The acclaimed mixed-media creator on colonialism, women warriors, and the consumerism that pays her bills.
By Benjy Hansen-Bundy on Sat. October 12, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
“The power for me is to keep the story of the female in the center, to keep discussing and talking about women as protagonists,” Wangechi Mutu said in a video introduction to A Fantastic Journey, her recent exhibition at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. For the casual art fancier who happens upon it, as I did this summer, the exhibition was like embedding in Mutu’s mind: Black globes of crumpled plastic hang on strings suspended from the ceiling, a looping video of the artist devouring cake flickers on the floor, and triumphant warrior women occupy magnificent collage landscapes on the walls.
Mutu, a Brooklyn transplant via Nairobi, deploys mixed media to grapple with themes of consumerism and colonization, of gender and race—and war. Her large, lush collages draw from images familiar to us, such as magazine photos of bare flesh and car engines, which she transforms into works that are mysterious, beautiful, and somewhat terrifying. Her animated short, The End of eating Everything, done in collaboration with the singer Santigold, depicts a colossal machine/beast/planet feeding on black birds while floating in a vast industrial dead space. In an interview discussing the piece, Santigold praised Mutu for her “explosive renewal” of artistic expression at a time when vapid materialism dominates the popular culture.
Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Lacey Haslam of Oakland-based BLOCK Gallery and artist Kari Marboe regarding their newest project titled Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled. Six months ago, they connected over email and by November, BLOCK will be presenting Kari’s site-specific public artwork in Oakland’s downtown area – specifically on the site known as Latham Square.
It wasn’t until half way through our conversation that I realized that we were sitting in Latham Square, just a few feet away from the site-specific building windows that would house Kari’s artwork. Kari shared fascinating stories and trivia tidbits about the small section of the city known as Latham Square, which was named after the late-19th century pioneer family of James and Henrietta, and their children Milton and Edith. The family had fueled money and programming into Oakland, including education for children on animal rights. One hundred years ago, Milton and Edith created a memorial fountain to their parents that was for “both man and beast”. The incredibly historical Latham Fountain now sits in Latham Square – sans running water – as a source of inspiration for Kari’s newest work.
Jeffrey: So what’s BLOCK Gallery all about?
Lacey: BLOCK started experimenting in 2010, playing with the on-going question of what happens when we move artwork outside of the white wall gallery space – thinking about the function of art outside traditional institutions, whether that’s museums or galleries. What BLOCK aims to do is tap into the function of art, and activating art from a more inclusive and educational place. What started as an experiment turned into site-specific exhibitions, meaning curating the work based on what’s happening in the space and using the context of the space as the content of the exhibition. What this approach ends up doing is providing an outlet for not only the artist to exhibit work – maybe it’s a piece that they have already created or it’s a piece that responds to the space – but exhibiting concepts the artists are already working with and putting it in a space that anyone can walk into or by and say, “oh this relates to me because I’m interested in this idea as well”.
J: So where are you now, three years later?
L: BLOCK is now moving into public space. It now has two different spaces –the alternative spaces with full-on rotating exhibitions and now the public space, and that’s where Kari’s coming in as an artist who also incorporates public spaces in her practice. These exhibitions are free, public, 24/7 – I mean, there are no hours associated with when you can view the work. You are not walking into a well-lit cube between the hours of 10 AM and 6 PM; rather you are walking down the street or stumbling upon them by happenstance.
J: How did you meet Kari? How did you guys hook up?
L: She actually reached out because she saw what BLOCK was doing. She was interested in the program that BLOCK was building and said, “hey, here’s my work, maybe we can pull together some projects”. I looked at her portfolio and it was exactly what I was looking for – she works site-specifically, in the public sphere, but she also draws on what’s happening in that space. Since our first meeting she has been fully involved in the entire process.
J: So Kari, how did you get to know of the BLOCK sort of “thing” that was happening?
Kari: I first heard about BLOCK while I was just finishing up my MFA over at UC Berkeley. I had been creating site-specific text-based installations during my time there—
J: “Site-specific text-based”?
K: Artworks designed conceptually and physically for a particular space, and in my case made with text. For example, during our thesis exhibition I worked with Dena Beard to find a public and easily accessible spot outside of the Berkeley Art Museum to place a piece. She suggested taking over one of the panels outside of the museum on Bancroft which is normally used for internal advertising on upcoming exhibitions or events and found a 4’x4’ panel that was available during the time we needed. So I wrote a piece that talked about being exactly in that space, the motions of coming in and out of the museum, in poem form so people could sit down on one of the benches across from the work and enjoy it for a while. The label for the work was displayed right as you were walking out of the museum, so people were stopping and asking, “where is this piece of art, it’s not the Calder, where is it”. Another piece I worked for that show was with the East Bay Express—
J: The newspaper?
