Perambulating the Bounds

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Case of the Contemporary Viewer

In the Philosophical Fragments, Kirkegaard raises the question of the status of the contemporary disciple and the disciple at second hand relative to the absolute paradox of Reason attempting to approach God. At first blush, the contemporary disciple, who can learn from God directly in the servant-form of the incarnation, has an advantage over those who will come later. This person sees God directly, touches God’s human form. It turns out this advantage is illusory, that the accumulation of knowledge of God in incarnate form is not sufficient to grasp the Eternal, which remains forever beyond the capacity of finite humans to comprehend by their own efforts. That knowledge is bestowed by God as Faith. I don’t think Kirkegaard says this, but in some ways the contemporary discipline is at a disadvantage because he or she may mistake the accumulation of temporal detail for knowledge of God the Eternal. The disciple at second hand is more likely to understand that knowledge of the paradox is beyond the thinner store of temporal information available in that age.

The problem reminds me of the problem which faces the viewer of art in a close-knit community. That viewer has the chance to know the artist who has made the art works on display. Acquaintance with the artist as a person by all accounts enhances understanding of the art as object or artifact. Talk to the maker, then take a look. Pity the poor person who has to comprehend the work without this guidance from the horse’s mouth, pity future generations who will rely on what records they can find. Art dealers, make sure buyers get a chance to form a connection with your artists.

Just like the problem of the contemporary disciple, the contemporary viewer may not have an advantage. The artist’s statements substitute for the personal work of looking at the piece and seeing what is there. The more weight you put on those statements, the more looking at the work becomes perfunctory or redundant. You know what is there without looking. The knowledge gained from your communication with artist may even prompt you to see things that are not physically present in the work.

For example, I met and talked to Bob Durham a few times before I saw many of his paintings. I built up impressions of him, such as a pervasive irreverence and wit. In his current exhibit at Cumberland Gallery, there is a large painting of a woman standing in a landscape. It is a quiet, autumnal painting. Bordering on reverent. But I know Durham, and I even know the model and the location. I can picture her face from our conversations, and she has a natural slyness of expression, often just about ready to break into a smile. In this painting, I see slyness sneaking in at the corners of her face. But do I see this or put it in myself? Which of Durham’s brushstrokes capture those qualities of her face? It is entirely possible that I filled in those details based on how I know he would depict this person.

In a way, the viewer who does not know the artist has an advantage in having no choice but to look at the work and take from it whatever it offers visually. If the piece is difficult, the viewer is forced to grapple with it, and gains a hard-earned understanding.

Works of art are orphans relative to their creator, available for adoption by each viewer. The artist might be tempted to hover around the work, guide viewers into it and out of, but that is hopeless. The viewer has to take the art work upon himself or herself if it is to have the full meaning art can have. The image becomes part of the viewer’s personality, which is out of the artist’s range of control. The viewer pushes the artist aside, and makes the work their own. The artist has his or her child stolen countless times.

Comprehension of a work of art, at a level where it acts on the viewer, occurs on a radically personal level of encounter between consciousness and the art work. It is akin to revelation, the mind taking in something irreducible to descriptive facts. Sometimes that revelation occurs simply from the physical encounter with the work – its aura, as Benjamin would have it, works on you. In other cases, something extraneous to the work, such as the words of the artist or another commentator, can serve as the prompt that opens up the possibility for revelation. But those prompts must point the mind back into the work, otherwise they are substitutes for the work or hearsay. “I have been told this is a great work, capturing such and such a spirit or experience.” No, in that case the art work is a prop to illustrate some words. The words may have great power and significance – a hymn to love, the account of the beginning of the world or its end, the great works of a god. But to experience the work of art as an illustration of a verbal explanation is a different experience than that which occurs when any words only serve to set up a moment of visual communication.

Viewing art requires a shift of consciousness to allow the visual encounter to occur fully. This remains true whether one speaks to the artist or not. The viewer at first hand, acquainted with the creator as well as the work, runs the risk of confusing the explanation with a visual experience. The viewer at first hand also has additional prompts to point to the work, as long as she or he remembers to look for the way back. In other words, this viewer has advantages and disadvantages over viewers separated by time or space from direct knowledge of the maker. For the viewer at second hand, the work may lose some of its vividness, but its orphan status is more clear, and this clarifies the viewer’s job.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Wednesday night Bhajans

The concert on Wednesday at Temple Sri Ganesha, Nashville’s Hindu temple, featured something a bit different with a concert of Sampradaya Bhajans. These are devotional songs from the South Indian Carnatic tradition which range from short, simple pieces one can teach to children to longer more involved works. Unlike other concerts of classical Carnatic music, the composed material is not the starting point for extended improvisations on the ragas and talas. There is improvisation, but it occurs more firmly within a hymnody context of structured songs, and like Western hymns these are meant to be sung by a congregation. The skill of the performer is manifest in the expressiveness with which the melodies are delivered.

