from the editor
When I say Birth of the Cool, do you think modish mid-century art and design or sleek large-scale portraits of African-American sitters by Barkley L. Hendricks? Two exhibitions by the same title coincided this year: Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury (at The Blanton through May 17) and Barkley Hendricks: Birth of the Cool (closed March 15 at the Studio Museum and traveling). This incident reinforced my misgivings about the art and design exhibition at the Blanton. Racial politics and nostalgia are at issue here, and no one wants to go there.
At the Blanton, Miles Davis’s tunes drift through the space, amping up the “coolness factor” of the hard edged paintings and chic furniture decorating the gallery. The work of Anglo-American painters and designers gains cultural capital through association with an African American musician. In the 50s, that’s what was happening. Black musicians were becoming increasingly mainstream, and through consumption of this music, white people could appropriate their coolness.
Many of the exhibition’s reviewers have alluded to the racial politics of the 50s by mentioning what immediately followed it: the civil rights movement. Willard Spiegleman put it best in the Wall Street Journal when he explained, “The show leaves the impression that one synonym for ‘cool’ is neither ‘hip,’ nor ‘sleekly rational,’ nor ‘laid-back.’ It is, unexpectedly, ‘innocent.’ The '50s died officially on Nov. 22, 1963 … Still, the postwar generation had hopefulness, too often mistaken by cultural historians for conformity and repression.” According to this argument, we didn’t know any better in the 50s, and we grew up a lot over the second half of the century. Spiegleman concludes, “When we look at the pictures … we might say to ourselves ‘how young they all are.’”
Spiegleman’s words express wistful nostalgia for the coolness of the 50s, the “recklessness, abandon, sang-froid, talent” of its cultural producers. He has a point: where has that hopefulness gone? How can we recapture it?
But this wistfulness also seems dangerous. Reading about the “death” of cool in review after review, a worrisome subtext came through. Civil rights movements “swallowed up” the energy of the 50s, as one reviewer put it. In aggregate, these reviews seem to blame the loss on struggles for equality (and peace). Ken Johnson wrote of the exhibition in the New York Times, “It’s hard to imagine the stars lining up for a rebirth of the cool, but if there is a heaven, I bet it’s a pretty cool place.” It sounds so pretty and simple. But would it be?
Who doesn’t love a mid-century couch? Our nostalgia for the 50s isn’t wrong it just needs to be complicated. When she reviewed it for …might be good, Katie Geha described Birth of the Cool as capturing “a mid-century mentality of comforting (frightening?) simplicity.” Yes, frightening.
In this issue, Dan Boehl’s review of Kehinde Wiley’s show at Artpace San Antonio suggests that the racially loaded appropriation of coolness is still at issue in contemporary American culture. The market, of course, plays a large part here. What are we marketing, to whom and how? Eric Zimmerman’s review of Boris Groys’s Art Power suggests that art and capitalism have become overly codependent, and begs the question, how can we establish new platforms for discourse and judgment? Paddy Johnson of Art Fag City instills hope for this project in her interview, suggesting that the economic downturn has, in fact, opened up space for discourse apart from the market. At the same time, Dave Bryant reminds us that we continue to depend on the market when he importunes, “That is an open invitation, money, if you are listening. Come on over for a visit.” The trick is—and I’m not saying this is easy—simultaneously acknowledging our participation in the market and straining to work beyond it.
The rumblings that we’re in some sort of post-identity era may have partly enabled the racial undertones of Birth of the Cool to go so unscrutinized. We still have work to do, and Laura Lindenberger’s review of Phantom Sightings and an Artist’s Space with Mequitta Ahuja demonstrate that artists are still dealing with the legacy of identity politics in a complex, productive way.
Two weeks from now, look forward to our next issue, including a review of Erick Michaud at Art Palace and a roundtable with Leah Ollman and our staff writers on art criticism in Austin.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.
By Claire Ruud
Paddy Johnson. Photo: Jon Rafman.
Paddy Johnson is Art Fag City (and much, much more). While she was in Austin for the SXSW Interactive Festival, I spent an afternoon showing her around town and talking about art blogs, web technology and the NYC art fairs from which she'd just come.
…might be good: When I saw you’d received a Creative Capital grant for Art Fag City, I wanted to get in touch to ask you the “why art blogs now” question.
Paddy Johnson: Creative Capital has had an award open for online grants for three years, but when you’re creating a grant that supports a relatively new activity, it takes a while to establish evaluative criteria and so on. In the case of blogging, it’s almost an impossible task because things change so quickly. Half the time even people who do it all the time don’t know what they’re doing.
…mbg: [Laughter] Right. So who is your target audience at Art Fag City?
PJ: That’s a question with an evolving answer, but in a very broad sense, I try to make Art Fag City accessible to anyone who’s interested in culture, in general, and create an entry way into visual art world for them.
…mbg: Your intention to reach all kinds of "culture hounds" reminds me of the way you intersperse your straight up “art” posts with really off-the-wall links, like Hot Chicks with Douchebags [laughter]—so what is that about?
PJ: Laura Hoptman was quoted recently saying that the artists in Younger than Jesus at the New Museum have a “post-medium attitude.” The artists in this show are very multidisciplinary; no one works in any single medium. I think past working in a single medium. Artists are taking from sources that are incredibly diverse and don’t necessarily have a fine art label attached to them. So you know, I try to curate my links with the same sensibility. There are certain things that I’m interested in—Hot Chicks with Douchebags is definitely one of them. But you know, I do have to credit my intern Karen Archey for that particular link.
…mbg: Actually, I’ve read on your blog that your readers send you some of your best links.
