Sunday, June 15, 2014

Roger Rothstein

Roger Rothstein: Cultural Residue

Roger Rothstein’s creative work brings to mind the imaginings of a child locked up in his bedroom for miscreant behavior for hours at a time, surrounded by drawers-full of tiny miniature figures, Coke bottles, treasure chests, shiny gems, anything easy enough to hide away for an immediate presentation of intact mental stability in the case of an unexpected visitor.  In a deliberate avoidance of high art processes and materials, Rothstein gravitates to unlikely media such as snack foods, miniature dollhouse and architectural model supplies, calendars and cheap portraits from the local 99-cent store, and nostalgic toy-store materials like Etch-a-Sketches and Lincoln Logs, couched in an amalgamation of references ranging from Chinese painting, nuclear war, and American pop culture. Boiling down the mish mash of images from news stories, atomic bomb scares, Sally Struthers, seventh grade social studies, art history from a book, the rise of Bruce Lee, Sukia, science fiction, and divorced families, Rothstein’s work reveals the anxiety-driven, chaotic, and emotionally detached effect of the postmodern experience on a generation coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s, and the intense effort this artist has put into forcing the overload of information and images into a worldview that amounts to a sense of absurdity with which he has remantled an interpretation.
The work of several working contemporary artists today are marked by a desire to re-create an emotional reengagement, as evidenced by the prevailing themes of the last Whitney Biennial in 2004. Curator Debra Singer describes these impulses in terms of nostalgia, and purposeful misremembering, “recalling deliberately and imperfectly lived experiences, received historical notions, and learned styles…in which Minimalist and Postminimalist stylistic languages collide with references to interior design, popular music, literature, architecture, and the American suburban landscape.”[1] The current post-Pop, post-cybernetic, and post-pluralistic state of the art institution has, for Rothstein, created a state of self-reflexive cynicism, leading to a crisis in connecting ingenuously with the transcendental possibilities of art.
This nostalgic desire is readily apparent in consideration of Rothstein’s choice of materials. The Etch-a-Sketch portraits (figure 1) are a clear allusion to a childhood occupation, a toy that challenges a child’s ability to draw by limiting the movement of the mark-making utensil to a mechanical process of turning two knobs, one that will move the penpoint scratching away an electrostatically-adhering line of aluminum flakes vertically, and one horizontally. Rothstein’s obsessive nature, born from an escapist isolation, compels him to develop his “drawing” skill on the Etch-a-Sketch to overcome the rigid technical machination that tends to create grid-like lines. He shows a remarkable technical facility, composing his pictures with a fluidity and cohesiveness that distinctly evokes a specific period of graphic illustration, creating images reminiscent of American animation of comic-book heroes, futuristic cityscapes, and other references to the fantasy world of pulp fiction from which he regularly draws. In this way, he establishes a referent time-place that a generation contemporary to Rothstein will immediately recognize from childhood visual culture.
The escapist isolation within which Rothstein developed this skill is also an important communal element that binds this postmodern generation together for two reasons: (1) the proliferation of mass communication outlets has created a pluralistic culture in which the hegemonic visual experience of the pre-electric age splintered into individualized private experiences, and (2) in the wake of the sexual revolution and re-defining of familial roles, particularly those of women, a generation of children was born who were casualties of a sudden epidemic of divorce and double-income families. The ultimate result of this combination was an unprecedented level of choices of solitary activity that became increasingly complicated in their fantastical elaborations, offering escapist solace from the Age of Anxiety, brought on by the electric contraction of the globe into a village, as Marshall McLuhan has described it.[2]
The nostalgic tendency to create a referent time-place, a fixed and “tangible” location and point in time, is also a response to the dissolution of geographical boundaries, and to the postmodern experience of time that is no longer necessarily linear or chronological, a result of video recorders, television syndication, and other time-warping innovations. The consequence of technology making worldwide travel accessible and relatively affordable on a mass level, and the creation of the virtual global village via the internet, movies, television, and the globalization of commercial brands, has rendered the idea of geographical distances into a concept of cybernetic tourism. Lisa Nakamura posits that this concept has been appropriated by commercialism to reenforce a new paradigm of Otherness, presenting an iconographic ‘unspoiled’ image of the African, Asian, or Native American in order to “shore up the Western user’s identity as himself.”[3] This is one method of establishing a referent time-place. In the reversal of this method, Rothstein establishes his geographic time-place by including the ‘spoiled’ image of commercial trash generated by imperialistic capitalism trampling through a stereotypical re-creation of a Third World ‘get-away’, as in his Temple of Corrugated Aluminum, 2004 (figure 2) in which we see a miniature box of Ritz crackers, a copy of People magazine and Coastal Living, broken English porcelain, and a Pepsi can embedded in the mud beneath a rickety house on stilts, built of corrugated aluminum (leftover industrial material from First World commercialization), amidst a sparse grove of bamboo.
Lawrence Alloway develops the history of Pop art in three phases, the first two accomplishing the goal of reducing the idealism and exclusivity of European aesthetics and then of formal Greenbergian measures of high art, which Alloway deems as having been necessary to connect the diverse sources from an increasingly congested mass media into a unified pictorial structure. Alloway connects Pop art to a general tradition of iconographical art, as opposed to the tradition of abstract art that garnered overwhelming attention postwar. The third phase of Pop art, though, he describes as lacking “a grasp of the history their art belongs to, as well as a sense of the internal rigor necessary to art.”[4] This chaotic, iconoclastic, lawless, and rootless state that Pop art created echoes the isolated, parentless, media-saturated consumer culture inhabited by Rothstein. It is precisely this rootlessness and lack of rigor that Rothstein addresses: first, through the creation of the referent time-place, and second, through the creation of his own auto-didactic rules of quality.
Through these self-imposed parameters of internal rigor, Rothstein is able to create a visual commentary on his experience of fractured postmodernism, and also to break out of the cycle of postmodernist cynicism in order to access and communicate the transcendental possibilities of art. His path is particularly interesting because only through the veil of popular art can Rothstein feel comfortable addressing what “fine art” has appropriated as its own realm, dialectically pointing out that Pop art, by opening up the idea that art should be a democratic reflection of external referents, destroyed the spiritual and emotional possibilities, albeit on an extremely personal and intimate level, as evidenced by the miniature scale of his work and the seemingly absurd subject matter.
The obsessive attention to realistic detail and scale apparent in Rothstein’s architectural sculptures Temple of Snack Foods, 1996, and Temple of Corrugated Aluminum, 2004, reveal his determination to unload fully an idea from his imaginings, an occupation of the mind to drown out why the metaphoric child is being punished, while confronting the viewer with our own preconceptions of the Third World and misunderstandings of the mystical Orient (I use the word Orient here as interchangeable with the idea of the Other, as elaborated on in Edward Said’s influential essay on Orientalism.[5]). Further provoking our sense of political idioms of the Other, Rothstein presents a series of Oriental scenes of “birds and flowers” and “landscapes,” two major genres of Chinese painting with their own implications, in his Silk Collage series, 2003 (figure 5 and 6) with bits of American pop culture junk, such as Tide bottles, Kodak boxes, and Parliament cigarette boxes, embedded within the body of the work. Rothstein is once again commenting on the ubiquitous presence of imperialistic commercialization.