K: Yep, the free newspaper that comes out weekly. They were so kind and donated rectangular advertising space to me for seven consecutive weeks. My collaborator Erin Johnson jumped on board and we made a series of seven squares that spoke about the nature and functions of a newspaper. That was a fun project, especially since it was free and available to everyone. While I was working on that, I also spent a lot of time online, seeing what other people were doing with sites and where my text work could fit in. I somehow ran into BLOCK Gallery and it was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I had never heard of a site-specific gallery before, or at least not one in the area, and was immediately interested in meeting the person behind it.
J: What was that advertising or marketing for BLOCK?
L: Gosh, at that point, it was very minimal. It started by hooking up with Oakland event calendars and bare-bone sites to say, “hey, I’m a program in Oakland and this is what I do”. It hasn’t been easy to put words to this type of program, instead I had to just do it, letting the installation images and the curatorial statements piece it all together.
J: So Kari, take me through that process of contacting Lacey…
K: After looking at BLOCK’s website I decided to send her an email with some links to my work. We got together and brainstormed on the types of sites that would be exciting to work with. While looking around in downtown Oakland we stumbled across Latham Square just before the City of Oakland and ReBar started their Pilot Project there.
L: In our first meeting, I mentioned wanting to do something in that little triangle where Broadway and Telegraph spilt – we didn’t know it had a name then. After seeing the Pilot Project and realizing that it did not involve any artwork – other than the street paintings – we started thinking about how to get in touch with the City, ReBar, what the logistics of doing a work there might be, what would a project there look like, and how could we help add to this newly pedestrian space.
J: So what is Latham Square? Are the Latham’s an Oakland-based family?
K: I’m glad you asked.
L: Yes, here it comes!
K: When we thought we might be interested in doing the project here I went to the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library— wait, have you ever been in that room?
K: Oh my goodness, it’s worth a visit! They have a specific room and librarian for all-things-Oakland on the second floor. The first librarian I met was already familiar with the Lathams and instantly pulled the files of James, the father, and Edith, the daughter.
J: So interesting! I just got the chills.
K: I know! They also have a database with scanned articles from the Oakland Tribune. I was able to search around and found an amazing article from April 10, 1913, that described a great deal about the fountain and the dedication ceremony. I mean everything from the color of the granite to Mr. Latham’s first job. The title of this piece – Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled – is the same as the article’s title.
Kari continues to share the fabulous history of the Lathams. It is so fabulous that it has become the driving concept behind her installation. Text here would do no justice, and rather, a visit to the work of art would be most appropriate.
K: What I’m interested in is taking this history and creating a piece that combines that story – specifically the desires of motives of the Latham children for building the fountain – with themes of how the memories of citizens are preserved within city structures over time. It’s been just over a hundred years since the fountain was installed.
L: And at a certain point this piece will become part of Latham Square’s history as well.
J: Can you talk about some of the logistics of the piece?
K: Oh, boy. Site-specific pieces are about eighty-percent logistics and twenty-percent art making.
L: It’s been email after email, meeting after meeting. It’s an ongoing evolution. You don’t want to start on finalizing the actual artwork because so much can change.
J: Any details of those emails or meetings?
K: Well, we knew we had to talk to the Downtown Oakland Association.
L: The Downtown Oakland Association oversees a lot of different departments. Their main mission focuses on getting Oakland to be a more livable, more beautiful, more active, safer city. For example, they do the hanging plants on the lights, they have solar integrated trash compactors – great solution to any city’s trash management.
K: They have a certain amount of funding allocated for projects like ours. For instance, they helped Art Murmur get off the ground and have been sponsoring the Great Wall where large-scale video projections happen.
L: What’s fascinating about Oakland is that there is so much energy around the city’s re-identification through art, to position it as an exciting and relevant cultural hub. The crowds that turned out in the early days for the Art Murmur activated Oakland in a certain way, and now that First Friday has hit a plateau, I think there’s a lot of room for growth at this point. There is a ballooning need to gather around art again.
J: What’s BLOCK’s position in the Oakland art scene?
