Kenneth Bergfeld, Cecile B. Evans, Matthew Angelo Harrison, Jamian Jullian-Villani, Josh Kline, Lynn Hershman Leeson
Jessica Silverman Gallery
488 Ellis Street, San Francisco
June 24 - August 27, 2016
Portraiture, of the self or otherwise, could ostensibly be considered the underlying, inherent objective of all art. The artist’s work, regardless of the form it takes, ultimately signals a snapshot of sorts, of them and their relationship or understanding of their surroundings. This is of course a much blown out interpretation of the form of portraiture, which, as we all well know, comes from a very long and sordid historical imperative. However, with this in mind, it is a particularly apt moment—one in which portraiture is making probably its biggest comeback ever via social media and its contention with the ominous threat of constant image-capturing surveillance—for an exhibition such as The Politics of Portraiture to take place.
Today’s incessant online version of portraiture in some ways thwarts the basis on which the practice of the form was initially conceived. Long ago, one’s portrait was a commemorative and stoic object to behold. It stated resolutely and objectively the stature and character of those depicted within its frame, and its existence was meant to represent the memory of the sitter’s name and family as such. Today, insta-portraiture, as we might refer to it, seems to generally fulfill the opposite purpose. Rather than standing as an everlasting symbol of one’s image and being, a selfie, snap, or friend pic is only a singular, finite, and fleeting, example of one’s personality and life. Such disposable images are meant to be scrolled through within seconds after which another image of something entirely different will undoubtedly appear in one’s feed, and the thought of one’s image of themselves will soon be forgotten.
But insomuch as each post that is uploaded to the virtual worlds wherein many of us now spend significant time “socializing,” is merely a miniscule fragment shared to update friends and random followers, we may find that the ongoing practice of such constant media engagement in the form of small, incremental contributions is actually a new mode of long-term self portraiture in and of itself. This nods again to the looming fear of the overseeing Panopticon; the brave new world in which everyone is a spy of sorts and everyone’s personal life and information is available for all to access.
These dystopian fears or premonitions can be seen bubbling under the surfaces of works within The Politics of Portraiture, such as the newest editions to Josh Kline’s series of cast hands holding various communication and recording devices, RAID Drives and Facial Incarceration Software(both 2015-16). The same sinister but alluring attitude can be found in the swaying motion of the digitally rendered, feminine arms and hands that create a mandala-like circular form in Cecile B. Evans’s holographic sculpture, Handy if you’re learning to fly IV (2016). Both of these works, and the overall practices of each of the artists, point at once to details of the current world in which most of us still operate and yet signal ways that the importance of individual identity is gradually melding more and more with the robotic, the mechanic, the faceless.
Works such as Detroit-based Matthew Angelo-Harrison’s self-built, 3D-printer, The Consequence of Platforms (2016)—which meanders in an unpredictable formation, pushing a thin tube of grey clay out onto a low-level flat surface into the shape of an unknowable male face—echoes the kind of liminal confusion produced by both Kline and Evans. Here, on one hand, the reflective nature of portraiture is addressed, by way of the printer’s ability to produce endless, seemingly identical copies without any sense of an original, yet with minor differentiation inflections like a Warhol screen print. On the other, reproduction and the parturition therein, is called into vital question once one considers the full extent of the advent of the DIY 3D printer, and its ability, among so many other things, to print another replica of itself.
With the inclusion of Lynn Hershman Leeson, The Politics of Portraiture seems to come full circle. Hershman Leeson has been fucking with the crumbling stability of the long-upheld aim to prove the permanence of the notion of identity itself since the early 1970s. Like other artists to follow, later in the ‘80s and ‘90s when identity politics became much more of a hotbed of theoretical discourse, Hershman Leeson understood and demonstrated early on the referential, collaged, easily established, and then re-established ways in which identities form and dissipate again and again. She proved this easily enough by creating an entirely other identity (Roberta Breitmore 1973-79) that included bank accounts, a drivers’ license and a personalized set of preferred beauty products.
In this way she has gotten it right all along, as our new, supposedly more social yet narcissistic forms of interactive online media reveal: the construct of one’s identity is not at all accessible by way of an image taken of their likeness, it is instead the larger picture one pieces together through fragments. And therein lays the frustrating conundrum.
A Place Like This
306 Winward Avenue, Venice, CA
March 13 – May 8, 2016
For most, up until very recently, Team Gallery has meant something somewhat distinctly “New York.” Its exhibitions tend to present young to mid-career artists whose work looks, feels, and behaves accordingly, utilizing bright colors, “cutting edge” technology and software, and contemporary vernaculars and senses of humor that can appeal to the youngest of art enthusiasts. Team Bungalow, on the other hand, can be found in the relatively laid back and funky town of Venice, CA. There, Team takes up shop not in a streamlined white cube like their sister gallery in Soho but instead in a domestic space just blocks from the beach, where bikes, rollerblades, hula-hoops and jam sessions are still the most prominent of daily actives.
The gallery is very small, with an arched roof and a wide side entrance. Inside, works are arranged in relation to a now unused fireplace and mantle; there are windows on all sides, adorned with quaint curtains, comfy designer chairs for chilling out, and a hotel lobby-esque bouquet of flowers atop an end table.
This intimate setting allows for a truly composed exhibition that functions as one comprehensive installation with a whole set of interlocking pieces. Furthermore, this cozy atmosphere becomes the perfect foil for the cult-like vibe of Berlin-based Si-Qin’s solo exhibition, A Place Like This, which hinges on new work that extends his ongoing ‘brand-as-project,’ PEACE, into New Peace—a simulated “spiritual institution.” PEACE debuted in 2014 and consists of a series of Abercrombie-inspired photos with a clear advertising-centric agenda. These images feature the adorable antics of three well built, white young men and one angelic, small-breasted white young woman who appear in various, idyllic outdoor settings. They relax in a lake near a perfectly rugged-looking wooden dock or in a manicured, empty field. In these images, the models tend to wear little to nothing—sometimes a pair of wet, white underwear for the men and a sheer white tank top with matching underwear for the woman. Conversely, New Peace includes no hot young things in any of its imagery. It is instead focused on the inherent natural beauty of plants, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, sunsets, and vast horizons. This is a noteworthy shift in that, while previously Si-Qin’sPEACE images pretended to sell a lifestyle made tangible by the generically attractive substrata of millennials, here, with New Peace, we see land, water trees, and rocks themselves all glossed up and ready to be marketed as consumable goods.
Upon entering Team Bungalow, the flattened out and over-glossed LED screens, presenting this lush imagery of nature, recall the “Euthanasia Poetic Scene” from the sci-fi classic,Soylent Green (1973), in which people volunteer to be humanely killed by the government in exchange for one chance to see, in an epic, surround screen video, scenes from the apocalyptic world’s long lost nature in all its god-like glory. The whole manner in which the scene for A Place Like This is set—with the puffy, tan leather chairs for relaxing placed next to the welcoming fresh flowers, brochures strategically placed nearby, and te fireplace full of white candles of varying heights—undoubtedly promises to exude tranquility, making it clear that you are entering a zone in which you are being sold something. The irony that all of the imagery is of natural wonders is what makes it so sad.
The tone of “the cult,” (particularly apropos for an exhibition in L.A. and even more so in the notoriously hippied-out area of Venice), is palpably intentional. Si-Qin perpetuates this with the undeniable beauty of the works on view, such as the very large scale LED screens conjoined at one corner of the space. One is titled, Visit Mirrorscape 2016: A Land Reflected (2016), which plays a snowy mountain scene littered with majestic green treetops, and the other, On the Path to Mirrorscape (A Place Like This) (2016), shows the continuation of the panoramic view with a denser bird’s-eye perspective of the forest and an adjacent ravine. The second of Si-Qin’s double-pronged approach comes with the over-propagandized façade that the show evokes, particularly with the central sculptural piece, Mirrorscape Effigy 1(2016), made with powder-coated aluminum, steel, electronics, plaster, sand, plastic botanicals, and vinyl, but which also appears like a miniature microcosmic model mirrored inwards onto itself into infinity.
