Notes on working with an artist in 2013

It is a rare thing to encounter another Humboldt State University alum, as I live in Wisconsin. But one week in 2013 was different, when my work at the Chazen Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actually brought a fellow lumberjack into town.

Michael Lucero (Art, 1976, a solid ten years before me, Art, 1986) lives in Tennessee. His art-making has taken him from California and undergraduate studies at HSU to an MFA at the University of Washington. He has lived in New York and Italy, and has taught as a visiting professor throughout the United States, such as a 1989 summer arts program at HSU (I attended the summer 1988 session, missing Michael’s stint by one year). His ceramic work was featured in a 1996 retrospective exhibition organized by the Mint Museum that traveled to four venues, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art.

Michael was in Madison to install a body of early work in the Chazen’s 5,000 square foot Rowland Galleries. During the installation we had a chance to talk about Humboldt and studying art. I was so pleased to learn that he remembered people I studied with at HSU: Ron Johnson in art history, and Mort Scott who taught sculpture. Michael also had many stories about his experiences in the galleries of New York and his friendships with well-known artists, teachers, and dealers.

During the week we worked with the Chazen preparators to install 17 wire and wood hanging figures, made in 1978-79 after the artist first moved to New York. The works were on loan from a private collector, and two museums that received part of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: New Jersey’s Montclair Art Museum, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

Reaching 8-13 feet in height, the figures are simultaneously fragile and imposing. Hovering just a few inches from the floor, they hung still when the gallery was empty, but they moved gently, responding to subtle air movement, even when anyone entered the room. They towered over whoever stood near, yet provided a chance for close investigation of their component parts: broken wood, crayon and paint, wire, mop handles, and broken furniture scavenged from the streets of the city.

The artist created new drawings for the exhibition, using sponges, fly swatters, shoes, toilet paper rolls, and foam noodles to stamp images onto cardboard, making bold, weighty figures that reference the hanging sculptures. He was also inspired by the gallery space, at the last minute adding a new work to the exhibition: two monumental figures stamped directly onto a large gallery door that had been painted to mimic the cardboard of the drawings. At first seeming so large, the drawings on cardboard were dwarfed by the newly painted wall figures, yet their textured surfaces demanded close looking. This was an installation both overwhelming and intimate, it played with scale and had so much to experience: subtle movement, shifting light, interesting textures, and spatial displacement.

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Michael Lucero Installation, Chazen Museum of Art, 2013

In the re-purposed wood and furniture fragments, in the drawings made from available materials, is Humboldt evident in this work, or is it all New York City? In the quiet of the towering figures with their slight movements, walking among them all that is missing is the sound of water dripping into the ferns on the floor of the redwood forest. Maybe, or not. But it was fun, for one week in 2013, to conjure a connection between Arcata and NYC, to swap art world stories with another far-flung HSU alum, and participate in the installation and documentation of a truly wonderful body of work.

Michael Lucero Installation was on view May 11 to August 18, 2013 at the Chazen Museum of Art at UW-Madison. Photos by Eric Tadsen.

 

Music and Art, Chicano and Not

Los Lobos played my local neighborhood festival this past weekend. Listening to the music almost drowned me in nostalgia and sadness, while at the same time smacked me with joy. Let’s just say it was a confusing weekend.

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La Fete de Marquette 2018, from the ferris wheel

I help to run the merch booth at La Fete de Marquette, an eastside Madison music festival that just completed its 18th year. Held around the same time as Bastille Day, Fete has focused on music from the French diaspora. France being an old colonial power, this means that—lucky for Madison–the music featured has generally been from many parts of the world: Africa, the Caribbean, France, Louisiana. But this year that francophone emphasis was tossed like a head from a guillotine when the venerable band from East LA gloriously took the main stage on Sunday night.

Despite the white women who, in the close crowd at the front of the stage, bounced and happily flailed their arms to songs like Carabina .30-30, the tall white dudes who cut in front of me and the short couple next to me, filling in the small breathing space we had amid the hot humid air and blocking our view, or the drunk white woman who spilled beer on me while trying to squeeze past then wiped my breast in a failed attempt at drying me (and maybe apologizing?), I had a good time. Really. The music was, well, these guys know what they’re doing. Steve Berlin played with the really compelling opening band, Making Movies, and still withstood the sweltering heat to play the main set. David Hidalgo, Louie, and Cesar delivered their powerhouse sound sans probleme, and the young drummers kept everything moving, even putting on a water show that thrilled the crowd.

