It has been cold everywhere recently, colder than it has been in many years. The cold here has seeped into my bones. The days are lit by brittle sunlight, full of the illusion of warmth. The nights open to the icy vacuum of space, filled with the frigid, unblinking stars, and my mind, of course, turns to death.
Recently, I walked in from the cold, whitewashed world to Made in Minnesota at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the Regis Center for Art at the University of Minnesota, and I entered the gallery equivalent of a greenhouse teeming with orchids. The show was full of life, full of objects. The air was humid with production and the presence of artists’ lives embodied in their work. The electric colors of Jay H. Isenberg’s 6 Lil’ Smokeys embraced the dreams of long summer afternoons. Kim Matthews’s barnacle-like works are labor-intensive, tenacious holds on life. Eileen Cohen enlivens her flocked ceramic with organic forms. Rollin Marquette’s Pear-Shaped lies seemingly incomplete, life-interrupted for the viewer to mentally assemble and imbue with new life. The show surges with an abundance of life, a force that has been packed into homes and studios, sealed away from the winter winds, yearning to get out, to express itself in any and every way.
That reminder of life is wonderful, a welcome respite from the cold. I was drawn, however, to the quieter moments of the show, buoyed by the spaces to breathe and reflect, invigorated by the explicit invocations of death. Mayumi Amada’s startlingly large Doily of Foremothers, hidden around a blind corner, is a delicate reminder of the eternal cycles of life and death, a call to remember that we are here because of the lives that are no longer with us. Judy Onofrio’s bone vessels remind us that “fertility and eroticism live side by side with mortality and fragility.” They open a space between what we are and what we will become, holding the life we inhabit within the lives from which we arise, expanding out into the lives that will grow from our deaths. The show opens and closes with George Morrison’s delicate, intimate postcards, small, powerful reminders of a life fully lived, a life shared with others and enriched by the living world around him.
Death surrounds us in all seasons. It is a natural and necessary part of our lives. It is in the food we eat, the air we breath, the leaves of grass beneath our feet. It confronts us more starkly in winter, in the seeming death of plants and the hibernation of animals. We know life is buried beneath the snow, waiting for the warmth of spring to awaken it, but these endlessly cold days make it difficult to see.
We cannot avoid the cold, and we cannot avoid death. We can let them overwhelm and control our lives, or we can rise each morning confident that we can face the cold, that our lives are full of beauty and meaning because they are finite.
Death is not frightening. It is comforting, full of hope, a blessing that allows us to thrive for our few moments. Spring is coming, and we will again see that life buried beneath the snow. When those shoots poke up through the warm soil, let us remember that death is still here, waiting to welcome us all into its quiet, its rest, its never-ending cycle that allows that birth to come forward for the living.
Made in Minnesota is on view until February 15.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Walker Art Center on a very busy night. A few new exhibitions had just opened; the Fritz Haeg residency was coming to an end; there was a live DJ; it was only the first snow of the season and the roads were still clear; admission was free. I walked through hundreds of people dancing and drinking to the pulsing DJ set. I elbowed my way through a crowd to see Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s work. When I finally made it up to the real reason I came, the Lucky Dragons immersive/participatory experience/performance on the crocheted rug at the heart of Fritz Haeg’s At Home in the City, it was quiet. People spoke in hushed tones, looked and read intently, gathered on the rug to crochet scarves and sweaters and commune over what they had brought. A small circle at one side of the rug sat with ribbon-like instruments, holding them to activate various sounds that morphed as you touched another person, formed chains with the others holding the ribbons, alternated who held the ribbons and where they were in the circle.
I had a great time at the Walker, but there was something missing, something that I had experienced the last time I saw Lucky Dragons. At that time, I was immersed in a basement full of people completely in sync with one another, aware of our bodies without speaking as we shaped the immersive sound and videoscape that enveloped us. Lucky Dragons eliminates the line between musician and audience, yet the people playing on the crocheted rug were not completely present. They were transient, ready to move on, to be pulled in the hundreds of other directions the busy night offered. Even the people who lingered the longest, who invited onlookers to join the circle, to commune with touch and sound, to experiment with creating the atmosphere of the room, could not make the circle hold. The Walker was incredibly successful at drawing people in to experience the multitude of events that night. The engagement I had hoped for, however, was pulled in the many directions of those events, and I was left wanting to find it in other ways.
