March 30, 2004

Xu Bing's Corpse Powder

by Jerome du Bois

After the strong man with the dagger, comes the weak man -- with the sponge. -- Lord Acton

Yesterday, from the Associated Press:

CARDIFF, Wales (AP)--A New York-based artist became the first winner of a new British art prize on Sunday for a work made from dust collected from the streets of Manhattan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Xu Bing was awarded the inaugural $72,000 Artes Mundi, the Wales International Visual Art Prize, at a ceremony at the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff.

Xu, a New York resident who was born in China, used white dust from near Ground Zero to trace an ancient Chinese verse on the floor of the National Museum and Gallery in Cardiff. It reads[in English]: "As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust collect itself?''

This is vampiric appropriation at its most visceral. On that horrible day, whatever else he did, Xu Bing took the time to plan an artwork. It wasn't the first time, either:

A skilled calligrapher whose work often involves language, Bing left China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, from where he collected a tank-flattened bicycle.

This guy's a ghoul, and he just won the world's most lucrative art prize.

Can anyone know what's in Xu Bing's dust? Could there be the pulverized remains of human beings nicely distributed over this gallery floor, carefully outlining the stencilled letters? Yes.

xubing1.jpg
(Photo:Jeff Morgan)

And what about that twee Zen master's saying?

As there is nothing from the first, where does the dust collect itself?

When there is nothing from the first, we build it. We don't sit in the dust and bemoan fate. We get up and get on with it.

And this dust, Mr. Xu Bing, did not collect itself. You damned well know exactly where it came from, because you were there. But then, you were also slinking around Tiananmen Square when the others faced the tanks, weren't you? And on that day, as on the day our hearts were torn from us, you took your souvenir.

Enjoy the seventy-two grand. Spend it in New York City, why don't you, the greatest city on Earth, where you live, and where they don't.


UPDATE (April 4): Dan at Iconoduel responds in a suprisingly civilized manner.

UPDATE (April 7): Patrick Prescott of Your Daily Prescott comments as well.
I'm liking this bounce.

Posted by Jerome at 07:20 PM | TrackBack

March 29, 2004

Cargosy: Two More Cubans

by Jerome du Bois

For several months early last year Juan Grass Rodriguez and his crew worked on the . . . thing, though they hardly ever named it. Radio silence, you know, with beard gesture (hand strokes chin). But they planned and discussed and gathered materials piecemeal, barrel by barrel, steel bar by steel bar, bolt by bolt. And then in the middle of the night in the middle of July they drove the green truck to the beach and began the assembly ritual they had practiced and troubleshot over and over. Six hours later they launched. You remember, don't you? an offbeat news story to liven up a lazy summer? Here are a couple of pictures to jog your memory:

truckboat1.jpg

cubatruckraft.jpg

The Coast Guard sank the funkily beautiful thing and repatriated the dozen carronauts. Later the same year the Cuban artist Armando Mariño, participating in the Eighth Havana Bienal, exhibited a piece entitled La Patera -- "footcar" or "foot-vehicle" -- pictures of which you can see below:

marino1.jpg

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Sr. Mariño, 35, is a well-known Cuban artist who has freedom to travel -- he has a place in Madrid -- to exhibit his work, and to sell it to anyone for US dollars (as long as Castro gets his cut -- and Castro always gets his cut.) He usually paints large bland canvases in a historical, allegorical style, expertly rendered, presenting heavy-handed lessons in colonialism. I don't think he had any problems assembling the materials for this piece. Old car carcasses get passed around Cuba endlessly; and casting legs is easy.

I don't know much about Juan Grass Rodriguez except that he is a 35-year-old truck driver, has a wife, Isora Hernandez; and their son, Angel Luis, 4.

Now put the two vehicles side by side, and La Patera gets blown out of the wa-- but it didn't, did it? It was the beautiful green truck in its cargosy to freedom that got sunk to the bottom of the sea. I don't know La Patera's fate, but if it isn't in some collector's home, it's safely wrapped in plastic somewhere, as if it was consequential.

So Juan Grass Rodriguez, his wife, and son, came back to the island they longed to leave, where Armando Mariño and his fellow artists can come and go and enjoy a Western lifestlye under the government's wing. But they will all -- from Kcho to Tonel to that punk Yoan Capote, who said "My preoccupation is with art and money. This government helps me. If not, I would leave the country" -- they'll always know that a truck driver and some of his friends can create objects -- objects for reality, for living -- that make their art look silly, small, and sold-out.

And do it secretly. And do it twice.

cubanbuick1.jpg

Last I read, Juan, Isora, and Angel Luiz were in Guantanamo, and should be stateside soon.

The present piece may very well be the second in a new series contrasting and comparing Cuban artists -- especially those in the ASU Collection -- with other Cubans. Stay tuned. See also: Two Cubans: In Order Not to Forget.

Posted by Jerome at 09:33 PM | TrackBack

March 25, 2004

James Turrell's Latest Folly

by Jerome du Bois

Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter worthy of Kubla Khan's Xanadu dome, plushy and swanky with posh hanky panky that affluent Yankees can really call home!

