Saturday, July 23, 2011
Clement Greenberg, the famous '50s - '60s Modernist art critic, used to say that art should be judged and experienced virtually free of context, that it should stand on its own. You don't need to know about the artist or the scene.
I took a look at Alan W. Jackson's pen drawings at the City Gallery's "Under the Radar" exhibit, without any context besides the gallery atmosphere and here's what I saw. Just under ten abstract black & white line drawings on white paper framed in white behind glass. They were all based on simple patterns, drawn in the same size pen using lines only. Though they appeared very precise the hand execution allowed for subtle texture and undulations to appear. The finished pieces looked very polished and the titles simply described the pattern or method.
I thought the pieces might be engaging modernity, somehow related to digital love/hate. They reminded me of Agnes Martin's grid pieces but didn't seem to reflect any ethereal or spiritual qualities that defined those Martin pieces. Instead they seemed more bold, the hand-made variations dealing with clarity rather than uncertainty. The meaning, intention and even effect of the work was ambiguous.
As it turns out meeting Alan W. Jackson and hearing him speak about his work is a fantastic argument against Clement Greenberg's theory* of viewing artwork independently of the artist or context. Jackson, an architect and draftsman, explained that before the industry switched to auto-CAD everything was drawn by hand. First it was pencil on velum, then he switched to pen on mylar. Remarkably Jackson and his partner have re-imagined hand-rendered architectural drawing and still produce it professionally. Jackson showed many slides of the architectural drawings illustrating the very subtle differences in techniques; he didn't merely reference the idea of drafting, he wanted us to really look at the subtle differences, a quality that is reflected in his work.
Jackson then began doodling and that grew into free-association abstract line compositions. He showed the work to a friend in the art world and was encouraged to show it, and over time he developed the drawings hanging in the City Gallery.
He cited Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt as inspiration. He appreciated Hesse's graphic abstractions more than any critical ideas associated with Hesse. LeWitt is famous for producing instructions to make a drawing then allowing others to create the works independently. Rather than capitalizing on the standard idea of LeWitt as a hands-off conceptual artist, however, Jackson connected with the idea of using simple instructions or a set of confines to complete a line drawing. One of Jackson's pieces, for example, is only broken vertical lines that cannot touch. Another is a series of sections of vertical lines each beginning with a wavy line and the rest reflecting that wave but gradually straightening out. Perhaps the ambiguity of his work has to do with similarities in appearance to such vastly different artists as Eva Hesse, Sol LeWitt and Agnes Martin.
Having heard Jackson speak the drawings now resembled a detailed plan or blueprint for a hand-knitted organic scarf or handwoven basket. Moreover the work and Jackson himself reminded me of a very difficult-to-describe type of curiosity that I associate with artists such as M.C. Escher, N. C. and Andy Wyeth (and the whole Wyeth family), and James Gurney, who illustrated Dinotopia and writes a fun blog about illustration. It's a science-y, empirical, experimental and myopic sort of curiosity. I generally run across this attitude in biographies or films that really depict how an artist works or views life and it is usually reflected in the sketchbooks, planning stages and odd side projects of the artists, i.e. the offshoot of a "serious" ouvre which reflects the craftsmanship side or underside of art-making.
Indeed drawing has long been associated with planning, not only in architecture but in old Academic traditions for both painters and sculptors. While daVinci's sketches and mock-ups may be priceless today such drawings were generally not valued as pieces unto themselves until the twentieth century. While the French Academie of the 1800s considered drawing more philosophical and painting itself to be associated with lowly craft and thus encouraged emphasis on tone and value over painterly color in a finished painting (according to Waldemar Januszczak in Techniques of the Great Masters of Art) the actual preliminary drawings were not themselves valued.
But by producing finished, polished pieces that begin and end with what's on the page (i.e. no reams of preliminary sketches but beginning with the instructions and ending with the finished drawing) Jackson has conflated the ends with the means. Even more interesting, his background in literally making plans has positioned the plan as the finished product. In this way he is similar to Sol LeWitt but in Jackson's case the plan itself is also an art object.
After hearing Jackson speak his work also brings to mind Piet Mondrian in that he has broken down visual expression into its very simplest elements--black lines on white paper--and is pushing the limits of what is possible in order to get the maximum expression from the simplest possible means. Mondrian was very involved in spiritual movements and was interested not only in pushing the simplest of formal elements to the visual max, but pushing visual representation itself beyond the physical realm and into the metaphysical. Jackson mentioned no such thing in his lecture but the pieces certainly are calmly awe-inspiring in terms of what is possible with the simplest broken line and a human mind.
