Friday, December 21, 2007

new and very, very old

I did not invent the Internet, and Al Gore never claimed to have done so, either, but three decades back I was hanging around a doctoral candidate at Emory who had arrived there full of the almost entirely untranslated work of a philosopher named Jacques Derrida, and determined to translate and annotate his most esoteric volume on Husserl as his dissertation (p.s.: he did).

Not all that many years later, the guy’s dissertation director (and mine) wrote to me about having been asked for yet another survey article on deconstruction, with the observation “When the nuns and the Republicans want you to explain it to them, you know it is over.”

By that standard, Tokion magazine is not over any more than Juxtapoz is, but when Abrams puts out a handsome anthology from the one (titled Revisionaries) and artists from the other are featured in museum retrospectives, one begins to wonder if the political conventions can be far after. On the other hand, it has taken forty years for Mike Huckabee to fantasize about having the Rolling Stones play at his inaugural ball, so perhaps Tokion is safe for another thirty.

Juxtapoz, though, comes out of an aesthetic that is as old as the emergence of deconstruction, and it is only its relentless pursuit of its codified aesthetic that keeps it outside the realms of respectability. It took fifty years for Jack Kerouac to appear in the same archival format as Walt Whitrman’s barbaric yawp, though it took less time for Howl to be read for class at the military academies, presumably with the prim asterisks still in place in the umpteenth City Lights edition.

But I was going to write about the Abrams volume of Tokion artists, including the biennial-worthy Marcel Dzama, the all grown up ex-Atlanta graffitist Jose Parla, and many, many more. And there is indeed a consistent aesthetic of transgression to gladden the heart of old Paul McCarthy.

Perhaps it was the recycled psychedelia tucked away here and there in the volume, but I suddenly remembered the aesthetic associated back in the day with the late great San Francisco Oracle…not that there is a blessed thing in common with the copulating couples in yab-yum postures and the Day-Glo evocations of Aubrey Beardsley, but rather the sense that the edge at any given historical moment contains a few visual seeds that will grow into lasting legacies and a lot of crap that will someday seem as embarrassing as paisley and patchouli. (Those of us who were ostentatiously searching for the incredibly rare Beat Generation artifacts of only ten years earlier already turned up our noses at patchouli and paisley. We wore a lot of black and talked about European movies, but both were very hard to come by in most places.)

The skat8punk aesthetic, and graffiti, and the assorted schools of hip-hop have shown greater staying power than psychedelia and acid rock ever did, or even (apart from niche markets) reggae. Hell, it looks like the longest-lived phenomenon of our time is death metal, which just goes on into the third and fourth generations. But skateboarding and graffiti, also, are now raising up the grandchildren of the first-generation founders.

And that sense of tradition is pretty impressive, given how in 1968 hardly anybody celebrated the hipsters of 1943, or remembered the Zoot Suit Riots. (Woody Guthrie was something else, of course, and there was a certain nostalgia for the Old School Authenticity of the Great Depression.)

I, as I say, was crossing the continent to find the tiny number of Tibetan sculptures to be seen in California museums, and modeling myself after the poets of the great Six Gallery reading about which almost nothing could be learned except from battered copies of Evergreen Review. And I still pride myself at being as out of step with the culture as possible; though it is hard to know what to look for these days, when reasonable replicas of zoot suits can be seen on the bods of trendy art dealers and collarless Greek wedding shirts are still best reserved for the anniversary celebrations of yesteryear’s Greek weddings.

I may have found a few things that just about everybody who is either hip or mainstream-tasteful considers embarrassingly awful, so watch this space for further developments.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

good news and more

apparently LiveJournal users can now use their LJ i.d.'s to comment on Counterforces. this may help confirm my suspicion that while a few people read joculum regularly, no one at all is reading this.

So I feel free to remark on Marcia Wood's relative gutsiness in presenting Monica Cook's new well-nigh photorealist paintings of nudes with unpleasant or ambiguously experienced physical substances. (Pumpkin scrapings and honey, in particular.) On the one hand, Atlanta is relentlessly literalist, but on the other hand, this is why people are disturbed. They feel that folks just shouldn't mess with stuff like that, even if they can't quite say why. Were we not in need of being brought up to date on the condition of the 21st century (which has displaced bodily sensation with splendidly replicated smoothnesses onscreen that also bear little enough resemblance to the gush and spill of the world's tactility), one would think a refresher course on Vienna 1900 would be in order.

Cook, a SCAD grad who made good in NY, is showing on Walker Street through...oh, look it up, will you? (and if you don't feel like looking it's January 14)

Monday, December 10, 2007

encyclopedic surreality

The politics of the image is a topic that has been often noted; the appropriationists of the 1980s selected details of already existing photographs, or replicated famous images in their entirety in a new context, to bring new implications and new emotional baggage to pictures already sedimented into history or into popular culture. (And Richard Prince is currently engaged in a major conflict with a commercial photographer who is horrified to realize the photo he took for anonymous publication in a Marlboro ad is now thought of as a Richard Prince photograph. As Prince remarked, "I've never really thought of advertising photographs as being by anybody," which of course is the point Prince should have been making all along.)

Images become strange when their cultural context falls away; the surrealists not only juxtaposed strangely unrelated objects as per Lautréamont's chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table, they delighted in the unexpected strangeness of the remnants of one historical epoch when encountered in another; the shop windows of the endangered arcades of Paris, full of outdated merchandise in arrangements left unaltered for decades, and the signage targeted at the respectable bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, sentimental and absurd fifty years later in the traumatized waning years of the Third Republic. All the mythologies of objects that were not apparent to those who took them at face value were laid bare when the images that supported them were recycled by the hip artist-technologists of France circa 1920.

Hence the value of a map detail of Portuguese Africa put next to the soldiers and fighter pilots of Eisenhower's America the year before the Marines landed in Lebanon and more or less peacefully defused the situation in 1958. Hence the intrinsic interest that lies within the act of disassembling the diagrams by which "young people" were meant to learn how the relations of the world worked.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


"Encyclopedia Studies," the show currently at Atlanta's Beep Beep Gallery, consists of photographic overlays created from the illustrations beginning with "A" in the 1957 World Book encyclopedia.

That was a year when the 1957 Book of the Year published in 1958 would have been as important as the encyclopedia. Airplanes outweighed Africa, as has been observed, in part because the runup to decolonization was not amenable to encyclopedization. Ghana independence was as big a story as Sputnik. And the decolonizing floodgates were open; within a year, the French Community was formally free, with Guinea declining de Gaulle's offers of a sort of commonwealth, and going it alone.

So between the sudden birth of independent countries and the birth of the Space Age, the 1958 and 1959 editions of the World Book faced visual updating, big time. It would be interesting to compare entries and see if pictures kept pace with text, and if text kept pace with history.

1956 had seemingly solidified the postwar world with the failure of the East European revolutions. Sudan's path to independence, and Morocco's, would have been noted in the 1957 book, maybe. But with Tangier reverting in October '56 and Moroccan independence only happening in April '56, it's more likely that the text edited in 1955 and the pictures chosen even earlier would have stayed put.

Good to have images of how a world about to change beyond recognition was being presented. It would be intriguing to jump ahead to the entries for "French Indochina," which had ceased to exist in 1954 so the existence of North and South Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia would have had to be dealt with on some visual level.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

thinking out, writing off the top of my brow

AccessAtlanta offers a cover story about several shows in Atlanta that reflect the Lowbrow movement's interest in less than respectable topics, combined with the bargain-basement style of transgression that Pop Surrealism champions over the refined outrages of their European forebears:
"DEDICATED TO HOT RODS, pinup girls, graffiti, monsters and other pop culture subjects not typically recognized by mainstream museums, the lowbrow movement is like the punk rock of the art scene. With backgrounds in comics, tattooing, rock music or graphic design, these artists often draw from what they know rather than what they've been taught. While high art galleries might still shy away from lowbrow and its more fantasy-based pop surrealist cousin, the movement has gradually gained national credibility thanks to artists like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Frank Kozik, Mark Ryden and Tara McPherson."

Of course one has to add such artists as Dave Hickey's protegé Gajin Fujita. His work is prominently on display in the Las Vegas art museum that is run by Hickey's wife, Libby Lumpkin, but Fujita also has gotten ample New York gallery play prior to this presentation of Hickey's various MFAs who went off and made good, or made good money.

I guess you can have an advanced degree and still be lowbrow; my curator friend Susannah Koerber and I once wanted to do a show called "Self-Taught Artists with Doctorates." (I am one, Susannah is another, and the Polish microbiologist who did traditional paper doilies, who inspired the show, would be a third. We were questioning the stretched definitions of "folk and self-taught" at the time. "Lowbrow" seems headed in the same strange directions, just as classic graffiti artists now sell for up to six figures depending on the size of the stretched canvases on which they do their graffiti.)

My question, I suppose, is also the fine line between lowbrow and simple appropriation of childhood memories, or popular images in general. There was nothing particularly lowbrow about the 1957 encyclopedia from which Bean Summer's show at Beep Beep Gallery derives its visual raw materials; it takes on an air of hip retro irony because yesteryear's middlebrow fount of intellectual enlightenment is today's fount of amusingly innocent and/or stupid images. (Appropriating cartoons from whenever one was ten years old oneself is also a technique that dates back to Roy Lichtenstein, and followed by generations of painters since; and art history aside, after a certain infusion of Deleuze and Guattari, how much can one claim that one's borrowing of, say, World of Warcraft imagery still has a validly popular level of immediacy? when do the Mille Plateaux become Messrs' D and G's particular notion instead of...well, you get the idea.)