The nostalgia for me was overwhelming. I have seen this band in Detroit, when the Bad Livers opened for them in what might have been the strangest billing ever. The crowd was a mixture of bluegrass punk hipsters and extended Latino families, all waiting for hours on a cement floor for a show that started very late but enthralled everyone in attendance. I have also danced to their music at the now defunct Frog Island Festival in a small city park in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the pouring rain, drenched but dreading the time when the band finally called the show when they felt endangered by the lightning and the water cascading off of the tent around them. The last time I saw them was at the classist disaster that is Ravinia, where I sat behind a wealthy white family and watched the mother text on her oversized iPhone that “these beaners really can rock.” The white season ticket-holders left early, and with all of the rules of the place, none of the many enthusiastic fans on the distant grass were able to take the empty seats or dance nearer to the stage. The show rocked, but also sucked, for the audience as well as (I am certain) for the band.

Being in the crowd at the stage this weekend made me think of Old Town in San Diego, where, so close to la linea, Mexicanidad is made safe for consumption. It’s all chimichangas and paper flowers, margaritas and flounced skirts. It’s the table of gringos who jump up and chase down the mariachis in the middle of their meal, leaving their open wallets on the table and their leather jackets hanging on their chairs. My latinidad is some of these things (I like a nice margarita, I’ve shopped and lunched at Old Town), but it’s also much more. It’s bad spanish, great food, unruly hair, a vague sense of exclusion, but an innate understanding of mestiza; it’s a confusing place.

Which shouldn’t bring me to Gronk, but it does. A few weeks ago I worked with a colleague to host a group of Latino middle school students for an hour at the museum. Because there are works by two—two!–Latino artists on view in the entire museum, I chose Gronk’s painting as the focus of our visit. The painting by Gronk that is in the galleries is on Spanish bark paper, which may be similar to the traditional bark papers of Mexico that, you know, held written histories in codex form, but were burned during the conquest, leaving only a handful still in existence. Gronk’s choice of material may make reference to this ancient process, but his imagery captures more recent developments in its vocabulary that riffs off of the murals and graffiti of LA.

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GRONK (GLUGIO GRONK NICANDRO) (American, b. 1954) Fragments of a Landscape 1994 Acrylic on Spanish bark paper 78 x 78 in. Chazen Museum of Art, Harry and Margaret P. Glicksman Endowment Fund, Juli Plant Grainger Endowment Fund, and Cyril W. Nave Endowment Fund purchase, 1995.4

My intention was to make a connection between ancient archaeology and Gronk’s notion of “street archaeology,” how, in his wandering around his city, he is looking, seeing, sketching, and incorporating his visual experience into his work. I pretty much failed at achieving my goal of elaborating on this idea of archaeology with middle school students, but I was able to introduce them to a contemporary artist’s work and his observational practice as an example of a latino artist in this world who has been making art every day for a long time (starting with morning coffee; see @elgronk on Instagram for some examples of his visual finds).

Why write about Los Lobos, the Chicano band from East LA, and Gronk, the Chicano painter and conceptual/performance artist? Two experiences of Mexicanidad, both from Los Angeles, each very different. I don’t know LA, and it has taken my entire life to overcome the anti-LA bias that comes with growing up in San Diego. I am also not Chicano—with an Anglo-American father and a Mexican-American mother, we were raised in a white suburb and only visited our Mexican-American family in Arizona on weekends or holidays. I do not know details of these artists’ lives, but I understand there are important differences–gay, straight, extended families, neighborhoods, studio practices, fame, industry biases, communities, histories.

But Los Lobos, their sound and their music, is intertwined with my mid-western experience, and that close relationship makes me think of Gronk’s daily drawing, how this life-long activity of playing music or making art—of developing a practice–enables the creation of a world. Los Lobos, through many years of music-making, have carved out genre-breaking careers that have made them undefinable—rock? Latin? Blues, jazz, jam-band?–and taken them from weddings to neighborhood festivals to the White House and around the world. And Gronk, through his art practice that incorporates drawing, painting, and performance, has made art on street corners, in university museums, galleries, private collections, and on opera stages.

The daily experience of making or listening to music, of making or looking at art—how does it influence our lives? Is it an escape, a luxury, or is it the basic rhythm, the pulse, the bass that moves us forward and provides the structure that underlies everything? I imagine the band members of Los Lobos play music every day, like Gronk and his daily coffee drawings. I am no musician and not much of an artist, but I think about both and interact with both just about every day.

Why do I put up with white women who flail their arms and bounce, blocking my view? Because of the music, man. Because there needs to be more than just two works by Latino artists on view in the galleries. Because those students still don’t see themselves represented in the museum.

