November 30, 2003

My Second-Favorite Robert Irwin Story

by Jerome du Bois

One of my favorite books also has one of my favorite titles: Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, by Lawrence Weschler. It's subtitled, "A Life of the Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin," and consists, roughly, of a series of conversations the two had together back between 1980-82. Irwin is singular, warm, stubborn, and individualistic. (So is Weschler, come to think of it. And a great writer.) The artist is also a wonderful storyteller, and here, apropos of past, present, and future postings, I present my second-favorite Robert Irwin true-life anecdote, in which he argues with Max Kozloff about whether car customizing is art. It begins below. (My favorite Robert Irwin story is in the comments.)

I asked Bob whether his work on cars, more than any particular art classes he subsequently took, might be seen as one origin of his artistic vocation. He concurred.

"Of course, what's going on in such situations is precisely an artistic activity. A lot of art critics, especially New York Artforum types, have a lot of trouble seeing the validity of such a contention. I once had a run-in with one of them about this -- this was years later, in the middle of the Ferus period [ca. 1964].

"This guy was out here, one of the head honchos, and he was upset -- what was it? -- oh, yeah -- because Billy Al Bengston was racing motorcycles at the time. This critic just dismissed that out of hand as a superficial, suicidal self-indulgence. And I said you can't do that. We got going and ended up arguing about folk art. He was one of those Marxist critics who like to think they're real involved with the people, making great gestures and so forth, but they're hardly in the world at all. Anyway, he was talking about pot-making and weaving and everything, and my feeling was that that was all historical art but not folk art.

"As far as I'm concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use everyday, and you give it overlays of your own personality, what it is you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life. And a folk art in the current period of time would more appropriately be in the area of something like a motorcycle. I mean, a motorcycle can be a lot more than just a machine that runs along; it can be a whole description of a personality and an aesthetic.

"Anyway, so I looked in the paper, and I found this ad of a guy who was selling a hot rod and a motorcycle. And I took the critic out to this place. It was really fortunate, because it was exactly what I wanted. We arrived at this place in the Valley, in the middle of nowhere, and here's this kid: he's selling a hot rod and he's got another he's working on. He's selling a '32 coupe, and he's got a '29 roadster in the garage. The '32 he was getting rid of was an absolute cherry.

"But what was more interesting, and which I was able to show this critic, was that here was this '29, absolutely dismantled, I mean, completely apart, and the kid was making decisions about the frame, whether or not he was going to cad plate certain bolts or whether he was going to buff grind them, or whether he was going to leave them raw as they were. He was insulating and soundproofing doors, all kinds of things that no one would ever know or see unless they were truly a sophisticate in the area. But, I mean, real aesthetic decisions, truly aesthetic decisions.

"Here was a fifteen-year-old kid who wouldn't know art from schmart, but you couldn't talk about a more real aesthetic activity than what he was doing, how he was carefully weighing: what was the attitude of this whole thing? What exactly? How should it look? What was the relationship in terms of its machinery, its social bearing, everything? I mean, all these things were being weighed in terms of the aesthetics of how the thing should look. It was a perfect example.

"The critic simply denied it. Simply denied it: not important, unreal, untrue, doesn't happen, doesn't exist. See, he comes from a world in New York where the automobile . . . I mean, automobiles are 'What? Automobile? Nothing.' Right? I mean, no awareness, no sensitivity, no involvement. So he simply denied it: 'It doesn't exist.' Like that: 'Not an issue.' Which we argued about a little on the way back over the Sepulveda pass.

"I said, 'How can you deny it? You may not be interested, but how can you deny it? I mean, there it is, full blown, right in front of you, and it's obviously a folk art!'

"Anyway, he, 'No, no.'

"So I finally just stopped the car and made him get out. I just flat left him there by the road, man, and just drove off. Said, 'See you later, Max.'"

[End of excerpt, pp.17+18. copyright L. Weschler 1982 et cetera.]

I call this one The Robert Irwin Short Course in Automobile Appreciation.

