Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Oui je te dis

I was speaking with a friend tonight about the phenomenon of what I noticed as French inner city and middle class youths modeling themselves after American black urban culture. In this country, I’m used to seeing white Americans taking on the fashion, vocabulary, and attitudes of African-Americans. But, something struck me as particularly inauthentic about the phenomenon in France. I think it had to do with fact that, because of the distance, I could see the myths behind it more clearly than here. My first reaction was, “they aren’t doing it right.” Then I got to thinking about adopting.

The phenomenon is post-modern in the sense that the French are borrowing from another culture and somehow, making it their own. The idea of the unique loses solidity. One thing only references another, and so on and so on. There’s no way out of it.

Can we really say that an African-American deeply ensconced in urban culture is the “real” thing. That is, that he or she is the reference, the source? I think yes, but I’m starting to question that conviction.

What this has to do with art and my work, I’m unsure. I’m just trying to keep the blog going. I won’t be going into the studio for a while, as I’m finishing a translation project. But, I have an important studio visit next week at the Whitney Museum. Until then, I’m keeping the juices alive.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Grey in Paris

Also in Peter Bürger’s essay The Negation of the Autonomy of Art, he suggests that it is because art is outside the praxis of life, that artists enjoy the freedom they do (in terms of subject and form). Of course, there are all kinds of obstacles the artist faces on the road to going public. But, the underlying freedom of production is there.

This freedom is not to be confused with genius. It’s simply a privilege, and has little to do with talent. In the same essay, Valéry is cited as having pointed to the psychological motivations behind attaining “artistic genius” as well as to the availability of artistic means. “Valéry’s theorem concerning the force of pride (orgueil) that sets off and propels the creative process renews once again the notion of the individual character of artistic production central to art in bourgeois society.”

How this relates to my next thought is a mystery to me, but: I was talking with a French woman on my last day in Paris, and I was telling her about how art seemed to have no life at the moment in the city. She agreed, and suggested that it had to do with the fact that the French don’t like France right now. France’s institutions and infrastructure are listless. France is depressed. It has had the same president for fourteen years and nothing has changed. The only good thing Chirac has done is oppose the Iraq war.

This made sense to me. I had never considered how the psychological state of a country might affect its art. This is excellent food for thought. How much does an artist need its country to make good work? Whether its friction or harmony (I can’t imagine the latter), a dynamic artist-country relationship may be a criteria of exciting art.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Art in Life

In Peter Bürger’s essay The Negation of the Autonomy of Art, which I’m currently reading, he postulates that with “bourgeois art,” which is what is produced at present, art lies outside “the praxis of life.” That is, as I understand it, it serves no purpose. Furthermore, it is received on an individual level, not a collective one. The work of the “avant-gardistes,” according to Bürger, is to make art practical again, that is to make it function in society. This does not necessarily mean that art must focus on content, but rather on being in the world.

Here’s a theory. The reason why I’m uninterested in art in Paris is precisely because it is outside of life. For me, the most interesting art here is the kind that is incorporated within the everyday. Again, I’m talking about design objects, but also, and especially, signage and graphics.

Look at this sign for the French grocery chain E. Leclerc. I love the size and graphic strength. On television the other night, there was a pan-shot of a snow-covered forest. Then all of a sudden, letters weaved in and out of the scene, reading HIVER (winter). It was the stuff of Ruscha, but beyond.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Better than Art

I visited the Centre Georges Pompidou today. Only the permanent collection was open. There are plenty of modern hits by everyone from Rothko to Matisse, but I just seemed to glide bleary-eyed through the galleries. It was very hard to see it all fresh. It’s all too familiar. Perhaps with better lighting and more interesting juxtapositions, I would have appreciated it more. But, one this is for certain, Giacometti looks great. His paintings have the rawness of drawings and his sculptures are alive.

