Monday, March 25, 2013

Social practice art

"Tania Bruguera, a New York artist who is known for helping immigrants and has been supported by the Queens Museum and Creative Time, sometimes explains social-practice art with an anti-Modernist call to arms: 'It’s time to restore Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to the bathroom.'"

That is a quote from an article in yesterday's New York Times that I assume to be considered deliberately provocative. The article, titled "Outside the Citadel, Art that Nurtures," is about art that is being called social practice. Its practitioners are artists whose work straddles the fence of aesthetics and activism. According to some prominent critics, it even falls over to the side of activism more often than not. Along the way the familiar question is raised--the one that usually is generated by purely aesthetic or conceptual avant-garde artists: Is it art?

I was delighted to read this and to hear the question raised in this context because it resonates so strongly with my own motivations as an artist and activist.

I spent 30+ years teaching art and I can explain Modernism and Conceptualism and everything in between. (I'm particularly fond of introducing DuChamp to newbies.) I'm grateful for the grounding and the vocabulary this has provided me. But I've long been uncomfortable with the continued perpetuation of some ideas that, frankly, in my opinion, have had their day, particularly the apparently endless desire for novelty--often of a self-indulgent bent.

I get Conceptual Art. (I actually consider my work conceptual, though not perhaps in the pure way that the capitalized term usually denotes. In fact I question whether art is art--as opposed to craft--if there is no conceptual component to it.) I also certainly understand and value the importance of aesthetics. But when I am making art, my motivation extends to, as it is put in the article, making "a difference in the world that is more than aesthetic."

My social practice and activism generally relates to environmental issues (although not exclusively.) If you are familiar with my work at all my use of the term "Urban Wilderness" comes as no surprise. I have long recognized that not everyone is comfortable with the marriage of these disciplines, something that is mentioned in the article. "Leading museums have largely ignored it," for example, referring to social practice art. In fact, as many of my readers know, I write two blogs, one about the arts (this one) and one about the environment (Urban Wilderness.)

The two blogs, in my perspective, are not separate disciplines but an acknowledgment of the usually distinct audiences that they attract. It is a dichotomy, like the term urban wilderness itself, that embodies the paradox of mutuality. I invite you to read the rationale for keeping two blogs that I have posted on my website: click here.

I also invite you to check out the rest of the story about social practice art: Outside the Citadel, Art that Nurtures

Commanding the View
 A recent addition to my ongoing Icon Series, more of which can be seen on my website.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A tribute to O'Keeffe at the Domes?

The sign on the bottom left corner of the frame in the photo above reads as follows:
"Happy Birthday, Georgia O'Keefe. Look through this frame to view a tribute to her painting, 'Cow's Skull with Calico Roses' 1932."

I went to the Mitchell Park Domes today. The "tribute" was placed in the desert dome, of course. A little farther along and up the ramp was another picture frame. That one (see below) was placed in front of the artificial sandstone that helps create the illusion (sort of) of being in the desert right here in Milwaukee. I know: one needs a huge dose of suspension-of-disbelief, what with the omnipresent grid of reinforced concrete looming overhead. But, hey, we all need a little help getting through the winter around here!

I must admit I love the Domes! I've always found the experience a bit on the surreal side, especially at times like now when the snow is piled up in drifts outside. Unlike the zoo, where the unreality has a melancholy air to it, I actually enjoy the absurdity of the Domes. It's lovely to take off my coat and wander through the desert, the tropics, and the aromatic floral displays in the three domes.

As followers of Arts Without Borders know, I also love art, of course. And, as the title suggests, I'm catholic in my tastes. I don't mind a mix of low brow, high brow, or no brow. There are many good reasons to make art and there is room in the world for all kinds of the stuff! I've particularly enjoyed the few times I've been there when the Domes has invited artists to install their work in amongst the flowers. Susan Falkman's sensuous marble sculptures come to mind. (Long time ago.)

I'm particularly fond of Georgia O'Keeffe, too. In fact, when I was a student studying art education at U.W.--Madison (even longer ago!), I purchased and framed a reproduction of--I kid you not--'Cow's Skull with Calico Roses' (right) at the Art Institute of Chicago, which owns the original. It followed me for many years as I moved and hung on many walls in the places where I lived.

So, you might think I'd have enjoyed seeing this small tribute to her in the Domes.

Not so. I cringed. I couldn't help wondering how O'Keeffe would have reacted if she saw this "tribute" herself. Being familiar with some of the peculiarities of her sensibilities--she was famously reclusive and persnickety--I imagine her throwing a fit.

I fully expect that whoever was responsible for this had the best of intentions. How big a leap is it, after all, between this and the Art Institute cashing in on reproductions of her work? (Along with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and refrigerator magnets!) On the other hand, I don't think it would be too much to ask of anyone with the temerity to pay tribute to her, at the very least, to spell O'Keeffe's name correctly?

I do love the Domes, but I don't go very often and I don't know how long this "tribute" has been there. Since O'Keeffe's birthday was in November, I'm guessing maybe at least that long. Perhaps it's time to retire the tribute. I suggest another collaboration with a real, live artist.

The sign on this frame reads, "Happy Birthday, Georgia O'Keefe. Look through this frame to view a tribute to her painting, 'My Red Hills' 1938." Sigh.

Friday, March 1, 2013

What is Synecdoche? My photo exhibit at BBFA

First, mark your calendar: my upcoming solo show, entitled Synecdoche: The Fragment that Represents the Whole, runs from March 15 - 30 at Blutstein Brondino Fine Art, which is in Suite 212 of the Marshall Building at 207 E. Buffalo St., Milwaukee, WI. (Gallery hours listed below.)

Second, mark your calendar again: the reception is on March 22, 5-8 pm.

So, with that out of the way, let's tackle this funny title: Synecdoche.

Synecdoche is a literary device in which the part represents the whole. ("All hands on deck!" refers to the whole sailor, not just the hands.) My images are meant to be visual examples of synecdoche, which I use metaphorically. My subjects are the complex and often paradoxical relationships that I perceive between nature and architecture, or natural and human features in the landscape. My approach, using the part to represent the whole, symbolizes the fragmentation we experience in our everyday environment.

Live Oaks

How do we reconstruct a definition of nature at a time when our traditional understanding has eroded and nature seems increasingly reduced, manufactured and abstracted? How does being human relate to our notions about nature? These are not landscapes in the usual sense, but symbols of how we construct meaning and interpret our place in a fast-changing world.

For additional examples from my Synecdoche Series check out my website.

Gallery hours: Friday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m. - 4 p.m., and by appointment.