Tuesday, September 30, 2008

on emending: post number 77, apparently

William Boling deserves a more comprehensive (and corrected) discussion than I could give him in the middle of a Lisa Tuttle discussion.

"You Ain't Wrong" at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery and online at www.youaintwrong.com is actually a comparison of online items offered for sale or auction in New Zealand and the United States, something which isn't immediately apparent on viewing the juxtaposed images.

This is, in part, because NZ and the US are so culturally congruent (even if NZ is still a bit more like the UK and is sometimes willing to let itself be called by the Maori name Aotearoa) that it requires a keen eye and an anthropological background to figure out the subtle psychological differences between the two junk cultures. If Boling is to be believed, the US wins out in terms of odd bits of taxidermy, and I for one can believe it.

But my original point remains: more often the pairings seem to be making formal points (usually humorous ones) rather than providing piercingly analytical insights into the nature of today's America versus a land in the South Pacific whose historical entanglements and ironies presumably make for some amazing bits of material culture, as they used to call it last time I checked into the academic discipline in question (which was just long enough ago that anyone using the term "material culture" is now probably ridiculed).

I used to be a great deal more current on NZ when Art New Zealand was available in Atlanta, and am now suddenly inclined to begin a Google search to see what has been going on in NZ culture lately. Presumably, as with American culture and eBay, I could also find out the same thing by searching the NZ auction site frequented by Boling, but I would already have to know what names and keywords to look for.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lisa Tuttle at Sandler Hudson

Reading through the various papers from a symposium called Visual Literacy that James Elkins edited for Routledge this year, I realized again just how much Lisa Tuttle’s “Belgian Diary” photographs at Atlanta’s Sandler Hudson Gallery depend, for full comprehension, on a degree of historical background along with a visual literacy that goes beyond formalist questions of the composition of a good photograph.

Of course, one could say much the same of William Boling’s images of objects sold on eBay, at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery through October 3, and perhaps of Tom Zarrilli’s photographs of anomalous juxtapositions in yard sales. But there, the formalist aspects and unexpectedly amusing ironies are usually the main point, plus the amount of psychological unveiling involved in the fact that the seller had chosen to possess the objects in question, and that our society had felt the need for them to exist.

That last-named species of revelation is also the point of Tuttle’s photographs of Belgian flea markets and shop windows, except that the psychological unveiling is one that involves a whole country and its colonial history.

As books like King Leopold’s Ghost reminded us some years ago, in the latter part of the nineteenth century H.R.H. Leopold, King of the Belgians, created the singularly misnamed Independent State of Congo as his personal fiefdom, not as a colony of the Belgian nation. The extraction of raw materials from the country depended on the uncompensated labor of the Independent State’s inhabitants.

When an observant bookkeeper in Belgium realized that tons of valuable commodities were coming out of Congo but nothing was going back except supplies for the colonial administration, he sounded the alarm. And in an act of appropriate outrage, the Belgian parliament removed Congo from Leopold’s jurisdiction and assumed control.

What followed was itself one of the less happy stories of colonial administration, and in 2005 what had once been the Belgian museum of the African colonies undertook to present the whole tale, unprettified and laid out analytically, with photographic documentation.

But the flea markets photographed by Tuttle are very nearly as good a record of the consequences of colonization as the museum’s show. Congolese sculptures, ranging from near-museum quality to tourist knickknacks, sit next to memorabilia of colonial days and sentimental reminders of the happy nineteenth century in the homeland.

The sheer quantity of Congo-related stuff is a reminder of the decades of Belgian colonial entanglements in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi (which were then joined together as Ruanda-Urundi). And Tuttle has a keen eye for the absurdities and the telling juxtapositions, which come from a different history than the more benign or merely bizarre paradoxes and comic moments discerned in American pop culture by Boling and Zarrilli. (This is not to say that the moments can't be simultaneously odd and poignant; I once acquired a souvenir shot glass from prewar Sarajevo in an Atlanta yard sale.)

Tuttle’s show deserves formal analysis one image at a time, but this is enough for starters. If I get started on the topic of inadvertently revelatory documentary residues of the colonial past and present, I’ll write more about that than about the show at Sandler Hudson, which runs through October 18.

on being unready for one's closeup

I had overlooked the acclamation this blog received from Atlanta's Creative Loafing. (I always assume that Counterforces is mostly being read by people who wandered over from my other blog, where almost all of my non-art-related posts go and where the readership is mostly from other fields of interest, and almost none of whom are from Atlanta.)

