Elizabeth Ann Smith

Arts

Being Safe is Scary: Learning from Germany

This year, when documenta 14 expanded its scope to include the city of Athens, Greece, an LGBTQI refugee rights group seized a sculpture from the exhibition and refused to give it back. The sculpture was Roger Bernat’s Replica of Oath Stone—a porexpan and fiberglass copy of a limestone table present at the trial of Socrates in 399 BCE. According to the project handbook, Bernat’s sculpture was to be walked through Athens in a mock funeral procession and then sent to Kassel to be entombed in the Thingplatz—a Nazi-era theatre. Bernat paid the group to participate in the performance—but this transfer of money ignited a larger conversation about debt, labor, and the effects of large-scale exhibitions. The group confiscated the stone and in its place left a ransom note that stated:

You have come to Greece to make art visible and graciously offered to purchase the participation of invisible exoticized others.  

As Kentucky continues to rethink and transform its visual arts communities, might we also begin to treat similar paradigms that exist in contemporary art? Erica Rucker’s recent LEO Weekly article discusses an optimistic present: a moment in time when Kentucky’s museums and galleries are reevaluating their exhibitions and programming. But while documenta 14 and the 2017 Skulptur Projekte address inclusivity, they also challenge the framework from which exhibitions are often produced.   

Indeed, biennales and large-scale exhibitions have made attempts to define contemporary art using a Western-centric model. Miwon Kwon, curator and art historian, argues that groups considered peripheral to “dominant culture thus [become] objectified once again to satisfy the contemporary lust for authentic histories and identities.”1 Cultures are often treated ethnographically—as objects of study to be organized by curators and contextualized by a Western framework.2

For their 2017 iterations, documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte Münster are critical of their established transnational appeal and central European locale—but do not reject either. Rather, these issues become the central focus for their curatorial teams.  

documenta 14  

Previous documenta curators (Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Okwui Enwezor) have invited international artists to create work that considers the effects of Western institutions and globalization. As stated by documenta 14’s Artistic Director Adam Szymczyk, however: it is almost impossible “to realize a project that aims at making a political statement from within a state-subsidized cultural institution (one with additional institutional, corporate, and private funding involved, of course).”3

This year, documenta 14’s curators address issues of inclusivity and cultural objectification by dividing the exhibition between Kassel, Germany (its standard location) and Athens. Greece’s identity as both a genesis of European civilization and its contentious relationship with the European Union (most notably, Germany’s role in its financial depression) have, according to Szymczyk, resulted in “the loss of Greek citizens’ individual freedom.”4  

Marta Minujín, The Parthenon of Books, 2017

Detail of Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books

Many of the artists included in documenta 14 mine the cultural significance of existing Western monuments that have come to represent concepts of freedom and democracy. The city’s central square is a warning that history is cyclical: Marta Minujín’s The Parthenon of Books, a replica of the temple on the Acropolis in Athens, is composed of 100,000 banned books from across the world—but this is not her first construction of renegade literature. In 1983, to mark the end of Argentina’s civilian-military dictatorship, she built El Partenón de libros from the confiscated books that had previously been under lock and key. Adjacent to Minujín’s Parthenon stands Kassel’s Fridericianum—traditionally the centerpiece of each documenta exhibition.

Banu Cennetoğlu, BEINGSAFEISSCARY, 2017

In place of the institution’s name, artist Banu Cennetoğlu has shuffled the large aluminum letters (and added six additional ones) to read BEINGSAFEISSCARY. Although Cennetoğlu states that the phrase is based on graffiti found at the National Technical University of Athens, it also pays tribute to freedom fighter and Kurdish journalist Gurbetelli Ersöz. Her diaries were posthumously published in Germany, and later a small Turkish press also attempted to do the same—but they were subsequently banned in 2014 by Turkey’s ruling administration. Most works that surround Kassel’s Friedrichsplatz reference the censorship enacted by fascist regimes, as the Third Reich used the park to display political power through large military parades. White smoke billows from the Fridericianum’s tower where artist Daniel Knorr’s Expiration Movement is a reminder of the Nazi’s burning of books in 1933.  

Daniel Knorr, Expiration Movement, 2017

Other sites within documenta 14 are new to the 2017 exhibition. The Neue Neue Galerie is located in Kassel’s Nordstadt—a neighborhood home to the majority of the city’s immigrant populations. Formerly the Neue Hauptpost (but renamed by documenta 14’s curators), the brutalist building was once home to city’s main post office. Its industrial use shed by increasing digital communication, the building contains loading docks that are repurposed as mini-galleries. The building’s dim lighting allows for the multiple new-media works to be viewed without interruption from sunlight, but also makes for a foreboding atmosphere. In the corner is 77sqm_9:26min: a digital investigation of the murder of Halit Yozgat—the ninth of ten victims in a racist murder series committed by the neo-Nazi organization the National Socialist Underground.  

The Society of Friends of Halit, 77sqm_9:26min, 2017

 

Skulptur Projekte Münster 

The effects of biennials and large-scale exhibitions extend beyond the contemporary art realm. The merits of such massive art events, at least for their respective local economies, are plentiful: cities have the opportunity to merge their existing arts communities with a global contemporary art discourse and foster a more robust cultural exchange. Artists included in Skulptur Projekte reference the local and regional histories, industries, and cultures of the sites they inhabit, but also consider how the a city’s reliance on cultural tourism can be an indicative feature of public art. Unlike documenta, Skulptur Projekte is free to the public. 

Michael Smith, Not Quite Under_Ground, 2017

Skulptur Projekte internalizes and embraces the merits, pitfalls, and ironies of cultural tourism. Michael Smith’s Not Quite Under_Ground“the official tattoo studio of Skulptur Projekte Münster 2017”—offers an expansive array of artist-designed tattoos ranging from past Skulptur Projekte participants to Smith’s personal friends. The shop’s name references the increased cultural acceptance of permanent body art since the 1990s, but also Smith’s observation that senior citizens are frequenting Münster as tourists (the artist produced an accompanying video that may be viewed both in the tattoo studio and on YouTube.) As a result, Not Quite Under_Ground offers deep discounts to those sixty-five and older who wish to participate. Each tattoo provides a permanent souvenir while extending the lifespan of the exhibition through what Smith describes as “the storage medium of the skin.” 

Outmoded idioms of “public” and “private” become catalysts for many artists asked to participate in Skulptur Projekte. On the other end of Münster, in the city’s inland harbor, Ayşe Erkmen has installed a covert jetty between the waterway’s northern and southern piers. Existing just below the water’s surface, the industrial sheen of ocean cargo containers and steel grates is camouflaged by the water’s silver reflections. Visitors remove their shoes and step into water—creating the impression that they are walking on Münster’s river.

Ayşe Erkmen, On Water, 2017

By linking two urban spaces, Erkmen questions the sociocultural and sociological effects of city planning. When represented on maps, waterways—whether manmade or natural—indicate geographical boundaries that can restrict pedestrian movement. Opening the city’s harbor to foot traffic, On Water is a consideration of the relationship between city planning and accessibility. Münster’s LWL-Museum für Kunst und Kultur is also altered—Michael Dean’s Tender Tender establishes a space within a space by installing a large opaque plastic sheet inside the museum’s atrium. Reaching from ceiling to floor, the plastic creates a canopy that alters visitors’ normal movements. Inside the canopy, Dean has sculpted the detritus of city life; trash cans, stickers, painting tape, stones, wires, and grocery bags loosely resemble street lamps and sidewalks.  

