Happy New Year!
First, just to update last week’s column regarding some of the most teachable moments in 2012, it was brought to my attention that I missed a few:
Rineke Dijkstra’s retrospective at the Guggenheim, along with Zoe Strauss at the Philadelphia Museum, taught us that portraiture most certainly can go beyond appearances and telling stories. It can even teach us about ourselves.
A new teaching assignment at NYU, which included supervising the Saturday Visionary Studios program for high school students taught me that thematic courses, not just units of study, can be exciting for teachers and students alike.
Scaling back the more traditional format for TASK and using very few supplies taught us that you don’t need a ton of materials to achieve the goals intended, as we did with Oliver Herring this past July to kick off our 4th year of Art21 Educators in New York City.
Finally, revisiting Richard Long’s “A Line Made By Walking” was another teachable moment that has become, for me, a metaphor of sorts when it comes to teaching with contemporary art.
Now, getting back to Speak About What’s Unspeakable, which was written just after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Ct, I want to share an update on some next steps for my own classroom….
I am in the midst of writing a unit of study for the 2nd semester titled That’s Entertainment?? Students in my high school foundations classes will be doing research into children’s games, video games, films and television shows that in some way make the act of harming or killing other people the main objective. I believe that one way to construct a dialogue about what has happened at twenty-one K-12 schools since 2000 is to begin having frank discussions in the classroom about America’s obsession with violence. Continue reading »
Before we continue talking about last week’s “Speak About What’s Unspeakable,” I thought it might be good idea to end the year on a constructive note by looking back at some of the most teachable moments- events, exhibits, chance happenings and other opportunities – that made for uncanny entry points in the classroom…
Wayne LaPierre’s ignorant and insensitive remarks one week after the Newtown, Ct. school shooting, where he actually had the nerve to suggest that not only there be armed guards in every American school, but that teachers be armed themselves, became another chance to build on our conversation about gun control and America’s lust for violence. It also made me think of Hawkeye Pierce: “I will not carry a gun, Frank. When I got thrown into this war I had a clear understanding with the Pentagon: no guns. I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginia, I’ll even ‘hari-kari’ if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!”. I am currently in the middle of writing a unit of study called “That’s Entertainment?” where students will examine games and films that glorify violence in our society and respond with works of art that question the “entertainment” value of the media explored.
Union-busting legislation in Michigan raised the issue of whether, as the Michigan governor claims, union-busting is “good for workers” (?!). This is one hell of a ripe topic to examine across the curriculum.
The NHL lockout continues to offer us the opportunity to see that greed gets you nowhere. In this case it’s actually pushed the NHL into irrelevance as basketball and football simply get more space in the Sports pages. (Sorry, just had to add this one.)
Recent exhibitions by Mark Bradford, Keltie Ferris and Trenton Doyle Hancock taught us that painting is not only alive and well, but that it’s also being shaped and revisited to explore elements that expand how we see painting. Keltie Ferris, especially, kicked ass in her most recent Mitchell-Innes & Nash show.
Zoe Strauss’ exhibition, “Ten Years” at the Philadelphia Museum was a wonderful opportunity to see how this photographer with little formal training made us slow down and really contemplate the “American working-class experience,” and to convey what she calls “an epic narrative that reflects the beauty and struggle of everyday life.”
New teacher evaluation systems were launched across the country and it taught, if there was a bright spot at all in this mess of a roll-out, that reexamining our curriculum to clearly state what constitutes learning is a good thing for all of us.
Clint Eastwood talking to a chair at the Republican National Convention taught us that improvisation, for all its merits, is not always a good thing if you don’t actually give a few seconds of thought to what you’re doing on stage.
Janine Antoni’s keynote speech at the National Art Education Association’s annual conference in New York City, on the other hand, taught us to consider how we might teach students to wait, that creativity is NOT linear, how to “trick ourselves” into modes of creation, that “creativity exists outside of consciousness,” and that even marriage is about “sculpting a place in between.” Janine continues to be one of my favorite artists to work with in the series.
Finally, the launch of Art21’s Season 6 taught us that with 100 artists to work with in our Peabody Award-winning documentary series, not to mention New York Close Up, Art21 is one of the first places to investigate when looking to teach about and learn with contemporary art….
Happy New Year to all. May you find inspiration and joy in 2013 and thank you for continuing to read Teaching with Contemporary Art each week!
How would a contemporary artist represent humanity to extraterrestrial life?
Recently I was visiting the American Museum of Natural History to take a friend to the planetarium. During the show “Journey to the Stars,” I was reminded of an odd moment in our space history: the inclusion of an engraved plaque on the Pioneer spaceship as an attempt to communicate peaceful human existence to any extraterrestrial life the spaceship might encounter on its trip outside our solar system. As someone interested in visual arts and culture, I was fascinated to learn more about how the story of human life was represented on the plaque. Looking at the image of the plaque above, what do you notice first? Is there anything that strikes you as odd or out of place? When I began to study the plaque, I noticed a few key assumptions the designers made about extraterrestrial life, and began to imagine how contemporary artists might have done it differently.
