the art object/lauren palmor

Feb 21

Phoebe Cummings, “Flora (detail)” (2010), unfired clay.


Dust, decay, and ash—to confront the remnants of destructive acts is to confront our own inevitabilites. The burdens of history and knowledge demand a grim grammar for these materials, their very presence indicates nothingness and everything. 

In Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, currently at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, dust and ash are given a forum in which to speak as artistic material. When framed by thoughtful artistic practices, remnants and detritus of existence are allowed to speak beyond their purest purposes of nothingness and the physical embodiment of nothingness. 

One of the first works one encounters upon entering the exhibition is not immediately decipherable, embodying what appear to be grape stems on a low white platform on the gallery floor. On closer inspection, the shapes of the grape stems have been drawn in black sand. The artist uses sand, a physical material emobodying earth’s infinitudes, to draw a very small selection of natural phenomena, uncontrollable and unduplicable.There will never be two grape stems exactly alike, just as all the grains of sand in the work could never be counted. The entire exercise brings to mind the Kabbalist view of human existence: that we are nothing but grains on a single mustard seed in an endless field of mustard flowers. 

Many of the works in Swept Away have a similar effect, provoking the viewer to contemplate the infinite and the secured knowledge of our demise in this unending world. These revelations are necessarily disquieting, and the exhibition is best approached with a comfort in existentialist perspectives. For those who cannot contemplate the dialogue between existence and essence, the exhibition will lack the most beautiful stanzas of its inherent poetry.

In her work The Smog Collector, Kim Abeles presents a table and chairs, the settings all in place for a meal. The plates are set, decorated with what look like stencils of graphite showing the flatware and food. But, after reading the label, the viewer realizes that the marks on the white surfaces are not graphite—the artist put the white place settings on the roof of her Los Angeles studio with stencils attached to their surfaces. She then let the plates and cloths sit in the smoggy air until they abosorbed the (un)natural dyes of pollution. Realizing that the artist made these dark and lasting artistic marks with the polluted air that some millions of people breath every day is disquieting and absolutely arresting. In the ideal world in which we eat what we can grow ourselves, this would be the air that nourishes our fruits and vegetables that would end up on our tables in our homes. Looking at The Smog Collector, I thought about my own Los Angeles childhood. I remembered my mother’s vegetable patch in the back garden (a radical notion for an early nineties Angeleno) and the little carrots which grew in tidy rows. I remember sneakily eating the carrots before my mother had the chance to pull them out of the ground, savoring the most innocent of garden crimes. Abeles’ work clutched my chest, reminding me of the filthy glory of eating a Nichols Canyon Carrot. Imagine the purest idea of painting with pollution, which is by its very nature a hideous and fascinating proposition. 

Many other works in the exhibition are equally smart and disturbing. A highlight is a quilt by Julie Parker made from felted dryer lint. Lint is, by its very nature, a strange material. It is never intentionally produced, yet its often made as a natural byproduct of living with fabric. We are surrounded by fabrics from morning til night. We wake up in bed of soft linens, swaddled in flannel, silk, cotton, or wool. When we eat breakfast, we clean up messes with rags and eat over mats and cloths. We sit on upholstered bus seats, spend the day wasting in ergonomic padded task chairs. We open curtains, we take off scarves, we put on coats, we use hand towels. We wipe our hands dry on our pants (despite being told not to), and few things feel nicer at the end of a long day than collapsing on a couch. Fabric is the fabric of our lives. So when we wash and dry these things, lint (a familiar byproduct of drying soft material in a tumble dryer) becomes evidence of all of these actions. Lint is a physical story of contact with the body—it contains hair, fluff, the fuzz we pick up on the bus or in the library. As a material it isn’t usually imbued with artistic license, though Parker’s quilt, fashioned from countless squares of tidily organized lint specimens, frames human detritus as something which produces a tangible product. 

The Museum of Arts and Design is one of the bravest exhibitioning institutions today. Since moving to its new home in Columbus Circle in 2008, the MAD has consistently produced exhibitions which not only question the nature of materials and form, but also those braver exhibitons which suggest a speculation about the very definition of materials. Last year, the MAD exhibition "Dead or Alive" investigated the boundaries for the use of biological materials in art making and the nature of work which crosses said limits. In Swept Away, the MAD showcases the work of artists who use the immaterial as the material core of their practice. The theme of material is consistent and is a core interest throughout the MAD exhibitions program, though with this venture I wonder how they will ever top themselves. After beautifully and magically bringing toegther so many physical expressions of the nature of dust, what materials are left? With a collecting emphasis in glass arts, the MAD already has a relationship to fire and air. Perhaps water, as the remaining natural elements unexplored by the MAD curators, will make itself known in a future provocative exhibiton. 

Phoebe Cummings, “Flora (detail)” (2010), unfired clay.

Dust, decay, and ash—to confront the remnants of destructive acts is to confront our own inevitabilites. The burdens of history and knowledge demand a grim grammar for these materials, their very presence indicates nothingness and everything. 

In Swept Away: Dust, Ashes, and Dirt in Contemporary Art and Design, currently at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, dust and ash are given a forum in which to speak as artistic material. When framed by thoughtful artistic practices, remnants and detritus of existence are allowed to speak beyond their purest purposes of nothingness and the physical embodiment of nothingness. 