Now I am going to have to start posting to Counterforces more regularly instead of explaining what I would write if I were writing here more regularly.

Fortunately, my post about Lisa Tuttle at Sandler Hudson was already being tweaked, and deleting a few probably excessive or ill-chosen pieces of phraseology will get the thing ready to be posted before the show comes down. (For the past half-lifetime, I have grumbled that the problem with art reviewing is that it is expected to work like art history but to do so within twenty-four to seventy-two hours.)

I was going to post some reflections on the 2008 book Visual Literacy on my other blog, where they would fit into larger considerations, but now I guess at the very least I have to cross-post them here. Once I write them.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Great and Noble Jars

From the first time I saw a ceramic vessel by Dave the Slave (as he was then called in the American folk art world, his first name known from his signature), I wanted to know more about the man. These storage pots were more than utilitarian containers; the glaze was superb, the proportions magnificent, and best of all, they had little poems inscribed on them.

Fortunately, other people have had the same curiosity, and this has enabled an inspired amateur, New York designer Leonard Todd, to write a brilliantly speculative biography of David Drake, Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave (W.W. Norton, 2008). Born in Greenville, South Carolina in 1940, Todd was spurred to action by a 2000 New York Times review that led him to realize that one of his ancestors had been Dave’s owner.

Todd’s quest led him to extended research in the vicinity of Edgefield, South Carolina, the legendary pottery center of which he had been aware but which he had never visited. What he found in the archives regarding the peregrinations of the potter formerly known as Dave the Slave is the basis for an account that illuminates not only the accomplishments of a remarkable human being, but of the multiple ironies of Southern history.

For Dave was owned by a family that included classically eccentric members of the Southern intelligentsia, most notably Dr. Abner Landrum, who not only founded the ceramics town of Pottersville but edited his own newspaper there, one devoted to the arts and sciences as well as the politics of the day. And Landrum hired Dave for tasks at the paper as well as duties in the pottery…where slaves had begun to be taught the skills of turning and burning because the white laborers who performed such jobs were overly prone to chuck it all and head West, to the new lands in the Gulf Coast states or further afield.

So Dave learned, whether by himself or with the encouragement of others, not only to read but to write. Until the slave rebellions of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, owners were encouraged to teach slaves to read so that they could interpret the Scriptures for their salvation; and Dave’s owner Harvey Drake was a devout Swedenborgian married to a Baptist.

The potentially dangerous craft of writing was another matter, and there is evidence that Dave taught himself that skill by adding inconspicuous written dates to the bricks he produced early in his pottery education.

Todd wisely follows up on an 1863 newspaper report that might too easily be dismissed as racist condescension, regarding Dave’s fondness for polysyllabic words. For it was a point of pride for slaves to have reached the five-syllable portion of Noah Webster’s primer in spelling, and one of Dave’s earliest known inscriptions on a pot is the single, variantly spelled word “concatination,” written on other pots as “catination” before he began composing his rhyming couplets.

David Drake’s story is one in which many “might have beens” have to be added to the documentation of bills of sale and such brief newspaper references as that slender account of his grandiloquent language habits. Todd provides most of these speculations with utter responsibility, quoting comparable situations and suggesting that this is similar to how Dave might have acquired his literacy and obvious proficiency in potterymaking. He squelches more extravagant speculation by others, and gives his reasons why. He hasn’t just done his homework, he has mastered the responsibilities inherent in historical research.

This is not to say his speculation doesn't have flaws. He accepts a piquant tale of how Dave came to lose one of his legs in a railway accident, which even in its abbreviated version sounds too much like a typical Southern shaggy dog story to be entirely credible. The tale stands in sharp contrast to the later unadorned newspaper reference to Dave's one-leggedness, which leads Todd to ponder the likelihood that this disability was the reason for Dave's being kept at Pottersville instead of removed to a new and relatively short-lived pottery venture in Louisiana.

