Thursday, February 28, 2008

Do Not Be Fooled

By those puppy dog eyes

because this little beast has got the sharpest of puppy dog teeth.

Vicious really. Using those cute puppy dog looks to lure me in.

See, right now he's thinking to himself, "one step closer and the camera will be within reach..."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Stark and Menacing Land

"Vultures" 2008 Oil on Linen

Went to hear painter Conor McGrady give a talk for his new show "Green and Pleasant Land" which opened at Saltworks Gallery last Saturday.

McGrady, born and raised in Northern Ireland, said the work was an "exploration of power," asking "Where does power come from?" McGrady also experiments with the question of power's representation in each painting while leaving up the viewer the question of why do these particular subjects conjure it?

"Forest (Winter) 2008 Oil on Linen

Unlike his previous vibrant, colorful work, he wanted these images to be stripped down and stark, having a sense of silence." He wanted to "remove the context of time and place" in order to ask questions about and reflect on the symbol at hand.

"Wolves" 2008 Oil on Linen

He is interested in different cultural symbols for power, such as animals, but without becoming too literal. The work is symbolic of human strife, "a violence and chaos under the clean veneer." He wanted the work reduced to black voids, comparing these to violence as a means to "fill the psychological void," and clean white "meditative space."

Detail "Wolves"

Although the subject matter of the paintings had been simplified in style and color, I especially liked the strong detailing of brushstrokes outlining the animals and trees. McGrady referred to these as "auras" around the iconic symbols, as a way to further remove the symbol from the context of the canvas, giving a dual impression of isolation and significance.

For me, these brushstrokes also made more interesting paintings that could have otherwise been too sterile. The evidence of the artist's hand and process in the making of the work gives it an added personality and thoughtfulness.

"Pyre" 2008 Oil on Canvas

1.a pile or heap of wood or other combustible material.
2.such a pile for burning a dead body, esp. as part of a funeral rite, as in India.

"Silence II" 2006 Oil on Canvas

McGrady is interested in the "ambiguity of landscapes in times of war." There is a sense of tranquility and fear, a loaded silence.

Detail "Silence II"

McGrady said the work was not meant to be taken literally but instead was about a "broader human strife." The longer I spent with the work the more unsure I was that the stylization and simplification of the icons added to the point. Was there something lost in the cool minimalism of the work or was it adding to the focus and universal connection? No doubt McGrady wanted to avoid any direct cultural references but was the aesthetic lending its own type of interpretation or bias? The forests and animals almost looked like stencils, very clearly in the style of the moment, and perhaps were not stripping bare the enigma of fear as much as romanticizing it.

"Silent Forest" 2006 Oil on Canvas

The show is up at Saltworks until April 5th 2008. Check it out.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Copper Tom

Last Friday I ventured out to Eyedrum for a bit of bathroom voyeurism (Whitney Approved)

William Jones had a screening and talk about his video "Tearoom" which is on it's way to the Whitney Biennial this week. I took my camera but in an effort to reduce weight I left the battery at home. So I have no pictures of the packed, somewhat giddy, crowd. But I did get the accompanying catalogue of beautiful grainy pictures, which was a relief because any video of striking imagery fills me with an urgency to photograph it and get it tacked down in a frozen state for better viewing. And so a dead camera was especially troubling as I watched the old faded, stark 16mm footage.

The video came about after Jones unearthed two months of video footage from a 1962-63 police bust of a "tearoom trade" in Mansfield, Ohio. Born and raised an hour from Mansfeild, Jones felt especially tied to the two month long operation and ensuing scandal surrounding a public men's bathroom located under the town's "Central Park."

The police had been tipped off, by a sociopath killer no less, of the hotspot for man on man action in the public restroom (i.e. "tearooms") and orchestrated a complicated sting involving a two-way mirror and a cop stationed behind it with a video camera.