Michael Dean, Tender Tender, 2017

Michael Dean, Tender Tender, 2017

Michael Dean, Tender Tender, 2017

documenta 14 and Skulptur Projekte Münster—although they differ in size and scope—attempt to question and reform constructs that have been shaped by Western culture. This attempt, however, can fall short when it is not fully realized. The LGBTQI refugee rights group made a specific statement when they captured Replica of Oath Stone: the dangers of artists and exhibitions addressing inclusivity without unfixing dominant ideological structures in contemporary art that oppress—and in turn “ exoticize”—“others.” Kentucky’s visual arts community is slowly progressing toward a more inclusive future, but exhibition spaces, museums, and cultural institutions are still defined by regional and local ideologies. Germany’s major tourist events of 2017 are marked with failure, but these failures are catalysts for imperative discussions about otherness, globalism, and complicity.

1. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2002), 138.

2. Paul Wood, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s) (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012), 53-54.

3. Adam Szymczyk, et. al., The Documenta Reader (Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2017), 22.

4. Szymczyk, The Documenta Reader, 23.

 

Arts

Cautious Optimism

Patterned tentacles burst from the wall of Louisville’s 21c Museum. They are suspended in motion, paused in the act of wriggling free from the gallery’s white wall. Viewed at a distance, Frances Goodman’s Medusa (2013-2014) appears wet. Each tentacle seems coated by a glossy residue, projecting a luminous sheen. A few steps closer and scales begin to take shape—the tentacles’ patterns have been meticulously constructed from thousands of acrylic fingernails.

Frances Goodman, Medusa, 2013-2014

Goodman recodes these mass-produced ornaments, turning a beauty industry commodity against itself. The decorative becomes subversive—often overlooked as a mere form of bodily artifice, these acrylic prosthetics have been tightly assembled to encase phallic wall protrusions. Medusa is a three-dimensional creature that stretches its mythological ties to masculine aggression and feminine seduction, yet also mines the meaning of an object that—through fashion advertising—has come to signify femininity.

In their 1973 article in Womanspace Journal, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro asked: “What does it feel like to be a woman?”[1] 21c Louisville’s current exhibition, The Future is Female, takes inspiration from this legacy of feminist writers, artists, and activists of the 1970s, exploring the varying trajectories of craft-based practices, mythology, ecology, and identity. What resonates most, however, is the exhibition’s timing. In the United States, the resistance to women’s rights has encountered a social and political acceptability unseen since the years of the Reagan administration.[2]

What does the phrase “The Future is Female” mean in the age of Trump? 21c Louisville’s latest exhibition does not ask this question—at least not explicitly. At a time, however, when the spectacle of reality television has merged with sexism of politics, when misogyny is dismissed as “men being men” (and then rewarded with a presidency), when government funding for the National Endowment for Arts hangs in the balance, when a large majority of politicians view gender as biologically determined and not socially constructed, and when the leader of the so-called free world flirts with a nuclear arms race, futurity—specifically a future that incorporates women and the arts—seems optimistic. Yet this optimism and political energy is partly what fueled the artists of the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s.[3]

Nandipha Mntambo, Umfanekiso wesibuko, 2013

A prominent thread connects many of the works in The Future is Female—mortality is referenced not only through the human body and the abject, but also through a consideration of globalization’s slow decay of both cultures and ecological systems. Nandipha Mntambo blurs the line between skin and clothing by structuring cowhide into rigid human-animal hybrids. Cast from the artist’s body, two ghostly figures rest on their arms and legs—frozen in the act of crawling. As the cowhide slowly melts down the figures’ backs, its stiff ripples condense and begin to resemble folds of human skin. Tails protrude from the gathered hide.

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Naomi Safran-Hon, W.S. Pink Sweater (with other trash), 2016

In the mixed-media work of Naomi Safran-Hon, the human body is present through detritus—remnants of clothing intertwine with obliterated concrete, capturing the bulldozed homes of Wadi Salib, a neighborhood once home to Palestinians and Mizrahi Jewish inhabitants before its confiscation by the state of Israel in 1948. Safran-Hon inserts lace and concrete directly into an archival inkjet print, layering a third dimension onto what is normally flattened by camera and printer.

To be clear, the phrase “the future is female” is not a recent addition to feminist discourse. It first appeared on a T-shirt in the 1970s.[4] The original design was made for Labyris Books—the first women’s bookstore in New York City. Liza Cowan photographed her then-girlfriend, Alix Dobkin, wearing the shirt in 1975. Forty years later, in 2015, the image of Dobkin was posted on h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y—an Instagram account that documents “herstoric lesbian imagery.”

E.V. Day, Waterlily, 2011

E.V. Day’s striking Waterlily (2011) pulls anatomic imagery from the artwork of her foremothers—Georgia O’Keefe and Chicago. Through enlarging the vivid fuchsia water lily that she collected, pressed, and then digitally scanned during her residency at The Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, Day reclaims past histories of feminist investigation. The flower’s fleshy texture and prominent reproductive organs are magnified through the scanning process, and its enlarged form is both foreboding and seductive. The print’s pigment is so concentrated that it casts a light pink glow on neighboring works.

On the wall parallel to Medusa, three circular hand mirrors are individually framed by hot-pink resin Venus symbols. The mirrors are lightly etched with a single word in all-capital typeface: FEMINIST, EQUAL, or POWERFUL. Michele Pred’s Reflections (2015), as they are displayed across from the acrylic-nail monster, reexamine the mythological tale of Perseus and Medusa.

Michele Pred, Reflections (Powerful) and Reflections (Feminist), 2015

When approached at a specific angle, the mirrors can reflect Medusa with the addition of Pred’s positive language—a clever positioning that references Perseus’s use of a mirror to evade Medusa’s fatal stare, but also pushes against stereotypes of women in classical mythology and their prevailing societal effects.

The Future is Female is a careful selection of important works by emerging and established women artists: Jenny Holzer, Monica Cook, Kiki Smith, Sanell Aggenbach, Gaela Erwin, Nina Katchadourian, Carrie Mae Weems, Vibha Galhotra, Alison Saar, Tiffany Carbonneau, Kathleen McQuade Olliges, Hanna Liden, and Julie Levesque. The exhibition includes artists from Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, but Katchadourian’s homage to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury—Under Pressure (2014)—takes place 35,000 feet above ground.

Nina Katchadourian, Under Pressure, 2014

In an airplane restroom, she “recreates” Mercury and Bowie’s 1981 duet, using a standard polyester airline blanket, toilet paper, and the contents of her carry-on luggage to construct costumes. Under Pressure merges Katchadourian’s humorous performance with a poignant critique, as Mercury and Bowie rejected gender constructs rooted in patriarchal standards. The Future is Female embarks on a similar mission by pushing against the grain of normativity and advocating for a future that surmounts the current sociopolitical climate.

The Future is Female is on view through May 2017.

[1] Whitney Chadwhick, Women, Art, and Society, 5th ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 378.

[2] Chadwhick, Women, Art, and Society, 378.

[3] Linda Nochlin, “’Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After,” Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, ed. Maura Reilly (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015), 311.

