Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Age of Earthquakes: In Lieu of a Review

The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present slipped into the global dialogue nearly a year ago now without much notice, in spite of being a three-person collaboration including a couple of intergenerational culture heroes of the artworld, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist. Shumon Basar was the name I had to look up, which turns out to be embarrassing since something by him was published in the same issue of Art Papers that marked my return to writing for that magazine in spite of my misgivings about feeling completely out of touch. Self-illustrative intuition.

For persons of a certain age (okay, I really mean “for me”), the book is a vertiginous experience: it is so obviously an hommage to Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s 1967 experiment, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects.

The Medium is the Massage was a book about the end of the age of the book, the rise of televisual media; and Fiore’s inspired design escorted the reader, or more accurately the looker, through McLuhan’s dizzying ideas and into the world in which he or she or ze or they already lived. It was above all a lovely physical object about a world that was increasingly immaterial, a labyrinth of moving pictures flickering on movie and television screens and sounds plus spoken or sung words conveyed through wired-up speakers and transistor radios.

I was so unsettled by the visual quotations in Coupland, Obrist, and Basar’s book that I Googled a PDF of The Medium Is the Massage and after being annoyed by the anomalous cover packaging of this digitized version of a later edition (the quintessential Quentin Fiore white-lettering-on-black cover was a key part of the experience—a book about a world of saturated-color images at metaphoric warp speed, in which all the images coming at the reader in fast-paced page succession were in black and white),
I settled into the irritating experience of seeing double-page spreads at what looked to be very slightly less than 100%. (I wasn’t irritated consciously enough to look at the top of the window and see if this was so.) I had scrolled through just enough to confirm my recollection of the startling quality of the original book when the remainder of the pages contained only the text “Whoops! Something went wrong and this page did not download.”

It was one of those glorious bridge moments between The Medium Is the Massage and The Age of Earthquakes that falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up.”

In any case, the latter book is also a vertiginous sensory experience, though perhaps twice as vertiginous for those for whom it brings back the experience of being a college senior and holding a book that tried to illustrate the weighty theory, only semi-intelligible, that Understanding Media had conveyed only a year or two before.

For one thing, The Age of Earthquakes is a sexy object. The American edition, anyway; the rainbow-sheen reflection of the silvery-inked cover recalls the cover of the monumental exhibition catalogue for a turn-of-the-millennium show, which show I cannot quite remember, and I am not going to put down the laptop and go hunt for the catalogue. An image search of keywords didn’t reveal the name of it.
In any case, the heft of this little book is quite remarkable; the trio of authors obviously put considerable thought into the weight of the paper stock, because something that looks as if it should be feather-light is quite substantial, in a size that fits the hand. (Again, in the American edition, so I am basing my supposition on inadequate information; but the American hard-copy edition was published three weeks prior to the British hard-copy edition, which I have seen only onscreen—again, at less than 100% of the page size of the physical object. The onscreen preview of the American print edition is more than 100% on my laptop, and each page needs to be scrolled down to see all of it. Interesting…)

Having belatedly discovered the book in late 2015 through the Douglas Coupland page on Amazon (I somehow missed Art Papers’ March 7 Facebook post congratulating Basar on its publication), I am particularly amused by the page spread updating Jenny Holzer’s truism: “Protect me from what Amazon suggests I want.”

So this is a book about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of digital media in the same way that the McLuhan/Fiore book was about the mental habits of a fast-changing age of analog media. And in the same way, it contains a good many trenchant observations alongside remarks that are not meant to be taken seriously, or at least cannot be taken seriously even if the authors intended them to be taken seriously.
This is why I am far more forgiving of the book’s possible flaws than are the reviewers I’ve read thus far online. ARTnews senior editor M. H. Miller takes the authors to task for offering two contradictory opinions about the Internet a few pages apart, even though one of them is more or less documented and serious and the other is obviously written as the kind of preposterous opinion that people write in Facebook posts at three o’clock in the morning—drunk Facebooking being one of several updated social-media versions of drunk dialing.

Miller calls out our boys for the egregiously unfortunate bad timing of a page that reads, “Rodney King was the YouTube of 1993. If it happened today would it be able to compete with everything else?” Although (as Miller admits) the book was on its way into print before the succession of viral iPhone documentations of police brutality, Miller points out that not even the chronology in this remark is correct: Obrist/Coupland/Basar are remembering the year that the Rodney King video was incorporated into the Whitney Biennial, not the year it first burst into public consciousness, which was 1991. In fact, Spike Lee had already used it in the title sequence of Malcolm X in 1992.

I had failed to notice the erroneous date, but it seems to me to resemble the systematic misinformation with which I am bombarded every time I open Facebook. This species of self-confidently wrong and questionably grammatical meme shows up more times per day than I am capable of guessing an average number for.

I might find a book reviewer who gets the point if I kept scrolling through the Google results, but three reviews into the process, I am flabbergasted at how much the reviewers hate the book, and how much they seem incapable of understanding a book about being “smupid” that is so illustrative of its own premise that at least some of it has to be deliberate, even if some of it is just the usual phenomenon of being unable to see our own blindness. (The condition of “smupidity” in which the digital present leaves us is complemented by “stuartness”—the one being “smart+stupid” and the other “stupid+smart.” The book is both at once, or at least in quick succession, which is part of the point. One reviewer wrote, if I remember rightly, “If I wanted something that looked like the Internet, I’d go to, uh, the Internet,” and another wrote “I read books to get away from this kind of shit,” which is so unendurably thickheaded that I would have thrown the review across the room had it not been on my laptop screen, making it a bad impulse to which to succumb.)

The pacing of the book makes visible and forces into awareness all the onscreen phenomena with which we are too familiar to bother to reflect upon them. This is a longstanding practice in experimental literature and design, and I cannot believe that book reviewers not only for a major West Coast newspaper but for a venerable art magazine should be so incapable of comprehending this book’s place in that equally venerable history.

But then, we live in an age of growing illiteracy, don’t we? Visual illiteracy as well as textual. An age in which the information we have literally at our fingertips is only the information that we already know we can have at our fingertips.

The Age of Earthquakes is annoyingly smart-ass and conceptually smug, but that comes with the territory of being part of the artworld, and should be discounted appropriately. I like the moments in which it shakes up my perception more than the moments in which it reminds me of how insufferable a place the artworld really is. (One reason I usually just sit here with my books and my laptop until an art object comes along that makes me want to interact with it in spite of the insufferable social environment that surrounds it.)
Too bad nobody who has had it dumped on their desk as a review copy had their perception shaken as a result. Are even senior editors of art magazines what the McLuhan generation called P.O.B.’s? It is quite significant that the many, many definitions of that acronym in an online urban dictionary do not include Print-Oriented Bastard.

...Okay, update at 4:32 a.m. on December 5, as I go in quest of images to add to this post: Shumon Basar's interview at offers a linear, highly intelligent disquisition on the themes of the book, along with the name of the man who probably made those decisions about the paper stock and page size (although I wonder who decided on the radical disparity between the covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions).

Although his name does not appear on the front cover, Wayne Daly is this book's Quentin Fiore. So now you know.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Joe Dreher''s "Patriot" at Decatur Arts Alliance: More of a Note Than a Review, Thanks to Time Constraints

Joe Dreher has experienced a phenomenal rise in the metro Atlanta artworld (where emerging artists are emerging at a happily remarkable rate) since beginning a career as a muralist. His show at the Decatur Arts Alliance, up through November 30, 2015, illustrates his capacities in smaller mixed-media artworks.

An atmospheric homage to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. (Kings) indicates his possibilities in one direction of development. His icons of everyday African-American Atlantans are indicative of a direction that could be extended indefinitely.

The photo transfers on paper are evocative portraits, but the three paintings transforming their subjects into something like secular saints against the type of gold background associated with Byzantine and medieval devotional portraits. Atlanta, in which the subject’s particular beard, glasses, and facial structure have led viewers to (mis)identify him as Spike Lee, Cornel West, or Malcolm X, is particularly indicative of Dreher’s ability to turn the everyday into the extraordinary.

In a world less burdened with intrusive commitments, I would write a great deal more about Dreher’s work, but I’m confident that art writers will have ample opportunity to evaluate his work in greater detail in the year to come and the years after that.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Searching for the Queen of Sheba, and Other Enlightening Entertainments

Jerry Cullum

Social media have turned us all into third- or fourth-rate aphorists. Le bon mot is about all we are capable of when we are not running the words together with the numeral sign serving as a hashtag mark. #lebonmot #runningthewordstogether #andtheresnotimetothink

Clichés are what serve when we cannot think of an aphorism.

This is all apropos of my inability to turn out the perfectly brilliant reflective essay that is deserved by a couple of recent examples of what the scholars barbarously call material culture (a phrase that they should have realized sounded like the flip side of “historical materialism” but scholars are noted for having very little feel for linguistic resonances)—but since that is the phrase (amplified lately by the even more barbarous “material religion”), let me explain that I wanted to talk about the kinds of physical objects from distant history that those of us operating out of the city of Atlanta rarely get the chance to look at up close and personal. (These days, we more typically view them postage-stamp-size in digital images on our phones, which only works if the topic being investigated is postage stamps.)