I went to the Artists’ Quarter last weekend to hear Happy Apple. The crowd had braved subzero temperatures for a standing room only show, and Happy Apple delivered what we had come to hear. They were in their stride before they began and ran further and faster than we could believe. They drew out their songs, opening doors through even their most bombastic pieces into quiet, minimal moments that never ended. They defied time, asking us to make the fleeting minutes we were together last all night, embodying the desire of everyone jammed in the tight, dark basement to keep that basement open forever. As we slowly peeled away at the end of the night, we knew we could not stop the Artists’ Quarter from closing at the end of the year after decades of supporting young, experienced, local, and touring groups, but we were united in a joyful, music-filled affirmation of its power and importance.
Dave King, the drummer for Happy Apple and many other groups, recently spoke about the importance of quiet in music venues, the difficulty of playing and listening over the clank of caesar salads and clumsy servers, the noise of crowds and busy bars, the incessant distractions of large venues. The Artists’ Quarter, however, provides “the environment to hear and play [...] music without those interruptions.” Every show I have seen at the Artists’ Quarter has been quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Everyone from the front of the stage to the back of the bar is there to listen, watch, completely engage with musicians. It is powerful and humbling to see musicians and audiences connect so deeply.
At the Happy Apple show, in that basement with no distractions, with nothing else pulling the crowd away, I found the engagement that I missed at the Walker. Everyone left the Artists’ Quarter energized, amazed, and lamenting the loss of a great venue, an invaluable resource for artists and audiences, a place that will be sorely missed not just because it will be harder to see the musicians they supported but also because the loss of any arts venue is a loss to the entire arts ecosystem. King reminds us, “Whenever a place for art outside the commercial paradigm is lost, it becomes harder to sustain the more progressive stuff found off the straight and narrow.” We all know that to be true, but we must sometimes be reminded. We can only hope that reminder does not come too late.
Go to the Walker, support its programs, but go to the Artists’ Quarter too. We need both big and small art institutions, places to hold thousands of people and others to allow for moments of intimate engagement, venues where everyone can find something and others where a few can find a once in a lifetime experience. The Artists’ Quarter has shows through the end of the month. If you are not in Saint Paul, go to your own local arts venues big and small; they need your presence too.
It has turned cold. Recent mornings here have felt more like February than November. The nights grow ever longer. As we prepare to turn inward, to tuck ourselves away during the coming winter months, I typically want to rest my oversaturated mind, find peace from the overwhelming and inescapable cavalcade of cultural production and consumption. I have instead found myself invigorated by and seeing anew through an analogy from Jean Cocteau.
In a translation by Richard Howard, Cocteau writes:
The mechanism which imposes upon us the beauty of a picture, or, more correctly, the combination of lines and volumes capable of moving us, results from a phenomenon analogous to what triumphs over our intelligence when sexuality speaks. A kind of psychic sexuality provokes a moral erection comparable to the sexual one in that it functions without our control and gives immediate proof of the effectiveness of the forms and colors likely to convince a secret part of our organism.
I gravitate toward artwork that can only be consumed through time, that makes me think, that forces my mind in new directions and challenges my notions of what the world is. I know how to live with that work outside its context. I know how to carry it around with me as it informs the rest of my life because it has already existed in my mind through successive moments. I have a harder time knowing how to live with artworks that are immediate, nebeneinander. It might thrill me to my core, but where does it live in my brain when I leave? Why does it still influence me as I continue through my days? Its momentary nature belies its potential impact. The moral erection, the immediate, nonrational responses I have to those works shifts that impact away from my rational mind to a place I cannot see, a place all the more profound because it is unplumbable.
I can tell myself I love this video because I love doughnuts and state capitols, but my reaction lies beyond any simple intellectual explanation. I can tell myself that I love this recently completed mural for how it erases the Machado poem or that I can balance my sincere and ironic appreciation of the eagle, but, again, those explanations fall short of what happens when I see it.
