Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Art Play House

I write about "179 Canal Canal/Anyways" at White Columns for The Brooklyn Rail's December 2010 issue. Click here to read the full review.

Above image: Artworks from left to right: "Oitana Divan," by Graham Anderson and Caitlin Keogh; "Moving Shapes and Colors (curated by Brian Droitcour)," and "TV Show (Antoine Catala)," photographs by Margaret Lee; "Silodka," by Aliza Baremboym; "Volume I: Gout," book by K. Mustermann on top of "Oitana Plaster Stand," by Graham Anderson and Caitlin Keogh; "Its Deja vu All Over Again (Devon Dikeou)," photograph by Margaret Lee; video monitors. Courtesy of White Columns.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Freedom in Mind

Above image: "The Art of Captivity, Part One," Fordham University Center Gallery, Lincoln Center

This essay is from the catalogue for "The Art of Captivity, Part One."

The premise of “The Art of Captivity” is that the breadth and depth of its theme should be accessed through both the visual and literary arts—and more important, that both our emotions and our intellects will be strengthened by thinking across these disciplines.

An artwork or novel addressing captivity is as much about its opposite: freedom. If a captive can recognize and identify her captor’s ways and means of constraint, then her awareness can give form to the possibility of assertion and choice. These are the powers of a free person. Frederick Douglass, for example, after he gains awareness of his captivity in slavery, states, “the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." Not all captives can assert themselves in this way, but freedom must begin in the imagination, in the awareness of captivity. Ideas of interrelatedness—between experiencing written and visual expressions, between the agencies of mind and body, and between freedom and constraint—resonate for me personally. As a painter, I found ways to slip from the constraints of self-limiting conventions through the study of philosophy. Entering into this text-based discipline profoundly affected my approach to the visual. I question more freely now, and more directly connect with the choices that I make in my work.

My artworks, in both Part One and Part Two of “The Art of Captivity” exhibitions, explore the theme of captivity. They also bridge the span before and after my “emancipation.” My reading over the past few years, particularly of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, has sparked a formal evolution in my painting. Kant sets out to describe how we judge beauty in a work of art. His initial requirement for this qualitative decision is that we refer to our own reactions to the actual object, which we must see in person. Furthermore, a judgment of beauty is not based on preexisting concepts. Deciding if an artwork is meaningful is a uniquely personal experience that engages both the mind and the body.

I find a reassuring thread in Kant’s thinking that I often return to, both inside and outside my studio. I can feel my way back along this thread to the idea that I am free to think and act for myself, to strive in my work to express a complete world appealing to both imagination and understanding. Following the steady logic behind Kant’s examination of subjectivity, I believe that I’ve found a way to trust seemingly illogical, even irrational impulses and reactions. This knowledge has alerted me to the possibility of choosing to be free. In her foreword, Casey Ruble notes that adhering to a discipline often enriches and expands our capabilities—thus enabling us to venture beyond it. That has been my experience.

Susan Eley selected for her exhibition my monotype, Persephone, which depicts the moment of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, the god of the underworld. I printed this in 2007 before reading Kant, but during my first exposure to Leonard Cassuto’s generous and rigorous interdisciplinary academic thinking. He invited me to talk about my several of my earlier works, also based on the Persephone myth, with his class on captivity literature at Fordham three years ago. Delving deeper into the different versions and interpretations of the original Greek myth as I prepared for Cassuto’s class primed my thinking about the possibilities for useful links between written and visual concepts.

I painted Moon Water, included in the show at Fordham, as part of a new body of work first shown in the spring of 2010. On top of the formal changes I was making, the work relates to my experience of being treated last year for both breast and lung cancer. (I have learned that I should say at this point that I have never smoked.) Illness illuminates the limitations of our physical existence and highlights the patient’s social and emotional isolation. Like Persephone, I feel that I have made a round-trip to the underworld.