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November 23, 2003

The Shameful Sham of the Sixth Sharjah "International" Art Biennial

by Jerome du Bois

I. A note about why this piece is late, and different.

In my previous post, you can see by the date where I broke my promise to write a timely answer to the question, "What kind of art can be exhibited under shari'a?" Here's my explanation, and a newer, wiser review. (And longer: 2500 words.)

The review I was almost finished with had covered what I thought about the artworks at the Sixth Sharjah Biennial, because I had been interested in finding out what kind of art one can, and cannot, show under strict Islamic law; and the director, the daughter of the emir, was supposed to be on the cutting edge: Sheika Hoor, age 23, London's Royal Academy of Arts graduate. Grady Turner's original article in the New York Times [May 4th issue;pay site] was titled "Regime Change Takes Effect at a Persian Gulf Biennial." His other, longer review, which is in the November Art in America, is titled "Fast Forward on the Persian Gulf." The exhibition itself was called "Art in a Changing Horizon: Globalization and New Aesthetic Practice." So I thought there might be some tension. There was none -- at least, not between Ms. Hoor and the law council.

My tension chimed when I found out more about Sharjah -- demographically -- because I had run across some disconcerting facts:

1. At least 80 percent of the population of this city-state consists of foreign, non-Muslim workers. (In the whole UAE it's an astounding 98 percent.) What do you think they're busy doing there by the sea for the Emirian Muslim 20 percent who run the show?

2. And I ran across another phrase, one that I've heard before as a racial slur but now I know as a humiliating and dangerous job: camel jockey -- a little boy, usually abducted or sold voluntarily from the Indian subcontinent, who races camels, and often gets hurt doing so.

3. And I discovered the connection between Islamic law and dhimmitude -- that is, if an observant Muslim meets me, a non-Muslim, he or she considers me an inferior human being. Islamic law formalizes this relationship in many ways, some reminiscent of the original U.S. Constitution's unfortunate "three-fifths of a person" concept.

Add those three together and they spell shariah, which is only one letter away from Sharjah. A clunky comparison, but that's how closely Sharjah, one of the most conservative wealthy Islamic principalities anywhere, wants to adhere to shariah: to the point of identity.

My level of ignorance about shariah was still woefully high, and the two reviews by Grady Turner didn't help. (More on Turner's whitewashing spin below.) Neither did the review by Antonia Carver on Universes-in-Universe. But the more I read about shariah, the more dismayed I became at my own review: how myopic, gullible, and tame it was! I had stepped right into the frame.

From a recent report at

Foreign nationals, who make up a staggering 98 percent of the private workforce, are subject to abuse and nonpayment of wages by employers. While labor law offers some protection, most abuse goes unreported. In June 2002, the UAE press reported that an Asian worker died and 15 fell ill at a labor camp , where workers lived in sweltering heat without water or electricity for several days because their Dubai-based employer had not paid the utility bills. In September, the government criminalized the hiring of camel jockeys under the age of 15.

I didn't in the first place, and don't want to now, tell you about shariah in Sharjah or anyplace else, but I won't be hornswoggled either. This is an underhanded art exhibition trying to finesse itself into legitimacy. So I'll let readers follow the source of the quote above (there's plenty, and there's Robert Spencer, and there's more from the U.S. State Department here) on the effects of shariah.

Instead, I'm going to concentrate on how this whole Sharjah Biennial business is a made-to-order sham to further polish the pearl of a serene but inhumane regime. And I'll give you the punchline before the jump: all 116+ artists -- including a dozen from the United States -- collaborated with a racist, apartheid society run by a self-indulgent historian manqué, who himself indulges his own artist manqué daughter's every desire.

