Contempt in Contemporary Art – Saltz v. Safer

Ah, the art market can inspire contempt like almost no other commodity market. Morley Safer made that clear, again, on tonight’s 60 minutes as he updated his 1993 report on contemporary art’s value, “Yes…but is it Art?” with a televised trip to Art Basel Miami, “Even in Tough Times, Contemporary Art Sells.” A short time after Safer broadcast his skeptical overview, renown critic, Jerry Saltz, was on his blog with an equally contemptuous response that sparked tweets and citations galore, “Jerry Saltz on Morley Safer’s Facile 60 Minutes Art-World Screed”. Whereas Safer described Art Basel Miami as an upscale flea market likening art to oil, soybeans or pork-bellies and offering images of works he described as kitsch, cute, clumsy, and incomprehensible. Saltz’s response describes Safer as snarky, bullying, repetitive and disdainful, full of cliches and woefully lacking of knowledge or experience with contemporary art. Both gentlemen unfortunately are speaking a different language, and while appearing to address one another (Safer to Saltz’s profession, Saltz to Safer’s broadcast), neither seems to really get at the root of the others’ argument.

Describing the environment of the grand Miami art fair as an example of the hundreds that take place yearly and that facilitate billions of dollars in revenue for profitable art galleries, Safer as a lay person decries the impossibility of “an aesthetic experience” due to the woeful lack of silence or space in the presentations. In fact, Safer never describes himself as an expert in contemporary art but plays the role instead of the everyman, aghast at the extravagance and pondering the purposefulness of this strange marketplace. Saltz, however, responds to Safer’s naivete in expecting “an aesthetic experience” and asserts that his lack of such an experience is due not to the circumstances of the fair but to the underlying fear in his approach. Saltz goes on to describe impassioned viewer experience, both its portals and its results, personifying art (“art wants attention,” “Art isn’t something that only wants love”) and asserting its powerful influence on a willing audience, “something that makes us uncomfortable, that tells us things we don’t want to know, that creates space for uncertainty.” On Safer’s expectation of an aesthetic experience attending Art Basel Miami, Saltz describes the journalist as “clownish” saying, “Safer goes to the most hellish place on earth to look for ‘an aesthetic experience.'” Is it really so absurd to expect that a subject matter as powerful as Saltz describes would be displayed to its full advantage? These ubiquitous fairs dictate the market as much as modern taste and I for one am delighted to consider the ramifications of such disruptive viewing spaces in influential marketplaces on the enduring culture of the art world. Whereas Saltz claims that “there are no ‘gatekeepers’ in the art world anymore, that it’s mainly a wonderful chaos,” I would assert that the art world’s gate-keepers do in fact exist and are unduly influenced by the marketplace as business leaders and financiers take control of museums and art institutions rallying boards toward numerical rather than cultural measure of success. Museums build collections on the backs of these billionaire enthusiasts that Safer describes.

The art market profoundly affects museums and cultural institutions, and, yes, even art history and is therefor desperately important and needs desperately to be criticized loudly and roundly by all audiences, educated in the field or not. Rather than being offended by the repetition of a thematic broadcast, I do see the need to update the story twenty years later and am surprised by the differences more than upset by the similarities. Saltz describes Safer’s general intent, “Safer was on about art fairs, artspeak, high prices, collecting as conspicuous consumption, Russian oligarchs who throw money around, and the ugliness of the market: endemic stuff we all know about and dislike.” Yes, Safer does repeat and repeat his arguments, with metaphors like the “emperor’s new clothes” emanating from his mouth multiple times in each broadcast. At the same time, however, I was struck by the observations he culls from dealers like Jeff Blum who describes his industry as “an unregulated, utterly bizarre place to conduct business. Literally a multi-billion dollar economy…. [where] competition between dealers and artists is often vicious.” This is not often admitted in the ivory towers of art appreciation, but what sells is shown, what is shown is collected, what is collected is revered, what is revered influences, what influences is replicated. And there is really no regulation or oversight in the whole shebang.

Saltz calls this point, “stating the obvious” but if it is so obvious, why isn’t he more upset by it? He claims that Safer is “focused on the distraction… [and] fails to see that cash simply does what other cash does and collectors basically buy what other collectors have already bought. He is … spotting the obvious.” Rather than taking this important aspect of the market and engaging in a discussion of why that might be a [BIG] problem, he gives Safer advice as he would to any other novice trying to understand contemporary art, go to lots of galleries and refine your taste. Well, yes, I love that advice, and, yes, everyone should in a perfect world do that before they criticize contemporary art, but unlike his first broadcast, the journalism in this piece was more nuanced. In the ’93 piece Safer engages in the ridiculous, “a child could have painted that” pandering whereas in this new piece he really focuses more on the distractions, regulations, and tropes of the marketplace itself rather than on the validity of the works. I only wish that a brilliant, knowledgeable, and witty writer like Jerry Saltz had engaged in a real discussion about the importance of the market to the culture of art and the enduring history of the craft rather than, yet again, defending the taste of curators and dealers.