It is important to recognize that Rothstein has deliberately gravitated toward “Other” subject matter as a means to reestablish spiritual relevance in his work. Fine art, as an institution, through the museums, international platforms such as biennials, and the art market, has become an iconic symbol itself in contemporary visual culture, having its own esoteric rhetoric of theoretical interpretation deriving from psychoanalytic theory, structuralist theory, Minimalist theory, and Conceptualism. Modernism, by losing the accessibility of narrative, coinciding with a rapid expansion of the middle-class able to afford art as a commodity in the twentieth century, has appropriated the mantle of high art. Consequently, Postmodernism has appropriated low art processes, adopting formerly outsider artists as part of an acceptable canon (complete with its own system of dedicated galleries, fairs, and auction sales), further blurring the parameters of fine art, and ostensibly creating a new appreciation for Outsider art. Said’s original sense of Other, in its geographic sense of the Occidental versus Western, is also being obliterated with the dramatic rise of a new culture of aesthetics in contemporary art, reorganized around informational presence (media) rather than geography (historically the West: Europe and America). “Having a biennial reveals a desire to be seen as a region of modern culture. Even in countries of economic and political hardship, they provide a virtual sense of being part of a technologically connected world,” as Homi Bhabha is quoted saying in a New York Times article on the rising trend of international biennials of the last decade.[6] Rothstein’s sense of isolation keeps him mining the troves of subculture, in its constantly fluctuating dialectic definition.
In this manner of skirting high art, Rothstein allows himself the freedom to address the transcendental, spiritual possibilities that have become the new banalism in the current discourse of contemporary fine art. Rothstein is tapping into an historic folk tradition of disseminating ideological subject matter in kitschy and accessible icons, such as the propagandistic reduction of the iconic portrait of Mao Zedong to buttons and talismanic taxicab adornments during the Cultural Revolution in China,[7] or the proliferation of Virgin Mary candles or gilt-framed pocket-size reproductions of Jesus of Nazareth in Latin culture. By appropriating the light-hearted accessibility of kitsch, Rothstein is able to prevaricate the cynicism of contemporary art discourse while preserving the sanctity of the high art process he is referencing. Just as the images of Mao or Jesus have become iconic references to power structures appropriated in various ways by consequent artists cross-culturally, as in Warhol’s Mao series, from 1974 (figure 3), and Zhang Hongtu’s (b. 1943) series Material Mao, from 1992 (figure 4), Rothstein appropriates the idea of the Other as a commentary on the power structure of the art institution. In his Silk Collage series, Rothstein specifically utilizes the ideology of the Orient as his Other.
The inscrutable Orient has served as the opposing ideology of mysticism, spirituality and intuition against the scientific rationale of Western Enlightenment, consequently having a tendency to attach itself to disempowered and alternative subcultures such as those associated with musicians, artists, and female properties. Within the discourse of contemporary art in Alloway’s third phase of Pop, Eastern mysticism and philosophy has attached itself to a fashionable trend, evidenced by the popularity of yoga classes in fashion magazines and the mainstreaming of martial arts in big-screen movies. This latter trend is a culmination of an intertwining of martial arts and Black power as outsider cultures from the restless 1960s empowering themselves ultimately through mass media, our modern-day method of “kitsch-ifiying” transcendental ideas, in a sincere effort to make their concepts accessible. This very fashionability of subversion, though, has relegated Eastern mysticism to the fringes of perceivably acceptable subtlety or conceptual subject matter in the realm of fine art, once again trapping the artist in a spiral of cynicism that obviates the need to point out the transcendental possibilities in his subject matter. Jonathan Fineberg describes postmodernism as a state that has a lack of stable historical referents--a result of the proliferation of mass media and popular culture, permitting “a fluid reconfiguring of one’s experience of the world, continually changing juxtapositions and sequences in a manner that fundamentally destabilizes their meaning.” [8] Rothstein addresses this crisis by utilizing a complicated system of layered appropriationism to couch his sublime goals in a nest of cynicism.
These tendencies, traced back to Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, came to their first realizations in the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke, Fred Tomaselli, and Jeffrey Koons. Collage has been an important element in each of their works. Collage, as a technique, is subversive in that it (1) removes the artistic gesture, (2) removes from the art object the process of high art materials and processes, (3) has association with folk art, (4) lends itself to appropriationism, and (5) has become a logical process for artists to attempt, considering the death of originality, as described by Rosalind Krauss in her discussion of the aims of the avant-garde in 1985.[9]
In a conspicuous example of this process, Rothstein completed his Nuclear Landscape Collage series, 2001 (figure 7) presented in a group exhibition of Jewish and Muslim artists’ work post 9-11. Confronting the audience with the stark reality of the apparent emergent threat of nuclear proliferation throughout “rogue” nations around the world, Rothstein collaged images of mushroom clouds clipped directly from copies of the United States government’s own photographic records of the nuclear weapon tests from 1953 to1957.  The backgrounds are bucolic landscape scenes printed on generic, holiday greeting cards or shiny posters, mass manufactured on textured, metallic cardstock. The direct violence of the bombs is offset by the kitsch quality of 99-cent store landscape posters, similar to the desensitizing effect of film director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, in which Tarantino mediates his most violent scenes in kitsch absurdity, appropriated from the subculture of Hong Kong action films (thus we see an appropriation of an Oriental Other by an artist that considered himself an iconoclastic outsider to the film industry).
In a more multilayered analysis of Rothstein’s appropriation methods, though, I turn again to the Silk Collage series.  At first glance, this series seems to be the result of an artist not properly trained in Chinese or Japanese art history. The series depicts a fused confusion of allusions to the decorative qualities of Japanese screen paintings with the severely ascetic tradition of Chinese literati wenren painting. His appropriated references of subject matter: painter-poet recluse, birds and flowers, fish among lotus leaves, the “Three Friends of Winter” (bamboo, pine tree, and rock), appear to be hackneyed allusions to the mystical Orient. Even the appropriated styles of Oriental painting range in confused combinations of references to: the highly realistic period of paintings in the Southern Song tradition in the 10th century, the decorative Piling style of the late 13th century, the conceptual spatial distortions of Bada Shanren’s fish paintings in the 17th century, and the plunging waterfalls and expansive landscapes, a tradition that extends back to the Northern Song dynasty in the 11th century through the Qing dynasty into contemporary Chinese painting. Upon closer inspection, the hidden embedded hints of the tainting of these poetic scenes reveal themselves in the form of disguised consumer trash, such as the Tide bottles in the form of flowers by the stream (figure 6). This example offers the key to Rothstein’s intention of using subculture to reveal the duplicitous state of the art institution.
By appropriating folk interpretations of the high art tradition of Chinese literati scholar painting, Rothstein is able to evoke the revered role of the Chinese painter as poet,[10] and as such, metaphorically redeems the role of the Artist as Transcendental Myth-maker. On another level, Rothstein successfully usurps the guise of postmodern cynicism in a clever subversion of its own concept by appropriating techniques that have historically been relegated as inferior in Western tradition: collage, folk art, garish color, cheap and popular materials, decorative art, graphic art, perhaps even the entire genre of Chinese painting, without distinguishing between the high and low traditions within this huge genre. He thus reveals an underlying power structure in art institutions, while cloaked in a seeming artlessness. The mischievous child once again misinterpreted by the discerning parents.
Rothstein, working exclusively in collage, addresses and incorporates the subversive tendencies in his work, ultimately admitting the futility of originality in the postmodern state by deliberately avoiding high art processes, not as a subversive statement against the institution of high art, but in an inversion of that seemingly subversive message, as reverential in not deigning to attempt to duplicate the mastery of high art processes.[11] In contrast to the works of Rauschenberg, whose intention was originality through the blurring of life and art,[12] or Hamilton, who wanted to point out the visual construction of the psyche as a result of mass media,[13] or Warhol, who pointed out the futility of originality with the homogenizing effect of mass media,[14] or Koons, who wanted to test the limits of popular and elite culture,[15] Rothstein keeps bringing us back to a straightforward message through a heavily mediated process, simultaneously disguising and blatantly presenting his reverence for the wonderful absurdity of art in all its high and low forms, and its consequent ability to comment on our detached and mediated capability to connect to a powerful emotion.

