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Kara Walker’s massive sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn, titled At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected: A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant has been recognized mostly for Walker’s hotly debated use of African American stereotypes, and for some hurtful behavior by visitors to the exhibition who Instagrammed obscene reactions to the sexually explicit central figure (no link, Google if you must). Some of this is inevitable. Walker’s work, marked by an oppositional aesthetics and meant to impart a strong reaction, reflects and manifests harsh realities present in the larger world. The experience of her work is raw, and some viewers experience her appropriation of racially exploitative imagery as re-traumatization irrespective of its critical intent. Such an emotional response is certainly valid; however, it is scarcely the main criteria by which the work’s artistic merit should be judged. The disrespectful behavior of some audience members is also an indication that the social codes of nudity versus nakedness of women’s bodies remain more or less intact, over 150 years after Manet’s Olympia brought them center stage. Further complicating responses to the work is the reality of contemporary art and museum attendance (and leadership), which is overwhelmingly white; as well as sponsorship of the installation by Domino Sugar, still linked to profit through the exploitation of black labor; and by the high-rise developer that now owns the site, and whose plans are under challenge from local organizers. As such, Walker’s sphinx represents an anti-slavery political statement that is itself shackled, reliant on entities that actively perpetuate the very exploitation and effacement that her narrative is intended to combat.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014. Site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Kara Walker. A Subtlety, 2014; site-specific installation at Domino Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, NY. Commissioned by Creative Time. Photo by Rajath Vikram.

Walker’s sphinx is in dialogue with Olympia much as she is with the Great Sphinx of Giza and with the myriad (usually female) sphinxes that appear in Symbolist painting. As she demonstrated with After the Deluge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006, Walker is a student of art history. Her decision to dress the otherwise unclothed central figure in a “Mammy” headwrap relegates the sphinx to nakedness, a woman in a state of partial and thereby knowing undress who has historically been viewed as sinful, while her un-self-conscious, still visually available nude counterpart has been viewed as innocent. Whiteness and blackness are very much a part of this history, best illustrated with respect to the Odalisque tradition in art, which Manet both references and modernizes. Read More »

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Shotgun Reviews

Ranjani Shettar: Night Skies and Daydreams at Talwar Gallery

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, Bansie Vasvani reviews Ranjani Shettar: Night Skies and Daydreams at Talwar Gallery in New York City.

Ranjani Shettar. Tuntoroo, 2014; Hand‐molded wax beads, cotton thread, wooden beads and pigments; 131 x 188 x 135 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi.

Ranjani Shettar. Tuntoroo, 2014; hand‐molded wax beads, cotton thread, wooden beads, and pigments; 131 x 188 x 135 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Talwar Gallery, New York and New Delhi.

 

Indian sculptor Ranjani Shettar’s seventh solo exhibition Night Skies and Daydreams at Talwar Gallery, New York, showcases the artist’s enchanting ability to use organic materials to create new, distinctive evocations of nature. For Shettar, handcrafting and the use of natural materials are endemic to her practice. Inspired by a childhood spent in small Indian towns observing rural artisans’ sensitivity to craftsmanship, materials, color, and texture, Shettar’s choice of nature as a source from which nontraditional shapes and elements are drawn upon is a natural one.

Made of coffee-tree wood, Flight of the Butterfly (2014) is an entanglement of branches painted a bright guppy-green. Though an unexpected combination, the simple organic material and jarring artificial automobile paint enhance the piece’s allure. Thickened like elbows at the corners, the branches twist and turn freely, taking flight in different directions. Perfectly poised to recall nature’s exquisiteness, Flight of the Butterfly lives where balance emerges from random and asymmetrical formations.

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San Francisco

Precarity as Profession

From our partners at Art Practical, today we bring you Lane Relyea‘s commissioned response to Stephanie Syjuco’s “Participation ≠ Compensation” workshop at the Valuing Labor in the Arts practicum at the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley. Relyea notes, “[...] art venues will often claim to treat artists as professionals by rewarding their research with exposure more than cash. But who then pays the bills?” This article was originally published on May 22, 2014.

Participation ≠ Compensation workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joseph del Pesco

Participation ≠ Compensation workshop, Valuing Laboring in the Arts practicum, April 19, 2014, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the Arts Research Center, UC Berkeley. Photo: Joseph del Pesco.

In my role as respondent to the day-long events comprising “Valuing Labor in the Arts,” I had the good fortune to be asked to attend Stephanie Syjuco’s morning workshop titled “Participation ≠ Compensation.” In her introductory remarks, Stephanie briefly described to us some of her recent art projects, including a 2009 commission for PS1 in which she re-created a late-’60s draped felt piece by Robert Morris—only Stephanie chose to work not with felt but a large, custom-made industrial moving blanket. Prior to the piece’s exhibition, the museum’s shipping staff was instructed to actually use her faux-Morris blanket to wrap artworks for safe transport. Stephanie wondered aloud whether in the end she should have credited PS1’s professional movers as coauthors, as being every bit an artist in relation to the work as Syjuco herself. Later, I told Stephanie I thought that would’ve been cruel to the movers. Why? “I imagine they’re unionized,” I said, “with pensions and benefits. What a major step down to give all that up to become artists.”