This concert was presented by Udayalur Kalyanaraman, a vocalist from India with a group that included another vocalist, someone playing harmonium (and singing along off mike), and another man on the mridangam drum. In certain respects the music is similar to qawali in that it includes solos, unison singing, and call and response between the leader and the rest of the party. However, when I suggested this to Sankaran Mahadevan, the organizer of the event, he resisted the comparison, and with reason. The most striking divergence is the emphasis in qawali on featuring improvisatory virtuosity of the leader. The bhajans were more recognizably devotional, and in fact performance was presented as a devotional ceremony more than a pure concert. It began with the temple priests intoning a blessing on the musicians and bestowing garlands on them – the concerts in this space typically do not start this way. The audience was invited to remove their shoes, as is required in the upstairs prayer hall filled with the shrines of many deities, but not normally for concerts in the assembly hall.

Attending a Hindu devotional ceremony leaves a Christian with the question of what to take from it. I have some vague acquaintance with the broad outlines of Hindu theology, but I know nothing of the devotional practices. The songs were mostly in Tamil and Telugu, and in fact Kalyanaraman’s commentaries between groups of songs seemed to switch between English and I’m guessing Tamil. However, I gather that from the Hindu perspective, my lack of knowledge poses no great barrier. Several times Kalyanaraman said “even if I know nothing, still I can say Rama.” Invoking the god’s name appears to confer benefits, and I know that Indian music theory holds that the music confers spiritual benefits through the intrinsic qualities of the melodies and underlying musical elements. Different ragas and talas are understood to have different and reliable effects on listeners. Many classical composers had a similar belief in associating keys with different states of mind, and you find it more recently in those musicians who experience synesthesia, like Scirabin or Messaien.

The belief in this sort of power of words and music puts different demands on the music as a vehicle for devotion. In the West, our hymns are by comparison very wordy. They may tell a long story, or lay out an argument. Verse 1 goes “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…on earth is not his equal.” Then the next verse explains how we would lose if “we in our own strength confide,” goes on to name this God as Christ Jesus, and the third verse talks about the devils filling the world but “God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.” And so on for another verse and a half. The lyrics explain several things, use different metaphors to drive key points home, and get into theological niceties like how God’s will manifests itself in the world through our actions. Bhajans allow a few words and the sound itself to do the work of transforming the soul.

That being said, there is Western religious music that approximates this lyrical simplicity: praise music, a form despised by serious-minded Christians like myself. Are these bhajans simply the Indian equivalent of an energetic song that repeats Praise God or some such phrase over and over? If that is the case, does this music interest me only because of exoticism? Were I to fully understand the language and the religious context, would I find it spiritually shallow? I resist these possibilities, and the alternatives comes down to something like finding a greater complexity and integrity in the sonic qualities of Carnatic music, the pure musical side of it. Much of my objection to modern Christian worship music comes from the sense that the music is denatured, made too smooth and characterless to engage the soul. But that contention does ask for some more objective analysis to back it up. The weakness could lie in specifics of harmonic movement, linear counterpoint, lyrical content, or performance style, but I’m not in a position to spell out those specifics. It remains a reaction.

Getting back to this performance, one thing that struck me about the bhajans was the variety in harmonies and particularly rhythms. Some songs move forward with very steady, straight beats, others break down into syncopation. Kalyanaraman himself has a wide range, with a strong mid-range voice that he occasionally took into almost a falsetto or dropped down into a low range that sounded like the strings on a guitar being loosened to slackness. However, in the end I find the classical performances more engaging with their longer, complicated elaboration of material. Which of course makes sense, in that I approach Carnatic music as a concert goer, not as a religious devotee, no matter how much open-minded ecumenicism I may bring to this as spiritual expression.

It doesn’t have anything much to do with the bhajans, but I wrote the following a couple of years ago after first seeing Temple Sri Ganesha’s prayer room. The power placed in the name of the gods reminds me of the visual elements of devotion in that place.

Siva in Nashville

Our Siva is shaped like a lozenge,<>
Compact concentration and
Collapse of the universe into
A dark, dense mass.

<>Of course it sits on a
Golden throne, dressed for
Adoration, surrounded by gifts.
You peer through the dressing
To praise the pull of black fire.