II. The Shameful Sham.

Actually, my original piece was anything but tame. I excoriated the curator (Sheika Hoor) and director (Peter Lewis of Goldsmiths) for the hypocrisy of using the word "international" while ostentatiously excluding Israel and Israeli Jews. To quote my previous self:

Because the other obvious taboo [other than sex and alcohol] was Israel, and everything it implies, including the U.S.A. The United Arab Emirates doesn't recognize Israel's existence, so no Israeli artist was allowed. Still, Israel managed to be the scapegoat in the middle of the room anyway, its absent presence amplified by the prohibition against any art that criticized Arab politics or life.

For example, three artists -- Kai Wiedenhofer of Germany, and the Palestinains Rula Halawani and Rashid Masharawi -- made declarations or included statements with their exhibited art which repeated the usual Palestinian litanies; the video (by Mashawari) which was commissioned especially for the show, and which won an award, lingers on an Israeli flag. Pakistan's Zain Mustafa's kurtas were inscribed by antiwar protestors in New York, then hung on a clothesline in Sharjah. (Meanwhile, as they fluttered there, the coalition freed Iraq.) And, in a kind of silent affirmation of lunatic conspiracies, Wolfgang Staehle's famous live-feed Postmasters Gallery video of lower Manhattan on 9/11, with its one-minute intervals of that dolorous day, "was prominently displayed on the museum's main floor, replaying the terrible images in real time" (according to Turner in AiA, page 89).

(Was that endlessly-shown smoky skyline the Changing Horizon of Ms. Hoor's and Mr. Lewis's title?)

So the political art was mostly anti-Israel and/or anti-American, and the rest of the art was neutrally clever, or craft-derived, or thinly conceptual. All very low-key, even for the several censored artists. One of them, Chen Lingyang of China, serves as a good example of the hypocritical game-playing everyone -- artist, curator, director, attendees, writers, editors, publishers -- went along with.

Ms. Chen's main shtick is an imaginary persona called Chen Lingyang No. 2,

with whom she has a somewhat competitive relationship. Posters in English and Mandarin exhort "Don't buy Chen Lingyang's works! Just buy Chen Lingyang's works!"[That concept thin enough for you?] The posters were displayed without question, but Lingyang was asked to remove a series in which she photographed her torso and vagina as she menstruated. It was no surprise that the organizers took issue with these images. Still, they allowed Lingyang to protest the omission of the photographs. The offensive images were included in the galleries with the posters, albeit locked in a trunk marked in chalk with this phrase written by the artist in English and Mandarin: "The way to allow the works of Chen Lingyang [which? 1? or 2?]to be exhibited in the Biennial is by locking them up in this Arabic traditional case." (Turner, AiA, page 88.)

I know it's hard to hear with all the mutual backslapping going on -- she won one of the awards -- but as it settles down you can sort out how almost all the actors here get to feel good -- especially the shariah council, whose power Ms. Chen graciously and submissively embodied by handily providing that suffocating trunk. But then if you (and she) leaned close and lingered over that worn old wood, you would have heard the faint murmurs of thousands of her compatriots all across the UAE, quietly complaining to each other about capricious deportation, or about paying the skull tax to people their ancestors used to call barbarians.

(I wonder if any of the non-Muslim or the American artists reflected on their roles in this stepinfetchit shuffle, their carefully-elided kaffir status? Mr. Staehle, for example, or Liz-n-Val [it's true!], Christo & Jeanne-Claude [I'm not surprised], or Howard McCalebb, who provides some unintentionally rueful humor with Leonardo's Vitruvian Man sporting a large black circle over his "midriff area.") Did they know they were effectively in old South Africa, or Rhodesia?

Where did this Biennial come from, anyway? What is it doing in the world? Piecing Turner's two articles together, along with information about Dr. Sheik Sultan -- the emir -- what emerges is a twisted fairy tale built on the backs of the disadvantaged. And a lot of artists, and the art world in general, couldn't care less, as long as there's legitimacy, cachet, fame, introductions, or money in it.