We’re with you Jerry, we agree with what you are saying, now put your talents toward trying to really analyze, and possibly make a difference in these endemic faults you claim are disliked yet you seem to fully accept!

What did you think of the 60 minutes broadcast?

Los Angeles Museums by the Numbers

Recently published worldwide museum attendance numbers offer an intriguing insight into Los Angeles as a museum destination. It isn’t one.

The Art Newspaper’s 2011 report showed considerable growth in many LA area museums, chiefly LACMA’s 35% climb in attendance, and the Huntington Library’s more modest 4.8% growth, while the Getty Museum dropped 5.8% in attendance overall (Villa & Center) despite the enthusiasm locally over their Pacific Standard Time initiative.

LACMA's Resnick Pavilion opened in 2010 and likely played a part in the museum's 35% attendance hike

Of course, many local museums are not eligible for the Newspaper’s list because of ticketing practices. Although the picture may not be complete, given that the publication relies on self-reported data by museums and many are not included, the numbers do break down to tell us much about art viewership in LA.

Los Angeles managed to secure 39 spots on the Art Newspaper list of the 929 most well attended (daily) individual international exhibitions. Of those, LACMA’s restaging of the Tim Burton exhibition was the highest ranked at number 88 worldwide, followed closely by David Smith, also at LACMA, 96th, and MOCA’s Art in the Streets at number 102. These shows ranked 24th, 28th, and 30th, respectively, in the United States. Whereas in 2010, the Getty provided the highest ranked of LA museum exhibitions (#58 with Leonardo da Vinci and the Art of Sculpture), this year’s most-attended Getty exhibition, A Revolutionary Project (focusing on Cuban photography) ranked only 124th world-wide and 35th nationally. The Getty still offered the great majority of ranked exhibitions, with 19 of the total 39, LACMA and MOCA showed improvement with 11 and 9 exhibitions on the list, respectively.

MOCA's Art in the Streets was a big draw for the museum with 201,352 total visitors. Photo by Gregory Bojorquez and published on moca.org

It is fairly obvious when we delve into the shows themselves, that we are still a nation relatively apathetic to our own traditions and looking outward for our cultural inspiration. Of the 39 Los Angeles exhibitions on the list, only 16 included U.S. artists, while only 10 were primarily focused on those artists. Picasso shows garnered 6 of the top 100 spots internationally and 4 of those were in the United States. Despite the local acclaim for numerous PST exhibitions and generous funding by the Getty, only LACMA’s Asco retrospective made the list at 520th internationally with only 864 visitors per day over its nearly three month run. Given PST’s 6 month span, we will have to wait for 2012 figures to see the real impact but it looks like the initiative hasn’t had much effect on LA’s numbers. This despite the expectation of Art Newpaper’s Javier Pes who said last year, “Pacific Standard Time really could create a sense of critical mass… I think it could change the attendance numbers we see next year.” Pes did, in the same breath, qualify his statement, recognizing the tourism challenges that plague the city.

Los Angeles museums rely heavily on local attendance, with County museums like LACMA reporting 80% local attendance. By comparison a museum like the Getty that tends to draw site-seers as well as museum-goers, pulls in at least 50% of their visitors from outside the area. Given their local audience, my question is why don’t more LA area museums really focus on what makes them unique in THIS climate rather than worrying about worldwide attendance figures? Even PST, purported to be a celebration of the area’s unique artistic history, is really geared more toward answering an outside audience than it is to serving a local interest.

In the U.S., unlike many other countries, we believe in private art support and provide relatively little public money to art institutions. This fact is essential to understanding exhibition attendance. World-wide, entrance to the exhibitions and museums was free at 4 of the top 10 shows, whereas none of the U.S. top 10 were free to the public. In LA, Art in the Streets is a perfect example of the kind of boost free admission can give to an exhibition as Banksy’s personal generosity brought in far greater crowds on his free Monday’s than on other days the exhibition was open. Christopher Knight writes in the same article of his belief that “art museums should put a high priority on finding ways to lower economic barriers to admission… In fact I’m one of those who believes an art museum is the equivalent of a library, and every effort should be made to make it free not just part-time and for special events, but at all times.” In LA, tourism is a vital and growing industry and perhaps making culture an important and valued (ie providing greater financial support) part of our city would be mutually beneficial to both industry and government.

Perhaps all museums can take a page from those associated with schools and universities, like the Hammer. In response to the 2010 rankings and their institution’s decision not to participate, Hammer Director Ann Philbin is reported by the LA Times as saying, “We care about it certainly, but it is not at the top of our list of measures of success. When attendance figures are overvalued in museums, it can lead to mediocrity in programming. The focus becomes the tried-and-true blockbusters. We always say we’ll do a show that 12 people want to see if we think it’s important to do. If it also happens to garner a buzz and big audience… then it’s all the more gratifying.” Given the prevalence of King Tut exhibitions on the list over multiple years, I would say her assessment is correct. Why not focus on exhibitions worthy of viewership rather than on viewership alone? This is the difference between cultural institutions and pure entertainment. Too often we focus on the bottom line by appealing to humanity’s baser tendencies, but in the long run this makes us a culture of little depth.