L: BLOCK is designed to be fluid on every aspect. When you’re not tied to a space, you’re not worried about the on-going programming of that one space. Being able to break away from that idea and bring art to a community or to places that people will frequent, and being able to use art as a sort of bridge for a new experience. In essence, the program is about activating art, activating space to further the experience. So, why is BLOCK in Oakland? That’s a fascinating question. There’s something here, there’s an energy here that San Francisco has, but it translates in a very different way. Oakland is primed for growth, has a sense of opportunity. The people we’ve come in contact with here have an authentic, raw enthusiasm for it. I haven’t seen that in any other space or city.
Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled will be presented from November 1, 2013 to April 2014. For more information, visit http://www.block-gallery.com/locations/public-space/lathamunveiled
In case you thought we maybe glossed over the epic amount of blood sweat and tears that went into last week’s art fair extravaganza, I thought I’d repost a few articles that came out in the last few days including this one from Art in America:
Strong Sophomore Outing for Expo Chicago
“I’ll tell you what distinguishes this year from last year,” Expo Chicago director Tony Karman told A.i.A. at the fair’s sophomore outing on Saturday, “and I’ll tell you in one word—sales. It was very important that big dealers like David Zwirner and Marianne Boesky do well, and they have.”
Featuring over 120 international galleries at the capacious Navy Piers (up from 100 last year), with views of Lake Michigan, Expo Chicago (Sept. 19-22) represented dealers from 17 countries and 36 cities. Some were returning, like Zwirner (New York and London), Matthew Marks (New York and Los Angeles), and Kavi Gupta (Chicago and Berlin). There were also many first-timers, including Marianne Boesky (New York), Cabinet (London), Massimo de Carlo (Milan and London) and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.
While almost every exhibitor acknowledged that sales were little to none in 2012, nearly all said that business was better this year. Dealers reported a range of sales, starting as low as $4,000 for works on paper by Chicago’s own William J. O’Brien at Boesky. Works in a modest price range found the most ready buyers, but there were outliers. Boesky told A.i.A. of serious interest in an assemblage by Salvatore Scarpitta, Drummer Seargeant (1963), which was tagged at $750,000, and one dealer who declined to be named told A.i.A. that he had sold a million-dollar artwork—and to a walk-in customer, no less. read more
A handful of additional EXPO 2013 accounts can be found here:
Paul Klein on The Huffington Post, with some lovely installations shots to boot:
This is the second year of this wonderful mid-sized art fair, with substantial galleries bringing some A quality art and almost enough cutting edge galleries showing off exciting artists to watch.There are some gorgeous treasures to be seen.
Many reports via Art Fag City over the course of the week/end, beginning with from Paddy Johnson’s mixed reaction:
Importantly, the fair seems an enormous step up from anything Merchandise Mart offered, a mega-fair corporation that’s been largely unsuccessful at handling art. Much as the company does for Volta in New York, Merchandise Mart used their own real estate to house Next Art Chicago, even though its low ceilings were unsuited to showcasing art. Last year, when they closed, the organization claimed that collectors were only purchasing art on the coast lines.
A photo collection courtesy of Paddy Johnson, with “the good, the bad and the ugly:”
And AFC’a closing word from Robin Dluzen:
A main concern for EXPO and the exhibiting galleries was last year’s absence of collectors and museums from the wider midwest region and beyond, and this year, EXPO managed to draw them in. William Lieberman of Zolla/Lieberman Gallery (a veteran Chicago dealer, first time EXPO exhibitor) saw his clients from St. Louis and San Francisco; Monique Meloche, also exhibiting for the first time at EXPO and the founder of Gallery Weekend Chicago running concurrently with the fair, had museum groups from Kentucky and Denver buying for themselves and buying for the museums. “MoMA is not going to buy here,” she explains, “But this can be a strong regional place.” It’s not just the out-of-towners making themselves known, but also the more reclusive local collectors. “I had Sanford Biggers in my windows for months,” said Meloche of the artist’s recent exhibition at her eponymous gallery, “I brought him here to the fair and there are Chicago collectors discovering the work for the first time.”
Dmitry Samarov writes in Art on its Own Terms:
My strategy at these fairs has always been to run through the entire thing quickly, then return to anything that made my eye stop. Most years that amounts to four or five paintings or drawings and this year was no different. There was a good corner where a David Park portrait was next to an Elmer Bischoff figure painting, with a Richard Diebenkorn drawing round the corner. I was also happy to see a Leon Kossoff painting along with a couple of drawings. There was an Alice Neal children’s portrait too, that made all the work around it look like newspaper clippings. The thing I liked best though were a couple small Harold Haydon cityscapes.
