Monday, February 28, 2011

Carroll University exhibits two distinct mixed media installations

I wander amongst large vellum panels elaborately suspended from the ceiling with a crisscrossing system of strings. The panels swing gently with the breeze of my passing. Their feathery lightness is counterbalanced along the walls with a wide variety of ceramic constructions and what appear to be small sandbags hanging from the strings. The effect is by turns delightful and vaguely disquieting.

The austere Rowe Art Gallery in the Humphrey Art Center has been utterly transformed by Sandra Westley into something akin to a funhouse maze. The installation is entitled The Object Series, A Narrative in Many Parts. The concept of the narrative, a potent artistic device throughout history, is at once literal – the panels are emblazoned with script and scribbles galore – and implied. However, the questions it poses are left unanswered, the story without an ending. 

 Like the texts, drawings on the panels are enigmatic. They combine overtly the symbolic imagery of ladders with more elusive and personal iconography. When I emerge from the maze I am confronted with an assortment of odds and ends that include toy-like vehicles, ladders, notebooks, scrolls – and severed feet.

Showing concurrently in the lofty Marceil Pultorak Atrium Gallery is the latest work by Gary John Gresl, the result of a three month artist in residency at the Kohler Company in Sheboygan. Though hardly sedate, to anyone familiar with Gresl’s oeuvre these pieces will seem relatively restrained. 

A female torso, modeled on a manikin that he describes as deriving from contemporary pop culture, has been slip cast in the Kohler ceramic factory, using the same processes and material out of which they make bathroom fixtures. Eschewing the traditional glazes as “unexciting,” Gresl painted the torsos with automotive enamels and lacquers, giving them a slick, metallic quality.

However, the very slickness of the surface makes Gresl’s manipulations of their forms all the more striking. The torsos are punctured with machined openings, like tourist figurines that are meant to hold toothbrushes, kitchen utensils, or bouquets. And in fact, some of these items are inserted into the openings as comments, as I interpret them, upon feminine stereotypes, roles, and identity.

Either one of these exhibits is worth the trip out to Waukesha; together they are quite a bargain. They run through March 19. For more information, go to Carroll University.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Lynden Sculpture Gardens: Winter Carnival and Inside/Outside

The weather was perfect yesterday for the Winter Carnival held at the Lynden Sculpture Gardens. The grounds, always lovely, were especially magical in the lightly falling snow. Artists and art aficionados of all ages came to be creative or simply to enjoy the creativity all around.

There was snow painting, using watering cans filled with food coloring.

Jade used a sprayer to zig zag up a hill.

Local environmental artist Roy Staab led a team who created a sculpture on the frozen pond.

Roy in front of the finished piece.

UWM students Sam, Katie, and Tina, made use of a pair of trees to create a Goldsworthy style artistic intervention.

The latest installation in the Inside/Outside series of invitational collaborations got underway during the Carnival. Here Shana McCaw and Brent Budsberg, dressed in period costume, dig a "foundation" trench and fill it with charcoal.

The process is being meticulously documented in both video and still photography. Later in the day the completed charcoal foundation was to be lit and burned. I was sorry to have to leave before that happened. I think it's a wonderful concept. For more about this installation and Inside/Outside, go to the Lynden Gardens website.

The permanent collection is always on display, of course, and today's snowfall made for interesting new views of the familiar works. This is a detail of one by John Henry.

Linda Vitamas's installation for Inside/Outside is still holding up and is also made interesting with an encrusting of snow.

"Under Construction" was the collaboration that Phil Krejcarek and I did for Inside/Outside. Three of the sites where we erected construction fences and sculptural ladders remain for now. The weather is taking its toll on the fences, as expected. For more pictures of our collaboration, go to my flickr page.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

White Material: art film and allegory

In an uncertain time and an unidentified country in postcolonial Africa a terrible and familiar conflict rages. Bereft of political context, the meaning of the conflict is also left unknown; the allegiances of the combatants are left to the viewers’ imaginations. Only one thing seems absolutely clear: the white landowners who are the main characters must leave and do so quickly.  Why then do they hesitate? That is the question at the heart of this French film by Claire Denis.

