Monday, December 29, 2008

year-end notes towards 2009

As I focus increasingly on matters other than art (but with an eye towards getting the Atlanta art world through the year ahead of us) I find myself attracted to exhibitions for anything but artistic reasons. (Conceptually based art includes the theoretical agenda; I'm talking about exhibitions that ought to be viewed on formalist or documentary terms when it comes to the works themselves.)

Richard Fleming's "Walking to Guantanamo" photographs, opening at Whitespace on January 16, are the case in point here. Fleming apparently walked across Cuba, taking pictures and recording his own impressions of life half a century after the Revolution.

Having mined more than one exhibition of photographs of Cuba for evidence that the photographer wasn't looking for, I've gotten used to the pre-editing eye of the would-be perceiver. Thanks to Fleming's account of his travels, we have the verbal account that helps us to evaluate the visual evidence. (That's to say, we have more evidence of what Fleming saw and why he saw it, versus all the things he didn't notice and that we have no way of knowing about.)

Anyone who has read such books as V. S. Naipaul's A Turn in the South or journalistic accounts in whatever newspaper you choose to cite has intuitively learned the structures of interest and omission without having had to read the theory behind the perception. It's obvious that nobody ever gets the whole story; the whole story does not exist, because there are too many versions of the story, more versions than there are perceivers of it.

But quixotic ventures like Fleming's walk to Guantanamo add visual and verbal information that sometimes proves illuminating as well as visually beautiful. (He looks to be a good photographer.)

Fleming's book may well get things wrong for all I know (I haven't seen a word of it), but to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that too will be a useful piece of information.

I for one am happy that Whitespace is carrying on and that other galleries are hunkering down to get through the financial tempest already buffeting them.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

reasons for optimism (later)

I mistyped in haste and will have now corrected "in memoriam Jack Sinclair."

I am feeling the need to celebrate the gallery owners and directors who make the scene as vigorous as it is (frequently at the cost of their own profits, if not their own profitability) but that will have to wait for a bit. The last few posts have been too lugubrious and/or elegiac. I did intend to make the implicit point in the Sinclair homage that an economic downturn presents new possibilities for the sufficiently imaginative. The alternative scene flourished during the recessions that bracketed the Reagan-Bush years and the recovery in between the two downturns.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

de mortuis: in memoriam Jack Sinclair

first drafts are frequently a bad idea. “First thought, best thought” does not mean that first writing has any merit at all. Even Kerouac modified On the Road. But it seems desirable to get some perspective out quickly regarding a too little known enabler and anti-commodification gadfly from the Atlanta alternative art scene of a generation or so ago. So, here, with regrettably minimal edits, is:

A first draft towards a proper memorial for Jack Sinclair

The names of most installation artists are written in water (sometimes literally).

These days, the odds for remembrance are slightly better. Everyone takes digital photos of everything, and the vast majority of those photos get posted to Flickr or Photobucket or the art websites. (Not that this exhaustive documentation is necessarily secure; the days of a site’s popularity are numbered, and how many of those photographs will have been backed up to more secure modes of storage?)

But back in the day, long before the advent of on-demand online publishing, few exhibitions had catalogues. Even in informal records of the event, hard-to-photograph installations designed to exist temporarily were documented badly. Few images of them ever appeared in print, and descriptions even in long reviews were enigmatic.

Thus it is that Jack Sinclair dies in New Mexico and the news is greeted in Atlanta mostly by ”Who?”

I am not sure where Jack’s site-specific installations should stand in the history of art in Atlanta, but his interventions in the 1980s stretched considerably beyond site sculptures.

Jack was one of the instigators of the annual Great Mattress Factory exhibitions (so named because the first of them was held in the disused Southern Cross Mattress Factory) that brought together upwards of three hundred Atlanta artists working in a range of aesthetics from romantically decorative to in-your-face confrontational.

Two steps (and increasingly only one step) ahead of the developers, Jack and his collaborators—I omit the names and focus on Jack because we are talking about Jack here, even if John Payne’s death this year has the others feeling their mortality—ferreted out vacated factory buildings that could be rehabbed sufficiently to install art. (The structurally dangerous sections could be cordoned off.) And under their supervision, three hundred artists marked off their individual territories and some of them helped clean up the site sufficiently to admit a few thousand guests.

Towards the end of the Mattress Factory and Mattress Spring exhibitions' history, the buildings in which they were staged were already under contract, and the developers had recognized that big come-one-come-all art shows were wonderful marketing tools that cost them nothing.

The anarchist impulse that drove the Mattress Factory collaborations was finally done in by a combination of events: the impending Olympics (which led to the retention for speculative purposes of every semi-ruined site in town, by developers who didn’t want a bunch of artists cluttering up the neighborhood) and the sheer success of the Mattress Factory shows themselves.

Jack was one of the organizers who believed that since the artists put in the sweat equity and the upfront entry fee to pay for publicity and lighting, the artists should share equally in whatever profits remained from the memorable art party of the opening night. Others wanted to use the funds to institutionalize the annual collaboration, and the surviving members of that inner circle ought to write a history of those shows to supplement the few reviews that can be found in back issues of Art Papers, Creative Loafing, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (For that matter, who has archived even the maps and the rosters of artists, who ranged from the recognized to the deservedly unknown?)

Jack also ran his own anti-profit exhibition space for sculpture and installation art on Edgewood Avenue, for as long as he could afford to do so. Meanwhile the young Turks (and other ethnicities) were staging alternative-space shows of their own, and some of them, such as Michael Jenkins, went on to run distinguished New York galleries. Others sank into unsurprising anonymity.

But Jack just kept on keeping on until there was nothing more to be kept. Eventually he started his own letterpress operation in the Little Five Points Community Center, for which I contributed the poem for the press’s inaugural broadside.

After his marriage and move to New Mexico, Jack continued to create new work. He had projects that were interrupted by his hospitalization.

Atlanta is a town where all that counts is what you did yesterday, and even the most spectacular of accomplishments from the day before yesterday tends to be disparaged when it is not forgotten altogether. This is as it should be: the days of taking over whole ex-industrial sites for community-wide art shows is over, and I shudder to think of the number of safety laws that were productively overlooked (because many of the organizers worked construction in their day jobs and knew which laws they could safely overlook). Nostalgia gets us nowhere.

But one wishes that there would be at least critical evaluations of what was done in the past and why. (There should be a separate blog post devoted to the reasons why Atlanta artists are regularly fated to reinvent structures and strategies that once existed and have ceased to do so.)

In collaboration with other artists and in productive contention with them, Jack maintained an artist-organized face for contemporary art that addressed and/or involved the public, especially a public that was not ordinarily inclined to go to art galleries. The Thursday Night Artists group in which Jack and I were involved staged one such community intervention in Virginia-Highland at a moment when the lower-middle-class neighborhood was being revitalized by new arrivals (solidly single-family, it never required the kind of reinvention that other intown neighborhoods had needed).

The Reliable Paper Company distributors of, I think, restroom towels and toilet paper had recently vacated the storefront next to George’s Bar, and a number of us (you could look it up) installed our paintings and our site-specific pieces as the Reliable Art Show, planning to interact with passersby who were taking their children for a walk or looking for a quick beer and a sandwich at George’s.

In a ceiling-to-floor corner installation, Jack created a giant hornets’-nest-cum-tornado from the felt sheets then used to insulate buildings. We noted that every afternoon, the wasps building a nest in the eaves outside would fly through the open door into the space, looking anxious at the new arrivals in the neighborhood.

Just before the show opened, George himself stuck his head in the door to see what was going on. He remarked, glancing briefly at Jack’s sculpture, “Why, why…that’s insulation.” “It sure is,” organizer Miles Boyd replied.

Going next door for lunch the following day, I heard George declaring to a customer at the bar, “You know what they got next door? They got a bunch of insulation hanging down from the ceiling, and they say that’s art.”

“I’m with you, George,” the customer replied. “That’s not art. Norman Rockwell’s art.”

Norman Rockwell got his own retrospective at the High Museum in the years following.

And even though we tried hard to get High Museum director Gudmund Vigtel to walk in when he showed up by chance for a lunch meeting at George’s, by and large Jack made damn sure that nothing he made would ever end up in anybody’s permanent collection. His principled stance against the commodification of art preserved the best of an earlier idealistic decade in the era of Reagan and the first George Bush. Unfortunately, it also ensured his eventual near-disappearance from the public record.

I would be curious to know how much documentation MOCA GA owns of the site sculptors and installation artists of those years.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

no sooner asked than done

This press release arrived in my inbox while I was typing the foregoing post:

866 Hill St SE
Unit A
Atlanta, GA 30315

Opal Gallery, in conjunction with A Cappella Books, presents Robert
Cheatham¹s book release and signing of Bad Infinity

Atlanta, GA, December 13, 2008 - Opal Gallery invites Robert Cheatham to
introduce his new creative venture, FORT!/DA? Books with a reading of his
book "Bad Infinity" on Saturday, December 13 from 7 to 9 p.m. An excerpt
from the book's accompanying DVD - a joint project with videographer Chea
Prince - will be shown at Opal. Immediately following, A Cappella will host
a question and answer session moderated by Chad Radford and a book signing.
A Cappella Books will carry FORT!/da? Books.

