Friday, July 31, 2009

R.I.P. Charles Huntley Nelson

I had had in mind a number of posts regarding exhibitions, but find myself compelled instead to offer a preliminary memorial note regarding Charles Huntley Nelson, who died of complications following a stroke. He had been ill for some months with advanced stomach cancer.

I asked Charles to co-curate "Speed: Life in an Accelerated Culture" at the inception of the twenty-first century because he had already curated exhibitions that introduced me to the work of many of the younger artists who I wished to include in the "Speed" exhibition I had been invited to curate. I was deeply impressed by his sense of professionalism and reflections on the shape of a rapidly changing global culture.

His conceptual querying of issues of race and class in his remixes of Metropolis and The Invisible Man made me anxious to see his similar treatment of Alphaville, of which the preliminary results have been on exhibit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center.

He was a midcareer artist whose work had slowly gained national recognition, and his loss at this stage of his mature output is a particular tragedy.

The trajectory of his career can be viewed at

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

now this: as the National Black Arts Festival 2009 begins

Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier's curation of the Morgan County African American Museum and Madison-Morgan Cultural Center's two-venue exhibition of art commenting on the experience of the African Diaspora looks to be as sensitive a treatment as one would expect from this distinguished artist, who has a background in documentary photography and accompanying written documentation of communities.

The ten Atlanta artists of African-American descent (the members of the Sistagraphy photo collective are also featured) include Daniel Hoover and Lillian Blades, both familiar to metro Atlanta audiences from past solo shows. The exhibition runs through August 29, and I hope to be able to offer a direct evaluation in the near future, rather than an impression gleaned from a press release and past acquaintance with many of the artists.

Information on Madison-Morgan Cultural Center is available at

Thursday, July 23, 2009

odds and ends, or short notes in several topics in Atlanta

I have been holding off on commenting on Eyedrum pending clarification of the situation, although I have an editorial of sorts that I wrote on the day the news broke. It now seems there will be a fundraising auction on August 14.

And I withheld comment on Emily Amy Gallery's summer show featuring some of my favorite artists because it seemed to be scheduled for newspaper review at an early date, and it has now has been written up quite well on I have written about Whitney Stansell and Meta Gary several times previously. It isn't part of the aforementioned exhibition, but Jennifer Cawley's work can now be viewed at the gallery on request, which comes as good news to longtime Cawley fans.

Curator Larry Walker's "Dissolving Stereotypes" show at MOCA GA is indeed the "Exhibition Beyond Race" that the title promises. The dissolution of stereotypes should by now be self-evident and taken for granted; but as recent events might be taken to indicate, we are not beyond any of that even in artworld expectations, and that fact alone makes it difficult to write about the exhibition with any degree of adequacy. Walker intended to start a conversation, and it is one that still needs to be engaged in, in depth, in These States. Longer commentary later, I hope.

A gallery conversation with the curator will take place on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m. and if I can find a way to get there, I shall attempt to be present.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What Is To Be Done, Part Four: The Enigma of Sins of Omission

The joke will be lost on those not brought up in certain types of Christian theology, but my subject heading reminds me of the, probably Reader's Digest, tale of the child who was asked by the Sunday School teacher to define sins of omission, and who said, "They're the sins we should have committed, and didn't."

In any case, I am feeling appropriately guilty for having passed over in near-silence or total silence a certain number of exhibitions I should have made a greater effort to cover, especially in our present condition of inadequate arts coverage in general.

But once freed from the constraints of editorial word counts, all the suppressed issues of arts coverage become almost paralyzing. What if one has only fatuous or possibly outright wrong things to say about an exhibition, because to do it justice would require more interview and research time than one has available (given that most of one's reading and writing takes place very late at night)? What if one's provisional judgment, in a first draft, sounds dismayingly like damning with faint praise when one intended no such thing? What if one's first burst of unrestrained enthusiasm proves distressingly hard to justify on more than subjective grounds?

For there are probably thousands of artists in the world, if not tens of thousands, whose work deserves some form of recognition, but what sort remains to be worked out. Is the artist destined for global fame? Probably not, but then some make it onto the covers of magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, or into world-famous biennials. Is the artist reworking well-worn genres? Sometimes. Is the artist supreme in the field in a local context that may or may not be able to stand against competitors in comparable cities? Sometimes. Is the artist as good as anybody in a genre that the tides of fashion have deemed unworthy of further discussion except to local yokels? Sometimes. Should the tides of fashion be queried appropriately? Always. Should an emerging artist be recognized for what may or may not mature into something far more intriguing? Always. Should an emerging or even a midcareer artist be recognized for a personal best that may not yet contribute much to a larger dialogue? Well, at this point we are getting into the problem of neither exaggerating the accomplishment nor damning with faint praise. And when one is consumed with such baroque niceties, one's most offhand adjective is likely to be misconstrued as conveying unqualified celebration or disguised disapproval.