Since “Habsburg Splendor” at the High Museum is getting ample press without anyone reflecting on the oddity of its collection of art and objects owned by the members of the Habsburg Dynasty, or on what the paintings and suits of armor and robes and uniforms and vessels made from a rhinoceros horn or a sea coconut say about Central European culture or the culture of Europe at large in the centuries in which the Habsburgs flourished…

…it is unnecessary to attempt that epic task at the moment.

I shall instead try to promote “Searching for the Queen of Sheba,” at Fernbank Museum of Natural History through January 3, as a perfectly credible opportunity to get a look at an entire body of art and other aspects of ancient cultures that we in the American South do not usually have much of a chance to examine at all, never mind in depth.

Using the legend and truth of the story of the Queen of Sheba as a conceptual hook was a brilliant idea; in the first place, the story has scriptural warrant in all three religions of the Abrahamic revelation (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and a good deal of currency in Ethiopia, where the descent of the royal house from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba was a longstanding article of faith.

Hence the emphasis of the exhibition on the archaeological remains of Saba (Sheba) and the other kingdoms of South Arabia (the presumptive origin of that Queen of the South who paid the splendiferous visit to King Solomon), with side glances across the Red Sea at the other ancient empires of the Incense Road. The wealth generated by the caravan trade in gold, frankincense, and myrrh was sufficient to support levels of royal splendor far beyond the spectacularly lovely, innovative but less ostentatious mud-brick high-rises currently being bombed into ruins in the latest conflict.

It is good for any number of reasons to be enlightened as to the depth and longevity of the culture of the South Arabian kingdoms of classical antiquity (they were among the exporters with whom Imperial Rome ran a persistent trade deficit), even if the objects with which the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale “G. Tucci” was willing to part temporarily are mostly smaller and sometimes inadequately provenanced. (It would be intriguing to know more about the acquisition of objects prior to or apart from systematic archaeological excavations in this part of the world, where the search for historical clarification has been put on hold by present-day tragic events.)

The beautifully designed catalogue rounds out the exhibition in essays that further elucidate the scope of the Sheba legends and the known historical realities behind a figure who has been inextricably confused with the historically attested Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, a more distant city on the Incense Road, also in the headlines in the past year or so.

Although “Searching for the Queen of Sheba” features an incense burner from western Syria, anyone hoping for examples of the remarkable art of Palmyra will have to resign themselves to remembering the incredible array of Palmyra portraiture that Fernbank presented in 2002, in the oddly named “Syria: Land of Civilizations” blockbuster, which toured various North American museums in complement to the turn of the millennium in the commonly accepted calendar.

But the point is well taken that, legend or truth, the story of the Queen of Sheba has stirred individual and collective cultural imaginations for so many millennia that an entire genre of what this exhibition labels as “tourist art” arose in Ethiopia long before mass tourism was ever thought of. Tourist art arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to demand by the influx of foreigners carrying out Menelik II’s modernization program; the 44-panel narrative painting reproduced here was painted for an American delegation by the young self-taught artist Balaccaw Yemar (I have Anglicized slightly the catalogue’s transliteration from Amharic). Later anonymous examples of tourist art omit many episodes of this story of how the Queen of Sheba founded the royal house of Ethiopia.

Bizarrely, the catalogue caption dates the piece as “1894/5 – 1957,” which are Yemar’s dates. We know he didn’t produce the panels as a newborn infant, nor did he produce it after his death, but it is difficult to believe that it found its way into the Museo Nazionale Preistorico Etnografico “Luigi Pigorini” without some more exact indication of the approximate date of its creation.

I, for one, would like to know much, much more about the history of Ethiopian tourist art and the biography of Balaccaw Yemar. This is too much to ask of a popularizing exhibition, but Yemar seems to be absent from other scholarship.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light": Romy Aura Maloon at Beep Beep Gallery, Atlanta

Old habits die hard. Apart from the unrevised opening paragraphs, this non-review has been turning into more of a meandering, baffled draft every time I edit it—because it is hard to quit being a reviewer. The resonantly resolved universal statements, the descriptions reaching a convincing-sounding conclusion—we are simply not supposed to sound like we don't know what on earth we are doing here, and so we don't. But it is a literary strategy, and while I admire it in the essays of George Steiner, from whom I have actually learned much that I would not otherwise have known, I can now look up and see the points at which Steiner's grasp far exceeds his reach—where the flow of the rhetoric simply demands the conclusions to which he should not genuinely have come, when he should instead have been asking an unanswered question. Sometimes he writes an aphorism that is simply nonsensical, and more often states something that is a far deeper truth than he has earned from what he has actually stated in the preceding text, in both cases because he is George Steiner. And I, as in the shtick from the comedian's sketch, am not.

My non-reviews are about questions, my questions, not answers. My hope is that the readers will find their own questions and their own genuinely valid answers. This is not the same thing as saying that all answers are equally valid, a tactic that annoys me in artist's talks; it is a way of saying that some questions take longer to formulate than others, and no one person can even get the questions right, much less answer them; it is a collective endeavor in which the type of perceptiveness we bring to the enterprise determines the type of question we shall find most interesting, and hence find ourselves sufficiently committed to be able to answer if we work at it.

I have been struck with the regularity with which I encounter personal mythologies that I simply do not understand. W. B. Yeats, being a poet, at least provided a key to his mythology in A Vision but even that requires a literary critic to give us a paraphrase, or else a great deal of time such as I do not ever have to do the reading and interpreting myself. (Same problem with William Blake; deeply indebted to his visionary insights, I nevertheless am never quite sure who the Zoas are or who Enitharmon is or why those feet in ancient time till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.)

Hence my bewilderment with several recent art exhibitions in Atlanta, some of which provide keys to the mystery that don’t seem to fit the locks. (I have the same key-and-lock problem with my storage unit quite often, so I am prepared to believe it's just me.)

I am writing about three of the exhibitions (four, actually) for, and soon, so I’ll describe the only one that I am not reviewing. I feel less disturbed about not understanding it when I see from the review on that the reviewer makes no effort to explicate what it all means, either, though she offers clues as to how she extracts possible lessons from it. There is clearly an enigma here, one I didn’t even understand when the artist explained it.

Reading the description of Romy Aura Maloon’s earlier work, quite articulately discussed on her website, makes clear how little the work in “Epiphany Is Not a Blazing Light,” which closes on June 20, 2015 at Beep Beep Gallery, has to do with the questions of cultural displacement and traumatized social and political identities with which her earlier work deals. Even though it uses some of the same materials, the difference in symbolism makes clear that this is a less cultural/political approach to issues of life and death. There is something closer to biology and to individual psychology going on.

The proper response to this realization is “Well, duh,” because a look at the Martin Espada poem that begins with that phrase makes clear that the great issues of wartime trauma are irrelevant to the epiphanies that come with comic books on battlefronts and/or Walt Whitman’s poetry (provocatively written as Whit-man) devoted to honoring life in the midst of armed conflict. Epiphanies come from small acts of resistance to the iron laws of history and the vast collective forces that crush individual human destinies beneath the immense catastrophes they engender. So this exhibition is not completely unrelated to Maloon's earlier sociopolitical interests, after all.

We already know, from what the artist said to those of us who attended the opening, that much if not all of the work is a response to the death of someone near and dear to her, and it may be necessary to know the biographical details to untangle the allegory. Certainly there seem to be mysteries of image that, as is the case in poems from Tennyson's In Memoriam to Rumi's elegies for Shams to a host of other literary works (and, I'm sure, in a good many other bodies of visual art that I am not remembering at the moment), might be elucidated if we only knew the triggering circumstances. But the issues being symbolized seem deeper than the accidents of personal biography. Hence my frustration at my inability to prise out those issues from what is clearly a worked-out set of personal symbols (there is an artist's statement that I read at the time of the opening, but I found it difficult to relate the statement to specific works and specific symbols—again, my fault entirely).

Sitting spectacularly near the gallery entrance, the tree growing out of a handbuilt hospital bed comes closest to interpretable public, historically grounded symbolism. Knowing that the charred wood was easier to produce than other material alternatives does not change the potent symbolism of a bed of pain, perhaps a deathbed, pierced by a standard symbol of the persistent force of life that renews itself every season. It's a quiet (I meant to write "quite," but I believe in Freudian typing errors) brilliant beginning.

I suppose the adjacent animal skulls hidden behind white organza (? I am terrible at identifying fabrics, and I have lost the checklist—no, actually I didn't request a printout of the labels, now that I think of it) can be interpreted in several different ways…the hangings remind anyone with long acquaintance with hospitals of the curtains that sometimes surround hospital beds, especially when medical or nursing procedures need to be closed off to casual observers. The color is the color of mourning and funerals in Asia, but the color of weddings and bridal veils in Europe and America. For all of that, the visible bones make it clear this is meant to be funereal, even if it might or might not signify a funereal celebration of life, as implied by the red flowers piled in a heap beneath the hanging fabric—these flowers, a standard symbol in Maloon's earlier work, are the color of fresh blood, a shade of red that is also a standard symbol of life and/or joy in more than one culture. The heavy chains from which the bones are suspended suggest the weight of imprisonment in a diseased body, or perhaps do not suggest that at all.