Robert Cheatham, an independent scholar and artist, is often described as a
modern day Renaissance Man. Working in the Atlanta art scene for more than
30 years, Robert Cheatham's influence prevails throughout the city. He was a
main player in the Destroy All Music Festivals of the 80¹s; a co-founder/
creator of Public Domain Inc. - incorporated as a non-profit arts and
information organization devoted to art, theory, and community in 1991.
Public Domain hosts the online listserves Artnews and Word-L, as well as the
podcast series Live From Edge City, a video series, and an archive of ten
years of improvisational music. Since 2001, he has filled the executive
director's position at the Southeast's premier avant-garde gallery Eyedrum.

informal non-reviews as usual

Thomas Dozol's photos of men and women immediately after showering (it requires two showers in succession in some cases before Dozol gets a psychologically haunting portrayal) remain at Opal Gallery through January 10, annoying a certain number of passing parents who seem unaware that their small children will see much more troublesome visual offerings just down the street in the window displays of any number of Little Five Points establishments. The full-body male nudity in some of these photos is far enough inside the gallery to require a commitment to looking at the show, and the 12-foot-tall closeup that covers one wall ought not to offend anyone.

Dozol is apparently getting more press locally for his relationship with Michael Stipe than as a photographer for French Vogue and other publications. The less gossip-obsessed will be pleased to know that these photos are presented to stand or fall on their own merits, even though they feature music personalities well known in the Athens and Atlanta scene alongside figures with greater face recognition. And it goes without saying that they stand rather than fall, documenting illuminating details of decor as well as bodies in various states of deshabille.

I have seen a rumor that Public Domain will shortly hold a signing at Opal for their latest FORT/da! books but will hold off on details till I get firmer information. PD deserves more support than it has gotten.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Carol Barton at the Papermaking Museum

I am left with the sense that the AJC's relatively small number of column inches devoted to the visual arts means that there isn't even room for stories about certain things that the general populace would like, such as Carol Barton's popup books for grownups at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum on the Ga. Tech campus. Under the capable curatorship of Teri Williams, the Museum brings us serious yet often playful paper-related shows of contemporary art, such as Julie Püttgen's survey of Swiss and American cut-and-folded paper sculptures (one of the last things I was able to write about in the now-defunct AccessAtlanta tabloid before the AJC downsized still further).

And it is, as mentioned in a comment to an earlier post, scandalous that we have noplace to see the work of an Atlanta-based artist featured in Modern Painters whose work, were it available in sufficient quantity, would be ideal for a Paper Museum sculpture show. But no gallery locally shows Brian Dettmer, who came to Atlanta in 2006 because of his wife's employment here. His transformations of books (written up courtesy of Felicia Feaster in the December issue of The Atlantan) are much acclaimed elsewhere, as the London magazine's special feature in November indicates.

The AJC's Jonathan Williams interviewed Bethany Marchman in Sunday's AJC, providing insight into the life and work of a popular artist whose work was featured in the movie Juno and whose fiancé Rene Arriagada is not so coincidentally profiled in the same section, alongside an article on a 7 p.m. Friday book signing by Russell Howze of his Stencil Nation: Graffiti, Community, and Art, at A Cappella Books, in Little Five Points.

So this exercise in art history gives us hope for the future. Three interrelated articles fill in some of the context and implicitly correct some of the errors in an earlier story on the Atlanta practitioners of the lowbrow movement's aesthetic (discussed in the Marchman interview), and contextualize a subcategory of graffiti (stencil art) as well as putting a name to some of the stencils that most Atlantans know only from drive-by glimpses. (Those who went to Arriagada's exhibition of gallery art at Beep Beep Gallery were already knowledgeable on the topic, but the show attracted little enough attention in the print media. Given the reading habits of the Atlanta public, it is doubtful if many people who needed to be brought up to speed on stencil art actually attended the show to receive an education in the history of contemporary practice.)

So Jonathan Williams proves to be equal to the example of his famous modernist namesake when it comes to enlightening the masses regarding topics about which they are clueless.

And we may hope for similar AJC convergences with regard to the many other types of art exhibited around town, as well as meditations on why certain types of art are represented only in lectures regarding work that Atlantans will never see in local venues. (Given the lovely January convergence represented by Georgia State's "New WAVE Atlanta: When Urban Intervention Speaks French" and the Atlanta Gallery Association's ATLArt09 fest, a study in collisions of the contemporary could be undertaken by any number of commentators.)

We could be pleasantly surprised someday, and have a feast of the international contemporary to rival the unparalleled feast of antiquity currently available in the city. But it won't be because there is a market for it. Although there are significant collectors of contemporary work, too much of it doesn't fit the dominant commercial paradigm. There is a great deal of worthwhile work to be seen here, but within a context that is shaped by many distorting factors.

Right now the local market does not fit much of anybody, which is why I have been more preoccupied recently with the survival of art venues and the problem with keeping their events known to general audiences. But events continue to unfold.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

no joke: local places that could use our support, in Atlanta

Calavino Donati sends word that Calavino's in Oakhurst will close as of December 21 if people don't donate to her savemyrestaurant paypal account:

But I can't help but think that fans of Calavino at her old Roman Lily Cafe location, who have not found her new format quite as consistently compelling, can do something more creative than just give money. These events never raise quite enough, but can't we think of ways to add still more DIY fundraising events to the proximity of the holidays? I mean events that would split the proceeds with Calavino and that would provide a pre-holiday venue for people who are wishing they could sell some things that are more than odds and wouldn't replace the paypal donations but it may be a way for more people to donate and do good for themselves as well.

Or else we could just offer Calavino $20 per person to make a heumongous batch of her once world-famous banana bread dessert from the old days at Roman Lily.

On the financial apocalypse front, I am pleased that Atlanta Peach got in some plugs for some of my favorite artists before shutting down abruptly. And that Felicia Feaster signed on with The Atlantan, which now becomes the survivor of the luxury lifestyle magazine wars, and the go-to source for slick-paper accounts of the Atlanta art scene.

alcohol that supports the arts

For those few of you still holding a holiday party at levels higher than PBR, I would remind you that the chairman of the board of Glenfiddich Distillery supports an annual artist residency at the distillery in Dufftown, Scotland (sorry, invitation only and I'm not on the curatorial board) that is one of the more valuable and imaginative ventures among the producers of upscale beverages.

If you are buying single malt Scotch anyway, please consider the one that supports the arts and that paid my way on a press tour to the place in 2007, without preconditions. (For which they have never gotten more out of me than the occasional recognition that they do this sort of thing, plus my attempt to drink their product whenever possible, which is not at all often.)

a roundup of footnotes to the foregoing few posts

Robert Cheatham’s incipient legacy includes a couple of compilations of writing that deserve greater recognition (findable, I believe, on, wherein I have ensconced my own collected creations—along with my part of a family homage to a favorite aunt that also comes up when my name is searched on that website).

But just as there is never time for a proper debate about the relative merits of, say, Badiou versus Rabinow (who have little enough to do with each other—which is the point), there is never time to write about all the personal aesthetics that are of tremendous importance to artists’ careers, and to audience understanding. Exhibitions come and go without more than mysterious passing references, and often not even that.

I’ve weighed in twice on the issue of Whitney Wood because her accomplishment in something like one year has been prodigious, and her studio at Tula will guarantee her continued visibility. (Kudos to Mary Stanley, however, for an exhibition gloriously presented in the space once occupied by galleries from Kiang, which survives and thrives today in Midtown West, to Momus, which doesn’t.)

MB Andrews, on the other hand, gets little enough visibility in her Little Five Points Community Center studio, and when I consider the sheer number of artists for whom a three of four week exhibition is the one chance to have a significant number of people see their work, I am pained anew at the lack of a single reliable information source, where audiences of all types could find the insight they need to know what they ought to be seeing. Thoughtmarker, as I’ve said, covers the alt-scene nicely in that department when linked to all the blogs that deal with that set of aesthetics. The folks at are stretching their own aesthetics considerably and looking for ways to stretch them still further. I keep hearing rumors out of regarding new moves and modes.

But the situation is dire, and until someone comes up with a single vehicle that will get all of us where we need to go, I repeat my appeal to y’all to go buy a little work of art, or as big a work of art as you can afford, from the gallery that you would most like to have stay in business.

And I promise that I will at least TRY to get my head round issues of abstraction and representation that lie behind so many local aesthetics, but I get distracted with things like the two thousand words or so regarding Florida’s place in the American imagination, to be found over on, which I http because people always reflexively add “www” when they type the URL, which gets them absolutely nowhere.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


I've tried now twice and can't get there from here vis-a-vis where my worldview diverges from Robert's and why. It has to do more with which thinkers either of us accepts as most fruitful for constructing an epistemology and an anthropology, I'll say that much. And my sense that much of the received body of knowledge with which we grew to maturity was in fact in now-evident error, as we suspected at the time. But we differ on the nature and implications of that error.

And our respective aesthetics derive from those divergent epistemologies and social anthropologies.

I hope we would agree on something like the worth of Whitney Wood's abstractions, which allow for biomorphic projections more than they present them (except on a subconscious level on the part of their maker as well as their viewer...but then that is the case with all art, even the most self-consciously representational).

Interesting to compare them with MB Andrews' works at House of Colors...not that I am going to post any images to allow readers to do so at this point.

The economics of time and energy...if I don't set out now I'll never get to the galleries I intend before rush hour starts, and it is only the flextime of my current schedule that allows me to get to galleries at this hour at all.