[1] Debra Singer, “The Way Things Never Were: Nostalgia’s Possibilities and the Unpredictable Past,” Whitney Biennial 2004 (New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 2003), 23.
[2] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (London, 1964); rpt. in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and George Wood (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 754.
[3] Lisa Nakamura, “’Where Do You Want to Go Today?’ Cybernetic Tourism, the Internet, and Transnationality”, Race in Cyberspace (New York: Routledge, 2000); rpt. The Visual Culture Reader, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (New York: Routledge, 2002), 259.
[4] Lawrence Alloway, “Pop Since 1949,” Artforum (October 2004), 276.
[5] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978); rpt. Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed.  Charles Harrison and George Wood (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 1005.
[6] Ann Wilson Lloyd, “Rambling Round a World That’s Gone Biennialistic,” New York Times, 3 March 2002, sec. 2, 34.
[7] Francesca Del Lago, “Personal Mao: Reshaping an Icon in Contemporary Chinese Art,” Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer, 1999): 46-59.
[8] Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 386.
[9] Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths,” October, no. 18 (Fall 1981); rpt. in Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 1032.
[10] Jonathan Chaves, The Chinese Painter as Poet (New York: China Institute), 2000, 54.
[11] Conversation with the artist, 2004.
[12] Rosalind Krauss, “Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” ArtForum, December 1976, 36.
[13] Lynn Cooke, “The Independent Group: British and American Pop Art, A ‘Palimpcestuous’ Legacy,” in Modern Art and Popular Culture: Readings in High & Low, ed. Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1991), 203.
[14] Interview of Andy Warhol, “What Is Pop Art? Interviews with Eight Painters (Part 1)’, Art News (November 1963); rpt. Art in Theory 1900-2000, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 747.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Detroit Revealed: Photography 2000-2010; Detroit Institute of Arts