The most popular pieces seemed to be op art ones, involving illusion, and a certain element of design. This got me thinking. There’s something about Paris, I’m more interested in graphic design, object design, and commercials on television than “fine” or “contemporary” art. The museum, for example, has fantastic signs. One reading SORTIE was made of small bulbs, like a marquee, but the size and font were smaller, tighter. Then, one block from the museum, I was in awe by resin ice cube earrings slightly twisted and tinted subtle colors. Walking home, I stood before a French version of a bonsai tree that involved an enormous chiseled-like trunk, reminiscent of a palm tree, up top of which were just a few shoots of unusual leaves. The everyday here is what catches my eye and sticks in my head.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Summer Fun

My step-daughter showed us a DVD of her summer theater camp experience. Children, between the ages of 8 and 18 prepared a musical, and then traveled to a few cities and villages around the Swiss border to perform their show. There are costumes, painted sets, lights, directors, and professional musicians.

The musical was an allegory of sorts about the World War II and Nazism. There is a sort of emperor who wants to de-ignite the moon, banish freedom, and have certain citizens wear yellow Dr. Seuss pompoms. All this happens to cheery but somber songs (no dance).

In the “behind the scenes documentary,” one child talks about how he’s happy to be part of a play that warns about the evils of the world. He seems convinced that the musical will contribute to the education of audiences and somehow prevent historical reoccurrence. There is no doubt in my mind that experience was fulfilling for him, but does art actually have the power to convince others? Can it change anyone’s mind? Can it act as a political force? And above all, is it not just kitsch to put historical tragedy to music sung buy kids?

Monday, February 12, 2007

Paris, Day 1

Paris is so pleasant to look at and so easy to get along with, I can’t imagine really getting anywhere making work here. It’s as if there weren’t enough conflict, enough ugly. Intellectually and esthetically, I feel at home. So, where would the art come from?

The question is, what does art look like if you feel fine?

I remember when I was living here, not as a practicing artist however, conflict eventually did arise. I could fit in, but there was still a yearning of sorts to break out. It was all too staid. It was almost sleepy.

I don’t make art to attempt to show beauty, but rather discomfort and tension. And the hope is, it’ll end up being beautiful. But, who are the artists that start with beauty and intend to express it? Perhaps Matisse. Perhaps artists serving religion.

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Returns

Living Arts is an unusual cultural center. There are hardly no other spaces devoted to contemporary art in the “mid” states, except for - this is what I hear - Bimis, in Omaha. The center functions because of the vision and conviction of its director Steve Liggett, and because of a tightly-knit board, which does not entirely consist of art enthusiasts and aficionados, but which is devoted to providing warm hospitality.

The Andy Warhol Foundation approached Living Arts, wondering why it hadn’t applied for a grant (the foundation actually sought out organizations in states that were not receiving support from their grant programs). Consequently, Living Arts can now exhibit artists from out of town (like me), and organize a yearly two-week long New Genre Festival. This year’s festival will include Marina Abramovic’s Balkan Erotic Epic, a multi-channel video installation that presents folk traditions that explicitly incorporates sexual performances (ie: groups of men hump the land in what seems to be a fertility ritual). The piece was shown last year in New York at the Sean Kelly Gallery.

This is an impressive but isolated art center, and I feel so grateful to have had the opportunity to show so much work there. It’s invaluable to be able to see what you make in action, to see it have space, to combine it with other projects, to watch new viewers interact with it. I will go back into the studio with a wider vision for new projects.

My artist’s talk was well received, especially because it gave an in to viewers unfamiliar with video art in general. After, I was approached by folks who wanted to tell me about racism they have seen or experienced. Others asked questions, sometimes uncomfortable ones (do you think Amos n’ Andy would be poorly received today?). Others still were revelatory (a woman told me about how being a maid meant getting into character).

What I would like to consider in these upcoming days, weeks, and longer is: Which pieces worked and which didn’t and why? What do I think about sound in general (I found it mostly annoying)? Should audience be considered when selecting to exhibit works at a specific venue (yes), but can an artist predict and tailor reactions (no).

So, thank you Tulsa. Next stop, Paris, France.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

God Bless Tulsa!