It is so much easier just to say, "Here's some stuff," and sometimes to explain why one is forgoing evaluation. But there are times when forgoing evaluation is itself a form of evaluation, and that is when after the first couple of drafts, one simply gives up in mild embarrassment. The beauty of print deadlines was that something had to appear, however inadequate or formulaic, and sometimes it was both.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Three Loosely Related, Worse than Provisional, Meditations re the Unsatisfactory Condition of Regional Art Coverage; & Also A Note on Kibbee Gallery

Three Loosely Related, Worse than Provisional, Meditations Towards Resolving the Unsatisfactory Condition of Regional Art Criticism. Plus a Kibbee Gallery Review. Keep Scrolling Down, It’s There

expect a rewrite, even if one never comes; corrections welcomed

What Is To Be Done, Part One. Preliminary Considerations, or Prolegomena. Or Whatever.

Reading Deyan Sudjic’s The Edifice Complex (The Language of Things has me working backwards through his oeuvre), I realize, and not for the first time, the degree to which contemporary art and architecture appears in an intellectual arena divorced from intellectual history in general.

For a concept-laden field so taken with its own interdisciplinarity, this seems extremely odd. Granted, the field admits only a limited number of literary figures, just as literature admits only a limited number of artists and architects into the imaginative realm of the verbal. Each seems inordinately proud of the degree to which its own area of discourse encompasses the entirety of human activity.

Of course, there is only so much any one area of specialization can do. Art makes use of language in a way quite different from that of literature: there are fewer words, usually, and what words there are usually spill over into the more image-laden areas of discourse, such as film and video making, fields which at one end of their spectrum have simply been incorporated into art—as contemporary literature has not been incorporated into philosophy and sociology and anthropology and political science…although all of those fields are pleased to be superior analysts of art, literature, architecture, and the creative endeavors in general; and, at least in the case of writers such as J. M. Coetzee, the compliment is returned by novels that incorporate theoretical essays.

Each field tends to incorporate only those aspects of the others that it (or a practitioner of it, to be more exact) finds most interesting or valuable. This is normal. But the world of visual art, and to a slightly lesser degree architecture, seems to be shunted to a sidelines that is not visible as such only because the specialists in the sideline have the possibility of earning enormous sums of money, or because they themselves don’t keep up with the general-interest journals in English. (But online compilers like Eurozine, summarizing publications from all over Europe, and signandsight—despite its punning name—seem to suffer from the same site-blindness.)

One can read the New York Review of Books for a very long time without ever coming to much of a perspective regarding contemporary art, in spite of that publication’s tendency to commission articles that go far beyond mere book or exhibition reviews. Book reviewing publications in general, however, don’t seem to cover exhibition catalogues. NYRB does, but very selectively and even more historically than is the case with its surveys of science—and its economic and political book reviews consciously supplement its coverage of current events. Events outside the museums tend to be relegated to the realm of generally uncomprehending journalists, though the demise of print newspapers is rapidly changing this for the even worse.

The problem with this is that people of a certain generation who get their news from print aggregators like NYRB or the various multidisciplinary intellectual journals never even learn what it is they aren’t learning. One has the feeling that some of them would let loose withering salvos at the art world, if they could be stopped long enough to consider it. The art world might return the compliment if it had time to contemplate these particular men and women, rather than the slender selection of them who become the thinkers du jour for the various curators and critics of the planet.

Sudjic’s wonderfully disgruntled survey of the social compromises made by contemporary architecture has the distinction of understanding the contexts of the many buildings he is discussing…apart from his confusion or conflation of two of the secondary territorial claimants in the Munich Crisis of 1938, I haven’t found any significant miscomprehensions in the social or political background he lays out, including the history-of-religions situation of Richard Meier’s visitors’ center for Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral.

