If you haven’t visited already, the Fisher Landau Center for Art is a wonderful oasis to add to the list of places you can see exciting work in Long Island City. This week, I am taking one of my classes to visit the current show, Visual Conversations. During this visit I am interested in encouraging my students to draw relationships between works of art and to think about how context affects what we see. Can works of art “speak” to the viewer or have “conversations” with other works? If so, how?
For example, at the start of the show, how is Richard Artshwager’s geometric freestanding sculpture (Untitled) affected by the immediate presence of Al Taylor’s gestural wall piece (also Untitled) composed of line and projected shadows? How do we see these works differently because of their proximity to each other? What kind of conversation do they have? What can be said about the striking interaction between Annette Lemieux’s “Sleep Interrupted” and Robert Gober’s “Crouching Man”, only a few feet away? As we move through the exhibition we will also investigate how titles help or sometimes hinder the experience of art, as well as looking into how abstract works can tell stories in different ways vs. representational works.
In the end, students will be asked to create a work of art over the course of one week that somehow speaks to, or “talks back” to, one of the works they experienced in the show. Students will then share with the class not only their finished work but also the work that inspired the “conversation” and what they picture the conversation to be about.
This exhibit, which includes 43 artists (and many represented with multiple works), is an opportunity to showcase work from “LEGACY: The Emily Fisher Landau Collection”, a traveling exhibition organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art that will tour the United States from 2013 through 2015.
Stay tuned for a full report on how things go!
How museums naturally take advantage of a peculiar quirk in our brains.
A Place to Hang Your Facts
In the mid 1880s, Mark Twain devised a children’s game he felt would boost the memory of young children. The game had an unusual format and broke outside the traditional confines of a board game. Important dates and events were written on small index cards, and the players were instructed to place the cards in an outdoor setting (like the backyard or a driveway) and find strategic nesting places for the memory cards. Next, the player would explore the yard and store the facts in their memory. After absorbing all the facts, the players compete, in typical memory game fashion, to see who recalls the most information.
Twain originally conceived the idea to help his children memorize the reigns of British royalty. The monarchs were spaced out according to the length of their rule, such that the distance represented the duration of their reign, thereby reinforcing the historical chronology.
The game, as it turned out, was an utter financial failure. It was called, “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Shockingly, few students in the 1880s wanted to spend their leisure time memorizing facts and dates.
Twain later despaired in a letter: “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game—don’t.” Despite his pessimism, he was onto something powerful about memory and space, something that museums can use to their advantage.
During my recent visit to New York City I saw the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Kusama’s work brings to my mind interlace (knot) patterns, particle systems in immersive (virtual) 3D worlds and cellular cultures one might see growing in scientist’s petri dishes. I spent a lot of time staring at the endless patterns of dots in Yellow Trees (1994) which has been enlarged to envelop a building near the Whitney’s future home in the Meatpacking District. Much like a traditional Celtic knot, Yellow Trees displays a stylized graphical representation of knots made up of dots. It is the complexity of the whole piece that gives this pattern its aesthetic value and, arguably, any attempt to unravel it is to reduce its beauty. Kusama’s two-dimensional patterns on canvas can be scaled up or down and displayed on objects in countless ways, infinitely. She continually obliterates (with dots) these domestic forms and explores space as multiple universes. Through these pieces we are invited to explore her mind’s inner workings.
One of my students read last week’s post and was interested in playing devil’s advocate by asking a few more questions about the recent New York Close Up segment, David Brooks Tears the Roof Off. Since some of the questions he brought up were similar to others discussed in the high school and graduate classes I teach, I asked if it was ok to share the questions with all of you and answer them as best I could in this week’s column. If you have anything to add, please feel free! Here goes….
Joe, couldn’t a creative roofer have completed the same project? Was an artist really necessary for a work like this?
First, very few roofers, even fancy ones, are being approached or directly involved with the Art Production Fund, who arranged for David Brooks to complete the project at this particular site- the last piece of empty, undeveloped space in Times Square. Works installed here, including a recent installation by Kiki Smith, have a connection to the surrounding area or make a connection in the work to the context itself. A “creative roofer” could not simply propose a similar project out of nowhere, and even if they did they wouldn’t be telling the same story or making the same associations, so it would be a completely different work even it looked exactly the same.
Wouldn’t a video feature like the one presented on New York Close Up have helped viewers enjoy the piece more? Why is so little information presented in spaces, especially galleries, featuring contemporary art?