PJ: Yeah, yeah. Interesting enough, I was speaking on a panel called "Curating the Crowd-Sourced World" at SXSW. A lot of my content, especially now that the blog’s becoming bigger, comes from readers. I’m always kind of impressed with the dedication of my readers, how often they come back with stuff that’s completely relevant that I would never have found on my own.
…mbg: It must be a skill to cultivate those kinds of dedicated readers, though. How many times have you clicked on the comments below an article and down drop a bunch of meaningless one-liners.
PJ: You know, I do get a lot of that, but I’ve stopped approving a lot of stupid comments, and that makes the people who have valuable things to say more inclined to engage, I think. I use Facebook for one-liners, or twitter.
…mbg: I had a conversation with Bill Arning last week, and he told me that he uses Facebook for arts events listings. Do you?
PJ: Absolutely not. I’m using Facebook more or less to track how fat my friends from high school have gotten. [Laughter] And—
…mbg: And who broke up with whom. I’m asking you all these technical questions because your work bridges a gap between two worlds—the art world and the web world—so I’m wondering what insider knowledge you might have about the web world that the art world can take greater advantage of.
PJ: Here’s a little known secret: major media has not been online for that long. So a link from me is worth way more than a link from a lot of news sources, although The New York Times drives a lot of traffic. The art world doesn’t see things in that light. Sometimes it’s frustrating that if I write a review of somebody’s work on Art Fag City, it’s less likely to be listed as a valid review on an artist’s resume than if I write it for major media online.
…mbg: Even though way more readers are seeing it if it’s on Art Fag City, you don’t get paid for those reviews in either money or… social capital, I guess.
PJ: Yeah, yeah. Also, I think there’s a lot the art world can learn from the UbuWeb. It’s a massive archive of mp3’s and videos, and it’s one of the most valuable fine art resources on the web. Then again, I think the art world is doing much better than it has. Two years ago, I was still complaining about major galleries didn’t have a website. But today, I don’t know of a major gallery, that doesn’t have a website.
…mbg: So enough about the web, let’s talk about art. What are you interested in right now?
PJ: Actually, I was really interested in the art fairs this year. Beforehand, I had heard that the Armory had a lot of people drop out. So, I was wondering, will there be that much there? Will the quality of the galleries be lowered? But it turned out a lot of people just brought their A-game.
PJ: Yeah, well, the bling-bling collector has left the premises and there’s not a lot of money out there, so the bling-bling art has gone away. I’ve never really liked that stuff to begin with. So now maybe the art collectors left out there are actually into critically engaging art. I saw a lot of really conceptually strong work at an art fair of all places!
…mbg: Wow. Examples?
PJ: I was really excited about Jane Corkin Gallery. She had the N.E. Thing Co. there, a Canadian collective that was started in 1968. They were concerned with categorizing all the visual material that’s around us. The booth presented all these objects with these corporate-looking labels expressing aesthetic approval and disapproval. Now, you see this kind of engagement with a corporate sort of administrative system all the time, but it was exciting to see a really early example of it. [Paddy wrote about the N.E. Thing Co. on AFC, too.]
…mbg: So what about very contemporary work at the fairs?
PJ: There was a lot of Kris Martin for whatever reason, and I think he’s a conceptually strong artist. Museum 52 had a show that had an Unmonumental feel to it. I looked at it and thought, “I don’t know what this is.” But somehow I’m still talking about it now. The objects really did have resonance.
On the other hand, I was pretty disappointed with the showing at Pulse. They looked like they had not weathered the recession very well. Volta had more conceptually strong work. Of course, these are all still art fairs. For example, you didn’t see a lot of political art anywhere.
…mbg: Surprise, surprise.
PJ: And you did see Julien Opie there. It isn’t an art show unless Julien Opie shows up.
…mbg: [Laughter] So, it’s not some sort of utopian transformation.
PJ: No, no. The art fairs are still the art fairs. They’re still doing all the, you know, sort of commercial crap that they’ve always done. But there really was a lot more talk about art. When the art market is through the roof, the talk is all about how much money people are making. The market becomes so bright it washes out all the art and the art conversations. But with the recession, I’m not saying it’s good for dealers, but dealers actually get a chance to talk about the art they’re showing. Chatting with them, I could see their level of investment and engagement with their artists. It was really exciting.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good and Associate Coordinator of testsite.
By Dan Boehl
Dave Bryant. Photo: Justin Parr.
Dave Bryant, curator of the recent exhibition Warren Oates in the Economic Crisis of 2008 (closed February 21, 2009) at Okay Mountain had a lot to say about the show and the times in which we live. Bryant co-founded and directed the Fresh Up Club, an exhibition space in Austin open from 2003 to 2005, and he was a key contributor to ...might be good in its early years. Here are just some of his thoughts on Warren Oates, America, the economy and communal suffering.
…might be good: How did you come up with the premise for Warren Oats in the Economic Crisis of 2008?
Dave Bryant: Warren Oates was a male archetype—he played the down and out, usually had a gun in his hand, a vicious smile, and a mean one-liner followed by a lonesome shot of the sunset. I was hooked in Monte Hellman's low-budget western The Shooting, opposite a severely badass Jack Nicholson, when Oates reminded me of my myself—scrambling as character Willett Gashade up a hill, kicking dust up behind him, a total dweeb. I wasn't sure that there were nerds back in the Ol' Western days. But there he was—something along these lines: dweeb, nerd, wimp—something I could relate to. And he still got to carry a gun around.
