The Realism of Our Time

April 19, 2016 · Print This Article

I recently visited the Adolph Gottlieb show at the Hunter Museum of American Art, A Painter’s Hand: The Works of Adolph Gottlieb. The show is composed largely of monotypes created in the last year of Gottlieb’s life. The monotypes are spare, and the entire show unfolds slowly, rewarding long, repeated looking.

The works demonstrate a dedication to questioning, to building an understanding through the process of making. Smaller, intimate, deliberate marks overtake grand gestures. The visual language that unfolds within the monotypes repeats itself. The shapes and lines subtly shift, providing a foreground for the materiality of the paper and precise colors to show their variety. The beauty and interconnectedness of the work accrue over time, mirroring Gottlieb’s process.

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The white cube of the gallery is a stark contrast to the vibrant, sunny, blossoming world outside. Exiting the spring profusion into the contemplative space of Gottlieb’s works makes me think of the context of his work – the turmoil and unrest of the early 1970s, a life that had experienced both World Wars and the Great Depression, a stroke that had limited his mobility. I think about what Gottlieb wrote in 1947:

Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind certain so-called abstraction is not abstraction at all. On the contrary, it is the realism of our time.

In a moment of fractured aspirations, of irreconcilable ideas of directions forward, what, then, is the realism of our time? It is abstraction of a different kind – the abstraction of promises made from the campaign trail and the debate stage – the abstraction of eighteen months of announcements, debates, and endless news coverage – the abstraction of hundreds of millions of dollars flooding into television ads, internet banners, and targeted emails focus grouped to find us all – the abstraction of decades of historical and political maneuvering that has left us feeling small and powerless in the face of what we are told is inevitable.

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We live in a world that is unrecognizable in the rhetoric and grand gestures of the election cycle. Sweeping pronouncements about what should have been done during the financial crisis do not change the fact that we have to wake up to take care of children and go to work. Promises about economic growth and schools and healthcare do not help us find more time to learn about the world around us and connect with our neighbors. Our world is dramatically shaped by politicians, the policies and laws they create, and the long-term impacts of their decisions, but the visual language through which we are able to view them attempts to erase the differences between them.

The stage (for debates, concession speeches, victory parties, displays of branded steaks), the giant wall of screens, scrolling red-white-blue corporate logos, and glowing podiums repeat from city to city. Ideas and thoughts are not spoken; speeches are directed at hundreds of audience members and beamed to millions of viewers. It is the aesthetic of stated import, a visual language that is meant to convey gravity and authority without offering specificity. That faceless aesthetic belies the tremendous effect and power these people have and will continue to have over the shape of our daily lives and the seriousness with which we should treat their words. We must recognize the entire political apparatus, from the endless news cycle to the aesthetic of the next debate as a creation of a false normalcy, a stage from which to broadcast widely not connect deeply.

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Gottlieb’s abstraction reflected what he saw as the realism of his time. It is time for us to shine the reality of our time onto the abstraction that surrounds us. If we can bridge the gap between the real and the abstract, if we can recognize that the past is as flawed as the present, if we can transform politicians and voters into humans, perhaps we can discover ways to invigorate and enliven the political process into something more than an empty aesthetic, something that reflects the people it serves.




All Hands

February 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Amy Elkins’s exhibition Black is the Day, Black is the Night, at the Cress Gallery at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, explores her relationship with five men who have spent decades in maximum security prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Through photography, video, sound, and objects, Elkins creates a world of the imprisoned men with whom she corresponds. Their words, drawings, and letters are surrounded by portraits of the men and recreations of their visual and aural memories that obscure and layer their experiences. The works unpack memory, the multiplicity of its roots and permutations as its holders are forcibly removed from those places, people, times, through enforced solitude.

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Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

In the large piece, Parting Words, she re-anchors that created world within the world outside of prison. The 531 portraits of the prisoners executed in Texas since 1976 are created with their last recorded words. As those words slowly breathe into life the obscured photographs, they push us back into the world outside of the imagined worlds of memory. The words are communications to those who remain in prison and those of us outside. They are an explicit grounding in the consequences of the prison system in the lives of those people within it and their family, friends, and loved ones, the deadly toll it extracts from our communities.

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Amy Elkins, Parting Words

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Amy Elkins, Parting Words (detail)

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes, “‘We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we also know the silences that were institutionally created and guaranteed along with it.’ Nowhere is that observation more relevant in American society today than in an analysis of the culture of mass incarceration” (quoting Gerald Sider). Alexander is writing of the silence of individual prisoners while in prison, the ways they are kept outside of economic, housing, political, and social opportunities after their release, and of the silent systems of legislation, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that uphold and enforce the criminal justice system.

