Thursday, December 31, 2009

endings, beginnings, and things that remain

I pass along the following because it relates differently to the theme of the exhibition at Connexion Gallery (see my earlier post, and their website where photographs of the exhibition are now available: on reuse, refiguration, and sustainability. It is, however, a quite different inflection of the set of topics.

"From: The Center for the Study of the End of Things []
Sent: Wed 12/30/09 11:30 PM
Subject: February 5, 2010: The Center for the Study of the End of Things

To Whom It May Concern:

The Center for the Study of the End of Things, a creative organization
affiliated with the the McIntire Department of Art at the University
of Virginia, will be holding its Inaugural Symposium on February 5,
2010. The venue is a vacant 10,000+ square foot building in
Charlottesville, VA, which will be demolished shortly after the
exhibition. We are seeking work from a wide variety of disciplines,
including painting, film, drawing, sound, sculpture, architecture, and
printmaking, in addition to collecting found objects of natural and
mechanical origin. Our Call for Submissions, and the Application Form,
are available on our website ( Please forward
this information on to anyone that might be interested. A flyer
summarizing the event is attached. The submission deadline is January
25, 2010.

Milholen + Williams, Co-Curators
The Center for the Study of the End of Things

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tahir Shah, Meet Bruce High Quality

This is one of those crossover posts that ought to be worked out in detail but almost certainly will never be properly upgraded. I had originally thought to post it to my joculum.livejournal blog, where the readership is more familiar with the context. But the readers of Counterforces will know more about the art issues.

There have been a growing number of crossover fictions gaining popularity in the artworld in recent years. An artist was invented and memorialized in a UK-published biography with illustrations, with both artist and artworks a complete fiction (the paintings did actually exist, though in the era of digital reproduction this was no longer an absolute necessity). This came a bit after a feature story in, I think, Esquire that profiled an unaccountably unrecognized younger actress who was unrecognized because Esquire had made her up. These exercises in documentary fictions have since been succeeded by a variety of made-up artists, though one needs to go back to Smile magazine and Karen Eliot and many other precursors to do this properly. Claire Fontaine and the Bruce High Quality Foundation are examples of currently popular artworld collectives using the concept of the fictionalized biography as a vehicle for collaborative endeavors (so it would be particularly appropriate to revisit the Karen Eliot model, but life is short).

Now, it so happens that the father of writer Tahir Shah engaged in a certain number of collaborative fictions of his own over the years, involving made-up characters. He used some of them as a test for would-be devotees of his thought: one anthology of writings was handed to an academic in America for publication, and when the academic published the entire collection verbatim, it was reportedly pointed out to him that the essays were internally contradictory, and that anyone taking all of them at face value was failing to absorb the specific lessons that were the whole point of the materials' overt content. The volume appeared under a different title in a much-diminished mass-market version later on, and there is still some question as to the intent behind what was included and omitted from that rendition.

So it comes as less than a complete surprise that earlier this year Tahir Shah (who is best known most recently for The Caliph's House,, which has done for Casablanca what Peter Mayle did for Provence) announced that he was in the midst of writing a novel based on the life of the forgotten Edwardian adventurer Hannibal Fogg, under the working title Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man.

Well, actually, the novel-in-progress came as a surprise. What was ultimately less surprising was that Hannibal Fogg proved to be even more elusive a character than the website of the Hannibal Fogg Society promised. Within a very short time indeed, researchers had determined that this individual whose works were supposedly suppressed for political reasons (though the Society had recovered many and recently begun to post them online) appeared to be a complete fiction inserted into online discourse only a matter of weeks earlier. Trails of site registrations and Wikipedia entries appeared to lead back to names associated with Tahir Shah.

Now, anyone familiar with the biographies of Percy Fawcett and Roger Casement, among others, could perceive a suspicious similarity between elements of Fogg's story and theirs. And of course, the echo of the name of Jules Verne's Phineas Fogg seemed a bit too good to be true. The titles of Fogg's suppressed books seemed to smell of a send-up, and Fogg's prose style in the online extracts seemed a trifle anomalous for someone writing a century ago. So it isn't surprising that searchers were on the case immediately.

What's curious and yet to be determined is where to place this incident in the realm of online hoaxes (which the evidence thus far—assuming we can take the evidence at face value—appears to suggest that it is).

People reading the texts on the site of the Bruce High Quality Foundation with its slogan "Professional Challenges. Amateur Solutions." do not take the foundation's declarations at face value. It is understood that artists' collectives have intentions and uses of online resources that do not coincide with the goals of historical research. But the BHQF has gone out of its way to make itself ineligible for a Wikipedia entry (by declaring that all the media reports have "misrepresented" it and by producing fact-subverting reportage), rather than inserting a fictional Wikipedia biography of the late sculptor Bruce High Quality.

So is Tahir Shah following in his footsteps of his trickster father or creating a less successful version of this young collective that has now found its way into the 2010 Whitney Biennial (BHQF's success thus proving that ridicule of artworld pretensions is sometimes as much of a path to fame as the more standard career-building route is)?

Ought we to be discussing Tahir Shah's literary gambit in the context of hoaxes, history of religions, or interdisciplinary artmaking? You tell me.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

I Grew Up There. I'm Entitled.

