Monday, March 23, 2009

Curators and Conductors

Walking through the Martin Kippenberger show at MoMA recently, I was reminded of an old theory of mine about music that relates to art in many ways. I used to believe that some conductors champion music that would fail without their direction. For example, a Beethoven or Brahms symphony still sounds like great music even when played poorly. But if a 2nd rate orchestra plays Tchaikovsky or Bruckner, it isn't clear at all that the music is great. It NEEDS the conductor. Most of you will never get the chance to test this out, but I swear that if you ever have the misfortune to hear a bad orchestra play a Tchaikovsky symphony, you'll wonder why anybody plays this junk. But if you hear the same orchestra mangle a Beethoven symphony, the power of the music somehow shines through and all you are left with is an awareness that the players are bad, not the music. I think conductors love this power to direct music that wouldn't stand without them.

If we relate the curator to a conductor - an intermediary guide between artist and public -- I think that some curators choose art that NEEDS the guidance of the curator to be made into great art. If the public views it without that direction, it isn't at all clear that it's great art. Would a public ever find their way through a Kippenberger show without curatorial guidance? Or Eggleston? Or Winogrand? I'm often struck by the seeming disconnect between the wall text and the work in front of me. This pile of newspapers in front of me is really talking about erotic subtexts and minimalist theory? This Duchamp-ian "readymade" is really a self-portrait that explores issues of gender equality and a search for personal identity? Really? Well, I think sometimes yes, and sometimes no. But in every case it is the curator searching for a way to make an argument for the art that a public would not find on its own in the same way a conductor leads you through music that would seem a jumble without him.

Now, I'm not necessarily making the argument that art which speaks without the conductor/curator is better. Sometimes you just need a guide, and sometimes even the most sophisticated, nuanced explanation doesn't disguise the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Still, as I ambled through the warehouse....ummm, I mean exhibition of the Kippenberger show listening to my audio guide, I wondered if anyone would find the resonances and references being described to me without that guide.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Zoe Leonard at Hispanic Society

After much procrastination, I finally ventured North to check out the Zoe Leonard show at the Hispanic Society. It didn't disappoint. I had seen first part of the show, the Analogue series, a few times before. It had been included it the last Documenta, and parts of it were included in the "Eminent Domain" show at the New York Public Library last year. I have been a fan of this work since the first time I saw it. Though it's a conceptual project at its core, Ms Leonard leads us through her thoughts and ideas with such clarity, one could almost call the work documentary.

The series charts both the extinction of the Lower East Side neighborhood in which Ms Leonard had lived, and also maps the transit of products from neighborhoods like the LES to other poorer nations like Uganda, Poland, and Mexico. "Analogue" has two manifestations: the 400 C-prints we can see at the Hispanic Society, and a set of 40 dye-transfer prints taken from the larger opus. I particularly like the dye-transfer set as it extends yet again the idea of extinction using a dying technology to limn a dying society. But seeing the complete set of 400 prints has its pleasures as well. Threads of visual clues knit through multiple works making it clear that disparate photos are actually from the same place. But seen in a different way, it's amazing to me how this series links pictures of a New York neighborhood with flea markets and roadside vendors in Africa and Eastern Europe. Is Ms Leonard saying we aren't so different from them or is she asking if we're already a third world nation?

But I was as unfamiliar with the second part of the show as I was familiar with the first. Here Ms Leonard takes form the archives of the Hispanic Society maps and guides -- called derroteros -- that led ancient explorers to foreign lands and treasures. Ecstatically illustrated and illuminated, these documents could easily be contemporary map-based art. They're filled with anthropomorphical renderings of natural phenomena and gorgeous graphical drawings of compasses. Each derrotero is crammed with information - almost no space is left white or blank - and symbols abound connoting religious, national, or directional data. And, as they led explorers from centuries ago to unfamiliar places, so too does "Analogue" lead us to places we would not find for ourselves. Both are maps of a particularly personal nature.

The show has been reviewed beautifully by Holland Cotter in the Times and Joshua Mack in Time Out NY.

