An Essay on Art Blogging (for Those Who Care About Such Things, It Also Discusses Exhibitions by Marcia Cohen, Tom Ferguson, Paul S. Benjamin, and the Photographers of “Emerging Visions 2009”)
What art journalism shares with journalism generally is the necessity of creating a nuanced portrait of events in the time available for a tight deadline; the writer is compelled to acquire all the tools of scholarship in a matter of a few days, then discard all the information (or at best inter it decently in long-term memory) because a new deadline demands detailed insider knowledge of something completely different.
In practice, not even magazine art reviewing, which operates on a longer-term deadline than art journalism, gets it right in this department. When more than one reviewer of the recent Tate Triennial harks back to Hiroshima or has recourse to recondite theory to interpret a mushroom cloud sculpture that alludes to a boundary dispute between two of the world’s most recent nuclear powers, it is a sign that such reviewers need to get out more, or at least read more than the online headlines and instant updates. As do we all.
One of the few benefits of blog writing is the permissibility of random commentary. The blogger is expected to allude rather than to explicate, and that is a small but significant compensation for the lack of anything resembling material recompense for the money and time expended in traveling to see and think about the art.
The difficulty for artists is that, because of the lack of comprehensive reviewing at present in most of the world’s art scenes, random blog references are often the only documentation of the details of a show—unless the gallery engages in unusually good online archiving practices or the artist has or is a really good web designer.
Lifetime retrospectives like Tom Ferguson’s at Eyedrum or major exhibitions of recent work like Marcia Cohen’s at MOCA GA (both in Atlanta, for the benefit of readers elsewhere) will doubtless get their full-fledged reviews from writers who have devoted a lifetime to reporting on and evaluating the work of such longtime career artists. So it is perhaps enough to note the interesting presentation of very nearly the full spectrum of Atlanta art practice so far as painters are concerned.
Cohen, of course, is an empirically minded color theorist whose versions of abstraction are conceptual investigations rather than emotional expressions, and everything from the specific environment in an Azores residency to the historically shifting tests for color blindness in textbooks are grist for the color-theory mill, or for the color theory compilations in a conceptually oriented Rolodex.
Ferguson, though his practice pays particular attention to color and texture in the large-scale paintings, is mostly a conceptualist of the concrete world (or of the world of concrete, plus the invisible webs of financial exploitation that get the concrete poured). It would be comforting to divide his work into transient political cartooning and long-term painterly expressions, but the political shenanigans he chronicles are perennial.
These two will get extended attention in print venues far removed from Counterforces. I, Jerry Cullum the blogger (to be distinguished from the differently motivated art reviewer, even if the reviewer was the same person and appeared in print under an identically named byline), am more puzzled and concerned about those who really needed the validation of the superseded format of the print review, and now are typically getting little more than the shout-out of the blog post.
In some ways, the format is advantageous. A clever writer can arrange keywords so that, say, someone looking for Cory Arcangel or even for Paul Klee will encounter a websearch sentence that also mentions Paul S. Benjamin, who has absolutely nothing in common with either of those artists and should not be thought of in the same sentence with them except to illustrate such subterfuges. (In practice, the citations in question would be more probable ones. I have chosen ones designed to come up very far down amid the thousands of results from most websearches.)
But the ephemeral quality of the blog medium ensures that hardly anyone will see the reference unless they stumble upon it for such unintended reasons or already know the artist in question and are looking for the name.
Benjamin, the recipient of the 2008-2009 Forward Art Foundation’s Emerging Artist Award, has his new assemblage sculptures on view at Swan Coach House Gallery in Atlanta through August 8, with artist’s talk scheduled for July 11.
This would appear to be Benjamin’s breakthrough show, though I do not know his earlier work sufficiently to make that assertion myself. The plethora of found objects and discards from an earlier day are recombined into more than the usual pleasingly decorative abstraction of so much assemblage: the objects that aren’t painted matte black are mostly bright red or occasionally metallic: what we have in these symbolically overdetermined pieces are apples, eagles, axes, goblets, bullets, plus a veritable Freudian-fetish of a shiny red shoe that contains the inscription on its lining “all man made materials – made in China.”
One could go on, and a proper review ought to: there is a Cupid and a cornucopia on a made-up captain’s wheel of fortune, and in general the emblems of history gone askew are syncopated visual rhythms mingled with depth psychological metaphors beyond easy counting.
But there is seldom world enough and time for such reviews unless someone is at least paying for transportation if not for lunch, and galleries are forbidden to do such things.
This becomes a major dilemma in the case of juried shows such as Atlanta Photography Group’s “Emerging Visions 2009” (on view until July 3), where juror Chip Simone assembled nine contemporary fresh practitioners who could use all the publicity they can get. (The trade used to call such coverage “ink,” but these days the reportage is as digital as most of the photography.)
Here things become particularly difficult, because though all of these emerging artists are worthy of some degree of recognition, the things they are doing are quite different from one another and really ought to be discussed in terms of their intentions and degrees of influence. Amy Arrington’s digitally manipulated images could be critiqued in terms of small problems and larger successes (I would have done something a little different with the fire-and-ice motif of her most striking image); Margaret Strickland’s photos could be discussed as a continuation of the posed re-creations or reformulations of actual domestic life that we associate with Angela Strassheim and others; Artem Nazarov could be discussed as a digital formalist working beautifully in the aesthetic modes established by earlier generations. (The Wind makes visual poetry from bright window light and a windblown curtain and a tilted mattress and boxspring, the ensemble bespeaking fragility and transience.)
Yen Ngoc Phan should be discussed in detail for the semisurreal transformation of subtle codes of dress and behavior and ethnicity: the images explore a globalized, transcultural world of identity and immigration in which everything without exception has become exotic. (“Alle Menschen sind Ausländer, fast überall,” as the slogan had it a few years back: “Everyone is an alien almost everyplace.”)
Maria Joyner’s silver gelatin prints of railroad tracks and houses in mist and the other mistily mysterious components of A Wonderful Life would be celebrated, in a proper review, for their poetic visual metaphors for subtle emotional conditions: one traditional function of traditional photographic media, and these prints seem to commemorate the degree to which those media, like the objects in these photos, are passing into history.
But some of the digital work is equally nostalgia-laden or history-conscious, and one really ought to look in detail at the images presented by Kevin Tadge, Patricia Chourio, Amelia Alpaugh—and in particular at the exuberant diversity of the work of William Hogan, who seems to range from quietly monochromatic honoring of the isolated object to meticulous documentation of the real world’s range of outrageous color.
But all of that would require the leisure or at least the financial and professional incentive that a print-publication deadline used to afford. Until online editorial guidelines have filled in the gaps in most of the world’s art coverage, blog posts like this one are the less than satisfactory alternative. Sorry.