MBG Issue #139: The Everyday Uncanny

Issue # 139

The Everyday Uncanny

January 15, 2010

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Adam Schreiber, Halliburton Archiving Solutions (II), 19872009, Archival inkjet print, 32 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist.

from the editor

Last week, The Blanton made two small announcements that add up to something much more significant: the institution is continuing its move to reposition itself as the city’s destination museum, not merely a better-than-average university museum. The announcements were as follows: first, the price of admission went up by $2 across the board (museum entry remains free for University of Texas at Austin faculty, staff and students); second, Third Thursdays, the museum’s monthly free evening, will enjoy augmented programming, while B Scene, the museum’s late night party, will move from a monthly to a bi-monthly basis.

In regard to entry fees, we’re talking a 28% increase to the price of general admission ($7 to $9) and a 40% increase to the price of a senior/student ticket ($5 to $7). For comparison, I checked the regular admission prices of other museums. The new ticket prices are comparable to those of other university museums, if on the high end: The BAMPFA at UC Berkeley ticks in at $8 ($8 million operating budget), The Hammer at UCLA at $7 ($14 million operating budget). As for Texas museums, The Fort Worth Modern and The Dallas Museum of Art are charging $10 and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is hanging on at $7, at least for the time being. However, the operating budgets of these institutions must be considerably larger than the Blanton’s.

The Blanton’s price hikes are in step with rising museum admission prices nationwide. In fact, the museum’s $2 increase is modest compared to some. Last year, for example, The Art Institute of Chicago provoked outrage when it raised the price of admission to its museum to a whopping $18. I see the logic behind these moves. These museums are worth what they charge and more. For example, income from admission probably accounts for about 4% of the Blanton’s $6 million operating budget. In that sense, for $9, visitors are getting much more than they’re paying for. Admission prices are not just about revenue, either. They are a way for a museum to communicate quality its audiences: in other words, The Blanton’s new ticket price says to visitors, “a trip to this museum is worth at least $9.” Through this move, the Blanton is positioning its collection more than a “teaching collection” for the University and positioning its exhibition programming as worthwhile for non-university audiences. The Blanton should be communicating this information to audiences. The question is, is price the best way to communicate value in this instance? According to received wisdom, the more the consumer is asked to pay, the more she values the good or service. But whether this is true or not, does this logic justify charging more for museums?

I find it difficult to say that museums shouldn’t charge the admission prices they are charging for two reasons. First, I believe they are worth what they charge, probably more. Second, I know museums are underfunded and need new income sources. However, even if the ticket prices don’t deter any visitors, how much additional revenue will the $2 increase in admission generate? I’d guess an additional $60,000, or 1% of the institutions operating budget. I know that every penny counts. But is it worth $60,000 for the museum entry to cost more than a minimum wage worker makes for an hour of work? It goes without saying that higher prices are a bigger deal for certain key audiences—students attending other universities, young professionals age 20 to 30, low and middle income families—and not as big a deal for others—upper-middle class families and tourists. For that reason alone, rising admission prices are difficult to swallow. Is there no way to buck the trend?

I’m not sure. Practical alternatives are difficult to come by. The Blanton’s new director, Ned Rifkin, has plenty of experience, and I’m sure he’s working creatively to increase revenue in all kinds of ways. It’s tough.

When I heard the news about the Blanton, I began asking colleagues about their philosophies regarding museum admission. Pay-what-you-can is popular. An advantage of this system is that the museum can still list a general admission “price,” allowing the institution to signify the value of the visit in fiscal terms. This is what the Met does. General admission is listed as $20, but it’s pay what you can. However, one colleague pointed out a corresponding disadvantage of this system: out of responsibility (or even guilt), a pay-what-you-will system compels some visitors to give more than they can actually afford. This colleague suggested a token $1 admission price. What I like about this idea is that the smallness of the price actually attracts attention to the value of the experience. “Wow, I’m only paying $1 for this?! It’s worth like $15.”

