#Hashtags: Political Abstraction – The Revolution is Us

In a 2012 essay for e-flux, After OWS: Social Practice Art, Abstraction, and the Limits of the Social, Gregory Sholette asks whether there can be a role for abstraction within the flourishing new discipline of socially engaged post-conceptual art practice. This remains a valid question given that most activist art is still understood to be representational, based on precedents from the Civil Rights era such as the Black Arts Movement and Mission Gráfica, which themselves draw on Social Realism as well as various folk-art traditions. Still, possibilities do exist for abstract and dematerialized forms as political art. Rather than cite the obvious, I will instead make a case for abstraction as ubiquitous within contemporary art, maintaining its capacity for political engagement and transformation, even as its manifestations (as Sholette admits) have been all too readily reabsorbed into the halls of power.


Sturtevant. Warhol Flowers, 1964–65; synthetic polymer screenprint on canvas; 22 1/16 × 22 1/16 in. (56 × 56 cm). Estate Sturtevant, Paris. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris–Salzburg. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris.

In considering the politics of abstraction, it bears noting that imagery has been decoupled from representation in contemporary art since the 1960s. Pop Art’s rampant appropriation, reiterated in the ’80s by the Pictures Generation, confirmed the status of images as simulations of depiction, as far removed from the things they show as a painting is from a Campbell’s Soup can. Therefore we should not simply think of abstraction as the absence of recognizable imagery à la Ad Reinhardt or Jackson Pollock, but instead consider how representation can itself be made abstract. The work of Elaine Sturtevant is exemplary in this regard.

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Shotgun Reviews

Daniel Dallabrida: Building the Noble Ruin at the Anderson Art Ranch

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, Kristin Carlson reviews Building the Noble Ruin at the Patton-Malott and Gideon Gartner Galleries of Anderson Art Ranch in Snowmass Village, Colorado. 

Daniel Dallabrida. Upon Reflection (Life) Fraternitas Misericordia in pace prima del diluvio / At Peace Before the Deluge, 1964–2015; Edition of 15. 100 x 132 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Anderson Art Ranch.

Daniel Dallabrida. Upon Reflection (Life) Fraternitas Misericordia in Pace Prima del Diluvio/At Peace Before the Deluge, 1964–2015; 100 x 132 in.; edition of 15. Courtesy of the Artist and Anderson Art Ranch.

Excavated from iconic gay culture and artist Daniel Dallabrida’s own personal history, Building the Noble Ruin at Anderson Ranch represents over five decades of history compiled from two distinct series: Upon Reflection and Ruins. While Upon Reflection commemorates a time when AIDS had not yet surfaced, Ruins honors the nobility that can arise from such a tragedy. The joint body of work projects a vision of the past into the future—and vice versa. Perhaps more importantly, it invites viewers to consider the feelings, ideas, and attitudes that we, as observers, may project onto our viewing experience.

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San Francisco

(Im)materiel at Headlands Center for the Arts and The Marvelous Real at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts

Today from our partner site Art Practical, we bring you Lea Feinstein’s review of two related shows now on view in the Bay Area. She remarks, “While many artists are mounting the barricades, engaging in social protest, the artists in these two exhibitions quietly comment on the ironic nature of human life on earth. Their endeavors memorably evoke worlds we cannot see and, in the process, make strong emotional connections with the viewer.” This article was originally published on February 17, 2015.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Desdoblada, 2014. Mixed-media narrative collage. Courtesy the Artist and Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Desdoblada, 2014; mixed-media narrative collage. Courtesy of the Artist and Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts.

Excellent shows with remarkably similar themes, (Im)materiel at Headlands Center for the Arts and Lo Real Maravilloso/The Marvelous Real at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts each feature art that alludes to the duality between the physical and spiritual worlds and points to what cannot be seen. Seen in tandem, they echo and enrich each other, deepening a viewer’s appreciation for the ways art excels at making the invisible visible.

