Sunday, July 10, 2011

Artist Lecture at the City Gallery: Conrad Guevara!

So yesterday I wrote about Melinda Mead, who spoke with Conrad Guevara at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park. I'm quoting from memory, so hopefully it's accurate!

Yes I took these with my iPhone in a dimly lit gallery. Sorry. If you really want to see the work go to the show.

Like all great things Guevara's talk was in the form of a PowerPoint Presentation, in which he showed what inspired him: photos of the kids he teaches, the materials he uses, and a music video with a bunch of people rushing a basketball court, with pompoms, spotlights and dry ice. "I love this, it's so... everything is great. So I wanted to make the mylar like--" he pauses as we watch a man in a gorrilla suit making a slam dunk go sailing through a cloud of glitter and dry ice in slow motion--"a party."

Guevara had 3 things on display: a crocheted pipe sculpture, a cut-paper "painting," and an installation of 4 large sculptural panels covered with grids of fluttering cut silver mylar (assisted by a small oscillating fan) and painted hot pink at the back. I would classify them as "modernist toys." As in, toy versions of modernist painting and sculpture. I'm saying "modernist," and I mean the highbrow cult of Abstract Expressionism of the 50's and 60's and the criticism of it, plus to an extent some Minimalism which can be seen as an extension of formal abstract experiments and was admired by the same sort of crowd. Guevara used the word, "serious." "I want to communicate these serious ideas and have serious work, but disguised with this easy-to-digest fun style," he explains, referring to the sparkle-tastic mylar and candy-colored squishy yarn.

"Exploding Pipes at the Pompidou"

As a teacher, communicating "serious" ideas in a fun way is obviously important to Guevara. He said he wants kids to be able to relate to his work and was particularly happy that one of his mylar sculptures was hanging in the Children's Museum (the birthday party room!). This could be why I got the impression they were toys.

Guevara also talked about getting studio space in Redux and how that changed his process and really encouraged a flow of ideas and focus. He describes how he got materials-- paper, paint samples, a bag of free yarn-- and how relieved he was to have such cheap materials to use (omg, I can relate). He seems to have stuck with them, though, and they seem to be working really well for him. In this way he seemed to portray himself as a bit of an outsider to professional art-making, focusing on kids, free materials, and a "not serious" approach. I didn't get that from his work at all, though. In fact, of what I see of local artists, Guevara's work seems the most likely to be at home in a big city gallery and be really finely attuned to postmodern trends.

Yarn and fabric, for instance, have been popular choices since the '70s. When artists got frustrated with the limitations of the "cult of Modernism," I mentioned earlier, or Very Serious Abstract Expressionism, there was an outpouring of theretofore completely unacceptable artwork: art by women, crafters, illustrators, performers, people of color, openly gay people, and people with non-NY/LA backgrounds who had all been conspicuously excluded from the so-called 'universal' Modernist movement. Flaunting that which had been forbidden, many women utilized traditional women's crafts like sewing and crocheting as a means of sculpture (as opposed to steel, marble or bronze of the Modernist heyday) and later artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres used ordinary objects and large quantities of cheap, fun stuff associated with nightlife and ordinary life (as opposed to strictly oil paint on canvas).

"The Universe Pokes Holes In You." Guevara explained that the title referenced when things in your life seem to be on an upward trajectory and then your plans get sliced in half by The Universe.

Paper has also gained popularity as a postmodern material of choice. It brings so many things to mind: illustration, comic books, note-taking, education, office work, sketches, magazines, transitory throwaway stuff that had no place in Serious Modernism but is now the focus of inquiry. Mylar, similarly, is a material more visual artists are familiar with today as it is simply a newer product (developed in the mid-1950s and used by... wait for it... NASA) and as photography, printmaking, industrial design, old-fashioned hand-done graphic design and other technical fields are celebrated in visual arts curricula (a departure from the '60s) more visual artists are introduced to the material. Mylar has also been popular because it looks like commercial packaging and is *shiny* so has been a popular choice to access a modern commercial aesthetic.

But one interesting thing about the way Guevara used these materials is that, as he explained, they were cheap. But rather than use cheap materials to make a purposefully shoddy-looking product (as did many conceptual artists and Arte Povera artists who sought to criticize the "beautiful, original, expensive art object" values of Serious Art) or taking wildly expensive materials and making them look like shit (as does Jeff Koons or some of those Young British Artists) Guevara has taken cheap materials and made them look like either an expensive designer toy or famous high-priced paintings. Each object he displayed is highly finished and very covet-able. Moreover the cheap products he's using are only cheap in a modern industrialized country: only because of high capitalism, for instance, are reams of neon polyester yarn or millions of immaculately screen-printed paint samples a cheap byproduct.

Moreover the paper, as Guevara used it to mimic a Serious Painting, suggests the way the current generation of artists understands Modernism. We usually only see it on paper: in books, in abstracts of famous essays, photocopied and handed out. Postmodern artists usually reference Modernism in order to play around with the ideas or critique it or completely tear it down. But in order to reference it we collectively construct a quick intellectual mock-up of the movement in order to tear it down. Developing a visual short-hand for "the way things used to be" is essential, and I would argue that that short-hand consists partially of pedestals, canvases, drips, the Mona Lisa, images of 1950s housewives and the color white. The way Guevara used both yarn and paper, though obviously very time-consuming, suggests just such a quick mock-up. The yarn, too, suggests the playful malleability of Modernist ideas in the hands of the current generation.

Still his aim remains unclear to me. He said in the lecture that he wants to disguise Serious Stuff in a fun and kid-friendly way and not once did he mention satire. But his work isn't an all-out party. The pieces themselves are very careful and contained and this suggests a flip-side of doubt or unease. Before hearing him speak I interpreted an element of bitter sarcasm in the work, a sort of love-hate relationship with the work he was referencing (the Centre Pompidou, the minimalist work of Donald Judd, Barnett Newman and unnamed Abstract Expressionists). His fun packaging slices through the bullshit "untouchable genius" narrative built around the Modernists but also through the respectability of those artists. Of course it doesn't necessarily follow that in the wake of this respectability one would hate the Modernists; there is still room for appreciation, fondness, curiosity. Entire generations of Dadaists, Pop Artists and Surrealists came and went without ever dismantling the public awe of Modernism and Serious Art.

His work will be up at the City Gallery at Waterfront Park (i.e. Pineapple Fountain park) as part of the Under the Radar show till July 31, along with work by D.H. Cooper, Rebecca West Fraser, Nina Garner, Melinda Mead, Greg Hart, Alan W. Jackson and Lauren Frances Moore. So go see it! Plus hopefully I'll be writing about the next two artist lectures, which are this Saturday, July 16 and the next Saturday, July 23 at 5 pm.

Edit: Oh yeah, I almost forgot! I blogged about Guevara's work a few months ago, from the ReNude show.

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