Sudjic is one of those glorious exceptions who ought to be critiqued (for like any other thinker, he rides his particular hobbyhorses to excess) by assorted anthropologists of the contemporary, at the very least. He at least knows a great deal about both his field and the forces that shape its day-to-day preferences, and as I noted regarding The Language of Things, coming at contemporary art from the related but differently blinkered field of contemporary design suggests a different set of problems and perspectives, and that the two approaches ought to be brought into dialogue with one another.

What Is To Be Done, Part Two: The Look of a Multidisciplinary Regional Website

Thanks to my own blinkered perspective, I tend to consult Denis Dutton’s Arts & Letters Daily almost on a daily basis, and, since I like to be reminded of past contexts and perspectives when viewing the new, I look at the essays page of Erik Davis’ irregularly instead of subscribing to an RSS feed.

Davis’ field of interests doesn’t overlap at all with Dutton’s (you not only won’t find his essays in Dutton’s daily roundup of the intellectual journals, you won’t even find his subject matter), but the two pages possess some of the characteristics that make such websites superior to even the most wide-ranging and multi-authored of blogs.

Mostly, for me, it’s the extensive amount of information that can be gleaned at a glance, without ever scrolling down the page; Davis prioritizes his own work (sometimes bringing back some essays from the journalistic equivalent of Late Antiquity) so that his main interests can be perceived at a glance (along with sidebar updates on what he’s up to in the lecture and performance world), and Dutton reaches for a range of topics limited only by his own prejudices and preferences, which he tries regularly to overcome at least a little.

It’s that range-of-topics problem that defeats most regional-art websites. I believe it was the poet Robert Dana who told the story of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop seminar that involved the usual disparaging of poems written by little old ladies in Dubuque, which led to the retort from one of the students, “If little old ladies in Dubuque didn’t write that stuff, little old ladies in Sauk Center wouldn’t have anything to read.”

This is the case with some of the more godawful flower paintings that bedeck walls of galleries from Timber Creek to Timpson’s Key (I hope neither place exists, since I just made those names up), and some of the most hideous examples of the genre—the ones that would make both contemporary practitioners and the painters of the Dutch Golden Age shrink back in horror—sell for many thousands of dollars in urban shopping malls, and raise issues of just why so many codes of social pretension owe nothing either to tradition or to contemporaneity, but only to…well, that is one of the topics that a good regional online journal (anywhere in the world, almost) would want to discuss.

But the problem is one of priorities. What was recently described in a local symposium as the entertainment-oriented “butts-in-seats” outcome is a desirable one, after all: little old ladies in Sauk Center need to be kept up to date as to what little old ladies in Dubuque are up to and when they are coming to do a reading. And in the fields of literature and theatre and fashion and rock and hip-hop and folk and flower arranging, this seems to happen already. But in the field of visual art, it does not happen.

And this is in part because it is impossible to craft a site that will appeal equally to the interior designers and the serious collectors and the even more serious conceptualists and the casual connoisseurs of lowbrow and pop surrealism.

But somehow Dutton’s visually boring site offers an equal playing field for a variety of intellectual topics, with teasers that draw you off into the world in question—or not. Art is seldom or effectively never one of those worlds on Arts & Letters Daily, but I cite his site only to suggest that some similarly simultaneous sense of diversity is what we are looking for. The very neutrality of his layout allows for quick decision-making (and allows one to forgive Dutton’s particular peculiarities of choice—but the site we need would cover just about everything going on in a particular time frame).

Since critics are accustomed to writing to the peculiar specifications of editors, who will rewrite without hesitation if they don’t like the finished product, I suppose it is theoretically possible to produce a descriptive opening paragraph for a piece with a link to the more art-critical component, if there is one. No critics are psychologically neutral, anyway; even a description contains implicit judgment just in what it highlights and what it leaves out. Sometimes even a photograph of a gallery installation contains implicit judgments, as a gallery installation itself certainly does.

What Is To Be Done, Part Whatever: The Impossibility of Avoiding Distortions

One perennial problem is that regional (and not-so-regional) critics are mostly young, or very poor, or both. If they are not poverty-stricken, they will be after a career of expending the proceeds of their day job on going to every gallery in town after work, in order to write something about one of them for a pittance, or for no money at all.

The blinkered perspective of the critic in question is the next problem after that.

But once we have accepted that there is no universal perspective and that nobody can write about everything and get even a tenth of it right, we still have the question of how the art shows of a region (or of all the regions of the world) are to get reasonable coverage so that an audience of whatever size can know that they are there.

And that is always the first problem: no one can go to anything if they do not know that it exists, or do not know from the capsule summary that it is something to which they would like to go.

