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.

 

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…