Hammacher Schlemmer is selling a shelter, a push-button palace flourescent repose, electric devices for facing a crisis with frozen fruit-ices and cinema shows! -- from Rhymes for the Irreverent by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg

James Turrell has created several confining, controlling, totalizing environments, such as Into the Light, Call Waiting, and Boullee-Bolla. Unlike the color-flooded room illusions, cute corner cubes, or the skyspaces, such as Knight Rise at SMoCA, the focus is on almost forcing a particular kind of experience -- See? you can see yourself seeing! Stand here. Lie down. Look here. See? -- which gives me a crick in the aesthetic neck.

So it was fun to read about his latest project, a million-dollar "garden folly" for an LA entrepreneur named James Goldstein. [The price tag isn't fun at all, in this world of hurt, but in this country rich people are free to insult priorities.] Lucie Young, in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, described it:

From the outside, this folly looks like a cross between a bunker and a concrete brioche. Inside, it is like an isolation tank or a private chapel, filled with expensive nothingness: curved walls, a floating floor, a rectangular opening for a window and another, much larger one in the roof. Turrell likens the spare interior to Plato's cave -- (Whups, don't get him started.)

Personally, I think it looks like an angry baboon snarling out of the corner of his mouth, but you decide (photo Richard Barnes NYT):

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Inside, 5,000 computer-controlled lights, concealed in the floor, throw a "symphony of colors" on the walls and, at night, make black rectangles of the sky from two carefully-crafted openings. The floor is covered with mats and there's a special place to sit. You can bet Tyler Green is even now attempting to get James Goldstein's personal assistant's personal assistant's private number.

Here's the funny part, though:

Twice a day he [Goldstein] navigates the 230 or so steps down a near-vertical hillside from his house to visit his folly, which is equipped with a wet bar and a sound system -- two distinctly un-Turrellian additions. The artist would prefer that his patron listen to the sounds of the planets, but he doesn't dictate how the space is to be used.

The planets are kind of hard to hear. But picture it: James handing out the yogatinis, the walls flashing colors, heat-activated gel cushions responding to body heat, OutKast bouncing awright awright awright awright awright awright off the curved walls, and, in the middle of the room, James Turrell standing there chewing his beard like an Amish teleported to a Best Buy. You can blot out the sky, Jimboy, but you can't control everything.

CODA: I should add that the proper response to a Turrell room, which is like an expensive lamp, is the one my wife spontaneously gave when we visited the 2001 Turrell show at SMoCA. We were alone, and as we entered the first sacred, oppressive, light-filled space, Catherine began to dance, out of simple, natural, resistance, a sinuous hula, revolving in the room, arms slowly rising, breaking up that static, boring flood of blue.

Light's about life. Life isn't quiet, and it doesn't stand still.


Posted by Jerome at 09:28 PM | TrackBack

March 22, 2004

test

Disregard, testing.

Update: Actually, don't disregard. Dean Esmay of Dean's World has just updated The Tears of Things to MT 2.661, installed MySQL -- which is impressive as hell, whatever it is -- and also he's installed MT Blacklist, so I don't have to put up with bisexual albino snowboarders selling me auto loans from Nigerian billionaires.

Life gets simpler. Thank you, Dean!

Posted by Jerome at 02:45 PM | TrackBack

March 21, 2004

Local Visual Arts (Non)Coverage: Phoenix Art Detour 16

by Jerome du Bois

A few days ago Franklin Einspruch at artblog.net posted a neat, sweet piece on the dismal state of local art criticism (in Miami), and he used a perfect image:

In newspapers, visual art is going the way of poetry.

You know how you occasionally see a poem in the paper? A book review of a new poetry collection? An author profile? Or sometimes a colorful spread about several young, up-and-coming poets in the local entertainment weekly? One day, sooner than you like, that's going to be the case for visual art. Maybe not in New York and Los Angeles, but likely here in Miami.

I know what he means. It's been sooner than I like for years here in Phoenix. Take our most recent (March 5-7) Art Detour, the yearly downtown self-guided arts district brouhaha, where artists (80 this year) open their studios to the public and buses shuttle people around. The Arizona Republic printed a two-page map and a short article by John Carlos Villani as a preview. The New Times ran a preview by Amy Silverman, a staff (but not arts) writer. And that's it. Nothing before or since. Shorter than haiku.

Villani writes excellent reviews -- but for Art News and other publications. Why the Republic won't let him do the same thing there is beyond me. (This year's Detour featured several public art projects that could have been previewed, for example.) His preview is pure predictable puff, some editor's work. New Times has never encouraged a real arts writer, and here Silverman winds up her preview with an amazingly cruel paragraph. After pretty much plugging everyone whose name and gallery we already know, and touting the "burgeoning" downtown scene, she writes this:

If there is a criticism to be made of Art Detour, it is that much of the art is very young -- which, frankly, in a lot of cases means not very good. And sometimes, very bad. For some, the idea that just about anybody can be an artist during Art Detour -- or, for that matter, any day of the year in Phoenix -- is the beauty of the experience. The juried show at MetroArts charter high school will likely feature some of the best art out there this weekend.