Once upon a time, Sheika Hoor, rich daughter of the ruler of an emirate by the sea, and worldly London art student, complained to her daddy about the provincialism of their previous five Art Biennials. Daddy was stung -- as the author of a number of crappy novels and bizarre quasi-histories, he fancied himself a cultured man -- so he told her to do something about it. Segué to Turner:

The real challenge was to represent current international art practices without running afoul of Shariah, the Islamic code that governs most aspects of daily life here, and the local censorship council that enforces it. Of the seven sheikhdoms that make up the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai with its glittering hotels and shopping malls, Sharjah is among the most conservative. Business and errands are conducted around calls to prayer, and practices tolerated elsewhere in the country -- like the sale of alcohol -- are forbidden here. Many images commonplace in art magazines simply would not play well in Sharjah.

As she spoke about the biennial, Sheikha Hoor fidgeted with the headscarf of her burka. ''I'm afraid I'm out of the habit of wearing these,'' she said apologetically, in a British accent. She was sitting in the Sharjah Art Museum's new cafe, created [by whom? with whose sweat?] at her behest for the exhibition.

Some things were uncreated at her behest as well:

''At first, I was made a member of the biennial's organizing committee,'' she said. ''I was much younger than the rest, and the only woman, so my voice was not really heard. Then I was made head of the committee, but still, I was not heard. Finally, the committee was dissolved, and I was named director.''(From NYT article.) Why did her father even bother with the committee?

Her father has also had his modern-day dhimmi-coolies build a luxurious art college at the American University, to be administered in conjunction with the Royal College of Arts, Ms. Hoor's alma mater -- how neat. Also, as she pursues her graduate studies back in England, her father will convert (without lifting a finger himself, of course) an old power station into a contemporary art museum, using the cut-rate labor of thousands of his effectively-indentured servants.

Everything is in place. The Sheika is poised for the Seventh Sharjah International Biennial, which she and the culturally clueless fool Mr. Lewis are even now organizing. And what do you bet the artists' submissions are flying to London quicker than Sean Penn to Baghdad?

As far as I've researched, no art or culture blogger, and no art magazine, has called attention to this situation. Antonia Carver's review concludes:

Sharjah is now on the world stage when it comes to contemporary art. Artists, and the few curators and gallerists that made the trip, agreed that the exhibition competed easily with more established biennials, and that showing their work in Sharjah was an enriching experience.

And Mr. Turner, though he took note of the Israeli situation, and presented some balance, still spoke about "regime change" and "risk-taking" and "cutting-edge" and a "global retinue of artists." And he misrepresented the exhibition:

Aspiring to the models provided by Venice and Documenta, yet hemmed in by the realities of sharia, the organizers opted for a middle road. They selected work that avoided offense, and in some cases enlisted artists in the alteration of their own projects to meet local standards.

So another cheap false gaudy fruit flourishes in the Oasis of Islamic Values -- Sharjah -- watered by the blood and sweat of exploited Asians, Indians, and Pakistanis, and consumed with relish and without hesitation by the greedy and amoral of the art world.

Coda: Speaking of the greedy and amoral, Maria Finn, in Sunday's New York Times, covers the Eighth Havana Biennial. It's a pretty cynical and exploitative picture all around. (Hint: don't pity the artists one bit. There's another review here, with lots of photos.) And let's not forget the context:

The theme of the 2003 biennial, "El Arte con la Vida" or "Art With Life," foreshadowed the event itself, as the Prince Claus Foundation, a Dutch cultural fund that supported the biennial in the past, withheld its $100,000 pledge in protest against the imprisonment, in April, of 75 dissidents ó primarily librarians, journalists and organizers of a referendum calling for democratic reforms like freedom of association and expression ó sentenced to up to 28 years in jail by the Cuban government.

I'm sure we here in Phoenix will get to see what bling-bling the ASU fat cats bring back from there, now that the curtain might fall on the goodies:

This year, people headed to the biennial, held from Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, with a heightened sense of urgency. After Jan. 1, very few cultural licenses will be renewed by the Treasury Department.

In the meantime, I predict Cuban art, once spiky and magical because made from nothing -- real "Art With Life" -- will soon sport the smooth dull sheen of the slick path to hell.