Here I am, folks. Living Arts is a fantastic, large space. My two-person show has officially become a solo show. Consequently, we've got three projectors, and four monitors churning. What a scene! Tomorrow is the opening and artist talk, and I can't wait. Photos to come.

Right now I'm sitting in the apartment of the space's director, Steve Liggett, who is a force. We are currently contemplating with other Tulsa residents here for dinner whether Tulsa should have an ArtCar parade. We are watching footage from Houston's ArtCar parade. So far, my favorite is the Yarn Car, carefully decorated with tight knit yarn. Then there's the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir car. Very good. Oh, and the motorized couch.

Never in New York.

We're having fun with art.

Never in New York.

I did ask what it was like living in a red state. Folks here seemed un-swayed in their own position, and frankly freerer in their difference.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Emerging Career Retrospective

There is a possibility that my upcoming two-person show will become a solo show. (Read: Holy Shit!) In this case, I will be showing not only the three-channel installation The Price of Gold, but also, two very recent text-based pieces completed at the end of 2006 (Change and One), and perhaps also two "early works" from 2004 (Stepping Up and Race).

I may become the first artist in history to have an Emerging Career Retrospective.

Ed Ruscha was nurtured in Oklahoma, and may we be able to say that I truly launched my career there too!

Monday, February 5, 2007

Having Fun with Kiki Smith

Entirely unfamiliar with her work, I went to see the Kiki Smith retrospective at the Whitney. Some of the work feels like it's drawn from a fairy tale about a gloomy world populated by "creatures." Other work pulses with emotion, all the while feeling somewhat narrative, or literary, like illustrations. And to me, this was negative. My favorite piece was a large black paper piece with printed stars, reminiscent of flags. It was delicate and metaphorical, without being heavy-handed.

What struck me was the diversity of her media and endeavors. I'm accustomed to seeing very nuanced development and focused themes in an artist. She almost felt all over the place. But not scattered, instead full. This was liberating for me. It showed me that it's possible as an artist to engage in multiple themes, and not appear confusing. As viewers, we follow.

I went with another artist who noted that she clearly was having fun making her work. And it's true, while her subjects are certainly grim, you sense that she plays with her materials, with imagery, that she indulges in her visions and displays. Have fun making art? I'll have to think about that.

Friday, February 2, 2007

On Cotter on Johns

Holland Cotter description of Jasper John’s work in today’s New York Times includes the following:

“Like Donne’s poetry, Mr. John’s art is equally about body and mind, sensuality and reflection. It is unmystical, unromantic, unnostalgic, but obsessed with transcendence and the reality of loss…Metaphor, rather than statement or confession, is their method.”

Ideal! If I attain this balance in my own work, than I feel like I will have reached one of the great possibilities of art.

In a recent portrait of John’s in The New Yorker, he is revealed to be an unhurried artist, attuned to his own development, mostly unswayed by critics and trend. Now, that implies confidence! Oh where, oh how!

Thursday, February 1, 2007

form, content, etc.

At Barbara Gladstone in Chelsea, Gary Hill’s video installation Frustrum, presents an animated eagle trapped in an oil tower. It flaps its powerful wings, loudly snapping the power linrd. The screen reigns over a shallow pool of oil, at the center of which floats a bar of gold. The inscription on this bar can be read only in the adjacent gallery, through a surveillance camera. The piece is a monument to the current American political regime.

At the Mitchell Algus gallery in Chelsea, the 1970s sculptures of Bill Bollinger represent what seems to be Hills’ polar opposite. Bollinger poured molten “stuff” like Pollack poured paint. The result is uncontrolled shapes, reminiscent of fossils and industrial detritus. The work is about (anti)form and process.

Technically speaking my own work falls more in the tradition of Hill, but, my heart is more moved by Bollinger, who made these works in at a neighbor's upstate farm, where they stand (lie) today. Bollinger died in 1988.

The question I have is about content. I consider my own work to be content-driven, but, does this fact make it more ephemeral? Can content cross eras, decades, or does it inevitably become dated. Is it really true that form is more solid, can we even say more transcendent? Can form and content be successfully combined?