Thursday, December 4, 2014

You say I am repeating something I have said before. I shall say it again. Shall I say it again?

Nails and Hammers and Unmixed Metaphors

Some time ago, when I was telling a friend about the neuroscience students who were looking at Bethany Collins’ blackboard-like panel of white-lettered words breaking apart and collecting into piles of letters, which reminded them of how memory and language-formation function, he said, “To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” to which I retorted. “No, no, they got it! That was why I put it in the ‘From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again’ show! —because it wasn’t just about the political concepts in the words, it was about how the concepts form and fall apart in our minds and our societies!”

Actually, I didn’t say much beyond “No, no, they got it!” but we all know about pensées de l’escalier. (Or “That was what I shoulda said.”)

I so, however, keep having new and ever more horrifying realizations of how we actually do interpret the whole world in terms of the tools we have with which to interpret it; more accurately, we interpret and judge other people’s tools in terms of the ones we know how to use, and we interpret other people’s interpretations in terms of the tools we know how to use.

The computational model of consciousness is a case in point. Anyone who studies humankind’s cultural creations realizes that there is a much more complex set of responses to the environment than pure computation, but how germane to actual consciousness are the complex responses? We are, after all, getting better at creating systems like Siri in which algorithms mimic at least the standard tropes for reacting to reports of others’ emotions and sensations, from pain and hunger to fear and sexual desire. (“I am sorry to hear that. I am sad that there is nothing I can do to improve your situation.”)

So a good many everyday behavioral or pragmatic tools for navigating existence are purely mechanical, a more sophisticated form of “How are you?” “Fine, thanks, how are you?” “Fine, thanks.” or “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.” And as the linguistic philosophers pondered three-quarters of a century ago, it is quite possible for the “Fine” exchange to contain not a syllable of accuracy concerning the respondents’ inner emotional or physical condition, since it exists for other purposes than information.

But we end up, vis-à-vis such questions as the computational model of consciousness, in messy issues of what it means to have a body or to be a body and what it would mean not to be a body or to exist as a conscious being without having a body. And people whose particular emotions and mental skills lead them to acquire expertise in one academic field are likely to have a completely different way of putting the problem into words, or of understanding the problem intuitively, from those whose expertise is formed from different skill sets.

In principle, we should all be able to comprehend what it would mean to understand a problem using a different set of acquired skills. But because our comprehension of that question is partially determined by who we are as embodied beings with a personal history, we don’t even understand what it is we don’t understand, as I have quoted so often from The Wisdom of Charlie Brown.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In between the times, or is it in between the physical and the fictional and the virtual spaces? watch this space for developments, I hope

Neither Here Nor There: An Exceptionally Hasty Note on the Concept of Between-ness

I have been unable to visit the exhibition at Atlanta’s Gallery 72 titled “Middle,” but I have read the curator’s statement (or an extract from it in the press release) by Candice Greathouse that states, “The works included in this exhibition serve as a visual dialogue of ideas that investigate notions of this middleness - inbetweenness and potentiality through material and process. The artists and works featured in this exhibition represent the middle through a variety of strategies conceptually and aesthetically. They resist concrete categorization and definition, offering instead a provoking ambiguity that prolongs and redefines the ‘middle’.”

Receipt of this press release happened to coincide with arrival of my essay “Oscillations and Interstices” written for the catalogue of the “Oscillations” show at Steffen Thomas Museum of Art a year ago.

This has got me to thinking about the shifts in the concepts of in-between-ness from Zwischenheit to Zwischenzeit in German (the one just means “the meantime” as in “in the meantime” while the other means the condition of “in-between-ness”) and what the existentialists of fifty years ago made of the former. The meantime became a literal “time between,” Martin Heidegger’s “time of the No-More of the god that has fled and the Not-Yet of the god that is coming.” Less polytheistically, “the time between” implied a moment of fundamental historical change, a transitional moment in which no one could feel at home: “each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited chidren, to whom no longer what’s been, and not yet what’s coming, belongs.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies in the familiar Leishman-Spender translation).

It feels like we are in the condition of between-ness but no longer in the time between; we have crossed some kind of dividing line, and the no-longer is receding into a rapidly aging history while the not-yet is rapidly becoming the already-here. (“The future is already here, but is unevenly distributed.”--William Gibson)

I have no time (no pun intended) to expand upon these thoughts at the moment.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Kandinsky in Milwaukee

And Kandinsky in Milwaukee in the Twenty-First Century

Jerry Cullum

Curator Brady Roberts concludes the catalogue of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Kandinsky retrospective with an essay on “Kandinsky in the 21st Century,” in which he provides an insightful survey of those few contemporary artists who acknowledge a vital interest in Kandinsky, and explores some of the reasons for contemporary skepticism about Kandinsky’s accomplishments.


Julie Mehretu, Matthew Ritchie, and Carroll Dunham are among the artists who have taken an interest in Kandinsky’s belief in a synthesis of art, science, and culture in the anthropological sense of the word (i.e., the overall conceptual assumptions underlying what sociology calls “society”). None of them have imitated Kandinsky’s visual approaches (there is an entire body of American painting from the 1930s and 1940s that openly draws its inspiration from Kandinsky’s composition and palette, but that is a separate, obscurely historic topic).