Atlanta’s Kibbee Gallery presents an interesting case study. The downstairs space in a house is effectively too small to harbor more than a tiny crowd on opening night; once the friends of the artist arrive, there is often already no room to look at the art or sit down to watch the longer video. (I have often thought it productively ironic that what used to be called new media have produced viewing situations that are akin to Eastern Orthodox church services; instead of ranks of seats focused on the central stage, there is an indefinitely arranged space in which devotees stand for up to two or three hours, hopefully transfixed by the ritual being enacted.)

And since almost no one comes to art galleries after the opening, Kibbee is open for viewing thereafter only by appointment with the artist. This is the case with many of the world’s alternative galleries; and given the increasing dominance of what used to be called new media, it presents the ongoing problem of forgoing more than one-night events, or hauling personal equipment onsite to meet the request of a single viewer, or risking breakins during the run of the show for the sake of the viewing equipment. (Hardly anyone has ever had a burglar steal emerging artists' paintings, though it has happened, and more than once.)

One wonders if advance viewing of the work by would-be writers would solve part of the problem. Movie critics and theatre and music critics currently have an advantage over art critics; they have a pretty good idea of what is going to be onscreen or onstage, at least in the case of theatre companies that engage in rehearsals or do the same type of improv work on a regular basis. Critics of installation or performance are seeing things that did not exist prior to presentation to an audience, and sometimes will never exist again in the same format.

One would like to see spaces like Kibbee get their due, without being artificially highlighted. And this is the problem: in small spaces, success chokes out the possibility of a satisfactory experience (we have all had performance events we abandoned because it was impossible to see what was happening) but subsequent viewing opportunities seldom attract more than the handful of hard-core fans who came to the first event.

But as can be seen from a look back at various shows of emerging artists (I leave to one side the largely marvelous “Buy Local” show currently at Emily Amy), those who miss such exhibitions often miss moments like the fabled occasions when now-famous musicians played to audiences of half a dozen at local venues. (I still cherish the long-ago time when a future Whitney Biennial artist hung his photographs on the walls of Sylvia’s Art of This Century—or was it Sylvia’s Atomic CafĂ©?—a moment that keeps me coming back to Sylvia Cross’ current venture, Sycamore Place Gallery and Studios.)

Anyway, one really ought to consider “In the Flesh,” the current Kibbee exhibition by two freshly minted SCAD BFAs. McCalla Hill has created a couple of provocatively documentary or poetic videos on issues of feminine identity (the poetic allegory of “The Rice Eater” in sharp contrast to the intercut two-screen interview format documenting issues of gender and weight and circumstances of birth), and Kelly Cloninger has transformed the main exhibition space with delicate Micron-pen drawings that are extended onto the walls by webbing that echoes the cellular implications of the drawings. Cloninger allegorizes conception and gestation in botanical parallels that deserve to be looked at in detail.

The exhibition, which I am told runs through August 1, can be viewed by contacting the artists at 2055637359 (or more accurately, one of them; I’ll let you discover which one). I add “I am told” because I have learned never to trust closing dates even when informed by one of the participants.

And, I have now learned from an unimpeachable source (I resist the two parenthetical jokes that occur to me re my adjective), there will be a closing reception on August 1 from 6 to 9 p.m. for those who missed the opening and would rather not go through the hassle of making an appointment. There is much to be said for this way of doing things.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Reproducing Replication: Take Two

A quarter century ago, before fashionable irony had morphed into pointlessly reflexive snark, artist Barbara Schreiber would sometimes play a game with the press releases she organized into a bimonthly calendar of regional art exhibitions.

Calling her fellow editors to attention, she would announce, “I’m going to read a list of exhibition titles, and you have to tell me whether this is an Ironic Postmodern Gesture or a Really Dumb Show.” The physical location of the institution was typically the clue as to whether an exhibition referencing, say, tourist memorabilia was an irony-laden cultural critique or a desperate attempt to put together a crowd-pleaser. (The double irony was that the ironic postmodern gesture was as likely to be a desperate attempt at a crowd-pleaser as the earnest piece of populism; it was just aimed at a different crowd.)

Some exhibitions in that long-gone era managed to be both, or perhaps a third thing. “The Cow Show” was an exhibition at Madison-Morgan Cultural Center that addressed the institution’s physical location in the middle of farm country and the need to present the many ways that even the most unlikely of topics could be addressed by contemporary art, in terms of style, emotional register, and philosophical assumptions. Since the art steered clear of the politics of dairy farming and beef production, everyone who attended the opening was pleased.