One of the first works one encounters upon entering the exhibition is not immediately decipherable, embodying what appear to be grape stems on a low white platform on the gallery floor. On closer inspection, the shapes of the grape stems have been drawn in black sand. The artist uses sand, a physical material emobodying earth’s infinitudes, to draw a very small selection of natural phenomena, uncontrollable and unduplicable.There will never be two grape stems exactly alike, just as all the grains of sand in the work could never be counted. The entire exercise brings to mind the Kabbalist view of human existence: that we are nothing but grains on a single mustard seed in an endless field of mustard flowers. 

Many of the works in Swept Away have a similar effect, provoking the viewer to contemplate the infinite and the secured knowledge of our demise in this unending world. These revelations are necessarily disquieting, and the exhibition is best approached with a comfort in existentialist perspectives. For those who cannot contemplate the dialogue between existence and essence, the exhibition will lack the most beautiful stanzas of its inherent poetry.

In her work The Smog Collector, Kim Abeles presents a table and chairs, the settings all in place for a meal. The plates are set, decorated with what look like stencils of graphite showing the flatware and food. But, after reading the label, the viewer realizes that the marks on the white surfaces are not graphite—the artist put the white place settings on the roof of her Los Angeles studio with stencils attached to their surfaces. She then let the plates and cloths sit in the smoggy air until they abosorbed the (un)natural dyes of pollution. Realizing that the artist made these dark and lasting artistic marks with the polluted air that some millions of people breath every day is disquieting and absolutely arresting. In the ideal world in which we eat what we can grow ourselves, this would be the air that nourishes our fruits and vegetables that would end up on our tables in our homes. Looking at The Smog Collector, I thought about my own Los Angeles childhood. I remembered my mother’s vegetable patch in the back garden (a radical notion for an early nineties Angeleno) and the little carrots which grew in tidy rows. I remember sneakily eating the carrots before my mother had the chance to pull them out of the ground, savoring the most innocent of garden crimes. Abeles’ work clutched my chest, reminding me of the filthy glory of eating a Nichols Canyon Carrot. Imagine the purest idea of painting with pollution, which is by its very nature a hideous and fascinating proposition. 

Many other works in the exhibition are equally smart and disturbing. A highlight is a quilt by Julie Parker made from felted dryer lint. Lint is, by its very nature, a strange material. It is never intentionally produced, yet its often made as a natural byproduct of living with fabric. We are surrounded by fabrics from morning til night. We wake up in bed of soft linens, swaddled in flannel, silk, cotton, or wool. When we eat breakfast, we clean up messes with rags and eat over mats and cloths. We sit on upholstered bus seats, spend the day wasting in ergonomic padded task chairs. We open curtains, we take off scarves, we put on coats, we use hand towels. We wipe our hands dry on our pants (despite being told not to), and few things feel nicer at the end of a long day than collapsing on a couch. Fabric is the fabric of our lives. So when we wash and dry these things, lint (a familiar byproduct of drying soft material in a tumble dryer) becomes evidence of all of these actions. Lint is a physical story of contact with the body—it contains hair, fluff, the fuzz we pick up on the bus or in the library. As a material it isn’t usually imbued with artistic license, though Parker’s quilt, fashioned from countless squares of tidily organized lint specimens, frames human detritus as something which produces a tangible product. 

The Museum of Arts and Design is one of the bravest exhibitioning institutions today. Since moving to its new home in Columbus Circle in 2008, the MAD has consistently produced exhibitions which not only question the nature of materials and form, but also those braver exhibitons which suggest a speculation about the very definition of materials. Last year, the MAD exhibition "Dead or Alive" investigated the boundaries for the use of biological materials in art making and the nature of work which crosses said limits. In Swept Away, the MAD showcases the work of artists who use the immaterial as the material core of their practice. The theme of material is consistent and is a core interest throughout the MAD exhibitions program, though with this venture I wonder how they will ever top themselves. After beautifully and magically bringing toegther so many physical expressions of the nature of dust, what materials are left? With a collecting emphasis in glass arts, the MAD already has a relationship to fire and air. Perhaps water, as the remaining natural elements unexplored by the MAD curators, will make itself known in a future provocative exhibiton. 

[video]

Oct 21

Gardens Contained and Floating

I am very proud to be a part of the Singapore-based UNDERSCORE Magazine, a beautiful publication “attuned to a simple rhythm;quality of life.” With every issue, UNDERSCORE surprises me with its glorious design and lush writing. The magazine also includes work by young creatives from all over the world, and I am grateful to be included in the mix. 


UNDERSCORE No. 3: THE FIGHT ISSUE has just recently been released, and its publication was celebrated with an exhibition of independent magazines at selected cafes throughout Singapore. It is incredibly exciting to be a part of a publication with such a strong creative vision that also supports similar projects, fostering a true sense of camaraderie and craft among international artists, writers, and designers.


I would like to share my contribution to UNDERSCORE No. 3, though I recommend finding a physical copy of the magazine so you can better experience Annelie Bruijn's beautiful photographs and the overall experience of handling such a gorgeous, thoughtfully-designed publication.