I'm sure all the participating artists (I wasn't one) -- some of whom have been around for sixteen years -- just loved that backhanded endorsement. High school? (Well, it fits, since teenagers and college kids flood most First Fridays -- the monthly downtown gallery tours -- creating crawling conga lines in every crowded venue, and making the contemplation, much less purchase, of art absurd.)

But the biggest empty hole where there should have been print came from Shade magazine. There wasn't one. There wasn't a special issue (an issue is overdue anyway), featuring Art Detour and the whole downtown scene, to sell to the crowds who may only come down once a year. It is inexplicable. Wayne Rainey, owner of Shade Projects and monOrchid gallery and supposed urban super booster -- "Let's build this city and let's build it right" -- fell down on the job here. But he shares responsibility with the rest of the Shade board, including especially Glen Lineberry of Bentley Gallery/Projects, a veteran of Scottsdale venues. There should have been something other than the brochure for visitors to take away, but there wasn't.

That's not professional. That's high school.

Posted by Jerome at 11:44 AM | TrackBack

March 19, 2004

Arabs, Muslims, and Dogs

by Jerome du Bois

According to Irshad Manji, the Canadian Muslim ijtihadist, we need to separate the Arabs from the Muslims. For example, think about these things:

Why does the Koran have to be in Arabic? Because Arabs have insisted on it. Why pray five times a day toward Mecca? Because it's in Saudi Arabia. Why the hijab and other female coverings? Because it's Arabic tradition.

And there are other examples, such as the odd Arab attitude towards dogs.

From Ms. Manji's excellent book, The Trouble With Islam:

I'll use myself as an example. I grew up afraid of dogs because Islam taught me that dogs are dirty creatures. . . In the hadiths -- the reports of Prophet Muhammad's sayings and doings -- nearly all mentions of black dogs appear alongside degrading references to women and Jews. . .

It comes off as crazy, doesn't it? Yet the fallout is real. Listen to the experience of a UCLA professor, Khaled Abou El Fadl. He knows a Muslim convert who was instructed by a mullah to ditch his pet dog. This convert found that no matter where he left the dog, it would straggle back to his doorstep. The man asked his mullah what to do with the dog who refused to be abandoned.

Starve it, the mullah replied.

When El Fadl heard this merciless story, he was catapulted into rebellion. The Kuwaiti-born, Egyptian-trained scholar of Islamic law pored through original texts and early interpretations to find out if the mullah had any leg to stand on. And that's when he discovered how dogs, women, and Jews have been scurrilously linked as lesser beings, not by Prophet Muhammad, who apparently thought highly enough of dogs to pray in their presence, but by later intellects. Like the construct of Sharia law, the vilification of dogs (and Jews and women) has been a choice. God didn't choose it; a bunch of godfathers did. Plenty of us buy into parts of their system, but we don't have to swallow any of it. El Fadl and his wife, Grace, have adopted three stray canines -- one of them black.

I am wondering if the dogs in whose presence Muhammad prayed were salukis, the oldest purebred dogs in existence and the greatest desert hunters, revered for that ability by Sumerians, Egyptians, Bedouins and other Arabs for thousands of years and down to this day. All other dogs are considered by Arabs scavengers -- "Kelb" -- but the saluki is "El Hor," The Noble.

The saluki predates Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; its continued existence testifies to uncounted generations of human-nonhuman cooperation and patience, for the sake of mutual survival. So when Islam overtook Arabia, the invaluable saluki -- who helped to stave off hunger and starvation -- was made an exception to the Kelb rule.

Women and Jews have not fared as well.

Posted by Jerome at 07:34 PM | TrackBack

March 11, 2004

The Affair of the Statuettes: Picasso the Coward

by Jerome du Bois

All this thinking and writing about stealing brought to mind Picasso's famous saying:

Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.

It makes him sound edgy and brave, doesn't it? and I wonder when he said it, because all this thinking about stealing also brought to mind a pivotal point in Picasso's aesthetic, if not moral, development. I haven't found out yet, but I wonder: did he make this claim before or after the 1911 Affair of the Statuettes?

I came across this true story in Calvin Tompkins's lucid and luminous Duchamp, pages 105-6, which I'll both paraphrase and quote liberally.

In 1907, Guilliame Apollinaire befriended Géry Pieret, "a young Belgian drifter and petty thief," and employed him as his occasional secretary. One day Pieret went to the Louvre and came out "with two small stone sculptures under his coat."

Pieret later put out the story that he had done it as a joke, but the Picasso biographer John Richardson suggests another reason: Picasso had recently been looking hard at a new installation in the Louvre of ancient Iberian stone sculptures of the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., and Pieret, when he lifted two of these same Iberian pieces, almost certainly had the artist in mind. Pieret showed them to Picasso, at any rate, and Picasso promptly bought them. Certain aspects of their crude, primitively carved features soon turned up, moreover, in the heads of the two central figures in Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the revolutionary 1907 canvas that is considered to be the beginning of Cubism.

Pieret went to America, and when he returned four years later he was dressed to the nines and flush with money, "which he lost soon enough at the racetrack." Apollinaire bailed him out again, and ensconced him again, and Pieret repaid him by stealing yet another stone head from the Louvre and installing it on the mantelpiece at his host's apartment.

