Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Other entanglements, plus my wish to complete long trains of philosophical thought on my other blog, have led me to neglect Counterforces, which keeps getting links to it nonetheless.

The death of longtime Museum of Fine Arts Houston director Peter Marzio, and the unrelated news that what might be termed Max Anderson's Thornton Dial retrospective from the Indianapolis Museum of Art will be shown in Atlanta, has reminded me of one of those utterly forgotten controversies that caused a huge storm at the time, as so many artworld events have.

Whether Dial's homage to John Lewis and the Selma Bridge would have been better served by being in Houston rather than in the city for which it was commissioned, I leave for others to decide. It was sited in its present Freedom Park location after having been intended for a more visually prominent space, and indeed it tends to be overlooked by drivers to the point that it rarely arouses even curiosity.

Anderson's longtime involvement with the work of Thornton Dial roused its own controversies, but this may be a case of all's well that ends well, although it has not ended completely and it has taken the better part of two decades to reach this point in the sometimes less than edifying tale of artworld reception of this extraordinary self-taught artist.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

long absences from this blog

I have been writing reviews, mostly on though some on, that explore (by implication) the theories behind a regionally inflected but globally focused art; what it would require, whether it is possible, whether it is possible for the world to comprehend the stakes behind the local in ways that would make the local of interest to all the world's other localities.

While I ponder whether it is possible to put all of this in a generalized blog post, I shall say that I am pleased with Adrian Searle's description in the Guardian of Turner Prize 2010 winner Susan Philipsz' work as affording "difficult yet accessible pleasures."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

more theory-minded thoughts less likely to stir up trouble

I have written a temporarily postponed post that I believe I should save for a more propitious moment. This one is less intellectually defensible but less likely to irritate people since it can be dismissed as a piece of whacked-out off-the-cuff fantasy.

Someday there will be time to have arguments but right now there is too much to be done.

Patrick Harpur, in his maddeningly elusive "history of the imagination" The Philosophers' Secret Fire, resurrects the Eastern Orthodox (among others) notion of "spirit" versus "soul" as opposites that nevertheless complement and complete one another: "Not only purity but order, clarity, enlightenment are spirit's watchwords.... but soul is always at its side, obscuring, muddying, and muddling. For soul favors the labyrinthine ways of slow reflection, not rapid thought. Things cannot be made straight because they are intrinsically crooked and ambiguous, cannot be spotlit because they are intrinsically twilit; cannot be wiped away because they are harnessed to a long history whose traces cannot be kicked over." (That errant extended metaphor, like the divagation of this parenthetical aside, illustrates the point I am about to make.)

In reality, each side needs the other to achieve anything like depth or profundity; highbrow spiritual abstraction without the messiness of a recalcitrant materiality becomes dry, detached and generally uninteresting, while lowbrow soul without the ordering principle of style or a sense of doing things well turns quickly into sloppiness. (This is why Lowbrow's meticulous attention to a sense of craft and/or craftiness makes it a two or three generation art movement, while bad art remains merely bad art, and not the Bad Art of the show of that name that changed the art world at the end of the 1970s.)

Or as Immanuel Kant put it, "Concepts without [physical perceptions] are empty; [physical perceptions] without concepts are blind." (That's my combo of the old translation "Concepts without percepts are empty; percepts without concepts are blind," because I don't like the unstylish lack of parallelism in the new translation. Plus I want to distort Kant for my own purposes here.)

Okay, so all this is a commonplace: Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian, all that stuff. It doesn't mean anybody has quite gotten what it all means. "You say I am repeating something I have said before. I shall say it again," as T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets.

I want to say it again because I want to revisit the idea of the carnivalesque, not that I remember that much of what Mikhail Bakhtin actually had to say about it. Maybe I just want to rethink the notion.

I want to do this because the closing event of the Art of Such n Such's "Inspire! Incite! Ignite!" is coming up on Friday November 12 ( and I have been trying to get my head around the larger implications of all this stuff without complete success ever since the opening night. (The multi-artist, multi-state assemblage of mostly non-sexual transgression that is the wall-sized Peep-O-Rama—a structure constructed by Jeffry and Nanette Johnson to house the dioramas' transgressive weirdness—deserves a critical commentary all its own, independent of the fire sculptures and the many varieties of performers and purveyors of puppetry and possible prevarication.)

Since I not going to get round to writing this rethinking, check out what these folks did in Austin:

And those of my readers within driving distance of Atlanta can always tool over to Eyedrum on Friday night at eight p.m. for the festivities: for calendar and directions for those of you who need either one.

Meanwhile there are other art reviews to be written which also raise the issue of craft and the carnivalesque, at least implicitly. I shall get at it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the global, the local, and this coming weekend in Decatur

Right now I am mostly writing art reviews and posting vast theoretical speculations on, but life is thought globally and lived locally (the old slogan evinces a firm grasp of the obvious). So for those readers who need to know that the Atlanta artworld holiday-sale season is beginning post-Day of the Dead, be aware that Decatur's Beacon Hill Studios will begin the process with a fundraiser that should be as memorable as last year's, which featured the first Atlanta screening of Sara Hornbacher's video meditation on architecture and Walter Benjamin that premiered at a conference in France and has since found its way into the wryly titled Greater Decatur Quadrennial.

Anyway, those who are looking for ideas from me should go to my joculum blog or to and, and those who are in need of information should read the following:

Art 4 Art’s Sake

Beacon Hill's Artists Open Studio Tour & Art Benefit for Decatur High School’s Art Programs

Beacon Hill Artist Studios
125 Electric Avenue
Decatur, GA 30030

Friday, November 5th, 5 - 9 pm

Saturday, November 6th, 3 - 8 pm

$10 suggested donation at door.

Reception: Part of Decatur Art Walk
Friday, November 5, 5 pm - 9 pm

Open Studios & Demonstrations:
Saturday, November 6, 3 pm - 8 pm

Beacon Hill Artists:
Sarah Collman, Rebecca DesMarais, Rodney Grainger, Tony Greco,
Ron Holt, Sara Hornbacher, Lynne Moody, Patty O'Keefe-Hutton, Jo Peterson

Guest Artists include:
Mario Petrirena, John Roberts, Steve Sachs, Helen Durant, Candace Hassem,
Jill Ruhlman, Judy Parady & Tom Meyer, Suzy Shultz, Melissa Walker,
Richard Walker, Andrea Emmons, Stephanie Kolpy & Matthew Sugarman,
Brian Randall, Stephanie Smith, Karen Tunnell, Eilis Crean, Nancy Hunter,
Elizabeth Lide, Terence Monaghan, Kathy Colt, Teneisha Jones, Valerie Gilbert,
Gena VanDerKloot, Michelle Jordan, Xenia Zed and more.

Directions: The Beacon Hill Artists Studio are located at the corner of
W. Trinity and Electric Ave. in downtown Decatur. (The studio entrance
is on the backside of the building off Electric Ave.) Parking is available i
in the rear lot and kitty-corner across W,. Trinity in the county government lot.

For further details contact the studio director, Rodney Grainger (404) 210-9846

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Art also plays a role in all of this, but for now....

I am still trying to absorb the implications of the Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal functioning as the keynote speaker at the Symposium on Compassion Meditation on the second day of the Dalai Lama's visit to Emory and at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in ten days' time, both events following his October 17 New York Times op-ed "Morals Without God":
—an essay copiously illustrated by images from Hieronymus Bosch, incidentally.

The Dalai Lama, as one might expect, was fascinated with the notion that empathy exists in species that have the mirror-recognition capacity (i.e., the capacity to recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability thus far discovered in dolphins, elephants, apes, and humans) and wanted to know if self-recognition and empathy was possible in other species. De Waal opined that dogs seem to have a certain empathic capacity without the mirror-recognition facility, and certain birds, suggesting that the link between avian and mammalian species would be the reptilian, where crocodiles share the capacity for proto-empathy in that they nurture their offspring. (There was much else said about all this, some of it leading one audience member to remark that they could have used an evolutionary biologist up there among the psychologists and primatologists, to straighten out the details of which species possessed which capacities and why.)

The keynote address to the AAR will also be on empathy in mammalian species, the subject of de Waal's latest book. The panel discussion was on how empathy evolves into actively self-aware compassion in human beings and whether there are practices that can heighten compassion by inducing changes in brain physiology.

The Dalai Lama's visit was inaugurated with the presentation of four new science textbooks from the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative, a project to make all 20,000 Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns literate in the basics of contemporary scientific disciplines. Paging through the new books on Evolution, Cells and Genes, and, I believe, brain physiology (I didn't see two of the four titles), I reflected that this was uncompromisingly serious material, introductory but not oversimplified, and that I rather wished I could buy copies and refresh my own knowledge with the English text on the left-hand pages.

