Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Carrie Mae Weems Odyssey

By Carl Belz

Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video, edited by Kathryn E. Delmez, with contributions by Kathryn E. Delmez, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Franklin Sirmans, Robert Storr, and Deborah Willis. Frist Center for the Arts in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2012. Published in conjunction with the exhibition organized by the Frist Center for the Arts, Nashville, TN, September 21, 2012-January 13, 2013. Travel itinerary: Portland Art Museum, Oregon, February 2-May 19, 2013; Cleveland Museum of Art, June 30-September 29, 2013; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February-May, 2014.

Curator Kathryn Delmez begins Carrie Mae Weems’s artistic odyssey in San Francisco in 1974, when “ a friend gave her a camera for her twenty-first birthday, and she quickly realized the potential of documentary photography to be a tool for tangibly expressing abstract political and social theories,” yet right from the start she allows Weems herself to articulate the odyssey’s impelling mission as “my responsibility as an artist is to…make art, beautiful and powerful, that adds and reveals; to beautify the mess of a messy world, to heal the sick and feed the helpless, to shout bravely from the rooftops and storm barricaded doors and voice the specifics of our historic moment.” The exhibition, which in the catalog is chronologically structured, invites us to observe the odyssey as it unfolds through nearly 30 series combining images, texts, audios and videos, each introduced by brief curatorial comment. Here, a sampling of representative excerpts:

Family Pictures and Stories, 1978-84: “Together, the photographs and narratives create an in-depth and realistic portrait of a middle-class African American family. The book is meant to stand in contrast to the 1965 Moynihan Report, which blamed ‘the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society’ on a weak family structure.”

Ain’t Jokin’, 1987-88 and American Icons, 1988-89: “In these two series, Weems demonstrates how aspects of mainstream popular culture can perpetuate the entrenchment of negative stereotypes and debilitating prejudices…Weems’s intent in both series is for viewers to acknowledge the persistence of an undercurrent of racism in American society and to consider…their potential role as accomplice, be it as participant, consumer, or silent witness.”
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Man and mirror) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990. Gelatin silver print, 27 1/4 x 27 1/4 inches. Collection of Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, 115-128.2010, promised gift to the Art Institute of Chicago. © Carrie Mae Weems. Photography © The Art Institute of Chicago
Kitchen Table Series, 1990: “The images trace a period in a woman’s life as she experiences the blossoming, then loss, of love, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the desire to be an engaged and contributing member of her community…Although Kitchen Table Series…is loosely related to her own experiences, Weems strives for it to reflect the experiences of Everywoman and to resonate across racial and class boundaries.”

Sea Island Series, 1991-92: “Weems became interested in the unique Gullah culture found on the Sea Islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina while studying folklore in graduate school…Because of the islands’ physical isolation from the mainland and their majority black population, the residents were able to retain many aspects of African culture throughout the period of slavery and into the present day.”

Slave Coast, 1993 and Africa, 1993: “A desire to examine more deeply the history and legacy of slavery spurred Weems to travel beyond the southeastern United States to Africa, stopping first along the so-called slave coast of western Ghana and Senegal. The photographs of now empty but once important centers along the slave trade route, such as the holding facilities on Goree Island, move beyond documentary. Powerful words summon the fear, humiliation, and helplessness inevitably felt by the recently captured Africans as they waited to embark on the treacherous journey across the Atlantic to a life of slavery.”

The Hampton Project, 2000: “Hampton Project” critically examines the connection between race and education as experienced at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University). Founded in Virginia in 1868, the school provided an education and vocational training for recently freed African Americans as well as young Native Americans. Despite largely good intentions, the students were stripped of cultural specificities in favor of conformity and forced assimilation. Weems reveals and grieves for this loss…”
Carrie Mae Weems. The Edge of Time—Ancient Rome from Roaming, 2006. Digital chromogenic print, 73 x 61 in. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Carrie Mae Weems
Roaming, 2006: “Weems reflects on the collective human experience in the series Roaming, created…during her residency at the American Academy in Rome. Here she wanders like history’s ghost through the streets and landscapes of various Italian sites, pondering humanity’s past and present condition…A sense of the passage of time, human accomplishment, and an individuals’ relative insignificance are simultaneously evoked as she stands before once grand monuments and sweeping vistas.”

