Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft

Since the rise of conceptual art practices within the ever-changing terrain of contemporary art, one often encounters the silly assertion that art making has become a market of ideas as opposed to objects. This is, of course, ridiculous: A walk through any art fair or biennial reveals that there are more objects in circulation than ever before, some more thoughtful than others. While dematerialization continues, the reclaiming of craft has complicated the assumption that contemporary art is destined for abstraction. The works in Crafting a Continuum: Rethinking Contemporary Craft at the Houston Museum of Contemporary Craft propose that traditional forms of making are relevant—and at times, urgent.[1]

Peter Voulkos. Ceramic Pot (Steel Pot). 1968. Stoneware (thrown and shaped). 32.5 x 11.5 inches. Image courtesy of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

Peter Voulkos. Ceramic Pot (Steel Pot), 1968; stoneware (thrown and shaped); 32.5 x 11.5 in. Courtesy of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.

While the objects in this exhibition do not seem to share any formal or technical common denominator, they nevertheless coalesce into a narrative about the development of craft, particularly as it came into being in the United States during the postwar period. The work of Peter Voulkos seems to offer one of the many beginnings to this story. Voulkos’ practice arose out of a significant moment in American art: At the same time that critic Clement Greenberg was tracking the self-critical development of modern art to the Abstract Expressionist painters, the G.I. Bill was transforming university art education. Fine-art departments expanded and often combined with applied art programs to hold the thousands of new students who entered into the American university system. With their gouged surfaces and weighted compositions, Voulkos’ works embodied his rejection of the traditions of refinement and “the beautiful” that structured academic craft—rejections that allowed him to foreground the significance of time and process as opposed to high levels of finish and completeness. Voulkos’ emphasis on the fertility of experimentation, improvisation, and the ambiguous relationship between intention and chance ignited a dialogue between ceramics and postwar aesthetics of spontaneity as practiced by affiliates of Black Mountain College, turning him into a leader of the West Coast craft movement of the postwar era and his studio into one of the most important pedagogical sites for the development of ceramic art. Looking at the earthy thicknesses and slashed membrane of Voulkos’ 1969 Ceramic Pot (Steel Pot)—its verticality and sculptural monumentality subverted by its humble stoneware form—one can see the beginnings and possibilities of a more open field of making coming into being and pulsating across the other pieces in the galleries. Thus, Crafting a Continuum works to map the resonance of Voulkos’s generation on contemporary craft, and to give voice to a radical spirit of technical and conceptual freedom that drives the field today.

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New York

Marte Eknæs and Sean Raspet: Calculus of Negligence at Room East

True catastrophes cannot be foreseen… True catastrophes are new information. They are, by definition, surprising adventures.—Vilém Flusser, Into the Universe of Technical Images, 1985

With the exception of a small community of daredevils, most people try to avoid disasters. There are, of course, various degrees of risk associated with everything we do that drive our precautions as well as the insurance industry. In general, the act of experiencing art has a very low physical risk factor; insurance companies do not cover the potential emotional or psychological risks of art viewing. In Calculus of Negligence at Room East, Sean Raspet negates the safety of art through a carefully constructed environment with an elevated level of potential risk, which Marte Eknæs then counteracts by implementing safety measures. The two artists’ collaboration creates a scenario that challenges the ways people—and insurance policies—respond to situations with unusual and unpredictable variables.

Marte Eknæs and Sean Raspet. Calculus of Negligence, 2015; installation view, Room East, New York. Image courtesy of Room East.

Marte Eknæs and Sean Raspet. Calculus of Negligence, 2015; installation view, Room East, New York. Courtesy of Room East.

There is not much to see in the upper and lower rooms and connecting stairwell that contain the exhibition. Or, rather, there is not much we are able to see. Calculus of Negligence features fourteen works by the two artists: eleven objects and three works that are, for all intents and purposes, imperceptible. The objects provided by Eknæs include a ventilation system connecting the two rooms, nylon-brush safety strips, anti-slip tape, and a motion-activated trashcan. Raspet’s contributions include four tanks of commercial-grade compressed air, exposed wires, and an insurance policy bought by the gallery specifically for the exhibition. Raspet transforms the space with the contents of the tanks, which contain Praxair ExtendaPak EX 49 (used to preserve fruits and vegetables in packaging and storage), MediPure Air USP (medical-grade breathable air), Zero Air (used for the standard calibration of testing equipment and Environmental Protection Agency compliance), and Oxygen-18 Isotope (a breathable air used for tracking cellular and body metabolism in medical diagnostics and scientific research). The tanks release their contents into the gallery at predetermined flow rates throughout the exhibition. Through his modification of the gallery’s air supply, Raspet calls attention to the many ways in which the chemical industry affects something as essential and banal as the air we breathe. Eknæs both emphasizes and negates Raspet’s intervention with her works Ventilation I and Ventilation II (both 2015), for which the gallery installed a ventilation shaft between the two rooms to disperse the gasses released by Raspet’s tanks. To further complicate the assumption of safety, or lack thereof, Eknæs installed Ventilation IV (2015), a ceiling-mounted ventilation screen that doesn’t connect to anything.