If you want to make a little afternoon of your trip up to 155th St., treat yourself to lunch at La Fiesta (3797 Broadway (Btwn 157th & 158th St)
Phone: (212) 281-2886). It's a wonderful little Mexican diner with great homemade food.....that is if your home had yummy sopa de pollo and handmade tortillas. My sopa de pollo was a spicy red broth laden with pieces of chicken on the bone. Everything was fresh and delicious. It seemed the perfect end to my own little "northern expedition" to the Hispanic Society. Also, check out the permanent collection at the Hispanic Society. It's a cool, idiosyncratic mansion in the middle of Manhattan North.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Creative Destruction at MoMA

Paper: Pressed, Stained, Slashed, Folded is up at MoMA on the 2nd floor. It's a wonderful exhibit that feeds right into my enjoyment of artists who push their materials past the breaking point. As a matter of fact, it looked like a works-on-paper manifestation of my photographic Creative Destruction idea that I've been fooling around with here on Fugitive Vision. (I am in no way suggesting that MoMA curators got their idea from me!) There's a link to the MoMA website page for the exhibit here, but you'll have to go see the show because there's only one image from the show online and no exhibition catalog.

Just as the photographers I've been discussing have folded, cut, and stained their images, the artists in this show similarly "destroy" their materials in search of meaning and form. I thought that Dorothea Rockburne's folded aquatint series particularly presages photographic work of Wolfgang Tillman and Walead Beshty. Her website with some images of similar work here. Click here to see the actual works in the show. Click on the next button to see all 6 in the series.

There is work by familiar artists like Ruscha and Rauschenberg, but also a fine collection of lesser known Brazilian and South American artists. Check it out. Up until June 22nd.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Almost not there

I find myself increasingly drawn to a new idea. Well, it's not a new idea, but it's kind of new for me. It seems that I fall all over myself for work at the edge of visibility. The thought that I'm smitten with this theme came to me as I was viewing the new Alyson Shotz show at Derek Eller Gallery. It was ably and accurately reviewed in the NY Times recently, so I don't have much to add descriptively. But I want to talk about it a bit in relation to other work I've seen and liked that seems to be developing into a tendency. I wouldn't call it a theme just yet, but I'm tending to lump these various artists in a way that others might not have looked at yet.

So, the new, not-so-new idea is work at the edge of visibility; work that challenges us to evaluate what we are seeing because we're not sure what's there and what's not. Of course, this is not new. Robert Ryman asks us to see in this way when we look at his white paintings, and Ad Reinhardt asks us to see in this way when we look at his black paintings. James Turrell certainly taxes our senses when he places us in one of his immersive light sculptures, and Agnes Martin challenges us to see detail and rhythm in her minimalist work. And the list could go on. As a matter of fact, there is a show right now at the Drawing Center in NYC called "Apparently Invisible". Clearly I am not tilling new soil here.

But as well discussed as this art topic is, it is definitely not "discoursed out" as one curator I know likes to say. And Alyson Shotz is right in there making the discourse present and current. I've been a fan of her work since I saw "The Shape of Space" piece a few years ago at the Guggenheim. I love how she uses small, almost translucent, plastic lenses as a fractal/cellular device to build up a wall of shifting light and perception. She works the same magic now with pins and thread to build her wall sculpture thread drawings. But whatever the medium, she is always challenging our eyes to see what is often just barely visible. I love that.

And so it got me ruminating on other work I've seen and written about. There was the work of Karilee Fuglem at Pierre François Ouelette Gallery in Montreal. Ms Fuglem deals with the same kind of cellular building with common or insignificant objects that combine to make an unforgettable -- if invisible -- whole. Ms Fuglem's thread sculptures (drawings if you will) are sometimes completely invisible unless you catch them in raking light. When one walks into the gallery, the first impression is that it's empty. Only after a change in the perspective of light is the work revealed.

This shares a thread (sorry, I couldn't resist) with the work of Mark Garry which I saw in Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory show last summer. Click here and scroll down to see some pictures from my earlier post. Again, a combination of quotidian materials is combined with light and an artist's perspective to challenge the limits of visibility in beautiful and astounding ways.