There you have it, a small taste of the social and political concerns driving the Weems odyssey, along with some of the thinking that informs it and its steadily broadening and deepening scope. In the context of the art of our time, Weems emerges from the curatorial comments and essays, and from the essays of the catalog’s guest contributors as well, as quintessentially and definitively postmodern—in the conceptual grounding of her serial practice, her interdisciplinary approach to media, her wide-ranging appropriations and ironic inflection, her probing cultural and institutional critique, and perhaps above all her reliance on performance and the multiple identities it affords as a vehicle for her message.

Concerning which, I think Robert Storr says it best: “Indeed, like a moving-picture auteur, she is the director, set designer, costumer, and star of her own unmoving pictures. By stepping in and out of multiple roles in a manner that only the most inattentive viewer could miss, she signals not only her complete authorial control over every aspect of her production…but her frank admission that nothing in it is ‘natural,’ least of all the part she plays as omnipotent conjurer.”    

And here’s the bottom line: “The author can be anything she wants to be, anything she can imagine being—in art as distinct from life she can ‘fly’…and the viewer can accept what she has to offer without doubting the authenticity of her impersonations since their explicit artificiality is publically posted.”

And there you have postmodern freedom, the grail central to the Weems odyssey.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Art News

By Charles Kessler

Sorry for the blogging hiatus — Hurricane Sandy has taken up a lot of my energies both physically and mentally. I’m thankful the storm didn’t affect my property, but friends and neighbors here in Jersey City, being so close to the Hudson River, were terribly impacted — some still have no power. Some have no homes.
Volunteers helping to clean up in Downtown Jersey City
I’ve always felt that the Historic Downtown section of Jersey City, where my wife and I have lived for 30 years, is like a small town in a large city next to a giant metropolis. Well, the small town caring and neighborliness exhibited during and after the hurricane has shown this to be the case in spades. And the volunteer efforts have been awe-inspiring. (Go to jcnjrecovery.org if you'd like to volunteer or contribute.)
The Raving Jaynes, Amy Larimer and Jamie Graham, Your Move Modern Dance Festival, Jersey City.
One of the many uplifting events that occured in Jersey City during the worst of all this was Your Move, a modern dance festival that took place at Art House Productions. In spite of the winds, flooding, lack of power, transportation difficulties, and the grand finale, a nor'easter that left 6" of snow, the co-producers Avianna Perez, Morgan Hille Refakis and Meagan Woods (all superb dancers and choreographers themselves) were able to pull off this four-day event. And it was a major event indeed, involving 18 choreographers and about 50 dancers from all over the area, some from as far as Philadelphia. This was the third year of this festival, and not only were the dances as outstanding as  I’ve come to expect, but the festival provided the relief and joy we so desperately needed.

Hurricane Sandy cleanup, 27th Street west of Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea.
The Chelsea Gallery District also suffered heavy damage. Thursday evenings is when Chelsea is usually packed with people going to art openings, but walking around Chelsea last week was a sad, disturbing and surreal experience. Mixed in with a small and somber art crowd were workers in white hazmat suits and respirators cleaning out basement and ground-floor spaces. It was dark because many street lights were still out, and street-level galleries that would ordinarily be lit up were closed or undergoing repairs. Dumpsters and dumpster-sized, noisy generators were everywhere, and debris from flood damage was piled high along the sidewalks.
22nd Street, Chelsea.
It’s difficult to see how the smaller, more marginal (and often the most vital) galleries will be able to recover. At minimum, flooring and drywall will need to be replaced, and in many cases expensive hazardous waste cleanup will need to be done; plus there is the the loss of records (Eyebeam lost most of their archives). Worst of all, a lot of art was damaged, and I suspect most of it was uninsured. And after all that, there's a good chance insurance rates will increase to the point where it will be impossible for small galleries to survive. You can read more about it here and here.

