Friday, December 30, 2005

A Paradox or Two to End the Year

I'll end the year here with two questions that have weighed heavily on my mind these final weeks of 2005. For those of you who come here for art talk, please pardon these political posers...sometimes I can't help myself.

Paradox One:
On one hand we're asked to believe that the post-spying--warrant-getting process needed to comply with FISA is so burdensome that the
most bloated Federal Government in recent memory simply can't handle the extra work. On the other hand, George W. Bush has spent more time vacationing while in office than just about any of his predecessors. Now maybe it's just my Midwestern work ethic, but it seems to me that the paperwork that ensures judicial oversight (which ensures the civil liberties of American citizens are given as much due as possible) might get done if the President spent one or two fewer days clearing brush each year. I mean, I'm assuming they could still do the paperwork without him there, but just in case his signature is needed or something, couldn't he cut the biking time just a bit? Is earning his entry in the Guinness Book of Records for most days off for any POTUS really as important to him as reassuring the American people that he's not being absolutely corrupted by all that power?

Paradox Two:
Everytime the President is challenged, whether on the issue of torture, secret prisons, secret spying, suspect adherence to signed treaties and conventions, suspect designations of people as "enemy combattants", etc. ---all things that the populace would clearly be right to be alarmed about were they to become standard operating procedure---we're told it's only that way because "WE'RE AT WAR WITH TERRORISTS!" Don't worry, it's not a reflection of our "real" principles. We wouldn't treat normal enemies this way or our citizens this way during peace time. These are extreme circumstances that require extreme measures. But when we ask why Bush is the first President in history to fight for ever greater tax cuts DURING a war and a record Federal deficit (one that only entitlement programs are being slashed to try and curb) or why a draft isn't instituted, we're told, "Well, this is a low-grade war...one that will likely go on for many many years, and we have to live our lives as normally as possible throughout." So, what I want to know is why the President gets to cherry pick which principles are important to give up for the war, and which ones (like shared national sacrifices) are not? I know he has supernatural executive powers that conveniently lift him above the law when it's too much bother to follow the law, but does he also have supernatural powers that show him who's supposed to sacrifice and who's supposed to get obscenely wealthier through all this?

The Year of Living Vicariously

I'm useless at creating Top 10 lists...I keep changing my mind and end up scrapping the whole thing after hours of research...it's annoying. But there are other excellent lists in the art blogosphere if, like me, you actually enjoy reading such efforts. In the order I found them (please do send me links to your lists if I missed you), here are a few lists of the year's best as ranked by:

  1. Gallery Hopper
  2. Conscientious
  3. Art Soldier
  4. Art Forum (not a blog, I know, but...)
  5. The View From the Edge of the Universe (Atlanta-centric)
  6. DC Art News (lists by readers; DC-centric)

I sat and thought about 2005 for all of three minutes...it wasn't the worst year I can remember (that dubious award goes to 2001...as shitty as any 12 months ever need to be), but 2005 was a bit like being in limbo...as we waited for the brokers and lawyers to move on the new space and held our breath waiting for Bambino's greencard. I'm not one for waiting...drives me nuts. 2006 promises to be much more active and productive.

We're heading to the Hamptons for a quiet little Bishkek-style New Year's Eve celebration...good food, friends, and no freezing while fighting other drunken idiots for a taxi. We'll see you next year.

These images of "what Mona Lisa does when the museum is closed" were emailed to me by our good friend and talented artist Max Carlos Martinez, who had them emailed to him by a long chain of other people. I tried to find the creator in order to provide a proper credit. The best I could figure is that they're connected to the rock103.com website. If you're the artist, please do let me know and we'll praise you royally for the very welcome giggles.


Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and prosperous 2006!

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Rightful Owners: Open Thread

More and more lately, works of art are at the center of battles over ownership. From the high-profile cases of art stolen by Nazis, to the growing scandals over antiquities in US museums, to the recent case in Hawaii, where artifacts borrowed from a local museum were buried rather than returned, who "owns" what has become a hot topic in art. It can be a complicated issue actually.

First and foremost, as a collector myself (one who's not independently wealthy and who does indeed make sacrifices to purchase the art I have), I want there to be safeguards to protect even my humble collection. In one sense, I see no difference between a burglar entering my home and stealing one of my prize pieces and some highly sophisticated system of greased palms and wink-wink-nudge-nudge curatorial "acquisition" practices. All the art world is unified in decrying the brazen theft of, oh say, a Edvard Munch painting, but somewhat on the fence about whether antiquities illegally taken out of the ancient world and installed in a US museum represent a similar crime. Why? Well...

It may be related to the (highly questionable, I'll admit) notion that no one actually "owns" a great work of art. Legally questionable or not, philosophically I feel one simply pays for the temporary privilege of being the caretaker of an artwork. And so, in that sense, we're not talking about the rightful "owners" as much as the rightful "guardians." Looking at it that way, though, tricky questions arise: If a guardian is clearly not qualified to care for a great work of art (i.e., doesn't have the budget to provide for needed restoration or to provide the ideal environmental conditions for the work), can the argument be made that other more qualified guardians should care for that work? (And here all kinds of parallels between unfit parents and custody battles spring to mind, but we're not actually talking about an impressionable human being, so I'd better perhaps steer away from that tangent.)

Still the question remains. If something is considered "priceless" and worthy of the world's best efforts for its preservation, how do we respond to someone who feels it's better off buried for cultural/spiritual reaons, for example? Or better off in in its native land, where it may end up in a warehouse, because they can't afford to exhibit it with the degree of care doing so requires? I don't want some committee entering my home and deciding my Picasso etching is better off in a museum because the temperature flucuates too much in my apartment, for example, but if I were some sort of idiot who announced plans to use it as a dartboard, then perhaps they'd have the moral standing to do so. "Is it mine to destroy?" is what the question boils down to.

More questions than answers, I know...Consider this an open thread.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Fisking Goddard (Or, Why MSM Art Writers Really Need to Work Harder)

The Tortonto Star's Visual Arts Columnist, Peter Goddard, probably doesn't deserve the upcoming fisking (he's probably well intentioned), but his review of PBS's documentary on American art in the 20th Century, Imagining America, is such a lousy bit of analysis and sloppy anti-American drivel blended with a nauseating inferiority complex that I figure he'll miss half of why he should be insulted anyway. For those who don't know what a "fisk" is, it's a blow-by-blow deconstruction that throws politeness out the window. Most bloggers will argue that it's designed to make writers more careful...what they won't tell you necessarily is that it's also a great way to relieve stress. Either way, it's more than appropriate here (disclaimer, I haven't seen this film yet, so I'll avoid arguing whether he's right about its content). Besides, my fangs need sharpened for the new year:
Close-up on America's art
Imagining America, the ambitious two-hour look at American art in the 20th century on PBS tomorrow at 9 p.m., is just about everything its subject is about: macho and confident, contradictory and gloriously argumentative, not-to-be-missed — and troubling.

Can a subject "be about" something? Isn't a subject simply something? If the "subject" of the film is "20th Century American Art," what does "20th Century American Art is about macho and confident" even mean? Doesn't he mean, "like its subject, this film is macho and confident..."? And why, in this era of 20-hour miniseries, is a two-hour look considered ambitious? Below Goddard notes how few artists it actually covers...was he simply too pressed for time to look for an accurate adjective?

Troubling? Yes, because Imagining America — unintentionally I'm sure — paints a convincing portrait of a waning imperial power at the ragged edges of its frayed soul.