It is precisely this unholy type of blending of the magnificence of nature with the pathetic yet often effective marketing strategies of neatly, individually packaged little stand-ins of something ultimately intangible, which allow for immediate, if not altogether authentic gratification, that is so much at the crux of American culture today, and therefore so clearly at the butt of Si-Qin’s highly stylized joke. Even the diorama-like flimsy-ness of Mirror Effigy 1, along with the “New Peace” logo prominently featured on its frame, speaks to the base level of shoddy production that so many companies that are ultimately in the comfort or beauty business, are all too well known for. The question posed by Si-Qin seems to be, how easily digestible is this scheme for you? How willing are you to allow yourself to be enveloped by the intoxication of these images of natural wonders, which we know could have been fully generated by image rendering software?
At the same time, with the notion of the cult, the spiritual, the all-encompassing organization that New Peace represents, the exhibition also proposes that perhaps the overall feeling that this type of imagery is, and has always been, meant to convey is enough at this point in time: that entire belief systems followed by the many can in fact be founded entirely on the illusion of an image. Ultimately then, if New Peace proves this type of marketing and eliciting of one’s faith to be effective, we can only imagine that the sky is the limit for what future organizations might be able to sell us.
For the past 14 years Paul Mpagi Sepuya has lived in New York and worked as a photographer whose focus was pinned tightly on portraiture. Not only did Sepuya think of his photos as portraits, he was, in the beginning, serious about shooting “straightforward” portraiture, as in taking a singular image of a person as a way of, at least within that moment, fully capturing their exterior and even their identity. However, unlike other portraitists, Sepuya found himself returning over and over again to the same subjects at different points in their lives. Not only that, but his process seemed as much based on happenstance as it did on investigation. He would rarely organize a shoot or a sitting within a particular place, but instead would randomly run into people he hadn’t seen in a while and arrange for a shoot on the spot. In this way, a fluidity that is not very characteristic of much portraiture seeped more and more into Sepuya’s practice, until it eventually became clear that to take one picture of one person and present it as conclusive was not only false but futile.
It proved far more intriguing and generative to begin to cultivate an ongoing lexicon or index of sorts through which many lingering stories and personal narratives might or might not reveal themselves over time. His practice, at least conceptually, drastically shifted from singular images to an ever-developing, meandering string of recurrent faces, interiors and objects that one, if they paid close enough attention, could read like a novel.
Another, more recent shift, has been Sepuya’s move from New York to Los Angeles in 2014 to begin graduate school at UCLA, where he currently lives and works. As school often does, this time (and the critiquing eyes and viewpoints of his fellow classmates) has allowed Sepuya to look at the massive body of work that he has produced over the past decade from a newly macro perspective. This, he says, has allowed him to see, and begin to respond to, the varying degrees of legibility that run throughout his work as it spans many of the layers of subtext, which have either purposely or inadvertently been inserted into his photographic archive of people and places as their image recurs over time. It has also taken much of the daily bumping-into-a-subject type of process out of his current ways of working, as L.A. unlike New York, rarely yields these kinds of coincidences. Instead, Sepuya has found a renewed significance for the studio space, where he returns to older material and configures new images from fragments, some of which have formed the works that are now on view at DOCUMENT gallery in Chicago in his most recent solo exhibition, aptly titled,Figures/Grounds/Studies.
Courtney Malick: We spoke a lot about the different/overlapping trajectories and narratives that you continue to follow as you photograph and re-photograph many of your subjects over long periods of time. Can you say a bit more about the organizational process that goes into this on the studio and shooting side and conversely on the editing and exhibition side?
Paul M. Sepuya: When it comes to organizing the narratives and pictures, there are both concurrent and overlapping streams. First, there are the ongoing photographs and related material that I’m making and accumulating within a personally driven portrait practice that follow my friendships and relationships, and then there are the more contained projects like STUDIO WORK, SOME RECENT PICTURES / a journal., or the recent Figures / Grounds / Studies that develop within their own timeline and get “pinched off” so-to-speak from the larger stream.
CM: So you don’t often think in terms of separate bodies of work. Would you say that your work is in some ways one continuous project?
PS: That is true to an extent. Specific projects tend to be defined and framed by exhibition opportunities more than anything else. The underlying content does not change, so many subjects repeat in multiple or reiterated instances that produce different outcomes in different but related projects. My day jobs have always been in arts administration and I love organization, so my source (RAW) files and my negatives are filed by year and then by subject or location. In the physical space of my studio, everything is allowed to wander. I love creative ah-ha moments when things accidentally find themselves in conjunction and conversation.
CM: I see! With organization in mind, I am curious to know if you can explain the ways that various literary works have influenced your imbricated form of portraiture?
PS: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is probably the best example of that influence in terms of structure, due to his shifting subjective point-perspective across the four novels of that set. I’m interested in the ideas of genre, what each needs from the author and what each asks of the reader in contextualizing content. Journals, letters, memoirs, autobiography and poetry—Durrell plays with these translations of one genre into another to organize the narrative of his main character and that character’s relationship to the beloved who haunts him. I also think of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Christopher Isherwood and Truman Capote, Patti Smith, and Patricia Morrisroe.
CM: Wow! That is an amazing connection to make. With narrative in mind, can you tell me if there are any particular stories that are unfolding within the works on view at Document?
PS: I am aware of making works where the sum total of content lies outside of the conversation about art. It’s better served by gossip and friendship, and that’s a productive and dynamic place for me to be.
CM: So then how close to life, do such installations as what’s on view at Document, for example, come?
PS: On the record, I don’t think I’ve ever described a work as illustrating a specific personal narrative of mine, but if you know me there’s a lot you can pick up.
CM: Would you say that this kind of “story” or portrait of a story, is one with layers that allow for differing vantage points based on one’s familiarity with your practice overall?
PS: I think that’s pretty spot-on, thinking about different vantage points based on one’s familiarity with my practice, but also with the day-to-day that falls outside of “art.”
CM: At first glance, these works seem to be documents, in that they are happenstance shots capturing real people that are a part of your life, photographed within their natural environments, or within a natural relationship to one another. However, I am wondering if it’s possible to read these images of faces, personal items, interiors, etc. as stand-ins or representations of a different, symbolic set of characters or actants that convey a broader meaning?
PS: I do think of the images as constituting figures. These figures can be understood as fragments of the subjects that they are inspired by, but still appear bigger than those subjects. The figures are never disconnected from me or from their subjects, but they do become representations of my desire, which is constructed around the subject. And this relational dynamic, in turn, creates in itself a new character.
CM: Hmm… Can you explain this with regard to a particular piece?
PS: For example, Theodore and the representation of my desire for Theodore are two different things. The representation of fragments is organized and held together momentarily for the resulting photograph, constructed within the “real” space of my studio. The absent character in the studio, with a literal stand-in of the repeated lens, is myself.
CM: Well certainly there are many layers within that configuration—it’s really fascinating to think that continuing to follow your practice over the course of time, one may likely find out new things about works from years ago!
In conclusion, how do you see your work developing as you continue within this framework and also as you complete your graduate studies?
PS: This is a tough one! I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s necessary to depict in the pictures I’m presenting: How much of the investment in portraiture is in the conditions for the making of the picture vs. the content depicted? I’m beginning to physically cut out the subjects, leaving only the margins. In a studio visit with a friend a few days ago we talked about the difference between a picture depicting a performative gesture or arrangement versus an object that performs that same gesture with the viewer, over and over again. The work I’m focusing on developing towards my thesis is keeping this in mind.