What irrefutably separates these artists from Kandinsky is the level of optimism that accompanied his quest for a scientific basis for art. When he wrote in Concerning the Spiritual in Art that “When we remember that spiritual experience is quickening, that positive science, the firmest basis of human thought, is tottering, that dissolution of matter is imminent, we have hope that the hour of pure composition is not far away,” he meant that everything in the sciences tended towards the destruction of the bases on which the nineteenth century formed its arrogant certitudes: physics was discovering the basis in immaterial-seeming energy of a material world that was itself only an instance of fugitive moments of forms of energies consolidating (we might remember here that Kandinsky’s Russian Orthodox faith was based on the notion that matter itself is sustained by the “divine energies”); in the investigations of the new psychology, the mind was proving to be full of immaterial-seeming energies that belied the assumption that its underpinnings were open to the simple deductions of logical reasoning; and the cultural basis of world civilizations, plural, was turning out to be open to an investigation that assumed the value of European accomplishments but did not thereby devalue the discoveries of cultures that Europe found alien. Surely, given these developments undercutting belief in a unilateral progress towards an affirmation of a materialist rationality as the highest accomplishment of human evolution, the expectation of a Great Utopia was not intrinsically unreasonable.


None of these lines of thought turned out as expected. The underpinnings of culture turned out to be undecideable; is culture an arbitrary construct, or is it intrinsically itself constructed by a biologically grounded individual psychology that leads human beings to make the same mistakes over and over again, no matter how hard they try to impose a logical order on a collective behavior that is grounded in instincts instilled by genetic structure? Is there any way of deciding whether mathematics is the inbuilt order of the entire material universe, or itself only a complicated human construct that gives us useful clues as to how to manipulate the universe’s structure, thus giving rise to technology? Is there such a fundamental disjuncture between the underlying structure of nature and the underlying structure of culture that there is no underlying unity between the two, or does nature trump culture every time, even if culture is transforming nature at such an unparalleled rate that culture can’t quite predict what nature is going to do to it?

In other words, the culturally created artifice of civilization, and the biological basis of human behavior, and the processes of the natural world have all turned out to be more unpredictably related than seemed to be the case in the early twentieth century. That there is an underlying unifying order seems indisputable; the dispute is over the question of what that unifying order is, and whether human beings are fundamentally incapable of knowing it even when they think they know all there is to know about it. Are we a self-deceptive species that is very, very good at thinking that the positive effects of imaginary solutions to real problems demonstrate that the solutions themselves must be real?

That’s the kind of thing that artists in search of a Gesamtkunstwerk grapple with these days, and none of these questions instill a sense of confidence in the possibility of final solutions beyond the grim types of alteration of the course of history with which those words are now inextricably associated. We can change the world, but the extent to which we can explain it remains in doubt.

Hence artists like Mehretu and Ritchie and Dunham deal in paradox, parody, and outright fiction. Their maps include representations of all the spaces that fall off the map.

It is worth contemplating the more or less concurrent appearance of two books that relate human culture to its unconscious assumptions about nature (this abrupt digression is going to come back to “Kandinsky in the 21st Century” in the next paragraph): Yi-fu Tuan’s Romantic Geography: In Search of the Sublime Landscape and Alastair Bonnett’s book on anomalously defined spaces—but what is that book called, anyway? It seems to have begun life in the United Kingdom as Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us About the World, and morphed en route to the United States of America into a textually identical book called Unruly Spaces: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies. The transmutation of the title itself indicates the cultural differences and prior expectations that underpin human understanding of something as solid as the ground beneath their feet (and/or the large quantity of water that surrounds it).

Kandinsky’s approach to art assumed that the symbols of culture could be further refined into mathematical and geometric relationships united to the emotions by the colors through which these relationships were presented on a picture plane. Art in the twentieth century began as representation of landscape and its relationship to human society and the emotions surrounding that society; it had the capacity to become a visual tool for understanding the depths of those relationships by discarding the representation of their surfaces.

I have long since departed completely from Brady Roberts’ concise essay, which goes more or less directly from a discussion of the artists who acknowledge Kandinsky’s influence to all those artists who consider Kandinsky hopelessly quaint, but consider supremely relevant Marcel Duchamp’s cynical embrace of the primacy of concepts and the superiority of ideas over “retinal art.”

Well, maybe Duchamp exalts the concept over the evidence appearing on the retina. The truly strange thing is that Duchamp actually returns us to the material world; he gives us not ideas but things and the fictions we impose upon them. (William Carlos Williams’ maxim “no ideas but in things” was being systematically misunderstood by poets in roughly the same decades that everyone, including Duchamp, was confused about what Duchamp’s work really implied. Today we have Object Oriented Ontology to get us all muddled up about Things once again, as though Francis Ponge’s poems had never existed, or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels, for that matter—but let’s stick with Duchamp and Kandinsky, shall we?)

Turn a urinal or a bottle rack around and they become gorgeously abstract sculptures instead of utilitarian objects. Put a punning title on a realistic sculpture of a window and you have the marriage of language with the physical world that has existed since Adam mythically named the animals. Put a peephole in a door that shows you a deeply symbolic but literally disturbing diorama, and you have a piece of representational art that has even more cultural history encoded in it than the most redolent of nineteenth-century history paintings. Everything in Duchamp returns us to the retinal; he just asks the questions about the retinal that Matisse didn’t want us to ask, preferring that art be regarded as a comfortable armchair. The eye is part of the mind, and vice versa. We see because we think because we see.