And finally — Artslant Thomas Connors interviewed Tony Karman:
TC: A fair of modern and contemporary work must be something of a balancing act. You’ve got the de Kooning collector on one hand and the Simon Starling fan on the other. And I’m guessing the blue chip collector isn’t looking to acquire an emerging artist.
TK: Let me disagree with you. To some extent, there are certain collectors who will only want to buy that de Kooning. But other lifelong collectors want to be in the vanguard; they are going to look to the younger work because that is equally exciting to them. That’s probably more the norm. A great collector likes to have a balance of contemporary work and historical material.
I have known Deb Sokolow for some time and I can say with frank honesty if I ever end up with extra cash I will buy up her book pieces. Not only do I see her career on a well-deserved upward trajectory, she hits many of the themes that tickle my fancy: paranoia, information, books, systems, and an eye to detail that I stand in awe of. For me her work is that rare culmination of fun, thought provoking, serious (particularly in the technique), and the result of much hard work and thought. Take a listen to our interview with her where she talks about her process.
I received a notice the other day that she has a new show at Western Exhibitions (who is home to lots of other artists I enjoy and admire, and BAS hasn’t managed to make Scott angry in years now, so a visit to WE is a love fest for me), which opens Friday the 15th of March. You should go check it out! In anticipation of the exhibition I did a brief online interview with Deb to talk about the new show and it goes a little something like this:
RH: So Deb, we’ve interviewed you, followed your work, like it greatly. I’ve heard you have an exciting new show opening the 15th at Western Exhibitions; can you tell us about it?
DS: The show comes from a story I wrote while at a residency in Norway this past summer. The story is loosely based on the residency’s environs and I wrote the residency’s administrators and the other artists there into the story as characters. I won’t get into too much of what the story is about here- I don’t want to reveal too much- but the idea for it comes from this feeling I had about the place. The entire two months I was there, I kept thinking, “What’s the catch?” Because the place is an artist’s fantasyland: Each artist receives a monthly stipend, a travel stipend, a beautifully designed cabin and a large, gorgeous studio with a whole wall of windows looking out on the most beautiful Nordic forest scene ever, and there is a significant amount of uninterrupted time to work. Everything about it just seemed too good to be true, so I thought that maybe the place could be a front for something else.
When I came back to Chicago, I took the story I wrote and made it into a 28 foot-long, text-and-image drawing, plus a few other ancillary drawings and books that relate directly or indirectly to the large piece or to my time spent there. For the show at Western Exhibitions, I decided to put these ancillary items in the front room so that they might function as a sort of precursor to the large drawing in the second, back room. I’ve been reading Thomas Pynchon and
Joseph Heller lately and thinking about how in their narratives, certain characters and organizations and locations are continuously mentioned in at least the full first half of the book (in Pynchon’s case, it’s hundreds of pages) without there being a full understanding or context given to these elements until much later in the story. And by that later point, everything seems to fall into place and with a feeling of epic-ness. It’s like that television drama everyone you
know has watched, and they tell you snippets about it but you don’t really understand what it is they’re talking about, but by the time you finally watch it, everything about it feels familiar but also epic.
RH: You say you spent two months in Norway on a mountain top. What was that like?
DS: The residency is on a small mountain above the small town of Dale, which has a population of 980 people and a few waterfront areas alongside a fjord. The next largest town is about an hour away. It’s fairly isolated, but luckily there is a pub that opened recently and makes its own IPA. The brewer there tells me his IPA is modeled after Indiana’s Three Floyds’s IPA. Small world. Also, one of the best parts about that mountain in the summer: the wild berries- all kinds, and picking and eating them for breakfast. So good.
RH: Berries and beer, the breakfast of champions! Was it easier to work in the relative silence or harder? I sometimes find that when I am away from the base level din of urbanity I find the lack of it distracting.
DS: It was hard. I usually make work about people, and so it was strange to be in a place with so few people. The beauty of the place also ended up being pretty distracting. I kept saying to myself, “Why am I making art when there is the most beautiful landscape out this window that I could look at for hours and hours.”
Looking back on the experience, though, it was incredibly productive in that I came back to Chicago with so many ideas that had been generated by those two months in Norway.
RH: Was there lutefisk?
DS: I think there was, but I never had it, and they weren’t serving it in the café in town. Mostly, I remember eating a tasty, creamy fishball soup and having a reindeer stew, which was delicious.
