Author Archives: S.I.

The Couch Life

After a recent to visit with a couple of art collectors in Chicago, I began thinking about art and environment.  The apartment we visited was stacked, floor to ceiling with work–primarily paintings– an enviable collection even for a museum.  There were works from the best of the best contemporary artists, but the difference between this environment and an impressive group show at MoMA, is that it HAD an environment.  This wasn’t a white cube, this was a home.  A home with a kitchen and a TV, a bedroom, and a history of kids.  Yes, evidently the children of the collectors used to play with the work, drive toy cars over the sculpture, eat Thanksgiving dinner right beside the Tom Freidman.  This work was appreciated and integrated into an environment–making art in the institutional circuit read as orphans.  

This is what we never talk about in art school:  where you want your work to end up.  It’s assumed that we all want to make a living (or attempt to make one) as an artist–thus participating the gallery, residency, grant series of approved activities.  It’s assumed we want to sell our work, but the vision stops there.  Maybe we can envision our paintings on a the solo-show walls of our local contemporary art museum, or in the frantic shuffle of Art Basel, but what happens when a collector invests in us?  The idea that a work would look nice over someone’s couch, seems a pure insult for any art student, but maybe couch life isn’t so bad?  Is the limited viewing received by a work in a private home worth the trade off of a public exhibition when you factor in the sincere daily appreciation of the work versus the 3 seconds spent in any gallery/museum?  Considering the intimacy of art making, it seems like a home is a better exchange–even if the work is in possible danger (kid’s sticky fingers, cats etc).  There’s something quite attractive to me about my work being noticed by a cat.  Something human.  As human as art should be. 

 

“Art and Appetite” at AIC

ImageIts been several weeks since I visited the “Art and Appetite” show at the AIC.  But perhaps the lag in viewing offers a more accurate perception of what I took away from it.  My first thought was its appropriate-ness.  Perfectly timed for for the holidays and the influx of tourists to the museum, the exhibition provides a sense of comfort and nostalgia–equipt with fun facts on tradition, cuisine, and changing family social structures in America.  Presenting paintings (mostly still lives) from a wide variety of American movements, the exhibition draws in the wandering art-goer with the classic Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting.  This is a perfect work to color the attitude of the show–historical but un-controversal.  Pleasant.  Familiar.  Besides getting a refresher on early American still life painting, I was especially interested in seeing the Alice Neel and Wayne Thiebaud towards the end of the exhibition.  Perhaps moreabout the humor and paint itself rather than celebrating food-as-delicious-object (particularly with Neel), these pieces are the strengths of the show in my opinion. Oh but lets not forget the Claes Oldenberg’s hard boiled egg.  Talk about as far from “delicious” as one can get!  But yes, it is the star. 

 

“The Tyranny of Good Taste”

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I like excess.  I have been drawn to excess ever since I fell head-over-heals in love with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge in middle school.  Excess, repetition, multiples, collections, accessories, supplements–in short, the “more is more” mentality makes sense to me.  Which is why I was surprised that my first thought, when walking into the “The Tyranny of Good Taste”, a group exhibition at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery  was: There is way too much work in here!  The space is small, but big enough to avoid clutter if interested.  Clearly, clutter wasn’t an issue for Danny Orendorff who curated the group show of 15 artists from around the country, exploring themes of low-brow materials,  junk food, maximalism, craft store crap, left-overs, awkward composition–the list could go on, (in keeping with the exhibition’s flowery delivery).

I admit, I didn’t put two and twotogether until a few days after seeing the exhibition: I actually attended a lecture by Danny Orendorff several months ago.  The lecture was centered around his 2012 exhibition, “All Good things become Wild and Free” at H. F. Johnson Gallery in Wisconsin.  This connection makes perfect sense–the taste is the same, the exhibition is a high-concept show bursting with a variety of materials.  In fact, the combined material list, alone could paint a pretty accurate picture of Orendorff’s taste.

In his current exhibition, Orendorff seems to challenge the artist’s in a competition for superlatives such as “most over-the-top”,  “most ugly”, “most likely to be found in your grandmother’s miscellaneous kitchen drawer”, etc.  These works are the misfits and the picked over pieces in an artist’s storage closets, in their unglamorous presentations and haphazard constructions.  And yet they elicit some degree of comfort through their familiar materials or nostalgic feel.  Jack Henry’s Core Samples offer us a literal conglomeration of child-of-the-90’s memorabilia, while Dean Roper’s busy installation of gaudy odds and ends clutter a clearly self-constructed shelf, hovering over an equally makeshift foot stool.