I could flounder around in this manner, trying to make up stories that make sense of the human silhouette tied by similar chains to red-flower coyote sculptures, or the drawings of roses and snarling dogs and such, but I can’t. I have no idea what all this is supposed to mean. The visceral power of the images doesn’t communicate any conceptually clear thought to me. Again, if I had the time to reflect on the interconnections of the imagery, it might, but as it is, it doesn't.

The plates in the “Parasites” series also deliver a powerful feeling of queasiness without really communicating a message, in my case. The biting and sucking insects that are meticulously limned on these functional objects that are so frequently converted to wall decorations make this a series that defeats any memories of decorative plates on parental walls—the imagery is so exquisitely rendered as to be beautiful but simultaneously repellent. Each plate also has a blob of kiln-fired glass that evokes various associations, none of them pleasant. Combined with the equally unpleasant ceramic heads nestled amid decaying floral matter (or they were when I saw the show weeks ago, anyway—I think; I am forced to consult the photograph in the review to refresh my memory of these), this stuff gets down to the nitty-gritty of disease and bodily decay. The symbolic stench of mortality hangs heavy over this exhibition.

But the details defeat me. I couldn’t possibly write a review of this exhibition. I used to be good at finessing such problems. Now I am not.

preliminary notes about Nexus Press and its not yet written history

Notes in Lieu of a Review: “Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center

The facts I chose not to spend time researching while writing this exploration have now been provided by Cathy Fox in this review:

The history of Nexus Press needs to be brushed against the grain, as Walter Benjamin said of interpreting history in general. But first we need to know that there is a history, and “Endless Road: A Look at Nexus Press,” at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center through July 25, gives us a good start in that direction.

When and how Nexus Press started in the 1970s is a fascinating story, but not really one we need to know in order to understand what it became. The exhibition that curator Daniel Fuller has wrested from the archives presents some of the presses themselves, pieces of technology from which it should be impossible to create the kind of books that the people who ran the press produced from them—and I am not going to name those people here, because my memory is faulty and I simply haven’t the time to assign credit where credit is due. The fact that Jo Anne Paschall could almost certainly recount the history in a few lapidary sentences gives me hope that someone will correct my lapse; that is the beauty of online writing.

What it is more important to do is to assess the legacy left by this remarkable enterprise, and that is a task left implicit by an exhibition that is admittedly no more than a start. It doesn’t even comprise a complete inventory of Nexus Press publications, although it certainly covers more than just the highlights. Rare books are presented in page-turning videos (not an oxymoron, they’re videos of the books being displayed to the viewer, page by page). The other volumes are available for perusal without benefit of white gloves, just as they were originally made available and as many of them still are—a number of titles appear in stacks of books available for purchase in the exhibition shop.

These books were always experimental and sometimes sumptuous, but they were distinctly examples of the contemporary category of artist’s books rather than the rarefied collectibles called “livres d’artiste.” Even when they did not derive from the tradition of cheap multiples from which the artist’s book tradition derived, they were not intended to be precious objects, no matter how intricately lovely some of them were and are.

Now they need to be looked at as examples for the twenty-first century. Some of them were unknowing forerunners of a conversation between photography and fiction, or documentary photography and the subjective narrator—Bill Burke’s I Want to Take Picture and Mine Fields established a genre of their own, while some of Clifton Meador’s books (later ones that are apparently being held in abeyance for some hypothetical Part Two of the Nexus Press story) seem in retrospect to have been in dialogue with W. G. Sebald’s contemporaneous novels with anomalous photographs.

Nobody has tried to analyze where these books were situated in the global context into which they were inserted. It was not necessary to wait for the five books produced for the 1996 Cultural Olympiad (of which the box of cards by Frederic Bruly Bouabré remains a particular favorite) for Nexus Press to welcome the world. (“Atlanta welcomes the world” was a popular Olympic-year slogan.) It had already welcomed the world, and the world had welcomed it, even if most locals remained blissfully unaware of the dialogue.

The press published titles by globally known artists from Felipe Ehrenberg to Johanna Drucker, plus such widely recognized early ventures as a justly celebrated tribute to P. H. Polk. It also produced an extraordinary quantity of ambitious small projects (termed “tailgaters” because they were printed on what would otherwise have been leftover scraps when the books were trimmed) by its interns, some of whom have become famous in their own right and others of whom seem to have disappeared from the historical record. This exhibition restores them to public recognition.

When Nexus Press came along, Atlanta already had a tradition of small literary presses, most of them short-lived but soon succeeded by others. They were, however, producing conventional chapbooks and/or consciously old-school letterpress combinations of text and visual art. The wealth of visual experimentation that Nexus Press brought to bear has never been equaled in Atlanta, and since its premature disappearance a bit over a decade ago, no one has quite had the resources to bring its example into the fully-fledged digital era. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that its legacy is being carried on in a different key by Dust-to-Digital, whose rescued vintage recordings have typically been accompanied by innovatively designed books and packaging that recall Nexus Press in its finest moments.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

biology and the baroque, and/or prisoners of matter: two shows at bill lowe in atlanta

"Biology and the Baroque" and "Prisoners of Matter" at Bill Lowe Gallery

a non-review essay by Jerry Cullum

I have long expressed my bewilderment (it goes beyond bemusement) at the incapacity of theorists to understand the dialectic between personality type, historical circumstances, and cultural conditioning. Anyone who wants a shorthand look at this dialectic might consider the artistic career of Francis Picabia, who shifted seamlessly from Impressionism to Cubism to Dada to figuration to, bewilderingly to some critics, paintings copying photographs from pornographic magazines, then abstraction. The bewildered critics fail to note the dates during which Picabia produced paintings that reportedly adorned Algerian brothels during the dark Occupation years of 1940 to 1944, and the other extraordinary shifts in style and subject matter likewise reflect the response of an extraordinarily fluid and trickster-minded personality to the major cultural and political shifts of the twentieth century.

I bring all this up at the beginning of an art non-review (I shall, as I increasingly do, reserve ultimate judgment because I am not sure whether I have any) because I deeply regret that we apparently do not have anything resembling a reliable personality test. It would be incredibly useful if we could say openly which personality types from which cultural and historical circumstances would be most likely to respond to a given body of work. The greatest art bridges centuries and circumstances, but even there, there are people who will never enjoy certain types of art no matter how much they come to understand its importance, and who will enjoy other types of art even after they understand why they should not find it enjoyable.

All of this is more or less a necessary preface to any reflection on the extraordinarily titled duo of solo shows that Bill Lowe Gallery has, in the wall text, combined into the title and subtitle “Biology and the Baroque: Prisoners of Matter.” I attended the opening after an afternoon of perusing an online summary of the arguments made in a two-day conference at Rice University about “Gnostic Counter Cultures,” so I was primed to read the art and its ideas in a certain way. The conference dealt with the inheritance and persistence of Gnostic ideas that we are, indeed, prisoners of matter, needing some means of liberation from what Emory University anthropologist Melvin Konner, who may be upset at being cited in the same sentence as Gnosticism, once called “biological constraints on the human spirit.” I use the subtitle of Konner’s early book The Tangled Wing to make the point that it is possible to believe that we have a spirit that is biologically constrained without believing that there is a transcendent dimension into which we can escape from those constraints.

Human creativity is one of the traditional means by which we slip the surly bonds of earth (if I may quote John Magee’s treacly poem) without benefit of divine intervention. Those theorists who sneer at the notion that creative imagination exists are just plain being silly; it is an obvious behavioral fact even if one chooses to believe that it is a response to physical environment or history.

Having said all that, I can finally start talking about the strange pairing of Fabio Modica’s paintings with Claire Begheyn’s assemblages. Two more different commentaries on biology and culture can scarcely be imagined.

Modica’s paintings portray the faces of beautiful women semi-obscured by bluntly applied layers of paint. We are told that Modica regards this as a commentary on our imprisonment in bodily circumstances, but also as a commentary on the physicality of paint itself, and I see no reason to doubt this. However, the metaphor of prisoners of the body also suggests the imprisonment of beautiful women in the traditions of painting and in the male gaze generally, and after three generations of feminism it is difficult to read these paintings any other way. Modica approaches his subject matter from so many startlingly different stylistic angles, however, that the work eludes interpretation.

Begheyn’s baroquely composed patterns of seashells inlaid into rearranged fragments of decorative design are something else altogether. The fact that I find some (not all) of them compelling while one female visitor said, “I just don’t get what’s with the seashells” illustrates my point that not only is there no single valid aesthetics, there is no single point of aesthetic perception from which to draw reliable conclusions. Expectation combined with the relative value we place on symmetry versus asymmetry, texture versus color, and concept versus visceral reaction result in a range of responses that are not quite equally valid (we can refine and deepen the criteria by which we judge and experience artworks), but that are indisputably varied.