As museums are run more and more by business execs (boards and directors) rather than those experienced and acquainted with art and cultural movements, and rely more and more on the enormous donations of a very few, attendance figures as the only ‘reportable’ measure of exhibition success become extremely important. Unfortunately this measure will continue, with the bottom-line value of art work and the by-the-numbers approach to attendance as validation, until we find some way to quantify artistic experience. In the same way that meta-critical databases such as Rotten Tomatoes end up influencing Hollywood’s bottom line, perhaps a similar style of evaluation would be just what LA (and the nation, and the world) need to change the museum’s bottom line. Ultimately we need to figure out whether museums are there to serve the interests of the population or to educate and inspire the population?

What do you think, which comes first, the audience or the programming?

Last weekend of PST & free museum admission!

It feels like just yesterday we were enjoying the opening weekend of Los Angeles’ Pacific Standard Time arts festival with collection tours, gallery, and museum openings as well as multiple art fairs throughout the city, but alas that was a long five months ago and we are now nearing the last weekend of the sprawling city-wide event. To celebrate its final weekend, PST-affiliated museums are offering one last lovely gift to the Los Angeles art community with free admission on March 31st. Participating museums include festival sponsor, J. Paul Getty Museum, as well as 18 other institutions big and small, acclaimed and some overlooked. Unfortunately most of the PST shows will not be traveling on to other venues, so, while some shows will be on display through April, this is your last chance to see many of them. Happy viewing!

American Museum of Ceramic Art (usually $5)
Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (always free!)
California African American Museum (always free!)
Chinese American Museum (usually suggested donation of $3)
Eames House Foundation (reservations required, usually$10)
Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California (always free!)
The J. Paul Getty Museum (always free! parking $15)
The Grammy Museum (usually $12.95)
LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division) (by appointment)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (usually $15 + $5 for In Wonderland)
Mingei International Museum (usually $8)
ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (West Adams and West Hollywood) (always free with $5 suggested donation)
Pacific Asia Museum (usually $9)
Palm Springs Art Museum (usually $12.50)
Pasadena Museum of California Art (usually $7)
Pomona College Museum of Art (always free!)
Santa Barbara Museum of Art (usually $9)
Scripps College, Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery (always free!)

In addition to free admission, there will be a few special events taking place at various locations including the following:

American Museum of Ceramic Art: special reception for the general public and artist, and video screenings.

California African American Museum: 2-6pm, Ulysses Jenkins will be speaking at 2pm and presenting three of his documentary videos from 3pm to 6pm. The final event of the evening will be a dance party reception featuring music from the 60s and 70s.

Chinese American Museum: 11am-3pm, In a child-friendly event, artists will create a one-of-a-kind skyline on the sidewalks of El Pueblo Plaza.

Eames House Foundation: 10am-12pm Camp for Children, 1-4pm camp for adults. Design Camp: Making the Connections, participants will create their own designs inspired by principles and processes of Charles and Ray Eames. Reservations Required 310-459-9663.

J. Paul Getty Museum: 1pm and 3pm guided viewing of In Focus: Los Angeles, 1945-1980.

LACMA: 5-7pm, Celebrating Califonria Design, 1930-1965 and Maria Nordman Filmroom with a live concert by the Surf-City band.

Pasadena Museum of California Art: Reception throughout the day including food and beverages.

Pomona College Museum of Art: Uniquely designed and individually wrapped PST-inspired cookies will be given out to visitors of It Happened at Pomona.

Scripps College: Informal tours of Clay’s Tectonic Shift and performances in the courtyard from the Claremont Colleges Ballroom Dancing Team, a Claremont a capella group, Psyko Taiko Japanese drummers, a jazz ensemble. Refreshments also available.

David Hammons, The Door (Admissions Office), 1969 (at CAAM)

Made in LA Biennial Artist List Announced!

LA is finally getting its own biennial — although, at this point it is just an exhibition with intent to continue biannually… Organized by the Hammer Museum in conjunction with LA><ART, and taking place in several locations including the Hammer, LA><ART, and LA Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall Park as well as a special weekend “Biennial within a Biennial,” the Venice Beach Biennial on Ocean Front Walk, the exhibition is set to showcase some exciting emerging artists as well as local favorites. The recently announced list is included below with some representative images (note: many of the artists are multi-media and sound artists and are not best represented through static visual imagery):

Scoli Acosta

Scoli Acosta, Rising Night Lilly, White

Kathryn Andrews

Kathryn Andrews, Bowman, 2011, aluminum, paper, ink

Animal Charm
Math Bass
Scott Benzel
Sarah Cain

Sarah Cain, As You Continue to Walk Forward, 2008

Sarah Conaway

Sarah Conaway, Foam Fold 1, Black & white c-print, 2008

Fiona Connor

Fiona Connor, Murals and Print, Installation at Various Small Fires, Venice, CA, 2012

