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New Smithsonian Black History Museum

On Wednesday (2/23) the Smithsonian Institution officially began construction on a new museum dedicated to African-American culture and heritage (the National Museum of African American History and Culture), a project that is slated to open in 2015.

About damn time!

This new museum could finally shed light on the marginalized and difficult history of African Americans in the United States. I say ‘could’ because the Smithsonian is notorious for not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ of their federal funding. Unfortunately, they are not afraid of compromising their mission when the purse strings are shaken. The 2010 Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, for example, came under fire by Republican members of Congress due to David Wojnarowicz’s work, A Fire In My Belly (1987), that featured a crucifix with ants crawling over the body of Christ. The work was made in response to the agony and suffering of Wojnarwicz’s partner who was dying of AIDS.  The ensuing controversy snowballed into a fight over the ‘proper’ uses of federal funding (whether or not tax payer money should be used to ‘assault’ religion, according to the complainers) which led to Wojnarowicz’s video being pulled from the exhibit.

In addition, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art offers a shockingly exclusive view of American art as the province of white men.

I do sincerely hope that the new African-American Museum will not shy away from the difficult histories that need to be told, and that they won’t be bullied into self-censorship.

Unfortunately, the building looks too much like a parking deck for my taste.


Mike Kelley 1954- Jan. 31, 2012

ImageMike Kelley- artist, musician, iconoclast committed suicide Tuesday, January 31st. His work will continue to inspire. Kelley worked in sculpture, installation, and performance. He got his start in Detroit’s music scene with the noise band ‘Destroy All Monsters. Image

Kelley hit the big-time in the mid-1980s with his Half-a-Man series. His work was also featured on Sonic Youth’s Dirty record from 1992. In 1993 the Whitney gave Kelley a huge retrospective. More recently, Kelley’s 2005 exhibit Day is Done at Gagosian Gallery, which featured fun-house multi-media exhibitions, automations, and films.

Inspirations: history, philosophy, underground music, politics, decorative arts, working-class artistic expression; class-gender issues, issues of normality, criminality, and perversion.

His works incorporate everyday items with an irreverence for capitalized ‘Art’ and an attitude of fuck you! The ‘Total Art Matchbox’ especially exemplifies a rejection of institutionalization and the hierarchies of art. Nihilism to the max- but somehow never just a conversation ender.

ImageMemory Ware Flat #29, 2001, mixed media on board, 70.2 x 46.5 x 4


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.

Occupy Wallstreet Continues

The Occupy Wallstreet movement continues and is growing, in both numbers in New York, support around the country, as well as drama from New York’s finest. The movement has finally gained coverage on the mainstream news circuits, however it may be more to do with sensationalization of police brutality than with any interest in covering the real issue: why they are protesting. They are protesting against the corporate bailouts, greed, and inequality that has caused the current financial crisis, in case you were wondering.

Occupy Wallstreet garnered media attention Saturday, September 24th when a police officer pepper-sprayed a group of female protesters that had been penned (“kettled” I guess) in. These women were not threatening nor violent in any way and by most accounts the incident was entirely uncalled for.

1968 Protest Poster, Paris

The situation escalated when approximately 700 protesters were arrested October 1st while marching on the Brooklyn Bridge. The arrests were made because the protestors left the footbridge and entered the traffic lanes due to overcrowding on the walkway. If anyone has been in a large crowd, it is understandable the massive amount of confusion, as many believed the road had been blocked and they were allowed to walk on it…unfortunately it was not the case. In addition, police warnings were not heard by many of the protestors due to chanting. Further information on this incident can be found here. For more information (and great pics) check out the Occupy Wall Street website.

Similar movements have sprung up all over the nation in the financial districts of Chicago, LA, and Boston. These have largely remained smaller and more peaceful.

To support the movement remotely, participate in the virtual march on Wall Street Oct. 5th by clicking 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.

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