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.

 

Celebrating Connection

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Lucas Koehler Combo, Union Hair Parlor, ALL Jazz Fest 2018, Schenk’s Corners.

On top of a recent realization about some professional fails, mostly surrounding communication and an inability to see clearly, the other day I took 10 minutes and three trips down the hall to print one shipping label. This was yet another clear failure: too much time to complete a (usually) simple task.

As failures go–especially when compared to the rest of the day’s realizations–the label printing was relatively low-impact: a time-waster and frustrating, but that’s about the extent of the damage. Luckily the day ended with some local jazz: #thebestjazzisinhairsalons fully expresses the restorative, rejuvenating, community experience that provided me with much-needed perspective and release after a difficult week.

Of course there are other failures, some of remarkable scale, with a much much larger impact that can’t be remedied by jazz, no matter how awesome the music. A highlight of my difficult week was the opportunity to hear from someone who headed up one such spectacle, Jim Lasko of the now-closed RedMoon Theater. In a conversation with the Chazen’s director, Amy Gilman, Jim talked about the social impulse of his theater work which, at RedMoon, took the form of taking theater into the neighborhoods and streets of Chicago, in his words, “engineering new ways of being together.” The motivation was to make theater more accessible and bring performance to bigger, different audiences.

But Jim was not at the art museum to talk about street theater. He was invited because of what has been identified as a massive fail: the Great Chicago Fire Festival of 2014. I won’t rehash the story here, as it has been amply covered elsewhere–Jim has even talked and written about the event and the aftermath. I am more interested in his process of recovery, how he moved forward, and his perspective on creative work.

Jim talked of theater as a living activity, he compared it to a group jumping out of an airplane. With opening night the equivalent of the ground quickly approaching, the group has to work together intensely, and fast, to prevent disaster. The joy and excitement is in that process of making, of attempting and failing and trying again. It is thrilling, it is inspirational. We make art because we have to, we are driven to keep attempting it over and over. We fail every day, which is an important thing to remember as we get up and try again. But aside from the daily face-plants, in the wake of massive fail, what makes us pick up the pieces and try it again?

After the closure of RedMoon, Jim says he talked to many people about his next steps. He talked about failure to corporate groups, and he returned to work on an unfinished PhD. Recently he teamed up to open a new maker and gathering space called GuildRow.

After the presentation I was able to ask Jim about the recovery, the aftermath. He had talked about it in personal terms in the conversation on stage, but I wanted to know how his team responded, and how they, as a group, recovered after hitting the ground so hard. After some thought he revealed something about the theater company that was striking: he said they worked through the difficulties because they loved each other. A company like RedMoon that was dedicated to bringing theater outside, into neighborhoods, and making it participatory, this company was comprised of intensely committed individuals who fiercely loved their work. They ran on a personal devotion to shared goals and to each other. This is not, of course, every organization. But it seems completely reasonable, maybe even necessary, for a non-profit street theater group.

I am intrigued that Jim emphasized the personal in his presentation. He was not there to talk about failure. His comprehension is contrary to the corporate lingo approach to failure which, through it’s focus on venture capital, minimizes and even erases the personal–the pain and suffering, the lived experience, the frustration, anger, and confusion. But in Jim’s telling was a sense of a community, not only within the active theater company, but following the disaster. He described turning to his personal community to assess and advise, to consider and imagine. This was a way of doing important individual work, human work. It is restorative, it is personal, and it is vitally important.

Which takes me to a different theater project that I was lucky to witness recently, here in Madison. Lines: A Theatre LILA Invention is a collaboratively written play that gives voice to five female playwrights of color. The play was a complex intertwining of stories, with actors playing multiple roles. The beauty of the play was not only in the acting, the staging, and the direction, but in the stories that were told. These are voices that are rarely heard in theater: beauty shop conversations, playground interactions, hopscotch, hope for the future, lovers’ arguments, the daily dangers of being a woman, black, lesbian, latina, muslim, young, or even middle-aged.