The most promising candidates from the monasteries will be sent to Emory to pursue advanced study in physics, psychology, et al., having completed the advanced course of study in Tibetan Buddhist academic institutions. The intent is to create an intensive dialogue between Tibetan Buddhist knowledge of the mind and body and the scientific disciplines as presently constituted in world society.

The Dalai Lama was once again fascinated by the results of experiments conducted with compassion meditation techniques in terms of measurable changes in the amygdala and other physiological as well as psychological results. The aforementioned skeptic in the audience suggested that at the very least the variables of age and cultural experience of the research subjects should have been factored into the experiments.

Whatever one thinks of the adequacy of the experimental parameters (and it seemed to me that the mere fact that the research subjects were motivated to enroll in the experiment was a variable to be considered, though control groups given standard cognitive-psychology methods were used as well as meditators), what seemed most significant was the fact that three different universities (Stanford, Wisconsin, and Emory) have considered secularized forms of Tibetan meditation worthy of study as behavioral modification techniques measurably affecting brain physiology, and that the spiritual head of the world's Tibetan Buddhists was eager to absorb any and all such materially based insights into the structure of Buddhist education.

The outcome of the scientific education of 20,000 practitioners of a sophisticated Buddhist system of psychological education and theoretical debate will be fascinating to witness. Leafing through the textbook on evolution, I found myself thinking that standard Buddhist notions regarding conditioned origination would be reinforced by the shifting degrees of reproductive success found in changing environmental circumstances. The Dalai Lama has pointed out that the Buddha insisted that when a doctrine has been found to be contradicted by the facts, it must be discarded. Thus traditional Tibetan cosmology is to be replaced by contemporary models of the universe, for example.

At the same time, what John Blofeld wrote some decades ago regarding Tibetan Buddhism still obtains: the practice is culturally specific, even though it encodes a level of psychological insight that Blofeld had not discovered elsewhere. He was fearful to discard what seemed to be extraneous aspects, lest they turn out to contain some key element he didn't understand was such. This hasn't changed among American adherents.

Thus at the North American seat of Drepung Loseling monastery, there are an impressive array of teachings and empowerment ceremonies by visiting Tibetan spiritual teachers, all of them arisen from the circumstances of a culture at the far end of the Silk Road where practices and beliefs from Isfahan and Alexandria mingled with those of India and Central Asia. The cultural differences matter; for example, the colors of the robes that were meant to make the monks physically unattractive to laypersons turn out to be enormously appealing to American audiences. There are issues of cultural collision and fusion to be addressed that lie beyond the immediate challenge of reconfiguring Tibetan Buddhism for its historic adherents while preserving the essence of Tibetan culture in the diaspora. (A two-day conference on this latter topic is in progress as I write this.)

But the experiment of bringing a formerly isolated spiritual practice into the twenty-first century is one that raises so many compelling intellectual and existential issues that I am truly delighted to see it taking place. These confrontational times scarcely seem propitious for the rise of a radical religious empiricism, but that is what seems to be evolving at a speed I wouldn't have thought possible.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Antakya weighs in with its 2nd biennial

Having missed the 1st Antakya Biennial altogether except as a concept, I am thrilled to learn of the second one. Antakya is one of those contested cities and districts whose history fascinates me. Under its colonial name of Hatay, the district found its way in fictionalized form into one of the Indiana Jones films, but its actual history is as improbable in its own fashion as anything in Indiana Jones. Today the city is undergoing the same transformations and tensions of globalization as anyplace else.

What interests me also is that there are fewer international artstars than one has come to expect (Renzo Martens and Cyprian Gaillard head the list); most of the artists in the biennial are Turkish, but the international co-curator alongside the one from Istanbul is a Bulgarian living in Brussels, who is organizing parallel events for the Biennial in Sofia and Brussels. (That both curators are female is no longer an event out of the ordinary; neither is the notion of a curator from one country living in another, but the mix of regionality and trans-European location is intriguing to an untraveled provincial like myself. We are used to the same fifteen curators being brought in with great fanfare rather than a just short of homegrown international biennial that nevertheless undertakes its own brand of border crossings.)

Here is an extract from regarding the biennial, which seems to be addressed simultaneously to the citizens of Antakya and to a global public (but not particularly to a global artworld, most of which will most likely ignore the event):

"'Thank you for your understanding' is the title of a work by artist Simon Kentgens, which will be shown in the 2nd Antakya Biennial. It refers to the signs we often see in the city, when public or private interventions obstruct our common spaces.

"In the context of Antakya, 'Thank you for your understanding' is a way to address the relationship between the city and its inhabitants, but also between the biennial and its local public, as a mutual effort for understanding and working together. More generally, 'Thank you for your understanding' explores the im/possibilities of finding a common ground on which we can stand as public - both in the exhibition and in the city.

"Today, our world remains fragmented and our individual efforts dispersed behind the unifying façade of globalization. Discovering what could be truly common means finding solidarities and shared sensibilities that are not based on the reigning form of universality today: capitalism. In the 18th century, aesthetics seemed to promise such an alternative - a universal common ground or "common sense." For Kant it was in beauty that such a common sense was to be found. Even though beauty in the classical sense is not a category we would assign to art today, can we nevertheless take this example and imagine art as proposing such an alternative common space, a commonality beyond the market?

"Starting from the aesthetic grounds of our common existence, the Biennial will focus on the particular case of Antakya as a city in the process of rapid globalization and transformation. The city as the spatial model of the way society is organized and functions today is one of our common grounds of experience as human beings. Following David Harvey we will claim that the question of what kind of city we want cannot be separated from what kind of people we want to be and what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. Therefore the remaking of ourselves through changing the city is one of our most fundamental, human rights.

"Finally, the Biennial will experiment with its own form as a global, temporary, exportable structure. Instead of negating its role as a universalizing agent, the Antakya Biennial will try to challenge it specifically by offering a common space for both international artists and the local public."

The description I have since found at confirms my beliefs regarding the biennial's intentions (and provides much better information regarding Antakya's condition as a zone of multiple cultures, religions and languages):
"Antakya is a place where the streets and even the shops still do little to encourage a hectic consumerism. The banks of the river and the hills outside the town offer benches to contemplate the view but no cafes or restaurants to capitalize on it. The many historical and architectural sites continue to be part of the daily urban life and cultural heritage programs have not yet turned the city into a museum. The only museum has no shop and it is even difficult to find postcards from Antakya. However the city culturally, socially, spatially and economically going through a rapid transformation. A new airport is being constructed, most of the big old houses are being turned into hotels, each day a new souvenir shop or tourism office is being opened instead of small ateliers and etc. Just recently a big shopping mall construction has started in the outskirt of the city, which will definitely change the social, and public life of the inhabitants and understanding of the public space. And inevitably these transformations are followed by gentrification process (or we should say concurrently) in the city center and Antakya Biennial is also a result/part of this transformation. The Antakya biennial finds itself in between the needs and ambitions of the growing and developing city, and the foreign, often nostalgic, gaze. But between the drive towards globalization and its reverse but inherent demand for local difference, is there something of the old universal we can rescue, some common ground that can unite us, while still respecting all particularities?

"...the 2nd Antakya Biennial is aiming to explore the social and cultural structure of today’s society through Antakya and build a discussion platform for Antakya inhabitants to question these changes and to invite them to take an active part in remaking the city—in other words remaking themselves....

"The biennial will also expand internationally and each of its editions will collaborate with different partner countries. In 2010 these are Belgium, Holland and Bulgaria. Under the umbrella of Antakya Biennial, parallel events co-organized with local institutions will take place in Brussels, Amsterdam and Sofia. They will extend the questions we pose in Antakya and confront them to different local contexts.

"Antakya Biennial is the sole international art exhibition in the region. As a result it has a stronger impact on the locality than most other biennials. This is why Antakya biennial proposes a structure that is much more locally oriented. Such a structure will be a more challenging but less standardized framework for the collaboration of local and international artists and organizations on the grounds of the biennial. However, Antakya biennial is not simply a "regional" event. Instead we see the biennial as a global laboratory for artistic and intellectual exchange that has its starting point in the local situation of Antakya but reaches out and exchanges experiences with other locations since the specifics to Antakya mimics the global transformation."

It will be interesting to learn how the citizens of Antakya respond to this highly public presentation of contemporary art. Since two of my friends are fluent in Turkish, I suppose I could find out in detail.

Monday, October 11, 2010

In lieu of the much more ambitious things I wanted to post

It would be good if all of us knew our specific neurological deficits. There are so many ways of being miswired that most of us are compensating for lacks, and also using additional capacities, that we don’t even know we have.

I suspect that curators and specific types of artists don’t get along because they view the world differently…not that they are differently acculturated, they just don’t see the same things the same way even when they are using the same language.