<>The glow of distant places takes
Shape within its stomach.
Stare at it with laser mind,
To perceive shapes, colors, and motion,
The primitive moments of origination.
An object that blocks the view and opens a portal. <>

In Rothko’s panels, red and purple seep out the sides
And you get to the colors through the black field imposed on it all.
As you stare at the crushing center,
Patterns of paint wash and canvas weave emerge.
Solid dissolves into light whisked strokes.
Wait and you will see what comes of the dark,
Even more so in overcast hours when you see least,
After heavy Gulf storms drop down
And soak you on the way in.

If I get crushed by the black stone,<>
Will enough of me survive to regroup?
Will I catch fire and glow,
Or just expire?
I may have already collapsed,
Crumbled at the slightest gasp of wind,
Let the blood that would feed my family dribble away,
Through years of resentment and whining.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

ClenDening's conceptual contraptions

Will ClenDening, a member of Watkins College’s recent graduating class, is an artist at his best when he creates contraptions that combine form and concept. At the recent Secret Show exhibit at Ruby Green, his take on book art (after a winter and spring overrun with the stuff at almost every venue in town) involved encasing books inside a mold and pouring in molten metal which scorched them and evaporated forming materials, combining an act of book burning with a process that combined textures and forms from the book remains and the crusty metal elements. The pieces on exhibit were static sculptures, but they retained clear traces of mechanics through which they were produced.

Some of his best pieces rely on minimal gestures elaborately executed. In his senior show at Watkins, he created a machine that takes a background noise, the sound of a floor fan, and converts it to the bare minimum of markings. A microphone picks up the sound of the fan, transfers it into an 8-track mixing board stripped of its housing, which in turn feeds the signal out into a set of small speakers (also without housing). The speakers emit a barely audible sound, but it is enough to vibrate a filament strung across a roll of adding machine taping. A pen suspended from the filament scratches out a continuous series of marks on the adding machine tape. The mark is not much of anything, just an uneven series of lines that could be the readout from some sort of medical monitoring device. The adding machine tape rolls through the housing of the adding machine – I think it is an adding machine, again the housing has been stripped away, including the keys – and into a big pile on the floor.

This machine enacts a series of state changes: from sound, into the kinetic visual realm of mechanical motion, ending up with a pile of marks. It starts out with a sound that isn’t much, and through a series of transfers ends up with marks that aren’t much. It represents a sort of difficult alchemy, in which lead is turned into something different but not notably more valuable than lead. It also made me think of bureaucratic processes, in which great resources are put into effecting results than seem much less than you might expect. In this piece, the stuff of the physical world, in this case sound, can be taken by the artist and transformed, but only with great effort. It shows technology as an enterprise filled with frustration.

Stripping away the housing of the components takes away the bulk and the identity bestowed by the machine exteriors, which brings the machinery down to the level of minimal gesture embodied in the process itself. The adding machine barely registers as an adding machine. The numbers have been erased. Exposing the innards of the machines makes the process more mysterious because you are confronted by wires and circuits whose exact purpose most of us probably don’t know. However, taking away the casing trades relatively simple shapes for more complex patterns and colors of wires and circuitry. There is also a larger gestures in the way the sequence of minimal gesture transfers results in an extravagant, messy pile of paper as the ultimate product.

ClenDening has another piece in the show that uses similar transfer principles, with a flashlight and a revolving slide that turn on and off a pump that pushes water into a glass holding a plastic flower. It has a similar tone of frustrated expression, as the technology goes through a complicated process to try to create an artificial substitute for the natural phenomenon of a flower blowing in the wind or bobbing on water.

There is a poignancy to the constrained self-sufficiency of both ClenDening’s machines, which are surprisingly rich in interpretive implications for works that at first glance might seem like a bunch of gadgets strung together.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

OvO at AOV

I good crowd came out for Friday’s show by the Italian group OvO at Angle of View. They played The End a while back and apparently made a good impression on folks. The group is a duet, with Bruno Dorella mostly playing drums, and Stefania Pedretti singing and playing guitar, but also bowing her hair, playing some harmonica, doing a spastic dance.

Bruno uses a stripped down kit of floor tom, a thin snare with the snare off, and one cymbal. He plays standing up most of the time. Much of the time he played continuous, even patterns focused on the open sound of the drums. This gave it a sort of tribal feel, which also came from standing rather than sitting. Posted on a stool behind a kit sends the visual signal that this is rock or jazz, but when you change out of the usual position this points vaguely towards something non-western.