Bean Summer's (Ben Worley's) ironizing approach carries over brilliantly in his appropriation of a sponsors list that includes the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. He rescued the signage from the trash at Georgia State University where he is pursuing his own Master of Fine Arts degree with the work now on exhibit at Beep Beep.

I like the last-named gesture particularly; it reminds me of Kierkegaard's parable about the shop where passersby who see the sign in the window reading "Laundry Done Here" will find, if they walk in with their dirty clothing, that the shop is selling the sign itself, not the service it advertises. Here, the sponsors list is a piece of the artwork in the exhibition, not information regarding the sponsors of the exhibition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

notes from all over

Bob Dylan's artwork is currently on exhibition in the German city of Chemnitz.

and happy 250th, William Blake. The birthday party is going on at the officially designated London pub as I write this.

You Atlanta folk reading this, please go buy Marsha Keith Schuchard's Why Mrs. Blake Cried. It will give you a totally different perspective on Blake's erotico-mystical visions and will support the researches of a distinguished and underappreciated member of the local scholarly community. (Not unappreciated, just underappreciated; her scholarship has been recognized everywhere except, as usual, where she lives and works.)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blasts from the Past

Anyone in Atlanta who recalls Lisa Fischman’s 2002 “Paradise in Search of a Future” show at the Contemporary will be delighted at the chance to see Walid Raad’s video work on November 6 and the man himself on November 7 in ART PAPERS LIVE! at Emory University.

Details at

Raad is remembered here for the Atlas Group project, featuring a full typology of all the models of automobiles involved in car bombings during the long Lebanese civil war, itself an event which has since gone through re-runs and sequels.

I saw Raad’s stuff first at the Contemporary, then a few months later at Documenta 11.

This visit will be different, and will include screenings at Emory University’s White Hall that you will not see elsewhere in Atlanta, and in very few locations anywhere else outside the inner circles of the art world.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

my disorganization is your opportunity

For a different take on Deconform, and a couple of brilliantly written pieces from August and September regarding the Atlanta art scene, please check out Ghostmap Microwave:

I shall also take this opportunity to market the catalogue of Dreams, Bright and Dark, the StudioSwan show I curated in June. The volume is now for sale on

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

while waiting for a genuine review of stokes gallery

Meryl Truett's aforementioned "Magic Beach Motel" photograph.

Monday, October 22, 2007

reification, counterforces and other boatloads of laughs

I began Counterforces and Other Little Jokes with the notion of filling in the gaps in Atlanta art criticism (for one) and using the blog as a platform for launching a magazine that would address all the issues in global art that the global art world is not addressing. (A tall order, but I would have settled for a tiny fraction of all the unaddressed issues, at least for the first year or so.)

But I find I don’t have the emotional and physical energy to do the problems of Atlanta adequately, never mind keeping up with the problems of getting Moldova straightened out and set before the world. (I did find a Moldovan coin lying on the exit ramp of one of my recent flights; it was a small, weightless piece of aluminum such as I hadn’t seen since the German Democratic Republic put itself out of business in 1990.)

I have always used Moldova as an incidental example because it is one of those post-Soviet states that is an accident of World War II compounded by the accidents of the USSR’s abrupt breakup; its frontiers are the result of a forcible Russian-Romanian border adjustment, and its turmoils of identity would provide subject matter for a hundred artists. But I don’t know even one of them, though I probably would if I had the catalogues for all of the world’s biennials.

In any case, it seems like I should devote Counterforces to an occasional digging myself out of the holes into which I have gotten myself on geographically specialized ground, while leaving joculum as the blog that circles round the big issues of interpretation, cross-cultural theory, and topics of imagination and fantasy, and what may or may not be fantasy even though it seems fantastic. In practice, this just means that both blogs are going to be impossibly idiosyncratic, like the art shows I curate, and polluted with self-absorbed side comments. (The late feminist artist and critic Thomasine Bradford remarked that she was satisfied if critics acknowledged their subject position in passing, i.e. this is being written by a heterosexual male somewhere past the middle of middle age, but she died before blogs made the establishment of the position of the subject into the writing’s main subject.)

When I wrote in the Deconform post that Ezra Pound was at what some would call the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Situationists, I was being exceptionally mischievous. Pound was an irascible, nasty bit of business given to singular self-deception; If the boy from Hailey, Idaho could be so taken with Renaissance Italy that he was taken in by Mussolini’s claim to be providing harmony and universal social welfare through the corporate state, if he could admire the macho authoritarianism of the Renaissance prince to the point of confusing Fascist pomposity with auctoritas, if he thought he could mend Fascism’s remaining flaws by convincing the dictator to read Confucius…well, what more need I say about that?

A lot, actually. Pound’s bitter exclamation regarding the First World War “There died a myriad, and of the best among them, for an old bitch gone in the teeth, for a botched civilization, for a few hundred broken statues, for a few thousand battered books” does not sound like the words of a man who wanted to modify rather than topple. But would-be remakers of the State have often been convinced that it all went wrong some centuries back and can be set right if people stop clinging to the ossified social order that worships the books and the statues instead of the energies and insights that gave birth to the society in the first place.

And this is part of what the various left-oriented theories mean by “reification”…the solidification into immutable laws of nature, into things, of what are really flexible human relations of power and cooperation that can be changed. (Actually, that isn’t what reification means to most of the theorists, but as Humpty Dumpty said, meaning is a question of who is to be master, after all, the words or the writer.)

Pound eventually figured out that his obnoxious personality and his blinkered anti-Semitism and his misreading of the soruces of power had made the Cantos into something of a mess, but what it is of interest is that the prewar aesthetic revolutionary, finding the onward march of reform blocked by the catastrophe of the Great War (as they called World War I before there was a second one to give the first one a number), decided that a new politics was needed to undergird the reformation of the aesthetic order.

Guy Debord, having read the same books as Pound in the course of his classical education, incorporated certain historic energies and attitudes into his not completely different agenda, as did Pound. The Futurists of Pound’s generation, who really did want to blow up the museums, ended up celebrating Mussolini’s high-tech bombing runs rather than his efforts to reformulate a static social order. (How the various twentieth century dictators muddled up people’s responses to technology and their own local history would be a topic for a separate post. Someday.)

Whittaker Chambers, who became the darling of the American conservative movement for having outed the urbane Alger Hiss’s spying on behalf of Stalin’s boys (which, depending on which recent book you read, is either proven definitively or not documented at all in the surviving files of Soviet intelligence services), baffled them by declaring himself a man of the Right and saying that capitalism was inherently anti-conservative. This is, of course, exactly what the Communist Manifesto says, that capitalism has dissolved all historic social relations and turned every human interaction into a cash transaction in which the only value is defined by money. Chambers began his autobiography with an account of the life-endangering jobs in which he was a helpless pawn paid a pittance to act as a readily replacement unit of labor. He renounced the revolution when it became evident to him that it, too, treated human beings as readily replaceable units of labor, but provided a theory for why someday this was all going to pay off in social betterment. Chambers’ real heroes were the anarchists who wanted the social betterment here and now, in mutual aid, and would not put up with the brutalization of yet another generation of workers even for the sake of the radiant future. He ended up backing the world of Eisenhower’s America because it seemed to him like the better of two bad choices. In the same years, the writers of the Beat Generation were trying to navigate past Scylla and Charybdis with a mutually incompatible mixture of drugs, alcohol and Buddhism, while Kenneth Rexroth gamely argued that it was possible to embrace progressive values without going to work for someone else’s foreign office.

All of the confusions and tensions I’ve laid out thus far are illustrated in a hilariously oblique parody video, called Revolution, by Shiqiang Gao, a young artist who lives in Shanghai and whose work was shown in the Shanghai and Beijing Biennials. This video is currently on view through November 1 at the Granite Room in Atlanta’s Castleberry arts district, for those of you readers within driving distance.

The video presents a misery-ridden slum society on a city rooftop. Wrapping himself in a red cloak, a man declares himself king of the revolution and, accompanied by his “running dogs” (as the quirky subtitles have it), sets out to fulfill the people’s unmet desires for food and sex and leisure. In fact, he forbids them to work, and eventually forbids them to wash their own feet, reserving that task for himself and his running dogs.

Pretty soon the people are groaning in misery at being forced to eat more food than anyone can possibly consume, at being commanded to show up at the palace to have their feet washed even after their skin has been rubbed raw, and at being ordered to achieve climax with an ever greater number of sexual partners. Would-be rebels against this society organized for the people’s benefit are punished by being compelled to eat and have sex and have their feet washed completely beyond human capacity.

The malcontents among the people grumble that the king is keeping all the work for himself and they should be allowed to share in the work, too. Instead of making love, they would be making business deals, like the people in the rich, busy world they can see down there below their rooftop. Come the revolution, all the people could work and sweat and make business deals, instead of spending their days in an enforced round of food and sex and idleness on a miserable rooftop.

So the leaders of the new revolution depose the king who worked for the people’s benefit and forbade the people to work. But as soon as the people begin cheering at the prospect of being able to work and make business deals, a phalanx of police officers shows up and orders everyone off the rooftop, saying, “Rooftops are not for living on! Clean out all this trash! Everyone out!”