I am, of course, reminded of other times I leave my rational mind behind. Cocteau sprang to mind as I was overwhelmed by the moonlight when I took the trash out last night, the light far more sublime and mortality-inducing than beautiful. He was with me as I woke from a dream that has haunted my days, my unconscious mind imprinting my waking life. He is with me as I sift through the numbing plenitude of the internet, finding flashes of light in the darkness that tug at something.
Humans have evolved to block out sensory inputs; unlike dogs we are no longer so overwhelmed by the smell on a tree that we drop everything to investigate it. We can use that saved brain power and energy to explore the mysteries of the universe, but, increasingly, we must develop ways of ignoring the hundreds of words, the thousand of sounds, the millions of things trying to grab our attention in order to know that mysteries still exist.
I hear Cocteau calling us back to a moment when we felt the psychic sexual thrill of seeing the first painting that called to us, the moral erection of that song that still stirs our heart. He reminds me to pay attention when I feel stirrings that work beyond my rational brain, past the barriers that I put in place to manage the onslaught. More than a silly or dismissive way to explain away what we like, he reminds us that the experiences that move us precisely because we cannot explain why they do are necessary and important to our complete health as mental, physical, emotional, and aesthetic beings, all the more so as the culture that confronts us screams that it is as profound and fundamental to our well being as that kind of experience.
At the very least, he sheds light on why I continually respond to and deeply love the mural I pass every day that for one reason or another hits me like a…
The days have been warm recently. The last heat of summer is slowly entering the trees. The nights are growing longer, and when the wind is suddenly filled with the smell of decomposing leaves, I feel the call to be outside, to experience the changes and vibrancy of this time of year. I want to say, “Come out from indoors. Come out to experience the real world around us.”
I went to the 2012/2013 Jerome Emerging Artist Fellowship Exhibition over the weekend, and I felt the same way. The Jerome Foundation Fellowships have supported emerging artists since 1981. The fellowship comes with $10,000, studio visits from professional critics, technical assistance, and a culminating exhibition. It is one of the premier individual artist awards in Minnesota. The opening was full of people wanting to see that work, to support that legacy of emerging artists, to see who the Jerome Foundation had selected as the artists to continue watching, but I wanted to say, “Come out from the gallery. Come out to experience the real world around us. The work in the exhibition is good and interesting within the gallery, but it has truly come to life as I have lived with it outside, in the real world.”
The installation of One Another, Michael Hoyt‘s bicycle drawn mobile drawing table and drawings of community members he asks to sit with him in parks, playgrounds, and public spaces, is a small distillation of a project that can only exist outside the gallery. The drawings point to longer interactions and conversations that cannot exist in the static space of the exhibition. The questions of what those conversations were and why the participants did not draw have lingered. I have lived with the multitude of imagined portraits of Hoyt all week.
Amanda Hankerson‘s The Hankersons pulls me similarly into the lives of the many Hankerson families she has photographed. The physical presence of the large portraits reinforces the fact that the work is more than a tumblr of related images. Beyond the gallery, I can see into the lives of the other Hankerson families across the country, as they seem to contemplate the trajectory of their own lives more within the collective life of a group of strangers with the same name.
Melissa Loop pushes me away from the internet similarly. Her move away from her former landscapes inspired by endless internet images to the acid skies and dripping, decrepit buildings within the landscapes of the exhibition has inflected my own looking at the buildings we live in, the landscapes that decay around us. Her landscapes feel lived in, repopulated from the emptiness of place online with a flatness that I recall when I see the flickering blue of a television in a curtained room, a depth of life beneath the veneer of exterior walls.
Susannah Bielak’s ongoing project Vientos investigates the wind, “a force made visible by its impact on other things.” The video and static work she presents explore the visible impacts of wind, power, ideals of perfection, but they exist in an environment devoid of any atmospheric turbulence. The impacts of wind, the implications of its layered associations are mediated, but the associations have returned again and again as the wind rushes around me, as I hear wind chimes out my windows, as the piles of leaves change overnight. The ghostly hands of the wind are inescapable. We may grow inured to the way it shapes our lives, but I have started feeling its presence again in the way we talk, the way we interact.