[4] Marisa Meltzer, “A Feminist T-Shirt Resurfaces from the ‘70s,” The New York TimesNovember 18, 2015,

Arts

Between Pictoralism and Polaroids

Drawing comparisons between images of two disparate periods in the twentieth-century history of photography—and the artists who worked in these respective moments—is a precarious curatorial endeavor. Face Value: Photographs by Doris Ulmann and Andy Warhol is akin to a tight rope walk, as the exhibition attempts to connect the portraits taken by Ulmann (1882-1934) and Warhol (1928-87) without addressing major shifts in photographic practice.

Beginning in the early twentieth century, a new wave of artists became increasingly critical of the camera’s efficacy of truth telling. These artists subscribed to the idea that reality—as depicted through the lens of a camera—had collapsed on itself. The photograph became increasingly self-reflexive; artists sought to prioritize the medium’s visual disconnects rather than construct a banal narrative around the image of a static landscape or individual.

In Face Value, the historical and analytical gap between Warhol’s snapshot-style photographs and Ulmann’s highly stylized portraits is a source of both contention and intrigue. The exhibition’s exclusion of medium-specific history results in a distinct emphasis: the individuals Warhol and Ulmann chose to photograph. Although strikingly different in composition and method, Ulmann and Warhol’s photographs document musicians, friends, lovers, dancers, celebrities, and writers.

LEFT: Andy Warhol Jock Soto, n.d. Gelatin silver print Gift of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts RIGHT: Doris Ulmann, American Michio Ito, 1919 Platinum print mounted on cream laid tissue paper, mounted on cream mat board Gift of Thomas M.T. Niles and John Edward Niles

While the majority of Ulmann and Warhol’s portraits in Face Value are thematically grouped, specific photographs have been intentionally coupled and presented as side-by-side comparisons, illuminating the artists’ adherence to—or disavowal of—medium-specific traditions. Warhol’s black-and-white photograph of the legendary ballet dancer Jock Soto—presumably taken in the late 70s or early 80sis paired with Ulmann’s 1919 portrait of choreographer Michio Itō. Warhol’s image of Soto pushes against its “portrait” categorization, as the subject’s hand is rendered the central focal point.

Indeed, Warhol’s “portraits” often reveal the artist’s concentration on fragmented bodies—hands, torsos, and arms supersede his subjects’ faces. Two horizontal lines interrupt the image’s top-right corner, accentuating Warhol’s interest in the vernacular traditions inherent in amateur photography. On the contrary, Ulmann’s Michio Itō is posed, specifically, for the camera’s lens. The choreographer’s body is shroud in thick dark fabric, leaving only his face exposed.

Ulmann and Warhol’s photographs are aesthetically and analytically incongruous—yet their juxtaposition in Face Value exemplifies Modern photography’s historical break from Pictoralism and “straight photography.” Challenging what the American photographer Edward Weston had described as the “quality of authenticity in the photograph,” Warhol’s images break from former practices that relied on expensive equipment, precise lighting, and staged compositions.[1] Instead, the artist used inexpensive cameras, including The Polaroid Big Shot and Olympus Quick Flash.[2]

Doris Ulmann Untitled (Mulungeon woman at Washtub), n.d. Platinum print mounted on cream mat board Gift of Thomas M.T. Niles and John Jacob Niles

Comparing Warhol’s snapshot aesthetic and Ulmann’s painterly photographs exhumes complex issues rooted in the medium’s evolving methods, but also presents a more nuanced reading of the instability of class consciousness, constructions of identity, and artistic subjectivity in twentieth-century photographs. Ulmann’s Melungeon Woman at a Washtub (n.d.) is constructed to portray Appalachian life through a specific lens—that of a wealthy, educated, New York woman. Posed with washboard and basin, Ulmann’s subject does not confront the camera. Rather, her gaze is directed outward in meditative contemplation. Ulmann, in her chauffer-driven Lincoln, traversed the rural United States seeking subjects that could best condense rural life into a singular image. As a student of the Ethical Culture Movement, her interest in rural subjects stemmed from a humanist tradition: she sought to capture “vanishing types” whose way of life was under threat in an increasingly industrial America.

Clockwise: Doris Ulmann Woman and Child from Line Fork, Kentucky, n.d. Gelatin silver print Purchase: The Robert C. May Photography Fund; Doris Ulmann, American Untitled (Young girl holding doll), ca. 1925 Oil pigment print Gift of Thomas M.T. Niles and John Edward Niles; Doris Ulmann Untitled (South Carolina), 1929-30 Platinum print mounted on cream mat board Gift of Thomas M.T. Niles and John Edward Niles; Doris Ulmann Will Durant and his Daughter Ethel, n.d. Platinum print Purchase: The Robert C. May Photography Fund

Ulmann adhered to Pictorialist traditions that included the use of various blurring techniques to mimic features of painting, in addition to an intent concentration on compositional simplicity. Lighting effects, often produced through a greased lens and soft focus, provided a luminescent atmosphere.[3] For Pictorialists, idea, message, and emotion were paramount to a photograph’s construction. An emphasis on “traditional beauty”—an indeterminate concept that, for the Pictorialists, was seemingly universal but vaguely defined—was often used to dramatize portraits or landscapes.[4]

To connect the approaches and photographs of Warhol and Ulmann seems, at best, a forced marriage—a coupling based on superficial traits. The value of Face Value, however, lies within the irony of its title in relation to the subject of portrait photography: portraiture can never be taken at “face value”—the photographer’s framing of people and events presents a constructed version of reality. Face Value recognizes this tension—at least partly—through the exhibition’s wall text. Warhol and Ulmann’s respective socioeconomic backgrounds (Warhol from blue-collar Pittsburg, Ulmann from an affluent New York family) profoundly influenced their choice of subjects. Both oscillated between paparazzi and voyeur—Warhol and Ulmann’s subjects often served as a mirror from which the photographers could examine their own lives.

Face Value: Photographs by Doris Ulmann and Andy Warhol runs through April 23, 2017 at the University of Kentucky Art Museum.

[1] Edward Weston, On Photography, ed. Peter Bunnell (Salt Lake City, Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., 1983), 51.

[2] Stephen Petersen, Andy Warhol: Behind the Camera, exh. cat. (Newark: The University of Delaware, 2011), v, xi.

[3] Christian A. Peterson, After the Photo-Secession: American Pictoral Photography 1910-1955, exh. cat. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company and the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, 1997), 18.

[4] Peterson, After the Photo-Secession, 18.

Arts

Between Reality and Dream: The Nostalgic and Surreal Drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage

“We often dream without the least suspicion of unreality: ‘sleep hath its own world,” and it is often as lifelike as the other.” – Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 67.

The recent drawings of Patricia Bellan-Gillen channel Lewis Carroll’s diary entry from February 9, 1856. Similar to dreams, her drawings are sourced from a cornucopia of stories, fairytales, and time periods. Symbols overlap and intermingle to evoke fragmented new realities that merge past and present. Bellan-Gillen relies on negative space and obscured references—the absence of contextual signifiers—to evoke both nostalgia and surreality.

