Friday, July 30, 2010

Arts Without Borders returns from across the border

I've been absent from the blogosphere for nearly 3 weeks because I've literally been across the border - a long way across, in Nicaragua. Even after a week back in the US it's hard to readjust to "normal life." I'm writing a longer piece about this but it's taking a while, so I thought I'd simply post this note with a couple of teaser images from my trip.

I go to Nicaragua every other summer with a group from Unitarian Universalist Church West, where I'm a member, to build houses under the auspices of a non-profit called Bridges to Community. I've written much more about these experiences on my website. This summer marks my sixth "brigade." Although I've always taken pictures, each time I go I find myself easing a little further out of the role of construction worker and into the welcome role of photographer. As I was still nursing an injury from shortly before this trip the role was more guilt free than usual.

The image above shows Antonia kissing her son Axel. It could be anywhere and is blatantly sentimental. But it isn't anywhere, which is the point. Antonia is the new owner of one of the two houses that our brigade built in four days in collaboration with a professional crew of masons provided by Bridges and with other members of the local community. Antonia herself worked very hard, mixing concrete, lifting heavy blocks, and everything we needed to do.

The image below is more symbolic of the relationship between brigadistas from the US and the local community. Jackson, on the left in this image, is the proud owner of this second house under construction. He is pictured with Dana, from Milwaukee. They are working together and, as in every brigade I've been on, have created a bond that transcends language, culture, and geography. We see this through the narrow grid of construction material, the metaphorical frame that unites them - and partially obscures what they are about. It is my hope to bring their effort into view with my photography.

To see more images from the brigade, go to my flickr page.

To learn more about the Nicaraguan experience, go to my website.

Friday, July 9, 2010

A Visit to the Walker Museum of Contemporary Art in Minneapolis

As we approached the entrance of the museum the long, sloping lawn was full of people in black leotards. No, it wasn’t an elaborate performance piece with a large cast, but a yoga session. For the summer season, June 3-Sept. 5, the museum as a clever new slogan, program, and marketing scheme called “Walker Open Field.” The public is welcome to enjoy the lawn, for yoga, sunning, or simply rolling down the hill, as I saw some children doing. An open field bar & grill makes it even more inviting. Tables and chairs on the patio for those who enjoy sitting more than rolling.

Like the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (see previous post), there is too much in the collection to describe more than a sampling. One of my favorite galleries, a detail of which is illustrated above, is called “Benches & Binoculars.” The salon-style installation allows the museum to display a larger number of its large collection. Because many of the works date from decades ago, it also, according to the gallery notes, encourages visitors to rethink notions of what constitutes contemporary art. Just what does a “museum of contemporary art” do with an aging collection? They must either redefine contemporary, compromise and admit to maintaining a collection of “once-contemporary” art, or, as some do on principle, forego a permanent collection entirely. The title of the gallery refers to the benches strewn haphazardly down the middle and the binoculars wired to them for viewing the paintings hung on high. (I found the binoculars more annoying than helpful.)

I was delighted to find that the Walker has a Turrell (called Sky Pesher, 2005, above). However, I wouldn’t have discovered it had I not coincidentally engaged in a conversation with a friendly volunteer who told me where it’s located. If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting one, the image above—which is looking up through the glassless sky window typical of his work—can’t convey the peaceful, meditative space he’s created.

The Walker’s main exhibit is Guillermo Kuitca: Everything—Painting and Works on Paper, 1980-2008. Only the most egoistic or narcissistic of artists—and there is no lack of either—can live in one place for long without being influenced by its culture. Kuitca has been living and painting in Argentina for the duration indicated by the title. At first glance, much of the work seems to have little to say about Argentina, being abstractions and distortions of uninhabited architectural motifs. I would have found it hard to relate to his work if I’d chanced upon one or two of his tiny, precious drawings or watercolors, or even the enormous mixed media paintings (example above, right) or a floor full of burnt mattresses printed with maps (see them on Walker Art Center website or But by putting them all together, the Walker has not only made sense of these enigmatic works but illuminated the inner workings of Kuitca’s creative imagination. It becomes a compelling document of a global society with contradictory impulses, where humanity overwhelms the environment and individuals disappear. “Everything” in the exhibition title comes from an enormous mixed media collage of the same name. The reproduction of it (below) dilutes its impact and makes it hard to read the content, which is street maps from cities all over the U.S. with all the open spaces between them removed. The result is a cancerous obliteration of nature, with us as the malignant growth. (No urban wilderness in sight, nor even imaginable.)