It would take entirely too much time to unpack the meaning of this proposition. It isn’t particularly materialist-reductionist, but it seriously modifies the social-reductionist side of things.

Perhaps the point is that nothing can ever be reduced to anything else. Far from being explicable by simpler causes (although we do like to disguise the causes that embarrass us or that we don’t even wish to know), we are usually so encapsulated in our own imprisoning partial viewpoints that we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Convergent Frequencies, The Sartorialist, et al.

So, okay, let’s ask it: Is The Sartorialist an August Sander for the twenty-first century?

Being practiced at condensing conversations, Scott Schuman brought up August Sander almost at the utterance of the words “art critic” by the gallery manager introducing me to him last night. And being as how a traveling show of Sander portraits at the Goethe-Institut was one of the first exhibitions I reviewed for Art Papers, I responded viscerally and positively to the reference.

Actually, the globally famous photographer and blogger also brought up the names of street photographers and such projects as Bruce Davidson’s East One Hundredth Street, but only to compare them with Sander’s practice, and with his own, which is something like a blend of the two.

Sander was looking for social typifications, and that required photographing significantly attired Weimar Republic individuals in settings that represented their environment. The results were haunting works of art. The Sartorialist is also doing something more art-oriented rather than simple trendspotting/coolhunting, but the typifications he seeks out are ones of creative style, not social roles. Even so, Schuman considers it important (as do I) to contextualize the place in which the styles were individually generated, so the backgrounds in his photographs count for as much as the faces and clothes.

Okay, I’ll drop the sociology of knowledge “typifications” verbiage regarding August Sander. Sander was convinced he could show how different people’s self-perceptions were revealed by what they wore, because in the Weimar Republic, clothes really did make the man. (It was the 1920s, and Germany’s women also went in for self-definition that revealed profession and social rank more than personal preferences.)

Fashionistas around the world are as often as not trying to project an image that has nothing to do with their day job, and sometimes is meant to disguise social rank rather than advertise it. One notable exception is the distinguished businessman or -woman, whose fashion sense is meant to convey a blending of personal identity with professional demeanor. The professions also generate fashion trendsetters, of course, adept at combining the expected dress code with subtle transgressions that make for a creative projection of individual style in a visually repressed environment.

(This is my opinion, not Schuman’s, and I may be dead wrong because I’m missing the alertness to subtle social clues and signifiers that goes into serious coolhunting. I imagine the skilled trendspotter can guess income level and likely place of employment no matter how clever the individual thinks he or she is at obscuring it. Certainly the blog comments on a Sartorialist photograph, pointing out $1200 sneakers, are from fashion-informed individuals who can probably also tell what came from a last-season thrift store discard and what's being worn as a personal statement. This is not my area of specialization. However, I can see that The Sartorialist incorporates a lot more analytical savvy into the mix than most fashion enthusiasts or academic theorists would suspect—it just isn't expressed in theory-heavy terms. People are always doing and saying more than they believe they are doing and saying; it's what makes personal style so revelatory in the first place.)

So here is The Sartorialist, traveling the world making on-street portraits of strikingly attired individuals, and everyone is trying to figure out how to get The Sartorialist to notice them.

The fact that Schuman's portraits, like Sander’s, are serious art probably doesn’t matter to most of his would-be subjects. The instant global fame does. Motivations differ, of course, and some presumably do care about the art as well as the fashion.

Knowing that nothing I could do would impress The Sartorialist, I opted for the best projection of my individual identity with a decades-out-of-date look for the disheveled critic: a black Franz Kafka in Prague t-shirt worn with my one threadbare grey jacket. (It is almost time to hit Finders Keepers in search of the new autumn jacket.)

I was not surprised to see that the art and design students who worship The Sartorialist had turned out in their Sartorialist-pleasing best. The level of enthusiasm was gratifying.

William Gibson has devoted his newest novel—the logical conclusion to the trilogy that began with Pattern Recognition—to the topic of secret brands, anti-commercial marketing, trendspotting, coolhunting, and such, and I confess that if I had had time and money, what would have delighted me most would have been to show up in a denim jacket with a Gabriel Hounds logo, which coincidentally sounds like it is very close to the baby-headed bird logo of Susan Bridges’ now-defunct Big Angel Blowout. I don’t think I’ll have one ready in time for Gibson’s book tour appearance at SCAD on Monday evening, either.

There is much, much more to be said in that regard, but it will have to wait for a later post. Barring misadventure, I shall write a review of the show at Hagedorn that will discuss individual works from The Sartorialist.

In the meantime, please check out "Convergent Frequencies" at Krog and Irwin Streets tonight (Saturday) or Sunday evening, before it goes away. Matt Gilbert's computer-altered videos, collaboratively produced with live performance by musicians and dancers, blends with Nat Slaughter's extraordinary sound pieces and Matt Haffner's wall murals in a one-weekend-only pushing of the boundaries for this Southern city. Kudos to i45 and Possible Futures for creating a kickoff event for the season that was the only possible followup to Hagedorn's spectacular reception for the Sartorialist exhibition. Crossing paths there with Caroline Hust, fresh from her $10,000 Kate Spade Award as a freshly graduated RISD textile designer, it was very nearly possible to believe that Gibson is still as much in touch with the subterranean social trends of his time as he was in the days when he ruled the world of cyberpunk fiction.

Actually, I do believe that, but what do I know?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I'm excited, but a little bit at a time

For those who imagine I have recently received a windfall, my grant will be disbursed in installments over the course of two years to permit me to continue my practice.

Just so you'll know. I am, of course, unimaginably grateful to Louis Corrigan personally and the new foundation, to which I have alluded obliquely in the previous post.

Notes Toward A Future History: a first draft? an outline, anyway, perhaps better titled

Notes Toward Any Future History of Art and Gallery Practice in Atlanta

I have come to realize that people’s selective recollections of the Atlanta art scene resemble the old saw about the Sixties: it is indeed as though if you remember it, you weren’t there.

We probably need to cut through the generational legends that have already formed for the current generation of the DIY scene almost as much as for those who speak of the Foundational Years (whatever those may have been). There ought to be meaningful lessons to be extracted from all the anecdotes, if we could ever get past the premature nostalgia, the pseudo-heroism, and the general reconfirmation of Henry Kissinger’s famous observation that the passions run so high because the stakes are so low.

I would like for a rough structural chronology to be established, less for scholarly reasons than for practical ones. What the practical ones are—that will emerge only at the end of this verbal peregrination.

I would like for, say, Dick Robinson and Annette Cone-Skelton to contribute recollections of what it really was like in the Sixties, a time when I was still off in the even more artistically marginal state of Florida and then in the midst of moments in California that were closer to the action than I ever wanted to be.

Atlanta at the time had something of an alt-culture scene surrounding, I believe, the Tenth Gate, a space that was in the last phases of disappearing when I first arrived in Atlanta for graduate school. But more to the point, the city had developed a significant regional school of Minimalist painting, already nurtured and brought into focus by a tiny handful of gallery owners. Electronic music was flourishing (in its own way), and in those years pre-Callanwolde, poets hung out with James Dickey in Buckhead. My impression is that these various subgroups were of slightly different generations and mostly did not know one another any more than they knew the would-be underground scene around Tenth Street.

Whatever was going on in those years on the grassroots level—and it was already inordinately proud of itself—the serious DIY scene seems to have been kick-started in the latter half of the financially troubled 1970s by a flood of economic stimulus money that funded community arts programs. The election of Maynard Jackson as mayor of Atlanta and Jimmy Carter as President of the United States was one of those happy overlaps of progressive sensibilities that led to the creation of a city administrative entity (the Bureau of Cultural and International Affairs) just at the moment when there was federal money available to allow it to do something. Arts centers were founded in disused school buildings, from the Little Five Points Community Center to the Forrest Avenue Consortium that housed such collaborative institutions as Pynyon Press and Nexus Gallery. The Urban Walls program funded murals that inspired local businesses to follow the city’s example, and wondrously visionary wall paintings appeared under the sponsorship of building owners.

The funding patterns shifted as the Reagan Revolution came on apace, but corporate sponsorships kept High Museum shows of regional artists in operation, and imaginative academic conferences stirred things up intellectually even as the DIY spaces stirred things up artistically: Emory University’s “Intellect and Imagination” conference proved that it was possible to bring together nationally renowned biologists, art historians, and conceptually minded performers for a few days of lectures and conversations that were as consequential as the Critics’ Forum in which Art Papers paired national and local critics to report on the condition of visual art throughout the South.

All things pass, and such conferences were not repeated. However, DIY scholarly conferences were staged from time to time in which imaginative groups of local artists raised the money to bring a few of their favorite national figures to town to sit on panels with local artists and academicians. Art shows were staged in conjunction with these.

