Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ask Maddox

In a comment on the post on the Lucy Lippard lecture, someone remarked that she didn’t really answer the questions asked from the floor. I'd agree, although it's not that uncommon in a talk like this and it seemed exacerbated by the fact that it was hard to hear the questions. But one question asked that night seemed pretty easy to answer, so I might as well try.

A woman asked if activist art was the same as political art, whether activist art is always political and vice versa. After trying to determine what the questioner said, and then making a self-deprecating comment (refreshing but not that clarifying) about sometimes being sloppy by using these words interchangeably, I didn’t hear Lippard give what should have been a pretty easy answer. At least it seems that way to me, once you start from Lippard’s own formulation of public art, community art, activist art. Political art seems one more in the series. I would define it as art that addresses political or social issues, but does not necessarily seek to bring about social change, which would be the defining characteristic of activist art. Activist art would probably always be political, but political art would not necessarily be activist. Political art includes work that goes for of commentary but remains disengaged from solving the problems. With all of these types of art, different artists and different art works will involve combinations of the categories. Activist art might or might not involve the community. Community art can easily have no activist agenda. Political art might take a public form (e.g., politically-oriented stencil art in a public place).

It was interesting to think about examples of each form in Nashville. Public art we have plenty of – Musica is a pure example, no political content, purely the product of a single artist’s vision, no community involvement. Community art – the dragon in Fannie Mae Dees Park. Political art – say Abby Whisenant’s photos from antiwar protests in DC and a whole range of people who comment on social issues like sexism, homophobia, misogyny, racism, militarism. But now try to come up with a good example of activist art. Something that really seems engaged in changing policy or people’s behavior. That’s a lot harder. Greg Schlanger’s installation at the Tennessee Arts Commission on mountaintop removal mining fits, as did the work Shaun Slifer and Ally Reeves made before they graduated and left town. But I’m not sure there’s much else I can point to with confidence that fits within this framework.

Many of the artists Lippard showed as examples of activist art were working in a medium that you can call performance art – people doing things in public, the artist staging events and encounters. Well, there is very little performance art occurring in Nashville. Heather Spriggs-Thompson has done a number of performance pieces. Tom Thayer’s students did this puppet-based show that clearly had a performance dimension (as I recall the PR on it rejects the phrase performance art). Lippard made a pretty good case that activist art has to get out of the gallery, but maybe this lack of performance-based work does reflect the development level of the local community. We are just getting used to the idea of art in galleries that challenges us more, and artists may not yet have the sense that the gallery could be exhausted for some purposes.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Octavia Butler RIP

Science Fiction writer Octavia Butler died Friday in one of those freakish accidents. She tripped outside her house and hit her head. She was only 58 years old.

Seattle Times obit

I've posted on her books before. The Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower are really intriguing views on possible near-term endpoints of current social and political forces.

Weird day. Dennis Weaver also died. He was a lot older. I loved McCloud as a kid. Part of the Sunday Mystery Movie series.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Lucy Lippard’s Vanderbilt lecture

In preparation for Lucy Lippard’s talk last Wednesday at Vanderbilt I’ve been reading her work much more carefully than I ever have – in general I don’t fill my reading time with art criticism. It’s been very stimulating. She’s a fantastic writer and thinker, and during her career she has grappled with how to be a critic, and with the result of very imaginatively structured texts that weave together her judgments, her explanatory description of works, biography, the artist’s own words, and the words of others. This makes her books a little harder to navigate, as you move between a main text and substantial captions that are not to be skipped over, but it creates something that has some chance of standing on its own longer.

The lecture at Vanderbilt, titled “Common Ground: Art and Communities,” was disappointing, as talks often are. To be effective takes very different skills than writing, but I expected more because of the care Lippard has taken with her texts over the years. The lecture was about the community basis for activist art, differentiating it from public art (almost anything in a public space) and community art (the community has a say in the work). Activist art is issue-oriented. It can be public and community-based as well. These distinctions were useful, and she had slides of artists who were new to me, like Suzanne Lacy.