Gardens Contained and Floating
By Lauren Palmor

Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.
—Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897

People have always shaped plants. For the past 4,000 years, gardening has had a prominent place in global culture, from the ancient hanging gardens of Babylon to the Mughal garden fronting the Taj Mahal and from the gardens of Versailles to Central Park. Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, gardening and the placement, care and shaping of plants have been influenced by developments in visual and ecological culture. Though plants continue to affect many aspects of our lives, they do so now through the contemporary lenses of sustainability, art, radical design, environmentalism, and the strong do-it-yourself approach of young, creative people around the world. In recent years, the way we physically shape, manipulate, and employ plants has been affected by new awareness, imagination and creativity.

Contemporary artists, designers, gardeners, and craftsmen have been exceedingly innovative in their  handling of plants. Around the world, young visionaries are using a wide variety of materials and physical locations to alter our daily experience with  flora, and by so doing, greatly heightening the public’s awareness of their natural environment.  And, despite being raised in various man-made and even somewhat unnatural conditions, plant life continues to evolve, grow, and thrive.

Terraria are a good example of plants’ ability to grow under strict conditions tempered by the aesthetic and physical restrictions imposed upon them. Though terraria have been in existence for nearly 200 years, they have only recently undergone a contemporary revival which has altered their character and increased their popularity among a younger generation. The terrarium was invented accidentally in 1829 when a London doctor named Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered plant growth in a jar which held moss and a moth’s cocoon. While waiting for the cocoon to hatch, the doctor saw small plants growing from underneath the moss, a surprise to him, given that the jar was sealed. Ward’s interest in his discovery culminated in the publication of a book on the subject in 1842 titled On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. This led to a surge in popularity of terraria or “Wardian Cases” in England throughout the Victorian period, though  interest eventually declined over the course of the twentieth century. 

In recent years, the terrarium may have experienced its greatest resurgence in popularity since Ward’s day. A younger generation of craftsmen and artists has discovered the appeal of keeping and caring for a small, contained piece of the natural world within their homes. The revived interest in terraria has happened in part due to their special appeal to those who live in urban environments in which there may be little access to outdoor green space and limited space for indoor gardening projects. A terrarium requires little effort and fosters the experience of nature on a personal scale. Despite their containment, which obviously removes them from the wild outdoors, terrarium plants thrive and grow, against all natural odds. 

A terrarium is a strictly controlled environment, making the plants within it completely dependent on their caretaker for air, light, water, and food. A closed terrarium, the most common type, often looks like a wondrous, miniature forest or an entire ecological universe within a bell jar. To make such a magical world, one must pick from nature those elements which would be appealing together in a small space, somewhat analogous to painting with moss and fern instead of paint and brush. A well executed container garden can convey the sense of looking down on a forest from the treetops, a snapshot of the wilderness outside. 

It’s easy to imagine how terraria would hold such appeal to young designers and artists working today: these controlled environments allow for the manipulation of nature to a creative end. Though their roots are firmly in the nineteenth century, terraria have been revived in the twenty-first—and today’s versions of these miniature gardens don’t strongly resemble their predecessors. Contemporary terraria marry many recent trends in design, art, and craft. Some terrarium artists now include miniature sculpture and found art in their bell jars, while others utilize hand-blown containers designed by local artists. And, as more urbanites grow their own food and engage more actively in thinking about plant life and the natural world, so too can they create beautiful gardens on an intimate scale, bringing these ideas into their homes. Terraria have also been affected by the growing popularity of urban farmers’ markets and craft fairs, and both venues have become popular points of trade for these miniature gardens. Boutique florists specializing in terraria can be found in most major American cities, from Seattle and San Francisco to New York and Chicago, and their popularity from coast to coast can attest to the myriad ways in which plants can thrive and change our perception of the natural world.

Other young artists and designers have found ways to work with plants outside of the kind of limitations ascribed to terraria. Dutch artist and botanist Fedor Van der Valk has recently been gaining attention worldwide for his “string gardens”—plants grown without pots, suspended in the air and supported by nothing more than a ball of roots wrapped in moss, grass, and twine. If anything, Van der Valk’s string gardens function as the extreme contrast of terraria: rather than contain plant life in a small container, he grows plants in space, beyond the limitations of any pot, bowl, or jar.

Despite the strange conditions under which he places his plants, Van der Valk ensures that they can grow and thrive. He’s had great success with transforming perennials, annuals, shrubs, small trees, and orchids into floating works of art suspended in space. Through experimentation, trial, and error, he has developed a system in which he can capture the beauty of plants in ways previously unseen: he uses a crochet stitch to first construct frames for the plants. Then, he bolsters the root ball of the plant with moss and earth to maintain the ball’s shape. “For a while I wanted to make animated videos with crocheted landscapes which were a kind of 3-dimensional spider web covered in moss and grass” says van der Valk. “The idea was to create bonsai-esque plants. To keep the landscapes really airy, I decided to work with hanging plants.”

The landscapes are assuredly airy, and they strongly resemble kokedama, or a green moss-covered type of bonsai popular in Japan. Kokedama are bonsai which are grown fully in a pot and them removed from their container, with the soil and roots maintaining their compact shape. They are then displayed on plates, also defying expected gardening practice. But unlike kokedama, string gardens don’t only resist containment—they also manage to escape the bounds of gravity altogether. 

