Thursday, March 24, 2011

the first Counterforces in a very long time

A recent upsurge of requests for a history of the Atlanta art scene since 1960 (of which I know at first hand only the past quarter century) has reminded me of how I came to conceive the Counterforces blog in the first place—it was originally intended to be the prototype for a magazine, whose time may now have passed, to coordinate recognition of the perennially unrecognized outside their own communities—what Art Papers was intending to do and to some extent still does, within the limits of art that is most likely to be approved by the world's collectors and curators. I wanted to find the art all over the world that was so culture-specific and sometimes so idiosyncratic that no one but an insider of the culture could explain why it was such an extraordinary work, preferably in terms that would make sense of it to readers from other cultures.

This approach would have had something to do with Paul Rabinow's anthropology of the contemporary, and something to do with the condition that Grady Harris presciently termed Besiderdom—for some are insiders, and some are outsiders, and then there are the besiders, a pun on "B-siders," referencing the sometimes perfectly good song on the flip side of the top-selling 45 rpm single—the song that nobody ever heard of, even if it was more interesting than the hit. (The term is obsolete in the age of the mp3, of course, even though the age of the CD produced more than one no-longer-B-side song on the misnamed CD single that turned out to be the really cool stuff next to the commercially inflected main event.)

I never fulfilled my goal of traveling to the world's lesser-known artworlds and putting together a Besider Biennial under some more dignified name. (Thomas Pynchon's preterite Counterforce of the overlooked, insulted and injured, poised over against the self-anointed elect of the global economy in Gravity's Rainbow was my inspiration for the name of the blog, but Counterforce was already taken as a blog name by a Chinese blogger.)

A problem with any such venture is that the efforts in the world's marginal art scenes have so often been underfunded, and the artists have too infrequently made a virtue of necessity by incorporating the arte povera approach into their practice even in the decades when that sort of thing was trendy. Plus the problem that the provinces are sometimes provincial, just like the blinkered mainstream; pre-digital networks, isolated individuals were more likely to be polymathic and interdisciplinary by virtue of having to substitute their own research and ingenuity for enriching intellectual encounters, but they too suffered from the restrictions of what resources could be acquired on a limited budget.

This realization first came home to me long ago when I was invited to be a visiting critic in Shreveport, Louisiana in a year when everyone in town was envious of the sculptor Clyde Connell for achieving national recognition in her old age, and wondered how to get the same fame for themselves. One problem was that Connell fit into a certain national discourse of the moment, and they didn't, whether their work was any good or not. I wondered if there were a way for Shreveport artists to make themselves more interesting to a national audience than they seemed to be at that moment, to make Shreveport known as more than the hometown of Leadbelly. Much has changed there since then, and the town has become a popular site for moviemaking, among other things.

I went on to other geographically isolated but not always unrecognized smaller art scenes, continuing to ask myself the question of how some scenes contextualize themselves successfully and others never do, how some scenes over-congratulate themselves for their accomplishments and never quite address the issues of how they fit into the conditions of a rapidly changing global context, while others slip smoothly into the world of the dominant discourse.

Twenty years on, the issue has been explored tangentially in global biennials, and indeed the institution of the global biennials itself has been deployed as a possible way of addressing the problem in the larger cities of less economically dominant or emerging-dominance cultures. (There are now some two hundred biennials, and the supercool and would-be supercool curators know which ones they wouldn't attend no matter how good they might become, unless their best friends were curating them.)

I knew things had changed when the video showed up of the two Turkish artists wandering through Anatolia asking passing shepherds, "How do you get to Tate Modern?"
Soon thereafter an artist from Skopje produced a video consisting of his monologue on what kind of work he should make to get himself into a global biennial.

The problem I haven't seen addressed is that there are so often single works by single artists that deserve to have gotten global recognition—or sometimes, in the case of Kate Kretz's Blessed Art Thou, have achieved global fame without getting the artist into a single major exhibition or even sold to a collector.