There were things I wished she had addressed more, such as the aesthetics of this art, what differentiates it from community organizing, and some of the implications of art coming from a local source rather than rooted in the major metropolitan cultural centers. I believe she is making a case for this art having value over non-activist art, but I am not sure. Some statements, most of which I think came up in the question period, seemed off mark. She asserted that no one realized that Picasso’s Guernica was about a Fascist bombing. The Modern may not have stressed that information (I remember it just appearing dramatically in front of you as you got out of the elevators), but I think many people who don’t know much about art knew that. A friend of mine in the audience who is not from the art world had the same reaction. In another case someone asked why this stuff wasn’t getting into museums and Lippard encouraged the idea that museums resist it, but she failed to go after a larger point about the institutional context. Often activist art will live best outside the museum. In some cases the forms of the art tie it to a place outside the museum or it takes a form that just cannot be bottled. And a lot of this art is making its way into shows. Of the artists she showed, at this point the Guerilla Girls and the Rural Studio are in the canon, you see Charles Simmonds’ little buildings in many museums, and Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party will be installed in the Brooklyn Museum.

I also was surprised by some technical lapses. I expect Vanderbilt to do a better job providing technical support for a speaker. There was no remote control for the projector, so Donald Woodman ran it by hand. There was no microphone set up for questions in the scheduled question and answer period, so Lippard had to spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what was asked.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Go see Matthew Shipp Friday

Nashville’s biggest jazz concert since McCoy Tyner is coming up this Friday: Matthew Shipp at the Primitive Baptist Church, 4602 Indiana Avenue in Sylvan Park, scheduled to start at 8:00. Also on the bill are Lambchop, playing a very rare Nashville show, and Hands Off Cuba. The fact Lambchop is doing this show gives you some idea about Shipp’s standing. He is one of the most significant jazz pianists in the world today. I think people would probably call him a free jazz player, although it’s hard to know what that means. Lambchop’s website refers to him as an avant-garde pianist. He is a member of saxophonist David Ware’s quartet, and has been one of the primary people involved with the Thirsty Ear Blue Series experiments that cross Free Jazz and electronica (involving people like DJ Spooky). And he has recorded with Yo La Tengo and the Yo Las are very close with Lambchop, so you can some of the connections in bringing Shipp and Lambchop together.

Shipp has a new solo album out on Thirsty Ear and he’s been doing concerts around the country “in support” of it, if you can use such a heavy industry term in his case. This concert came about because John Rogers, former Nashville musician and current New York resident, writer, etc. got a ball rolling and Chris Davis made it happen.

Anyway, to get back to Shipp. (Matthew's website) I know him best from a tremendous album, duets with bassist William Parker called DNA. His playing has a classicism like Cecil Taylor with the ferocity turned down a bit. By that I mean the music works with architectural structures that build up in steps and combinations rather than a purely adrenalin-oriented arc. Shipp plays very clear lines, and in keeping with the ideas on DNA seems to work from small groups of material, a kind of coding similar to the way classical composers grow music out of cells of tones. You also hear bits of new textures emerge from the whole the way musical quotations float into the proceedings in a Charles Ives. The talk of classical forms shouldn’t throw anyone off though – this is passionate music, but Shipp builds up to climaxes rather than dumping them on you. And you don’t mistake the music’s grounding in the harmonic progressions and rhythms of jazz.

This is a chance to see a great musician in his prime at very close quarters. Not to be missed.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Criticism and self-indulgence

“I've never had much faith in art criticism as a primary form because you are leaning on somebody else's work. It's not that it can't be a positive parasitic process, not that you can't bring new insights to the work, or get out the artist's intentions better than the artist himself or herself might be able to do, but I can't think of any criticism that has ever stood up in the long run as a real parallel to the art. Some of the critics we respect the most didn't write good criticism-they were good poets or something. It's self-indulgence when you come right down to it, you like something and you enjoy plunging into it with words. I don't finally know what the hell criti­cism does for anybody except the artist and the writer.”
Lucy Lippard, “Freelancing the Dragon,” From the Center, p. 20 (Dutton 1976)

This is a great quote, and makes several points I believe strongly, like the self-indulgent quality of writing criticism, and the impetus to do, to “plunge in with words.” Her description of criticism by poets and others fits some cases well, like Baudelaire. His criticism makes some fine points, but they mostly take the from of aphorisms isolated in the midst of more topical observations.

