Tuesday, September 19, 2017

For Freedoms Immigration Town Hall at MOCA Cleveland

“...we are powerful together.” ~ Navid Tavoli

On Sunday September 17, the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland hosted the first in a four-part series of For Freedoms town halls. Each of the town halls will focus on one of President Roosevelt’s inalienable rights* and this particular one explored freedom from fear through the lens of immigrants’ experiences. Panelists onstage included Leen Midani, who is originally from Syria; Glory Bisett, who is originally from the Congo; Hany ElHibir, who was born in Kuwait and who lived in multiple countries before the US; Navid Tavoli, who is oringally from Iran; and Murat Gurer, who is originally from Turkey. Panelist Abraham Cruzvillegas, who hails from Mexico, was seated front row center in the audience. Jorge Sanchez, who immigrated from Colombia, was the moderator.

For Freedoms bills itself as the “first ever artist-run Super PAC.” It is the brainchild of artists, Hank Willis Thomas (who introduced Sunday’s town hall along with Dan Moulthrop of the City Club, a partner for the event) and Eric Gottesman. The approach, called the Question Bridge—which Thomas introduced at a discussion involving African American men at the Cleveland Museum of Art (shout out to my new workplace!)—involves only taking questions from audience members who identify directly with the main speakers. At the MOCA, those who didn’t self-identify as immigrants were asked to refrain from asking questions. When trying to decide whether to attend the event, I mulled over the approach. I will admit to having felt a slight pang. I thought, “But I’ve volunteered with immigrants. What if I had something to contribute?”. However, reflecting on the television show, Dear White People, whose main character is a captivating radio host, I could see that having the mic completely out of the hands of those in power can be eye-opening, and that the Question Bridge was a reasonable way to subvert marginalization.

There was a time lag before I realized that I am more immigrant than non-immigrant, because I live the US on a non-immigrant visa that can entail the intent to immigrate. That I didn’t realize my own arguable eligibility to participate in the discussion reveals my privilege (as a Caucasian person from Canada). I pass for an American and home is a day’s drive away. What do I know of being restricted by the Muslim ban, having a bystander not help during a medical crisis because of racism, or being a victim of war—heartbreaking stories about which the panelists shared? Nothing. To say that I am immune to fear, though, would be inaccurate. Earlier this week, I had a dream that I was killed deliberately for my political beliefs. But dreams and waking life are apples and oranges; actually, an entirely new metaphor is needed because they are so disparate. Sanchez notes that that “picking one’s battles is a luxury.”

Thomas aims to “bring people together through what divides us.” It’s a noble goal, and the personal accounts shared by the panelists could melt the iciest of hearts, but only if they are heard. Midani says, “...we can’t run away from these topics,” but it seems that many people do just that, refusing to see that as Bisett says, “The US is for everybody.” Moulthrop recognized the value in having immigrants remind non-immigrants of fundamental rights. ElHibir shared an anecdote about not knowing which box to check on an immigration form to indicate his ethnicity, because he didn’t feel that any of them were the right fit; these are the types of details that someone who has lived here for a long time might not twig to without hearing it from a newcomer. Still, if the audience was filled with immigrants and pro-immigrant citizens, as I imagine was the case, does an event like this effectively preach to the converted? Gurer advised against “stay[ing] in your own corner and complain[ing].” Does an event like this perpetuate the corner or does it become a non-corner by virtue of the institutional connection? MOCA Deputy Director, Megan Lykins Reich, spoke of providing a “safe space” for these discussions, to bring the community together. As Tavoli said, “...we are powerful together.” The content was raw, and I imagine there weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the audience, but there was certainly laughter, affirmative snapping, and applause in response to the panelists’ spirited determination.

Because For Freedoms has also conducted activities that dovetail more with the traditional programming of galleries, such as participating in exhibitions and performances, I found myself wondering if the role of art would surface in the discussion. Although it did not, I understand that this was addressed in a For Freedoms town hall that took place last November, three days before the federal election. At any rate, it got me thinking about the radical Marxist perspective that making art about social justice is too removed and that it’s preferable (probably too gentle of a term) to be an activist rather than an artist-activist. Degrees of removal have been on my mind since I wrote a catalog essay about the fable-inspired drawings of animals by Canadian artist, Amanda Burk, for her solo show at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. The artist identified concerns with American politics as a motivating factor in her work, and I explored the connection head-on. Fables have been palatable historically because of their distance from the issue at hand, and there’s something to be said for using whatever tools will elicit a response. On the other hand, there’s also merit to dealing as directly as possible with a subject, even if the connection to an institution’s mandate might seem tenuous. Just as Sanchez emphasized that there is no right way to be an immigrant, there is no right way to be an artist.

*in addition to freedom from fear, these include freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Cameron Armstrong at Ferneyhough Contemporary

“Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie...” ~ Patti Smith

Cameron Armstrong, my fellow White Water Gallery board member over the past year, died unexpectedly in March at the age of 47, shortly before his solo show was scheduled to open at Ferneyhough Contemporary in North Bay, Ontario. The family’s wish was for over over (April 1-19) to proceed—an excellent choice and a fitting tribute, judging by the nearly impenetrable crowd at the opening.