Scott Hocking, Ziggurat and FB21 (2007-2009)

With close to fifty photographs in the show and two video pieces, Detroit Revealed: Photography 2000-2010 at the Detroit Institute of Arts offers a satisfying body of work with Nancy Barr's expert curatorial hand in setting the aesthetic and thematic tone of the whole exhibition. The show is a cross-balance of Detroit insiders and outsiders photographing Detroit as a central subject, exploring life and death in a post-apocalyptic city. 

The now-cliche idea of "ruin porn" has been mined exhaustively, both by local artists and those attracted by the quixotic failed promise of the Industrial Age, and Barr manages to cull specific examples and meanings in this exhibition with an eye for what has been done. Detroit's dystopia has become its cultural currency, grouped with other shrinking cities such as Lodz, Berlin, Manchester, and Ivanova, and Barr is sure to have been privy to an overload of images of this subject in her position as Curator of Photography at the DIA. Photography, able to capture every detail of detritus and the grainy character of reality, also has a contemporary quality that implies a chronographic reality appropriate to the subject matter. It is an apropos medium for the subject. 

Scott Hocking has been photographing scenes of post-apocalyptic Detroit for over a decade. Hocking is a prominent, if not the most prominent, photographic documentarian of Detroit's urban collapse of his generation. A native of Detroit, Hocking is able to tease a poetry out of his diaristic body of work, developed with an intimate physical relationship with the city's ruins, over the last fourteen years. The ziggurat, Hocking's signature, serves as a focal point in many of his photographic projects, an indexical mark of his occupation of the abandoned sites he uses. Physically dragging and stacking materials such as discarded tires or concrete blocks original to the desolate buildings he inhabits, Hocking is able to demonstrate the slow quietness of the labor behind his photographs. The pyramids, evocative of ancient engineering feats, point to a characteristic heaviness and immensity of industrialism, as do the expansive winter skylines in uninhabited portraits of the Detroit landscape. You can almost feel the wind blowing.

A string of black and white photographs in standard format by Michelle Andonian stand out like gems of  an experienced eye behind the camera. Also a Detroit resident, Andonian perhaps has had access through her work at the Henry Ford Museum to both empty and occupied factories. The images of bulky machinery and cavernous places shot in Andonian's slightly overexposed black-and-white style evoke images of the fin de siecle of the last century (think Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin). They are clearly contemporary though through Andonian's eye and composition, and is revealed by technical conventions such as wide angle capabilities, as well as by one piece that includes a woman dressed in contemporary garb working in the factory. These are the most skilled and finished photographs in the exhibition, not flashy but tight, well-composed and -scaled.

While Hocking reveals Detroit by relaying an intimacy with the long and lonely winter climate, Corine Vermeulen offers a verdant summer view of Detroit life by foot. Also a resident of Detroit, Vermeulen's body of work reflects a quotidian relationship with the city's inhabitants and landscape, often portraying children in urban prairies and on urban farms and gardens. Vermeulen captures the golden late light of hot Detroit summers, the leafy green plants of urban wildlife overtaking the mise en scene. A small Black boy with red hair and freckles stands against the verdant background; the vegetation and human presence are evidence of young life in an embattered post-industrial city being taken over by nature. Vermeulen's pieces in this exhibition come from a series Today is Yesterday's Tomorrow, elucidating the oxymoronic nostalgia for a future that has come.

If Vermeulen hints at the blooming of life, Carlos Diaz shows vibrant evidence of lives lived with passion. A series of large format color photographs brings us to the backyards of homes in Mexicantown, which are pristinely manicured and gardened. The most striking image is of a shrine layered up as tall as the house with gilt-framed pictures of passed loved ones, colorful ribbons, candles and other trinkets of offering. I feel privileged to be audience to the backyards of these people's homes, the intimacy Diaz offers is quite touching and provides access to a flourishing social circle in Detroit.