The film’s protagonist, if such a tragically flawed character can be called that, is Maria Vial, who manages a coffee plantation owned by her husband’s father. Apparently oblivious to palpable signs, direct exhortations, and even dire threats, she stubbornly insists on staying “one more week” to harvest the coffee. The army that has protected the white establishment is in full retreat. Her workers have fled. In order to replace them she must bribe her way past the gun-waving young men of the village who have set up a road block. Child soldiers wander freely through gaps in the plantation fences and threaten her grown but useless son who responds with an astonishing and frightening transformation. Every scene seethes with tension.

What motivates Maria? This is the burning core of what is both a psychological portrait and an allegory about the consequences of colonialism. Why doesn’t she recognize the futility of her actions? Played masterfully by Isabelle Hupert, Maria is not stupid. At times surprisingly sympathetic she is also stunningly oblivious to her overtly superior attitude towards her black countrymen. She seems incapable of imagining the ruin of her world, let alone the needs, hopes, and fears of all the people she encounters.

Although its obvious narrative relates to Western imperialism and colonial decadence, I believe the film has broader ramifications. It is about the psychology of privilege and power. Maybe I’ve been too affected by the events of the last week right here in Madison, Wisconsin, but I see something akin to what Maria goes through happening in our country.  I see Governor Scott Walker and the national tea party movement as the curling edge of a breaking wave of conservatism that is reacting out of fear. It is the fear of change, the potential for upheaval as our society becomes more and more diverse.

Maria reacts with denial. The oppressed people who have been victimized by colonialism react with violence. Maria’s son…well, I don’t want to ruin it; you’ll have to see the movie to find out how he reacts.

As I write this there is still time to see the last showing of it tonight at the UWM Union theater. (It needs an audience; there was hardly anyone there last night.) Or queue it up on Netflix.

To see the White Material trailer, go to you-tube.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jacques Brel is dead; long may he live!

“Sons of true love or sons of regret
All of the sons you cannot forget
Some built the roads, some wrote the poems
Some went to war, some never came home
Sons of your sons or sons passing by
Children we lost in lullabies...”

When I first heard those lyrics I wondered if I was one of the “sons of” that Brel was referring to.  Forty years later I wonder if my own children are among those “lost in lullabies.”

In January 1968 the songwriter Jacques Brel was in fact alive and well and living in Paris. I was a teenager and just beginning to discover the world outside my safe suburban neighborhood. I don’t remember which revelation came first, the power of mass non-violent demonstration or the power of art, but when I saw Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris in New York something deep within me made the connection. The production showcased Brel’s testimonial style of songwriting with its themes of love and loss, betrayal and regret, war and death, redemption and hope. Like Brel, I was coming of age in a time of war and turmoil. When the show opened off-Broadway, the Tet Offensive also marked the high point and perhaps the beginning of the end of the war in Vietnam. Idealism confronted realism—on college campuses, on the Mall in Washington, on the nightly news. And Jacques Brel… expressed it all in words, melodies, and dramatic passion.

By 1972 I had seen the show several times and, as a student, worked on the crew for a campus production. Although my wife had never seen it, she heard the songs from the original cast recording played with innumerable repetition over the years. So when I heard that the Skylight Opera Theater in Milwaukee was reviving Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris… well, we just had to go.

I must admit that I went with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. How could it speak to me today, after all that has transpired in the intervening decades? I had changed; the world had changed. Brel himself wasn’t even alive and well anymore! Was my fondness for the show too linked with my personal history?

I needn’t have worried. “Sons of” was just one example of how Brel’s songs proved their staying power for an older, grayer generation. The updated production also brought out their universal qualities. Some of the lyrics, as translated by Mort Shuman and Eric Blau for the original production, have the potential to sound like cloying cliché, but not only do their layered ambiguities rescue them, the intensity of the performances both then and now made them transcendent and archetypal instead. A few of the songs even seem more relevant today than they must have to the adolescent who heard them before:

“My death waits like a bible truth
At the funeral of my youth;
Weep loud for that and the passing time…”

While I thoroughly enjoyed the show, I did miss the edginess of the original. One of my favorite songs, The Bulls, an allegory about bullfighting and war, was dropped from the program, probably because it hadn’t shied from the controversy raging around the Vietnam War. And much as I’d like to think the world has changed for the better since 1968, we are again at war. Too bad the Skylight ducked the chance to marry Brel with the current conflicts. Here is the last stanza of The Bulls:

“And when finally they fell
Did not the bulls dream of some hell
Where men and worn-out matadors still burn.
Or perhaps with their last breaths
Would not they pardon us their deaths
Knowing what we did at
Stalingrad—olé!--Iwo Jima--olé!--Hiroshima--olé!--Saigon!”

