Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blogging from place

Green patch of my "place": table decoration from Laumeier's 2009 gala Out of the Park.

My dear pal Mary Louise Schumacher, art and architecture critic for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, has asked me to be here "foreign" correspondent for her own blog, Art City, link below.

(You may remember Mary Louise as my driving co-pilot in my move from Phoenix to St. Louis--she's the one who took the great picture of the burning truck.)

What she has done with her blog, Art City, is focus the energies and attention of the arts community in her region by becoming an expanded site for galleries, artists, dealers, collectors and their various audiences. The growth of the site, her addition of art maps, and features like "Pitch your Show", is an unparalled way for visual arts people to stay informed about the activities in the city. Art City is certainly a great model for other newspapers hoping to keep readership.

But Art City could only have happened on-line--no print publication could, or would, do all that for the arts, a notoriously bad sector for print advertising.

So we might well ask: what commitment do newspapers have to supporting the visual arts? They pay Mary Louise's salary--and that of the other arts writers at the paper who haven't taken a buy-out--THAT's what the Journal Sentinel is doing.

Sad that other newspapers don't gauge their arts writers' success by the same values they gauge a business writer: the interrogation of institutions and individuals, the highlighting of new trends, the health of the sector, the expansion of outlets and franchises, etc... Turns out arts writers do exactly what the business writers do (I mean that in a good way), only with more adjectives!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Exploring Laumeier Sculpture Park

Pump house, disused, Laumeier Sculpture Park.

I took another cart tour of the Laumeier Sculpture Park on Friday (note to self: when in doubt, bring a scarf). Bill Briggs, one of Laumeier's enormously talented staff (County), showed me this stone house built over the fresh water supply used by the residents of the area 100 years ago. As you can see, the original pool has been degraded, and the stream itself has self-diverted, despite the best efforts of some Boy Scouts.

Stream on LSP grounds.

Standing in front of the pump house made me think of Robert Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed, built on the grounds of Kent State University, Ohio, in 1970, just months before the National Guard killed students protesting the Vietnam War. As part of Smithson's investigation of entropy, he piled soil on top of the woodshed until its center beam collapsed. After the Kent State Shootings, the shed became an emblem for the collapse of social order--and of so many other things.

© Jane Crawford and Robert Fiore, Sheds, 2004, 22 min. color, sound

What struck me when looking at Laumeier's pump house was the inevitable way in which human interventions disappear--indeed, in which human marks become erased by the powerful forces of nature. As we embark on a new range of projects at Laumeier, I hope we can take into account the shifts in the ways we perceive earth works, artist interventions into--and definitions of--"public space," and the on-going, mutually affective relationship between humans and earth.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nancy Spero, Queen

Nancy Spero installation at the Cairo Biennial, 1998, photo by Barry Iverson; all images, unless otherwise noted, are by the author

Two friends just sent me the link to the NY Times' obituary of Nancy Spero, which I had missed, here in my move "cocoon".

Nancy was an inspiration to me for two reasons.

As a young curator working at MoMA, I went with a colleague from Prints & Illustrated Books over to meet Nancy. Of course I knew her work and was thrilled for the strong visual world she created through her collages. Despite her fame within the downtown arts community, she was kind and gracious and spoke frankly about the work, which tells not only abut the past but about our collective feminist future.

Many years later, in 1997, I approached Nancy to propose her work for the 1998 Cairo Biennial, and Nancy's work was chosen. My first trip to Cairo was shocking--I had a haunting, almost out-of-the-body experience after seeing the pyramids (remind me to tell you about the Winchester house "incident"). There was something about that place that I felt in my bones, despite being Northern European stock.

Nancy's installation was deceptively simple: her three assistants were to stamp images directly onto the walls of the Palace of Arts in Cairo. However, because the building was still in litigation, four years after its completion, we had to find a quick solution to not mar the walls with the paint. The Egyptians I worked with were both proud of Nancy's use of mythic symbols from Egypt's Pharonic past, but also somewhat defensive that a Westerner would "borrow" these forms.

