Friday, August 28, 2009

another global exhibition you probably can't go to (and I certainly can't)

Though there was no way of knowing it at the time, it was an excellent day for artists when the family that owns Glenfiddich distillery (today part of the still family-owned Wm. Grant & Sons) made the imaginative leap of marketing their product as-is worldwide as single malt Scotch, instead of following the tradition of traveling the world, first on steamers and later on jetliners, selling it off to blenders in the traditional manner.

For in the fullness of time, the family proclivity for imaginative gestures bore fruit in the decision to start a summer-long artist in residence program, invitation only, giving a few artists the freedom to create what they would, the only requirement being the donation of one piece to the company's collection.

In 2007, New York-based artist Romeo Alaeff produced a series of prints titled "War on the Brain," gorgeously revamped Rorschach blots containing references to conflicts from William Wallace and All That to the smell of napalm in the morning in Vietnam. Another 2007 artist, and if I were not writing away from my CD of images I would say who, produced a conceptual paradox worthy of Marcel Duchamp: a sweeper's broom thrust through a standard-issue barrel, to be filled with new-make spirit and laid down for however many years, at the end of which time it would still not be considered Scotch whisky because the invading broom handle would have violated the terms within which the company's whisky is defined.

That year, the workers were also creating art: the distillery's barrelmakers were having a go at energetic self-taught evocations of the years in which certain barrels then due for bottling had been laid down in the warehouse (the Berlin Wall and the logo of Windows come to mind as subjects they chose for sculpture).

Now the 2009 residency has culminated in the annual exhibitions of work made in residence, and I regret that difficulties in revising this piece have prevented me from publicizing it in any meaningful way.

The program is one of those marvelous gestures that adds its small bit to the web of world culture, and one ought to be pleased to see the money spent intelligently in this fashion.

Full disclosure requires me to remind you (remind because I've written this before) that the only paid-for-by-others press tour of my life allowed me a firsthand experience of this program, which has obviously had a lasting impact. They will never spend another U.S. dollar or Scottish pound on me, so I feel justified in providing once again this complimentary meditation, especially since it allows me to mention once more the work of Romeo Alaeff, who also will never get another U.S. or U.K. penny from Wm Grant & Sons and who could presumably use the money if someone feels inclined to look up his website and invest in one of the "War on the Brain" pieces.

And anyone within driving distance of Dufftown still has a couple of weeks to see the second exhibition in this year's series.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

more, but not much more, on "Dissolving Stereotypes/Forging New Dialogues: An Exhibition Beyond Race"

Blogs and long essays may be mutually incompatible. Having gotten written the first two parts of a four-part meditation that was to end with a series of provisional conclusions regarding the state of ethnic identity in America in the early twenty-first century, I have realized that the exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia will have ended even before I can offer tentative remarks on why I cannot write a meaningful review of it.

So here, a few days before the show closes, are a handful of notes on the rightness and wrongness of Walker’s curatorial premises.

Walker, who by the way is the father of Kara Walker as well as a distinguished artist himself and longtime professor at Georgia State University, has taken it upon himself to bring up to date the notion that artists are artists foremost and ethnically oriented beings second, even when their topic is their own ethnicity. Put another way, he states that ethnic groups are poorly served when bad art is fobbed off on the public as being somehow the authentic voice of this or that people. Before a work of art can express a meaningful opinion on ethnic identity or anything else, it has first to be a well-conceived and executed work of art. It may then violate expectations or express respect in a way considered invalid by some (Walker's exhibition includes Pat Drew’s painting based on an antique photo of an African-American family, part of her effort to represent the family resemblances between Southern ancestors of all races)…or as he puts it more vividly, “Isn’t that a no-no?”

Two of the best works in the show, both formally and conceptually, are Kevin Sipp’s reinventions of Ki-Kongo ritual objects blended with allusions to René Depestre’s negritude poem A Rainbow for the Christian West and Bad Brains’ hardcore in an Afro-Punk amalgam to set alongside the Afro-Futurism espoused by Sipp’s prematurely deceased onetime collaborator, Charles Nelson.