Most art writers of my acquaintance are still on 9 to 5 weekday schedules that force them into the Saturday-only schedule I lived with when still writing freelance for the AJC. And of course most viewers are in a similar condition, a reason for the creation of an art-reviewing venue that allows different types of audiences to make informed judgments about where to see the kind of art they most want to see on their one day when they can go see it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

les neiges d'antan

I have suppressed for the moment, and perhaps permanently, a rambling post for which I shall substitute another rambling post. It's better than continuing a debate with Rob Cheatham over positions that we have developed painstakingly over decades and altered according to changing conditions of knowledge, me on the joculum blog and he in many different online locations.

Whitney Wood's excellent SCAD MFA paintings show that you can no longer see at Tula (but watch this space for developments) reminded me of the various fates of herself and others from Auburn whom I shall not discuss at this particular point, but eventually. (I've lost touch with Heather Hartman and Ann Stewart's grad school careers.)

An enigmatic Facebook comment sent me back to Kate Kretz's blog where I found a new drawing from her friend and mine Sarah Petruziello, which reminded me of the disparate fates of so many artists I've known and championed over the years. This is the resoundingly titled allegory This Little Princess Has Built Her House of Cards Upon a Quagmire:

I tried to bring Kate Kretz's globally recognized painting Blessed Art Thou to Atlanta as part of a projected exhibition, but this seems to have become ever less likely as the world economic crisis progresses or devolves, whichever way you choose to describe it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

argumentation, three

I rarely come down so judgmentally on a show as I have on “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies,” which means it must embody some significant truth I haven’t acknowledged. We respond most vehemently to that which touches upon our deepest unresolved internal questions.

And my reaction seems to involve the difference between evocation and evidence.

The traditional saying is that the Maker of the Universe is beautiful and loves beauty. And by and large, the geometries of the world’s cultures are beautiful in the same way that an equation in physics is beautiful: an “elegant” equation is one that looks right, that has a level of symmetry and balance and repetition that is absent from the equations that solve the problem okay, but seem to have something wrong with them nevertheless. (At least, this is the example I remember from my freshman physics textbook of what led physicists to keep questioning interim mathematical solutions, with a couple of equations laid out on the page as examples of why one was more elegant than the other.)

I suspect that that old-fashioned fundamental mathematical elegance has been replaced in contemporary science as in contemporary culture by something much more rambling and tentative-looking, but I wouldn’t know.

So I need to back up to more traditional assertions, such as that we come after not only the hideousness of Auschwitz and the world’s other systemic barbarities, but after Nietzsche’s assertion that “Truth is ugly! We have art in order not to perish of truth!”

So contemporary cosmograms are really considered by their makers as bodies of evidence, like the documentation of alien abductions, which are also pretty much ugly affairs in which the aliens have very little in common with our own sense of aesthetics.

And of course, aesthetics is so intensely a matter of what is being regarded and within what system of discourse. Entomologists and herpetologists have a different scale of beauty in general, but given time and contemplative energy any of us can learn to see the beauty in a rhinoceros beetle, at least, if not in the more workaday species that are the insect world’s equivalent of the English sparrow and its drably functional protective plumage.

But this doesn’t change the fact that the occultists back in the twentieth-century day could lump together the visual productions of Egypt and Oceania and sub-Saharan Africa and Europe and Asia because they perceived a common love of beauty where H. P. Lovecraft and his ilk were wont to see cyclopean horrors and such. (In that, the occultists more resembled the artists of French modernism finding beauty in flea market castoffs, and not the writers of horror fiction, who seem to be firmly in the cast of liking good old sensibly ugly architecture and art because it allows them to experience a pleasurable shudder at the exotic and the anomalous. In fact, horror and sci-fi as genres seem wedded to a love of the irremediably ugly, if the aesthetics of -con art shows are any evidence.)

Today we live comfortably with all forms of the aesthetic; we seem able to enjoy fussily elaborate Baroque serving dishes and fuzzily elaborate funk ceramics and elegantly simple Zen gardens and the elephantine follies of the Enlightenment’s estates, alongside the productions of the rock painters of prehistory.

And we demand rather literal anomalies before we get interested in the physics rather than the aesthetics of all these things.

Joseph Campbell called this the age of comparison, and it obviously is when we get throwaway books with titles like The Pocket Guide to the Afterlife: 91 Places Death Might Take You.

The implication is that we don’t believe in any of the 91 places cited (well, maybe in 90 of them; I haven’t looked at the book, only Suzanne Van Atten’s capsule summary of it in the AJC). But the writers (Augusta Moore and Elizabeth Ripley) are interested enough in what people have believed and do believe about the topic that they have compiled a list of the various things that people have thought.

And the underlying assumption again is that truth is ugly, and art is beautiful but not true. And that previous generations confused art with truth.

Carl Jung and his disciples tended to ignore the aesthetic qualities of the evidence they were presenting for underlying psychic structures. At best, the most sensitive of them suggested that there had to be a reason why modern mandalas were so often ugly as sin where traditional mandalas had had geometric elegance or elaborated styles of beauty.

Well, actually it has been a long time since I read Man and His Symbols. and I hesitate to accuse the Jungians of the same disease that afflicts psychologizers in general, most of whom wouldn’t know beauty if it came up and bit them in the ass. Which it is perfectly capable of doing, ass-biting being as potentially beautiful or ugly as any other form of human or non-human activity.

So we come back to the business of crop circles, which are often beautiful in a very traditional form.

What makes them intriguing is that otherwise, they are largely non-traditional. They bear resemblances to little emblems carved in ancient rocks, and to mazes found not in the landscape but on the floors of medieval cathedrals. The Long Man of Wilmington and the White Horse of Uffington are anything but geometric; they sprawl, freeform, across the landscape. The rather different Cerne Abbas Giant is a hill figure that may actually date from no more than a few centuries ago, the evidence suggesting that a landowner may have had it cut into the turf as a personal fantasy in homage to the hill figures that the antiquarians were then publicizing in their books on the curious ancient survivals of Britain.

And all these Celtic habits of mind share the features of Celtic art that go in for organic elaboration (within what turn out to be geometric forms of order when followed far enough, but their tendency is to spill all over the place).

Crop circles do have certain kinships with the shapes created for English seasonal festivities (many of which were invented in the wake of the English Reformation to replace the banned festivals of Roman Catholicism), and for all of their worldwide occurrence, crop circles do seem to be a distinctly British and mostly English phenomenon. The crop circles from some of the outlying countries are such pathetic fakes that they suggest ineptitude on the part of their makers, or else a singular inability to see what it is that makes crop circles mysterious in the first place.

And like alien abductions, crop circles are a phenomenon of very recent vintage. Just as nobody was abducted by insectoid creatures until recent decades (though they were abducted often enough by much sexier queens of fairyland or terrifying non-insectoid goblins), nobody had their grainfields trampled into geometric patterns in the night, either. Or if they did, they kept it very quiet, or they didn’t notice it because they had no airplanes or didn’t climb the adjoining hills. (That line of thought raises the question again of why ancestral cultures wanted to trample out elaborate designs in the landscape that couldn’t be seen properly until the age of aviation, even if they could be discerned dimly from the highest elevations in the vicinity.)

So of course crop circles play into the deepest psychic whatevers of human beings, the whatevers that led them to make cosmograms and to project meaning into them. And the circles are inserted into landscapes that had a different resonance, an emotional resonance that the Romantic painters in Britain from Samuel Palmer to Paul Nash captured brilliantly.

But it is precisely the non-organic nature of the crop circles that makes them so notable. Whatever imaginative faculties they tap into, they are exactly the ones that organic nature doesn’t, at least not naturally. Nature’s geometries need books like D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form to become evident to the average artist.

Has anyone written a history of the crop circle? There must be dozens such books in existence, yet I don’t recall when the first crop circle appeared, whereas we all remember the birth of the age of UFOs on June 24, 1947 (about the time that the Nag Hammadi documents and the Dead Sea Scrolls were leading the postwar imagination off in quite other directions). [There is, of course, a Wikipedia entry regarding the first crop circles to be reported back in the 1970s, which only reinforces the "no big deal" quality of the initial sightings in England, as distinct from the 1966 "once and then not repeated" UFO-related crop circle in Australia—just a plain old circle such as would be made if you plopped a big disc down on top of a crop.]

For some reason, the crop circle as historical phenomenon hasn’t been documented with the same rigor that the successive waves of Egyptomania have been (to cite only one cultural phenomenon that has more recently been subject to historical investigation). Just as the interactions of the culture with the perceived mysteries of Egypt are subject to precise dating, the interactions with the perceived mysteries of the crop circle must be as well.

And perhaps Ronald Hutton will take up the topic once he gets done with enlightening us about the history of how the Druids were re-imagined or become the subject of new fantasies in every successive generation since their heyday.

We need a greater number of analytical histories of fantasy and the fantastic. But for now we should stick with the question of why our present-day acts of analysis have so little to do with beauty.

(I am known, on the joculum blog, for this kind of digressive essay. Beat with me. Or bear with me, as the case may be, my love of the Freudian typographical error also being a characteristic of that blog.)

Crop circles are new. That is one question that is insufficiently considered; why would someone decide to start making them (although the books on things like the Nazca lines and other things meant to be seen from the skies might be a sufficient provocation to acts of artistic creativity)? [There are precursors, but few and far between.]

Crop circles are also, most of them, rather beautiful. This is in contradistinction to the ones commissioned to advertise beer or to the parodies that are portraits of talk show hosts.

And the art at Eyedrum created in response to such phenomena is, by and large, distinctly unbeautiful. It is almost atypically asymmetrical and/or anti-visual, in response to phenomena that are extraordinarily symmetrical and devoted to retinal as well as conceptual pleasures.

