Monday, December 12, 2011

Guest Blog by Mike Cloud: Things seen and unseen

I was in Chicago a few weeks ago for Tony Tasset's opening at Kavi Gupta Gallery. At the dinner afterwards artists Mike Cloud and Doug Ischar and I stumbled upon the topic of "things-we've-seen-but-no-one-else-did."

My story was about the Milwaukee billboard that featured a plate of cheese, crackers and an apple with the caption below that read "Make a Cracker Happy." I didn't get it at first glance, but after Kevin insisted I re-read it, we laughed pretty hard about it. When we sought the billboard out again for me to photograph it a few weeks later--poof, gone. No trace of it on-line, no commentaries anywhere. A mirage--or a conspiracy?

All photos courtesy Mike Cloud, Chicago.

Mike Cloud related an event when he was a teen growing up in one of Chicago's western suburbs. The Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise near him introduced some decor and uniforms that were of kente cloth. The experiment lasted only a few weeks, and Mike has never met anyone who had a similar experience.

Mike submitted these images to illustrate, or amplify, his memories from that chimaera.

I take this picture to slyly suggest the cannibalism that goes on in most places on earth, or as a riff on the pejorative, plantation-style ripples that emanate out of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Then, of course, this image of two skeletons, intertwined in death, suggest that we are all linked. Perhaps Mike is suggestions that eating chicken is eating human flesh, or that cultural differences are as broad or as thin as we think they are. Were these two humans sacrificed for a religion, executed for adultery, or that they died of unknown complications? Like the kente cloth in a fast food restaurant, we may never know the answer to this mystery.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

New Orleans Redux

Jackson Square, New Orleans. All photos courtesy the author.

I just logged my fourth trip in two years to New Orleans to continue work on a series of projects linking St. Louis to New Orleans.

Freedom Ride. Image by Joe Baker.

I timed my visit to see the first three acts (the work awaits more funding to be completed) of Freedom Ride, an opera by Xavier University professor Dan Shore commissioned by friend and Longue Vue House and Gardens Director / Chief Curator Joe Baker. The Freedom Riders drove from Washington to New Orleans to defy the segregation of interstate transportation. Edith and Edgar Stern, founders of Longue Vue, hosted the group when they arrived in the South. Edith founded the opera program at Xavier, another elegant connection in this program.

The opera was magical, the powerful voices of the singers evoking the hope and anger of people soul-tired of waiting for their civil rights.

It is hard not to layer issues of race and class when visiting the South, particularly in this economic climate and post-Katrina. While not every artist needs to explore these issues, it's hard not to look for kernels of connection when viewing Prospect.2, which also opened the same weekend as the opera debut. Through reviews of friends who attended Prospect.1, and through the press I read, it sounded as if the first iteration had much more funding. Lack of funding, however, doesn't explain the problems I observed in Prospect.2.

Dan Tague, Crisis Car CC829, 2011.

Sadly, the worst of the installations were in two of the biggest institutions in town. At the Contemporary Art Center, where Prospect founder Dan Cameron used to work, was work by Dan Tague alongside some compelling works by local and international artists, but the whole experience felt disorganized and disgruntled.

I have not be impressed by the shows I've seen at the CAC--is it lack of will, lack of standards, lack of expertise? I am sure there was a lot of local anger at how diverse and global Prospect.1 was--does Prospect.2 suffer because Cameron was obliged to capitulate to local demands and sensibilities?

Jennifer Steinkamp at the New Orleans Art Museum.

Jennifer Steinkamp's haunting, moving trees in a niche at the top of the lobby stairs at NOMA was glorious--too bad the whole thing was washed out by the light of the lobby. The other works that hung on the lobby's walls felt like an after-thought, a concession NOMA made to Prospect.2 without truly giving over any real gallery space. Why wasn't the Odili Donald Odita mural that was going up by the cafe included in Prospect.2? It felt as if NOMA gave over its least art-appropriate space, and grudgingly at that, in order to be listed on the Prospect.2 letterhead.

Sophie Calle in the 1850 House in the Vieux Carre.

Works placed inside other types of institutions seemed to fare much better by being given a context within which to live. Sophie Calle's multi-room installation in the 1850 House put her self-involved stories into an historical space. But Calle's modern narcissism seemed rather trite alongside the issues of slavery, immigration and disease that are animated through the stories of the people who lived at the 1850 house.

Ragnar Kjartansson, The Man, 2010

Ragnar Kjartansson's video The Man was not commissioned by Prospect but was a 2010 collaboration between the artist and musician Pinetop Perkins, the last of the Delta Blues musicians. Was this location chosen as a subtle comment on the role of African Americans in driving the economy of the South, with the blues being subversive resistance of the economic exploitation suffered by African Americans? Subtle thinking indeed, but at least the work was lovely and haunting.