The cycle of the seasons recounted in the Persephone myth result from a hard-won compromise: her captivity and freedom must coexist. The two states of mind define each other and together form a new cycle of the seasons. In thinking about my own story during the last three years of sickness and health, I have benefited from the formation of new ideas about captivity—new ways of thinking, my own compromise of seasons. This cycle will continue for me.

The “The Art of Captivity” exhibitions are intended for a broad audience—not only that within the Fordham community but also outside the university. To reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibitions, this fall I will be editing an ongoing online publication of student writing from Professor Cassuto’s English classes, as well as from students from other schools and programs in New York City. In addition to the writings, panel discussions will be hosted at both exhibitions, and other related lectures at Fordham will take place. This combination of artworks, books, and discussion forums will, I hope, extend our collective understanding of the dynamics of captivity—and liberation.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mind's Eye Witness

Using your memory is the only prerequisite for engaging with the group show, “You Were There,” at Rachel Uffner’s LES gallery this July and August. Curator Thomas Duncan selected two artworks each by artists Rita Ackermann, Justin Adian, Joe Bradley, Sarah Braman, Sara Greenberger Rafferty and Josh Smith: one from five years ago and a current piece for comparison. In keeping with the solipsistic effects of this summer’s heat wave, a reading of the evolution from the earlier work to the latter – a pin-ball like exercise when you take the show as a whole -- is meant to tease a parallel personal retrospection out of the viewer. “Where was I five years ago? How have I changed? What have I learned?”

Smith’s self-consciously painterly paintings are the only two pieces by the same artist shown side-by-side on the same wall, and so they serve as a key for reading the rest of the show: then versus now. His work also sets the overall stylistic tone: what is the least effort that can be made and yet still say something? Iterations and suggestions of the human form inhabit Rafferty’s, Ackermann’s and Bradley’s work; the other artists dwell more in an abstract realm. On the walls encircling Braman’s earnest set of knee-high, tumbling cube sculptures hang three pairs of paintings by Smith, Bradley, and Adian. Rafferty’s comedic and Ackerman’s popular fable work spar at the door and at the far end of the gallery. Scanning the show, you might be able to conclude, for example that Smith now voices his concerns more directly; or Braman has found more permanence and Bradley has learned to trust the human touch.

Five years is a meaningful span, Duncan told me, because it is long enough to remember and yet not too long to forget. The past is a construct formulated through the rolling lens of the present. Different distances at different speeds traveled within the same time span. We can know that for these particular artists the last five years have taken them from the early stages of their art careers to the next milestone (although Ackermann has had a bit of a head start.) The audience will have their own five years to dig into – wherever it may sit on their life’s number line -- and Duncan proposes that the fruits of the show lie in mirroring these impressions back on the show’s six youthful fictions.

The curator has successfully orchestrated the idea of multiple personal stories into the experience of reading the show. The under-built, barely held-together aesthetic heightens the fascination and reinforces the link to fleeting qualities associated with memory. Relinquishing to a purely formal reading reveals attractive cross-artist coincidences of color, form, and finish as the show’s visual underpinning. The pleasure of the making these surprising material connections has the feeling of a personal epiphany. This aspect of experiencing the show is more credible than any interpretation of a specific artist’s recent personal awakening, especially as it might relate to one of our own.

Any references to national or world events that have affected the artists’ or our own individual experiences over the last five years are underplayed here. They are perceptible, however, in the ways they have been integrated into the recent changes in our own lives and revealed in our own personal meditations on measuring how far we’ve come, successes and failures, beginnings and endings. This may explain the overall transient, purposeful lack-of-commitment attitude of the work. It matches the feeling of flux and instability of our times. In this regard, time and perhaps personal memory is evoked by “You Were There.”

The Rachel Uffner Gallery is a typical LES space -- for the time being, anyway. It is a small storefront with scuffed plywood floors and remnants of the old, decorative, red and white tile “welcome mat” still evident outside the front door. It opened in 2008 – midway through the show’s conceptual time frame. More polished – and distancing -- white cube galleries are getting increasingly easier to come by in her neighborhood. Maybe only within the artworld is this evolution dependable.