Gallerist Joan Ferneyhough describes Armstrong’s style as a “layered approach” involving “several ongoing images.” (1) In 2007, Armstrong explained that his work features a combination of graphic and painterly imagery, with the former acting as a counterpoint. (2) To elaborate, typically in Armstrong’s paintings, the majority of the canvas is consumed by a close-up of a face, an object or objects (sometimes a still life), or a scene from nature. These dominant images tend to be rendered in grey and white or an understated combination of colours, in a painterly style reminiscent of Gerhard Richter. The muted palette and loose application of paint infuse his work with an ephemeral quality. The dominant images “reveal themselves slowly,” says Ferneyhough. They feel like they could dissolve if it weren’t for the presence of virtual anchors. Functioning as anchors—or perhaps ‘stabilizers’ is a better term—are tag-like markings; scribbles; dribbled paint (evocative of abstract expressionism); lines (both diagrammatic lines and those that feel excerpted from hard edge painting); cartoon-like elements; and representational images, such as a contoured crowd scene recalling Peter Max’s Yellow Submarine illustrations. Ferneyhough says, “It’s like he had this mental stockpile of images from 70s television and he continually drew from that.”

Also in 2007, Armstrong noted that the anchoring elements were the starting point for his work. (3) Although they are small, they feel like they have elbowed their way to the surface of the painting. Compared to the larger image consuming the majority of the canvas, they appear more finished, with thick outlines and punchy contrast. Because of placement and finish, they push the focal point backward, and what might otherwise be considered the foreground becomes the background. Meanwhile, because the largest image is depicted close-up, three-dimensionality gives way to two-dimensionality, compromising the recession of space. Effectively, Armstrong collapses the picture planes, continuing the cubists’ quest from over a century ago in a most intriguing manner.

Art historical connections date back much farther than last century. Like marginalia on illuminated Medieval manuscripts, these “‘pseudo abstract’ portions emerging from the sides” (4) as Armstrong described them, act as curious interjections. For example, Ferneyhough says of the tag-like elements in Armstrong’s paintings, they prevent the work from becoming “too precious.” Having lived with a painting of Armstrong’s for the past decade—a sideways portrait of Patti Smith (who was a key influence for Armstrong)—I have found the visual anchors to be a source of constant surprise. When I try to picture the work precisely, inevitably, some detail eludes me. I suspect it’s because the multiple components compete for my attention when viewing the work and the multiple components compete with my memory later on. The inability to keep the entire work in my mind’s eye is a metaphor for the glut of images we encounter in the era of Pinterest. On a more somber note, it speaks to the role of memory in grief. When I was working at WWG and Armstrong’s father died, I shared with the artist how surprisingly vivid my dreams were of my deceased father, and I let Armstrong know that I wished the same for him. Vivid, precise: if only they were one and the same. But to quote Smith, “Maybe we can’t draw flesh from reverie nor retrieve a dusty spur, but we can gather the dream itself and bring it back uniquely whole.” (5)

Recently, the artist had revealed to WWG director, Serena Kataoka that he was experimenting with reversing his process. (6) One can assume that he meant the equivalent of swapping ‘bring to front’ with ‘send to back,’ in Adobe Photoshop parlance. Whether the totality of images in a single work was planned in advance throughout his oeuvre, Ferneyhough says, “I suspect that he let the paintings take him where they wanted.” Where this new approach would have taken him, unfortunately, we can only imagine.

The closing date has been extended to April 22.


Armstrong in his studio, 2004. Courtesy of Liz Lott.

The Viewmaster General, 2014, oil on panel, 42 x 42 inches. Courtesy of Ferneyhough Contemporary.


(1) All quotations of Joan Ferneyhough: personal communication, 8 April, 2017.
(2) “Close your eyes around me” statement, Oct. 2007. Although Armstrong states that this is his approach from that point in time onwards, these statements arguably apply to previous works as well.
(3) A Retrospective of North Bay and Surrounding Areas, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000300&sl=9707&pos=1
(4) Ibid.
(5) Smith, Patti. M Train, 2016, p. 251.
(6) Kataoka, Serena. Personal communication, 10 April, 2017.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Queens Museum

“...Ukeles prompts us to critique ourselves...”

For quite some time, I’ve been meaning to write about Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum (Sept. 18 2016 to Feb. 19 2017). However, with being appointed Director of the Ingalls Library at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I’ve been sidetracked by the visa process, packing, seeking accommodations, etc. (the mundanity of which makes me think of Ukeles, who highlights labor and everyday concerns in her work). One of many appealing aspects of the CMA for me personally is its founding mission to serve all people, demonstrated by temporary initiatives like partnering with public transit during last year’s centennial celebrations as well as the ongoing policy of free admission. Thus, I was duly impressed that the Queens Museum offered free admission to current and past employees of the New York Department of Sanitation and their families for the duration of Ukeles’ retrospective.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Touch Sanitation Performance, 1977-80
"Handshake Ritual" with workers of New York City Department of Sanitation
color photograph
60 x 90 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

