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.