New York

Here and Elsewhere at the New Museum

Here and Elsewhere, the New Museum’s colossal survey of contemporary art from the Arab world, sets for itself an impossible task. The curatorial strategy, as stated in the exhibition’s press release, is to work “against the notion of the Arab world as a homogenous or cohesive entity.” Though able to present a range of Arab identities, regionalisms, and geographies, the sprawling installation self-organizes and familiar tropes begin to emerge. As every archetype is anchored in a truth, the images of war-torn streets, monuments to fallen dictators, dusty Bedouins in desert landscapes, and gleaming symbols of oil-soaked capitalism here are resonant and believable. Even so, the choice to include forty-five artists and collectives renders the exhibition both overwhelming and incoherent, and the huge number of works strains the already limited functionality of the museum’s signature building.

GCC installation, 2014. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.

GCC installation, 2014. Courtesy New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley.

Rather than impose some significant through-line on the cacophony of voices that make up Here and Elsewhere, despite the curators having opted not to, I will instead focus on a few key works that offer surprising and provocative views of the contemporary Arab experience, while indicating some omissions in our understanding of who is present in the “Arab world.” From the start, the exhibition positions Arab identity as closely connected with post-colonial struggle, from Lebanon to Palestine to Egypt. On the museum’s fifth floor, Ala Younis has curated an exhibition-within-an-exhibition titled An Index of Tensional and Unintentional Love of Land, consisting of contemporary artworks and compelling excerpts from photojournalistic archives in the United States and around the Middle East. This installation provides a framework through which to view the whole of Here and Elsewhere, prefiguring the historically reflexive or even speculative approaches offered by many of the artists on the lower four floors.

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Los Angeles

Doug Aitken: Still Life at Regen Projects

Doug Aitken is a quintessential Los Angeles artist. Working across multiple platforms—“photography, sculpture, publications, sound, and single- and multi-channel video installations”[1]—he employs the high production values and superficial slickness of Hollywood. His art is all about spectacle, whether it’s Electric Earth (1997), his multi-screen video in which a solitary protagonist dances his way through a pulsing, nocturnal urban landscape, or his recent endeavor Station to Station, an art and music event that barreled its way across the country via rail, bringing multimedia enticements to nine cities along the route like an old-time traveling picture show. Still Life, his fourth and latest exhibition at Regen Projects, is no less dazzling, but as the title of the show implies, it slows down his usually frenetic pace to something more meditative. As he remarked to the L.A. Times, “I felt that our society is moving so fast with information that one of the more radical things I could do is actually to preserve it all, crystallize it all.”[2]

Doug Aitken. NOW (blue mirror), 2014; Wood, mirror and glass; 48 1/4 x 108 1/2 x 18 in. © Doug Aitken. Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Doug Aitken. NOW (Blue Mirror), 2014; wood, mirror, and glass; 48 1/4 x 108 1/2 x 18 in. © Doug Aitken. Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles.

Aitken has created a fantasy landscape in the gallery, punching holes in some of the walls, artfully building out others so they appear to have been partially knocked down. It is visibly artificial, but impressively so, and paired with the absence of light, goes a long way toward erasing or at least diminishing the impression of a white cube. It also serves to slow down movement through the space—viewers are not as likely to rush through an exhibit if they’re wandering in an unfamiliar setting in the dark.

The works in the show take familiar objects, images, or words and present them in a way that is foreign or unsettling—making spectacular the mundane. A series of mirrored pieces depict single words—“END,” “NOW,” “EXIT”—that are about a moment in time, rather than duration. They are impeccably made, each gem-like (crystalline) letter crafted out of multiple planes of colored glass. They encourage gallerygoers to spend time moving around them to see how the other works are reflected in their facets. It is not difficult to get lost, but the construction is so compelling that the words can seem like little more than a linguistic substrate for infinite visual permutations.

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New Image Painting at Shane Campbell Gallery

What sets New Image Painting at Shane Campbell Gallery apart from this year’s other sleepy season closers is not the work selected, which is a standard collection of represented artists and friends of the gallery, but rather an unusually confrontational framing within painting’s past and present history. As the curator’s statement explains, New Image Painting offers a “platform from which to critique the prevalence of anemic abstraction and algorithm art, styles that have become almost anonymous in their distancing of authorship and their soulless execution.” This strength of language comes as a surprise from a corner of the art world that is occupied by comfortably established artists, but the conflicts behind New Image Painting are worth getting into.

New Image Painting, 2014; installation view, Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago. Courtesy of the artist and Shane Campbell Gallery.

New Image Painting, 2014; installation view, Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago. Courtesy of the Artist and Shane Campbell Gallery.