Andrew Moore is known for his large format photographs of deteriorating warehouses and structures. Detroit was an obvious draw for him, and indeed Rouge, Detroit (2008-2009) in the show was featured in a New York Times editorial about the attraction of distressed cities when it was exhibited at the Queens Museum in New York last year. The Moore pieces in this exhibition are dominated by his signature blur of water or steam across the photograph, heightening the ghostly abandoned effect against rusty I-beams and giant coils in the long-ago abandoned Ford Rouge Factory. As a Detroit outsider, Moore exposes his tour of Detroit through his series from which the pieces in the exhibition were taken. He visits the crumbling Michigan Theatre, the underground Theatre Bizarre, the defunct Bob-Lo Boat, the brick alleys and dilapidated homes of Detroit. Balancing Moore's hit-and-run ruin tourism with Hocking and Vermeulen's pieces that seem to happen so slowly in time because of their quotidian nature, Barr marries an outsider's perspective of Detroit's effigy with an insider's experience of the everyday.

Dawoud Bey, the photography and video portraitist of note, presents a portrait and an interview of a Black youth explaining his epiphany of realizing that his own behavior affects the way he is treated by others in return. A coming of age story that happens again and again, a new discovery with resounding truth for young adults and perhaps with peculiar strength for a young African-American male from Detroit. Ari Marcopoulos is also represented in this exhibition with a detournement video piece traversing through the streets of Detroit. His well-known touch for savage reality with tender intimacy is a theme in this show, and Barr has smartly included him in this showcase of Detroit.

Contemporary photography exhibitions seem to have trouble coalescing into a cohesive aesthetic and curatorial body. Detroit Revealed, though, hits a pitch and poetry that lives up to its title. Unlike Nancy Barr's recent juried show at the Detroit Center for Contemporary Photography, which ranged all over the place in quality, subject matter and format, Detroit Revealed is more telling of Barr's curatorial finesse. The threads of each artist's oeuvre investigating urbanity in post-industrial culture are put together here to intersect at their impressions of Detroit. The blustery desolation of factories is juxtaposed with intimate portraits of life in Detroit, hinting at the peculiar pockets of activity unseen by tourists. The tenderness and diverse perspective with which Detroit is showcased in this exhibition reveals Barr's excellence in curatorial vocabulary of the subject matter and those artists investigating this genre.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Barely There, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD)

Marcel Broodthaers 
Défense de Fumer, 1969-70
Black and white silent film
28 minutes
Courtesy the Collection Frac Launguedoc Rousillon, France

Barely There, a two-part exhibition, was organized by Luis Croquer through the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The show includes accomplished artists with significant oeuvres such as James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, Kim Sooja, Christian Marclay, Yvonne Rainer, Marcel Broodthaers, well known with established and influential careers. Group exhibitions have a decidedly different dimension than a solo exhibition, and it is worth noting the trend wherein the curator's name holds as much credence as any of the artists in the show. In his three-year tenure at MOCAD, Croquer has curated no less than eight projects, and this current exhibition appears to be his swan song as he exits the institution to pursue his own curatorial projects. Barely There is a culmination of Croquer’s ambition and muscle as his tenure grew and the five-year-old institution’s name gained credibility. His curatorial projects have tended to pursue the elusive interstitials of art in life, and is most pointedly explored in this exhibition.

As the title suggests, Barely There addresses the intricacies of vascillating presence. Some of the pieces are literally barely there. Prieto's two pieces are barely ascertainable: Holy Water is a puddle of water invisible on the floor but pregnant with meaning since it has been blessed by an ordained priest. The second piece is easy to miss in the gallery, it is so insignificant in physical stature that it is barely present in the show: a simple blue ink pen with a red cap. A small gesture in Prieto’s endearing penchant. Luis Camnitzer’s self-portrait is represented by a pencil on a thread, powered by a floor fan, that leaves a faint trace of graphite on the white wall, moving to the rhythm of the moving air. Hans-Peter Feldman, who recently won the Hugo Boss Prize, is represented by a photograph of a man and woman in a camera-ready pose, but with the heads and faces carefully cut out. The absence of identity is also here a transparent reference to the theme.

The exhibition statement is two-part, stating that the first half of the show touches on "death, love, identity, imagination, knowledge and the unintelligible," and the second half on "the body as generator of knowledge, memory and as an instigator of social, political and spiritual change and as capable of leaving invisible traces to mark spheres." The broad delineation hardly leaves out anything, presumably by limitation of word count. The result is something that resembles vagary, and never reaches the opaque philosophical contextualization that would give conceptual depth to the curatorial statement. Nevertheless, the exhibition itself lives up to its potential as an ineffable concept in its curatorial arrangement.

