Interviews

Interview with Ian McMahon

Artist Ian McMahon is a material purist who makes monumental sculptures from raw clay and industrial plaster. The resulting works are contradictory in impression—domineering but fragile, familiar while avoiding redundancy. In his most recent exhibitions he has introduced an element of controversy for anyone who has ever engaged with the tedium of delicate materials—the work is made to be broken.

Cascade, 2014; Freestanding cast plaster, used pallets; 40’ x 6’ x 21’ (each side).

Ian McMahon. Cascade, 2014; freestanding cast plaster, used pallets; 40 x 6 x 21 ft. (each side).

Ashley Stull Meyers: Let’s talk about the scale of your work. How long have you been making monumental sculpture? Does that impulse predate your current circumstances or was it born from it?

Ian McMahon: I’ve been making large work since I was a student. For a while, all the work I made was very specifically dictated by the amount of studio space I had. I was frustrated by that and the fact that there is already such regimented labor in making ceramics. I was getting results that were really boring, and if there’s no potency, there’s no conversation.

I started spending a lot of time rethinking all the projects I hadn’t made for various reasons—like scale or uncertainty about the materials. I chose to tackle the strange idea of how to suspend raw, unfired clay. At first I wasn’t sure how to build an armature that would support that much weight or ambiguous form. I had a real ah-ha! moment once I got the hang of the mold. The result was an outcome I couldn’t have predicted, and it resonated to me and fortified my drive to build installations. Shortly after graduation, a group of collaborators and I were offered a site-specific opportunity in Portland where I ended up with Arena.

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Shotgun Reviews

Sanaz Mazinani: Threshold at the Asian Art Museum

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Nancy Garcia reviews Sanaz Mazinani: Threshold at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Currently on view at the Asian Art Museum is Threshold, a new work by the Iran-born, San Francisco-based artist Sanaz Mazinani. The installation is an impressive development for the artist, and engages both the museum’s architecture and the visitor’s experience.

Mazinani, whose work is rooted in conceptual photography, has created a mesmerizing video by splicing together sequences of helicopters and explosions from Hollywood action films. The resulting work pulses with the movement of kaleidoscopic patterns that draw on Islamic ornamentation; these patterns are also evident in the laser-cut mirrored panels along the gallery walls. In the center is a large, mirrored sculpture that reflects the viewer and further fragments the images. Completing the immersive experience is a six-channel sound installation that responds to movement. Threshold’s repeated visual and sonic fragmentation is seductive and intense.

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San Francisco

Diedrick Brackens: This Is Real Life at Johansson Projects

Today from our partners at Art Practical, we bring you a review of This Is Real Life, artist Diedrick Brackens’ current solo show at Johansson Projects in Oakland. Author Anton Stuebner notes, “By invoking […] histories and their associations, Brackens acknowledges that seemingly innocuous devices can produce real and violent effects.” This article was originally published on March 31, 2015.

Diedrick Brackens. 10-79, 2015; hand-woven fabric, nylon, chenille, hand-dyed cotton, bleach; 66 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

Diedrick Brackens. 10-79, 2015; handwoven fabric, nylon, chenille, hand-dyed cotton, bleach; 66 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Johansson Projects, Oakland.

Diedrick Brackens’ show at Johansson Projects, This Is Real Life, opens arrestingly: with two woven wall hangings resembling elongated Band-Aids, their frayed white “gauze” “stained” with rainbow-hued “blood.” Initially, Blat (2015) and Blatent (2015) seem almost playful, as their exaggerated scale (nearly three feet long) and materials (tea-dyed cotton, acrylic, nylon) make apparent their obvious artificiality. No one would mistake this for trompe l’oeil. But the artist makes clear in the accompanying text that they are far from cheerful exaggerations, and indeed deliberate references to wounded bodies. But whose bodies? Are they queer bodies, as the rainbow-colored blood may suggest? Or bodies that have been queered through violence—made strange and unfamiliar by larger cultures and systems of oppression?

Consisting largely of textile-based works, This Is Real Life traces both the presence and the absence of bodies. The brightly colored pieces may seem, on the surface, to bear little resemblance to familiar human forms. Traces of the body, however, are everywhere. By utilizing a medium known for the intense manual work it requires, Brackens fills his weavings with indexical markers of his own hand. He takes it a step further by actually describing the works as “portraits,” eliding familiar limits between abstraction and figuration, and subverting conventional understandings of how individuals are represented. And in doing so, he deliberately raises troubling questions about how bodies are made absent, specifically through violence. What happens when the subject of portraiture has been violently erased? How to represent a person of whom all that is left are traces?