A show has to have a title, so I knew I wanted mine to relate to Warren Oates. A few of the artists in the show start popping into my head and as I have a few months to gestate, at some point the artists in my list are stewing in some Warren Oates juice. And I don't know if I started projecting or what, but it started to make sense to me. Then, boom, into our lexicon, entered the “economic crisis”.
Nothing did happen or nothing has happened that really affected my economic situation since last fall. I was already in an economic crisis, am in an economic crisis, was born into an economic crisis. But this current economic crisis is one of mutual concern amongst our society. Finally something everyone could relate to—something an artist might actually have something to say about. Even Warren Oates, asleep in the grave since 1982, has something to say about the economic crisis of 2008. This way I’ll always remember that other people were communally suffering during 2008.
…mbg: There were a lot of artists in the show. How did you choose them?
DB: This was the first show I had put together since the Fresh Up Club closed down in 2005. I would say I chose each of the 16 artists for a different reason and I didn't know what the results would be in combining them together.
…mbg: You didn't actually pick the work yourself, but had artists send you work they thought fit the premise. Were there any surprises?
DB: I asked some people for “ugly ducklings”—works that maybe others rejected. I wanted shaggy dog artworks, kinda like Oates might be. In some situations, I left it completely open and took what I could get. And I don't know if they even considered the title of the show, but the work that was sent I was able to rationalize completely how they fit and it all seemed entirely intentional to me.
…mbg: Once all the work came together on the walls, what was the effect?
DB: I did not love all of the work in the show, but I was true to the invitation. If it said, “send anything,” then I was going to hang “anything.” The show had a life of its own which far extended the original intention I had. So maybe I was comparing the artists to Warren Oates, but probably not. Most likely I was setting them side by side, in a list of names, including my own, only to add reference to reference, and see what we would come up with.
…mbg: What do you think of your duty towards the artists as a curator?
DB: I don't see myself as having any duties as a curator. I know it is a loose term but I think of someone in an institution as a curator. But I don't have a body of work that I oversee or anything. I identify with being an artist, or a bohemian or something. There is a lengthy history of art makers being art organizers. I sold $1000 of personal artwork in 2008 and spent a lot more than that. Gotta make a living somehow. So I do a variety of things but mostly art related. I get a lot of satisfaction out of finding a home for lonely artworks. I spend a lot of my time in the no-profit, not-for-profit, and “we're gonna do something one day” realm. But I would welcome any amount of money at any time. That is an open invitation, money, if you are listening. Come on over for a visit.
…mbg: What do you think the economic fallout means for artists and the art making community? Do you think it is a good thing or a bad thing?
DB: The art world, just like the milk world, and the cardboard box world, and the gutter cleaning world, and the drug-dealing world are all being affected by the economic fallout. Naturally if there is less money being spent on goods, art is going to fall into this. When I spend money to ship work down here and Okay Mountain prints invitation cards and pays rent and utilities, I am expecting something back so that we can cover these expenses. It was important for me to present a show of “for-sale” artworks. And do my best to get these in the hands of local collectors. I did not do to good a job. But this was not the economy’s fault. The only collector who even mentioned money problems ended up buying the piece they wanted anyway.
…mbg: How has the Austin community changed since your days running the Fresh Up Club?
DB: Despite the financial meltdown, in my memory, Austin has never had more people buying artwork. Now this may only amount to a total of maybe 10 couples that buy work by nationally known artists and 20 couples who buy regionally—these are totally made-up numbers by the way—but this is a big improvement. A disastrous show for Art Palace now would be the equivalent of our best show at Fresh Up Club, in terms of sales. We paid $200/month rent. That was the only way we were able to operate—but when sales would happen—$100 here or there—we were popping champagne bottles and sleeping on beds of loose change.
I think it was assumed that you would go to LA or NY to make money and that Austin was a layover between wherever you were from and wherever you were going next. In the meantime, you would eat breakfast tacos. Now, I see a handful of emerging local artists who are getting some play out in the extended art community and there is definitely noticeable growth here.
…mbg: Warren Oats had a distinct feeling that it brought together a collection of artists making art for the love of making art. I guess what I am saying is, the show had a very material feel to me. Is this materialism a reflection of your own artistic practice?
DB: The Fresh Up Club was programmed with economics in mind at all times. We were generally limited to having flat works shipped or relying on the artists to delivery larger works themselves. Now even when freed from those issues, I'm generally interested in humble art that travels easy and goes cheaply through the mail. I guess I don't think in terms of Richard Serra because it is just a bit large for me—I have about 100 square feet of personal space.
…mbg: What are the best and worst things about living in Austin?
DB: I think the lack of money is bad but good. I like it when people make things out of trash. I like it when people with money are put in an awkward position regarding their net worth and Picasso budgets versus the rest of the world and their sustenance budgets. Still, I'd take the money and run. I would never glamorize starving artist man—he is way too skinny.
…mbg: How would you like to be seen by the Austin art community?
DB: How would I like to be seen by Austin art community? As an electric guitar flying over the Congress bridge. I would have huge bat wings and the beautiful face of Stevie Ray Vaughn. The blue reflectors that are installed at Lamar and 5th Street would fall from my bottom side—free gifts to the public. I would smell like a breakfast taco, have the aura of a biodiesel light rail train car, vote for Kinky Friedman, and have the legs of Leslie.
...mbg: Somebody told me you were giving up making art. I think it was Barry Stone. Are you giving up making art?
DB: I am not going to stop making art. That is what I do. I talk a lot of shit, though.
Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.
MIT Press, 2008
By Eric Zimmerman
Art Power by Boris Groys, MIT Press, 2008.