That, in itself, ought to be a subject for investigation. “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” is itself a revelatory form of psychogeography in its resolute ugliness. If it evoked mystery, or if it seduced us into skepticism, that would be one form of revelation. That it instead just sits there, yet obviously satisfies every one of the artists who made work that is included in it, is a topic worthy of long meditation. For if many people don’t think the show is evidence of our present imaginative poverty, then that too is important (as in Wittgenstein’s socially insightful philosophical analogy of the bureaucrats whose job it was to record the occupations of all the residents of a community, but who had to realize the importance of recording the numbers of residents who were doing nothing at all.).

If a show shows us that we don’t even get what it is that we don’t get, that too is a fact of some significance.

In other words, those who unthinkingly lump crop circles in with alien abjections (I meant to type “abductions,” obviously) and such like are literally overlooking their most obvious feature. Even if they were made by aliens, they would be made by aliens with more of an artistic sensibility than your run-of-the-mill instruments-up-the-ass alien investigators. Assuming that all of this is just an outpouring of the collective imagination of humankind, why the difference in phenomena according to geographic and cultural location? Why, in the same way that Haitians are inhabited by loas and Manhattanites by their own inner demons, do anomalous phenomena postwar show such culturally specific structures? Especially since these days the loas are everywhere (at least since William Gibson sussed them out in the early days of cyberpunk) and Frantz Fanon was one of the great pioneers of cross-cultural psychoanalysis in the Caribbean. Popular weirdnesses are behind the curve in the latter days of the age of comparison.

So is it that folktales and their ilk are always inherently more conservative phenomena? Are crop circles and the like really just the retro defense of would-be integral cultures, an attempt to incorporate liminality in ways that comfort by their very strangeness, in the same way that myths of black helicopters comfort their believers because they fit the anomalous into accepted models of things that actually exist? (But there is considerably more cultural-studies writing on that topic, so I leave it to one side. Beauty and ugliness and their successive discontents is enough of a subject for one rambling essay. And I do not believe that the answer to the preceding two questions is “Yes.”)

Blogs may be more akin to private journals with megaphones than useful contributions to public discourse. Or as was said of a certain group of thinkers in antiquity, when they were speaking of things that were profound, they were so unclear as to be of no use to anybody; but when they were speaking of things that were simple, what they said was perfectly clear but so obvious as to be of no use to anybody.

argumentation, two

It is almost Advent, and for the Christian world the beginning of the celebration of one of the more spectacular interventions of Otherness into the workaday life of a planet that was once more marvel-ridden than it is now. If angels announced the miraculous birth to sheepherders hanging out keeping the product from getting itself killed by its own stupidity, well, there was another angel who occasionally stirred up the waters of Siloam right in the capital city, to the benefit of the first invalid to slide into the suddenly healing waters.

Nowadays, it seems that the annunciations come from inner voices or invasive insectoid aliens, and the signs from the sky come in the form of elaborate geometries stomped into the flattened stalks of the world’s grain fields.

Hence Robert Cheatham’s ambitious show at Eyedrum (viewable for exactly one more day at the time I finally post this), “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies.”

Cheatham is fascinated by the divisions between the skeptics and the believers, and the nature of the evidence that they confront. Crop circles are sometimes made by teams of artists openly, but the ones that show up in a single night are often so elaborate that it is difficult to believe in the reticence of any artists capable of doing all this in a very few hours in the dark, even with the lights that are sometimes noticed as accompanying the phenomena.

But we have been assured by a quite paradoxical circle-maker that it can all be done under cover of darkness in the time allotted, using simple equipment, so the speculations I wrote in my first draft of this ought to be reproduced in brackets:

[If the crop-circle artists really do work on this scale on a regular basis and remain completely anonymous by choice, we have the equally fascinating question of what they are up to and why they are willing to turn down the chance to make their fortune by replicating the things on global television. Who would kill themselves with the effort season after season for no apparent reason except the enjoyment of bamboozling the gullible? It would require outright psychosis to energize so many artists for so many years for the perverse pleasure of pulling off a long-running joke. And yet not one of them has come forward to offer a reasonable explanation, even though other teams have confessed to creating some of the simpler productions (and of creating some elaborate crop circles over a rather longer stretch of time, with the advantage of daylight in which to execute the mapped-out designs).]

I have belabored the case of crop circles because they replicate the geometry that accompanies today’s reinventions of occult emblems. There is great fascination with the cosmograms of Africa and the African diaspora, which collided in the Caribbean with the geometries of Freemasonry to create still more emblems of the world’s mystery. There is an equally great and longerstanding fascination with the Hermetic emblems of the Renaissance proto-scientists such as Athanasius Kircher, for whom the world could be blazoned forth in diagrams that were meant to be at once a cosmology and an incipient physics and a map of spiritual desire.

And such books as The Golden Game have been rich sources for reproductions of the allegories of alchemy, in which proto-chemistry was symbolized by lions and kings and queens and sexualized vessels and journeys amid the trees of Eden.

But in the 21st century nobody can quite confess to liking all this stuff if they intend to do serious art or even seriously lowbrow art. Irony dies regularly, but sarcasm lasts eternally.

So the spirit of sarcasm reigns brutally over the show at Eyedrum, the ugliness and malproportions of a good many of the works making clear their intent to ridicule the rubes. Others seem interested in what makes people believe in the plainly impossible, and their combinations of imagery are a bit more sympathetic.

And still others seem to be genuinely committed to creating contemporary models for vision.

But nothing lives up to the precursors, or even comes close to comprehending them if we have only the visual evidence from which to judge. We would rather see the originals in ethnographic photos or in the reconstructions that have traveled through the world’s museums, or just page through the books on our own.

If the show seemed to be getting at the depths of delusion, or of transmitting the psychologically charged secrets of sacred geometry, it would be easier to spend time with it. But it seems to be doing none of the above.

Why? How come such a naturally deep topic, from which the Jungians got a whole secularized metaphysic not all that many decades ago, yields such a sparse conceptual and visual harvest in this case?

Have we simply lost the capacity to feel our way into the subject? Do we defend ourselves against the threat of ridicule by going overboard in our own satirizations, or do we try too hard to update the designs that were created for depths of the human personality that probably rest more in slowly changing biological substrate rather than the shifting tastes of personal history?

Tom Zarrilli comes closer to creating something that communicates the psychogeography of dreaming, as he states. But the final category of psychogeographies sits uneasily beside the cosmograms and crop circles, even if the invented inventories of ley lines try to superimpose an occult meaning on the landscapes of Britain that are already charged to the brim with the magic of natural shapes and flora. The fields of Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham are a more magical entity than any crop circles imposed upon them ever could be. (Had I the time and energy, I’d try Photoshopping crop circles into Samuel Palmer’s etchings, and perhaps someday I shall do so. It would be a hilarious way of making my point.)

Anyway, Zarrilli remembers his childhood in an American tropical zone that no longer exists, and offers up visual fragments from which dreams take their beginnings of responsibilities. (Allusion to Delmore Schwartz there, sorry.)

Nigel Ayers’ Bodmin Moor Zodiac is a similar homage to psychogeography, reminiscent of the figures supposedly laid out upon the land surrounding Glastonbury, but once again, the visuals fail us. The black and white photographs in old books about the star gods of Glastonbury are more evocatively uncommunicative than Ayers’ pieces, and Paul Nash’s paintings and photographs of British landscape are more evocative than either.

And Ruth Laxson’s “God Dolls” in her recent show at Marcia Wood Gallery are probably more genuinely deconstructive and reverent when it comes to how and why we shape imaginary structures and the creatures with which we populate them.

For that matter, Marc Brotherton’s works currently at Callanwolde are so much stronger than his pieces in the Eyedrum show that we might profitably wonder what has gone wrong when the topics of imaginative projections of deep meanings enter into the equation—hard to define the problem.

I had originally noticed the accidental closeness and written this post to come out at exactly 1111 words. I am sure it no longer does so.

let the arguments begin, one

Robert Cheatham and I may be fated to produce shows in which the critics complain that the art tells a different story from the one we have set out as curators to tell. And of course, we can complain rightly that the critics have missed the point.

I am sure that I have fundamentally misread some of the artists in “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” because I don’t like their art. I have misread others because I am trying to force them into a model that they are not presenting, and neither is Cheatham.

I am probably more like a disappointed lover who arrives with expectations and comes away disgruntled because the reality doesn’t live up to the constructions of the imagination based on past models. But of course the past models are (1) in the past and (2) constructed for purposes that we may misconstrue through a haze of exoticism. They may have looked rather workaday and drab to their contemporaries, whereas we see their underlying geometries and a loveliness that is lovely when compared with the conventions of the present day, not those of their own day.

So I feel like an elderly curmudgeon, but so be it. I feel the show doesn’t tell me what I wanted to know. It is useful to combine people who are making purely ironic comments, people who are creating a belief without belief, beyond belief (to quote Wallace Stevens’ familiar lines), and people who are creating imaginary structures as a tool of analytical investigation.

But then we have to figure out the relationships on the one hand, and the adequacy of the effort on the other. And Cheatham certainly gives it his best shot.

I probably ought to go into his essay line by line and try to engage in a dialogue. But I can’t.