The drumming provides a foundation for the things Stefania does with voice and guitar. As a singer, she uses extended techniques like multiphonic throat singing and an extreme vibrato. It’s the kind of technique that improv vocalists like Liz Tunne and my friend Carol Genetti do (following earlier singers like Patty Waters). Stefania does analogous things on guitar so that at times it sounded like someone hitting the strings inside a piano, and high sounds from strings above the bridge sliced through the texture. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a band put those techniques, especially the vocal stuff, into such structured compositions with clear forward propulsion. I’m not aware of anyone who sounds much like them (but of course what I have heard is pretty limited).

These sounds, a lot of it purely a matter of acoustic technique rather than electronic manipulation, require a broad dynamic range. They were plenty loud much of the time, but also got very quiet. Again, they did this in a way that the sound was always propelled by rhythms and a solid sonic base, never noodling around in skronky pointillism. Probably the range was more noticeable in contrast the other bands on the bill. A band from Charlottesville, Red Wizard, poured through sustained hard core songs, and Taiwan Deth, who vary a lot set to set, were in sonic assault mode.

One unusual thing Stefania does is play her hair. She wears her hair long and in dreads, and at one point she set up a little background loop, put down the guitar, picked up a bow, pulled out a strand of hair and pulled the bow along it. She held a small mike in her box hand that picked up the sound. The effect was stranger visually than sonically, but she also didn’t go with it too long. Long enough to register the visual.

OvO is one of those bands on the noise and beyond punk scene that are still virtuosic (Lightening Bolt comes to mind as another example). Bruno and Stefania play together, in a coordinated way, at one point matching extremely fast passages in drums and voice. This may make them more accessible for a somewhat larger audience. It’s not like they are singing verse-chorus songs, but there is a technical display here that gives people something else to hang onto.

Here's the website for OvO and the label Bruno runs
http://www.barlamuerte.com/

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Interesting building, questionable use

When they announced the plans for the cultural institutions at the WTC site in NY, I was bummed out that they would include a “Freedom Center.” I don’t see how something like that could be anything other than sanctimonious and boring, attractive only as an opportunity to wallow in outrage or self-righteousness, like listening to Rush Limbaugh. This use seemed to take away one opportunity to add to the true cultural facilities in the city. Of course, the other organizations at the site will be legitimate groups like the Drawing Center and the Joyce Theater, but why not give more space for these kinds of uses. You’ve got the Memorial Gardens to commemorate the dead, so a museum dedicated to a safe interpretation of the idea of freedom seems like a waste of space and resources. Now if they wanted to get into more radical realms of freedom and autonomy, that might get interesting. Fat chance.

In spite of that, the design they unveiled this week sounds great:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/20/arts/design/20free.html?

When this thing gets built it may be worth the trip to see the building but skip the exhibits. Sort of like the Clinton Presidential Library (http://www.clintonfoundation.org/aboutlibrary.htm).

Friday, May 20, 2005

Thursday Night with Shostakovich

I’ve been aware of the chamber group Alias for a while now but finally made it out to hear them this week. The centerpiece of the program was a Shostakovich string quartet, #14 from 1973, very late in his life. He was one of the few composers capable of designing musical structures with the clarity and scope that mark truly remarkable and moving classical music like Beethoven. His compositional style was conservative for the time, with key signatures no less, but that is irrelevant when you get to this level of mastery–at some point timelessness kicks in–and the Soviet system around him provided a completely different context for the development of an artistic language.

The music in this piece bisects and folds up on itself, but also contains elements of disintegration that reflect mortality and the character of the world around him. The quartet has three movements, but the last two run into each other and are tied together by the recap of some material late in the third movement. It is as if 1,2,3 becomes converted to 1│2+3.

The first movement also has a folded, binary structure. It opens with suggestions of a fugue between the violin and cello which develops over a few minutes and then this motion, from fugue into further development, is repeated in a varied form. After that a second half of the movement opens, marked by a lilting accompanying line in the cello. This also gives way to further development, the whole motion gets repeated in modified form, and the whole is closed with a partial return of the cello line. So you end up with 1+1│2+2+2’ It is folded on itself but also closed off with something that shares elements but contrasts in its weight. And that falls within the fold created by the relationship of the movements themselves. The patterns, movement, and weights of the first movement remind me of classical sonata form, but the total defines its own shape.

Shostakovich is one of the few composers of the last century who was able to engage with these sort of structures, classical in the aesthetic sense. The lucidity of the form raises the stakes on the interpretation of local phrases in the pieces, because the presence of the larger structure means it matters where you think a specific line fits. Small moments can seem to wander. I was able to follow the piece well enough, so I would have to say the players handled the interpretive challenge well.