Kate Costello

Kate Costello, Tattooed Ladies, Wallspace gallery

Meg Cranston

Meg Cranston, 2006

Nzuji de Magalhães

Nzuji de Magelhaes, One More River to Cross, 2006, fabric paint on felt

Michelle Dizon

Michelle Dizon, Empire, Luckman Gallery, Cal State LA

Roy Dowell

Roy Dowell, Untitled (#995), 2010

Zackary Drucker

Zackary Drucker and Manuel Vason, excerpt from Don't Look At Me Like That, 2010

Patricia Fernández

Patricia Fernandez Carcedo, Left, After 1975

Cayetano Ferrer
Dan Finsel

Dan Finsel, I Would Love Farrah, Farrah, Farrah (I), 2009, still from HD video

Morgan Fisher
Simone Forti
Liz Glynn

Liz Glynn, On the Museum's Ruins (Morris-Hunt - Corbusier - Piano), detail

Mark Hagen

Mark Hagen, To Be Titled (Additive Painting #27), 2011

Zach Harris

Zach Harris, 247th Heaven

Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle

Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle, The Take Over, 2009

Channa Horwitz

Channa Horwitz, Variation + Invertion on a Rhythm Matrix #1, 1990

Pearl C. Hsiung

Pearl C. Hsiung, And We Want It Now, 2010

Ashley Hunt

Ashley Hunt, As Flowers Turn Toward the Sun, The Contemporary Museum, 2006

Vishal Jugdeo

Vishal Jugdeo, Square Configuration (Decorum) Study, 2009, HD Video projection

Mimi Lauter

Mimi Lauter, Frauline Freude, 2010

Thomas Lawson

Thomas Lawson, Stars, 2009

Nery Gabriel Lemus

Nery Gabriel Lemus, Until the Day Breaks and Shadows Flee, 2010, Installation at Project Row Houses, Houston

Dashiell Manley

Dashiell Manley, Untitled (alphabet g), 2011

Allison Miller
Nicole Miller
Meleko Mokgosi

Meleko Mokgosi, Pax Afrikaner: Full Belly (parts 2 and 4)

Zac Monday

Zac Monday, Blue Figure, 2006

Ruby Neri

Ruby Neri, Untitled (Painted Ceramic), 2011

D’Ette Nogle

D'Ette Nogle, Reality/Relax, 2011

Alex Olson

Alex Olson, Iterations, 2012

Michele O’Marah

Michele O'Marah, A Girl's got to Do What a Girl's Got to Do, 2009, installation

Camilo Ontiveros

Camilo Ontiveros, Temporary Storage

Joel Otterson

Joel Otterson, Queen of Rock, 1994

Karthik Pandian

Karthik Pandian, Darkroom (still from the film Kunst-Wet), 2008

The Propeller Group
Vincent Ramos
Laura Riboli

Laura Riboli, Untitled (triangles), 2009

Ry Rocklen

Ry Rocklen, Two Faced Vase, 2010

Miljohn Ruperto

Miljohn Ruperto, Spherical Projections of Rectangles in Mirror Symmetry with Black Circle, 2011, HD Video

Analia Saban

Analia Saban, Fade Out (from Black) #2, 2011

Brian Sharp
Slanguage
Ryan Sluggett

Ryan Sluggett, Untitled, 2011, projected digital video

David Snyder
Jill Spector

Jill Spector, Collage study #2, 2008

Koki Tanaka
Henry Taylor

Henry Taylor, Untitled, 2004

Caroline Thomas
Cody Trepte

Cody Trepte, Its Endless Undoing, 2012

Erika Vogt

Erika Vogt, Centennial Tin, 2006

Lisa Williamson

Lisa Williamson, Untitled (Sag), 2008

Brenna Youngblood

Brenna Youngblood, The Army, 2005

Top 10 lists and CA artists

Ah, ranking art schools has been commonplace for a long time, and I suppose we have had art contests since at least the mid-18th century, but it still seems a bit counter-intuitive to rank artists especially at a time when art has branched into so many different fields and configurations. That said, sometimes these lists can provide a glimpse into the emerging art scene for the uninitiated, especially when they are established by publications outside of the traditional art press. CA Home & Design Magazine has just published its list of the “Top Ten California Artists You Need to Know in 2012.” Obviously, none of these artists are completely unknown, most of them have had at least one well-publicized solo show in a recognized gallery or museum. Many of them are being collected by established museums and have already achieved a low-level of fame locally as well as nationally but even with that exposure, I am certain that most people reading this magazine have never heard these names. With the exception of ethnic and age diversity, CA Home & Design covered a lot of bases with the list, including exactly 5 women artists, 5 male, 5 northern CA, 5 southern CA, as well as a range of media–some photographers, some sculptors, installation artists, painters, etc. It is a nice article, and I have to recognize the portraits by Aubrie Pick and Tony Byrd, they do a great job of incorporating the style and work of each profiled artist–in these days of stock photography, it is rare to see an essay so thoughtfully imaged! Check out the work, I guarantee you’ll be seeing more of it in the next few years…

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Zarouhie Abdalian, Set for the Outside, 2010; frosted privacy window film and graphite on 24 windows.

