Friday, April 24, 2009

The Iowa - Phoenix connection

Barak Obama, Nevada, Iowa, December 2007
Photo: Marilu Knode

Iowa is on my mind today. Last Saturday we attended an opening of Phil Curtis's works at Cattle Track, an artist compound and ground zero for much of Phoenix's modern arts community, located in Scottsdale. Phil Curtis moved to the west to oversee several WPA programs, including the founding of the Phoenix Art Center (now the Phoenix Art Museum). In his work with the WPA, Curtis helped the now-named Des Moines Art Center make it past the depression and WW II.

The Des Moines reference reminded me of when we saw Barak Obama speak in Nevada, Iowa, in December 2007, well before Iowans played a leading role is setting Obama's march towards the White House. And Iowans just legalized gay marriage--surely this is part of the revolution in American attitudes towards itself and each other.

I think Phil Curtis represented a grounded, yet open-minded, attitude through the things he brought to the arts, both here and in Iowa.

Let's hope Arizonans embrace Obama when he speaks at ASU's commencement later this month--he may be key to our financial survival.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The new Phoenix

from the top:
Los Torreznos, "Identity," 2009, modified arts
Ralph Nader speaking at the Valley Forward Livability Summit, April 16, 2009
Janet Echelman "Her Secret is Patience," 2009, public unveiling, April 16, 2009

Happening in Phoenix the last few weeks: Spanish performance art duo Los Torreznos performed a new work, "Identity," a quasi nonsensical work that explored our shifting definitions of self. I heard Ralph Nader speak about the need to up-date all governmental regulations, for example, in order to facilitate new green businesses--where Phoenix should be a leader but is not yet. And Thursday night was the public celebration of Janet Echelman's floating dream in downtown Phoenix.

Pockets of the city are electric with activity--the dawn of a new era in this time of economic collapse? Are we becoming a place with a soul, a heart?

Former Phoenix Mayor / current Attorney General Terry Goddard once told me that civic leaders weren't sure that Phoenix needed a downtown (this you gotta love about Phoenix--when would a curator get to have a coffee with the attorney general?)--but over the past five years, the downtown (and, perhaps, the rest of the city) has been transformed, thanks largely to ASU's President Michael Crow, former governor Janet Napolitano and current Mayor Phil Gordon. Janet Echelman's public art "Her Secret is Patience" is the crowning glory of our new downtown civic space. In honor of the glorious desert in which we live, and referencing the changeable sky above, Echelman's work will change every day to match the shifting patterns of nature herself (lighting by Paul Deeb). But the work also focuses the energies of the various buildings around it--the ASU Cronkite School of Journalism, a bus depot, light rail and the Westward Ho, an historic hotel (part of the Ho chain of Southern Arizona), currently HUD housing for the disabled--in an unimagined way.

Through the efforts of Crow et all, Phoenix now has the appearance of a big city, filled with tall buildings. With the Echelman, we now have a heart.

Let's see if our city leaders can truly make the right decisions during this economic crisis, to support the kinds of things that will lead us out of this morass: real funds for education, diversification of our economy, encouragement of grass roots entrepreneurship and to allow for the types of things--like this significant public work of art--that will make us a great city.

Art can be the iconic emblem of a city's ambition; only its leaders can make the city viable.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Barrel vaults in America

from the top:
Kimbell Art Museum, Louis I. Kahn, 1972
Modern Art Museum Ft. Worth, Tadao Ando, 2002
Nasher Sculpture Garden, Renzo Piano, 2003
outside Dallas Art Museum

Just returned from my trip to Dallas to see Mike and a lot of great art. The Kimbell lived up to its reputation of being a sublime space with many priceless art works, gems from the Renaissance that have landed in the New World as emissaries of beauty and ideals. The most memorable work, however, was a print in the "Art & Love in Renaissance Italy," organized by the Met. The piece was in a small gallery marked with warning signs and depicted a fantastical mythical parade leading an enormous (10 - 12" long!) p**** on a platter towards its gigantic female counterpart. Creepy and funny at the same time.

Next we visited the Modern Art Museum Ft. Worth, whose proportions felt more corporate than sublime, but whose interior galleries, interpenetrated by walls of glass and pools of water, were an elegant counterpart to the lovely, spare installations. (A note: there were a lot of women artists working in the 20th century, it would be nice to see them represented in higher percentages in the collection.)

Sunday morning, Texas, Easter weekend--museums are open, malls are not. The Nasher Sculpture Center was another lovely jewel, and finding the Gaugin sculpture and Brancusi's "The Kiss" in the galleries were my miracles for the day. The Dallas Art Museum's floor plan was confusing, but I loved the juxtaposition of the Mark di Suvero and walking Anubis out front.