This was the bit that convinced me Peter needed a good fisking. How can a portrait of the century in which NYC wrestled away from Paris the title of "Art Capital of the World," let alone in which the nation rose to the world's only remaining SuperPower simultaneously be a portrait of a waning imperial power throughout? How can a nation be both ascending and waning, imperialistically speaking, at the same time? If he really believes that's where we are now, some arc or transitional adverb is required here, no? Also, if our soul is frayed, doesn't that already suggest its edges are ragged? Are there unragged frayed edges? And, again, was our soul frayed and ragged the entire century? I get tired just thinking about that. This struck me as knee-jerk anti-Americanism ("oh, all my other anti-American friends will know what I mean, I don't have to explain.").

Art tells the unexpected truth, goes the show's main thesis. Right now, however, the truth seems to have gone missing in America and in its art.

Oh no! Should we send out a search party? Release the hounds!

What a moronic and useless jab. Why Peter? Why does the truth seem to have gone missing in America and its art? That's a pretty hefty charge that you never bother to back up. And if the truth truly has gone missing in America, shouldn't its art reflect that?

But stop right here. A documentary like this only from and about the United States? Pity. With Canada's history of extraordinary art and documentary making — not to mention our ability to come across trouble — we should have seen an arts special like this about us years ago. (We're not likely to soon. CBC TV's Zed, the late-night hip trip, returns Jan. 3 with its former visual arts component noticeably missing.)

Ahhh...we get to the heart of it. Poor America's frayed soul and missing truth aren't Goddard's subject...he wants a documentary of his own. Maybe...just maybe, if they do one on Canada, they'll need some interviews with contemporary visual art columinists in and around Toronto....huh? Ya think?

Why on earth did his editors approve that pointless, irrelevant passage of self-loathing? I know local papers always look for the local angle, but that attempt is just pathetic.

Produced by John Carlin, an American art historian turned producer, and Jonathan Fineberg, an art academic at the University of Illinois, Imagining America asks one big question — what is American art really all about?

Again, I haven't seen the film, so it might be asking one big question. But don't you think it's likely that a historian and art academic would know the country's more than 100 years old? In other words, if that was really their question, shouldn't they look back beyond the 20th Century?

"Nature" is the one big answer.

Phew. I'm so relieved that the one big question has a one big answer.

But then — and this is where the show gets unnecessarily murky — we're given reason to doubt that answer.

Are you sure you want to languidly toss about the phrase "unnecessarily murky"? Make your critics work just a little bit dude.

Starting with Thomas Cole of the Hudson River School and other 19th century landscape painters, American artists exalted in their nation's enormous rugged expanses.

Without having seen the film, it's hard to know whether Goddard is describing a segment in it or supplying his readers background. If the later, he should qualify it as such. If the former, then it's really not about only 20th Century art.

(Painter/model/naturalist/feminist icon Georgia O'Keeffe is paid enormous attention.) But here's the rub. The more man saw of nature, the more he participated in its transformation (Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" (1970), the rock installation jutting out into Utah's Salt Lake, is brought in as evidence here.)

This led to the exploration of inner nature, the kind Jackson Pollock meant when he declared, "I am nature."

So let me see if I get this right: the more man (like Georgia O'Keefe et al.) saw of nature, the more they participated in its transformation (like Robert Smithson) which led to them abandoning the exploration of outer nature (because presumedbly it wasn't so rugged or grand anymore thanks to them) and begin to explore their inner nature (like Pollock). But, but, but, if men like O'Keefe are responsible for messing up the outer nature through exploration, shouldn't we try to stop them before they mess up their inner nature as well? Also, I'm sure Smithson would have been thrilled to think he had an influence on Pollock. Did H.G. Wells lend a hand in that?

Going the Ken Burns route, the producers of Imagining America weave a complicated history around a very short list of key figures. Along with O'Keeffe (given far too much air time) and Pollock (the Babe Ruth of American art), there's Andy Warhol.

Not caring much for O'Keefe, even mentioning her in a two-hour film seems like far too much air time to me, but...Pollock is "the Babe Ruth of American art"? Does that make Warhol the Jolly Rancher? Or perhaps the Skittles?...no, wait...that's a sports metaphor, isn't it? He means, like Babe, Jackson was an abusive substance abuser who put a curse on Boston, doesn't he? No? Then I don't get the analogy.

Indeed, if Imaging America accomplishes anything, it's to underline Warhol's importance as a truly important art historical figure. Marshall McLuhan, Canuck media guru, is dragged in to explain what Warhol's media manipulations really meant.

Why can they say "Canuck" but we can't, huh??? (Seriously, I thought that was offensive, no?)

I can see this starting a wave of new complaints: "I hate art that you can't just get by looking at it...." "Me too. If you have to import an internationally reknown media guru to make sense of it all, why is it called visual art?"

Warhol's media interviews are performance art pieces on their own. (Tell him what answer you wanted and he'd give it to you.) But his assertion that "death can really make you look like a star," haunts the closing moments of the documentary.

No problem with any of that. Except, I think the comma after "star" is unecessary, but...

Imagining America does a lot of things well. It further extols the intelligence of the great painter Willem de Kooning, it gives under-recognized David Wojnarowicz his due and it underlines the importance of Marcel Duchamp to the scene. It also overstates the impact of Jean-Michel Basquiat, misuses its A-list background music and stops before dealing with new-media art.

Still auditioning for Imagining Canada, I see. The problem is Peter, and I mean this kindly, you're too provincial. There's no American "scene" for Marcel Dumchamp to be important to...you can't describe (as you do regularly, no doubt, the collection of fine galleries and museums in Toronto) a century as tumultuous as the 20th in American art history as a "scene." How about "the importance of Marcel Dumchamp to the century"? And I have no earthly idea what you mean by "misuses its A-list background music." Perhaps it will be obvious when I watch it, but if that's important enough to mention, a clarifying example seems appropriate.

Along the way, it makes you wish there were more. That makes it a success.

Oops, over the world limit. Gotta wrap this up. Don't want to piss off the producers too much (they won't invite me to participate in the Canuck version that I've inserted subliminal messages throughout encouraging them to consider)....so, I'll contradict the overall gist of my critique and vapidly declare it "a success." Yeah, that should do the trick.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Who's Your Daddy? (or Momma?)

João Ribas (whose extraordinary blog you can find here) offers a well-considered, yet ultimately begging-to-be-debated opinion that the most influential artists working today are Mike Kelley and Richard Tuttle. From artinfo.com

Artists of a few generations ago enacted their oedipal strife with papa Picasso; then, it was Warhol who had to be wrestled. (In the 1980s, the anxiety lessened—as appropriation and “quotation” became the norm.)

So who is it that the young artists of today have to grapple with?

Richard Tuttle and Mike Kelley are undoubtedly two of the most powerful forces of nfluence on emerging art. This was abundantly in evidence at Kelley’s multi-ringed circus at Gagosian gallery’s vast Chelsea space, where Day is Done played to huge crowds before closing on Dec. 17; and at Richard Tuttle’s remarkable career survey at the Whitney, on view through Feb. 5.

I’m not the only one who’s noticed the impact of these these two of artists.

“I see a lot of children of both Tuttle and Kelley,” jokes James Fuentes, former Deitch Projects director and now an independent curator.

As João noted, the rise of postmodernism/pluralism had lessened the previously perpetual need to slay the father to advance the children witnessed in the 20th Century, but I suspect he's right that the need to at least grapple with the alpha dogs remains. My first awakening to this reality was brought about by an excellent 1998 exhibition curated by Nina Bovasso titled "Son of a Guston" which explored how many painters were influenced/challenged by Philip. The title was mostly a quippy pun, yes, but it still revealed that “The Anxiety of Influence” was alive and well.