Posted by Jerome at 01:36 PM | TrackBack

November 19, 2003

Carnival of the Vanities #61

The Carnival of the Vanities is up over at Peaktalk. Check it out, but check back in later tonight, when I'll be posting a sequel to the Two Forbidden Images piece, examining the question:

What kind of art can be exhibited under shari'a?

Posted by Jerome at 10:54 AM | TrackBack

November 13, 2003

Two Forbidden Images

by Jerome du Bois

Two days ago, Artforum ran two short news bulletins which, side by side, serendipitously highlight the notion of forbidden images. One was a British brouhaha over a purported depiction, by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Valentine Presnip, of one of Mohammedís wives, at the Tate in London; the other was the installation of Maurizio Cattelanís perverse, wise, and disturbing Him, in a museum that Hitler built in Munich, a city in a country that harbors a cultural taboo against images of . . . him.

In the first story, "many" British Muslims looked at the painting's explanatory wall label and complained, loudly and officially; in the second, Germans and others observed the Cattelan sculpture's uncanny moral osciillation and presumably thought about it, but thereís been no controversy about it, at least none that's made the news. Let's take a closer look at both of these stories . . .

The Guardian online reports on the Presnip:

First, the picture's caption described it as depicting one of the wives of the prophet Mohammed. It was a concept that many Muslim visitors condemned as an act of blasphemy -- since the Muslim faith prohibits human representations of the prophet, his wives or relatives.

But when, having rebuffed a number of complaints, the gallery conducted some historical research, it discovered a second gaffe: the painting of Ayesha was never intended to show one of Mohammed's wives at all. [My emphasis.] The woman was more likely to have been Queen Ayesha, a character from She, the classic 1887 novel by H. Rider Haggard.[!]

So then the first gaffe, I suppose, was the "act of blasphemy," by Presnip originally by painting Ayesha (Mohammed's child bride, wasn't she?), and then those cultural ignoramuses, the British art gallerists and historians at the Tate, furthered the horrible transgression by actually displaying the evil image.

[Allow me to telegraph my point: Muslims, get used to it. This is just the beginning of all kinds of "depictions." The two artists who run this weblog, for example, are working on a "Polytheism" installation which includes such themes as monotheism requires misogyny and Mecca's Cave before Mohammed.What may be blasphemy to you may mean nothing at all to others; indeed, your indignation itself may be offensive to millions; and, by the rule of law, you simply have to deal with it.

After all, the British have to put up with the Turner Prize, especially this year, with the Chapman brothers [think -- think! -- before clicking] and Grayson Perry. And Christians worldwide, of which I am emphatically not one, must put up with this brand-new Crucifixion by Rachel Feinstein -- one of many recent talentless Yalies given an undeserved boost by Charlie Finch, who has finally dropped his jug. (He thought it was "easily the greatest piece created and shown last season in Chelsea.") As for the Jews -- well, Muslims of all people should know better than others the kind of "blasphemy" the Jews have to put up with: they just have to pick up one of their own racist newspapers.]

Back to our story . . .

Aaffreen Khan, speaking for the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, said that the campaign was a good example of the Muslim community in Britain being pro-active: "We are delighted that our campaign against the false label of the painting has borne success. The idea of a painting of the prophet Mohammed's wife was absurd. It just shows the level of ignorance there is about Islam and its practice.Ē

Questions: Why didnít Mr. Khan and the MPAC, knowing that ďthe idea of a painting of the prophet Mohammed's wife was absurd,Ē figure out therefore that the label was a mistake? Why didnít they do their own research, find the facts, and take a nice civilized package of correct information to the Tate? But then they couldn't have had a pro-active campaign, could they? They didnít take an investigative route; and they, like everyone else, had already previously accepted the original false labeling as bona fide.

Mr. Khanís kicker bears repeating:

It just shows the level of ignorance there is about Islam and its practice.