The connection to the Department of Sanitation is that Ukeles has been artist in residence there for almost 40 years. She is perhaps best known for a performance coordinated with them, involving all the “sanmen” in New York City. A dot matrix printout at the Queens Museum conveys her intent with this pivotal work, Touch Sanitation (1979-80): “For eleven months, I circled the city to face and shake hands with, and thank every sanitation worker, hoping to create a vision of the[ir] endless work energy...” Works like this or her ‘ballets’—which feature heavy machinery moving like synchronized swimmers (diggers bow to the audience!)—might seem merely celebratory in isolation. However, Ukeles has also exposed society’s dismissive attitude towards sanitation workers, making her exploration more nuanced. Initially on a gallery window and later at the Queens Museum via archival material, she shared a selection of derogatory comments sanitation workers had been on the receiving end of, including racial slurs, curse words, class-based slights, and comparisons of sanitation workers to refuse. She looks at the labor of not just sanitation workers, but also of other undervalued laborers like museum security guards and mothers. Ultimately, Ukeles prompts us to critique ourselves, and since society is slow to move beyond stereotypes, it gives her work a timeless quality (especially now, with frequent discussions about classism in the US). From a contemporary perspective, this evaluation of the self and of society is more unsettling than reconsidering what constitutes art. As context, in her 1969 manifesto, she committed to highlighting unglorified activities—many of them household chores—and “flush[ing] them up to consciousness, [by] exhibit[ing] them, as Art.” (1) Perhaps unsurprisingly, she thought of Marcel Duchamp as a grandfather. (2)

The exhibition, curated by Larissa Harris and Patricia C. Phillips, features works from 1962 to 2016 and is the first show of its size at the museum. Much has been written about this riveting exhibition, so I’ll focus on her early feminist work.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In, 1973
Queens Museum Installation, 2016
black and white photos mounted on foam core with chain and dust rag
55 x 42 1/4 inches
Photo: Megan Paetzhold
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

In the spirit of social realist photography, Ukeles used the camera to underscore the challenges of being a mother and an artist. And, as many feminist artists did, she turned the lens on herself to embrace the personal as political. Another contemporary spin on social realism was adding a performative element that evolved into participatory art. The series entitled matter-of-factly, Dressing to Go Out/Undressing to Go In (1973), documents the artist assisting her children; significantly, Ukeles is cropped partly or completely out of many of the images, referencing the invisible nature of much of mothering labor. Maintenance Art: Personal Time Studies (1973), meanwhile, shows how integrated mothering is with art-making: in this textual record of Ukeles’ daily activities, like a pendulum swinging, she describes her child’s bowel movement, then turns her attention to a woodcut, then nurses her child, then chooses an image for an exhibition catalogue, and then visits the playground. The boundary between her art about domestic labor and her art about sanitation is sometimes blurred. For instance, in Maintenance Art Event XI: “Washing” (1974), the act of her cleaning the sidewalk outside of the feminist gallery, A.I.R., then based in Manhattan, alludes to the tendency for women to do the lion’s share of housework in that era as much as it references the act of keeping public spaces clean. In all of the documentation images of this performance, her poses are utilitarian instead of distorted for male pleasure, and in shots containing male onlookers, they appear to be transfixed by her labor rather than her body. These images contrast how women had been objectified traditionally in art, yet an element of inequality lurks because of her laboring amidst those who are at rest. Similarly, in one of the images from Washing/ Tracks/ Maintenance: Inside (1973), she scrubs the floors of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut on all fours, at the base of an ancient marble statue of a female nude (Venus with Nymph and Satyr by Pietro Francavilla, 1600), juxtaposing realism and idealism; the nude Venus figure clutches fabric to create a pleasant effect of drapery pulled across her figure, while Ukeles, dressed in a simple t-shirt and pants, clutches a cloth to clean the floor. Ukeles is not fetishizing labor, Helen Molesworth clarifies (3), as with her avoidance of mere celebration in her ballets and Touch Sanitation. The sincerity of her virtually crying out to make women‘s labor visible compels the audience to take note.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Washing, June 13, 1974
In front of the A.I.R gallery on Wooster Street Soho
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

Mierle Laderman Ukeles
Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance (Inside), 1973
Part of Maintenance Art performance series, 1973-1974
Performance at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT
Courtesy of the artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York

The catalogue, published by DelMonico Books·Prestel, contains an introduction by Laura Raicovich (President and Executive Director, Queens Museum) as well as essays by both of the curators and Lucy R. Lippard (who curated Ukeles into an important conceptual art exhibition in 1973, c. 7, 500), plus interviews by Tom Finkenpearl (past President and Executive Director, Queens Museum) with the Department of Sanitation commissioners. Also included are writings by Ukeles, a selected work history, selected bibliography, and a wide assortment of high quality images.

(1) Phillips, Patricia C, Mierle Ukeles, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, and Lucy R. Lippard. Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, 2016. New York: Queen's Museum and Munich: DelMonico Books·Prestel, p. 211.
(2) Phillips, Patricia C, Mierle Ukeles, Tom Finkelpearl, Larissa Harris, and Lucy R. Lippard. Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art, 2016. New York: Queen's Museum and Munich: DelMonico Books·Prestel, p. 30.
(3) Molesworth, Helen. "House Work and Art Work." October, no. 92, Spring 2000, pp. 71-97.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992, by Sabra Moore

“…navel-gazing is absent from this heartfelt memoir.”

