lauren palmor


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Nicolas Bourriaud is a critical inventor. Co-founder of the hip Palais de Tokyo in Paris, he first coined the term “relational aesthetics,” and has now developed the idea of the “altermodern,” celebrated by the fourth Tate triennial of the same name.

What is “altermodernism”? It seems to relate back to Bourriaud’s earlier idea of relational aesthetics, namely art exists both within and without the parameters of the gallery space. Not only does art exist without dedicated art spaces, but also utilizes human and social networks as raw material and a starting point for artistic means of expression. He sees art as having the power to create shared experiences, as seen in works by Carsten Holler, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Pierre Huyghe. In many ways, Bourriaud’s theory uses the interactive conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s as its departure point, as expressed in the SFMOMA exhibition “The Art of Participation: 1950-Now” (which I wrote about back in January).

“Altermodernism” is a compound word, an idea derived from both “alternative” and “modernism.” According to Bourriaud, this “can be defined as the moment when it became possible for us to produce something that made sense starting from an assumed heterochrony, that is, from a vision of human history as constituted of multiple temporalities.” In these terms, globalization has done away with the way we used to think about art (which was chronological). Now, in keeping with Altermodernism, it would be fairer to view contemporary artists’ works as interrelational documents of shared and experienced visual cultures. These works function without boundaries and with the investment and participation of the viewer.

What kind of works qualify as Altermodern? Bourriaud describes this mode of thinking in “Relational Aesthetics.” He writes, “The role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever the scale chosen by the artist.”

Scale does play a large role in this exhibition. Many works are life-sized or larger than life, and many artists create inhabitable environments. Then there is “Giantbum” by Nathaniel Mellors, a frightening if not technically insane “video installation with animatronic sculpture” which describes the plight of being stuck in God’s rear. Two films play in a dark felt environment, depicting rehearsals of a play about this journey, and then the viewer is eventually led to a brightly-lit white room in which three animatronic heads sing in unison about freedom and the universe.

Indian artist Subodh Gupta created “Line of Control,” a giant, life-sized mushroom cloud made of kitchen utensils which explodes in a main entrance hall of the museum, inviting visitors to gawk and guess at what such an explosion would sound like. Franz Ackerman’s “Gateway-Getaway” is a hypnotizing and disarming environment which creates the feeling of having stepped into one of his brightly-lit neon psychedelic paintings. The room is dizzying and carnivalesque—things spin and twist, your attention is pulled every which way by light, colours, and perspective.

A favorite piece in the exhibition was Mike Nelson’s installation “The Projection Room (Triple Bluff Canyon),” an immersive environment suggestive of a parallel world. The room is a life-sized recreation of the artist’s studio in the front room of a Victorian house. It looks as though someone has left the place in a hurry, leaving all evidence of their life behind. It’s impossible to not look for clues in the detritus, though the exercise is complicated by the room’s denial of entry to the viewer, shifting the experience on many levels, drawing a strict grid of allowances from the artist creating rules about what may be real and what may be imagined.

“Altermodern” is both chaotic and complex, and it’s not clear if Bourriaud is successful in designating a new type of contemporary movement. This exhibition is colorful and confusing, and it will be equally interesting to see if “Altermodernism” makes its place in the art history textbooks to come.

“Altermodern” the Tate Triennial is on view at Tate Britain through April 26, 2009

Matthew Darbyshire: Funhouse

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In a new installation at the Hayward Gallery, Matthew Darbyshire asks the question: ‘Are we desensitised by the generally appealing design of contemporary culture?’

Funhouse, on view in the Gallery’s Project Space, is a dizzying and colourful indictment of bland marketing in bright colours. In an interview with Hayward curator Tom Morton, Darbyshire says, ‘The classic funhouse…it seems to be disappearing- for health and safety reasons of course. Its replacement is alive and kicking, though, in various public buildings such as schools and ‘learning academies,’ community centres and so-called ‘urban centres,’ libraries and ‘idea stores’ (no joke, they have begun re-naming British libraries ‘idea stores’), universities and former polytechnics, hospitals and ‘walk-in centres for health and care,’ as well as shopping malls and arts venues across the UK. Apparently, you used to get chased around funhouses by clowns with paddles. Maybe there’s an artist-as-facilitator analogy to be made there and if so, maybe they could be wearing the nu-rave Footlocker outfit that’s hanging in the show and echoed the NHS ‘Time for Health’ motifs decorating the entranceway.’

The exhibit spills into the Hayward foyer, and bright colours and shapes fill the stairwell. Entering the gallery, innocuous pop music blasts loudly. Shop mannequins in bright athletic wear stand on a pedestal beneath a makeshift skateboard ramp. National Health Service posters line the walls, and an inflatable bubble (easily mistaken for a fun house) reveals itself to be a makeshift classroom.

These incongruous objects and environments are all united by their innocuous design in the same bright, cheery colours one finds everywhere from a classroom, to a hospital, to a retail outlet.

Darbyshire’s installation is a not-so-subtle critique of this homoginisation, a design system under which all is made safe, a kind of physical clip-art composed of our blanket liberal values.

Matthew Darbyshire: Funhouse, May 20 – 12 July, The Hayward Project Space

Size Does Matter

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Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Harold Koda, Okwui Enwezor, and Shaquille O'Neal. Finally, we can breath a collective sigh of relief and add the 7'1’’ Cleveland Cavalier to the list of the world’s great curators. Joking aside, it is true that Shaq has successfully curated his first exhibition of contemporary art– a move which seems only natural for a man who has been named Rookie of the Year, released four rap albums, acted in films, earned his MBA, and works in real estate development for fun. It almost seems as if he had done everything else apart from curating an exhibition in a gallery space.

“Size DOES Matter” is the aptly-named show, which opened at the FLAG Art Foundation in Chelsea in February. After being approached by FLAG founder Glenn Fuhrman and director Stephanie Roach, Shaq selected 66 works out of 200 which were shown to him over dinner after a Cavaliers game. The resulting show is centered on the idea of scale in contemporary art, a relevant topic for a someone who wears a men’s size 23 shoe. 

