Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dia. Meditation.

Last week I first encountered the Dia Art Foundation’s museum in Beacon, NY. It is housed in a 30,000 sq. ft. former factory. The place and the art invite introspection.



Dual naves of brightly lit white space. Polished wood floors stretch into the distance. Tiny solitary black-clad figure at the far end. Silence.

To the left, variously colored irregular shapes punctuate the white bays the length of the vast wall. Bare wood floor. (Imi Knoebel)

On the right, polished steel plates form a single line down the middle of the polished wood floor. Bare white walls. (Walter de Maria)


Beyond that, more space. Light streams in from skylights overhead.

A small, brightly lit alcove. Mammoth rough-hewn vertical granite boulder stands, improbably, tightly bound in a niche. somewhere in the vast silence of afghanistan in the mountain at bamiyan stand three empty niches. Colossal granite teardrop of the Buddha. (Michael Heizer)

Space.                         Air.

A series of thin strings of black yarn stretched from floor to ceiling emphasize the air around them. Concrete pillars. Galleries opening out to more galleries.


Thin red strings establish a rectangular plane in the space, canted against the rectangular wall floor ceiling planes of the architecture. I step across the thin red line on the floor. Through air. (Fred Sandback)

White walls give way to concrete, then brick. Polished wood floors become polished concrete floors. Finally, two exterior windows. Glimpse of an expansive, empty green lawn.

L-shaped steel remnant of original factory embedded in brick wall. minimal; life mimics art. the place wants to be photographed. Photography not permitted. an issue of control? privacy? marketing? at every turn the place demands to be photographed. i can’t imagine the harm a photo would cause the art or the museum. i resist the urge to sneak a shot. Numerous black-clad guards wander throughout the galleries. issues of trust? They smile when spoken to. Reply to questions with beatific patience.

Finally, shadows. A dark corner contains rubble. Vertical stacks of photographs mounted on steel. In shadow. Horizontal stacks of enormous felt pads weighed down by rusted steel plates. Not a loading dock. Not a storage room. Dark dustless rubble. (Joseph Beuys)

Cleanly bored holes of four geometric shapes in the polished concrete floor. Dark, empty interiors. Invisible depths. A glass wall prevents close inspection. a friendly, black-clad guard, when asked, says that tours inside the glass are available upon request. my request elicits a walkie-talkie call. no reply. maybe later she says. she says that the artist himself installed the glass. it is being viewed as he intended. an issue of control? Mystery. can mystery be created? is mystery endowed from within or without? in the mind of the beholder? The four holes, gated empty lightless bottomless pools, remain mute. (Michael Heizer)

Mezzanine. Four Brobdingnagian curls of rusted steel. Four ambulatory chapels off to the side of the Cathedral. Four short labyrinths to choke a claustrophobic. Four giant steel clamshells. Inside each, a pearl of peacefulness. they want to be outside, in the back, on the grass, under the open sky, open to the heavens. not to the gray coffered concrete factory ceiling. And yet, after a breathless entry, a place to inhale deeply. (Richard Serra)

In the spotless attic, rough windowless brick walls, polished almost liquid concrete floor. Crouched in the far corner, enormous black bronze spider, Gothic in dark silent splendor. Menacing. or not. there are no secrets here, only misunderstandings. Far down the dark hall the black-clad guard leans against the wall, reading. Silent. (Louise Bourgeois)

Suddenly a wall of glass. Exterior windows. Bright north light. Room full of colorful vigorously twisted steel forms, like carefully spaced collisions. almost baroque compared to the prevailing minimalism. (John Chamberlain)

Outside, narrow walled garden. Leafless trees, brown grasses, green hedges in rigid rows. Sounds of birds. Cuckoo. Crows. Unrecognizable sounds. Almost voices. Muttering. Almost intelligible words. what are they saying? they don’t want to be understood. Catalogue text: Sound Piece. (Louise Lawler)

The warmth of the sun.


I did not succumb to the temptation to sneak photos inside the museum, harmless as that prospect seemed. The two images that accompany this meditation are my tribute to the spirit of the collection. They are from the garden, where photography is permitted. I remain frustrated by museum policy.

After Dia Beacon I went to nearby Storm King Art Center, where I could take plenty of pictures. Photo essay on my flickr page.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Art and environmental remediation

In 1969 Patricia Johanson, inspired by close observations of the natural world, made simple pencil drawings of animals and plants in sketchbooks and on loose-leaf pages. Copious notes written in casual long hand surrounded the drawings. Johanson had a vision for designing artworks that were not merely representations of nature – what is more common than that? Nor was her idea to reflect on or abstract those sources.

Johanson, in tune with the Zeitgeist that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, wanted nothing less than to heal the earth using art.

She has been doing just that for decades now, often on a monumental scale.

This past Wednesday, the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, WI hosted Johanson for a talk entitled Science, Art, & Infrastructure. The event was sponsored by the Design Coalition Institute in partnership with UW-Marathon, UW-Madison, and UW-Extension.

Beginning with the humble ideas sketched so long ago, Johanson, who subsequently received a degree in architecture, went on to describe several of her major completed projects.