The posts that appear are substantially the same as when I wrote them, save for a couple of minor surgeries. I think I may have left yet another post in draft form and will resurrect it appropriately.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

the counterforce continues, the suppressed post commenting on the preceding ones

(I mean the succeeding ones, not the preceding ones, for as it turned out, this slightly expanded draft post was posted in the order in which it was placed in the list as a saved draft.)

A day's perusal of the state of documentation on crop circles is most curious. John Lundberg is the longtime circlemaker who insists he has presented enough technical information on his website and elsewhere to show how anyone could produce the most complex of the circle designs yet laid down, using minimal equipment. He ridicules anyone who considers the circles to be necessarily of other than ordinary human origin.

That said, his posts on go on to describe very odd phenomena of light and energy that have taken place while he and his cohorts were in the process of making the circles, and goes on to describe them as what he says that Rob Irving calls "temporary sacred sites" in what Lundberg himself calls the "psychic landscape" of Wiltshire. In other words, Lundberg is one of the declared circle-makers who believes that something more than simple trickery is going on, and that he is "part of it," as he puts it.

Nigel Ayers' presentation of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac in his book for sale on seems to be something of the same sort, with a postmodern twist. And this is where, as we learn from Wikipedia, the "psychogeography" of Robert Cheatham's show comes into play, courtesy of this Situationist takeoff on the probably equally imaginary Glastonbury Temple of the Stars:

"In the walks around the M25 motorway documented in psychogeographer Iain Sinclair's 2003 novel London Orbital, the walkers trace the mythical Kingston on Thames Zodiac.

"In 2006, artist Nigel Ayers began to develop the idea of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac as a form of spatial detournement. This was an idea derived from developments in Land Art and Locational Media, influenced however by urban-based Situationist and Letterist theory. Over the course of a year, Ayers carefully explored the outlines of zodiac figures perceived and plotted on large-scale maps and aerial photographs of the moor. The newly-drawn 2006 figures are remarkable and make a break from earlier mooted terrestrial zodiacs on Bodmin Moor and elsewhere as they actually resemble a conventional zodiac as outlined on a star map."

And this is the description of the Bodmin Moor Zodiac, which doesn't look like much when displayed on a gallery wall but is remarkably impressive when presented as though it were the rediscovery of a long-extant astrological design (shades of the original website for The Blair Witch Project):

"The Bodmin Moor Zodiac is a massive astrological design measuring twelve miles across, impressed on the landscape by Mesolithic nomads, waiting to be digitally rediscovered in the 21st century. This is a remarkable story of old legends revived, mythological scenes deconstructed and forbidden knowledge brought to light. Nigel Ayers walks the secret paths of Bodmin Moor compulsively and decodes the hidden language of the Cornish landscape like no other rambler. The Bodmin Moor Zodiac transforms our sense of Cornwall, as Ayers creates strange trajectories between place and hyperspace, from the Celtic Otherworld to digital media, from Brown Willy to the Planet Venus. This book is what literature should be about; intensity of language, deranged visions and cultural de-programming."

So we have a double vision that makes William Blake's version of it look sick. Except that Blake shared the notion of a fourfold vision that was to be twofold always. ("May God us keep / From single vision, and Newton's sleep!") But the doubling is taking place in a world in which single vision has returned with a vengeance, both on the sides of the believers and their opponents. And there are ample quantities of single vision and single-mindedness to be found in the art of "Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies," whereas folks like Lundberg et al seem almost unsettlingly double and triple minded.

But Americans don't seem to know how to play that game very well. We come from folk who believed what they believed or found signs and portents that brooked of no alternate interpretation, but were type and antitype only.

the counterforce continues, two

I have decided on re-reading that I really need to re-think, re-imagine, and re-vise my ramblings regarding Robert's show.

I even revised this re-vision.

the counterforce continues

My first big essay in graduate school a couple of generations ago was titled “The Ironic Consciousness.” Dealing mostly with E. M. Cioran and Stanley Romaine Hopper, if I recall rightly, it bore an epigraph from Simone Weil to the effect of “Method of investigation: When we have thought one thing, try to see how the opposite might be true,” and one that is either from Soren Kierkegaard or based on him, to the effect that no matter what path we try to take to faith, “irony bars our way.”

I omit, if I remember to delete it, a self-indulgent autobiographical paragraph in order to skip to the point that irony was not only the quintessential European attitude ever since Nietzsche but the governing factor of American poets from Wallace Stevens on.

But Stevens’ “The final belief must be in a fiction” and “We believe without belief, beyond belief” had much in common with the incipient belief in the fictions of the inheritors of Marx mixed with Nietzsche such as the Situationists. There were a host of avant-garde movements that argued bitterly over the proper relationship between science and the imagination, and they were all alien to the cockeyed optimism of American innocence.

Situationist psychogeography, as transformed in Britain, consisted of belief-ful constructs that were constructed in a state of conscious disbelief. Wanderers with a purpose, they rediscovered the Surrealists’ state of the marvelous without marveling at it.

So Eyedrum’s “Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies” is about the state of the marvelous and those who marvel at it and those who only enjoy it and those who somehow manage to do both.

But the show raises so many problems for me that I have written several thousand words already, trying to locate the sources of my discontent, and will most likely continue to do so.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Crop Circles, Cosmograms, Psychogeographies

Robert Cheatham is properly pissed that nobody has given his thus-titled show at Eyedrum the analytical review it deserves. It deals, at its most basic, with how we make art regarding that in which we believe or do not believe, the more so when the belief is ridiculous to us or is essentially difficult to capture in a fully adequate form. And the show at Eyedrum seems to be mostly equal measures of the two responses. So it ought to be revelatory of the dimensions of skepticism and faith, or what makes us willing to suspend disbelief long enough to enjoy the fantasies of others versus what makes us willing only to shake our heads in disbelief.


Several thousand rambling words have been written by me as a preliminary reaction to the show, and, the Merciful Omnipotence being willing, said words will be posted in due course, more or less as composed.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

part two and a bit more, as usual

This past Sunday I went to the annual holiday opening at Reinike Gallery, a survey show of Charles H. Reinike III's recent paintings (with a considerable number of brand-new ones).

A painting titled The Golden Parachute, showing the Golden Calf appropriately decked out for a soft landing, is priced at ten million dollars, open to negotiation.

Again, one doesn't expect this sort of cheeky conceptual gesture in the refined surroundings of this exceedingly well-bred gallery, but Charles and Edna's New Orleans heritage includes the sort of politely puckish behavior that makes mere "mavericks" look like the Far-Western boors that they are. At the lower end of the Mississippi, the pirates and the aristocrats and the habitues of Congo Square knew how to mix it up right, at a time when polite society and cowboy culture were keeping worlds apart from each other in the rest of the country.

So it isn't surprising that this most genteel and soft-spoken of painters should elegantly recall the gesture of fellow Southern painter Clyde Broadway, who twenty years ago produced a painting of himself as a hitchhiker seeking a ride in a limousine with Hokusai geishas holding a bundle of irises, titled Goghing My Way? and priced at several million dollars. A commentary on the then-record price paid for a Van Gogh irises painting by Japanese investors, it was set off behind stanchions in an alternative-space show on the top floor of the IBM Tower / One Atlantic Center at 14th and West Peachtree.

The two commentaries on art and value are quite different, but what they share is a respect for painterly accomplishment. Both are well-made paintings, not cartoons, and both hold up well without the conceptual accompaniment, which nevertheless transfers them into a different genre of sociopolitical commentary.

The South seems to exult in this sort of offbeat between-the-categories output. It isn't fashionable and doesn't set out to be.

After Reinike, I went to Beep Beep Gallery to view "Majestic Hours," collaborative drawings by Sam Parker and Joe Tsambiras. These are of another distinct genre, sharing more of the sensibility of an internationally distributed lowbrow movement, with a degree of cross-cultural literacy that is also found across international boundaries though this version of it seems more specifically American.

We get flashes of allusions such as the Hindu "thou art that" (tat tvam asi, if you recall) and a Greek text I can't translate, or even adequately transliterate because I'm not sure of the orthography. But these allusions are scattered in between complex references to more contemporary visual sources, and put in the service of a thoroughly fashionable transgressive consciousness. Parker and Tsambiras transcend the adolescent humor of much artwork in this genre, but these drawings abound in expectoration, regurgitation, dripping daggers, multiple skulls, medieval battle axes, random cables and sockets with snake bodies to match, and the occasional cheeseburger. It is enough to delight the connoisseur of the art of death metal or of Julia Kristeva's idea of abjection. And indeed, Deleuze and Guattari come in for favorable comment in the accompanying book, as a key to the whole forest of symbols, or labyrinth of signs.

Of course, Deleuze and Guattari are the key to "Majestic Hours" in the same way that Frank was the key to Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, which he explicated by stamping on a light bulb with his foot and putting his fist through a plate glass window, if Dylan's liner notes of forty years ago are to be believed. (Which of course they are not, being a parody of literary explication that echoed the makers of Happenings even as it poked fun at the critics of Lionel Trilling's explanatory note for the irony-challenged....)

So here are two shows that scarcely anyone else would consider pairing. And indeed the gulf in sensibility is as significant as the commonality of a quirky sense of humor.

Which obviously is why I sort of like both of 'em, even though I might prefer to come down somewhere in between the quiet refinements of historical sensibility and the purveyors of smegma. Why people do what they do is one of my particular interests, and why audiences like one type of art more than another is part of the question a critic has to answer en route to finding ways to bridge aesthetic gulfs and suggest that certain genres could be handled differently, and others understood differently.