The past two years have seen the sudden return of painting to the heart of contemporary art’s popular discourse. While most recent painting has drifted toward a formalist abstraction that offers almost nothing to talk or write about, that very emptiness has recently become notable, as the new demand for these young, meaningless abstractions continues to redefine huge segments of the contemporary art market. The term for this art is still being sorted out, but Walter Robinson’s “zombie formalism” seems to have stuck. Lucien Smith, Oscar Murillo, and Parker Ito are often invoked for condemnation, though it must be remembered that even these are the most interesting members of a very large group.

This is, no doubt, the “anemic abstraction and algorithm art” against which stands the brave New Image Painting, itself named after the confrontational exhibition in whose spirit it follows. In 1978, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened New Image Painting, a show intended to historicize a thread of abstract expression—explored most notably by Philip Guston—which used an imaginative play of simple signs or cartoons augmented by the expressive power of paint. Along with Bad’ Painting at the New Museum that same year, the Whitney’s exhibition is remembered for opening a new front in painting’s struggle for a place in postmodern art.

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#Hashtags: Black Futurism: The Creative Destruction and Reconstruction of Race in Contemporary Art

#blackness #afrofuturism #identity #agency #mobility

Today we’re partnering with our friends at ART21 Magazine to bring you Nettrice Gaskins‘ excellent consideration of “Black futurism as a form of creative expression [that] pushes against the conventional limits of black subjectivity.” This article was originally published on June 24, 2014, in the “Future” issue of ART21 Magazine.

nuri Kahiu. Pumzi, film still, 2009. Courtesy Focus Features Africa First Short Film Program.

nuri Kahiu. Pumzi, film still, 2009. Courtesy Focus Features Africa First Short Film Program.

For the online research project Liquid Blackness, Alessandra Raengo reflects on Harry Elam’s assertion that in contemporary culture, blackness is able to “travel on its own, separate and distinct from black people.” Raengo writes that the detachability of blackness from black subjectivity, identity, and history “remains exceedingly attractive and possible” in mainstream society and that this detachment opens up possibilities for artists. Art exhibitions such as Nicola Vassell’s Black Eye leverage contemporary forms of mobility in blackness. Vassell states, “A black eye is our true tool—it’s the thing a lot of us rely heavily on for this art world to even exist… But at the same time, a black eye is the document of having been bruised.”

Artists who trouble notions of blackness include Wangechi Mutu, Jacolby Satterwhite, Sanford Biggers, Hank Willis Thomas, Rashid JohnsonKerry James Marshall, and Wanuri Kahiu, who made Kenya’s first science-fiction film, Pumzi. These artists visualize the creative and symbolic dimensions of the future in ways that also resonate in the texts of black science-fiction writers such as Octavia Butler. In “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” Jerry Phillips quotes Lewis Mumford’s idea of the author (or artist) as the creator. Mumford asserts that “the writer is still a maker, creator, not merely a recorder of fact, but above all an interpreter of possibilities.” Phillips further elaborates, “By exploring “possible worlds” and “intuitions of the future” that critique the present…the [artist] recovers purposive human time, the sense that history is not something that simply happens to us, irrespective of our will and desires, but is, indeed, ours to make.”

In her essay “Race as Technology,” Beth Coleman provides a foundation for the social imaginary that moves race and gender away from the “biological and genetic systems that have historically dominated its definition and toward human agency.” Coleman offers a view of race that exists as if it were on par with an instrument, as a technology or system that is “denatured from its historical roots” and “freely engaged as a productive tool.” This is different than, for example, the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix films that envisioned a futuristic world in which machines rule and use humans as slaves. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Kahiu’s Pumzi convey visions of the future where people are slaves or enabled to leave their walled-in communities.

Read the full article here.


Shotgun Reviews

Kenturah Davis: Narratives and Meditations at Papillion

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, Anna Martine Whitehead reviews Kenturah Davis: Narratives and Meditations at Papillion in Los Angeles.

Kenturah Davis. Narrative IV, 2014; grease pencil on paper, Wenge wood box; 75 x 54 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Papillion, Los Angeles.

Kenturah Davis. Narrative IV, 2014; grease pencil on paper, Wenge wood box; 75 x 54 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Papillion, Los Angeles.

As an artist playing with the limits of realism, Kenturah Davis points to the construction and materiality of the portrait, while also emphasizing the internal and social nature of language in her solo show Narratives and Meditations at Papillion in Los Angeles.

Through an impressive mastery of her subjects’ image, Davis creates portraits of brown-skinned, kinky-haired, vocal subjects. Installed in a grid-like pattern on the wall, the series Narratives comprises two graphite murals, each formed by numerous sheets of archival paper. Within these two murals, four portraits anoint the gallery lounge. The faces emerge from lines of Davis’ poetry, scrawled in densely layered cursive script that reads: “There’s something about dignity/And something about shame/There’s something about honesty/And something about blame…” Covering each sheet, the text creates a wide range of value gradation, punctuated with highlights of negative space. In the next room,nine framed portraits (graphite, 42 x 38 in. each) from the series Meditations command the viewer’s gaze. Similar to those in the Narrative series, these images are also constructed from layers of text; however, they read as mantras, or vocalizations of the self. Whether it’s Davis’ own writing, scripture, song lyrics, or a quote from Audre Lorde, a sentiment of personal resilience is conveyed. The text constitutes each subject, but it also activates a dialogue between subjects, as well as the subjects and viewers, that works to intercept culturally constructed notions of otherness made apparent by their deftly captured features.