How will history look back at the past decade or so of contemporary art production? It seems inevitable that exhaustive pluralism and the once mighty market will play some role in the report, as the increasing forces of capitalism and radical secularization continue to march their way around the globe. Pluralism renders everything relative, making judgment impossible and, as Boris Groys argues in his latest book of essays Art Power, making discourse “ultimately futile.” “This fact alone,” he claims, “is enough to put the dogma of pluralism in question.”
Art Power is a diverse collection of essays that span a wide range of topics from curatorship and criticism to social realist and cultural studies. Nonetheless, Groys allows a few central themes to thread through the topically diverse texts. “On the Curatorship” tackles the rising role of the curator in contemporary art and the iconoclastic strategies that he claims lies at the heart of what it means to curate, or to use the authors word, “abuse” art objects. “The curator,” he writes, “is an agent of art’s profanation, its secularization, its abuse.” Placing the curator in direct league with the art market, Groys deftly connects the curator’s interdependence with or codependence on the market, to the abuse of images and the preservation of the dominant iconophilia. Placing contemporary art within the context of urbanism, Post-communism, new technologies, and the Modernist revolution, Groys skillfully develops this concept of modern and contemporary art production as a form of iconoclasm throughout the book.
Grappling with art criticism, he proclaims that critics might instead be called “art commentators,” as they effectively prepare “protective text-clothes” for works of art. Echoing the ideas of James Elkins in his 2003 text, What Happened To Art Criticism? Groys admits that art criticism is perhaps, from the start, “texts that are not necessarily written to be read,” “…at once indispensable and superfluous.” The line between artist and critic has disappeared, he concludes, and the increasingly blurry lines between artists, critics and curators are headed in the same direction. The result of the former for arts writers is a freedom unmatched by writers in any other field: freedom to pair personal narratives with scholarly knowledge, while combining multiple theories and stylistic devices within the same text.
For Groys, art is inseparable from the engines that drive it, be they economic, political, or cultural. Art is powerful and always political, as it exists in a world that is becoming increasingly visual. Our pluralist contemporary art world is a product of our capitalist economic system; a world in which difference and paradox is celebrated, often at the expense of discourse and judgment. This call for renewed discourse and decisive judgment is refreshing and vital, especially as we move forward and begin to ask the questions about what it means to make, exhibit, and write about visual art in contemporary culture. If, as Groys suggests, every thesis is continually met by its anti-thesis, than the groundwork for such questions still remains uncertain, but his willingness to make engaging arguments and judgments himself is a step towards finding more stable platforms for discourse.
Eric Zimmerman is an artist living and working in Austin.
The Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth
Closed March 29
By Katie Anania
Jeff Elrod, Endgame, 1994, Acrylic on canvas, 79 x 97 inches. Collection of Mark Rosman and Jacqueline Corcoran, Washington, D. C. Courtesy The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.
Focus: Jeff Elrod at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth left me divided. One part of me became the art history apologist concerned with materials and process. Elrod begins each work with drawings that he creates on a computer using a mouse; he then fractures them with simple graphic programs (such as Illustrator, Freehand and, more recently, Photoshop) into shuddering, seismic compositions heavily indebted to the behemoths of abstraction. Finally, he projects the compositions onto canvases and carves them out with acrylic paint and an X-Acto knife. In short, Elrod explores ways in which computers retard the hand. His work manifests an obstruction of gesture within the painted image. [great] (2003) is an example par excellence; white letters, starting with the word great, cascade against a black ground, descending into total unreadability because of the awkwardness of the computer mouse.
Enter the second half of my divided critical self. This other half is a cynic, a litigator, a naysayer nursing skepticism about what I believe to be an inflated public delight about Elrod’s work. Passages appear cheeky and sophomoric, and this body of work seems annoyingly devoid of anything but the most empty of concessions to the history of painting. The Out Door (2005), rather than adhering to Elrod’s layered dance of computer-drawn lines and awkward hooky loops, positions a vaguely figural white passage near a pink parallelogram on a black ground. These bright forms float inside a mocking black ooze like Cy Twombly’s stepchildren, bearing the “authentic” traces of the artist’s hand and refuting that authenticity through digital means. It’s brooding, a tad adolescent, but not unpleasant. Maybe this is why I think too much has been made of these things: their re-play of abstract drawing goes no further than affected teen artifice. They contain an archive of a digital practice now long obsolete, and it’s too much like stumbling upon my own bad Paint drawings or first emails from tweenhood.
Works like Endgame (1994), a mostly turquoise work that combines a Barnett Newman-esque zip with dancing characters from the video game Space Invaders, confound both halves of me as well. Here Elrod better marries the historical freightedness of painting with the simultaneously embodied and alienating (ha!) qualities of human-computer interaction, but the present-past overlay seems too pat: behold the specters of the 40s and the 80s! Both sides of this “divided critic” suspect that viewers like Elrod’s work for the same reason they like Christopher Wool’s: it feels masculine but also effete, embedded in art historical narrative but also not at all timeless (in fact, pleasingly “retro”). Their seeming spontaneity and go-anywhereness (Elrod often produces some of the paintings when they arrive for installation) makes everyone happy: history and ephemerality, reverence and cheekiness, meet in a single package. I, however, choose in the end to side with my jaundiced double. Elrod’s play with history intentionally mocks it, but the retarded fun leaves me cold.
Katie Anania is a curatorial researcher at Fluent~Collaborative and an assistant editor of ...might be good.
Museo Alameda, San Antonio
Through June 14
By Laura Lindenberger Wellen
Adrian Esparza, One and the Same, 2005, Serape, plastic trim, and nails, 60 x 144 inches. El Paso Museum of Art, purchase with funds provided by Robert U. and Mabel O. Lipscomb Foundation Endowment. © Adrian Esparza, photo © El Paso Museum of Art.