As for the Blanton, the good news is that the museum remains free the third Thursday of every month, and moreover, the institution is expanding its Thursday night programming. The Blanton’s new book club will meet at this time; films will be screened; artists will speak; curators will offer tours. The museum café’s Thursday night “happy hour special” ($5 for a slice of pizza and a glass of wine) may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one. After a long day at work, would-be visitors need to get their blood sugar up before trekking through museum galleries.

At the same time, the Blanton is scaling back B Scene from a monthly to bi-monthly event. I’m happy to see this trade-off. Over the past few years, museums all over the country latched on to B Scene – type, trendy parties. The idea was twofold: make a little money and bring in new audiences. I’ve always been skeptical of the success of either. In regard to the former, after you subtract all the staff hours put into organizing, publicizing and executing these events, how much income are they really bringing into the museum? And as for the latter, does anyone have substantial data on the conversion rate from party guest into return visitor? I imagine it’s low. The Blanton is making a smart move by ramping up Third Thursdays and backing off of B Scene. Third Thursday isn’t merely a party, it’s an opportunity for engagement.

One final important note: the approaching completion of the new Visual Art Center in UT’s Department of Art and Art History is further enabling the Blanton to restructure and rebrand itself as a high-caliber museum of broad appeal. The VAC, scheduled to open its doors this coming September, will house artists-in-residence in the department as well as a teaching gallery for faculty – curated exhibitions and a gallery for student – run programming. In other words, the VAC will provide a dynamic pedagogical space for the Department of Art, while the Blanton reaches out to a broader audience. This equation is too simple, of course. Hopefully, both institutions will serve university and non-university audiences in complementary ways. However, the very locations of these two institutions—the VAC at the heart of the art building and the Blanton on the edge of campus nearest the Capitol and downtown—signifies the roles they are positioned to take within the university and the city as a whole.

Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.


Anna Krachey, Jessica Mallios & Adam Schreiber
Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Through February 7, 2010

By Wendy Vogel

Anna Krachey, Four Corners, 2009, Archival inkjet print, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy the artist.

In The Future of the Image, Jacques Rancière writes that “metamorphic” art production “aims to play with the forms and products of imagery, rather than carry out their demystification.” For the three photographers whose work is currently on view at the CAMH, this play is visible in the subtle slippages that occur when photographing everyday objects and ephemera. United through their use of the antiquated large-format view camera, Anna Krachey, Jessica Mallios and Adam Schreiber share a common approach to image-making that curator Toby Kamps describes in his catalogue essay as “analysis and divination.” Contemporary art trafficking in social critique often aims to make familiar, commodified objects seem strange. However, the artists here distinguish themselves through an exceptionally metaphoric and material handling of their subject matter, which results in lush, stunning objects. Schreiber differentiates their critical approach from preceding generations: “We want to move from ‘looking through’ images to ‘image images.’” That their technique results in images that are both slightly uncanny and clearly art objects is not a contradiction in terms; rather, for these artists, the best work embodies a psychic tension within the frame instead of pointing our attention beyond it.

Jessica MalliosFin (2008).

Jessica Mallios, a former painter, works in two disparate veins: staged portraits of sculptural arrangements in her studio and snapshot-style images of the everyday uncanny. The staged portraits include mysterious still-lifes such as Negative Space (Moon) (2009), a black-and-white photograph in which a shadow cast by a round plaster object appears as rocky and distant as the celestial satellite itself, and a number of abstract photographs created with an unintentional camera obscura in the artist’s studio. These images, however, are dry compared to Mallios’s take on the world of synthetic objects. It’s in the sharp illumination of the highly constructed world around us that her wit truly shines. In Fin (2008), a photo taken inside a Spanish aquarium, a brilliant blue zip-like stripe vertically occupies the left side of a view of a model whale fin. The blue stripe is actually the building’s wall. The unnatural “aquatic” paint color signals that we are in the realm of high artifice, a realm in which the “real” cannot be easily parsed from its simulacra. Orange Crush (2009), another lush full-color photograph, shows an appropriately crumpled box of the eponymous soda lit by an orange streetlight. Furthermore, the inexplicably grape-flavored soda’s brand name is signified by the iconic orange slice, not the word, testifying to the brand’s staying power despite its different degrees of semiotic remove.