Often, in this commerce-driven phase of art history, "influence" gets mixed up with market strategy, but asking that you put finanical popularity aside, I'll pose two questions:
  1. For everyone: Who are the two most influential living (or at least recently living) artists?
  2. For artists: Who's your Daddy/Momma? (meaning who do you grapple with, who haunts your studio?)
For me, the two most influential living artists are Richard Tuttle and Bruce Nauman. Yes, this is a biased assessment, and perhaps wishful thinking...perhaps Mike is in the end more influential, but I think he owes his license to play to Bruce.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Peace on Earth; Goodwill Toward All

It's been such a joy to read the comments and get feedback in person on this blog over the past 9 or so months, I'd like to take a moment to thank those who've participated in making it a place I look forward to returning to every day. As Bambino and I head off to the heartland for hopefully a white and certainly a Merry Little Christmas with the Winkleman clan, I'd like to send you all the warmest Seasons Greetings.

We should be back mid next week, but I'm not at all sure whether B.W.E.N. (bloggin while egg noggin) is gonna be possible (probably depends on whether we're stuck in airports or not, but...), so I'll also take this opportunity to wish (as cliched as it is, I'm hard pressed to come up with anything I'd rather see) for Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward all God's creatures in the coming new year.

Droit de Suite: A Tricky Issue

An article in the UK newspaper The Telegraph outlines the mess that is the EU's droit de suite levy being forced upon Britain. In principle, I totally support droit de suite laws (i.e., "a sliding scale royalty paid by the vendors of works of art to living artists, and for 70 years to the heirs of the artists"), but the British are probably right that the way it's being imposed will drive business away from their galleries to those in the US and Switzerland, where droit de suite seems light years away at best.

Clearly, unless there is a law, many US art sellers won't share any resale profits with artists or their heirs (I've had secondary market dealers nearly bite my head off for suggesting they should). But the laws also have to make sense. For example, the UK law originally said that droit de suite should not apply to any work by a living artist sold for less than €3,000 (£2,040 or $3,555.77), but that was later lowered to €1,000 (or $1,185.29). As dealers working with emerging artists, a good deal of the work we sell hovers around these prices. I can see the negotiations to keep the price for a particular piece under that limit driving me around the bend, and given the extra paper work the droit de suite requires (and addtional headache for collectors and dealers), I can see all this working to keep an artist's prices lower than they should be, at least through a tricky but critical part of their pricing history.

Josh and I talked about our commitment to droit de suite just last night actually. We're committed to paying a percentage to our artists of any resale through the gallery (not that we have too much of that yet, but it's coming) and were brainstorming on the best way to ensure our collectors do too. One Chelsea dealer is infamous for making all collectors sign a contract ensuring they'll offer her the right of first refusal on any resales of work she sells, so that she can make sure her artists get a commission on the resale. She is much more powerful than we are, of course, so she can do that, but we may be heading in that direction. What effect that may have on our sales remains to be seen.

But what would make for a good droit de suite law in the US? How long after an artist's death should their heirs receive royalties? What percentage of royalties are appropriate? Would such laws send collectors to other countries to buy (I doubt China has droit de suite for example)?

And the flip side: What responsibilities does droit de suite place on the artist, if any? In thinking about their heirs, should artists strategize to ensure work already sold appreciates? Does this mean they have to continue to make work that supports work already sold (i.e., not make radical changes in what they're doing)? What effects do such concerns have on the artist's career and, more importantly, their ability to follow their convictions?

If rather than waiting for the law to catch up, galleries took the lead, wouldn't that sort out the best path forward? I mean, well-selling artists would flock to galleries that ensure royalites, forcing other galleries to follow suite. (Yes, I know there are forces in the market that will fight this tooth and nail, but I don't believe those forces have a moral leg to stand on.) Once the practice was more widely followed, then the reality of how it was working might indicate the best ways to codify it into law, no?

I think, yes. Younger galleries are already finding innovative ways to support their artists and safe-gaurd their interests (I'll do a round up survey on this in a later post). The galleries who don't follow in their footprints may find they can't attract the better artists, and the market will sort that out. So long as the market stays strong, I suspect we'll see the less-artist-centric galleries move that direction. In the end, it's only fair. And, if enough galleries go that path, it will be good business.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Bad Reviews and Better Responses: Open Thread

The post on Jerry Saltz's column led to a thread that focused for the most part on the love-hate relationship between artists and gallerists on one side and critics on the other. As will happen in such settings, comments began to border on the personal. To be fair, there's nothing more personal for most artists or dealers than the vision/POV expressed in an exhibition, so it's understandable that artists and gallerists take bad reviews personally, but doing so helps no one, not even momentarily, so I'd like to open a thread to share better responses to bad reviews than complaining to the critic or their editor. The only rule I'll impose is that names not be used. Critic A or Artist B or Dealer C, if you please.

Over the years, I've heard many tales of other gallerists calling the editor of a publication to demand the head of a critic who penned an unfavorable review. Just so you know, the editor will have presumedly already read the review and approved its publication, so you're not going to find much sympathy going that route.

The bottom line about any bad review is that the critic is either right (i.e., making valid criticisms) or the critic is wrong (i.e., ill-informed about what they're critiquing or otherwise unqualified to do so). That second one is very difficult to prove, however, as the critic isn't writing for the artist or gallerist, but rather the public, and if the critic missed something important about the work, it's a pretty good indication the general public may as well, meaning the critic will still have served their public well with their assessment.

There are, of course, good critics and bad critics. I have my favorites, as I'm sure do most of you, but the reasons I like them would probably change on a dime were they to ever pan an exhibition in my space that I loved. But the truth of the matter is, most of the ones I like wouldn't take my feelings about that into consideration, nor should they. I refuse to show artwork I don't like just to please some other faction of the art world (and I've been approached, believe me), and critics should refuse to praise any artwork they don't like despite similar pressure. Moreover, artists should refuse to create work they don't like as well, and there's certainly plenty of pressure to do that.

So essentially, all of us (artists, gallerists, and critics) are in the same boat. We're all struggling to do our part of all this as well as we can and stick to our convictions. That doesn't mean our convictions are always right, but it doesn't matter really. Being right or wrong is something you can openly change directions on, being a sell-out isn't.

My approach to bad reviews is to stay calm (which for a red-headed German-Irish Taurus, isn't easy, let me tell you), consider the critique after I've cooled down, assess whether it's valid or the critic was totally off base, and drafting a professional, objective response, including admitting where I thought the critic was right. Whether I send the letter or not really doesn't matter...the exercise itself turns the bad review into the most productive path I can get out of it. If I honestly feel the critic could benefit from the response, I'll send it, with compliments.

But under no circumstances does it make any sense to me at all to publicly challenge or offend the critic. Even if you suspect they wrote the bad review out of spite, what will you possibly gain from such actions? Momentary satisfaction followed by a reputation as a sore loser.

But that's me...feel free to share your own thoughts, but again, please no names...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Digital Facade: Part II

Last month I offered some thoughts about the aesthetic challenges presented by the metaphorically exciting potential of digital facades in architecture. I used the spectacular new Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria (seen at right), which has a state-of-the-art digital facade created by the Berlin-based company realities:united, as an example of where, even though from the POV in the photo the building is stunning, up close I can't get past the limits/presence of the materials used in my overall aesthetic assessment.

Now, I'm not an art critic, let alone an architecture critic, but I have some strong feelings about aesthetics that you'd have a hard time prying me loose from with a crowbar. I tend to want to look very closely at things and one test of total aesthetic integrity for me is that something looks as good (i.e., resolved) from far away as it does up close. With some media, it's possible to hide unresolved elements that were used in the creation of a piece (video or photography in particular offer this option [think of the untouched machine just beyond the edge of the scene blowing out the smoke for a Crewsdon piece, for example]), but in others every part of the final work is there for all to see, in the round, with harsh lights revealing every wart. Those media are more demanding with regards to overall aesthetic integrity, IMO. Again, you'd need a crowbar and then some to make me change my mind about that, but...I'm not totally without flexibility.