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San Francisco

Women in Performance: Rigorous Ecstasy – Language & Performance, Part I

Today from our friends at Art Practical, we bring you the first installment of the new column “Women in Performance,” which kicks off with an interview between author Jarrett Earnest and artist Carolee Schneemann. To quote from the column’s introduction: “Impelled by painting, Schneemann has plumbed the history of images, embodiment, and language since the 1950s, creating pioneering performances, films, installations, sculptures, and drawings. This two-part interview focuses on her relationship with writing, drawing, teaching, and the evolving nature of performance today.” This part of the interview was originally published on September 15, 2013.

Carolee Schneemann. Correspondence Course (triptych), 1980/1983, self-shot silver prints mounted on silk-screened text; 30 x 20 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

Carolee Schneemann. Correspondence Course (triptych), 1980/1983; self-shot silver prints mounted on silk-screened text; 30 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and PPOW Gallery, New York. © Carolee Schneemann.

Jarrett Earnest: One thing that has been important for the deeper understanding of your work has been the publication of your letters and writing. When did you start writing, and how do you see it in relation to your visual art?

Carolee Schneemann: I wish I could grasp the writing. When I write, I cannot remember what I wrote. Writing is so difficult; it’s like a terrible kind of sculpture. But I was writing from the time I was a kid. I had Bruderhof neighbors who had a little printing press, and one year for Christmas, they printed a book of my poems—probably about cats, water, and birds. I was nine or ten. In school I was always writing; when I had a good teacher, they were respectful of it.

JE: The great thing about the publication of your letters is that it shows how important fiery missives are as part of your work: “This is not how you talk about my work. That is not what I was doing.” You are allowing people to have their own ideas; you are just insisting that they properly understand what’s actually going on. That means getting the words right.

CS: It is especially difficult the more these enclosing terminologies establish themselves as irrefutable. You can’t even talk about what you do unless you go through this nightmare of linguistic intervention. I’m doing a lot of writing now about these deformations of language—for instance, references to studio process as “practice.” I wrote an enraged letter once saying: “Dentists have to practice. Ballerinas practice. Visionary artists do not practice! We enable. We enact. We realize.” Also, we do not have ‘careers.’ What language-devils have evolved to substitute “unpacking” for “research”? I have a whole list of hateful language problems. I received a beautiful but bewildering essay this week from an English graduate student comparing Woolf’s The Waves and my Fuses (1965). It kept referring to the “film plate.” What? The sausage and eggs on a plate? It uses this expression over and over. I didn’t know what it was, so I wrote to her: “You are in the same coven—the moldering den of academics—destroying our ability to think straight with these deformed expressions!” I was very harsh, and she wrote back and said: “I’m only 22, and I’m at Oxford, and I don’t have anyone with imagination here, but I believe I’m a good thinker.” Bless her heart! She’s a very good thinker, and I can’t wait to meet her.


Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Lisa Wicka

At the heart of Lisa Wicka’s artwork is a set of keenly nuanced spatial and visual adaptations. Her work transforms motifs, compositions, and ideas—human figures, abstract shapes, and reinterpretations of physical and perceived spaces—into unified bodies. Her small canvases, combine-like sculptures, and large-scale installations all mark their spaces of display with striking gravity.

Lisa Wicka. Construction of Self (detail), 2013; House paint, vintage wallpaper, laminate flooring, wood and chalk line; two interior spaces: 5 x 7 x 15 feet and 4 x 5 x 6 feet. Courtesy of the artist.

Lisa Wicka. Construction of Self (detail), 2013; house paint, vintage wallpaper, laminate flooring, wood, and chalk line; two interior spaces: 5 x 7 x 15 ft. and 4 x 5 x 6 ft. Courtesy of the Artist.

Most arresting is Wicka’s ability to create compositions that profoundly alter visual perception; she disrupts and disorients visual expectations while simultaneously building new patterns of seeing through careful layering and juxtaposition of physical material—wood, paper, canvas, windows—with geometric shapes, hard grid-like lines, and rich swatches of saturated color. In her installation Construction of Self (2013), Wicka transformed two vacant interior spaces into vibrant, immersive compositions that she describes as, “Remnants of vintage wallpaper, colors, and the architectural elements of this building (that) reminded me of my past spaces, in particular my childhood home.”

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