Thursday, March 26, 2009

Artist of the Week (Possibly Fortnight) 3/26/09

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

---William Carlos Williams

A poet I went to college with once pointed to Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow" as his epiphany point, the poem he had read early on that helped flipped the switch and illuminate for him what it was that poetry does, what it is about. Poetry remains the art form that entirely humbles me. It's as close as we people get to having any means to convey reality, in my close as we get to having just a peek behind us, out into the daylight from where we stand in the cave, before being forced back to contemplate the shadows on the wall. This is a particularly American (or at least not universal) interpretation of poetry, I realize, but I'm comfortable with that.

Nearly every photograph I see by Chicago-based artist Melanie Schiff has that quality to it, a Williams-esque call to see things as they really are but purposely tinged with an admittedly human awkwardness. In that way, Schiff seems to be very generously trying to help us have our own epiphany moments.

Any number of the works in her first solo exhibition at Kavi Gupta's Gallery in Chicago illustrates this, but the one that did it for me...the one that flipped some switch in my head was this one:

Melanie Schiff, Untitled (cases), 2005, digital c-print, 30" x 37", edition of 3 with 2 AP's. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

Schiff is known for her playful approach to using light. But she's also known, as was Williams, for using everyday objects to make her point. In the press release for her first exhibition at Kavi's they note:
The moments she addresses are quiet and waver on the edge of a constructed poetic narrative and an instant found by chance. Her investigations and use of natural light through windows and objects such as empty CD cases and light fixtures form prisms of color and phenomenon of light and shadow. One might point to magic or alchemy as a starting point of her work, though these moments of chance and mystery infiltrate the commonplace detritus of an event including scattered beer cans, bottles, books, records and personal effects revealing what could be seen as a spiritual happening through a series of mundane objects.

Melanie Schiff, Emergency, 2006, digital c-print, 28" x 19 3/4", edition of 3 with 2 AP's. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

Bambino and I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Melanie's work in Kavi's storage room a few years back. Seeing these pieces in such a context, amidst all the tools and packing materials commonly found in galleries' back rooms, amplified my ability to understand how Schiff seems to be asking the viewer to see the world around them.

In addition to using everyday objects as her subjects, portraiture is another important part of Schiff's work. Where I find the work particularly irresistible is where she combines the humor and playful use of light with (self?)-portraits:

Melanie Schiff, Spit, 2006, digital c-print, 30" x 33", edition of 3 with 2 AP's. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

As also noted in the first show's press release, "[t]he eye of the woman photographer is extremely present in Schiff's" work. Indeed, in the text about her work for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, which she had been invited to participate in, the curators tell us:
Schiff was strongly influenced by feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann, and her vivid, bodily mode of self-portraiture frequently bears the traces of kindred spirits like Ana Mendieta and Valie Export—in Mud Reclining (2006), the artist depicts herself as a muckcovered odalisque stretching languorously in a tropical landscape, evoking both the former’s Siluetas and the latter’s Body Configurations series—or Hannah Wilke, whose body appliqués are jokily reconceived as a pair of raspberry pasties in boobberry (2003).

Melanie Schiff, Mud, 2006, digital c-print, 30" x 30", edition of 3 with 2 AP's. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

Indeed, humor and a playful spirit seems to win out in Schiff's work over the drier sort of insights you find among some other photographers mining the same veins these days. The level of access that adds to her work is brilliant in my opinion. This piece, for example, always makes me smile:

Melanie Schiff, Neil Young, Neil Young, 2006, digital c-print, 30" x 40", edition of 3 with 2 AP's. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

According to her CV on the gallery website, Melanie has another solo exhibition coming up in Chicago in 2009 (I assume next Fall). Some of the newer images on her artist's page suggest she's working more in portraiture these days, even when (as she frequently will) the subject's face is obscured and the body is more of a formal device than personality. These two gorgeous and quietly charming pieces are good examples:

Melanie Schiff, Last Lagoon, 2008, c-print mounted and framed, 50" x 60". Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

Melanie Schiff, Untitled, 2008, archival inkjet print, 49" x 40", edition of 5. Image courtesy of Kavi Gupta Gallery, Chicago. Used with permission.

I'm very much looking forward to the new show.

Labels: Artist of the Week


Anonymous Phil Taylor said...

Nice choice!

I am following Schiff as well. Another relevant source for her work is someone like Moyra Davey, although Schiff uses humor to quite a different effect. But they share an interest in the descriptive powers of photography and light, and the simply objects of our lives. The skewering of genre and art historical precedent is quite effective too. Contrast Schiff's Spit with Nauman's Fountain.

I wonder though about her prints getting larger and larger. Many of the images have a quiet intimacy that can be deadened by their size. Perhaps with the changing economy we will see this bounce back the other way.

