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