I say all this because I find Begheyn’s work utterly arresting and worthy of extended contemplation, but I can picture all the reasons why persons starting from a different point and operating on different assumptions would consider it worthless or even repellent. My problem is illustrated by the fact that I keep wanting to use (and resisting) adjectives that the art world at large regards as cuss words (basically, these would be any words denoting intense emotional involvement prior to intellectual judgment).

Cathy de Monchaux is one of the globally recognized sculptors who has suffered from similar critical responses, and for some structurally parallel reasons; she engages in geometrically ordered eroticism, juxtaposes materials in ways that evoke sensual pleasure and discomfort concurrently, and can be accused, in spite of that, of being merely decorative, albeit in a way so strangely complex that the results linger in the imagination.

Begheyn is working in less complicated emotional terrain, but the range of her imagination is still considerable. She works the emotional associations and contrasting visual appearance of seashells for all they’re worth. Knobby, rough surfaces co-exist with seductively shiny and downright pearlescent ones; mussel shells turn into flowerlike explosions of symmetry; one work evokes the form of Botticelli’s Venus on the half shell (and thank you Joan Baez for that memorable phrase, in “Diamonds and Rust”). Even the works that seem less successful have amazing passages of shapes placed in particularly engaging proximity.

It is all impossibly luscious, and never to be confused with the cheap seashell compositions of craft projects. However, the negative associations of Begheyn’s materials are almost certainly one possible source of viewer distaste. This is stuff you just aren’t supposed to use in serious sculpture.

The fact that these complicated compositions make we respond positively to the forms of decorative objects I normally don’t like at all makes me think otherwise. These works return the, to my taste, unpleasantly prettified productions of culture to their biological origins, making the two meld rather than collide. By themselves, the sculpturally composed elements might devolve all too easily into a high-end shell collection; combined with the culturally inflected base, this superstructure from nature flips our expectations and turns the nature-culture dialogue into something completely different.

“Radically different” is the philosophical-artspeak cliché to fall back on, and “something completely different” is an inapposite Monty Python allusion. Its use in this utterly serious context is meant to function as a further distancing device; these works draw some of us in and make us uncomfortable about being thus drawn in by aspects of art to which we know we shouldn’t respond so deeply.

“Transgressive” seems too strong a word to apply to such seductively lovely artworks, and Begheyn certainly has no intention of violating the canons of the artworld; rather, she has fairly simple goals in mind that derive from her personal biography.

But artworks inserted into contemporary history will always be judged by criteria not at all in the mind of the maker.

© asserted under normal Creative Commons modifications regarding fair use

photographs in fictional texts

Photographs in Fictional Texts: an extremely informal and provisional essay

© Jerry Cullum

Over the years, I have found that if I don’t get around to writing something major for long enough, someone else always does it so I don’t have to. This is not the case with transient exhibition reviews, and I haven’t quite figured out how to handle the problem of being unready to think about visual issues that almost always require more considered judgment than I have time or mental energy for. (There are numerous ways to fudge the issue when on deadline, but I have reached the point of wanting to be able to say, “I am not ready to have anything meaningful to say about this.”)

Shaj Mathew has written a rather superb piece for the May 18, 2015 issue of The New Republic titled “Welcome to Literature’s Duchamp Moment: Avant-garde fiction is starting to resemble conceptual art.” Fortunately or unfortunately, Mathew’s survey of the intersections between visual art and fictional narrative doesn’t cover a good many of the issues I had first wanted to raise a decade ago and have wanted to deal with systematically ever since, the more so since we seem to be going through a resurgence of the phenomenon that interested me.

W. G. Sebald has gotten more than his share of investigation since I first encountered his too-brief literary career, but at the time I was pondering why it was suddenly permissible if not quite openly respectable for novels to become picture books, or to have images slip into them in ways that previously hadn’t been the case since the demise of the illustrated edition of yore, in which the pictures were regarded as an incidental luxury, a grown-up version of the children’s picture book. (The Surrealist example in André Breton’s Nadja was never really part of the mainstream canon, at least not as the hybrid that it was; it was considered, if it was considered at all, a sort of highbrow illustrated novel rather than as a multi-page precursor to Duane Michals’ one-page photo narrative This Photograph Is My Proof—which usually is thought of as a work of art rather than as the very short story that it is.)

The reverse-motion photo flip book that concludes Jonathan Safran Foer’s otherwise pictureless Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came as a surprise. It more or less coincided in publication date with the English translation of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a novel about damaged memory in which the full-color images of objects from the protagonist’s childhood become an intrinsic part of the narrative rather than illustrations of it—something more traditional in its experimentation than Sebald’s visual slippage in which the uncaptioned photographs almost but not quite match what is being said in the adjacent text. (It occurred to me at the time that Donald Barthelmé’s City Life, a decades-earlier antic updating of Surrealist tomfoolery with pictures and text formats, had included a story titled “Brain Damage.”) At the time, circa 2004, there were a number of novels dealing with protagonists with neurological deficits, from Gene Wolfe’s Roman soldier bereft of short-term memory in the two Latro novels to Mitch Cullin’s nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes in A Slight Trick of the Mind, but these novels were uninterested in the troubled role of the visual in the story the mind tells to itself and others.

The editor to whom I pitched this idea found it fundamentally uninteresting, and thereafter, as they used to say in my part of the world, when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp.

Besides, the fashion passed, or perhaps was miscategorized as conceptual art after the prior model of Sophie Calle’s Suite Vénitienne or Bill Burke’s I Want to Take Picture, two enterprises from earlier decades that are not usually thought of as experimental fiction on the one hand or hybridized travel narrative on the other—perhaps because the categories of art criticism of the time were insufficiently invested in the type of cross-genre criticism that Sebald’s novels later inspired. Later works of conceptual art must surely have investigated the intersection between socially shaped and displaced cultural identity and simple or not so simple neurological deficits, but at the moment none occur to me. In any case, even creators wearing the identities of novelist and conceptual artist, Tom McCarthy being a notable example, did not essay to mix the two overly; McCarthy’s installations did not appear between hard covers or even as online picture fictions, and his experimental tales had no visual elements once you got past the front cover, which frequently was nothing to write home about. (Writers seldom have much input into design of their books, anyway; A. S. Byatt specified cover images that were important parts of her novels, only to have them discarded when it came time for the paperback edition in America.)

The earlier emergence into general visibility of things like graphic novels had already muddled the picture in their predominant literalism—the correspondence (aesthetically complex though it might be) rather than disjuncture or uncertain tension between word and image. The latter was certainly there in the genre, but was seldom the main point.

The dislocations of the digital take us in yet another direction, not worth pursuing if I am ever to get to my point, which surely must be out there somewhere en route to an ending.

Orhan Pamuk, who began life as a visual artist before realizing that it was a poor career choice in Istanbul, returned to his visual roots with a work of conceptual art that may well establish new parameters for the genre—a permanent Museum of Innocence that contains all of the material objects left behind as evidence of the completely imaginary love affair that Pamuk claims to be recounting at the request of the protagonist in the novel titled The Museum of Innocence. A related book, The Innocence of Objects, is Pamuk’s annotated catalogue of the objects in situ in the museum, which actually exists in the building he bought for the purpose.

We seem to be in Sebald territory on steroids, since the photographs document the actual condition of objects to which false histories are ascribed even as they are contextualized in terms of actually existing Turkish material culture of past decades. On the other hand, Pamuk’s installations of these objects are a bit like Joseph Cornell’s boxes in their evocative juxtapositions; the two books could not be comfortably folded into each other.

Leanne Shapton took a different approach to the narration of a love affair through photographs of material culture with her auction-catalogue novel Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry. The entire story, which is an all too common one, is told by way of the description of the successive items being put up for auction by the ex-couple, and the match between photograph and imagined context is as seamless as the match between text and same-size photo images of objects in Bill Burke’s two books narrating his experience in Southeast Asia—but here the fictional quality is obvious, just as Burke’s photographic proof was obviously meant as non-fiction. Unconventional as the formats were, neither venture was the literary “unreliable narrator” of yore turned to visual territory.

Epistemological slippage, however, seemed to be slipping back into literature by way of photography. Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project consisted of commentary starting from photo documentation but not quite ending there. And Teju Cole’s Every Day Is for the Thief seemed like an outright homage to Sebald, with photographs that might or might not be directly illustrative, in a novel that started life as a sequence of blog posts from the author’s actual failed return to Nigeria (we have come a long, dialectical way from Aimé Césaire’s famed return to his native land that launched the Négritude movement).

Mathew’s New Republic article contains a useful reference/link to Cole’s interview/conversation with Alexsandar Hemon in Bomb in which Cole discusses Sebald’s example and how the evolution of his novel from an epistolary online format (I believe an epistolary novel is currently being written on Twitter; how many have been written on other social media? Is there a Facebook/Instagram novel? Does putting it between hard covers constitute a genre violation?) affected this project, in which Cole eventually “wanted to stretch the book between the (arbitrary) poles of subjectivity and objectivity (which some would equate with fiction and nonfiction)…I wanted the photos to cover the same range too—but only to complicate reader’s ideas and perceptions.”