Sabra Moore’s Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992 (New Village Press, 2016) describes the Texas-born artist’s experiences in Manhattan and Brooklyn back when moving there didn’t break the bank—back when artists could rent a huge loft and make a living by cobbling together small contracts with plenty of time remaining for art-making and activism to boot.

Naysayers may doubt that activism was necessary beyond the surge of Second Wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing on journals written since 1964, Moore provides ample evidence of lasting sexism. For example, in the 1980s, Moore visited Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City and noticed that the only postcards for sale featured the works of Kalho’s husband, Diego Rivera. That same decade—in the wake of Ana Mendieta’s suspicious death after falling from the 34th window of the apartment she shared with her partner, Carl Andre—a male architect “jokingly offered to push me [Moore] out of a window when we disagreed.” (1) And, in the 1990s, a friend of Moore’s, Ora Lerman, was on an art-related academic panel in which the male panelists were paid honoraria but the female panelists weren’t compensated.

As accomplished as Moore is, navel-gazing is absent from this heartfelt memoir. Moore discusses her own mixed media work throughout, but with seeming sincerity, showing how it dovetailed with her personal life, from travel to family relations. For example, in a fabric calendar, Moore recounts her abortion while volunteering for the Peace Corps, using materials and techniques familiar to her because both of her grandmothers had been quiltmakers. Impressively, Moore includes people’s reactions to her work—both compliments and criticisms—and she reveals rejections as well as acceptances for exhibition submissions and grant proposals. This dose of realism is important for art students and emerging artists because it underscores the need to be steadfast. Signs of her success are tempered; for example, in a single paragraph, Moore recalls the good news that a curator offers unlimited funds for one of her artist books, but also the less-than-good news that the Social Science Research Council wants a book from the same edition at no cost. As the late Carrie Fisher remarked, “There is no point at which you can say, ‘Well, I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.’” (2)

Moore’s inclusiveness of other Second Wave feminist artists is exemplary. She aims to expand the canon beyond a smattering of well-known female artists like Judy Chicago. As early as the 1970s, Moore realized, “If you are not named, you do not exist” (3). She doesn’t just mention her myriad colleagues by name; she describes their work, at minimum with a single sentence, but often with more. For example, she writes poetically of Hannah Wilke’s Brushstrokes No. 6 that preceded her death from cancer: “Rows of her shorn lockets [of hair] were framed like calligraphy, creating a text we could not decipher except for its bravery.” (4) The reader need not visualize the majority of the works referenced: a colour banner of images spans the bottom quarter of the page for the entire book, except when full-page images are included.

One perspective in the contemporary art world is that it is questionable for a curator to organize an exhibition that includes his or her own work, but Moore offers a compelling argument for organizers to double as participants. Basically, joining forces was the best strategy for making headway. She identifies as an activist artist, as a practitioner “who felt a call to action for our beliefs.” (5) That call manifested in various ways for feminists: organizing shows around themes like peace, founding artist-run galleries like Atlantic Gallery, and establishing artist-run periodicals like Heresies. Moore’s work was featured in all of these initiatives.

Moore does not gloss over the trials and tribulations of collective organizing. She cites challenges such as the horizontal structure of grassroots organizing delaying decision making; a revolving door of members hindering the ability to move beyond surface level concerns; poor institutional memory; lack of credit for behind-the-scenes work; a heavy reliance on unpaid labour; in-fighting; and financial mismanagement that could cripple a fledgling organization. Yet, in the end, collective action seems to have been worthwhile. Moore portrays it as an almost transcendental experience that fostered her creative practice, broke down institutional barriers, and facilitated lasting friendships with the likes of art critic Lucy Lippard (who has written an introduction for Openings along with poet Margaret Randall).

There is a wealth of valuable information within for researchers. Unfortunately, the presentation of information demands deduction. Artists are often referred to by their first name only; for example, in the second paragraph of the preface, Moore introduces three artists by first name only and by the end of the preface, just one of those three has had their last name specified. Especially for readers who don’t read cover to cover, a subject index would clarify an individual’s last name, plus it would enhance access overall. Also, the content is presented somewhat chronologically, but the sequence of events is often jumbled. For example, the first chapter is called, “Where I/We Came In (Starting in 1970),” but she actually begins in the 1960s (in order, 1966, 1969, 1963, 1970, 1982, 1972, 1973, 1984, 1983, and 1965). Jumping around from year to year is preferable to not knowing what year Moore is referencing. For instance, early in the book, Moore says she was married in the late 1980s. Much later, she notes the month and day of her wedding but not the year, and on the next page, an approximate date of 1989 is indicated by her reproduction of an exhibition card. However, in a later chapter, she reveals her wedding was 32 years after her sister’s in 1958, which would be 1990 and not the late 1980s. Another way the reader gets lost is through the absence (or rather, delay) of segues; for example, she mentions that a colleague of hers, Linda Peer, got married while placing her and her husband-to-be‘s hands on a book about the artist Giotto. Then she describes how she met Peer and she describes her personality. The next paragraph is about Moore’s trip to Europe, but only in the final sentence does she mention Giotto as the link to the previous paragraph. Also disorienting is the inclusion of dialogue without the identification of all speakers. For instance, Moore recounts her introduction of the artist Vivian Browne to the anthropologist Jonetta Cole. The three stand looking at Browne’s work. She then writes, “‘Does it make a difference that it’s women? It makes a difference!’” (6) The first question is assumed to have been asked by Cole, but is the response from Browne or from Moore, or is Cole answering her own question? Lastly, as a Canadian I would like to see more specificity with her reference to Reconstruction Project, an exhibition that traveled from Powerhouse Gallery (now La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse) in Montreal to Eye Level Gallery in Halifax in 1987. The caption for an installation view says merely, “Canadian installations” (the clarification of the gallery is only to be found in the illustration notes in the back of the book), and one quotation about artist-run centres is attributed generically to “the Canadians.” (7) Incidentally, no, I don’t know Bob from Calgary. (8)