Monday, November 17, 2008

more news from the underreported countries

The above photo, labeled "Sarajevo 2008," is part of a current exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum in Basel (until December 28), for the information of those of you with travel budgets.

For the rest of us, the website reveals that the exhibition "BALKANOLOGY: New Architecture and Urban Phenomena in South Eastern Europe" covers a considerable range of contemporary architecture in five cities (Belgrade, Zagreb, Kotor, Prishtina and Tirana) in the countries traditionally identified as "the Balkans." However, the show's theory-based focus is "urban development in transitional and post-conflict situations, from Prishtina to Belgrade, where weak or missing institutional structures make it impossible to achieve the regulation of construction processes. The wild, volatile spread of informal building structures is the aftermath of the kind of urban crisis that follows social upheavals or wars. At the same time, independently of regional particularities, these urban developments display a new kind of urban form that is quite different from informal settlements in countries outside Europe."

In other words, the versions of uncontrolled urban development in the Balkans are both prototypical and distinct, which is the kind of situation I love to contemplate.

But I am not going there, so until I can figure out the most efficient way to acquire the twelve-euro catalogue, this summary will have to suffice:

the total range and then some, part one. (part two a bit later)

It is impossible, as I have said, for one person to visit all the art events taking place in metro Atlanta without access to an independent income, a reliable car, and considerable stamina. But sometimes MARTA and the kindness of friends serves as a substitute.

This past week I visited Connexion Gallery and Design Studio (, which describes itself as "in the heart of Dunwoody, on Mount Vernon Road, across from Dunwoody Village," and also describes itself as providing "a canvas for artists of different regions and cultural backgrounds to address contemporary issues and create a dialogue." Its current, consciously cross-cultural exhibition includes owner Zamila Karimi's meditative Iraq War memorial ("paying homage to our heroes") using the four elements of earth, water, fire and air in different forms. (On opening night, the water in question included slowly melting sheets of ice, now existing only as digital documentation, that contained laser-cut lists of the names of fallen American soldiers).

Connexion's goals are admirable, and the greatest obstacle to its bridge-building among cultures may be the danger of falling in between metro Atlanta art audiences in its mix of experimental and traditional aesthetics. The venture is the project of a firm specializing in architectural, interior and exhibition design with an emphasis on sustainability.

Friday, November 14, 2008

slowly it all gets done is doing an increasingly good job of sorting things out for us in the Atlanta artworld. However, we need to discuss how to reach the art audiences not yet habituated to the internet, and how to connect all the galleries, including those that are not to our personal tastes, with the audiences that would find them to their personal tastes. (I tend to defend galleries that believe in an informed version of beauty and galleries that believe in a reasonably well-crafted version of confrontational conceptualism, and there are other ones that I would prefer to overlook entirely but that still need to receive the kind of coverage that no one is currently do we produce a single publication that will link together the most media-savvy and the merely art-interested, while educating all sides if they choose to delve deeply enough? something for future discussion.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

a meditation in three parts, three

So? Doesn’t this kind of enthusiastic overflow leave out entirely too many issues?

I deliberately omitted Oceanic, Native American and African art from consideration (and elided art beyond the seventeenth century in general) because the best Pacific Island holdings are in private collections, significant Japanese collections are not always on public display, and the region’s Native American sculpture is on site at Etowah and Ocmulgee as well as at Fernbank…all side topics from my main points regarding looking at the accomplishments of our planet’s population.

And the holdings of African art also deserve a level of discussion that would have taken us into entirely different realms of discourse. There are hybrid objects from the colonial encounter that are in the collection of the Carlos that raise a host of fascinating issues as well as being stunning aesthetic objects in and of themselves. (And we do know that the African cultures that created them have concepts about art that would translate well as “aesthetics,” lest any should sniff at the importation of alien analytical categories.)

Walter Benjamin wrote rightly that every document of civilization is simultaneously a document of barbarism, but the point is that it is still a document of civilization. Both the Tut and First Emperor shows give us interesting glimpses into the realms of misery required to create these incredible artistic accomplishments that were never meant even to impress other human beings, but to keep up appearances for the ruler in his afterlife. In Egypt, the intermediary bureaucrats could afford similar if smaller immortalities, and the royal building supervisor has a level of portraiture in his entombment that matches that of some of his social betters. The artisans laboring on the Emperor of Qin’s tomb complex at least got inscribed pottery grave markers, unlike the anonymous masses hewing wood and drawing water.

The misery and the anonymity does not diminish the creative accomplishment, which was not meant to pleasure the masses but has ended up doing so anyway.

And anyone who has ever signed a sufficiently humiliating work-for-hire contract knows all about anonymity; I looked all over the press folder for the Tutankhamun show for the name of the designer, and while the designer of the overall logo and look is probably named somewhere in the kit, it doesn’t really occur to us to single out her or him, any more than we look most of the time to see who did the photo shoot for the weekly advertising insert for Target or Walmart, wherein every once in a while some of the set-ups seem surprisingly beyond the call of aesthetic duty.

That we don’t know the gender of most of the world’s artists (though now we know much more than we once did) or how much they were compensated (though now we also know much more than we once did) does not negate the accomplishments of their imaginations working, so much of the time, against the odds.

It behooves us to fall in love with the objects they have left for us.

a meditation in three parts, two


Why would it be worth it, as the preceding post asserts, to chase after a jigsaw puzzle of pieces of world art in which some whole segments of the board are still missing, so far as Atlanta is concerned? (And I deliberately put some segments out of play because of all the extraneous issues they raise in terms of my argument.)

I realize I read world art (“read” as well as “look at”) the way I read the New York Review of Books: taking each isolated segment as an illuminating example (perhaps what the medieval Schoolmen would have called an exemplum, but I really don’t have time to go search Wikipedia to see if I’m right). Put together in terms of their connections and their instructive contrasts, the pieces reveal things about the amazing unity in diversity of the human species.

But of course what is revealed sounds fatuous when you start to spell it out, and that in itself is instructive. You can see why theoreticians of every stripe start reaching for general laws, including the general law that cultures cannot be meaningfully compared with one another because each culture is an autonomous structure. Which is, taken in isolation, as fatuously in error as the assertion that all cultures operate by an identical set of easily defined laws. We are dealing with an enormous set of variables, but not an infinite one.

But when I, personally, run around looking at art, I’m not thinking too much about how the Freudians or the structuralists or the…oh, if I start naming names on all sides, it only leads into thickets of dispute I’d rather not enter at the moment.

Actually, I’m reacting against the failures of imagination of smalltown kids and very-big-city kids who grow up to be dead-certain smalltown and very-big-city grownups, respectively.

By those two categories, I mean people who accept the world into which they were born, lock stock and barrel (a fossilized metaphor that could come from shopkeeping as well as from firearms, which is why I like it and refuse to look up its history).

Growing up in a small town, you pretty much decided that how things are done around you is obviously the best way to do things, the most entertaining way to do things, the most down-to-earth practical way to do things, what have you. Growing up in a very big city, ditto. Only in the very, very big city you have huge, comprehensive museums that reinforce the view that the way your town sees it is the only possible way of seeing things, because, dammit, you obviously got one of just about everything right there in the museum, laid out in cases with labels on them.

And folks from small towns who want to learn would come to the museums and traipse through the halls, wishing they understood why all the stuff in the cases is the way it is.

And that is why museum-studies people have spent so much energy in recent decades trying to undermine that kind of impression about the godlike museum…even while recognizing that these days they have to compete with other forms of entertainment at the same time that they are trying to undercut the old idea that they ever presented the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth.

And when you break out of smalltown ways, you tend to do it one category at a time, or rather, you did before the digital age, when the field of perception expanded exponentially. I still remember how Fra Angelico in the Christmas issue of a magazine opened up a world that hadn’t been there before, as much as a Frank Lloyd Wright house did.

Traditional art education skips from the single-object revelation straight to the chronology and categorization of objects. (I resist the opportunity for clever, piquant examples.) And with enough determination, the most exquisite discoveries of the human eye and hand can be squeezed into the cramped categories of received ideas, although the best professionals still retain the sense of wonder felt by the rankest amateur. (And the absolute best communicate how it is possible to combine wonder with rigorous scholarship.)

And it’s rank amateurism for me to take delight in how divergent cultures, developing independently, take on the same sets of problems in different contexts, and solve them similarly and yet with utter difference. It’s more defensible to realize with surprise how much these supposedly autonomous cultures interpenetrate, so that Egyptian pharaohs can’t get their ritual objects made right unless somebody hauls lapis lazuli overland from Afghanistan. Which means in turn that it takes a lot of rule-making to keep the cultures at either end of the trade route from polluting one another with newfangled ideas as well as raw materials.

Because while cultures at large suffer from failures of imagination, the makers within them have always seen the possibilities in the new things they were seeing, and the realization that others saw them differently.

And yet so many discoveries are clearly indigenous to a culture: Even if vessel-makers create the same sinuous geometries to solve the problem of how to hold liquids attractively, strivers after forms of representation invent distinct visual conventions for translating into two dimensions the shape of a human finger or a lotus blossom. So it is delicious to look at lots of different ways of solving those problems, and to catch repetitions that seem as though they must have come about because there are only so many ways of solving that particular problem. And then to learn that many-thousand-mile-long trade routes existed in antiquity, objects and materials traveling overland and along coastlines until short enough distances of water permitted connections. There were long periods of time in which war and geography made connections impossible, and parts of the earth that never communicated with one another at all, but it is the uncertainty about the source of visual forms that makes their similarities and differences such a source of delight for a certain temperament.