On a photographic front, I've written a few times about the haunting work of Go Sugimoto. But there are others like Liz Deschenes, Adam Fuss, and Sigmar Polke who take the medium to the limits of visibility. Ms Deschenes in particular is an artist who explores the idea of seeing through the medium of photography. Her "Moiré" series and her "Black and White" photogram series both severely test what we expect and want to see in a photograph, and also ask us to second guess if we are seeing what we think we're seeing. They are great. Check out images of her work at her gallery, Miguel Abreu, but understand that this work MUST be seen in person to be grasped. If our eyes and brains can barely process it in person, then certainly a jpeg won't do it justice.

The parallel media I've been discussing have been thread and photography. Both are addressed in the work of two artists at one gallery, Virgil de Voldere in Chelsea. Artist Nancy Brooks Brody works in thread and Markus Hansen works in photography among other media. Mr. Hansen has a show up now that is right in line with the thoughts of this post. As described in the press release for the show:
"The six images in the exhibition were first prepared digitally, as montages worked in Photoshop and then drawn on paper with gouache, before screenprinting them with transparent ink onto unprimed canvases. Hansen then blows a luminescent powdered pigment across the surface of the wet ink, resulting in a mute beige-yellow surface. Barely perceptible in the light, the images become recognizable as the gallery darkens, the works glowing a soft blue."

Perfect! A thrice mediated photographic image that can only be seen in darkness. (In other exciting work, Mr Hansen does diptych portraits where there is a figure on the right combined with a self portrait on the left where he tries to mirror the internal affect of the sitter on the right. They are brilliant in concept and execution. He is clearly a deeply empathic artist. Take a look at his website here.)

Nancy Brooks Brody performs minimalist, rhythmic, geometric drawings on white paper using white thread as her mark-making tool. I find them lovely, meditative, and deceptively simple.

So where does all of this take me? I have no idea. I guess if I had more money, I'd be buying all of the above in order to live with the idea for a few years and see where that left me. Certainly every artist I've discussed in this post has been on my mind for at least a year. Absent that option, I take every opportunity to see the work in galleries and studios to find out whether the art lives in my memory even when I'm not seeing it every day. It also has me on the lookout for other work that adds to the opus I'm beginning to outline. It seems that almost invisible art that is this engaging casts an ever deepening shadow.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Emergency substitution at NYPL

My friend Deirdre Donohue has a great exhibit up at the New York Public Library. See the webpage about her exhibit here. If you go to see it, please note that it's NOT at the main library. It's at the mid-Manhattan branch which is across the street on 5th Ave and a little south.

My connection to this exhibit is that I've been invited to be a last-minute replacement for an indisposed Bernard Yenelouis. He was scheduled to be the interlocutor in an artists discussion this coming Monday, March 16th at 6:30. Though I am no substitute for Mr. Yenelouis' art erudition, knowledge of Deirdre's work, and experience as a moderator of art discussions, I will do my best to make a lively evening with a bare minimum of bone-headed questions. If you would like to participate in the discussion, the details of the event are here. All are welcome.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Art Fairs = price/value ratio

It goes without saying that cheap is not the same thing as inexpensive. At the gaggle of art fairs last week, it seemed many booths had brought work specifically designed to appeal to customers looking for one or the other. I frequently think about price vs value so this was an opportunity to explore the realities.

To me, cheap implies low price, while inexpensive has implications of higher quality and value. Also, inexpensive can be at any price point. A $250,000 Rothko would be inexpensive, right? But Rothko's aren't cheap no matter what the price. At Volta, Alejandro Diaz’s black-marker epigrams on cardboard could be had for $99.99. At Scope, artists hawked T-shirts and other multiples priced from $5 to $250 in a separate pavilion marked “Cheap, Fast and Out of Control.” None of these did anything for me or my sense of value.