Read the full article here.

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Berlin

Awst & Walther: Ground Control, An Interdisciplinary Forum at PSM Gallery

In the dark at PSM Gallery in Berlin, a digital animation is silently breathing. It appears as an inverted landscape split in equal parts by land and sky. A field recedes into the horizon, with a mass of permafrost above and mostly clear blue atmosphere below. Green shrubs flop and slide loosely on the screen, wriggling and dismorphic, moving as they would in an acid trip, but with a mechanized steadiness.

Awst & Walther. Ground Control: An interdisciplinary forum, 2015 (still); digital animation; infinite loop. Courtesy of the Artists and PSM Gallery, Berlin. Photo: André Wunstorf.

Awst & Walther. Ground Control: An Interdisciplinary Forum, 2015 (still); digital animation; infinite loop. Courtesy of the Artists and PSM Gallery, Berlin. Photo: André Wunstorf.

At the opening, there is a chunky, triangular metal table to the right of the screen, where artists Awst & Walther sit and talk about their show, Ground Control, An Interdisciplinary Forum. Curator Ine Gevers begins with a brief presentation on the artists’ attempt to restabilize a relationship to nature that is grossly out of proportion, with humans set apart from the environment—either at a critical distance from it, or arrogantly perceived to be at the center of it.

Gevers describes what Awst & Walther are doing as “shaking loose these notions,” by questioning the romanticization of the landscape. She asks, “Are we the only ones who can define nature, or can they have a role in it is as well?” “They” in this case is the bacteria she refers to throughout her talk, as well as the Earth’s plants, animals, doors, technologies, and minerals. She mentions Timothy Morton and the notion of forgetting “nature” in favor of radical ecology; when we take nature as a known, we show our ecological illiteracy. Gevers declares that it would be in our best interest to no longer make a distinction between the environment and the social.

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Street View / Road to Mecha by Jonathan Zawada, and Drone directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

O bitter is the knowledge that one draws from the voyage!
The monotonous and tiny world, today,
Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our reflections,
An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!

—Charles Baudelaire, Le Voyage (1861)[1]

Despite the seemingly endless portrayal in the media of increased violence around the world, statistical analysis suggests that, as a species, humans have become less violent.[2] I wonder, however, if, instead of moving toward more peaceful tendencies, we have just gotten better at killing. The advancements in military weaponry in the past century cannot be overstated; several of the world’s superpowers, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, are leaving behind conventional ground forces in favor of robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones.[3] Since the 2001 Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States, the US government has used drones to find and kill militants linked to the terrorist group, primarily in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, though the success of these missions remains inconclusive.

Jonathan Zawada, Street View / Road to Mecha, 2013; screen shot, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Amelia Rina

Jonathan Zawada, Street View / Road to Mecha, 2013; screen shot, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Amelia Rina

The US government asserts that drones allow for unprecedented sophistication and accuracy: “It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an Al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.”[4] Drone, the recent documentary directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, presents a powerful contradiction to the US government’s support of drone warfare. Through interviews with former military and government officials, Pakistani citizens, as well as human-rights activists, journalists, and writers, the film illuminates the devastation occurring abroad.

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New Orleans

Radcliffe Bailey at Contemporary Art Center New Orleans

Radcliffe Bailey’s current exhibition at Contemporary Art Center New Orleans rewards multiple visits. Comprising seven large-scale works by the Atlanta-based artist, the exhibition gathers an intensely personal constellation of imagery that has continued to distinguish Bailey as a contemporary artist of significant aesthetic and critical power. Bailey’s emphasis on the rich symbolic context of the liminal, or the in-between, provides support for his expansive definition of American culture and its unique admixture of European, African, Central American, and Caribbean visual and cultural traditions. In his radically open formal vocabulary, signifiers playfully subvert the gaps that separate Anglo-European visual codes from earlier representational traditions of West and Central Africa, and point to Bailey’s unique response to forms of détournement associated with conceptual art of the 1950s and ’60s. The crocodile in On Your Way Up (2013) registers as both crucifix and curio, a metaphor for the Nile or ancient Nigerian water god, a political response to animal rights or a post-Duchampian absurdity retooled for a Southern audience. Darkness is almost always accompanied by hints of optimism and hopeful belief, yet what resonates throughout the exhibition is Bailey’s mastery of ambiguity within his pictures, his skill in representing the fluctuating space where water meets land, heaven meets earth, gesture meets text, figuration meets formalism, and art becomes music.