The Dallas Museum of Art is situated picturesquely on Fair Park Lagoon. Water quality in the lagoon, however, had been so badly degraded over the years that it was biologically dead. Johanson’s solution was a sculptural design based on plant forms that simultaneously buttressed eroding banks and created a series of microhabitats. Unlike most public sculpture projects, the obvious concrete structures are only the most visible tip of the iceberg. Native aquatic plants and animals introduced into the newly rehabilitated environment are as important, if not more so.

Not coincidentally, the sculpture doubles as a playground and outdoor classroom for people young and old who visit the newly invigorated site.

archival photo
courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum

Scranton, Pennsylvania provided Johanson with one of the most daunting challenges: a landscape utterly ravaged by coal mining. She outlined the historical background, which includes human suffering along with environmental devastation. The many levels of now abandoned underground mines have become a defacto reservoir into which all surface waters, former streams, etc. have disappeared.

Her designs are sensitive to this history as well as current conditions, the needs of the local community, and the intention to help ameliorate environmental problems.

This aerial view of the water treatment facility under construction in Petaluma, California gives a sense of the enormous scale of some of her artistic accomplishments.

Aside from sheer wonder, delight, and appreciation for Johanson’s work, there were four main points that struck me:

This is work that requires enormous amounts of research and cooperation for it to be successful. No amount of self-reflection in the studio can produce such far-reaching and practical results.

Johanson reiterated several times the need for community involvement. She was not there, in whatever the location, to impose an aesthetic concept on the land. She listened to the public and the local stakeholders and her designs respect their needs as well as her own creative imagination.

The third point is sadder, I think. Her presentation as well as her work reminded me of Betsy Damon, who had given a talk at UWM a while ago. Afterwards, I asked Johanson about Damon. Unsurprisingly, they are friends. She went on to say that there were only a few like-minded artists doing these kinds of projects that combine imaginative artistic design with actual restoration and bio-remediation – and they are, like her, all getting along in years.

Young artists are not uninterested in the environment, she said, but they tend to want to draw attention to places or frame issues rather than dealing directly with healing the earth.

There were many young people, university students no doubt, in the audience. My hope is that some of them heard her message and found her example inspiring enough to turn that around.

Finally, as I did when I heard Damon speak, I couldn’t help wishing there is a way that one of these artists could be brought to Milwaukee to do their creative and restorative work. The Menomonee Valley would be the perfect location.

Project descriptions and more images can be found on Johanson's website.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Crime Unseen at Museum of Contemporary Photography

The Milwaukee Art Museum opened its remarkable exhibit of Taryn Simon’s photography in September. With three impressive bodies of work of an important contemporary photographer, the show brings to Milwaukee work that is both significant and insightful. If you haven’t gone to see it yet, do so.
From The Innocents, Taryn Simon
The Innocents by itself is worth the visit. Simon’s portraits of people who have been convicted wrongly of crimes are powerful and challenging without being melodramatic or disturbing – although the stories that accompany each image should disturb and outrage anyone with a conscience. It remains on view through January 1, 2012.

If you are traveling to Chicago, a concurrent exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography bookends the Simon show nicely. A group show called Crime Unseen has related themes. (In fact homage to Simon is paid by including one of her Innocents images.) Apparently, for contemporary photographers, crime not only pays – as dividends in art world caché – but also is in fashion.
Richard Barnes photographs of the Unabomber's cabin.
From the exhibition text:
“All of the artists in Crime Unseen grapple with a retelling of disturbing crimes. Using photography and other methods, the artists reactivate historical material and open it up to further contemplation. By drawing on techniques of photojournalism, forensic photography, and documentary landscape, the artists actively engage with myth and reality as they question the roles of memory, the media, and evidence in solving and remembering crime.”

Detail from Killing Season: Chicago by Krista Wortendyke shows one of several series of images of crime scenes arranged to resemble the skyline of the city.

“All of the work in this exhibition has tragedy at its root; every artist deals with materials and stories that stem from extremely serious crimes and real murders of real people. Yet they approach the idea of violent crime obliquely. There are no graphic images of real dead bodies here. The artists did not witness the crimes, and their photographs were all made after the crimes occurred—in most cases, long after. …Partly as a rallying cry against forgetting, they confront us with our perverse attraction to horror by skirting it slightly, bringing stories back to life, and demonstrating that the evil side of human nature unsettles our fundamental notions of security, humanity, and control. …By transforming history into something new and current, the artists discourage us from being passive and distant, and in so doing perhaps leave room for an implicit, liberating acceptance that human nature is sometimes unpredictable and flawed.”

The work is intriguing, if not as powerful and compelling as Simon’s. But I take issue with the last statement above. If there are flaws in human nature, so too in the “passive and distant” stance taken by these and many contemporary artists. The photography is technically excellent and conceptually engaging, but unemotional.

Perhaps it is a reaction to tabloid journalism with its devotion to graphic depiction and lurid detail, but contemporary artists can go too far with their “oblique” approach and banal aesthetic. If they wish to “confront us with our perverse attraction to horror” I think they just might want to skirt it less slightly. Taryn Simon’s work balances on that edge beautifully.

The circular images in Tooth for an Eye by Deborah Luster are intended to mimic the shape of a gunshot hole or the view through a gun sight.
However, it’s a strong show and worth checking out for yourself sometime before it closes January 15. The MOCP website has a thorough description of the show.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Gallery view

The Alex Webb show at the Steven Daiter Gallery in Chicago was very good, despite appearances in this shot I managed to get while there on a tour with the MAM Photo Council.