Apollinaire's tolerance for this engaging and somewhat crazy Belgian was running out, however, and he succeeded in evicting him from his apartment on August 21, 1911, which happened to be the same day that every Paris newspaper ran big headlines announcing that the Mona Lisa had disappeared from the Louvre.

Pieret had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa theft -- that's another story you can look up later -- but when the Paris-Journal offered a reward for the painting's recovery, Pieret "saw a chance to pull off a new scam." And off we go (you gotta love this guy):

He sold his most recently acquired Iberian head (the one over Apollinaire's mantel) to the Paris-Journal, along with his own colorful account of how he had spirited it out of the Louvre -- just to prove, he claimed, that the museum's security system was ineffectual. The Paris-Journal returned the sculpture to the Louvre withut revealing Pieret's identity, but Picasso and Apollinaire now became very nervous about the other two Iberian heads. Terrified that their involvement with Pieret would become known, Apollinaire gave him 160 francs and put him on a train to Marseilles, the usual sanctuary for petty criminals on the lam. Picasso and Apollinaire spent that night lugging Picasso's two stolen heads around Paris in a suitcase, waiting for the right moment to drop them in the Seine [!!!]; the moment never arrived, and Apollinaire subsequently took them to the offices of the Paris-Journal, under a pledge of secrecy, for restitution to the Louvre. Someone must have tipped off the authorities, though, because on September 7 the police raided Apollinaire's apartment, found some incriminating letters from Géry Pieret, and took Apollinaire off to the Santé, Paris's central prison, as a prime suspect in the Mona Lisa theft.

The police kept him there for six days and might have kept him longer if his many friends in the art and literary establishments had not brought pressure for his release. The worst moment came when Picasso, whose name had been wrung from the suspect during interrogation, was brought in and questioned. The presiding magistrate asked him whether he knew Apollinaire, who was also in the room, and the pale and trembling Picasso mumbled, to his lifelong shame, "I have never seen this man."

I doubt only one phrase in this account: " . . . to his lifelong shame." Picasso was an instrumental operator from the get-go here. As Apollinaire's friend of many years, he knew the latter's history with the Belgian, and he manipulated Pieret; he got to lovingly use the heads for as long as he wanted to create what some claim is an immortal painting; and he was willing to dump priceless ancient artworks from his own ancestors into a stinking river, and betray his friend, to save his own ass from deportation.

It was ironic to read this story in a biography of Marcel Duchamp, a stand-up man to whom Picasso pales in every way that really matters.

Posted by Jerome at 01:55 PM | TrackBack

March 08, 2004

Stealing and Peeling / Everything Is Free Now

by Jerome du Bois

When I gave myself to you, you took only my heart. -- old Lyle Lovett line.
When I gave myself to you, you took only my ©. -- new Lyle Lovett line.

Listen to this:

Everything is free now, that's what they say.
Everything I've ever done, they're gonna give it away.
Someone hit the big score; they figured it out:
That we're gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay.

I can get a tip jar. Gas up the car.
Try to make a little change, down at the bar.
Or I can get a straight job -- I've done it before.
Never minded workin' hard -- it's who I'm workin' for.

Everything is free now, that's what they say.
Everything I ever done, gotta give it away.
Someone hit the big score, they figured it out:
That we're gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay.

Everyday I wake up, humming a song.
But I don't need to run around: I'll just stay here at home,
and sing a little love song to my love and myself.
If there's something that you want to hear,
you can sing it yourself.

'Cause everything is free now. That's what I said.
No one's got to listen to the words in my head.
Someone hit the big score, and I figured it out,
And I'm gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay.

[My emphasis.] Words and music by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, 2001, from the album Time (The Revelator) by "a two-person band called Gillian Welch."

This song is about illegal music downloading, on the first level of truth. But I'm going to extend its meaning to include what I'll call stealing and peeling -- the vampiric appropriation and cynical decalcomania proliferating in the current art world. I'm going to claim that fully sixty artists of the 108 selected for this year's Whitney Biennial -- I have a list! -- make art this way. (The list is at the very end of this post; every name is hot-linked.) I also point to eighteen local (Phoenix, Arizona) artists, who serve as tiny mirrors reflecting the shiny glare from the Whitney. The dark side of all this superficiality is a casual cruelty -- sociopathy without the bodies. For one thing, you'd never know 9/11 ever happened, which ought to set off alarms -- but I don't hear any. Sadly, I predict it will be the year of the likes of Christian Holstad, Eli Sudbrack (you say his silly alias), Barnaby Furnas and (dealer) Daniel Reich.

Before continuing to the rest of this post, the reader ought to jump all the way down to the list and sample a dozen or so artists, and then read the piece. In fact, if you hit every link and studied all sixty artists, you wouldn't need to read this post at all.

[Stealing and Peeling expands on Stealing is the New Appropriation and the Jon Routson piece, and serves as another entry for An Aesthetic First Aid Manual for Artists™.]

I've been listening to the version of "Everything is Free" by the Holmes Brothers on their new album Simple Truths, with Popsy Doyle, who must be in his sixties, singing the lead. These guys have played professionally, in one way or another, with one band or another, separately or together, for over forty years. They have over twenty solid years together, and they've been everywhere and recorded with everyone. In every lick and groove you'll find their blood, sweat, spit, tears, fears, and jubilation.