Of necessity, Todd has to turn to regional history to fill in large chronological gaps, detailing the unhappy history of race relations after the Civil War and speculating on why there not only are no poem jars from this period, but David Drake passed himself off as illiterate (or was simply wrongly listed as such) in the 1870 census. (We know from later sources that he continued to make pottery for years thereafter.)

In the process of tracing the likely biography of a remarkable artist (I dislike the segregation of artistic media implied by the word “craftsperson”), Todd presents a memorably rendered image of the nineteenth-century South.

So Carolina Clay, despite its limiting title, ought to be of interest to a good many more people than connoisseurs of the craft media. As with any good biography, it raises philosophical issues as well as historical ones.

Friday, September 12, 2008

cool stuff at the High from the Victoria & Albert, and the sources of Southern folk art

Treasures from the Paradise Garden: on the Visual Background of Southern Folk Art

I love the new traveling show at the High Museum. “Medieval & Renaissance Treasures from the Victoria & Albert Museum” is one of those dorky titles in which “Treasures” is the only blockbuster keyword. Leonardo’s exquisite little notebook doesn’t even make it into the title.

And this is appropriate for a show that contains so many blockbuster items, from Late Antique Roman ivory diptychs to the sort of ivory ecclesiastical implement that required a whole tusk to carve properly. The medieval and early Renaissance trade in ivory from the Arab traders to the Italians in Venice to the workshops of all of Europe is something that deserves a show of its own: the dynamics kept changing depending on who had conquered which city and whether walrus ivory could take up the slack. (And whether the ivory came west from India or up the east coast of Africa, centuries before the Portuguese arrived, is surely a consequential topic.)

However the raw materials got there, the disrespected carvers and jewelers of Europe did wonderful things with them. Leonardo’s notebooks survive because the cult of the artist had begun to make personality as much a topic of interest as end product. What we have in this show is mostly end product, and wondrous end product at that.

The only known freestanding Virgin and Child sculpture from Byzantine workshops (where Orthodox theology required bas-reliefs, to discourage idolatry) stands in marked contrast to the intricate northern European style of Veit Stoss, making an object of admiration for a wealthy collector rather than an object of veneration in an ecclesiastical setting.

And it all requires close looking, and time to see the commonalities in Christian iconography if you care about such things, and even more time to understand the full implications of the Chinese-looking Medici porcelain made in the shape of a pilgrim’s flask but unusable for such a function.

But it doesn’t require a lot of background to be struck by the overall appearance of these objects. And their overall appearance, for me, transforms the Howard Finster gallery into which the exhibition unexpectedly opens.

I have long insisted that Finster and R. A. Miller and a host of other folk artists of their generation must have seen a vast number of family Bibles. And family Bibles of the era regularly reproduced Masterworks of Christian Art, usually things like Rembrandt but sometimes also Early Renaissance crosses and medieval ivories like the Soissons diptych in the V & A show.

And not being given to reading small print in photo captions or in the bottom of Bible pages (where the same information came in large-print concordances), folks like Finster would have experienced the Wow factor without necessarily remembering much about it. This makes it impossible to prove my theory, which first arose with regard to R. A. Miller’s strangely Italo-Byzantine-looking crosses. (Italo-Byzantine refers to the style of Eastern Orthodox images that were transmitted from the East to Western Catholicism by the Eastern Empire’s city-settlements on the Italian coast.)

Miller didn’t know from Byzantine, of course, and never had an explanation for why he had the curious accoutrements on his crosses. But I still wondered.

And viewed from the exit of the V & A show, from a distance Finster’s plexi boxes and some of his all-over paintings look like they got their horror vacui from the ordered ranks of storytelling on medieval ivories rather than from the natural human tendency that folk artists seem to have to fill every available square inch of space. The artists fill all the space they have, but they fill it differently; there is no single folk aesthetic.

My hypothesis is probably nonsense, but the V & A show does what a good museum show is supposed to do: it makes me look at the world a different way than I did before.


three or four Atlanta shows I haven't written about

One of the first letters I ever received from Xenia Zed, who would later become editor of Art Papers and set me off on a career that I had never even envisioned (much less intended), contained the marginal note “There simply is not enough time.”

She was quite right, and having turned out an AccessAtlanta column and a catalogue essay yesterday and a 1250-word joculum.livejournal.com blog post tonight, I am left with unassuagable feelings of guilt at the interesting Atlanta art shows I have left undescribed, never mind evaluated or set in context.