Yun Liu’s translation of a Rothkoesque abstract expressionism into an overlay on panels of Chinese characters is one method of creating a hybrid aesthetic culture. A more contemporary form is Yi-Hsin Tzeng’s video of herself being drenched in successive layers of red, yellow and blue paint followed by a coat of white concluding and wiping out “The Last Painting in Modernism.” Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue, indeed. The video is reminiscent of the version of bodily intervention undertaken by the first generation of Chinese artists to become global superstars, making its allusion to Barnett Newman as distinctly grounded in (contemporary) Chinese practice as Yun’s (or should it be Liu’s? It’s hard for some of us to tell when a name has been reversed to conform to American expectations, without the telltale hyphen linking two of the names.).

The exhibition cries out to be evaluated both in terms of the extent to which the art plays into ethnic expectations and the extent to which the aesthetic success of the work varies wildly. But it’s a non-starter; an Anglo (I like to use the Southwestern term for us descendants of southern United Kingdom émigrés) male of a certain age still cannot toss around glib opinions or even considered ones without being accused of having the cultural blindnesses and defects of personal vision that all of us humans in fact possess, regardless of our ethnicity and our preferred theoretical practice. (In theory, the right practice ought to make perfect, but it’s not so.)

So one hopes that the show has gotten a decent number of viewers during its run. It’s too bad that the lively symposium that inaugurated the exhibition couldn’t be repeated in these waning days of August.

Monday, August 17, 2009

in memoriam Turner Cassity and homage to surviving writers

Randall Jarrell wrote, in an epigram I used as an epigraph to my first published essay, something to the effect of "The poet in America has a unique relationship to the general public: it doesn't even know he is there." (Jarrell wrote this a fair number of years pre-1970, so the masculine universal was the grammatical norm.) He also wrote that publishing a volume of verse in America is like throwing a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear the echo.

So I suppose it is not surprising that Atlanta Review should be world-esteemed and largely unknown in its eponymous city, its editor Dan Veach the creator of Flowers of Flame, the first anthology in English (I think) of present-day poems from Iraqi writers, a book that has not gotten all that much press in his hometown. In previous decades, Veach has been able to coax contributions from Nobel laureates without getting much credit for it.

It is, then, also not surprising that in spite of his having lived in a city that sponsors art and literature festivals both at the beginning of summer and at the end of it, the recently deceased Turner Cassity's books are largely unavailable both in local bookstores and in the public library.

Cassity was no self-published wonder, but an idiosyncratic, deeply learned and deliberately irritating writer with decades' worth of volumes from university presses. He went against the trends of his day and of almost any day one cares to think of, writing vastly cynical verses alongside loopily-titled looks at forgotten aspects of twentieth-century history (or outright fantasy; "The Airship Boys in Africa") and giving his first volume of collected poems a title so politically incorrect that I blush to write it even now.

I suppose anyone who set out to be so consciously, wittily offensive would not have been the sort of fellow who received or accepted frequent offers to perform his poetry. But he co-founded a monthly forum for poets that survives after three decades, one that gave me an early moment of visibility alongside many other emerging writers— the majority of whom, like the majority of Atlanta's visual artists, remain emerging to this very day. And he was genuinely generous to writers who did not share his point of view, though it helped if they could comprehend the perspective of a poet who could return from North African travels praising the quality of Morocco's art deco architecture.

Don Bryant's documentary photos of Tiny Town

An exhibition currently at Atlanta Photography Group's gallery in the TULA art center documents the final days of Tiny Town, a folk art environment in New Mexico that was bulldozed in relatively recent days, photographer Don Bryant informs us. (He photographed the site almost exactly a year ago; the site was destroyed in January.)

Wondering how much the site had been documented otherwise and why some site-preservationist group like Intuit hadn't been asked to intervene, I looked up the place online and discovered that, as with so much folk or outsider art, the whole story is impossibly ambiguous and the reports preceding Bryant's are contradictory.

