Top Ten of 2014 So Far
10. Only Lovers Left Alive soundtrack
Filmmaker Jim Jarmucsh recently started a considerably Jim Jarmucsh-y band hilariously titled SQÜRL. They make slow, plodding, feedback-dirty post-rock reminiscent of a time in psychedelia when the genre wasn’t about how layered and overwrought the music was capable of being, but rather how stripped down. They joined with classical guitarist Jozef Van Wissem and a number of other musicians to make the appropriately creepy soundtrack for Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive reaping best soundtrack at Cannes. It is indeed that good; dark and brooding, but with enough breathing room to lead one through the arch of the entire album.
9. Charline von Heyl
Charline von Heyl is undeniably cool. She set directly in front of me at a symposium on abstract painting since 1980 at the Guggenheim with her legs propped up and splayed out on the railing past the front row. The final panel included Christopher Wool, Richard Prince, RH Quaytman, and Laura Owens. Instead of answering the first question directed to him by the moderator, Prince slowly pulled a prepared statement out of his breast pocket in silence and put on his glasses as he awkwardly fumbled with the paper. In response, von Heyl turned back to my friends and me, gave a sidelong smile, and rolled her eyes. She spent the rest of the panel folding Wool’s, Prince’s, Quaytman’s, and her own “Reserved For” signs into neat, little origami boats and placing them in a row on seat next to her. Some time later I heard a secondhand rumor originating from Quaytman’s studio assistant that Prince was on acid; maybe von Heyl’s was a knowing glance. Von Heyl is making the best work of her career right now. Her series currently at the Whitney and at Corbett vs Dempsey retain the casual dynamism that has always been her strong suit, and apparently her personal demeanor, but with a stronger emphasis on integrating the component media and compositional elements into each other coherently while maintaining a confounded illusionistic space.
8. The waiting line to see Chris Burden’s Tower of Power
The New Museum’s retrospective Chris Burden: Extreme Measures included a piece called Tower of Power, a sculpture made of 100 one-kilogram bars of gold guarded by a fleet of tiny matchstick men. The piece was situated in the narrow back corridor up some stairs, where only one person at a time can fit. Obviously a stack of raw currency cannot be left alone so the piece was protected by bullet-proof glass and an armed NYC police officer. It was unclear how much of the theater of such high security and waiting in a stanchion-guided line was part of Burden’s vision for the piece and how much was just logistics, but it doesn’t really matter, because in effect, it was undeniably both. Being so far from the world of commodity trading and unable to see the piece at all from in the line, I had no idea what 100 kilos of gold looks like and what scale I was about to encounter. After two people came down from the stairs saying it wasn’t a big deal, I wondered if it is worth waiting in the long line. But as the third person came down and said disappointedly to the whole line, “It’s not worth it,” I realized I was already looking at the best part of the piece. People being disappointed by pure gold was an much a part of the sculpture as the material itself. Their aesthetic sensibilities and desire to be visually wowed outweighed their desire for what the thing actually is, a symbol perhaps more signifying of desire itself than of actual wealth.
7. Christopher Wool at the Guggenheim
I’ve always had difficulty appreciating work at the Guggenheim that doesn’t somehow use the architecture. Putting art within another piece of art isn’t, it turns out, such a good idea. But the direct, full-frontal nature of Wool’s work, rarely seen en masse in such a way to amplify his brutal sensibilities, shouts just loud enough to overshadow the prominence of the building. Wool remarked while speaking that the Art Institute that work at the Guggenheim has to be linear, which perhaps over-reduces his text which has a linear syntax within itself.
6. David Foster Wallace at the Whitney Biennial
The Biennial includes a number of unlikely figures, but I am particularly drawn to the inclusion of David Foster Wallace, by Michelle Grabner and Susan Howe by Anthony Elms. The “what is art” conversation is a dead horse beat beyond recognition, and usually works which present this contention as their content (ie. Diego Leclery playing Civilization IV) fall short of really making new and exciting statements. But there is still room for works to achieve an outward pressure on the definition of gallery work without being reduced solely to that gesture. David Foster Wallace’s notebooks, particularly one open to a page of pencil scribbles and a list of potential names to use in his writing achieve a contemplation on creative cognition in general. It is not exactly an artifact, not exactly a document, not exactly a drawing, but simply a creative act which is compelling as such without the conceptual content being contingent on reinventing the gallery, but still slightly expanding standard biennial parameters.
