Sunday, January 31, 2010

How Not to Write Art Reviews in 2010 (Never Mind that I Claim the Contrary Herein)

For every art review in which I have taken pleasure or have enjoyed writing, there is probably one I either regret painfully, or suffered miserably to write, or both. There is seldom enough time to do it right, either in terms of thought or back-story research, and finding short cuts becomes essential, in spite of what my old Austrian professor said in a doctoral seminar about stopping and learning a whole new academic discipline if that is what it takes to do it right. (Deadlines won't allow it, and one can't always beg off on grounds of lack of information.) On the other hand, the late Gregor Sebba also said things like "Always look for something that does not fit when you begin to approach a topic. That is often the key to understanding the whole work of art because that is the problem the artist could not quite resolve." I forgot this recently when omitting mention of something that had annoyed me as an anomaly; it was indeed the key to the whole exhibition.

There is seldom enough time to do it right no matter how much leisure time we carve out to devote to the project, and the digital age has even more factors militating against a considered judgment than the print era ever did. The need for speed has made snap judgers out of us all, as many a person who hit "send" has reflected a moment or two later.

Blogs at least allow for a slight and mutilated piece of reflection that does not pretend to definitive status (only to the status of, say, the Oracle at Delphi).

I wrote the fragment below a number of days ago, then circulated it to see if it warranted expansion, but have decided, in the absence of sufficient feedback on the subject, that it began as a blog post and should remain one in exactly the form in which it was originally written. It contains an obscure private joke that I wager no one will read closely enough to ask me about. Here 'tis:

Crying over Neil Gaiman’s Cat: or, How to Write Art Reviews in 2010

Jerry Cullum

I once managed to upset a gallery owner who had long begged for a “critical review” by pondering why one of her best artists made so many charming paintings of children playing on the seashore when an edgily unhappy-looking female nude, hung way in the back of the gallery, showed there were more things going on in her head than that.

A few days ago, I was led by a blog post to look at Neil Gaiman’s story of one of his cats that got trapped in the depths of a newly installed bathroom, which had to be torn apart to rescue the cat. We learned from the back story that the cat is blind, has been diagnosed with an inoperable tumor, and has an irresistibly odd cry that does not resemble a meow.

Put that way, the story almost makes us giggle from discomfort at the emotional buttons it pushes. Set forth as Gaiman recounted it, it was almost impossible not to burst into tears, even for those who have always enjoyed the joke that the internet was invented to transmit pictures of cats.

The two stories are related. I wrote in the review that life is hard, and people have the right to buy pictures that make them feel better when they get home, whether those pictures be children playing by the seashore, baskets of kittens, fields of wildflowers, sexually arousing figure studies, or snarky pictures of blood dripping from skulls and daggers, or patterns of exact geometry or atmospheric swirls of contrasting or complementary colors. The problem was how people went about evaluating the aesthetic qualities of what made them feel happier, and whether the art writer could modify what made art audiences feel happier by writing about what made this a good or bad example of art.

We cry, if we do, over Gaiman’s cat because we identify with primary processes: the desires that date from before we had words to talk about them; desires such as a love of softness and warmth, of certain kinds of food, of being accepted unconditionally and held close or left alone as we found preferable, of communicating our needs just as we chose and having the needs met in general. Those needs and desires, and our rages at the world’s failure to meet them, get carried on into our adult lives, as we all know. Today, people seem to derive great pleasure in reverting to toddlerhood in dozens of different ways, usually while being self-congratulatory at the quality of their grown-up responses.

So how do we disentangle our primary processes, the stuff we got in toddlerhood, from the pleasures and methods of making judgments that we acquire later on: the things that happen to us as we get polite social behavior beaten into us, and as we begin to figure out how to create our own distinct versions of what our society or our peer group would prefer that we do instead of what we would really like to be doing?

I have suggested that there are good and bad ways of making almost any type of art. (I am sure there is some type I can’t conceive of that is so pre-infantile, so unreflectively “not even wrong” that it is inevitably, intrinsically bad. There definitely is, at the opposite extreme, a species of conceptual art that makes failure or badness impossible, because to imagine anything at all that obeys its rules is to make a successful and ipso facto profoundly illuminating piece of art. Potato.)

Given the different types of people that we are and the different types of experiences that made us who we are, from skateboarders to sedentary readers, Orthodox monks to hedge fund managers to gang members to poets and devotees of Salvador Dali, it may be almost impossible to make the same people enjoy diametrically opposed types of art.

The most we can hope for is that we can explain why a given example of a type of art is a good or bad example of its kind, and explain who it is intended to address, and whether this mode of address comes with inbuilt difficulties. (It is possible to take a photograph of a kitten that does not evoke the “awwwww” response, for example, but there are major psychological hurdles to be overcome, just as it is difficult but not at all impossible to make a work of graffiti art or its precursor genres of psychedelia that does not simply evoke the “oh, wow” response.)

There is much more to be said on this topic, but that’s as far as I can push this before showing up for my day job.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Paul Jones, in memoriam...this is a first inadequate sketch, with apologies for the sketchiness

I may yet post the autobiographical sketch I had promised Klimchak I would put up in this space (basically, it recounts all the people I have worked with who have equal claim to the Nexus Award, but somebody had to be shoved through the door first, and I am grateful to be one of the two inaugural recipients).

However, I cannot in good conscience say anything about myself at the moment when we all ought to be remembering the immense contributions (in more ways than one) of Paul Jones, the influential African-American collector of whose death some of us have just now learned.

I wrote more than once about exhibitions of the Paul Jones Collection, and was constantly astounded at his ability to extend recognition to emerging artists even while acquiring enough signature or unusual works by recognized figures to create not one creditable collection of African-American art, but two or more (considering that large parts of the collection were divided between two universities in Delaware and Alabama, and I presume he didn't stop acquiring work in his last years, though he and I lost touch with one another).

