Category Archives: sculpture

Legacy of Destruction in Art

There is and probably always has been a close connection between music and art. What’s awesome are the strange couplings that happen between artists and rock stars (often before either were ‘stars’), especially in the 1960s (because the 60’s are fabulous). So, to start we have the most obvious…

1. Yoko Ono

Yoko Ono is of course, connected to the Beatles via John Lennon (duh). And you may be aware that Yoko is an artist in her own right- but that’s where it gets hazy right? She did some weird conceptual stuff, maybe? In fact, Yoko was a loosely affiliated member of the avant-garde group Fluxus which was established by George Maciunas in the early 60s. Fluxus art mainly consisted of performances, happenings, Flux boxes, and publications. They rejected high modernist values and art institutions, constantly undermining “Art” with a capital A. The group made important strides in experimental poetry, sound art, and film. What does this have to do with ‘Destruction’?! Yoko’s Cut Piece (1965) is a performance where she invites the audience members to cut parts of her clothing off, pretty bold and daring to allow a bunch of complete strangers handle sharp things around her. The piece breaks down social barriers while making the viewer all the more aware of them, simultaneously.

2. Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger (b. 1927) is an experimental, underground filmmaker that specializes in homoerotic and ueber-trippy effects, surrealism and the occult. He was incredibly influential to future directors like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and John Waters. So how does he fit? Well firstly, his film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1961-1965) was perhaps the first music video- a scene of a guy polishing a drag strip racing car (very suggestively I might add) with the song “Dream Lover” by the Paris Sisters in the background. To add to that, Mick Jagger (of The Rolling Stones fame) did the sound/music for Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother (1966-69). Anger was also bffs with Keith Richards and  (for a time) Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

(Image is a film still from Invocation)

3. John Latham

John Latham (b. Zambia, British 1921-2006) was a conceptual artist with a big impact on performance-based work. He took part in the London Destruction in Art Symposium (1966) with such Fluxus artists as Yoko Ono (!) and Gustav Metzger. Latham constructed three giant skoob towers (books=skoob) entitled the “Laws of England” outside the British Museum and set them on fire. Connection to music? Latham also made films, in 1966, his film Speak was projected behind Pink Floyd’s live set at the International Times launch at the Roundhouse as well as a few shows in 1967. The 11 minute film is said to be an animated film with lots of strobe effects, very psychedelic. Ultimately, Latham rejected Pink Floyd fort he soundtrack of the film, instead using the sound of a circular saw cutting through books.

4. Destruction in Art Symposium and the Guitar Smash

Best for last! The Destruction in Art Symposium, as I said above, took place in London 1966 and was established by Gustav Metzger, a key figure in all things destruction related, and attended by members of Fluxus as well as other artists/etc. in London. Roy Ascott (currently an artist and theorist, and professor), was a professor at Ealing Art College in London and hung out with Metzger, attending this symposium. Ascott taught such notables as Brian Eno, Stephan Willats, Michael English, and…Pete Townshend!!! Townshend enrolled with Ascott around 1961, and performed his first guitar smash in 1964 (yes, that’s 2 years before the symposium, but the destructive art ideas were around well before). Pete Townshend,  who would go on to popularize (as well as Jimi Hendrix) the guitar smash for the rest of rock history- to the point where it’s expected and accepted to destroy you instrument. Destructive art lives! But as what? Below: Townshend guitar killing; Right: Skoob Tower

Other notable connections: Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe- and probably tons more I have missed!

 


Sound Sculpture: Bill Fontana

Earlier this week I went to a lecture by the sound artist Bill Fontana at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was skeptical, sound art? Please. Wouldn’t you call sound art music? I braced myself for noise/ screeching and howls, but oh how awesomely wrong I was!

Who’s Bill Fontana?

Fontana (American, b. 1947) studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, focusing on philosophy and music. He was influenced by the work of John Cage and specifically Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, zoning in on the idea that sound could be a sculptural medium and the act of listening could be a form of music. On his travels to Australia, Fontana was fascinated with the myriad of unique sounds in the region. Using the human and natural environments, the artist records often ‘overlooked’ sounds of everyday life as well as sounds inaudible to the human ear. These recordings create networks of listening sites that act as a kind of sculpture. Fontana’s sound sculptures attempt to capture the “true” representation of a sound, his works question how sound is able to create a sculptural image/ environment in the mind more immediate than visual art.

Recurring themes in Fontana’s work are recordings of water, birds, bells, and traffic, giving it a distinctly natural, elemental feel; tempered with the cacophony of human life.