Mr. Khan can be sure that since 9/11 the level of ignorance about Islam and all of its practices has been shrinking at electronic speed. It's just that people have been examining other areas, probably with higher priority than sleuthing out inaccuracies in art for the benefit of Muslims worldwide. For example, I know that the very week Mr. Khan and his group were congratulating themselves, a British Court was sentencing one of their co-religionists to prison for life for one of those practices -- for stabbing his own daughter seventeen times, one for each year of her life I guess, killing her in the name of his "honor." It was not the only such murder in Britain this year.

[Aside: in the Fox News Report of this sentencing, the normally-intrepid Amy Kellogg folded to some producer and did not say the words "Islam" or "Muslim" in her piece; instead, she referred to "certain cultures."]

And the Ayesha flap was not the only such Muslim art scandal in Britain this week. Three days ago Charles Johnson at littlegreenfootballs ran this piece under the title "MPAC Seethes, Threatens." [It's LGF, with all its comments; be patient, it will appear.] The opener:

The Muslim Public Affairs Council in Britain is blowing a gasket over a painting of Mohammed illustrating the topic of shari'a in a book called The History of Punishment, because it shows some barely visible naked women in the background. [The piece has a photo of the painting, and lots of extended quotes from MPAC.]

Since 9/11, many pundits and scholars (e.g., Bernard Lewis) have pointed out that Islam needs to go through a Reformation, a schooling in the harsh realities of unforgiving, natural life, just as Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism have had to, just to survive into the future. Otherwise it will be crushed. Its intractable arrogance, then, I say to the faces of a billion believers, is both offensive and pitiful. I live in the 21st Century United States. Science, reason, imagination and political freedom bear our future's burden, not Islam. Islam hasn't taken us past Jupiter or opened the door to stem-cell research. The sole contribution of Islamic science in the modern era is the Saudi's development of freeze-dried sperm, not exactly an endangered substance -- but wait: we're talking about Saudi sperm. . .

And submission -- despite all the kneeling hallelujahs -- is not in American blood. There is not now and will never be a dhimmitude -- not here anyway.

As for Presnip's painting: as you can see, it is competently beautiful but innocuous, with its glowing golden vessel and luxurious red drapery. The woman -- whoever Presnip had in mind -- looks less like a queen than a weary servant: where do you want the wine?

The second Artforum bulletin referred to this Nov. 7th Washington Post/Reuters story:

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - In a life-like sculpture, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler kneels in an empty room in a Munich art museum.

It is a striking piece of art for Germany, where the horrors of the country's Nazi past have made it taboo to display Hitler in any form except in documentary films.

The exhibition with the depiction of Hitler opened on Friday at a neo-classical museum, which the Nazi leader ordered built in 1937.

The sculpture by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, entitled "Him," shows a sad-looking Hitler wearing a modest suit and kneeling in an empty room with his hands folded together.

The artist's name should bring to mind his earlier sculpture La Nona Ora, which did create a scandal for some Roman Catholics when it was shown in Poland. Here he describes it himself to Massimilliano Gioni in Flash Art, May/June 2001, page 117:

Last December I exhibited La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour) in a show curated by Harold Szeemann to commemorate the centenary of the Warsaw Gallery of Modern Art. In an official visit two Catholic representatives attacked the statue and tried to liberate the Pope from the weight of the meteorite. It was a premeditated scheme, accompanied by a manifesto, which was immediately published in the Polish newspapers. The case then got dragged into parliament, where La Nona Ora became a pretext for asking the director of the museum to stand down: she was attacked for her Jewish origins and accused of offending the symbols of Catholicism.

. . . Gioni then asked:What do you think will happen to your Adolph Hitler?

Cattelan: This time I wanted to destroy it myself. I changed my mind a thousand times, every day. Hiter is pure fear; itís an image of terrible pain. It even hurts to pronounce his name. And yet that name has conquered my memory, it lives in my head, even if it remains taboo. Hitler is everywhere, haunting the specter of history; and yet he is unmentionable, irreproducible, wrapped in a blanket of silence. Iím not trying to offend anyone. I donít want to raise a new conflict or create some publicity; I would just like that image to become a territory for negotiation or a test for our psychoses.