Van der Valk’s string gardens make an astonishing impact on their viewer: hung by itself, a small tree suspended in air is an unforgettable vision. Imagine, too, a room or a window filled with magically floating plants, suspended in the air and seemingly weightless. The impact of a hovering garden far exceeds that of the more traditional variation. String gardens form a new kind of indoor garden, a kind of floating forest which allows us to interact with plants at eye level. This is a radical alteration to the usual space between us and our potted indoor gardens. By hanging flowers and trees at eye level, we are more easily able to relate to and interact with them, as we would with our friends and family. Despite such a seemingly trivial change in the plant’s elevation, the hanging of the string gardens at eye level is quite unusual, drastically changing the way we are invited to look and interact with these gardens in the air.

String gardens, when viewed in a group, create an otherworldly sensation not unlike the feeling of peering down into the miniature universe of a terrarium. Both garden types operate on an intimate scale, inviting the viewer to engage not only with plants and the natural wonder of their existence, but also their ability to thrive in extreme circumstances, whether they are contained in delicate glass jars or suspended from the ceiling by twine. The creation of these microhabitats, in glass or in air, is a testament to nature’s ability to thrive in spite of the limitations placed upon it by human endeavors.

Sep 13

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 laurenpalmor@gmail.com.

Jun 29

BBC Your Paintings

 

Art belongs to everyone.  This fact is bolstered by the continual (though increasingly threatened) support for the public experience of art by international governments, public museums, and cultural policy-makers, and the subject of access to art has provoked passionate discourse for hundreds of years. Ideas about the freedom of art have been alternatively impacted by morality, politics, economics, education, and even the gender binary.

The early years of the 20th century saw an active debate over the role of art in daily public life in the United States. Many newspapers, magazines, and reports of the period eloquently and devotedly wrote about the need for art in the lives of all Americans. (For the best selections of such writings, I recommend reading the magazine Art and Progress, later renamed The American Magazine of Art, which was published from 1909–1953). A common example of this kind of text: “We have tried to show that art belongs to everyone and may be seen in every phase of life–in big buildings, in open spaces, in the streets at the hour of dusk and in the bright sunshine. This view of art gains ground slowly, but if, in the process, some color has been added to the grayness of the commonplace–to keep people from looking as they do when they “think very little, know very little, see very little, do very little”–we have accomplished more than we hoped for” (from the St. Louis Public Library annual report, 1914).

While there is a rich history of art access and its passionate support in the US, it often seems that the UK has been far more successful in truly embodying such democratic ideals of free culture. History and the arts remain a standard part of the British school curriculum today (unlike their impotent American counterpart), and British museums, galleries, and historic homes seem to be both more revered by and accessible to the general public than those in the US.

This week, the UK made another significant stride in the pursuit of art for all: the BBC, in association with the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF) unveiled Your Paintings, “a project to create a complete catalogue of every oil painting in the national collection, on a dedicated website. In all, the national collection amounts to some 200,000 works, held in 3,000 galleries, museums, libraries and public institutions all over the country, making it probably one of the largest and most diverse collections of paintings in the world.”

When Your Paintings went live on Friday, the site already contained a database of more than 60,000 paintings by 15,000 artists from 860 collections—with more to come. The paintings are drawn from a large scope of public collections in every part of the country, ranging from iconic works from The National Gallery in London to small, unknown art from the town halls of small Yorkshire villages. Museum collections are well represented, as are the collection s of less obvious places like police stations, universities, hospitals, and county halls. The PCF searched all over the UK to locate these paintings, with 50 coordinators and 30 photographers on staff to manage the task. Together, their efforts ensure that these artworks can now be seen and shared all over the world, by anybody with the inclination and access to the internet.

The site is inviting and easy to use: images can be searched by location, artist, or by keywords. Look up “Essex Record Office,” “John Constable,” or “umbrella” and you are guaranteed to find something you’ve never seen before. Take a “Guided Tour” with famous artists and art historians, where you can view slideshows of their favorite works in public collections (I particularly liked Yinka Shonibare’s selections).

Your Paintings also needs your help tagging the nation’s paintings. The website currently only has very basic information about many of the works such as the title, artist, and date. They do not have more detailed, searchable information about subject, style, or movements represented. Sign up to assist in tagging these works and help to make Your Paintings a more useful and effective resource. Extra points to those who have studied art history in the past: they need “expert” taggers to identify dates and styles. If you have taken more than a few art history courses, please consider offering your assistance. With more input from more participants, this database will grow to become more effective—perhaps it might even influence the creation of a similar tool for the public art of the United States.

Kudos to the BBC, the PCF, and all of those who have contributed to this ambitious and important project.

Image: A Vase of Flowers by Paul Gaugin, 1896. Click here to view it at Your Paintings

www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/

Jun 21

Walt Kuhn’s “Dressing Room”

A few months ago, I began giving a tour of American portrait painting at the Brooklyn Museum. The tour, titled “Fantasy and Reality in American Identities,” includes nine paintings in the Museum’s collection of American art. Though I find all nine works to be fascinating and valuable cultural documents, I must say that my very favorite painting in the collection is the last one I discuss on my tour: Walt Kuhn’s Dressing Room of 1926. 