Nick Cave at the Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University.

Nick Cave and Joyce Scott were paired at the Newcomb Art Gallery, and although I am not interested in Scott's work and Cave's work speaks to me, there were enough interesting ways to think about the two that the pairing was not disheartening in the way some of the other group shows were.

Joyce Scott at the Newcomb Art Gallery, Tulane University.

Finally, one great public art piece I saw was Michel De Brion's work Majestic, curated and produced by The Third of May Arts, Inc., a Canadian producing collaboration.

Michel De Brion, Majestic, 2011.

De Brion used old New Orleans city lights to make this work parked under the shadow of the freeway overpass in the tangle of streets bisected by the badly designed freeways. Like a pick-up-jack, I thought about the dislocation and re-ordering of the landscape of New Orleans because of Katrina, and the ways in which the city continues to try to put itself back together again. This work was a lovely surprise, stuck, as it was, in this no-man's land.

What a tough balance Prospect.2 had to navigate--how to concentrate installations / art works so that more people can see them while allowing the type of commentary of engaged public art that gives relevance to a biennial in a place as complex and contested as New Orleans? Prospect.2 seems to have galvanized more local activity. I picked up the first issue of Catalogue, which listed the various galleries and public art works happening around town. Surely that alone is a good thing, giving voice to the non-institutional voices.

I am eager to see what the next version of Prospect will be if simply to see how new genre public art can re-invent itself at each iteration.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The question of bronze

New Chuck Berry statue on the Delmar Loop, St. Louis. photo courtesy the author.

Joe Edwards, guru of the Delmar Loop, the man who single-handedly revived the commercial district near my house, has long admired Chuck Berry. Berry plays monthly gigs at Edward's Blueberry Hill restaurant / club, and they recently installed this bronze statue of Berry, right across from Blueberry Hill.

Nice hommage.

Too bad it doesn't look like Chuck Berry.

Another problem with the Berry statue--given the historical record is complicated, it doesn't do Chuck Berry any good to call him the "father of rock and roll"--it cheapens him.

What is it about the lack of refinement of bronze statuary?

Statue of Pat Tillman. photo Sheldon Branford.

This reminds me of the Pat Tillman statue the Arizona Cardinals put up of Tillman after his death by friendly fire in Iraq. Horrific face! Must frighten children!

Picture of Pat Tillman. (c) NBC sports.

A literal translation of an equally disturbing photograph. But the photograph has the life, color and movement that the statue only mangles. Why are sports people so enamored of bad representative art?

Dred and Harriet Scott plaque on the Delmar Loop Walk of Fame. photo courtesy the author.

This plaque for St. Louis-natives Dred and Harriet Scott is much more compelling as a complex public statement than the bad Berry statue.

What I do like about the proximity of the Scott plaque (Tina Turner is nearby) and the Berry statute is how it suggests the role that St. Louis has played in American life with the birthing of African American artists / activists as diverse as the Scotts and Chuck.

While St. Louis has to grapple more effectively with race--as does every other city in the country--this symbolic representation puts diverse citizens together in ways they would not have been in real life. Now that's a great public service.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Museum standards

I took this picture in an unnamed museum this past week. Several thoughts came to mind:

That no matter how hard you and your team might work, something as insignificant as this--a registrar's identification tag sticking out from behind a painting--can sink the way the public sees you. Reminds me of my first visit to the new Tate building that had shoe prints on the wall. It was mid-week--the staff had at least a few days to clean up from weekend crowds. Sloppy!

Museums are a tough balance between asking broad, intelligent questions about material, social, political and cultural life and the pernicious details of crossing t's and dotting i's.

Having started off as a cataloguer at the Museum of Modern Art, I crossed a lot of t's. In my current post I am looking at some of the bigger questions that artists can help us as a society address. Keeping these poles of activity together is a tough task, but it separates the good institutions from the mediocre.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Museum material culture

Harley Davidson Museum, Milwaukee. All photos courtesy the author.

We finally broke down and visited the Harley-Davidson Museum in downtown Milwaukee.

It's astonishing how the area has been transformed--beautiful pathways and native prairie plantings bordering the Menominee River. Loads of parking for bikes and cars.

Sculpture. Enough said.

Why--WHY--are bronze statues so awful? No wonder people hate public art. This image of a hill racer recalls a fantastic interactive computer program in the Museum where you can pick your hill, sprocket shape and speed and see if your cartoon effigy makes it up the hill. This guy--he's going down, his bike will smack him in the head and boom, early retirement.

Earliest H-D motorcycles.

I loved all the different bikes. Evidently a few other companies were making bikes before Harley--Indian, Pope--but Harley was the first one to do motorcycles only, not bicycles first.