3/26/2009 10:37:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

Wonderful analysis! What intrigues me is that at first I assumed the first image was a document of an actual gallery installation until I realized it was digital print. And of course, if the subject matter involves these temporal interactions between objects or people and environmental light, the work would need to be print documents.

There is a wonderful precision in this that does remind me of poetry. And it makes me wonder if the document of these interactions is the poetry whereas an installation of objects in a space is the non-fiction (or a documentary)?

Lovely, poignant humor here, great pick!!

3/26/2009 10:49:00 AM  
Blogger Mike @ MAO said...

Great Choice Ed...

Melanie is one of the most exciting new photographers I've seen in the last few years.

".. the pleasure of spending some quality time...." Ha!

Now.. we all just want to know what you and Bambino were really doing in Kavi's Storage Room!!

3/26/2009 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger a christian said...

Like her work very much. had a similar response a while back at Kenneth Josephson's Retrospective. Specifically a b/w photo of leaves in the woods. He had spray painted some of the leaves white, simulating sunlight poking through the trees.

3/26/2009 11:10:00 AM  
Anonymous Catherine Spaeth said...

Lovely. As for the Whitney's lineage, interesting that they would leave out Francesca Woodman.

3/26/2009 11:28:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Are we allowed critique?

Because when I saw this work in the Sympathy For The Devil
group show in Montreal, which already received negative
comments from me on some french blog, she was the least
interesting artist in the room she was in (next to Ruilova, Nara, Guzman and Tiravanija (though Tiravanija is starting
to really irritate me with his hypocritical pretention to be dedicated to his public).

Shiff was showing 3 or 4 photographs, which bore the hell
out of me, mostly because either they had strong hidden
narratives that were absolutely pulling-my-leg superfluous
once you read the story (one an homage to Kurt Kobain which never made entire sense before I left the room), or they borrowed heavy-used graphic tricks. Like that Neil Young. Do you guys know that there is a site somewhere (I forgot the link) where people do just that? Take trompe-L'oeil snapshots of album sleeves
graphically matching their environment?

Wait a minute...Let me find it...

As far as light passing through mundane objects... To me it's like a photogaphy 101 school class
project. Didn't you guys have that assignment? Light passing through objects? Thank god it's not a glass of water (ultimate cliché). I suppose the photo is quite large, because I've realized
since Nan Goldin that ordinary photographs look impressive once they are enlarged. But I'm seeing this one from the internet.

The Lagoon photograph is much more interesting (it doesn't make exact sense but at least I haven't read the panel about it trying to), but at this point the artists has already confused me too much about her aims.

By the way I have already seen an artist piling up cd cases as a sculpture. I wonder if it wasn't Cristof Migone? Grrr, I see too much, I don't remember. The reference to minimalism becomes even more obvious then. I suppose in the large format you could misinterprete Shiff's as a Carl Andre. That's an angle I'm more ready to consider than a light study.

Cedric Cas

3/26/2009 11:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

There was this installation once with cds and light passing through them as a manner of evoking the "musicality of light" (my terms, not theirs, hence why it sounds so tacky). So I'm presuming there is an angle there because Shiff seems to be pigeonholed as related to rock music. What's important there is that instead of leaning toward abstraction, the subject of the cd cases could become inherent to the comprehension of the work, which thus turns it as not being exclusively about light or mundanity.

In this I am faulting the PR or artist statement for not
pushing the work in the right direction.


3/26/2009 11:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Are we allowed critique?

Always, yes...within the guidelines, please, that you leave out personality issues and try your best to justify any harsh statements. was created May 31, 2007, by the way, Cedric. Melanie's Neil Young image was created in 2006. I'm not sure that proves anything with regards to which came first, but it does suggest the sincerest form of flattery (in the Wildean sense).

I've seen artists do their own portraits as well, some dating back hundreds and hundreds of years. Does that mean self-portraits should be lumped in with all other motifs that might possibly bore the hell out of people?

My point being, it's not any given approach that separates Melanie's work from the noise, in my opinion, but the subtle poetry of the accomplishment. It's how playful she is with light, for me, not that she's playing with light

Not all poems reach all people, though...YMMV.

3/26/2009 12:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Indeed they were portraits at the group show. Portraits are not the problem. It's the narrative (wall panels) that came along with them that really didn't came across.
They were all somehow related to the context of rock music,
but only the Neil Young was obvious (I knew of Sleeveface
before I saw it, obviously). Maybe a whole show of portraits,
no questions asked, would feel different. I have the feeling that
the artist is pushing 4 directions at the same time.

The group at Sleeveface must be aware of their antecedants. It would be interesting to know how it all started. What a bizarre coincidence.

Cedric Casp

3/26/2009 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

NOTE: an anonymous commenter posted a comment that was OK and relevant, but made a disparaging sideline comment about someone else's personality, so I rejected it. Please add again, without the personality assertion.