The work is strong in its ambition to be crafty and abject, and its interest in being so ugly it’s mesmerizing.  I only wonder about the layout of the exhibition.  Most artists exhibited three or four pieces, adding to the claustrophobic feel of the space.  Although I appreciate getting a taste of a collection of pieces by a single artists–as it is often difficult to get a real idea of the artist’s work in group shows through a single piece–the grouping somehow feels slightly juvenile or commercial–each pieces with a label,  each artist crammed on a small section of wall.  If the point is to overwhelm the viewer with a huge volume of work, I can understand exhibiting more than one pieces by each artist.  However, I think it would only heighten the chaotic feel of the space, if it was not divided up by artist, but rather by shape, or by content, or by nothing at all–just a hodgepodge of hodgepodges. Clustering the work by artist, adds a touch of logic which seems to undermine the intended excessiveness.

The exhibition left me with questions of intent.  Considering the title of the exhibition, the work references itself in a slightly ironic way or, at least, tongue-and-cheek flavor.  When is “bad” taste so bad it’s “good”?  Is there a trend-factor or cool-factor, hipster-factor or style-factor to this good “bad” taste or bad “good” taste?  It makes me wonder if these artists are intentionally trying to make work with “bad” taste, or if they are actually just falling short in a mission for “good” taste?  In an interview about doing a creative work, Ira Glass stated that we get into creative work because we have good taste.  But, he says,  there is usually a gap in the first few years of making things, in which our “taste is still killer” but the work falls short of our ambition.   It is only in making a huge volume of work, that we can begin to close that gap.  The exhibition makes me wonder: what if our ambition is not to make work with good taste?  Does this mean the work is successful from the beginning by default, or is does it take just as much persistence (or more) to make “bad” taste work as it does “good”?  Considering the subjective nature of these questions, this exhibition clearly doesn’t resolve the differences between these two camps of art-making, but it does attempt to challenge the hierarchies of taste and value to the extreme.

Inigo Manglano-Ovalle Lecture

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The re-constructed iceberg at the AIC was the only piece of Inigo Manglano-Ovalle’s I was familiar withbefore going to the lecture at SAIC earlier last week.  Unfortunately, although the artist gave an extensive (and arguably too extensive) explanation of works spanning much of his career, I left the lecture restless and annoyed.  The opening video was an interesting way to begin the lecture and it set the tone of the following two hours–calm, repetitive, rhythmic.  I appreciated the bold beginning but as the lecture wore on, I became more and more distracted.  To be fair, the distraction was, in part, thanks to a man beside me who had fallen asleep not 10 minutes into the lecture, completely oblivious that his phone was playing soft country music.  Regardless, the lecture ran way too long, forcing the artist to rush through the last 3rd of his slides, before approaching the Q and A with the same long-winded attitude.

Although I was not fortunateto have a studio visit with Inigo, I heard that he was quite generous with his time and offered some helpful insights to the work.  I only wish that I could have left his lecture with a similar feeling of appreciation.

Retaining Enthusiasm as an MFA

Whenever I talk with my non-MFA student artist friends, I’m struck by their genuine excitement and optimism about art making and the art world as a whole.  There seems to be an intensity to the total emersion/seclusion as a grad student which has the potential to encourage a cynicism not-so-helpful in the studio.  Reflecting on close to five semesters in an MFA environment, I would like to offer advice on retaining a sincere enthusiasm in the studio:

1. Get out of Chicago at least once per semester, if possible.  And not just to go home for Christmas, but to experience  another city’s art scene.  Obviously, Chicago has plenty of venues for art viewing, but, like any city, it has its aesthetic trends and preferences.  It is important to remind yourself that the art world expands beyond Chicago.  If you don’t feel you fit into the chi-town aesthetic, it is easy to feel slightly alienated.  Go out of your way to expose yourself to other scenes as a way to both widen your perspective and feel out where you may want to end up after grad school.

2. Limit your negative conversations.  There are always complainers in the group.  Although it is important to be critical of your program, its easy to get worn down by negativity which can be toxic in the studio.  Gossip runs ramped in grad school.  Try not to get involved.  Negativity is contagious.

3. Nurture relationships outside of school.  They will offer fresh perspectives not influenced by the attitudes of your tight-knit studio community.  I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to eliminating all normal social needs outside of school, but a balance is vital.  They will keep you from veering too far from reality, and might even be able to verbalize things about your work without talking in crit-speak.

4. Excitement about your work comes in cycles.  When one of those moments comes, when you find it impossible to sit still because you are so excited about an idea, record your enthusiasm on paper.  When you cycle back into uncertainty, the writing will help to balance out your frustrations.

It is a certain type of person who thrives in an MFA program, but, at its roots, I assume every practicing artist has a genuine love and interest for art making.  Clearly, there’s the imparative and often grueling critical side to balance out the joy of making, but the MFA experience should not stifle the 2nd part of the equation. It is a significant privilege to be an art student and enjoyment should not be dismissed.