Over the past three days I can’t say I am exactly brimming with confidence as a teacher when it comes to guiding conversation about the massacre that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut. Discussing the shooting with my son, who is seven, made me realize what a simultaneously delicate and brutal topic this is.
In the classroom, the situation is no less difficult. Across the country schools have employed a wide range of strategies to help students, teachers and families work through the events of December 14. Many districts have taken an approach of not saying too much about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School and simply having support staff available for “students who want to talk”, but I wonder if this is enough when we, as a region and even as a country, are mourning not just the loss of very young children and adults, but also the collective inaction that has ignored twenty one K-12 school shootings in the United States……. since 2000 alone.
While students haven’t been asking about or discussing the tragedy as much as I would have expected, I wonder if it’s “appropriate” or even advisable asking students to visually respond to what they have seen and heard over the past few days? My classroom has been eerily quiet with students simply going about their current assignment. One student even asked for Christmas music yesterday, even though I must admit I am not feeling much like Christmas music lately.
To quote Krzysztof Wodiczko, there is an opportunity here to, “break the code of silence, to open up and speak about what’s unspeakable.” This includes why it’s necessary to own semiautomatic weapons, why jail is often the only option for so many people with mental illness, and perhaps one question that’s getting lost at the moment and may very well resurface as this story unfolds: why America embraces brutal violence, especially in video games.
In the contemporary art classroom, perhaps there is an opening here to deconstruct what’s really behind our love of guns, the obsession with “killing”, and “hunting down” characters in things like video games? Can we make spaces where these things are discussed and responses are shared in order to educate a broader audience that really affects change? Or should we just shut up and wait a few more decades for congress to take on the NRA and the entertainment industry?
Students in one of my classes are currently creating works of art inspired by one of three themes- power, change and/or pressure. This unit of study, originally called “Paintings About Power”, was expanded this year to include two other themes of particular interest to my students.
While the initial sketches for this assignment have been good- students are investigating how to depict things like the power of money, change in the environment, pressures imposed by the media and the power of adults over children- many students have bits and pieces of good quality ideas that aren’t quite there yet.
Years ago I had a professor who was a bit cruel when it came to giving feedback. But one piece of feedback he gave me has influenced my teaching, especially in units like this one. He once said, exasperated over my inability to get to the next step on a piece, “Joe, you call these ideas?? Put them together and make one good one!”
In the spirit of this advice which has resonated with me for years I have asked my own students to begin combining ideas in order to more fully explore the theme and subject they have chosen. For example, one of my students, Dennis, had a sketch of an imposing figure wagging her finger as if to scold an invisible child. Another one of his sketches featured a tiny child in a large classroom being swallowed up by the space. After talking for a bit we decided to combine and complicate the ideas in order to illustrate the power of adults (teachers?) over children. Dennis took the imposing figure, got rid of the finger wagging, and placed it behind the tiny child while simultaneously filling the doorway of a classroom, almost blocking the small child from entering, or exiting.
If students are going to spend days or even weeks on a work of art, I want them to have good quality ideas that will get paired with techniques and strategies learned. Bringing separate ideas together to form a unique vision can be one way to go deeper with our students.
Students came to class yesterday with works in progress that were inspired by our recent visit to see Visual Conversations at the Fisher Landau Center for Art. In my previous post two weeks ago I said that I was interested in encouraging 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? Today was the day, after a long Thanksgiving weekend, for the group to share works in progress and get some feedback from one another.
What initially impressed me as we took a look at the works was that students were inspired by a variety of pieces in the show, rather than choosing a popular few, and many began with both ideas and techniques featured in the exhibition. Mark Tansey’s monochromatic works inspired a very different approach to rendering forms with one student while Andy Warhol’s self portraits gave way to new considerations around what can be a “portrait”. I saw students who chose Ed Ruscha’s billboard-like paintings and created works of delicate beauty in response to the large, imposing pieces featured in Visual Conversations.
As students spoke about their work and got feedback from each other, I began to realize that the “conversation” was not so much about what they created after seeing the show, it was about the kind of conversation these works inspired within the students themselves. For example, one student was enamored with a portrait of Emily Fisher Landau and spent almost a full hour with the work sketching and making notes. As she reflected on the painting, she was able to begin articulating an interest in both beauty and power, which may or may not become her focus for a series of works this year.
One of the biggest reasons to get students to see Visual Conversations with me was simply to see works of art in person. Teaching about particular forms and approaches to art making without the actual experience of seeing the work firsthand is extremely difficult and it’s why, whenever I can, that I encourage colleagues to take students OUT of the building to engage directly with works of art. You don’t always need a big museum, either. Sometimes the best works to teach with are within our own communities. It’s amazing, really, that we spend so much time with our students making things and not nearly enough time looking at and discussing art in order to create work that is more meaningful, informed, driven by big ideas, and of course, well designed.