That could easily have been updated to end with “Baghdad”?

Perhaps I’m being petty. The Skylight production, whether wisely or timidly, chose a selection and arrangement that, while safer, made the whole more integrated. The transitions were fluid and the pacing allowed the audience to breathe between emotional outbursts. It is a show that demands much of the four-member cast and most of the time they were magnificent. The climax, a song called Carousel, was simply spectacular. Starting out at a delicately slow pace, it gradually built into the most frenetic whirlwind of song imaginable in order to express the feeling of being on “a crazy carousel…a wheel within a wheel…and the whole world madly turning…”

Carousel was so good it almost overwhelmed the concluding anthem, If we only have love…, which exclaims that “If we only have love then…death has no shadow, there are no foreign lands…,” a denouement that enabled us to go back out into the unseasonably warm February night thinking of Cairo instead of Baghdad – or perhaps simply the person we were with.

If I wiped away tears after many of the songs, it very well may have been lingering nostalgia for “the funeral of my youth.” But my theater companions enjoyed it as much as I did without bringing along the emotional baggage.  Kudos to the Skylight! Long live Jacques Brel!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Preposterous Ecological Art discussed at MIAD

Andy Goldsworthy
 The concept of Ecological Art means something different than the more inclusive term Environmental Art. The latter is most famously embodied by the "Earthworks" of the latter third of the Twentieth Century. Artists such as Smithson and Heizer created sculptures that went beyond "site specific" to incorporate the land itself into the work of art, often with little regard to the destructive nature of the work. As the movement evolved artists like Goldsworthy became more sensitive to the impact their work had on the land and attempted to leave the environment unharmed.

Ecological Art is generally understood to go even further. There generally are two ways this is done. Some Eco-Artists use art to repair or restore damaged environments, as exemplified by Betsy Damon, who recently gave a talk at UWM about her remarkable work with Keepers of the Waters. Others create work that draws attention to ecological principles or deals with issues related to environmental relationships, sustainability, and the like without affecting them directly. A talk entitled "Preposterous Propositions" at MIAD last night by Linda Weintraub emphasized this last type of approach.

I was drawn to the talk by the topic, which is dear to me and is a common theme in my own work both as an artist and writer devoted to what I call the "Urban Wilderness." (See my Urban Wilderness blog or my website.) I found the presentation enlightening in the sense that I learned about the work of artists with whom I wasn’t familiar. But it was ultimately disappointing because most of those artists seemed so disengaged with the real world. If any artist should be engaged it is one who specializes in Ecological Art. I don’t think it’s enough to be provocative; that’s such an easy way out of real substantive creative power.

The title set the stage: “Preposterous Propositions” refers to artists who, according to Weintraub, deliberately try to "create chaos" or disturb the existing order. Of the works cited I found “Cloaca,” by Belgian artistst Wim Delvoye the most preposterous. Delvoye created an elaborate machine that replicates the human digestive system (above). It is “fed” food and it “excretes” feces. Weintraub described with glowing admiration how it defies assumptions: that engineered solutions are more efficient than biological ones; that elaborate machinery must produce a valuable end product. Never mind that the assumptions themselves were unchallenged (has she never encountered a Rube Goldberg invention?) or that feces could actually be used as manure to benefit something that needs nutrients to grow. Delvoye’s manufactured feces never return to earth. They are shrink-wrapped and sold for exorbitant sums to art collectors (below). Thus, not only is this work useless in the sense of having positive utilitarian value, it perpetuates the fetishization of art and the commodification of the creative endeavor. It is the very antithesis of Ecological Art. 

I was heartened during the question and answer period to find that I was not alone in questioning the value of these works. Judging from the questions, the audience of mostly MIAD students was equally skeptical. Someone asked, “How do these artists pay for their work?” The answer: “they have day jobs.” Asked how these artists expect to reach a broader audience, Weintraub shrugged and gestured back to enlist us – admitting that it would be a tough sell. Her answer to the burning question of whether she thought that these mostly resource intensive constructions were worth their expense in money, materials, and energy, was the classic pedagogical ploy “that’s a good question.” (I know it well.) Apparently generating that very question justifies the work.