“I have always been struck by the power of that which is not present, that which has disappeared or is absent,” writes Marshall Elliott, one of eighteen artists featured in the Headlands exhibition, curated by Kevin B. Chen. “Whether activating a missing part of a story, resurrecting a forgotten history, or simply suggesting a new way to look at the world through inversion or removal, I probe into murky spaces that don’t have clear visual analogies,” he writes. Elliott’s sculpture Ghost Bike (2013), a riderless bicycle that has been painted white, turns endlessly in a tight circle around a mechanical pivot. In Dust to Dust to Dust (2015), the sculptor has overturned three chairs and drawn their lengthening shadows on the floor with sawdust ground from the furniture’s sides and legs. A visually analogous sculpture appears in the Mission Cultural Center exhibition. Curated by Sanaz Mazinani, the exhibition includes work by husband-and-wife collaborators Jeremiah Barber and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, an artist and writer, respectively. Barber’s Bring to Mind (2014) features an upended wooden chair that has been painted gloss yellow. Balanced on a point, it is rigged with twine to a head formed from the same twine, which unravels on a wall nearby. With anthropomorphically named component parts (arms, legs, backs, and seats), the chair becomes an inevitable stand-in for the human form.

Read the full article here.


From the Archives

From the Archives – Fan Mail: Darren Jones

In this week’s Fan Mail, we take another look at the work of Darren Jones, a multidisciplinary artist in New York City. Jones’ work takes shape across numerous forms and topics, but it is frequently critical in ways that the contemporary media is often unable to be. In assessments of the hyper-sexual and excessive culture of Fire Island Pines—a historic mecca for gay men—and the overt and aggressive presence of advertising and brand marketing, Jones’ work reminds us of the importance of art as a tool for pointed yet humorous critique. This article was originally published on October 24, 2013.

Darren Jones. Deeper Understanding, 2008; Broken computer, additional and rearranged keyboard keys; 11 x 17 x 11 in. Courtesy the artist.

Darren Jones. Deeper Understanding, 2008; broken computer, additional and rearranged keyboard keys; 11 x 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Darren Jones works across a wide range of forms and subjects, often displaying an adroit sense of humor in his installations, sculptures, digital images, and text-based artworks. However, Jones’ work is not only a series of well-pitched interventions and rearrangements; there is a poetic and delicate seriousness that complicates much of what he makes.

Deeper Understanding (2008) turns his old broken laptop, stuck in the process of starting up, into a readymade sculpture. The keyboard of the haggard PC computer has been altered to read, “I know that you are feeling tired,” as though Jones is trying to communicate his appreciation for the now-broken computer’s lost memory and functionality. This ode to a personal computer, lost and gone, gives levity to an experience that can be quite trying and that many people have gone through at least once.

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Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility at Waterside Contemporary

Hope is a powerful catalyst for change, fueling courage and idealism in equal parts. It projects a vision of a future that is better than the present. Once people are moved with hope, extraordinary things can happen. But what happens to hope when a people are continuously subjugated for over six centuries? If Kiev-based artist Nikita Kadan’s quietly intense installation at Waterside Contemporary is an answer, what remains is a stark and isolated arrangement in which the possibility of joy has been bled out generations ago—and this is a good thing. Limits of Responsibility is a blueprint for a future that is very aware of the limits to what is idealistically possible.

Nikita Kadan. Protection of Plants, 2014; collage; 39.5 x 54.5 cm (15.5 x 21.46 in). Courtesy of the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London. NFC.

Nikita Kadan. Protection of Plants, 2014; collage; 15 1/2 x 21 1/2 in. (39.5 x 54.5 cm). Courtesy the Artist and Waterside Contemporary, London.

The show is divided into three bodies of work that thematically intersect. Pulling from centuries of peasant farming traditions, Kadan ties the show together with the vegetable, using it as a symbolic motif of healing. This is most evident in a series of framed collages, Protection of Plants (2014), that are the strongest pieces in the show. Each piece consists of a photograph of a building visibly damaged from a military assault, with illustrations of vegetables layered over the image. The photographic style has the feel of a snapshot; it’s very much about the present condition. The illustrations’ origins are not offered, but from their washed-out, ethereal style, it’s obvious that they all come from the same pre-digital book. The vegetables, carefully extracted from their constructed context, float evenly over the image and randomly obscure parts of the picture. There is no attempt to blend or make it appear that the two layers go together visually or conceptually. The idealized plant and brutalized present exist separately but together. It’s as though Kadan is constructing a situation in which each of the original context’s failures are exposed through the failure of the new construction—each plane gains strength from the honesty of their union.