Part of the draw of the exhibition are the well known names. To see yet another piece in Marcel Broodthaers' highly literate and absurdist oeuvre is informative and delightful; in this case Défense de Fumer (1969-70) which invokes the icon of Magritte's surrealism: the pipe. The memory of Francesca Woodman's work is captured in a gem-like set of three grainy photographs of the artist in performance, reminiscent of the prominence of documenting body art in the 1970s. Yvonne Rainer, the pioneer performance artist, is also included, featuring five video pieces such as Hand Movie (1966) that was intended to play alongside live action. Christian Marclay, a master of multimedia, notably sound composition and performance, displays the covers of a double release copy of the Beatles' White Album with the words Look Around Round Round printed in white on white letters barely discernible. It is disappointing that the Marclay piece is not something more significant from his oeuvre, but at least he is represented here in a provocative context. Kim Sooja, one of my favorites in regards to the subject of contemporary subtlety, displays her talent here in A Needle Woman. A 25 minute video in which we watch a crowd of people flowing toward the camera walking around the artist with her back to the camera, hardly noticing her.

Nicolás García Uriburu, an Argentinean artist unfamiliar to me, presents a notable piece that includes a weathered wooden box with several bottles of an ominous green-orange hue. The liquid turns out to be samples from New York’s East River, touching upon the social-political sphere by protesting the environmental pollution. He highlights the water pollution by dying the river a blazing chartreuse color, making the invisible visible. Francis Alÿs, a Belgian artist whose work has appeared at the Venice Biennale, amongst other prominent international shows, presents a poignant and humorous video of himself collecting bucketfuls of water from the Black Sea and dumping it into the Red Sea. The title Watercolor (2010) is especially tongue-in-cheek.

Barely There is also successful in serving as a pedagogical exhibition in relation to a larger discussion of contemporary art and critical praxis. This objective is made clear by Luis Camnitzer’s piece that states: A Museum is a School: the Artist Learns to Communicate, the Public Learns to Make Connections (2011), plastered in red block letters on the front glass doors of MOCAD. Not only does it include crowd-pleasers like Felix Gonzales-Torres’ take-away candy piece Untitled (Portrait of Dad) (1991) that provide accessibility to Contemporary Art 101, but also includes such complicated artists as Marcel Broodthaers and Christian Marclay. While each artist merits their own exhibition on the subject Barely There, the group exhibition wants to be rich in cross-conversations and discussions of potential and context. Consider, for example, the mixed use of various definitions of sculpture: Ranjani Shettar’s Flow Into Me (2000), made of PVC pipes; Gonzales-Torres’ amorphous sculpture meant to be representative of a person; Paul Ramirez Jonas’ interactive sculpture Well (2008), which invites viewers to activate it by throwing a coin in a coffee cup; and Franz Erhard Walther’s performance photograph Versuch, eine Sculptur zu sein (1958). The translation is Try, to be a Sculpture, giving an example of the types of art written on the human body through performance in the late 1950s in Europe through the 1970s in the US.

Some of the less successful pieces include Rivane and Sergio Neuenschwander’s Love Lettering (2002), which features a video of two goldfish slowly swimming in chase of each other with words of sweet nothings strung to their tails. Christoph Keller’s Visiting a Contemporary Art Museum under Hypnosis (2006), in this exhibition context, is more interesting in title than in content. And the sculpture made of a pile of crumpled paper African flags by Pascale Marthine Tayou. While Marthine may be playing upon the political turmoil that mantles and dismantles international symbols such as flags, this piece may make more sense and perhaps is limited to an exhibition of international and post-colonial identity. 

The full list of the exhibition includes: Rivane & Sergio Neuenschwander, Christoph Keller, Jason Dodge, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Wilfredo Prieto, Pablo Helguera, Lee Lozano, Luis Camnitzer, Adolf Wölfli, James Lee Byars, Francis Alÿs, Marcel Broodthaers, Luis Camnitzer, Frank Capra, Hans Peter Feldmann, Paul Ramirez Jonas, Kim Sooja, Mark Lombardi, Christian Marclay, Max Ophüls, Yvonne Rainer, Ranjani Shettar, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Nicolás García Uriburu, and Francesca Woodman. The second half of the show is decidedly stronger and is a more satisfying cross-section of artists that have had avant-garde status with fascinatingly unfolding careers. The exhibition as a whole is Mr. Croquer's most ambitious programme at MOCAD, and lives up to his apotheosis.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Britton Tolliver, Detroit & Los Angeles

Cranbrook's graduate art school was Britton Tolliver's consolation prize to not being able to afford the Yale program tuition that he had been accepted to. Ever in the shadows and permeated by a resignation to being 'not number one,' the expanded circle of Metro Detroit area artists has unwittingly kept a gem of a school vested in conventional traditions of art such as ceramics, textiles, and painting nestled in the wooded campus of its genteel suburbs. Britton Tolliver's layered acrylic paintings of geometric abysses from his Detroit years are massive in weight and scale, and reveal a labored process of artisanry in the building of these pieces. Tolliver was part of a smaller ring of artists, outside of the monolithic Russell Industrial scene (who have bragging rights that they work in Detroit proper), that worked out of his studio in Pontiac. As part of the staff at the nascent Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), Tolliver was exposed to cutting-edge international art coming through Detroit at the time. His Cranbrook training also bred in him an avid interest in theory and critical writing. Tolliver is a model art citizen, and the sophistication of his abstract compositions and color sense reflect this.