River of Fundament
Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA)
250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles
September 13, 2015 – January 18, 2016
Much has been made of the meaninglessness and conjoining over-extravagance of Matthew Barney’s newest film and sculpture exhibition, River of Fundament, now on view at MOCA in Los Angeles, the only U.S. iteration of the traveling exhibition. Where his acclaimed video opus, The Cremaster Cycle, was released in stages over the course of several years and included differing locales and odd turns on in-depth, abstruse plot twists,River of Fundament is presented all in one gluttonous gulp of a sitting: a six-hour film with two brief intermissions. Not only does the film’s duration alone make it overwhelming to digest, but furthermore, the term digest has perhaps rarely been so apropos, as the film’s endpoint of fecal matter is at the crux not only of its conceptual framework but more viscerally, its visual referents. With all this buzz of the film’s unnecessary grotesquery, it is easy to approach the first of many hours of sitting in the black box at MOCA with a somewhat indifferent attitude, expecting shock value to rule and actual meaning to stagger meekly behind, trying to catch up. This is not entirely untrue, but regardless, it is nonetheless refreshing to see captivating imagery toppled upon itself so densely, even if much of one’s eye-widening is only due to the subject matter’s obvious depravity and spectacle therein.
Within the first minutes of the film, Barney’s character emerges from the shit-filled “river” (which looks much more like just a dank, still, underground puddle of clay-water, which it in fact was), grabs a log of poo out of a toilet with his bare hands and covers it in gold leaf, and then proceeds to turn away from an older, equally filthy man whose penis and the gold-covered turd suddenly appear to be one and the same, in order to let him penetrate him. On the one hand it is annoying that anal sex between two men should be considered such a shocker within contemporary video art, but, on the other hand, it is still certainly more scintillating to look at, much less intellectually or emotionally consider, than, let’s say, a putty-colored abstract painting, the type of which still dominates many a vast white cube. This is not to dispel the ‘trumors’ that Barney’s signature tropes of grandiosity persist throughout Fundament, because they are undeniably there and they are often just as infuriating in their pseudo-intellectual tone as ever. However, as one has always been able to find buried deep within Barney’s amass of seemingly non-sequitur symbols and unusually manifested characters, there are clearly important nods and dissections of moments in history and literature that at times come to the film’s fuzzy fore. Not only that, but Fundament feels far less like a sculpture in video form, as Barney has in the past described his work on screen, and much more like a proper cinematic endeavor, with dialog (of sorts), formal readings and less formal liftings of seminal texts by renowned American authors including Hemingway, Burroughs and Whitman, and cameo performances by major actors, musicians and other artists including Paul Giamatti, Maggie Gyllenhaal, the late Elaine Stritch, Fran Lebowitz, Debbie Harry and Lawrence Weiner, to name just a few.
Most crucial to the entire movie is of course one of literature’s most celebrated, mysterious and self-aggrandizing figures, Norman Mailer, whom Barney cast as Harry Houdini (whose historical resonance has continued to arise throughout Barney’s work and again in later segments of Fundament), in Cremaster 2, which is loosely based on Mailer’s 1979 novel, The Executioner’s Song. The two had since continued an interesting friendship and discussed a potential collaboration that began when Mailer suggested that Barney read Ancient Evenings, a proposition he at first declined. The dialog connecting both of their symbolically shrouded practices was however cut short due to the infamous author’s death in 2007. In Fundament, Mailer’s belated absence leads to several other characters taking on various roles that represent him and his enduring spirit, including his son, John Buffalo Mailer, jazz percussionist, Milford Graves, and a hammered-down carcass of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial, which somehow magically inseminates a woman who later gives birth to a bird (one cannot help but see the through-line here as Barney continues to abstractly parse the demise of the American auto industry, which is also a strong theme throughout The Cremaster Cycle). The invisible character in the movie that runs throughout its strange and often disgusting permutations is Mailer’s highly criticized 1983 novel, Ancient Evenings. Though most of the interactions between the actors take place within a fabricated replica of Mailer’s oft-photographed Brooklyn Heights home in which they congregate to commemorate the writer’s colorful yet secretive life and career, the overall form that the film takes is one that mimics, congratulates, and reconfigures the misunderstood chronicles of Ancient Evenings, which is centered on various Egyptian myths of iconic gods such as Osiris and Isis, and processes of reincarnation, not the least of which is a scatological understanding of waste turned fertilizer.
As for the exhibition outside the black box, perhaps in relation to the film, it makes sense on some level, but the large, obtrusive works fall rather flat. While best known for his plastic, silicone and other synthetic, cream-like, oozing forms, the sculpture at MOCA, cast in rather uncommon materials for Barney, such as iron, bronze, sulfur, salt, zinc, lead, copper and of all things—wood, which he has in the past proclaimed never to work with, feel rather dormant and dull. Even visiting them during intermission and knowing that these are the very objects upon which certain characters pissed, causing the hallowing of the top surfaces of some of the large cube-shaped works, they somehow lack a tangible sense of activation. The lighting in the galleries seems far too stark, bright and frankly clinical to be presenting objects that audiences are all too well aware have been utilized in the telling of a story about death, decay, human excrement, rotting animals, anal sex, and machine on machine demolition. They don’t add to any desperately needed understanding of the overall meaning of the film, though they are large and commanding to look at from a distance.
With this massive undertaking, Barney has proven if nothing else, that he has his own identifiable way of making sense of history, even if that sense is made by merely putrefying and reconstructing various elements that seem not to fit together at the onset. He has created a film that could continue to be analyzed for years to come, and while that does not, in and of itself, make for a good work of art, it is difficult not to see its complexity as a valiant effort at producing and promoting work that does much more than please the eye (or in fact quite to the contrary in this case). River of Fundament may not be his finest work, but it is important to celebrate the fact that it is work of a certain caliber and at the same time incorporates historical, literary, musical, sexual and religious references, builds off of a set of interlocking narratives, uses sculptural sensibilities to create elaborate sets, costumes and make-up, and in the end demands not only the longstanding attention of its viewer, but moreover their will to make a concerted effort to connect its many confounding, distorted, and encoded dots.
Los Angeles-based artist Math Bass, whose current solo showOff the Clock at MoMA PS1 runs through August 31st, 2015, has been carving out a dynamic practice that freely shifts from performance to sculpture to painting to installation, taking up all of the images and objects therein in the same way that one might think of a rotating cast of actors whose appearances stay the same while their characters continue to change from project to project. In other words, outwardly, the works themselves often stay relatively the same, but their behaviors and relationships towards one another continually get redirected and configured. Similarly, Bass’s work traverses one-off and collaborative performances (in which audience members sometimes participate) that involve sculptural sets and props, singular sculptures, interactive architectural installations, and graphic paintings that incorporate her own lexicon of symbols and signs.
While Bass’s practice continues to evolve, it’s an evolution that occurs through conscious recycling and clever interchangeability rather than constantly seeking out the next new thing or drastic change of direction. In this way, previous performances and videos can inform and triangulate a current sculpture or installation, as is the case in Off the Clock, which brings together an array of works formed over the past three years that speak to each other through their shared histories. Each work has stemmed from past performances or previous sculptural projects and now finds themselves repositioned in time and space as well as within the roles that they play in juxtaposition to one another.Off the Clock marks an important and rare example of an exhibition that at the surface seems purely abstract but gradually reveals itself to stand for and interrogate larger questions about perception, language, interchangeability, and perhaps most centrally, where and how the body of the viewer is configured within a given space—not just the space within this show, but space on a much broader and ultimately more intimate level.
Courtney Malick: To begin, I wanted to talk about the connection between your current work, which is geared towards the creation of environments as exhibitions, and the strong performative impulse that I imagine is still present in your work but was perhaps more at the forefront a few years ago. Do you feel as though performance continues to be a through-line of your practice even if in a more abstracted sense than in the past?
Math Bass: Yeah, that’s true. It’s hard for me to always verbally explain the ways that my work has functioned or changed over time.
CM: I know, I realize this is the case for lots of artists as they choose not to express their ideas in a purely verbal way. But with that in mind, it’s kind of funny because there is also an integration of vocabularies and linguistic symbols that runs throughout your work, particularly in your paintings.
MB: Yes, that is there. I am really interested in language as a structural and psychic tool. It is a physical thing and yet at the same time it is also so ephemeral and in that way it opens up these psychic spaces. I like to find ways that a single sentence or the coupling of a few sentences can pull in two different directions simultaneously, which creates this tension in between those polarities. It is between those two poles that I find that a space can be activated and where the performativity of language occurs. In that sense, the way that both language and performativity gets carried out in my work is that I continue to return to those kinds of tensions.