We are back to Kandinsky’s conceptual gropings after a Total Work of Art. The only difference is that we are more resigned to the possibility that there is no totality; and it is worth asking whether we have given up on the possibility a little too soon.

How we frame a question typically predetermines the answer; the problem is framing it at all, to begin with, and leaving the frame open enough to admit the possibility that the most adequate answer presupposes a frame we didn’t suspect.

I shall not burden this essay’s readers with my probably irrelevant allegory based on the dysfunctional aspects of the landscaped space leading into Santiago Calatrava’s amazing addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum, and another one based on the question of whether Kandinsky will look different when approached via the architecture of a former Federal Post Office built in the era of the stripped-classical transmutation of Art Deco. Probably not; the rigorous neutrality of gallery spaces in most of these differently conceived museums is designed to magick away all the spectacular differences of architectural volume that visitors have just experienced in the process of getting to those bland variations on the white cube.

Galleries painted in the rainbow tones of Munich’s Lenbachhaus, now—such spaces raise questions about context of which Kandinsky would doubtless have approved. He might even have designed a questionnaire to make us aware of the differences. But in fact those spaces (in the institution that co-organized the 2009 Kandinsky retrospective) are only meant to evoke the historical epoch in which the paintings installed in them were created. That they shock us into a different mode of awareness is largely a fortunate accident.

Kandinsky is still the artist who thought about the meaning of fortunate accidents and pondered ways of making us aware of the meaning of them.

And that is what his legacy to the 21st century ought to be, regardless of what his legacy may be at present.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Kandinsky in Nashville

This is an almost absurdly personal approach to a retrospective exhibition of Wassily Kandinsky that I would recommend to anyone who is able to make the trip to what for many is an out of the way destination, even if it has apparently been declared this year’s “It” city for up-and-coming cultural scenes in the U.S.A.

The exhibition combines a hundred or so significant works and important related objects from the Pompidou Center with a smaller number of significant context-setting pieces from American museums, and more than holds its own against the 2009 retrospective staged by the Lenbachhaus, the Pompidou Center and the Guggenheim.

The catalogue and the audio guide (even the audio guide, for once!) provide a usefully condensed timeline of Kandinsky’s passionate multidisciplinary investigations and his repeated run-ins with the historical traumas of the twentieth century as well as with its spiritual and intellectual challenges. Skimming over this information, I realized that a substantial number of topics for which I have accumulated bibliographic sources are in fact central to Kandinsky’s development as a human being and quite likely as a painter as well.

This essay is teasingly vague on several topics and ludicrously specific on others—especially a phrase that was too good not to quote—because it has been written off the top of my head, partly because it would take too long to locate my copies of the relevant books and partly because I don’t remember where to find some key essays—for example, the analysis of how an experimental method of teaching small children about shapes and colors may have influenced the invention of abstract painting.

At twenty-five hundred words it is roughly at the maximum attention span of the majority of likely readers, even without further amplification of its highly condensed allusions.

Jerry Cullum, October 1, 2014

Rethinking Kandinsky: On the occasion of “Kandinsky: A Retrospective,” organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Centre Georges Pompidou, exhibited in Milwaukee June 5 - September 1 2014 and also exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville (September 26, 2014 - January 4, 2015)

“Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years” was the subject of the first exhibition review I ever wrote, for the May/June 1984 issue of Art Papers. More accurately, I wrote an art historical essay about neglected aspects of Kandinsky’s Russian and Bauhaus years, including a question about what impact his friendship with the composer Thomas de Hartmann had on him.

I still don’t know the answer to that question, and am not sure if anyone does. The answer could have much to do with his turn to a paradoxical blend of geometric exactitude and seductively painterly ways of rendering the hard-edged geometry. It might, however, not.

That, however, is a fairly esoteric concern, in all senses of the words. It is difficult enough to make sense of the three major phases of Kandinsky’s artistic life, within which the collaboration and ongoing friendship with Thomas de Hartmann is a significant footnote, but nevertheless a footnote.

I would like to try to make a little more sense of the paintings and prints, of which almost a hundred are included in the Milwaukee-Nashville retrospective, than I tried to make in that long-ago piece of intellectual history. I am, however, going to remain heavily focused on why Kandinsky would have felt impelled to paint what he did, rather than on what he painted, which is of course the primary focus of the exhibition.

Kandinsky in Munich

Or, actually, Kandinsky in Russia and then in Munich. Peg Weiss was right a generation ago when she wrote that not enough attention had been paid to what motivated and influenced Kandinsky in the pivotal pre-Munich years 1886-1896. What motivates Kandinsky to abandon a decade of successful studies in law, turn down the offer of a lecturership in Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia, then part of Russia), and take off for Munich to study painting?