Installation View, Heike Pickett Gallery, Versailles, Kentucky

Bellan-Gillen’s exhibition, Willful Wondering, originated at Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and includes drawings completed between 2011-2016. Currently, a smaller version of the exhibition resides at Heike Pickett Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Versailles, Kentucky. While it lacks Bellan-Gillen’s large-scale installations and grandiose mixed-media assemblages, Heike Pickett’s reinstallation focuses on the artist’s application of color, commitment to detail, and use of allegory. The gallery’s bare wood floors, high ceilings, and copious windows subdue any white-cube effects. The building, according to its Pickett, was constructed in 1792—its weathered brick façade and residential appearance indicate Versailles’s architectural roots.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin, 2016

Symbols from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland make frequent appearances in Bellan-Gillen’s drawings, accompanied by other anthropomorphized figures. These readymade images are warped, multiplied, and accentuated by vibrant pinks and blues. As if pulled and stretched by the compressive gravity of a black hole, leopards, birds, and the iconic Cheshire cat smile become vaguely recognizable.

Two works rely on “phantom” tree limbs—their intricate and condensed lines mimic the verdant etchings of Carl Wilhelm Kolbe. The subjects of Phantom Limbs/Cheshire Grin (2015) and Phantom Limbs/Guardian 1 (2015) emerge from amputated tree trunks—some ooze from the trunks’ concentric growth lines and vacant hollows. In Cheshire Grin, floating leopards smile in unison alongside the iconic cat’s glib expression, tethered to the limb through wispy branches. As they spiral down toward the empty space below, the cats melt into amorphous black clouds—spots, paws, and tails are reduced to formless amoebas.

Many of Bellan-Gillan’s works are monochromatic explorations of literary remnants—they capture ubiquitous symbols from popular fables and stories and recode their meanings, simultaneously questioning the prevalence of specific symbols and their permeation of our collective consciousness. The Lure of the Rabbit and the Pull of the Wale (2016) alludes to both Alice in Wonderland and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick; the animal-child hybrid, marked by its rabbit head and petite Mary Janes, dons a dress pockmarked by cutout pools of swirling sea life and sailing ships. Bellan-Gillan’s drawings often belie their material complexity; an adjacent work is similarly drawn from blue pencil, layered with individual grimacing water droplets.

Through the process of collage, Bellan-Gillan materializes her unconscious layering of fantasy and reality; her cutouts resemble the endless streams of dreams and memories that coagulate during sleep.

Patricia Bellan-Gillen, Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe, 2016

Conceptually, Bellan-Gillan’s works rely on meditative backgrounds—white paper provides space for her figures to emerge and evaporate. In larger drawings, she incorporates a limited color palette: lush landscapes are enlarged and flattened into atmospheric milieux. Regrowth/A Wonder and a Woe (2016) is centered around a lone tree stump—from its flat surface emerge white thought bubbles that extend outward in multiple directions. Just as symbols and characters reappear in dreams, specific images linger in Bellan-Gillan’s drawings. She frequently collages or draws the same eyeball, ship fleet, or animals. Her works reject a linear or narrative but connect through shared images, implying that dream symbolism is more universal than individual.

Similar to Alice’s rejection of temporal normativity—the endless “tick-tock” that dictates past, present, and future—Patricia Bellan-Gillan abandons her subjects’ sources and time-constructs. Dreams provide similar relief from this monotony, as objects and figures from day-to-day rituals, movies, literature, and news sources are intertwined with one another. Willful Wondering is a reevaluation of fairytales and fantasy and probes the complexities of visual consumption.

Topmost image: Patricia Bellan-Gillen,Your Cruel Tears 3, 2016, colored pencil and collage

Arts

Drawn to Bodies: A Review

On the first floor of Zephyr Gallery, a replica of Jackie Onassis’s pink Chanel suit hangs against a white wall. The Beuys-esque ensemble—a skirt, jacket, shirt, and two pillbox hats—is cut from dyed canvas, evidenced by its rough seams and frayed edges. Accentuated by gallery lights, the suit’s strawberry-neon colorant is uneven and marked by streaks. On the adjacent wall, artist Aaron Skolnick has continued his installation by mounting over forty abstracted portraits of Onassis. The works are based on popular news photographs from the day her husband, former president John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. While some portraits are rendered in watercolor and graphite, one image is composed of fuchsia lipstick; each kiss imprint is strategically placed to create Onassis’s lips and hair. Skolnick’s reductive process results in an almost unrecognizable figure—Onassis’s hands, face, and suit appear to melt into biomorphic forms.

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Aaron Skolnick, Forever and Supremely Someone Else, 2016 Photo by Sarah Lyon

Upstairs, Drawn to Bodies features the work of Georgia Henkel, Jay Bolotin, and Martin Beck. Henkel’s small mixed-media drawings are constructed from domestic vestige—in lieu of canvas, she works from the bed linens of her former marriage. Using blueberries and beets, Henkel interrupts the diaphanous fabric with purple, pink, and blue pockmarks; these shapes give way to faces, bruises, genitalia, intestines, and scars. Land Swimming (2016) shifts between stain, landscape, and sexual encounter. In Henkel’s retrospection, blots of organic matter morph into surreal scenes that depict bodies or body parts interacting with one another.

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Georgia Henkel. Land Swimming, 2016. Photo by Elizabeth Ann Smith

Henkel’s works are akin to a Rorschach inkblot test and require extended time to observe the subtle charcoal and graphite drawings sketched on top of stains. Ablution (2016) is produced from two inconspicuous brown and blue saturations—the most constructed of Henkel’s figures. An androgynous face stares longingly from the bed linen background, its eyebrows painted to convey a forlorn expression. The subject’s pursed red lips, ghostly complexion, and prominent cheek scar are hauntingly corpse-like. Indeed, each of Henkel’s figures—whether documented through portrait or body part—is an apparition.

While Drawn to Bodies revolves around traditions of realism, Curator Stuart Horodner notes that the selected artists have oriented their works to demonstrate an often clandestine process—that of “making.” This is evidenced through the installation of Bolotin’s drawings, prints, and video animation, which visually trace his creative output. Crumpled drawing paper, scribbled notes, and various images of hands, faces, torsos, houses, and animals lead to The Silence of Professor Tösla (2016) (produced in collaboration with Ilan Stavians.) Text interrupts the video’s animation sequences, documenting correspondences between Stavians and Bolotin: “Dear Ilan. Here is a possible opening sequence (the visual) as promised. For me, a motion picture is 50% sound (including music.) So, half is missing here.”

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Jay Bolotin, Drawing Installation, 2016 Photo by Sarah Lyon

In its totality, Bolotin’s installation pulls apart narrative storytelling—only pieces of his processes and figurative characters are displayed to the viewer. These conceptual and visual components successfully merge the exhibition’s two themes. While the installations that comprise Drawn to Bodies give subtle clues into their artists’ process, Bolotin is the only artist to use his work as documentation.

Drawn to Bodies asks its audience to view the work of each artist through their respective processes, yet the majority of works appear complete rather than in a state of creation. Through its studio-aesthetic, the exhibition hints at its artists’ methods but only once demonstrates the act of “making.” Drawn to Bodies, however, cleverly succeeds in its quest to explicate and question what it means to be human—the ways in which iconography can be manipulated and how trauma and loss may prompt introspection.

Project 14: Drawn to Bodies runs through October 22, 2016.

Arts

Experiments in Art History

University art galleries have the potential to serve as science labs, whether through experiments in curating or experiments in art making. While some experiments in creativity yield cautionary tales, others reveal new methods that may be used to test and develop existing hypotheses. Unlike their white cube relatives, these galleries are sites where paradigms may be revealed and challenged—given the right conditions.