CM: Is that something that you plan out ahead of time? Sometimes your work appears as if a specific frame or set of borders have been preconceived and then set into motion through other paintings, sculptures, and objects within the exhibition. Is that the case?
MB: I don’t usually approach things from a very premeditated position. I’m never saying to myself beforehand, “If I do this I will achieve this effect.”
CM: That’s interesting because something that I noticed from Off the Clock, and also at your show Lies Inside at Overduin & Co. last year, is that the positioning of the viewer seems as though it is a central concern in the way that both shows were put together. I guess that is not actually how your process unfolds?
MB: I am interested in the way that the position of the body opens up a frame and that depending on where you are in relationship to an object or an image within that space you are opening up different frames while also becoming part of them.
So that definitely also has to do with performativity in regards to these installations, though I really don’t even want to call them installations, particularly the work in Off the Clock.
CM: Oh really, why is that?
MB: Well I don’t really feel like it is an installation because everything in it is discrete. I feel like every object or image can function on its own. But maybe I can let go of that idea, maybe the term “installation” doesn’t have to mean that everything has to be supported by each other and therefore always stay together.
CM: I think it is kind of important to make that distinction actually. It seems like people say “installation” to refer to anything that is not a singular work, but technically an installation would mean a set of objects that are meant to be exhibited together in the same or relatively similar configuration.
That also leads into something else that I wanted to ask you about Off the Clock. Can it be seen as a documentary project since a lot of the work has been exhibited previously but in different formats and contexts? Because now there is this culmination of, as you say, “discrete works” that have been shown in the past in fragments and are now all coming together at the same time.
MB: Yes, for this show I pulled from a few different bodies of work. It was a combination of making new work and revisiting older works and remaking them. It ended up being really important to me that I remake certain pieces and sort of go back into them, rather than show the originals. Even though I thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?! I have already made this!” In some instances it was useful for me to return to them and think through them again, and in other cases it was necessary because the originals had been made quickly and were not in the best condition.
CM: So all of the older works at PS1 are actually new versions of their originals?
MB: Not all of them, but some. Others did not need to be remade and some of them had in the past not been used as sculptures but more as performance props or as parts of sets. I am interested in recirculating these works and thinking of them like characters. I have returned to the same sentences that I have used in songs that appear in multiple projects in different ways—they have been in performances, PowerPoints, texts . . . it’s the same idea with the objects that are currently at PS1. For example the cast concrete pants have been used as part of a set that I made for a performance at the Hammer and now they are functioning as singular sculptures in Off the Clock. It’s interesting for me to see how these characters continue to shift and expand in relation to one another as they progress through different formats.
CM: I am wondering if, after selecting certain older works to include in the show and others to recreate, you began making the new works with the intention of responding to your previous works?
MB: I don’t know if I was fully responding to my previous work or more just expanding off of it. For example I made a new piece that looks kind of like two hard-edged dog figures that are connected, which comes from a similar piece that had been two separate dogs. There is also a new version of a piece calledSlingbed, which looks like something in between a gurney and a lounge chair that had been used in a performance in the past. I also made new paintings that directly relate to those that were in Lies Inside. With every project it seems like a mad dash and a huge overhaul, and then after the show opens, and I can finally decompress. Afterward, it is hard for me to find an access point into the work. So Off the Clock allowed me to re-enter into a lot of previous work that I felt sort of detached from, which was really nice.
CM: That makes sense. Maybe it was less of a responsive or reflexive approach but more just meditative. Did you make all the new work in New York?
MB: No, most of them I made in my LA studio and shipped to PS1, but I did pour the concrete pants at the museum.
CM: And altogether Off the Clock represents at least three or four years of work, right?
MB: Yes, about three and a half years of my work in different capacities.
CM: Wow! They have functioned in different ways throughout various types of projects over that time and now have finally all been exhibited alongside one another. Does it feel as though they have come to some state of completion or will they continue to be reworked into future projects?
MB: I really like the idea of being able to continue to reconfigure works, though some of course get phased out and then maybe reappear much later and by then have become something totally different but have still stemmed from the same sort of visual or conceptual root of one initial, discrete element.
CM: I am interested in work that is able to function in that way as well, particularly because it can manifest in different ways but continue to ultimately convey the same message. I am still wondering how you see all of these pieces, or characters as you referred to them, now that they have all been shown together. Does that somehow change their meaning for you? Would you be able to do another show like this or is this sort of an end point for their ability to work with one another?
MB: No, I don’t think I would do another show like this. For me this show is this show, and I don’t know what my next will be like. But with this one, it felt sort of like an opening up of everything I’d done over the past few years, and then a closing in a way. Of course, I don’t want to be too definitive about that because I am not totally sure what will happen in the future.
CM: Right. Does it ever gets confusing for you working in this recycling mode? Do you ever start to question the meaning of a particular piece when you are now inserting it into a context that is so different from the one in which it was initially created? Do you ever worry about its legibility as it flows through these various contexts?
MB: You mean is there an aspect of something that becomes almost autoerotic going on?
CM: Yeah, in a way . . . I guess that can be good or bad depending on how you utilize it.
MB: There is definitely that sort of line that you realize exists when you are essentially creating your own language, and that at some point you can potentially go so deep into it that then you start to think, “Wait, this may be illegible to anyone else.”
CM: Is that a concern for you when you think of the viewer?
MB: No, not really.
CM: There is symbology inserted into your work—mainly the paintings—that you must realize viewers are going to make direct references to, like the cigarette, for example, or abstracted letters, steps, or clouds.
MB: Well, some of those symbols that occur within the paintings are more recognizable. I’ve always called that particular image “the cigarette” when thinking about it, even though I wasn’t really trying to depict the actual pictorial representation of a real cigarette. Although, when I first started that series the images were cruder, and the cigarette was much more of a real-looking cigarette. Over time it’s become more formalized and it looks like a shape with a gradient and a plume of smoke. So yes, you can still make the reference to a cigarette, but at other times throughout the series it reads as a column, or a matchstick, or sometimes it becomes more abstract and just looks like any other formal or architectural shape. And in that way it gets used as something that breaks up a plane or gets laid on top of another image in order to disrupt its continuity.
Sometimes everything looks as though it is all on one axis and is contained within a grid and then there is this cigarette or other object that comes into that space that tilts and disrupts the flatness. I did always call that particular image a cigarette, but I have names like that for all of the images or symbols that come into my work.
CM: Really? Even for the things that are much more abstract?
MB: Yes. For example, I had made this amorphous green, tarped object and I always called it “the hedge.”
CM: So do you mainly give those kinds of names just for yourself in order to keep track of them, or do they end up becoming the titles of the works, too?
MB: Sometimes they do. I find titling works to be difficult. Sometimes I just can’t think of anything and don’t want to spend hours trying to come up with something clever. But, at the same time, I do think that titles can be a really effective tool for understanding a work, so I do like coming up with them even though at times it can be agonizing.
CM: I often get a lot out of the title of an artwork. Sometimes I may not have known the name of a work and then when I find out it can really add to or shift my understanding of it. Because of that I am always interested to learn about different artists’ titling processes. Do you usually come up with yours after having made something or can they be a guiding force at the onset?
MB: It depends. Sometimes it can be helpful to start off with one. For example, I did a two-person show with Leidy Churchman at Human Resources in LA in 2013 titled Monte Cristo. It was collaborative in that we were making our own works at the same time and were in constant conversation with each other about them and the show. We had come up with that title at the very beginning, even before either of us had any idea what the work would be. In that instance, as we were making work we were thinking about Monte Christo, and . . .
CM: He seeped in?
MB: Yeah, somehow Monte Cristo came through in both of our works. We each evoked this kind of island that you could really feel within the exhibition. But it doesn’t always work like that. Other times I will have already made something and then all of the sudden the title will pop into my head.