And I suppose that temperament comes from growing up in a small town and knowing that there were lots and lots of things you just couldn’t get to and never would get to. Now the Internet makes an unprecedented number of them available everywhere on earth simultaneously, viewed live on webcam or reproduced actual size in segments over which your cursor can browse as the eye would in a market or museum.

But I realize that you aren’t responding to all this with the particular species of romanticized enthusiasm to which I seem to be prone as a onetime kid from Small Town South (Small Town South was the name of the notorious 1940s exposé of my home town by one of its native sons who went off to seek fame on the New York stage). Everyone has his or her own set of biographical circumstances, and those circumstances have enough parallels to allow the sociologists to drop us into categories.

But I still think it’s great that Atlanta, one of the cities that suffered so long from being one of the world’s latecomers and that still suffers from the anxious show of sophistication that characterizes the arriviste, for once offers an array of significant fragments that allows room for meaningful connections among the world’s artistic inheritances.

You could get a certain something even out of the random scraps of the Kress Collection and the dustily displayed bits of Egyptiana that were all that Atlanta had to offer once upon a time, but for once we have a range of diverse objects that renews one’s respect for the power and range of the human visual imagination. We have a rare chance to appreciate the immense number of ways in which the world’s artists seen their duty, and they done it. (I ought to do a Wikipedia search for the origin of that now seldom-cited idiolect, but I won’t. I think it may date back no further than Walt Kelly’s classic comic strip Pogo, making it as time-bound as the catchphrases originating in the shows of Comedy Central.)

Atlanta and the world: a meditation in three parts, one

At Last, After All These Years

Let the record show that in the waning days of the Bush Administration, it was finally possible for the determined seeker to get a certain amount of perspective on global art from the late Neolithic to somewhere in the mid-seventeenth century without leaving the city of Atlanta.

Granted, you have to cheat a little, by letting small numbers of objects represent entire regions of the world in a number of cases, and by excluding immovable rock paintings and artifacts from any number of cultures that used perishable materials, so that nineteenth century examples are taken to be emblematic. And you have to travel back and forth between several Atlanta locations to get much of a perspective.

But one could get a fair ways along in perspective-seeking just with the exhibition programs of the High and the Carlos at the moment, which is quite unusual.

Catherine Fox has already pointed out the odd coincidence that links the splendid objects in the shows of King Tutankhamun and of the First Emperor of China: both bodies of work were commissioned by rulers who came to the throne very young and who died young, too. And both were determined to carry on full tilt in the afterlife, resulting in the extraordinary objects found in these two blockbuster shows, both of which also include sufficient contextualizing objects to give some sense of the societies that spawned a Manhattan-sized underground tomb city in the state of Qin and an undersized tomb crammed full with paraphernalia in Pharaonic Egypt.

But these two draws provide only the biggest and most contextualized works of art from only two ancient civilizations. To find the rest, we have to go to the Carlos’ permanent collection or to two other exhibitions at the High, consisting of objects on loan from the Louvre and from the Victoria and Albert.

But both these shows at the High look different after a walkthrough of “The First Emperor.” One of the most arresting objects in that show of stunners is a small jade vessel dated “Late Neolithic to Early Dynastic,” or about 2000 – 1200 B.C. The skillful carving and elegant proportions of this “ritual object” (for so it is labeled) reveal a Chinese civilization already well on the way to the levels of artistic accomplishment that would permit the creation of thousands of larger-than-life-size individualized terra cotta warriors a millennium or two later.

And once sensitized to the skills of the Late Neolithic, the eye is drawn anew to the Egyptian stone vessel in “The Louvre and the Masterpiece.” Here, the craft of the carved vessel has been perfected nearly two millennia earlier than in our Chinese example.

Of course, if we want to do cross-cultural comparisons, we have to look at the Mesopotamian pieces contemporaneous with the Chinese ritual object, and progress chronologically through all the Egyptian dynastic material scattered between the High and the galleries of the Carlos and the Carlos’ Tut blockbuster at the Civic Center.
And that would take so long and would still omit so many periods of history that I can’t imagine anyone actually doing it. And after we had followed that trail of associative links, we would still have the art of the ancient Americas to work through at the Carlos, not to mention a trail of Greek art that includes the stunning seventh-century B. C. Lady of Auxerre from the Louvre.

And then it would be time to pick up the trail in medieval Europe and start thinking about its relationship to the art of the Islamic world (exemplified here by a remarkable fourteenth-century vessel from Syria that eventually served as a baptismal vessel for the French monarchy after having previously been used as a container for holy water during the Easter celebrations).

Actually, we could pick up the trail in Late Antiquity with the Byzantine consular tablet from shortly after the fall of the Western Roman empire, and go on from there through a succession of Western and Eastern Christian objects, but we would have to walk over to the show from the Victoria and Albert to do it.

And we would have to run over to the Carlos to look at some of the comparable materials from Egypt, and to trace things back through Rome and fill in a few more ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. But it would be worth it. Or at least it seemed that way when I did it in the opposite direction.

Monday, November 10, 2008

bear with me

There is actually more to be remarked on than I have energy or eloquence to cover adequately, and I have suppressed more words than I have posted on either blog.

More eventually re the problem of nine art openings in one evening, and the problem of art audiences and connecting the audience with the art.

And much more, I hope. (It is a season for hope.)

Friday, October 31, 2008

illustrations of artwork

and I would add to these citations from some of Mark Karelson's exquisite political work, had I permission.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

this could wait till next Wednesday, but I'll forget: one more note on beauty and politics

"Terry Eagleton has said that '[s]ometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, the left fatally surrendered the aesthetic to the right,' leaving the left 'doubly disabled,' caught in a dilemma between cutting itself off from many of the people’s most important real aspirations and expressing them in a language 'confiscated by political reaction' (34)."

—Rodger Cunningham, in a re-evaluation of his book on Appalachian culture, Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia, quoting Eagleton’s essay “Nationalism: Irony and Commitment.” in Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, and Edward Said, Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1990. 23-39.

As one who has long campaigned against the Left's devotion to puritanical plug-ugliness as being somehow more in touch with the essential ugliness of the life of "the people," I hold up the exquisite aesthetic qualities of Shepard Fairey's HOPE poster, which has been productively stolen by the people for use in contexts far beyond its original purpose as an Artists for Obama image:

—Wait, I don't have to find a jpeg and insert it here, do I? y'all know what that poster looks like, even if you haven't seen Robert Indiana's re-invention of HOPE in terms of his famous LOVE image.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

some shows have early closing dates even if the election does also

Two or Three Ideas:
Gregor Turk at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Peter Bahouth at Marcia Wood Gallery, Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier at Atlanta Art Gallery

Two shows currently in Atlanta interrogate the dynamics of representation, from opposite perspectives. A third exhibition, like the fabled former Seinfeld series, is a show about nothing, or as close to nothing as something can be that once held a message.

To borrow the closing line of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man,” Gregor Turk’s dual show at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery of “Interstate 50” and ”Blank” shows us “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

“Interstate 50” is a ten-year series of photographs of blank billboards. They, like the Interstate that does not exist (even though it appears on at least one older mini-map as a trap for copyright violators), are representations of absence where there was supposed to be presence.

The billboards, photographed in various landscapes, have no advertising messages because they are sited on roads that are not much traveled any longer, or roads that have failed to sustain commerce for some other reason. Sometimes they are almost proudly blank, other times they are crumbling from neglect, and as often as not, time and weather have left faint traces of what might have been onetime messages obliterated beneath a whiteness as terribly void as the whiteness of the whale that Herman Melville rhetoricized in Moby-Dick.

By contrast, Turk’s closeup photographs of walls on which graffiti have recently been obliterated echo the conventions of mid-20th-century abstract painting, resembling color fields or, in one case, clearly imitating Mark Rothko. Printed at an intimate scale, they need to be well-nigh monumental.

(Which reminds me of Joe Peragine’s lexicon for gallerygoers who want to give the illusion of being knowledgeable: ‘Instead of saying ‘Sure is small,’ say ‘How intimate.’ Instead of saying “Sure is big,’ say ‘My, it’s monumental.’” Yes, Joe, you’re right.)

Turk’s photographs, of course, are carefully isolated slices of reality, unmanipulated except in terms of the angle of vision.

By contrast, Peter Bahouth’s stereoscopic photos of female collaborators in “Sadie’s Choice” at Marcia Wood Gallery are thoroughly theatrical, as theatrical as anything Gregory Crewdson or Katy Grannan ever did. (Grannan is the better comparison here.) There is no manipulation of the image, but the manipulation of the scene itself is total.

Bahouth asked a dozen women to create scenes for self-portraiture that paid homage to pin-ups of the mid-20th-century (so the 1940s and 1950s are being referenced in more ways than one in October 2008). He himself would offer no suggestions nor would he do anything as photographer that would influence the dynamics of a session in which each subject would have all the power and the photographer would be a willing accomplice.

Unfortunately, expectation influences outcome, and all the women took the idea of glamorous retro self-representation all too literally. They posed in pools or bubble baths, or surrounded themselves with exotica that would have been appropriate for the way in which their ethnicity would have been represented circa 1950. The famous Betty Page and the glamour shots of Bunny Yeager are all too well celebrated not to come into mental play, no matter how autonomous Bahouth wanted his empowered subjects to be.