Sanya Kantarovsky, Today I Wrote Nothing, 2012; powder coated steel, alkyd enamel and pigment.

Sarah Cain, As You Continue to Walk Forward, 2009; mixed media.

The Ungovernables and Conceptualism

A colleague said to me today, “it seems like everything is so structured now, kids can’t just go out and play but rather need to have appointments and goals.” I couldn’t help but both agree and disagree, in some ways I think our society is increasingly embracing structure to deal with the growing instability in our lives. On a recent trip to New York I had the pleasure of visiting the New Museum as they were presenting their second Triennial, titled “The Ungovernables.” Hearing about the show I was expecting it to be politically charged and very youthful, the work I found was provocative although not necessarily political, incredibly thoughtful, and possessed of a maturity beyond the years of the artists themselves. A globally-focused exhibition displaying only 4 artists from the United States, the included artists draw from rich aesthetic and conceptual traditions to create work at once playful and affecting, imaginative and influential. They may come from countries deemed “ungovernable,” but we are treated to a strong curatorial vision offering viewers structure and historical specificity from which to experience a disparate barrage of media and message.

As PST here in LA continues on into its last weeks, I realize that however much I have loved the events and exhibitions, I am becoming tired of artist celebrities and celebrity artists. The same five to ten artists grace most of the exhibitions and, as is typical in LA, celebrities from the entertainment industry have been central to the venture’s success. I find myself longing now that I have been thoroughly schooled in Angeleno art making of the 50s, 60s, 70s, and even some 80s, for some idea of what has come of that tradition. Looking at the great diversity of work coming out of our smoggy yet fair city, a curatorial inquest into the influence of place and history on working artists would be much appreciated. Just as the curator of Ungovernables, Eungie Joo, was able to create a comprehensive glimpse into the seemingly overwhelming world of global art production by focusing on young artists firmly influenced by a history of conceptual practice, it would suit LA institutions to harness some of the momentum of PST and look forward in the next year. Joo comes out of the education department at the New Museum and Holland Cotter in his review for the New York Times attributed her background in education to the inclusion of so many works that require “homework” to be fully revealed to the viewer. The viewer may benefit more from the wall panels in this show than in some others, but I would say the real evidence of Joo’s background comes from the inclusion of so many artists that ring the bell of art history, showing so concretely that the best continues on in subtle ways and across culture.

Some works from ungovernables:

Danh Vo, We the People, 2011, Pounded copper
Vietnamese Vo, who lives and works in Berlin, envisioned We the People as a full-scale reproduction of the Statue of Liberty. The thin skin of lady liberty becomes large copper waves within the gallery space, scattered on the walls and floors and evoking more the sea above which she stands than the iconic figure herself. The didactic plate quotes Vo, “I wish only to deal with [her] through the logistics, economy, and practicality… Why should we impose more interpretation or use at all, hasn’t she been raped enough?” This is a powerful statement from a non-countryman about a figure that stands for the freedom of a nation. Is Vo referring to the actual sculpture itself, to the ideals of the nation, or to the physical space on which she stands? Claiming to deal with her only through the physical state, Vo drops quite a bombshell in the later part of his sentence! The work itself though is creative, imposing yet enveloping of its audience in all the right ways. Not truly reflective, the metallic surface allows for enough interaction for the viewer to feel intrinsically connected to the work through their own figurative (for the US audience at the New York institution) and physical presence/representation within the work.

The Propeller Group, TVC Communism, 2011, Five-channel synchronized video installation and LED monitor, color, sound, 5:45 hr (loop)
Founded in Ho Chi Minh City, the group tasked the local branch of an international advertising company, TBWA, to created a political campaign for the idea of Communism. Shot over 3 weeks and coming it at just under six hours, I obviously was not able to view the entirety of the piece while visiting the New Museum, nor does it seem necessary to view the piece start to finish. The work consists of five monitors placed in a circle with their screens inward and alternating sound. We see on the video the faces and bodies of several seemingly young and hip men and women who are in various poses and are each flanked by two cameras while they speak, write, text on their phones, or just zone out. The wall text describes the work as purporting to give the audience a glimpse into the process of a marketing agency but to me the work was more aggressively situated to give the viewer a glimpse into the lives of people under communism. The placement of the viewer in the center of multiple screens, in the eye-line of several workers who may or may not be observing you, and also in the direct sight of 8-10 video cameras imposing on the viewer their steely and unnerving stare. The Foucaultian implications are obvious.