The figures in Lauren Roche‘s paintings partially emerge from darkness, faces, hands, mouths, animals suffused with a palpable energy that is exponentially multiplied by the number of works in the exhibition. The figures are grounded in another reality that continues to speak to me beyond the gallery. I do not speak their language, but they tell me that their transformation from notebook page to finished painting is full of the answers to questions I do not know how to ask.
I often prefer work that forces me to spend time with it, durational works, books, music, film. My understanding of those works changes throughout my experience of them. One of the pleasures of visual art is its immediacy, its more instantaneous consumption. The deeper pleasure is in works that linger, that seed my mind with thoughts, explorations, and revelations that slowly unfold. As I put on sweaters and put up storm windows, I will rest assured that the outside world continues to exist within the indoors we are preparing.
With Venice still in the air and the anticipation of the Whitney hanging over us, the world is changing around me, and I cannot help but draw analogies to the art ecosystem. The squash in my neighbor’s garden is swelling. The layers of crushed acorns are growing, and I have seen the first abandoned leaves start to fall. It is the imminent bursting of milkweed pods and the reminder of the larvae they fed, however, that provides the visual catalyst for ,,, the third Minnesota Biennial that opened at The Soap Factory last weekend. A Nabokovian menagerie, ,,, is a series of butterflies.
The flashiest, brightest butterflies do not need to fly past us to catch our attention. They overwhelm all of our senses. The Basketball Team‘s Sgt. Moore wafts the smell of whiskey throughout the gallery. The looping, Reichian patterns of Nate Young‘s Untitled (Soul Clap no. 1) echo in the silence of the distant companion video Untitled (Soul Clap no. 2). The shuttering of the 16mm projector pulls us into Stefanie Motta‘s Seeing. The drone of the prepared keyboard inside 7-Sided Room with Painted Floor by Andrew Mazorol and Tynan Kerr permeates the galleries and intensifies the rarefied air inside the room.
Some of the butterflies stun us visually. The mountain of fabric of RO/LU‘s Here There Then, Here There Now is inescapable, and Broc Blegen‘s larger than life cut outs of Scrooge McDuck comics, from Allen Ruppersberg, Big Trouble, highlight the bleak portrayal of ego and money in the public art world in the cutout prints on the walls behind them. If taste and touch feel left out, the popcorn from Jess Hirsch‘s reikiwave makes its way throughout the biennial in the greasy hands of visitors, and Adam Caillier and Michael Mott gently enfold us in the absences and presences of Negative Air Room.
Other butterflies are camouflaged, hiding right in front of us, disguising themselves or only revealing their beauty on closer inspection. Allen Brewer and Pamela Valfer‘s mediations of each other’s work are subtle; the twin pieces of The Two Darrins flicker between paintings and the moire of screen mesh. The seemingly static shots of Scott Nedrelow‘s three and a half hour Leaving the Atocha Station invite long-term, real-time reading of the novel’s pages. Infinite Field, Peter Happel Christian‘s collection of altered photographs, stacks of glass, carefully placed tools, is a layered reflection of the interiority of image making. The most obviously camouflaged moth is Ben Moren and Daniel Dean‘s Untitled (Selections From the Permanent Collection), a walking video tour through an alternate exhibition, a second exhibition that reveals itself on top of the biennial.
Some of the butterflies are still nestled within their cocoons. The ongoing dance, music, and other performances are as integral to the biennial as any of the static work, revealing themselves slowly, the chrysalis growing transparent before freeing the fully formed winged creature we anticipate seeing. The opening was full of anticipation as those first butterflies opened their wings, taking flight before a full house, continuously beating their wings in the vinyl LP catalog supplement.
Thinking of all of these butterflies and the weight in the air, I cannot help but wonder about all of the other insects I am missing. Mosquitoes and mayflies have come and gone; earthworms continue to transform the soil beneath our feet. The plants and rocks are as necessary as the rain and sun. When we venture out into the wilds, we can bring our butterfly nets, but what other tools do we need to help us see what is there? Do we need a microscope or a rain coat? Does the art ecosystem change as the external world does? Squirrels begin their annual collections, and geese call to us from their veeing south. There will be a tiger in town tonight with its promise of warmer climes. As it passes, will we understand the beauty that surrounds us more clearly?
,,, is on view at The Soap Factory until November 3rd.