Harry Zmijewski’s wondrous return to architecturally informed sculpture is about to leave Callanwolde, and not even my attempt to interest the AJC in a human interest angle (the metal from which Harry Z’s conceptual geometrics and sculptural furniture is fabricated was gotten for thirty dollars at a sale disposing of signage materials) succeeded in getting the mainstream coverage it deserved. The show was and is far too intellectually challenging to be squeezed into AccessAtlanta’s “popularly accessible art” criteria.

But I ought to have blogged about it early on, instead of leaving it for another day.

And I ought to be blogging now about, and pursuing non-Atlanta review possibilities for, Toby Martin’s lovely, spare yet diverse sculpture show at Mason Murer Projects in Buckhead. One can see that Martin’s admiration for the great quintessential modernist sculptors, and for West African artistic and intellectual systems, and for the artistic productions of certain African Americans who have not always been approved by his colleagues, have all come together to result in an accomplishment that is certainly among the best of his career and perhaps—even probably—both the most ambitious and the most coherent. (He would most likely not approve of my saying that, but hey, I’m just saying. I’m not God, nor am I—for which, God be thanked—Clement Greenberg.)

But I’m tired. And the new work is challenging to write about in its own several ways, sometimes funny, sometimes achingly pure in its studied simplicity, and sometimes breathtaking in its transformations of materials that were still in their raw state less than three weeks before the show opened.

So I shall file it in the Guilt Box alongside the remarkable drawings by Roger Palmer currently at Marcia Wood Gallery (with a freedom of line and delight in conceptual interruption that rivals Martin’s, but in a completely different medium and with a completely different set of aesthetic and political issues).

And I drop them thus into the Guilt-Arousing File of Unfinished Ventures alongside the marvelous exhibition by Whitney Stansell at Stokes Gallery, next to Marcia Wood. I wrote the “how-to-approach-this-show” foreword to the artist’s book of “A First Date, A Funeral, and Moments in Between”—which I suspect is actually titled “A Funeral, A First Date, and Moments in Between”—so I suppose I could beg off on grounds of conflict of interest.

But since the show also embodies those exquisitely unexpected separations and stylistic paradoxes that enliven the oeuvres of Zmijevski, Martin, and Palmer in their own distinctive ways, I should have a go at expressing something, however fragmentary, about Stansell’s accomplishment.

The drawings, unlike the paintings, are not unitary objects. They’re bits and pieces laid together to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts both aesthetically and conceptually…just as the family history that is apparently related in them is more than one story, images of mother and of daughter appearing in the same picture as children of the same age. The generations repeat, and what is repeated is contained in memory and in the story Stansell tells about memory.

In her paintings, the components are numbered and keyed to often mysterious or faintly amusing footnotes below, like the punchline of a New Yorker cartoon. In this exhibition, that text has been transferred to a handset-type artist’s book, and the key elucidates things, in most cases, even less than before. Yes, the mourners as the casket is carried to graveside are all holding gamecocks. Next question.

I remarked to Stansell that my blog post about her show should be titled “A Funeral, An Art Reception, and Moments in Between,” since my Saturday had begun with a memorial service for my onetime mentor Robert Detweiler, who would have delighted in the seriocomic juxtapositions and disjunctures with philosophical implications that fill Stansell’s exhibition. Bob is gone, and those of us who remain at least for the moment are forced (as we have been for decades) to make sense of such things, and take delight in them, on our own. And my tribute to Detweiler has already appeared on my other blog.

And maybe one of these days I will be able to get something coherent written about these shows before they come down. Or maybe I will leave it up to my fellow bloggers, since there is so much else to do with the few hours of relative mental clarity available.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

this isn't really a Kathryn Refi review; and y'all watch for a guest post elsewhere....

I used to be a huge fan of maps. A little attention turns up wondrous anomalies: the patch of the Dutch-Belgian border where a couple of villages of the one country are an exclave that exists completely surrounded by the other country, a condition that doesn’t much matter in Baarle and Hertog but matters very much in places like the Republic of Mountainous Karabakh, where a good many Azerbaijani (or is it just Azeri?) and Armenian soldiers took bullets over which country got to control which ethnicity.

