Monday, June 8, 2015
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 artsatl.com, 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 burnaway.org 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 burnaway.org 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.
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: http://www.artsatl.com/2015/06/nexus-press/
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 "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: 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.”
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.