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Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

Elkins’s exhibition attempts to break the first silence, re-centering five mens’ voices and words, using their experience to develop the works through which she manifests the changes she observes in the men as they spend years in solitary confinement. The repetition of final words recreates hundreds of faces, magnifying a moment into lifetime. In the middle of the exhibition, Elkins has recreated a full-size solitary confinement cell. It is only revealed in the context of the larger constellation of works, not as origin or culmination. By rooting it within the context of the surrounding work, she prioritizes her correspondents’ experiences, memories, poems, and drawings. For the viewer, their complex, human lives are primary over their status as prisoners.

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Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

I do not believe Elkins must be an activist to work with prisoners or the prison-industrial complex. She frames the exhibition as the aesthetic expression of personal relationships she has developed with five prisoners, and it is successful as such. As an aesthetic experience, Elkins has created a compelling exploration of what it means for us to live with the effects of and tacitly support the carceral state.

She also “hopes that these projects brings some light to topics and issues about capital punishment and juvenile incarceration, the inequity that bears upon their application from state to state, and the legal and social debate about race and economic level that surrounds this discussion today.” It certainly sheds light on those topics, but it does not push the viewer to action as other prison- and prisoner-related work by artists (Tamms Year Ten, Prisoners’ Inventions) or work towards other criminal justice reform and prison abolition efforts happening around the country and the world.

There is great need for awareness of the ravages of the criminal justice system on individuals and poor, non-white communities, of the abuse of solitary confinement, of the enormous profits being made at the expense of these communities and the theft of their lives. It is vital that a wider public sees and understands the impacts of the prison system. There must be action beyond that awareness, however. We must recognize the role we have played in the creation and maintenance of those systems and work to change or abandon them. There is a role for art and artists at every point along that journey.




Market, Marketer, Marketest

December 15, 2015 · Print This Article

I went to a holiday market over the weekend. I had a wonderful time, talking with friends, seeing their new work, purchasing a few items, but the market itself has stuck with me, has left me feeling uncomfortable, cold, and alone instead of gathered with a community of makers, together in a world we shape.

It is easy to think of the art market as a painting that sells for hundreds of millions of dollars, blue chip galleries, and the spread of art fairs. The reality for most people in the creative economy is, of course, far more mundane and precarious. The objects we see and buy at markets are supplemented by the work in and out of the creative economy that most artists must do – teaching, curating, arts administration, waiting tables. The proliferation of markets – seasonal markets, local business Saturday, the internet – has increased our ability to support artists and live with the unique items they produce. I love being able to buy beautiful objects from the people who have made them, yet this readiness, this instantaneous access to the local, unique object is exactly where my uneasiness lies.

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A Market (image via)

The hand-made, bespoke, curated life has, not surprisingly, been turned into marketing opportunities for corporations who can sell them back to us conveniently, at the tip of our fingers. They show us a world full of just the right lamp or rug or coaster or pitcher or plant arrangement; they shape the visual culture we cannot escape in subway ads, internet banners, and instagram feeds; they give us a world full of things to be consumed. The unique, curated life masks middle class consumption, an artistic patina that coats the same marketplace that has driven us to extract oil from the ground at ever-expanding rates, lay now-abandoned railroad tracks across the globe, and develop ships and exploitative supply chains that make it easier to manufacture a shoe halfway around the world from its wearer.

Another Market (image via)

By no means am I suggesting we should not support local artists, artists we know and whose work we love. We should buy their plates and prints and sweaters. We should attend their performances and readings. We must also recognize that buying one of their works is not enough to sustain them and may in fact perpetuate a cycle of subsistence. We all know artists who make a living, but how many artists do we know who are thriving? The solution must go beyond shopping locally. Capitalism’s tools cannot dismantle the house it has so successfully and seamlessly built.

How can we support all of the artists, farmers, and dancers we know beyond giving them money for goods and services? How can we shape a world more fully equal and just? We can begin by acknowledging and honoring the many types of support we all need – a friend holding our baby, a neighbor lending us a tool, a ride to the grocery store. We can recognize that, although we live within it, capitalism does not shape or underlie all of the many types of support we give and receive. We may already have the tools to rebuild an entirely new way of seeing and living in the world. We may not yet be able to topple the stalls in the market, but perhaps we can fashion a raft in the sea of consumption that threatens to drown us all.




From the Road: In the Details

November 17, 2015 · Print This Article

There is a palpable disjunction between the experience of Howardena Pindell, Pindell’s stunning solo exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, and its representation in the following words and photos. Beyond the ways in which photographs cannot capture the minute detail inseparable from the immense scale of Pindell’s work, the exhibition builds a complex understanding of a way to view her work that draws us in by asking us to look deeply and closely at and beneath its surface.