There was one artist who excited me. Shai Zakai, an Israeli, is described on an eco-art website as an “artist, photographer, green activist, producer, curator, [and a leader] for environmental and social change.” Weintraub showed us “Repainted Painted Tree,” a “work” in which Zakai went to a forest preserve near her home. There she carefully simulated the bark of trees with paint overtop of orange spots spray painted onto them by foresters intent on cutting them down. The artistic endeavor was conceptually clever, beautifully executed, and reportedly effective in saving the precious stand of trees.

Never doubt the power of art. But do question its intent.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where is the new New York?

Historically artists have tended to flee from small midwest cities like Milwaukee and head to New York to find a welcoming cultural climate. However, according to a recent story in Utne Reader, called "A Diaspora of Artists," that may be changing. The author, Michael Fallon, identifies Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland as making deliberate efforts to attract artists with housing incentives, grants, competitions, etc., and consequently fill a vacuum being left in New York by the economic downturn.

The recent uplifting report from Creativity Works about the state of the "creative industries" in Milwaukee might lead one to expect our city to make Mr. Fallon's list. Apparently we have more work to do in order to be noticed.

Recommended reading: A Diaspora of Artists

(Thanks go to Steven White for bringing this article to my attention.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Denver honors Indian Artists, not just their art

A long overdue change is afoot, led by the Denver Art Museum, to identify Indian artists in their collections by name. Read Honoring Art, Honoring Artists, from the New York Times.

Charles Allis: A visual tour of 100 Years

detail from The Master Bedroom by Martha Glowacki
When I first moved to Milwaukee in 1976 I happened to live just a few blocks from the Charles Allis Art Library, as it was called then. I developed a fondness for the quirky tastes of its former owner when I met there regularly with a group of poets. I admired the gems by Inness and Ryder and always knelt before a small glass case to admire the netsukes from Japan.

from permanent collection
Some things have changed in the 30+ years since then. The Library became a museum and, along with nearby Villa Terrace, was acquired by the Milwaukee War Memorial as a satellite. A gallery to exhibit changing contemporary shows was shoehorned into two upstairs rooms. A great room was added that could accommodate larger contemporary works as well as larger parties of patrons.

from permanent collection
 But most of the mansion has remained exactly as I first saw it, the main hall, the sitting room, dining room, library and master bedroom, all kept meticulously inviolate with Mr. Allis’s personal collection intact. Until now.
from permanent collection
 In honor of its 100 year anniversary, for the first time artists were asked to create installations that intrude – and reflect – on the staid integrity of the permanent collections. I found it a refreshing and welcome departure and I enjoyed the diversity of responses.

The Library with Gary Gresl installation
 Gary Gresl's transformation of the library was characteristically outrageous and constituted the most extreme intervention. A collaboration by Alexander Boyes and Martha Glowacki in the master bedroom was much subtler, moodily evoking the spirits of the deceased former inhabitants. 

The Dining Room with Ashley Morgan installation
(you have to listen to this one!)
 Here then is a visual tour, just a few things I noticed (and was able to capture in the mostly dimly illuminated rooms.) I wasn't able to capture Reginald Baylor's multiple video installations in the Sitting Room. Of course, you should go see them all yourself. These are mere snapshots.

the changing exhibits gallery with fireplace
The Marble Hall with Carol Emmons installation 
the house is showing its age
The Master Bedroom with Glowacki installation 
The Master Bedroom bath with Boyes installation
(you have to see this one move!)
You have plenty of time to plan a leisurely visit - or multiple visits: according to the Charles Allis Art Museum website this lasts through November 13.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Presentation and Care of Photographs 101?

The topic of last night’s panel discussion in the Lubar Auditorium at the Milwaukee Art Museum was “presentation and care of photographs.”

That may not sound like the most exciting topic, but sparks flew from the beginning.