I suppose this was also related to my childhood bewilderment with the multiple entities to be found in Scott’s Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue or even more in the baffling map to be found in vintage stamp albums; not only were there countries that didn’t exist any longer, but their boundaries overlapped two and three and four times, even worse than the maps of Europe in which the countries as well as the boundaries shifted with monotonous regularity. I loved realizing that Europe had been a different continent in terms of countries as recently as 1939, but my eyes glazed over when I tried to contemplate the fact that neither Italy nor Germany had existed as single countries as recently as seventy-five years or so before that. It took me decades to figure out that if the Far Eastern Republic was an offshoot of the Russian civil war (easy), the mysterious Republic of Hatay was basically a handoff mechanism for transferring Antioch and its surrounding sanjak from the French protectorate of Syria to the Republic of Turkey in 1938-39.

Later on this fascination fed into my obsession with knowing what was going on in every single country on earth, and my annoyance at how hard the job was (and still is). I have given up wondering what’s new in the Netherlands Antilles, or whether wi-fi has come to Wallis and Futuna, or even whether Mauritius got its own wireless network to stretch across the side of the island with all the sugar cane fields, but every so often I feel guilty that I no longer care as much about it. (Some of it matters. A lot. Look at the labels on your clothes and contemplate which countries have graduated from being suppliers to the bins of Ross Dress for Less.)

And while USA Today gave us the illusion of being comprehensive a generation ago, presenting a single snippet of news daily not only from every state of the U.S.A. but from its associated territories, today the illusion of being comprehensive has vanished from newer media; one can browse not only Google News but even the BBC websites without finding news of more than a fraction of the countries that march past in the Olympics opening ceremonies. (It used to drive me crazy that the network cut away to a commercial just when my favorite national entities were about to send their handful of athletes past the camera.)

“All Things Considered” is another globe-spanning enterprise, intermittently offering reports from insufficiently recognized parts of the planet. But there are only so many minutes in the day, and even the newer program “The World” is less than fully worldly.

So it is excellent that Kathryn Refi’s exhibition at Solomon Projects has set out to map this omission for us, recording over the course of some months the place names mentioned on the National Public Radio program, and showing us just how many things are unconsidered.

Refi’s maps of the month give us the red dots of the mentions on a map minus the map, and geography freaks have already had what felt like hours of pleasure trying to figure out where the coast of Korea stopped and Japan began, what the islands were that seemed too far south to be Hawaii but too far west to be the Galapagos and too far east to be the Marquesas, and so forth. It comes as a shock to realize that parts of the world are hundreds of miles distant from the longitudes and latitudes where you had placed them.

But the only way we can puzzle some of this out from Refi’s works is by looking for the clusters of dots that signify Baghdad in most months, or the State of New Hampshire in the 2007 run-up to the presidential primaries. Not only are all parts of the world not equal, they are not equally newsworthy.

So every so often we find out that thousands of people have been dying in places other than Darfur or Anbar province, and we didn’t know a thing about it. (And some of us old-timers then sing to ourselves the closing verses of Bob Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.”)

Refi’s dot clusters actually indicate what a good job “All Things Considered” is doing in reminding Americans that places remote from them exist; it just reminds them very selectively (or not at all) of the locales that are neither natural headline makers nor popular tourist spots. The greater part of the Russian Federation (or whatever they call it these days) remained blank throughout on each of Refi’s monthly mappings; one month brought a tour of Siberia by an NPR roving reporter, but the Finno-Ugric Republics remained a great void for anyone who didn’t read the unrelated online Eurozine that reported on an art show about them that was staged in Estonia.

And even Eurozine’s roundup of the contents of the continent’s news magazines is singularly selective. Moldova is entirely out of luck for the most part.

I once met a man at an Atlanta art opening who was the sole North American importer for Moldovan wines (or was at that point of 2005 or 2006) and realized it was the first time I could recall having met anyone with direct connections to Moldova. I doubt if I thought much about the country again until I picked up a tiny aluminum coin from Moldova on an arrival ramp at the Istanbul airport in 2007.

The Palestinians reportedly tell a joke about a survey asking Americans their opinion about some social condition in the rest of the world that failed because the Americans couldn’t understand the meaning of “the rest of the world.”