I’m not so good at passing judgment on the playing and interpretation of classical players, but I can say that the musicians in Alias play with great energy, a looseness that you might associate with folk music. Maybe there’s risk of overeagerness to please the audience and keep their attention, but mostly it seems an appropriate interpretation of the music. The energy Alias brings puts the pieces into a context where they are current and breathing, not things cast in a preservative shell.

I don’t know how everyone involved with Alias felt about it, but I was disappointed in the size of the audience, which probably did not half fill the smaller recital hall at the Blair School. Alias has strong playing, they are putting together first rate programs (there was no dreck on it), and there really is nothing else like it regularly available in town. That being said, this was my first time at one of their concerts, so who am I to talk. At this point I am much more accustomed to shows, which start later, have flexibility in when you show up and leave, and where you engage on more levels with the environment. Unfortunately, you just can’t take in what really great classical music has to offer, that coherent, economic articulation of musical ideas, within those distracting contexts.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Holzer and hucksters in Cincinnati

Once every year I go through Cincinnati on the way some place else and stop to look at what’s on offer at the Contemporary Arts Center. Zaha Hadid’s building has been written up a lot, so there’s no reason to go on about it here. A Piranesian staircase that angles through the space in tall lobby is fun, but the exhibits always feel shoehorned into the galleries. The building is on a small lot, so that’s probably inevitable. It also has very cool urinals that look like squared-off metal buckets.


The current exhibit, Multiple Strategies, includes about what you would expect based on the name: “mass-produced, mass-distributed, or editioned objects that did not fall into pre-existing categories such as painting, drawing, sculpture, or installation.” The best thing about the show is that they put it all under the guiding spirit of Joseph Beuys – the first thing you see is a felt suit he made in a run of 100. It seems to me the more obvious alternative would have been Duchamp, who is represented in the show, but hanging it all around Beuys puts the emphasis on art-making as a social action beyond isolated aestheticism. The exhibit has tons of material from collectives: Coum, Fluxus, Destroy all Monsters, General Idea.

<>Tons of material gets at a key point. The CAC’s curatorial style seems to favor an overwhelming abundance of material. The cases are filled with lots of small, fascinating objects. There’s a whole section of boxes filled with pamplets, prints, and objects, objects are tucked under the display cases, and one case is stacked with books. A couple of last year’s shows were like this too – one on art and politics in the 1980s and another on Street Art. Sure, I’m always trying to fit in a visit on my way some place else, but all that little stuff would be hard to work through even if I was devoting the afternoon to it. I’m not actually criticizing this aspect of the exhibit design – it would be completely out of character to treat all the ‘zines and record/CD covers from last year’s Street Art show as isolated, precious artifacts. They were designed in a prolific way. No, I’m not sure you could show it any other way. It just seems to be a signature for this museum.

One detail from a Jenny Holzer piece made my day. In a case with all sorts of items (e.g., pencils, condoms) printed with phrases there was this set of peel and stick labels. One of the phrases was “In a dream you saw a way to survive and you were full of joy.” Stendahl said beauty is the promise of happiness. I think that the need to create a vision of something-other as a path to happiness in the face of a culture and society that are quite oppressive to one’s humanity is the basis for value in so much contemporary art that is confrontational and harsh. A sign at the Halliburton protests in Houston Tuesday read “A better world is possible.” This conviction was the source of wide optimism in the 60s. Holzer’s printed words cut a few different ways, but it’s hard not to take them in part at face value.

<>The other show up at the CAC is a solo exhibit from Erwin Wurm. One of his bits is to get people to pose and become “one minute sculptures” which he records in photos. In the CAC there were two stations where gallery goers could participate in this process: there’s a platform with a prop (clothes) lying on it, and instructions drawn on the platform showing how to pose with the prop (Wurm is the sculptor after all). There was a Polaroid camera in the gallery and the gallery attendant would take your picture. It was suggested you donate one buck for this, but it also gave you an address for Wurm in Austria (I think). If you send him the picture and $100, he’ll sign it and send it back to you and then you will have a Wurm original! Although it seems more like it would be a Wurm autograph, which might or might not be worth $100 to you. The procedure takes the idea that authenticity in art involves some proof (the signature or other provenance) that the famous artist touched the work, and reduces it to something very close to a con, like mail order diplomas or religious ordination. Every artist verges on the huckster part of the time, talking people into believing something has value.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Imminent demise of the Velvet Lounge