Zoe Strauss, a contemporary photographer, began by with the incendiary claim that “it’s the idea of the piece that’s the piece,” rather than the photographs themselves. While that’s a common conceptual artist’s conceit, she went on to show slides of her various cameras – which ranged from an inexpensive point and shoot to a top of the line DSLR – paired with images she’d made with each. Then she announced, “I don’t give a s**t which camera I’ve used.” She places equal value on the images made with all of them. (It was an amazingly refreshing thing to hear! I’ve been telling students for decades not to obsess about equipment – that cameras don’t take pictures; people do.) Strauss is known for displaying photocopies of her images on pillars underneath a freeway. To their credit, the three other panelists didn’t visibly blanch at her disdain of the preciousness of the original print or her ephemeral style of exhibition. In fact, they were up to the challenge. It was a provocative start to a stimulating discussion of the various ways to value photography.

Michael Foley, a gallerist from Foley Gallery in New York, followed Strauss. By contrast, his primary considerations, he said, are the quality of the materials used by the artist and the way the photographs are presented. His responsibility is to clients who want to invest in an artist’s work and the material worth and perceived longevity of the object is central to that end. But of course!

Although Nora Kennedy, a conservator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, did come down predictably on the side of maximum control of the environment to preserve precious artworks in the museum’s collections, not all of her responses were so predictable. She cited two works at opposite ends of photographic history as posing particular challenges. One was an unfixed and therefore fugitive – highly fragile – photogram by William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s progenitors. It can never be shown to the public because it would simply disappear if exposed to light. The other was Jeff Wall’s enormous photographs that are constantly illuminated because a light box is part of the presentation. Those incredibly expensive images inevitably will fade. Knowing this, she said, when a collector or museum purchases a print/light box from Wall he provides a second print – and even keeps it in storage – as insurance against the day when it will need to replace the first. (Of course that just kicks the conservator’s can down the road, doesn’t it?)

Max Yela, a specialist in book arts at the UWM Libraries, wrapped up the panel. He pointed out the special – and natural – relationship that photographs and books have always enjoyed. But from his perspective when an artist’s book is the goal then the images become subordinate to the book itself.  Agreed. Of course books can and are made from a wide variety of materials, both stable and unstable, just like photographs.

A lively discussion followed the opening remarks. It centered on questions such as, what constitutes an original in photography – the negative/digital file, or the vintage print? What is the proper role of reproduction in the viewing experience? And, how can a reproduction accrue value?

To all such questions the consensus of the panel was unanimous: “it depends!”

As I see it, the problem stems from a museum’s dual – and contradictory – responsibilities. Yes, a museum must preserve and protect original artworks. Yes, a museum must make their collections accessible to the public. Yes, these two goals can be incompatible. The solution for the fugitive Fox Talbot print is obvious: it can only be seen in reproduction. Kennedy mentioned a recent exhibit of similarly fragile autochromes (early color photos) at the Metropolitan. The originals were on display for a week before replacing them with reproductions. Were viewers of the reproductions duped? Did they have a less satisfying experience of the exhibit than the lucky few who went the first week? Assuming the Met informed its audience and created unimpeachable reproductions – and I’m willing to bet on the Met to have done both – I don’t expect so.

Why does the idea of displaying reproductions of art works rankle so many art museum curators when other kinds of museums use the practice routinely? Not long ago the Milwaukee Public Museum exhibited an “authentic facsimile” of the Dead Sea scrolls without irony, apology – or public outcry. Are art patrons so much fussier?

Don’t get me wrong, I would never argue that a reproduction would be a proper substitute if the original is available and circumstances permit it to be displayed safely. But I wouldn’t be calling this Arts Without Borders if I were not flexible in my thinking about how art can be viewed. And again to their credit, the curator, conservator, and gallerist all agreed with Strauss that artists should be encouraged to create with whatever materials are available, archival or not.

Bring on the temporary and ephemeral!

Evolving Practices in the Presentation and Care of Contemporary Photographs was hosted by the museum’s Photography Council.

Please feel free to leave a comment and continue the discussion.

The presentation was videotaped and is available in segments on you-tube: click here.

Want to write a memoir? Consider this.

Have you fantasized about writing a memoir? I have. Maybe it's fortunate that I really don't have time. I would be spared reviews that probably would look like the one I just read in the New York Times book review. It's equally sobering and humorous - unless you're one of the authors Genzlinger skewers. Read Me.moir: the Center of Attention.