Caleb Weintraub at Peter Miller Gallery

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I do not like text-based work. It’s hard to explain; just a personal preference.  I hold a distinction between text-based work and work which happens to include text.  I’m not bothered at all by the dedication to the sheep herder scrawled at the base of Cy Twombly’s sculpture at the Art Institute, for example.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite pieces in the museum.  To me, work that relies on text and is at a great loss with the elimination of the text, displays a type of aggression which I generally would prefer to be expressed through image or material–something less blatant.  ALthough, I am willing to believe I just haven’t seen the best of a genre.  Furthermore, I have the tendency to eventually develop a taste for whatever I proclaim with confidence I do not like.  This has happened a number of times.  But I am not yet to that point.

Which is why “Spooky Action at a Distance”, the current exhibition at Peter Miller Gallery in the WEst loop left me disgusted and a bit nauseous. Text wasn’t entirely to blame, but certainly gave me an immediate (personal) excuse for dismissal.  But I couldn’t bring myself to leave the gallery. Caleb Weintraub must be just a little bit insane and I like that.  I gather his comfort zone is painting, but the bulk of this show was a series of shamelessly creeper digital images.  The claustrophobic scenarios swarmed with doll-like figures–mostly wide-eyed children–in garish setting, surreal and haunting.  Block-letter phrases hover above the figures like “This is It” or “Take Me”.  The images sit like an apocalyptic nightmare, or a car crash from which you can’t look away.  As I stood there, surrounded by them, I hated what the sentences were implying, i hated the disgusting kid’s expressions and the cheaply constructed forests, I hated the flashy cars and compute-game aesthetic.  I had a grimace on my face I couldn’t shake.

All that hatred aside, when most of the shows I saw around Chicago that weekend (I must have seen around a dozen) I haven’t thought about since–even if I thought they were good shows in the moment, Weintraub’s work has buried itself into my image back, for better or worse.  Although I am not quite willing to pronounce the work “successful” just because it’s memorable, I do question my hatred and am willing to allow the hatred to be replaced with fascination or intrigue, or disapproval etc–an alternate category which could help me accept or make since of my repulsion.

The Nose at The Metropolitan Opera

As the curtain’s closed on the final performance of this fall’s run of The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera,  the audience was brought to their feet in a lengthy ovation.  I always get soaring sense of pride seeing actors take a bow on stage, as if I had, in some way, contributed to the work–a “yes, WE did it” feeling. In this particular piece, this feeling was even more pronounced than usual, and in retrospect, I blame Kentridge’s lecture I attended earlier this month. Much of the artist’s work is concerned with the uncertainties of sight and perception–individualized, varied in perspective.  Just as the lecture provided several options for viewing a single piece, The Nose was constructed in way which encouraged the audience member to make their own viewing decisions which produced alternate readings of the narrative.

If one were to approach The Nose as a seasoned opera-goer with the expectations of any production characteristic of the Met’s slightly conservative production history, disappointment, confusion, irritation, or similar emotions would certainly ensue.  For example the white-haired woman seated to my left in head-to-toe fur who whispered to her friend, “Are there any famous arias in this opera?” was in for a bit of a shock.  Similarly, the ancient man to my right fell asleep in the first act.   A little rukous and a lot absurd, The Nose disturbs, topples, and haphazardly/masterfully re-constructs opera for all willing participants.

Kentridge’s  signature style dominates the production: consistent red, white, and white pallet, generous use of animation and collage, political themes balanced by humor.  Shastakovich’s adaptation of Gogol’s short story of the same name, lends itself beautifully to Kentridge’s touch, and is allowed to venture further into the absurd.  Several screens are used to create flattened space and to break up scenes, also providing a surface for animation.  As if the extensive used of projection is not enough of a stand-out element in the world of opera, the animation acts as characters itself similar to a live action/animation combination on film.  The title character is often depicted in projection, leaping up onto physical sets in direct contact with the protagonist, Kovalyov.   A projection of a torn-paper animated horse is a recurring character used to appear to pull the sets on and off stage– synching up with the performers.   This constant relationship between real and un-real, 2 and 3-D worlds, relates to the themes of non-sensical hierarchies.  “Why do people go crazy over nonsense?” a character proclaimes towards the end of the performance.  Select lines are projected on stage, some translated to English from the origianl Russian, some translated into 5 languages at once, flickering in time with the music.  The chaotic nature of the design is riveting but, as it is impossible to take all aspects in simultaneously, the viewer must take sides.   If one chooses to follow the subtitles, the projected lines are lost and vise versa.  Everything happens at such a pace that no two viewings could be the same. I think that Kentridge is fueled by confusion and the idea that only upon extraction and digestion of select elements can the event begin to accrue meaning.  Isolation of a way of understanding.  Humor as a perspective for acceptance.