New Monuments—a new exhibition series at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for Visual Arts—attempts to revise the traditional “monuments” list that serves as the basis for art historical education, utilizing the university gallery setting as both laboratory and classroom. For each installment, New Monuments will feature a single artwork produced or completed in the past year that involves recent social, political, or aesthetic issues.

For its inaugural exhibition, New Monuments presents Sanford Biggers’s Laocoön (2015)—a ten-foot inflatable sculpture created in the likeness of the cartoon character Fat Albert. Instead of standing upright, Fat Albert is lying belly-down on the gallery floor; his head is turned to one side, his arms are unnaturally extended along his bulbous torso, and his palms are turned upward. A pump provides air that intermittently inflates and deflates his vinyl body, creating a sound that is mechanical (similar to a ventilator) and hauntingly human. Allusions to the death of Eric Garner—who died due to a combination of a New York Police officer’s chokehold, chest compression, and his own poor health—are not lost through this auditory experience.

Biggers is an established figure in the contemporary art scene, rendering New Monuments an important milestone in the Cressman Center’s exhibition history. His interdisciplinary practice takes inspiration from history, yet questions the process of historicizing. Many of his works depolarize perceived facts and fictions, revealing the power structures that have come to shape our collective consciousness. Biggers works to unearth the ways cultural symbols evolve over time, and his Fat Albert inflatable—although superficially caricatural—is a meditation on a classical emblem of pain, suffering, and fallen heroes. As the creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is set to stand trial for sexual misconduct, the plastic Laocoön stands as a reminder that history and heroes are rarely set in stone.

Biggers references and updates the ancient marble sculpture Laocoön and His Sons—the perceived prototype that captures the intersection of suffering and beauty in Western art history. According to Greek and Roman mythology, the gods dispatched serpents to kill Laocoön for attempting to reveal the Greek threat concealed within the Trojan horse. Unearthed and placed in the Vatican in 1506, the sculpture has been the subject of analysis for centuries—its lengthy bibliography includes poets, critics, scientists, and philosophers: Pliny the Elder, J.J. Winckelmann, Charles Darwin, and Clement Greenberg, to name a few.[1]

In the Cressman Center, Laocoön once again becomes the subject of investigation, but is contextualized by large, sprawling wall quotations from books and essays that reference the marble version. According to the exhibition’s printout, these passages are intended to provide “points of departure” so viewers may situate the work, rather than look to descriptive object labels. This experiment may result in alienating its audience or, on the contrary, leave viewers with just enough information to embark on their own research; results may vary.

When Elaine Scarry wrote that bodily pain escapes language—that it “resists verbal objectification”—she also observed that physical suffering becomes wrapped up with political representation.[2] We hit an impasse when attempting to describe pain, and in turn, fail to translate its descriptors. Biggers’s Laocoön is recognition of this phenomenon, stripping the historical sculpture of its famous twisted face; Fat Albert updates these classical signifiers of pain, assisting viewers to confront the irony of apathy. The exhibition brochure prompts the question: “could there be a Black American version of the Laocoön? If so, whom would he depict, and why would he suffer?”

Laocoön is not a panacea to historical tensions, but rather a work that destabilizes a one-fits-all approach to the standard canon. We asked to consider how the spectrum of human suffering has been represented throughout history, and how art historical survey courses can fail to provide intersectional analysis. For its first installment, New Monuments is an experiment in education—one that has the potential to change outmoded pedagogy.

New Monuments: Sanford Biggers: Laocoön runs through July 2nd.

[1] Nigel Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 25-37.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 12.

Arts

Past Forward, Present Tense

Curatorial discourse has become increasingly self-reflexive, questioning the power structures that covertly or overtly influence museums, galleries, and cultural institutions. While curators are still tasked with caring for works of art, they also help us to navigate an artwork’s fluctuating cultural, historical, and political landscape, in addition to indicating the shifts that occur when a work is viewed on a local, national, or international platform. But what happens when platforms are fabricated by national embassies and curators become intertwined with diplomats?

Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates is co-curated by Noor Al Suwaidi and organized and circulated by the Meridian Center for Cultural Diplomacy (a nonprofit organization that aims to unite cultures) with support from the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C. According to Al Suwaidi, the twenty-five selected artists represent all seven emirates through emphasizing themes central to Emirati culture: home, family, nature, innovation, and technology.

University of Kentucky’s Bolivar Art Gallery, located in the School of Art and Visual Studies.

University of Kentucky’s Bolivar Art Gallery, located in the School of Art and Visual Studies.

Located in the University of Kentucky’s Bolivar Art Gallery, Past Forward is installed throughout three rooms, leaving adequate space between each video, sculpture, and two-dimensional work. The exhibition’s eighteen-month national tour concludes in Lexington, closing on May 13th, 2016. Past Forward is also accompanied by extensive programming that seeks to connect Emirati and North American culture—a sentiment echoed by both Al Suwaidi and the curatorial team from Meridian International through their catalogue essays.

This collaboration provides an opportunity for those in the United States to connect with artists living and working in the UAE through workshops, lectures, and panel discussions. Although the exhibition’s educational platform is a valuable resource, it silences any criticality layered within the selected artworks. Discussion revolves around the UAE’s industry and traditions, but only superficially.

While it remains impossible to separate the exhibition from its corporate and state sponsorships (a large sign bearing each institution’s insignia is strategically placed at the entrance), the works included in Past Forward tell a visual story of how art of the Emirates has changed since the country’s formation in 1971. An early painting by Abdul Qader Al Rais titled Obaid and Mouza (1968) is located toward the entrance, providing historical and aesthetic points of reference for the artists included in Past Forward. Al Rais’s paintings draw from figurative and abstract traditions, and have influenced and shaped contemporary art in the UAE. The artist pulls his inspiration from Emirati neighborhoods in addition to the local architecture.[1]

Obaid Suroor, Al Maktoum Houses (2007)

Obaid Suroor, Al Maktoum Houses (2007)

In an extension of Al Rais’s painting, Obaid Suroor layers themes of local architecture and culture but also highlights the importance of traditional Emirati fabric designs through dotted pop-art overlays. Old Houses (2007) and Al Maktoum Houses (2007) depict the mud brick houses and large forts of Ras Al Khaimah, an emirate often associated with its black rock mountains and ocean views.

Suroor has draped his architectural landscapes with dot patterns, but these additions are not merely placed on the painting’s surface; some dots respond to the buildings’ nooks and crannies and surrounding vegetation, as if being slowly absorbed by the canvas. Juxtaposing Suroor’s spotted landscapes with the square forms found in Al Rais’s figurative work documents a progression of abstraction in Emirati painting between the late 1960s and early 2000s.

Three large format photographs by Lateefa bint Maktoum are dispersed throughout gallery, providing reminders that while contemporary art in the UAE has become an important component of culture, Emirati traditions, landscapes, and natural environments are disappearing.

Two images capture figures looking outward to new industrial developments, like the Palm Jebel Ali—a large group of artificial islands located off the coast of Dubai, which are still under construction. In Observers of Change II (2009), bint Maktoum captures the effects of human intervention on the UAE’s ecology through a grove of mangled, leafless palm trees. The exhibition’s catalog and accompanying wall labels are uncomfortably optimistic—they treat bint Maktoum’s photographs as metaphors of perseverance in the face of change, yet evade lingering questions that surround the UAE’s industrial projects.