On the other hand, there was Christine Hill's faux apothecary in Ronald Feldman's booth. This booth got a lot of press, and deservedly so in my opinion. For between $20-50 you could get a private performance by Ms Hill, a remedy/drawing (signed and stamped), and various metaphorical prescriptions for whatever ailed your soul. I participated at the $20 level and I was very happy with the experience and sense of high value received. This was very personal, performative, and conceptual art that just happened to be priced at a low dollar mark. No cheapness here!

Also at the Armory Pier 94, Pierogi had multiple possibilities that wouldn't break the bank and also offered high art nutrition. But that's no surprise from this gallery. I'm always happy with what I see there and the price/value ratio they offer. I've written about them many times, so I'm sure you're tired of my preaching about them. But really, go look in Brooklyn if you doubt my word.

Pulse, too had multiple good values. A treasure trove of high price/value and very low cost was the Aids Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA) booth. This organization offers photos and works on paper by both established and younger artists who have donated the work to ACRIA for fundraising. Edition sizes go from relatively big (100) to unique works. The Marco Breuer photograms were a steal at $500, and I personally bought 2 $100 photos; one by Sara Vanderbeek, and the other by Sarah Charlesworth. Really good work by two fine young artists I have been watching for some time. The catch with philanthropic orgs like this is the quality of the art. Many organizations offer benefit prints, but not all of them offer the consistently high quality the ACRIA seems to offer. Take a look.

On another level of value, we have to look at something like the portfolio offer from Baer-Ridgway from San Francisco. I wrote about this portfolio, called "Golden Gate", when I saw it in Miami. At $15k, it's not cheap, but to get 10 absolutely first rate prints for just over $1100 each is certainly the kind of price/value ratio I want. If I had the 15k, this portfolio would have been in my collection 3 months ago.

Also high on my list were the Nina Katchadourian map collages from Catherine Clark Gallery. There were a number of really fine pieces in the $3000-4000 range. Not expensive for one of a kind collages from a well-known and much respected artist.

So that gives you a kind of range. From $100 to $15,000, there are still good pieces to be found that are both low price and high content. If your acquisition itch needs to be scratched and you don't have as much scratch as you used to, there's still a few exciting works out there to ease the craving. Happy hunting!

Monday, March 9, 2009

A petty étude

I had the opportunity last week through my Armory VIP pass (Very Indulgent Person) to visit a number of the choicest New York City art collections. I started to wonder what was the real purpose behind these visits? Is it really the chance to to see great art that is usually hidden from the public eye because it's privately held? Yes, probably sometimes. Is it a chance to peek into some very tony addresses and see what a 25 million dollar townhouse looks like on the inside? Yes, I suspect there's plenty of that, too.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that a larger majority of the time a much pettier activity is taking place. It is a petty pursuit to which I found myself falling prey more than once: second guessing collecting choices. One walks into a private home, looks at the art the owner has chosen to buy, and one thinks, "I wouldn't have bought THAT!" I am embarrassed to write it and see it in print, yet I have no doubt that I'm not the only one. I looked at my fellow visitors and wondered how much grading and judging was going on. One can just hear the internal dialogues about that not being the best Rothko, or who buys photography anymore?, or so-and-so isn't really the best Ukrainian painter.

I confess I ended up not getting a lot of satisfaction from simply seeing art I wouldn't ordinarily get to see. These were obviously such hierarchical social rituals and the art just happened to be vehicle to make them happen. I refer back to my previous post about the definition of a collector. I'm sure there were internal or whispered questions along that line, too. Does this person collect for love?, for investment?, for status?, for tax havens? We don't know, but we wonder. And all the time, we're not really looking at the art.

I'm increasingly convinced that, save for a very few cases, collections (like dreams) are really only interesting to the one who has them. Parts of them may sell for fantastic prices, museums may desire them for various reasons, but they are rarely kept whole after the lifetime of the owner. I think this is because it is is only in the mind of the owner that they have cohesion as a body. I love the work in my collection and I've tried hard to maintain a sense of theme(s) and quality. Yet I have no doubt that anyone who owns these works in the future would slice the pie differently; see the parts as parts of a different whole. I guess this is both part of the fascination and part of the game. But even having this perspective walking in, I felt twangs of pettiness as I walked through my étude of collection visits. Were you more magnanimous? I wonder.....