Jonathas de Andrade, 4000 disparos [4000 shots], 2010, Super 8mm film transferred to DVD, 60 minutes.
Featuring 4000 single frames of male faces on the street, the resulting video work is at once beautiful and frustrating. Seeing only glimpses of purposefully male faces makes the female viewer vulnerable in an interesting way. Far from gazing upon the male persona, despite the static nature of the men pictured, it is the viewer who ends up being gazed upon in a chaotic and forceful fashion. Having no control over the multitude of male faces that flash upon the wall, some looking directly at the viewer, some away, the viewer is the only stable element in the room and therefor becomes the object of this masculinized gaze rather than the perpetrator. Andrade also conceived the piece in book form and it strikes me that the reception of that work would be completely contrary to the powerful effect this work had upon me as a viewer. Having control of the speed and motion of the faces, being able to freeze each masculine form for my viewing pleasure places me squarely within a position of power rather than the vulnerability of my position watching these faces whiz by my arrested position before the screen.

Hu Xiaoyuan, Wood, 2009-10, Thirty-one pieces of wood, silk, Chinese ink, white lacquer
As much as I love process-oriented artists, the work of this artist, from Haerbin, China and working in Beijing, represents an unfortunate miscommunication between process and form. Describing the silk, wood, and Chinese ink as “emotionally resonant materials,” the panel text asserts a symbiosis between maker and viewer that I truly didn’t experience standing in front of the work. I can’t help but wonder why they really just aren’t resonating? Coming upon the piece in a room full of colorful works I was drawn to the quiet of the material, the white on the white of gallery walls, the beauty of the natural form, but the staggered, seemingly-haphazard layout betrayed the expected tranquility. I noticed nothing of the artist’s painstaking process in my initial viewing and very little even after reading the wall text. We are told that the installation begins “with raw lumber covered in white chiffon silk, upon which the wood’s natural grain is painstakingly traced in brushed ink. Hu then whitewashes the lengths of wood and re-covers each object with its respective ‘painting.’ Even at a distance the beauty is seductive, forcing a closer encounter that reveals the precise, diligent work that created it.” This precision is near-invisible even directly in front of the work and actively looking for signs of process. I also tend to find that when the curator needs to tell us how we are supposed to react to a work, the work itself is probably not doing its job of conveying that emotion in the first place.

And just a couple other pieces that were engaging but have been already written about many other places:

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Remembering the Future of a Hole as a Verb 2, Chalk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pilvi Takala, The Trainee, 2008, Mixed media or PowerPoint presentation, video, framed letter, key card, office furniture, computer, monitor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ala Younis, Junior General On Iraq, 2012, Perpectival drawing in acrylic paint based on paper soldier drawings by Marvin Schneck, Michael Smith, and Austen Erblat

 

how art works

This is a really great video that presents so much of what I talk about here but in a fun and often funny way – check it out! The imaginary viewer, why we create, what it means to be an individual, etc. etc.

 

The muse, that fickle mistress

Although not specifically LA-focused, I know that any artists out there will understand this sentiment about a man and his muse… Taken from the amazing blog, “Letters of Note,” this letter is from Nick Cave to MTV, on being nominated for Best Male Artist”:

http://www.lettersofnote.com/2012/02/my-muse-is-not-horse.html

21 Oct 96

To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you all for the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist. The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P. J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated. So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for best male artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies. I myself, do not. I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring. I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition. My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes. My muse may spook! May bolt! May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no…no thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Nick Cave

Maybe I think of Los Angeles art when I read this because of the undeniable pressure on artists here to enter into these kinds of popularity contests. The market here is strong, but even stronger is the social and media pressure, the need for an artist to be endowed with schtick beyond substance. It has always been my contention that the worst thing that can happen to an artists’ work is success. Once the image-maker becomes renown, they become some kind of entomology specimen, labeled and pinned like a butterfly in its case. The authenticity and impulse behind their works becomes murky in the storm of descriptive critical texts and economic figures. They are compared, contrasted, sized-up and justified, the work is signed, sealed, packaged, and delivered on demand. It CAN be avoided, but most artists lose their voice through the process, making the same pieces over and over to maintain the fickle eye of collectors who in the end lose interest anyway because their interests have not been anticipated. The muse is a difficult mistress, if you take her for granted she just may dismiss you as disciple, because, after all, the muse is YOU, your authentic voice. The more you listen to the words of the marketplace, the more you create for the viewer rather than following your own intentionality, the further away from that voice you step, the quieter and more obscure your muse becomes.

artist aka control freak

As we talked about a few weeks ago, artists need time and space to create work. This process of art creation is wonderful for inspiring creativity and allowing ideas to ruminate unbiased and unaffected by outsiders, it allows authenticity of the creator, but it also often leads artists to become hyper-controlling over both media and reaction. The process of making personal art can be intimidating, to share that work when exposing so much of yourself is terrifying and the need to “get it right” often leads artists to over-explain and rationalize textually either directly in the piece or in accompanying material.