Bushwick wasn't much affected by Hurricane Sandy, and once transportation was restored to the area (surprisingly quickly) it was pretty much business as usual. Several galleries in 56 Bogart happen to be showing particularly handsome art: Momenta Art and Studio10 have striking video installations by Ira Eduardovna and Richard Garet respectively; THEODORE:Art is showing ravishing large drawings by the talented Juliette Losq; and Slag has seductive, tactile wood sculptures by Mark Lawrence. It seems handsome has become the new intimate.

Two new galleries opened in Bushwick. The hyperkinetic and innovative artist/gallerist Peter Hopkins left Bogart Salon and started another gallery, ArtHelix (no website yet). It is currently located at 102 Ingraham Street, a large space across from Brooklyn Fireproof. Over the weekend the poet Barry Duncan created palindromes based on the names of people coming into the gallery.

Ted Hovivian, the owner of 56 Bogart, the building housing the Bogart Salon, announced that the Bogart Salon will remain, but the “focus of the Salon will be redirected, and it will be reformatted” — whatever that means.

Another new gallery I have high hopes for is Auxiliary Projects. It is run by two well-known multidisciplinary artists, Jennifer Dalton (who shows with the Winkleman Gallery) and Jennifer McCoy (who has a show now at Postmasters). They will be working with various artists to offer small, hand-made, unique works that can be sold for under $300 (see photo below for an example), with the worthy aim of reaching out to people that love art but can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars.
James Huang, Gospel of Skills - Camper, 2012, wood, mahogany, basswood, aluminum, 7 blade, 4 x 4 x 1 inches. $225 at Auxilliary Projects.
Their tiny space (about 200 SF) is located at 2 St. Nicholas Avenue on the corner of Jefferson Street, and it’s open Saturday and Sunday from 1pm - 6pm, and by appointment. Until they get their intercom working, call (917) 805-7710 to be let in. It’s worth stopping by just to talk to these smart and enthusiastic women.

According to the blog Getty Iris, SCI-Arc, the southern California architecture school, has put their entire archive online. The easily searchable archive is composed of, among other things, audio and video recordings of interviews, symposia, performances and discussions from as far back as the 1970s. There are videos of Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss and Pritzker Prize winners, including Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas.  Also included are artists such as David Hockney, Robert Irwin, Mike Kelley and Diana Thater; filmmakers; critics; theorists; and cultural historians such as Paul Goldberger, Dave Hickey and Greil Marcus.

The Metropolitan Museum placed 600 of its catalogs and bulletins online, including 368 out-of-print ones. They are free and can be searched by title, keyword, publication type, theme or collection. Click here for the site.

This isn’t a new online resource, but Google Art Project is growing and becoming more useful. They now have high resolution images of more than 32,000 works from 151 museums and arts organizations worldwide. In addition,  Google Indoor Maps now provides floor plans for more than 30 museums in the United States including all the Smithsonian museums, The Art Institute of Chicago, The deYoung Museum and dozens more worldwide.

Jackie Wullschlager has a rare interview with the reclusive artist Frank Auerbach in the Financial Times.
 “This will be the most uncomfortable lunch you’ve ever done” said Auerbach to the interviewer.

"International Art English" by Alix Rule and David Levine in Triple Canopy is an intelligent analysis of international art jargon.

"The State of Political Art After a Year of Protest Movements" by Martha Schwendener in the Village Voice:
"Is contemporary art politically useless? Does it serve only as a bystander, offering smart academic responses—or worse, packaging revolution into edgier-than-average commodities to sell to the very elites that these movements challenged? Does art lay the ground for future insurrections, or merely undergird a whole system of capitalist thought and institutions that have to be changed before anything else can change?"
Kyle Gallup tipped me off to "Pondering ‘Pissarro’s People’" by Dana Gordon in The Jerusalem Post:
"How much was it owing to anti-Semitism that Pissarro was essentially left out of the canonical development of modern art, though he was one of its main progenitors? Was he the Moses of modernism who led his colleagues to the promised land, but was not allowed in?"
The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, reviewing the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington (until January 13th), asks: “Was Roy Lichtenstein a great modern artist or a one-trick wonder?”