CM: As I am looking at your paintings I see a very formal and even palette-based connection to Fernand Léger. Is that someone that you have considered as a reference? His works are mainly figurative, but I am wondering when it was that you first made this transition from more ephemeral, performance-based work to these very formal, starkly color-contrasted paintings that you have been showing recently?
MB: I’d have to look at his work to see the connection, but generally I’ve incorporated drawing and other 2D work into my practice so it wasn’t really a total shift, although earlier on I did tend to use paint more as a prop. I did a lot of these large text-based paintings on raw canvas. They weren’t stretched so they were more like banners than paintings. They had phrases painted on them like, “Who says you have to be a dead dog?” or, “Who says you have to be an historical dog?” At that time I was working with raw canvas and gesso and using this font that was really just basic shapes that sort of represented letters.
CM: Did those older works on raw canvas also have the same kind of graphic quality as your current paintings?
MB: The graphic, hard-edged aesthetic I use has been pretty continuous, even with my video work. I have been thinking recently about what a symbol is and the way that it can be understood as the ultimate flattening of a referent or signifier, and that through creating a symbol we can flatten and then easily identify and understand something. So I am generally interested in pictorial flattening.
CM: I realized when working with artworks that comment on the Internet, that when information, even if it is not imagery, is flattened or condensed is when it is easiest to manipulate. Even when just writing an email you realize that you need to structure your ideas a certain way, give the overall message certain contours, in order to make it easily digestible for the person receiving it. And we of course see this even more with text messages or tweets. It kind of gets back to our discussion about legibility.
MB: It’s true, I do think a lot about physically compressing in order to expand conceptually or intellectually, and in a lot of ways that is what we are doing all the time with information.
CM: Is condensing an expansive means to an end for you?
MB: I think that using the minimal amount of information necessary in order to convey something is beneficial. Maybe it sounds cheesy but ultimately that is poetry.
CM: Is it a practice that relates to minimalism for you?
MB: I don’t think about it in that way. I just think about it in terms of what the fewest number of elements are that can still activate this work as far as it can go. It’s also important to know when to cut something—when to realize that something just isn’t working and that you need to move on to the next idea or piece. I generally don’t like to have a lot of stuff in my life. I don’t really own a lot of stuff. For a long time I lived in my studio and there was almost nothing in it.
CM: Right, I read about how the wall pieces that create these thresholds or divisions within Off the Clock were directly implanted from the studio to the museum.
MB: Yes, that’s Lauren Davis Fisher’s sculpture. She measured out this nook in my studio and then cut out this shape that is where the staircase goes to the second floor of the building and made the wall-sculpture based on those dimensions. In a way she took this articulated negative space from one site (my studio) and transposed it into the walls of PS1. There is also a video in the show in which you can see the nook with the cutout and the wall that she made in its image, so you can really get a sense of the relationship there. That sculpture fleshed out a space that doesn’t actually exist, so it reads as exposing the interior of this wall from my studio and superimposing one space onto another. That was our collaborative gesture. In one room it is flush with the wall of the museum and in the other room it is pivoted so it is kind of like, as a viewer, you are re-experiencing an environment you just left.
CM: Is this idea of the mirror image or symmetry something that was important for you to run throughout the show?
MB: I do like symmetry but I am mostly interested in the places where something symmetrical suddenly becomes unbalanced. But yes, there are also some paintings in Off the Clock that I think are intentionally mirroring that kind of shift that the wall piece really activates. In some of the paintings one image will repeat and then the whole set will shift and continue on with the same elements.
CM: I think it gives the show a great sense of continuity. I guess my last question is, what you are working on for the future and will it include any of these same themes?
MB: I am working right now on a performance-based piece that will be part of Performa in New York in November, and it will continue to generally take up some of the same issues that I have been addressing in other recent shows.
Nicholas Lobo is a Miami-based sculptor and installation artist who has been working on conceptual, sometimes site-specific projects since 2006. Recently however, he has been taking his sensory-imbued practice to new depths by creating work that not only engages in a conversation with itself through its construction, but also relates directly to industries and economies parallel to art discourse that rarely enter into it so distinctly. In his two week solo exhibition at Gallery Diet in Miami in March 2014, Bad Soda / Soft Drunk, Lobo juxtaposed a grouping of what one might at first glance consider to be relatively formal, even classically contemporary, bulbous, sculptures that evoke the tradition of Chinese scholar stones, with a precarious floor installation that literally created an entirely new “floor” for the space. Installation shots of the show hardly begin to convey the story, of sorts, that is being told within it. The lumpy, dimply sculptures that awkwardly rest atop subtly patterned square columns are in fact created through the process of making napalm – obviously a loaded signifier in and of itself. Perhaps even more alarming is the relatively simple process through which such a devastating material is conjured, by pouring gasoline over blocks of polystyrene, a common plastic used for mass product packaging. To further complicate things, these forms that result in essentially the burning away of the plastic, are then set with one of the most innocent of children’s delights, Play-doh, a staple in family homes since the 1950s whose popularity still endures today. The contradictions set into motion by the marriage of these products, repurposed as artistic materials, really brings back those unforgettable words of McLuhan. It seems as though whether or not the medium here truly is the message, or is at least one of several messages, regardless it is impossible not to consider it as both the forefront and the backbone of such a seemingly unthreatening sculpture.
The newly fabricated floor of the gallery likewise brings ingestible and common, yet chemically-based products into question – or perhaps an odd celebration. From wall to wall the floor of the gallery was filled with unopened, plastic-wrapped, dead-stock 24-packs of a little-known Swedish energy drink called Nexcite that boasts the bonus property of also being an aphrodisiac for women in particular. It is also notable that Nexcite was originally named Niagara, to rhyme with Viagra, which later lead to a lawsuit. Nexcite’s notably “Windex” blue coloring warns that there is obviously no telling what has been put into the drink to make you not only energized but exceptionally horny! Visitors had to walk on top of this “flooring” to get from sculpture to sculpture while in an adjoining, minimal room a video titled, Niagara (2014) of Nexcite being poured on the sculptures, coloring them that bright, artificial blue hue, plays. The absurdity and happenstance that Lobo had even found such a large quantity of Nexcite sitting in a warehouse in an industrial area of Miami is prologue enough to begin the complex and literally infectious ways that this set of works come together to create this particular, and aptly short-lived installation.
Courtney Malick: Your recent work that has utilized materials like cough syrup, perfume, self-made napalm, a now outdated Swedish energy/aphrodisiac drink, and playdough, all seem to point to an overarching interest in the sensorial – products of various kinds that are made to be ingested or directly engage with in tactile ways. Do you feel that an investigation of such matter is an underlying aspect of your practice overall or is it something you are just currently interested in?
Nicholas Lobo: My interest in those materials has been ongoing, in the last few years I started to think more exclusively about the economies radiating from the human body. Seeing the body as the fundamental unit of currency, with all other human economies derived from that. I think making an object can bring radical awareness of the body. Working through the very old idea that sculpture provides a kind of uncanny physical experience, as opposed to painting for example, where you might create an opportunity to reflect on the way images are constructed.
CM: Yes, I have also often used the form and reality of the human body as a productive foil for larger systems at play. Lately I have been noticing more and more contemporary art that takes up materials related to these kinds of sentient ideas in similar ways, particularly food related products and imagery, is this something that you have also detected as becoming more prevalent in art and discourse, and can you discuss your own reasons for beginning this pursuit, or why you feel it is becoming more of a “hot topic” so to speak?
NL: Maybe it has to do with the rapid transmission of complex physical qualities. Zoloft and antifreeze: an emotional panacea, Neutrogena brand skin cream and generic nutritional supplement powder: a body image crisis, etc. Although materials like these are having a moment I think they really have a lineage that supports their use in a long-term tradition. I’m thinking of Sigmar Polke, Dieter Roth and Paul Mccarthy for example. When I look at it historically, this idea of an apocryphal material as a conceptual container is more and more present in culture as a whole. Maybe this works in counterpoint to the virtual, post-internet idea that has also been circulating recently. A vague notion caused by viral brand awareness, industrial agriculture, pharmaceutical marketing and so on that the non-virtual is still here but it’s getting kind of complicated.