The video arrived in Atlanta with image and sound separately encrypted, requiring some technical wizardry in order to screen it for an audience that may or may not understand the allegory.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

the re-return of the durutti column

I can't find the American version/translation, which was superimposed on an American comic book image, but I find that the original in "The Return of the Durutti Column" was speech-ballooned onto a movie still. The page from which I take this information is quoted below. Its lack of theoretical and historical comprehension is actually pretty valuable; the author has apparently never read the technical term "reification" so it is interpreted speculatively as any ordinary French-speaking reader would have read it. Buenaventura Durruti (not Durutti) was a Spanish anarchist who organized the Durruti Column as a counterforce against Franco's army early in the Spanish Civil War.

Anyone who knows vintage punk rock is already familiar with this history, of course.

Here is the relevant text from

Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti was a 4-page Situationist comic by Andre Bertrand given away at Strasbourg University in October 1966. The image of the two Situationist cowboys was also used on a poster and inspired both the name of the group The Durutti Column and the name of the name of their first album 'The Return of The Durutti Column'.

A slightly modified version of the image also appeared on the FAC 3.11 poster given away to members of the now defunct "Durutti Database". Most of the copies were water damaged, though pristine copies do exist.
Transcript of the cowboys' conversation

Cowboy 1: "What's your scene, man?"
Cowboy 2: "Realisation*"
Cowboy 1: "Yeah? I guess that means pretty hard work with big books and piles of paper on a big table."
Cowboy 2: "Nope. I drift. Mostly I just drift."

* Other possible translations of the original French "Reification" include: exemplification, expression, formation, incarnation, inclusion, incorporation, integration, manifestation, organisation, personification, structure, systematisation.

deconforming spectacularly

On the passage of a few people through a very brief moment in time: notes Suggested by The Spectacle Issue of Deconform

I like the catalogues of Situationist retrospectives, and a lot of the recent literature on or anthologizing Situationism. I saw one show in London and one is Paris; the Paris book, if I recall correctly, had an unpleasantly shiny mirrored cover, while the London catalogue was boards covered in sandpaper. There was no way to replace or remove it from your bookshelf without destroying or damaging the books around it.

That abrasiveness, of course, was an excellent metaphor for the Situationist displacement of categories, which has to be updated in each succeeding generation. The idea of the dérive was all too easily translated into the purposelessness of the slacker generation of the 1980s and part of the 1990s. (Cf. the classic Situationist appropriation of a Western comic strip that shows two cowboys riding along; I have it in the French original, but the English translation, in its appropriation and displacement of the technical terminology of the classic Western, is nothing short of brilliant, even if the initial setup line reeks of the 1960s when it was written (this is quoted from memory):

COWBOY 1: What’s your thing, man?
COWBOY 2: Reification.
COWBOY 1: Wow. Guess that means sitting with a lot of thick books at a big library table.
COWBOY 2: Nope. I just drift. Mostly, I just drift.

The Spectacle Issue of the Atlanta/Decatur magazine Deconform, with its muted cover quoting the classic 1950s photo of a movie audience wearing 3-D glasses that adorns the American edition of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, pays homage to the Situationist heritage both with a channeled “interview” with Guy Debord and with the anti-spectacular design of the publication, Seldom has something been more carefully created to be overlooked. It pretty much disappears into invisibility even when the competition for attention is the all black-and-whtie front page of the Emory University newspaper in a downtown Decatur coffeehouse.

But it raises the issue of how one passes the lessons of one generation into succeeding ones. I was struck, reading the translation of Debord’s autobiography, at how ironically literate a human being Debord really was; when not being opaque for strategic reasons, he showed off the influence of the thorough grounding in European civilization that was his inheritance by virtue of being a member of the generation of French intellectuals from which he sprang.

And I was vaguely reminded of how, as Hugh Kenner remarked, Ezra Pound (on the other end of the political spectrum, some thought) took for granted an excellent formal education that onky needed to be modified in a few significant ways; what Pound got were half-educated admirers who adopted his worship of Confucius and of Major Douglas’ theories of Social Credit without any idea of the substructure that Pound wanted to remodel, not topple.

To some degree, it is apparent that Debord’s psychogeography (on which topic I recommend a recent book by that title) was anarchist in the sense of the immensely cultivated individuals who developed the notion of mutual aid; the playfulness and the overturning of crass commercial structures was in the service of a vision of society that was seldom explicated because it did not need to be.

But for all of that, the three Atlanta artists interviewed in this issue of Deconform have gotten at ways of displacing the sleep of spectacle by presenting their own spectacle in the service of a higher humane vision. Kiki Blood derives her own updated contemporary practice from performance theories and examples of Viennese Actionism that sprang from the same unsettled post-World-War-II period as Situationism,. Ben Fain is more along the lines of re-inventing Matthew Barney to more intelligent ends, but he possesses the perspectiive to admit the partial failure of one large-scale enterprise while moving resolutely towards another dryly witty replacement for the everyday use of the spectacular that Barney’s Cremaster films merely metaphysicalize on a grand scale.

I can see why the folks who edit Deconform would want to produce a publication so resolutely ugly and out of it in promotional terms; the spectacle has today taken the form of supercool uses of Flash on websites and shrinking of cool magazines to tiny pages of color photos overlaid with snippets of what used to be called agate type (four to six point pocket eye-test; what one friend calls “a format designed to exclude anyone whose eyes are over the age of thirty”). To thumb one’s nose at trendiness as these younger editors have chosen to do is an appropriate gesture.

Yet the Situationists’ anti-movies and anti-comic strips were displacements of the dominant media of their day. A new Situationism would have to figure out ways to displace digital media in parallel but not similar fashion. Today Debord and company would be distributing their stuff as downloadable to iPods and uploadable to YouTube.

Or more likely, not. For as the inheritors of the Situationists taught us in the 1980s (or at least the purveyors of the simulacrum and semiotics did), the spectacle has recuperated irony as a means of intensifying sleep; Situationist sarcasm no longer cuts it in an era when everythying is reflexively sarcastic and advertisers have recognized that the only way of marketing to younger generations is to ridicule their own product so attractively that it will be hip to buy it.

Ben Grad’s essay on the old-hippie values of the Lake Claire Land Trust reflect the challenge of maintaining an authentic level of resistance at a moment when even things like Land Trusts could be (but so far haven’t been) recruited as incidental décor for the Slow Food movement or the gourmet uses of All Local, All Fresh products in hundred-dollar dinners. “Authenticity” is all too easily co-opted (to use an antique term) as another means of looking down on the unperceptive preferences of people who use flash-frozen foods because they cost less and cook quickly after a very long day at work.

But that’s what Deconform is out there to accomplish, to get critique and discussion started, and I for one am quite glad they are doing it.

Friday, October 19, 2007

mostly cross-posted from joculum, with annotations

the hip, the historic, the horrible

NOTE: In lieu of the majority of the illustrations, which can be found on, I am adding the annotation that this meditative essay is not at all a review of the Rebecca Nolan and Meryl Truett show at Gallery Stokes, which I recommend highly. I have chosen, thus far, not to review the show because I don't have any truly representative images to post. The gallery's parallel post of pictures of dirt roads does not give an adequate impression of their respective visions of Southern architecture, a shared sensibility that is delectably precise and exquisitely attuned to the genuinely strange, of which the Southern landscape has ample examples. The neon sign of the Magic Beach Motel is probably the least peculiar example.

The photographic detail above is not by either photographer.

I’ve just learned, with belated sadness, of the demolition of the Deco elements of north Florida’s Marineland, a.k.a. Marine Studios. Apparently only the entry arch was preserved when the place was turned into an updated tourist attraction featuring the dolphins but not the oceanarium (long since displaced in tourist affections by the world’s newer aquariums, and in Florida by the familiar attractions more convenient to metro Orlando).

For a quarter-century after its opening in mid-1938, Marineland did much to stir the architectural and landscaping imaginations of small children who came to look at the fish in the murky dark (and occasionally get confused because Marineland had a deep sea diver, but there were no mermaids like there were at Weeki Wachee and Webb’s City). Minimally Moderne though it was, Marineland design was worlds ahead of the architecture in the towns and cities of most of Florida north of Miami.

The dismayed report was given last night at Atlanta’s Stokes Gallery by Rebecca Nolan, who is showing her photographs alongside Meryl Truett’s in a two-person show of Southern curiosa and changing landscapes. Truett’s photograph of bounding neon rabbits on the Magic Beach Motel which is near Saint Augustine (as was and is the old and the very new Marineland) illustrates the alteration of the horrible into the hip: the mid-20th-century Vilano Beach Motel has, judging from their website, taken on an air of postmodern retro. But given the value of the oceanside land on which it sits, there are (perhaps false) rumors it may not be there much longer.

The Moderne and Deco hotels of South Beach were once considered as hideous and declassé as the motels of the succeeding generation. Today they have been restructured into the ultimate in boutique chic, but when the preservation effort was at its inception thirty years or so ago, developers were saying things like, “Williamsburg is historic. These hotels aren’t historic, they’re just old and ugly.”