Galleries such as Fay Gold’s arose—actually, very nearly exclusively Fay Gold’s—that imported the New York flavors of the month, such as graffitists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring in 1983, with Basquiat returning for a solo gig in 1986. The general scorn with which this trendiness was met by the anti-establishment wing of local artists was reflected in the rise of the enormous artist-staged exhibitions in disused factories and warehouses (the Mattress Factory shows, so called from the space in which the first one was staged): 300 artists paying $25 apiece (refundable at show’s end) and collaboratively rehabilitating a derelict space long enough to stage a three-week exhibition created an annual event at which 3000 people paid an entry fee to see the most spectacular array of local work available all year. (Installation artists were delighted to have whole rooms to transform as they saw fit…in spaces slated for demolition, the work was sometimes simply left in place when the show was over.)

Liability insurance and the acquisition of derelict spaces by pre-Olympics speculators put an end to that. Less transient alternative exhibition spaces took up some, but not all, of the slack. Occasionally it was possible to stage storefront exhibitions, and on one occasion in which I was involved, the raw space atop the city’s newest big-ticket building was secured for a short-term DIY art show.

And every so often the scene would go into a downspin as the prime movers burned out or moved on. Even as the city grew richer and richer, the alternative arts found less and less money with which to make things happen, and more and more regulatory obstacles put in their path.

So subversive ways of working were developed that had nothing to do with graffiti and more to do with slipping public events in between the expectations of public authority.

But all the while, art was kept before the eyes of the general public by the well-funded Piedmont Park Arts Festival, a decades-old institution that brought nationally famous site sculptors to the city to create temporary installations that were complemented by imaginatively curated exhibitions in the park’s permanent buildings. The cheesy artists’ market and food stands were the main draws for the crowds, but the crowds had to endure a great deal of serious art en route to the stuff they really came to see.

Then the site program went away when the federal funding was yanked, just as some years earlier the Southern artists series at the High Museum went away in the wake of the general reaction against arts funding in the wake of the Serrano and Mapplethorpe scandals. (We should recall that Fay Gold then hosted Serrano while he produced his Klan portraits…by this time local artists had forgiven Fay her fashionable location and were perfectly willing to show up at Fay Gold Gallery to see Piss Christ or, behind black curtains, the X Portfolio.)

All along, there were careerist moves, crossovers, fashionable and anti-fashionable hybridities: folk art came and cycled through and was incorporated into a piece of Olympic-era public art and largely went, with the passing of Howard Finster and his generation; African-American vernacular (please don’t call it “folk”) art remained a focus of contention up to and including its mainstreaming with the quilts of Gee’s Bend (preceded by the unnoticed placement of Thornton Dial’s much-contested piece of public sculpture); generations of art school graduates went into bands that paid off better (from Michael Stipe onward); subgroups came and subgroups went; great grassroots ventures to bridge ethnic divides were founded and went by the wayside. Things changed. Things remained the same.

The only reason to rehearse all this is to suggest that (1) some things that were once possible are no longer possible. It would be as anachronistic and pointless to revive most of the events in this history as it would be to reinstall telephone booths. And, (2) some things are now possible that were not possible in earlier moments of a perennially globalizing city (which Rem Koolhaas had named circa 1985 as being already the city of the future, the centerless, multinoded network of geographically dispersed, interlinked social and economic forces only dimly aware of one another yet creating intermittent synergies all the more vertiginously powerful for their degrees of invisibility and lack of physical infrastructure, the whole strung together like an interminable sentence composed of digitally composed and transmitted symbols).

We had joked in the early ’70s that Atlanta was determined to become “the world’s next great international city” without first becoming a great national one; but it was so, and it got the Centennial Olympics to prove it. And the place remains as bumptiously oblivious in that regard as ever, and that combination of obliviousness and accomplishment is something essential about us and about the world in which we find ourselves living. That is a situation that has existed for some thirty-five years, and it is a situation shaped by our history as well as by the economic forces of the global networks within which the city functions.

However, beginning to map the history of the Atlanta art scene and its (frequently failed) interactions with the city in which it exists is potentially helpful on a very elementary level, one that is unrelated to the vast claims of social theory.

It is useful to know that there are things that once were being done that are no longer being done, that there are ventures that crumble again and again for exactly the same recurrent reasons, and things that could be done now that we know are possible, because comparable things were being done in previous decades.

And that is the level on which we ought to be comparing notes on the past, and imagining possible futures.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

not all counterforces are little jokes: Hussein Chalayan at Lisson Gallery

Lisson Gallery is as mainstream as it gets in the world of art, but this is the kind of cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary enterprise I have always championed. The press release, verbatim:

"Lisson Gallery is pleased to announce further details of their collaboration with Hussein Chalayan whose new installation will be exhibited during a solo show, 8 September – 2 October 2010.

"Chalayan says 'My approach has always been interdisciplinary; the new work is an extension of this. There is a certain freedom to working in an art context that has allowed me to further explore the ideas that underpin my work.'

"The new installation explores music as a cultural form, creating a 'disembodied experience' of a performance of a traditional Turkish folk composition by Sertab Erener, one of Turkey’s most successful female singers, accompanied by an Ottoman orchestra. The installation is made up of a nuanced combination of audio, film, sculpture and musical notation. Here Hussein examines the experience of music as layered, exploring both the sounds created by different instruments, and the diverse cultural influences on the composition, which include Persian poetry and Greek orthodox chanting.

"Hussein Chalayan is one of Britain’s best known and most respected designers, and was the recipient of the Designer of the Year awards in 1999 and 2000. Chalayan represented Turkey in the Venice Biennale in 2005 and presented a critically acclaimed survey at London’s Design Museum in spring 2009, which later toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo and is currently on view at Istanbul Modern.

"The project has emerged from a longstanding dialogue between the designer and Lisson Gallery’s Curatorial Director Greg Hilty who says: 'Hussein Chalayan is rightly celebrated not just for his fashion but as one of London's leading innovators in visual culture. His sensitive play with the history and poetic potential of wide-ranging cultural forms make him a natural fit for Lisson's programme of exhibitions.'"

Friday, July 16, 2010

George Steiner wrote My Unwritten Books a few years back; I am increasingly accepting the need to write “My Unwritten Essays.” This is a note about one of those essays.

C. G. Jung’s The Red Book, published at long last after decades lost in legend, is one of those confrontations with the unconscious that deserves to be contextualized in terms of literary and art history. Art history in particular, because The Red Book is such a sui generis work that at the same time is of its time, and comments upon it. Carl Jung’s unconscious when he began the book was the unconscious of a German-speaking citizen of Switzerland ca. 1915. When he ended the venture in 1930, in the middle of a sentence and the middle of a painting, he did so as a different person in history, and it was the historical fact that Richard Wilhelm and others had made the visual and literary materials of alchemy available to him that led him to abandon his personal researches in favor of inherited imagery.

However, it isn’t like no one else was plumbing the psychic depths with visual and verbal resources in those years. Symbolist art and its self-consciously decadent offshoot were florid explorations of the mind’s swamps and gardens, even as Gerard Manley Hopkins was writing that “the mind has mountains, / Cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

Jung’s visual resources included at least some of those paintings (Hodler in particular, but we don’t know, or I don’t, how far afield the work of Jan Toorop or any of the other artists of his generation got…there were widely distributed art magazines at the turn of the twentieth century, and as a different psychologically inflected modernism got underway a dozen years later with publications like Der Blaue Reiter, there were at least cultivated discussions going on about the strange doings of the new art. Jung knew what the Dadaists were up to in his own city of Zürich, and he didn’t like it. He almost certainly would have felt differently about the Symbolist generation, because the paintings in The Red Book are so often so Symbolist in their visual orientation. (They also owe much to medieval manuscript illumination, of course, since the book is self-consciously medievalizing, but most of all they look like the works of Hodler, or Munch, or Toorop or even Mossa and lesser lights whom Jung is unlikely to have seen. This similarity to painters Jung couldn’t have known as well as ones he could have isn’t an argument for the collective unconscious per se, because the styles seem to have been infectious; similar unconscious contents spawned similar paintings if the artists were inclined to paint in a certain manner already. It is the identity of consciously acquired style that reveals the structural identity of unconscious contents expressed in the individual artworks.)

Anyway, I don’t have time to sit down with recent books on international schools of Symbolist painting (and there have been several such books) or even with Robert Rosenblum’s Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition and do this right. Rosenblum’s general hypothesis is germane to Jung’s book; the long crisis of Protestant theology gave rise to a visual tradition of ecstatic relationships to the natural world in which the unpleasant as well as the delightsome facts of biology were subsumed into a profane mystical vision. At once anxious and celebratory, human beings were inserted through art into a new world of earthly and more than earthly delights that grew out of doubts about human destiny.