Sad news from Chicago:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-0505150276may15,1,1753257.story?coll=chi-news-hed

The article does a pretty good job of explaining the Velvet. There is no underestimating how valuable the jam sessions were as a place for players to find their voices in free jazz. There was absolute permission to play and just push it, and excitement for passionate playing. The first time I played there I came out feeling like every atom of my body was open to the world and connecting with it on a cellular level. It was a huge in my development as a musician, as was Fred Anderson. He's a great player, and he's a powerful example of what someone can do by doggedly crafting their own voice and sticking with it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Terry's kids

This year has been a tough one at Watkins, with a debilitating series of events in which controversial student art precipitated an organizational crisis that led to the end of Terry Glispin’s term as chair of the Fine Arts Department. I wish you could look at what has gone on this year and say that Watkins comes out of the conflicts a stronger institution, but that would just be too pat a response to what is clearly a difficult situation with troubling implications.

<>If this year has involved a reckoning and ultimately a rejection by the institution of Glispin’s leadership, the test of his impact and success with this new-born program will be the work and success of the students who have completed the program. The last round of senior shows just went up from this year’s class of graduates, providing the material to start that evaluation. <>

Like anything, one’s assessment of the work by these students depends on your tastes and aesthetic allegiances. For someone committed to the idea of contemporary art that acknowledges and reflects the history of art leading to this point and responds honestly to the society and culture surrounding it, the art these students made is very strong. For anyone attached to dreams of aesthetic restoration, their output constitutes an embrace of what is evil in contemporaneity and an affont to traditionalist values. <>

I may write about the work by individuals at more length in separate posts. As a general overview, this exhibit shows a number of people who have defined distinctive, psychologically-attuned voices, often straining the edges of comfort. They employ different media, strategies and techniques, but most make sense within the context of one of the threads of contemporary art as practiced by younger artists today. Their work seems to keep pace with what you might see in other cities. For all their individuality, there are points of shared interest and cross-pollination within a group of people who have bonded as a community and developed organizational structures like the Secret Show series that extend outside the insular world of studios and classrooms. <>

The biggest surprise to me was Heather Spriggs-Thompson. I’ve seen several things by her over the last few months and was not sure where she was headed. Her work here is rawer than I expected, a set of messy, baroque clothing-objects that are artifacts from performances. You see Matthew Barney’s influence in the presentation, but she creates something more concrete, less mythopoetic and grandiose. Her voice is feminine and ferocious. <>

I wouldn’t say Will ClenDening represents an opposite pole to Spriggs-Thompson, but he does contrast in significant respects. He works along three paths: sculptural objects, machines, and videos. So far I’m not crazy about the videos, but he seems to have a real eye for sculptural form and a keen grasp of process. What strikes me most is his ability to make something out of the most minimal gesture or signal, which shows up in this show in an elaborately rigged automatic drawing machine. <>

Other artists in the class pick up similar subjects and qualities. Issues of gender identity pervade the work of Kristen Burton-Work and Jason Driskill, who have also collaborated on one video and who seem to be drawing off of each other, although to different purposes using different media. The power of stillness and small gestures comes out in Derek Gibson’s suite of videos of everyday, incidental spaces, although the tone of his work is solemn where ClenDening is wry. <>

For all their willingness to absorb the range of media available, the students do not seem to feel obliged to work in video, installation, or performance. Reflecting trends in the current art world, drawing, painting, and other 2D forms are definitely in the mix. Brett Smithson makes finely drawn surreal fantasies very much in tune with the sort of drawing by young artists that is getting attention in New York. Cherry Smith-Bell’s silhouettes of African-American figures clearly received inspiration from Kara Walker, but she uses the form in a more observational, realist way. It is a body of work that raises interesting questions about influence. <>

I’m not sure any one of the artists in these senior exhibitions rises to the level Shaun Slifer achieved in his Watkins senior show last year. By the time he left Watkins, Slifer had emerged as a compelling installation artist committed to a clear set of intellectual and political positions and with the architectural instinct to deliver them visually. To be fair, he also was given more room to work with in a show that took over the entire gallery space and annexed a part of the back parking lot. However, to my eye the pieces that have been on display the last 3 months make a clear case for the educational work of Glispin and his faculty colleagues. In next to no time, they created a degree program that generates artists who can create work that is coherent, substantial, effective, and challenging, and able to keep up with the broader cultural environment. I think the pedagogical strength of what has gone on at Watkins the last few years will only become clearer as these students develop and display more of their work and go on to graduate school or other career paths. If some of them stay around Nashville, we will see the effect.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Atlanta Biennial part 2

Let me touch on a few more things in the Biennial, and try to be more brief than the last post.