Only a few angry apparitions here, the phantoms in Phantom Sightings are invoked by artists who prod presence and absence to conceptualize what it means to live in an urban space, to be young, to have a complicated relationship to one’s identity in the United States, on the border, in connections to the past. Sharing an ability to play with historical precedents and categories, these artists tease the seriousness of the art world, drawing from the work of artists in the Chicano Movement while often walking away from overtly political models. Punk is at play, but with space for works about border trauma and violence to resonate with heartbreaking pathos.
On the front cover of the Phantom Sightings catalogue, Christina Fernandez’s photograph of a Laundromat, part of her series Lavandería, shows no trace of human presence—lending itself to an assumption of emptiness. As the photograph wraps around the book, though, a partially-obscured figure appears. Throughout the Lavandería series, in corners, behind pillars, always faceless, people are captured in mundane moments. I am sure there is a poetic metaphor to connect this anonymous person to the systematized marginalization and economic exploitation of Mexican Americans in the United States, but there’s no need to burden these moments with this trope. Fernandez doesn’t seem to expect you to make this jump either: the photos are as much about enjoying the graffiti covering the Laundromat windows as they are about the night, the brightly lit washing machines, and the partially obscured people who are living their lives and doing their laundry in these urban, ubiquitous non-places.
Ken Gonzales-Day’s work is also about who is present and who is absent. Drawn to his old postcards and photographs, I initially saw them as articles of nostalgia, perhaps treasures culled from antique shops. Pulled in, I wondered what these crowds of people were doing. And then, in a gut-felt instant, I realized. In Erased Lynchings, Gonzales-Day’s removal of the violated bodies of lynching victims left my eye to roam, searching through the crowds and looking for some evidence of monstrousness. And yet, the images also disallow such simplistic readings of evil. In looking, I became a spectator of the crowd—a witness to its ugliness, cloaked, as it was, in community entertainment, vigilante “justice” and summer picnics. The combination of absence and presence is profoundly unnerving.
Other works irreverently send up art’s canon. Photographs of Juan Capistran break-dancing on a Carl Andre floor sculpture, for instance, draw on guerilla performance art and urban dance, literally on top of the cold heart of minimalism. In One and the Same (2005), Adrian Esparza pulls a loose thread from a serape, fashioning the string into a wall composition. The string outlines the forms from an Audley Dean Nichols painting of 1922, View of El Paso at Sunset, using the colors of the serape to refashion the landscape of El Paso. (Remember those school projects of stretching strands of fabric across a pegboard? Yes, string sculpture abstraction via serape!)
The 1970s and 1980s linger with the curators’ inclusion of Asco, an L.A.-based conceptual and performance art group that emerged from the student movements, race riots, and Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Asco became a Chicano avant-garde of sorts and a precursor and influence for many of the other works in the show. Patssi Valdez’s film Hot Pink (c. 1974), saturated with pink tones, also acts to historicize youth culture in L.A., with its shots of young, heavily made-up men and women, hugging, touching, kissing with Warholesque disinterest.
Many of these artists are grappling with the ghosts of the Chicano past and the problems implicit in identity-themed shows. Cruz Ortiz reportedly expressed reluctance to be included in “another Chicano show.” But this is not just “another Chicano show.” This is a show that notes its indebtedness to Chicano artists of el Movimiento and then moves lyrically, wickedly, laughingly away from any expected imagery, instead getting at the fantastic complexity of a group of people united as much by their urban and artistic contexts in the 2000s as by their complex relationships to the categories of Mexican-American or Chicano. The ghosts of the Chicano Movement and of Mexican American history in the United States linger in the galleries, definitely; Phantom Sightings makes it clear, though, that those phantoms not only leave an important legacy, but also inform a complex and exciting future.
Laura Lindenberger Wellen is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Art and Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. She is currently writing about Southern artistic debates and communities during the 1930s.
Artpace, San Antonio
Through May 3
By Dan Boehl
Kehinde Wiley, Three Wise Men Greeting Entry Into Lagos, 2008, Oil on canvas, 72 x 96 inches. Courtesy the artist and Deitch Projects.
In Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of Kehinde Wiley, the World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she points out that Wiley’s conceptualism may have driven his career farther than his skills can carry him. In some ways I agree. I think part of Wiley’s success is couched in the fact that he tries to reinvent American racial stereotypes, blending the “high” tropes of “Old Master” paintings with the “low” culture of Stateside street life, making depictions of black males appealing and marketable to collectors and museum curators. Think of it as kids with tapes of radio edit NWA. Wiley’s art is safe for white people.
The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar is now on the walls of the Artpace San Antonio showroom. For the series, Wiley set up temporary studios in Lagos and Dakar. He immersed himself in the culture of Africa, met the subjects he later painted, and got a feel for the style, music, and culture of the locals. To create the portraits, instead of copying the poses of “Old Masters” as he has done in the past, Wiley allowed his African subjects to choose poses based on public sculptures that celebrate the two African countries’ independence from colonial rule.
As with other Wiley portraits, the depictions of the African men are monumental in scale. The canvases are clean and flat. There are no visible brushstrokes or signs of the maker's hand, which may be a product of Wiley's workshop rather than a reflection of his own painting prowess. “Traditional” African designs and patterns float behind the sitters, overwhelming any individuality he might have bestowed upon them. Even their clothing, whether a traditional dashiki or a Warhol camouflage print hoody, is rendered, like everything else, mute, inconsequential by the engulfing patterns.