Now behold, over the same twenty years, every year, the empty-headed generations tumbling out of art schools like so many fat babies who early on hit the big score and figured it out: they don't need ideas -- ideas are hard -- they can steal them instead, from those who can't help but bring originality and novelty into the world. First, their parents pressured art teachers from K to 12 to grease the skids for their genius kids. Then the Lacan-Derrida-Cixous crew dismantled their minds, and made 52-pick-up out of the rational deck of Western culture -- especially personal responsibility -- but there are plenty of decades left around to rummage in. So now many of these MFAs, priveleged, unreflective, instrumentally ambitious -- they range from those in their twenties to some in their early forties -- simply sample the abundance of others' creativity in what they see as an atomized culture -- in which no scale of values can find purchase -- and steal the work of those who did the work. If it was good enough for Warhol/Koons, it's perfect for them. And there's a chill about them -- what heart, Lyle? You get the feeling they'd steal the face right off your head and walk away without a backward glance for your reaction.

As a quick first example: Tom Burr, with his Deep Purple. It's a replica -- in painted purple plywood -- of Richard Serra's Tilted Arc, and it steals from and peels off that earlier piece's form and history, respectively. No Tilted Arc, no Deep Purple -- it's as simple as that; he'd be stuck with his usual boring architectural minimalism. Now he's got the same, but with a tiny whiff of art-historical cachet. These days, that's enough to boost you over the threshhold into recognition, and that's pitiful. You can read the rationale on the Whitney website:

Part of The Contemporary Series, the exhibition is organized by Debra Singer, associate curator of contemporary art. Singer noted, "Several eclectic sources served as inspiration for this piece, including contemporary 'Goth' rock styles, the 19th-century writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and most evidently, Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Working in tandem, Deep Purple's various associations convey an underlying melancholy or mourning for a bygone time of more expansive possibilities for public art."

Serra, Poe, defunct rock band, purple . . . I was wondering when someone would connect those obvious dots. No, sorry, it's just four random cards from the deck. ("Eclectic" tries to elude responsibility here.) Nothing logically or naturally unites them, only the first concept is important, but that doesn't matter, there's a pomopoetic arc here. (And it's funny to read Singer saying the piece mourns the lost expansiveness of public art, since the Whitney itself has exploded out into Central Park recently, with fifty-foot steel trees and fifty-foot inflatable ketchup bottles.)

Holland Cotter provides other examples in the Sunday, March 7, 2004 NYT Whitney preview. Here is Terence Koh's

all-white installation, with albino birds, piles of unidentified powder and a rhinestone-encrusted switchblade . . . [which] makes references to a range of subcultures: domestic, adolescent, queer and Goth, and, most importantly, raises the issue of whiteness as a racial identity.

Why, yes, my dear boy, of course it does. These people get so excited when they make references or raise an issue, like the kid in the back of the class always straining with that upraised hand. They're always exploring issues surrounding something, too. No conclusions, just exploring, whaddayawant? Another favorite is that a lot of art nowadays makes you think. Yes? It makes you think what about what? Say what? Say no more. Don't you get it? There are no modifiers, no adjectives, no objects. It's like an on/off switch. The default position is not-thinking, so if the art makes you think -- anything -- it's done its job.

According to Cotter, Sam Durant [not on my list] "references Kurt Cobain, Robert Smithson, the Black Panthers, Isamu Noguchi, Kent State and Public Enemy."

Yukata Sone combines marble, LA freeway interchanges, and the jungle. Ernesto Caivano's drawings are like

a science-fiction "Faerie Queene" involving a moral quest, a hard-won marriage, unearthly creatures and Big Science. No, it's just Matthew Ritchie writ tiny.

Hernan Bas steals from Melville, the Boy Scout Manual, the Hardy Boys, and "Carrie," and queers them all out.

Thanks, Mr. Cotter. Back to the show. Here's the core of the Biennial's themes, from the aforelinked Whitney press release:

An engagement with the artmaking, popular culture, and politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s;

* The construction of fantastic worlds, uncanny spaces, and new narrative forms, often incorporating psychedelia, the Gothic, and the apocalyptic;

* A prevalence of abstract and figurative paintings and drawings as well as hand-processed films, frequently involving obsessive working of line, surface, and image.

Ranging from the apocalyptic to the ethereal, the fantastic to the political, and the sensual to the obsessive, many of the works convey an underlying sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the world today. The Biennial artists have drawn from a variety of sources including music, pulp fiction, the occult, recent and past art history, cinema, and current political events. A direct engagement with materials and process, paralleled by an embracing of ornament and surface, is evident throughout the show, which includes strong groupings of painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, installation, video, filmmaking, photography, performance, and digital art.

Picking through the flurry of fluff from this blizzard of p.r. piffle, we see a safe retreat into the decades-old disco-glitter television world of these artists' childhoods; the familiar colors and shapes of Pop; the reassuring surreality of videogame sci-fi, with its predictable conflicts infinitely resettable; the infantile rediscovery and reification of colorful surface texture; and the comforting fascination and self-hypnosis of obsessive repetition. (The last two I use myself in my own work, but only as armature, as means for a projected vision, not for amniotic thumb-sucking.)