One of his early works, Distant Trains/ Entfernte Zuege (1984) recorded the bustling train station in Cologne and projected it at the remaining bombed-out facade of the famous Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin. The Anhalter Bahnhof was sealed off in 1952 by the Soviets (the station was in East Berlin and ran through West Berlin, a big problem for the Soviets). The bombed out Anhalter Bahnhof stood as a ghost platform, eerily reanimated by Fontana’s recording, projected from eight giant speakers buried in the ground. Fontana’s work reflects on the destruction of WWII, the destructive divide between East and West- however, it also connects the two with a recording of the Western Cologne train station piped to the Eastern.

Fontana’s more recent work aims at connecting sound sites in real time. Currently ‘up’ in London is White Sound: An Urban Seascape (Sept. 22- Oct. 16, 2011) which connects the sound of the ocean shore of Dorset with the gridlocked Euston Road. Speakers on the face of the Wellcome Collection building projects a live feed of crashing waves, creating a dynamic listening experience that is at moments dominated by the natural ocean that recedes to reveal the pulsing traffic. This ebb and flow of different sounds revamps how we actually listen, becoming attuned to sounds we tend to block out.

To read and explore more about Bill Fontana (give it a listen!), check out his site here.


Art & Headlines: Wall Street Protest

The Occupy Wall Street Movement began Saturday September 17th with about 5,000 protesters (read more here). As of now there is an ongoing contingent of protesters that continue to occupy the plaza and parks in the surrounding area and are gunning for the long haul. While I do support the protest as a substantial first step for us to wake up to our situation, my biggest problem is with the media blackout. The U.S media has completely blocked out this protest and is making it quite evident whose side they are on, nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them- which is exactly the problem. We have the right to protest but the convenient loophole is to just ignore it and it will go away. But this shouldn’t go away, if significant change is to happen, then the people must unite- they have to demand it. The wealth disparity and the people’s lack of power is not new, but that does not mean it should continue.

So today I thought I’d connect the Wall Street protest to various artworks that deal with the persistent wealth gap and with the desire to revolutionize our position.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tirs 1960s; mixed media

1968 Poster from the Paris Protests

Victor Burgin, Possession, 1976

Erwin Wurm, Fat Convertable, 2005; mixed media


Wtf is good art?

What is a great work of art? How do you judge a work of art?

You stand in front of a painting/ sculpture/ whatever and…blank. What I am I supposed to say? It’s a- blob? “I like the texture…and the shapes…?” Who decides what’s great and what’s not anyway?

I just got back from some gallery openings (quite the spectacle of seeing and being seen). I was asked over and over “what is this about” or “what do you think”? I’ve looked at a lot of art, probably not enough though- but I’d like to level the playing field for everyone and maybe make some people more comfortable with what they have to say about art.

So basically, right now there are two schools of thought and two modes of art making/ theory, the postmodern and the formalist/ modernist. These are competing camps that are completely blurred- especially because scholars love to stick artists and works in categories that the artist doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Postmodernism is all about context, its about the critique of socio-political outlooks- all of our realities are different and relative to our individual situation. This philosophy is extremely diverse and envelope many discourses like gender studies, racial studies, stereotypes, etc. It can take many different forms, in many cases, it does not even ‘look’ like art, it can be documents, text, cooking, etc. Obviously it all can’t be covered in a blog post.

Modernism or formalism is considered a more ‘conservative’ outlook… regardless, the formalist believes that a work must explore the boundaries of its medium, it has to search for the fundamental properties of the medium in order to get to the essence of what painting (insert medium) is.

To explain this better, I’ll use a metaphor of games. Games have boundaries or rules, without the rules there is no game. Take freeze tag. Ok so the rules are if you get tagged you have to freeze, and then somebody else has to come along and tag you and then you get to run around again. So what if you take freeze tag and combine it with hide and seek and maybe monopoly too…the rules of the game get blurred. If you keep adding games in, it turns out there are no rules and its just a bunch of kids running around hiding, freezing and throwing monopoly pieces at you, the viewer, asking wtf. The point is, we need boundaries. We need limits to art in what is and is not art. Because if there is no rules to the game, there is no game. If art can be anything, then it is nothing.

A great work of art stops you. When you look at the work it holds you, you may not know why at first but there is something that gets you and you can’t look away. When looking at a work of art for the first time, don’t listen to anyone, don’t talk to anyone. Just look at it. Does it communicate? This could mean anything, maybe the lack of interaction among the figures is the alienation of the individual amongst the masses; or maybe you just like the color (or lack thereof). Anyway, after you figure out that you like the work (or don’t) figure out why. Maybe it’s too simple, naïve or just boring. That’s justified! You don’t have to like it, but don’t be ashamed (also don’t go off on a hate-rant). Just take the extra five minutes  (or more) to really think about the work and why or why not it appeals to you.