5. Mellits and Reich at UIC
In March, Marc Mellits, professor of music composition at UIC, premiered an impressive new piece called Music for 5 Musicians. Those five musicians refer to piano, violin, marimba, bass clarinet and cello, but the title also recalls Steve Reich’s iconic piece Music for 18 Musicians, a piece to which Mellits is very intimately related. Before the program began, Mellits explained that his doctoral dissertation was to transcribe 18 Musicians for the first time in 1997. The piece was originally composed through collaborations between Reich and individual members of the original ensemble, who memorized the complicated piece well enough to record it and tour with it for over a decade without sheet music. Mellits worked closely with Reich and produced the score which allows for performances like that of this opening night. The ensemble which performed 18 Musicians following 5 Musicians that night we comprised mostly of music faculty from UIC. To perform such an intricate and endurance-testing piece so precisely is itself a feat, but to be able to have as much fun with it as the performers appeared to, is the mark of mastery. Certain sections of 5 Musicians are considerably better than others, some a bit too prone to ornamentation, particularly in the piano parts, but overall the piece is moving in an understated way, and generally a great piece of new chamber music. The incredible composition for and performance on marimba in particular is both innovative and a fitting tribute to Reich.
4. Susan Howe at the Whitney Biennial
I am including Susan howe for all of the same reasons that I included David Foster Wallace, but it is important to separate them and advance Howe’s rank because her place in the Biennial is a monumental moment. Seventy-six year-old Howe, as a longstanding figure and groundbreaker in the world of avant-garde poetry and literary criticism, has been long overdue for her gallery debut. As far as I know, her only proper art exhibition before the Biennial was the was an exhibition of the same piece, Tom Tit Tot, at Yale Union last year. The delicate composition of the text fragments on the page are simply presented, but their content complicates the recognizably of their source material. Letterforms move effortlessly between clear words and abstract morphemes. The collage technique is familiar from many of her previous pieces like Frolic Architecture. If this were a top ten list of work from the decade so far, her collaborative recording of Frolic with David Grubbs would vie for the top.
3. Field of Reeds by These New Puritans
Perhaps I’m cheating a bit, because These New Puritans’ most recent album Field of Reeds came out in 2013, but it is such a great achievement, that I think it is still relevant. In every way, Field of Reeds is completely out of the blue, so much so that it is actually difficult to describe. First, it is a lateral shift from TNP’s previous two releases, both tending towards fast, brash, beat-driven post-punk. 2008’s Hidden shows the first signs of a growing penchant for more chamber-like, ensemble-based composition, but Field of Reeds tears up the rule book completely. Something peculiar often happens around a band’s third release if they have achieved a certain level of attention. They begin to have more and more resources at their disposal, more instruments, more auxiliary musicians, access to better studios, money. But in music, and in all art, limitations are important for directing creative impulses, and bands tend to sound over-produced, too clean, or over-the-top by this point. Ostensibly, all of these luxuries are present in Field of Reeds; there are a lot of instruments on this album (including a magnetic resonator piano, for the first time ever on a commercial release). But compositionally, it is maintains beautifully clear focus and drive. Never once does a component sound extraneous, thrown in for the hell of it. There is a simplicity of sounds which allows the complicated and highly nuanced songwriting to emerge.
2. Anthony Elms’ Floor at the Whitney Biennial
If it is a contest, Elms wins. He demonstrated his proclivities towards archival and textual practices in a way that defies the cynical and over-prevalent attitude of contemporary art-going audiences who I often hear say “I don’t go to art galleries to read.” If text flirts with the boring, and I don’t believe that it does, the emotionally investigative nature of textual and nontexual works alike, particularly My Barbarian’s video and the paintings of Paul P., offset this tendency. I have grown skeptical of archival works over the course several years consisting of half-hearted attempts by artists who just read Derrida for the first time, but the sensorial richness of Public Collectors’ installation of the Malachi Ritscher archive, and the shadowy drama amid humor of Joseph Grigely’s Gregory Battcock archive take this emerging artistic format into a higher level of intellectual and visual rigor.
1. Christopher Wool at the Art Institute of Chicago
It is difficult to decide what to say about Christopher Wool’s retrospective that isn’t rehashing the chorus a praise it has already received. The materiality of enamel on aluminum is indeed sexy. Erasure on a grand scale is drastic, even scary. The streamlining of new image technologies has helped tighten his process even more. A limited palette presents limitless combination. And so on. I don’t think, however, enough attention has been paid to Wool as a wordsmith, simply a good writer. Short paint-poems like “Helter Helter,” “TRBL,” and a personal favorite “The harder you look the harder you look” are very cleaver without being merely clever especially combined with all the painting concerns expressed above. The Black Book series, wherein Wool organized letters spelling out personality types in 3 by 3 grids, executes an elegantly simple visual layout to contain a very loaded, yet oddly open-ended set of terms, a very complicated combination of authorial control and viewer reception mitigated at its core by the meaning of the text. All of the cynical, post-punk angst of phrases like “Cats in bag bag in river,” “Sell the house sell the car sell the kids,” and “Riot” give a nowness to Wool’s work that make the post-9/11, post-collaspe era a perfect time to survey his work. Unlike at the Guggenheim, the layout and flat grey walls of the Art Institute recede away from the bright white grounds of Wool’s paintings and allow individual piece to be their own text. The non- linear, broken grid layout of the show achieves the same effect, not making a run-on sentence out pieces, while also signaling coherence as a body of work through painted rather than textual aspects of the works. It is a much better setting for such a long-awaited retrospective.