There are exceptions to this characterization. Walter Benjamin for instance, unless you want to call him something other than a critic. Susan Sontag for sure, and I think everyone sees her as a critic primarily. Of even more recent people, it seems someone like Tom Frank, and Lippard herself, might hold on and be worth reading years from now.

The final comment in the quote reads initially as a condemnation of criticism, but I’m not so sure it is. If criticism forms a place where a writer and an artist can establish communication, that seems valuable as a human phenomenon. Criticism as a public correspondence, a conversation with a performance dimension. If the artist is one of the two primary beneficiaries of the writing, other people in the society or community benefit by the encouragement the artist gets to keep doing what she does. This view has a strange effect of relegating the general readership to a critical secondary position. Private correspondence does not have the same impact as knowing that the writer made statements in front of anyone who would read or listen. So you need readers, but you need them more as witnesses than as recipients of communication.

After putting it in those terms, I remember my own experiences as a reader of criticism. It spurs my thinking, teaches me things about works of art, and in some cases gives me a feel for an exhibit or movie I won’t see, music I won’t hear. Sure that’s frustrating, and sometimes it serves to make me feel isolated, but it also gives me some of the pleasures at second hand. For some reason, in some frames of mind a review or critical essay is exactly what I want to read.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Something missing from the Frist’s African art show

To cut to the chase–Christianity and Islam. OK, let’s take a couple of steps back. The Frist Center’s current big show is a selection of African art primarily from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. It’s a well-done show, chock-full of interesting objects. The primary organization is a sequence of sections that focus on the emblematic art forms of different cultural groups: Asante kente clothe and gold jewelry, Maasai beadwork, Dan masks, and so on. A critical part of the curatorial stance is that these are not archeological remains, but forms currently in use. For example, one of the kente is a pattern (or maybe it’s the cloth) worn by Kwame Nkrumah when he was released from prison by the Brits. Each of these sections has narration from a person from that cultural group, who put the works in cultural context. In almost every case, they refer to how these art objects fit into practices that continue into the present, maybe something they remember as a kid (and a lot of the speakers are relatively young). To stress the quality of the art as living practice, the show ends with work by contemporary Africans.

I reviewed the show in the Scene a few weeks ago: but there’s this gap that has been bugging me. The idea is that these artworks represent a contemporary African culture, not some pristine and lost cultural state. The exhibit jumbles artworks dated (generally imprecisely) as 19th or 20th century, indicating that you don’t need to segregate older and newer works. I have no trouble going along with that. I like the idea. And they didn’t shy away from works that reflect the contact with the West, which of course has been going on a long time.

But based on what I know about African society, I was surprised to see no reference (that I remember) to Christianity or Islam. As I understand it, a majority of sub-Saharan African identify themselves as Christians. Western Christians frequently hear about the rising influence of their African branches, whether it is in the controversies around homosexuality in the Anglican church or the selection of a new Pope. Several of Carlton Wilkinson’s photos from his travels to Africa show Christianity as part of the life of everyday, contemporary Africans (there were several in his show at the Parthenon, and you can see them over at In the Gallery). The displays in the Frist show don’t stress religious practice and traditional cosmologies, although that does come up from time to time. More of the works had to do with social, “folk” practices like European town festivals that have their roots in non-Christian ideas about the world of spirits.

I can believe that African Christianity is very syncretic, and that folk practices survive alongside the new religion, but I have trouble imagining that Christian images aren’t starting to creep into some of these forms, or that Christianity isn’t adapting some of the forms for worship and evangelism. And then you wonder if the curators have avoided these crossovers in the interests of an idea of authenticity, or a judgment of quality, that second-guesses the Africans themselves.

The same could be said of visual references to Islam, similarly lacking, although my understanding is that Islam is less pervasive than Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa, the focus of this show. And I would expect that Islam is less likely to adapt older cultural forms, but maybe I’m wrong about that.