I’ve opined earlier on this blog regarding the features that distinguish epochs in architecture and design, and how the prototypical models get recycled into good imitations and on down to really bad knockoffs. The problem is that until roughly four to five decades of historical distance have been achieved, we can’t tell the good second-tier examples from the godawful third- and fourth-tier ones.

I never followed up on Wallpaper magazine’s effort to preserve a ’60s or ’70s hotel somewhere in coastal Croatia (I don’t recall which of the two decades the hotel dates from, but from what I recollect as photos of Howard-Johnson-orange bar seating, it was probably the latter). I do remember that the magazine writer’s examples of what it reminded him of were all from about a decade earlier than the 1974 in which the hotel was probably built; he said something like that the James Bond of the first few movies could be imagined suavely walking through the lobby, or that the Rat Pack would have loved the hallway décor.

My point is that in many ways the ’70s were the nadir of American design, but globally, some of the designs of which faint recollections reached the farther shores of the New World were actually pretty good. They might be physical environments in which I still would not choose to linger, but they encapsulate a historical moment with genuine aesthetic integrity.

This is so even for structures that were never meant to be aesthetic in the first place, as those of us can testify who frequent restaurants and stores and galleries located in former power plants and factories and warehouses. However, I can’t help noticing that one look at the historic photographs makes me happy that someone realized that the brick building underneath the facade was better than what the original buyers had put on to prettify it.

Tastes differ, and Nolan and Truett’s photographs at Stokes Gallery have the distinction of making us see the virtues in buildings we are preprogrammed to overlook or denigrate.

More troublesome, and tiring, is the issue of regional efforts to preserve third-rate examples of a style, because the second-rate examples have all been demolished. (The first-rate examples never made it out of the world’s great cities.) Whether it is better to save something horrible because of its historic value is a question worthy of debate; it’s possible, as per the factories and warehouses, to extract beauty from places so full of design flaws that their present state cries out for demolition.

Meanwhile, being given to petty annoyance like all members of the human species except a few enlightened beings, I am irked that Target has gotten rid of some of their best Michael Graves designs and of Philippe Starck completely. But that, happily, is a separate issue.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

cross-posted from

“The Louvre and the Ancient World,” just opened at Atlanta’s High Museum, is another one of those exercises in museology that is hard to get one’s head around. The purpose of putting these objects from the Louvre in these galleries is not to present the cultures from which these objects sprang; it is to present the history of the cultural institution that collected them.

This was amply illustrated by the curator’s remark that the Department of Egyptian Antiquities was not, as people think, founded with the plunder from Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. It was founded by Napoleon’s chief archaeologist a quarter-century later, but with objects shipped back by diplomats, because in the meantime Napoleon had lost the war and his Egyptian stuff had all been hauled off to the British Museum.

One object with an eighteenth-century provenance is a lovely example of the dilemmas posed by history. It’s a portrait statue of an Egyptian notable who went round the country depositing in temples statues of himself with the local gods perched protectively on his lap.

This leads me to think that there must surely be a book about the evolution of donor portraits, which in antiquity raise the donors to the status of gods themselves, handing off the church building to Christ or whatever. Then donors become humble suppliants, albeit present at the creation as they kneel beside the manger in Bethlehem in medieval altarpieces. Eventually they become apotheosized again, but in the guise of monumental portraiture, and the gods have nothing to do with it.

But this particular donor statue was damaged in antiquity, and has acquired an incongruously Greek nose in the process of restoration. Furthermore, and this is the part that most interests me, the eighteenth century restorers turned the local gods on his lap into the Egyptian gods that were more familiar to eighteenth century viewers.

I am reminded of my meditation a year or so ago about London’s restoration of Russell Square to its original design, with a twenty-first century Italian panini shop in one corner. Original authenticity and contemporary experience are juxtaposed, but in the process everything that twentieth century authors knew as Russell Square has vanished.

This is why the Louvre curators have left this statue in its present odd condition; even if it could be restored to something closer to its original state, what would be lost would be the alterations that reveal the mindset of the intervening centuries. There is no comfortable way of having both, of creating an archaeological palimpsest in which all the successive layers show up equally.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Howard Finster house

This news story from Sept 28 will be of interest to those of my friends who accompanied me to Folk Fest 2007:

Old Finster home turned into 'Vision House' museum
House is cut off from disputed Paradise Gardens

The Atlanta Journal-Constituion
Published on: 09/28/2007

PENNVILLE — Howard Finster created at least 48,000 numbered works of art in his 84 years, though some curators think his output was much greater.

He rarely slept through the night, catching catnaps and working at a furious pace, painting, sculpting and enlarging the phantasmagoric landscape that he called Paradise Gardens, an assemblage of bicycle frames, mosaics, cement statues, highly decorated pagodas and found art in his backyard in this tiny town about 90 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Chicago fine art dealer David Leonardis is shown in the gallery of the Howard Finster Vision House, the folk artist's former home in Pennville.

"It was said that he ate coffee, because it was faster than drinking it," said Susan Crawley, associate curator of folk art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Suddenly embraced by hipster musicians in the 1980s and the art establishment in the 1990s, the sometime country preacher and bicycle repairman became perhaps the most famous folk artist in the world by the time of his death in 2001.

The world hardly knew what to do with Finster when he was alive and seems similarly clueless at handling his legacy.

The newest tribute, the Howard Finster Vision House, a museum devoted to the artist, opens tonight inside the somewhat dilapidated Pennville house where Finster lived and heard a voice tell him to paint sacred art.

The Vision House, created by Chicago art dealer David Leonardis, should be an example of the ongoing influence that Finster has in Georgia arts. But it could also be an example of the conflict and cross purposes that have undermined efforts to celebrate this Georgia legend.

The house is cut off from Paradise Gardens, and the owners of the two properties are separated by chain-link fencing, barbed wire and bitter feelings.

Though ravaged by time and the elements and by the sale of many of its prize sculptures, Paradise Gardens is still the crown jewel of Finster's legacy. Leonardis tried to acquire the art environment two years ago. But Finster's daughter Beverly Finster-Guinn, not fond of Leonardis, passed on his $200,000 bid in favor of a smaller sum from an ordained minister representing a nonprofit organization.

Yet that group hasn't been successful at landing the grant money required to preserve the sprawling four-acre environment.

Finster built his paradise on a swamp, and today the swamp is winning, as exemplified by the dilapidated state of the soaring central structure, a 50-foot birthday cake that Finster called the World's Folk Art Church.

An upper-level balcony sags free, ready to plunge to the ground. Visitors are discouraged from entering.

"It wasn't like that three years ago," says Leonardis, gesturing over the fence at the sagging structure. "It makes my blood boil."

Leonardis, 40, stumbled into the art business in the 1980s when he was a waiter and a collector of Finster art. After buying as many pieces as he could afford, he contacted the artist in 1990 with the idea of making T-shirts bearing Finster's designs. Soon he was creating limited-edition lithographs of Finster paintings and bringing stacks of prints to Georgia for the artist to sign.

"He's our adopted Yankee," said Frances Wilson, married to Finster's grandson Tommy Wilson. The Wilsons and other members of the extended clan have been helping Leonardis with the renovations at the Vision House, itself ready to "collapse into the earth" when Leonardis bought it at a tax auction two years ago.

It had housed two other families after Finster and his wife moved out in 1991, then stood empty for a while.

Leonardis moved 8 tons — yes, tons — of debris out of the house, rewired, plumbed and replaced walls, windows, doors and floors. While the front rooms are spick-and-span, the area behind is still derelict. Gaping holes in the back-room floors reveal the dark, cobwebby basement, where Finster kept count of his artwork with graffiti on the beams.

Leonardis has big plans for the unprepossessing structure. He wants to put in an industrial kitchen, living quarters for an artist's retreat and eventually stage weddings on the quarter-acre lot.

Tonight the Vision House offers what Leonardis calls Phase 1: a museum of Finster prints, with a few originals and some works by children and grandchildren. There is also a gallery with prints for sale.

Tommy Littleton, chairman of the nonprofit Paradise Gardens Park & Museum, hoped to buy Finster's house to reunite it with the art environment out back, but was not aware that the house was being sold for back taxes (Leonardis paid $1,479). "Our attentions were spread pretty thin," said the Birmingham resident.

Littleton said the group could probably stabilize the major structures in the Gardens with a $350,000 grant, but they've been unsuccessful in landing any significant money.

They did raise $5,000 with a silent auction at the recent Folk Fest in Norcross. The money was used for repairs at the Folk Art Church, and there are plans for future fund-raising.

Some Finster loyalists wonder why Atlanta organizations have failed to step in and rescue the Gardens.

Crawley said that's not part of the High's mission. "Rescuing environments outside a museum is not part of the brief of an art museum."

Finster scholar Tom Patterson applauds the High for doing what it could by preserving major pieces removed from the Gardens and installed in a special Finster exhibit at the Midtown museum.

Pennville, Patterson says, is a long way from Atlanta and from the arts organizations with the means to support it.

The Gardens have the additional disadvantage of being built on an earthen sponge, with multiple creeks trickling underneath.

On the other hand, the Gardens embody Finster's philosophy of taking that which is considered useless and turning it into art.

Littleton still marvels at how Finster "turned a swamp into a worldwide tourist attraction."

All it required was 30 years of herculean labor.

Now it remains to be seen whether Littleton's group and Leonardis can match the energy of one diminutive country preacher.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

irrelevant remarks here

Beep Beep Gallery won the readers' best new gallery award in the Atlanta Creative Loafing.