At the end of the weekend I felt the presence of Louis Kahn's barrel vaults imposed a subtle, rhythmic order (rippling between the Kimbell, MAMFW and the Nasher), imposing a sense of the chaotic lack of urban planning that rules in Texas. The Kimbell and Nasher buildings and collections almost redeem the state after the last eight years of federal chaos.

Friday, April 10, 2009


© Franco Mondini-Ruiz detail "Porcelain Party," April 9, 2009, Matador restaurant, Phoenix

March (and April) madness ended last night with a blow-out "Porcelain Party" by Franco Mondini-Ruiz. The project--curated by Joe Baker, with help from me and Peter Held--set up at the Matador restaurant in downtown Phoenix was part (early) rave, part flea market, part Tupperware party, but mostly a complex complement / commentary on the NCECA conference in town this week.

Franco dips into the clash of his own hybrid background--Italian and Mexican--by creating mixed objects gleaned from local antique stores (with some pre-fab resin food stuffs). The objects comment gleefully on art's high and low, and on the specific recipe of class, race and gender issues of Phoenix.

This project brought together multiple communities--Latino, Native American, art world and music--to give the NCECA visitors a truly unique impression of the city. April begins with a bang.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Curator's Forum: Silvia Cubina

Pieter Hugo
Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Ogere-Remo, Nigeria, 2007
digital c-print
© Pieter Hugo, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Michael Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town, Courtesy the Margulies collection at the WAREHOUSE, Miami

Hyacinthe Rigaud
Hans William Bentinck, Earl of Portland, K.G., 1698-1699
oil on canvas
Collection Bass Museum of Art

I'm asking a range of curator colleagues from around the world to send me brief posts about what they are up to or thinking about as part of the continued (hoped for) critique here.

For my first Curator's Forum I've invited Silvia Cubina, director of the Bass Art Museum and most recently director of The Moore Space, Miami. I met Silvia in Milwaukee many years ago through inova, and have gotten to know her through our various roommate experiences.

Silvia has recently made the leap from working at a kunsthalle to an encyclopedic museum. Given how the art world and art market is so obsessed with the contemporary, leaving historical context behind, how does a contemporary curator create a dialogue between these two areas of research? Artists need to know at least some history in order to understand the world they have inherited, just as curators need to know history in order to educate audiences (my favorite insight was when I was working with Yoshitomo Nara, and I asked him if he knew Giotto's work since there seemed some lovely formal overlap. It turns out Nara has been greatly influenced by that Italian master.)

Silvia's notes on "The Endless Renaissance," a show juxtaposing the Bass's eclectic collection with the rush rush contemporary community around it:

"'The Endless Renaissance' addresses the perceived polarization in Miami between contemporary art and art that was made in the past. Our city is swimming in the best contemporary art today. Contemporary art, nevertheless, was not created in a temporal void and the dialogue 'The Endless Renaissance' creates with old master works serves to reflect on thematic and art historical references that make all art richer and more layered in meaning and thought."

The show's primary intention is to demonstrate that the Rigaud was just as contemporary in its presentation of politics as is the Hug. The figures are enormously different, however: the Hugo figure is from a family of hyena handlers who make a living doing performances, while the Rigaud figure is of a patrician politician, who helped the British extend their colonial rule.

It seems that the Bass Museum can take advantage of the hiccup in the contemporary market and introduce some notions of the past in that new town of Miami.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

How to make the site specific

© Matts Leiderstam "Papago Park," 2007

It's a tricky business, commissioning artists to do site specific work that has some resonance with your local audience. I had invited Matts Leiderstam to do a new work as part of a Scandinavian show I co-organized with Silvia Cubina, then-director of The Moore Space in Miami (other commissioned artists include Ragna Robertsdottir, Egill Saebjornsson and Torgeir Husevaag). Because landscape is such a primary material in the Sonoran desert, because it is the way people around the globe know Arizona (through early photography and Westerns), Matts's work seemed appropriate to grapple with a contemporary range of references that can be found in the landscape--beyond the cliches of surburban sprawl and golf courses littered with retirees.

Through his interest in history--both official and unofficial--Matts chose a promontory in Papago Park to photograph through his Claude lenses--lenses developed by an English inventor to help tourists find picturesque landscapes, like those of Claude Lorraine, father of landscape painting--Papago Park, Phoenix, is home to the zoo, the Desert Botanical Garden, a national guard battery, picnic tables, the phallic tomb of the state's first territorial governor--and is an active cruising site. (There was a WW II prisoner of war camp there, they had a breakout of German marines one Christmas eve, all surrendered or were found with a day or so.)

Matts uncovered histories unknown even to area residents, and thus, made something that resonated for the museum audiences.

Making site specific work is then about working with the right artist, not just the right landscape.