And Jung’s psychology is a historical response to that crisis, in the same way that Freud’s is albeit with different conclusions. The look of The Red Book, if not the details of its contents, certainly arises out of its moment(s) in time, and I suppose others are already investigating shifts in style and content over the course of the fifteen years Jung spent producing it. I certainly had meant to do so.

But since I seem not to be finding time to do it, be aware that William Willeford is speaking about the overall topic at Atlanta’s Jung Society meeting on Saturday, July 17. Those sufficiently interested in the subject should be able to locate information online here:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Kandinsky's project revisited

Every so often someone comes along to have a go at a classic attempt, in this case Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee's statistical surveys at the Bauhaus trying to determine correlations between color and number and shape. The difference is that this artist in Ormond Beach, Florida has recognized that the correlations will change with culture and history; it isn't entirely biologically or spiritually fixed, even if very few cultures use red to symbolize passionlessness and tranquility or blue to symbolize restless agitation. (The dominant appearance of these colors in the environment may be enough to explain this without resorting to the electromagnetic spectrum. Kandinsky's own announced correlations of shape and color have always felt very odd and wrong to me, however—in sharp contrast to his usages in paintings—so it isn't just sky and blood and fire that shape our visual metaphors.)

Anyway, though I won't take the test myself, I feel inclined to pass this along for those who will:

Public Participation Wanted: Symbolism in Contemporary Western Culture Survey released on internet.

Like our individual signatures or fingerprints, we each see and interpret shape and color differently based on our experiences. Traditionally meanings have varied around the world. Has the diversity of America blended meanings? What are the characteristics that define your beliefs by color, line, shape? Can these elements be isolated? These are some of the underlining questions behind this project by Margaret Schnebly Hodge entitled “Glyph: Visual Interpretations of Contemporary Western Culture”.

Hodge is an artist fascinated by the blending features of contemporary western culture. “I believe that we are born with a primal belief system some refer to as an internal compass which is influenced over time by external forces, becoming a more complex cumulative belief system” says Hodge. “Participants are asked to provide meanings of basic shapes, objects and colors for Hodge to evaluate and discover the meanings in today’s western society. Is it different from our ancestors? Is there a transcendent core universal system?

In an effort to bring visual reality to the intangible values found in public belief systems, Hodge has developed a fun and simple 18 question survey and placed it on the internet. “I believe the survey phase may take up to 6 months in order to get the appropriate number of respondents” says Hodge. Asked why she chose the electronic system she explained “I want to let the project web out to a broad sampling of the public, individual to individual, and not be directed to any specific group of people.”

The survey is the first phase of and creates a foundation for Hodge’s upcoming multimedia project. Go to to find more information on the project and complete the survey free online. Everyone, age 18 or older, who resides at least 6 months of the year within the United States, may participate in the survey. You do not have to subscribe to particular belief systems or be a citizen of the United States and no identifying personal information is required to participate.

Hodge is an award winning artist who resides in Ormond Beach, Florida. She has spent the past 5 years preparing for this project while remaining dedicated to her painting and completing other projects that included public participation. Her 2007 project, Art In the Sunshine, was proposed over the internet and through news media, then allowed to evolve on its own. Over 100 self enlisted artists generated more than 300 pieces of art from old signs that had been illegally placed on roadways. The art was legally installed along 20 miles of roadway for a three month period. This project brought together city, county, not for profit and private partners. For information on the artist go to .

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

everything is contextual. by definition.

That's to say, we perceive from a perspective, one determined by our prior experience, which includes upbringing, personal encounters, and theoretical apparatus that we buy into, whether that apparatus be Calvinist, libertarian, mystical or Marxist.

And that means that certain exhibitions are just plain troublesome to write about, just as they were troublesome to curate. But whether they in fact create trouble depends on the age and perhaps the nationality of the viewer.

Such is the case with "Incendiary Exposure," the exhibition of work by Daryl Harris and Michael Morgan that runs through June 27 at Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta.

Morgan combines an allegorical series about the pain of the oppressed (by racism, mostly, but also by economics and...other things) with a series of box assemblages about the pain of the boxed-in African-American homosexual. Even ten-year-olds get the picture, according to curator Kevin Sipp.

We must suppose they also get the picture in terms of Harris' paintings that deal with the pathology of continuing white racism and the different pathology of the violence-ridden culture that Harris encountered among his students and that he considers a particularly dysfunctional response to diminished economic circumstances. (I'm using this ludicrously highfalutin language for a reason, if only for Brecht's good old "Verfremdungseffekt," q.v. on Wikipedia.)

Sipp suggests that the pathological legacy of Jim Crow lingers in part because the United States has never squarely confronted the topic, but rather attempted to deal with this or that individual aspect of the problem. Distorted versions of self-awareness would be a side effect, from gangsta culture to homophobia, but for different reasons having to do with how prestige is established. In other present-day macho American subcultures, street cred was established until very recently by getting a high-powered trading position at Goldman Sachs.

While I am on the subject of subcultural self-awareness, I wish I could see the new show at the Art Pavilion Zagreb, a building that is apparently an inheritance from the Hungarian Millennium Exposition of 1898 in Budapest. The Hungarians wanted to spread the wonders of Magyar culture to their subject peoples, so the pavilion was exported to the Croatian capital (then the provincial Hungarian town) of Zagreb to use for art shows.

No, actually the canny Croatians told the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary that no way were they showing up in Budapest without getting some architecture in return. And since it would have been embarrassing to have had one of the nations of the great multi-ethnic, multicultural empire turn up missing, the Hungarian authorities assented.

And now we have, as an oblique commentary on this history, a show called "Neither From Nor Towards...Did You, Upon Awakening Today, See the Future from the Still Point of the Turning World?" This must be the actual title, in English rather than translated, because the keywords are all taken verbatim from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets.

The show is a commentary on the heritage of illusory optimism bequeathed to us by world expositions (and we should note that one is taking place at this very moment in Shanghai...I hope to acquire a catalogue as I have done for most of the world expositions—and also the colonial expositions—from 1924 onward). The text of the "Neither From Nor Towards" press release says it all:

"The histories of world exhibitions are scripts for reading the histories of the world, revealing the global economic, political, ideological and power relations of an era, beneath their usual optimistic glow highlighting utopian visions and glorious prospects for the 'future of mankind.'

"The exhibition recalls not the structure or 'intent' of the world fair exhibitions, but what is left of the ghosts of their proclaimed belief in mankind and its future. Situated in the historicist art pavilion, exchanged between Budapest and Zagreb at the turn of the last century, it reflects the relations of histories of architecture, photography and the ideology of exhibition with histories of power and subjugation, as well as the histories of past utopian and futurological visions, embodied in the promises of architecture and technology. It wonders if it is possible today, after an era of identity politics and fragmented narratives, to see the world 'as a whole' and simultaneously question the very idea of the wholeness as one belonging to the Western imagination related to the ideas surrounding modernity, progress and colonial equations."

So is it possible to view the world as a whole in an era when we can't even view the history of the United States as a whole, as witness the divergent responses of different generations (if not ethnicities) to "Incendiary Exposure"? Good question, and Croatia has its own much-disputed ethnic histories to worry about, or, rather, to try not to think too much about. For when people think too much about them in the wrong way, bullets start flying.

If anyone can elucidate the image from "Neither From Nor Towards" with which this essay begins, I'd appreciate it. I have the feeling that the images by Morgan and Harris will be similarly opaque to the Croatians, although they might get Harris' The Greatest Fear, a race-reversed antebellum plantation scene set on the front lawn of the White House. Gone With the Wind was popular in the war-torn Balkans to the point of being parodied by the Trio collective in a Clark-Gable-and-Vivien-Leigh postcard announcing "Everybody wants to see GONE WITH SARAJEVO—most famous movie of all time."

A Google search for that postcard, of which I own a copy, turned up nothing until I typed in different keywords (duh) after writing this essay—I have deliberately retained my not-quite-right recollection of the text, above—but it was good to discover en route that Bosnian design continues to produce hiply contemporary and ironic pieces of design in the ensuing decades of fragilely enforced peace. Trio's most famous design, incidentally, is "Enjoy Sarajevo," the 1992-1993 ripoff of the Coca-Cola logo that they joked would rescue them from besieged Sarajevo, because the Coca-Cola Company would want to put them on trial in Atlanta for copyright infringement, and that meant that the Americans would have to come arrest them and remove them from the war zone.

This has been a digressive post, but as always, digressive by design.

Monday, June 14, 2010

ends and odds

The promised reviews of Atlanta exhibitions are piling up unwritten, between one thing and another that I'll reveal later.