*How ironic is it that a professional art critic would come up with the theory that a piece of art should stand alone without accompaniment? Way to write yourself out of existence.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Sunday, July 17, 2011
The late Carmelo Gannello was a severely visually impaired artist whose vision was obscured by flashing, intense or dark orbs in his eye. He incorporated the orbs into his work at the suggestion of his doctor. It was hard to find examples of his work but I really love his stark graphic abstractions. Creating an image of an eye that isn't grandiose or cliche is a tall order but here you go:
I found some more videos of artists who are working completely without vision, by feel only. John Bramblitt, who lost his vision later in life, does some absolutely amazing portraiture. I really wish I could find more video showing his and others' working process (most of these videos understandably focus on how inspirational the artists' efforts are). Intensely valuing color was another common theme, which surprised me considering some of the artists featured had never seen color before.
The first video I linked to, "What is Possible: Art Education for the Blind," depicts how a blind gallery goer can appreciate an art object by feel if such a tour program is available. It occurred to me that conceptual art and art that eschews the object-hood of artwork would be particularly accessible to not only blind people but people with other sensory disabilities or people who cannot leave their homes easily to see a piece of art in question.
I'm happy to say I think large portions of this blog are very appropriate for someone without sight, so I'm going to try to make this blog more accessible: image descriptions under the pictures I post, descriptions of how the work in question is situated within a gallery. Any other suggestions would be appreciated.
Sunday, July 10, 2011
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.
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).
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.
"We all look for truth in photos, right?" explains Melinda Mead to a crowd of 50 or so people in City Gallery looking at a wall of her photos. There are around 6 on one wall, and 6 more around the corner. I'd guess they're between 11 x 14" and 14 x 17", matte digital prints mounted on some thick board with no frame or border, all in lush color and rich contrast. "As a record of who did what, how it was, who really has friends on Facebook, if Osama Bin Laden is really dead." [I am quoting the best I can from memory for this entire post] "So are they truthful? NO! These look like photos of people in their rooms having a solitary, somber moment. But I'm RIGHT THERE with my camera. We were making jokes and small talk. And I had to edit hundreds of images to get these."
I fell victim to editing before I even saw the show. I knew nothing about Mead or her work, only the snippet of one of her photos on display from City Gallery's advertisement: a young woman lit ethereally brushing her hair and looking in the mirror. "Oh great," I thought. "Another young, pretty woman artist who makes images of young pretty women doing pretty things." Sure there are artists who do this really well-- I've blogged about them before-- but it's usually a lazy trend that I'm just tired of. Fortunately when I got to the gallery I discovered I was flat wrong.
The photos are of Mead's friends, all in their 20's or 30's, some of them recognizable Charleston artists, alone in an interior space. The images are all crisp but it's obvious from the dim lighting that the exposures were up to several seconds long. That, combined with the thoughtful or mundane expressions and depictions of chores or processes being competed, imbues the images with a strong sense of elapsing time. The figures are small, framed by interiors that function as a formal extension of their thoughts while at the same time as a pedestal that objectifies them to the viewer. In one group of 6 the interiors are curved and organic, as in a van, or large and mostly empty. On the other wall the interiors are all mashups of rectangular door-frames, bookshelves, magazines and and furniture that Mead shot parallel or perpendicular to the edge of the photo so that they are flattened and collage-like with a person in the middle. I completely forgot I was looking literally through Mead's camera and that she was present in the shoot, just as I wasn't aware of myself, the viewer, looking at the scenes.
Mead explained that she got into photography like most people: to document friends and family so you can look back later and have a record of what things and people were like. But the reality, she said, of photography is that you want what's in the photo, what's already happened, but it isn't real. Taking photos and looking at them are inherently an exercise in nostalgia and loss. Mead says she didn't realize it while shooting this series but she now understands that she was reacting to her mother's recent death. Many of the images deal with grief in that they're solitary and solemn, dim with a figure turned away from the light source. But she also seems to have utilized the medium of photography perfectly in order to express elements of grief: that which a photographer falsely creates to prevent its passing and then grasps after it has passed.
I also thought it was interesting that, when presented with the challenge of working outside the conventional bounds of a medium that is normally trusted for truth, reality and accuracy, Mead chose to make images that were even more real. The dim lighting, composition and form all enhance the "solitary moments" subject-matter so that the viewer sees the content but also poetically and instinctively feels the mood. Although Mead posed some of the shots and issued instructions she ended up with overly accurate images. While many photographers when faced with the "photography = reality" problem would tweak subject-matter to depict a physically impossible situation or turn to some sort of surrealism, I think hyper-reality is a daring and rigorous solution.
The Q&A afterward was cool because the audience was engaged and thoughtful and Mead did a great job both communicating basic photography concepts and getting to the interesting stuff. Everyone wanted to know: what was it really like? How did you talk to the subjects? How did they feel? What are your own private moments like? Would it have been different if they weren't your friends? Which were most difficult? Why these people? Her description of what it was like to involve her friends in a formal project was especially interesting to me as a portrait artist who has a really hard time asking people to pose.
Her 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, Conrad Guevara, 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. Next: Artist Lecture Part 2: Conrad Guevara!