Here is one website's description: "Earlier reports by travel writers describe this acre as having its own saloon, church, courthouse and jail; rivers made of broken glass, and roads made of tarpaper, complete with yellow lines. However, when Legends of America visited, there was little sign of the acre of haphazard material resembling a town. Perhaps this is because several years ago an art scout came upon Lange’s town and arranged to have much of it boxed and shipped to the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Evidently, this was the jumping board for success, as the artist now sells many of her creations in local shops."

And here is another, :
"The term "outsider art" does not begin to describe what's on display at Tiny Town. Even so, the roadside attraction just north of Madrid just isn't what it used to be. Wind, weather, sun and the passing of time have turned the one-time sea of broken glass and artfully arranged bones into ramshackle, dilapidated outdoor display.

"Artist Tammy Jean Lange has been called a visionary and a 'human firecracker' as well as a local icon in so-called outsider art, using roadkill, rusted objects and broken toys as her media. A discarded cigarette machine, rust-red iron cookstove, set of putt-put clubs and dozens of partially clothed dolls are among the current occupants.

"Lange does not pay rent to use the 1 acre site, and over the last four years has done less and less to keep the place looking like the small wonder that it used to be, said longtime benefactor Bille Russell.

"Russell has for more than a decade allowed Lange to set up her found art on about an acre of her 112-acre Lodestar Ranch. When Lange, 49, also known as Tatt2 Tammy, started using the area as her primary residence and drifted away from what Russell called 'brilliant things,' Russell said she reluctantly took steps to change the situation.

"'I think her art has a right to exist,' said Russell, who met Lange when a friend helped get her art into the Mineshaft Tavern gift shop. 'So the initial deal was that Tiny Town could be there and she could work there, but she could not live there.'

"Russell said she was worn down by neighboring landowners who called the project an eyesore and wanted it cleaned up. 'It had its peaks, but in four years it's taken quite a dive,' she said. 'It became more like a dump instead of her working her art.'"

Bryant informs us that the site was finally destroyed, but the overall story turns out to be impossibly complex.

And this is the case with most folk art environments in this day and time, the seemingly downhome marker of rural authenticity shading off into postmodern tangles of narrative and motivation in which not only is one person's trash another person's treasure, but one person's folk environment is another person's leftover from better days in the folk art world, with the masterworks already hauled off for a museum. (Howard Finster's Paradise Garden would be worth preserving for the World Folk Art Church alone. St. EOM's Pasaquan is certainly in need of continuing preservation. Lonnie Holley reconstructed his environment after the original was bulldozed to make room for an airport expansion, but in the case of less robustly architectural environments than Finster's or St. EOM's, the issue will always be for how long the whole will be more than the sum of its parts.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

notes from the good intentions road paving company

Essays and exhibition reviews are at odds with one another. I have been wrestling for weeks with a four or five part meditation on history, shifting models of ethnic identity, and continuities in hybrid cultures; but while I struggle with a topic that somehow will sweep in Thomas Hart Benton, Russell Lee and the FSA photographers, Frederic, Lord Leighton, the Millennium Arch, and Larry Walker's "Dissolving Stereotypes/Forging New Dialogues: An Exhibition Beyond Race," the local shows in Atlanta are moving inexorably towards their scheduled closing dates. As with Michi Meko at Beep Beep, I may find the implicit issues so unwieldy that the online review will never appear. But I am having another go at it. First drafts of at least two of the four (or five) parts already exist, though they are too drafty to exist even in the provisional world of the blog.

In the meantime, the opening tonight of Maria Artemis' exhibition at MOCA GA should serve to draw fresh attention to "Dissolving Stereotypes" in the museum's adjacent gallery.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Eyedrum art auction: not a self-promoting announcement in spite of the picture below

It is well known in metro Atlanta, though not necessarily elsewhere, that the extraordinary all-volunteer art and performance space Eyedrum is in dire financial straits. Some 150 artists, including nationally known figures—we are promised unadvertised surprises—have donated work for a benefit auction on Friday, August 14, 7 - 10 p.m., details at

Among the donors is yours truly, Jerry Cullum the sometime painter and occasional conceptual artist and creator of digital photocollage, this being what could be my final appearance in the first-named function, since I have produced only conceptual and digital pieces since this painting was created and posted to Facebook and to either this blog or joculum.livejournal, I don't recall which.