And I wore my “Cow Show” T-shirt to gallery openings for the rest of the warm-weather part of the Atlanta art season. I was younger; it was a double-edged postmodern gesture.

Now that “The Pictures Generation” has gotten its earnestly historical museum retrospective, we are more aware than ever of how many spins of the irony wheel have gone down since then.

Back then, Umberto Eco was suggesting that irony was the only way to express sincerity, as in “As a Barbara Cartland novel would put it, I love you.” Several faster-than-usual generations later, irony is the only way to express irony, masked by snark to conceal or reveal sincerity. Fake snark masks real resentment. Real snark also masks real admiration, or at other times is used to imply an admiration that is actually false, with a complexity worthy of the proverbial politics of the Renaissance.

And ironic once-postmodern gestures in art become ironic art-historical quotations. (Or perhaps they do. If you catch my meaning, if you get my drift.)

I once curated / juried “The Pear Show,” based on my observation of the remarkable diversity of the earnest amateur replications of a then-ubiquitous subject for art-association still-life painting. Though the organizer felt the need to spell it all out in the call for entries (titling it "Jerry Cullum's Fantasy Pear Show"), I had the expectation that professional artists would understand the implications. And they did; I got few enough straightforward paintings or photos of pears per se, though I also got no conceptual disquisitions on the economics of pear production or food distribution, or pseudo-psychoanalytic reflections on why pear-shaped objects might be pleasing subjects in standard-issue painting-class assignments.

It gave me an opportunity to quote Wallace Stevens’ manifestly untrue observation “The pears are not seen / As the observer wills” (since everything else in Stevens is exactly about how the final belief must be in a fiction that is a collision of the world and the observer’s will). It also gave me an opportunity to create a soundtrack featuring Erik Satie’s “pieces in the form of a pear.”

All this feeds back into my observation of Maurizio Cattelan’s sausage in the biennale gift bag, and the multiple generations of art objects and gestures to which it alludes and which it simultaneously honors and ridicules. It isn’t a great work of art, but it’ll do as a seasonal hors d’oeuvre.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Readymades, Reproductions and Repetitions

Deyan Sudjic’s comments on design and art in The Language of Things slides over into the old argument regarding the original and the copy, the readymade and the altered object and on and on.

There is either no more to be said on the topic, or entirely too much, depending on the medium and the history under discussion.

Duchamp’s original readymades may have been altered only by changing their placement and giving them a title, but it seems more than possible that they were as individually fabricated as his later handmade copies of the originals. Apparently there never was a commercial snow shovel designed like the one exhibited as In Advance of the Broken Arm, and apparently no one has ever found another bottle rack quite like that one…and no such French window…which leaves Fountain. But the picture is thoroughly muddled.

Maurizio Cattelan, if I read the newspaper story rightly, has advanced the cause of the readymade substantially by producing an edition of 500 sausages that are indistinguishable from any other sausage of the day’s production run. All that permits their identification is their inclusion in a Venice Biennale gift bag with appropriate identification, not attached to the sausage.

As with the Oxford University stonework that is replaced every century or less by new copies of the now worn-down original, presumably the Cattelan sausages could be replaced by counterfeits bought from the same manufacturer, so long as the paperwork was the original and the design of the label hadn't changed (whether subsequent printings of the label would be identifiably different takes us into the realms of collectibility described by Sudjic with regard to mass-produced objects of design).

And given the dilemmas that a collecting museum is having in figuring out how to acquire and preserve the sausage, Cattelan’s commentary on the cult of the collectible edition is raising issues as provocatively as Damien Hirst’s shark, which already has had to be replaced by another shark.

It is, of course, not raising new issues by any means. Practitioners of relational aesthetics, most notably in such now-classic acts as Rirkrit Tiravanija's cooking food for gallery visitors, have often tried hard to overcome the infinite regress of commodification by providing nothing at all that could be successfully commodified (unlike, say, the now enormously valuable matchboxes or other would-be throwaway multiples that constituted the unsuccessful attempts of earlier generations at defeating the art market).

Cattelan ups the ante by providing, if I have understood the story correctly, a simple commodity, and one that requires refrigeration. Like Joseph Beuys' famous fat corner, it challenges museological preservation techniques and requires a meticulous record of provenance to determine authenticity, and is highly likely to be discarded by an overly zealous cleaning crew.