We probably need to know more about Kandinsky’s years pre-law, 1866-1886...these are the years in Russia at large when hard-core materialism challenges Orthodox faith (with monastic spiritual fathers, startzy. trying to adapt old practices to present-day realities, in moves ranging from reform of monastic institutions to revival of forms of psychophysical meditation); cf. Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Liberal reform is stopped in its tracks by the radicals’ assassination of Alexander II and the determination of his successor to undo his father’s political program and to subject the minority peoples of the Empire to ruthless russification. It is impossible for Russian intellectuals to remain unaware that Germany’s very different push towards industrial growth and intellectual respectability has given birth to philosophical and artistic movements of which neither Tsar nor Kaiser would approve, but which seemed harbingers of a new and almost unimaginable age of post-materialist spiritual ferment.

So however it happened, off goes Kandinsky in quest of ways of embodying a new spiritual era and translating it into paint. And he soon finds himself collaborating with composers and libretto writers on multidisciplinary art works in addition to innovative landscapes and portraits, having joined his life in the meantime with a Theosophy-inclined painter named Gabriele Münter, whose works from Milwaukee’s permanent collection are included in this contextualizing retrospective.

Back in the mid-1980s, Peg Weiss pooh-poohed Sixten Ringbom’s hypothesis in The Sounding Cosmos that H. P. Blavatsky’s Theosophical pictures of aura-like “thought forms” were influences on Kandinsky’s development of abstraction. Abstraction was in the air, in ways we have learned more about in recent years; experimental childhood education employed basic geometric shapes in distinct primary colors, and Jugendstil evolved on the Continent in the wake of such earlier speculations as John Ruskin’s links between the curvatures of Gothic architecture and the specific shapes formed by the leaves of water plants. Nature and culture appeared to be inextricably intertwined or entangled; but nobody quite knew why, or how.

By 1896 it seemed important to investigate the question, not just in what seemed to be a fatally flawed European culture, but in every culture on a suddenly surprising earth—where discontented scions of Europe had encountered religions and rituals that seemed to embody not benighted ignorance but a species of wisdom never suspected by their blinkered local cultures. The marriage of European analytical practice and non-European intuitive syntheses seemed to be the key to the resolution of the persistent and crippling cultural incertitude of the nineteenth century.

What appeared certain to the spiritual revolutionaries who advocated a fundamentally new art was that the simple-minded mechanistic materialism of the nineteenth century simply did not take into account many of the organic variables of life and art alike. The German Romantics and their successors had tried to (to quote Tamsin Shaw’s critique of Darrin M. McMahon’s Divine Fury: A History of Genius, in the October 9, 2014 New York Review of Books) “clarify the relationship between mind and world.” The original speculations of transcendental idealism had not held up against the assaults of hardheadedly reductionist rationalism; the new generation was looking for evidence of just how color, sound, and form might be related to one another and to concealed interconnections between the human spirit and the world in which the spirit operated.

Kandinsky, sharing in the hope that a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunstwerk) might be based on knowledge of how those relationships operated, went on to hope that the deep interconnections between independently developed cultures might also be revealed by intelligent juxtapositions of photographs in books and magazines. “We will put,” he proposed in 1911 to his friend Franz Marc, “...a Chinese work next to a Rousseau, a popular image next to a Picasso and many other things of the same kind!” This became 1912’s single-issue project The Blue Rider Almanac, represented in this retrospective by Kandinsky’s saint-infused study for its cover. (St. George’s horse and lance became a leitmotiv for Kandinsky...a fact that might lead us into an extended meditation on the many cross-cultural identities of St. George, whose myths and meanings change substantially in their geographic diffusion from England to the Eastern Mediterranean and the farther reaches of the Caucasus Mountains. But again, we don’t know how much Kandinsky knew, and when if at all he knew it.) At this point, he produces his first completely abstract painting. He also publishes his book On the Spiritual in Art, productively reflecting the ambiguity between “mind” and “spirit” in the German philosophy of Geist, which conflates a range of meanings that English vocabulary and thought keeps rigorously separate.

Kandinsky: Russian and Bauhaus Years

All of this multinational, cross-cultural ferment in Munich and elsewhere comes to an abrupt and unanticipated halt in 1914, when friends are forced to leave for home at best and sign up for service in competing armies at worst. Franz Marc, represented in this retrospective by a large, memorable 1911 painting of horses, goes from psychological speculations on the meanings of colors and informed studies of the world’s antiquities in German ethnographic museum to death on the battlefront in 1916. Kandinsky returns to Russia in that year after an extended residence in Switzerland, meets and marries the young woman who remained his wife until his death in 1944, and continues to alternate between a loosely curving, semi-geometric abstraction and a lushly expressionistic rendering of figure and landscape.

Russian artists in this same time frame have been busy devising a different relationship between geometry and the human condition. Liubov Popova travels in Russian Central Asia looking at mosaic tiles and architecture at the same time that Kandinsky develops his original interest in the all-over wall decoration of Russian peasant houses, and her contemporaries develop a form of geometric reduction intended to displace traditional painting once and for all. Malevich’s Black Square in 1915’s “0,10” exhibition hangs in the place traditionally reserved for the family religious icons.

Kandinsky collides with the Constructivists when the Revolution happens, and finds himself proposing modes of artistic education and research that eventually conclude in a 1921 proposal for a Department of Physio-psychology and Fine Arts at the newly founded Russian Academy of Artistic Sciences. Still suspected of unacceptably Romantic views about matter and spirit, he happily accepts Walter Gropius’ invitation to visit Berlin at Christmas 1921, and by June 1922 has moved to Weimar to teach at the newly founded Bauhaus.