Of course we spent time in the adjacent sculpture garden with the famous Oldenburg spoon and cherry fountain (top) that has long represented Minneapolis as the Calatrava now does Milwaukee.

The swing makes this Di Suvero atypical.

This is one bench/art work (right) from an installation of, oh, I didn't count them, maybe 24. They form a square in a hedged garden space. The works are titled Selections from 'the Living Series' (which implies there are even more of them) by Jenny Holzer. Each bench has a different sentence etched into it as in this case. In a text panel she says that the writings describe “everyday events” that had some kind of “kink” to them along with “sociopolitical observations or absurdities” I found them to be pessimistic, negative, and often paranoid. But intriguing enough to read every one.

My favorite in the garden is this one (below) by David Graham, which he calls “Hedge Labyrinth.” It involves a grid of living hedges, steel mesh, and mirrored windows. Graham is new to me and now I want to see more!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.” So begins a journey, not only along “the road,” but into the depths of human nature.

I read slowly and therefore I am cautious in my choice of books. I have left many a book unfinished because the effort was insufficiently rewarding. Isn’t it curious, then, that I should find so captivating a story as unremittingly bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”? Its vision of a post-apocalyptic environment that has been burned to an entirely gray, dim, cold, and dangerous wasteland is relentless. The desperation of its nameless characters—father and son, referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”—is redeemed only by their attachment to each other.

What compels the reader to continue on, like the characters themselves, is McCarthy’s mastery of both language and storytelling. The austerity of its imagery and precision of its spare dialogue reminded me of Becket—a humorless and grotesque “Waiting for Godot.” The artistry—and poetic beauty—of the writing transcends the wretchedness and ugliness of the situations it describes and even the nihilism of its narrative. The brilliance of his achievement makes the unimaginable seem completely believable.

“The Road” was published in 2006; I clearly came to it late. However, I believe it speaks to a global society filled with uncertainty and anxiety today. We are exposed to a worst-case scenario of humanity’s future without ever knowing the cataclysm that caused such circumstances. The abstraction of their predicament, combined with the absolute physicality of McCarthy’s concrete descriptions of devastation and depravity, taps directly into archetypal emotions: fear, dread, horror—also courage, and, through it all, love. The boy and the man never say each other’s names and we never learn them. They are no one and therefore could be anyone. Their’s are T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men” whose “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” and although there was clearly some kind of “bang,” the world did not end. We witness it slowly whimpering away.

Are we left at the end with any hope at all—either for these two fascinating characters or for the fate of humanity? Read it and decide. If you’ve already read it, leave a comment and let me know what you’ve decided.

If you want to read a more thorough review, go to “The Road Through Hell, Paved With Desperation,” from the New York Times, 2006.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy July 4th!

I'm a comics fan. No, not the Marvel kind. The kind that has sometimes been called "the funnies" in the newspaper. They aren't always funny, but when they are, I laugh. And although I am more attracted to the "artistic" ones - I appreciate good drawing - it is the humor that usually comes first for me.