"Militant Kite Uprising" (2008) is, from what I have viewed in person, from the best series Tolliver has put out thus far. Painted in the years after finishing his graduate work, and working for an extended period of time at MOCAD, Tolliver had the advantage of a sort of exploratory leisure in his work during this period. The impressive acrylic on panel piece is almost six feet tall, and in its human body-scale proportion, exudes a visual presence that encompasses the whole eye. Tolliver uses geometric slices and angular lines to suggest an unlimited number of planes, simultaneously evocative of a primordial and futuristic chaosmos. Axis X is tilted to the right toward the viewer, axis Y askew away. Axis Z also makes a deterministic slant, and additional vectors further articulate a depth in space away from the viewer. An upside-down triangle serves as the focal point, a form significant for its mathematical, spatial, and symbolic aspects. Upon closer inspection, layers of resin-laden acrylic reveal themselves in relief from the surface, adding an actual physical depth to the illusionistic depth of the composition. Tolliver's color sense is also deterministic, as if willed into a final form when it came to mind to create it. Flashy purples combine with nondescript murky colors to create the primordial soup from whence striking lines of thin red or chalky white race across the surface; yellows of traffic light hues and teals of unnatural smoothness array themselves in splayed planes. Tolliver's fine lines and precise pours of paint and resin reveal an artisanship that obviates any accidental composition. Painting, as any craft-maker knows, is an art in chemistry. The physical combinations of pigments and materials directly affect the outcome, and if it is to be mastered, must be learned either by method of trial-and-error or by apprenticeship. 

In choosing painting as his medium, Tolliver has decided to use the most traditional form of artistic expression. Laden with its own historical truss including its own Hegelian death in the 1980s (see Arthur Danto: "The End of Art," 1984), art died in the midst of a flurry of controversy. As pointed out in Danto's introduction to the latter, though, the purpose of this cerebral exercise was to re-enfranchise art by forcing a divorce from the field of philosophy. What does this mean though for painting? Has painting after the 1980s lost its philosophical soul? Is it merely an aesthetic relic of semiotics and formalism that has given way to conceptualism and multimedia art practices?

The Detroit 'artworld,' to use another term coined by Danto (who is also from Detroit), has preserved and fostered a quiet enclave of artisanry. In the hagiography of conceptualism, artisanry and craft has earned itself a wallflower status, and been largely bypassed in fashionable critical circles. Contrary to the daunting pronouncement that art is dead, Danto's essay is of course speaking about the teleological progression of modernism and narrative representation that has run its course, dematerializing into a self-reflexive philosophical question. With the dematerialization of art in the 1960s and 70s, art's purpose moved from material essentialism to an expanded field of conceptual essentialism, until it led to the eventual disappearance of the artwork itself. The power of the object had been stripped away to reveal only its philosophical inquiries about what art and the human spirit is.

Art, it seems, has experienced an apotheosis which has germinated the idea of the rhizome, introduced by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in the preface to their tome "A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia." Instead of growing in a progression of innovations and developments, the rhizomic nature of artistic activity and critical dialogue that resulted from the death of art has launched a surfeit of approaches to a large number of mediums. The practice of painting is liberated and enervated by the divorce of art from philosophy to re-explore the conventions of aesthetics and process once more, and we have in Tolliver a studious practitioner. This new condition of the artworld has allowed critical discourse to expand the idea of what aspects are essentialist in each medium. For example, in cinema, the essentialist elements moved from the physical properties of emulsified film and magnetic audio tracks to properties like light and time (see Jonathan Walley, “The Material of Film and Idea of Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film. October 103 (Winter 2003). In painting, we have moved from properties like two-dimensionality and semiotic structure to incorporate, once again, the Kantian idea of aesthetics and the expanded notion of the still picture.

The still picture, in turn, belongs to the realm of photography, that unexpected pictorial development that displaced the figurative representational purpose of painting. But while photography incorporates the added element of accidental documentary, painting is a painstakingly deliberate work of labor in every detail. There are no accidents in painting. There is exploration of space and body, of emotional evocation, and the awareness of art as an artificial medium to experience reality. The real is mediated through art, and painting still connects the viewer to the artist's hand while cinema is still once more removed from the artist's touch by projection of an image on a scrim. Whereas cinema uses audio cues to exact emotional reactions (or stunting of such emotions as the case may be), painting relies on the imposing silence intrinsic to viewing a painting to heighten its effect. In Tolliver's painting, the life-size proportion of "Militant Kite Uprising" cues the viewer to stand back, take in the painting that exudes a volume into space, both toward the viewer and into the canvas. The two-dimensionality of the canvas is turned into an illusionistic depth, negating one of the Greenbergian Modernist tenets of abstract painting. Tolliver has been freed by the end of art to reexplore compositions that haven't been touched upon except through three-dimensional sculpture and installation.

In Rosalind Krauss’s 1999 essay published in Critical Inquiry Vol 25 No. 2, obsolescence evokes “the utopian ideals that the form held in promise at its advent re-emerge, freed from the technological cell we’re in.” Since painting became obsolete at the end of Greenberg's Modernism, progression by innovation also died. Tolliver, while hardly innovating composition with his archetypal geometric forms, is exploring a contemporary perception of reality that perhaps would have developed had Jules Olitski, Kenneth Noland, and others of Greenberg's second generation of Abstract Expressionists continued into the new millennium. Perception, both on the part of the artist depicting his reality, and of the viewer's subjectivity has expanded to include visual experiences mediated by an explosion of technological visual media. In fact, in the spirit of Michael Fried's pivotal essay "Art and Objecthood," painting and sculpture become a category of sorts of their own ranking: that of objecthood. The Kantian thingness of the object becomes the expanded field of essentialism. Frank Stella's riotous sculptures of the 1980s is an example of the continuation of artisan-centered contemporary works that charge the thingness with importance. Tolliver's sculpture-sized painting, likewise, takes on an objecthood, with its own thingness.