This is where Kandinsky’s Gesamtkunstwerk collaborations in Munich with Thomas de Hartmann and friendship with Alexander de Salzmann raise interesting and probably unanswerable questions. The same year that Kandinsky returned to Russia, de Hartmann and de Salzmann met and became disciples of George Gurdjieff, whose claims to possess the multidisciplinary teachings of Central Asian spiritual traditions offered what seemed to be definitive answers to the questions that had bedeviled both Kandinsky and de Hartmann during their Munich years. Literally following Gurdjieff through a chaotically revolutionary Russia and secessionist Caucasus to Constantinople and on to France, de Hartmann became Gurdjieff’s collaborator on a series of piano compositions based on what Gurdjieff claimed were Central Asian liturgical melodies that formed the basis of “objective music,” just as the rigorously mathematical relationships of sacred geometry formed an “objective art.”

Kandinsky encounters a different version of geometry and notions of “glass cathedrals” at the Bauhaus, in an atmosphere that seems poised midway between the Gesamtkunstwerk of his prewar years and the marriage between fine and applied arts he found in the Constructivist art of the Russian Revolution. Though they are not included in this retrospective, in 1921 Kandinsky produced some remarkable geometric designs for porcelain cups and saucers that look like harbingers of his Bauhaus-era paintings. His Constructivist colleagues were producing even more useful objects with a starker form of geometry, whereas Kandinsky’s color scheme and combination of shapes sometimes seems playful to the point of presaging the biomorphic paintings of his Paris years, then over a decade in the future.

And yet, and yet.... On White II comes as a shock regardless of how closely you study the preceding years’ paintings. Later paintings, most notably Yellow Red Blue, which combine an intense painterliness with hard-edged geometric forms, mark a departure so unexpected that one looks for explanations that mostly aren’t there.

Compared with the fluidity of the large-scale wall murals from 1922 that are replicated in a gallery space that appears in this retrospective, these Bauhaus paintings of 1922 (the date of the preliminary study that appears in this show) and 1925 appear to operate by different rules altogether. These are the years in which de Hartmann was most enraptured by the Gurdjieff Work to which he remained loyal even after his departure from discipleship in 1929. But there is apparently not a shred of evidence that Kandinsky knew anything about the Work, and by the time he had renewed a face to face friendship with de Hartmann and was living in the same city as Gurdjieff, in the 1930s and early 1940s, he had moved on to a biomorphic style of abstraction that seems to owe more to illustrations of creatures seen through microscopes than to the precise angles of mystical mathematics.

So my hypothesis in the 1984 essay may well have been total nonsense. But I wonder.

Kandinsky in Paris

What is certain is that by the time in 1933 that Kandinsky abandons the newly proclaimed Nazi Germany for Paris, he has lost any interest in dramatic personal transformations; he turns down offers to emigrate to the United States and to Japan, and repeats his disinclination to pull up roots when it seems more consequential, after the German occupation of Paris in 1940. In spite of having had all his paintings removed from German museums as “degenerate art” three years earlier, he continues not only to paint, but to stage officially forbidden solo exhibitions in the back rooms of his Paris gallery. The occupation is headed by admirers of French culture and connoisseurs of art, and despite the brutal extermination of Resistance networks, the lower echelons of occupation enforcers seem to have practiced silent tolerance of nonpolitical cultural aberrations—Hitler, after all, was on record as having said something to the effect of “Let the French be as decadent as they want to be. It will keep them from ever again winning a war against us!”

The retrospective exhibition gives us three of his final paintings and his two final watercolors (produced in 1944 after he had given up easel painting a year earlier in the face of old age and persistent shortages of materials). The paintings evince a combination of seriousness and lightheartedness, but the watercolors are filled with a sense of outright play that bespeaks a combination of acceptance with curious exploration. Kandinsky appears to have achieved the level of internal balance that Reciprocal Accord of 1942 is still in the process of keeping in tension.

Thinking of the many spiritual as well as scientific disciplines with which he might well have remained in dialogue throughout his lifetime, I still wonder.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

fragments shored against my ruins, or, three reviewable atlanta exhibitions i shall not review

Three Atlanta Exhibitions About Which I Shall Not Write Reviews

From the lumpy sculptures in the front to the broken clay vessels scattered across the floor in the back, adjacent to the wall text of a poem by Pessoa, “Movable Types” (the Art Papers-curated exhibition at Ponce City Market through September 28) raises questions that I don’t feel the slightest inclination to have answered, much less to answer through my own research. It’s useful to have the explanation of the wall grid of images depicting cherry stems, but it’s enough to enjoy them as glyphs of some alphabet or algorithm I’ll never understand.

The pun on “movable type” indicates the deliberately uncertain or slippery place of the exhibition in terms of form and language alike: it is a type of exhibition that resists being made conceptually immobile, or out of play rather than playfully in play, always. Like movable type, its components will be reused for other purposes (in fact the broken ceramics in the back will be distributed like some latter-day version of a Tibetan sand mandala, except that unlike the transient order of the mandala, the work began with an act of disordering that was itself a form of in Wallace Stevens’ poetic assertion in "Connoisseur of Chaos," “1. A violent order is a disorder; and / 2. A great disorder is an order. These / Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)”

I’m very glad I don’t have to write a review of the exhibition, because it would entail re-reading Georges Bataille and re-upping my recollections of what the famous “Informe” exhibition was all about, and I just don’t want to do any of that right now.