The day of the Biennial's opening in Cairo was the day we bombed Iraq in the first war. The official opening the day's events attacked Nancy as the American representative--shocking, given Nancy's history and politics. Luckily, the first person to speak on our panel about Nancy's work couldn't be bothered to listen to the translation of this official's rant--she went blithely on about pattern & decoration in the work of Nancy Spero. In any case, my experiences in Cairo were transformative, thanks to Nancy.

Marwan Rechmaoui's work at Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, 2008

In addition to visiting one of the most glorious countries on earth, I came to work with many great artists from Egypt and the region, and indeed, I have worked, traveled and written about contemporary art in the area for a decade (the last article, on Beirut's "Home Works IV", was published in Art Papers last spring). And my work at F.A.R. (Future Arts Research) @ ASU, on desert aesthetics, was rooted in my reading, writing and finding ways to travel to the region.

Ghada Amer, Untitled (Milwaukee Love), 1998, photo courtesy the author

I commissioned works from Ghada Amer in 1998, Lara Baladi in 2004, and most recently, Ahmet Ogut, in 2008. Other artists whose work I supported include Mona Marzouk, Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Halil Altindere, and Khaled Hafez. Scott Bailey, with whom I co-founded a curatorial practice program in Cairo in 1998, was a great inspiration and friend in negotiating the complex social issues of Cairo.

Work by Khaled Hafez, courtesy the artist

I had three dreams when I was a child: sky diving (are you crazy?), scuba diving and living in Africa. Because of Nancy Spero, I did one (Red Sea) and had close encounters with another. Nancy was not just a global leader in a radical, political, visual feminism, she was a personal inspiration to many women of her own generation, and mine.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cement in St. Louis

I went to see some art last weekend in St. Louis, visiting the Pulitzer Foundation (as well as re-visited the Contemporary Museum and stopped by Bruno David's gallery, smartly placed just across the street).

It was a gray, overcast, calm day.

Of course I don't have any pictures from the Pulitzer's show Ideal (Dis-) Placements: Old Masters at the Pulitzer, with paintings from Harvard and the St. Louis Art Museum--so I took pictures of the external environment to give you a sense of the light levels inside the galleries. One of the exercises of the show was clearly to show how these works owuld have been perceived when they were painted.

My favorite room was the one in the back, next to the Ellsworth Kelly, with the four proto-Renaissance works. That is the period I love for the dense emotional intensity packed into the small figures, the glittering surface of the Byzantine-influenced church that mirrors the radiant light of God. Compared to the bloodless, hyperbolic Renaissance works in the other rooms, these small works feel alive to me (many people love the Renaissance, more power to them, I find no emotional comfort in those works).

In the largest work in the room, Girolamo di Benvenuto di Giovanni del Guasta's Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas of Tolentino, Monica, Augustine, and John the Evangalist, no date although the artist lived 1470-1524 (shouldn't they make an educated guess?), floating on St. Nicholas's torso was a disembodied head of a child. The child's disc of a head glowed in the dark, which to me was a meaningful expression of the mystery and faith embodied in religious ritual painting compared to the fleshy, Baroque-bordering-on-Rococo works in the other rooms.

It strikes me that the richness of this painting, and the story of Saint Nicholas, is a testament to the value of place in one's spiritual life. Each city, town, burg, village generates its own sense of mystery and life, and the del Guasta painting describes the joy of living in one's time, while knowing of one's history.

Floating back down to the courtyard I experienced the Richard Serra work "Joe" again, and again, felt a bit dizzy and disoriented not ten feet into the work. What imaginative glory and intellectual abuse this Serra provides.

What I loved about the Serra, against the grimy gray sky, was that it didn't provoke depression at the advent of fall, but rather, an inevitability of the abstractions we face in our daily lives--like spirituality, community, place. Balanced against my transport from the del Guasta, I felt refreshed on that fall day by experiencing art. Fabulous.