Hyperallergic, Art Forum, and the Chronicle of Higher Education are publications that continue to address the relationship between labor issues and art in the UAE; the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and New York University Abu Dhabi have been criticized for their exploitation of migrant labor. Last year, Ashok Sukumaran and Walid Raad were denied entry into the country due to their involvement with the Gulf Labour Coalition—an artist-initiated group that asks museums and institutions being built on Saadiyat Island to create better conditions for their workers.[2]

Ebtisam AbdulAziz, Autobiography (2007)

Ebtisam AbdulAziz, Autobiography (2007)

Only one of the works in Past Forward hints at the complexities associated with the UAE’s rapid growth. Projected in a small room at the gallery’s center is Ebtisam AbdulAziz’s filmed performance. Autobiography (2007) confronts issues of consumerism and personal wealth, probing the underlying structures that affect identity and culture.

For her performance, AbdulAziz wears a black, full-body suit covered in green numerals that are taken from her private bank statements. She wanders through public spaces, robotically performing parts of her daily routine. This narrative is interrupted by absurd interactions with consumer detritus—during one segment, the artist crawls into a large plastic bag and is dragged along a sidewalk. AbdulAziz’s work contributes to an international conversation on money and wealth, drawing similarities between the U.S. and UAE.

Maura Reilly’s essay “Toward a Curatorial Activism” questions the implications of institutional biases, asking what museum curators, directors, educators, artists, and gallerists can do to achieve fair and just representations of artistic production.[3] Past Forward fails to address the Embassy’s ideological subscriptions, offering its viewers a single—and problematic—perspective. It presents the UAE’s rapid globalization and industrial growth under a utopian blanket—one that acknowledges Emirati traditions are on a pathway to extinction, yet strategically covers the reasons its culture is changing so quickly. Critical discourse is subverted in favor of cultural diplomacy, prompting the questions: who is the curator—Al Suwaidi or the Embassy?

[1] Curtis Sandberg, “Telling the Emirati Story through Cultural Diplomacy” in Past Forward: Contemporary Art from the Emirates,” exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: Meridian International, 2015), 5.

[2] “Letter from Sixty+ Curators, Critics and Museum Directors to UAE Art Institutions, and their Affiliates,” Gulf Labor Artist Coalition Website, June 1, 2015, http://gulflabor.org/2015/letter-from-sixty-curators-critics-and-museum-directors-to-uae-art-institutions-and-their-affiliates/.

[3] Maura Reilly, “Toward a Curatorial Activism,” MauraReilly.com, accessed April 27, 2016, http://www.maurareilly.com/pdf/essays/CIAFessay.pdf.

Arts

When Less is More

Stephen Irwin spent most of his life making impressions—ask those who frequented Sparks, the now defunct Louisville nightclub that Irwin co-owned in the early 1990s. According to a September 2008 feature in Butt Magazine, Irwin was something of an enigma: “…modern artist, local celebrity, trash, heart-attack survivor, pacemaker carrier, bitch, and a confidante to Louisville’s ladies of good taste.”[1] While Irwin’s personality seems to have left lasting imprints in the minds of others, his artistic practice was rooted in erasure. Irwin produced a large portion of his oeuvre through cutting-out, rubbing-off, or whiting-out body parts from vintage gay pornography magazines. Through obscuring parts of—or entire—ready-made erotic images, Irwin rendered them even more seductive, inviting viewers to question preconceived concepts of pleasure, desire, and pornography. Zephyr Gallery’s current exhibition, Project 11: this, this is for you, considers the conceptual and aesthetic legacies of the late Louisville-based artist and helps understand his reductive practice.

Project 11 uses Irwin’s process as axis; the selected works revolve around the nexus of erasure, sensuality, and playful seduction. His altered images often elude classification—one could even argue they fall somewhere on the Dada spectrum through their reliance on the readymade. Zephyr’s curatorial team selected works that date between 2003 and 2010, encompassing Irwin’s late career. While the exhibition is largely comprised of his two-dimensional images, the inclusion of the artist’s braille installations—in addition to the ethereal Vessel Series (2008)—provide additional layers of physical temptation.

Installation shot of Project 11: this, this is for you at Zephyr Gallery, Louisville. Image courtesy of the artist and Zephyr Gallery.

Lurking on the back wall—and directly across from Zephyr’s front door—is Irwin’s The Unbearable Whiteness of Being (Wifebeater) (2006). Like the majority of Irwin’s altered pornography works, only select body parts survive the Wite-Out process. In Unbearable Whiteness, a green tank top was enlarged and printed on vinyl wallpaper. Although seamlessly adhered to the gallery’s flat wall, the image’s small folds and creases provide the illusion of bodily presence and movement. Irwin has erased the sex act, but teases viewers with its remnants—a phallic torso that both welcomes and resists an eroticized reading.

Unbearable Whiteness acts as mediator between two of Irwin’s magazine series; to the left—and exhibited for the first time—is Love Parade (2006-2007), a succession of book pages whose figures have been completely coated in Wite-Out. Love Parade was an electronic dance music festival in Berlin that hosted thousands of partiers from across the globe, and often provided a convergence point for those on society’s margins. Irwin took its catalog as muse, covering the photographs of Love Parade’s participants while leaving their corresponding quotes untouched. The right wall houses his Circle Game series (2009)—individual magazine sheets installed in constructed grids whose contents have been etched away by the steel wool’s coarse tentacles. All that remains are floating peepholes through which arms, faces, buttocks, testicles, and oiled nipples are barely recognizable. These seductive skin-toned bubbles magnify and tenderize their respective body parts, reducing the pornographic image to pure texture. Zephyr’s first floor also displays Irwin’s “melting” magazines and suspended Skrinky-Dink faces, in addition to a two unique works-on-paper in the back gallery reception area.

Project 11 provides rare access to some of Irwin’s ethereal installations, each carefully reconstituted for Zephyr’s second floor. Vessel Series invites viewers to mentally re-construct the magazines’ naked bodies, as their silhouettes have been abstracted to create wall drawings of inanimate objects. Irwin selected cutouts from vintage pornography magazines, and used steel wool to rub the magazine’s ink directly onto a wall. He would then flip the same cutout over and repeat his process, eroding the magazine cutout while completing the second-half of his wall vessel. Because of the vessels’ curvatures, it seems impossible to decipher who is doing what to whom, or to themselves. You Are Loved (2009) and You Already Know How This Will End (2010) contribute an additional layer of resonance to Project 11, as they are braille wall installations made from steel-wool shavings and embedded magnets. Temptation abounds: any attempt to physically read their messages would immediately result in their destruction.

One of Irwin’s works is only visible after-hours, and like Irwin’s erasures, it reduces a form to what he considered “essential.” this, this is for you (2008) appears at night—its soft, ghost-like silhouette begins to take shape on the gallery wall at dusk. The effect is created through clear vinyl lettering placed on Zephyr’s front window, and is relatively invisible during the daytime unless one makes a conscious effort to locate its faint outlines. 

Image courtesy of the artist and Zephyr Gallery. Photo by Sarah Lyon.