RH: So wait, the main protagonist in this piece is a disgruntled Art Institute security guard, I was one of those once (both 1st and 2nd shift), are you writing my unauthorized biography? Your unauthorized biography?
DS: I should have talked to you before I wrote the piece. I’ve never been a security guard at an art museum. Maybe you could have given me more insight into the Art Institute’s security set-up, such as whether there are any one-way mirrors in the place or whether there might be any particularly vulnerable masterpieces in the joint. What a missed opportunity!
RH: I don’t know, it was a seriously unexciting job. The highest drama I ever experienced was the demographic of the guards largely women post 50 who were serious about the religion and clean living and I was like 20 and hung over most of the time. I got lectures a great deal. They were very sweet, they wanted me to clean up my lifestyle. Their heart were in the right place.
Your work is often very narrative, with an overarching trajectory, examining events, conspiracies, the lives of drug lords, and now art thieves. Do you write prose works as well? These tales strike me that they would make great novels too.
DS: I’ve never written a novel, and the thought of doing that scares me. I have enough trouble focusing on writing a short story! Also, I think I would have some difficulty telling a story without the use of images.
RH: You work often has a set of complex sub-theme weaving in and out of the narrative. The movie Rocky comes to mind in one of your prior series. Are there various threads worked throughout this work? If so, what, if not why not?
DS: There are several sub-themes in this work: A certain fascination with the machinations of crime syndicates, the strangeness of being an artist and the strange relationship that I think any artist working in an art museum might have with that institution. I was once an intern in an art museum, and while my immediate boss was great, in general I felt like I was a tourist or sometimes an intruder in the place. Later on, after the internship, I ended up exhibiting at this museum, and the relationship this second time around to the place and to the people I had once known as an intern was very different. There are also multiple mentions of
different food items that I find humorous and have appeared in past works (i.e. noodles, sandwiches and pickles). Sandwiches in particular, I think, have this comedic potential that other foods just don’t have.
RH: I am a big fan of your book projects, do you have any planned in the near future?
DS: There are two artist books in this show- one is called “A Short History of Unconventional Ingredients Found in the Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich” and the other one is called “A Walk in Nature or the Faces of Former Bosses.” I also just wrote a short book called “The Truth about David Copperfield” (the master illusionist) which isn’t in this show, but it’s up in a concurrent exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut. I saw him perform once when I was a kid and have been fascinated with him since. I mean, seriously, the guy made the Statue of Liberty disappear. How cool is that?
RH: I think he was just in the news proclaiming himself the greatest magician who ever lived. What is on the horizon, what is next for you? A life of crime? Have you considered a side-line as a private detective, you have that investigative drive to chase down all possible paths.
DS: Well, Richard, I’d rather be a detective than a criminal, although criminals lead much more interesting lives. Art-wise, I’m in the brainstorming phase with a narrative that relates to my cousin Irving’s real-life connection to Lee Harvey Oswald. Irving had been a mentor to troubled youth in NYC, Oswald being one of them. It’s a story that I’m trying to flesh out and connect to other things, but I’m not really sure where it’s going. This will be a project for a Drawing Center show this fall. And after that, who knows? I’ve considered starting up a business in which people hire me to pay regular house calls to their cats to come and
entertain them… I’d wear a tool belt with all kinds of different cat toys on it. There are a lot of lonely cats out there, so I actually do think this could be a viable career option.
RH: Like a cat superhero, or cat ninja!! I love it! Thanks for talking with me Deb.
March 15 to April 20, 2013
In Gallery 1 + 2
For her second solo show at Western Exhibitions, DEB SOKOLOW will exhibit a 28-footlong drawing as well as a selection of separate but tangentially-related items inspired by a recent two-month stay at the mountaintop artist residency, Nordisk Kunstnarsenter Dalsåsen, in Norway. The show opens on Friday, March 15 with a free public reception from 5 to 8pm and runs through April 20, 2103.
Full press release:
Deb Sokolow’s concurrent MATRIX166 show “Some Concerns About the Candidate” at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, up now through June 30, was recently reviewed in THE NEW YORK TIMES and HARTFORD COURANT. See the reviews here and here. Her work in the just-closed group show “How I Wrote Elastic Man” at Invisible-Exports in New York City was discussed on ARTFORUM.COM. See the review here.
845 W Washington Blvd
Chicago, IL 60607 USA
Gallery hours: Wed-Sat, 11am-6pm