More and more venues, particularly some of the larger museums such as Mass MoCA, offer plenty when it comes to giving viewers a narrative about what they are looking at. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it actually interferes by trying to dress up an otherwise lackluster work or exhibition. But the bottom line is that the artist and curator have to work out how much is going to be said (told?) up front and how much will be left for the viewer to surmise. I am sure David Brooks could have told his story from start to finish in a variety of ways for those passing by on the street, but that would be David telling viewers what the piece means to him and the associations he makes when he sees the completed work in context (because, as you know, David never saw the work complete until it was, well, complete. This is not a sculpture that was moved from another location. Rather, it was site-specific). David is interested in the connections and associations that viewers themselves make when seeing this installation. As an artist I too am more interested in what viewers bring to the work than whether I can tell the entire story for them. Continue reading »
David Brooks Tears The Roof Off is an apt title for one of our most recent New York Close Up films this summer. Within the first 60 seconds of a pretty intense tour that runs under eight minutes we get to hear Brooks passionately describe the housing boom that has threatened the Everglades in South Florida, a place he has personally visited for decades. We are then introduced to an installation titled Desert Rooftops inspired by this crisis and completed right here in New York City… literally on the last undeveloped lot in Times Square.
While the housing industry shamelessly encroaches on the protected Everglades, here we see midtown skyscrapers “framing” this “viral” layout of rooftops connected- sprawling- throughout the space. Brooks acknowledges that the work is perhaps difficult at first to recognize as art, but as the viewer engages with it and makes associations it becomes clear that something curious is going on and this isn’t some three-dimensional promo for a roofing company… even if Fox News couldn’t figure it out (and does the anchorwoman say “Home Depot” or “Home Thiebaud”? Just asking).
Brooks’ work can appeal to students in different ways, opening up a mixed bag of questions and assumptions, such as:
- What kinds of things can we use to make art?
- Does having an explanation or narrative help or hinder the viewer’s experience?
- What kinds of associations can viewers make engaging with a work such as this?
- Can public art tell stories that “white cubes” cannot? If so, how… and why?
- How can more artists make environmentally conscious work and not mirror a “resource-devouring” industry like home construction?
Students who watch the film can also investigate how past and present examples of suburban sprawl have affected other places, as well as the things that have been produced by artists and others in response.
Finally, David Brooks talks about Desert Rooftops being “instigated” by the space in Times Square but I think it actually plays a little tug-of-war with it. These rooftops, seeming to grow like weeds from the small plot, are practically being watched and scrutinized by the surrounding buildings that tower over them. They spread throughout the plot quite freely yet the fence reminds everyone that this is the end- this is the edge of the frame. And in this way the work goes on to speak about both sprawl and a kind of containment.
“She creates her own special environment, and it’s not meant to be imitated,” wrote Bill Cunningham for the New York Times in 1994. He was writing about Anna Piaggi, the writer and fashion icon who died this week at age 81, and no one is better suited than him to do it. Cunningham, who rides his bike around the city and makes those New York Times street fashion slideshows with the catchy intro music, loves the idea that someone would care enough, try hard enough, to look different and interesting for the sake of it. He loves the idea that, by dressing for it, someone can make going out into the world a festive occasion in itself, no destination necessary. And he never over-relies on his savvy, of which, after years documenting fashion, he has enough. He’s just interested in being compelled and compelling.
The Italian Piaggi had savvy too, but, like Cunningham, it interested her only if it could inform her spontaneity and singularity. Her towering hats (“[they] were so tall this season that she watched the collections from backstage to avoid blocking anyone’s view,” Cunningham wrote in ’94), her vintage dresses, opera dresses, etc. “Each morning, from her vast collection of clothes spanning 200 years, she puts the pieces together like a puzzle, creating, for the day, a fresh image.”
Because, each morning, she put together a new puzzle, each outfit of hers was a one-off.
Summer art in L.A., as in any other major city, causes some headaches, especially for people whose job it is to find something interesting to say about it. But if you can soldier through the group shows, you might find those good one-offs, artworks that stand up on their own, despite the lacking context or despite other artworks by other artists crowding in on them.
There are times when you just have to sit for a while in order to experience an exhibit… and sometimes there are also benches in the picture. I got lucky on steamy summer day and both elements came together for a recent visit to Rineke Dijkstra’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, on view through October 8th.
Any kind of shopping mall mentality will get most visitors nowhere in this show. Sitting in one of the galleries I saw quite a few people pop in and after twenty (solid!) seconds ask, “Kids on the beach?”
Yes. Kids on the beach.
What many visitors missed by running out too soon was revealed to those who may have lingered. Like I said, I got lucky. Rineke Dijkstra’s exquisite retrospective is a chance for anyone who attends to experience in a particular (and sometimes peculiar) way how an exhibition can slowly work on you. I have to admit, I had seen Dijkstra’s work a few times before, but in much smaller settings that contained only a fraction of the photographs. Seeing this show, which will test your sense of direction over several floors, is a chance to really compare first impressions and second thoughts against some smart and simultaneously straightforward wall text. And how often can you say that? The verbal gymnastics provided by some museums and galleries can often be a distraction but this is not one of those instances.