In an interview with Linda Yablonsky in New York Magazine, Shaq reveals his art background. He says, “I used to go (to museums) a lot with my kids. Donald Trump is a great friend, and he has four or five Picassos on his plane. And that’s where I would look at them. One time, I was at a museum and tried touching a Picasso. You break it, you buy it, they said. I was told it would cost $2 million. (I’ve never tried painting) but I’ve met a lot of artists who wanted to paint me. LeRoy Neiman was one. He did it from a photograph. He made 20,000 copies, and we sold them all. Now I’m working with the greatest artist in the world, Peter Max.”

It’s hard to tell, then, exactly how much “curating” Shaq did for the show– especially reading that he chose the works from a selection which was presented to him over dinner. In a way, the FLAG Art Foundation did the true curation: they chose the works, they chose Shaq. The curious people who attended the opening, like my friends and I, were expecting a much greater gesture of the basketball star’s creativity. The vision of the show, however, was filtered through that of the greater organization. 

Many of the artists in “Size DOES Matter” are international stars with big names: Chuck Close, Jeff Koons, Ron Mueck, Maurizio Cattelan. Real blue chip boys and girls. The redeeming quality of the show was its diversity. It is thrilling to walk through Robert Therrien’s oversized dining room set in No Title (Table and Six Chairs) and then stop by Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled miniature elevators. Ron Mueck’s monstrous Big Man is installed downstairs from Delia Brown’s tiny Eyes No. 3 and No. 4, two pairs of tiny kitten eyes painted on 1’’ x 3’’ blocks. 

The works in the show are generally humorous or inventive, though the general, arching theme is weak. Scale and its manipulation is not a strong enough link between the works to form a cohesive exhibition, and FLAG relies too heavily on the starlit name of Shaquille O'Neal. “Size DOES Matter” makes for a fun night out, if little more. 

Size DOES Matter is on view at the FLAG Art Foundation through May 27, 2010.

William Blake's 1809 Exhibition

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William Blake was overlooked in his lifetime, only to come to define British Romanticism long after his death. During life, he struggled to achieve recognition. One great labor towards acknowledgment was his largely ignored exhibition in 1809.

Consisting of sixteen works, both oils on canvas and watercolors, Blake’s exhibition was held in cramped quarters in the room above his brother’s shop in Soho. Very few visitors came, even his friends disliked the pictures. The only printed review of the display was vehemently negative. Nothing sold, and Blake lost a good deal of faith in his abilities.

What was it about these works that made them so unpopular two-hundred years ago? And can these works be read for clues which point to Blake’s later canonization as one of the major figures of British fine art?

In a display currently on view at Tate Britain, the 1809 exhibition is recreated. Ten of the sixteen works are hung with Blake’s own commentary. Missing works are still given space in the form of white squares painted directly on the wall (an unnecessary, lovingly neurotic move on behalf of serious scholarship).

Looking at the works, it is clear to see how Blake’s paintings may have been unpopular. They are dark, forboding, difficult to read. His fantasies read like horrors, and the horrors are doubly dark. His watercolors, however, are as phantasmagoric as ever. They contain multitudes of magic.

I will never forget a study session led by Lee Edwards when she took our British Art class at Sarah Lawrence to the prints and drawings room at the Yale Center for British Art. Armed with white gloves, we were able to really see Blake’s watercolors. For such a light material, he manages the colors with incredible weight. If ever given the opportunity, it is always worthwhile to see Blake watercolors– there is nothing else like them.

Tate Britain’s re-staging of the 1809 exhibition is a bold move, an admirable academic gesture. And though it is not complete, the remainsing ten works do a fine job of illustrating just how Blake may have been recieved in his lifetime.

Blake’s 1809 Exhibition is at Tate Britain (Room 8) until October 4, 2009.

Paul Chan's Apocalypse

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I’m having one of those apocalypse kind of weeks. One of those weeks when I think that the end is near, and studying 17th century history is a bit useless.

I wake in cold sweats from these nightmares about collecting canned food. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Iggy wasn’t so convincing with his statistics. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if when I mentioned apocalypse fears to Jeremy, he hadn’t rattled off the same facts. And then I freeze up choke up and envision Paul Chan’s light installations coming to life.

Chan has molded my apocalypse fears. When I first saw 1st Light (2005) at the Whitney Biennial in 2006, I knew that I would never be able to shake the vision. In a dark room, there’s a digital projection on the floor. It looks like the light coming from a bedroom window. Detritus floats into the space beyond the frame, and humans fall freely through the air. It’s the rapture animated, though we don’t know if the chosen are rising to heaven or tumbling down. Their arms flutter like limp puppet limbs and birds come and go (animals know bad things better than we do). Is it the rapture? A terrorist attack? All we can see are abandoned bicycles in space, as seen from our childhood bedroom window. Growing up, my bedroom window looked over the sad glow of a Los Angeles street lamp. Paul Chan’s installation almost looks as though it were illuminated by the same sad, spooky dim.

It’s unreasonable, I know. I’d rather this be pure heartache. But it’s that rapturous fear, the kind that electrifies the canals and townhouses. It’s that wild pinching upstart notion that overshadows longing.

Calder's Circus

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If I had to choose one artwork which I felt best personified my feelings about art, it would have to be Calder’s circus. Alexander Calder’s fantastic moving sculptural showcase best exemplifies the values of my rallying cry: innovation and whimsy without pretension.

Beginning in the late 1920s, Calder would invite friends and acquaintances to watch him perform a full circus show with moving set pieces and figurines he built himself. Guests would munch on peanuts in posh sitting rooms, watching Calder on the floor while he made wire lions, toy sword-throwers, even tightrope walkers and performing bears all come to life through sounds and movement.

The circus acted as a kind of experimental test lab in which Calder tested ideas about moving mechanisms and spatial abstraction. It’s incredible to watch film of Calder performing: he recreates all the sound, the color, and the excitement of a real circus on a minute scale.