It was a play that conveyed the personal, but also emphasized the importance of connections and the potential of community, not only in how the play was created or what was represented on stage, but in the conversations with the audience that followed. This is the same force behind Jim Lasko’s theatrical efforts: a desire to connect. In moving performance outside into the street, or by collaboratively developing a script with other writers of color, these efforts expand the reach of theater. They breathe in deeply and open their arms, inviting more people into their embrace. They grow the audience.

Although connections can be uncomfortable, as with some of the questions that were asked during the talkback after the Lines performance, or in the direct personal challenges that were issued during the play, they are essential for the success of art making. I imagine that for some people, like those who enjoy the anonymity of a dark theater, RedMoon’s street performances would have been quite difficult. But connection takes many shapes. Engagement may be a buzzword, but we use it for a reason. Lasting impressions–wonder–happens when people are able to connect, with each other, with art, with music, with something outside of themselves.

These theater efforts are so different, yet both relied on the very personal dedication of their members. Understanding this devotion and commitment transforms notions of success and failure. A fizzled public art event is insignificant when the connections created through it, or the exhibition of an artist’s work, a collaborative theater event, or even a jazz celebration (pictured above), are prioritized. Instead of focusing on failure, maybe it’s is more important to foreground engagement and connection, and their restorative, sustaining potential. Who did you connect with today? We fail daily, but so do we achieve. Connecting every day, staying engaged, that’s the hard part. But when it happens? Wow.

 

All Quiet in Austin, Despite the Noise of Color

Dan Ramirez has ruined how I look at art. And by “ruined,” I mean “demolished.” How could I have known that working with him would lead me to this embarrassing point where I find myself saying, aloud, “I love minimalism.” It’s horrifying.

Just look at the exhibition currently on view the Blanton Museum of Art, Form into Spirit: Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin (February 18, 2018 – April 29, 2018). Organized in support of the opening of Austin, Kelly’s building/installation on the UT campus, the exhibition is all of the things a university art museum exhibition should be: informative, interesting, nicely installed, well-researched, etc. It is also astoundingly beautiful.

Yes, gorgeous. Which I didn’t expect. And although this is probably a career-killing thing to admit, I was not mesmerized by the color in the exhibition (I know, it’s Ellsworth Kelly! How can anyone not be astounded by his exploration of color?). Instead, it was the black and white prints and sketches that took away my ability to think clearly.

The prints are large, and in a brave and aggressive decision, hung 3-high by 8-across. Although this arrangement makes them nearly impossible to see individually, and difficult to appropriately light, it does emphasize the expressive power of the group as a whole. The repetition of the black and white forms, with such a deep blackness of the ink on the paper, along with the scale of their printing, makes the group quietly coercive (I could go on about the prints, but it would be far better to look to the important work done for a 2013 exhibition and publication at MMOCA here in Madison). Then there are sketches of the stations of the cross, all black and white, all concentrated power in a small format.

This force is continued by the upright sculptural totems that are grouped nearby. Towering and simple in form, their differing media (redwood, metal) make no difference in their individual ability to convey solemnity and presence.

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The meditative and quiet are continuous throughout the exhibition and–outside, down the path, through the enormous wood doors–into the work Austin, where the black and white forms are softened as they are translated into marble, and color becomes light that falls over the walls of the building. A redwood totem stands over the space, not lit but still dominating from one of the alcoves. The quiet, the repeated forms, the simplicity of shape, all create a foundation to support all of that color play. It’s a completely mesmerizing structure.

(My images here are terrible. For better views see articles in the NYT, Architectural Digest, Texas Monthly, or ArtNet News. Or, for a more in-depth discussion about the background of the structure, see the 2012 lecture–from before the work was realized in Texas–at the Haus der Kunst by Carter Foster, then at the Whitney, now at the Blanton).

Of course I think of Dan Ramirez’ Twenty Contemplations prints. The repeated black and white, the sense of space and depth that each artist captured using a restricted palette and carefully honed forms, the feel of the paper saturated in ink. I’m skipping over the subject matter here—stations of the cross, devotional music—but I’m less interested in the specific iconography. It’s a very noisy world, and to be in a place where the mind quiets and the world opens, well, it’s just doesn’t happen very often.

Get yourself to Austin.