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Los Angeles

Peter Saul: Some Crazy Pictures at David Kordansky Gallery

In an interview earlier this year, Peter Saul confessed, “I have to admit I’ve been enjoying myself. But through a large part of my life I’ve been desperately trying to think of some good reason for all this, and I haven’t really thought of a good reason. So that’s that.” Saul’s work is the kind that begs critics to ask, “But why?” while simultaneously and stubbornly resisting a clear answer. The no-man’s land between explanation and pure entertainment has been the dwelling place of his paintings—and indeed, of the artist himself—for the past six decades. Notoriously a self-proclaimed outsider artist, Saul has managed to be both deeply influential to fellow artists and marginalized by most critics and curators, up until a decade ago. Recent interest in his work puts Saul’s entire career—and particularly his most recent work, currently on view at David Kordansky Gallery—in thought-provoking dialogue with the climate of contemporary art.

Peter Saul. Singing Sandwich, 2014; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 inches; Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

Peter Saul. Singing Sandwich, 2014; acrylic on canvas; 60 x 72 in. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen.

Saturated with absurd hybrid creatures, social and political satire, and references both timely and historical, Saul’s work has always been perplexing. As a result, critiques (when they have been leveraged at all) have been overwhelmed by the need to explain, decode, and find reasons why his works were made using iconography above all else. Certainly, the lampooning of art-historical subjects through the familiar icons of American culture and politics is a huge part of Saul’s work, but such analysis tends to ignore the artist’s idiosyncratic style and technique as clear evidence of the enjoyment he clearly derives from making work—an enjoyment as deviant as the uncouth subject matter he tackles.

Some Crazy Pictures is clear evidence of an unbridled enjoyment derived from the act of painting, showcasing the specificity of style and paint-handling that Saul has perfected over the years. The nine large-scale paintings in the exhibition hover uncannily between surrealist figuration and impressionistic abstraction. Figures and objects appear to flow into and out of one another, forming compositions that keep the eye in constant motion within the frame of the canvas—each one a closed visual system like a tangled, madcap Möbius strip. The interplay of forms, paint application, and bizarre subject matter seamlessly support and reinforce one another. Since the ’80s, Saul has played with fluid forms and cultivated effects alternating between sharp-edged lines and softly brushed areas of paint. These juxtaposed forms and styles create illusions of dimensionality and texture, heightening the effects of a caustic color palette and evoking a sense of images coming into and out of focus. Intensified by the paintings’ scale, the wacky subjects beg a closer look, yet become abstracted and impossible to apprehend as a totality when the viewer complies.

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#Hashtags: Liveness

#participation #politics #capital #religion #access #inclusion

At the center of All the World’s Futures—The 56th Venice Biennale is the ARENA. Designed by architect David Adjaye, it is meant to serve as a platform for “live art” throughout the exhibition’s run. The space is defined by a large, low platform, flanked by risers and backed with a projection screen. Above the stage, a mezzanine provides another vantage point. The whole space is bright red, with carpeting and colorful pillows in the seating areas. According to Okwui Enwezor, “Over the course of All the World’s Futures, artists, musicians, composers, actors, intellectuals, students, and members of the public have been invited to contribute to the program of readings and performances that will flood and suffuse surrounding galleries with voices in an epic display of orality.” He intends for the activities in the ARENA to spill over into the adjacent spaces of display. Enwezor suggests that “liveness and epic duration” expand the “spatial and temporal” boundaries of the exhibition beyond that which the exhibition can fully contain or describe, and that the ARENA serves as “a dramatization of the space of the exhibition as a continuous, unfolding, and unceasing live event.”[1] Such language casts contemporary art viewing as a marathon endurance challenge rather than the experience of leisure or aesthetics that many visitors to the Biennale may be expecting.


Isaac Julien. Das Kapital Oratorio, ARENA, Padiglione Centrale, Giardini. 56th International Art Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia, All the World’s Futures. Courtesy of la Biennale di Venezia. Photo: Andrea Avezzù.

Manifestations of “epic duration” include Isaac Julien’s ongoing Das Kapital Oratorio, a series of staged readings of Marx’s foundational text read for thirty minutes each, at intervals, over the course of the exhibition’s seven-month run. This work has already generated widespread indignation from critics, many of whom misrepresent the reading as happening continuously, and some of whom fault Julien for taking up Marxist questions while simultaneously collaborating with Rolls-Royce on another project appearing elsewhere at the Biennale.[2] Others lament the concept as simply boring. After all, everyone or no one has read Das Kapital (depending on who you ask), and anyway, isn’t a contemporary text like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century more relevant? Julien cites the Sikh practice of the Akhand Path, a ritual reading of a holy text, as precedent. Is Das Kapital the holy text of contemporary art? Its recurring influence in art criticism and production would support this interpretation. As for being boring, the work invokes another spiritual element borrowed from South Asia, the drone, which stands in for the sound of the mechanism of the universe, and lulls us into a subconscious state.