I love ending my tour on a meditation of Kuhn’s bold, arresting, and intimate image of a vaudeville performer in a quiet moment backstage. Kuhn is most closely identified with these portraits of vaudeville and circus performers, and in the early 1920s, he made his living by directing and designing stage shows as he continued to paint. He was influenced in equal measures by this experience as well as that of his travels in Europe. In Europe, he encountered the work of the German Expressionists and Cezanne, who he claimed remained his strongest influence throughout the course of his career. These elements coalesce in his best-known works, forming a word of clowns and dancers painted with exaggerated features in bold colors. 

Dressing Room is a striking work. A withdrawn female performer stands in her dressing room, ready to go on stage. She is wearing a small, revealing costume, and her short, dark hair is adorned with a large, red bow. Her makeup is heavy, and the blush and lipstick on the dresser imply that she has just completed the task of getting ready.  She poses in a seductive stretch, though her face is devoid of emotion and her eyes are empty. Though she is physically prepared for the stage, dressed up in her affected unselfconscious sexuality, she is not yet engaged in the task of performing for the pleasure of others.  

The dressing room as a place is a curious space for the staging of self:  as a space, it is neither public nor private. One enters a dressing room as their whole self and exits as a character or as an idea of a specific element of their personality. It is a tangible place dedicated to creating character, erasing flaws, putting on costumes. Kuhn subtly reminds the viewer that although the dancer looks pensive in this private moment, that this is definitely not a private space. A sign on the wall is a clue that this is a shared room, and a hat stand topped with many different hats is provides more evidence to support that fact. The dancer’s face and pose, combined with the public/private space of the painting, lends to the general air of tension and unease in the portrait. 

Kuhn’s colors are also challenging and uncomfortable. The blood red of the dancer’s lips and hair ribbon scream loudly against the pallor of her skin. His strong brushstrokes and his use of bold blues and reds evoke Cezanne’s blocks of color and an interest in cubism, while he manages to pull feelings of discomfort and confrontation from whites and creams. Kuhn’s clear fascination with Fauve colors and Cubist space make this portrait an unforgettable and arresting image. 

Dressing Room makes such an impact largely because he used real vaudeville and circus dancers and performers as his models. He manages to portray these characters in the quiet, reflective moments in which they are dressed in joyful stage costumes, though they remain removed from the stage and the people they are paid to play for the pleasure of others. Kuhn’s Dressing Room is a solemn incubator, holding the dancer in a world between the city and the stage, between herself and the character who dances and smiles for an audience. Staring intently out into the world beyond the walls, Kuhn’s dancer is burdened by her awareness of the impending performance and its disconnect from her interior life. 

Visit Kuhn’s Dressing Room in the American Identities installation at the Brooklyn Museum. Live in New York City? Contact me if you’d like information about my gallery tour. 

May 06

Bye Bye Kitty!!!


When someone with only a peripheral knowledge of Japanese art is asked to think about the visual culture of Japan, a few themes might come to mind: nature, history, tradition, and cuteness. A lay discussion of Japanese contemporary art is generally influenced by Hello Kitty and 19th century woodblock prints in equal measure. The art of an entire culture is surely not contained by the two isolated phenomena of Sanrio consumer products and Hiroshige’s Views of Edo, but it is the constant struggle of those in the field to push viewers’ understanding of the overlooked genius of Japanese art—most of which is not contained by these basic, widely-accepted concepts.

The Japan Society routinely mounts spectacular exhibitions of Japanese art, past and present, which challenge the limits of cultural understanding. The current exhibition, entitled Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Art, not only challenges preconceptions of contemporary Japanese visual culture—it also elegantly ties the past to the present, showcasing works by artists who are influenced by Japanese art history and modern culture in equal parts.

Bye Bye Kitty!!! features the work of sixteen contemporary artists whose paintings, videos, installations, photographs, and sculptures mix reference to tradition with critical and political views of Japan’s present and future. The work is also surprisingly grim and omniscient, considering that the exhibition was scheduled to open the week after Japan was hit by the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in March. It is hard to shake the feeling that the many dystopic visions of Japan’s future in the exhibition were informed by supernatural foresight—a fact which makes this exhibition even more important and impactful. The intensity of the exhibition is more than doubled by a complex collection of works which refer to natural disasters, devastation, and destruction.

These elements all point to a clearly underlined fact: stereotypical ideas of Japanese culture are outdated, and it is imperative that these notions be replaced by the more timely works of contemporary artists working in more intellectual and political themes. Even when the works in Bye Bye Kitty!!! borrow from traditional Japanese landscapes and printmaking, the recontextualization of the style elevates such works to the realm of conceptual and critical art. The show tells the story of the standing tension between the man-made world and the natural world, an agitated relationship which has long been dictated by the disaster-prone environment of an island nation plagued by earthquakes and tsunamis. The show is distinguished in equal parts by its beauty, intelligence, and honest anxiety.

Upon walking into the first gallery at Japan Society, the viewer is confronted by what at first appears to be a smoky hilltop landscape. Mountains emerge from grey mist and reach up to and endless oyster-white sky. It is only upon walking closely towards the canvas that the viewer realizes that the mountains are actually piles of bodies—an endless tower of the corpses of men in standard grey business suits, mixed with computers and cubicle parts. The large painting by Makoto Aida, titled Ash Color Mountains, is a shocking and surreal scene combining the style of a traditional Japanese ink painting with a stark (and prescient) vision of modern urban life.