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Los Lobos on stage at La Fete de Marquette, 2018

Represent

My project from last fall, in conjunction with planning for some upcoming exhibitions, is making me think more about abstraction and representation: if these terms are useful and where they are relevant. Complicated words, they each have multiple layers and definitions that vary by context.

Chloë Bass has considered abstraction, wondering if it is a privilege, but concluding instead that it is essential for bringing people together. This approach is relevant, not only to my exhibition of Dan Ramirez’ work, but it speaks to many other recent exhibitions that focus on or unearth or explore the work of artists of color working in abstract, minimalist, or non-representational visual styles. How are these approaches interpreted by museums?

That is, of course, if there is actually any work by artists of color in the museum to be interpreted. It seems that some museums have finally caught on to the imbalance of their collections. But what will they do with the work once it has been purchased and accessioned? Will it go into storage with the other 92-98% of the collection? Will it stay there for 20 years without being researched or interpreted?

(When I say “interpret,” I mean display. When a museum displays a work of art it is interpreted: selected, installed with other works within a larger scheme or organizational structure, lit and labeled, accessible during open hours, for an admission fee or not, under electronic or human surveillance, climate controlled, documented, stanchioned, managed by museum etiquette like do not touch or no flash photography please, hash-tagged, pictured on posters and greeting cards in the shop, nicknamed, examined, and seen by hopefully very many people. Adding text in the form of a label or a docent tour or a curator talk or an audio file or a web exhibition is an additional layer of interpretation. The museum identifies the work with artist, title, date, medium, and credit line, which is interpretation. If you don’t agree, have you ever asked an artist about the date when a work was completed, the title of a work, or whether they used graphite or pencil? The answers that make it onto the label are interpretation).

Rashid Johnson has talked about how representation of the Black body has offered a way into museum spaces for Black artists. (I would say this goes for Latinx artists too. Figurative work by artists of color is easier for white curators because it is clearly identifiable as culturally-specific. Maybe images of cholos, madonnas, or sharecroppers are easier for marketing teams, too?) But what about artists who do not work in representational modes? If Sam Gilliam’s detachment of canvas from stretcher can be understood within a history of protest–in Johnson’s words, as “emancipation”–is this dichotomy, representational and abstract, useful at all?

Such limited terms obscure similarities and suggests a non-existent conflict. For example, when artists are interested in perception, in creating work that unsettles our understanding of what we see, is there only one path available? Is it either, or? Of course not. Both Dan Ramirez and Faisal Abdu’Allah make art work that questions how we make sense of what we see, and their work and practices could not be more different.

Ramirez’s approach is unapologetic. He is not interested in discussing his latinidad, damn it, he is applying paint to canvas or graphite to wood, and thinking about our ability to understand the world. He plays perceptual games using geometry and light, surface and depth. The play is deeply connected to philosophical pursuits, along with his considerations of belief and doubt. His work makes you question what you see.

Abdu-Allah’s approach is figurative and community-based; he uses photography, printmaking, weaving, and other media to represent gatherings of people. FauHaus and Visage were collaborative projects, developed in partnership with groups of students. But his objects also refer to groups of people: a gold barber’s chair standing in for the important sociality of the barber shop.

His two Last Supper tapestries picture groups of people also, but what is represented is not easily read. The iconography has been mixed up—the typical Eurocentric Christian Last Supper is transformed here with women and Muslims, or contemporary dress and a display of weapons. Not only is the imagery changed, but the medium has undergone an alchemical transformation from photograph to Jacquard tapestry, playing again with the Eurocentrism of the title. These works make you question what you see.

If the display of Ramirez’ Aletheia: Scribe’s Reveal was a dramatic statement about the artist’s career and aesthetic vision, Duppy Conquerer is Faisal’s own coming out. Using imagery that is forthright and insistent, this is a loud and clear assertion of himself as an independent artist within an international art world. With a nod to his Jamaican heritage and an I-don’t-have-time-for-your-shit stance, in black clothing and mask, he is a story-teller and magician, mentor and scholar. He represents. And yet, with photograph transformed into tapestry, individual into icon, the work makes you question what you see.

Perception is a tricky thing. Michelle M. Wright calls this interaction between work and viewer the “physics of Blackness”:

In any given moment, when the spectator engages a work of art, different valences of Blackness may formulate, expand, or multiply, qualitatively and quantitatively. What is Black art? That may very well depend on the time and the space of the moment.

So, how do museums interpret the work of Black or Latinx artists? Representation and abstraction are complex terms that indicate what happens when the viewer is engaged. What is it that you think you see? That’s the question.