Race, of course, isn’t just an issue of black and white. Issues of race in Africa go far beyond Wiley’s portrayal of African-American Blackness, yet, when painting African subjects he in no way updates his central trope. Longtime colonial rule, tribal identifications, abject poverty and the intersection of tribal, Christian and Muslim beliefs are only some of the issues that inform race in Africa. For example, the clash of ethnic tribes in Southern Sudan caused the massacre of over two hundred thousand people in Darfur. Wiley seems unwilling to recognize the complexities of “blackness” in order to deal with subjects from differing countries facing different racial obstacles.
Wiley is undertaking similar projects in China and India. The World Stage: Brazil is currently on display at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in California. I imagine from there he can travel to Ukraine or Venezuela. His system is infinitely repeatable. Wiley’s trope of “Old Master” reinvention of Africa-American males once seemed poignant, even if it was shallow. His paintings expressed the nobility and integrity of African-Americans while poking fun at the Western forces that subjugated them in the first place. But in much the same manner that commercial rap and hip-hop stars allowed market forces to stagnate their music, Wiley’s growth as an artist has been trumped by his gallery sales. This may be less of an issue when he sticks to American subjects and themes. But Wiley’s subjects and immersion techniques in the World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar walks the line between Orientalism and exploitation.
Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.
Project Space: Mequitta Ahuja
By Nicole J. Caruth
A new body of work by Houston resident Mequitta Ahuja is currently on view at the New York City gallery BravinLee. The exhibition, titled Automythography I, refers to Ahuja’s ongoing exploration into the “auto-mythic,” a term coined by author Audre Lorde to describe a combination of history, myth and personal narrative. The artist absorbs this notion in depictions of Black hair that, according to her blog, physically and conceptually convey “the psychic proportions hair has in the lives of Black people.” In Ahuja’s hands, long boundless locks suspended from inverted heads become abstract, and sometimes colorful, forms. Drawn shapes and surface textures are likened to hair texture. Entangled tresses morph into exquisite illustrations of cultural experience and exorcism. Below, the artist expounds the concepts behind her first installation in the Automythograpy series.
...might be good: In your mind, what is the biggest distinction between this exhibition and your first at BravinLee in 2007?
Mequitta Ahuja: It was during my work on the 2007 show that I established several aspects of my current work: exaggerated hair, inverted head, a focus on self-portraiture, etc. In the 2007 exhibit, my transitions from the real to the “auto-mythic” occurred with color, paint surface and image. For this show I’m relying more on my use of waxy chalk and the paper surface. I use the crayon and paper in such a way that the link between mark and image is one-to-one; the marks become hair in a very straightforward way. With these works on paper, I stay very close to basic elements of drawing and try to maximize their visual and metaphoric potential.
...mbg: In one of the lead images for the show, Fount, hair begins to look embryonic, and lines start to resemble the delicate roots of plants, or membranes—there's a sense that if given more space these roots might morph into solid branches. I sense life beyond the picture plane. Can you tell me about your formal approach to such pieces?
MA: I like your description. My works demonstrate a process of self-invention, which I link to art-making and imagination. Generative ability is one of my central concepts. Through my titles, I often make a link between this aspect of the work and sexual reproduction [with] titles like Ovulation Chart, Night Emissions, Insemination, etc. So the idea of the embryo is apt.
Formally, I usually pursue definitive shapes. Working large, I often build my shapes with smaller elements. Although embodied by a finite shape, I do aim for the work to suggest an endless, internal world, which, like you say, extends beyond the limits of the page.
In terms of my process for this piece, and relating again to this idea of “creative generation,” self-invention or world-making, my process often follows a kind of visual stream of conscious. To form a compositional structure, I started with the large elements of the picture; I sketched this out as a kind of armature. All of the smaller components were done in their final materials. At some point in the piece, I had all the materials going at once and was shuffling between water-based and oil-based paints.
Dream Region is actually an update of a piece titled Night Emission that I made while in residence at Blue Sky Project in collaboration with eight teenagers. Because of the collaborative process, the piece was visually heterogeneous and different than anything I would have produced on my own. That piece was purchased through BravinLee at Art Chicago by the visual artist Nick Cave, whose work I admire very much. I wondered why he’d purchased it. I started to imagine Nick Cave seeing the work and I tried to imagine how it looked to him. Through that attempt, I started to see my work in relation to his and it truly changed my perception of the piece. In Dream Region, I tried to amplify the aspects of Night Emissions that I related to Cave’s work. I began with something figurative and moved into adornment, visual rhythm, pattern and design. While these elements were not foreign to my work, the process of updating the piece, based on my new perception, expanded the number and kind of each.
...mbg: How long have you been thinking about or working with this idea of "automythology"? And is it an idea that you will continue to work with after this show?
MA: I read Zami: A New Spelling of My Name: A Biomythography [by Audre Lorde] when I was in college. I was very depressed and was wandering through the school library when I bumped into a guy. We were two of a very limited number of Black people on the campus. I didn’t know him. The encounter was very mysterious. He asked me what I was doing. I gave a vague answer like “I’m looking for a book.” He scrawled the word “Zami” on a piece of paper and walked away. I found it and read it. To my memory, I never saw him again.
The story is important because at that point in my life, I literally had so few encounters with other Black people, especially Black men, that I experienced each encounter as very significant. This accounts for the urgency with which I read the book and some of the impact it had on me. Much of my introduction to wider Black culture and history, and much of my understanding of my own ethnic experiences began with literature, shaped by authors such as Lorde, [Zora Neale] Hurston and [Toni] Morrison.