What, if any, difference exists between the creative effort devoted to making art and other kinds of work—like, say, shipping art? One argument is that, unlike art making, wage labor is undertaken not for its own sake but for a paycheck; it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself. That might sound abstract and academic, but the idea has long exerted real-world effects. “A fine artist has no use for use, no meaning for meaning, no need for any need,” declared staunch socialist Ad Reinhardt in 1964.1 During the various “Valuing Labor” workshops I attended, I noticed museum visitors staring at us, obviously wondering what we were doing and why we were doing it in an exhibition space. Maybe they thought we were the art. If only they knew what we were actually discussing: labor disputes, inadequate working conditions, nonpayment for services, contract battles, crass economic exploitation. But then it struck me: Even knowing exactly what we were saying, maybe they’d still see it all as art, and thus as being somehow divorced from material concerns. And if so, would they be wrong?

Read the full article here.

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Perth

Marian Drew: Centrepiece at Turner Galleries

One of my favorite pieces in the National Gallery of Victoria is Édouard Manet’s 1880 work The Melon. At around 13 x 17 inches, it’s a modest study of a rather warty specimen, but I’m always tickled by the addition of an ornate gold frame far too large for the humble painting. It’s this incongruity that always draws me back to the gallery whenever I happen to be in Melbourne.

Marian Drew, 'Swamp hen with candle' 2005, giclee print on hahnemuhle cotton paper

Marian Drew. Swamp Hen with Candle, 2005; giclée print on Hahnemuhle cotton paper. Image courtesy of the Artist.

An analogous experience can be found in Marian Drew’s most recent body of work, Centrepiece, which premiered at Turner Galleries in June. This new series of photographs operates in counterpoint to her mournful still lives of recent years, which feature native Australian animals killed by motor vehicles, poisoned waterways, and other human catalysts, all displayed with the gravitas of Dutch still lives. Unlike this past work, Centrepiece focuses on more incongruous subject matter: watermelons, pineapples, quinces, and cactus flowers in precarious tabletop arrangements. These juxtapositions are enlivened by an awkward tension, like mismatched dinner guests.

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New York

The St. Petersburg Paradox at Swiss Institute

The St. Petersburg Paradox, currently on view at Swiss Institute, is a group show of refreshing intellectual rigor. The exhibition’s curatorial design is so tightly wound that it forms a kind of singular entity in which each featured artwork compels the viewer to consider the philosophy of its larger scheme: namely, the metaphysics of gambling. The title refers to a paradox of human psychology: When people are presented with a theoretical lottery game that has no risk and infinite payoff, and are asked how much they would be willing to pay to play, they will set an illogically small sum as their maximum—say, $25, when a simple coin toss stands to double this sum again and again.

The St. Petersburg Paradox, installation view, Swiss Institute. (from left to right) Sarah Ortmeyer. SANKT PETERSBURG PARADOX, 2014: marble chessboards, copper, iron, brass and aluminum chess tables, natural (ostrich, rhea, goose, chicken, mallard, quail, emu, and duck) eggs, artificial (marble obsidian, alabaster, and onyx) eggs; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv. Tabor Robak. A*, 2014; 14-channel HD video; 9:46 min. Courtesy of the artist and team (gallery, inc.). John Miller. Labyrinth I, 1999; acrylic on canvas with sound component; 54 x 70 in. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Kaspar Müller. Tropic of Cancer, 2014; laser prints on A3 paper; each 12 x 15 ½ in. Courtesy Galerie Francesca Pia, Zürich, The Green Gallery, Milwaukee, and Federico Vavassori, Milan. Cayetano Ferrer. Remnant Recomposition, 2014; carpet remnants, seam tape; 18 x 60 ft. Courtesy of the artist.

The St. Petersburg Paradox, installation view, Swiss Institute. (from left to right) Sarah Ortmeyer. SANKT PETERSBURG PARADOX, 2014; marble chessboards, copper, iron, brass, and aluminum chess tables, natural ostrich, rhea, goose, chicken, mallard, quail, emu, and duck eggs, artificial marble obsidian, alabaster, and onyx eggs; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Dvir Gallery, Tel Aviv. Tabor Robak. A*, 2014; 14-channel HD video; 9:46. Courtesy of the Artist and team (gallery, inc.). John Miller. Labyrinth I, 1999; acrylic on canvas with sound component; 54 x 70 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Metro Pictures, New York. Kaspar Müller. Tropic of Cancer, 2014; laser prints on A3 paper; each 12 x 15 ½ in. Courtesy Galerie Francesca Pia, Zürich, The Green Gallery, Milwaukee, and Federico Vavassori, Milan. Cayetano Ferrer. Remnant Recomposition, 2014; carpet remnants, seam tape; 18 x 60 ft. Courtesy of the Artist.