I had always thought of Beep Beep's name in terms of the Roadrunner cartoon, but just now I heard a 50th anniversary of Sputnik broadcast on NPR in which a commentator was recalling hearing NBC News on Oct 4 1957, "The announcer said, 'And now you will hear the sound that will forevermore divide the past from the future,'and then you heard 'beep beep beep beep.'"

Thursday, September 27, 2007

relevant remarks elsewhere

I have reached the point where I no longer even have the time to crosspost to Counterforces, an appropriate little joke, I should think. See today for further remarks on outsider art and similarly related topics.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

crossposted from

Although I think my previous posting on folk art was only on Counterforces and Other Little Jokes, the approach of the 90-gallery art fair called Folk Fest has led me to think again of what on earth links together rural portraiture, carvings by prisoners, paintings by visionary preachers, and large numbers of objects arranged in a front yard. Not to mention traditional weaving and quilt patterns and pottery.

Especially since one hypothesis is that much of what was originally called nineteenth-century folk art is actually inept fine art, done by educated artists who developed increasing visual shorthand for the pressures of traveling around catering to the wishes of the more well to do community members of the antebellum American republic.

So it comes to me, reading the review of the sophisticated self-taught sculptor/photographer in this morning's NY Times that the only possible definition of folk art that encompasses everything is: "art created according to rules that seem to be communally agreed upon and which are subject to strong pressures for fairly exact stylistic conformity also developed by a community as a whole rather than an artistic elite; or, art made to an aesthetic which does not comport with the agreed-upon aesthetic qualities of the artistic elite of an epoch, but which does not allude deliberately to an earlier epoch or diverge deliberately from the dominant aesthetics."

That makes room for the hauntingly inept Sunday painter alongside the meticulously obsessive who know nothing of how far they are from making "real art." And it allows for signs painted for fraternal lodges, barber shop advertisements, what have you; first I've ever come up with something that makes sense of a field that feels compelled to invent new terms that never quite work: folk and outsider, self-taught, vernacular, et cetera.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The Art Section has begun the counter-dialogue I had hoped for, and more, in terms of John Perreault's version of multiplicity as the model for art history. can the global dialogue on the overlooked and the intrinsic qualities of multiplicity be far behind?

well, yes, it can, not least because I am not ever going to have the energy to found Counterforces or even, as I had thought of doing, solicit outside writers to contribute to this blog, of whom I had four or five in mind.

but I highly recommend The Art Section as a new vehicle for the inscription of a delectably unpredictable number of the previously unarticulated aspects of art.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Tew Galleries: JF Baldwin, Deedra Ludwig, Whitney Stansell

Taken as a whole, the show just opened at Tew Galleries constitutes an unusually evocative meditation on nature, history, and the imagination through which we perceive both categories.

J. F. Baldwin’s dreamlike or visionary portraiture, paradoxically, is also derived from the most meticulous historical vision of John Singer Sargent. But what in Sargent is a vehicle for precision is in Baldwin the beginning of transformation: the exactness of the standing female figures is surrounded by or enveloped in misty texture, or is offset by surroundings that recall an exotica that belongs to more openly romantic nineteenth century fictions of things that were once but are no longer. Sargent’s concealed emotions or his latent romanticism become manifest in Baldwin’s transmutation of his pictorial strategies.

Deedra Ludwig does something similar with landscape, changing the relationship of plant, sky and weather by evoking atmosphere through density of color, rendering both literal and symbolic elements of, say, the Everglades (as in a recent residency) or more gentle territories of nature and the human spirit. Ludwig pours a great deal of her own emotional energies into these pieces, and the results range from infinitely appealing to seductively distressing…the sublime crawls around the edges of some of the work, and in the postmodern world, nature’s incommensurability with human purposes can sometimes feel scary.

Yet Ludwig is at home in it all, just as she is at home in her New Orleans studio; the post-Katrina scene in the Crescent City is not just revived but freshly energetic and distinctly visioned. Her move from the Pacific Northwest was good for her, though it seems to have imparted a fresh current to her work that some will find less congenial than the softer depths of previous paintings.

Whitney Stansell, though, is the real discovery of this show. Her paintings combine the style of 1950s children’s books with a real sense of invention that is promised by her series title “An Iconography for an Imagined History.”

On further investigation, every term in this title becomes problematic, so it’s worth stating first what these paintings appear to be when they are taken on their own terms, rather than with the knowlede of Stansell’s stated intent.

The scenes are rendered in the simplified detail of vintage children’s books and appear to depict a time appropriate to the rendering style. Only after considerable time does it become apparent that the outlines of the pastel images are produced with black thread.

Each scene contains numbers that correspond to a line of text in cursive handwriting that runs across the bottom of the painting.

For example, The First Day of Work shows the young woman who features in most of the paintings in front of a building, and the legend across the bottom reads “1. Danelle O’Toole arrives for her first day of work. 2. Yellow taxi cab. 3. Antonucci’s Bakery. 4. Birds waiting for day old bread.”

Here and in all the other paintings, the strategy replicates a New Yorker cartoon. Number one is the set-up line. Number two is self-evident. Number three is an incongruously exact detail that further explicates number one, and therefore wouldn’t have been funny had it simply been number two, without the obvious taxi inserted in between. Number four is effectively the punch line, because it is an element that has nothing to do with Danelle O’Toole, though it might tell us something about the nature of the bakery. (Lots of bakeries wouldn’t feed their day old bread to the birds, especially not nowadays.)

Something about every one of the paintings suggests a joke in progress, in fact. Usually at least one punch line arrives in each, though sometimes the joke is multi-level.

This applies even to the diptych Before and After, where the first shows a child being led by the hand across a room, and the second shows the room with nobody in it. It’s an existentialist witticism, or maybe Freud’s fort-da taken super-literally. Does the room still exist when nobody but God is seeing it? …well, actually, you the viewer take the place of God here in Bishop Berkeley’s familiar solution to the problem of not just “why is there something rather than nothing?” but “how do we know there is still something there if we aren’t perceiving it?” Whole realms of theism versus secular humanism come into play in one modest jump.

It is all such a catalogue of philosophical hilarity, a clearly fictional chronicle of an appealing imaginary cast of characters being bounced through incongruously set-up situations, that it comes as a surprise to learn these are all based upon Stansell’s recollection of real family stories.

The character named Danelle O’Toole isn’t labeled “future bakery employee” in a Catholic-schoolroom scene (a work not in this exhibition) to signify the dead-end first-job prospects of students of Everyschool in smalltown America. (The atmosphere is distinctly un-urban, as even cities tended to be in 1950s children’s books). As we learn from The First Day at Work, Antonucci’s Bakery was a real place, a place where stale bread was gotten rid of by feeding the birds, a place as real as big yellow taxis. Or at least that is how Whitney Stansell, as a child, imagined the scene from the tale told by her mother.

So we have to rethink all these pictures as renderings of what happens to history when it is filtered through would-be true stories, and when the events turned into narrative are processed by the mind of a child for whom the 1950s are very, very far away, a time-before that can only be imagined. There are structures of narrative at work, and the tiresome theories of narratology could come into play if we worked at it for a while.

The strategies of the New Yorker cartoon are still there. Children’s books didn’t number the objects being named, except in terribly serious maps that didn’t try to tell the story at the same time they were giving a key to who and where the people and things and places were.

But now we know that this iconography really is an iconography, in more than one sense of “icon.”

There are layers upon layers of real family history in anyone’s biography, and tales of the attempts of a child to make sense of them can be poignantly amusing. Funny stories frequently contain the remembrance of things past that were, at the time, not fun at all.

There is no such sense of sadness in Stansell’s paintings. The family drama has to be imported, though once known it is hard to get rid of again.

Timothy Tew seems to be drawn to artists whose humor masks difficult subject matter: Consider Jennifer Cawley, whose bunnies and megaphones turn out to recount the challenging history of Northern Ireland.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

re Frida: crossposted from

Discussing with an architect whether there were any distinctive art movements in Atlanta with potential for conceptual growth. I allowed as how [in that wording lies a meaningful digression that I shall forego for the moment] there had been individual artists, any number of them, who had developed a conceptually rich and certainly distinct way of thinking, working, and making. But even though they fitted into larger cultural currents, they were so idiosyncratic that even the ones who have gone off to national recognition seem to exist in some curious sidestream.

Chris Verene, to take only one example, made sense in the 2000 Whitney Biennial because of his photographs of scruffy middle-aged men in camera clubs photographing naïve teenage models, who are dimly seen out of focus behind the balding heads and Hawaiian shirts that dominate the foreground of Verene’s photo. As with his long documentation of his family’s roots in Galesburg, Illinois, nobody had thought to take quite that perspective on a commonplace phenomenon. But Chris established his base in New York shortly before he made it into the 2000 biennial, and I suspect the New York art world doesn’t quite know what to make of a happily married heterosexual who engages in photographic gender-bending exercises and runs self-esteem salons that are such mixtures of serious psychobabble and obvious tomfoolery that we can’t ever be sure when the boy is off his head and when he’s just funnin’ us. Everybody in the museum world liked him much better when he was, oh, “interrogating gender and class issues,” like normal folks do. Doing a stint as a magician who does Houdini-esque stunts is not the way to advance a career as a conceptually oriented photographer.