Other standout works include Tomoko Kashiki’s intimate and disconcerting scenes of women and adolescents painted on delicate cloth. Her fragile subjects cling to dangerous peripheries by their toes or engage in muted exchanges with twisted fingers. Kashiki’s soft, secret worlds are about private gestures and the agonies of isolated moments of beauty. Roof Garden (2008) is particularly provocative: a young woman (wearing what looks like Comme des Garçons) stands on the edge of a rooftop, her back to the long drop. A strong breeze blows her towards the precipice, and the gusts of wind are visible rushing through her hair and against her nautical clothes. She smiles, convincingly, and the only visible tension is in the curl of her toes tight against the ledge—a soft image of the critical moment.

Manubu Ikeda’s works on paper are also a highlight: his large-scale works on paper are detailed epics of new, invented worlds. His fantasy landscapes link the worlds of heaven and hell, fabrication and documentary. Civilization seems to emerge from chaos in one square inch while succumbing to entropy merely a few pen strokes away. These works are so demanding in their detail that Ikeda devotes an entire year to each one. In Existence, the tree of life contains the true depth of life, the tree evokes all the permutations of a tree. Within its branches, this tree holds apocalypses, human life, and human destruction. It feels as though never before has so much of the natural world been said on a single sheet of paper.

Broken up into three sections, Bye Bye Kitty!!! explores the work of the other artists under the lens of “Critical Memory,” “Threatened Nature,” and the “Unquiet Dream.” All three themes similarly evoke disquiet and haunting visions of contemporary Japan—visions, which, sadly, are closer to reality than the curator or artists had intended. Though the exhibition was envisioned and organized far in advance of Japan’s recent tragedies, Bye Bye Kitty!!! may be able to offer viewers a helpful context for the contemporary Japanese visual culture which has undoubtedly been affected and which will continue to change in response to those events.


Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese ArtJapan Society, New York, E. 47th Street, Friday, March 18 — Sunday, June 12


The Japan Society is donating 50 percent of all admission fees to its earthquake relief fund between now and June 30


Image: Tomoko Kashiki, Roof Garden (2008)

Apr 29

Meek’s Cutoff

Minimalist director Kelly Reichardt has a certain predilection for wanderers in Oregon. In her film Old Joy (2006), two friends share a quiet hike through the Cascade mountains—weekend warriors fighting through a fog of regrets on their way to a secret hot spring. Her next picture, Wendy and Lucy (2008), is the agonizing story of a destitute young woman and her dog who are left stranded in Oregon when their car breaks down en route to a job at an Alaskan fishery. These films do not romanticize the Western landscape. Rather, Reichardt manipulates the highways, deserts, forests, and mountains to form restricting, claustrophobic spaces in the great outdoors. No other director so ably draws feelings of tension and constraint from endless expanses of land.

Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is a testament to her unique vision of the Western landscape. A stripped-down Western, Meek’s Cutoff follows the path of three families traveling on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Their guide, Stephen Meek, may have misled them, and the film begins after they have already spent weeks wandering a foreboding path through the Oregon desert. Their journey is plagued by distrust and suspicion, and as their circumstances grow dire, the tension slowly builds to a frightening and agonizing conclusion.

Meek’s Cutoff is a bold and visionary film, and its point of view and execution are unlike anything in the rest of the American Western canon. The most obvious distinction is the fact that the story is told from the perspective of the women. While most films about the settlement of the west focus on the conversations of the men designing the journey, Reichardt positions her cameras with the women. When the men walk a few paces away to discuss their route, the camera remains with the women who are left holding the ropes of the wagons and cattle. We can hear only snippets of the conversations in soft whispers, privy to only as much information as if we were also standing there helplessly watching our husbands decide our fate.

In keeping with the women’s perspective, Reichardt shot Meek’s Cutoff in the square 4:3 aspect ratio instead of the usual widescreen sweeping format of classic mid-century Westerns. Speaking with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air (April 14, 2011), Reichardt explained, “I felt like the square [aspect ratio] gave you an idea of the closed view that the women have because of their bonnets,” Reichardt says. “You’d be traveling in this big community where you’d never have privacy. But also, it’s a really lonely journey. And I think cutting out the peripheral, it does leave you with the idea that something could be there that you don’t know about — and so it offers that kind of tension.”

The square frame pulls a claustrophobic feeling out of a seemingly endless desert, a directorial achievement which perfectly communicates the feeling of the film. Although the settlers are walking through endless open space, their fear limits their view, tethering them to their isolation and desperation, insulating them from the usual feeling of freedom that such sweeping vistas provoke.

Overall, Meek’s Cutoff challenges the romanticism usually associated with the settlement of the American west. Reichardt realistically portrays themes which, while mentioned in historical texts, have rarely made the silver screen: xenophobia, violence, hysteria, and the dehumanization of indigenous populations are all handled without sentimentality. John Ford and Sergio Leone it’s not. Reichardt intelligently and bravely resists the standards of her predecessors in order to forge a new genre: an honest Western which considers the frightening truths of our American history and the women who have been disregarded as its footnotes.

Meek’s Cutoff is now in theaters.

Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Screenwriter: Jon Raymond

Apr 28

Attenberg

Can there be love without sentimentality? What happens when biology and reason, instead of emotion or desire, are the driving forces in a person’s world? ATTENBERG, a new film by Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari, asks these questions while simultaneously riding on the new wave of cutting-edge contemporary Greek cinema. Featured as a selection in this year’s New Directors/New Films series at MoMA and Lincoln Center, ATTENBERG is enjoying a positive reception at its first American screenings. 


The film takes its title from a character’s mispronunciation of the last name of Sir David Attenborough, whose films are the protagonist’s main source of social observation. Marina (a lovely and confrontational Ariane Labed) is 23-years old—a devoted daughter whose world is filled solely by the presence of Attenborough, her dying architect father, and her best (and only) friend, Bella. The characters seem to be the only people who populate the desolate industrial seaside town which her father helped design in the 1960s. 


While Marina is exploring her latent sexuality through pantomiming Sir Attenborough’s nature films, her terminally-ill father tries to come to terms with the stark city he designed. Both father and daughter enjoy an exceptionally close relationship, despite the fact that their bond is not visibly emotional. Through honest debates about biology and sexuality, word games, and make-believe, their small family comes to profoundly understand sex, death, and love. 


ATTENBERG co-stars Giorgios Lanthimos, the writer-director of Dogtooth, last year’s breakout Greek cinema tableaux. Comparisons between the two films are inevitable: both films explore the worlds of adult children who haven’t been given the necessary tools for negotiating the modern world (and both films include disarming, awkward dance sequences which make the viewers’ skin crawl). But whereas the parents’ impetus in Dogtooth was abuse, the driving force in ATTENBERG is love. Marina’s father didn’t instruct her to be alone—he taught her to be self-reliant. 


"It would be too reductive to insist on attributing Marina’s self-willed seclusion to a matter of alienated living in a not-quite-post-industrial environment," writes Andrew Schenker in Slant. "Though unlike the film’s obvious point of comparison, Dogtooth, which depicted, by contrast, an enforced seclusion, social context is an important matter here. Finally, as Marina begins to bridge the gap of her isolation and prepares for her father’s death, her standing on the threshold of a new century (if, per the father’s words, the film takes place around 2000), as cinema then stood on the verge of its own now largely completed digital shift (ATTENBERG was defiantly shot on 35mm), is hugely significant. Tsangari’s is ultimately a film that asks how one can be expected to cope with life in what might be termed post-post-modernity. The film’s varied segments serve as the answers: an anarchic sense of play; the movies, including this one, that provide us with this manic brand of release; music; sex, of course; and, possibly even, if we’re lucky, love.”


ATTENBERG is a beautiful, arresting, and troubling film, and Tsangari’s work is a strong argument for the strength of contemporary Greek cinema. Highly recommended. 


Read more about the New Directors/New Films series here: http://newdirectors.org/

The Andy Warhol Monument

Yesterday, a fitting monument to Andy Warhol was unveiled in Union Square, not far from the site of the Factory at 33 Union Square West. The chrome-plated sculpture by Rob Pruitt is lovingly exact—it is clearly Warhol at his best. With a Polaroid camera around his neck and a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag in his hand, he is at the ready to take your picture at a party and leave you with a copy of Interview magazine before he leaves. 


I’ve written before about my preference for Warhol’s ideas over his art. His legacy should be that of a philosopher or cultural theorist more than anything else, with his softcore intellectual musings and hardcore commerce, fame, and glory. I’ve written here before: “the silkscreens are for beginners: the real crux of Warhol’s position as a maker of the twentieth century is in the way he created new ideas about art, advertising, and celebrity. Warhol’s philosophy is shorthand for modern American reasoning.” I can’t think of any other monument like this in the U.S. which is dedicated to a great artist, and it seems fitting that Warhol has been made into the type of sculptural monument more traditionally dedicated to philosophers, statesmen, scholars, and other forces of the social landscape.

On John Ruskin

These words, written by John Ruskin in Modern Painters in 1843, make for a succinct meditation on art and experience. Although Ruskin was urging young British artists to paint in nature and to paint honestly (while championing the work of JMW Turner), I’ve been thinking about this idea in a larger way. I believe that Ruskin’s words can effectively be applied to experiencing art—especially contemporary art, a sphere which is unfortunately prone to rejection and selection. A stirring description of a most fulfilling approach to our visual world.

Kansas and Shrigley

In the wake of the recession and steep governmental budget cuts, many states are cutting arts funding. Both Michigan and Texas are looking to zero out arts budgets, but Kansas may be the first state which has succeeded. On February 7, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback killed the Kansas Arts Commission. Before the cuts, the Commission funded music, theater and art education for groups all across the state. Now Kansas is one of few in the nation without a state organization promoting the arts. The KAC had a decidedly modest budget of $600,000 and received support from the NEA. Listeners to Studio 360 may have heard Kansas State Senator Roger Reitz (R) discuss the issue with Kurt Andersen. If you missed the heart-wrenching conversation, you can listen to it here.


So why should it matter to Americans in the other 49 states if Kansas loses a few arts programs? Can we imagine a country without a cultural heritage? What exactly is under threat as the government encroaches on the personal liberties inherent in art making? Just as we passionately defend more abused rights, like our ability to carry a gun and our freedom of speech, so too must we vehemently speak out against the persecution of the arts and the liberties they provide. In 1945, Henry Miller wrote “There’s no real life for an artist in America.” Sadly, Mr. Miller might be right. 