Barbara T. Smith, Intimations of Immorality, 1974

Barbara T. Smith in a performance presented at Pomona College in 1974, wrote, “the correct understanding of this piece is its visualization. It has absolutely nothing to do with the social or romantic notions about the life of the woman present nor my actual experience in the park.” I would say that this is up to the audience, the artists cannot dictate this level of the experience. The piece consisted of Smith trading places with random volunteers culled from a park local to the gallery, the woman would agree to sit on a bench in the gallery while Smith took her place on a bench in the park. Smith explains, “the only criteria to the piece here is its duration, luck, and continuity during which time you may see it in a fulfilled or unfulfilled state… Some days you get the real image, on others only a surrogate and your imagination, but the vehicle remains and the piece goes on.” For the viewer, I don’t know how they could divorce the reality of the woman or even the idea of the woman from notions of the perceived life of the (even presently generically) “woman in the park.” The fact of seeing is embedded with the social context with which we see, sight really is ocular only to a small degree. Even when viewed in its unfulfilled state (perhaps even more-so when viewed in its unfulfilled state), the bench and intention of the artist call to mind the cultural, economic, and social qualifiers of “woman sitting in park.” This is really just to say that the artist only has so much control over what the viewer experiences in the presence of their work.

When artists attempt to control the reception of their work through outside qualifiers such as artist statements, placards, and instructions, it only serves to mitigate the authentic response to the work that, in fact, is the root power of art in society. It is the reaction to the work and not the piece itself that resonates, just as artistry is the impulse and not necessarily the execution of the work. We rely so much on being told how we were supposed to feel or whether we “got it right” when, in art, there really is no right answer. In school you learn to be tested and the test tells you whether you have learned, but art cannot be approached that way. The authentic response is the right answer, and with more information and historical context you may read more into the work, but if those qualifiers are necessary to the reaction, the work is ultimately not sustainable.

Viewers, what works resonate with you?
Artists, how does it feel to release control to the viewer?

Life & Decay; Hirokazu Kosaka’s Kalpa at the Getty

Forgive me for going back in time briefly with this post to the Friday before the last event I discussed, to discuss Kalpa, the exquisite performance constructed by Hirokazu Kosaka at the Getty Museum. The night was cold but the buzz of the first grand performance marking the kick-off of the Pacific Standard Time Performance and Public Art Festival was enough to keep the large (and growing) crowd in good spirits (never mind the addition of some after hours libations!). As people mingled and meandered around the large open entrance courtyard two parts of the performance were immediately noticed, the glaring spotlight directed upward to the cloudy sky above Los Angeles and the eerie spring-like sounds seeming to emanate from the central trees in the space.  Like clockwork, at 7pm sharp I noticed the last tram descend the hill and realized that in the fluorescent glow of the compartments stood figures dressed all in white and that a crowd had begun to amass around the platform.

I quickly cut through the crowds to see the beginning of the performance before most of the thousand-or-so spectators had even realized the show had begun and was delighted to have a clear view of Butoh choreographer Oguri laying still on the cold marble clutching his legs in a fetal ball. He slowly began to move, impossibly slow his movements were considered and delicate. He emerged and entranced us all with his meditative balance and control but by this point the crowd had realized (whether through twitter or in-person buzz) that there was something to see and I was quickly shoved out of the way as people jostled for position. Between Oguri’s movements through the crowd, his spot-light holder, and the licensed photographers and videographers for the event, we spectators began a unique dance of our own, scurrying out of the way while maintaining visual contact and attempting to hold our relative positions to the assembly. The spotlight highlighted Oguri’s movements and bounced off his loose white clothes combating the glow in the crowd of a thousand glowing screens and flashes.

The dancer began his movement around the courtyard and was soon joined by four additional similarly-dressed performers who made their way to the far wall only to be completely engulfed by the crowds. Soon the dancers fell one by one back across the court toward the ascending stairs, their movements intertwined and inward at times and at times aggressive and outward, attempting to cut through the crowds in their quest. At the beginning of the performance guards attempted to lead the crowds to one part of the courtyard, clearing out this central space, but those of us who followed the direction where immediately replaced in our earlier positions by the masses that continued to arrive, so I think they gave up the attempt. So, I’m not sure whether it was Kosaka’s intention to have the performers completely surrounded by spectators or whether the original concept would have kept distance and space. These choices certainly affect the reading of the movements, I must admit.

As the dancers began to emerge from the crowd and make their way up the Getty’s shallow steps, we could see more clearly their interactions and peaceful concentration. As the spotlight illuminated the grand stairway and upper platform, a grid of 400 spools of colored thread came into view. Soon, the performers had placed threads in each of their mouths and synchronously began to descend the steep central passage trailing the gracefully draping thread through sculptures and finally over and through the assembled crowd.  We stood mesmerized by the play of light and shadow through the thread overhead as well as the staunch expressions on the performer’s contorted faces as they struggled to drag the threads hundreds of yards using only their mouths. Once the thread had cast a beautiful net over the entire performance space, Oguri once again took center stage, standing outside of the crowd and below the thread, holding his bent arms up to the sky as if in petulant prayer, his illuminated body a question mark to the heavens as fibers from the thread above floated quietly through the air. The massive audience was still for just a moment before the flashes and movement began again, or maybe the stillness was just in my mind.