Tim Elder, one of the Directors of realities:united, recently added the following comment to the thread of that previous post:

It is good to read a discussion, which goes deeper than usual on the issue of media surfaces in architecture. But it hurts to realize that some important aspects, you rely on have not been reflected correctly. First the visibility of the lamps in the only window your image shows during daytime is a deliberate 1% exception of the entire skin. For the 99% rest of the devices you’ll see nothing but faint shadows behind the opaque acrylic skin. The other issue you touch is the question, how technology SHOULD look. The use of old technology (as a potential answer to the problem of the extreme speed of technology aging, which you also describe) and the oversized grid here is an act of design polemic. Yes: There is a problem in places like time square, but it is not the look of the devices at daytime, but the lack of communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content. That is, why BIX has also a strong programmatic aspect, which is at least equally important to the design of any hardware and which defines the way that the art museum uses its public display today. If you are interested, you’ll find details on the approaches of BIX and a follow-up project called SPOTS aiming to be ‘probes’ to venture into the wide and mostly untouched research field of tomorrows (inevitable) media enhanced architecture. www.bix.at (2003) www.spots-berlin.de (2005) .

First and foremost, I want to thank Tim for his thoughtful response. It wasn't clear to me from the images I was able to find of the Graz Kunsthaus that the one I provided represented only 1% of the total surface (a window into the belly of the machine, so to speak). I'm still not convinced that the other 99% is opaque enough to address my concern, but it's clearly not as open as I had suggested and for that I apologize.

I still disagree with this somewhat though: "but it is not the look of the devices at daytime, but the lack of communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content." I actually think to some degree it's both. With all due respect to the achievement digital facade represents and the great work realities:united are doing to highlight aesthetic integrity, I'm still concerned with the look of the lamps and supporting devices during the day.
I get the other point Tim makes, and wholly agree that an integrated vision within any given building using this new media surface (and, naturally, within the environment that building will be built in) is critical, but the building doesn't disappear in the daylight, and I feel that for many such attempts pretending it does disappear or not looking at it in daylight, because "it has to look that way in the day in order to look so fabulous at night" is what's being asked of me.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding Tim though, perhaps by "communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content" he means day and night (except there generally is very different broadcast content, if any, during the day for many such buildings). Still, I think r:u is making interesting strides here and it's fair to highlight them.

Here's a a description of r:u's new
SPOTS project:
City Gaze’ (Die Stadt hat Augen) is an exhibition that pursues a unique concept. An office building on Potsdamer Platz is being transformed into a seeing object. From 24 November to 28 February 2006, SPOTS, a light and media installation that has been integrated into the building’s facade, will be presenting new works by internationally renowned artists that have been created especially for this location and this medium. The show will launch with a work from Berlin-based artists and architects realities:united – who also have overall responsibility for the development of the light and media facade – in collaboration with the artist John deKron.
I'll be the first to note that this vision is amazing and very exciting. Here is an image of the facade (in Potsdamer Platz) at night:



And, again, I'll be the first to note how stunning it looks from this POV. Here are two images of this new building in the daylight:





Now this seems more aesthetically resolved than the Kunsthaus upclose by day (by which I mean it's been better integrated into the whole in a way that's more consistent with the overall vision [it's impossible to tell too much from this distance]), but to be fair to Graz, this building isn't attempting to accomplish the same sort of daring feat with form either. I know this may all still sound a bit harsh, and I don't mean to hurt r:u or anyone involved with the project, but I wouldn't waste this much time on projects that I didn't find fascinating either.


In the end I guess, it's mostly a matter of personal taste. I hope that design-wise the wires, lamps, and surfaces of most digital facades have yet to reach their "golden age." A certain elegance remains just over there for me. YMMV.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Verdict

A while back I responded somewhat knee-jerkedly to the suggestion by Jerry Saltz that dealers needed to pump up the attitude in their spaces to bolster the sluggish energy of the contemporary art scene---oh, everyone agrees it's as massive as a brontosaurus, but the problem is it feels like it's lumbering along like one too---by suggesting each person in the art world has their own role to play and Jerry's part in the revolution he called for was to focus on art criticism. My exact words were:
I think Jerry's misguided. Why focus on how gallerists and such should seek out new forms to house it? If there's new content, let it speak for itself. Better yet, let it dictate the form and/or exhibition space. The problem isn't a lack of "attitude" among gallerists (are we on MTV here?), the problem is a lack of context within the wider art world...and I don't mean new exhibition models...I mean a critique. As Jerry notes himself:

In private many say most of the shows they see are safe or conservative. Yet most reviews are enthusiastic or merely descriptive. Too many critics act like cheerleaders, reporters or hip metaphysicians. Amid art fair frenzy, auction madness, money lust and market hype; between galleries turning into selling machines, gossip passing as criticism and art becoming a good job; the system, while efficient, feels faulty, even false.
But rather than critiquing the system, Mr. Saltz, why not critique the art? You're absolutely right that most reviews are enthusiastic or merely descriptive. Even as a dealer, who wants enthusiasm in reviews of our exhibitions, I'm bored to tears by the overall critique of contemporary art. You want a rebellion? Start one!
Now, I mean in no way to imply that Jerry has ever read my ramblings here (I'm sure he has more pressing things to do), but as fate would have it, he's done what I had called for (even better actually): he's taken on his own profession...and how:

The most interesting critics make their opinions known. Yet in most reviews there's no way to know what the writer thinks, or you have to scour the second-to-last paragraph for one negative adjective to detect a hint of disinclination. This is no-risk non-criticism. Being "post-critical" isn't possible. Everyone is judging all the time. Critics who tell you they're not judging or that they're being objective are either lying or delusional. Being critical of art is a way of showing it respect. Being subjective is being human.

"Yet people regularly say, "You shouldn't write on things you don't like." This breaks my heart. No one says this to theater critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, "Just say all the food was good." Nowadays, many see criticism mainly as a sales tool or a rah-rah device. Too many critics enthuse over everything they see or merely write descriptively. This sells everyone short and is creating a real disconnect. People report not liking 80 percent of the shows they see, yet 80 percent of reviews are positive or just descriptive."
Others around the blogosphere are giving Mr. Saltz high marks for this clarion call (including Todd Walker's insightful take here), so I won't parse the entire thing, but one idea did jump out at me when reading that last quoted paragraph.

I think there is an expectation in the NY art world that reviews should be positive. I know I emotionally expect them to be when I'm told one is coming out for an artist in our gallery. Intellectually I totally get where Jerry's coming from here, but practically speaking a bad review seems so extraordinarily mean in the current climate it makes you wonder what you did to the critic.

Look back at Jerry's comparison: "No one says this to theater critics, film reviewers, restaurant critics, or sports writers. No one says, 'Just say all the food was good.'"

The difference (or at least it seems that way to me) is that most restaruants, plays, films, and sporting events can generally expect a review. Think of the cast of a play or the producers of a film that just released rushing out the next day to grab all the papers...they rush only to see whether the review was good or bad, not whether there is one. The mystery for them is "Did the critics like it?"

With art, in New York City, there's no such guarantee you'll ever know, even when you know they saw it, even for the largest artists or most powerful galleries. If The New York Times, for example, on average, publishes 7 major reviews and two articles in each Friday edition, that totals about 470 reviews each year. The problem is there are more about 470 exhibitions per month*, meaning that more than 11/12ths of all exhibitions will not be reviewed in the Times. For the Village Voice, the number of reviews is fewer than half that. So if you are the lucky artist who gets a review, you've already beaten incredible odds. At that point, for the review to be unfavorable seems almost cruel.

