February 2010

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A dear friend who is also a neighbor announced quite unexpectedly last night that he had decided to sell his beautiful new condo and move into a home built in the mid-1800s 20 miles away. “Be happy for me!” he pleaded, seeing the anticipated loss of his frequent visits painted plainly on my face.

Of course I will always want the best for him. That’s not the point. Somewhere between my sorrow for the potential loss of our sweet proximity (not a trivial issue in relationships) and an increasing wariness about complexifying my own life in any unnecessary fashion, I am left with a quiet sigh of resignation. One must do what one must. But who the hell knows what that is? I’ve given up thinking I had any clue long ago.

However. The next morning the account below arrived from our mutual friend Andrew about a recent saga from his own version of the Herculean Older Home Ownership Manual. Is it coincidence or prescience? And of course, as is Andrew’s gift, a ceiling in need of a face lift is never just about house repairs. It expands quite naturally to include the deep territories of our bodies and our souls.

Walking downstairs [I] heard a soggy drip in the dark. I switched on the living room light and found the ceiling at the far end had pooped a pasty white plaster onto our area carpet, spattered the upholstered sitting chairs, effectively re-classified several of my color-coded books, and water-damaged the old upright piano a turn of the screw further into junk. The ceiling was stained and dripping, with yellowish fault lines, and jagged plaster edges where, like a burst adult diaper, it still excreted a slow drip of chalky goop.

I hauled Dukee’s step ladder from our garage and out back through the snow in a tingle of urgency, but found the rear roof dry. I checked the attic — also dry. In the end I noticed a pool of water under the toilet tank in our upstairs bathroom, fed by a steady drip from a loose nut at a pipe joint. I shut off the feed and began the scooping and sponging, even as discolored water dripped for another 12 hours into our living room.

Every homeowner must master the grim physics of entropy. Shutters weather with time; coats of paint which once fit like ballroom gloves, now wrinkle, chip and flake; and the architecture sags like an aging midriff. The physics of house and body both point to loss of order and disassembly. The doctors can tighten my nuts and dredge a few pipes but all things end…

I am the watcher and the watched. Usually the natural man dominates, the cartoon personality, donut crumbs on his chin, snoozing at the levers of the Springfield nuclear power plant which is showing signs of my 60 years. Other times, I am the last of Hirohito’s foot soldiers, still hiding in a filthy cave on some once contested Pacific isle, surviving on roots and nuts, oblivious that the rising sun set long since. Unchecked the body profoundly isolates. I am the solitary keeper in a lighthouse beat by unstopping sea waves, visited once a month by the supply packet. I’m not sure even whether I am indeed the keeper or merely some feedback loop of the lighthouse itself. I feel like Pinocchio putting carpenter’s saw to limb and watching astonished as sawdust pours from the veins.

Khrushchev at the U.N. crudely jested that “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there.” Similarly, medical technicians spelunking up rectum for a colonoscopy, up urethra into the bladder, down throat in an upper endoscopy, even a snaky camera tube up my nose, catch nary a glimpse of spirit, not even a shadow of something eavesdropping from behind the arras. Occam’s razor shaves away the stubble of soul, but the great super-growth of consciousness remains untouched.

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El Anatsui

Installation views of El Anatsui at Jack Shainman Gallery

It’s hard to not find El Anatsui’s work beguiling. The first piece I experienced was at the De Young Museum in San Francisco before El Anatsui’s break out into international fame at the last Venice Biennale. I was knocked out by the tactility of his tapestry in metal, particularly his singular cobbling of bottle caps, liquor bottle lids and wire into a lush wall of color and glimmery metallic glow. His pieces are always fun to look at.

El Anatsui is a beautiful, articulate, soft-spoken man. A Ghanian who teaches art in Nigeria, he talks about traditions that are specific to his nation and his experience as an African. Most of the reports I’ve read about him comment on how little disruption this quick rise to fame has had on his rhythms and outlook. He talks about how his work is an attempt to blend “ocular beauty” with something more, how these pieces, made from the detritus from liquor containers, also speak to the role liquor has played in the life of Africans. No polemic here, just a steady gaze at life. Like his work, El Anatsui is also beguiling.

