Monday, February 26, 2007

the 7th annual Sheth Lecture in Indian Studies

“The Composite Artist,” Salman Rushdie’s Indian Studies lecture as writer in residence at Emory Univrsity, was a distinctly Rushdiean art history presentation regarding the Hamzanama, a fundamental collaborative project commissioned by the teenage Emperor Akbar that required a hundred artists and twenty years to complete. In its immensity, it accelerated the evolution of Mughal painting out of the Persian tradition and into new modes of rendering three-dimensional figures and the fluidity of clouds and water.

It is worth noting that this is strictly a visual epic; the long story of Hamza apparently never found its definitive storyteller, and the text on the back of these superb images seemingly has no literary pretensions, so these 1400 paintings are, as much as anything, another high-art predecessor of the comic book; not that Rushdie said any such thing, for he did not.

He did say that the plethora of dragons and magical battles may have been tailored to a teenage monarch’s love of fantastic stories, and that, given the ubiquity of such tasles of derring-do across world cultures, “it may well be that in our dream lives, and in our waking imaginations, we are indeed of one kind.”

Rushdie went on to discuss the European and Asian explosion of creativity in the second half of the sixteenth century, pointing out that Akbar and Elizabeth I were roughly contemporareous, and that the Hamzanama therefore was being turned out by the artists of India at the same time that Shakespeare and Cervantes were engaged in their respective enterprises. China was in the latter part of the Ming Dynasty. Rushdie points out that the Americas were not engaged in anything comparable, but given the stresses the various local cultures were under, I would say they were entitled.

In any case, Rushdie’s multiple intentions were to mount a defense of the creative integrity of early Mughal India against the animadversions of latter-day Hindu nationalists, and not incidentally to give us a few clues regarding his next novel, which is set in Renaissance Florence, Mughal India, and a good many of the places in between.

The Hamzanama is already discussed in which of Rushdie’s novels? just seeing if anyone is paying attention and/or reading this.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

counterforces two

Visiting the opening of a show of two Australian artists at the Seen Gallery in Decatur (that’s in metro Atlanta, Georgia, for global web surfers discovering this blog) brought home to me again the difficulty not just of marketing the world’s art but of simple communication about it.

I’ve mentioned already in my previous post the sophistication of small places close to the world’s intellectual currents, the conceptual art scene in Kosovo being a case in point. (Places in crisis do not automatically create good art, however. I recall an interesting booklet from a show of art made during the Eritrean liberation struggle, too, but Eritrea involved the past collision of a rich regional painting tradition with the art schools of the Italian occupation prior to the Ethiopian annexation, so there was also a base for representational traditions there. As far as I can tell based on a variety of weblogs, Timor Leste has produced no art whatsoever based on its ongoing conditions of crisis (in spite of local sculptural and fabric traditions), but the war rugs of Afghanistan are an uninvestigated story that needs investigating. Whose idea was it to incorporate abstracted pictures of Kalashnikovs, helicopters, hand grenades, and more recently the names of coalition forces into carpets? Alighiero e Boetti (if I recall his name correctly) commissioned a map of the world from Afghan carpet weavers for his entry in the famous “Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition on the theme of global art, so there must have been weavers who could take designs and do the best they could to reproduce them. But it wasn’t a local habit as far as I am aware. Did some similar outsider approach the weavers in the refugee camps, or was it the spontaneous creation of local designers? Perhaps even the ones who worked for Alighiero e Boetti circa 1988? I’ll follow up on whether anyone has researched this.)

Persons familiar with my work from (where art-related posts sometimes appear amid all the other intellectual topics) or from my much earlier theoretical essays in Art Papers will recognize my habit of strategic digression. In this case, the digression was as far as one could imagine from the exquisite watercolor technique of James Boissett’s comforting Australian landscapes and Judy Hawking Burnett’s extraordary use of thickened acrylic to produce drip-based flower paintings. One would never know from these works that the little country just to the north (the aforementioned Timor Leste) was in the condition I have just described, any more than one would know from the vast majority of American art that there was a war on. (Atlanta, at the moment, is an exception to this, if one looks at Linda Armstrong’s show “In Exile from the Land of Reason” at Eyedrum, which includes work that was recently in ATHICA’s similarly themed exhibition in nearby Athens, a town that deserves recognition for more than R.E.M. and “how bout them dawgs.”)