That takes us off in some really interesting directions that would make for an excellent article about the uses of photography in works of fiction blurred with nonfiction. (Think of the extent to which the artworld came to believe in the 1980s, without reference to Photoshop or to the kind of totalitarian-state retouching documented in The Commissar Vanishes, that “a photograph is not a piece of evidence for anything.” I would assume that this body of theory found its way into the Sebald criticism that I have never found time to read—at least I can’t imagine it and its successors not playing a role in such analysis.)

History outpaces my ability to write about it; Teju Cole is now a photo critic for the New York Times Magazine. And others will have to write the essays about photography and diaspora literature, identity and image, the distortions imposed by narration and interpretation, and so on. The best I can do these days is 1500 words before breakfast. Which latter it is now time to investigate.

Friday, May 22, 2015

and a non-review grappling with my incapacity to evaluate "Luminous" at Kai Lin

“Luminous,” at Kai Lin through June 12, is a show I have not reviewed and am not sure I could review.

I should emphasize that this does not mean I think it is a bad show. I think elements of it are excellent, and all of it is very much worth seeing. My ambivalence prohibits a thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgment, which traditionally is what reviews are supposed to deliver.

Looking at Felicia Feaster’s excellently analytical review ( ) I see that she appreciates the show’s aesthetic but isn’t uncritical of the show’s overall resemblance to children’s book illustrations featuring animal allegories, plus its downside of being dominated by works in which the strength of pattern replaces or overwhelms message. Some of this is indisputably true, but in a complicated way.

I’m not sure that Feaster gives full credit to the differently mythic dimensions of Sam Parker, who in this work sometimes seems to be competing with Joe Tsambiras for the title of Most Inventively Witty Alteration of a Mythic Archetype.

More often, though, the transmutations are just plain chilling, and I am at a loss to discuss them even on the most formalist of levels. If this is pattern-and-decoration revisited, it’s pattern-and-decoration with a difference. In fact, the figuration is so startling in conjunction with the patterning that I wish I were capable of explicating the effect, which I am not.

These are not literal animal figures, but kin to ones we see in contemporary books from illustrators in India (although its subject matter is mythico-dendrological rather than zoological, The Night Life of Trees comes to mind).

Greg Noblin’s animals are likewise deliteralized in spite of their photocollage accuracy, and more appealing on a heartstrings-pulling level of whimsy, with the tone set somewhere between humor and pathos.

But I would be hard pressed to try to describe the details of all that, much less evaluate it. I’m not emotionally committed to it, which does not mean that a large number of people will not be, and their commitment will be both valid and defensible in analytical terms.

I like some of the elements of Art Nouveau and of its Symbolist and Decadent offshoots, and Lela Brunet semi-replicates some of their better effects with her portrayals of “modern-day goddesses.”
Like Parker, Brunet works from mythico-intuitive grounds, assigning specific divine natures after the fact to the creatures her unconscious sense of color and proportion has summoned forth. There are stylistic aspects of this body of work to which I don’t respond well, but it would take so much effort to unpack the visual and social cues giving rise to my responses that I am unable to write anything intelligible about that part of the problem. I do like some of the elements that are less beholden to Odilon Redon or Vienna 1900, I have mixed emotions about some of the rendering, and some of the juxtapositions or outright collisions of styles and genres I don’t like at all, but I am not prepared to declare any of it aesthetically invalid.

Hence I am increasingly given to writing non-reviews that simply acknowledge things’ existence, and occasionally to celebrating some of the aspects I particularly appreciate without making claims regarding them beyond my delight at a few things that happen in this particular artwork or this exhibition. Shows that do not lend themselves well to this approach, and they are many, are likely not to be written about at all on the Counterforces blog.

People have until June 12 to decide for themselves whether they think “Luminous” is their idea of a good show. It is a show worth spending time with en route to making an informed aesthetic judgment, but it is a show that persons with a low tolerance for fantasy will not wish to visit long enough to make that informed judgment. If you do not like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will not like.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

a personally laden theoretical preface to a non-review

In my experience, most gallery owners stand by their aesthetics. If they happen to represent and sell only work that almost all art critics would regard as embarrassingly decorative, they do it because they believe in the value of the decorative to the point of extending a specific type of it from tableware to sculpture and paintings. (Hint: A good many critics would prefer other styles and genres of decoration, too.) Other galleries are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and dead set against giving visual pleasure if it means making concepts secondary, and sometimes even if it means rendering unpleasant or difficult concepts in visually pleasing forms.

Most galleries, though, are somewhere in between, tacking a bit to meet audience sensibilities, but not dishonestly so. Pondering the question this morning of how a gallery’s inventory might reflect the diverse tastes of an owner, I was reminded that the limited body of work that I myself make reflects my tastes as well as my capacities: it alternates between mischievously conceptual, usually word-oriented pieces and conceptually grounded tiny paintings devoted to subtle gradations of color and brush strokes. I don’t own very many works by others in either category; I would hope that our favorite types of work by others would be the stuff we could never hope to make for ourselves, and a broad range of it, at that.

And as suits someone who came to visual art by way of Asian aesthetics, one of my current favorite pieces (they vary month by month) is a text-only birthday greeting from Ruth Laxson eight years ago in which the sublime imbalance of lettering seems as delectably perfect in its imperfection as any piece of cloud writing by a Zen monastic master.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

two exhibitions about which I shall not write even a non-review, despite their intrinsic worthiness of one

These are exceptionally fragmentary notes about a couple of Atlanta exhibitions about which I have no idea how to write beyond this modest acknowledgement of their existence. I love both of them, but simply cannot get my head around the kind of analysis required by the positive review I would otherwise write. A non-review, in my definition, is something in which I blather on unsystematically about an entire exhibition, not about a single element of it.

Deedra Ludwig’s exhibition at Tew Galleries (through May 30) has sold well enough without benefit of critical commentary.

But how wonderful to know that there are paintings like Subtropicals or Solace, below replicated from cellphone photos, in which Ludwig has hand ground her own indigo pigment, incorporated bits of tropical flora into the paint, and otherwise produced artworks that simultaneously incorporate contemporary painting strategies (some gestural strokes put in an appearance that is more than perfunctory but that are allusions nevertheless—sort of the equivalent of quoting a phrase too well known to need cited acknowledgment) but also incorporate, literally, parts of the subject matter being represented.

There have been other cases in which actual botanical materials have been incorporated into botanically themed paintings, but Ludwig is uniquely committed to responding not just to the look but the entire composition of the land from which she derives both imagery and deep meaning.

It would be interesting, if I were up to the task, to discuss the implications of the two opposed yet complementary responses to nature in Ludwig's paintings and Amandine Drouet's representations of natural forms in sculptures created from discarded artificial materials. Both artists have a passionate commitment to the integrity of the planetary ecosystem, but find completely different modes of expression. Drouet's exhibition at Swan Coach House, coincidentally, closes the same day as Ludwig's, May 30.

Drouet's show includes her now-familiar sculptures starting from discarded plastic:

But there are also handbuilt lightboxes containing photographs based on her extraordinary sculptures woven from shredded buttled-water containers, and these illuminated images are more aesthetically seductive than the sculptures themselves:

It would be good if someone could offer a close and considered opinion of either or both exhibitions, but that someone will not be me.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

de mortuis

Facebook friends’ links to Franz Wright’s obituary at remind me that there are so many creative personalities gone too early whose achievement is known to far too few (encomia from FB friends demonstrate how much James Wright’s son took after his father, and the fact was known well by the many people who pay more attention to present-day poetry than I do).

Combined with the recent deaths of old friends also gone years too early and unfairly too little known, plus the recent deaths of some of my once-favorite scholars whose fame rests on the definitive works completed a quarter-century ago, it has got me to thinking again of the impossible responsibility of the cultural critic. For without somebody to write the popularizing but serious survey article (including re-evaluations of long-ago accomplishments), the thoughtful response to the day’s obituary stories will be an alternation between the disturbing “I didn’t know they were still alive” and the even more disturbing “I never knew they did all that.”

A gathering of continents that hardly anyone knows about

The information needs of diverse audiences remain a hopeless conundrum for Atlanta art reviewing sites—perhaps it is thus for all second-tier art scenes, or even first-tier ones, where the range of interests is even more immense. Even though websites have the physical potential for comprehensive coverage, limited budgets plus the limitations of overstressed editors and writers mean that huge quantities of information will never be distributed to the daunting variety of audiences who would find an event or an exhibition fascinating.

The gorgeous display of Joan Blaeu’s atlas from the Dutch Golden Age currently at Georgia Tech is a case in point. One friend, being told about it, excitedly said his fourteen-year-old son would love it. But how does one justify coverage of such out-of-the-way gems when there are so many mainstream exhibitions that are not finding writers to provide coverage of them? Discuss.