I am tempted to engage in what would be a genuine digression about how the African-American artists who came out of the Atlanta College of Art in the early 1990s are the most distinctive group of Atlanta artists, joined by more recent arrivals from elsewhere such as Charles Nelson. (Radcliffe Bailey is the best known of the artists who stayed in Atlanta, joined by Kojo Griffin, whose route to the Whitney Biennial was a little different. But Kara Walker, who left, turned out to be the one on the covers of numerous global art magazines.)

So I shall stay more or less on message for once, and respectfully call your attention to the ridiculously inserted Southern vernacular in the above paragraphs. Obviously I grew up, as anyone educated in America does, learning the lingo of various regions and social classes. And I am fascinated by the strategies of those who grow up surrounded by seriously divergent dialects. I love it when the Finnish student of Japanese whose blog I follow goes off on her dorky hometown of Kauhava, and I comprehend, even though I can’t understand the language, the motives when she occasionally stops writing in fluent English and points out some absurdity in her regional dialect of Finnish, which she then quotes in extenso.

And it is this kind of cultural tension, which functions similarly in countries all over the globe, that accounts for my fascination with how we structures our lives by stories, and by the kinds of language we use to tell those stories. It is part, though obviously only part, of why I return again and again to John Crowley’s Ægypt cycle, in spite of wishing to get on to other things almost as devoutly as I suspect Mr. Crowley does. (One’s crowning achievements so often tend to get recognized in years when one would really rather be thinking about some other topic.)

Hence the post that readers of will find following this one, but those reading this part on will not. (I know how to cross-promote my divergent web journals, y’all.)

Anyway, I once compared the ironic humor of Southern intellectuals with that of Central Europe, not least because I have frequently been happiest in the company of folks who hail from Mitteleuropa, though some left rather early in life. But there is something far more antic about Southern irony. Not for nothing did utopyr a.k.a. Grady Harris find himself for years in the Czech Republic (teaching English in the city best known for Semtex). But all of us seem to have alternated in our younger days between studying the Western intellectual tradition one year and living in wildly disparate environments the next. That much was commonplace, and I guess most such folks born between 1942 and 1962 also alternated between a cabin in Alaska and a houseboat in Amsterdam, or seminars on classical literature and factory work and being given a gun in Montana and told they would have to engage in wildlife poaching.

But there does seem to be something about growing up around Southerners that encourages a sense of irony that involves wildly contradictory versions of humor and seriousness alike.

Last night I went over to Edgewood for “Viva la Frida,” Susan Bridges’ exuberant tribute to the Frida Kahlo centenary. The art was, like Kahlo’s, simultaneously subtle and in-your-face. The show marks the return to visibility of Red Weldon-Sandlin, another of those artists whose pieces are in national museum collections and whose identity is spread across too many different media and markets to make sense to the orderly art world out there beyhond the provinces.

The opening night included a performance piece by a retired radical professor who paid homage to Frida’s political side by reprising a piece in which she (the professor) dresses in a costume that combines burqa and nun’s habit and leads the audience in a call and response of a text drawn mostly from old-line Marxism. (Hegemony is good to think about, but surplus labor value is what affects those makers of rubber bathmats of whom Joe Bageant writes; no Gramscian-Althusserian coruscations here.) Then three members of the Dames Aflame burlesque troupe came out in appropriate fiesta garb and did a Frida-homage strip show.

At evening’s end the culturally and generationally diverse crowd shared in the astounding Frida Kahlo birthday cake, one of those pieces of sculpture that leaves one astonished that anyone other than Jean Tinguely would put so much visual elaboration into a thing meant to be destroyed in a few hours’ time. (Ice sculptures come to mind, of course.)

The serving capacity of the cake brought to mind the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and though it probably wasn’t consciously intended, the communal consumption of an edible statue of Frida was exactly the sort of secularized communion (Tom Altizer would call it “radically profane” but he's just that kind of guy) that would be ritual-creators try to invent, but rarely succeed in so doing.

I’m sure there were Frida Kahlo birthday parties all over America that were just as delectably bizarre in their juxtaposition of thought and frivolity, but there was something about “Viva la Frida” that left me thinking once more about regional distinctions even when we are celebrating things that everybody shares.

Friday, July 6, 2007

veneers at georgia state university

In 1989, I created my only work of sculpture.

It consisted of a small Plexiglas box in which a minimally
geometric wood sculpture stood in front of a backdrop photo of clearcut
tropical timber. The wood consisted of rectangular samples of threatened
tropical hardwoods: zebra wood, mahogany, one or two others I cannot now

The signage below the box stated that this conceptual tropical
forest was presented courtesy of the world¹s importers and users of tropical
lumber. In fifty years (I may have said fifteen, an exaggeration) it would
be the only kind of forest that would still be left.

Two decades later, Amy Landesberg has taken up the cause in
Veneers, on display at Georgia State University through late summer.

Landesberg has reproduced the characteristic textures of zebra
wood and two other threatened hardwood species (mahogany crotch and tamo
ash) as digitalized abstractions. Printed in shades of red, they form a thin
veneer on the surface of heavy, blast-resistant glass such as is used in
buildings as a form of security.

The patterns cast colored shadows on the wall as light passes
through the glass.

Landesberg sets forth the moral in an eloquently worded artist¹s
statement: Veneers are a sophisticated form of fakery, using the minimal
amount of an espensive material to disguise the nature of a cheaper one.
These digital ghosts of three dying species are an even more fragile veneer,
a conceptual covering that transmutes the transparency of a seemingly
fragile but actually massively reinforced material.

Stained glass was meant to reinforce the dignity and meaning of
particular dwellings or places of worship. (Landesberg, in stating that
stained glass was never used in twentieth-century secular construction,
apparently discounts the example of Louis Comfort Tiffany, though his last
contribution to a building may have been installed before 1900, and Frank
Lloyd Wright¹s versions may also predate that year. In any case, the medium
went out of fashion by the end of the Belle Epoque, and the rise of modern

This stained glass for the twenty-first century, then, is a
memorial to the victims of environmental devastation; not obliterated by the
shifts of global climate change but by the crosscurrents of globalized
capital. There is money to be made in incorporating tropical veneers in the
newly built centers of finance and information; hence the trees will be
logged illegally by entrepreneurs ignoring the laws of their local
jurisdictions. And the results will be inserted into transnational markets
without overmuch concern for countries of origin and the niceties of
regional regulation.

None of this would be apparent if one were to walk in off the
street and look at the installation. But the function of such work is to
create a visual metaphor that, while insufficient in itself to elucidate the
conditions and intent behind its making, nevertheless stops us in our tracks
long enough to read the explanatory literature.

Mark Cottle, by contrast, hasn¹t given us much to work with in
deciphering his geometrically intricate gallery. Some patterns are wall
pieces,, with identifying numbers that suggest a key for re-assembling
adjacent squares of a design produced by a computer program. Other bits of
his designs hang in gridded fragments, all the same size, all casting their
own semi-ordered patterns as shadows on the wall.

I am reminded of Jason Elliot¹s exploration of the patterns of
Islamic design found in Isfahan architecture (see his Mirrors of the
Unseen: Journeys in Iran
). But the mathematical intricacies of the
Islamic architects were based on a thoroughgoing theory of how the universe
was put together. Presumably Cottle¹s is too, albeit a rationalist rather
than rigorously mystical one.

Elliot did the math to decipher the likely mysteries of Muslim
geometries, and presumably someone competent to figure out where to start
could do the same with Cottle¹s, getting from here to there with a little
effort. But for the arithmetically challenged among us, Cottle has produced
an extremely pretty conundrum that we can¹t figure out how to get our heads
around. And, unlike Landesberg, he hasn¹t provided a key, unless the
security guard moved it or someone else discarded it.

Neither artist is given to wall text, which in an era replete with it is, I
suppose, a blessing. Even I, the ultimate fan of wall text, chose to forego
it in my group show at StudioSwan.

But Landesberg at least has given us an elegantly constructed one-page
version of the catalogue essay. And art this intimately based on history and
intellect needs some kind of verbiage to lay bare its presuppositions and

In reality, we have barely begun to unpack the layers of meaning in
Landesberg¹s piece, since, to take only one example, the deliberately unreal
color choice evokes the digital world¹s version of veneers as aptly as the
dark, striated sheen of the original wood evokes the illusion of refined
stability that is essential in the corporate surroundings in which such
veneers find their greatest usage. But any artwork with sufficient
imagination behind it can be thus belabored beyond the patience of any
reasonable reader.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Nature and History

EUX.TV reports that Ai Weiwei's tower of Chinese doors at documenta 12 has collapsed during flooding on site.

The tower, constructed of old doors salvaged from demolished Qing Dynasty buildings, seems like a logical extension to photographic memorials to the lunacy of development in today's China, wherein history is being bulldozed at an extraordinary rate.

It seems even more appropriate that nature should have put the kibosh on the effort to memorialize what has been lost. If the developers don't get us, the storms of global warming will.

Whether the tower collapsed because of shoddy construction or because the artist didn't understand engineering principles, the collapse parallels the collapse of new construction, in China and many other booming locations around the globe. Even new construction made from old demolition is not immune.

Einstürzende Neubauten.