William Kentridge at The University of Chicago

It is rare that a lecture has the power to alter your way of of seeing the world–even momentarily.  For the past 48 hours I have been walking and thinking, trying to reconcile the images surrounding  me  with sounds floating between me and my environment.  After back-to-back lectures by William Kentridge at The University of Chicago, my head is left swarming with so many questions it becomes hard to catch my breath.

Kentridge presented his work in Thursday’s lecture titled “Listening to the Image” in the vein of a workshop, accompanied by two members of the Lyric Opera.  Poetically analyzing the magic, mystery, and philosophical discrepancies between sound and image, the lecture did not attempt to address the arc of the artist’s career nor did it provide a concrete thesis about the nature of sound or collaboration, but rather invited the audience to participate in experiments of looking as Kentridge lead us through several iteration of works-in-progress, testing the same aria with a variety of animations and vice versa. Both casual and evocative, the lecture was rooted in question and portrayed art making as open and infinite as sound itself.  “The studio is a safe place for stupidity”, Kentridge said, encouraging not knowing as a vital perspective for creating.

Writer and curator Jane Taylor joined Kentridge on Friday evening in a public conversation centered around collaboration.  Both artists seemed prepared to let the conversation take whatever shape the audience wanted as they answered questions ranging from the role of puppetry in several theatrical works to the dangers of certainty in politics.  “Be wary of great successes,” Taylor warned us.  “But celebrate paltry triumphs”.

It was a joy to experience a lecture with rather than by the artist.  The structure of both evenings reconciled the gap between the typical viewer vs. maker hierarchy and generously allowed the audience a feeling of total collaboration in creating the presented work.  Triumphs indeed.

Am I Getting Dumber?

A friend, who recently completed her MFA, called me up the other day worried that she had gotten dumber since undergrad.  She had come across some essays from college she had written and was both impressed and concerned how intelligent she sounded-varied vocabulary, smart ideas, compelling thesis.  We both graduated from strong liberal arts programs and I could immediately relate to her concern, having recently read over some old philosophy papers of my own.  And it makes me consider the possible intellectual dangers of pursuing an MFA.

I have learned invaluable information since coming to art school–about the contemporary art market, about how how to talk about work, how to write artist statement, how to enter the world as an artist and theories on how to stay afloat, etc–but it is very one-sided.  The pass/fail system of my program allows for a certain amount of freedom to prioritise individually, but the motivation level in classes deemed not-100%-relevant-to-studio-practice seems to suffer.

I admit to enjoying total studio-emersion on one hand, but on the other hand I miss the rigorous academic atmosphere of my undergrad where I was able to explore subjects not directly related to my studio practice (which I continue to draw influence from) without being treated as an artist.  Typically non-art-related courses such as Math or Science classes geared towards art majors have the potential for not being as challenging or informative as their traditional counterparts.

As artists, we are encouraged to absorb and reflect our environments, our brains, and experiences, and if presented material which is already partially digested through the art perspective, it becomes harder to find a fresh and sincere angle.   The danger of such a narrow academic environment makes me question the benefits of a BFA all-together.  I think it is far more interesting to approach art-making, not as a student of art and wholly art-centric individual who re-arranging a series of art-appropriate gestures within the context of art history, but as a critical thinker and generally curious individual with a fresh perspective on the world fueled by a conglomeration of a variety of experiences who chooses to express those ideas through art.

Chicago Needs A Dose of Grand Rapids

I recently took a trip to Grand Rapids, MI for an ArtPrize event at the UICA.  Having lived in a city for the past several years, I was instantly charmed by the small town feel of Grand Rapids but the art scene had the vibrancy of a city twice its size.  Recently christened “the new Austin”, Grand Rapids is quickly gathering speed on the art front–particularly since the ArtPrize started in 2009.  Admittedly, few of the entries I saw there were memorable but what I took away was the sheer collective enthusiasm of the city itself.

I love Chicago but there seems to be an underlying bitterness agitated by its competition towards NYC and LA, and its struggle to keep its young artists/recent MFA grads from moving out.  One of my professors suggested Chicago needs more galleries which cater to young artists and there needs to be more connections between MFA programs and these galleries to establish relationships before these artists move away.

From what I could tell, Kendall College graduates and professors seem to run the up-and-coming art scene in Grand Rapids.  A young scene like this isn’t jaded yet, and doesn’t have the struggle of hierarchy within the gallery scene. It was refreshing to be among artists and gallerists with a sense of optimism.  Obviously Chicago, having an established place in the art market, cannot ignore its history and cannot/should not strive for a small-town up-and-coming-at-scene attitude, but I do think that a healthy dose of enthusiasm and a good night’s sleep would go a long way.