I first saw Calder’s circus when I was fifteen: Mr. Wangsness put on a video tape in my high school art history class. I don’t think I had ever seen anything like it. Then, at the end of senior year, I finally saw it in person. Aquired by the Whitney Museum in the 1980s, the circus has been on permanent display there ever since. My mom and I were in New York for accepted students weekend at Sarah Lawrence. Between seeing both Calder’s circus and my college campus for the first time in one weekend, I was appropriately overwhelmed.

When I got out to New York, I became a member of the Whitney. I made fortnightly trips to the museum, where I would always visit the circus. And even after viewing it countless times, I always saw something new in it. Sometimes I would notice the detail of a mechanism which moved the dancing lady’s hips, sometimes the stiching on the lion’s face would stand out. Always accompanied by a video of Calder’s performance, the circus never lost its appeal.

This past weekend, I was in Paris. There were so many things to see, but most important was a Calder show at the Pompidou. I was pleased as punch to be with Eli and Tim, who had never seen the circus before. And though I was watching the film again for the umpteenth time, I had never seen it before in a room full of French toddlers, ‘oohing’ and 'aahing.’ And to see the circus again for the first time through my friends, well, it was another magical moment.

My relationship with Calder’s circus has been a constant through my growing intimacy with art and aesthetic ideas. It was a part of my first art history lesson, it was a constant all through college– a friend I saw on Saturdays. And to see it again, in Paris, with Tim while we play at being grown-ups was wonderful. Calder’s circus, too me, symbolizes everything good that art is capable of.

Alexander Calder: Les Annees Parisiennes, 1926-1933 is on view at the Pompidou Center, Paris until July 20, 2009.

Hannah Takes the Stairs

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Some films hold a mirror. They make us gasp out loud in darkened movie theaters when we hear our own dialect or see our own facial ticks. A few years ago, I was at the movies in Bronxville with my friends watching “Shopgirl.” And something about it so summed up the aimlessness of someone I loved so much that it physically hurt. To my friends’ embarrassment, I couldn’t stop (loudly) crying for the duration of the film.

“Hannah Takes The Stairs,” directed by Joe Swanberg, made its US debut at SXSW 2007 and premiered in the UK this year. What a strange phenomenon, to watch this film in the UK, surrounded by the kind of uptight, serious British men who hang out at the Barbican cinema on a Sunday afternoon. This film, more than any I’ve seen, honestly reflects my American generation: the way we speak, the way we relate to each other. Those words! I’ve said those words. Those terrible break-up scenes and awkward party moments– the way the characters react is informed by the same specific cultural references that have shaped my habits and those of the people I love.

The film is really a simple thing: Hannah, played by the beautiful Gerta Gerwig, is a recent college grad (like us), who works a mindless job in TV production (like all of our friends). She doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t know her passions, and because of this, she doesn’t know who she wants to be with. She aches with a lack of determination, acting impulsively in deciding to break up with her boyfriend and embark on new relationships with her two co-workers.

This is not high art. Dialogue is entirely improvised, the film shot cheaply on digital. The cast is composed of people you probably would meet at any dive bar in the friendly, hip part of any American city. But it’s the way our generation is so honestly captured that makes this film valuable– more as a document than an artwork. If we may collectively choose one movie to tell us who we were in our early twenties, this would be it.

The Wallace Collection

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Art is a thing for the unhappy. Standing in front of a Pietà is one thing if you are sad, constantly on the verge of tears, a trembling, unsheltered mess living on clementines and sleeping under a rough wool blanket. But to view the same Pietà under ideal circumstances [you’ve just won the lottery, fallen in love, and eaten a pot of chocolate mousse all in one afternoon], your skin isn’t so thin. You can’t feel the struggle, the weight, the glory– nothing but the aftertaste of chocolate and the hand that you hold.

In one way, I’m happy I’m falling in love with this city. I am happier every day, with more and more reason to stay. On the other hand, all of this good feeling makes it harder to connect with art. Months ago, I was easily brought to tears by a beautiful painting. This weekend, I went to London’s epicenter of beautiful paintings, and I felt nothing beyond academic appreciation.

On Saturday I went to the Wallace Collection to see the Bouchers and Fragonards. Those scalloped lines, Rococo flirtations, coy smiles, rosy cheeks. When I first visited the Fragonard room at the Frick, my heart beat so fast. This time, I made notes in my notebook, nodded a bit, crinkled my forehead. That’s it. Ugh. I should have been a sensitive mess. Cooing over pinks and blues, sighing over satin and wallpaper. Nothing.

I’m going to go back to the Wallace Collection when I can really feel it. For the time being, during this rapturous period of perfect days, I’m going to forget about it. Art is most worthwhile when it provokes physical reaction.

Tour With a Preparator

Today I had the fantastic opportunity to look around the offices and workrooms at the Cantor Art Center at Stanford. A friend of my mother’s mentioned that his father was a preparator at the museum and helped arrange the tour.

Jeff, the preparator, was friendly and outgoing. He answered way too many of my questions, with a smile on his face the whole time. We got to see parts of the museum that I never visited while at the Brooklyn Museum– framing studios, display fabrication. My experiences have always restricted me to research offices, so the sneak peek was a huge treat.

Hockney NPG Acquisition

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The National Portrait Gallery in London is constantly expanding their collection. Through recent public appeals, the NPG has acquired portraits of Lady Dacre, Barbara Villiers, John Donne, and Sir Richard Arkwright. Now, David Hockney has been added to that illustrious list.

The NPG recently bought Self-portrait with Charlie by David Hockney (2005), an incredible, colourful, and telling recent portrait. The funds were collected through a pioneering Gift Aid scheme. This means that the painting was paid for by tax concessions on tickets. The program put Gift Aid receipts into a ring-fenced purchasing fund, and, after collecting £149,000 the Hockney work is the first in Britain to be paid for by these means.