CM: Right, and seemingly that complication is at least in part because they are somehow blending, or the differentiation between the non-virtual and the virtual is narrowing significantly. With Bad Soda / Soft Drunk, you filled a Miami gallery with thousands of old, dead stock bottles of Nexcite and created a sculptural “floor” upon which viewers had to carefully walk. You also included sculptures created by making your own DIY napalm, some of which were then colored with the blue fluid of the Nexcite. I am wondering if this process in and of itself was meant in some way to serve as a kind of narrative that the show as a whole projects?
NL: Process as narrative is something that I’m ok with, there are so many phases to any presentation it would be a shame to underplay the importance of the process. In fact, I’m working on an upcoming project in which the process is even more foregrounded. More and more I think in terms of exhibitions as temporary breaks in ongoing activities.
When I was making the Bad Soda / Soft Drunk show I was seeing the elements as temporary states, agglomerations of products designed for the skin, tools for tactile contemplation, extreme physical violence and sensual awareness. When combined they inform each other but also call attention to the idea that they are made of other products which are in turn made from other products. Napalm is gasoline and Polystyrene, gasoline is refined petroleum and Polystyrene is a collection of various engineered molecules in the styrene family. As you start to look further down the chain these things start to change shape pretty aggressively. I’m thinking of the human body as a kind of hub through which these various commodities pass before moving on to other forms, states and effects.
CM: Yes, certainly it is clear that a lineage of some kind is being either formed or followed, or in some way is doing both at once. Since there is a drastic dichotomy at the crux of this body of work that simultaneously produces playful, colorful sculptures that are however made up of toxic, chemically modified products that are manufactured for less than playful, innocent purposes (with the exception of the Playdough that covers the exterior of the sculptures) I am curious as to what – if any – story of sorts the marriage of these two extremes may tell?
NL: When I choose to use Napalm I am interested in it because most people know what it is but very few have experienced it first hand. It’s a mythologized material, designed for the skin but also representing certain political agendas. The failed Swedish aphrodisiac drink has some opposing qualities, its essentially sugar water, a placebo but it has a very specific mythology ascribed to it in which physiological changes are supposed to take place.
Setting up a dichotomy is very useful since it creates a third field that holds the part I think of as the artwork. I’m very interested in finding ways to move outside of language, I try to think in terms of creating displays that elicit non-verbal responses. The blind finger poke texture and absurdity of the forms perched on small concrete plinths come from a place of hyper-dumbness that hopefully leads to a state for which language has to be invented rather than chosen.
CM: Yes, I definitely like the idea of artwork that demands a new kind of language in order to accurately or appropriately discuss it, rather than sort of mad-libbing of concepts that have already been applied to other types of work. Yet, nonetheless, many of these kinds of ingestible materials that we are discussing, as you said, already have a whole mythology, and therefore history embedded into them, particularly the politics of napalm or something like an advertised aphrodisiac. With that in mind, how do you approach the challenge of utilizing such products to say something else?
NL: That's a good point, It’s rare to get outside of existing ideas and meanings. Especially in a knowledge-economy where everything is named, categorized and photographed. What do you think about gravitating towards liminal materials? When I say liminal materials I mean things that are on the fringes of collective knowledge, exotic things like obscure aphrodisiac drinks, Napalm, etc. By starting towards the edge is it more possible to slip over from time?
While the liminal materials I like to use do have meanings and associations they are more tenuously attached as opposed to Coca-Cola or Vaseline for example. It’s always a game of trial and error right?
CM: Yes, I would think so… I also liked what you said about the third, lovechild-like field of thought and representation that comes out of a framework rooted in a blatant dichotomy and I sense that that may very well be where this new mode of language that you mentioned is generated…?
NL: Yes, the third place could be some kind of temporary truth state where one’s interpretations are not distorted by the inexactitude of language. The two opposing perceptions wrapped in language are set into motion and with some luck they arrive at a momentary state of perceptual “truth” in which there is no linguistic buffer to cloud the experience. I like the term “lovechild-like field of thought,” being that you work with language often, is this an idea you have encountered in the past?
CM: Not exactly, I don’t think I have ever phrased it quite like that, but so many of the most intriguing concepts and works of art represent an inherent kind of hybridity, so I guess that quality is lovechild-esque.
NL: I think of the particle accelerators. Giant, highway sized circular pathways in which existing elements are smashed together at great speed to occasionally produce exotic new ones for fractions of a second. Of course the new elements are impractical because of their extremely short duration. Similar to when something completely unfamiliar is apprehended, language rushes up to envelop it and fill the void. It’s a funny thing, by trying to escape language we are generating it.
CM: That is certainly true. This attempt to move away from verbal responses or configure new ways of using language to discuss the meaning of a work of art also makes me think of something you said in an interview in Blouin from Dec. 2011, which was, “I think obsolescence is the format of progress.” I would often tend to agree, but I am curious if you can expand upon how the idea of the obsolete actually begins to generate what we would consider to be hopefully new ideas or at least contexts in which to discuss contemporary art. It reminds me of another quote by Yohji Yamamoto that I recently read that said, “To be modern is to tear the soul out of everything” – does that resonate with you on a similar level?
NL: It’s interesting that you bring up fashion where the “New” is so highly codified through a seasonal mechanism. I was not aware of those words from Mr. Yamamoto but I would not disagree with him. I cannot say that I know what it means to be modern as I am from a different generation. I don't even think I know much about being post-modern. I hesitate to identify something as new or original. I think its one of the central contradictions of this thing we are participating in -- this tradition. One idea does stick with me and it is that what we do must be disruptive, not only outwardly but inwardly as well. The work I admire and am interested in doing is always designed for its own eventual failure.
6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
December 13, 2014 – January 24, 2014
Known for her uncanny masked portraiture in both photography and video, British artist Gillian Wearing’s solo exhibition of new work at Regen Projects is decidedly psychological as opposed to simply emotional. Rather than considering and reconstituting personal issues, here Wearing brings the role of the patient, the victim, the abused, and the weight and entanglement of memory and identity to the fore. Two new videos ground the exhibition, each delving deep into the buried psyches and repressed memories of, in one instance, real people, and in the other, imagined characters speaking from the dead. For Fear and Loathing (2014), Wearing found her subjects by placing an ad that called for individuals willing to recount either an intense and long-lasting fear or to divulge an ongoing, emblazoned loathing, or even hatred. Each subject remains anonymous by way of Wearing’s signature masks. In this case, however, rather than fashioning custom masks to mirror her subjects’ faces, Wearing uses pre-fabricated, less realistic masks in order for her subjects to tell their stories without revealing even abstracted identities. Nonetheless, the subjects’ eyes and mouths protrude through the thick, cheap fleshy rubber of the masks and their revelations are all of an incredibly personal, often disturbing nature. Their heavy breathing and resistance to being completely forthcoming is deeply felt in each account.
It is a shocking and provocative work for one to approach within the plush, black box set in the middle of the main gallery, one that is surrounded by more light-hearted works like photos of flower arrangements, an oversized silver and gold necklace with a face-shaped pendant, and a row of four small vitrines each containing a lifelike cast of one of Wearing’s hands with extensive writing in primary colors of ink running across each of their distinct creases and lines. The enclosed, darkened environment that houses Fear and Loathing lends itself to the feeling that one is actually sitting directly across from these people, even if only to access their image and their pain through some kind of removed lens or screen. As each person begins their stories ranging from troubled childhoods that include tales of sexual abuse or inexplicable, debilitating phobias, the video continues to invokes a deepening feeling of discomfort that one must confront and endure as horrific story after horrific story drones on, switching from one side of the screen dealing with fear, to the other that takes on loathing.