The painting is properly dated, titled and signed on the reverse, unlike some work I recently acquired from emerging artists who continue to forget that collectors will have no recollection twenty years from now of whether this painting was by painter X or painter Y or possibly by the guy whose solo show at Highland Bakery never materialized in spite of the evident quality of his work. I am sometimes tempted to post a photograph of that one (from back in the day), and ask if anyone recalls who painted this.

Not to be too judgmental; after writing for years about the importance of establishing chronology for pieces of folk art I neglected to note dates of acquisition for the various pieces I bought from the late R. A. Miller, who unlike Howard Finster was disinclined to date his works, much less number them. And I have let far too many of my handful of artworks leave my hands without adequate photo documentation, or in one or two cases without any documentation at all.

Alec Soth at the High, and memories of a monastery

Art traditionally archetypalizes. This is so even in the astonishing documentary photographs of the civil rights movement that were the chief feature of last year’s “Road to Freedom” exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum: somehow, in the midst of massive and obviously unrehearsed moments of violence against demonstrators, more than one photographer captured pictorial compositions so energetic yet perfectly balanced that Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson would be hard pressed to replicate them.

The twelve photos of Alec Soth’s “Black Line of Woods,” the newest in the High Museum’s “Picturing the South” commissions and the nucleus of what has now become Soth’s larger project, are somewhere in between the documentarians’ decisive moments and the careful set-ups of the Crewdson generation. Soth has sought out the isolates, the marginal by choice, the sorts of characters who might have shown up in a slightly less Gothic version of the Flannery O’Connor stories from one of which the title of this exhibition is taken. He has chosen the poses and the natural lighting carefully; one detail shot of an otherwise unaltered portion of an improvised encampment was clearly made when the shadows were less extreme.

Soth has gone out of his way to conceal even his consciously chosen social references, so far as titles go. “Murphy, North Carolina,” 2006, is a photograph of an unremarkable building and van in late sunlight, but the site in Murphy is the one where Centennial Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph was apprehended after a long and fruitless search for him in the deep woods.

Soth states in “Five Questions for Alec Soth” on the High’s website that “I wanted to investigate this romantic notion of escape, but I didn't want it overly politicized. Rudolph represented one extreme version of this escape fantasy.... I also wanted to look at more spiritual versions of escape. So, in northwest Georgia I visited a monastery. Elsewhere I photographed hermits whose intentions were neither political nor spiritual—folks who just wanted to get away.”

The most memorable apparent hermit of the series is a grey-bearded gentleman who appears surrounded by his fruit-filled tomato vines in “S. J., Nubbin Creek, Alabama,” 2007.

Soth aestheticizes his marginal places and sometimes renders them symbolic, as with the fragile-seeming clean, well-lighted place overshadowed by a literal black line of woods in the photograph that introduces the sequence, or the single light bulb hanging over what looks like a blanket or a sleeping pallet in an otherwise virgin-seeming woodland. Like the disco ball visually echoed by a basketball in “Enchanted Forest, Texas,” 2006, that light bulb implies a story that is left utterly untold.

In the case of the Eric Rudolph-related convenience store, it is the untold story that lends romance and/or a sinister air to the image; in the case of the lights in darkness, it is the image that conjures up an imagined narrative. And that tale may well be more wonderful than the real back story.

“F. P., Resaca, Georgia,” 2006, the photo above (©Alec Soth and courtesy of the High Museum of Art), is the quintessential meeting of Soth-imposed romanticism and a back story that is perhaps even more wonderful than the image.