The painting was done in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio as part of a series of spontaneous portraits of friends who visited. No sketches were made, and the portrait is a result of a live improvisation. Charlie Scheips, Hockney’s friend and curator, sits behind him on a rust-coloured bench. He looks small and serious, his legs dangling off the edge of the seat, unable to touch the floor. Hockney, in contrast, looks tall, commanding, big and sure. While his friend sits small behind him, Hockney takes decisive action, painting the portrait with a firm hand.

The Gift Aid scheme sounds like a brilliant program, and I would like to find out if such methods have been piloted in the United States. There hasn’t been a mention as far as I know in any recent AAM news, but I think I’ll hit the archives.

Isaac Julien's 'Fantôme Afrique'

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Today Isaac Julien visited the Courtauld Institute, where he screened his 2005 film‘Fantôme Afrique,’ followed by a question and answer session and a presentation about the process of making the film. Julien was lovely and charismatic, and it was clear to see why he is such a star in the art world. His films are beautiful, and he is so kind when he speaks, that you would want to watch his beautiful films and listen to him speak forever.

Fantôme Afrique is a gorgeous film, an undulating, experimental triptych which explores urban Ouagadougou and rural Burkina Faso. Architecture plays the role of protagonist, opposite the personage of The Trickster and The Visitor. References to both the international and African cinematic canons abound, punctuated by archival footage and allusions to the roots of silent cinema and early Italian neo-realism. 

The experience of watching Fantôme Afrique was unique, not just due to its content, but also because we were privaleged with Julien’s commentary throughout. Unlike the thousands of people who may have seen the film in screenings at Sundance, the Pompidou, or Tate, our audience of students at the Courtauld heard Julien explain the choices he made throughout the production. The artist interpreted references to African cinema, and commented on the character of the actors. 

Unfortunately, the Courtauld theatre was not properly equipped to handle a three-screen video installation piece in surround sound. Julien more than compensated, though, by telling us where sound was intended to have particular impact, and later, speaking at length about the strength of the three-screen installation format (two screens invite the viewer to compare and contrast. But when the film is screened as a triptych, the third screen makes such simple comparisons impossible). 

The principal actors in Fantôme Afrique are Stephen Galloway and Vanessa Myrie. Galloway is an established ballet dancer, and Myrie an actress. Galloway’s scenes show him lilting, writhing against the backdrop of ancient-styled Burkina Faso mosques. Myrie walks in quiet contemplation of this place, seemingly new to her, as she acts as a channel for the viewer, who also (presumably) sees these places for the first time. The camera follows Myrie, sometimes across screens, in her slow, arresting walk. But Galloway, in contrast, appears and disappears, not unlike something from an early French trick film of the 1910s. The energy, balance, and counterbalance between the two actors electrifies the triptych. 
In Fantôme Afrique, Julien creates an imagined African continent, one which includes the late-night, urban, street-corner neon signs, the dusty, ancient mosques, and the thriving culture of African cinema . He also depicts, through the use of archival footage, the “fantômes” of an imaginary Africa, the one we know only through films such as these. 

Grain of Emptiness

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“Historically, Buddhist art has reflected the concepts of the Buddhist canon. What is interesting is the manner in which artists today internalize these concepts to create new art forms.”—Martin Brauen

Some of the most moving and memorable works of contemporary art are those which are least tangible. I’ve found works like Paul Chan’s digital projections and James Terrell’sMeeting installation at PS1 to be stirring works, despite their lack of physicality. The notions of emptiness and impermanence can be framed as aesthetic strengths, given appropriate insight and clarity. 

Grain of Emptiness, an exhibition currently on view at the Rubin Museum of Art, celebrates the voids and intangibility found in contemporary art. Featuring the work of five artists influenced by Buddhist ritual practice, the exhibition explores ideas of transience and voids in a range of media, from video and photography to painting and installation. The artists Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand all poetically incorporate essential ideas of Eastern religious beliefs into their practice. 

“These artists are inheritors of a rich tradition that threads throughout modern and contemporary art,” says Martin Brauen, organizer of Grain of Emptiness and Chief Curator at the Rubin Museum of Art. “The ideas of emptiness and impermanence, embraced by the Abstract Expressionists in the 1950s, have since been taken up by such cultural icons as John Cage and Merce Cunningham, as well as by conceptual and performance artists and others who have sought to explore in art how the insights of Buddhism intersect with everyday life.”
Works on view include a video work by Theaster Gates and several paintings by Charmion von Wiegand, a student of Piet Mondrian. Von Wiegand’s orderly and infinite flat shapes of color mirror religious forms in circles, triangles, and rainbow diamonds. Sanford Biggers’Lotus dominates the center of the gallery space—a seven-foot wide glass circle, etched with what appears to be a lotus blossom. Upon closer inspection, the blossom becomes a collection of African slave ships, detailed with the cross-section illustration of each ship’s cargo: bodies lined head-to-foot-to-head in the petals of the ersatz flower. Atta Kim’s lovely photographs of infinite layers of stillness and beauty in ice, faces, and urban centers act as meditations on emptiness and shared human identities. 

But the greatest works, the most arresting meditations on nothingness, change and changelessness, and the possibilities of intangibility are those by the German artist Wolfgang Laib. Laib’s quiet installations, made of natural materials like milk, stone, pollen, beeswax, and rice, perfectly embody the possibilities of this exhibition and the curator’s intent. The best pieces in the exhibition are Laib’s Rice Meals (2003) and Milkstone (1998–2000). Both are poems written in quiet media, testaments to interconnectedness, humanness, and the nature of the natural world. 

Laib’s Rice Meals is composed of a line of offering bowls, each filled with a small gift of rice. Each bowl contains an identical offering, all except for one. The odd bowl is filled with hazelnut pollen, bright gold in color, infinite and endless. The endlessness of the pollen is not only contained in its quantity, but also in the idea of the endless number of plants which could be gifted from the offering on view. Milkstone, one of Laib’s most famous works, is a solid piece of white marble with a small dip carved into the top of the stone. This small indentation is filled daily with fresh milk, creating what appears to be a solid surface. To get close to the stone, even at eye level, crouching on your knees, you can’t see where the stone begins and where the milk ends. Laib has created a way to make physical endlessness in natural materials. 