Gillian’s second new video, We Are Here (2014) takes up an entire wall of the large back gallery. It was shot in Wearing’s hometown of Sandwell in the West Midlands of the English countryside. There, desolate sites near rivers and abandoned industrial buildings serve as the backdrop for local senior citizens who, one by one, recite memories and stories from their younger years. These testimonials are punctuated by strange and trance-inducing scenes of various other characters all standing in a line together recalling some kind of cult-like, community center meeting. As shots of the group widen, we see them looking out onto the vast forest ahead of them as they slowly, hypnotically chant the title of the work, “we are here, we are here…”
These video works together with Wearing’s photos and installation pieces in everyone, complicate and question the ways that memories are formed and mutate over time, and how they then shape our relationships to one another and to ourselves. There is something distinctly haunting and pernicious about this environment that Wearing has calculatedly created, as we sense that so many of our unexpressed anxieties and pent up energies persist, even take on physical forms and are thus transferrable, transitional, transmutable.
Like every year in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach, the heat is on and the hotels are buzzing with activity. This year’s NADA art fair was as conventionally structured, booth-wise, as ever, but among the many, colorful, purely abstract works that seem to blend together after a certain point, there were also a grouping on intriguing highlights, many of which seem somehow food-oriented, the concept even extending outward to domestic and familial themes more generally, (think ceramics everywhere, furniture-based sculpture and woven wall pieces).
Bonchet’s large C-print of an up close and too personal greasy cheese burger with the messy works stands right at the entrance to the fair and there is no way not to notice it, partially because like most everyone, viewers are starving and nursing their hangovers from last night’s parties, but more importantly because its realness is captivating, like the unglamorous actual photo used in Burger King ads without all the Photoshop that makes their fast food products look almost edible.
Not too far down the corridor are some shelf-friendly works by Thompson that seem to solidify books in glass, turning them into fanciful, conversation-starting coffee table like décor, the context of the living room, where you might enjoy a burger or other lazy meals certainly continues to linger.
Moving from the living room notion on to the fireplace is a flattened, un-cozy, digitized depiction of a fake flaming log, somewhat lazily installed on an angle on the ground, an accompanying firey image similarly haphazardly laying flat on the floor and a third component teeters on top of the frame of the fireplace image, a small photo of a large white-blue ice cap, directly contrasting the orange and red embers seen below. To the right a 2D 80’s inspired Dad-like dark red office chair has also had its dimensions inverted and is propped up by the base of an actual chair on wheels, staples of home life continue to be reconfigured.
Weaving and femininity are front and center with lulling, hanging woven wall works in muted, earthy colors.
At Grand Century’s booth however, we seem as far from the idea of “home” as any work at the fair gets. Budor’s geometric, sci-fi like sculpture and digital print seem to nod towards an Apocalypse Now aesthetic.
The gooey, voluptuousness of things we eat comes back again with a large glossy print by Simmons, which appears to be something like fairytale lady half dancing legs, half melting pink frosting cake.
Sadly hardly any video seems ever to make its way into NADA, but one small video projection of a pair of male, swathed fists punching at a large tropical hanging fruit like a boxing training session gone wild hovers just above the ground in a corner at Guatemala City’s Proyectos Ultravioleta booth.
Houseplants intertwined with the everyday basketball.
Foodie items come back into play at Sculpture Center’s booth with custom-made table cloths no less! Reminiscent of so many “curated” dinner parties native to ABMB.
6750 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles
October 22 - November 26, 2014
We have by now come to expect a certain kind of frenetic environment upon entering en exhibition by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. Their first solo show with Regen Projects is however, surprisingly concentrated. Rather than transforming the gallery into a multifarious conference room, public park or other such generic space as we have seen in the past, the main attraction is set within one, very large interior. In the main gallery a sprawling camping tent stands, inside of which five large screens play five intersecting videos. They are placed in a rotunda-like configuration with a sixth screen situated above audiences’ heads. Scenes and actions slip from the edges of one screen to the next, reminiscent of one’s disappearing and reappearing mouse when working on multiple computer screens and seeing your cursor jump seamlessly from one to the other. Though the tone of the installation still evokes Trecartin’s quintessentially complex, kaleidoscopic, telescopic lens into some alternate version of the future, the energy is noticeably more focused this time around. Voices are less manipulated and dialog and action continue without consistently interjecting content. In fact, dialog in general takes somewhat a back seat, while clusters of actors roam through the dusty, make-shift sets, appearing more like moving props than fully developed characters.
The transitions between scenes or segments are notably more serene as well. Though a funky electronic musical riff that features various vocals scores all of the visual content, the inclusion of large words and voice-overs have been replaced with longer and rather elegant animated scenes of forests and natural elements. The way the videos have been set up, one’s experience is entirely dependent on where they have place themselves. Sitting in an ideal spot, viewers are able to see to one side a picturesque, if highly exaggerated, meadow with Technicolor leaves falling to its plushy ground, while to their other side, the cast, often clad in bright shirts with targets on their backs, wander through fog, broken glass and dim hallways while randomly discussing Coke machines and college parties.
Within these juxtaposed worlds of digitally rendered foliage and the interior of an old, decrepit and seemingly “spooky” building in which Trecartin’s characters venture, many cultural and pop-cultural issues and iconographies such as pets, companions, forts and adventures are raised often through the visual cues of branding symbols like Coca Cola, NASA, Jurrasic Park, the American Flag, Corona beer, the Wildcats sports team and the conceptual fashion designer, TELFAR. There is also an enhanced sense of transparency at play in terms of the “meta” seeping in, as Trecartin himself takes on the character of a guide or director of sorts, at times supposedly breaking character to ask questions to other members of the cast and crew and speaking directly to the camera.
Again, physicality rather than character development, such as destruction and stunts, like throwing large tires over theater balconies or riding a motorcycle that hangs on a zip-line through the air – while drones fly around in all directions -- are at the fore of these complexly overlapping stories. It is this kind of action that pushes the disjointed story of a group of adventure seekers along, as opposed to the kind of incessant, vo-coded chatter and mind-boggling editing that drives many of Trecartin’s previous videos. Through the chaos, the shifting cast take up the hokey tropes of spooky reality shows like “Ghost Hunters” as they explore a large, outdated building with faded carpets and broken bathrooms, in search of “something scary.”
Print issue no. 17
When one thinks of the buzzing interest of Asian contemporary art hot spots, Ho Chi Minh City is rarely at the top of the list. Though Vietnam in general is today being discussed by some as a direct reflection of what the Chinese contemporary art scene looked and felt like just ten years ago, the differences in fact stagger on most every level. Nonetheless, it is true that the Vietnamese Cultural Ministry still controls all cultural content for public events and publications within the country, as is also still the case, for the most part, throughout China. It is undeniable, however, that just a bit over five years ago a rumble of modest sorts – by no means the kind of boom made by Chinese contemporary art in the relatively recent past – began to awaken art enthusiasts from various parts of the world to the newly growing commercial gallery-laden areas within Hanoi. It is only far more recently, within just the past few years, that within Ho Chi Minh City and other smaller towns in the center and southern parts of the country newly initiated artist-run project spaces have sprung up. With their birth, the richness of contemporary art and cultural discourse within the country has drastically increased and continues to shape itself in ways that in the following years may prove to have distinct effects on the rest of the Asian contemporary art world and market, not to mention the presence of Vietnamese artists within Western realms. Despite this, visiting Vietnam for contemporary art of all things is still a rather under the radar trend.
Regardless of its current place on the Asian art totem pole, young artists and curators in Vietnam continue to unabashedly endure a barrage of obstacles set in place by an apathetic government that has not made investments in cultural institutions such as museums or libraries since 1954. This is due in large part to the aftermath of the Vietnam War in 1975, which saw the establishment of the Communist Government in Vietnam. Not only that, but the entire educational system throughout the country follows a French model that was created in 1924, and as far as the arts are concerned, that means a strict focus on plastic arts, such as painting, silk-screening and drawing, thus disregarding more current methodologies like performance, video, installation, new media and interdisciplinary practices. Such resistance clearly challenges the paths that young artists and cultural producers are forging toward an open and artistically educated community in Vietnam. One of the most ingenuous and clever attempts to thwart the Vietnamese government’s lack of support for artistic culture and communication therein, is the amazing, non-profit exhibition space and reading room that is Sàn Art.