Dijkstra’s series work, particularly in her Beach Portraits, allow these “monumental” photos to actually look back at the viewer over time. Sitting with the work, visitors will notice how similar and yet wildly different these teenagers are. Gestures are juxtaposed with choices of clothing or swimwear that actually facilitate the “conversation” these works have in a room together. The relationship each subject has with the photographer is part of how they are posed without really “posing”. There’s an in-between-poses kind of quality that begins to inform our looking beyond faces and fashion.
In another part of the exhibition Dijkstra’s Almerisa series, which began in 1994 with a single photograph of a young Bosnian girl at a Dutch refugee center and has continued for over a decade, literally envelopes the viewer. Eleven large photographs across three walls take visitors through her transformation from a child to an adult to a woman with a child of her own. Dijkstra strips the backgrounds in this series, as she often does, so there isn’t a trace of anything to distract. The rooms are bare. The compositions are uncomplicated. The faces border on emotionless. Here too, you get the opportunity to compare photographs taken at different times and learn not just about the subject and artist, but also about how, for example, these photographs might relate to specific personal memories about growing up or rites of passage.
Georgia Kotretsos: Perhaps Asian Contemporary Art Week, (ACAW) and The Taste of Others are the two projects that spell out your name in caps. You create projects that may conclude organically when they have to, and in the meantime you sustain them with great dedication. Is this a personal or a professional commitment?
Leeza Ahmady: Public education is a key component for both projects. It begins with self-education, which for me is a process of unlearning or making sense of all the “dead information” that one accumulates through conventional study. The task of maturity is to navigate through that jungle and that is what some people call “The School of Life.” I am not interested in positioning expertise, rather in creating both a personal and professional platform for inquiry and ways of confronting inertia and ignorance about very compelling, unexplored subjects in contemporary art practice and art history.
At the end of each ACAW edition, essentially a biennial event involving interaction with hundreds of artists and dozens of arts institutions, I vow never to do it again. Yet the very intense exercise in scoping, identifying, listening, framing, and channeling of artistic activity, which ACAW entails is a marathon I love to run. It is both exhausting and invigorating with many stones still left unturned. History, people, communities, creativity, conflict, entropy, and psychological and philosophical exploration are ongoing dimensions in the world. Which is why there seems to be no end to the projects. With every round, I arrive to new beginnings and approaches.
Because of its solid foundation, I am confident that Detroit will have a renaissance in the arts (among other fields). This confidence springs from a community of art enthusiasts who invested heavily in cultural institutions. Images of abandoned buildings steal a lot of the headlines, but the media often fails to balance those images with images of the gilded and ornate buildings that house Detroit’s cultural treasures: The Michigan Opera House, The Gem Theater, The Masonic Temple, The Fisher Theater, the Fox Theatre, and The Detroit Institute of Arts, among many others.
These institutions are as good as or better than they have ever been.
Why do cultural institutions thrive in a city that has so many hurdles? Simply put, because of a community that values culture. Another benefit of Detroit’s strong foundation is the fact that these bedrock institutions educate and inspire future generations of artists and patrons. There are numerous people, both paid employees and volunteer stewards, whose passions push these institutions to provide Detroit and surrounding areas with the culture every thriving community deserves. Detroit’s rich culture flowed and continues to flow to its extensive Metro area, and beyond.
I want to highlight two museums that show the importance of anchor institutions, and that symbolize the delicate relationship between Detroit and its suburbs: The Detroit Institute of Arts and The Cranbrook Art Museum (as part of the Cranbrook Educational Community). These are two of the most influential and widely respected art institutions in the world, and they can both be found on the same street, Woodward Avenue.
Several years ago I did a portrait of a colleague. I did several preliminary sketches, I took numerous reference photos, and I poured my heart into every detail of the portrait. I had to start the portrait over on more than one occasion. In the end I created a portrait that captures her strength and energy. She hated it.
If you ever want to turn a friend to an enemy, paint a portrait of them. Portraits are a tricky art form. The artist wants to be true to his or her vision, but the sitter often wants a reflection of how they see themselves (which, at times, falls prey to the illusions of the mind where no matter what our age we always see our 18-year-old selves staring back at us in the mirror).
Jim Pallas knows the ups and downs of a portrait project. He undertook an ambitious project to paint the art giants of Detroit. He admits that some of the people he picked—artists, collectors, dealers, and critics who are “absolutely necessary for a healthy community” – are mad at him for how he portrayed them. He has some answers why: “Maybe because I showed them all lumpy. Maybe because I didn’t try to make them look younger or older. Maybe because I’ve never painted anything like this before and I’m not very good at it.” He then wonders, “Maybe my so-called career is over.”