Predictably, a lot of today's Sunday funnies are about Independence Day. In the holiday spirit I thought I'd share two with my Arts Without Borders followers. The Baldo, not meant to be funny, is just plain right for the day - and the tenor of our time. And Garfield? Well, it's about drawing...and, hey, I found it funny and I hope you do, too. I've been a Garfield fan for as long as I can remember and it amazes me that, after all these years, with so little to work with, and using such repetitive themes, Jim Davis can still be funny most of the time. And if you're not a Garfield fan yourself, I'd like to point out what I think is one of the most consistently creative artistic touches given to any comic strip: instead of opting for the normal branding continuity, Davis makes each Garfield title panel unique (on Sundays.) Since I appreciate this, I find it annoying when the newspaper decides to cut off this optional panel to save space on the page (as they did today - I found this complete version on the Garfield website.) Click on it to enlarge - or go to the website for a clearer version.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Photography: Art vs. Reality rears its head again

Since its inception in 1839, photography has lived a dual life: is it art or a representation of reality? That it can be both doesn’t seem to quench the question, which has been answered many times but seldom to the satisfaction of the general public (as opposed to the art establishment and collectors willing to pay significant sums for some photographs.) Like a wildfire that seems to have been brought under control, every little breeze makes it flare up again.

With each new technological advance, the question returns in some form. In an article in this week’s New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan, the question has been turned around. If it’s not meant to be art, how does the new photographic technology of HDTV divest itself of artifice? (Click here to read the article.)

“Reality TV” has always been an emperor without clothes. Even in science, much less art, it is understood that an experimental outcome is always affected by the role of the experimenter. A subject is at the mercy of the photographer and the photographer limited by the technology. Even back in the classic black and white days of Walter Cronkite “the news” as presented in print or on TV has always been different than the reality it reports.

Now we have HDTV, which renders reality with a “staggeringly fine-grain resolution” that reveals every pore, blemish, and wrinkle in its subject. Do we still have to ask if this is reality or not?

RenĂ© Magritte used paint, but his famous image (below) would be just as true as a photograph. The words in the painting translate into the paradoxical “this is not a pipe,” but Magritte pointedly titles the piece “The Treachery of Images.” It also would be just as true in HDTV today as it was in 1929 when he painted it.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Art in Minneapolis

Rebecca Belmore: Fringe

Belmore’s image, installed in the hall outside the gallery, is an appropriately powerful introduction to Until Now: Collecting the New (1960-2010), an exhibit of contemporary art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that maintained a high level of engagement throughout, at least for me. Larger than life and illuminated from behind, the woman represents violence done to Native American peoples. The image is at once beautiful and horrific. The elegant form is disfigured with a dramatic scar sutured with Indian beadwork that drips down her back like blood.

MIA ranks with the Metropolitan in NY and the Art Institute in Chicago as a vast all-encompassing collection of art from many historical periods and cultures. This exhibit demonstrates that it is not a stagnant collection but very much up-to-date. It includes some of the obligatory major figures from this period, like Warhol, but also many less obvious choices. It also is ethnically diverse and organized thematically (which I’m beginning to think is a curatorial trend after seeing it done in several museums lately). Here some of the themes are fairly standard, like “style” and “identity,” but others are more idiosyncratic, like “poptical,” “new poetics,” “migrations,” and “recuperation.”

I loved this piece by Yinka Shonibare (right) because I instantly recognized its faithful photographic rendering of one of my favorite Goya etchings, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The whole show was so strong that I couldn’t possibly describe all of the pieces that moved me, but I must mention the two videos because I don’t often favor video art and these were both wonderful and compelling. Bill Viola’s Three Women shows women of three generations emerging from a screen of falling water and then disappearing back behind it. At first colorless, the figures undergo a remarkably simple but surprising transformation as they pass through the veil of water. They possess iconic presence and ambiguous religious symbolism.

Doug Aitken’s Migration video was so engaging that I sat through its entire 24 minute duration, something I rarely do. A uniquely poetic commentary on disappearing wildlife habitats, it mostly depicts wild animals inside hotel rooms, some bland and some stately. A horse impatiently stamps its dust-laden hoofs on the burgundy carpet. A cougar tears through bed linens like prey. An edited version on you-tube gives a flavor of the piece (though hardly does it justice).

Until Now: Collecting the New (1960-2010) continues through August 1, so there's plenty of time to see it if you're going to Minneapolis this summer.

Sebastiao Salgado: Exodus

See my second installment of Art in Minneapolis: the Walker Art Center.