworks, lifting the everday into rarified art worlds, so did workforce management detourn workers into quotidien forms like teams, squads, family, etc. If a workforce identifies as a team, then the members of the workforce identify as teammates, who are part of a larger team that is not like other teams, rather than as workers unified across a company or across an industry. The aestheticization of the workforce, which owes much to artists who aesthetize the everyday, makes structural problems vanish because the structure itself disappears. It is because of this reciprocity that the ever-present hangwringing over the actual political efficacy of much art that bases itself in, uses, or attempts to improve upon the social so often seems so silly.
“Back to the Future,” a recent exhibition co-organized by Mexico City residency program Casa Maauad and Denver residency initiative ArtPlant, speaks strongly of this ambivalence. The exhibition is dominated by gunmetal grays, while the repetitive yelling and smashing from Adán de la Garza’s video, giving myself a reason to scream but not cry (2015) in the space’s back corner permeates everything, nullifying its affective content and becoming just another domestic sound. Taken as a whole with its contents, exhibition’s title references more the endless tail-chasing of contemporaneity more than the 80s classic trilogy. Indeed, the show reads as if the title was decided upon before the work was made, and that, over their month of production, the artists involved—especially the three artists from Denver, Christina Battle, de la Garza, and Dmitri Obergfell—found their work gradually darkening.
The first work the viewer encounters is a video installation by Colombian-born artist Cristina Ochoa, who currently lives in Mexico City. What appears to be a video recording of a labor protest at a factory is projected onto a circle of glass shards. The shards, in turn, reflect their image back onto the wall below and beside the projector, a ghostly and compelling abstraction that shifts according to its parent image. It is difficult to tell which image is meant to be seen or if they are meant to be taken together. Taken together, however, the sharded video and its reflection present beautifully the process of workforce aestheticization, where political agency washes out into innocuous abstraction.
Dmitri Obergfell’s Statues Also Die (2015), a set of three Malverde busts with their scalps blown off into graphite gore behind, dominates the next room. Jesús Malverde, along with Santa Muerte, is a revered semi-mythological figure among Mexico’s disenfranchised poor and narcos, who are often from the same place and whose deaths are often vicious. Indeed, the cycle of narco-violence is almost entirely contained to the massive population of desperately poor in Mexico, abandoned by Mexico’s 200-year old caste system and ground into dust by Mexico’s wholehearted embrace of neoliberalism. It is from these people, whose lives are condemned to endless days minimum wage labor at MX$50 (a little over US$3) per day—regardless of how long that day is—that new recruits for organizations like the Sinoloa cartel, whose leader, El Chapo, escaped in ridiculous and elaborate form from a maximum security prison over the weekend. It is also these people that are mercilessly slaughtered and dumped as warnings by the Zetas, an organization that rivals ISIS in its ghastly combination of wild brutality and social media savvy; or by the mayor of Iguala and his wife earlier this year for threatening to mar a party, such as the 43 students who were murdered earlier this year. Malverde and Santa Muerte are revered, that is, by those whose lives have always already been lost, who were robbed of hope the second they were born. It seems a bit beside the point then, and resolutely spectacularly American, to blow his scalp off, as removing the idol of a culture does nothing to remove the structural problems that make that culture possible. However, each Malverde carries a name, the name of a local artisan who assisted Obergfell in creating the busts: Anuar, Mauricio, and Tony. Perhaps this gesture, which lifts these workers into a discussion that usually ignores them, adds a mournful generosity to the piece, an acknowledgement of those who work and die with nothing, for nothing.