It is somehow appropriate that Georgia Tech should possess (through the foresight of librarian Dorothy Crosland a half century ago) a magisterial atlas of the Dutch Golden Age, Joan Blaeu’s Grooten Atlas of 1662-1665, and that the atlas should be on display through June 26 at the Robert C. Williams Museum of Papermaking, under the title “A Gathering of Continents.” Whatever judgment we place upon it in hindsight, the 17th century was an age of immense innovation (and not just in Europe, though at that moment the curve of change was tending spectacularly in Europe’s direction) and of enforced but not quite controllable globalization—in that respect it is not so different from the present century, to which Georgia Tech is contributing in ways that cry out for historical contextualization.

Blaeu’s nine-volume atlas was a compendium of what Europe had learned of the ways of the world at large, presented in a format that complimented Dutch industriousness and imagination. As is the case with all books, this sumptuously illustrated masterwork is difficult to display in a museum context, and for reasons of space the museum has presented only six of the volumes in vitrines, each volume open to a provocatively representative page. An indication of the rest of the astonishing contents appears in the form of wall panels of enlarged photographs accompanied by enlightening commentary.

The results are more than merely educational, although we could all use a refresher course in the growth of Dutch culture alongside Dutch colonial empire, and the economic expansion that fueled both enterprises. That is not the primary purpose of this exhibition’s prodding of our visual imagination, even if the sheer number of topics on which it touches ought to send us back to resources such as Simon Schama’s books, or at least to Wikipedia. The range of interests the Grooten Atlas encompasses is indicated by Blaeu’s declaration, “I hasten to lay before you the earth,” which appears as the enlarged wall text introducing the exhibition. The exhibition’s sampling of these interests includes elegant images of Stonehenge, city fortifications, fleets of ships, and characteristic costumes of African cultures, which are presented in the same visual format as the comparable double-page spread for Europe. The wall panels also highlight Blaeu’s celebration of the accomplishments of Tycho Brahe, whose contributions to celestial navigation were presented in the Atlas alongside Brahe’s discoveries in astronomy.

All this makes for an exceptionally rich spectacle, hidden away in Georgia Tech’s Renewable Bioproducts Institute and largely unnoticed by the thousands of drivers who pass by the structure at 500 10th Street. It’s unfortunate that the museum is open only on weekdays; the present exhibition plus the permanent displays and dioramas of the history of papermaking constitute an unusually family-friendly treat for art and history enthusiasts alike, and deserve wider exposure to a public that by and large has no idea they are there.

Friday, May 15, 2015

another note on global and local biennales

Some years ago, I staged a two-artist biennale that existed only in the form of catalogue documentation of an event that never took place, to make the point that this was the only way in which most of us would ever experience the sprawling immensities of the Venice Biennale or Documenta or a host of other global art events. Today I would have to establish a website, but there are so many bogus documentations of all sorts on the internet today that the thrill is gone. We trust (mostly) in the accuracy of the reportage on biennales that few of us will ever visit.

The idea of a biennale that one has no option
but to visit, however, appeals to me. One with no curators, a self-organizing biennale within the parameters of a conceptually vague theme, is a commentary on the DIY aesthetic that may not have been intended when the definers (not the organizers) created the idea of the Mardin Biennial.

Of course, the project has a website, but I am not sure how one goes about documenting the event comprehensively. The notion of the carnivalesque, the site-specific that can only be experienced, but on a more intimately local level that demands total immersion and cannot be exported—unlike the video and sound pieces of the global biennials that can't be captured on a website but can be restaged in the world's museums. The Mardin Biennial sounds to an outsider like a hybrid between the critical deglobalized biennial Ali Artun calls for and Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence—a place where ignored or forgotten everyday objects become the stuff of fictional biographies or biographical fictions.

Here is the entire content of an email about it that I received from one of the only non-local artists in the biennial. Given the caveats I have just recited, I have no way of determining the authenticity of all this other than getting on a plane to the city in question:

3rd Mardin Biennial
15 May – 15 June, 2015

Opening 15th of May at 6 pm

3rd Mardin Biennial organized by Mardin Cinama Society. The conceptual frame of the biennial was set up with reference to Ali Artun.

Within the conceptual framework of ‘Mythologies’, the most essential aspect of the biennale is that it will have no appointed curator. Instead, the biennale will be realized with the contribution of local people in Mardin as well as other volunteered individuals including:

Döne Otyam, Ferhat Özgür, Fırat Arapoğlu, Mehmet Baran, Claudia Segura Campins, Sait Tunç, Mesut Alp, Fikret Atay, Hakan Irmak, Özge Ersoy, Ferhat Satıcı, Hülya Özdemir, Canan Budak, Can Bulgu.

Mardin is centrally located within a geography of antique civilizations, stretching from Egypt to India. It still retains noteworthy traces of the symbolic world, the universe of icons and myths, the art and literature it has created, amassed and, in turn, benefitted for centuries. These traces still survive in the daily lives of Mardin’s inhabitants, in their living environment as much as in the ethnographical and architectural heritage of the city.

The talismans, amulets, icons, jewels, garments, books, pictures, photographs, pots and pans, glasses and dishes, rugs and carpets accumulated in houses, shops, workshops form what can be called ‘cabinets of curiosities’: private ‘museums’ where objects form mysterious relations with one another and write unspoken myths. In these ‘museums’, antiquities and ordinary objects, as well as various times that are inscribed in them, constantly bestow new significations upon each other. You may come across such dream worlds on the workbench of a knife-sharpener, or the counter of a coppersmith’s; at a pigeon-trainer’s stall; in a church or a bar as well as in the nooks and crannies of houses. The objective of the 3rd: the poetry and magic to these cabinets of curiosities that have long ago abandoned them. It calls on artists to explore their memory, to write their mythology.

The 3rd Mardin Biennial is curated by a collective, constituted mostly of locals. Likewise, many of the artists are also locals, among them also artisans and craftsman. Hence, this version of the Mardin Biennial suggests an alternative approach by questioning the prevailing biennial procedure where a single curator, who is unfamiliar with the context and setting, single-handedly decides who to exhibit, what to exhibit, and how to exhibit it. This Biennial vehemently opposes the reduction of the local cultural milieu to an exhibition décor and the Mardin Biennial is to return identification of the locals with an exhibition forced on them, in other words, to the branding of Mardin by an autocratic curator who imposes a certain view upon the city, its memory and its history. Instead, the proposal is to conceive the Biennial as a Mardin carnival, therefore evoking such concepts as game, chance, spontaneity, serendipity, intimacy and collectivity as means for political resistance. Such a biennial will undoubtedly be more captivating for the locals who had previously been alienated from art events in their own city as well as for the visiting outsiders who will be exposed to exhibits that truly engage with their context. More importantly, it will give the artists that will participate in the Mardin Biennial a chance to experience this city and bond with its unique imaginative and poetic world.


Mor Efrem Manastırı, Alman Karargahı, Keldani Kilisesi, Mardin Müzesi, Videoist , Açık Hava Sineması (Sun Cinema), Mardin Bazaar.

Participating artists

Ahmet Elhan // Aikaterini Gegisian // Alban Muja // Ani Setyan // Antonio Cosentino // Aysel Alver // Babak Kazemi // Canan Budak // Claire Hooper // David Blandy // Deniz Aktaş // Dilan Bozyel // Dilara Akay // Eda Gecikmez // Elena Bajo // Erick Beltrán // Ethem Erkan // Evrim Kavcar // Fani Zguro // Fırat Engin // Gabi Yerli // Hakan Kırdar // Halil Altındere // Haris Epaminonda // Iratxe Jaio & Klaas Van Gorkum // Işıl Eğrikavuk-Jozef Erçevik Amado // İbrahim Ayhan // Iman Issa // Isabel Rocamora // Juan Del Gado // Khaled Hafez // Krassimir Terziev // Lena Von Lapschina // Mehtap Baydu // Melih Apa // Metin Ezilmez // Miquel Garcia // Mike Berg // Murat Akagündüz // Murat Germen // Mürüvvet Türkyılmaz // Nadi Güler // Necla Rüzgar // Nezir Akkul // Nooshin Farhid // Oriol Vilanova // Özlem Günyol-Mustafa Kunt // Pedro Torres // Romain Kronenberg // Sait Tunç // Stuart Brisley // Şefik Özcan // Thierry Payet // Ursula Mayer // Yavuz Tanyeli // Yaygara

Videoart program curated by Claudia Segura Campins and Özge Ersoy (with the collaboration of Loop Fair 2014)

Anne-Valerie Gasc// Antonio Paucar// Levi van Veluw// Oscar Muñoz// Zhou Tao

For more information:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

"And all directions I come to you": not a review of a preview, please

Wild Beast Zero: Some Reflections (Perhaps in a Funhouse Mirror; That, I Know Not) on an Encounter in a Preview of glo’s “And all directions I come to you”

Jerry Cullum

I have been looking recently at a good many books from my youthful years…some, like Goethe’s Faust or Charles Francis Potter’s The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, from really, really youthful, as in age fourteen. “Looking at,” not “reading,” because I am trying to sort through more than a lifetime’s worth of accumulated detritus. (I inherited things from my parents’ own early lives, like elegantly designed sets of playing cards and bridge tally sheets, things I can neither use nor discard. Kind of like personal memory in that regard.)