Then there is this article: “10 reasons not to write about the art market” by Sarah Thornton. Thornton, who wrote the perceptive book Seven Days in the Art World, now declares the subject is too corrupt to write about. (The article seems to have disappeared from the web, but I managed to download it before it was pulled.) Here are her section titles for each of her reasons:
1. It gives too much exposure to artists who attain high prices.
2. It enables manipulators to publicize the artists whose prices they spike at auctions.
3. It never seems to lead to regulation.
4. The most interesting stories are libelous.
5. Oligarchs and dictators are not cool.
6. Writing about the art market is painfully repetitive.
7. People send you unbelievably stupid press releases.
8. It implies that money is the most important thing about art.
9. It amplifies the influence of the art market.
10. The pay is appalling.

Wade Guyton at the Whitney (until January 13th).
This show has been getting raves, for example from Roberta Smith at the Times and John Yau in Hyperallegic. And I can understand why — this is clever, imposing and tasteful art. But I have misgivings, and since Guyton’s work plays into one of my pet peeves, I’d like to comment.
Wade Guyton, Untitled, 2010, Epson UltraChrome inkjet on linen, 84 × 69 inches. Collection of the artist. © Wade Guyton. Photograph by Lamay Photo.
I HATE it when artists make art that's ostensibly abstract and back it up with some conceptual schpeel or some other shtick. Let the work stand on its own and take responsibility for it. And I find it especially irritating when the work is propped up by ideas as cute, and ultimately as meaningless, as these are. ... There — I feel better!

Here are a couple of exhibitions worth seeing that one could easily over-look. Don't.

Hans Hofmann: Works on Paper from the 1940s, New York Studio School, curated by Karen Wilkin (until  January 5, 2013). The drawings in this exhibition demonstrate Hofmann's inventiveness and range more than any exhibition of his paintings I ever saw; and it strongly makes the case for him as one of the seminal Abstract Expressionists.

To go along with the exhibition, Wilkin organized yet another excellent panel discussion a couple of weeks ago. It was with artists Walter Darby Bannard and Frank Stella, and art historians William Agee and Karen Wilkin. The panel agreed that Hofmann should be more generally acknowledged as one of the great Abstract Expressionists. They speculated that he might be under-appreciated because he was a generation older than the other artists, he didn't hang out and fight with them in bars, and he was basically a cheerful person — not as romantically dramatic and intense as say Pollock and Still.

The New York Studio School has an excellent series of free lectures and panel discussions — check here for details.
Elisa D'Arrigo, Dyad (15), 2012, glazed ceramics, 9 ½ x 12 x 7 inches (Elizabeth Harris Gallery).
Elisa D’Arrigo at Elizabeth Harris (until December 22nd).
I know I’m a sucker for ceramics, but this is an especially good show. The work has the quirky biomorphism, rich resonant color and lush surfaces of Ken Price’s ceramics — no small achievement. But in addition, the sculptures seem simultaneously hard and soft; and there's an uncanny suggestion of raw and inflamed flesh in the cracks and crevasses.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

Sixth Avenue in the Village the Friday BEFORE Sandy.
York Street, Downtown Jersey City, October 31, 2012.
Hudson River Walkway, Jersey City.
Entrance to the Holland Tunnel, November 2, 2012.
Charging Station, BJs, Downtown Jersey City.
Art House Productions's Open Mike, November 2, 2012 — pure joy!

Palindromist Barry Duncan:


Bossy: a Sandy. Monster.
Past it now.

Eyes met system's eye. I won't.
It's a plan.
I frets?
No. MyDNAsays: Sob.

Copyright (c) 2012 by Barry Duncan