I myself am somewhat surprised -- pleasantly -- by the absence of irrational behavior surrounding Him, a timebomb that summons forth strong emotions. To me, it reactivates the old resolutions: never again, never forget, and never forgive. And it reminds me of Jewish theologian Saul Fackenheim's "614th Commandment," which I read about in Ron Rosenbaum's peerless Explaining Hitler, a book which discusses many "forbidden" images:

It was that year [1967, in the run-up to the Six-Day War] that he formulated the now widely known "614th commandment," the single sentence for which he has become most famous, the "post-Holocaust commandment" regarding Hitler, which Fackenheim felt compelled to add to the traditional 613 rules of worship and conduct in the Orthodox Jewish canon. He phrased it this way: "Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler."

I think Maurizio Cattelan, a gentile like me, created something which makes this commandment easier to keep, for everyone. And the Munich visitors, many and varied, since this was a major show by the inimitable Ydessa Hendeles, acted like civilized people, like people with a cosmopolitain awareness of history: they confronted the piece, and then confronted whatever the piece summoned up in them. Unlike the two angry Poles and the many angry British Muslims, they seemed to know that reality is greater than the sum of its parts, and that we are at least the same size as the images that confront us.

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November 11, 2003



It Was Worth It, 2000, by Jerome du Bois. Painted and stamped wood, encaustic on bristol board, acrylic, and 140 pencils. 16 x 52 x 2 inches.

I first realized this idea in 1972. Back then it was a pair of old shoes whose soles I had pierced with hundreds of double-pointed pencils, so they penetrated into the shoes and stood on tiptoe about eight inches off the ground. I clear-sealed the interiors, filled them with water, and placed them on a nicely polished oak board on which I had carved the title: IT WAS WORTH IT.

Lifetimes have come and gone since then, haven't they? These are the phrases I stamped into the blue border above:

TANSTAAFL -- Bittersweet A Bettersweet -- To Know And Not To Do Is Not To Know -- Anger Is Fear's Fierce Face -- Long To Belong -- Ecstastigmata -- Only Connect: Halves Have No One -- Seek Your Actual Size -- Men Torment Or Mentor Men -- Can't Rant That Cant -- Irony is Passé: Embody Delight.

And one from Emily Dickinson: The Soul Has Bandaged Moments.

It is worth it. -- JdB

Posted by Jerome at 10:20 AM | TrackBack

November 09, 2003

Book Review: Chuck Close Prints: Process and Collaboration

by Jerome du Bois

In a face as Close reveals it, everything is featured: the appearance, the mark, the work, and an entire set of cultural values. Richard Shiff [my emphasis]

He shows you his trick pockets and it's still magic in the end.
--Anthony Grafton, Chair, Council of Humanities, Princeton, October 2003

I like tooth -- Chuck Close, October 2002

A superb retrospective of the inimitable printwork of a major contemporary artist, Chuck Close, began late September at the Blaffer Gallery in Houston and will make several rounds from there, including Miami and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but excluding Phoenix. I must content myself with the catalogue, which is itself superb. Here follows a 2,000-word review, with lots of quotes, links, and beautiful image links.

The Appearance

First, the bare bones: Princeton University Press, 160 heavy, glossy, 9 x 12 pages, softbound (hardcover is available). 110 color plates, 38 b/w illustrations, and a double gatefold (which is fantastic; more about it below). One-fourth of the text is an introduction by Terrie Sultan, Director of the Blaffer Gallery and the talent behind the exhibition; and an essay by professor and writer Richard Shiff from the University of Texas at Austin. The other three-fourths consists of interviews with Close and the relevant printers on the "process and collaboration" involved in eight printmaking techniques: mezzotint, pulp-paper multiples, spitbite etching, reduction linoleum, silk screen, Japanese-style woodcut, European-style woodcut, and scribble etching. (These interviews show how Close's boundary-pushing -- in size, materials, tools, for example -- has redefined whole areas of printmaking; he's even invented several techniques. "An artist looking for trouble," he pursues, lassos and swallows the moon, over and over again.) These conversations are followed by a chronology and then a helpful glossary and index.