No editor is listed in the book’s bibliographic information. Surely enlisting the help of one would have addressed the above issues. Marilyn Lanfear’s comment is pertinent, even though it is about Moore’s text-based art and not her writing: “You don’t make it easy to read your stories.” Moore’s retort was, “People have to want to read them.” (9) Personally, I enjoyed the memoir most when I read it quickly instead of searching for connections or clarity.

Reading the epilogue was like pulling a thread even though it’s obviously intended to tie up loose ends. In Moore’s updates about her colleagues’ current activities, I was surprised to see that Howardena Pindell is teaching art at SUNY Purchase, whose faculty I follow closely because it’s my former workplace. I am quite certain that it’s the Stony Brook campus she works at instead. A factual error like this casts doubt on the accuracy of all preceding content, so I recommend that researchers who consult Openings as a primary source document corroborate details with an additional source.

(1) p. 168
(2) “15 of Carrie Fisher's Best, Most Honest Feminist Quotes.“ The Cut. Dec. 27, 2016. nymag.com/thecut/2016/12/15-of-carrie-fishers-best-most-honest-feminist-quotes.html
(3) p. 44
(4) p. 198
(5) p. 208
(6) p. 187
(7) p. 200
(8) “Bob from Calgary, We’d Like to Meet You.“ CBC News Calgary. Dec. 29, 2015.http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/bob-from-calgary-new-york-times-1.3383896 (9) p. 246

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hannah Black at the Toronto Art Book Fair

“...[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. ~ Hannah Black

This year, the Toronto Art Book Fair was introduced as part of Art Toronto (October 28-31). I attended the opening day strictly to hear Berlin-based artist and writer, Hannah Black, present as part of the PLATFORM lecture series co-hosted by Art Metropole and C Magazine.

In the image shown here, Black is speaking about astrology to a standing-room-only audience. She noted that she’s a Libra rising, and that the “Libra-Aries axis is kind of Self/Other.” This comment caught my attention because I happen to be an Aries. Although I don’t prescribe to astrology, I bought into this contrast immediately: Black’s mind operates at a rapid clip, evidenced by her swift movement between diverse topics like Canada’s birth chart, magic, robots, and Brexit; my mind operates at a glacial rate in comparison. C Magazine editor Amish Morrell observed at the end of Black’s whirlwind presentation that he was struck by her pace, which she revealed was due in part to a generous amount of caffeine.

Several minutes into the event, her pace became a contentious issue. An audience member in the front row asked if she could slow down. Without hesitation, Black clarified that the speed of her delivery was at her discretion. When the audience member persisted, she declined again. She continued her presentation only briefly before pausing, obviously affected; she then described the interruption as “[insert expletive] rude,” prompting applause from the majority of the audience. I could gloss over whether or not I joined in, but I think it’s more constructive to share that I did not, feeling as I did like a deer in headlights. Aware that inaction and complicity are comfortable bedfellows, I would like to take this opportunity to explore my ambivalence. This is in the spirit of Black stating during the Q&A in relation to identity politics, “[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. By analysing why I felt awkward, in no way do I mean to minimize the awkwardness or any number of emotions that Black may have felt from the interruption. At the heart of the matter for me is that the power dynamic between artist and audience in a lecture-performance—which is liberated from the power dynamic between a speaker and audience in a traditional lecture and which often embraces conflict (1)—intersected with the power dynamic of race relations.

Black, a self-described mixed black person raised by teachers, had just been speaking about the working class (she shared an anecdote about a white audience member asking about the relatability of her writing to the working class, during a talk at her alma mater, Goldsmith’s, University of London). As a result, my mind went to an article by Holly Baxter in The Independent (2) that had been circulating over social media earlier that week about respecting the way working class women speak, which underscored the gendered element of the situation in question. Simultaneously, I was reminded of Chelsea Bourget, a recent graduate from the art department in which I teach. A Francophone First Nations artist, she strikes me as a kindred spirit of Black’s—quick-witted, articulate, and known for a layering of complex ideas. What I thought of specifically was a film that Bourget showed in the BFA graduate exhibition, in which she chose to have a male speaker with an alluring low voice narrate her ideas at a noticeably slower pace than her own. The difference here is that the switch was self-motivated. In light of these considerations, I was cognizant that the request to speak a certain way, although seemingly innocuous, could be interpreted as a form of marginalization when made by a white person, as was the case at the Art Book Fair. The request could be seen as pressure to avoid what Black would later describe as “deviation from the white male mean.” Relatedly, during the Q&A, she shared that in Germany, where there are “a lot of politics around race,” she has been mistaken for a rapper simply because of her rhythmic way of speaking.