One of the books I have thus encountered is the first volume of Erich Neumann’s Jungian text The Origins and History of Consciousness, a book that set my future course rather firmly when I read it in my senior year of college. It wasn’t an assigned text at my experimental interdisciplinary school; in fact, I had to smuggle an in-depth study of depth psychology into my personal curriculum by way of a seminar in literary criticism in which I proposed to approach criticism through phenomenology and “a theology of consciousness.”

So imagine my delight back then at the synchronistic encounter, in the secondhand copy of Neumann’s book that I found at Haslam’s bookshop, with what now seems to me to be an unintended work of conceptual art; the happy accident certainly reflected the ironic visual and textual juxtapositions I had produced the year before in a wall-filling collage in my dorm room without knowing that the genre had a name.

“The fact this volume is being used as a textbook does not mean that the University endorses its contents from the standpoint of morals, philosophy, theology, or scientific hypotheses.” Think these thoughts, in other words, but do not believe them.

Study consciousness, read books that claim to give an analysis of how consciousness operates, but hold fast to your verbally expressed opinions even if everything in the book suggests that you should mistrust your verbally expressed opinions.

I laughed at the idea of a fundamentalist university having to offer a course undermining all its presuppositions, whereas my religiously liberal college offered a smattering of this opinion in our freshman year alongside Freud’s demolition of religion, and never mentioned it again.

I wanted to understand why human beings do all the incredibly strange things that they do, and here was a system that explained it all from the Paleolithic caves onward. All of it, visual art, warfare, erotic obsession, egomania, altruism, pyromaniac barn burning (I’m borrowing that one from the late James Hillman, whose books I also discovered in that year), and whatever else you can give a name to or fail to find a name for.

The only thing that bothered me was that C. G. Jung reported some very strange occurrences in his life in the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections that his system apparently failed to explain. He didn’t seem to notice the contradiction.

He did express the opinion that empirical research would eventually establish the relationship between the verbal and nonverbal behavior that he analyzed so convincingly and their neurological underpinnings.

All these years later, I remain baffled by why human beings do all the things they do; since all cultures seem equally alien to me and all of them seem to be doing no more than establishing provisional reasons for responding to their physical surroundings in the way that they do, it should come as no surprise that I now find all the psychological explanations to be grounded in the personality types of the people who espouse them. Lacanians have Lacanisn personalities, and I don’t like most of them very much. Jungians have Jungian personalities, and people who believe that consciousness is entirely computational have the kind of personalities you would expect people would have who believe that sort of thing.

It all seems extremely odd. The sciences of human behavior and human culture are constantly claiming to have a degree of certitude that confers predictive value, but they never quite manage to describe the entire empirical situation satisfactorily.

As Erich Heller wrote about Nietzsche’s philosophy, and I quote from fallible memory, “Some philosophies are like mountains; you climb them, or they are too tough for you. In either case, you can be certain of your relationship to them. Other philosophies are like longstanding cities; to ask ‘Do you know Nietzsche?’ is like asking ‘Do you know Rome?’ The answer is simple only if you have never been there.”

By and large, we exist in that latter relationship to our own minds and bodies, and to the surroundings in which we operate. We are strangers to ourselves.

Which, and I swear I was not trying to go there, turns out to be the word (“strangers”) that is operative in the creation of gloAtl’s new dance performance “And all directions I come to you.”

I have about as alien a relationship to dance as I do to human cultures or human psychology; dancers are, whatever else they are, at home in their bodies, which given the right kind of prodding will pretty much do what the dancers want them to do. (I seem to recall a passage from the Apostle Paul about all of this, but I am trying to repress that digression.)

This particular six-hour performance is going to be presented nomadically in parts of Central Park, courtesy of Nato Thompson and Creative Time. I once had an argument (actually, more of an indignant shouting match) with Nato Thompson when he dissed an artist in the audience who just wanted to sit in her studio and make artwork, rather in the way that I am sitting alone in my apartment writing and revising this reflection; I yelled that only an extrovert could possibly view with disdain persons who wanted to sit in seclusion until they had prepared a face to meet the faces that they meet (a “face,” a.k.a. an artwork, and I am quoting T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in that last phrase). All that would have taken too much time to say, so what I yelled was, “Spoken like a true extrovert!” and I don’t remember what I said after that.

For all of that, even introverts have to show up in public occasionally, however much they associate public interaction with past embarrassments. (Public interaction is not the same thing as appearing onstage, where they are not interacting with an audience, they are performing solo.)

Thus did I find myself an audience member at a private preview of the artwork that Lauri Stallings and dancers had been preparing in seclusion in the studio and were now activating for persons whom Lauri considered friends before trying it out on complete strangers. I knew Lauri but not the dancers, being as how I don’t interact with folks after their performances, not if there is a side door through which to avoid face-to-face encounter.

I knew in advance that the piece would require quite a bit of perambulation by the audience, having become rather proud at my capacity to follow the wrong trail and be seduced by the sideshow being performed by a single dancer while the spectacular stuff was taking place at the opposite end of the piazza or the skatepark or wherever. Since I have long noted my tendency to zig when a passerby from the opposite direction is sagging, thus creating mutual immobility and the occasional collision, it came as no surprise that I was constantly occupying the vacant space that an entire troupe of dancers was about to traverse at top speed.

Hence my attempt to get out of the way when the entire group came sweeping by me in what seemed like yet another unintended path-blocking on my part. I continued to retreat, trying to get out of the way, until I realized I was the way.

At that point there was nothing for it but to freeze in my tracks and assume a neutral position, facing the audience but looking neither at them nor at the dancers. It is a posture I have mastered over the years after great effort.

[Photo © Catherine Wilmer and used by prior permission.]

And I stayed frozen and immobile until it became obvious that the dancers were also trying to establish eye contact, a strategy well known from previous gloATL appearances and one of the reasons I try to stay in the back row at anybody at all’s performances known to include audience interaction.

It is one of those introvert’s moments in which it becomes apparent that this is probably the greatest amount of intimacy they have experienced since some rather distressingly distant time, if ever, after which they embrace the artificiality of the situation and go with the flow. (I was too much in the moment to remember it then, but I know from the one scene in which I co-starred in Carol Lafayette’s video based on my poem Skateboarding in Sarajevo, the intense gaze of the performer is accompanied by counting off the seconds.)

We now know, thanks to the notorious New York Times article of a few months ago about how to fall in love with one another when you can’t seem to make it happen, that mutual gazing makes oxytocin levels rise regardless of your opinions in the matter. I loved the whole experience. And the later delectable, deliberate anomaly of the way in which the whole audience was eventually brought into personal communion was fascinating because it worked when I have been in so many similar situations in which it did not, including ones in which I very much longed for it to happen.

I have no idea how all this is going to play out in the company of total strangers* together in Central Park. It would be charming to see some of it happen.

I have omitted, because I was not asked to write about it (this is my response to some other audience members’ request—not glo’s), the actual subtext of the whole performance, the burden of Southern history and the endless task of creating union where there has never, ever been unity. (“The burden of Southern history” is the title of a once-famous book, as I find it necessary to state explicitly before I get credited with coining a phrase.) See the Facebook page for ‘And all directions I come to you.”

The title of this essay comes from the name of the swarming maneuver that forms the central focus of this narrative; “And all directions I come to you” is composed of something like 138 “systems”—not sure of the number—that are invoked in sequence, thus breaking up a very long event into manageable units of movement that can be changed in response to circumstances.

*This phrase is a semi-quotation from Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” to which I listened obsessively during my loneliest periods of isolation at age twenty-two in Santa Barbara.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

My manifesto regarding art reviewing landed with a predictable dull thud, garnering a tenth of the response from the Facebook link than the reaction to my Facebook posting of an icon of the Entry into Jerusalem with a comment on Byzantine objects in context, a post that was universally misinterpreted but I haven't had time to explain what I was actually talking about since the responses that it did elicit were right on target, just on target about a parallel topic.

So given the lack of excitement about the topic of why there are no art reviewers, I shouldn't spend too much time bewailing again the fact that art reviewing is mostly limited to people who don't have a life, or who have sufficient predictable income so as not to need to hold down two day jobs and one night one. The problem is that there are not enough people who can write, are motivated to write, and don't have a life or are able to allot their limited free time to make space for art reviewing in it.

This has to be the reason some of the shows not yet reviewed have gone unreviewed. Case in point would be "Gathered" at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia: some stunning works by artists we previously didn't know about (and whoever took up the challenge, I now realize, should have limited themselves to discussing artists they had never heard of previously). Seventy-seven artists makes for an unreviewable show, the more so in that the work ranges from pleasurable surprises from artists we thought we knew well already to pleasurable discoveries to the inevitable seeming missteps that were probably made for perfectly defensible reasons. One person's misstep is another person's stroke of genius. These will be the works that other people would regard as the best things in the show. Maybe Andy Warhol was right when he commented something to the effect of, "I like the type of critic that just puts people's names down."