I don't know what the solution here might be, though. I can barely digest all the reviews I read now, so I don't think more reviews are the answer. Perhaps things have to go the way Jerry suggests: reviews should be more critical across the board, even when the critic genuinely likes the work, so that artists too can wake up like children on Christmas morning and rush to the press to see whether they got what they hoped for or not. In other words, so it's not a given a review is going to be favorable and the art of art criticism can reclaim its impact on the dialog.

*Calculated on an estimate of 450 galleries in the greater New York City area, and 20 other exhibition spaces that hope to be reviewed.

Artist of the Week (12/19/05)

This week's artist falls in that category of probably-not-underappreciated-any-longer, but I'll write about his work all the same as a little Christmas present to myself.

I first met James Siena when his career was just starting to really take off. Until then he had been supporting himself as a frame maker. I recalled the kind but knowing smile on his face when I asked if he was able to frame a piece I had just purchased by a mutual friend. He was very happy to report that he didn't need to do that any more...he was able to live off his painting sales.

Represented by
Pace Wildenstein, James has an exhibition up at their 25th Street space until January 18, 2006. I cannot recommend this show strongly enough. It's chock full of mesmerizingly beautiful works that make my mouth water, like this one:

James Siena, Boustrophedonic Recursive Combs, 2004, Gouache on paper, 8-1/2" x 11" (image from
Pace Wildenstein website)

This passage from his current exhibition's press release is about as concise an entry point into James' work as I've ever read:

The accompanying exhibition catalogue includes an essay by John Yau entitled The Reality of Abstraction. The title comes from the following 2001 quote by the artist: "I don't make marks. I make moves. The reality of abstraction is my primary point of engagement. When I make a painting, I respond to a set of parameters, like a visual algorithm." Yau acknowledges that a visual affinity with computer software exists in Siena's work but that the origins are "far more diverse, and ultimately, whatever the sources, they all pass through Abstract Expressionism." Yau considers how Siena has "replaced Pollock's expansive, outward movement with a rigorous inward movement, as well as transformed Stella's opticality and hard edged lines and shapes into sensually vivid oscillations arising from a matter-of-fact hand drawn line."
Here's one of James' signature enamel on aluminum paintings from the exhibition:


James Siena, One, one..., 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 23" x 29"(image from
Pace Wildenstein website)

Fans of James' work often fall into one of two camps: those who like the geometric pieces, like the rigorously so one above and the more wavy geometric one below:


James Siena, Multi-Colored Nesting Unknots, 2004, Gouache on paper, 11" x 8-1/2" (image from
Pace Wildenstein website)

And those who prefer his more organic pieces, like this one:


James Siena, Non-Slice, 2005, Enamel on aluminum, 19" x 15" (image from
Pace Wildenstein website)

I tend to like the mutants, that fall somewhere in between, like this one:


James Siena, Coffered Divided Sagging Grid (with glitch), 2005, Enamel on aluminum,
29-1/16" x 22-11/16" (image from
Pace Wildenstein website)

In spite of his success (prices at the Pace exhibition are edging up on 6 digits), James remains one of the NY art world's most charming personalities. He's incredibly smart and warm, and his lovely wife, Katia Santibañez (represented by
Michael Steinberg Gallery in Chelsea) is another of my favorite NY painters, although I have detected a mutual influence on each other's work since they found each other (perhaps just my projection, but either way certainly to the advantage of each).

With the holidays, this will be the final Artist of the Week for 2005...Season's Greetings! The series will continue in the New Year.

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Once Over Twice

A few months ago I drooled all over the planned exhibition at the The Santa Monica Museum of Art of collages and journals by poet/songwriter, and former and current member of the lengendary LA "punk" band X, the one and only, Exene Cervanka. I ended that post with this plea: "Please tell me this exhibition's heading east."

WELL....guess what? The awesome folks at
DCKT Contemporary in Chelsea have pulled off the coolest coup of the NYC art season and are bringing the exhibition here! From their forthcoming exhibition's press release:

DCKT Contemporary is pleased to present EXENE CERVENKA’s first New York exhibition. On view in America the Beautiful will be journals and mixed media collages dating from 1974 through 2005 by one of the founding members of the seminal Los Angeles punk group, X. The exhibition was originally organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art and guest curators Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan.

The exhibition will feature a selection of journals from the collection of approximately 100 that CERVENKA has completed over the past thirty-one years, as well as over twenty collages. CERVENKA’s journals combine rough drafts of songs and personal reflections rendered in a baroque calligraphic script with hotographs, drawings and scraps of ephemera found while traveling as a musician. Similarly, the collages are created from found materials to form an interpretative composite portrait of the country she’s come to know through her life experiences on the road.
Dennis told me about the exhibition a while back and I begged him for more information. Here are a few images of the pieces they'll exhibit:


Exene Cervanka, 4 Marys in One Hour, Mixed media collage, 13.5 x 17.5" (image courtesy of
DCKT Contemporary)

Anyone who's played Under the Big Black Sun a billion times, like me and most of my friends have, knows that Mary was Exene's sister who was killed in an accident about 1980. Her tragic death inspired some of the most haunting, yet still defiant, songs X produced, and imagery of "Mary" appears frequently in Exene's collages.

Here's another piece from the exhibition with another classic X song theme:


Exene Cervanka, Lie, Cheat & Steal, 2005, Mixed media collage, 9 1/2 x 7 1/2" (image courtesy of
DCKT Contemporary)

Kudos to Dennis and Ken for securing this show. As a dealer, I'd be jealos as hell, if I weren't, as an art and X lover, simply more excited about getting to see it.

Exene Cervenka
America the Beautiful
DCKT Contemporary
552 West 24th Street
between 10th and 11th Avenues in Chelsea
January 7 – February 11, 2006

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Today's Lesson for the Fledgling Art Thief

In general I've always thought of this blog as a forum for art lovers...sure, I throw in a bit of politics now and then and the odd autobiographical note, but what we discuss most often is a shared enthusiasm for art, why it's important, why it's valuable socially, spiritually, etc., and deserving of respect.

Today though I'm gonna offer a bit of advice to another group of folks: those who don't care a wit about art, other than with regards to how valuable it is considered by those who do. Today's post is dedicated to the sad subsegment of the art world we'll call the "bumbling art thief set"...those would-be Thomas Crowns without the common sense God gave a garden slug.

Artinfo.com offers the following cautionary tale:

In the world of high stakes crimes, this was no work of art. Instead, police arrested three people after they tried to sell paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars back to the gallery that owned the artwork.

Deanna Joao, 46, of South San Francisco, was arrested Sunday after she was allegedly caught with two paintings worth $45,000, according to police. Jeffrey Harp, 33, and Derek Hanson, 41, tried to flee but were caught after a police dog bit Hanson's leg.

The gallery owner's car was stolen in San Francisco on Nov. 23 with $75,000 to $100,000 worth of paintings inside. The vehicle was later found, but the paintings were gone.

The gallery then started getting calls in early December from a man saying he wanted to bring in a painting for appraisal. The artwork sounded familiar and the owners set up surveillance.

The trio finally showed up at the gallery on Sunday evening.

Hanson was expected to be booked into jail on charges of possession of stolen property, conspiracy and burglary. Joao and Harp were booked on similar charges. Police believe the other paintings may have been hidden.

OK, so today's lesson for the fledgling art thief: The Art World is very, very small. Understand that if a work of art has any value at all (i.e., is worth your while stealing), just about everyone will know who its rightful owner is. Even if that's not common knowledge though, you can be very, very, very, sure that a gallery who sells that artist's work will know exactly where each piece by that artist is (or is supposed to be) located.

I'll stop there. I don't want to overtax you the first day of class. But do review today's lesson...there'll be a quiz tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Mayan Mural Masterpiece and a Modern Mental Exercise

The New York Times today reports on a wonderful discovery in Guatemala. Archeologists have uncovered an exquisite Mayan mural dating back to 100 BC, centuries before what's considered the golden years of Mayan art (starting about 250 AD). Here's a photograph of the central portion of the mural:


click on image to see larger.