Grains of Emptiness is an intelligent, beautiful, and meditative celebration of the too-often overlooked possibilities for contemporary art to be quiet, poetic, humble, meditative, and human. This exhibition is a moving antithesis to much of the chaos often associated with contemporary art in New York. Highly recommended. 

“Grain of Emptiness: Buddhism-Inspired Contemporary Art” continues through April 11 at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, Chelsea; (212) 620-5000,

Allen McCollum at NYPL

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A Conversation with Allan McCollum and Josiah McElheny, Organized by Art21 and the New York Public Library, October 6, 2009.

“How do artists use systems? Why do we accept some systems while rebelling against others? Who owns images? How do artists invent new grammars and logics in today’s supercharged, information-based society?” -Art21

Allan McCollum uses methods borrowed from mass-production and assembly lines in creating individual artworks which provoke questions of uniqueness, value, and the visible hand of the artist. His works, endless numbers of small objects displayed programmatically, are deceptive in their nature: it is nearly impossible to imagine that each work in a vast series has been made (laboriously) by hand. With an inclination towards shape, subtlety, and planning algorithms, McCollum’s art is as much mechanical and scientific as it is sublime and overwhelming. 

With the help of assistants, paleontologists, meteorologists, woodworkers, and countless others, McCollum has shaped a body of work which returns repeatedly to the idea of surrogates, stand-ins, and copies. A white-walled gallery takes on the form of a study center or research laboratory when filled with his drawings, paintings, and sculptures. 

Last week, McCollum discussed his work at the New York Public Library, in association with Art21. The artist is one of the subjects of the new season of the PBS documentary series about contemporary artists and their work. He concluded his presentation with a conversation with artist Josiah McElheny, who was featured in Art21’s third season. 

Again and again, McCollum returned to the question “How do we think about what an art object is?” His work seems as dependent on this conceptual consideration as it is on materials and process. 

The Surrogate Paintings are perhaps one of McCollum’s most recognizable series. Begun in 1978, each Surrogate is made from wood and board and shaped like a framed work of art. However, unlike a traditional painting, the flat plane and its frame are indivisible: linked as a solid body. Plaster Surrogates, begun in 1982, was a series which stemmed from the first group of Surrogate Paintings. Rubber molds were made of select works in the previous series, and then solid works (resembling paintings) were cast in plaster. These “constructed paintings” satisfy all the definitions of what a painting is while contradicting the same standards. 

Another recognizable McCollum series is his “Individual Works,” which he began in 1987. To produce the “Individual Works,” he collected small shapes and plastic pieces which he found in dime stores, on sidewalks, markets, and hardware stores. These objects included“bottle-caps, jar-lids, drawer-pulls, salt-shakers, flashlights, measuring spoons, cosmetics containers, yogurt cups, earrings, push-buttons, candy-molds, garden-hose connectors, paper-weights, shade-pulls, Chinese tea-cups, cat toys, pencil sharpeners, etc.” From these disparate shapes, McCollum created a system by which an infinite number of unique shapes could be produced, combined to create new shapes, and painted with a glossy enamel more befitting machine-made objects. The “Individual Works” are usually made into sets of 10,000, and displayed in an incredible spread which begs disbelief of their manual manufacture.[Image]
McCollum has created countless other iconic series, though my favorite (especially in light of his episode of Art21) is the Shapes from Maine project. Begun in 2005, the Shapes from Maine were begun after McCollum’s earlier Shapes Project, which sought to create an infinite number of unique shapes—one for every person on the planet. Using an algorithm and designs which could create over 31,000,000,000 Shapes, McCollum has made 214,000,000 individual forms so far. These shapes form the source material for a number of his recent experiments, including Shapes from Maine.

Shapes from Maine was undertaken in collaboration with craftsmen McCollum found on the internet. He was particularly drawn to artisans who work out of their homes and sell their own work online. Communicating exclusively by phone and e-mail, he selected four small crafts workshops to create hundreds of custom, hand-made shapes which were derived from his design algorithm. Copper cookie cutters, wooden ornaments, rubber stamps, and hand-cut silhouettes were all made to McCollum’s specifications. 

The Shapes from Maine project in particular wrestles with the divide between handmade objects and mass production. Do we value these objects less, despite their craftsmanship, due to their quantity? Objects that are alike are often deemed less interesting than objects which are unique, as are objects which are made by a group as opposed to an individual.Shapes from Maine was designed by McCollum to rely on a group of artists to create an incredibly large body of objects and then ask us the question “Does our quantity limit our value?”

Questions about quantity and value are extremely relevant today. With globalization, widespread capitalism, and the endangered idea of craftsmanship, what does it mean when individuals imitate mechanized processes in their creative endeavors? What is the value of “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?” In his treatise of the same name, Walter Benjamin argues that an object’s importance is not dictated by its physical characteristics, but rather the idea of its exhibition, limited quantity, or its provenance. Of all artists whose work should be read in the context of Benjamin’s ideas, McCollum’s is the most provocative and convincing. 

Watch Allan McCollum in the Art21 Season 5 episode Systems, premiering on Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 10pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings). The episode will also feature artists John Baldessari, Kimsooja, and Julie Mehretu.

The Function of the Studio

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Tonight the Courtauld Institute of Art hosted a panel titled “The Function of the Studio: Four Artists in Conversation” with artists Shezad Dawood, Gautier Deblonde, Antony Gormley and Andrew Grassie.

From the program for the evening, as advertised by the Institute: ‘In 1971 the French artist Daniel Buren published an essay titled ‘The Function of the Studio’ in which he expounded his “distrust” of the studio and its “simultaneously idealising and ossifying function”. As a manifesto for his own critical practice, Buren’s essay proposed the “extinction” of the studio, paving the way for what has since been called a ‘post-studio’ era. Despite this, however, artists today still choose to work from studios, whether they be isolated work spaces or entrepreneurial offices. And many, in keeping with a long art historical tradition, continue to make the artist’s studio the subject of their work. This discussion will bring together Shezad Dawood, Gautier Deblonde, Antony Gormley and Andrew Grassie – four internationally-acclaimed artists working in a variety of media – to ask ‘What is the function, and significance, of the studio for artists working today?’