Back to the attractive Australian artists. They fall in between available coverage in print-media sources in terms of local Atlanta marketing; not intriguingly different or noteworthy enough to be discussed in Sunday newspaper reviews, not cool enough to be discussed in youth-oriented giveaway tabloids, not innovative or conceptual enough to be discussed or advertised in the city’s international art journal, the aforementioned one which is my other employer. (I write Atlanta newspaper reviews as a non-staff freelancer and have done so for two decades, for those of you just joining us.)

It cost bucks to ship such stuff here even unframed, and will cost far more if it has to be sent back in its Atlanta-or-Decatur-added frames and mats. This is why there is a huge gulf between the subsidized or guaranteed-sales shows of the global superstars, the different shows paid for by university departments, and the very safe world art sold in the more conservative commercial galleries. In the case currently under discussion, the artists have techniques that are worth contemplating, though few things are more tedious than print explications of why something grabs hold of the viewer’s attention. Suffice it to say that the works have emotional appeal a bit beyond conventional prettiness, though they’re pretty much pretty on top of their other virtues. However, they’re far less slickly pretty than the decorator art that has compositional integrity but otherwise isn’t worth mentioning.

Be all that as it may, the world’s more conventional styles and genres will only get distributed and discussed internationally when they push the limits sufficiently to get funding from someone other than the casual purchaser. Gallery websites are the wave of the future in this department, with high-resolution jpegs uploaded for serious buyers as a followup.

Even that requires websites that gather information and links, but such sites exist in growing profusion. If you want an Australian watercolorist, you can probably find the one you’re looking for without the in-country contact that led to the Seen Gallery’s show.

Less categorizable artists confront a dilemma. American cities such as New Orleans have indigenous contemporary traditions (contemporary art has traditions, folks; we just don’t want to call them that) that are sometimes insufficiently recognized beyond the local collector base. In the case of the hard-beset Big Easy, D. Eric Bookhardt has done a splendid job of reporting the local idiosyncracies for decades, often enough in the pages of Art Papers, but there is still much art in cities around the world that is too far off the beaten track and too far out of the mainstream of contemporary currents to get much press anywhere.

There needs to be an editorially informed website, a vast online journal, if you will, wherein the most maverick yet informed of art writers present surveys of their scenes that can be perused briefly by those who are sort of interested, and studied in depth by those who really, really want to know what it means to make art in Pristina. (I keep returning to Kosovo because to cite North American cities would rouse unseemly regional passions.) This would include appropriately jaundiced discussions of why the artworlds of less currently-burdened and history-laden cities than New Orleans are dominated by the decorators, and the contemporary scenes are divided between the imitators of global trends working in isolation on the one hand and the workers in the truly global styles of graffiti on the other, with the occasional total isolate or collective producing pieces that the world ought to know about. (I do not have any city in mind when I write that; the condition is nationwide in America and I once encountered comparably cramped conditions in Germany, where one wouldn’t expect it.)

Unfortunately, mainstream conceptualist-contemporary on the one hand and mainstream decorator-friendly on the other are where the money is. It costs less than it once did to set up a major website, but hip web designers don’t come cheap. A site that big that was impossible to navigate would be worse than useless.

Envelope-pushing watercolorists painting outside the box in Pristina are probably out of luck.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

welcome, willkommen, whatever, to counterforces

The ambiguities of small places invaded by History continue to amaze me. I cherish the ironic pieces produced by Trio Sarajevo during the siege, in an era when scanners and Macintosh equipment were crude compared to today. Yet despite shortages of paper and difficulties of export and the intrinsic challenges of design in the early 1990s (an era which now seems as distant as the 1890s once did), the design collaborative called Trio turned out some satirical reworkings of Lichtenstein, Warhol, and classic movie posters that called world attention to their plight and the larger dilemmas of the city in which they lived. (They joked, vis-à-vis their systematic violation of copyright, that the United States would send agents to arrest them and put them on trial, and this way they would get out of Sarajevo.)

Yet Sarajevo was not a major art capital by any means; well-regarded by local standards, with a reputation for sophistication that became greatly exaggerated by virtue of its having been thrust into the world’s headlines as a city worthy of pity. In the past part-decade, it has taken its particular place in the twenty-first century scene.