There were certainly things here that didn’t do much for me. Usually I like messy, exuberant installations, but the one like that by Sally Heller didn’t strike me as very interesting. The piece, Two Trees, was basically that, made from wire, bottle caps and other detritus. It was like a three dimensional scrawl, which is not a bad thing, but maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it or would have responded in a different setting, like when Hanna Fushihara took over the living room of a house in Nashville.

Ben Fain made a full-scale parade float with a huge sculpture of a molar as the centerpiece, surrounded by garlands of fake flowers and geometric sculptures made from golf balls. It was fun, but real parade floats are self-satirizing enough to make this piece kind of redundant. (Every year I watch the Orange Bowl halftime show waiting for disasters like this year’s audio problems.) Again, I probably would have responded differently to it in a different context and been utterly delighted to see it in a parade. I have the same reaction to art cars, so common in Houston. I don’t know if I would go out of my way to examine them in the gallery, but I respond really strongly to the way their presence on the street breaks the fabric of everyday experience.

Back to the plus side: Benita Carr’s large photographs the Mother Series show a sequence of group portraits of mothers with their kids on a black background. The mothers mostly have their back to the camera (one pregnant woman is in profile but her head is turned away) while the kids face the cameras dead on. Carr wanted to express the way a woman’s personality and identity gets replaced by that of her kids when she becomes a mother. In addition to making this point, the sequential composition reminded me of an ancient pictorial register showing a king’s subjects bringing gifts. The photographs have a dignified, encyclopedic air, even when the subject is a woman covered by tattoos, and some bruises, wearing hot pants and accompanied by a little boy named Anger who wears a garish jacket.

<>Santiago de Paoli’s paintings and drawings array pictographic human stick figures in masses that express the dynamics of mass or shared psychology. In many of the pieces he has large thought balloons that have multiple points sticking out which associate groups of figures with whatever is in the thought balloon. In some cases the balloon contains an abstraction that seems to depict an emotional state, say confusion or anger. In others, the balloon contains more stick figures, establishing a relationship between humans and their cognition of other humans. In another, the image splits in half with two groups of figures and two associated thought spaces that oppose each other. I like the idea that geometries form across the experience and cognition of multiple people. This idea is not so different from some that Amy Pleasant gets into in her work, although her interest seems much more on individual experience and it contains a spirit of fluidity and unpredictability. De Paoli lays out something that is much more monolithic. <>

Christopher McNulty concerns himself with repetitive processes using many methods. The Biennial includes a series of logs that he split into thin splinters, reassembled, and reconnected with staples. I was more struck by a set of inkjet prints that describe the automatic process of breathing in the form of instructions (“you will then transport this blood, with its elevated levels of O2 and reduced levels of CO2, via the heart to your systemic vascular system”) along with antique-style illustrations of the parts of the body involved (brain, lungs, abdomen). I found it touching to think about this process as if it were something you had to learn.

The two posts leave out 7 of the artists. None of them I liked as well as the artists I describe positively here, and a couple of them I might cite if I went further into stuff that I just didn’t think worked.

<>Next week it’s Cincinnati and the Contemporary Arts Center there, although I don’t know yet what their current shows are.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Atlanta Biennial part 1

I was in Atlanta this week for a conference, which gave me the chance to see the Biennial show at the Contemporary. The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center is the kind of institution we really could use in Nashville, an exhibit face completely committed to contemporary art with enough space and funding to regularly mount substantial shows.

I suppose this was near parochialism, but the two artists in the show from Tennessee (both from Memphis) came across very well. Terri Jones had a small room, almost a closet, to herself and she used it to combine several sculptures and drawings into a single composition. A series of minimalist drawings on vellum were mounted in two-sided glass frames that defined a diagonal through the middle of the room. On the far end of the room, a thin Don Judd-like copper trough filled with wax protruded from the wall. At the base of another wall four wedges cast from red glass marked points along the floor, and two strips of felt crossed the floor and went up one wall where the line seemed to be picked up by the buildings water pipes. All of these linear elements made a coherent three-dimensional geometric form in the space. It worked its way outwards from the literal markings of pencil and conte on vellum to marks made more three dimensionally from several materials. The clarity of the composition and the transitions between and combination of 2-D and 3-D linearity was appealing in a clean modernist way. It reminded me of a piece in the current Corcoran Biennial by Richard Rezac which combines geometric sculptures mounted to different surfaces in a room and 2D schematics of the same works. In his case he made more literal connections between the 2D and 3D elements, but both exhibits had the effect of creating a more complicated and slippery experience of minimalist elements while maintaining a level of aesthetic austerity.

