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.

 

Anatomy, Art, and Other Things

It’s been over 20 years since I was an office temp the second time around, in San Francisco, trying to stay employed between graduate degrees. I worked in an academic department at UCSF, a fledgling art historian adrift at a medical school. Whenever possible I would take long lunches and flee to the library, eating on the plaza that was dramatically perched on the edge of a hill above the city. There was also refuge to be found in the rare books room where I squeaked out time to look at 19th century artist’s anatomies in the collection.

A few years ago I found myself again looking at historical anatomies, this time in Wisconsin. My job had stagnated and I was yet again casting about, trying to imagine what other work I could pursue. Artist’s anatomies are apparently my touchstone, a place I return to, like a prodigal daughter, when I find myself at a dead end in other pursuits. They are where I go looking for reassurance, back to square one, in search of intellectual re-ignition. Why anatomies? Maybe because they are the traditional building blocks, along with drawing, in 19th-century American and European academic art. Maybe, having studied the work of Thomas Eakins, I was never able to adequately resolve for myself the exaggerated importance of (or intensity of focus on) anatomy within his artistic process and teaching. Maybe it’s just because the works are visually engaging, intellectually challenging, gorgeous, difficult, and just really complicated.

Artistic anatomy surfaced for me again last week, unexpected but welcome, during the unveiling of the parade of Buckys around town. This fundraiser involved the work of lots of artists, and has met with mixed reviews–some cheerleading and others attempting to put it all into perspective. In the midst of perhaps more impactful happenings in the city, I took advantage of a particularly gorgeous spring morning and attended the presentation of a rather unusual incarnation, Visible Bucky, by Phil Salamone.

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Phil Salamone, Visible Bucky (back view)

Phil is an academically trained artist. With the help of Sarah Gerg, he spent about 450 hours painting this sculpture. It’s completely thrilling to see an artist have so much fun using traditional methods. Placing the work in front of Science Hall is an especially important nod to history, as the building was the former home of the UW-Madison Department of Anatomy.

Visible Bucky makes me think of Jason Freeny’s work, as both of these artists are referencing European artistic anatomy traditions in their pop-culture creations.

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Jason Freeny, Spongebob Anatomy (on display at the Safety-Kleen Gallery One, Elgin Community College, 2015).

There are many artists who have been delving into the rich visual culture of anatomy studies. For some contemporary examples, see Street Anatomy. Founded by Vanessa Ruiz, this website is an amazing resource for contemporary anatomical expressions.

The anatomized Bucky reminded me of my explorations of the incredible anatomy materials that are available in the Kohler Art, Special Collections, and Ebling Historical libraries right here on the UW-Madison campus. Occupying an intriguing intersection of art and science, the following works are occasionally on display, but all are accessible with an appointment in the gems that are the campus library collections (19th century onward, there are much more from earlier periods too) :

These large format plates display an écorché figure, not in an anatomist’s theater or on a dissection table like in earlier texts, but posed in a landscape. Produced posthumously, a memento mori to the author appears at the figure’s feet, along with a cityscape (Florence?) on the horizon. The skeleton, pictured in the same pose but without the landscape setting, has surprising details in a fleshy ear and nose.

Melding classical sculpture into idealized, composite, anatomized models, like with the head of the Belvedere Apollo, these large, intricately illustrated pages make an explicit connection between anatomical studies and the history of art. The frontispiece includes a funny little scene below a bust of Minerva/Athena: in a group of naked men (putti?) performing a dissection, one of the figures holds his nose. Some things never change.

  • Piedad Bonnett (1951-current), Libro de anatomía (Bogotá, Colombia : Alonso Garcés Ediciones, Marcela Caldas Editora y Ediciones Arte Dos Gráfico, 2006).

In a small book of poems enhanced with anatomically-inspired images, blood and bone, muscle fiber and tissue convey a fragile intimacy in contrast to the musky, corporeal references of the written word.

An invocation of scientific visual culture, Baskin’s portfolio references the fascination and underlying horror of anatomical dissection. With angels of death, cadavers with dark open recesses, and bony appendages wrapped and unraveling, these drawings present a powerful, beautiful, and disturbing homage to the traditions of imaging anatomy.

After thinking again about these works, I wonder if maybe Visible Bucky is actually a hybrid. As a badger he might be related to the horses that were studied by artists and scientists in early photography:

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Or comparative anatomy, like the mare Josephine, represented in a bronze cast of a écorché, originally modeled in plaster, from the studio of Thomas Eakins:

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  • Thomas Eakins (American, 1844 – 1916), Écorché: Relief of a Horse (Josephine)modeled ca. 1882; cast 1979. Bronze with brown patina mounted on wooden plaque, 23 3/4 x 21 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gift of Sue Kessler Feld, Class of 1969, and Stuart P. Feld, 2010.53.

Visible Bucky, standing in front of Science Hall, brings me back again to the beginning, to Eakins’ Philadelphia studio and his lifelong obsession with dissection and anatomy. The imagery is persistent, it runs through academic art and contemporary painting, Sponge-Bob and poetry, grad school and work life. It reflects a desire to understand how things function–the mechanisms and the operations below the surface–and it underlies considerations of the ideal and the real, in the visual world and in lived experience.

Anatomy is a metaphor for me, for where it all begins (the intellectual journey at least), but it’s actually where it all ends, too. In our physicality, in our bodies, where is our humanity located? What is the connection between the system and the intellect? If we can fully comprehend the functions, can we actually create wonder?

Bucky is a powerful presence. On that bright sunny morning a few days ago, I did not expect a painted badger to ignite a spark. And now he is feeding a flame. Go Bucky.

 

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!