Self-portraiture, costuming, ethnic identity, hybridity, etc. are all ideas I have been working with for a very long time. I don’t remember exactly how or when I started thinking about Zami [again] but, I picked it up [for a second time] at a used bookstore around the time that I was working on the 2007 show [at BravinLee]. It is important to me to link back to that “parentage” of Black, female, creative production, especially since my work deals with personal agency in the formation of one’s identity. So, my re-discovery of Zami provided a lineage, a conceptual frame and, importantly, a new name for my project.
...mbg: Tell me about your color palette. What inspires your use of color?
MA: In this exhibition as well as in my recent show at Lawndale Art Center, I have used a very limited palette. Dream Region is an exception. By removing the colorful aspect of the work, I’ve mitigated their fantastic nature and grounded the pieces in fundamentals of drawing.
Four or five years ago, I was teaching a bi-weekly art class at a South Side Chicago public elementary school. My first few classes were very difficult. When I knelt to work one-on-one with a student, elements of my still life setup went whizzing by, as my students took the opportunity for a food fight. The head teacher suggested that I get rid of all the “art materials” and just stick to pencil and paper. I felt bad. I worried the kids would be bored or that it wouldn’t feel like art class anymore. But I tried it. With only pencil and paper, the children were calm, focused and hardworking. To be honest, I think I am exactly like those kids. All the color and materials, shinny enamel and sticky oil paint, it can all be, at times, over-stimulating and I find it difficult to harness my own self-control. By limiting my materials and palette, I have opened up other artistic possibilities. Many of the new works could fairly accurately be described as “pencil and paper” and yet I feel the artistic possibilities are inexhaustible.
...mbg: It appears that you often work across multiple canvases, or that many pieces comprise one. Is there a particular reason why you extend an image across two or more surfaces?
MA: Many of the works in this show follow a multiple sheet format; one of the pieces is comprised of six sheets of paper. I use this format to serve a number of functions. For example, it allows me to simultaneously work with a vertical/ figurative layout and a horizontal/landscape layout. This dual format works well for me since, in many cases, I develop the abstract elements of my work in [the areas of] earth and sky. Primarily however, the literal “break” between pages supports the pictorial and conceptual shifts that take place in my work from realism to abstract thought and form.
A former resident of the Core Program (2006-2008), Ahuja’s work was included in the recent exhibitions Houston Collects: African American Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Flowback at Lawndale Art Center. Automythography I is on view at BravinLee through May 2, 2009.
Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn. A regular blogger for Art21, her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, NYFA Current, CUE Art Foundation, and Gastronomica. Her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, merges two of her greatest loves: art and sweet foodstuffs.
No American Talent 4: Bayanihan
Opening Reception, April 18, 7-10pm
Bayanihan, the fourth installment of our international “No American Talent” series, is a new show of artists from the Philippines curated by Mountaineer Tim Brown. The title refers to a term with many meanings—Bayanihan can be a place, like a town, state or nation, but it can also be a spirit of community shared between people that literally means “being a hero to one another.” In this show, we present a varied group of 9 emerging artists who address this complex word and the relationship they share with their families, their city, their country, and each other.
Megan Geckler: Straddle the line, in discord and rhyme
Women and Their Work Gallery
Opening Reception, April 11, 6-8 pm
Each of Geckler's site-specific installations are unique and are created in direct response to the space and its architecture. They are crafted on-site and are never duplicated. The work remarkably resembles Austin's very own wunderkind Becca Ward, and we're feeling a little protective of our own...but hey, what do we know.
Austin on View
Do you Believe in Art?
Through April 19
Domy Books presents Andrew Jeffrey Wright's first solo show in the state of Texas. With Do You Believe in Art?, Wright continues to utilize all the available creative avenues that successfully express his original concepts, interpretations of culture and questions for the universe. The exhibition will consist of paintings, drawings, videos, collage, photography and screen prints.
Dallas on View
Susan kae Grant, Paul Greenberg & Kate Rivers
Through April 25
Susan Kae Grant's shadow pictures are eerily playful. For her show at Conduit, she has transformed the entire gallery through an installation of large scale digital images, cast shadows and "psycho-acoustic" sound. Like a haunted house for grown-ups.
Meanwhile, Paul Greenberg presents a series of panoramic views of museum interiors, focusing on the museum guards who inhabit each gallery. Finally, Conduit's project space displays collaged nest forms by Kate Rivers.
Barry Whistler Gallery
Through April 11
Tomorrow is the last day to see Darryl Lauster's work at Barry Whistler. Last week, Franklin Sirmans listed Lauster as one of eight Texas-based artists who deserves broader recognition. So if you're in the Metroplex, get your butt over there.
Far from the Madding Crowd
Closes April 18
A group show including tons of great artists, Far from the Madding Crowd explores the dislocation of self, both geographically and psychologically. Plus, we've heard through the grapevine that Thomas Feulmer, one of the included artists and a long time fixture in Dallas, has recently been making work with fresh vitality. Go see and let us know.
Fort Worth on View
Focus: Rosson Crow
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
Through May 17
What's going on between The Modern in Fort Worth and Deitch Projects? A few weeks ago Nicola Vassell, a director at Deitch gave a talk at the museum, and last weekend The Modern opened the first ever solo museum exhibition given to Rosson Crow, an artist included in Vassell's show Substraction last year. Now that she has a museum show under her belt, Deitch can snap her up and sell...
Through April 18
Nina Katchadourian? My Barbarian? Exploring the meaning of progress and its implications on civilizations of the past and present while offering theoretical solutions for humanities’ relationship to change and progress? Hot. Don't miss this before it closes.