Tolliver is also an ex-paratrooper for the US Army (I love this totally irrelevant fact about him). He lives and works in Los Angeles, where he has been painting pieces that reflect a renewed interest in two-dimensional surface through his geometric abstractions.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Ryan Doyle, Detroit

Detroit has been the focus of a new kind of attention of late. Time Magazine ended a one year special report from inside the city in November, and The New York Times calls Detroit "The New Frontier." Whispers of the emptied city refilling with hipster artists and activists identify Detroit as the new Williamsburg, referring to the section of Brooklyn that has most recently exploded with gentrification success led by the art community. Artists and filmmakers, lured by the wabisabi aesthetic of urban decay and the affordable resources here, are identifying the city that was once two million strong at its height and now just over 700,000 as a new destination. Though the influx of transplants into the city of Detroit proper, not the entire Metro area that has an emphatically different social milieu, is slow in coming, it is on the forefront of the news. 

Ryan Doyle arrived in the dead of this last Detroit winter and managed to convince a group of artists to come with him from all over the country to work on a project dubbed Gon Kirin (a Japanese double entendre meaning both "East Rising" and "Light Dragon", a collaborative effort with artist Teddy Lo.) Gon Kirin is at face value a larger-than-life-size, if you could imagine what life-size is, dragon. The fire-breathing dragon is flanked with scales out of forged metal parts that move like snake skin, thick heavy whiskers slashed out of bald tires, and a gleaming copper head that resembles a prehistoric skeleton on display at the Museum of Natural History. This achievement of artistic and mechanical dexterity will be first presented at the  Detroit chapter Maker Faire, then on to the New York Halloween Parade, and eventually to the monumental Burning Man Festival in Nevada. The project embodies the spirit of a collective and apprenticeship, as a revolving group of guest artists, if you will, arrive periodically sharing their fabrication skills and talents.

Doyle, as the conceptual architect of the artistic projects, is busy working on his own projects as well, notably a another fabricated metal contraption called "The Regurgitator." An iron rod no less than ten feet in length is angled at approximately 45 degrees, anchored by an upright tire. On the top end of the rod, Doyle has fabricated a recreation of a propane-fueled valveless pulse jet used for cruise launchers and target drones from World War II. When activated, the jet, welded onto the rod, propels itself in circles balancing on the tire. Around and around in a senseless circle, always coming back to itself in a self-reflexive manner, in the artist's own words, creating a solipsistic tautology mimicking and mocking the art world's insular system and perhaps the unceasing cycle of life itself.

As in any field, the academic discourse tends to have generational themes, as in Body Art of the 1960s and 70s when Video Art began its rise. Art historian Benjamin Buchloh presages the coming of Institutional Critique in 1990 (Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions. October, Vol. 55, (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143), citing Joseph Kosuth's institutional polls and investigations as an example of the aesthetic of administration that would eventually lead the discourse into an inquiry into the system behind the administrative institution. Andrea Fraser's 2001 "Untitled" performance of a videotaped sexual encounter with a collector who shelled out $20,000 for the 60-minute piece debuted at the Friedrich Petzel Gallery in Chelsea, New York City. The target in this case being the traditional role of artist to the arts patron, Fraser sells her naked self in its most blunt fashion to illustrate her point.

Doyle, though, follows more in the fashion of Robert Morris. In 1961, Morris presented "The Sound of a Box of Its Own Construction," a plain walnut wood box with a tape recorder inside running a 3 1/2 hour loop of a hammer whack-whack-whacking, recorded as Morris constructed the box itself. In his generation, Morris was immersed in the performance art of his time, just as Doyle is involved with the technological fascinations of his generation. Doyle is part of a movement that is reviving the apprenticed art of artisanry. And he has picked an appropriate location to do so. 

Steeped in the Arts & Crafts movement of the early half of the twentieth century, Detroit has since been a hidden enclave of protecting these artisan crafts right through the millennial change. Detroit, decimated by the 1967 civil disturbances and ever-shrinking since the decline of the automobile industry in the 1970s, had been bypassed by the fast-moving art world that relentlessly pursues the conceptual avant-garde. With Doyle, there is a sense of having digested the history of conceptual art, and is applying his artisanry to it.
He is fully aware of the carnival status that his project Gon Kirin attracts, and is not shy about his team's talent in the production of the overtly symbolic dragon. Behind this ostentatious creation, though, lies a quiet mind of contemplation that is chewing through the issues of the art world that serves as a metaphor for the systematic being of living.

The simplicity of "The Regurgitator" is appealing and well-crafted. Doyle's skill as a sculptor shows in the mechanics of a balanced rod, evoking Mark di Suvero's masterful balance acts of wooden beams and iron structures. The title is especially pithy, revealing the conceptual critique of the message in the piece: only by regurgitating the same ideas over again can the institution reaffirm and thus uphold itself, a frequent critique of the academic institution of the art world. Doyle's piece shows an understated elegance in its directness and skill.