Defining Definitions

It has been a week since I participated in the Camera Club of New York's panel on emerging photography. As I expected, the term itself elicited lively and passionate discussion and debate. The invitation to serve on the panel prompted me to ask many art world professionals what their definition of the term "emerging" might be. Their answers were so diverse as to make any real encapsulation into one definition impossible. On the panel, Cara Phillips opined that one was emerging as long as you could not support yourself on the sales of your art alone. This is a reasonable definition. It creates a logical beginning and end to a certain period in an artist's career. But when I mentioned it to a few other artists and gallery owners, they rejected thedefinition entirely claiming that many fine artists sail into mid and late career without establishing a base of art sales that would support a family's bills. Another definition claims that one is emerging until you have gallery representation. A quick look through the booths at the art fairs this week shows that this definition is widely rejected. And on and on it goes. One definition leads to another definition, leads to a contradiction creating another eternity.

I have been reading Alberto Manguel's fine book, "The Library at Night". In it he describes the challenges he and millennia of predecessors have faced in creating categories in which to to order large bodies of texts. Here he speaks of the frustration of definition:

"Once a category is established, it suggests or imposes others, so that no cataloging method, whether on a shelf or on paper, is ever closed unto itself. If I decide on a number of subjects, each of these subjects will require a classification within its classification. At a certain point in the ordering, out of fatigue, boredom, or frustration, I'll stop this geometrical progression. But the possibility of continuing is always there. There are no final categories in a library."

And so there are no final definitions in the art world. The famous American violinist, Isaac Stern, once said if you ask 100 musicians for their opinion, you'll get 150 answers. I think this could equally be said of the art world, but perhaps it isn't some failing of commitment or clarity. Perhaps it has something to do with the fungible core of the abstract and metaphorical arts. There can't be any ONE TRUE ANSWER. The questions are too complex and layered, so the answers must be complex, layered, and perhaps even contradictory. Isn't this what is meant when we hear that art asks questions?

But of course, a term like "emerging artist" is not an art question. It is a market question, or perhaps even, more fundamentally, a financial question. My own definition is more in line with this idea. I think an emerging artist is someone whose art you believe will be worth more tomorrow than it is today based on that artist's lack of exposure to the market. There is no definable beginning to that definition nor a definable end. As such, it acts as more of a kind of mood or instinct than a definition . But it does cover the majority of situations in which I hear it used. That isn't to say I'm right - there is no right - it's just my particular facet on a disco ball of opinions.

I encountered another term last week which challenged my idea of what could be easily defined. I was asked what the term "collector" means. Easy, right? No way. The person who posed the question had a firm and hotly focused idea of what the wordshould mean: a person who has a collection of objects which can have a curatorial line drawn through them at least three ways. I had never heard of such an idiosyncratic position on what it means to be a collector, so I started asking around to see if there might be some consensus about what THIS word means.

Nope. No way. I found as many definitions for "collector" as I did for "emerging". Have I entered some Noam Chomsky, syntactical hell? Do we actually mean the same thing when we talk about anything? Is there agreement on any simple term, or if we scratch the surface do we find that my idea of "figurative" has nothing to do with your idea of "figurative"? I read about a study about the perception of color. It found that color memory was one of the most flexible and hard to pin down. If a person is shown a color chip and then asked to pick it out again from a line-up of other colors, one rarely picks the same color. So clearly, we're not even agreeing on the idea of red and yellow much less orange.

The result of all of this for me is to be just a scooch less doctrinaire when I hear someone's definition of a term I think I have pinned down. As much as I feel that I may have an answer, or that another's definition doesn't hold logical water isn't really the point. The point is that it's rarely an either/or answer but more of a gray scale. Maybe even aPantone scale. So, even when I look up at the sky convinced that what I'm seeing is blue, some part of me knows that it's really the confluence of a thousand colors that gives me the idea of blue. What is blue, anyway?