The speakers were all interesting, and each had a very different relationship to and perception of the studio space and its role in artistic practice.

Gormley, perhaps the best-known of the artists on the panel, began the discussion with his thoughts on his personal work space. He said, “The studio is a very old concept. I think of the studio I work in as an industrial space for creative work. It’s a very movable feast. When I think of what I do, it’s impossible not to say "we,” the studio (with his eight assistants) is a much larger organism.“ Though he has a custom-built studio, Gormley still insists that "it’s the work that makes the work. The work also gives directives to those who work with me. Grounds for experimentation.”

“The studio is a space of transformation, a place for memory,” continued Gormley. “With the work making new demands it could no longer negotiate an old steam laundry in Peckham.” Gormley’s new studio suits his work better. “It’s a context for creative community, it radically changed my ability to work– it had proved its potency with the most important elements: silence, space, and light.”

Gormley is very much connected to his studio space and sees it as the cradle of his production process. Though some claim we live in a post-studio era, Gormley could not create works of the same mass or scale without such a dedicated work space.

Photographer Gautier Deblonde followed Gormley and spoke about his series of photographs he makes of artists’ studios. He spoke about trying to find visible evidence of an artistic process in a tangible space. It was interesting to hear how he photographs: he waits to be left alone in the studio, without the artist present. There he tries to capture both the artist and their process in their absence. One interesting case study was a comparison of two of Deblonde’s photographs: he simultaneously showed a photograph he took of Gerhard Richter’s studio and a photograph he took of Paula Rego’s studio. Richter refused to let Deblonde photograph works in progress, and what we see is a clean, slick, white box space with finished canvasses hung in an orderly row across the walls. There is no sign of process or personality. Rego’s studio, on the other hand, is full, messy, and lively. Set pieces and fabric mannequins take up most of the room, brushes, paints and ladders litter the floor. While Richter seems reluctant to communicate a relationship with the studio (perhaps as a post-studio artist?), Rego is evident in her studio– perhaps even more than in her paintings.

Painter Andrew Grassie has a much more complicated relationship with the studio space. As an artist who meticulously paints photorealistic “portraits” of studio spaces, he is most interested in the studio’s potential for self-reflexivity. He said, “At art college, you are given a studio, left in a white room, and told to get on with it. These studios are a mix of public and private, a white space without any external parameters.” Grassie’s work is a reflection of and reaction to such white spaces, as he paints hyper-realistic quiet spaces without external references. For Grassie, the studio is more a subject than a place. He finds that painting such works freed him from “the responsibility of invention.”

I was less interested in Shezad Dawood’s idea of the studio: Dawood is more itinerant, less reliant on space. He constantly “creates spaces,” though often they are not tangible. In describing his film “Feature,” in which he brought together a real-life underground gay cowboy subculture with a group of born-again Christian wild West re-enactors, Dawood says this was a creation of a kind of studio space. “I like to create a space where things can happen,” Dawood said. “That’s my kind of studio.” As a truly post-studio artist, more than the other speakers on the panel, Dawood spoke to the restlessness of a restrictive studio. He is less interested in having a creative locus, and more invested in a “struggle for value and meaning.”

The term “studio” only came into common usage in the early nineteenth-century. Before then, artists had workrooms, workshops, ateliers. Is “studio” still a valid term? Or are the terms “places of performance” or “place of display” more accurate in the twenty-first century? I’d like to read more on the subject, and this fantastic panel inspired a new string of questions.

Vagabonds Stockholm

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When people ask me what I want to do when I finish graduate school, sometimes I say “I want to read a lot of books.” There is no clear vision of which city, state, or even which country I will live in. My idea of post-graduate life is something like a room full of books, some of which I’ve written, all of which I’ve read.

Reading the design blogs today, I saw this amazing bookshop interior in Stockholm which has altered the way my daydreams look. Design firm Smånsk has redesigned the Vagabonds travel bookshop, fitting the interiors with bookshelves which echo the continuing lines of the city map, printed on the floor. Gorgeous.

OK, so I have no direction. I want to read all day. But at least now I know that perhaps I want my bookshelves to be yellow.

Annette Messager

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I remember once hearing someone describe Annette Messager’s work as “feminine” rather than “feminist” art. In viewing her exhibition “The Messengers” at the Hayward Gallery, I tried to transpose the feminine rather than the feminist onto my reading of her work. But the stylistic connection to early feminist art was indelible, even distracting. Messager’s body of work, shown in a contemporary space like the Hayward, seems dated and superfluous. Her art is so closely entwined in the heavy-handed Victorian symbolism which has unfortunately come to define early feminist art. The same criticisms that are made of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” could easily translate to the conversation about Messager’s retrospective.

Many of the pictorial themes which have become synonymous with the deprecation of feminist art are present in “The Messengers.” There are the photographs of children with their eyes scratched out, images of the artist’s body parts in close-up. Dresses in glass cases, hung on the wall with adjectives like “jealous” and “innocent.” And though perhaps it may have even been Messager’s work that shaped the standard in the 1970s, the mere echo of their cliche softens their visual impact.

Messager draws on a wide body of references which inform her work. Using a variety of sources which includes art brut, children’s animated films, tattoo, and Voodoo, she must be respected for her courage in using images which were foreign to fine art at the time. And we must also remember that the conditions of the 1970s made her sensitive, cooing fascinations into acceptable themes of the avant-garde.

I am aware that I approach Messager’s work with an extreme bias. I am both a feminist and a young art historian, and I have worked in the curatorial department of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. I have spent a good deal of my life thinking about the kind of problems which can be read in Messager’s work. As a feminist, I believe that the ultimate intention of feminisms in art should be the development of gender-blind readings of visual culture. The idea of feminist art will never succeed so long as it occupies itself with notions of the feminine. A fault in Messager’s work for me is its adherence to the feminine, the work will never divorce itself from its female identity. The work is self-aware, hyper-conscious of its creation by a woman. This kind of “tokenism” is exactly the challenge which faces the many scholars and critics who are desperately trying to establish feminist art as something which cannot be debated or questioned (presently, it seems “feminist art” is still on the verge of distinguishing itself. “WACK” at the MOCA in 2007 was successful in championing the movement, while “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn that same year opened more gaps in the debate).