I was reminded today that it had been a long time since I last tried to contribute to +rosebud, the design magazine edited by Ralf Herms and others out of Vienna. (I had work in number 4, "Action," and 5, "Mystery.") I discover that not only have I missed number 6, "Ideal," but number 7, "Very Funny," came out last year, featuring the world's longest joke, set in 3 point type.

No joke at all is Dominic Stevens' design for a $33,000 (at current exchange rates) environment-friendly house. The Times says that "you and I could build it," but since they didn't list a URL for the plans that he is giving away for free on the Internet and there are too many Dominic Stevens stories for me to find the right one in my spare time, I am presuming that one of the architects who reads this blog will have the details. (It would be nice to have comments from someone besides Chinese spammers.) The April 8 story appears here:

I think I shall have a go at an image-heavy post about one of the exhibitions I've promised to do something about.

Monday, May 24, 2010

September Songs access, Skies Over Atlanta ditto

My thanks to everyone who came to the CD launch reading for September Songs. The print version thereof, with extensive notes, is only available online via this URL:

which can be accessed directly off my blog where the links seem to work, as they do not here.

Also, the "Skies Over Atlanta" installation in which I was involved along with Neil Fried, Evan Levy, and Priscilla Smith can be viewed, at least in part, in a five minute video here:

or more specifically, here:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

advancing slowly on all fronts

There will be time later to explain a few of the things going on in Atlanta at the moment, some of which have generated a certain amount of transient admiration and some of which may yet birth other things. For now, however, I want to pay homage to The Front, a New Orleans artists' collective profiled by Paul Chan on e-flux (in an essay linked to from Inside New Orleans, whose online link was forwarded to me by D. Eric Bookhardt).

Chan's essay, which essays much larger issues regarding community and communication than I have time to rephrase here in between my other commitments, describes the New Orleans tradition of artists' collectives which predates Katrina and continues to be carried on by those artists who were part of the scene before Katrina and continued to insist upon the survival of the N.O. art scene after it. The Front, whose website is, is one of the more intriguing of these, although you wouldn't know it from this extraordinarily lame post.

Trust me enough to navigate to for Chan's remarks. Bookhardt also has an appealing interview with Patti Smith in the current issue of Inside New Orleans at

Friday, April 23, 2010

meetings with remarkable men and women, semi-revised

I wrote an anecdote-filled essay at the time of learning about my Nexus Award back in January, intended to allow me to mention all the people I thought were equally deserving of having been one of the two first recipients thereof.

A good many of the anecdotes turned out, on second reading, to be less entertaining than I had thought. I rewrote the piece as an expanded acceptance speech accordingly, only to learn that I had five minutes for remarks in what turned out to be a ten- or twelve-minute speech. Back to the delete key, plus rewrite.

A number of people wanted a permanent record of what I said, but a good many remarks were extemporaneous. The following is more or less the script from which I deviated.

Meetings With Remarkable Women and Men: A Retrospective Look at My Life in Art (and the Standard Rhetorical Reverse)

Jerry Cullum

The Atlanta art world, to which I have now devoted an entire quarter-century, is a curious place. It is a place where the vast majority of participants, whether working artists, alternative-space directors, art show organizers, or working art writers, are expected to do what they do after they have got done earning a living doing something else. This week I am in the final stages of co-creating a site-specific installation in a former church building adjacent to this weekend's Inman Park Festival with Neil Fried, Evan Levy, Priscilla Smith, and a few helpers, none of whom are receiving any more financial reward for doing it than the i45 gallery owners who sponsored it are for having had the idea in the first place. Like the much-appreciated patrons who form the boards of our nonprofits, and like the unsalaried staff of the smaller nonprofits, they are trying to make things happen in the artworld in between their paying gigs.

I feel very privileged that for more than twenty years both my day job and my freelance nights-and-weekends job involved writing about and editing other people's writing about over a thousand such self-sacrificing individuals, plus a few museum shows when somebody else didn't already have that slot covered. Now that the print media's arts coverage has dwindled and I no longer derive any significant income from art writing, I find I can't break the habit of writing about artists and keeping up with what they do. But at this point, the digital world pays no one for such services.

The new dispensation isn't a completely radical departure; it was standard practice for the curator and/or catalogue essayist to donate the promised fee as matching funds for the grant money. Today we continue to have independent art centers and art reviewing websites in which the only money changing hands goes to the landlord or the internet service provider.

But without them, and without this city's more adventurous owners of commercial galleries, our artworld would be little more than a subset of interior design. Adventurous designers also deserve to be celebrated, incidentally. Almost as much as architects, they take risks that are sometimes compensated by nothing more than professional recognition.

I hear complaints about our poverty mentality, but if we waited for compensation before we did anything, this would be a much more culturally impoverished city.

If I am one of the two initial recipients of this award, it is only because somebody had to go first, and I'm glad it happened to me because I need a platform to market my collaborative electronic-music CD with Dick Robinson that will be launched on May 20 at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, not to mention my other....uhhhhhhhhhhhh no, on second thought I think I'll leave that for some other time. That is what e-mail lists are for. Sorry, I don't twitter if I can help it.

Seriously, I do want to blow my own horn for the remainder of these all too un-brief remarks, by recounting my past art exploits in a way that will let me name some of the remarkable men and women with whom I have worked over the years, many of whom cannot be here tonight because they could not afford the forty dollar admission fee.

In the mid-1970s, freshly Ph.D’d and with few prospects in a recessionary economy, I joined Harriette Grissom in creating the letterpress-based Omnivore Press chapbook series. The linoleum print I cut for one chapbook cover was my first-ever work of visual art (experiments in Chinese brush painting were the second and third).

Though I had been friends with artists ever since college, I never expected to be writing about art except as a subset of the history of consciousness. In 1984, however, Art Papers editor Xenia Zed succeeded in convincing me that it was possible for me to write about art that didn't yet possess secondary source materials. Feeling that anyone who produced such critical commentaries ought himself to be subject to critique, I began to produce art myself again shortly afterward, in both conceptual and traditional media.

I also found myself guest-editing two special issues of Art Papers and assisting Robert Cheatham in interviewing Jacques Derrida, but that is another story. Robert Cheatham can tell it in his own time.

Soon after that I found myself curating my first gallery show (a shout-out here to Lynn Loftin), and not long after that, on the recommendation of Virginia Warren Smith, I began writing freelance reviews for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. At about the same time, Evan Levy made it possible for the artists' group we had organized to present an alternative-space show on the top floor of the IBM Tower. It was the first of many opportunities to learn how few resources and how much effort it required to produce amazing results that would create momentary excitement and no lasting impact. (Ask the surviving members of the Mattress Group.)

Somehow, the doubtful advantages of an interdisciplinary Ph.D. led to a productive life on the margins, and eventually I co-curated with Tina Dunkley a show of Atlanta artists that traveled to European venues during the Olympic year of 1996. (Gilla Juette's grass-roots efforts made that one possible. I also assisted with Gilla’s international artist program, which brought to Atlanta, among others, the artist who was the Republic of Georgia’s representative in that year’s Venice Biennale (thanks to Cay Sophie Rabinowitz). Mamuka interacted brilliantly with the members of Neil Fried’s Railroad Earth collaborative, who co-hosted the monthly Artists in Residence International art and performance events then, and who have now revived Artists in Residence International for new events beginning this very weekend with the "Skies Over Atlanta" installation at 580 Euclid Avenue during the Inman Park Festival, and continuing May 15 with an iron pour at Railroad Earth.)

As Xenia Zed once put it, Atlanta artists and curators and critics can spend their whole lives emerging. But the advantages of the margin included the fact that at the time, things that would have been impossible in a more hierarchically organized scene could be produced on minimal budgets with volunteer labor.

I did what I could to interpret that condition (and to overcome its limitations), and in my spare time curated shows for Georgia State University (thank you, Teri Williams, for co-organizing and nearly killing yourself with work in the process), Agnes Scott (thank you, Lisa Alembik, for doing the same), the Artists in Georgia exhibition in Savannah, and so on.

I insisted, and still insist, that the only way to understand a local scene was to place it in the context of the challenges experienced by comparable scenes elsewhere (a concept once known as "international regionalism" and now not known as anything at all, as far as I know). This was what led to the two or three international trips of my career that were not self-financed. (The dirty little secret is that art writers don't get travel budgets, and are barred by conflict of interest rules from accepting press junkets. The redoubtable African-American artist Mildred Thompson got both of us to Berlin on an independent reporting trip in December 1989, courtesy of the Goethe-Institut.)

That was the decade or so when I was donating my full-time services to Art Papers. After I had got done circa 1997 with such editorial adventures as translating a Gerardo Mosquera essay with edits done via a dicey international phone connection, I left the editorial decisions to my superiors and devoted myself almost exclusively to analyzing and reviewing the local, Atlanta having by then spawned almost too many galleries for anyone to visit all the openings. (But I tried, most recently courtesy of rides with friends like Carole Lawrence and Shawn Marie Story.)