Radcliffe Bailey. On Your Way Up. 2013. Tarp, crocodile, and steel. 120 x 106 x 10 inches. Image: Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans.

Radcliffe Bailey. On Your Way Up, 2013; tarp, crocodile, and steel; 120 x 106 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans.

Bailey grounds his practice in a playfully subversive and anachronistic field of visual and art histories and traditions, and finds freedom in the deconstruction of a vocabulary of signs and images culled from early African art and the turbulent history of the Black Atlantic experience. This is most robustly felt in works where textual fragments, graffiti, and African ideograms feature prominently within the pictorial field and intersect with objects that embody the physical and psychological rupture of the Middle Passage and the colonization of Africa. The gargantuan mixed-media work Black Night Falling (2014) is the most complex of these in its presentation of the representational, gestural, and performative features of markmaking associated with so-called “primitive” art; African cosmograms such as the dikenga (a spiritual map of cross and circle used by tribes from the kingdom of Kongo to mark the space between the mystical and earthly realms and channel communication between mystical forces and religious practitioners) and Haitian vévé drawings of gods and the heavens interrupt the indexical marks left by Bailey’s shoes and bare feet, turning the canvas into an empty stage of leftover symbols and movements co-choreographed by artist and history. Meanwhile, cutouts of circles puncture the rough textures undulating across the deep black of the picture space, desperately hinting at the sun that cannot shine over the seas where so many lives were cruelly lost. It is Bailey’s unique, dialectical expression of black experience as something collectively felt, infinitely diverse, and personally political that invests his creations with a powerfully unresolved symbolic space where the historical consciousness of trauma and the potentiality of healing are allowed to confront and embrace one another.[1]

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San Francisco

Trevor Paglen at Altman Siegel Gallery

From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you a review of Trevor Paglen’s current exhibition at Altman Siegel Gallery in San Francisco. Author John Zarobell writes, “[The work] represents both a bit of art-historical posturing and an active response to government surveillance that allows viewers to imagine an alternative to our current condition. Perhaps a gallery is as good a place as any to begin planning the revolution.” This article was originally published on April 2, 2015.

Trevor Paglen. Circles, 2015 (video still); video; 12:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.

Trevor Paglen. Circles, 2015 (video still); video; 12:00. Courtesy of the Artist and Altman Siegel, San Francisco.

Trevor Paglen’s career has taken off like a spy satellite. He has become a key political artist of our time, despite the fact that his larger project is to represent something quite difficult to depict visually—namely, government secrecy. His work draws our attention to (if it does not always actually reveal) the network of sites, operations, and practices on which our government spends our tax dollars in the name of protecting us. The arrival of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden in the popular consciousness, and all of the related revelations that subsequently emerged, have only made Paglen’s work seem more prescient and relevant. His fascinations are now our fascinations. And so Paglen, whose contributions to the 2014 Snowden documentary Citizenfour recently won him the right to share an Oscar, finds himself a standard-bearer for committed political art.

Paglen is interested in the landscape and the things our government likes to hide there. As artworks, his photographs and videos are usually without incident and gesture toward conceptual aesthetics—aren’t we all Duchampians now? In his latest show at Altman Siegel Gallery, Autonomy Cube (2014), a computer server encased in a Plexiglas cube, is poised on a pedestal in the middle of the gallery. The piece toys formally with Marcel Duchamp’s famous Fountain (1917) and the minimalist cubes of Robert Morris and so many others. Like many previous works by Paglen, for instance his pictures of secret government sites that can barely be perceived because they are so incredibly distant, or of satellites so tiny and far away that all we apprehend is the beautiful night sky, Autonomy Cube manifests the gap between the desire to expose something sinister and the desire to produce something visually cool and oblique. The distance between the work and its meaning is odd, even uncomfortable. That is the point.

Read the full article here.

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