The St. Petersburg Paradox courts the aesthetic of the crapshoot table. The main gallery floor is divided into two sections by a half wall painted the dark forest green of a billiards table. Behind the wall, blocked off like the VIP section of a gambling hall, is a platform area upholstered with Cayetano Ferrer’s Remnant Recomposition, a patchwork of casino-floor carpet samples whose clashing patterns abrasively hum. One almost hallucinates the stale cigar smoke of the parlor, the flash of card sharks’ green visors. Also on the main floor, Sarah Ortmeyer’s elegant installation SANKT PETERSBURG PARADOX creates a delicate maze of upended marble chessboards and tables, upon which onyx, obsidian, alabaster, and actual bird eggs precariously rest. The work impresses upon viewers the fragility of chance.

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New Orleans

Mixed Messages.4 at Antenna Gallery

Just over forty-seven years ago this month, it was illegal for interracial couples to marry in sixteen states throughout the United States. Richard and Mildred Loving, the serendipitously named couple, were married in 1958 and then promptly arrested under anti-miscegenation laws. The legacy of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark decision of the Supreme Court to strike down race-based restrictions on marriage, reverberates clearly on the anniversary of the landmark decision. And Antenna Gallery pays homage to it with Mixed Messages.4, the fourth iteration in this exhibition series that addresses race, racism, and the multiracial experience.

Jerald White, the organizer of the exhibit, began Mixed Messages as a response to a 2009 incident in which a Louisiana Justice of the Peace, Keith Bardwell, refused to officiate the civil wedding of Beth Humphrey and Terence McKay, an interracial couple. White points out that “the only rights we have are the ones we are willing to fight for,”[1] and indeed this exhibition comes out fighting from the start.

James Edward Bates, Passing the Torch, Documenting the Klu Klux Klan, 2013; Photograph; 12" X 18". Courtesy of Antenna Gallery and the Artist. Photo: Jerald White.

James Edward Bates. Passing the Torch, Documenting the Klu Klux Klan, 2013; photograph; 12 x 18 in. Courtesy of Antenna Gallery and the Artist. Photo: Jerald White.

The emotional inflections of the works vary widely, from hilarity to solemn observance. James Edward Bates’ photographic essay Passing the Torch, Documenting the 21st Century Ku Klux Klan (2013) is the first work visitors see upon entering the show. The contemporary images of the Klan are startling to say the least: a man exiting a bus in sunglasses as the bus driver glances sideways at him; a child swinging a flaming torch amid other Klan members. The photos seem like imagery from the past, yet the Klan is still active. Bates spent over a decade recording the activities of the KKK, gaining a level of trust and documenting private moments. Bates’ photographs alert the audience that the audacious racism that condemned the Lovings still lives.

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Sydney

Home and Away: Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

The word “home” has elusive, slippery connotations. In Chinese, the character “jia” (家) also means “family.” It suggests notions of sanctuary, shelter, belonging. But for some the meanings are more complicated. For the marginalized, the outsiders, the lost ones in our midst, it reminds them of all that is missing. For others, in a world crisscrossed by a diaspora of dislocated people seeking safety and security, “home” is a fragile memory.

Chien-chi Chang, Chinatown Diptych (Jiang J. Family, #26, Fuzhou, China, 2004 Jiang J. Family, #26, New York City, 2008 Mr. Jiang arrived in New York in 1992 and hasn't seen his wife, who is still in Fuzhou, for 17 years.) 1992 - 2011, digital film stills B/W and colour, sound, duration 19 - 23 minutes, images courtesy the artist, Chi-Wen Gallery and Magnum Photos

Chien-chi Chang. Stills from Chinatown Diptych, 1992-2011; digital film, b/w and color, sound; 19 to 23 mins. Images courtesy of the Artist, Chi-Wen Gallery, and Magnum Photos.

HOME is an exhibition of works by two Taiwanese artists, Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen, that explores this complex and nuanced territory. Entering Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, you encounter a darkened and almost silent space filled with minimalist wheeled “wagons,” cabin-like boxes made of recycled timbers from construction sites. The very materials are redolent of memory, the passage of time, the transformation of one kind of world to another. They are beautiful objects, and in their resemblance to caravans, they evoke journeying. Inside each is a video or audio work by Chen Chieh-jen. Four filmic works focus on the Losheng Sanitorium in Taipei, a decommissioned leprosy hospital built during the period of Japanese rule and controversially slated for demolition. In 2007, thousands of people demonstrated against the forced removal of the last forty-five patients, who had spent their entire lives at Losheng and for whom it was “home.” Chen is interested in bodily memories and elusive states of mind. He documents histories—and people—that would otherwise go unremarked.

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