Kosaka’s Kalpa fits squarely into the Pacific Standard Time initiative. The artist was educated at the renown Chouianard Art Institute in the 1970s and worked in Los Angeles throughout the essential PST period, and the performer, Oguri, a transplant to LA, incorporates so much of Los Angeles’ performance history into his work today. These kinds of collaborations and inspirations are where PST functions best, to show how LA art has changed  the greater trajectory of art history. This collaboration between Kosaka, Oguri, and the aural sculptor, Yuval Ron, to create a work inspired by sources as wide-ranging as the performance legacy of Ruppersberg and Burden, the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism, and the artistic innovations of the Gutai group and Butoh dance, represents what Los Angeles art does best, innovation based on evolution. Artists take bits and pieces, materials and ideas, and bring them together to create something completely novel.

The definition of Kalpa used by Kosaka in Hindi means something akin to aeon, a measure of long expanses of time. Another definition however, is as ritual, one of the disciplines of Vedanga Hinduism. I think really both are applicable to this performance. Kosaka, a Buddhist priest, also engages imagery from his own tradition, he says, ““It is believed in the Buddhist faith that once every hundred years, an angel comes down from heaven and swipes the surface of a stone with her silk sleeves until the rock disappears. This idea comes into play in my performance, as it demonstrates the deliberate, unseen passage of time, and the tangible objects that we use to measure it.” The idea of measuring time is one familiar in art and religion, and lends itself to representation in literary and visual forms, such as the oft-depicted Moirai (Fates) of Greek mythology. These three female figures, Clotho who spun the thread of life from her spindle, Lachesis who measured the allotments, and Atropos who cut the thread of life, are frequently mentioned in poetry and visually conjured by sculptors and painters. In Kosaka’s case, his measurements are made by the performers themselves, winding and pulling the thread of life through their own great efforts. Ayu-Kalpa is the term used within Hinduism for the life expectancy of a human, said to correspond to the virtue of the people during that time period. This performance seems to place that determination squarely on the back of the people themselves, they establish virtue through determination, strength, and will.

Perhaps that is not it at all, and instead the thread wipes clean the modern era, we fall below the new surface, encapsulated as something new begins. Our own time is instead the soil that will fertilize what comes next, a beauty can be found in the end as well as the beginning. This idea resonates with the works Kosaka cites as formative. In an interview with Glenn Phillips from June of 2010, the artist talks about his introduction to the idea of performance, “I think when I came to Chouinard, Allan Kaprow’s book on Happenings had already been printed. There were Gutai photographs in that book. That was very surprising. The word “Happening” was a kind of fashion for that period, not so much the word “performance.” I don’t think Gutai group called them happenings or performances. The word Gutai means concrete forms. That’s what’s Mr. [Jiro] Yoshihara, the leader of the group, was concentrating on. He painted circles all his life. The circle connotes Zen ensō, meaning empty. I think that’s the word Gutai was trying to say something about, this Buddhist notion of emptiness. I don’t think Allan Kaprow knew that. I talked to him a couple of times about that, and he just said, “I don’t understand.” But John Cage was profoundly moved by ensō. He did a lot of pieces about that.” The Gutai group that was so important to Kosaka’s early period as an artist emphasizes the idea of material and destruction, allowing the material itself the freedom to express its reality without bowing to the soul and that expression often is clearest upon the disintegration of its man-made form. In their manifesto they write, “The novel beauty to be found in works of art and architecture ofhte past which have changed their appearance due to the damage of time or destruction by disasters… This is described as the beauty of decay, but is it not perhaps that beauty which material assumes when it is freed from artificial make-up and reveals its original characteristics?” Although not a part of Gutai, Kosaka is clearly considering these concepts in his work. In another part of the manifesto they state their mission, “We have decided to pursue the possibilities of pure and creative ability with the characteristics of the material in order to concretize the abstract space.” In this way Oguri and Kosaka take over the space of the museum, the space of the spectator, and allow the material to float over us, to take on and yet rise above the symbolism so entrenched in our psyche to become material once again. Part of their ability to do this comes from the use of Butoh which itself began as an intervention in the established form of Japanese contemporary dance.

Butoh began around the time of Gutai’s establishment and Kosaka’s own beginning, after World War II. The dance is mostly defined by what it is not, what it breaks away from, from the contemporary dance tradition that relied on western forms mixed with traditional Japanese theater like Noh. Tatsumi Hijikata, said to have performed the first butoh piece, utilized notions of the grotesque, of darkness and decay, similar to the elements of material that preoccupies the Gutai group. These connections were explored more deeply in the 2007 Getty exhibition, Art, Anti-Art, Non-Art: Experimentations in the Public Sphere in Postwar Japan, 1950-1970.

Oguri says about Butoh, “Today the world is top-heavy with information. Humans are losing instinct and are like domestic animals without masters. Dance is the only way to restore the senses to a body in crisis.” By incorporating a dance that restores the senses to the body, and a visual tradition that restores the authenticity to the material, the performance, Kalpa, was able to restore a sense of presence to the spectator.

 

 

 

This video shows the dancers preparing for the performance, and how it might have looked without the crowds.