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


‘Pataphysics: A Philosophy of the Absurd

What is ‘Pataphysics you ask? Surely something high-minded and science-y; like physics but “pata”…? Well, yes and no; but mostly no. ‘Pataphysics is the study of imaginary solutions; a supposition based on a supposition, what lies beyond reality. Assumptions built on assumptions, the fearful imaginings and anxieties of life- for instance seeing someone you know and then assuming they are ignoring you and then wondering why they are ignoring you.

‘Pataphysics has its origins with French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), an Absurdist to the core. Jarry shot to fame at the age of 23 with his play, Ubu Roi, a humorous, satirical and biting 5 act piece that was shut down after its opening night. Might have had something to do with the first word in the play being “Merdre!” (or “SHIT-R!”- Jarry had a unique way of speaking that was the inspiration for the title character where he pronounced everything, even silent letters)- which caused pandemonium in the crowd. (Alfred Jarry on a bicycle which he called “that which rolls”)

After his brief bit of fame, Jarry succumbed to the life of the bohemian, drinking heavily and dying in poverty. However, his impact and that of ‘Pataphysics is one of those strange, invisible hands that helped shape contemporary culture. Picasso, also a frequenter of the Parisian scene, became fascinated with Jarry after his death, wearing Jarry’s pistol around his neck.

(drawing of the character “Ubu” from the play Ubu Roi)

In 1948 ‘Pataphysics acquired a second life with the founding of College de ‘pataphysique in Paris. Members included notables like Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Eugene Ionesco. Even the philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified himself with the absurdist philosophy. So we can definitely see a clear lineage from Jarry’s absurdist ‘Pataphysics to the work of Dadaists and Surrealists. In the 1960s Asger Jorn also subscribed to ‘Pataphysics which influenced his work with the Situationist International. From there Pataphysics hotspots popped up all over the world. Oh yeah, John Cage’s seminal Black Mountain College performance in the 50’s? Chalk it up to ‘Pataphysics!

The ‘pataphysic effect has influenced not only visual art, but also music and literature. The Pataphor (coined by writer and musician Pablo Lopez) is an extended metaphor that describes two degrees of separation (rather than one, which would be a metaphor). It describes a new and separate world where the idea has taken on its own life (for an example click here.)

Beatles fan? In “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” what is mentioned as the course of study for Joan? That’s right, “Pataphysical Science.”

And the best thing!? It’s still around! After going underground in 1975, the College de ‘Pataphysique reemerged in 2000. The London chapter especially is thriving with an actual journal, documents, and all the trappings of sophisticated officialness. So there! Art doesn’t have to be serious to be great or influential. Sometimes the greatest truths are found within the absurd.

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.


Art & Headlines

Hurricane Irene recently struck the East Coast of the United States, devastating countless residents. In dedication to all my friends and family in Richmond, Va. that have yet to regain power; to those that have been flooded or damaged by debris, a salute! This was one hurricane I happened to miss.

J.M.W. Turner, Shade and Darkness- the Evening of the Deluge, 1843, oil on canvas

Art & Headlines

The art: Asger Jorn, Paris by Night, 1959

The news: “Police Scramble to Fight Flash-mob Mayhem,” Ashley Fantz, CNN

In what could be a scene from a dystopian futuristic film like Mad Max flash-mobs are erupting all over the world. The police seem to be powerless to control the mobs due to lack of technological expertise. Young people are organizing via social networking sites in order to meet up, loot, and/or assault pedestrians .These flash-mobs are symptomatic of an underlying sense of powerlessness endemic to youth today. The only way to feel power is to undermine capitalism’s societal norm with the anonymity provided by mob behavior. How else can young people attract national attention? It seems that the youth cannot but be negatively portrayed in the media and this is the result. These acts are subversive outcries in the battle of disparity waging everywhere.

Asger Jorn’s ( Danish, 1914-1973) Paris by Night, is a Detournement that subverts the capitalistic art object by defacing the type of cliche painting commonly sold to tourists on the streets of Paris. Jorn and the Situationists were using art as a means of rebellion from the invasion of American-style Capitalism in the Post-war period. This work depicts a kind of graffiti scrawl over the painting in shapes that resemble a mushroom cloud in the upper left over the city of Paris and a chaotic overflow of smoke in the foreground. The figure leisurely watches Paris burn from the safety of his balcony even as it sneaks up behind him. We cannot look at the collapsing of the world markets without seeing how it is affecting us right now. One of those ways is how youth has come to feel powerless as jobs become scarcer, corporations get tax payer bail outs, school seems pointless as higher education is skyrocketing in cost without concrete benefits-  the future is bleak.



2011 Poet Laureate Paul Levine: Why it Matters

Who is Philip Levine?

To get an idea of Philip Levine you just have to read one of his poems. He is the quintessential poet of the blue collar working class; gritty, down to earth and above all, real. His verses are filled with the concrete power of simple words. Do not be fooled, however, his poems are not “simple.” For Levine, the life of the everyman is unveiled as something beautiful, wise, and mysterious. I had the privilege of hearing Levine read a year or so ago. I was struck by his humility, humor, and just downright awesomeness.

Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1928. He attended public schools and studied at Wayne University. Levine worked in many industrial jobs such as the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Factory while reading and writing poems. Earning his MFA at the University of Iowa in 1953, Levine studied with the notable poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. The poet then taught at California State University, Fresno until his retirement from teaching.

Throughout his career, Levine has won numerous awards for his poetry, such as the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize for Poetry, the Frank O’Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships, oh and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.

From the numerous books of poetry are the noteworthy titles: On the Edge (1963), Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), Breath (2004), Mercy (1999), and News of the World (2010).

What is the Poet Laureate exactly?

The Poet Laureate or Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress is the nation’s spotlight on a specific poet that takes the pulse of American poetry. It’s a big deal, one of the top honors a poet can achieve. The Poet Laureate is expected to raise public awareness and appreciation of poetry. This position is appointed by the Librarian of Congress annually in a term lasting from October to May. The $35,000 stipend allows the poet to work on their own projects while also giving an annual lecture and reading of his or her own poetry and introducing poets in the Library of Congress’ annual poetry series.

Why does this matter?

Appointing Levine at this juncture, one of extreme instability and financial uncertainty, gives a voice to the millions of Americans facing hardship right now. His poetry remains fresh, reflecting the underlying struggle of the working class that echoes throughout our nation’s history. His is the poetry of the underdog, the downtrodden, the worn out. But it is also the rallying cry, the call to arms, to fortitude and never say die. Levine restores the dignity beaten out of us by huge corporations that outsource jobs, reduce pay and benefits while reaping huge bonuses from tax-payers bailout money that was facilitated by the rampant political ass-hattery prevalent today. In Levine’s work, we can find the truth of life, which is what makes our existence worthwhile.

“What Work Is” from What Work Is (1992) by Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.