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.