In a statement released by the National Geographic Society, a supporter of the research, Dr. [William Saturno, an archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire who is a research associate at Harvard,] wrote, "The mural shows that early Maya painting had achieved a high level of sophistication and grace well before the great works of the Classic Maya in the seventh century." The mural appeared to have extended around all four walls of the chamber, only two of which were standing when archaeologists excavated the site, known as San Bartolo. The western wall was the centerpiece, the wall that people faced as they entered the room. The mural there shows two coronation scenes: one mythological, the other the coronation of a real king.

The first part of the mural illustrates the Maya creation story. Four deities represent the creation of water, land, sky and paradise. At the center, the maize god crowns himself king. Archaeologists said they were having trouble deciphering the glyphs of the much earlier Mayan script.
It's hard not to share Dr. Saturno's excitment about this find. Still, in trying to put the find in context he offered the following:
"In Western terms...it's like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo."
I don't know why exactly, but that analogy just bugged me. Perhaps it's because it presumes some furistic POV where Western art had been erased from the currently read history books (and that unnerves me). Perhaps it's because there seems to be a very subtle dig at Modern art (although when I tried to deconstruct that sentence to illustrate that, it fell apart, so I'm most likely just projecting). But all the same, it encouraged me to explore the comparison a little more indepth.

Here are details of two examples of Mayan art. The one on the left is from the recently discovered mural and the one on the right is from the "masterpiece" mural discovered at
Bonampak in the mid 1940s (painted in the late 8th century, so a good deal past the newly discovered one):



And for comparison, here are details of a piece by da Vinci and one by Matisse:


hmmmmm...maybe he's on to something.

Sorry...couldn't help myself.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Purity in Medium: Open Thread

More and more lately, the general art viewing public seems to have taken up the question only informed collectors or art world professionals were focused on in recent years: are digitally manipulated photographs equal in quality/stature to "pure" photography in the fine art context?

It's odd to be asked that question in the context of an art fair (which I was repeatedly) where since everything's moving so quickly, I'm never quite sure who the person is who's asking or where in the chronology of the debate to begin to answer it. So my stock response has been that I'm totally in favor of both. So long as the gallery declares what the process is, the resulting image is what really matters to me. Purists who only want to collect traditional photography (i.e., from film to negative to print, without computer interventions) need to be able to trust their galleries on pieces they're being shown, but that's the only consideration, IMO.

I note this partly in response to a lecture Tyler Green gave at the Brooklyn Museum this past weekend on the Edward Burtynsky exhibition. Apparently Mr. Burtynsky is a purist, eschewing digital manipulation in his work, and Tyler noted how he's opposed to the practice particularly as it's applied by the big-name German photographers. In fact, one series of images that Burtynsky took in China appear to be a direct elbow in the side to Andreas Gursky...as if to say, it doesn't take a computer to do this, pal:


Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, 2005 (image from edwardburtynsky.com)

Even photographers I know who 5 years ago were still committed to "pure photography" however, have very recently begun to sing a slightly different tune, often arguing that when there's no preceptible difference in the final print, and there's a humungeous difference in control and efficiency, the new technology begins to erase any concerns about purity. After all, in the end it's the image that counts.

And generally I agree. I do think there's still something to the randomness of pure photography...having to live with what fate delivers...that's romantic and interesting, but if an artist knows exactly what they want an image to look like, I can't see why something less than that is superior.

In fact, there's a strong parallel I've noticed between pure of digitally altered photography and oil versus acrylic paint. I've witnessed also painters who winced at the idea of giving up their oils make all kinds of excuses later for making the switch. Perhaps it's all about efficiency, but I suspect it's also being repeatedly told the general public can't tell the difference anyway, so why make your life that much harder.

But enough about what I think...what's your stand on purity in medium?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Artist of the Week (12/12/05)

This happens to me about five times a year it seems. I'll see the work of an artist for the first time and immediately recognize the combination of zeitgeist and freshness that's gonna get them fast widespread attention. The problem is that only three times a year am I right. The other two, for some reason (often biographical complications in the artist's life I'd have no way of knowing about), the artists seem to disappear, so I usually keep such thoughts to myself.

Still, the very first time I saw a video by Jen DeNike, I knew she was one to watch. She was in a group exhibition at White Box entitled domesticArrivals: Miami - New York Connection and even though my peeps were on a tight gallery-hopping schedule, I kept coming back to her video, eventually having to catch up later to watch it. Yes, there's the inescapable homoerotic element of any work which depicts young men without shirts, but in "Dumb-bells" (see still above), there was this almost unbearable combination of vulnerability and assertion that this one particular act (at least for teenagers dealing with the host of insecurities, especially about body issues) respresented for me. I have very strong memories of being in my parents basement trying so desperately to pack some muscle on my tiny frame when I was about that age. I knew it was vainglorious. I knew it most certainly made me look ridiculous, but the societal pressure to be more of a jock was suffocating. "Dumb-bells" captured all of that determination and silliness.

At this point, clearly, I wasn't the only one who had noticed the strenght of her work. DeNike went on to be included in a string of international group exhibitions, culminating in her inclusion in PS1's Greater New York show, where she was singled out by New York Magazine as one of ten "
Artists on the Verge of a Breakthrough." Currently she has her first solo New York show at Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery in Chelsea, where she's exhibiting an ambitious seven-channel video installation. Here are a few stills:


Jen DeNike, Wrestling (video still), 2003, Single Channel Video Loop, 3:09, Edition of 3 with 2 AP (image from
Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery website)


Jen DeNike, Dead Man's Float (video still), 2005, Single Channel Video Loop, 2:10, Edition of 5 with 1 AP (image from
Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery website)

Titled "Seasons in the Sun," the installation is described as follows in the gallery press release:

DeNike uses the 1970’s song “Seasons in the Sun” as a vernacular to tap into the viewer’s subconscious. The song works as a vehicle to trigger the cognitive memory, thus subjecting the viewer to a type of ‘laboratory experiment’. Each video follows a set of rules and employs the same formal composition, the only variable being each individual performance, making one video slightly longer or shorter than the next. The videos work together to expose the raw quality of the performance and a sense of the subject’s vulnerability, creating a sense of chaos and claustrophobia.

Vulnerability seems to be a thread running through most of DeNike's work. Earlier on she garnered attention for her photography series of "vampire victims." Ambrosino Gallery in Miami exhibited these in 2004. Here's an example from their website:



Personally, I'm still just getting to know DeNike's work so I'll keep this short and sweet, but what I've seen so far has been very compelling. Certainly one to watch.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Kitchen Sink (or "Truth, the Limits of Metaphor, and Why Art Education Is Important")

Oscar Wilde insisted there's no such thing as a moral or immoral book. "Books are well written or badly written. That is all." As usual, Oscar was right. Books, or art, can deal with evil, even repugnant subjects, but the work itself is not equivalent to the acts depicted. The work is merely a truthful / insightful depiction or it's not. That is all.

Sh*t happens. And it won't stop happening just because artists don't record/explore it. In fact, there's a good argument that the opposite is true. Recording atrocities, delving into humankind's darker thoughts and ideas and deeds, can be reparative, even healing, if done truthfully. For me the bottom line is if someone can imagine it, no matter how vile, there's no reason it cannot be subject matter for art. More touchy subjects deserve care, but the idea that any topic is taboo is infantile to me. Which isn't to say there's not art that children shouldn't be given access to only with careful parental supervision, but that thinking adults don't need the same patriarchal protections. The market itself (art viewing market, not just art buying) can take care of bad art.

I pontificate about that in response to this story from London about a prize-winning political cartoon and how it inspired an exhibition of anti-Semetic cartoons:

Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic if it uses the same kinds of images as those long used to attack Jews?