But I think it would be great for folks who happen to be in the vicinity of Ponce City Market during gallery hours to stop by and ask, if they are so inclined, to have the show explained to them. But first and foremost, to look at all the stuff that I don’t feel up to explaining in detail. I especially don’t feel like trying to describe the videos. But the slippery quality of description is part of what the show is about. Or maybe not about, for “aboutness” itself is the problem. Ludwig Wittgenstein thought that a philosophical problem took the form of “I don’t know my way about,” but it might rather be “I don’t know about my way,” or worse, “My way doesn’t know about me.”


“Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser,” at Cherrylion Studios through September 26, is a curious kind of show in a couple of different ways. Walking into it may give the feeling of falling down a rabbit hole, but apart from that, the exhibition is not really an homage to Lewis Carroll’s most memorable creation.

It’s an independent exhibition of 9 members of a critique group of women artists, as curated by Michelle Pizer of Pizer Fine Arts. It, too, deserves the level of review I simply cannot write under duress, though it holds up perfectly well without one.

In fact, it is the variety of visual pleasure in this small exhibition that makes it singularly worth seeking out in the two days or so that are left to seek it out (if you read this as soon as it is posted, which most of this note’s potential readers are unlikely to do). Patty Nelson Merrifield’s witty taxidermy sculptures alone are worth the price of admission. (Admission is free, of course, so that is less high praise than I had meant to convey with that cliché. Please insert smiley-face emoticon here.)

People who already know Linda Mitchell’s work will find new and quite different iterations of it. Ditto for Edie Morton’s encaustics, Mary Anne Mitchell’s photographs, and Chris Dolan’s drawings...Dena Light is only one of the artists who are less likely to be familiar to gallerygoers, and the same goes for Shannon Davis, Deborah Hill, and Julie Grant, all of whom contributed singularly interesting works to this diverse yet tightly curated exhibition.

And that detail-less observation brings me to:


Henry Callahan’s “Beyond Abstraction: Expressing Nature,” at Reinike Gallery through September 27, is a show that will not be helped in the slightest by this note regarding its existence, for its most likely interested viewers do not read Facebook and are unlikely to find a notice on a blog.

These are loose, diversely painted evocations of places in nature, eminently worth the analysis I cannot at present give them, although they are also works which it is more important to match up with an audience than to provide with a discerning critical analysis. There are those to whom these paintings will speak deeply, and there are those who are likely to remain unresponsive to the set of aesthetics these paintings embody. That is simply a fact of human psychology and personal predilections.

It is highly unlikely that more than a handful of viewers would find “Movable Types” and “Beyond Abstraction” equally appealing, though it is possible to imagine someone who would find equal pleasure in the shattered ceramic shards of the one and the darker range of paintings in the other. (It is possible to imagine this because I did it.)


And this pathetic expression of complete exhaustion does little more than acknowledge the existence of these exhibitions and show off a few photographs (left unlabeled because with few exceptions I have no information regarding them).

And there are still more bodies of work in current and recent exhibitions that deserve extremely detailed and serious analysis, not least analysis of the mismatch between work and probable audience—this latter would be different in every city in which the work might be exhibited.

Given my interest in how different very small parts of the planet respond differently to different artistic stimuli (cf. the earlier, programmatic essays on this Counterforces blog), I am fascinated by the Atlanta-centric problem of critical and audience response to a particular species of painting.

The genre I have in mind seems to combine representational references (usually modestly specific ones), geometric abstraction, biomorphic abstraction, and gestural painterliness in one big, sometimes chaotic but just as often complexly organized canvas.

And the general response thus far has been betwixt and between; scarcely anyone seems to know what to say about it, or if they do they haven’t stepped forward to say so. And audiences seem equally indifferent when they are not bewildered.

But all that will have to wait for some other exhausted evening, or some less sleep-deprived writer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

a deliberately loopy recommendation to attend or contemplate an Eyedrum exhibition

“hymHouse,” at Eyedrum until the closing performances from 7 to 10 p.m. on September 26, is described as a twenty-first century homage to the example set by Judy Chicago, whose postcard from 1979 is framed and hung on the wall by the main exhibition statement. (Other highly useful notes and artist’s statements appear on foamcore cards next to the other artworks; this exhibition cannot be accused of withholding information, except in a very few cases in which the information ought to be obvious to everybody, but isn’t—which may be part of the point of the work.)

An evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the show is already off-limits to a male heterosexual art critic writing from a subject position that almost renders it impossible to say anything at all. Unfortunately, all of the women art reviewers who might have written about this show seem to have been too busy with their own immediate issues, including making a living by working three jobs (like artworld folks of almost all conceivable sorts).

So if I don’t tell folks they ought to go check it out, nobody else will. But I’m not offering a review, even if it sometimes looks that way.

The show is, to a surprising degree, about how we inhabit our bodies, and what we do with them while we are in them. We are not quite the same as our bodies, whether we are also immortal souls or just a bunch of socially influenced autonomic responses—but who we are is highly influenced by whether we inhabit a male or female body, and the socially shaped but largely preconscious sexual responses of that body. But regardless of the extent to which how we think and react can be changed by social and psychological circumstances, some things are primal.