Anna Krachey’s work directly confronts the world of commercial veneer. The artist cites eBay as an inspiration for her compositional techniques; however, the degree to which the Internet site’s throwaway aesthetic has affected her work is unclear. Sweetness and Light (2009), for example, transforms a kitschy piggy-bank in the shape of a paint spill into an elevated, abstract composition by turning the object on its side and placing it in a white room. These meticulously composed photographs of trashy commercial objects do not suggest the traffic of constantly circulating objects in today’s world of digital interconnectedness. On the contrary, it is clear that Krachey is most comfortable with formal play of simple shapes, as in Milk (2009), where a milk bottle, eggs and bread on a mirrored tabletop look as exquisite and elevated as a Weston toilet. Her ability to monumentalize is most powerful when she turns the camera on kitschy display techniques. A cropped photo of a wrapping-paper image of a cartoonish road with flowers (Path, 2008) exposes how whimsical images are transplanted, reprinted and eventually discarded. With similar success in Four Corners (2009), trippy images of iridescent cellophane “gels” (the kind that are used to transform store windows) bleed into psychedelic rivers in the final print, an effect that calls attention to the seductive “smoke and mirrors” of advertising.

Adam Schreiber’s work ties questions about imagery, documentation and circulation into a tightly conceptualized body of work. Visually enigmatic, this work most clearly exposes the contingencies of photography as an objective record and a mechanical process. Taking “the archive” as a point of departure, Schreiber is interested not only in how photography becomes an index of culture, but how items of cataloguing, display and organization are preserved and disembodied. View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826 (2009) is a view of the first photograph by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in its heavily protected case at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Schreiber’s painstaking print, requiring digital manipulation and a long exposure time, puts the fragility of photographic materiality into question -- a fragility that extends to the artist’s own process. The remainder of his work depicts drab organizational supplies from megacorporations with malicious associations like Halliburton and General Motors. However, there are moments of surprise, as in Halliburton Archiving Solutions I, 1987 (2009) where a blue “flare” appears on the right side of the photograph. The result of a leaked film canister, the artist’s print of this “accidental” shot cements his alliance with otherworldly materiality and the alchemical power of photography—the ways in which a Barthesian “punctum” or spirit might enter a photograph.

Moving away from techniques such as collage and straight appropriation, Mallios, Krachey and Schreiber explore an alternative thread of criticality embraced by James Welling before them. A shared influence and one of the lesser-known members of the Pictures Generation, Welling’s work with a view camera eventually moved in a more formal direction than his peers. His silver gelatin prints reduced architectural views of L.A. storefronts into formal plays of light (an analogue of the darkroom procedure of exposure), and his close-up studies of objects like foil created abstract, craggy universes from banal surfaces. A similar desire to inject associative play and a reflexive approach to the medium of photography itself characterizes the work on view at the CAMH.

Taken together, these three photographers exemplify a shift away from the critique of consumer culture by photographers from past generations. By engaging obsolescent technology and investing in the near-surrealistic, this work offers more than a sly recapitulation of the tricks of the trade of the advertising industry (as in Andreas Gursky’s digitally-collaged photographs or even Barbara Kruger’s iconic work). It offers a connection, rather, to an alternative critical strategy, picking up mnemonic threads hinted at in Crimp’s original Pictures catalogue essay. Where Crimp tied the work of 1970s artists to a symbolist legacy invested in formal experimentation, Krachey, Mallios and Schreiber reinvest that legacy with signposts of a post-historical world.

Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

project space

Jonathan Marshall

By Dan Boehl

In May 2009 Jonathan Marshall asked me to accompany him on a trip to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. Marshall was headed out there to film for his upcoming Art Palace show using the desert landscape as his set. So it was that on an early morning we waited outside Travis Austin’s house for Austin to return from his Whole Foods shift while rain sprinkled the windshield of Marshall’s mom’s CRV. Austin would star as Johan Pilgrim, one of only three characters that populate Marshall’s Quest of Sight (Part One) (2009), a post-apocalyptic cowboy tragicomedy premiering as Art Palace Houston’s inaugural exhibition. I would be the grip.

We spent the first night by the Rio Grande. Thunderstorms threatened in the distance and six-inch millipedes left their trails in the silt where we lay. In the morning we dressed in long sleeves and cowboy hats. We tied scarves around our necks and squinted into the sun. We drove through the washout that passes for a road leading to the abandoned cinnabar mine. The mine, replete with warnings of mercury poisoning, sits on the side of a hill like an ancient temple, gazing over the low desert plain. I followed Marshall, hands loaded with water bottles heating up in the morning sun, as he filmed Austin acting out Johan Pilgrim’s trek to the mine. There, Pilgrim finds the Cave of Wonders and inside it, a vial of psychedelic whiskey. He drinks it, and an animated bird totem assigns him his quest.

Texas landscape is front and center in Quest of Sight (Part One). In addition to the desert plain of Big Bend, Padre Island National Seashore served as one of Marshall’s film sets, so the film is partly an exploration of the Texas spirit forged by the land and sea. The post-apocalyptic timeline is a throwback to the frontier days when newcomers arrived thinking the land was rife with possibilities. If you consider Marshall’s liberal references to outer space to be an allusion to NASA’s strong Texas presence, then Quest of Sight (Part One) becomes a total exploration of Texas Earth, Water and Sky.

Throw in a little mysticism, give nature a strange, mischievous sense of humor, and you’ll start to understand how the film unfolds. There is very little speaking and no dialogue. A few subtitles set the scene in the opening sequence of the film. Johan and Lenny’s otherworldly visions punctuate an otherwise linear storyline. In one scene, Lenny finds a pulsating purple and pink machine on a sea-bound mountain of trash. In another, animated birds flock through the desert. A colorful mass blooms like a lily in the cold depths of outer space. A bone flips through the air.

Except for getting some help with music from Travis Austin, who is involved in a couple Austin area bands, Marshall did all the video production and editing himself. During a scene when Austin enters a tent/sweatlodge in the desert, Marshall had to blank out all the sounds of the camera shutter snapping as I took production stills. He told me it took him hours to find the right buzzing sound for a gate crashing desert fly. Add in the time it took to produce the multiple animations that give the film its painterly psychedelic effect, and Marshall has racked up hundreds of hours of production time.

But all the work Marshall put into making Quest of Sight (Part One) is totally worth it. Two weeks ago, Marshall installed a preview show at the old Austin Art Palace location. I went over there to look at the paintings, drawings, and sculptures that, with the film, form what Marshall considers to be the “complete thought” that encompasses the environment of Quest of Sight (Part One). Marshall screened the film for me and members of the Okay Mountain collective, who were taking a break from property management duties. What struck me was how serious yet goofy the film was. Sad and wondrous. Painterly and narrative. Quest of Sight (Part One) uses everything in Marshall’s toolkit to create a sparsely inhabited and imaginatively engaging world that expresses offhand and obliquely the struggles involved with exploratory art making. In creating its own artistic realm, the film pleases the senses and amazes the mind.

Jonathan Marshall: Doubled Vision opens at Art Palace, Houston tonight (Friday, January 15) from 6 - 8pm. An excerpt of Quest of Sight (Part One) may be found on Marshall's website.

Dan Boehl is a workshop fellow in the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE will be available from Greying Ghost soon.

Announcements: exhibitions

Austin Openings

Christine Gray
Okay Mountain Gallery
Opening January 16, 7 - 10pm

Christine Gray's Into The Light marks her second solo exhibition at Okay Mountain. With Into The Light, Gray continues to explore the frenetic play between real and unreal created using sculptural arrangements as the basis for her paintings. This new body of work takes it's inspiration from American mythological tropes, often revealing surreal landscapes, crude shelters and objects suggestive of rituals with mystical significance. From the press release.

