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

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

"to love love, and hate hate" (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Politically it's okay to hate hate. Loving love is not quite so unquestioned, however.

We have just had a censorship controversy at Atlanta's City Hall East that left me profoundly depressed about the state of visual literacy in America (nothing new there) and the ongoing universal disease of permanent hidden prejudice (by which I do not mean racial prejudice, but rather unconsciousness as to our habits and roles).

Alvaro Alvillar produced a piece called FfOoRrMhUaLtAe that consists of 33 paintings of American flags, each with the word "Peace" stenciled across the bottom and what looks like a two-letter chemical symbol on the stripes (e.g., "Pi" followed by "Os"). But the initial capital letters spell out "POLITICALLYITSOKTOHATETHEWHITEMAN" and the lower case letters read "isitoktohateifivebeenavictim".

A table of the elements of hatred, in other words, focusing on a loaded sentence: "Politically it's ok to hate the white man." Really? Is Al saying in his own voice that whites are the only group regarding which one gets a free pass if one expresses hatred for them? or instead, that the opinion that this is the way things are, put this baldly, is itself an expression of hatred? And regardless of the meaning of that sentence, is it acceptable to express hatred towards any group by which one has been victimized?

Whatever it means, Al is not expressing his own opinion. He is quoting words that have appeared elsewhere, in contexts with quite opposite spins on the meaning.

Interesting visual metaphor, to say the least, and the logical extension of Al's American flag series, in which concealed pairs of opposites appear just below the surface of thickly wax-encrusted flag paintings.

But a few policemen declared the work a piece of "hate art" that constituted a hostile environment in which to work, City Hall East being a public building and the hallway City Gallery East being a space through which anyone using the building must walk. Their union demanded that the piece be taken down.

So the city held a lunchtime symposium at which the union representative made his declaration that public employees had the right not to be threatened by art situated in their workplace, and various members of the art community opined that once a work had been deemed not to be offensive, it should not be removed because someone found it offensive, because conceivably someone will find the most innocuous pieces offensive. Next it will be the formalist nude figure studies around the corner, then the expressionist horses, then the lusciously realist paintings of apples.

To which the detective's answer was consistently, "We are not advocating censorship of art in a private space. We are insisting on our right not to be offended by working conditions in a public workplace."

I am reluctant to summarize what took place in terms of discussion, because although the points raised from the audience were sufficiently valid to be worthy of discussion, they had nothing to do with the issue at hand. They ended up reinforcing stereotypical opinions of what this or that category of person might be: the community activist, the aggrieved taxpayer, the old-line radical. I was reminded of André Gregory's remark in My Dinner With Andre that people have lost interest in the theatre because they are doing such a good job of playing their expected roles in their own lives that they don't need more theatre than the daily plotline in which they perform as character actors.

Most of the roles played on the panel were similar: and if I do not summarize them, it is because we know the roles played so well in the artworld already. I am now playing the role of the kibitzing art critic, and as André Gregory would have commented, I look just like an art critic.

So because I am playing the role of the art critic, I have to say that I agreed with the thoughtful, blunt educator (all right, it was Larry Walker, whose famous daughter has had her own censorship troubles) that nobody seemed to see the painting that was on the wall behind the discussants. Nobody had raised the issue of what the repeated word "Peace" meant; nobody had raised the issue of why the American flags. Nobody had done more than put their own interpretations on the two sentences once the code was deciphered. I would add that even then, the readings were poor excuses for interpretation; nobody got the systematic ambiguity of the offending sentence, nobody, including the artist, pointed out that this was clearly a quotation of somebody else's opinion, not the artist's own opinion, and that one topic for discussion should be whose opinion this was, and why we believed that this was the opinion held by so-and-so, rather than one held by some opposing camp.

The discussion was instead derailed onto the civil-liberties grounds that everyone has the right to express an opinion, no matter how stupid or inflammatory. And of course it was noted that the discussion illustrated the necessity of letting everyone have their say, regardless of the direction from which the problem was being approached. Dishonorable motives were imputed all round during the discussion. There was much pietistic talk of the value of dialogue even when the dialogue grows heated. (And blah blah blah, to quote Simon and Garfunkel circa forty years ago.)

But there was very little attempt to explain why the painting was systematically ambiguous, and why it might be good to look at the painting and get it all wrong, so long as you were willing to consider why your view didn't account for this or that aspect of the artwork hanging on the wall. Maybe eventually everyone could even talk about whether people get the painting wrong because it's doing four things at once, and people can't pick up on more than two things at a time. But no such thing happened.

I believe that there is a medical education program in some other major city in which physicians in training are taken to the art museum and made to look, really look, at narrative art, Renaissance through Victorian, and talk about what they see. In such paintings, we see societal symptoms in situation. The physicians-to-be have to make educated guesses about what is going on the painting and why. This helps with their diagnostic and listening skills later on.

The same could be done, as someone almost but not quite said during the panel discussion, for the training of detectives and officers on the street. "Okay, look at this painting. What do you think of that belt buckle? pretty strange, isn't it, just to be a belt buckle, right there where you can't miss that royal coat of arms on it. Why do you suppose that buckle is there? To hold the guy's pants up? Well, who put that buckle in the middle of the painting? That's right, the guy didn't do that, the artist did. Do you think he just walked into the room and said 'Don't move, that's cool, I gotta paint that.' No, guys, he wanted to make you see something, and maybe he wanted you not to see something, too. You see that? you see how maybe if you're going 'wow' about the belt buckle, you won't be thinking about just why the guy is sitting where he is and whether he really ought to be there? You notice anything else funny going on? anything you might be able to take maybe two or three ways? Now go back to what I just said---you really think the artist was trying to fool us, or does he (yes, guys, it's a he) totally believe that the guy with the belt buckle is sitting there because that is where God wants him to be? Can we tell? Does it make any difference?" (This approach does not get us even close to contemporary conceptualism, but you have to start where people are, which is mired in the culture of one-dimensional literalism.)

If a training program in visual literacy happened like that, we might not have the confusion between an expression of hatred and a work of art that asks whether in fact it is never okay to hate anyone for any reason whatsoever. We might not have museum members expressing exactly the same confusion and incapacity to see what is in front of their faces.