There have been too many incidental enterprises to mention without trying your patience. Rhode Fraser and I inaugurated a video series that lasted for only one incarnation. Carol LaFayette made me star and scriptwriter of a video of our own.

I was always going to look for a standard-issue job someday instead of cobbling together a living from bits and pieces, but as I have now said three times, bits and pieces are how most artists and intellectuals of my generation have always gotten by in Atlanta. Besides, there were always things that needed to be done, and no one else immediately visible to do them. Now there are, and not a minute too soon.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In memoriam Purvis Young

I don't ordinarily post about topics that hundreds of other people are posting about, but I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of the Miami vernacular artist Purvis Young.

109 works from the Rubell Collection were donated a couple of years ago to Morehouse College's African American Hall of Fame to form the largest permanent installation of Young's works anywhere in the world. (

Before that, Atlanta had had a unique role in Young's growing global fame: Young had done site-specific work at Mark Karelson's folk art gallery (since closed as Karelson went on to become gallery director of Mason Murer Fine Art) and been one of the major artists of the 1996 Cultural Olympiad exhibition "Souls Grown Deep," and of the two-volume work of the same title published subsequently. Skot Foreman Fine Art later exhibited Young's work extensively in Atlanta, and in New York following the gallery's relocation.

Young represented a new generation of urban vernacular artists whose work was simultaneously informed by art history and an integral part of his Overtown community.
Others will write more comprehensive obituaries and homages, but as one who wrote about Young more than once at an earlier stage of his career, I feel compelled to offer this all-too-preliminary reflection.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What Is Art, Anyway? IRWIN Answers With Hugo Ball's Reply at the Cabaret Voltaire

"What Is Art Hugo Ball" is an exhibition by IRWIN at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich which was scheduled to open on April 20.

Methodius Zlatanov, depicted here, is the Metropolitan for the United States and Canada of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. I have no idea whether he actually read from his "Die Energie des Unaussprechbaren: Gebete für H.B." I must presume that my readership will recognize the famous photograph of Hugo Ball reading at the Cabaret Voltaire, which he is holding in lieu of a more traditional icon such as the thoroughly customary ones on the iconostasis behind him. (I shall refrain from exegesis of the functions of the icon in Eastern Christianity.)

I'm hoping to track down more details on all of this because Hugo Ball's eventual embrace of Byzantine Christianity as well as Dadaism and IRWIN's dryly witty and paradoxical repetition of moments of modernism are both topics with which I have been intimately involved since I began my career as an art critic.

N.S.K. passports were issued during IRWIN's visit to the Atlanta Olympics, and many of my colleagues are passport holders of the first state in time rather than space. I have been a fan of N.S.K., IRWIN, and Slovenia for many years now though I am highly unlikely ever to encounter any of them again in whatever future remains to me.

It is curious that this exhibition should appear at just this moment in time.

The German original of the more or less translated document below can be found at

What is art Hugo Ball

The Slovenian artist group IRWIN presents the exhibition "What is Art Hugo Ball" dealing with with Ball's book, "Byzantine Christianity" and illuminated with a Dada Byzantine Orthodox Gnosticism.

IRWIN was called at its founding in the early 80's Rrose Irwin Sélavy, marking their relation to the work of the most radical and most famous representative of Dada, Marcel Duchamp. IRWIN is working with selected and existing images - symbols, figures and compositions - on a similar principle to the one with which Duchamp dealt with the cylinder dryer, the urinal basin or the front wheel of a bicycle. The hallmark of IRWIN are sedate large frames in which they present works that are often not by themselves. One such work is the famous icon of Suprematism, the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich (1913). IRWIN explores with him the function of art, using icons that are not only images but also ritual instruments. They have now reached the founders of Dada and say: What is art with Hugo Ball. Hugo Ball and his "Byzantine Christianity" connects IRWIN to the Orthodox icon and gives Dada the same function as the icon as Hugo Ball understood this, as a Gnostic experience.

At the opening of the exhibition "What is art Hugo Ball" the Orthodox Christian Metropolitan of Macedonia, Bishop Methodius Zlatanov, travels to Zürich to read poems from his series: "The energy of the unspeakable: Prayer for HB."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pandra Williams: An Experiment Succeeds at Kiang Gallery

Pandra Williams, Radicis, 2010
Installation consisting mainly of solar panels, battery bank, microprocessor, 465 l.e.d. lights, laminated mulberry paper, hand-built porcelain objects

Please contemplate the images at left, borrowed from the relevant page on the Kiang Gallery website, (which will change soon enough, in the nature of changing exhibitions).

The piece will be installed through May 1, but I have been unable to revisit the gallery during its Thursday - Saturday days of operation, and haven't been able to focus my attention sufficiently to do justice to this remarkable artwork in a style that would be suitable either for or for

So I am throwing in the towel and typing words straight off the top of my head on Counterforces.

The LED lights, powered by the solar panels on the roof, blink off and on in a variety of rhythms derived from mathematical relationships that have a long and arcane history. A real review would delve into that history (the relationships, which are found in universes of discourse ranging from yoga to evolutionary biology, are merely summarized below). It would then discuss how brilliantly Williams has united the perennial themes of history and nature, nature and culture, biology and mathematics, the underpinnings of our material world and how human beings have interpreted and analyzed those underpinnings. It's all right here.

That the sculptural shell of Radicis is made from mulberry paper and thin porcelain is a material wonder in and of itself. The interplay of highly traditional craft media—here used to create an object that is indisputably a contemporary sculpture—with a highly contemporary combination of solar-powered batteries and LED-light patterns controlled by a microprocessor: well, that imaginative mix and the question of the customary genres that the work productively violates—those two issues deserve extended analytical reflection just by themselves.

The fact that these traditional and contemporary media are shaped into the form of a branching tree suggests the need for another few thousand words on Radicis' implicit combination of literal and symbolic meanings, and the amount of theory and history that has gone into the making of this piece. ("Radicis," as anybody who took Latin in high school knows, is a genitive that means "of the root." But this is root and branch at once. And the forms along the stems are not fruits, but analogues for types of organisms situated on the great tree of life...see Williams' quoted statement, below.)

The problem for me is, it's all too much. The sheer quantity of issues requires extended reflection, condensation—nobody really wants to read something of New York Review of Books length in a simple exhibition review—and an adroit prose style, so as to produce a readable yet adequate review of something so incredibly ambitious and complex.

As with "Folium Darwinii" last month, the challenge is more than I can face at this particular moment. These are pathetically preliminary and offhand prolegomena to any future review of Radicis.

Instead of a review, this is an unambivalently emphatic heads-up for reviewers and viewers to make maximum use of this month of April and get to Kiang sometime during their hours of operation. (Thursday - Friday 11 - 5 pm, Saturday 12 - 5 pm).

Here is Williams' summation of the various cycles at play in Radicis. Please note that her programming of the cycles combines a knowledge of the current state of research into human physiology and the psychological reactions that stem from that physiology; a quotation of the basic rhythms of breath in traditional yoga; and the fabled Fibonacci series reflected in the structure of so many forms in nature.

Thus Pandra Williams:

"Short summary of the 4 light cadences in Radicis:

"Cadence #1 is a 'steady state.' I assigned steady state to the root forms, as plants and trees are constantly interchanging the food materials they produce with other organisms.

"Cadences 2 & 3 were tied to human body rhythms in part to control the impact of the Radicis environment on its viewers. If the cadences were too frenetic, the mood of the piece would be very different.

"Cadence #2 is an 8 beat cycle, timed to a pranayama breath cycle. This yogic breath cycle tends to induce a calm, alpha state. The objects signifying single celled symbiotic organisms were assigned this cadence.

"Cadence #3 is a 4 beat cycle, timed to a regular daily breathing pattern. This is an everyday, beta state, breathing cycle. The objects signifying either single celled predatory (plant eating) or parasitic organisms were assigned this cadence.

"Cadence #4 is a small section of the Fibonacci number sequence: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55... Fibonacci series are commonly found occurring in biological structures such as pine cones, sunflower heads, fern fronds, etc. This number sequence is also closely tied to the golden means, or golden ratio, an algorithm also commonly found in biological structures. This number series was assigned to objects signifying multicellular, complex organisms.

"The higher up in the sequence, the closer two consecutive 'Fibonacci numbers' of the sequence divided by each other will approach the golden ratio (approximately 1 : 1.618 or 0.618 : 1)."

Why this extraordinary sculpture has not been the only topic of recent art conversation in the city of Atlanta, I have no idea. Go see it. Go write about it.

I wish I could. But I can't. Someday, maybe.