The one place where I saw the clear presence of Christianity was in video of Ghanaian funerals that involve wood coffins built to look like objects of importance to the deceased. At one point women are dancing around the coffin, and if you look close you see they are all wearing T-shirts with an image of Jesus on them.

I don’t have an answer to whether this show fails to show us this latest step in what African art looks like. Maybe somebody has some insight on it they want to put in a comment. Otherwise, it’s just something I’m going to keep an eye out for. The best answer would be to get to Africa myself. Not sure if that will happen.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Couple of Fine Printmakers

Jerry Dale McFadden at TAG has a couple of really nice young printmakers on exhibit who are new to Nashville and to his gallery: Valerie Lueth and Paul Roden. They’re also engaged to get married soon and they have plans to open a press together.

Lueth does very detailed etchings that have qualities of cartooning and obsessive drawing, while Roden does politically oriented woodcuts. As a way of encouraging marital concord I suppose the proper stance is to praise each of them equally, or else you’re feeding some sort of movie melodrama. Oh well. Her stuff appealed to me more. She fills most of her pieces with detail, lots of biological, mechanical, and botanical entities that seem to have roots in geometric free association. You see it also in drawings, some of which are built on a base of crossword puzzle-like grids of dark and light squares. But I think the most striking piece in the show is one where she lightens the amount of information. Called Twins, it is a pair of figures partially rendered – faces from the nose up, one set of joined hands, another hand and arm holding a lock of hair, and the torsos ending in cocoon-like bundles rather than legs and feet. Their eyes have no pupils or irises, defined only by the shape of the eyes, but a sense of wariness and inscrutability comes from those shapes and the molding of the cheekbones.

Roden obviously has strong command over the woodblock medium, with the ability to shift between pieces that have that obvious woodblock quality of simple modeling to something closer to drawing. See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil is a really good image, of a charging elephant with especially heavy feet, ridden by three monkeys brandishing swords and holding a large menacing lance. Just to keep the political balance, it is paired with an image of a donkey in a wagon being pushed and pulled by the three blind mice. I think one of the tricks with work like this is how much you are in the mood for political satire and allegory at the time you are looking at it.

Jerry Dale puts a lot of images of his artists on his website. Here’s the page for the Lueth-Roden show, with pictures of the opening:

Friday, February 10, 2006

Tomight's Olympics Spectacular

The Europeans do have a way with pageants. I wish I could get my hands on footage of the parade through the streets of Paris for the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Storming of the Bastille in 1989. It was just one odd image after another, ending with Jessye Norman singing La Marseillaise, which was a great touch – on the one hand a simple choice of production values over nationalism, but also making broader claim for the French Revolution as an event that shaped and belongs to the world. I guess. But c’mon, this was a national celebration.

So you see the same stuff in Cirque de Soleil, and then tonight in the Olympics opening ceremony. The athletes came in accompanied with cheesy 1980s disco music – it’s only fitting that a celebration of winter sports acknowledge the cultural contributions of the Eurotrash, high end Roma moving between ski resorts all winter long. Much opportunity for making fun of costumes. The Jack Abramoff fedora and trenchcoat look seemed popular. The Germans had colorful knit caps with visors for their athletes, but had to put strands of Heidi braids on the ones for the women. That was gratuitous.

The Olympics are now required to have an impenetrable and haphazard allegorical pageant in the opening ceremony. Women in elongated Amy Cutler clothes floated around in midair, a couple of them attached to big balloons of the moon and sun that wandered around aimlessly. A woman, I think she was singing, stood in a clam shell. But she had clothes on. Then there was a dance, and oh yeah, before that there were a couple of guys with things on their backs that shot out sparks like the circular saw girl on Letterman. A driver toured the stage in a Formula 1 racer. And some other stuff I didn’t see. All the time the athletes were standing in this big bowl in the middle of the stadium, like they would pour in water and cook them. It ends with a couple of speeches and the torch thing, which gets you back to Speer, Riefenstahl, and Nuremburg every time. Luciano Pavrotti closed it, nearly, with luridly dyed hair and eyebrows and a rendition of Nessun Dorma. He marshaled his resources for the final climax, and the athletes cheered it like one of their own had come out of retirement to nail a triple axel. Curtain down. But it’s not over yet. Then fireworks shot out of the roof of the stadium.