The ambivalence that permeates the show emanates from Battle’s and de la Garza’s work. The two Denver artists, born in Edmonton and Tucson, respectively, consistently address or interact with the social in their work. Both of their past work is tinged or strongly influenced by humor, whimsy, or play, such as de la Garza’s surveillance² (2014) or Battle’s Games to Help You Get Ready to Live in the Police State (2014). In “Back to the Future,” though, their work is stripped of its customary levity. de la Garza’s screaming giving myself a reason…, mentioned above, a short loop of the artist screaming in anger and breaking the same glass plate over and over again. In an accompanying note, de la Garza writes that the piece “examines the correlation between catharsis and protest,” and that this action—smashing a plate, screaming, screaming, smashing a plate, “the willingness to break and destroy,” writes de la Garza—may be a way out of a stifling governmentality. However, while perhaps smashing a plate or a window might give one temporary relief, even a temporary agency—remember the smashed windows at the Whole Foods in Oakland, or more recently the torched CVS in Baltimore, the racist and pathetic handwringing over the loss of property while entire neighborhoods were being destroyed and churches burned—the tautological and irritating nature of the video suggests that such actions are ultimately futile. Indeed, we can see the ineffectiveness of recent protest movements, from the “no” vote in Greece two weeks ago all the way back to Occupy Oakland and the catastrophic failure of the so-called Arab Spring, as evidence of the evacuation of effectiveness from 20th-century models of protest. Rather than point to a governmentality that pushes its constituents towards hopelessness, as de la Garza insists in his notes, giving myself a reason to scream but not to cry points to the slow disappearance of hope and its opposite, hopelessness, from the possible field of action proscribed by neoliberal governmentality. If I cannot feel hope I also do not feel hopeless; if I am empty I have nothing to cathart. The feeling of watching the video, which is something like awkwardness, is astonishing in its ability to describe the transition from corporeal body to atomized datum, from proletariat to team.
Battle’s ? (when the cities burn) (2015) is perhaps more mournful. A longer loop of a childlike paper city slowly burning atop a warm wooden surface, ? is a tribute to the loss of ambition, a call to abandon the worldwide desire to move from rural space to urban space, from down to up. It is a potent sentiment in Mexico City, whose population has been booming from the mid-20th century not necessarily because of a desire to find jobs, as many media tend to put it, but rather because of the destruction or exhaustion of local farmland due to the two-headed dragon of climate change and urban demand. Indeed, the hubris of many Western accounts of urban expansion is unbelievable: why would anyone aspire to live in an informal dwelling with no plumbing and no future, the only ways out to die, join a gang, or be incredibly, outrageously lucky? In such narratives the destruction of land and culture is neatly put aside, vanished, in favor of an aspirational narrative more in line with, again, a neoliberal governmentality that structures societal thought towards dreams of upward advancement, the accomplishment of goals, the all-surpassing value of ambition. As these narratives are enforced, the ability to see across them is compromised: it becomes difficult to wonder: advancement towards what? accomplishment of whose goals? what is lost when ambition is favored above all else? As with de la Garza’s, Battle’s brief notes do not do her own work justice. She writes that ? “visualizes the only solution that…might ultimately lead us toward something better,” suggesting that the solution would be when cities burn. I would argue, however, that what the video points to is the need to abandon narratives of ambition, hard work, and upward mobility—to abandon our dreams, which have been dictated to us—in order to locate ourselves, together, across labor and in time.
Curated by Liz Nielsen and Carolina Wheat, with work by Aaron Johnson, Alyse Ronayne, Angelina Gualdoni, Annie Ewaskio, April Childers, Brian Andrew Whiteley, Christian Sampson, Clive Murphy, Jeremy Couillard, Justin Davis Anderson, Livia Corona Benjamin, Liz Nielsen, Mike Schreiber, Monica Lorraine Bernal, Stacie Johnson and Yevgenia S. Bara.
Zolla/Lieberman Gallery is located at 325 W. Huron St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Curated by Sandy Guttman and Jeroen Nelemans, with work by Einat Amir, Guy Ben-Ner, Rashayla Marie Brown, Glen Fogel and Desirée Holman.
Aspect/Ratio is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Cauleen Smith.
Corbett vs. Dempsey is located at 1120 N. Ashland Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.
Work by Sofia Moreno.
The Learning Machine is located at 3145 S. Morgan St. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Gregory Bae.
The Chicago Urban Art Society is located at 3636 S. Iron St. Reception is Friday, 6:30-9pm.
Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen.
The Doris Salcedo show, recently on view at the MCA, was a hard one to watch. Not because it was a bad show; numerous reviews pointed out it is an extremely well curated, beautifully executed, and timely show of the monumental oeuvre of a major Latin American artist.
Major female Latin American artist.
The latter only added to the shows importance, in case you were wondering. But none of all this is what made the show hard to watch. Salcedo’s visual language is worldly, and spoken by an international elite of sculptors such as Rachel Whiteread, Jannis Kounellis, Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys; a universally understood shorthand, whereby dark wood furniture and cast concrete reads like a history of human suffering. That language we speak, and read, and understand, as an important part of the so-called “post-colonial” discourse. (So called, because who are we kidding?)