That question will be posed by an exhibition of anti-Semitic art appearing in London early next year and inspired in part by a three-year-old British political cartoon that showed a naked Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby.

The exhibition, using images from a Jewish doctor's private collection, will be held at a London gallery that was fiercely criticized by Israel and Jewish groups when it gave its top annual award to the Sharon cartoon.

"What's the boundary between legitimate political criticism and racist propaganda? It is difficult to determine. But I think it's a question of using the same language," said Simon Cohen, the doctor who is putting his collection on display.

"People have been picturing Jews killing babies, eating babies for hundreds of years. They should be aware of what the significance of using anti-Semitic images is."


There is of course, in the context of what we usually discuss here, the question of whether cartoons qualify as "art," but for the purposes of this post, I"m accepting that they are, especially because the exhibition's in a gallery and the MSM is calling it an "art gallery."

Now I hope I'm not breaking all kinds of copyright laws by doing this, but here is the cartoon in question (some other blog posted it first, so sue them first). Forget that many of those outraged seem to be describing some other image (across the Internet folks are talking about the cartoon where Sharon's eating from a bowl of children...clearly they never saw the image), there's absolutely no mistaking that Brown is referencing Goya's infamous painting of Saturn devouring his children (see above).

I have two competing opinions about this. First is that Brown seems as culturally/historically illiterate as his critics in one sense. For him not to understand the impact/associations of the "blood libel" charge Jews have been combatting for centuries is just as foolish as his suggestion that critics of the cartoon need to brush up on their art history. His claims that this image should be seen only as a parody of Goya does reveal a bit of ignorance/cultural insensitivity. It's understandable why Jews see the image as revolving around a libelous stereotype. It's regrettable, but it's understandable. Brown really should have done his homework on this one.

My second sense here, however, is based on my opinions expressed in the opening paragraphs. The question of whether Sharon's eating of children (and the fools [including the MSM] suggesting the baby in the cartoon is Palestinian should actually look at the cartoon...there's no indication whatsoever of that) is a taboo subject for art or even political satire is irrelevant. Whether it's well done or poorly done is the only question of any importance to whether it's "good" or "bad." All the articles I've read on this topic will point out this or that Jewish cartoonist or jurist who "got" the parody and didn't see it as objectionable. That too is irrelevant.

I begin to get confused myself trying to sort out what I think is irrelevant about that last issue within the context of awarding art a prize, but let me try. The question for me is not whether Brown gets a pass because he's parodying an image the public should be familiar with and there wouldn't have been an uproar if we lived in more culturally literate times. The question is whether the parody is well done or poorly done. Does the association offer up an insightful critique or is it a cheap shot?

A little over a year ago or so (before the 2004 elections), Richard Serra was blasted, especially on rightwing political blogs, for his parody of the Goya (this time lampooning re-election candidate President Bush). The ad actually appeared long after Brown's cartoon, which, as noted above, was first published three years ago, but only recently won the award that led to this exhibition. Politically savvy, but seemingly somewhat culturally challenged, Andrew Sullivan (who generally I love, but who IMO really missed this one), wrote: "A NEW LOW: It seems to me that the far left could help win this election for Bush. Here's the latest obscenity. It was an ad on the back-page of the Nation this week. Do they have no shame?" Of course that was back before Sully was endorsing Kerry and many of his posts were much more pro-Bush than anything you'll find on his blog lately. (Image of Serra ad from Blogumentary.)

Where I really trip myself up here with many folks, of course, is in insisting any subject is legitimate grist for the artist's mill, so long as they deal with it truthfully. That become tricky because folks will interpret "truthfully" as "literally." Now I sincerely doubt that either Sharon or Bush has actually eaten anyone's children. So when someone charges me (and I've gone rounds and rounds about this on political blogs, see for example) of suggesting that they literally have by endorsing such art, I become so exasperated it's hard to know where to begin (do I present them with a copy of The Rule of Metaphor or something comparable or do I just write them off as hopeless?).

Any honest person will admit that it's easy to hide behind metaphor though, taking pot shots and claiming the intent was loftier than the Philistine critics are able to perceive. Then again, if the images are out there, should an artist be handcuffed by the sort of cultural illiteracy that causes people to see cheap shots where none were intended? Serra undoubtedly wasn't being as base with his critique as Sully suggested he was. It's safe to assume "the children" he saw Bush as devouring included our values and standing among the world's democracies, an interpretation subsequent posts by Sully would indicate he agrees with.

Again, I think the art viewing / consuming / promoting market will sort all this out in the end. If an artist offers up propagandist schlock, the machine will do its job and sweep it out of the system. Rightwing propaganda will be swept out more quickly than leftwing propaganda, it's true, but then the rightwing's not investing as much into supporting the arts as the leftwing is, so that's their reward.

But I realize I'm rambling now, so let me try to refocus this. Ideally, the general public would judge art in terms of its quality (does it convey its message truthfully, insightfully, poignantly?). Even if a message rattles our comfort zone, we should be able to step back and attempt to evaluate the truth of the message without calling for censorship or the artist's head on a platter. To do so, it helps if we're better educated though. Had more of Brown's audience been familiar with Goya's imagery, they might have better understood he wasn't trying to exploit the blood libel stereotype to critique Sharon's policies (it seems from his response to the uproar he too was uneducated about why they did). More of them would probably have laughed, as clearly was his intent. Sure he was being controversial, but there's clearly humor intended by parodying the Goya.

I had a studio visit yesterday with an artist whose work incoporates a good deal of humor. We discussed how "truth" always includes some element of humor...no matter how serious the subject, even if it's incredibly dark, humor exists in everything. It's the artist's task to incorporate that humor into his/her work in the quest for truth.

And, I'm rambling again.

Here's the summary: neither Brown nor Serra was being "obscene," as Sully and others have suggested, with these pieces. "Obscenity" requires a moral judgement, and art is neither moral nor immoral. It's either well done or poorly done. Judge these works by those criteria.

Friday, December 09, 2005

When It's Over: Open Thread

Dennis notes on his blog that one of their artists decided to cancel an upcoming exhibition planned for the spring, essentially leaving the gallery. All I know about that particular case is what he posted, but this advice that he offered, I'll second:
Note to LA people: when severing a relationship, please refrain from doing so over the phone a few days prior to my trip to LA. In person is where it's at.
Of course that cuts both ways. There's a good way to end the relationship on both sides, and the best way, whenever possible, is always in person. Especially when it means that scheduled exhibitions or other such activities will need to be canceled.

Whenever we ask an artist to join the gallery, we're very up front about our thoughts on this. Our advice to the artist is always, "If Larry Gagosian [or whoever] comes knocking, don't give it a second's thought...do what you know in your heart is right for your career. We'll understand, and we'll continue to like you and support your work. But if it doesn't work out with that other dealer, don't assume that your slot in our gallery will be waiting for you. It may not be."

I think that's fair. As an emerging gallery, you expect some of your artists to be snatched away by more established galleries. If you play it right, that can even be seen as a feather in your cap. But there is a disheartening aspect to having invested time and money into an artist just to see them move on once they've reached the point where that investment might begin to pay off. There's also, clearly, a disheartening aspect to having worked with a gallery as an artist and have them end that relationship. In the end, that's what the arrangement is...a relationship, and damned personal one at that.

Dealers talk about this issue all the time, by the way. Both sides of it. How to end the relationship with an artist who turns out not to be a good match for the program, and how to respond when an artist decides they feel the program is no longer a good match for them. We've been on both sides of that at our gallery. Neither position is easy (for artist or dealer), and although I think I'm learning to handle it better, I'm aware I've made some horrible mistakes in the past. I'm working on responding better moving forward.