Kia Neill
Women & Their Work
Opening Reception January 16, 6-8pm

Kia Neill's new installation, Terrain, a landscape that is both naturalistic and fantastic, will not be unlike her previous installation Grotto at Lawndale Art Center in Houston. This time, however, Neill focuses not on the walls and ceiling, but rather on the very ground on which the viewer stands.

Jim Torok
Lora Reynolds Gallery
Opening Reception January 16, 6-8pm

Jim Torok's Clowns and Portraits explores the fertile, if much traversed, image of the clown and continues the artist's exploration of the portrait.

Alyssa Taylor Wendt
January 21 - 23, noon-6pm

Warning: requires viewer participation in an elaborate game of telephone. Wendt's installation explores instability of communication and information through a participatory project in which visitors may listen to and then retell a fable into a recording device.

Ideas of Mountains
Creative Research Laboratory
Opening Reception January 23, 6 - 9pm

Composed of 11 site-specific projects, Ideas of Mountains explores the unique atmosphere of the CRL as a malleable artist space and incubator for the creative process. The exhibition features artists living and working in Austin, as well as students and alumni of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. From the press release.

Give Up
Domy Books Austin
Opening Reception January 30, 7-9pm

Give Up's large-scale screen prints are designed using photos, paper, scissors and a photocopy machine. Give Up calls the method "the cut'n'paste manner of old punk and hard core fliers." Sounds right for Austin.

The Blanton Museum of Art
Opening February 5

Of Desire, the Blanton's press release pretty much says it all with the statement, "how fascinating, evocative and familiar." The exhibition explores the idea/emotion/nature of desire through the work of such artists as Marilyn Minter, Glenn Ligon and Tracey Emin.

San Antonio Openings

Alejandro Cesarco
January 14 - May 2

Alejandro Cesarco brings together Index, a series of works that represent the indexes of unwritten books, for the first time, and exhibits a new film, The Two Stories. Look for a review of the exhibition in our next issue of ...might be good.

Unit B Gallery
Opening Reception January 15, 6:30-10pm

Ever wonder what it's like to be an animal other than a human? In this exhibition Emily Landon and Chris Wildrick explore just that.

Katie Pell
Sala Diaz
Opening Reception Janurary 15, 7-11pm

Katie Pell's installation Intractable Chatter is about the distances between us (and those between us and ourselves).

Fred Sandback
Lawrence Markey
January 26 - March 5

Minimalist and Conceptual artist Fred Sandback's yarn construction Untitled (Four-part Vertical Construction in Two Colors) from 1987 will grace Lawrence Markey's gallery.

San Marcos Opening

Okay Mountain Collective
Texas State Gallery
Opening Reception January 21, 5-7pm

Okay Mountain's Big Strange Mystery lies somewhere between a natural history museum and a U.F.O. museum. Sounds like a trip.

Announcements: events

Austin Events

Artist Talk: Jade Walker
Austin Museum of Art
Thursday, January 21, 7pm

Jade Walker talks about her installation Spectator Sport now on view at AMOA.

Third Thursday
The Blanton Museum of Art
Thursday, January 21, 5-9pm

Blanton's free day! At 7 pm, the book club meets to discuss The Song is You: A Novel by Arthur Phillips, and at 7:30 pm curator Risa Puleo will give a tour entitled La Guadalupana.

Art Work: A Conversation about Art, Labor, and Economics
Domy Books Austin
Friday, January 22, 8-10pm

We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do? -Temporary Services

Come talk it out.

Hou Hanru
Arthouse @ the Carver
Tuesday, January 26, 7pm

Hou Hanru, the Director of Exhibitions & Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute and the curator of the 2009 Biennale de Lyon, will speak as part of Arthouse's ongoing Visiting Lecturer Series.

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