When the teams march in, a lot of them had digital cameras and were snapping away at the crowd, at themselves. It was cute, and broke the ceremonial illusion with people acting like people, excited to be there. I’ve known a couple of people who competed in the Olympics, not big media star types, and their international competition days were a great ride. For the people I’ve talked to most, they had not previously had a chance to travel, see the world and interact with people from all over.

With their cameras, the marchers are both spectacle and spectator. You can look at this a couple of ways. One is that with those cameras the marchers make the spectacle complete and all-encompassing, in that everyone gets incorporated into in the event in the role of spectator. Not even the actors can get behind the illusion. The other view is what I first mentioned, that exercising acts as an individual in the view of the spectators breaks the smooth image that the spectacle is trying to create. They are engaged in personal actions (getting a picture for their own memory purposes) that do not contribute to the creation of the spectacular form. I don’t remember anyone in Triumph of the Will breaking out of line to wave at the camera.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Thank You Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik died a week ago. Student of John Cage, member of Fluxus, groundbreaking in his use of televisions in and as art. His work always delighted me, even as a kid. This was stuff that made it absolutely clear that contemporary art is lots of fun. It rearranged your perceptions and made for remarkable sensory experiences.,0,762356.story?coll=la-home-obituaries

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Chris Davis back on the air at WRVU

Chris is back on the air at WRVU, thank God. Sundays 10pm-midnight (and two hours after Brian and Elizabeth, who got moved from Saturdays to Sundays 6-8). Chris seemed to be in an apocalyptic mood, seemed like every song was talking about the anti-Christ. He started with a fascinating clip from Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who I think was an old evangelist, giving a sermon about the evils of rock music. She had the strangest delivery, kind of a monotone with a steady rhythm like the words were electronically generated. Here's Chris' playlist from tonight.

And WRVU's website is

if you want to listen on the internet next week.

Saturday's Alias concert

Alias gave their latest concert Saturday night. The usual sort of mix, perhaps with a higher obscurity quotient.

Listening to Zeneba Bowers play baroque is a real pleasure because of her absolute lack of stiffness. She plays fast parts fleetly, and draws out her lines expressively. She plays this music in a way that does not try to ignore the intervening musical events of Brahms, jazz, and even gypsy violin playing. On this bill she and a small ensemble of cello, harpsichord, and on one piece contrabass, played 17th century pieces by Bertali and Pandolfi-Mealli. I believe Alias likes to try different things with the instrumentation on baroque music, and this time it was adding the contrabass. I would need to check how unusual it is to use the low orchestral bass in this setting, but to my ears the deep boom of the instrument’s bottom was a surprise, but pleasurable. It also allowed Matt Walker playing cello to switch between the continuo and solo lines. The second piece, the Sonata “La Cesta” by Pandolfi-Mealli, had an odd structure, with rubato fantasia sections dominating. And some of the melodic lines were strained and strange. All of which seemed like it would make this a hard piece to put together beyond finding phrasing moment-to-moment and phrase-by-phrase

The baroque pieces came late in the program. I’m switching everything around, which is consistent with my pick in the Scene where I jumped off from completely the wrong idea of the program order.

Before the baroque pieces came the best performance of the night, Michael Samis playing an elegy for solo cello by John Tavener called Thrinos or Threnos (the Alias program had the latter spelling, but I’ve found the former on a listing of his works and on recordings). Tavener is a British convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, and writes in an intensely mystical, modal style. I hadn’t listened to his music before writing this pick, but I liked it. He can pull off this musical mysticism. Samis’ performance was thrilling in its silences. It seems like he held them a little longer, which creates the tension of waiting and of approaching letting the performance fall into pieces but pulling up before it does, and he tended well to the ends of notes and beginnings. There were a very small number of miniscule infelicities of execution, which one noticed only because this piece is so simple as to make it unforgiving. It requires a virtuosity of concentration.