Many of the problems I have with “The Messengers” are similar to those I have with Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Known to many as the rallying cry of the feminist art movement, Chicago exclusively used “female” art mediums to express respect and gratitude to “feminists” throughout history (I use quotation marks to express a sort of skepticism I have about Chicago’s application of the term “feminist” to women who lived before the formation of the idea. Personally, I don’t think it it appropriate to identify somebody else’s political beliefs with an ex post facto terminology, especially one so heavy as feminism. If they themselves identified as such after the creation of the idea, fine. But the word was introduced in the United States around 1895, long after the lives and deaths of many of Chicago’s heroines.) Chicago used “feminine” media like ceramics and weaving to create the physical battle cry of “The Dinner Party.”

Messager, too, uses materials in a conscious, feminine way. She uses materials which can be found in the home, the woman’s place. She says “I only wanted to use materials that you would be likely to find in a home, an attic: a ball of wool, colored pencils, fabric, as if there were a kind of sequestration in the desire to become an artist.” It becomes difficult to view Messager’s materials as little more than “less than.” They seem to be meek, cast-offs, missing pieces found in piles. Somehow, this feeling of the works being created from the found never leaves. The work also cannot surpass their medium, which lays like a heavy pox upon the retrospective. “The Messengers” is held down by the feminine, the unchallenged elements of early feminism that were left to fester and create the problematic encyclopedia of images that the movement has to address today.


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Charles Saatchi’s opinion is important. As an outspoken and pioneering collector, he holds the highest position as taste maker of our day. A Saatchi exhibition should be treated like the opening credits to a film about the things we will one day appreciate or criticize– a teaser, a test of the aesthetics which will come to define our generation, willingly or not.

And there is the newly-erected temple dedicated to Saatchi’s tastes– a magnificent colonnade-boasting palace in Chelsea, on the grand Duke of York Square. Even if every exhibition in the new gallery were a tragically huge disaster, Saatchi’s position as king of contemporary art would be maintained. He led the YBA parade of the nineties as grand marshall, ushering in the adoration of golden youths like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. And, with a new space, he has new intentions. Not only will he shepherd the young, audacious, and creative egoists of his stable. No—now he will also embrace the international, the young, beautiful, and political artists from China and the Middle East. Between his big budget and taste for the new, there is no potential for the failure of the new Saatchi Gallery– there will only be success in greater or lesser degrees.

The new Saatchi exhibition, “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East,” is surprising. The show was clearly shaped by the same inclinations which organized the last exhibition of new art from China. Even the first gallery was occupied by a work of the same scale and subject matter of the previous exhibition. In the China show, the room was filled with a replica cityscape constructed of dog chews. “Unveiled” opens with a piece by Marwan Rechmaoui titled “Beirut Caoutchouc”– a large, engraved rubber floor mat in the shape of Beirut’s current city map. The work, about eight by seven meters, communicates in excruciating detail the roads and neighborhoods of Beirut. Why dedicate the same space to a piece about place? Is Saatchi reminding us of the last exhibition, trying to create continuity in a dedicated area for thinking about topography? These intentions are not made clear, though Rechmaoui’s piece is arresting in it’s stark simplicity and difficult grid.

Rechmaoui’s second piece in the gallery was one of the best in the exhibition. “Spectre (The Yacoubian Building, Beirut)” is an exact replica of the artist’s former apartment building. In life, the apartments were evacuated during the conflict in the summer of 2006, and the model is presented as a memento of the place post-evacuation. Eerily quiet, small, and vacant, the building is a tomb of miniature silences. Constructed from concrete and glass and held together by meager strips of grout and wood, the structure buckles under the weight of its emptiness. The place is delicate, accepting of its abandonment to the point where further human interaction with its construction would command it to fall upon itself.

Another one of the show’s most moving works is “Ghost” by Kader Attia. Filling an entire dedicated gallery, the piece consists of rows and rows of human forms— 240 seated women in hoods bowing deep in prayer. It’s so quiet, you can almost hear the collective hum of their prayers. Constructed of aluminum foil, they prostrate themselves in blinding silver unison. Facing the same direction, some bow just at the neck, others have their faces down on the floor. Walking from the entrance of the gallery, visitors see the figures from behind, deep in prayer. It is only when you walk along beside the figures that you see the form is empty: the hoods are hollow foil, a vacuum containing nothing but implied shape. If a visitor were to enter from the other doorway, the effect of the piece would be wholly different: the other way, one sees nothing but hundreds of empty hoods, bowed in alignment.

[Image]Rokni Haerizadeh, a young Iranian painter, creates epic tableaux which bring to mind simultaneously Kitaj, Hockney, and Breughel. His canvasses are so electric with energy and heat, you can hear them. There’s music, yelling, waves lapping. In a diptych titled “Typical Iranian Funeral” he shows the elaborate construction of the affair and the dichotomies of Iranian culture. On one panel, a meal is shared between the close friends and family of the deceased. Tables divide people perhaps according to their relationships—friends at one, family at another, colleagues at yet another. The affair is civil, quiet, and wholly respectful. The second funeral panel shows the public rituals of mourning: the rented loudspeakers, mourners for hire. This is a society with intrinsic difficulties, visible in the most human and common daily rites. In “Shomal (Beach at the Caspian)”, Haerizadeh paints another diptych—this one showing a typical day at the seaside. In one panel, men dance and play in the sea, taking in the sun, resting on the sand in their swimming trunks. In the second panel, the men are being served by women strolling in burkas and overcoats, hand-feeding them watermelon, unable to feel the sun on their skin. Brush strokes are fluid, evoking the lapping waves of the sea and the idle sentiment of the men, unaware of the inequalities they proliferate.