The already precious feeling of the space reinforces Duncan’s idea for the show. We can imagine a time in the near future, when the LES will be unrecognizable, Uffner will have moved to larger quarters, and the picture of an intimate, roughly finished interior filled with mid-summer afternoon sunlight will mark a lost moment. This palpable nostalgia for our own recent past is encouraged in “You Were There.” Beyond the artwork shown, Rachel Uffner’s gallery itself becomes fused with the show’s premise. Against a backdrop of change, what you can count on is the value of experiencing art.

Above installation image of the exhibition "You Were There," at Rachel Uffner Gallery with artwork by (from left to right) Joe Bradley, Rita Ackermann, Sarah Braman and Sara Greenberger Rafferty courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

What is Real?

Josephine Halvorson, "Coral", 2009, 18" x 23", Oil on Linen (image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.)

Anne Sherwood Pundyk, " A Little Kiss for Me", 2009, 10" x 8", Oil and Acrylic on Panel

Flesh or living matter is not a subject in Josephine Halvorson’s trompe l’oeil paintings. All of the materials, objects and substances she chooses to paint are inorganic or formerly organic at the time she paints them. Nothing alive can be found in her modest-sized paintings. So why do her paintings have such a palpable presence?

I turn to my own work to help me think through the answer. Several years ago, as I was sorting out an approach to painting, I decided that objects, landscapes and people were three distinct conceptual categories. The way I used paint when approaching each category would have to be completely different. With objects, I felt comfortable painting them. They were known entities and I could use a type of mimicry. With the brushwork I could construct with paint, more or less, how the object itself was constructed, situated and lit.

Landscape, I understood, could be painted (not represented, but conjured in paint) through a dance-like process. Landscape is everything beyond the object or outside the skin. Movement, as orientation, not mimicry, was the key to landscape. And then there was flesh. I studied traditional portraits; I looked extensively at other figure paintings. Sargent, Manet, Vermeer, Morisot, Cassatt. Time passed. My obsession with finding the alchemical formula for painting flesh continued. And it wasn't merely the flesh I wanted to paint. It was the resemblance, the form, the anatomy, the skeleton, the movement, the breath, the expression, the person, and the presence. Cecily Brown's work seemed to point the way -- other artists, too, including Amy Sillman, Francis Bacon, and even almost purely abstract work such as Joan Mitchell's.

Immanual Kant's Critique of Judgment provided the key. His methodological, categorical approach to the mysteries of beauty and the sublime opened a door. I became aware of the correspondence of the painter's body (and consciousness) to the world and the same correspondence shared between the artwork to the audience. I think it is just in my most recent work that -- by not trying to contain the notion of flesh, but paint the spirit contained in the flesh -- I can paint a living presence and world.

Now, back to Halvorson’s work. She has a clear-eyed, stripped down approach to both selecting her subjects (does she find them or do they find her?) and painting them in situ. Her choices appear to be the universe of the inorganic -- the breath, life and growth of her subjects are no longer present. But then it occurred to me what was happening. Her paint is the flesh. The act of painting her “overlooked subjects" (as she describes them) gives them their life.

Halvorson has linked her work to the children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit: or How Toys Become Real by Margery Williams (with illustrations by William Nicholson.) An inert toy rabbit grows conscious of the possibility of becoming not only beloved by the boy he belongs to, but a real flesh and blood rabbit. The toy rabbit must gain the boy’s love while surviving a lifetime of wear and tear. Another toy tells him, “…Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." Halvorson’s planks, embers, gravestones, twigs and bricks have weathered several lifetimes and through her understanding they are resurrected in paint.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Introspective Shout Out: 2009

Notable moments in my interior life from the past year. A list. Not a complete nor comprehensive list. And, not listed in any special order --more a way to lasso a few impressions from a herd of unruly ideas.