Lester Julian Merriweather engages in a very discursive sort of Black art that relies on words to such an extent that it occupies a border area between visual art and poetry. He combines drawings (including a large one made with electrical tape on the wall), sketches, and notes about the exhibit and its concepts. In those notes, he engages in word play that makes connections between figures like OJ Simpson and Emmit Till through permutations of sounds and games like a top 5 list, and the connections lead to points about racial stereotypes and the status of Blacks in American society and culture. “Cotton” turns into “Cotten” which transforms to “Hotten·tot (Venus).” His artist’s statement points out the connection between his methods of working with words and images to DJs splicing music together, and this comes across very clearly in the work itself.

The way he uses words seems like a truly hybrid form. This is not a visual artist using words as icons – the sound of the words matter. The transfers between words are too free form for most rap, and too fragmented within the sketches for most poetry. One of visual art’s primary rhetorical devices is the creation of meaning through juxtaposition of signs without linear logical connection, and this context provides the starting point for an alternate verbal rhetoric that is different than prose or poetry. Merriweather takes advantage of the critical and expressive avenues that this visually-derived verbal rhetoric provides. It seems this kind of discursive art may have a draw for African-American artists – some of Donté K. Hayes’ work has similar qualities.

<>Amy Pleasant is the closest to a Nashville artist in this show: she’s based in Birmingham but has shown in Nashville several times. Her paintings and drawings include story-board grids that convey the mood of scenes rather than a narrative and constellations of small figures in patterns that recall the results of scientific experiments. I’ve written about her in the Scene (http://www.nashvillescene.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?story=Back_Issues:2003:October_9-15_2003:Arts:Art). In several of the pieces here she seems to define the facial features of some of the figures more clearly, moving her work a bit closer to cartoons. The narratives still stay just past discernment, but maybe now have a touch more human specificity.

<>The other Birmingham artist represented in the show, Jane Timberlake, has a more political bent. Using the trappings of commercial culture – advertising devices or home products – as a base, she combines fragments and iconography from advertising, product labels, and high art. “Round and Round” is one of those lightboxes where the image changes as you move past it. She has created a multi-dimensional screen that intersperses logos, slogans, product ingredients lists, gossip magazine headlines, and personal ads with snippets of classical art and broad diagonal stripes that could come from a modern painting or a product design. Art and the most mundane commercial visual communications are interchangeable in this piece, hidden inside each other. The interdependence and convergence of those realms is not necessarily a new idea, but this piece makes the point very effectively through a visual device (the multi-perspective lightbox) that gives concrete form to the way they are bound together, intertwined, and hidden inside each other. It also conveys the confusion of encountering a welter of images in the visual environment.

More commentary later this weekend on other artists in the show.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Title by way of introduction

The title of this site comes from a poem by Charles Olson, out of the later part of the Maximus poems where the sense of individual poems breaks down into fragments, notes, a continuous flow, or a sort of intermittent diary. I wrote my master’s thesis on Olson and his work stays with me as a constant background reference. Olson is not universally well-known, so some explanation is in order: he was an American poet, born 1910, died 1970, started out as a Meville scholar, did time as a minor functionary in the Roosevelt administration, started writing poems in the late 1940s. He became rector of Black Mountain College in 1951, taking over from Josef Albers. The poets that came under his influence at the college are commonly grouped in a “school” named for the college, which includes Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, and Ed Dorn. The college also launched or provided the forum for formative experiences in the careers of a disproportionate number of artists who shaped post-War culture like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Kenneth Noland.

The thing I may take most from Olson is an intellectual method. He wandered widely in his reading and seeing, taking from what he found the parts that were useful to him in the construction of a vision of the world. He synthesized archaeology, history, philosophy, language, mythology, literature, and other disciplines into a tool for uncovering truth. He insisted on grounding everything in the most concrete details of experience as one encounters them (“only the glory of/celebrating/the processes/of Earth/and man.”).

I must admit to not understanding many things in Olson, and even when I do understand I rarely feel like I get my head around all the pieces and see it in its entirety. The pieces have been enough for me, each giving me separate pushes in my own queries.

The poem that lent itself to the title for this site goes as follows:

Light signals & mass points

normal mappings of

interia & every possible action

of aether and of

change

II

to perambulate the bounds a cosmos

closed in both respects both laterally &

up & down bonded

up & down

determined

Eternal

side on side

April 14

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