His idiom is very familiar to me now, but I am still a fan. And if you are too, this is a good time to see many of his works on display in New York City. The Metropolitan Museum recently installed a piece, Between Heaven and Earth, in their African Art galleries, and Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea has a slew of them on display through March 13.

A few close ups of his works:

Note: Watch this video clip of El Anatsui installing his piece, Between Heaven and Earth, at the Metropolitan Museum. And here is an earlier post about his work on this blog: El Anatsui, in New York (from January 8, 2008)

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Jeffrey Inaba’s installation warms the cold cement interior of the Whitney Museum lower level

It is a ritual I have witnessed for over twenty years (and one I have participated in with variations in intensity): The Whitney Biennial Grouse. The cacophony of anger, outrage and “how could they?” that erupts around this show every two years has become as much a part of its tradition and import as the work on display. And as if to codify (and perhaps co-opt?) that external form of the Whitney ritual, this year’s catalog includes news clippings from previous shows. The headlines read as vituperously as the American press’ reception to the 1913 Amory Show.

I have referenced this phenomena before (see Gimme Shelter) and have to smile when I think about how many years I have been approaching this event as the “ever contentious, rhetoric-infested, ‘I can’t wait to hate it’ Whitney Biennial.” So in the spirit of the times, when old forms are imploding and new ones emerging, I have embraced a new methodology with which to approach the show.

Here’s my new game plan:

1. Treat it as you would a gallery exhibit, nothing more.
2. Go with another artist friend who is not bitter, narrow-minded or prone to grousing . (My partner for this and all future Biennials will be the inimitable Paula Overbay.)
3. Find the work that moves you. There have been years when there was only one. But one is more than zero. And this year there were several!
4. Wear earplugs.*

And this is the year to approach the show without all the vitriol because it is different. For the first time, more women than men. And fewer artists are included so the experience is more manageable. I enjoyed the day. Truly.

*The only negative comment I will make about the 2010 Whitney Biennial is the unfortunate spillover of installation soundtracks into every gallery. There is work in this show that deserves quiet and self-reflection. This was impossible given the curatorial decision to blend media and formats. So Suzan Frecon’s masterful pieces can only be seen in concert with a completely incongruous soundtrack emanating from the Bruce High Quality Foundation‘s installation next door. I like both of these works, but they should not be sharing the same wall. It’s like trying to roll out a delicate confection on a garlic cutting board.

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Here is a sampling of my favorites. Each artist’s name is linked to the Whitney Museum site so you can read more about the artist and the works included in the show. BTW, these are in order if you start on the top floor and work down.

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Leslie Vance

Vance reminds me of a more lyrical version of Tomma Abts. Her work has a very specific technique and approach, but the results are quite lyrical and evocative. Beautifully painted.

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Curtis Mann

Mann is able to bring together photography, retinality (a “painterly” sense) and politics in a cogent and innovative fashion. Very memorable.

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Tauba Auerbach

A young artist who already has a number of bodies of work is exhibiting extraordinary large scale trompe-l’œil paintings. Fresh, fun and intriguing.

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Suzan Frecon

One of the older artists in the show (go girl!), Frecon is exhibiting two paintings that are absolutely exquisite. Subtle and yet strong, powerful and yet intimate. I could have stood with them for a long time were it not for extenuating curatorial circumstances. (OK, enough. I’ve already made my case. No grousing!)

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Pae White

White’s piece is a massive tapestry that is based on an image of light reflecting off of metallic surfaces. This work is so massive and yet lyrical, beautifully attentive to both the craft and the aura. Wow.


Aurel Schmidt

If there is a breakout darling from the show it is probably newcomer Schmidt who is 27 yeas old and untrained . Who needs art school when you can draw like this one can? A must see.

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Jeffrey Inaba

The images at the top of the post are a better view of architect Inaba’s massive upside down flowers hanging over the lower level. They slowly change color and are such a perfect counterpoint to the hard edge qualities of that open space in the museum. I wish they could stay as a permanent installation.

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My favorite review of the show is (of course) by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine. It is so worthy of a full read, as is this biennial.

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View of the wilderness in New Mexico from my friend Anne’s remote home

Women

Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.

They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear.

They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.