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Double Life at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

In Double Life, now on view at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, it is clear that the city is in the midst of becoming one of the most interesting and significant locations for performance art in the southeast—a statement confirmed by the national attention given recently to the performance art collective DiverseWorks, the emergence of the Lone Star Explosion International Performance Art Biennale in 2012, and the construction of the interdisciplinary Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts in collaboration with the University of Houston in 2014.[1] The curatorial impulse for Double Life—to explore and expand representational and conceptual notions of performance within the museum—is presented through the work of three very different artists: the French conceptual choreographer Jérôme Bel, Los Angelesbased performance artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang, and the South Korean multimedia artist Haegue Yang. Given the recent increase by major American museums to expand their commitment to artists making live work, Double Life offers a strong argument of what movement means or might be able to mean in the art gallery in the twenty-first century. However, while Double Life does indeed enrich the current international conversation about movement and performance in the museum, the exhibition does more to identify the conditions inherent in the viewing of performance (specifically, the ways in which performances call and constitute audiences to their subject positions) and the problems manifested by the museum’s incorporation and domestication of “liveness” than it does to simply present movement.[2]

Jérôme Bel. Performance Still from Veronique Doisneau. 2004. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jérôme Bel. Performance Still from Veronique Doisneau, 2004. Image courtesy the artist.

Double Life features two videos of live performances conceived by Jérôme Bel, whose work has re-charged the conservative dance scene through its blatant critique of the repressive codes of representation that structure concertized dance. By emphasizing the disciplinary constructs that enclose notions of “the subject” within his dances, Bel bypasses the conventions of anti-bourgeois vulgarity and Dada-inspired shock tactics that often feature in contemporary performance art to focus more on the emancipatory origins of twentieth-century modern dance, wherein questions of freedom were entwined with questions of individual expression and the inner self.[3] In Veronique Doisneau (2004) and Cédric Andrieux (2009)—named after the individual dancers featured in the films—Bel de-familiarizes the strict codes of behavior that surround a performance by giving the two dancers opportunities to speak directly to the audience and reveal the feelings of alienation and boredom that accompany a dancer’s experience. Comprising short monologues, movements that quote from Doisneau and Andrieux’s performance repertoire, and long durations of silence and stillness, the performances pierce the space between performer and viewer and interrupt the flow of continuous movement that identify traditional dance performances. By staging an encounter in which the audience is forced to listen to the dancer as opposed to watching them, Bel’s works point to the complicated nature of the dancer’s dual role as both the dance’s author and its subject—a subject that must silently submit to a network of other authors (the musical coordinates of the composer and the musicians, the representational vision of the choreographer, the technical and aesthetic demands of the art form, and the physical requirements mandated by the history of dance). Bel’s close attention to the ways in which both artist and viewer are simultaneously recruited into and rendered complicit in restrictive performances of aesthetic labor and voyeurism effectively shores up the idea of “double life.”

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New York

Outsider Art Fair 2015

The 2015 Outsider Art Fair, held at Center 548 in the Chelsea gallery district of New York City, marked the twenty-third iteration of the event. It also occurred within a season of mainstream museums prominently featuring the work of so-called outsider artists in very high-profile, insider art spaces. Judith Scott: Bound and Unbound, the artist’s first retrospective, was held at the Brooklyn Museum in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, in a gallery next to the museum’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South at the Studio Museum in Harlem incorporated noted contemporary artists alongside artists often categorized under the labels folk, outsider, vernacular, or self-taught, all who shared an interest in the American South as a real or imagined location. The Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibited its new collection of James Castle’s work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced it will be purchasing more than fifty works from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a nonprofit committed to preserving the work of self-taught African American artists, and is organizing an exhibition around these planned acquisitions in 2016.

Galerie Bourbon-Lally, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

Galerie Bourbon-Lally, Outsider Art Fair 2015. Photo: Lia Wilson.

All of this is to say that the distinctions between the insider and outsider categories have become more blurred and seemingly arbitrary than ever. The growing fluidity between these two worlds is a welcome development to many, as policing the boundaries of outsider art has often contributed to a ghettoization of many artists’ practices, saddling them with assumptions of romanticized mental pathology and/or compulsive, naive, and unexamined modes of creating. Outsider art has always contained highly disparate formal and conceptual styles, as it is the artists’ biographies that determine their inclusion in the field. However, madness, marginalization, and compulsion are not the common denominators of outsider artists; the only commonality is self-education. Relabeling the whole field self-taught art, a much more accurate and expansive designation, is a tough sell particularly when the appetite for outsider art only continues to grow. Regardless of the semantic debate that has long complicated popular understanding of the category’s definition, the annual Outsider Art Fair provides an opportunity to see how its major galleries respond to the changes in the field, all while promoting both emerging and well-known artists to an eager marketplace.

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