Other shows require so much question-asking and thought about how to present them that by the time I know how to talk about the show, the show's over. Item: Katherine Behar at Eyedrum, where we'll have to wait for Meredith Kooi's review for Art Papers to get the scoop on how well Behar handles the well-worn trope of machines that keep replicating themselves and performing functions designed by humans long after the species that designed them thus has gone extinct. Behar's functioning machines, based on underlying parts from already existing kinetic tchochkes, are as impossibly cute as the robotic critters of several well-known sci-fi movie fantasies; they include an actual 3-D printer turning out plastic jackets for the adjacent population of machines that do something or other; whether these are the ones that emit the Morse-code cries of "Mommy! Daddy!" I'm not clear on.

Ryan Coleman's reworkings of a familiar visual genre at Sandler Hudson, but incorporating his past expertise with turning out animation cels, is another case of something not getting written about unless someone has stepped forward since the last time I checked. I could go on, but I have already had arguments with people in the community (not with the legendary gatekeepers, who keep the gate much less stringently than people imagine) about which of the many other unreviewed shows deserve to be first past the post.

Since Nicholas Adams prodded me to go look at the Georgia State MFA shows, I should say you have one and one half more days (I think) to see some remarkably accomplished work by Adams, Lauren Gunderson, and Kelly Stevenson, but I have to rush off to an appointment at the Papermaking Museum where there is a historically and aesthetically important exhibition of a seventeenth-century (I think) atlas with revealingly colonialist border illuminations. Post links to your pics in the comment thread, people. Unless comments have been disabled and I don't know about it.

More later, I would hope.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and the Dissemination of Art Information

Art Reviewing, Art Criticism, and Crowdsourcing

I have recently had a conversation about “good bad art” and “bad good art,” by which I mean several different things in both categories.

“Good bad art” can be art that has everything wrong with it except faultless technique, or art that is unselfconsciously wrong in terms of genre or subject matter but that approaches that genre or subject matter in a way that redeems the artwork from the status of kitsch, or shades off into what I call defensible guilty pleasures—art that has such egregious problems on certain levels that its virtues do not really redeem it, but we love it anyway because it touches the parts of our personality that were formed prior to the age of four.

“Bad good art” is to be found in many galleries—art that meticulously rehearses well-worn strategies without contributing a scintilla of personal passion or imagination to the process, or art that imitates current passions and fashions in ways that work well enough, but really do no more than play with ideas and visual themes for which other artists metaphorically and occasionally literally are sweating blood. And there are many other kinds of bad good art, not based on passionless reproduction but nevertheless falling short in some way or another, difficult to define except on a case by case basis—one case in point being pompously meaningless or unnecessarily opaque conceptualism proclaiming its superiority. (What one person perceives as pomposity is another person’s deep seriousness, as any working critic learns very early when she or he praises something as being deeply serious.) Middlebrow art being inflated to conceptual greatness by insertion into a framework of ideas that can barely support it would be another commonplace type of bad good art—but anyone who claims that this is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes had better be prepared to back up their claim with acutely reasoned assessments.

The problem is, as I have implied above, is that people have perfectly valid reasons for liking every one of these things, even the ones they think they ought not to like. We are all shaped by our personal experience before the age of four, and we are all shaped by the social context in which we live and move and have our being. When we are overwhelmed with excitement by something that may on reflection turn out to be not all that great, what drives our excitement is usually a combination of personal factors.

Plenty of people dislike “good good art”—in fact, there are subgenres of it that do nothing for me, and I have to labor very hard to muster the enthusiasm to discuss just why this art is as good as it is on every level. Even more people (or at least it seems that way to the cognoscenti) like “bad bad art.”

Lowbrow is distinguished by the wish to find the good bad art out there in genres awash in bad bad-artmaking, and to show rather than say why it is good. Just as with every other genre traditional or transgressive, there is good lowbrow and bad lowbrow, and the genre itself has fallen out of fashion, I think, because its point has been made, just as nobody wanted to use the term postmodern any more once it was recognized that what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity was a different social and aesthetic environment from the sets of assumptions and economic conditions under which modernism flourished and in which what we called modernity took on its distinguishing shape.

But I digress.

The point I actually wanted to get to is that art criticism ought to be devoted to contextualizing and whatever degree of objective evaluating can be done—and I am not sure how we assign relative proportions of success to people whose art fails because they meant to do that, people whose art succeeds because (not “even though”) they have no idea why their artmaking is successful, and so on. There are semi-objective standards of comparison that seem to obtain across many cultures and subcultures, but they are modified in each cultural context, and comparison is a difficult business. There is even good kitsch and bad kitsch, although there the points of comparison are so challenging that it takes something like Tyler Stallings’ fabled exhibition tracing the birth of black velvet painting to make us contemplate why there ought to be, and is, an art history book about black velvet painting.

Art reviewing or art journalism is something else again. It sits somewhere between critical analysis and consumer guide, usually with the extreme discomfort that comes from being positioned between opposing categories.

Most artists and galleries would like to have their two-thousand-word analysis, preferably with the good stuff parked up front like in an old-style newspaper story, not like academic articles where the argument is made step by step and what journalists would call the lede is buried at the very end, where we discover at last the fundamental insight that all this analysis has been preparing us to realize. (This is why academic journals frequently insist on the inclusion of a hundred-word précis, introducing the conclusions to which the article eventually comes.)

The real artworld desire, though, is for a vehicle for marketing, whether it is called that or not. How many shows do we wish we had seen (whether we are art buyers or only art viewers), had we only known that they were there, and how to get to them in a time that suits our crowded schedules? But that we wish we had known existed, first and foremost.

Art reviewing sites are wedded to the older model of recommending the best of the best, and more realistically, whichever parts of the best of the best can be gotten to and be written about by a limited pool of art writers. Increasing the number of art writers decreases the number of brilliant shows that go unreviewed, but does nothing to solve the problem of the greater number of shows that go unmentioned.

Art reviewing sites also are confronted with the problem of discerning what on earth “the best of the best” really means, when “best” is defined so differently in different communities. We might well be left with the problem of wishing to write about the best good bad art, for example, in some month when it is more interesting than any of the bad good art that is out there. At best, we write occasionally about why good bad art deserves attention, and why bad good art is sometimes so unremittingly bad.

But then other communities, some of them quite well informed indeed, will insist that we are writing nonsense, although they are much more likely to say that we have our heads inserted into an anatomically impossible orifice.

Subcultures create critical discussions of their own, of which the dominant culture (if it deserves to be called a culture at all these days, rather than a consensus) is usually unaware. This permits feelings of superiority that are not just an unjustified hipper-than-thou, but it means that there are all sorts of shows and events that go unpublicized outside of social media. There are an equal number of traditional shows and events that are well publicized, but never reviewed, because they will generate a traditionally minded audience without the necessity of being written about.

SCAD had (it’s been years since I looked for them, so I don’t know if the experiment was abandoned) interview-based videos surveying art shows. The problem with interview-based videos in general (which have continued) is that they are also time-based, and few people have the time to sit and listen just to find out whether this is something in which they would be interested.

Facebook friends (I have no idea what is evolving on the other social media sites) seem to be posting individual images from current exhibitions, and short videos devoid of commentary. This makes it possible to tell at a glance whether this is something in which we personally would be interested, without producing the impression that we have now found out enough about it to know that we are happy that it exists but do not feel the need to see it in person. (This latter perception is usually wrong—non-digital work usually needs to be seen directly, not via a digital reproduction—but understandable. That is, however, another subject entirely.)

I now reach my long-deferred conclusion. Just in case you are skimming this, as well you should.

Oughtn’t we to have a single go-to site that incorporates this sort of information? Yes, yes, yes, I know it would be cluttered with personal puffery in no time if it were not hedged about with crowd-enforced rules—but unspoken rules of behavior have already evolved in the friends network to which I allude. People seldom post every single work in their exhibition; they pick and choose, and discreetly provide a URL for more information. Friends and other strangers (I quote Bob Dylan with that phrase) who are enthusiastic about a show are even more credible sources, but there are many occasions when we would not know about very good work if the artist were not engaging in a species of self-publicizing that is more than braggadocio.

Some friends (not on Facebook) plan their weekends by investigating the gallery websites and looking at works by the artists having openings (not necessarily the works to be exhibited in the upcoming show). These folks already self-edit because they know what they like, and they do not expect to find anything that interests them at certain galleries—but these ipso facto uninteresting exhibition venues are different galleries for different folks (sorry to echo the wording of the late Fritz Perls’ annoying maxim).

When I suggest that these folks might be missing something and ought to be given a more comprehensive way of rapidly perusing the available options, I am told that there are link-based arts calendars for that. But bare lists of names with clickable ways to get more information require more patience than most folks have. We have nothing in between listings and, if I may allude to a literary reference I have been trying in vain to track down, more than we wanted to know about penguins.

Right now, one-sentence verbal summations combined with something like Terry Kearns’ short exhibition videos seem like an excellent way of accessing basic information that can then be followed up on. (I assume the gallery URL could be embedded in the video caption.) Terry Kearns has said that although he is fulfilling a perceived need, he doesn’t want to take it up as a profession.

We have new ways of accessing information; we ought to figure out how to use them in ways that benefit communities with a wide variety of interests, technological savvy, and attention spans.