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.