3/26/2009 12:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

I incite a lot of hate mail. Sorry.


Cedric C

3/26/2009 12:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Neil Young photograph is derivative because of the dumbed down context of Molon's rock show...but we can somehow agree that rock references in art are boring now, everybody does it...its an easy trick that desk curators still find amusing because they think it gives them an edge.

But like poetry, Schiff's work takes time to grow on you, give it me. You're only seeing the generic images from generic shows, that's what's getting you confused a bit, I think.

anyway, she did great work for us on The Dams 2 exhibit in Puerto Rico...maybe I'm a bit biassed.

3/26/2009 01:02:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Creegan said...

I think light is obviously the foregrounded element since the artist captured that specific phenomenon. One can certainly add to the interpretation the knowledge that they are cd cases, but the very fact that the object presented here is a photograph rather than the row of cases in a space means this is not a Carl Andre impression. I think the identity of the objects is less emphasised because of this.

3/26/2009 01:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicola Di Caprio has been working with sculptures and photographs made out of cd cases and record sleeves since... forever and he's italian, I think. Pretty much the history of Contemporary artist in Chicago has to do with music and sound and the marginal experience of music in art. Look up the review I did of Molon's rock show in Artnet and you'll find all the references...

So, to understand most of Schiff's work you need to understand this history. It's not really about the object or the record sleeve, that's just available material, pretty generic in these areas, is not a statement about Neil Young or music.


3/26/2009 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger jami said...

Of course you can always find a reference for any image, thats what art is about, building on our shared history (but I have seen a lot of figures buried in the landscape lately). Thanks for this new series Its always interesting to see new work and read critiques from all sides.

3/26/2009 05:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Granted, Mark. I was scratching the surface because she was included in a show of artists making art related to rock. But essentially, it's a theatre of light. Is it abstract or poetic? That's what confuses me. To me it's the ambivalence between how much I love Da Maria's earth room and how much I hate his Broken Kilometer. Sometimes the poem
for me is can I say...I'm not able to read it in any different way? It's a one-way broadcast. Zap!

Yes, anon, I'm getting a sense that the inclusion in the rock show was erratic. Maybe a focus on portraits or lagoons in a show would do her good.

Pedro, somehow in Montreal Shiff was in the "international" room (probably because of Neil Young?).
That's even worse than at least making inner Chicago Who's
who's links. The 3 or 4 works felt very random.

Ok, let me grab my notes a sec
(I always take note). Here we are. "Hard Rain". Some photo of some guy apparently disguised as Kurt Cobain and the title of the song referencing Dylan (the guy wears make-up). What am I missing here? How random is that? Just someone impersonificating
Cobain?? The panel was much longer
than that, but it seemed way too much drivel for such an ordinmary picture. I didn't get it.

Another that was present: "Emergency". Hey wait a minute: Edward mentions that
one! OMG I didn't even remember it. Just how bad is that? And how random does a bottle shot with a
sunset at its top feel in a group show about rock? Ok, suppose there is a link, suppose there is one great rock album titled
Emergency that I've missed, I 'm only saying that it was presented through such obtuse narratives ("this work is about"...). Let it be remain formal? Or poetic? Allright, let's try poetic. How does it compare to to the young
boy catching the sun in the climax scene of Visconti's Death In Venice? Here it looks like
anything someone could have shot at summer camp, that's how it compares. A pure accident of cuteness. Emergency: because you only had 2 minutes to pick that shot? An homage to alcoholism?


"Can't see straight, like I got one eye (pop),
Your bottle opener or mine,
Let's... get started....
Everybody get random
Jus' do sumfin random"

(Lady Sovereign)

Next I just googled this review:

"The exhibition “Underwater Photographer” presents a portrait of a young woman living the rock & roll lifestyle."

(John McKinnon)

Hmmm... So there's an interpretation of her art as being about music. Really scratching my head again.


Cedric Caspesyan

PS: Disgress: Pedro, you covered it pretty much.
I hated Sympathy because it was a mixmatch of "Fine Artists doing art about rock or pop music",
"Musicians doing art when they have time to waste", "Designers doing album sleeves"
And all of this, mixing good names with total newbies that nobody had heard about. Basically, trying to cover so much and missing so much.
My favorite sleeve designer (Vaughan Oliver) not represented one bit (he does cool installation art that can knock everybody out
the room). None of my fave Chicago
labels were represented either.

3/26/2009 05:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, I forgot the Kurk Cobain piece....but that was a collaboration with Tony Tasset, right? I count that as the oldie trying to become relevant with a younger, in my book is a lesser work or series.

Poetic, I think its poetic and abstract, and I believe she is a good artist...and I can also agree with some of your points.

but if we are going to talk about trendy posers making art that exploits the pretty pop surface of rock then we should be talking about Banks Violette or any other piece of art in Chelsea that has an electric guitar, or some generic Death Metal reference, incrusted onto some collage, and those are many...