Kosovo/a’s Pristina today seems also remarkably sophisticated compared to what one would expect in a capital of a small place beset by controversy; yet the clever conceptual pieces one learns about in the world art magazines are of course no more than what one would expect in the component parts of a now-dismembered country that produced avant-garde art for the better part of the twentieth century. The Yugoslav avant-garde remains one of the fascinating side channels of modernist art history, and some of its latter-day players are now icons of world art in general.

More than one piece by twenty-first century artists from such places, however, have been devoted to the theme of what one has to do to catch the attention of the world’s centers of curatorial power.

And indeed I wondered about the proliferation of biennials, a would-be shortcut to world attention involving the importation of world-class curators to place local artists alongside the globe’s usual art suspects. It now appears that, art fairs having displaced biennials as a means of securing the attention of the cash-potent classes, collaborative art schools considered as conceptual art are the hot new thing. The attempt to establish one such school along the Green Line in Cyprus for the most recent Manifesta fell victim to local politics. Anyone with an ounce of political sense could have seen that it quite likely would, but street smarts have not always been associated with the art world, as can be seen from the fate of the Russian Constructivists onward.

And the further into the world’s art provinces one burrows, the more the level of street smarts either diminishes or increases, depending on the nature of the street that one is addressing. Deeply local scenes work well as internally consistent enterprises, but they look silly when viewed from any larger perspective. People who are misplaced in terms of their local scene are often equally misplaced in terms of the global scene, because they fall somewhere in between the two in terms of sophistication, knowledge, and imagination.

Not to mention self-marketing abilities.

So in 2006 I set out to explore some of these paradoxes by producing The First Walker Street Biennial, a resolutely provincial event that would exist exclusively in its documentation.

Rather than having a world-class curator, it had me; rather than having hordes of world-renowned artists to set alongside locals, it had two extremely interesting artists from no further away than just across the state line. It was named after the shortest street in Atlanta that contained contemporary art galleries, though the two galleries it did hold were among the most risk-taking and innovative in the city.

And the book, which did not call itself a catalogue however much it resembled one, was devoted to the biennial theme of “Myth, Fiction, and History.” It explored the multiple paradoxes of provincial invisibility, and the extent to which local phenomena were known these days almost entirely via print and the internet. This is sometimes enough, when the phenomena are of any interest at all.

Nonetheless, the sheer plethora of worthwhile things in the world, out there competing for attention against better-funded and more adroitly marketed entities, puts the odds against many, many topics of interest being discovered by their natural audiences.

Without claiming that my book-only biennial was worthy of the world’s attention (though I think the two artists I chose are worthy of more attention than they have thus far gotten), I set out to produce an event that would be overlooked.

The First Walker Street Biennial can be had at cost via, but this is the first public announcement of that fact beyond Walker Street itself. I placed a battered paperback copy of the book in one of the two galleries on the street, with a crudely lettered text on its front announcing that by special arrangement, copies were still available via the website cited. (Of course, the book is actually published on demand from the website, one copy at a time, and exists at present in an edition of…welll, that varies day to day.)

The irony is that the book was placed in the gallery only two weeks before its owner decided to close it, and it is unlikely that anyone at all saw it who wasn’t already aware of the project.

So my point was made twice over. And by posting this to my alternate art blog, rather than to the joculum blog that has gotten a small international reputation, I have ensured that this announcement, too, will have an extremely restricted audience. I have rather deliberately excluded keywords that would permit its discovery by people who were looking for something else, other than researchers into contemporary political history (or perhaps Pop Art) who will have no interest in this particular art venture.

Welcome to “Counterforces and Other Little Jokes,” y’all. We’ll be exploring, every once in a while, those themes so restricted to the art world that I can’t ask my handful of loyal readers on to put up with them.

And maybe every once in a very great while I’ll pull in some guest commentators, but don’t count on that. The ones I have in mind have their own websites already, or they like to publish in places where someone will actually read what they write.

By the way, those who think this blog can be accessed via the username I have chosen will find yet another little joke. I suggest bookmarking and/or writing down the URL, if you haven’t been sufficiently repelled by the inaugural commentary.