For reasons on which I shall not speculate, the publication that pays my salary has received a review copy of Gary R. Libby's Reflections: Paintings of Florida 1865-1965 from the Collection of Cici and Hyatt Brown published by the Museum of Arts and Sciences of Daytona Beach. Since I grew up in Sanford and remain interested in the inadequately studied history of art in the various regions that have been regarded as "picturesque," I am choosing to write about the book even though it wasn't sent to me and I can't keep this copy for reference.

Private collections are sometimes singularly illuminating when the topic is inadequately represented in public ones. And the imaginative response to the geography of Florida by visual artists is a distinct subtopic of art history that deserves greater analysis, as this book's essays indicate more in passing than in detail.

As the introductory essay points out, from the moment that Silver Springs became a tourist attraction in 1878(!), tourists were on the lookout for high-grade souvenirs as well as the familiar kitsch that has been the subject of any number of popular-culture and material-studies volumes (as I've indicated in past essays about books that I wished I owned from the press of Florida's state universities). Hence a good many creditable landscape paintings (a long way from being kitsch in themselves) were produced for sale to upscale visitors.

But above and beyond that, the spectacles of virgin nature and the agricultural ambiance of large parts of the state made for an exoticism that was attractive to artists in and of itself. Very few of these painters were regional; far more were sometime visitors themselves, and at least one of them, who shall go unnamed, produced an appallingly stereotyped work in response to his visit.

The intriguing thing is that so many of the others got beyond the most obvious stereotypes. There aren't exactly any social-critique paintings in this collection, but there's a painting of one of the distinguished elders of the African-American town of Eatonville (hometown of Zora Neale Hurston) by Jules André Smith, a visitor who stayed and established the Research Studio of Maitland, where he played host to any number of visiting artists, including Milton Avery.

None of this adds up to an unfairly forgotten chapter of global art history, except insofar as it is now possible to realize that global art history has many more chapters than the abridged edition would lead us to believe. Waldo Pierce's painting of himself hunting sharks with Ernest Hemingway is just one more reminder that no matter how exaggerated the mental images of the Sunshine State may be, the reality usually exceeds them.

Monday, December 7, 2009


Zamila Karimi & Magdalena Bach operate Connexion Design Studio in Dunwoody, Georgia as a design and architecture firm and as a gallery that aims to bring together a variety of academic disciplines and artists from different cultures to address contemporary problems and issues.

"LESS IS MORE 2010" is an attempt at reflection on "sustainability and simplicity" that comes at the topic from a variety of unexpected viewpoints. A dulcimer is made from wood salvaged from the renovation of a historic home in Atlanta. An exquisitely modernist house is constructed to cutting-edge environmental standards while fulfilling some of the most extravagant dreams of modernist utopianism. A design studio in Athens (Georgia) creates a simple, elegant unit for cigarette disposal that adds beauty to the urban streetscape, is easy to maintain, and difficult to misuse for any other than its intended purpose.

As usual I find it difficult to write about the show in this format, hence am withholding names of the makers of the few selected outstanding examples I've cited above: there are too many others who deserve recognition. There are artists so emerging as to be virtually unknown, and artists who have been the subject of feature stories in art magazines (including the one that pays for my health insurance).

The basic premise of the exhibition is given on the gallery website:

Given the technical challenges met and overcome with skill, intelligence, and an unfailing sense of aesthetic integrity, the show serves as a confirmation of the long-neglected slogan "Be realistic. Demand the impossible."

submitted for your approval

There are far more readers of than of Counterforces, but since the two audiences do not entirely overlap I recommend, highly, Karen Tauches' review of the documentary photographs of Oraien Catledge, or more accurately art photographs combined with documentation, as one would expect from someone with Catledge's background:

Catledge, self-trained as a photographer, established close personal relations with the residents of the former mill town neighborhood of Cabbagetown, now one of Atlanta's gentrified neighborhoods. The former mill workers and their families whom Catledge photographed in the 1980s have been fully displaced and dispersed, and it would be desirable for another equally sensitive photographer to follow up on their stories. (Catledge kept complete records of names, ages, et cetera, and stayed in touch with many of his subjects until recent years.)

But for now, it is enough to view the show at Opal Gallery (or read Tauches' review of it) and to know that Catledge's body of work and documentation will eventually be preserved in museum archives in Mississippi (Atlanta institutions having shown no interest) and that an ample selection of his oeuvre will be published with commentary in a book scheduled to appear in August 2010.

essays that will never be written (as usual)

Henry Adams' Tom and Jack is a brilliant, provocative re-reading of the mentor-student relationship between Thomas Hart Benton and Jackson Pollock, based on the premise that Benton retained more of his modernist beginnings than is generally thought, and communicated the formal lessons of his modernist phase to Pollock in the way he taught figurative painting and representation.

The forgotten school of Synchromism is key to this interpretation, based on theories of color that, strictly speaking, are not true.

But there are moments in which untruths are more central to artmaking than conventional truths.

Looking at a few essays in Roger Shattuck's book from some decades ago The Innocent Eye in conjunction with Michael Taussig's new What Color Is the Sacred? I am left with the feeling that there are provocative juxtapositions to be made.

But I am not likely to be the one who makes them.