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Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1975 (detail)

It is easy to overlook a grouping of six, small works, hanging in one corner of the gallery, washed by Pindell’s voice from Free, White and 21 and dwarfed by the large-scale paintings from the Autobiography series that dominate the space. These works speak with a sure voice and power of their own, and they compel and reward close looking. The regularity of the grids of Parabia Test #4 seem disrupted by the paper dots across and beneath the sheets of vellum, but the deliberate, drawn gestures across the tiny circles anchor them in their places and reinforce the depths plumbed beyond our sight. Untitled, 1975 explodes with and centers color. The layered, reversed, and obscured words of Text resist an easily read comprehension, making explicit the ways in which collage buries meanings, fracturing understandings we assume we know.

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Howardena Pindell, Parabia Test #4 (detail)

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Howardena Pindell, Untitled #58 (detail)

The intimate gesture – ink on paper, hole punched paper within paint, words spoken with deliberate calm, canvas ruptures sutured – is central to all of Pindell’s work in this exhibition. The staggering beauty and power of Pindell’s work has been built slowly and deliberately through these gestures, and those gestures demonstrate the futility of easy comprehension, the impossibility of walking away from the exhibition with a fixed understanding of Pindell and her work. We must match her accumulated, repeated gestures with multiple viewings, with re-seeings that slowly accrue and reveal meaning over time.

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Howardena Pindell, Text (detail)

Ultimately, these words cannot do Pindell’s work justice. There will always be more to learn from Pindell’s work just as there will always be more to learn within this world. Pindell’s first solo exhibition of paintings and drawings was at Spelman College. Thankfully, in specifically re-presenting Pindell’s work here, this exhibition asks us to re-view that work and re-see that world. Fortunately, this exhibition reminds us that we will not find a just and equal world, but perhaps we can build one through small, intimate gestures.

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Howardena Pindell, Autobiography (red Frog II) (detail)

I will continue living with Pindell’s work, the small gestures that built those works and the larger gestures of her career, and I will heed the call to re-see the world, to watch the news for what it does not say, to view the world through which I live as a series of negotiations of power, privilege, and inequity, to work to reveal and realign my place within that world.

Howardena Pindell is on view at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art through December 5, 2015.




From the Road: Transformer

October 27, 2015 · Print This Article

From white cubed commercial galleries to experimental project spaces, from closely packed artist studios to pop-up celebrations out in the dark, Nashville’s first Saturdays are bustling, vibrant, overbrimming with activity. Moving between openings at the beginning of October, I repeatedly heard the mock-lament that there was too much to do, too many places to be for any single night. The looming feeling of always-more fueled movement – walking and driving between galleries, negotiating crowded rooms, navigating shifting frames of mind and sight. Virginia Griswold’s pop-up exhibition Equal Parts at The Packing Plant, however, stopped me in my tracks.

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Virginia Griswold, Equal Parts (all images courtesy of Virginia Griswold)

The walls in the gallery were unfinished, construction frozen before sheetrock hung. The crowd gathered around the small sawhorse table, bending low over the ceramic and resin objects, slowed the momentum of entering from other exhibitions. Joining the circumnavigating stream, I slowly observed the objects on the table. The stasis of the room lengthened my gaze, extended my ability to consider the work.

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As I moved, the textures, lines, and colors of the objects reflected around and across the table – an osage orange, mushroom gills, vessels containing one another – the visual equivalent of musical themes shifting, shimmering in different forms, reappearing across time and space. This echoing revealed the ways in Griswold views the “table as site for transformation.” The table had always been in motion. Its initial stasis was an illusion of my eyes used to the outside world. My time spent within the work transformed singular, static objects into relationship with one another, enlivened the location, proximity, and contact of objects into conversations.

Griswold’s objects are lived with, accruing meaning in the moments of making and across days and weeks of time spent living through the same spaces. On initial viewing, they carry a weight that we cannot feel. They ghost objects we cannot know, recall memories we cannot imagine. The table transforms these long-known objects for Griswold, and the table begins the transformation of just-seen objects for the viewers.

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In the weeks since viewing it, I have lived with the exhibition, sorting and filing the images and echoes, the feeling of the resin, the reflections of the objects I see in my coming and going. The transformation is no longer just within the objects and their relationships; the transformations live within the way I have slowed to watch for the “questionable state” Griswold strives for in her objects and accomplishes in Equal Parts. Her work lives on in that state, neither movement nor stasis, embodying the complexity and reality of our daily lives. As with all living objects, her work enters our lives, transforming the futures we find as we rejoin the movement of the exterior world, the ever-rushing into the night.