What made Salcedo’s show so confronting was the silence in between. A silence that is uncomfortable, not as in awkward, not at all, but as in loaded. Like sitting next to your child’s sick bed, or worse yet, waiting for a child that does not return home; you understand that this is not about you, there is nothing you can do, and you would rather be anywhere else than right here, right now –yet right here is the only place to be, the only place you can be, right now. It is torturous.
Salcedo is no stranger to the idea of torture –her diligently researched body of work deals largely with its after effects—but neither are we: The principle of torture is inflicting pain, while willfully withholding relief. The deaths of innocent, unarmed men, at the hand of armed police officers, is pain inflicted not only on the victims and their families, on society as a whole. The refusal of relief, in the form of justice, as administered by a supreme court who refuses to indict the responsible parties, is torture.
Into this torturous silence, Kirsten Leenaars inserted three performances, each of an hour’s duration. Clad in a uniform black, her motley crew of mourners, performed the ceremonial task of animating the negative spaces in and between Salcedo’s work by supporting, comforting, hugging, healing, touching each other –and their audience by extension—while breaking the silence with chants and short monologues. The whole exhibition space carried the sound of what by association would be a funeral drum, was it not that Dan Bitney’s synchopated beat was teeming with life. In the invitation to the third performance, Leenaars explained:
“The idea of the witness is explored in relationship to recent events in America – the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. The performance questions specifically, what does it mean to be a witness today? And how do you realize that you are not the origin of your own empathy but it is the other who triggers you to imagine yourself in the place of the other. And how can this be a position of hope?”
I will spare you Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and her insistence that we derive an almost pornographic pleasure from bearing witness, from a safe distance, to other people’s suffering. Although she (obviously) has a point, her thesis begins and ends with the premise that we are capable of empathetically feeling other people’s pain, but does not attempt to illuminate the origin of this capacity.
In a recent issue of New Scientist, however, Barbara Finlay offers some insight into the evolutionary mechanics of pain. In her article “The Unique Pain of Being Human,” she argues that since certain types of pain, such as labor pain, seem to be a specifically human trait, some biological and sociological benefits must be derived from it:
“The basic function in pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma. It is often argued that pain must be different in humans because of our ability to anticipate it or imagine its effect on us. But independent of whether cognition and culture can modify pain, I am suggesting a more basic difference in humans compared with animals: that some varieties, such as labor pain, appear only in humans, and others such as post-trauma pain are magnified.
These forms of pain appear in tandem with the ability to recruit help, to elicit an altruistic response in others.”
So pain is social glue. In this double bind we not only the cause of each other’s pain (literally) but also its remedy. Hell is the other, but so is help.
By mourning our dead together, by protesting the injustice suffered, and by ending the silence laid upon us, we not only overcome, we become. Human. Social beings.
Social beings remember each other, even when separated –for a time, or forever. Part of the performers’ script consists of testimonies to the memories the victims. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. Not only their names: what they looked like, what they wore, or how they walked, talked, moved in this world.
Performance art will not bring them back (and neither will sculpture) nor is it a match to the police state –but art can be a powerful reminder that powers operate within our society, other than the powers that be. It can be a wake-up-call to walk away, from oppression and silencing, if not from pain. But first we need to stand up and feel again.
With their closing lines, Kirsten Leenaars performers command us to do just that:
“Stand up. If you’ve ever known love: stand up! Stand up, if you want to love again. Stand up for lives and loves lost.”
Disclaimer: Those of you who know me well, knows that I know Kirsten Leenaars very well, and that I am writing this review, not from the objective position of an art critic, but from that of a very subjective friend.
Leenaars will present an iteration of “Notes on Empty Chairs” at Gallery 400 on Tuesday, July 21 at 6:00pm–
“The Imaginary Center of Perception”
A collaborative performance by Kirsten Leenaars
Albeit highly mediated in TV and the Internet, artist Kirsten Leenaars responds to the witnessing of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, to name a few. Leenaars’ performance responds to the anger, the pain, the injustice, a flawed system and the senseless loss of lives.
Performers: Marvin Tate, Matthew Robinson, Regin Iglora, Kim Chayeb, Monica Brown, Wa Chontong, Toni Zhao, Opel Smittinet, Valentina Vella, Alison Auwerda, Udita Upadhyaya, Kekeli Kodzo Sumah. Drummer: Dan Bitney.
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.