What renders Project 11 particularly meaningful and successful is its careful consideration of Irwin’s works. Pornography—as it stands in our current sociopolitical climate—is often wrongly associated with shame or crudeness. In a previous exhibition catalog of Irwin’s work, Gérard Goodrow misinterprets the artist’s reductive practice as an attempt to free “the depiction of nudity in art from the clutches of pornography.”[2] This reading dismisses pornography as “less than,” conflating sex and pleasure with heteronormative, conservative, or religious standards. Through the lens of Jonathan Katz’s “Art and the Sexual Revolution,” we can consider Irwin’s works as not a separation of nudity from pornography, but a solvent for “physical and social differences.”[3] The artist’s choice of material—1960s and 70s pornography—is a return to the 1960s climate of sexual freedom, when “…art offered simultaneously an intensification of, and suspension from, real life and the often-invisible social forces that govern our lives.”[4] Project 11 presents Irwin’s works in the context of his process and material, allowing seduction and pleasure to traverse time and culture.

Project 11: this, this is for you runs through through March 19th.

[1] See Vince Aletti, “Foreword,” in Stephen Irwin, exh. cat. (New York: Invisible Exports and r/e projects, 2014), 5. Stephen’s feature appears in Butt Magazine, 24 (September 2008).

[2] Gérard A. Goodrow, “Replacing Obscenity with Obscurity: Stephen Irwin’s Vintage Pornography,” 27.

[3] Jonathan D. Katz, “Art and the Sexual Revolution,” in Sexuality, ed. Amelia Jones (Cambridge: MIT, 2014), 65

[4] Katz, “Art and the Sexual Revolution,” 63

Arts

All About the Alloy

The echoes of Rosalind Krauss’ 1979 article, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” still reverberate in our museums, parks, and galleries. Before the 19th century, sculpture was often bound to a specific location – its ponderous pedestal fused it to the ground, connecting a figurative image with its commemorative site. However, and as Krauss deduces, there came a time when sculpture began to evolve and absorb the cumbersome pedestal. The field ruptured, and from the fissures emerged nomadic abstractions. Modern sculpture became “homeless,” able to showcase its materials or process of construction, instead of merely conveying the meaning of its site[1]. Indeed, Krauss’ article is over three decades old – but I think its continued resonance is indicative of the questions still posed by contemporary sculpture.

Wrought, which shows now through August 8th at the Downtown Arts Center in Lexington, exemplifies (yet, also challenges) many of the underlying themes posited by Krauss. Material and process become subject matter, hence the exhibition’s referential title.

Andy Light, Miasmata (detail), steel. Photo by Angel Clark.

Andy Light, Miasmata (detail), steel. Photo by Angel Clark.

Andy Light, Miasmata (detail), steel. Photo by Angel Clark.

Wrought exhibition at the City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center, Lexington, KY. Photo by the author, Elizabeth Ann Smith.

Wrought exhibition at the City Gallery at the Downtown Arts Center, Lexington, KY. Photo by the author, Elizabeth Ann Smith.

Erika Strecker, Colloquial, Copper, steel, string. Photo by the author, Elizabeth Smith.

Gordon Gildersleeve, The Key to Breaking the Ice, stainless steel, oak, acrylic resin. Photo by the author, Elizabeth Smith.

Wrought brings together eighteen works of metal by four locally based sculptors: Gordon Gildersleeve, Andy Light, Rod Lindauer, and Erika Strecker. Ranging in scale from massive constructions of steel to small hanging forms, each work maintains conceptual autonomy while at the same time contributing to the aesthetic theme of worked steel. Some works are more representational – Gildersleeve’s Goat and Chicken loosely convey their original subjects’ features. Other sculptures channel 1960’s minimalism, like Strecker’s exceptionally crafted Uplift. In sum, Wrought engages with broad and longstanding discourse.

The Downtown Arts Center is a large building, but finding Wrought is no challenge. Andy Light’s Miasmata, which dominates the first-floor entrance, creates a certain distance with its audience. Because of its top-heavy structure, one has to maneuver around its oppressive and cavernous architecture. Parts of Light’s sculpture are almost completely inaccessible: a closer inspection renders it a maze of steel with nooks and crannies for shadows to hide.  However reclusive in its entirety, the sculpture’s details prove visually rewarding. Miasmata bears the scars of its making, with eye-catching seams, scrapes, and distinct tonal abrasions.

The gallery’s front window is home to two of Lindauer’s stainless steel sculptures, and their placement is well calculated. Rays interacts with both the outside sunlight and the architecture of Main Street. The sculpture’s luminous surface seems to react to – instead of merely reflect – its surroundings. Beneath the slender beams of metal lies a slab of marble (although this is not listed in the object label.) Dependent on the time of day, the marble’s surface acts as a mirror. It responds to the sunlight and depicts a reverse image of the adjacent buildings. Lindauer’s Time After Time, made of the same slinky stainless steel, rests against the nearest corner. Although borderline kitsch, the oversized infinity symbol projects intriguing shadows on the gallery wall.

Although some works require less space, they are just as engrossing. Three of Strecker’s hanging sculptures, What a Tool, Ascent, and Colloquial, stand out in their excellence. Perhaps it is their minimalist aesthetic – simple lines, shapes, and solid craftsmanship – that showcase the steel’s versatility as a material. Her work could be seen as an attempt to recapture, or perhaps redefine, what it means to work with metal. In Strecker’s diverse sculptures, steel is successfully incorporated with other organic materials – gold, wood, and copper – to create intriguing combinations of color and texture.

Gildersleeve’s sculptures range from small abstracted animals to a psychedelic loveseat, but his conceptual works shape steel into more interesting forms. The Key to Breaking the Ice utilizes early modernist principles. Like the majority of the freestanding sculptures in Wrought, his medium-sized works project layered geometric shadows contingent on the natural and artificial gallery light.

Wrought is well produced, but parts of its underlying theme get lost in the odd commercial setting of the back corner. I was unsure if the posters and accompanying postcards, located in the back nook of the gallery, were included in the show. In addition, Strecker’s lamp, Effervesce II, seems misplaced entirely. It ultimately detracts from the cohesive visuals evident throughout the entrance, and seems an odd fit when compared to the rest of her exhibited sculpture.

A first walk-through proved frustrating, as there are no artist statements or pieces of information available to provide context. However, this seems to reflect the modernist conundrum Krauss describes in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” Without context (or “pedestals”), maybe Wrought is meant to non-verbally showcase the multifaceted medium of steel and the many ways it can be shaped.


[1] See Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring 1979), 30-44.

Arts

Uncanny Nanny: The Intrigue of Vivian Maier

Six years after their public introduction, Vivian Maier’s photographs still exude mystery and prompt intrigue. Working as a nanny in Chicago during the fifties and sixties, Maier documented her surroundings — and often herself — but ironically we know little about her life. Vivian Maier: On the Street at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky presents a monographic exhibition of thirty black and white photographs, including abstract self portraits and intimate glimpses into the lives of both Chicago’s working class and elite aristocrats.The scope of the exhibition provides a perspective of Maier’s surroundings, while at the same time offering viewers a deeper connection with the photographer and her Rolleiflex camera.

However socially and aesthetically infatuating, the legal underpinnings of Maier’s photographs remain overarching. In 2007, two years before her death, her negatives were auctioned off along with the rest of the contents of her storage unit as the result of nonpayment. Since then, her work has been reproduced, edited, and resold to private galleries and collectors. An onslaught of intellectual property debates and ethical questions still permeate Chicago courtrooms. In sum, Maier’s oeuvre has been posthumously constructed and aggrandized by those with a market share in her life and work.