 

Looking Back to Michael Kenna and the Rouge Plant

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Back in 2001 I worked on an exhibition for the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Albert Kahn: Inspiration for the Modern. I was a curatorial assistant at the time, tasked with helping the exhibition curator, who happened to be the chair of the architecture department and a transplant from England. He did not own a car, which was a serious cause for suspicion in a place like Michigan, home of the Big 3 auto makers.

My job turned out to be mostly driving the curator into Detroit for research visits. In the days before social media and smart phones, I navigated through an unfamiliar city trying to listen as the curator spun out his ideas for the exhibition. At the Kahn firm’s office we unrolled architectural plans and opened tubes of blueprints that were stored in hot closets under stairwells next to mechanical rooms. We visited the Detroit Institute of Art, looking at the Rivera murals and learning from the curators about the slim chance we had of borrowing from Mexican collections for the exhibition. We drove around looking for Kahn and Ford buildings: the General Motors and Fisher buildings, Highland Park.

The exhibition presented some technical quandries—how best to display large architectural drawings? There were logistical challenges—we had to abandon hope of including a painting by Frida Kahlo, as the loan negotiations would have been too complex and time consuming. But we were able to incorporate some gorgeous Sheeler photos, drawings, and paintings, some Lozowick prints, and some of Michael Kenna’s Rouge photographs.

Because of the work I had done for the exhibition–and maybe to make up for the unexpected driving services—I had a short essay included in the exhibition catalogue, my first published curatorial essay. I chose to write on Kenna’s images of the Rouge Plant, as they are beautiful, mysterious, and striking.

It is exciting to see that these works have been recently revived. They are the subject of a new book, Michael Kenna: Rouge, by my old boss at UMMA, now director at the Princeton Art Museum, James Steward. Princeton has the entire series of 120 gelatin silver photographs that Michael Kenna shot at the Rouge. They are on display RIGHT NOW, but if, like me you can’t get to NJ anytime soon, you can get a preview of the entire series of these small, powerful, wonderous images on their website. Check it out.

Now I just need to figure out how to get ahold of the new book…

 

 

What’s next?

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This question was asked of me the very night the exhibition opened. I sat at dinner and a gallerist I had never met, a friend of the artist, asked me, “What’s next?” Then, in what I took to be a kindly spirit, he proceeded to suggest all sorts of projects that he had been considering. I took it as a nice gesture, an attempt to be helpful.

This is an appropriate question for many aspects of my life right now, especially–as the gallerist intended it–in relation to my curatorial aspirations. It could also relate to, say, my house, or my ancient car, my general career goals, my involvement in a casual writing group, or my relationship with my romantic partner. There is a certain pressure, or expectation at least, that, with this exhibition opened (and closed), the catalogue published, the works now in transit back to their generous owners, I will know exactly what to segue into, and the steps of that move, as if I have a grandly detailed to-do list in my head and am checking off items with precise regularity. This is–surprisingly?–not the case.

Instead I have a well of a brain that holds ideas deep within its waters. These things take time, not only to form, but to develop, to grow, to complicate, to sort out and make sense of. It is a slow process mostly, but sometimes it moves suddenly, fast connections made, and then things fly.

But I’m not there yet. I’m still making a clearing, a calm space where I can peer into the depths and consider what is swimming in the cold water. I have some cleaning to do, catch-up from the last two years of focused work. 

So, first is the clearing out, including installing other amazing exhibitons. Then the quiet and the weighing of options, the balancing of plans, the plotting of activity. This deliberation takes time, it is impossible to say how long. But that’s how creative work functions, at its own speed. So for now I wait and clear the desk, so it will be ready for whatever is next.

 

Certainty and Doubt

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The exhibition was on view at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, WI from October 13, 2017 through January 7, 2018. The artist Derrick Buisch gave a lecture on opening night, and through the fall the museum hosted a discussion between the artist and Richard Shiff, a lecture by Buzz Spector, and finally, a beautiful poetry reading featuring the Bridge Poets responding to art work in the exhibition.

One more event coming up, featuring our exhibition catalogue: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago will host an event on Sunday, February 4th, 2018, at 3:00, for a book launch of Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez. The format is a discussion with the artist, me, and essayists Buzz Spector and–hopefully–Richard Shiff.

Hope you can join us!