3/26/2009 07:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Her CD cases photo is also my favorite of hers - it reminds me of a Rothko painting. However, her prices are too high for me because of the Whitney show and all the hype. I'll buy a book as soon as she does one.

3/26/2009 08:51:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Where's the babble-off switch?

3/26/2009 09:22:00 PM  
Blogger José said...


The last one shows a great composition exercise.
And it's b&w (or should I call it greyscale ?), which is something that I quite like, be it photography, be it drawing or painting.

Best regards,


3/26/2009 10:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy her work. Very good.

3/27/2009 06:30:00 AM  
Blogger The Reader said...

I can only add to the (Greek) chorus. Nice pick...

Ed says "it's not any given approach that separates Melanie's work from the noise, in my opinion, but the subtle poetry of the accomplishment."

I think in the case of these images subtle poetry and humility emerge together. These are such beautiful, fragile and rare things in any art. This is the kind of work that makes you want to say "shhhhhhh, listen, there's something else it wants to tell us".

3/27/2009 07:47:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I have a "thing" for light and shadow in art, especially in small humble quiet ways - so I absolutely love these photographs - at least the ones whose focus is exploring how light and everyday objects interact. Thanks!

I do not know enough about the history of the dialog in art to know if they would be derivative or not, but I do know what I like, and I like these! (Especially "Unititled (cases)")

3/27/2009 08:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Ah well, Melanie is going to be happy to read that there's just that stupid dork Cedric who doesn't like her art. But cute subtle poetry reminds me of the floating plastic bag in American Beauty. It just makes me want to punch it. ;-)

Cedric C

3/27/2009 08:52:00 AM  
Blogger max mulhern said...

these all have a great hippy commune feel to them. Is that the Grateful Dead that I hear or the Allman Brothers? Where's the chaser?

3/27/2009 01:23:00 PM  
Anonymous coco said...

Everyone one of the images posted immediately takes my mind to the work of some other artist. I'm not familiar with her work, so just from the images posted I don't get any relation to the William Carlos Williams poem. What that poem speaks about deals with the aspects of life that just exist, yearning to be explored. Schiff's photographs seem to be explorations of quiet moments, but they are all cleverly conceived which detaches them from the fantasy of reality and goes into the direction of placing reality upon fantasies.

3/27/2009 04:45:00 PM  
Anonymous cEDRIC cAS said...

Maybe it's my east european bias
but Josef Sudek or André Kertesz (to name two) in my mind have made "cleverly conceived" photographs of "quiet moments" placing "reality upon fantasy" with much more splendour.

And from studying light passing through cathedral glassworks or cd cases, I understand the difference, but I also have preferences.

Cedric c

3/27/2009 09:02:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I'm not really convinced by the selection of Schiff's photos presented here, so I looked through the others on the Kavi Gupta Gallery website to get a better feel for Ms. Schiff's work

Neil Young, Neil Young is weak even without the outside references. It might have been fun to do but if I was a photo editor, I'd move on.

I'm also not convinced by Mud which looks like an ill produced fashion shot.

Ones I liked better were these from the gallery website:
Studio 2006
Spit Rainbow 2006
Untitled (Bottles) 2005

3/27/2009 09:31:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

One of the problem with making photographs is that there are scores of amateur photographers out there who can make a perfectly acceptable photograph. The camera is a great leveler. Further, extraordinary amounts of money is spent on fashion and product photography, as well as cinematography, and the results are often better than what is produced by many artists.

It takes a special vision to transcend the medium. There's an exhibition at MOMA "Into the Sunset" opening next week. Described by MOMA as: An unprecedented look at more than a century of changing myths and cultural attitudes about the American West. The exhibition includes over 130 photographs, from 1850 to the present, by nearly seventy photographers, including Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Cindy Sherman, and Stephen Shore.

3/27/2009 10:26:00 PM  
Blogger Christine said...

Wonderful choice and I loved reading your analysis! I really liked the choice of artwork you put on your blog. As always, I always enjoy reading your posts! There's this new website called where artists can display their work in a virtual studio. Thought it may be of interest to you. Thanks again for a wonderful post!

3/31/2009 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebecca Harp said...

Thank you for this post, for introducing to me a wonderful match of a beautiful poem and a strikingly talented photographer. I shall continue to follow this artist, and I will remember this poem. I myself am a painter, but I believe that most recently I have been trying to view the canvas, to wander the streets, and to choose my subject with the eye of the photographer, that is to say, to notice the sublime treasures amongst the trivial. Or present an uncanny viewpoint of something we have seen a thousand times before, and thus we no longer see it. Photographers seem to have an incredible gift for this, and Ms. Schiff does it superbly. I think the photograph of the cases is magical, as is the poem. I understood it immediately.

6/20/2009 12:03:00 PM  

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