At the celebrations of the MoMA’s 25th anniversary, President Eisenhower spoke of the arts the bastion of freedom and democracy: “As long as artists are at liberty to feel with high personal intensity, as long as our artists are free to create with sincerity and conviction, there will be a healthy controversy and progress in art….How different it is in tyranny, when artists are made the slaves and tools of the state; when artists become chief propagandists of a cause, progress is arrested and creation and genius are destroyed.” Eisenhower wisely viewed arts as the “pillar of liberty” that they are.


In the wake of the censorship of the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, these cuts sting even more. The government has no place in the arts, and as conservative leadership cuts, censors, and radicalizes this “pillar of liberty,” nothing may be safe. Politicians have no right to shape cultural products by discarding questionable content or by cutting supportive budgets. 


When viewed through the lens of current cuts to state budgets, our American future looks bleak. We are looking at the promise of a nation with a weak educational foundation, a negligible system for cultural support, and the demise of the arts across the entire country. It is not difficult to fathom a near-Apocalyptic desecration of any remaining institutions and programs within our lifetime. 


This crisis is by no means solely domestic. The UK has been fighting a similar battle, mostly through the group Save The Arts. In September, Scottish artist David Shrigley made a provocative, accessible, and humorous film illustrating exactly why we all should care about arts funding. Watch it here. 

FRED Talk

FRED Talks: “The Invention of Children’s Clothing,” January 9, 2011 

In January I had the pleasure of giving a lecture on the invention of children’s clothing at FRED Talks, a series of presentations based on the TED model which is run out of the cooperative at 3B Brooklyn. 


Through the course of my talk, I discussed the invention of childhood and the impact of Enlightenment thinkers on children’s clothing using the paintings of 18th century artists like Lawrence, Gainsborough, Hogarth, and Reynolds as illustrative points. You can watch it on YouTube here. 


You can read more about FRED Talks here: http://fredtalks.org/

Sergej Jensen

(Originally written as a guest contribution for the Textile Art Center blog)


Textile arts are rarely associated with the stillness, quietude, and self-conscious theatricality of minimalism and post-modernism. Often the phrase “textile arts” erroneously encourages on to conjure visions of patchwork, crazy quilts, and large swaths of bright weavings. One of the great successes of the Textile Art Center is its persistent expansion of our understanding of textile art’s limitations and vulnerabilities through its diverse exhibitions program.


MoMA PS1 is also contributing to the reframing of textile arts in a contemporary context with its current exhibition of the paintings of Berlin-based artist Sergej Jensen. The term “paintings” here is used loosely and echoes the words of artist Ghada Amer (in a presentation recently featured on the TAC blog). Created from a diverse selection of found textiles, Jensen’s works on view include both pieces produced over the past eight years, as well as a number of new works created on site in a studio in PS1. His large canvasses echo the staunch minimalism of Callum Innes and Barnett Newman, and Jensen is remarkable in his ability to replicate the themes of classic abstraction in traditionally maximalist materials like silks, cashmere, diamond dust, and wool.


Jensen’s “paintings” invite the viewer to evaluate the traces of the artist’s mark on the fabric. Silks are pulled and stretched, wools are painted in oils, silk is powdered with diamond dust. Bleach, dye, and stitching are as important as color, shape, and balance. The intentional is lost in the accidental, a natural by-product of working with soft materials which are pulled, stressed, prodded, and manipulated. Jensen is able to physically shape images with the unique attributes found only in textiles and textile arts, balancing the forms of fabric with the classic shapes of modern art.


This exhibition is deceptively pictorial, the works challenging both as paintings and as pieces of textile art. Can painting and textile be so seamlessly combined? Is it possible to display both artistic expressions without one medium being lost or overtaken by the other? Jensen is masterful in the way he elegantly blurs these boundaries with a weighed consideration for his materials and their relationships.


A perfect example of Jensen’s talent for the balance between textile and painting isBlessed, a succinct and surprisingly poetic meditation on fabric and art history. The “painting” is simple in its composition: two pieces of sheer grey cashmere wool (one in a lighter shade, one in a darker shade) are sewn together, cutting the canvas in half horizontally. The resulting artwork looks like a horizon line—the endless expanse conjures references to traditional seascapes, Mark Rothko, and the Western landscape canon.


United Nations is another work which sums up the possibilities for merging the two-dimensionality of painting with the multi-dimensionality of textiles and crafts. The piece features a rainbow-striped, machine-knit afghan stretched and sewn on a linen ground. By framing a piece of machine-made textile as a work of art, Jensen encourages the viewer to consider the divide between high and low art and the gulf between textiles and “fine arts.”
Jensen is consistent in his experimentation and thoughtful pursuit of found textile as a meaningful medium. His works are challenging, intelligent, and humorous statements about the imposed and negligible chasms between art media. Highly recommended.


Sergej Jensen is organized by the Aspen Art Museum. The exhibition is curated by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson and organized at MoMA PS1 by Peter Eleey, Curator of MoMA PS1.

Grain of Emptiness

“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, rmanyc.org.