Some sources of inspiration missing from the Whitney's list: history, science, the idea of the citizen, the recognition of human dignity, a sense of shame, a sense of pride, and, most importantly, the future. It's all about reassurance, familiar, safe, warm, plush and pink. Even the horror is just horrorshow, greasepaint goth. Authenticity? A lived life? How? They've lived their lives in schools and screens, pleasing teachers and mainlining fantasy. So that part of the source of their cruelty lies in simple arrogant ignorance of the real world, and a fear of engaging it.

Now, how about a few alternative provisional categories and descriptions, just to get some handles on this crew? Here's where you'll find each local focus as well, which may not be interesting to those outside Arizona. You'll see where to skip this dish if you want to, but it does reflect the larger picture. (For all 78 artists, I'll be relying on previous, though representative work, in what follows.)

Originanity (8): Tom Burr, David Altmejd, Dike Blair, Taylor Davis, Wade Guyton, Mark Handforth, Glenn Kaino, Matthew Ronay. These people might make one-of-a-kind pieces, but they have one of two problems: either they could easily have been made differently, out of different materials, even adding or leaving out elements, with no loss or gain, so there's nothing urgent or inevitable about them, and that makes them ho-hum (they're peeling right in front of you, in other words); or their uniqueness is just dumb, such as Handforth's Vespa with melted candles all over it, or Kaino's spinning Aeron chair. (Note the brands.)

Busy Doing Nothing (7): Liz Craft (Disney biker), Rob Fischer (useless architecture), Sandra Gibson, Katie Grinnan (piles of things), Julie Mehretu (layers of things), Dave Muller (rooms full of other people's things), Tam Van Tran (stapled-together things). Obsessive craftsmanship; thousands of this, hundreds of that, layers and layers of the other thing. You can get an idea of the aphasic superficial earnestness of these artists by listening to filmmaker Sandra Gibson introducing a film series:

The Matter With Film is a play on the condition of film-as-matter and its matter-of-factness in the face of emerging technologies. What's the matter with film anyway? Why does it matter? As a matter-of-fact film matters. How? It matters as soon as the maker takes the material at hand. In this meeting between film-as-matter and hand something is grasped. Grasped into matter. In the grasping of matter the latter grasps the hand in return, slaps back so to speak. Back-and-forth. The objectification of film as matter and the matter of objectifying go hand in hand, catch one another. The Matter With Film is a catchy title for a curious game we play with a bit of matter. Once handed, we can matter-the-matter so that it matters. For all the films in this program matter in the face of what does not matter, that is of that which matters and relentlessly chatters.

These people should check to see how Rachel Harrison, Evan Holloway, Jason Meadows and Rachel Feinstein are doing; judging by the inventory of the latter two at Corvi-Mora, I wonder if their stuff is moving?

Local versions include Glen Allen, Sue Chenoweth, and Marlyne Jones.

Local focus:Those latter two -- Marlyne Jones, the teacher, and Sue Chenoweth, her student -- illustrate in miniature the educational culture I referred to above, wherein everyone is a genius. Last year, when Catherine King attacked Ms. Chenoweth's artwork in the Arizona Biennial, Ms. Jones wrote her a letter defending Ms. Chenoweth -- but not on aesthetic grounds. She hadn't seen the Tucson work, so it was basically "if you knew Sue like I knew Sue and what she's been through you'd have OCD too, boo-hoo." (You can read about it here.) After 35 years, Ms. Jones is still there for her student. We've never heard from the student herself, but we can see the consequences of her psy ops everywhere. If you look at Ms. Chenoweth's bio on the eyelounge website (which also carries Ms. Jones), she dates the beginning of her career as 1968 -- when she was still in high school. A couple of months ago she had an exhibition downtown that consisted on hundreds and hundreds of drawings from high school. Every little thing she does is magic, apparently. And for her latest work, for this year's Art Detour, she scattered sixty decorated doors in various locations downtown. She might know why, but since her favorite word is "ineffable," I doubt we'll be hearing any reasons. And she's an art teacher, too: ineffable should be anathema to a communicator. (Unless, for her, art isn't about saying anything anymore.)


Pooped Out Pop (13): Slater Bradley, Santiago Cucullu, Wynne Greenwood, Los Super Elegantes, Virgil Marti, Aleksandra Mir, Julie Atlas Muz, Dario Robleto, Yutaka Sone, Eli Sudbrack, Fred Tomaselli, Banks Violette, TJ Wilcox. Bradley hired and filmed a Kurt Cobain (him again?) impersonator. Greenwood does karaoke in triplicate drag. LSE is a multi-culti camp rock group. Marti glorifies high school bullies in wallpaper. Muz rips off burlesque. Robleto makes buttons out of Billy Holliday records. Sudbrack melts Peter Max into Milton Glaser all over the floor and walls. I don't know if Tomaselli can draw a bird or a leaf, but he sure can cut them out of Audubon catalogues like an Xactosonofabitch. Violette does Fraktured blackmetal album cover art.

Local versions abound: Colin Chillag, Randy Slack, Sloane McFarland, Grant Wiggins, Oliver Hibert, Mark Freedman.