The program contained pieces that were not really the best examples of their genre, like the Pandolfi-Mealli. Hearing Chausson’s Chanson Perpetuelle live made it much clearer to me how sturdy and four-square it is, in contrast to Debussy who was active about the same time. The group also played a septet for winds, strings, and piano by Stravinsky that Bowers described as rarely heard, and you could see why. It was Stravinsky, so there were interesting aspects, like the use of baroque forms, the timbres of the families of instruments in the ensemble, and a modified serialism based on an 8-note cell that ends up sounding more polytonal than atonal. However, the melodies themselves were awkward, which is often my reaction to Stravinsky’s later works (i.e., after the heavily Russian works of his first period).

The concert had two premieres. One was a scherzo for String Quartet by a young violinist and composer currently based in Florida, Piotr Szewczyk. It was based on the half-diminished scale, and seemed a lot like Bartok. I was thinking Bartok’s 4th quartet used the same scale, but that’s not quite right. The best part of Szewczyk’s piece was a con sordino interlude before the last rush of scherzo material.

The other premiere was a piece for viola, cello, and jazz trio by Matt Walker. It took a theme from the second movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, gave it swing phrasing and used that as the basis for a series of mostly written sections that included solos. The piece stayed in a consistently pre-bop swing style. Think Duke Ellington’s version of the Nutcracker Suite. And in a way it didn’t sound that different from Hot Club of Cowtown. Walker had a jazz-based piece on Alias’s concert last Spring, and while this one worked better, I’m not convinced this is fertile territory for him. His jazz writing is pretty simplistic. Solos for viola and cello were stiff, although Walker was better playing his own material than the violist. The solos by the jazz trio were stronger – they sounded improvised. Which could be because they were improvised, or because those musicians (David Huntsinger, Jack Jezzro, and Christopher Norton) have a better idea how to make the music sound improvised. One of the problems with this piece is that it wasn’t really a jazz-classical hybrid, but more of a swing revival work, only without the energy of improvisation. The idea of using the Beethoven theme as a jazz tune is fun, but I’d rather hear Hot Club of Cowtown or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra do it. Turning jazz into a piece of classical chamber music doesn’t improve it. Walker obviously loves jazz, and I hope he is getting a chance to play the music in its usual settings. I know he plays guitar, but I hope he is trying it on cello – there’s good precedents for it going back to Fred Katz in the Chico Hamilton Quintet and Ray Brown and leading up to guys like Erik Friedlander and Fred Lonberg-Holm.

Next Alias concert is Sunday, May 7 at Vanderbilt/Blair School.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Hustle and Flow, as informative as Dr. Phil

I saw Hustle and Flow on DVD last weekend. A masterpiece of location scouting. The exterior scenes really take in Memphis, lots of workaday parts of the city. The muggy Delta climate is a practically a character in the film. And the interiors look like places you might find in a Southern inner city neighborhood (I’m thinking of the scene in the market where DJay meets up with Clyde).

The basic plot was the same as every other music story. Guy from a down and out situation has dream of becoming a star and lifting himself out of his surroundings, he gets a lucky break, suffers a setback, then receives redemption and gets his shot at the big time. In this case the main character is a pimp with a heart of gold, although they don’t entirely romanticize the guy.

Even if the overall plot arc was pat, the movie has well-observed moments between characters. At one point DJay is telling Shug, who is pregnant with his child and more or less his romantic interest (it’s not clear there really is such a thing in this milieu, another one of the angles that seem honest) that he wants to stop pimping and selling pot. This actress is a little bug-eyed anyway (not unappealing though), but when he starts talking like this she looks even more like a deer in the headlights. The scene cracked me up, because it reminded me of the reaction I get at home when I start on some idle discourse speculating about potential futures that has that whiff of mid-life crisis that comes so easily to people who are, well, in mid-life. It had not occurred to me that even if you are a pimp and a small-time drug dealer, no woman wants to hear the phrase “I’ve got to make a change.” Who knew? If “stay the course” is preferred in this situation, little wonder, even in my somewhat less tawdry circumstances, I don’t always receive unbridled enthusiasm when I start going on about my life.