The great work of art should stand the test of time. Context should not be divorced from the work, but neither should it be the core. A great work is more than context. A work is great if it supersedes the context for all times, the work is completely evident; you don’t have to read a textbook to “get” it. A great work is subjective, you feel it personally, but it is also objective- it reveals and focuses a personal truth as well as a universal truth.


Cy Twombly: Sculpture Selections, 1948-1995- A Review

Recently I went over to the Art Institute of Chicago and was blown away by what they had to offer. In addition to the spectacular permanent collection, they have numerous special and ongoing exhibitions, one of which is Cy Twombly: Sculpture Selections, 1948-1995.

Edwin Parker “Cy” Twombly, Jr. (American, 1928-July 5, 2011) is mostly known as a painter, he is associated with the Neo-dadaism and hung out with titans like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In 1957, Twombly set up his studio in Rome. His recent death has propelled him onto the contemporary radar, but for most of his career Twombly was largely ignored in the United States (not the case in Europe, where he was quite successful).

Twombly’s  paintings are grandiose in scale, however, they feature scribble markings that are reminiscent of calligraphy and graffiti, the expressive mark of a signature on expansively empty canvas fields.

 

 

Above: Cy Twombly, The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961. Oil paint, lead paint, wax crayon, colored pencil on canvas. 94 3/4 x 118 3/8 in. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago.

According the artist,“Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history.It does not illustrate- it is the sensation of its own realization.” Twombly’s works are steeped in the Classical past of Rome and ancient Greece, mythologies and epic poetry.

So what about the sculpture?

As I walked into the exhibition room it was like walking into a sacred temple. Only the floor creaking broke the silence, well that and the security guard warning people to back off the sculptures. Each of the seven sculptures are made of rough wood and found materials, coated in plaster and painted white. Alternating stolid horizontal blocks with triumphant verticality the sculpture works echo the peaks and long strokes of script.

What’s great about these works is that you can’t tell what is from 1948 and what’s from 1995; the works are timeless, monumental like classical marble sculpture. They are evocative of things from life, but distinctly not. They are assemblages of found material, such as the three doorknobs protruding from a block, clustered together like a face. The works are personal talisman, many inscribed with the names of places or verses of poetry, simultaneously solemn and playful.

Above: Photo of the exhibition, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

I overheard a guide lecturing a group of uninterested students say that normally these sculptures would have been cast in bronze, however the Art Institute was lucky enough have the plaster versions. I prefer these, although they are starkly white, the roughness of the found materials comes through the plaster, creating irresistible texture and shadow across its surface.

Favorite: One of the works resembles a stepped ziggurat-like structure. An enormous base connected to the piece sets the work at table-level, like a model building. Under the plaster and paint peaks hints of blue and red, graffiti-esque. Where the imagined “entrance” would be, a long nail pierces the flat rectangular shape. Paint drips cascade from this puncture, down along the base to the floor.

I’m so glad I had the opportunity to view this exhibit, unfortunately it was largely empty on my visit- I hope this is not the norm and that visitors take the time to explore these rare sculptures. What may be a problem for Twombly’s sculpture exhibit is its proximity to the Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945, which is the highlight at the museum right now. Cy Twombly: Sculpture Selections is ongoing so there doesn’t seem to be a set end date (yay!).

Also at the Art Institute of Chicago (some of which will be reviewed in later posts)

Jitish Kallat: Public Notice 3 (Sept. 11, 2010- Sept. 11, 2011)

Windows on the War: Soviet TASS Posters at Home and Abroad, 1941-1945 (July 31- Oct. 23, 2011)

Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life (June 11- Oct.9, 2011)

Belligerent Encounters: Graphic Chronicles of War and Revolution, 1500-1945 (July 31- Oct. 23, 2011)

Chagall’s America Windows (return of, that is…)

And for a full listing of exhibitions (there’s a ton) click here.

You can also read a bunch more about Cy Twombly by clicking here.

 


Crisis in Public Sculpture: E Pluribus Unum

Recently there has been quite a stink raised by the Citizens Against Slave Image about Fred Wilson’s proposed E Pluribus Unum sculpture in downtown Indianapolis. This little controversy raises pertinent questions about the role of public sculpture in America as well as the powerlessness of the arts community as a whole when faced with any sort of opposition.

First off, who is Fred Wilson?

Wilson (b. 1954, NY) is Conceptual artist of African, Native American, European and Amerindian decent. He appropriates existing works in museums and alters their display in order to emphasize how context creates meaning. The artist juxtaposes artworks and artifacts in order to question institutional biases in the interpretation of history and aesthetic value. An example of his work is Mining the Museum (1992) at the Baltimore Historical Society in which he reorganized the artifacts to emphasize the history of slavery in America.