Local focus: McFarland's latest video simply shows him singing and playing the Beatles' Norwegian Wood. Snooze. But about these last three, who call themselves the TRA25 Capsule after some Tokyo bolthole hotel design. . . Phoenix Art Museum curator Brady Roberts was so impressed with them he gave them a room to decorate install for an exhibition called, innovatively and refreshingly, Fresh Paint. (Have you ever . . . !) Their theme? Hang on: Sex, Drugs, and Rock N'Roll. (Have you ever . . . ! Boys, you slay me!) It just doesn't get any fresher than that.

Casual Comic Cruelty (10): Laylah Ali (Punch N' Ju-day), Amy Cutler (women with chairs on heads), Sue DeBeer (beating punk's dead horse), Barnaby Furnas (splatter is fun), Chloe Piene (power and survival), Catherine Sullivan (Weekly World News), Erick Swenson (mutated animals), Jim Trainor (snuff comics), Eric Wesley.

Local version: Jon Haddock. Local aside: We've covered this ground before. (By the way, Jon, our questions still stand.)

A New Vapidity (7): Lecia Dole-Recio, Katy Grannan, Noemie Lafrance, Cameron Martin, Laura Owens, Amy Sillman, Alec Soth, Olav Westphalen.A lot of catatonic youth reclining in boring suburban interiors. Owens and Sillman make floaty paintings. As for Dole-Recio, here I will quote from the well-known art writer Bruce Hainley, in his positive review of one of Dole-Recio's collage/paintings:

In Untitled (all works 2001) a smallish piece of cardboard has been painted a foggy gray. Rhomboids have been cut out of it and most of the holes refitted with the excised pieces but not quite cleanly. At times one can see through the gaps to the wall or to the glimmer of a transparent-tape backing; elsewhere the crevices reveal only darkness. On the cardboard's surface Dole-Recio has painted circles, sometimes rounds within squares, in various shaded gradations and then covered them with various cloudy stripes -- frost, periwinkle, slate -- leaving only the ghostliest residue of the circles. What's striking is the seeming casualness, the almost trashed quality, of the unerring construction (it looks like it could fall apart but, spookily, it is the appearance of the holes and shadows that fastens it together). The thing is a painting, but a painting that has taken, seemingly without effort, many of the constituent limits, histories, and theories of painting apart: Combining cardboard, paper, and tape but not canvas, it is a "shaped" form (slightly askew, a dinged rectangle) in which Michael Fried's vaunted absorption has become a material affect of cardboard soaking up the wetness of the paint.

Once again, we see the aphasic fascination with the mundane, the obvious -- and the pallid. (I mean, frost, periwinkle, slate -- both artist and writer have been watching way too much Frasier.)

But the funniest piece here is by LaFrance, a dance director. So, for a dance, she stages it on twelve flights of marble stairs.

Descent, through movement and a sense of physicality, breathes life into a fixed environment?welve flights of curving marble stairwell. LaFrance forces the audience to contemplate the vertigo-inducing verticality of the space, placing the dancers in covert, liminal spaces: snaking down the banister, sneaking out of a corner, lying on the stairs, and so on.

Now, consider the reason for the piece:

LaFrance describes the effect as "created for the audience, where they are and what they see. From above, below, beside, it is all about that? question of angle. How this angle has an effect on what you see, how the different levels, the optical illusion, the repetition, how all these things apply to your point of view, from where you see the piece."

Is this really sophisticated, or simply obvious? Why was this considered by anyone to be deep thinking?

Local versions: Carrie Bloomston, Greg Esser,Annie Lopez, Melissa Martinez.

Local focus: Carrie Bloomston is a nice example of a slew of artists Catherine King has characterized, literally, as "Misty Doodling and her little sister Tracy." In Bloomston's review of her own art (?) in Shade magazine, which I would link to if they would keep up to date on their website, she writes:

I use techniques from art history -- techniques which have for centuries been applied to still lives, landscapes and portraits and I use them as tools for abstraction: sheer glazes, mists, sfumatto, [sic] the rapid brush mark of Zen painting.

Sorry, Ms. Bloomston, but the whole purpose of sfumato, which is built up layer by layer with different-sized brushes, is illusion, and that doesn't really fit with your gestural abstraction. I think you like the gilt-edged word sfumato, and you're stealing its luster to bolster your very thin work. Why would I connect Ms. Bloomston with vapid superficiality? Let her explain, from the same article:

One of my all-time favorite pieces of art is a letter that Claes Oldenburg wrote for his wife, Coosje van Bruggen. He wrote it on lined notebook paper -- I once saw it in a book -- I think it's made with ink -- just telling of his trip to the grocery store or something and what time it is and that he loves her. That simple object is probably one of his most profound works. He loves his wife -- how beautiful to love so much that he could spend so long leaving one little note.

This person graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design over a dozen years ago. Is there something wrong with my standards?