Since URL links drive me crazy, especially when they don't work, here is the basic text from the WSB website to which Judy Kuniansky so kindly directed us via the artnews listserv:

ATLANTA -- Paul R. Jones, a collector of African-American art who donated troves of works to universities in Delaware and Alabama, has died. He was 81.

Jones died in Atlanta on Tuesday after a brief illness, said University of Alabama spokeswoman Angie Estes. The university established an art collection in Jones' name after receiving some 1,700 pieces valued at $5 million in 2008.

Despite humble beginnings in Alabama and never independently wealthy, Jones began buying pieces in the 1960s after noting African-American art was underrepresented in public galleries.

As the drawings, paintings, photographs, sculptures and other works grew into the hundreds, part of his collection was exhibited at the University of Delaware in 1993. He later made a gift of several hundred works to the school.

"My goal has been to incorporate African-American art into American art," he told The Tuscaloosa News in 2008 when he made his donation to the University of Alabama with a plan for it to be part of the curriculum.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

News from Lodz, or, And Now for Something Completely Different

This comes courtesy of one of my LiveJournal Friends on joculum (where, by the way, I have just posted notice of a forthcoming book of poems by Derek Walcott that painters, at least, will enjoy). I am not sure whether any of my readership is old-school academic enough to be submitting paper proposals to anything, but if so or even if not, you might enjoy knowing that Lodz (or Lódz´, which is as close as this interface will let me type the proper Polish orthography) was the center of the pre-WW2 Polish avant-garde and is the European City of Culture for 2016, just to contextualize this a (very) little:

The Department of British Literature and Culture, University of Lodz
is happy to announce
that an academic conference in cultural studies

Monty Python in Its British
and International Cultural Contexts
How to recognise the Spanish Inquisition
from quite a long way away

will take place in Lodz on 28 - 29 October 2010

The suggested areas for discussion will include:
- Monty Python’s humour
- the language of Monty Python
- the visual poetics of Monty Python programmes and films
- Monty Python and the British tradition of humour
- Monty Python and the idea of Britishness
- Monty Python and stereotypes
- cultural subversion and iconoclasm
- Monty Python and counterculture
- The postmodern contexts for Monty Python
- The influence of Monty Python on British/international culture
- The reception of Monty Python abroad (in Poland and elsewhere)

The conference will take place in the University of Lodz Conference Centre.
The conference fee is 70 € for foreign scholars and 200 PLN for Polish scholars.

The reviewed selection of essays following the conference will be published.
Abstracts ca. 300 words will be sent by 30 April 2010 to:

The organizers of the conference are
Prof. Jerzy Jarniewicz
Tomasz Dobrogoszcz, PhD

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

new book on Pam Longobardi's project on ocean refuse published

Those who have followed Pam Longobardi's project of making sculpture from vast quantities of plastic detritus salvaged from the world's ocean beaches will be pleased to learn that Charta (Milan & NY) has published a book devoted to the body of work, $29.95. Or it will be when it's published in the US in the fall; available now in Italy, and limited quantities via Longobardi's website,

As a matter of full disclosure, I have not seen a copy of this but it is my practice to pass along information in lieu of reviews from time to time, especially when I have seen examples of the work with which the book deals.

Monday, January 25, 2010

the things one learns messing around academic biographies

Perusing Jeffrey Kripal's bio on the Rice University website (in conjunction with the issues I have raised in three years' worth of essays on my other blog), I have belatedly discovered that Rice University Press is fully engaged with the digital era, publishing rigorously edited peer-reviewed academic titles that are available for reading online or for purchase as an on-demand hard copy. They include at least two titles on problems of art history and intellectual-property rights in the age of digital reproduction.

At least some people are entering the twenty-first century without an undue amount of flouncing and hand-wringing. Even though I am the ultimate print-oriented late adopter, I am always excited to see an academic institution that has figured out how to use appropriate technology:

Monday, January 11, 2010

bourgeois hen excrement! or, news from the neglected world

Through the excellent media service, I have been apprised of the work of Kosova artist Petrit Halilaj, who divides his time between his hometown of Runik and various bigger locales, including, in the past couple of years, group exhibitions in Istanbul and Berlin and other European cities. His current show is on his native turf, in the capital city Prishtina.

But wherever Halilaj's artwork travels, a differently repeated thematic installation is They Are Lucky to be Bourgeois Hens, a migratory or displaced troupe of seeming would-be space travelers whose coop looks like the remnants of some unsuspected cargo cult for domesticated fowl.

The traveling chickens form an essential source of art materials for some of Halilaj's drawings, the ones described as consisting of "ink and hen excrements on paper."

This is certainly not all there is to Halilaj's oeuvre, as a brief perusal of the appropriate websites makes plain. See, for a bio,

His work is, overall, an exploration of those realms of displacement, derision, and deliberate humiliation that have been the unchosen fields of play for many, many artists of the world's narrower margins. Outside the safe havens of the unwarring parts of the world, irony is often a habit born of necessity. It remains a habit long after the immediate crisis has been replaced by the luxury of contemplation and, as Halilaj's bio puts it, "research."

And that makes Halilaj's work a splendid topic for this 2010 relaunch of Counterforces, which in 2009 fully deserved the contempt that eggtooth expressed for it in his "Worst of Atlanta" list.

We are all of us lucky to be bourgeois hens. Though, as the guide from Mount Analogue says to Father Sogol's expedition in René Daumal's Mount Analogue, "If a hen doesn't lay eggs at the appropriate time, what becomes of it?"

If any of my readers happen to be passing through Kosova, the show is up at Stacion - Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina through February 6th.