There are so many more powerful works in this exhibition, I could not possibly write about them all. Suffice it to say that Saatchi has succeeded in this endeavor. Here we are finally presented with some revelatory insights, the illustrations which ought to accompany the biased reports from the BBC. These works together form a humanist reading of the crises in the Middle East. In a rare instance, this is a contemporary exhibition free from the constraints that often hold down new work: consumerism, celebrity, and the position of artist as celebrity. These young, new artists are original, witty, and political. Perhaps Saatchi has succeeded in finding new talents for his post-YBA stables after all.

“Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” runs at the Saatchi Gallery through May 6.

Napoleon's Horse

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Sometimes, when traveling, you find things in places where they should not be. 

You are in the Czartoryski museum in Krakow on a rainy day, reading the wall label of a French cabinet. You murmur “hmmmm” in room after room of marble side tables and coral chess sets until you approach one of the last galleries on the top floor. Walk slowly, and then you see her. Da Vinci's Lady With An Ermine is looking back at you: all white with silky skin. She looks off into the distance, bored and unimpressed with your shock or enthusiasm in finding her. After all, she’s been hanging around Krakow for years.

I had the same experience the other day, walking around the basement of the National Army Museum in London with my friend, Helen. Without realizing it, we soon walk straight into a glass case above which a proud sign states “NAPOLEON’S HORSE.” And it is. Marengo, probably the most famous horse in art history, is there in hundreds of pieces wired together: all bones and dignity. This poor thing had crossed mountains, assisted in fighting the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, he even posed for the famous portrait of his buddy crossing the alps. And all for what? To sit in a glass case in a musty Chelsea basement, waiting for the day when someone should say “He is not where he’s supposed to be.”

The Seattle Scene

Please excuse the lull in postings. I’ve recently relocated from Greenpoint, Brooklyn to beautiful Seattle, Washington. With the change of scenery, this blog will surely take on a slightly different shape. In the meantime, I’m happy to receive tips you might be willing to share on the art scene in my newly adopted city. Please send any inside scoop to me at

Rauschenberg/Baldessari Prints

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Rauschenberg and Baldessari Prints at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprised of the Legion of Honor and the de Young museum, are simultaneously exhibiting the prints of pop artists John Baldessari and Robert Rauschenberg, respectively. Though the concurrent displays are not intended to serve as a dialogue between the two institutions, there are undeniable exchanges between both exhibitions.

“John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective,” at the Legion of Honor, is a methodical and chronological exploration of the artist’s development as a printmaker from 1970 to today. On view are 125 works spanning forty years of experimentation with diverse methods of image-making, including photoetching, photo-offset lithography, and photogravure.

One of the more prominent themes in Baldessari’s works is a fascination with detritus and anonymity. Though his early prints drew on the artist’s personal photographs, he eventually turned to found imagery, movie stills, and altered posters. This fascination with found material most clearly culminated in the 1994 series “Table Lamp and Its Shadow,” in which Baldessari used photographs of table lamps he found in hotel rooms in creating a series of printed objects which are only saved from anonymity by his usual bright colors.

In 2004, Baldessari began another large series of works based on a found image/ object. He approached the Mixografia workshop in Los Angeles (the same workshop which produced the “Table Lamp” series) with a found image of two men standing in front of Stonehenge. A six-part print was made from the single Xeroxed photograph, using different colors to obscure both the faces of the men and the monument itself.

Generally, Baldessari’s work is complex, despite its reliance on simplifying images to blocks of color and layer. He creates impersonal prints from impersonal objects and events, removing himself further and further from the subject with each printer’s proof. This absence of the artist is extremely antithetical to the deeply personal prints of Robert Rauschenberg, simultaneously on display at the de Young.

“Remembering Rauschenberg: The Artist’s Prints” is a concise exhibition of many of Rauschenberg’s innovative print series, made in collaboration with fine art presses around the world. He began making prints in the 1962 at Universal Limited Art Editions in West Islip, Long Island, and his relationship with the medium developed throughout the course of his career.

The exhibition includes many innovative and experimental works including “Breakthrough II” (1965), which was printed on a broken lithographic stone, and “Booster” (1967), a six-foot high x-ray of the artist’s body. Rauschenberg repeatedly draws inspiration from incredibly personal source material, in stark contrast to the found movie stills which comprise Baldessari’s prints.

The “Bellini” series, which Rauschenberg began in 1986, draws on images collected by the artist on his world travels. The prints take their name from the artist Giovanni Bellini (c. 1459-1516), whose small paintings in the Accademia, Venice, provided source material for Rauschenberg’s larger photogravures. The Bellini images are overlapped by Rauschenberg’s own photographs of urban life, and the entire series is painted with his own brushstrokes in gorgeous, jewel box colors.

The previously mentioned “Booster” is one of the artist’s key prints, and the touchstone of the de Young exhibition. For his collaboration with Gemini G.E.L., Los Angeles, Rasuchenberg wanted to produce the largest hand-pulled print ever made on a lithographic press. He succeeded with the personal, life-sized x-ray work. The production of “Booster” expanded the limits for scale and size in contemporary printmaking, making way for even larger works which Rauschenberg would produce with Gemini in the following years.

Though both Baldessari and Rauschenberg could be termed Pop printmakers and worked with some of the same printing workshops, their processes and subject matter are incredibly different. Whereas Baldessari’s images are loud, impersonal, bright, and basic, Rauschenberg’s prints are quiet, more technically innovative, and more heavily reliant on the artist’s personal experience.

The differences between both artists and their printmaking methods could not be better explored than in a direct comparison of both Fine Arts Museums exhibitions. See Baldessari’s blocked-out faces at the Legion of Honor, then consider Rauschenberg’s bare bones at the de Young— there is a lot about printmaking that you can learn in one afternoon in San Francisco.

“John Baldessari: A Print Retrospective from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation” is on view at the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, until November 8, 2009.

“Remembering Rauschenberg: The Artist’s Prints” is on view at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, until October 4, 2009.