Wall of tanks.

And the designers know either the Vitra Museum or Andreas Gursky. Gorgeous!

Prettiest tank!

They changed graphics, colors and models every year, starting almost from the beginning.

Founders: three Davidsons, one Harley.

Loved this old picture. Their display of material culture was pretty beautiful. I was rather dreading how gear-headed the descriptions could have been, but there was a lot to enjoy without being a "knucklehead".

Typical museum-goers.

Ya baby, lots of Harley owners there. They've got their own vocabulary. Have they heard of wife-beaters, or is this where the phrase comes from?

Cool petroglyph.

Gorgeous use of varied graphic design.

Engines on wall.

Again, Vitra.

Museum design.

Lovely display of objects--how to enliven things that do not change dramatically?

Mod motor oil ad.

They tried to hip it up in the 70s--perhaps this is when their marketing lost track of their audience?

Harley wedding dress.

Enough said.

Album covers.

I loved that Minnie Pearl did an album cover on a Harley.

There was not much about the later years--the virtual bankruptcy, the Jay Leno effect--which leaves the story still storybook. But I suppose real Harley people know it--in any case, it was an elegant space with groovy objects.

I was willing to go to the Harley Museum because of a shift in my thinking when Kevin had to shoot the 100th anniversary parade. I came to discern the different bike shapes--I'm an Indian woman myself--and the different sub-cultures of riders.

Categories I counted:

gay couples (over 10)
mixed-race couples (almost 5)
woman driving man (1)
Japanese couple (1)
people standing on their bikes (4)
wedding dresses (3)

The other hundreds of riders who made it into the anniversary parade were as you might suspect--Grateful Dead look-alikes with their molls on the back. But I was still surprised by the diversity where I thought there would be none.

Harley is an American success story--none of the founders were from here, they started off in a 10 x 15' shack and became a global phenomenon. As bad as gas is, motorcycles and cars still freed people from their farms, their families and their futures by letting them run away and create a new life. That's something to celebrate, and Milwaukee had a role in that.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Politics in Venice, part 3

Street poster in Venice. All photos courtesy the author.

Again, more politics. This poster was plastered around San Marco, looking like Elizabeth Peyton except for the text. After looking for anti-Catholic posters in Venice I found a lot of interesting things--Venice, perhaps because of its independent stature for so long, wasn't a friend of Rome. Anyone know who did this work?

Song Dong in the Arsenale.

China's Song Dong remains one of my favorite artists with whom I've worked. I commissioned him to do a work for my show Water, Water Everywhere... at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. His work is thoughtful and meditative, like this ramshackle construction that suggests a labyrinth and a soon-to-be-destroyed warren of alleys. Several works were also embraced inside the walls of this construction--hiding out or finding other meanings?

Liina Siib in the Estonian pavilion.

In her project Woman Takes Up Less Space in the Estonian pavilion, Siib challenges the assertion in Estonia that since women take up less space they can be paid lower salaries. In the un-fancy apartment Siib creates tweaked rooms with the images and words of Estonian women jumping off the wall. The work was funny and very sad.

Faycal Baghriche in The Future of a Promise.

Loved this madly spinning globe by Faycal Baghriche. It reminded me of Charlie Ray's spinning disc set flush into a wall--its effects almost invisible but certainly deadly.

Maria Rosa Jijon in the Latin American pavilion in the Arsenale.

Finally, one of the compelling political videos in the Latin American pavilion.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beauty in Venice, part 2

San Marco, May 29, 2011. All photos courtesy the author.

After hunting down as many outlying pavilions for the Bienniale as I could find, I feel I know Venice better than I ever have. The tourist count wasn't as high as it will get, and anyway, tourists did not touch the alleyways where international art would be found.

View from Museo Correr.

I had never been to Museo Correr, and Rick Steve's guide book was right: great view of San Marco from the windows still unobstructed by scaffolding.

View of canal from installation Days of Yi.

I would suspect most tourists would be mortified to see this open window, I thought about the Renaissance.

Building style exposed.

Impressive--look at the size of those beams. No wonder Italy is almost denuded, they've been building for thousands of years.

Saint in l'Accademia.

It's hard to find decent small gifts in Venice--too many kitschy glass gondolas, way too many Carnivale masks (perfect only for 12 1/2 year old girls). I loved this painting at l'Accademia--a saint whose mask looks back. Too bad there wasn't any information about who this was--where is my "Dictionary of Saints and Symbols" when I need it?

Conservation methods at l'Accademia.

L'Accademia's state of repairs is rather shocking. I saw many wall patches that looked like hastily-bandaged war wounds scattered throughout the building. The first floor, where all my favorite proto-Renaissance works were shown, was virtually unairconditioned--and we all know the effects of humidity on wood and paint.