Monday, June 11, 2007

crossposted (again) from

Kings of Interstitial Space

Sunday’s NY Times brings news from the Venice Biennale of two Swedish artists who, stung by the absurdity of living in a country that still had a king, declared themselves the kings of all of the world’s indefinite boundary zones: wherever there is territory in between the definite borders, wherever the boundaries are blurry, there is their kingdom. And there are many places on earth where it is agreed that it is a very bad thing to be caught on the wrong side of the border, but neither side can agree on the exact location of the boundary line. In that hazardous blur of turf, these artists rule.

Their kingdom also has a very large population, since anyone who is dead is automatically made a citizen, with the option of applying to be removed from the citizenship roster if they find it offensive.

They offer passports, but I don’t think I can be a triple citizen as well as a dual one. I already hold an NSK passport, offered to all who wish to be citizens of the first artists’ state in time (rather than in space). NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) made their reputations in Yugoslavia when they won a Yugoslav government competition for a youth organization poster by copying the design of a Nazi youth poster. They later declared that Slovene independence was their most successful artistic project to date. Their passports bear (or at least bore) a valid sequence of numbers on passport blanks lifted from the Slovene passport office by an NSK sympathizer, which enabled NSK members to cross between Slovenia and Italy on NSK passports in the innocent days of a dozen years ago.

The United States doesn’t recognize dual citizenship, and the upshot of this is that as long as the dual citizen doesn’t attempt to re-enter the United States on the wrong passport, U.S. citizens can also be citizens of whatever other country will have them. I have friends who hold valid Irish citizenship (by virtue of ancestry) and E.U. passports in consequence. I probably shouldn’t point this out, since these days everyone is racing to defend the borders, but.

Another artist, who declined to acquire an NSK passport during their residency at the 1996 Olympics, said we would all be happy as NSK citizens until NSK started collecting taxes and calling up artists for the army. (Of course an NSK army would have to defend art in all times but in no place in particular.)

It would, I suppose, be a lovely conceit if the two kings of the interstitial kingdom sent letters to the warring powers who have been the primary creators of their indefinnite territory, demanding a demilitarized exclusion zone of at least a hundred kilometers on either side of the kingdom.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

crossposted from

Fatuous observations on Cecilia Beaux

In one of my frequent firm grasps of the obvious, a brief perusal of the catalogue of the High Museum’s “Cecelia Beaux: American Figure Painter” exhibition reveals that her portraits were perceived as every bit as disturbing in the world of 1893 as they seemed to me when I discovered them on the walls a few weeks ago in this scholarly survey of a painter who has always been overshadowed by her male counterparts. (William Merritt Chase called her the most important female painter of her generation. But.)

My enthusiasm, then, is a naiveté comparable to realizing with excitement that Moby Dick incorporates a good deal of actual information regarding the hunting of large cetaceans. Only in this case the whales are psychological states, and the perceivers didn’t know they were hunting for them, only that something big was out there.

Sita and Sarita was as bothersome to American viewers of the 1890s as Whistler’s The White Girl, which Beaux would have seen, had been some years earlier. And many of Beaux’ other 1890s portraits, Dorothea in the Woods, et cetera, seem to reflect not just perceptive glimpses of feminine psychology that were missed by Beaux’ male counterparts, but intense personal attachments. Beaux knew these subjects’ inner lives, and it shows, but she also brought her own strong feelings to the enterprise.

Portraits in Summer, which I can find on the web only in a vintage black and white photograph, is another arrestingly unusual accomplishment; I wonder about its stylistic predecessors, since it almost seems to foreshadow later decades in its particular idealization of Beaux’ nephew and his bride. They seem to be facing their radiant future rather more resolutely than I would expect in an American formal portrait of 1911. I can think of a whole host of earlier Central European strength-and-beauty allegories (this was the age of that brand of bodily romanticism) but that is not where this couple is coming from, or going, either. Everything about the gestures and postures puzzles me, though not necessarily productively.

To use the fashionable term, Beaux is using some visual codes I just don’t recognize. Yet she doesn’t seem like the type to have self-importantly invented her own. She seems to have invested these portraits with a good deal of psychological baggage just because she understood her subjects so well, and put so much of them and of their relationships with her into the resulting artwork. Her formal portraits of military men and Unitarian ministers are as well-done but blankly unrevelatory as I, with a sense of anticipatory depression, would expect. These folks didn’t want their inner selves revealed, and they got what they paid for.

I am so self-evidently not an art historian that it is pointless to add to Sylvia Yount’s excellent study. But I wanted to attempt to get at what so arrested my attention when, by and large, the portraiture of that period in American history leaves me slightly worse than unmoved.

Friday, June 1, 2007

news from the neighborhood

This exhibition is opening at a gallery in metro Atlanta; apologies to those of you who may still be checking for my long-delayed (typically) further remarks on the 2007 Southern Open Biennial in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

more later re the Acadiana Center for the Arts et al.

I’ve just come from jurying the First Southern Open Biennial at the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana. The experience reminded me of jurying annual or biennial exhibitions at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke and the art museum in Alexandria, Louisiana. (I can never remember the name of the museum because then-director Mark Tullos, who is now at the art museum in Lafayette, succeeded in getting his institution the URL “the museum”:

These shows always turn up a few neglected treasures, and they’re often destined to stay neglected for one reason or another; usually idiosyncracy combined with unfashionability.

I always end up putting in about a dozen works without which it would have been a stronger but less diverse exhibition, plus as many as a dozen works that make it admirably and unequivocally on one level and barely squeak by on another. The artists of the five Gulf Coast states who submitted work to this inaugural biennial were, on the whole, less marginal in the technical department; a few visions were inadequately realized, but the pleasure there was discovering just how many obstacles the artists in questions had had to encounter en route to producing a body of work that, knowing the whole story, one would expect not to exist at all.

I ended up having to exclude a fair amount of well-rendered, not at all stale landscape for reasons of space as much as anything. It occurs to me, and this is not at all an unkind comment, that it often would be possible to curate an exhibition of upwards of a dozen artists that would look superficially like a solo show. One can say the same for seventeenth century Dutch flower painting. Many artists learned a language and learned it flawlessly.

So one ends up looking for the interesting mavericks, and the meticulous traditionalists pushing a little beyond their expected boundaries, and the practitioners whose vision is their own but whose technique is borrowed from other experimentalists. Plus variations on the foregoing.

Such shows are juried from digital images, these days, and from slides in the preceding century. The necessity of maintaining anonymity works against certain bodies of conceptually oriented art, which is the dominant form in contemporary international circles but not in the regions where it is not merely unmarketable, but uncomprehended. Sometimes the full body of documentation arrives on the juror’s desk along with the images, but in this case I had to ask for elucidation in the case of images that clearly had a story that the photographs of the work weren’t telling.

My favorite in this regard, because I was so baffled by the uncommunicative photo I almost overlooked it, is a collaborative artist’s book by Jackie Klempay and her brother that consists of 3-D photos of Texas and Michigan, their respective states of residence. Intended to represent the polarities of American experience (Texas and Michigan are as opposite as you can get in an enormous number of geographic, political, and cultural respects), the photographs only become viewable through the old-fashioned 3-D viewing glasses that contain one red and one blue lens.

This plays with the metaphor of the red states and blue states brilliantly. Taken singly, each piece of information is unintelligible; the only way to get at a fully dimensional picture is to combine the red and blue perspectives into something that is neither one but corrects for the relentlessly monocular vision of both.

This isn’t great art (a good piece, but not a great one) but as I say, the visual metaphor is superb. All the punditry about the American states being various shades of purple is true; Austin and Ann Arbor could co-exist in an imaginary third state once a few regional peculiarities were straightened out, and there are many Upper Peninsula hale-and-hearty types who could adjust to the ways of the ranchers of the Sagebrush Revolution whose basic opinions they share. (I know the Sagebrush Revolution moniker is decades old and no longer applicable, but bear with me, I’m looking for quick rhetorical shorthand.) But the only way to reduce the distortions of the individual perspective is to find a perspective from which red and blue do not merge uncomfortably into an unpleasant shade of purple, but provide their own take on what each side rightly regards as inconvenient truths. The resultant vision will not be a bland perspective somewhere in the middle, but genuinely binocular. (It’s worth noting that my eyes seldom focus together, so the challenges of attaining three-dimensionality are literally apparent to me.)

Anyway, this is also a brilliant metaphor for the kind of juried show I like to assemble, which was rightly described as “wildly eclectic.” It is also a metaphor for the kind of online publication I would like to see someone assemble (I’m frankly not sure I have the capacity to do it), one that would create a multiocular perspective (yes, I know, that’s the worldview of a fly, but even so). The global biennials and art fairs show us the diversity of an international art world that is, for all of that, not all that diverse; Tom McEvilley was right when he pointed out the error of, I think, a Pacific Islands artist who said in response to a question, “Contemporary art is whatever art is being produced this very moment.” It isn’t, and it isn’t even all art that consists of more complex stuff than the decorously decorative work that copies popular styles. (This latter remark itself lumps together famous popular painters with makers of conventional hotel art, and to do this is to oversimplify the methods of churning stuff out for the mass market. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears, except of course when it is.)

Given that it is now possible to cram a lot of images even on a CD, much less on a two-gig thumb drive such as has dropped in price precipitously, the near-infinitude of storage space on networked servers mean that it would be possible to produce a searchable database of world art of the moment that would be so definitive that it would resemble Borges’ library too vast to find anything, or his map that so replicates the territory that it also is useless for purposes of orientation.