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Shotgun Reviews

Ling Sepúlveda: Un Ciclo de Lavado en Vivo at Biquini Wax

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. Today’s Shotgun Review is the fifth in a series of five written by the finalists for the Daily Serving/Kadist Art Foundation Writing Fellowship in Mexico City; author Dorothée Dupuis reviews the work of Ling Sepúlveda at Biquini Wax in Mexico City.

Ling Sepulveda. Un ciclo de lavado en vivo, 2015; Performance at Bikini Wax, Mexico City, May 16, 2015. Photo: Ramiro Chavez

Ling Sepulveda. Un Ciclo de Lavado en Vivo, 2015; performance at Biquini Wax, Mexico City, May 16, 2015. Photo: Ramiro Chavez.

Un Ciclo de Lavado en Vivo [A Live Wash Cycle] (2015) was a performance by Ling Sepúlveda on Saturday, May 16, 2015, at Biquini Wax in Mexico City. This laconic yet descriptive title created an anticipation for what was washed, why, and for whom. The sounds of the process were captured, distorted, and amplified by the artist, confirming the machine in action as a giant beast chewing and spitting, absorbed in its task, indifferent to the bewilderment of the audience. A hundred people, students and connoisseurs, were going up and down the stairs of the old house with clamors of surprise or disgust as inexplicably black water was expelled from the machine during spinning, splashing their clothes and sneakers and entering the other rooms of the house, where it damaged the belongings of both the artist and the Biquini Wax team.

The day of the performance, the artist washed a few pounds of earth as well as a one-peso coin. Sepúlveda is from Sinaloa, and he talks about the difficulty of making a living from a land that is “neglected,” descuidada—and nothing can render the audible violence of the term, the prefix “des” removing all hope from the next slamming syllables, like a care given and then removed. Sepúlveda also invokes the paradoxical infrastructure that has become narco-traffic, through its distorted but effective patriarchal solidarity. He then suggests the performance as an attempt to wash the “weight” (peso) constitutive of Mexican identity, a stereotype made of combined assumptions of cheapness and hard labor.

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San Francisco

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance

Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you a review of What Matters to Us?, performed in San Francisco on May 16, 2015. Of her participation in the event, author Vanessa Kauffman notes, “The act of protest alone had absolved us of nothing. What matters to us is still out there, waiting.” This article was originally published on June 11, 2015

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance, Saturday, May 16, 2015, San Francisco. Photo: Emily Holmes.

What Matters to Us?: A Reenactment of Anna Halprin’s Blank Placard Dance, Saturday, May 16, 2015, San Francisco. Photo: Emily Holmes.

Emerging one by one from the doors of San Francisco’s Mission Cultural Center, thirty-six white-shirted performers nimbly and stoically perched between parking meters, ready for the opening beats of the performance that was about to unfold. Standing shoulder to shoulder in one long row, they silently gazed out onto the street’s two-way flux of traffic. The expressions on their faces mirrored the signs they held above their heads: Both were blank.

What Matters to Us? (May 16, 2015) was the inaugural event of Dances for Anna: A Worldwide Celebration of Anna Halprin’s 95th Year, a series of performances taking place over the next three months across sixteen countries. Organized by the Tamalpa Institute (the dance and expressive arts therapy nonprofit cofounded by Halprin and her daughter Daria), and directed by Associate Director Rosario Sammartino, Dances for Anna is a tribute to a choreographer whose work and teachings have rigorously challenged traditional definitions of dance, informing and influencing many threads of experimental movement since the late 1930s.

Read the full article here.


Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Lorella Paleni

Lorella Paleni is always creating something that exists just over the horizon of awareness. Her works comprise a series of visual heuristics to nowhere, showing the viewer a picture plan filled with rich colors that simultaneously push into and out of each painting. But instead of resolving compositional elements into a defined image, the elements of her style culminate in a delicately constructed form of not knowing.

Lorella Paleni. In Reverse, 2014; acrylic and oil on canvas; 42 x 48 inches. Courtesy of private collector.

Lorella Paleni. In Reverse, 2014; acrylic and oil on canvas; 42 x 48 in. Courtesy of private collector.

Paleni’s works define the space where language eludes us—the moments where words fail and ideas aren’t quite graspable. Like slippery memories, these points in time are simultaneously otherworldly and very common. The experience Lorella Paleni cultivates through her paintings is one that is always just outside of certainty. Many of the works have a tremendous visual energy, such as Raw (2015): Two faceless figures wrestle, intertwined in an impossibly tight and intimate knot. Set atop a shallow pool of reflective water, the bodies vacillate between abstraction and hyperrealism as details like fingernails, toes, and the contour of a perfectly formed calf muscle emerge from the mess of limbs.

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