Houston On View
Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave
Through June 21
This exhibition will be the first mid-career survey of the critically acclaimed painter’s work to be mounted in the United States. The show will include approximately 65 paintings and 25 drawings and will be installed thematically in order to emphasize the serial nature in which the work was conceived and realized.
Houston on View
Robert Rauschenberg: The Lotus Series
Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery
Through May 9
The Lotus Series were Rauschenberg's last original prints before his death in May 2008. Don't miss these stunning works.
Fuse Box Festival
April 23 - May 2
Fuse Box is bigger and hotter than ever. Don't miss: LeeSaar the Company's open rehearsal, Rude Mech's Method Gun, Pierre Rigal & Aurélien Bory's érection, Neal Medlyn's The Neal Medlyn Experience Live, the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's No Dice and the exhibition Localismo at MASS, featuring Kalup Linzy's Keys to Our Heart. All access passes are now available, and tickets for individual events will be available soon. Purchase passes and tickets here.
Max Juren — DVD Release
April 10, 8-10 pm
Video artist Max Juren has long been an Austin YouTube favorite — from his deadpan commercial for Heinz ketchup to his joyous re-enactment of Atreyu’s epic ride on Falcor, Juren always manages to twist the classics into his own warped forms of hilarity. With Max Juren’s DVD Release Event at Domy Books, Monofonus is pleased to present a compendium of Juren’s Work for your viewing pleasure. This one-night-only event will feature a screening of selected shorts from the DVD, as well as a back room installation that offers a peek inside this madman’s brain. Don’t miss this chance to mingle with genius!
Calls for Entries
Curatorial Proposals: Summer 2009
Deadline: April 24
Affirmation Arts seeks proposals for innovative curatorial projects for its non-profit art space during the summer of 2009. Affirmation Arts is a new arts complex comprised of a gallery space, offices, studios, and an artist-in-residence quarter. The facilities’ offices provide workspaces for support staff for the studios and gallery. Additionally, the building will house a foundation for the arts, which will begin operation in the summer of 2009. The new premises, on the far west side of Manhattan, provide a fresh space for the arts to thrive.
Application deadline is April 24th, 2009 at 5pm. A curator will be selected and notified by May 1st. For further information, please visit www.affirmationarts.com.
Call for Entries
Art League Houston
Deadline: May 15, 2009
Art League Houston is accepting exhibition proposals for its 2010-2011 season. From these submissions, Art League Houston will select four to six major exhibitions for the main gallery and the adjacent project space. Priority will be given to proposals that include the creation of new work. Complete submission guidelines may be found here. Contact Sarah Schellenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Visual Arts 2009 / 2010
Fundación Marcelino Botín
Deadline: May 8, 2009
The Foundation Marcelino Botín awards Visual Arts Grants for study, research and the undertaking of individual projects in the sphere of (non-theoretical) artistic work. Applicants for study grants must be between 23 and 40 years old. There is no age limit for the research grants. Grants cover a 9 month period and must be initiated by the end of 2009. For more information visit www.flundacionmbotin.org.
The SculptureCenter seeks a curator responsible for organizing exhibitions, educational and public programs, and for coordinating all aspects of program presentation. The Curator reports directly to the Executive Director and, as part of the management team, will participate in all aspects of organizational operations including strategic planning, capital planning, fundraising and external affairs. The successful applicant must possess exceptional knowledge of contemporary art and culture, proven experience organizing exhibitions and contemporary art projects (preferably internationally), superb writing and public speaking skills, excellent organizational ability, an entrepreneurial attitude and willingness to work as part of a team.
To apply, send cover letter, resume and two curatorial statements (for projects realized or unrealized) to Mary Ceruti, Executive Director.
Calls for Entries
Call for Artists
First Night Austin
Deadline: May 15, 2009
First Night Austin is a major festival of the arts to be experienced by the whole community in welcoming the New Year. It is unique among Austin’s urban festivals in that it celebrates the downtown cityscape by programming performing and visual arts IN and ON the fabric of the city – building lobbies, storefront windows, church sanctuaries, hotel ballrooms, plazas and parks, street corners, balconies, courtyards, theaters and museums. For full application and details go to www.firstnightaustin.org.
Artist Studio Program 2009-2010
Lawndale Art Center
Deadline: May 29, 2009
The Lawndale Artist Studio Program is part of Lawndale's ongoing commitment to support the creation of contemporary art by Gulf Coast area artists. With an emphasis on emerging practices, the program will provide three artists with studio space on the third floor of the Lawndale Art Center at 4912 Main Street in the heart of Houston's Museum District. Artists have full access to their studios 24 hours a day, seven days a week, access to visiting artists, writers and curators; and will receive a $500 monthly stipend for the duration of the program together with an initial $1500 materials budget. Works produced during the program will be exhibited at Lawndale Art Center during May 2010. Lawndale Art Center will work with resident artists to create additional exhibition opportunities during the residency. For more information contact the Lawndale at email@example.com.
Stealing Horses: the Invention of Possession
Anhoek School, Marfa, TX
The Anhoek School is a pedagogical experiment offering graduate level courses for women in cultural production (aesthetic, political and critical). It aims to forge an institution that takes generative risks and doesn't ruin our desire to learn together. As it stands, tuition is based on barter and readings are often down loadable PDFs. By June, the school will have concluded two workshops and will begin the first class in Marfa, Texas. In Marfa, students will spend the mornings gardening and their afternoons in class. Food from the garden will be prepared for a shared lunch before the afternoon meeting or field trip. The work in the garden will be guided by Farmstand Marfa's Sandra Harper and will serve as their tuition barter. More detailed descriptions of the mission, name and coursework are available at www.anhoekschool.org.