So we need more things like the First Southern Open Biennial; ultimately still dependent on the strange personalities of the gatekeepers, but reflective of enough different personalities so as to reveal aspects of global art that will never show up in the spheres delimited by curatorial respectability. The magazine that employs me, Art Papers, is doing an unparalleled job of showing us what is distinctive and unexpected in the world's contemporary art, but daggum it, it’s still “contemporary.” And there is a lot of non-contemporary art that is also non-traditional, and it’s spread across the planet.

I still want to see a map of the world’s counterforces that is comprehensive but searchable; something more like Google Earth or its competitors, a database that lets you focus in on specific areas of interest, though which areas is a matter still limited by the economics of making the detailed overhead shots. (On the literal level, East Timor got its closeup only after it entered into regional headlines; suddenly it became possible to put names on the hotels, restaurants, and transient marketplaces of Dili.)

For now, the First Southern Open Biennial is a pretty good start; it’s up through July 28, and there’s a catalogue, spiffily and quickly produced via on my recommendation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Nature, Nostalgia, Nepotation, and other expressions of the new at Mason Murer

“is art the joke or the punchline?”

Thus does Jess Snyder complete his artist's journey round the room, making art under the names of three personae in the “Nature, Nostalgia, Nepotation: Deborah Landry, Alessandria Mucciaccio, Jess Snyder” exhibition at Mason Murer Fine Art through May 6. Snyder is the “Nepotation” part of the University of West Georgia’s Atlanta Gallery Project Award Exhibition.

Snyder offers faux naiveté done right; anyone who has tried knows that it is hard to make work look awkward and amateur and visually successful all the same time. It is hard enough to make genuinely naïve work that doesn’t look klutzy; much of the time, it is hard enough to make sophisticated work that doesn’t look klutzy. Snyder pulls it off. These drawings and poignant parodies of wall texts combine grace and representations of the success of failure as much as the falling tightrope walker who appears in the one of the pieces inspired by metaphors of the circus.

Deborah Landry’s engravings, especially “Vision to Behold,” are lovely, haunting evocations of the mystery and majesty of the forest when it is left to its own devices. Her wall of ceramic models of clear-cut tree stumps, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” reflects the devastation that follows when it isn’t.

Alessandria Mucciaccio deserves to be celebrated for sheer imaginative range carried in unanticipated directions. Her encaustic wall sculpture of a female nude, inlaid with Greek text and butterflies, may or may not succeed by conventional standards, but it pushes the boundaries between genres productively as much as it stretches customary symbolism in personal directions.

The adjacent “Fresh Blood” exhibition of emerging or under-recognized artists, organized by Mason Murer itself, should be seen by anyone within comfortable driving distance. I hope to deal with this one a bit more in a post in the near future, but Yana Dimitrova’s “Melancholy I” and the adjacent melancholy painting of a sofa covered in clear plastic would be worth the price of admission if admission were being charged, which it is not. (I used that joke in a previous post, but if a joke is worth making, it is worth running into the ground.) Alli Ferrara shows us how abstraction and representation ought to be combined in the twenty-first century, much as the late Genevieve Arnold’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia demonstrates one way in which it could be done in the now definitively terminated twentieth. There are so many other pleasures of painting and sculpture (but not, alas, video or other new media) to be had in this exhibition that it deserves an extended analytical review, whether or not it ever receives one.

With luck, I shall eventually refine these notes into something more formal, including discussion or at least description of a few more artists. Until then, I would like to point people in the direction of this show before a few random images on people’s websites become the only way to appreciate it.

If the link works, this should be Yana Dimitrova's "Melancholy I" as it appears on her website:

Friday, April 13, 2007

Michele Schuff

Lux in Tenebris: Paintings and Installation by Michele Schuff

Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt.
—Scotus Erigena as quoted by Ezra Pound

…add your light to the sum of light.
—Billy Kwan in Christopher J. Koch’s novel The Year of Living Dangerously

If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, where will thee turn?
—George Fox as quoted by Kenneth Rexroth

There is light within a Man of Light, and it illuminates the whole world.
—the Gospel of Thomas

“All things that are, are lights.” We came from the Light, and to the Light we shall return. The fallen sparks trapped in earthen vessels is one of those models of gnostic philosophy that existed from one end of the Silk Road to the other, and has now spread throughout the earth. Perhaps it was always already spread throughout the earth. Perhaps the mysticism of light was spread already around the domesticated fires of the Paleolithic caves.

What we know for sure is that the mysticism of light took hold from Egypt to Central Asia and beyond. The major difference would be the source and destiny of the light; rationalists can say all they like that the metaphor is a natural diffusion of the multiple values perceived in fire and sunlight, and of course that is how all metaphors get started. (One might consult antique texts like Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction on the birth of all abstract concepts out of analogies drawn from direct physical experience.)

But the experience of the Inner Light seems to be a genuine psychological phenomenon, not necessarily universal. More often the Light is kept safely distanced from human beings, like fire itself or like an excess of sunlight. And yet one way or another, the light gets in. The disagreements regard the question of how and when.

“He was not that light, but came to bear witness to the light. The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” And the Light Verse in the Koran birthed whole schools of mystical wisdom.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The issue for European and Asian antiquity was whether the light was there in the first place as part of a cosmic rescue operation or through a cosmic accident that meant the light itself had to be rescued.

Americans, raised on Calvinism’s notions of total depravity and with ample personal experience of innate human perversity, generally voted for the necessity of enlightenment from without, by any means necessary. But a working minority always asked if the light of enlightenment might not be already embedded in the muck, like the lotus flower that springs from the muddy lake bottom in the Buddhist metaphor.

Buddhism came late to America, of course; but gnostic philosophy and gnostic psychology came to the North American continent courtesy of Central European transmissions of Silk Road metaphysical metaphors. (I refer you to Harold Bloom’s books, such as Omens of Millennium, for an argument that America always was a more gnostically optimistic culture than is generally believed.)

Michele Schuff’s paintings and installation at Whitespace give us the metaphors unmediated. The two galleries give us the successive moments of light-mysticism in reverse, rather as Carl Jung suggested that contemporary souls had to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which itself is a Silk Road account of the re-imprisonment of the light that is classically gnostic in its essence). We begin in ineffable brightness and descend into luminous darkness. (Or maybe ascend; the floor of the back gallery is a big step higher than the floor of the front one.)

In other words, the front gallery’s big encaustic paintings feature vivid bits of red, yellow and orange surrounded by and melding into a white background/foreground, or globular ovals of white floating in a midnight-blue surround. The tables in the front gallery combine individual containers of light into a suggestion of collective purpose (like Christianity’s lamps put upon lampstands to give light, albeit soft light, to the whole house). The back gallery contains multiple hanging translucent models of Coleman lanterns (electrically lit, on a single circuit, the technology itself providing a metaphor of Neo-Platonism’s vision of the single Source of the One energizing and illuminating the Many).

One wants to celebrate the sheer technical versatility of “Lux in Tenebris” (Latin for “light in the darkness,” an extract from the Gospel of John that became the motto of the Presbyterian Church). It is rare to find an artist who solves compositional problems through a revelatory dream who also figures out how to combine onto a single rheostat the circuitry of multiple lanterns suspended by piano wire. The combination of imaginative leap and practical cast of mind suggests an enlightenment that is half intuitively Buddhist and half old-fashioned eighteenth-century rationalist. (For the record, Schuff’s chief source of metaphoric inspiration was Buddhist, but she is not a practicing Buddhist, and she began researching the metaphors of light after some very real experiences of light in the darkness in the unlit stretches of north Georgia’s Hambidge Center. In the night of rural artists’ retreats as in pioneer America, there are times when one can find oneself in the middle of a dark wood where the clear path is altogether lost, quite literally.)

The paintings make fine meditational objects. The repeated image of lights that are either stars in a night sky or illuminated vessels floating in a richly luminous dark are particularly intriguing.

Schuff may or may not know the onetime Persian-garden custom of putting lights in glass globules behind curtains of falling water, in niches for lights that are themselves concreteizations of the metaphors of mysticism. Most of us have encountered some version of the metaphors of microcosm and macrocosm that link the stellar distances of the night sky with the invisible distances of the occulted Inner Light. But that the technical problem of representation of all this should have been resolved in a dream is one of God’s gifts to the surviving Jungians among us. (Actually, it is God’s gift to a whole raft of contending interpretations, but one seldom finds such a pristine example of archetypes at work in everyday life.)

Of course, it is Schuff’s sufficiently transcendent talents as a painter that makes the dream’s visual insight more than a treasure held in earthen vessels. The wax of the encaustic medium contributes its customary mediation of light superbly, and the particular mix of light and dark in the palette is exactly what a good painting ought to contain. Occasional flaws of surface texture and other inevitable reasons for quibbling come only after the first impact, which is delectably positive and likely to ameliorate later critical impulses.

The hanging lanterns alone would be worth the price of admission, if one were being charged to get in, which one is not. The paintings alone would be worth it. As it is, the twin galleries of light and dark are a free gift that should be savored while the show is still there, and remembered lovingly when it is not.

The show is there through the fifth day of May, and you may consult your Atlanta arts calendar for the boring details of how and when to find it. Or point your browser, as a favorite radio program so charmingly puts it, to