A famous instance of an artist moving from the gallery that had built his (now) phenomenal career was discussed at a meeting of dealers I was in not too long ago. The dealer was very open about how it stung, but very impressively had only good things to say about the artist. Not burning bridges is very important I think. Even if, as an artist, you can't see yourself ever working with that gallery again, folks in the art world often change careers, from dealers to consultants to curators to museum directors to magazine editors to whatever...the one thing I've learned is you can never predict who is going to be incredibly powerful in a few year's time, so it's good to keep everything civil. More than that though, clearly, whether or artist or dealer, at one time you were very fond of each other...don't let the reasons you're deciding to split make you throw all that away. End the relationship professionally and take away, as much as possible, positive memories. And, if possible, continue to support each other.

Consider this an open thread.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Just Because You're Paranoid, Doesn't Mean You're Wrong...

A few months ago, we had a discussion about whether the Wal-Mart funded Cystal Bridges Museum of American Art might not provide an example of how the extreme right could infiltrate what's traditionally been a bastion of liberal thought and values: the art world. My initial argument was meant to illustrate a potential method; not suggest that was the intention, but among the comments in that thread were some like these:
Why are we assuming that a museum of 19th-century American art is a right-wing, NEA-hating, Jesse Helms-inspired institution that seeks to turn back the clock to 1859?

and

WTF?

What does the museum have to do with "the EXTREME right wing"?

and

I've wondered when someone on the right would take a look at wealthy east coast collectors and model themselves after them in every way, except for which work they celebrate. These two kids would be perfect candidates for a hipsters who are also born again Christian with an almost militant evangelical determination. It's gonna happen. Look at Christian rock and hip hop. The work itself may never be great, but it has a convincing taste and texture for those that consume it. The Splenda and Equal of contemporary music... ...and maybe now, of contemporary art?

and

Back when I worked at White Columns, Bill Arning commented that with just a quarter of a million dollars to spend on art annually someone could shape emerging art in New York. That figure may have gone up but it's still essentially true. You, Edward, are wise to worry about the influence of the Walton fortune on art.

and

I still don't understand why we don't want someone whose politics we don't know buying and showing art. I mean, does anyone know Stephen Cohen's politics? I don't hear anyone complaining about his spending spree! ;-)

and, well, you can read the others yourself.

Then today, Tyler noted:

I've never heard of this before: A museum giving a project update to a group affiliated with a political party. The museum: The Waltons-backed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The group: The Benton County (Ark.) Republican Women.

Coincidence??? Perhaps. Although I do agree that it does seem rather odd. Now I've looked over the Benton County Republican Party website, and other than disagreeing with them on several issues, they certainly seem like a nice enough group of people, but I found nothing there suggesting that they're active in the arts at all. There are statements about a host of topics, from Corporate Ethics, to Teachers' Groups, to Gun Rights and other issues traditionally close to Republican's hearts, but no Cultural Wars type statements or anything of that sort.

All of which may just mean they're neutral on the arts or do not see the arts as a political issue. There's certainly nothing on their site that suggests any hostility toward the arts. Still it seems an odd group to invite for an update on a museum. Perhaps it's the hope that the Museuem will, as Bob Workman (its Director) noted, "boost tourism and tax revenue for the region" that piqued the Republican Women's interest.

Barbara Tillman, president of Benton County Republican Women, said the museum will transform the region and create various economic development and volunteer opportunities for her members.

“I don’t think you’ll see planes full of people at XNA, but there will be a reason besides Wal-Mart to be here,” she said.

Perhaps it is all economics, but just because I'm paranoid that this is an attempt to influence the course of American art, doesn't mean I'm wrong....

Also in Crystal Bridges news: they've hired Christopher B. Crosman, former executive director of the
William A. Farnsworth Library and Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, as their new curator. I'm still willing to wait to see what they do before judging their efforts, although I won't be caught dead carrying anything with their ridiculous moniker on it (yes, I had to get that dig in...it hurts my teeth to type "Crystal Bridges"...there's still time...for the love of God, change it's name!) .

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What Role Does Sex Play in an Artist's Career?

OK, so this is a silly post, but I'm still catching up with my sleep and my brain can't do much heavy lifting just yet, so...

With the new Whitney Biennial line-up just out and very, very conspicuous sales results at the Miami art fairs to judge by, it's the "bruised ego" time of year again, when many artists will overanalyze the data and conclude, at least temporarily, that perhaps their parents were right...perhaps they should have become dentists instead.

But don't sublet your studio just yet. In Sunday's
New York Times was an article suggesting there are other benefits to being an artist than inclusion in a museum exhibition or selling out your inventory in four days:
The artists and poets who frequent Yaddo and MacDowell might already have predicted what two psychologists at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and the Open University in Britain announced last week: creative types of both sexes have more sexual partners than their nonartistic counterparts, according to their research, which will be posted on the Web site of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a British journal.

The Marianne Moores and Joseph Cornells, private, cerebral types devoted to their mothers, are apparently the exception; Edna St. Vincent Millay, left, Pablo Picasso and Georges Simenon, voracious lovers all, are truer to the form. The two researchers interviewed 425 British male and female professional artists and poets, making careful scientific inquiry into their sexual histories, mental health and artistic output. The creatives had 4 to 10 partners in their past, compared to the mere 3 claimed by less artistic counterparts.
From what I hear, Skowhegan is like a co-ed college dorm with extasy-spiked water-coolers.

But, I realize as I type this, that if you weren't already depressed enough, being in the more shy-artist-like-Cornell camp might send you over the edge, so you really must read this hilarious response to the survey by Dino Champman in
The Guardian:

Trainee psychologists have published a study in which they blame artists for the fact that schizophrenia has not been cleansed from the gene pool. Creative types, they say, might carry the gene, and are twice as promiscuous as mentally healthy non-artists. "Creative types have more sex" and "Why an artistic nature may do wonders for your love life" read the headlines.

What a pile of crap. Those responsible should be shot. Better still, they should be forced to have several thousand sexual partners. Preferably schizoid artists, bad, ugly, psychotic ones. Then shot.
Read the whole thing...it gets even better. This line in particular got me to thinking, though:

But if people want to romanticise us as foppish degenerates who flout all prevailing laws and take many lovers, we'll happily oblige.
Clearly, the sort of emerging visual artists who are generally asked to pose in Vouge (present issue excluded [see Todd Gibson's smackdown on From the Floor]) are hoping to (or being advised to) sex up their image. And there's only one reason to do that it seems: sex sells.

Back before we opened the gallery, Josh and I spent hours debating the purpose/mission of the space. Why were we doing this...what were our goals. One day when I waxing philosophical about what motivated artists and what motivated me to work with artists, Josh (perhaps the best person I've ever met at cutting through the b.s.) called me on it..."OK, so stop right there. What do you think is the ultimate motivation for an artist?" I thought for a moment, and eventually responded, "Well, I think the ultimate motivation for anyone is getting laid." Josh said "thank God" that was my response; had I answered anything else he wasn't sure we could work together.

Which isn't to say we opened the gallery to get laid (honestly B., it's just an example), just that the ultimate reason anyone works really hard at anything is ultimately wrapped up with their being more attractive (in the eyes of who they want to sleep with, in the eyes of who they want to associate with, in the eyes of their God, in the eyes of their children/parents, etc.). Kissinger's adage, "Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac," holds true whether the arena is politics or the art world or academia or whatever. How else does one explain the fact that many women admit to seeing Donald Rumsfeld as strangley attractive.

So perhaps I've got it backwards, perhaps its not that the hot young art star poses in Vogue to sex up their image, but rather that the power they wield makes them sexy. Like I noted above, my brains still not ready for any heavy lifting...I just found the articles above amusing and wanted to engage in a little stream of consciousness...a polluted stream, no doubt, but...