—Jerry Cullum

Monday, March 29, 2010

Annunciations After the Fact

So Celeste Miller's splendiferously ambitious "The Annunciation...Sort of: Mary Says No" is history, having gotten, so far as I can tell, no reviews during its run.

It deserves more of a review than anyone who didn't take notes could give it, combining as it does alternate takes on our multiverse of discourse, from feminist readings of Mary's laundry-folding condition in Nazareth to a remarkable evocation of the wonderfully lovely and ambiguous history of the Apparition of the Virgin in the water-stained windows of a Clearwater, Florida office building (an image shattered eventually by a troubled slingshot-bearing boy) to explorations of the paradoxes involved in the notion of a divine nature outside of time and continuing all the way to strategies of parthenogenesis in nature and to Charles Darwin's dicta in The Origin of Species, the other primary text for this performance alongside the Gospel of Luke. "Did Mary have volition? Dictionary: define 'volition.'" Change partners; Gabriel ponders the laws of salesmanship and wonders if Mary will buy a vacuum cleaner from him if he lingers long enough in the world of time and learns his lessons well enough. Mary ponders the alternatives to her outright rejection of the original offer. They do not include vacuum cleaners, either.

And Mary of Nazareth in this alternate no-saying option of the multiverse can reach the age of ninety without the burden of knowing that the act of redemption for which she suffered will someday engender wars and inquisitions.

If the offer were of knowledge instead? if Mary were to become a different revealer of this universe, the only one in which we can live, in our one-at-a-time-ness? Gabriel considers the annunciation as the proclamation of discovery, the revealing of a new vision of earth and history. He has been sent off by God to learn about time from Charles Darwin, but as he announces disconsolately, "He refused to see me."

And the dance goes on. And the text and the recitation, improvised and memorized, also. The original text. The performers, and their choices. Mary says, and will say....

We live in a single history of the world, or we think we do. But there is more than one history of the world. And in this city, in this time, in this history, what things slip away almost unnoticed, because they do not suit our tidy categories?

Will we understand, ever, even, what it means to ask if we have the knowledge of our choices?

Well, you won't get the answers from the reviews, because they don't exist. Nor from this curious verbal outbursting.

There is some question as to whether you will even get the question. As though there were only one.

As though how the question were asked would not help determine the universe in which the answer would begin to make any sense.

You had to be there. But who outside the longtime circle of followers could know?

We live in a time bereft of messengers, on a very mundane level.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Paradise and Its Transformations

Paradise: Somewhere Between Lost and Found, as Always

Stephen Dupont at Jack Bell Gallery, London

Jerry Cullum

The purpose (or one purpose) of art is to wake us up, but it seldom wakes us up according to art historical or curatorial schedules. Like the patch of yellow in the View of Delft that alters Bergotte’s consciousness in Proust, art always communicates more (or less) than the maker of the art intended. All art is relational art, but it is the audience that provides the majority of the long-term content; the artist provides the catalyst, via an immense amount of craft and imagination.

Stephen Dupont’s photographs from 21st century Papua New Guinea are a provocative catalyst indeed, but I shall not address them directly. This is not a review, for I have not seen the exhibition itself.

Works of art such as Dupont’s serve to remind us of just how many countries there are that seldom or never send representatives to more than regionally specific biennials (or to residence in the world’s art capitals, which is usually a prerequisite for representing one’s country in the global biennials). They also seldom generate world-changing events, and until they do, we tend to know about them only through the equivalent of high-class travelers’ tales—when we know about them at all.

Given the number of microstates generated by the accidents of colonialism, such countries cover a substantial part of the world’s surface (albeit as islands in the midst of oceans) and may now constitute close to a majority in the United Nations.

Papua New Guinea is no microstate, given its occupancy of the eastern half of one of the world’s larger islands plus adjacent archipelagoes. Given its proximity to Indonesia and Australia, it is anything but isolated from global currents. Yet most artworld habitués outside of Australia and the Pacific are likely to know it only from college courses in cultural anthropology.

My first contribution to newspaper (rather than art magazine) reviewing dealt with “The Art of New Guinea,” a Georgia State University exhibition drawn from the personal collection of Atlanta artist Michael Murrell. I delivered the standard thousand-cultures-and-languages now-an-independent-country spiel as a way of getting into the discussion of Sepik and Highlands art and personal decoration. There was no room to do much more. (Murrell hadn’t traveled to the Asmat, so the West Papua issue didn’t arise.)

I had gotten deeply interested in the politics, economics, and art of Papua New Guinea during the mid-70s run-up to independence, and was happy to revisit the topic thirteen years later. I knew a fair amount about the paradoxes of the place; the highlands that hosted the tribal sing-sings that were such a tourist draw were also a place of smallholder coffee farms, which had brought relative prosperity to some of the individuals who annually changed out of t-shirts and khaki shorts and into traditional sing-sing regalia. The birds of paradise whose feathers were used for the costumes could now be hunted with shotguns, according to one commonplace. The standard journalistic contrast that followed such observations usually cited the traditional communal houses along the Sepik River versus the gleaming multi-story architecture of Port Moresby, usually with the note that there was no way of getting from one to the other except by airplane or, in the case of the Sepik, thoroughly versatile boat.

I was fascinated by the fact that the national airline Air Niugini’s in-flight magazine was called Paradise. The title was suggested by the association of PNG with the aforementioned birds of paradise, which had gotten their name centuries earlier when the legless condition of the skins sold by traders suggested the myth that the birds soared eternally in the skies of Eden.

PNG’s major brand of export beer also promoted itself as “the beer of Paradise,” and a decade or so after Murrell’s show I duly included one of its magazine ads in my own Georgia State University exhibition, “Paradise and Its Transformations.”

But Paradise as mythic topic goes hand in hand with Fall and Expulsion. Reading the updated Lonely Planet guide to PNG at the time of Murrell’s show, I noted that once-recommended idyllic spots on the fringes of urban areas were now regarded as off limits to lone travelers because they were frequented by the local “raskols.”

I had previously been aware of the existence of a PNG urban gang culture that derived its visual style from the sources that gave birth to such films as The Harder They Come. Until I received word of Stephen Dupont’s show at Jack Bell Gallery, I had no idea that raskol culture had not only survived into the 21st century but had helped to gain Port Moresby a reputation as one of the most dangerous capital cities on earth.

The reasons cited in online sources are standard-issue: as the urban magnet for the displaced and disaffected of every one of the country’s subsistence-economy regions, the city has an unemployment rate of sixty per cent. Insufficient revenue has led to the effective abandonment of a few of the handsome buildings bequeathed to the government at independence, and the resultant migratory quality of some government ministries is said to be symptomatic of far more consequential financial shortfalls.

The commonplaces regarding the country have shifted without tourists outside the region paying much attention. And indeed, there seems to be little enough reason to do so for most visitors; urban areas hold only eighteen per cent of the population, and the Sepik River of the tourists and anthropologists is very far away. A perusal of on-site blogs (one discontinued due to inconsistent availability of broadband) reveals that even the volcano-devastated town of Rabaul seems to be rebuilding with some placidity. (Lonely Planet also remarks that "gritty" Port Moresby's reported problems are somewhat exaggerated.)

Stephen Dupont’s “Raskols” and “Sing Sing” portraits, viewable online as well as at Jack Bell, provide an abbreviated symbolism for PNG’s present-day stresses. The sing-sings, colorful tribal get-togethers that were begun fifty or sixty years ago at the encouragement of Australian administrators as a means of cohesion among rival groups, remain popular tourist attractions as well as genuine local social events. (Think Mardi Gras…these are not like the familiar rituals that are revived whenever a tour group shows up to pay for them.) The raskols are better thought of as a tourist anti-attraction. Dupont gained access to both. (Last year the Highlands were reported as inadvisable for tourists due to renewed inter-tribal conflict...and yet the 2009 Goroka Show went on without incident after financial issues caused its near-cancellation; see The same site reports a November 2009 clash "between two rival clans from the Upper Asaro area over the ownership of a Coffee Plantation" and offers video documentation of the robbery by raskols of a Madang computer store in October 2009. The details of both stories are instructive. Without Dupont's show, it wouldn't have occurred to me to follow the links leading to this remarkable in-country online source.)

Dupont’s striking documentary portraiture doesn’t give us a total picture of today’s PNG, any more than Vermeer’s patch of yellow gave Bergotte a total view of Delft. It does, just like the symbol as cited a generation ago by Paul Ricoeur, give rise to thought—and to productive investigation. I am en route to renewing my long-distance acquaintance with a complex and massively changing country.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

those of you who write about 1930s design....

I have decided to post a possible writing opportunity (and possible press trip with editorial guarantee of publication) on the joculum blog where my diverse readership seems more consistently into the non-contemporary and the well nigh traditional re-read in an untraditional sense.