The camera only had enough film for almost three minutes of footage per day and it was interesting to see what choices these cops made in who and what activities they chose to film and from what angles they did their filming. It seemed the younger and more handsome the guy was, the more likely the camera would frantically move up and down the length of the lad's figure. Guess it was all part of the "evidence gathering." It's a strange station to have, basically getting paid to loiter, hidden, in a public bathroom, watching, waiting, and hoping for a flash of peen.

Jones chose only to edit this footage, keeping the original quality, and did not add sound. Jones said he did this "to satisfy skeptics, only the clarity and artless instrumentality of unedited camera original would truly suffice."

Christopher suggested some nice background music wouldn't have hurt. The silence did add to the awkwardness of watching such a very awkward sort of mating game. It was simultaneously sad and funny to watch these nervous men who were always on edge, listening for the slightest sound of someone coming into the bathroom, never fully present or attentive to the matters at, ahem, hand.

It was a dangerous game, with Sodomy laws in Ohio at that time considering homosexuality "sexual deviance" and punishable by 1-10 years in the penitentiary. The film was a record of a time mostly past now, when gay men living in small towns were forced into public bathrooms as their only option to fulfill their desires, only to be rounded up, caught in a trap.

After the news broke of the bust, in an editorial in the Mansfeild News-Journal, Aug 22, 1962, some idiot wrote "Skilled police work of the first order has uncovered a nest of bestial depravity..."
"bestial depravity"? From what I saw, the majority of the men looked to be in their 40's or above and "bestial" doesn't seem quite as accurate as "scared and desperate."

John Butler, in his book The Best Suit in Town, 2001, wrote "The one place in the city where there was no discrimination, where both black and white, the elite and the derelict, came to meet with few words spoken was Central Park. From college professors and church organist to truck driver and prison parolee, all had one thing in common - they were going to jail."

Eventually the video footage was used as evidence to convict 30 men with Sodomy charges. A third of the men were married, many with children, one guy had even been a boyscout master. The 16mm footage was later used, with added sound narration, under the title "Camera Surveillance" by the Mansfeild Police Dept. for training purposes. The narrator warns, homosexual men are constantly seeking to recruit for their deviant cult, and "any deviant may be a potential killer."
No wonder there is so much tension between the police force and the gay community. Guess those drag queens are packing more heat under their sequin skirts than I realized...

Friday, February 22, 2008

Curating the Urban Environment

I have a feeling I didn't just make that catchy title up off the cuff. I probably read it somewhere before, maybe in one of the books on Urban Design and Landscape Architecture stacked on my desk perhaps?

There is nothing the Atlanta creatives love more than discussing the future of architecture and urban planning in this city. It's kind of hard not to see a show about it really, in fact there is an entire series of events that "examine the real and imagined nexus of art, architecture and urban design" happening right now called Re/constructing Atlanta.

The beltline, going green, revitalization of downtown, buzz buzz buzz. It's exciting, I've got four massive cranes precariously looming too near my building as I write this. If I had money I'd snap up a little house and go Frank Gehry all over it too. Atlanta is a city preoccupied with the future but also, maybe, hopefully, beginning to appreciate all the history and trees she's got.

And so the timing of artist Rick Lowe's invitation to speak Georgia State University is pertinent to what Atlanta faces now as it develops forward and if Lowe's mission could influence the priorities of this city it would be a very good thing. Lowe spoke specifically about Project Row Houses in Houston, Texas under the equally catchy title "Sculpting the Built Environment."

It's good fodder for the copywriters really, how about Sketchy Area Ripe for New Artist's Sketches? or Gutted Buildings, the Armatures of the Future!

Inspired by Joseph Beuy's notion of "Social Sculpture" Lowe wanted to push his racially focused political/social artwork to a more interactive level, wanting it to, in effect, "mold the world around us." In the very early 90's Lowe was interested in an area of Houston, TX called the Third Ward and especially in a block of 22 abandoned shotgun houses, built in 1930, that had fallen into seeming disrepair, having become a dangerous "hotbed for criminal activity" and slated to be torn down.