It was unclear whether the applause was an act of public shaming of the audience member, of solidarity with the speaker, or both. If this situation had occurred in a classroom, ideally the initial interruption would have evolved into a more nuanced teachable moment. One could argue that it’s not the speaker’s role or even the co-hosts’ role to take this on, but without that discussion, increased awareness is unlikely; as Baxter notes, “not everyone has been given the tools to educate themselves” (3). The complication is that Black’s delivery has a performative quality, which Black alluded to by saying that the talk wouldn’t be the same if she were to slow down. Thus, stopping for a nuanced discussion would have been ill-timed. Perhaps if the presentation had been billed as a lecture-performance rather than a lecture, the importance of artistic freedom would have been more apparent. Different social situations call for different codes of conduct. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to interrupt a theatrical performance to ask the actors to slow down. And when fast-talking, ad-libbing Robin Williams was a guest star on the show, Inside the Actor’s Studio, instead of asking the actor to pace himself, they let the camera roll for five hours and doubled the allotted airtime in what’s reportedly the most requested episode from all 21 seasons. To bring the discussion of artistic freedom back to visual art, the combination of art and lecturing has a history of disruption; pioneering artist-lecturer Joseph Beuys encountered volatile confrontation (not to say that’s desirable, but ‘radical’ and ‘provocative’ are hardly mutually exclusive traits). The term ‘lecture’ may have caused certain expectations, since the academic environment—the setting most associated with lectures—is now stretching to accommodate diverse learning styles (for example, students can request note-takers or audio recordings so content can be reviewed afterwards). So, a more fitting term for marketing purposes would have been ‘lecture-performance,’ in which lecturing takes on a central role in artistic practice and the artist may riff on and subvert the traditional lecture model (4). It would also be more fitting of Black’s work; her MFA was in Art Writing with “writing as a mode of art practice” (5).

Further thoughts on adjusting expectations follow. Admittedly, part of me hoped that Black would consider adjusting her pace, as I had hoped to write about the substance of her talk. I strained to keep up while trying to avoid being distracted by the murmuring sounds of approval from my seatmate that exemplify what de Vientri describes as a quality of “charismatic mesmerisation” seen in the lecture-performances of artists like Beuys (6). A loanword I learned a few days later warrants mention: the German term, ‘Sitzfleisch,’ came into use during the 19th Century to refer to an audience member’s intense concentration while sitting absolutely still at a musical performance for the purpose of earnest self-edification (7). Had I known this term, I would have sent Sitzfleisch vibes to my seatmate instead of half-smiling with my head occasionally turned sideways to give acknowledgement and withhold offense. Maybe I am envious of Black’s directness and am bothered by the fact that I do little to counteract stereotypes of Canadian politeness.

The fact that Black referred to her notes throughout likely enhanced her pace, energizing her performance, but it didn’t lend itself to note-taking by the audience. However, de Vientri observes that “…the lecture-performance can present shards, fragments, suggestions and contradictions; a bricolage of stories that incite collective thinking rather than passing knowledge from source to receptacle[,]” (8) and taking comprehensive notes would have made me a proverbial receptacle. Black, with her “little exhaustions of words together,” spoke in a manner that was almost stream of consciousness, akin to poetry. Even direct quotations that I managed to record, such as “I forgot that sex doesn’t need cutlery,” don’t lend themselves to being excerpted. They lose meaning when decontextualized, when taken from the original constellation of ideas. To the best of my recollection, this surreal comment about sex and cutlery related to dream-like thoughts, which causes me to wonder if it is unsuitable to pin down something ephemeral with Aries-like structure. It’s telling that Black professed, “Writing should be disposable” and admitted, “I hate posterity,” when recognizing the irony of being a book author. She also revealed that her manner of speaking is a protective strategy—effectively, if no one can quote you on something, no one can call you on it either. This seems to minimize the radical nature of her work (an example of a radical perspective is Black stating, “We must get rid of cops, prisons, husbands, and landlords”). Then again, in mid-October, Black tweeted, “protective mantra: im [sic] always only really talking to myself,” which adds another dimension to the comment.