And “hymHouse” is heavy on the primal and the basic social responses to the primal. It happens, however, to be specifically about how women in particular inhabit their bodies, and what they do with them and how others react to that, and that fact inevitably shapes the space of the discussion and perception by any individual writer. We never start from a universal standpoint, even when we think we do. (Those who think they do have mostly been men, incidentally, and in this particular culture, they have mostly been white, economically secure men. Just in case you were wondering.)

Stephanie Pharr’s vitrine documenting the detritus of menstruation (bloodstained panties that men without sisters or female live-in partners might not recognize as such) was counterpointed on opening night by the sight of her own largely unclad body covered only by a transparent poncho, the aforementioned genital-covering undergarment and a pair of emerald-green high-heeled shoes. The combination was disconcerting to almost everybody, and the social interpretation of this minimal combination, posted on Facebook, was also exceptionally thought-provoking, especially since the thoughts expressed in the comments were so incompatible with one another.

Andre Keichian’s video response to a wisecrack that “lesbians are so narcissistic that they just want to have sex with themselves” consisted of a sexualized wrestling match between herself and herself, projected between a chair that had been split in two and attached to the wall. The other video-and-sculpture contributions were similarly primary, if not primal: issues of pregnancy, personal grooming, and elementary forms of social interaction predominated in this contemporary homage to first-wave feminism. Questions such as how well women can handle the equations of quantum mechanics (hint: most women can do this about as well as most men, given the general innumeracy of the population) were not a topic of conversation. Co-curator Martha Whittington’s impressive accomplishments in mechanical engineering were not on display. (Stephanie Pharr and Onur Topal-Sumer were the other curators, and as I said above, I am not pretending to write a review of what they did with this exhibition; I’m just writing down a very few possible reactions.)

Part of what was on display, and on display quite exquisitely, too, was Lisa Alembik’s exercise in thoughtfully and elegantly imbalanced ceramics, an homage to her female forebears combined with a fresh take on Meret Oppenheim in a set of sculptural teacups and saucers with hair embedded or embodied in the ensemble.

To discuss this further would be to say too little or too much.

Likewise, the opening night performances other than Pharr’s endurance work (it lasted from before the beginning until some unspecified time after the end of the reception) are difficult to analyze without the use of copious notes that I didn't make; performance goes away instant by instant as it unfolds, and in between performance times, there is only the physical residue and the mute testimony of the artworks surrounding the performance space. Like the daily activity of keeping any space habitable, the effort vanishes into forgetfulness, not into history.

And I for one am really sorry that the people who could have written about all this were too overwhelmed with other stuff to spend time producing essays that could have shed light on the successes and failures of a show that was apparently a year or more in the planning.

However, the closing reception, during which a full range of performances will once again be offered (though I couldn’t find out what performances) will happen on Friday night, September 26, so there is one more opportunity to set the historical record straight, or just to evaluate the exhibition for yourself if you happen to read this in time.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Byzantine Things in the World, a Year Later: a Belated Post Delayed by Formatting Issues

Byzantine Things in the World: A Preliminary Exploration of an Extraordinary Experiment (The Menil Collection, Houston, May 3 - August 18, 2013)

Jerry Cullum

What does it mean to enter into an exhibition that changes our perception of space by way of the objects that occupy it? The answer at first seems obvious, because exhibitions have been altering space in that self-aware way since Malevich hung his Black Square in the place normally occupied by an icon, nearly a century ago. At first incautious glance, Glenn Peers’ “Byzantine Things in the World” exhibition at the Menil Collection looks to have returned the icons to their accustomed places (albeit with the intellectual saints Athanasius and Basil replacing Christ and the Virgin as they frame a secularization of the Holy Door through which the priest approaches the altar):

But we may soon notice something strangely amiss:

Eventually we may discover a chillingly near-familiar placement of a remarkable icon of the Mother of God. But in order to reach this space deep within the galleries, we must traverse a thoroughly unfamiliar territory:

There is an alternation of light and dark in which color and object rhyme curiously:

“In the gloom, the gold / gathers the light against it,” as Ezra Pound wrote of the Byzantine splendors of Ravenna, but the gold is from Rauschenberg and Klein:

The abstract gold of the wall-dominating paintings is echoed in the gold of a tiny Byzantine reliquary, juxtaposed with a gold-enhanced Entry into Jerusalem icon:

An aniconic atmospheric painting echoes the longstanding claims of abstraction to a modernist form of spirituality, a claim that reached its zenith in the Rothko Chapel:

But the aniconic painting itself is adjacent to another Byzantine icon:

Other juxtapositions seem to make other, more mysterious claims, such as Joseph Cornell’s “Owl Habitat” box positioned in equality with a Byzantine saint, adjacent to a Gobelin tapestry that has no religious content whatsoever:

The exhibition is filled with shocking contrasts of scale and lighting that also feature parallels of shape but not of function, or else of function in startlingly different shapes:

The exhibition catalogue thoroughly revises our sense of how objects ought to operate and be approached, but it gives only a faint approximation of the sheer sensory disorientation achieved by “Byzantine Things in the World,” the exhibition space, during an all too brief presentation of the things themselves:

The sense of a postmodern sacred given by the exhibition is exceeded, we might imagine, only by the vacancy left in the now-unviewable Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum elsewhere on the grounds of the Menil Collection, a building that was constructed specifically to house the long-term loan of dome and apse icons restored by the Menil after their recovery from art thieves in northern Cyprus:

The restored icons were resituated in their traditional devotional places, but in an almost startlingly contemporary architectural setting, which Peers refers to in the exhibition catalogue as a glass chapel:

Minus the icons, which have now been returned to Cyprus after the agreed-upon loan period, the chapel might become as eloquent a space of absence as the nearby Rothko Chapel, but no one seems to have realized this, not even Glenn Peers whose exhibition was inspired by the hybridity of the original icon-inhabited space:

What Peers did recognize was the relevance of the longer-term “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision” exhibition elsewhere in the Menil Collection, a room reproducing the sort of unexpected juxtaposition of modernist, found, and tribal objects that characterized the Surrealists’ own exhibitions.

As with this “room of wonders,” Peers’ exhibition succeeds by virtue of its manipulation of form and space long before any of his debatable propositions regarding the relational nature of objects come into play. The contexts imposed by modernist art history and/or Eastern Orthodox sacred narrative have been magicked away by Peers’ curatorial wizardry as thoroughly as the various ethnographic and art-historical contexts insisted upon by scholars have been made to disappear in “Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision.”

Primary experience has replaced reflective analysis. This raises disturbing issues for those of us who insist that human beings are, above all else, storytellers. But human beings are also creatures of induced visionary experience, makers of art that depends upon primary sensory disorientation, and humans have been making such art ever since the Paleolithic cave paintings were drawn to conform to the irregular shape of the rock, and to replicate motion when viewed by flickering torchlight.

If stories give us a sense of our place in the world, we also seem to be a species that likes to experience not quite knowing where we are, in a strangely configured space that encourages deep emotions other than simple dread. The all too briefly available spaces and contrasts of “Byzantine Things in the World” re-created for skeptical contemporaries the sense of disoriented awe that Byzantine churches did for Byzantine worshippers, and that Eastern Orthodox worship spaces still do for those who are responsive to Christian imagery and the Christian message. Determining what else Peers might have accomplished is dependent upon close perusal of his remarkable catalogue, which would have to be the subject of a separate essay. Few of the themes presented in the catalogue are self-evident in the arrangement of the exhibition, though the catalogue clears up a good many conceptual mysteries. The catalogue, however, remains available, while the exhibition exists only as a series of evocative photographs that can only hint at what it was like to move through the space itself.

Text ©2014 Jerry Cullum (all images are copyright by and reproduced by permission of the Menil Collection)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

an incredibly tiny essay on art reviewing

I am feeling melancholy about all the art exhibitions not written about in any size shape or form—not an analysis set in stone for the ages, just a writeup in terms of “Here’s some stuff that a certain demographic will like, and another demographic will absolutely hate.”

[One of the many problems with this is that not even I wanted to read the five hundred additional words I wrote about the topic. Here they are, however:]

...But in the first place, that’s a hard thing to perceive. In the second place there aren’t enough writers to perceive it. In the third place, all but the most mundane of artists like to think they are making work that does more than appeal to sixty-year-old investment bankers in one case, forty-year-old adjunct professors in another, and twenty-three-year-old baristas hoping for more meaningful jobs in yet another. Yet most art falls into this category, and I wish it were possible to write reviews that say, “None of this work will go into art history, but two or three pieces are downright memorable, and half the work is something that folks of a certain age will wish they could own.” But nearly all of us delude ourselves as to the importance of what we are doing—we either value it too highly, or dismiss it as worthless when it isn’t. Reviewers similarly over- or undervalue for reasons that are merely personal/psychological, no matter how sophisticated they think their methodologies are.

So why not more reviews that say, “Here are some photos of what I think are the most interesting works in the show; the artist says this about them (but I disagree/agree with modifications/really don’t care one way or the other), and if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like.” Because there are not more people willing to spend their days seeing artwork they mostly do not like in order to write that sort of review for almost no money, for one thing. For another, it takes considerable skill in sussing out changing socioeconomic dynamics to be able to match artists and audiences. For a third thing, neither artist nor audience wants to have this relationship spelled out so baldly.

Yet some of the people who could do this sort of matchup delicately are engaged instead in trying to write “Ten fun things you probably didn’t know about Ingmar Bergman, including who he was and what he did,” and “Which endangered mammal species are you?” for almost as little money as they would get for writing a match-up type of art review. Some of them, however, may prefer this type of peonage to having to deal with the entire broad spectrum of artists and gallery operators and the people who love and hate them.

This six-hundred-or-so-word chunk of prose is the maximum length for a readable review, in any case; not enough to do justice to most exhibitions but most exhibitions don’t require justice, just audiences. Justice can be done at the artist's retrospective, if the artist is lucky enough to get one.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

and now for another deferral/displacement

I find myself writing more and more posts on that semi-belong on this blog, but not quite. Still less do they belong on the compendium of more or less coherently expressed ideas that is For that matter, there are leaps of illogic in the previous essay on photography that ought to be cleared up, but I haven't the time or inclination to do so. I shall continue on with the review essays I have pledged to write but never quite seem to complete.