Fred Wilson’s proposed E  Pluribus Unum sculpture for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail is an appropriation of an existing sculpture, one of a freed slave. Wilson’s project is to free the slave from the monument thus emphasizing the absence of other monuments to African Americans. The sculpture would raise a much needed discussion of race in Indianapolis and in the wider public sphere.

What’s the problem?

The Citizens Against Slave Image group held a “rally” (50 or so people) that protested the sculpture on July 30th 2011, causing the Central Indiana Community Foundation to drop the sculpture from its intended site at the City-County Building. What’s the big deal if it’s moved? Well other than the fact that it’s “site-specific,” meaning the work functions on a level that depends on the site in large part to make meaning or relevance- it’s a case of shooing a controversial, discussion-worthy piece into the nether regions of the city, away from the high traffic areas and away from the other sculptures the work was intended to comment with. According to the artist, “I have spent a long time trying to figure out a place for the work that would have some fellowship to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and also be within downtown…the siting I thought spoke well on many different levels.”

“I assumed that if this piece was nowhere near the monument that it would fade into the background as (the figure on the monument) had for 100 years…that is a reason for having something else permanent, to think about the relationship between the past and now. So I’ll keep everything open until it’s clear that the work is compromised.” (MAN)

Mayor Ballard has felt it necessary due to the controversy that the current site would not be a suitable location. As of right now it seems like the location is the biggest issue and that it will not be installed at the City-County Building site. What does this mean? It means a handful of people not in favor of the project have the power to scare off an actually good piece of public sculpture. The majority should never have all-encompassing power, but it seems like any negativity towards an art project automatically means it gets the axe. A meaningful artwork in a public place breeds discussion, which gives rise to thought and ideas that give power back to the people. Discussion, thought and ideas are all dangerous it seems.

For more on this controversy see Tyler Green’s discussion on Modern Art Notes, in addition, the Indianapolis Museum of Art director Maxwell Anderson has also lent his support for the sculpture in the Indianapolis Star’s op-ed page which can be read here.


The VMFA’s big ole Mocha Dick

Quick- whats the first thing that popped into your mind? Yeah me too but it’s time to get your head out of the gutter and to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to see their new installation of Tristin Lowe’s Mocha Dick (2009). Which, to be clear is not a black genital, nor is it that asshole at Starbucks that always orders a mocha. Rather, Mocha Dick is a life-size, fifty-two foot inflated sculpture of a sperm whale constructed out of wool felt and vinyl. Lowe collaborated with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia. The craftsmanship of the work is quite amazing; take for example, the minute scars that are rendered via stitches in the felt or the appliqué barnacles that cluster on the surface of the felt skin.

Below: Tristin Lowe, Mocha Dick, 2009. Industrial wool felt,inflatable armature, vinyl-coated fabric, internal fan.52′ long. On loan from the West Collection, Philadelphia.Created in collaboration with The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia

So why “Mocha Dick”? According the VMFA website, Lowe based his sculpture on the legendary albino sperm whale that terrorized the waters around Mocha Island in the South Pacific in the early 19th Century. If a ship-attacking albino sperm whale sounds familiar (and it should) it’s because this whale also inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick (1851). According to Tristin Lowe:
This project was like the story of Moby Dick– embarking on a journey, transfixed by the call of the sea…It’s not about Ahab’s quest for revenge, and not even about the whale itself, but more about Ishmael’s search for the unattainable.

What’s wrong with it? Primarily, the placement of the work is pretty terrible. The gigantic sculpture is crammed into the second story 21st Century gallery. This gallery space is divided into two rooms, the smaller of which seemed to make the most sense to the VMFA when they decided to install a 52 foot, 700 pound whale. While the viewer is able to walk almost all the way around the work, one can only do so provided there is not a crowd, it’s quite tight on the back side of the creature especially since you can’t complete the circuit and have to back track. The whole space is taken up by the sculpture, creating a claustrophobic, threatening atmosphere for the viewer rather than expressing the questing/ journey/ awestruck aspect that the artist was intending.

The sculpture is a showstopper, so why not treat it like one? Put the damn thing in the atrium, where the whale can be viewed entirely, with enough room to fully walk around and where the sculpture won’t be oppressive.

Secondly, although the piece is to the scale of a whale, it seems to be flirting with trendy gigantism like other recent summer blockbuster sculptures (ie: Chicago’s Forever Marilyn), in order to bring in and awe the crowds.

What is impressive about this work is its materiality, the use of fabric in the sculpture that defies our common assumption of sculpture as created in permanent material (stone, bronze) to be permanent. This piece, however is constructed out of the malleable fabric and inflated to give it shape, zipped and stitched together like clothing- as if in any second the inner being will shed the whale exterior.

Also on view at the VMFA:
Faberge Revealed: July 9- October 2, 2011
Modern Masters: Sean Scully and John Walker: July 23- November 27, 2011