They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaninglessness
Too tense, or too lax.

They hear in every whisper that speaks to them
A shout and a cry.
As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills
They should let it go by.

–Louise Bogan

Some poem, isn’t it?
Bogan is one of my favorites. I’ve written about her here before:

Louise Bogan: A Poet’s Poet
Now That I Have Your Heart by Heart

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Open and ready: Art smart guy Jerry Saltz

I am off to New York City for a couple of days and will return to Boston on Friday.

In the meantime here’s just about the best message I’ve received in a long time. This wisdom came to me from Jerry Saltz, someone I hold in the highest regard.

Any time I’ve read your blog I’ve really enjoyed it.
Way to go.
Join the fray.
Two rules:
1. You can be mean to or attack me anytime you want; you may not be mean to or attack anyone else (you may, of course, disagree to your heart’s content).
2. Keep it short.

Thank you,
Jerry

As always, right on.

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Matthew Barney leaves his mark, Drawing Restraint, inside SFMOMA

Follow up on an earlier post: Chloe Veltman has written a very good piece in the Times highlighting the two shows I reviewed here (Reporting on the Other Coast) currently on view at MOCA Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I am always pleased to see increased commentary and coverage of the left coast art scene. It’s my home town bias speaking.

Good follow up:
Keeping up on the intelligent writing found on Chloe Veltman’s blog.
New York Times’ new Bay Area blog.

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According to the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, sexual fantasizing improves analytical skills. But daydreaming about love impacts your creativity.

This sounds downright Jill Bolte Taylor-esque. Left hemisphere versus right.

Melinda Wenner of Scientific American goes into more depth.

Previous research suggests that our problem-solving abilities change depending on our states of mind and that love—a broad, long-term emotion—triggers global brain pro­cessing, a state in which we see the big picture, make broad asso­ciations and connect disparate ideas. Sex, on the other hand—more specific and here and now—initiates more local processing, in which the brain zooms in and focuses on details. Researchers…wondered whether thinking about love might actually help people perform better on creative tasks, whereas imagining sex might prime people to do better on tasks requiring analytical thinking.

So researchers staged it this way: 30 participants were asked to imagine a “long, loving walk with their partners.” Another 30 were asked to imagine sex with someone they did not love. Then cognitive tests were administered.

As predicted, the love-primed ones per­formed much better on creative tasks and scored worse on analytical ques­tions, whereas the reverse was true of those who thought about sex. The researchers also subliminally primed a separate group of subjects to think about love or sex and got similar results.

“I was surprised about the strength of the effects,” says author Jens För­ster, a social psychologist at the University of Amsterdam. The re­searchers wonder whether the “big picture” perspective that lovebirds share strengthens their relationship, too, by helping couples overlook personal weaknesses and daily hassles.

So is this distinction prescriptive? In other words, when my partner Dave waxes particularly analytical, perhaps the proper response should be to give him that “you’ve been fantasizing again, haven’t you?” look…

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Terry Winters, Freeunion (Photo: Matthew Marks Gallery)
Winters was highlighted as one of Carol Diehl’s favorite “overlooked” artists. He’s on my list too.

Over the week since Roberta Smith published her article, Post-Minimal to the Max in the Sunday Times (I wrote about it here) the floodgates opened. Do a search and you will find thousands and thousands of blogs referencing her piece.

The Times chose two letters to publish today:

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Roberta Smith’s powerful article has given me the support that I as a painter desperately need. Reading her article gave me hope that what I have taken on as a personal responsibility for many years still has validity in this universe of big names and entertainment arenas.

People do want to be moved and stirred by new emotions communicated by a canvas.

Thank you, Roberta Smith, for being a true critic.

–Barbara Coleman, New York

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Re “Post-Minimal to the Max” by Roberta Smith [Feb. 14]:

Brava to Roberta Smith. The institutions that are responsible for exposing the public to art are dependent on the minuscule but wealthiest segment of society for support, a fact that has inescapably has reduced art to a reflection of their superficial values — conformity, fashion, wealth, status and power.