The area has a rich history as a strong black community and inspired by painter John Biggers, well known for his work about the shotgun house communities, Lowe began to reconsider the future of the row houses in the Third Ward. Biggers believed there were four qualities necessary for a strong and fruitful community 1) good and relevant architecture (with courtyards and porches being essential for socialization) 2) inclusion of art and culture 3) education 4) social safety net (compassion and helping others)

Long story short, which most people already know and it's told far better on their website anyway, what began in '93 as Lowe and fellow artists going into the area with a gorilla art strategy of fixing up the houses to show art and enliven the community, snowballed into a much larger, financially sound, community effort.

The houses proved much easier to renovate than previously estimated, costing around 5k each, and as momentum picked up different arts organizations and community groups began sponsoring houses and volunteering labor. The area went through an unpredicted transformation and out of the 22 houses, 10 are utilized as exhibition spaces for visiting artists, 5 are used for educational program for kids in the neighborhood, and 7 are transitional housing for single mothers. Following Bigger's theory on the essential components of a community, the Row Houses gave the entire Third Ward neighborhood a new confidence in the revitalization of their community and gave Houston an incredible site for experimental and interactive art by artists from around the world.

What really struck me in hearing how all of this conspired was the ebb and flow, the finicky nature, of development and the power of creativity. In many ways the Row Houses Project is a simple idea, pushed into existence by a group of enthusiastic artists who had little knowledge of how to renovate a neighborhood or what they were on the cusp of creating. The fact that an area of homes can evolve from a tight-knit social group into impoverished, dilapidated homes, only to be revitalized by the presence of art and volunteers, says a lot about the nature of people and our society. How can the identity of places change so quickly? Respond so easily to external variables? There is a definite history to the Third Ward with people firmly rooted to it, and yet the ebbing and flowing of a place cannot be contained or controlled by its residents. Though the precarious personality of any place seems to always flourish with the presence of art.

The new battle in the Third Ward is not against termites and drug dealers, but encroaching developers. As the area has changed and found itself surrounded by gentrified neighborhoods, medical centers, and universities, the land is quickly becoming expensive and coveted. And so what began, arguably, as an art project for Lowe and his compatriots has turned into a real estate battle. Forming the Row House Community Development Corporation, the organization now aggressively buys up land in the Third Ward to preserve it for the black community living there. A modern interpretation of the Row House, designed by students at Rice University, are now being built on the purchased land and rented out at reasonable rates. It's a different strategy to resist the tide of gentrification and rising land values.

It's an amazing thing that the Row House Community Development Corporation is doing, it's a fight that ought to be happening in more cities, and I was reminded of Atlanta's predicament throughout the talk. As the inner city gentrifies at a shocking rate the ability for lower income people to get homes, or stay in their homes, becomes increasingly difficult, and this includes the creative class. Finding cheap studios and exhibition space is incredibly difficult already and the artists of Atlanta need protection. While the problem is not as extreme here as it is in cities like NYC or San Fransisco, it doesn't require a lot of imagination to see this is the direction Atlanta is heading and as Project Row Houses proved, the presence of art does vastly improve the communities which uphold it.

As the talk began to focus more on the goals of the Row House Community Development Corporation Lowe really began to seem more in the role of socially conscious developer, historical preservationist, social worker, and art curator than artist. It was a question nagging me all evening, was Project Row Houses, in itself, art? and was Lowe in the role of artist? The longer the talk focused on the specifics of land values, mortgages, renovation costs, and past exhibitions, the more I admired the magnitude of the project but the less I saw Lowe as an artist involved in "social sculpture." If that label is applicable here then aren't all art galleries dabbling in an artform called "commercial sculpture"? This leads me into the blurry no-go area of defining art, but while I listened to Lowe, I began to wish the audience consisted of less people in the art community and instead more developers, urban planners, and city officials who could learn a lot from Lowe's venture.

There was a reception afterwards in the GSU Gallery. Artists Kevin Sipp and Stan Woodard and curator Louise Shaw pictured above. I also had a chance to walk through the "Re/constructing Atlanta" show currently in the gallery.