Enough with delaying! I promised that I would hold myself to account by engaging in self-critique. Black noted that “…the periphery can only become real by divesting itself of its centre.” More powerful phrasing I cannot imagine, but what I can imagine is the centre participating in its own divestment (having spent a large part of the summer reading and rereading the writing of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who implored men to play a role in their own demise). At any rate, the week after Black’s talk I decided to read Frances E. Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege (2013, Routledge). The author recommends identifying and reflecting on key moments in one’s life that have reinforced white privilege and racism, an exercise that reminded me of Black saying, “You cannot go around; you must go through.” Sharing with my husband my first memory of race relations brought about feelings of shame, but since I was around five years old at the time, my adult self could forgive my child self. The second memory is from the end of elementary school, when I should have known better. Coincidentally, it relates to the title of Black’s book, Dark Pool Party (Dominica & Arcadia Missa, 2016), so I’ll share it instead. A friend of a friend commented that she wouldn’t want to go swimming with the one student of colour in our class, because she thought he was dirty. Gobsmacked, I said nothing. Later, I raised the issue with my friend, who explained that the girl’s father’s beliefs were likely being reflected. Working through this exercise helped me to recognize a pattern: like the confrontation during Black’s presentation, once again, in the moment, I did nothing. I might derive some pleasure from the realization that I set out to gain perspective even at a young age, but ultimately, I let the friend of a friend off the hook. And why? Because she wasn’t my friend, so it wasn’t my place? Because she was repeating someone else’s racism? Racism is learned and everyone shares a responsibility to combat it, making non-response reprehensible. Kendall writes, “Allies expect to make some mistakes but do not use that as an excuse for inaction” (9). It’s a timely reminder: in the wake of the US election, the call to action in supporting vulnerable people is resounding on social media.

By its very nature, challenging oneself is never easy, whether it’s confronting white privilege or learning about the subtle difference between a lecture and a lecture-performance to allow for the exhilaration of the experience to be relished. If we think back to the origin of the art fair—and for the sake of argument let’s say it’s world fairs emerging in the mid-19th Century rather than the Salon exhibitions that preceded them, weren’t they all about encountering the unfamiliar with the goal of advancing society? And based on that comparison, shouldn’t we reframe discomfort as rewarding?

Photo courtesy of C Magazine.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mary Sue Rankin (d. October 23), whose commitment to social justice will undoubtedly continue to be an inspiration to many.

(1) Gabrielle de Vietri, An Investigation of the Lecture in and as Art, Marash U., 2013. http://gabrielledevietri.com/files/gdvmfafinal.pdf
(2) Holly Baxter, “If Labour Keeps Telling Working Class People They're Saying the Wrong Thing, They’ll Start Talking to Theresa May,” The Independent, October 6, 2016. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/theresa-may-jeremy-corbyn-momentum-jackie-walker-anti-semitism-working-class-saying-wrong-thing-a7349071.html
(3) Ibid
(4) de Vientri, p. 6
(5) Chris Randle, “I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist: An Interview with Hannah Black,” Hazlitt, August 23, 2016. http://hazlitt.net/feature/i-feel-everything-shouldnt-exist-interview-hannah-black
(6) de Vientri, p. 38
(7) Jason Tebbe, “Twenty-First Century Victorians,” Jacobin, October 31, 2016.
(8) de Vientri, p. 39
(9) p. 182.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On the road again, with Christopher Pratt

“…the continuum between art and life…”

I can’t imagine a more suitable book for a Newfoundland road trip than Thoughts on Driving to Venus: Christopher Pratt’s Car Books (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2015), which I picked up earlier this month at The Rooms in St. John’s, where the author was born. In 1997, Pratt decided to record “a stream of consciousness series of words and one-liners responsive to the things flashing by” (1). He made these notes while traveling around the island with his second wife in search of source material for his art. I paced myself, reading a bit at a time between lecture preparations; as Pratt writes, “Working holiday! Aren’t they all?” (2). Heading north from the capital city to the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows over 1,000 kilometres away, then back south equally far to catch a ferry to Nova Scotia, I glimpsed stunning scenery through my peripheral vision—as in the photos shown here.

Just as much stands to be gained by the armchair traveler, for the “Great Newfoundlandscape” (3) is depicted through the eyes of an artist: a wet road reflecting purple and orange, clouds that transition from blue to purple, and the different greens in the sea versus the land. Pratt professes to avoid the picturesque in his paintings and prints, but his writing feels like a scenic postcard converted to text (fortunately with a matter-of-fact style creating balance). He writes that he feels like a visitor to the island, which may account for the vividness of his descriptions. On the flipside, he references his own work as shorthand for describing the look of a scene.

And now for a few more observations about reading this book in situ. When the hassles of traveling echoed those of a famous artist (needing gas, caffeine, a restroom, etc.), I kidded myself into seeing them as charmed. Mundane details suddenly seemed worthy of recording for the sake of posterity. For example, my inlaws, my husband, and I ramped up our efforts to watch for moose on a ‘moosey lookin’ night’ after I read that Pratt spotted 65 of them in a single day. I don’t typically share personal details in blog posts unless they relate directly to the subject matter at hand, but Pratt made me rethink this approach. Would it interest my blog readers to learn that I sometimes write posts from a hotel bathroom in the wee hours of the night to avoid waking my husband so he can be rested to take photos the next day? Maybe yes, maybe no. A writer must decide what to edit out, much like an artist, and I strive to be as economical in writing as I am in traveling. What Pratt does so well is reveal the continuum between art and life, making it all seem valuable.

As a result, I was surprised to read Pratt’s revelation that his wife feels nothing has meaning. In a sense, this perspective is reinforced by his lack of an intended audience (he wrote these entries for himself, so there is only occasional introspection); the absence of a narrative arc; and the fact that the entries are excerpted, by curator Tom Smart. Evidently, publishing the entirety of the journals would have been unrealistic, as Pratt writes, “…I have enough notes and ideas for several lifetimes…” (4). At the same time, the fact that he revisits areas, including Burgeo Road—where he started the first car book—creates a Vonnegutian Slaughterhouse-Five effect of the human condition consisting of a series of relived moments. This interpretation was probably spurred on by the fact that Pratt described himself as “King of the Curmudgeons” (5).