Of course the mission of art is to remind a culture of those vulnerable, painful (but essential) truths of human nature that it works relentlessly to suppress. Only individuals, struggling on their own idiosyncratic journey to make peace with the invariable inner conflicts of their own humanity and find personal meaning in their lives, can serve that mission. As a result they will most likely find they are not happily welcomed in the world of pomp and power.

–Bruce Morse, Sharon CT

And here are a few selections from thoughtful bloggers:

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What gives the article its call-to-reason tone is the nature of the moment from which Smith is attempting to right our ship. Her argument is reminiscent of one recently put forth by the White House, attributing the success of Fox News to the simple fact that it is selling the clearest narrative for people to follow. So too in the Art world do we want clarity, and the more others are following something, the less likely will it be a waste of our time to do the same; at least we will have something to say when it comes up in conversation. Here Smith’s article rightly reminds us that the aim of the Arts was never for all of us perceive the same reality. We look for alternative ways of looking, or at least that’s why I got into this racket.

If, as Don Draper says, Happiness is a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that ‘Whatever you’re doing is OK,’ then surely nothing is more annoying than a Times critic who cries for a return to common sense. It is a risky position to take, as such a plea can easily make people feel judged for the fun they are having. To me it sounds like good advice though, for those in the Art world looking to move past the values inherited during the last decade’s proximity to the market.

Ben Wadler
Artcards Review

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The artists Smith would choose to feature are not necessarily those that populate my curatorial fantasies (for instance I’d start with Terry Winters, who has not yet had a solo museum exhibition in New York*) but not to quibble. Smith sums it up when she says, “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

Certain readers will take this as meaning that Smith is angling for a return to AbEx or somesuch, but I’ll interpret it my way. Readers of this blog know that I admire the work of Olafur Eliasson, who works with a team of collaborators and rarely executes anything himself, yet the aura of “intense personal necessity” surrounds everything he produces. It is also very highly developed. On the other hand, given how much art one sees that seems only half-realized, it’s important to recognize that process itself—the struggle to execute—can be an important path to new ideas. The stubborn development of technique (and by this I mean not facility, but the ideal vehicle for the concept) can provide the time required to take the art where it needs to go.

Carol Diehl
Carol Diehl’s Art Vent

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Spellbound

My friend Thalassa recently lent me her copy of Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, translated from the German. Our tastes are highly confluent, so I was ready and primed for something delicious. And indeed it is.

This book cast a spell on me. I don’t know what other language I could use to describe my reaction. To use the term “cast a spell” epitomizes occultiness (akin to Colbert’s truthiness) and a problematic term to use to describe an overwhelming attraction to a work of art, music or literature. But there is something about this kind of reaction that is different from the usual: the quality of the energetics is of another order. It is a response that is more than being “deeply touched”, “awed by the skill”, “overwhelmed by the beauty”, “fabulously rendered”, “masterfully constructed”—all terms that fall short. So I’m going with spell cast.

Night Train is a book that quickly divides the world into two groups—those that hate it and those that love it. A quick run through the 30+ reviews on Amazon gives graphic demonstration of an essentially bifurcated response to this very European novel (Pascal Mercier is actually Peter Bieri in real life, a Swiss writer, philosopher and professor.) For plot-loving readers this read is truly a wash out. But Mercier has mastered another way to engage the mind that is unlike any other book I know.

There are so many things about they way the story is told (and yes there is a story) that I find astounding. Characters dead and alive all come to cohabit the space of the novel. The narrative voice is often in the form of written treatises about moral philosophy, personal identity, meaning, cognition. That does sound awfully dry when I write those words, doesn’t it? Perhaps I should stop here and just say, give it a try. You will know by page 50 if this is going to put you in a space capsule and shoot you to another galaxy far, far away.

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Galactic beach wood, from Half Moon Bay

We fall into a story about enlightenment—about life, in fact—and we can get trapped in it for many lifetimes. I wonder more and more how well any life really fits a story. What if our life is not this, then that, in a flat and sensible way, but is equally round like a globe, like the earth itself? Maybe our life never did lie flat on the page and read from left to right.

Having a deeply non-languaged day, I was deeply moved by this quote from Susan Murphy (author of Upside-Down Zen: Finding the Marvelous in the Ordinary). It feels perfect. Another find from Whiskey River, a blog that just keep giving.

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