Pandra Williams had an interesting piece illustrating the Hurt Park Native Plant project she is currently involved in. In Hurt Park, a small park downtown in the GSU campus, Williams and others are using native drought-tolerant plants to create an ideal model "for returning the native forbes, or plant species, to Atlanta" that were wiped out in the 19th and 20th centuries by farming and development. I especially liked the set-up in the windowless gallery space of using a light box to feed the plants. It's a simple enough concept that could be utilized in many business and public spaces that do not get much natural light.

Artist Allison Rentz had the note-worthy makeup of the evening. I have always wondered why women, who have at their disposal make-up in a myriad of bright colors along with little brushes in all shapes a sizes, never approach the application of make-up with the zeal of say, Elizabeth Murray? or Helen Frankenthaler, or even better, Cicely Brown? but then again, Rentz reminded me I could paint my own face if I felt so inclined, and considering I barely get out of the door fully clothed, I don't see that happening.

There was also a nice installation by Ed Akins II and David Green called "Imago: The Last Stage."

In thinking about the proposed Beltline, the artists created this installation to "act as metaphor for the intersection of our intentions upon the earth and the earth's response."

The show is up at GSU's Welsch School Gallery until March 8th, 2008. Check it out.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Monday, February 18, 2008

I am a DJ I am What I Play

Saturday I went by Whitespace to hear John Otte's artist talk for his show "Seen/Unseen Selected Works 1982-2007"

As said in the previous post on the show opening, Otte's work is so layered in historical references of art and music that an explanation from Otte gives the work another dimension and intention that could have otherwise been misinterpreted as abstract expressionistic in purpose. Take for example "Untitled (Luncheon on the Grass)"- 1990 above.

The silkscreen of two figures from Edouard Manet's "Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe" (The Luncheon in the Grass) 1863. The outline of the figures is layered repeatedly by Otte, inspired by Jazz singer Curtis Stiger's "Its Gonna Rain" on a "two tape loop". (My understanding of this reference comes to an abrupt halt here).

This process is representative of how Otte creates art. Otte said his work deals with Photography and Abstraction, which he sees as "two sides of the same coin." Photography being the photographic process, whether working from a source image or duplicating images by xerox, silkscreening, digital printing, etc, and the abstraction being his own markings.

For example the latex and spray paint on paper above, "Untitled, Crab(P), 2006" resulted from photographs Otte took of a wall in New Orleans over a seven year period. Otte was interested in the way the graffiti emerged and then faded back into the texture of the aged wall over time.

John Otte with "Disco/Metal/Punk/Funk (for Angus Young) 1992-2000 and "Untitled (According to John) 1992-2000

In the early 90's Otte had the job of doing the lettering for the Gagosian Gallery in NYC. He would use the left over letters in his work, responding to the text and the names of artists that he admired and was influenced by; Pollock, Barnett, etc,

In response to Jasper John's "According to What ?" series, Otte answered it with "According to John" (detail above) Otte referred to these works as a "compounding of images" and influenced by the Process Art of the 60's.

The silkscreen and ink above, "Untitled (Cy/Tuttle remix"- 2006 is another good example of Otte building off of the foundation of found images and compounding these. Inspired by the work of Cy Twombly and Richard Tuttle, Otte silkscreened reproductions of their work and painted over them with ink. It raises the interesting question of intent and authenticity. Otte is quick to state that he is "blatantly enhancing" someone else art, downplaying it as a "rip off" though it is certainly not.

Otte has been influenced by the artist he references, but his work is not a reinterpretation or a copy - it is a reaction, a work building from the past. Otte has been a DJ for many years and he raised the interesting question of what are DJs doing when mixing? Are they giving to the listener a new way to "experience" the music (through a styled context)? DJs do not emulate the music but instead serve more as a "filter." In much the same way, Otte uses historical art images, treating these images as "readymades, bringing out something new by repeating them." Just as Duchamp said "Take an object - have a new thought for that object."