  • Re-reading Critique of Judgment about Beauty and the Sublime: Kant reinforces the identify-defining role of the individual in making judgments.
  • Experiencing Linda Norden's game-changing programming of art exhibitions at CUNY Graduate Center’s The James Gallery.
  • Attending Diana S. Pitt's memorial service.
  • Working with Susan Eley Fine Art.
  • Realizing that having cancer is like getting fired: you are now "the other."
  • Seeing, reading and writing about paintings by Amy Sillman, Cecily Brown, Alice Neel, Joan Mitchell, Louise Fishman, Josephine Halvorson, and Angela Dufresne.
  • Working with Theodore Hamm, Thomas Micchelli (from The Brooklyn Rail) and Jeff Pundyk, to edit my ideas in writing.
  • Catching the “Beg, Borrow, Steal” show from the Rubell Family Collection in Miami with Karen Yama (reminding me of our good old days.)
  • Seeing Evan’s performance in School Lite.
  • Sitting on the floor of Borders bookstore with Rita Halbright talking about good books on feminism: my current favorite being “Women Who Run With the Wolves,” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.
  • Refreshing my conception of photography with Walter Benjamin, Tacita Dean, and Andrew Bush,
  • Remembering Charles Daugherty, my art professor from Pomona College, who, of all my teachers from college through graduate school, attuned his responses to my expansiveness, not his own agenda.
  • Going to see Alice Neal’s work at David Zwirner with Mary Hanlon.
  • Being tipped off by Jeff about movie director, Kathryn Bigelow's interest in Jaques Lacan and how it's embodied in her film, "Hurt Locker."
  • Savoring Peter Scheldahl's art reviews, and those of Roberta Smith, Holland Cotter and Michael Kimmelman, and Barry Schwabsky.
  • Being reminded by Phoebe Pundyk about early Modernist art manifestos; and then thumbing through Herbert Read’s “A Concise History of Modern Painting,” pausing to read about Kandinsky and Cezanne while waiting for my radiation treatments.
  • Learning about post-Freudian ideas on psychotherapy, such as inter-subjectivity, following the recommendations of Beth Mehan and Barbara Faden
  • Having multi-directional conversations -- spun out from aspects of my work -- during visits in my studio with, among others, Orren Alperstein, Josephine Halvorson, Mike Quinn, Peter Scott, Wynn Kramarksy, and Linda Norden.
  • Touring "Younger Than Jesus" at the New Museum with Julie Saul and learning from her about Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.
  • Digging into Jacques Lecan's ideas, especially about the gaze, as explained by Zizek in "A Pervert's Guide to Cinema."
  • Seeing Francis Bacon's exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- noting the annex showing his source photographs -- after reading Gilles Deleuze’s “Logic of Sensation” (one of many readings suggested by Timothy Quigley.)
  • Appreciating the aesthetic qualities of the French while reading “Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes. (More thanks to TQ)
  • Wondering why seeing Marlene Dumas's exhibition at MoMA was both upsetting and gratifying.
  • Talking to Lenny Cassuto about the theme of captivity and at his suggestion reading Sigmund Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Seeing, later that Andre Agassis's autobiography "Open" was pried from him using some of Freud’s thinking about the death instinct as applied to Agassi’s self-destructiveness.
  • Swimming lanquidly through essays by Maurice Merleau-Ponty: “Cezanne’s Doubt” and “Eye and Mind.”
  • Running to see Monet’s Waterlillies at MoMA particularly after reading about their first installation in the 1950’s in Achim Hochdorfer's "A Hidden Reserve" in Artforum
  • While recuperating, watching on DVD all 8 seasons of "The Gilmore Girls" which blends effortlessly lessons from the Myth of Persephone with “What Not to Wear” (Thank you Phoebe and Tala Ginsberg)

Above image: Anne Sherwood Pundyk, "You're There and Then You're Not", 2009, Oil and Acrylic on Linen, 65" x 63"