Gimmick Geeks (9): Cory Arcangel, Ernesto Caivano, Brody Condon, Harrell Fletcher, Sam Green & Bill Siegel, Sharon Lockhart, Robyn O'Neil, Eve Sussman, Julianne Swartz. These are usually one-trick ponies: "You know -- for kids!" Arcangel hacks outdated videogames to update them. Brody Condon constructs videogame screens. Green & Siegel did a documentary on the Weather Underground. Harrell Fletcher does stuff like this:

MAPS: I went on a walk everyday while I was at Tamarind. I always started on the main street there by the university, and when someone asked me for change I gave them some and then I had them draw me a map of their day -- the places they had been that led them to the spot where we met. I then would draw a map of my day too. We put the maps together in various ways. It's just another way of making something more visible that is very normal and common place but is also usually unseen.

The REAL ESTATE print is a case of what I call "everyday abstraction" that exists in the world all of the time, but we are so used to giving names to things, recognizing things, that we sometimes can't see how abstract everything really is. So this is a physical representation of a pre-existing abstract set of shapes. I took an Albuquerque real estate ad and covered up all of the foliage in the picture with a light green color. It makes some really nice weird shapes, doesn't it?

Nice weird shapes . . . Put down the crayon, Harrell. Presumably intelligent people paid for this guy to visit them at the Tamarind Institute.

Local versions include Heidi Hesse, Gregory Sale, Theodore Troxel, Jennifer Urso.

Local focus: Gregory Sale is a good example here. He's done some Jerky-Boy-type phone impersonations (but with a gay twist). Also, he got a lot of play locally for a "phone intervention," telephonically hijacking a Yoko Ono retrospective. (Yeah, I know, I didn't hear about it, either.) People are so easily impressed -- or, as Catherine King says, "People love mediocrity best."

Note to Mr. Sale: Sit down and listen to a story. Back in 1971, when you were very young, an original phone phreak named Captain Crunch (probably Steven Wozniack), sitting at a row of public phones in LAX, used the little blue box he created to free-call long-distance operators across the country, then England, then France, then Germany, hopping, globe-hopping . . . until he had the last one, in Hawaii, ring the phone right next to him, and then he answered it: "Hello, who is this?" -- hearing his own voice calling to himself all the way around the world. And that was just a hoot, mon; not art at all. Life always trumps art, Mr. Sale.

Token Gays (5): Hernan Bas, Christian Holstad, Terence Koh, Catherine Opie. Now that the love that dared not speak its name has become the lifestyle that won't shut up -- as someone said -- it's become boring. Four, only four, openly gay artists! Clearly, pansexuality needs new twists. These five try. Holstad actually got press for downloading every New York Public Library reference to "homosexual," printing them all out, and creating an installation from the results. Local version: Gregory Sale (see above)

Token Political (1): Emily Jacir. Pass the Kleenex to the Palestinians. Even in this charged situation -- Israeli border crossings -- she hives off other people's specific needs and desires, sucking up their pain and printing it out neatly on little displays. No locals, except maybe Barbara Penn and the pathetic Michael 23, and that oughta tell ya somethin.

This summary is incomplete for sure, but enough, I think, to establish my point: that shallowness of affect -- an unthinking, uncaring attitude towards ideas, emotions, other human beings, and towards oneself, in which taking anything for one's use is fair game -- pervades this Whitney Biennial, and definitely has a presence in Phoenix. I am pointing it out. Maybe the tiller is turning again, towards dignity and the future and real standards, who knows? Both Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton, a pair of intellectual cowards, admitted the postmodern boat they helped to build has sunk for good. But did you notice that neither of them even blinked? (And they'll never refuse the residuals and the royalties.) Talk about commitment. Fitzgerald said about Gatsby: "He paid a high price for living too long with a single dream." Now that the undead have taken over and everything is free, we're all paying a high price for too many of these zombies living too long without a single dream.

Appendix: The List

Laylah Ali
David Altmejd
Cory Arcangel/BEIGE
Eli Sudbrack / assume vivid astro focus
Hernan Bas -- David Wojnarowicz weeps
Dike Blair
Slater Bradley
Tom Burr --
Ernesto Caivano
Liz Craft --
Santiago Cucullu
Amy Cutler
Taylor Davis
Sue DeBeer
Lecia Dole-Recio
Rob Fischer
Harrell Fletcher
Barnaby Furnas
Sandra Gibson
Katy Grannan
Sam Green & Bill Siegel
Katie Grinnan
Wade Guyton
Mark Handforth
Christian Holstad
Emily Jacir
Glenn Kaino
Terence Koh
Noemie Lafrance
Sharon Lockhart
Los Super Elegantes
Virgil Marti
Cameron Martin
Julie Mehretu
Aleksandra Mir
Dave Muller
Julie Atlas Muz
Robyn O'Neil
Catherine Opie
Laura Owens
Chloe Piene
Dario Robleto
Matthew Ronay
Anne-Marie Schleiner,Brody Condon, and Joan Leandre
(the "Velvet-Strike" team)
Amy Sillman
Yutaka Sone
Alec Soth
Catherine Sullivan
Eve Sussman
Julianne Swartz
Erick Swenson
Fred Tomaselli
Tracy and the Plastics (Wynne Greenwood)
Jim Trainor
Tam Van Tran
Banks Violette
Eric Wesley
Olav Westphalen
TJ Wilcox

Posted by Jerome at 10:44 AM | TrackBack