Sàn Art, (which roughly translates to ‘platform’), was formed in 2007 by four Vietnamese artists, Dinh Q Le, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phu Nam Thuc Ha and Tiffany Chung. It is important to note that for many Vietnamese unaware of the intricacies of art it is perhaps difficult to understand what Sàn Art does, as there is no term in the Vietnamese language for the term, ‘non-profit,’ and there is no public cultural institution in the country that collects contemporary Vietnamese art. In response to this, Sàn Art not only engages local artists from Ho Chi Minh City, but it also allows artists and thinkers from outside the city’s capital, where networking and discourse is all the more sparse, to engage with its dynamic workshops, reading room, lecture series and exhibition programs. Additionally, with curator, Zoe Butt at the organization’s helm, serving as both curator and Director, Sàn Art has been able to host many of the global art world’s most exciting and brilliant cultural producers and academics, broadening both their understanding of the direction that young Vietnamese artists’ roots are taking in the contemporary terrain and bringing insight to the expansive scope of contemporary art that is often out of reach for artists and students within Vietnam.
Not only does Sàn Art provide a rare space within Ho Chi Minh City for artists and other creative people to see work that relates directly to topical issues that resonate both within Vietnam and also more broadly throughout contemporary art, but it has also created several specific programs therein that act as pedagogical structures through which young artists can have their work discussed by their peers and gain a better understanding of the ways in which their work connects to a larger discourse of not just contemporary art, but culture, theory, politics and various social issues that inform the work of curators, writers, gallerists and even audiences at large. One such program is the Sàn Art Laboratory, which was initiated just two years ago. Functioning as both a studio and residency program that spans six-month periods, Sàn Art invites three artists per session to live and work in the Binh Thanh District, near Sàn Art, and also awards them $1,000.00 to use toward the production of new work and living expenses. One of the main tenants of this program is that each artist works closely with a ‘talking partner,’ thus emphasizing the importance of communication, language and discourse that prevails over all contemporary art and connects artists from all over the world and even through various time periods and movements. Furthering the importance of such constant engagement in discourse Sàn Art also began a two-pronged, three-year long project called Conscious Realities that encapsulates both public lectures and closed workshops that accompany their exhibition program.
Conscious Realities is particularly important because, whereas in some ways Sàn Art can be utilized by young artists as a way to reach beyond the confines of the limited access to information about contemporary art and discourse that most other organizations within Vietnam provide, the ideas and issues that are probed within the workshops and lectures that Conscious Realities produces continue to examine the specific region of the Global South and, as they describe it, “imagines the primacy of lateral dialogues between South East Asia, South Asia, Latin America and Africa.” This allows participants of Sàn Art to learn more about not only contemporary art as it exists within Vietnam and around the rest of the world, but also to form the necessary historical groundings that inform where we are in theoretical and philosophical narratives today. Such information and education is seriously lacking all throughout Vietnam, and Sàn Art aims to address this by inviting scholars, writers, curators and cultural thinkers in a way that mimics the kinds of educational systems to which so many professional contemporary artists today have immediate access.
The upcoming exhibition, curated by Zoe Butt, Conjuring Capital, which opens at Sàn Art in early August, serves as the fifth installment of Conscious Realities, and presents the work of six artists, only one of whom is Vietnamese. The others are from various countries including, Spain, U.S. India and Cambodia. This show aptly questions not only the impact, but also the awareness of our collective consumption, themes that seem to be recurrent in the work that Sàn Art exhibits. This issue rings particularly true within Vietnam, as well as in other Asian countries, where the government promotes the work of certain artists for tourism purposes. However, these artists are only those whom have been sanctioned, so to speak, through their complicity with the educational systems available to them within the universities that are supported by the Vietnam Fine Art Association, which mandates a specific, non-contemporary curriculum.
Each of the six artists in Conjuring Capital, Adriana Bustos, Christopher Myers, Hand Killis Thomas, Ngoc Nau, Sudarshan Shetty and Than Sok, take up the visuality of everyday commodities and its relationship to currency in colorful and fluid ways. Together it is clear that Sàn Art is forging both aesthetic and conceptual relationships not only between their practices, but also the regions within which they are currently working, and the ways complicated ways that our collective and cultural value systems are manipulated and dictated based on visual culture, media expansions, advertising, and the psychology of consumerism that draws us to certain objects and allows us to imbue them with non-material qualities such as love and intimacy. It is necessary for both artists and audiences within Vietnam to have spaces such as San Art where these kinds of social tensions and realities can be played out and discussed in honest, if abstracted, form and forums. This is true in part because the outlet helps generate knowledge and conversation about important issues, but also because organizations such as Sàn Art, that are able to be so closely tuned in to the needs of the artists’ whose practices they nurture, understand the complex tightrope that some Asian artists walk. As we see the increasing interest outside of Asia in Asian contemporary art continue to grow, so too does the work being produced often feel as though the artists’ producing it are working out of a sense of obligation to be overtly documentary, reporting in one way or another on the social and political statuses of their countries of origin. While at times this may be the true crux of some of these artists’ practices, just as often we find that their interests may lay elsewhere, but through what Butt refers to as, “a great exotification of censorship,” they turn their work towards explicitly political issues that they feel are necessary to raise within the context of their position in contemporary art and its current fascination with Asia.
While Sàn Art certainly has important aims that it sets as a contemporary exhibition space that is not just arbitrarily operating within Ho Chi Minh City, it is also a place where artists, regardless of their particular interests, can come to learn about art and engage with others. It is not necessarily a space where art made within Asia is being analyzed as such in a way that has to be considered as somehow separate from what happens throughout other pockets of the global art world. For this, it is clear that many emerging artists are able to work in a productive and supportive environment that provides tools and discussion that is able to at once establish itself as rooted in its own distinct, Vietnamese history, while also remaining neutral to the many directions and shifts that the broad scope of contemporary art as a practice, not only allows for but in fact more often than not, encourages.
Courtney Malick in Conversation with Tim Blum
At this point in time most people familiar with commercial galleries in the U.S. know all about Blum & Poe. The gallery began in Los Angeles in 1994 with a small stable of artists, whom, at the time were not so well known, and whom, as we now know, are among some of the most successful contemporary artists working in Los Angeles and internationally. Not only were Tim Blum and Jeff Poe in tune enough with the directions that some of the artists they represented at the gallery’s inception heading, such as Takashi Murakami, Mark Grotjahn, Sam, but they also, thanks in large part to Blum’s extensive work in Tokyo beginning in the 1980s, began to situate themselves as an authority on many Japanese artists, both emerging, like Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, and others who began their practices in the 1950s, 60s and 70s alongside movements such as Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism and Arte Povera. We certainly have Blum & Poe to thank for bringing many such Japanese artists, whose work had rarely been exhibited in the U.S. during the time in which it was being produced abroad, including many that were originally part of the then little known group, Mono-ha.
Even then in the mid 1990s, it took the gallery nearly a decade to move form their small space in Santa Monica to the now gallery-jammed area of Culver City, where in 2003 they took over a large, pristine new space, and then, six years later, finally moved to their current sprawling location just across the street. That was 2009, and three years later they were finally able to install the exhibition that they had been preparing for and thinking about for years, Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-Ha. The important historical exhibition marked the beginning of American museum’s interest with the art of many of the Mono-Ha artists as well as marking an important partnership for Blum & Poe with Barbara Gladstone, the New York venue that the show traveled to later in 2012, an highly unusual, museum-like transition that is almost never seen from on unaffiliated commercial gallery to another. Today the impact that the Mono-Ha exhibition has had on Blum & Poe and the direction that the gallery is currently taking, opening new spaces in both New York and Tokyo this year, is clearly felt both in the ways that U.S. audiences see and understand both historical and contemporary Asian art, and the links therein, as well as the ways that the gallery continues to bridge gaps between the U.S. art market and Asia, Tokyo in particular, which, as I found out from Blum, has a surprising history of being a non-collecting culture.