Nothing like the slick and elegant spaces of Francois Pinault's Palazzo Grassi (no pics here, they are forbidden). Perhaps some wealthy collectors could spend a little less on themselves and toss a few bones to the public institutions in Italy that are clearly starving?

With the public in Italy fed up with the antics of their clownish government, I hope they will insist on protecting the Italian culture that has so influenced virtually every artist, almost around the globe, for centuries. When I worked with Yoshitomo Nara in the 1990s he told me that Giotto was a big favorite of his--see the connection? This historical work is important to all of us in the arts.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Politics in Venice, part 2

Llyn Foulkes, Central Pavilion. All photos courtesy the author.

Imagine my surprise to see a room of Llyn Foulkes works at the Giardini. This under-rated LA-based painter has made powerful, disconcerting works since the 1960s. His presence made me appreciate the diligence with which Bice Curiger curated the show (although not sure that the historical works in the first room of the pavilion made sense).

Erwin Wurm.

Erwin Wurm's skinny house, just beside the Accademia bridge, is based on his parent's home and mocks the over-consuming lifestyles in the West. This modest profile fits with Venice however, a city where even the most grandiose palazzo doesn't match the egregious waste of resources or space of a modern McMansion.

Yael Bartana, Polish pavilion.

The presence of an Israeli artist in the Polish pavilion is an example of inspired national cross-over. Bartana imagines a political movement in Poland that begs Israelis of Polish descent to return, re-populate the country and save Poland from a death of homogeneity. One would understand Israeli's not falling for it, but the language was blunt and overt, bemoaning the evil act of killing Jews or forcing them to flee during World War II. Very interesting timing for this work.

Christian Marclay, Arsenale.

I finally got to see at least part of Christian Marclay's work about time. I read all the NY reviews of the work and finally understood the operatic, deeply meditative pleasure of the work. We passed our time with the piece from 2:25 to 3:50 pm, resting on the (uncomfortable) couches yet mesmerized by the ease with which I created mini-historical narratives I made up while watching.

Segalit Landau, Israeli pavilion.

Finally, Segalit Landau's lovely installation looking at water politics in Israel was both sweet and stifling. Through different videos she narrated the struggle for cooperation between political enemies for the appropriate management of water. This video, of a little girl tying together the shoelaces of negotiating politicians, made the most pertinent point--everyone is tied together whether they like it or not, so harming one's enemy is harming oneself.

Simple but effective.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beauty in Venice, part 1

Gondola in Venice near Rialto Bridge. All photos courtesy the author.

Politics and beauty may be the two organizing guides I had while in Venice. Yes, yes, Venice is beautiful. I read that 58,000 people live there while 15,000,000 visitors inundate the city per year. No wonder the city is sinking with all those well-fed Western European and American visitors.

Yuan Gong, Arsenale.

I found beauty everywhere. This gorgeous installation by Yuan Gong was a floating palace of dreams, a respite from the slogging through the Giardini (and a calming influence before the bad few shows that were to follow).

Shada & Raja Alem, Arsenale.

This decorative piece was hard to comprehend in the dark; a floating disc of black loomed above an oval carpet of patterns. A visual interpretation of experience at Mecca perhaps, or a not-so-subtle commentary on the dampening effect religion has on the intricate web of relations between people in the Middle East?

Raafat Ishak, The Future of a Promise.

Raafat Ishak's multi-paneled painting in the Pan-Arab show interpreted the hundreds of requests made for visas and his rejection by this many governments. This playful Easter egg hunt was soothing yet fragile in its delicacy--surely reflecting the fragility of the situation lived by immigrants across the world seeking a better life.

Karla Black, Scottish corollary pavilion.

I loved this installation by Scottish artist Karla Black despite feeling I had seen this type of installation decades ago in LA. This fugitive, diy-craft-y material installation both harkens to the 1960s feminist movement and the 1980s LA garage-style works shown at places like FoodHouse. The aesthetic has seeped into art schools across the country. As a Scottish artist her aesthetic reference must be different--this is the kind of detail that was missing in the written materials at the show.

Oksana Mas, Ukrainian pavilion.

Speaking of eggs, we found this installation by Ukrainian artist Oksana Mas in a church near La Fenice. The artist used thousands of painted eggs to re-create a Byzantine mosaic of Christ. This year I saw more art works based on religious forms than ever-before--interesting that artists are commenting on the (perhaps hollow) overwhelming presence of religious life in Venice.

Taibamo, Japanese pavilion.

Taibamo's enveloping video animations are disconcerting dreamscapes where land and water merge and reverse positions. The gooey tentacles of seaweed caress and obscure in this mesmerizing but somewhat confounding installation.

Long live Beauty!