Patricia Fabricant designed the book to reflect the exhibition, which has 118 pieces, including proof prints, blocks, even molds -- the "process" part of the title. (As Ms. Sultan writes in the acknowledgements, "What developed over the course of our conversations was an emphasis on the nature of Close's studio process, and this led to the idea for a project that would explore, in depth, one specific aspect of his work.") Fully forty-five pages of photos, many double- or multi-page layouts, depict the stages and devices involved or show facing-page comparisons -- and she smartly joined photos and their referential texts, so you're not flipping back and forth all the time.

The layout is both charming and sensitive. Just after Ms. Sultan's introduction comes the gatefold, which consists of eight full-bleed close-ups of Close's face, in eight different media, each one reduced and cropped at the exact same coordinates as its mates; so one may compare how the artist has solved the same problem eight different ways. Then, right after the last close-up -- a brushy jigsaw of color -- you flip the page and there's a small b/w photo of an eight-year-old kid -- Chuck Close dressed as a magician, c. 1946, it says here -- looking for all the world like Mr. Peanut with long pants, walking stick, top hat, and droll black ribbon dangling nonchalantly from his pince-nez.

More poignant and uncanny is the daguerrotype, two pages later, of the late Kirk Varnedoe -- "at near-licking distance from the lens," as he described it. Varnedoe, a legendary MOMA curator, lecturer, and writer who reshaped major areas of the New York art world, and a longtime champion of Close, died August 14, 2003 -- about a month before this exhibition and this book appeared.

The Mark

Chuck Close has developed a strategy for mapping the world in a system of visual metaphors. His paintings, photographs, and prints mark an intersection between representation and abstraction that is simultaneously of the moment and timeless. Close makes his paintings through a rigorous process of creating and editing a series of abstract marks that coalesce into a coherent representational image. -- Terrie Sultan, page 9.

It's that coalescing part that is always the dynamic problem, as the eye, delighted%

Posted by Jerome at 03:15 PM

November 05, 2003



Flower Arrangement and Photography by Catherine King. [Photo taken in October 2004, but backdated for archival and blog-loading purposes.]

Posted by Jerome at 02:31 PM | TrackBack

Carnival & More Kara Walker

Wizbang hosts this week's Carnival of the Vanities, which includes my previous post.

Speaking of which, Donald Kuspit on artnet writes a strong and psychologically acute review of Kara Walker's latest installation (which closed late September) at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Just one quote:

I am suggesting that Walker's art is much more interesting for what it tells us about her psyche than for its ideology -- its political correctness, filtered through intellectually correct irony -- and much more important for what it tells us about Walker's artistic cunning than for what it tells us about her in-your-face "attitude."

Posted by Jerome at 06:55 AM | TrackBack

November 04, 2003



Flower Arrangement and Photograph by Catherine King. [Photo taken in October 2004, but backdated for archival and loading purposes.]

Posted by Jerome at 02:29 PM | TrackBack

November 03, 2003



Flower Arrangement and Photograph by Catherine King. [Photo taken in October 2004, but backdated for archival and loading purposes.]

Posted by Jerome at 02:26 PM | TrackBack

November 02, 2003



Flower Arrangement and Photograph by Catherine King. [Photo taken October 2004, backdated for archival purposes and to facilitate loading the blog.]

Posted by Jerome at 02:22 PM | TrackBack

November 01, 2003



Flower Arrangement and Photograph by Catherine King. [Photo taken October 2004, backdated for archival purposes and to facilitate loading the blog.]

Posted by Jerome at 02:16 PM | TrackBack