F. P., whoever he may be, is an Orthodox monk from the Monastery of the Glorious Ascension, which has maintained a legitimate affiliation with one Eastern Orthodox jurisdiction or another since its foundation by, I believe, a group of converts to Orthodoxy. (Many would-be Orthodox outfits have ended up being, ironically enough, jurisdictionally heterodox, but not this monastery.)

The monastery in Resaca is situated in a hilltop house from the 1950s surrounded by woodlands. It first gained national prominence as the house of the computer programmer monks, who realized that at the time of their 1977 arrival, some of them had computer skills and equipment that their neighbors did not. They earned income by processing accounts for local businesses.

A visit to the website of this monastery, of which I had seldom thought since visiting it decades ago, reveals that the monks are as tech-savvy and concerned with traditional spirituality as they ever were, though by now there must have been some degree of generational turnover. Apparently Soth established a particular rapport with the monk who is most practiced at photography, who helped him do the setup for the photo of the robed monk alone in the line of woods. The monastery’s darkroom facilities are reportedly impeccable, regardless of the monastery’s current digital focus.

The once much-noticed miracle-working icon of the Virgin continues to weep tears of fragrant myrrh, but no longer as frequently as it did in the days when it was lent to nearby congregations seeking intercession.

Monday, August 10, 2009

product placement and other less than amusing anecdotal incidents

It comes to me that a 21st century Karl Kraus is an updated version of, say, "Package Tours to Hell" would simply be regarded as a successful case of viral marketing.

Which reminds me that I am actually delighted that the new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys will contain commissioned work by a stellar list of contemporary artists. Fourteen names not typically associated with football stadiums, and I am still trying to make myself believe this is not some kind of conceptual intervention by one of those dynamic duos of artists who go in for that sort of thing. But it appears that Mel Bochner and Teresita Fernández and Franz Ackermann will in fact be doing what they do, which puts the Dallas Cowboys in a whole 'nother league—which was, I assume, the point.

meanwhile, from less lavishly funded enterprises....upcoming events at MODA

Museum of Design Atlanta is the little operation that manages to be a museum of design within the limits of being a Smithsonian affiliate that nevertheless attracts far more in-kind donations than offers of operating or programming income.

Having just completed its summer-long run of a remarkable exhibition of social-activist posters (including an archetypal Angela Davis from back in the day that illustrates why Ian Wright's portrait of her, cited below, would be considered cynically transgressive), MODA's plans for the fall include a major Marcel Breuer exhibition to be divided between the MODA galleries and the Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library downtown headquarters that was Breuer's last completed design. The exhibition opens on October 27 and runs through January 16, 2010.

Though this would surely be enough for any one season, MODA will present an off-site traveling exhibition (traveling among metro Atlanta venues, that is), sponsored by the Kendeda Fund, that will highlight Atlanta's status as one of the cities with the greatest number of LEED-certified eco-friendly buildings. (Atlanta was briefly the city with the most LEED-certified structures.) One hopes that this exhibition, in a city not always thought of as oriented towards environmental issues, will stir some much-needed discussion, or at least provide public education via interactive technology.

outrageousness works brilliantly as an advertising tool

Consider that I have not been compensated by even so much as an offer of a plastic shopping bag for reproducing this extract from an online press release, verbatim:

Saks Fifth Avenue is thrilled to announce the nationwide launch of Fall Want It! featuring the artwork of renowned London-based contemporary artist Ian Wright on September 9, 2009.

Ian Wright’s artistic career spans many disciplines, from illustration to mixed media. His work has been featured in exhibits all over the world. Recently, he has created a wall-sized portrait of Mao Zedong made exclusively of hand-covered fabric buttons, and a 3-D portrait of Angela Davis made from mascara wands.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

one of the best artworks I have seen in 2009 (reproduced with permission of the artist)

Kate Kretz: At the end of each day, if Kate has not been able to get into the studio, she pricks her finger and writes the word "art" before going to bed. Appeases the art gods, tells them that she is still here, has not abandoned those who have been so good to her & saved her life. Marks the day. Makes SOMETHING.