While this aspect of Maier’s entrance into the mainstream is a basis for contention (but not entirely unique — this happens all too frequently in the art world), I think there is more at play in our vehement attraction to her photographs than just market controversy. Perhaps this is why On The Street resists a dialogue about ethics and legalities. Although the entrance wall text states that the selected photographs are pulled from the John Maloof Collection (Maloof is just one of the original purchasers of Maier’s defunct storage unit), no details are provided about the legalities of his purchase. Instead, the viewer is presented with another concern: the entrance of unknown “artists of consequence” into the canon of art history.

The works chosen for display for On the Street provide viewers with a multi-faceted view of city life through the lens of Maier’s camera. Each image seems at once familiar and uncanny — we can recognize the ebb and flow of city life, but only though Maier’s abstract angles and intense shadows. While some of Maier’s subjects are aware of their subjectiveness, others are oblivious — they are presented as anonymous, fragmented bodies. Ubiquitous shadows seem to be subjects themselves: Maier frequently makes them the focus of her self portraits. Indeed, there is something dream-like about Maier’s use of light and line, shadow and shape — her Surrealist predecessors applied many of the same techniques to their own photography.

Although the exhibition of thirty photographs seems small in comparison to the number of negatives available from the Maloof Collection, the time required to absorb Maier’s work is proportionate. Each photograph is remarkably detailed — and one journey through On the Street is not enough to fully immerse oneself in Maier’s world. The exhibition is comprised of single images and groupings of two and four photographs: children, city streets, women, transportation, and leisure, to name a few. Contextualizing these selected photographs provides a comprehensive survey of her subject matter, allowing viewers to connect her daily activities with the people and places she chose to capture on film.

On the Street is located in the back corner of the museum, which seems an odd fit for Maier’s work — the exhibition almost suffocates in its compact space. The intensity of Maier’s photography needs a precise “breathability,” something the back gallery ultimately lacks. Perhaps in attempt to mediate the small space, each photograph is surrounded with a large white mat and delicate silver frame. While this gesture helps aerate the body of work, the lack of space remains a dominant issue.

An observer of the everyday, Maier was able to capture the humanism and humor of daily life. This is evident through On the Street, which treats her work as both a time capsule and an autobiography. It succeeds by presenting her photographs as documents of a time passed, but also through examining the photographer’s importance and artistic resonance. While viewers are asked to question Maier’s undoubtable skill in relation to formally trained photographers of her time, I wish to offer a thematic addendum: should we ignore the fact she may not have wanted her life and work displayed publicly? Who truly owns Maier’s work — and should we be content with others profiting from her anonymity?

Arts

You Are Here

 

A Review of Great Meadows: The Making of Here

When a book is truly exceptional, it can transport its readers elsewhere. For a moment, physical place and imagined location are unhinged — the reader is no longer bound to their sofa or chair, but can wander freely through another world. The mind is at once absent and present: taken from one location and placed in another. Great Meadows: The Making of Here acts as a portal not only to The Shands’ residence and collection, but a testament to the tenor within its walls. Indeed, it is more than a book — it is an extension of the Shands’ life and home.

Al Shands is an Episcopal Priest and author, as well as an award-winning filmmaker, with over thirty-five documentary films to his credit. His late wife, Mary Norton Shands, an activist in cultural affairs, co-founded and was first President of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now KMAC).

Great Meadows presents an intimate look in to the making of the Shands’ residence, and provides a comprehensive backstory to the architecture, collection, and collectors. The book avoids a pedantic introduction — readers are instead encouraged to “dive right in” through excerpts from A Career and Selected Projects by the architect, David Morton. Part of Morton’s allure is his simplicity: he comments that the Shands’ residence was graphed by pocket calculator, pencil, and paper — no computers or technical drafting aids. The completed project is prodigious yet modest: Great Meadows can accommodate up to one hundred and fifty guests for dinner, but at the same time, remain intimate enough for two people.[1]

Small yet powerful gestures contained within the book’s pages hide in every nook and cranny — “easter eggs” for the reader to stumble upon. In between two pages of Morton’s excerpts is a copy of Reverend Shands’ penned speech from the opening reception of Great Meadows in September 1988, printed on the same delicate paper and typeface one might encounter in a bible. Before he began collecting with his late wife Mary, Shands founded an Episcopal church in Washington D.C., and these inserts, which continue throughout the book, stand as physical reminders of his history.

Spearheaded and edited by independent curator and contributing author Julien Robson (previously affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Speed Art Museum), Great Meadows boasts essays from critics, curators, poets, and artists — all whom have connected, in some time and place, with the Shands. This includes but is not limited to such figures as Peter Morrin, former director of the Speed Museum, Glenn Adamson, author and critic, Alice Gray Stites, current director of 21c Museum Hotels, Maya Lin, sculpture and landscape artist (and designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.), and sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Each essay is specific to the book — they are documents of their respective authors’ connection and relationship with Alfred and Mary Shands.

Perhaps the most poignant essay is authored by John Yau, renowned poet and writer. Although the book is lined with vibrant color photos, “In Time, With Al Shands” is even more vivid — Yau’s imagery is a transformative journey, allowing the reader to silently accompany. Indeed, I forgot where I was for a moment while reading his words; I was observing a conversation between friends, weaving through the beautiful architecture that makes one feel as though they are both inside and outside at the same time, and slowly coming to understand the relationship between the art, the home, and the collectors.

Blurring the lines between art object and book, Great Meadows features stunning high-resolution photographs in addition to architectural drawings and artist sketches. Capturing the essence of site-specific artwork is no easy feat, but the photographers convey both the texture and presence of each installation. The office, home to Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1082 (2003) is presented through fifteen images, varying in size and scale. The proceeding blank page is representative of the white space above the office door, only visible just before exiting the room. Truly, these small details are what render this project an “index of experience” rather than a book.

Entire pages of Great Meadows are devoted to a single color. The intensity of Anish Kapoor’s yellow concave disc, Untitled (1999), can be partially experienced on page sixty-five through a full-color experience – sans its warping of sound, which is only evident through encountering it in Rev. Shands’ first-floor walkway. It is as if every angle of the home is carefully documented, acting as a record of the artworks’ interaction with the architecture, and vice versa.

Each work, both inside and outside of the residence, is carefully selected and thoughtfully placed to engage with both the architecture and the viewer. Indeed, Rev. Shands is a mindful collector; you will find no large art storage area within the walls of Great Meadows. Although some works migrate throughout the house from time to time, they each have a space and that space is documented throughout the book’s bright pages.

Perhaps this is why the making Great Meadows is so important: the book will serve as documentation of site — a physical reminder of what was — when the artwork is separated from the home upon the passing of its owner. Rev Shands has bequeathed his collection to Louisville, Kentucky’s Speed Art Museum, and one day it will make the journey to its new permanent home on South Third Street. “A vital part of the collection is the way that you share it with others,” he states in the book’s conversation with Alice Gray Stites.[2] Indeed, the entirety of Great Meadows: The Making of Here fulfills that very statement.

Great Meadows: The Making of Here is available in limited edition through Hatje Cantz.

[1] David Morton, A Career and Selected Notes in Great Meadows: The Making of Here (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014), 12.

[2] Al Shands, “Excerpts from a Conversation with Alice Gray Stites” in Great Meadows: The Making of Here (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014), 121.