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!
I have always been interested in the way certain artists, more so than others, have the ability to take us by the hand (or the eye) and walk us through works of art very deliberately. Because the “subject” is often about the whole work and not a single focal point, these artists persuade us to compare and contrast, and see the small differences as well as the commonalities.
While I was waiting out Hurricane Sandy like so many others, I did a lot of reading. In the process I had the opportunity to re-read last summer’s issue of Aperture magazine and came across a wonderful article featuring the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann, whom I was actually surprised to see since his work always struck me as that of a collage artist vs. a photographer (Feldmann prefers to be known as a “merchant” and not an artist at all). His collections of arranged photos had me visually walking through the images in a much similar way to how I experience John Baldessari’s work, as well as other artists such as Mark Dion and Joseph Cornell. Seeing the relationships and subtle differences between the photographs one begins to realize what Baldessari talks about when he refers to experiencing “the space between things”. Continue reading »
Charles Ray’s massive reproduction of a fallen redwood tree, Hinoki, fills one room in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. The room it occupies was built around the work. At 2,100 pounds and 38 feet long, it’s that big. The piece originated in California where the original tree died, sunk into the ground, and began to decompose. Allegedly the artist was so taken with the shape and form of the tree and its state of decomposition, he wanted to preserve it somehow. Without permission, Ray removed the tree to his LA Studio and cast it. The resulting cast was sent to Japan where traditional woodworkers spent four years carving a replica out of Japanese cypress (Hinoki). Ray describes his interest in pneuma (Greek for breath or life) and admits a desire to try and transfer that life from one body to another via sculpture. The dead log was resuscitated like a zombie maybe, or a benign vampire, to be formally and forever persevered in the canonic halls of a national institution. According to museum text, Hinoki will remain, unchanged and unchanging for 400 years, at which time the work will go through a period of crisis (during which it will crack and resettle for 200 years), after which point it will carry on, post-crisis without changing for another 400 years. Only then will it start to decompose. It’s hard to imagine anything extending so far into the future, let alone a fallen tree, or the museum that flanks it. Or even, perhaps, the “natural world” we know. Placed on a wall behind the tree, adjacent museum text provides a narrative, through which one can conceive an otherwise impossible expanse of time, a time beyond the life of America thus far.
Hinoki has a seductive, tactile presence. It boasts impeccable craftsmanship with an ornate and varied surface where original impressions of bark have been translated into an expert vocabulary of descriptive lines. As such it is constantly shifting, depending on your vantage, between a carved surface and a trompe l’oeil reproduction. Up close, the human hand is evidenced in those lines: they sit like hatch marks on a charcoal sketch, some are deeper, others thicker, still others more worm-like; nevertheless each stroke, though varied, belongs to the same family of strokes. It is therefore cohesive. As a literal translation, the redwood was physically transformed from a corrupt (i.e. rotten/rotting) body into a new, pristine one. One could imagine the original tree contained a history in its form: the width of the trunk for instance, is evidence of its life, just as certain areas were more exposed to moisture and thus more decomposed. Footprints of termites have been similarly transferred and lay alongside jointed inlays and Dutchman. The physical tree is a replica that takes pleasure in its own fabrication.
Don’t forget: As part of the Art21 Blog’s current Flash Points topic on storytelling, artist Eleanor Antin will take over the @Art21 Twitter account to perform a very special reading today, Friday, October 26, from 2:00–3:00 p.m. EST.
Through posts of 140 characters or less, the artist will “read” stanzas of a story from her memoir, Conversations with Stalin, before embarking on four additional performances throughout New York City.
This will be the first time that we have invited anyone—let alone one of our featured artists—to speak through our Twitter account. Likewise, this will be Eleanor Antin’s first-ever “social media” performance. Needless to say, we appreciate your participation and feedback!
To witness Eleanor Antin speak and perform in person is already a unique and special experience; but, to read along with the artist through 140-character posts, a new participatory element is introduced to the concept of a public reading, and the pace and tone of the story itself will come across in a completely different way.
The artist encourages audience participation throughout, and will respond to questions submitted by audience members following the live Twitter “reading.”
Until then, we will welcome any advance questions via Twitter or the comments of this post. A full list of the artist’s New York City performances is below.
Eleanor Antin: Conversations with Stalin
Sunday, October 28, 2:30 p.m., at The Jewish Museum
Tuesday, October 30, 7:00 p.m., at Columbia University School of the Arts
Thursday, November 1, 7:00 p.m., at Brooklyn Museum
Friday, November 2, 6:30 p.m., at Whitney Museum of American Art
A closing reception for the artist will be held at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts on November 3, 6:00–8:00 p.m.