What would have happened if Bahouth hadn’t referred to the stereoscopic erotica that existed back in the day, or self-consciously avoided any historically laden terms and just said, “I want you to think up a photo session that represents yourself the way you really want to be represented.”

Probably a good many of them would have taken their clothes off and the results might have been much more problematic for public exhibition than these pleasingly tame vintage images. Katie Grannan’s subjects certainly seem to long for maximum exposure for the most part, or at least take it for granted as part of the photo process.

But Katie Grannan has already done that. It made sense for Bahouth to try to address the problem of power relations as someone wielding a distinctive vintage mode of photography that demands that something unusual be done in homage to its history.

And it is valuable to realize just how widespread the hip knowledge of retro glamour shots really is. Bahouth was right to expect creativity from his subjects, but it was the terms of engagement that led all of them to versions of what had already been done, and to try to replicate the style of photography that was all the rage fifty years ago.

In other words, these women have absorbed the history of the image. Less visually inundated and less hip subjects might have shown the counter-influence of more contemporary styles of sexual display, and something unintentionally revealing (pun sort of intended) might have resulted.

The subjects were pretty much self-selected, and from pretty much the same background, according to persons who know some of them independently.

It might have been more educational to ask feminist academicians to pose for photographs that simultaneously reflected retro photographic traditions and reflected their own sense of themselves as sexual beings. But we have had quite a bit of that genre in recent years, and it would have made little enough sense for Bahouth to go into a situation already fraught with argument as to whether he was surrendering his identity or not.

So Bahouth’s experiment may have been an instructive failure, in terms of eliciting retro literalism instead of innovative metaphor.

Perhaps the subgenres that one encounters in the world these women inhabit do not encourage mixing and matching, but only a hiply ironic stance towards doing it and getting it right? I don’t know one way or the other, and wouldn’t presume to say that such is the case. But there has to be some reason why they chose not to violate the historicity of the situations they created, why they were unable to step outside the frame established for them by old photo conventions and even older expectations.

As with the popular revivals of burlesque, is it just a matter of enjoying with amusement what an older generation took very seriously as the way things ought to be, and an intervening generation tsk-tsked over as oppressive?

Not altogether dissimilar questions might be asked of the painters in “Jacob Collins and the Water Street Atelier” at Atlanta Art Gallery, except that these younger practitioners of a very old style of representation do show occasional flashes of irony, as in a creepy vanitas image of a jawless skull juxtaposed with an iPod.

But mostly the students of Jacob Collins have elected to make realist paintings that are hauntingly beautiful, a few echoing seventeenth-century Dutch still life but most reflecting a time that is our own, but not our time as we usually see it.

The portraits in particular make one realize the importance of scale in this tradition; the photographs in the little catalogue produced by the gallery sometimes look embarrassingly inconsequential when the paintings themselves are emotion-provoking near-masterworks. When personal style is suppressed in favor of realist representational conventions, small details become crucial and the size of the image even more so. Lacking the metaphysical vigor of the Dutch precursors, these artists present a world as it might yet be, an implicit utopia that might have delighted Ernst Bloch: a sense of reverie that creates space for dreaming and thus, according to Bloch’s heretical philosophic vision, for hope.

And these days we can use all the hope we can get, not to mention imaginative space in a world crowded, as Bahouth’s show reveals, with conventional images. Sometimes a re-imagining of an unfashionable tradition is the most revolutionary act of all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hope and despair (climbing the third stair)

There are a huge number of pressing issues in the Atlanta artworld and I have drafted commentaries on some of them, but the election is so much more important than any artworld topic that I am considering a moratorium until everyone I know can attest that they have cast a ballot in favor of what is best for the American nation in a time of unparalleled crisis (not the greatest of crises taken individually, but a combination requiring skills in improvisation and intelligence and willingness to adapt to situations never before encountered....).

Robert Indiana has created a lovely icon for this historical moment, but I won't violate copyright by reproducing it here.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

High time for the masterpieces

There is little enough time left to see "The Louvre and the Masterpiece" at the High Museum of Art unimpeded, before the dreaded Terra Cotta Warriors arrive and swamp us all in a sea of cultural tourism as their intrinsic mass appeal is coupled with the Carlos Museum's traveling objects from the tomb of King Tut.

Alongside such well-known astonishing artworks as the Vermeer illustrated here, the High's exhibition contains any number of less famous but genuinely amazing objects that justify the wearisome term "masterpiece"...even if there are those who would prefer some less-polluted circumlocution such as "really, really, really, really good stuff."

The Murillo painting shown here is one such aesthetic surprise, as much for its support as for its style.

Murillo used an Aztec divination mirror to provide the effect of the absolutely dark night in which Christ is about to be scourged by the soldiers. The obsidian gave him a desirable tone of black, and never mind the expected conventions of panel painting. Once the uses of Aztec obsidian were understood, a new subgenre of Spanish art was born. (Actually, there has to be an extensive and significant history behind the origins of that subgenre, and it was my webquest for that history that led to the digression that follows....)

A little bit of Google research turns up a contemporary show by Pedro Lasch (which is also a contemporaneous one, for Lasch's installation is at the Nasher Museum in Durham, NC until January 18, 2009) that makes use of the history of black mirrors for a work of installation art in which the metaphor of the black mirror is used as a tool for contemplating both the legacy of the indigenous art of the ancient Americas and contemporary philosophical and political concerns. (Lasch's conceptual ambition justifies a descriptive sentence as long as some of Joe Biden's speeches.)

Lasch provides considerable background on the uses and associations of the Aztec obsidian mirrors: "The Aztecs directly associated obsidian with Tezcatlipoca, the deadly god of war, sorcery and sexual transgression. Threatened by similar associations with sorcery and deviance, Pope John XXII banned the use of mirrors for any religious purpose in 1318. Yet centuries later, obsidian plates of all shapes and sizes would be introduced into Christian altars across Spain and its colonies, eventually becoming the surface on which artists, including Spanish baroque master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, would paint saints and virgins."

Murillo's mirror transformed for devotional purposes stands on its own as a significant historical and aesthetic artifact, especially in the diverse company it keeps at the High, where, paradoxically, the diversity of astonishing objects encourages the independent contemplation of each object's virtues, and of the historical context within which an object of such excellent complexity was created. (The show also features a few adroit juxtapositions of good-but-not-great examples of a genre next to the really, really, really, really good piece, to encourage us to think about what justifies that string of "really"s to describe the...okay, I'll use the word...masterpiece. There is also a singularly educative situation in which a subpar work by a big name is outshone by a piece by one of his imitators.)

As installed in dramatic isolation at the High, the archaic Greek sculpture known as the Lady of Auxerre seems so self-evidently superb that it is difficult to re-imagine how it could have been used as an incidental hatrack in the town museum where a curator from the Louvre discovered it a century ago. But this cluttered photograph from another context makes clear how stunningly elegant objects can look like nothing much at all when viewed from a bad angle and surrounded by competing visual stimuli:

At the High, this sculpture gets the respected viewing situation it deserves. And that helps, a lot, in terms of really seeing what is already there. This is one case where putting something literally on a pedestal encourages insightful viewing rather than unreflective reverence.

The whole show is an exercise in learning to look. And that makes it a more than suitable conclusion to this three-year succession of exhibitions. This one is worthy of repeated viewings, which the arrival of The First Emperor's sculptural retinue in mid-November will render very difficult.

So get out there and look while this is the only blockbuster show drawing the crowds.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

notes on making sense of Zhang Dali

An interview with Zhang Dali in, I think, the September issue of Artvoices clarified greatly the sources of the "Slogans" series now at Kiang Gallery. It is important to know how he acquires these generic identity photos in flea markets and overlays repeated versions of the helpful slogans posted by the Chinese government for popular consumption.

Slogans on banners or posters have been a part of Chinese life for a long time, but the content of these cheerful, snappy (in the original) pieces of self-help propaganda is quite distinct. It is also, for people like Zhang Dali (who, before recent events devalued the word, we might once have called "mavericks"), annoyingly condescending.

Hence the overlay of slogan overburden on generic faces of "the people."

This is more conceptually opaque than the artist's earlier work, even after someone tells us about the current ubiquity of this particular genre of slogan (which visitors to the Beijing Olympics saw in profusion).

Even for viewers of a certain age, it is difficult to appreciate the exact nuance here. Some of us grew up before the disappearance of the annoyingly universal public service ads telling us to break all matches before discarding, because only we can prevent forest fires. They made city dwellers who never went near a national forest feel like becoming pyromaniacs on general principle.

But for Chinese of the generation after the declaration of "To get rich is glorious," the admonitions of the nanny state almost certainly have a different resonance. This is especially likely since Zhang Dali's work has been so comprehensively a commentary on the difference between the old China and the new...the old being the country that used to describe itself as New China before the arrival of the new and improved product under the same management.

And it was new, before, as is the way of history, it became something different.

And Zhang Dali has explored its mores in terms of altered photography pre-Photoshop:

How reality is prettified or obscured in photographs is one of his particular interests. How language is poured over individual lives for well-meaning but overwhelming purposes is presumably another.

But we are left, or I am, with the feeling that his work requires the presence of wall text (beyond simple translation), or explication by someone on the premises. The innocent eye, or the untrained American eye, anyway, simply cannot contextualize the work in terms of what appears obvious to sophisticated observers onsite in the home country.

And this is typically the case with all but the most blatant of global conceptual art, even the works that appear to be dealing with universal issues. The universal is always presented in particular inflections, even as it reminds us of that which makes the human species an ultimate unity.