Pratt aficionados will appreciate that the artist addresses his work throughout the book, albeit briefly in each instance. He lists artistic influences, describes his technique, comments on the pressures of being a commercial artist, reveals insecurity about his talent, and expresses concern about his productivity in his senior years.

Here’s to many more trips around the sun for the artist.


Gros Morne (1st and 2nd images), Signal Hill, St. John's (3rd image)


(1) p. 103
(2) p. 68
(3) p. 27
(4) p. 112
(5) p. 146

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Artist’s Advisory: Sarah Oppenheimer at the Baltimore Museum of Art

“…the value of practice-led research…”

Kudos to the Baltimore Museum of Art and curator Kristen Hileman for highlighting the research process in a unique fashion. They have done so in relation to Sarah Oppenheimer’s permanent installation at the BMA.

As context, the New York-based artist worked directly with and in the museum’s architecture using materials associated with contemporary buildings, like reflective glass. My first impression of the commissioned works, W-120301 (2012) and P-010100 (2012), was that they seem to respond to qualities of mid-20th Century styles like hard edge painting and minimalist sculpture. I appreciated the museum’s use of the term ‘intervention’ to describe her work because W-120301 looked at home in a stealthy kind of way. For example, as I moved around the intervening work, the light shifted and cool blacks became warm blacks and vice versa, complementing Ad Reinhardt’s nearby, mostly black-on-black Abstract Painting No. 19 (1954).

Around the corner from W-120301—past an exhibition space that currently features a photo show called, On Paper: Picturing Painting—visitors can view Oppenheimer’s preparatory work, namely architectural drawings and models. Also in the room is an assortment of texts that informed her work. From a librarian’s perspective, it’s fantastic to see the research of texts being given equal attention as other preparatory work. The reason I say that is that convincing studio students of the value of practice-led research is an ongoing challenge. I tell students that taking the time to research ideas for studio projects can prevent redundancy (read: avoid the production of work similar to existing work), lead to more nuanced work, and give them a broader context for speaking about their practice. All in all, it’s a tough sell and a tough slog.

The BMA’s presentation of the texts in question is noteworthy. A sign inside a translucent stand reads, “It is almost impossible to identify what drives the work of a single artist. [paragraph break] Here you will find a selection of books that have influenced Sarah Oppenheimer’s thinking and other books related to ideas in her work.” Stools beneath the table holding the books encourage perusal of the texts, while stickers discourage the removal of the texts.

For those interested in Oppenheimer’s work but who aren’t in a position to visit the BMA in person, here is a modest bibliography that captures the full assortment. (To access full citations, please see a source like WorldCat).

• Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory.
• Eisenman, Peter, Giuseppe Terragni, and Manfredo Tafuri. Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques.
• Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space.
• Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City.
• Peltomäki, Kirsi. Situation Aesthetics: The Work of Michael Asher.
• Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City.

Additionally, there is a portfolio of articles described on the cover as excerpts from the artist’s research into cognitive science. The articles within are:

• Radvansky, Gabriel A., Sabine A. Krawietz, and Andrea K. Tamplin. “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64.8 (2011): 1632-45.
• Sinai, Michael J., Teng Leng Ooi, and Zijiang J. He. “Terrain Influences: The Accurate Judgment of Distance.” Nature 395(6701) (1998): 497-500.
• Warren, William H. Jr., and Suzanne Whang. “Visual Guidance of Walking through Apertures: Body Scaled Information for Affordances.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 13.3 (1987): 371-83.

Without spending much time with the texts, a visitor can gain a greater appreciation of Oppenheimer's work. For instance, by reading the titles alone, I can now add situationism to the mid-century movements that pertain to her work and see her work as purposefully jarring.

Next to the books and articles, there is a mobile device containing interviews, such as a Q&A with the artist. In it, she speaks about wanting to inject a quality of the unknown in her work. With ambiguous work, a text-based entry point is always appreciated, and the reading area functions in this way. The reading area, in other words, creates balance by hinting at the known.

A few years ago, I developed a project proposal for artist files to be collected and preserved along with a selection of books (one from each artist who contributed a file on his or her own work). The original title was to have been, “Artist’s Advisory” as a riff on the library term of reader’s advisory—effectively, ‘if you like author X, try reading author Y.’ Multiple entry points would enable the user to encounter new authors or new artists, meaning that each file or book would go from being an end in itself to a means to an end. This project tested the Derridean notion of the end of the book. It sided with dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp, who writes in The Creative Habit that the person you will become in five years depends on two factors, "the people you meet and the books you read" (p. 110). And it also sided with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who takes an even firmer stance by insisting that encounters with books can have a bigger impact than encounters with people (p. 202).

Though I was fortunate to partner with a gallery, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness my project take flight. The BMA’s reading area, therefore, was like delayed gratification.


Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and April E. Lamm. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating but Were Afraid to Ask. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011.

Tharp, Twyla, and Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life : a Practical Guide, 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.