How to contextualize such works and such artists is one of the problems I eventually walked away from on the grounds of being too much an outsider (or besider in Paul Rabinow's sense of the term as well as Grady Harris') to be able to diagnose the difficulty and find a solution.

I do recall a moment in which an official representative of the New York artworld managed to misinterpret a significant moment in regional art—not at all his fault, since we misinterpreted it as well, it having been an urban intervention avant le lettre.

In 1989, our little Thursday Night Artists group of six or eight artists tried to find a new alternative space to follow up on a successful storefront intervention in a freshly gentrifying intown neighborhood (The Reliable Art Show, in the space vacated by the Reliable Paper Company in the then still mostly working-class neighborhood of Virginia-Highland).

Evan Levy got us the raw-space top floor of what was then called the IBM Tower, Philip Johnson's newly opened and much hyped One Atlantic Center.

Art in America managing editor Richard Vine, whose wife Naomi held a top administrative position at the High Museum, served on a panel during the Floor Fifty exhibition in which he dismissed the alternative-space show as a useful place for beginners to show work that wasn't yet ready for galleries.

This was in fact true to some degree—the Thursday Night Artists weekly group attendance had suddenly grown tenfold as soon as word of the show got out, and the original concept morphed a great deal—the four coordinating artists were soon termed the Gang of Four by some of the newer members, and we were accused of elitism in spite of having made clear that this artist-organized exhibition was not the Mattress Factory, there being not enough room for three hundred artists to claim space, much less get past lobby security to install the show.

But the point of the show was less the overall quality of the work as it was the successful insertion of the Atlanta artists who had no gallery representation into the very center of corporate power at the moment, the building that possessed that year's wow factor, and the very height of that piece of architecture, such that developers barged in to use the immense windows to survey the terrain beneath them, refusing to pay the three-dollar admission fee charged on behalf of Art Papers, which at that time was still allowing the group to use its office as a meeting place. (This changed later.) It was a social and political intervention of significance only in Atlanta, so I don't fault Richard Vine for missing the point. (I do have problems with his later attack on Walter Benjamin as a man who was obviously worthless as a theorist because he never could earn a decent living, much less establish a professional practice in business or academia.)

Unlike the organizers of the Mattress Factory, whose slogan was "We know no one on Andrews Square" (a metaphor mostly for the Fay Gold Gallery that showed all the trendy artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring and a little later Robert Mapplethorpe), we knew the folks on Andrews Square and we wanted to do something different anyway.

Clyde Broadway's installation summed up the secret goals of many of the artists in "Floor Fifty," however; like the Turkish videographers trying to insert themselves into the financial success that comes with inclusion in global biennials, Clyde was both satirizing and celebrating the overheated art market of the Eighties that was about to be clobbered by the great recession of 1990.

Goghing My Way? depicted the artist as a hitchhiker in a formal suit, trying to be picked up by a chauffeured convertible conveying ukiyo-e geishas holding armloads of Van Gogh irises. (A Japanese corporation had made history at that moment for buying a Van Gogh at an astronomical price, though it was Fifteen Sunflowers rather than Irises, which had gone to another collector.) Broadway's painting was cordoned off by a velvet rope and priced at the selling price for the Van Gogh painting.

Dorky the joke may have been, but it was elegantly executed and summed up the mindset of the Eighties just as they were coming to a spectacular end that would be succeeded by the focus on globalism and diversity that was marked the following year by "The Decade Show" and prefigured that year by the controversial and perhaps—or perhaps not—misguided "Magiciens de la Terre."

Clyde, whose deliberately confrontational Trinity is the most popular painting in the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, remains one of those transgressive painters who operates so far on the margins that he has very nearly fallen off the page. I have written about this "Floor Fifty" episode previously on this blog, back at the end of 2008 when i was establishing a theoretical basis for what turned out to be an effort displaced by the need to earn a living writing about the local scene on a week-by-week basis, plus of course natural inertia and lack of opportunity to look at shows relevant to the issues on which I like to reflect.