The idea of applying this notion to images seems very poignant at this point in time. Both because of the digital age we live in and also the long history of modern art pressing down on us. The idea that everything has been done and a hyper-awareness of how all contemporary work is simply a reaction to past artists, as if all original thoughts have been consumed and we are now meddling with the leftovers, makes it a logical next step that artist would begin using the overabundance of images of past art as their material. Even in music, this reaction is apparent in the movement of "mash ups", where DJs such as the one and only and much loved (by me) Girl Talk, take the music of others and mash it together, often sampling up to one hundred songs in less than minute, creating something altogether new and more thrilling than the originals.

During the talk Jerry Cullum summed it up best by saying that Otte's work was an evolution of appropriationism from the 80's and the mash up movement of now. Nice one Jerry.

Jerry Cullum and Jennifer with a series of Otte's "Naumanesque" drawings from 1982 in the background. Inspired by Bruce Nauman's "Zip" drawings, a study of architecture and Atlanta's bridges, these drawings were a starting off point for Otte who found it increasingly important to leave the marks of the process on the page (such as smudges, charcoal dust, and pencil lines). He wanted the "paintings and drawings to bear the markings of their making."

These drawings reminded me of Scott Ingram's show "Building Futures" at Solomon Projects in December 2007. (previous posts here & here) Ingram raised the idea of defining a drawing as mark making, regardless of whether the mark is made with a pencil or inset aluminum bars. Ingram also referenced Nauman's "Zip" drawings with a sculpture in his show but it was done with a very polished finished that all but eliminated the artist's hand. While Otte argues against the idea of using an eraser, Ingram relies heavily on it to get the clean geometry of Modern Architecture. Both artist respond to architecture in their work using modern icons of art and architecture as both starting point for their work and often as the starring role in the artwork itself.

The influence of architecture, instilled partially from Otte's time spent renovating old houses, spurred "Untitled (I Walk on Gilded Splinters - Je suis un grand Zombie remix)" - 2006. Otte described the piece as "minimum dimensional architecture around a piece of funk art." The funk art being a reproduction of a Ellsworth Kelly drawings from the 50's (Kelly is another big influence on Otte) placed within a frame with Georgia red clay and a gilded splinter (brought back from New Orleans and referencing architecture/ destruction/ construction/etc). The frame around the "funk art" is left open-ended and serves as "housing for the art." Otte said it "serves as a kind of reliquary." When asked about the relationship between the art and frame, Otte saw them as of equal importance in defining the art object, the frame therefore not serving as a typical, easily replaceable frame, but as a vital element to the "funk art."

Continuing this exploration of architectural ideas was a wall in the gallery which Otte painted in the same style that he is currently applying to an entire house.

Holy shit I love it. From the two great minds that redesigned Whitespace, architects Brian Bell and David Yocum designed this beauty currently going up on Corley Street (behind Highland Bakery on Highland).

Otte was commissioned to paint the exterior walls of the house, layering latex house paints along with who knows what else. The soft, warm charcoal black of the house has a very rich finish that Otte envisions will continue to become more layered as time and weather get involved.

The house is being built in the Old Fourth Ward area of Atlanta, an area that was almost completely burned down in a great fire one day in 1917. The fire spread, hoping from one wood-shingle roof to the next, from Dekalb Avenue to Ponce De Leon before it was finally stopped by blowing up a cluster of mansions on Ponce. Otte wanted to respond to the history and devastation of this area through this painting (which he thinks of as a "black Mondrian") but made sure to clarify that is was not a "simulation" but a response.

I got the opportunity to have a little tour through the house and was able to confirm that it is as amazing inside as out. Natural light pours in from every direction, including skylights, and the stairs are like floating planks of wood drifting towards a large window. Awesome. This reminds me, I need to go pick up a lottery ticket... pronto.

So go see "Seen/Unseen" it's up at Whitespace until February 23rd 2008.