Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Cast Off

When I went to see Bruce Conner's film, Easter Morning at the San Francisco Film Festival in early May, I didn't know he was ill. It was his producer who let on after the screening. This news gave further resonance to the film which is a reconstruction of an earlier effort—a resuscitation, like the title says, Easter Morning: new day, new life, resurrection. Shot in 1966, rediscovered, re-imagined, revived in 2008, it is a beautiful collage with light flickerings and shadows. Conner died July 7th.

This isn't the first time he's died. In 1959, only two years since arriving in San Francisco, he held a show by "the late Bruce Conner." The "stuffed lumps of cloth, the nylon and wax" (how he described his sculptures) were inert and dead to him. He needed to move on.

He also hated to be pinned down. So when he received yet another request for biographical information from Who's Who in America he wrote back that Bruce Conner had died, and sure enough, for the 1973 edition of the book, the editors added deceased to his entry.

Easter Morning was his 27th film. He was known best for his films, but he never claimed to be a filmmaker. But there is something about his films, because they opened doors for him, gave him a name.

I got a Ford Foundation grant for filmmaking. I got an application blank which I tore up and threw away because I decided it was a waste of time. That was '63. I talked to somebody else later who said, "Why don't you do it. I work at the Ford Foundation. Why don't you fill the thing out because it's sort of like a game." I decided I would play it as a game. I would play it like a dialogue between me and an invisible audience. I'm exposing myself telling them all of my history. My vaccinations. Explaining my whole theory of art and life and what I intend to do in the future. How I'm to use whatever alms they will give me. I started drawing parallels of this kind of activity with religious rituals. Confessionals, and ringing of bells, and doing penance in the streets. Fantasies of movies that I would make. It offered me a chance to fantasize. It was my opportunity to write in an entirely different context. I've never been able to write in the context of publication. I knew all the crap that you have to go through. You write it. You type it out. You make a bunch of copies. You send them out to all the magazines. Over the next two years you'll get the copies back. It's most disastrous. I've never been able to do that. This was a way for me to have an audience. I would write letters. Well they loved it. Somebody loved it. They gave me a film grant and all I had made was sixteen minutes of movies. And I didn't expect to get it because there were a lot of other filmmakers who were more qualified and should have gotten it. Like Stan Brakhage was the man who had most to do with me getting into filmmaking, and he didn't get one. He really should have.

With the Ford Foundation grant all of a sudden instead of being an artist that had made a couple of short films, I became a filmmaker who dabbled in the arts.

Nonetheless, he was an artist and what he was doing with film was what he did with anything: he rescued, recycled, reused, remade whatever he found. He collaged with images, collaged with film, collaged with stuff, detris, cast offs.

In San Francisco the trash was picked up by an organization called the Scavengers Protective Association. They went around the city with big trucks, gathering the trash by emptying the trash cans onto big flat burlap sheets. They would gather it up on their backs and dump it into the truck. Or, when the truck was full, they would hang them on the sides like big lumpy testicles. So they were using all the remnants, refuse, and outcasts of our society. The people themselves who were doing this were considered the lowest people employed in society... I decided, we'll have the RAT-BASTARD PROTECTIVE ASSOCIATION: people who were making things with the detritus of society, who themselves were ostracized or alienated from full involvement with society.

Christ Casting Out the Legions of Devils, 1989.

This was in the 50s, early 60s when men still wore ties and women wore gloves. Conner was what you'd call unconventional.

Artists were using oil paint which I felt was a pretty limited medium for spontaneity; for using what was around for you. We figured you could use anything you wanted to. The main thing was to make it, to make the image. To make the thing that you were trying to do, and whether it fell apart or not was of secondary importance. In fact, for me it became of primary importance. It became a dialog of how you relate to objects. You have a choice of how you want to relate. If you want to, you can take assemblage or collage and seal it in a solid block of plastic. Or you don't. Time is working on it. Manuel Neri would make his sculptures of plaster on cardboard, corrugated cardboard. The first time they were shown at the San Francisco Museum a couple or three years later, they had to sweep up the floor underneath every day because the plaster would keep popping off.

Metronome (1961, reworked 1995) wrapped in nylons.

Nylons figure a lot in his assemblages. And the atomic bomb in his films...

A Movie, 1958, found footage.

... until he became known for these elements in his works. When he was identified with nylon stockings, assemblage, short films with historic footage... he'd quit. He stopped making assemblages in 1964, and film—he came back to film when he could come at it another way.

"How you relate to objects," is the nugget behind his work. I understand this. It is how I operate—responding, engaging, being in conversation with the things I come across. Like this—this trio of frames from Mea Culpa, one of the films he did in the 80s with David Byrne and Brian Eno. Here, these spot shots are recast in a different role.

Mea Culpa from My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, 1981. There's also America is Waiting online.

You know there's more. This is just a taste. Luckily there are some films online and books now, retrospectives having been done. But this is the end frame. All good things must come to an end. Or do they? That's just a line. Conner knew that. All things can be reborn.

Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Interview with Bruce Conner by Paul Cummings in NYC 4/16/7.

Sculptures and collage at Paule Anglim Gallery, SF.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Lotus Series: The Final Series

I feel as though the world is a friendly boy walking along in the sun. —Robert Rauschenberg

Less than two months before he died, Robert Rauschenberg's last series of prints were completed. They are the Lotus Series, a remembrance of and response to China, on view this summer at Greenfield Sacks Gallery, Santa Monica.

These very beautiful, light and bright prints are composed of photos Rauschenberg took on two extended stays in China in the 80s, first when he worked in the ancient Xuan Paper Mill, then later when he returned to Beijing to mount a ROCI exhibition.

ROCI is the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, a worldwide project Rauschenberg launched in 1984 in an effort to promote global peace and harmony. He believed that art can circumvent disparate political differences and function as a conduit of cultural understanding, nation to nation, artist to artist, person to person. Over the course of six years, ROCI mounted exhibitions of his and others' works, some of them collaborations, in eleven countries (many with political agendas at odds with those of the US) including Mexico, Chile, Venezuela, China, Japan, Cuba, the former USSR, former East Germany, Malaysia. During these continuing evolving exhibitions, Rauschenberg would submerge himself in the host country's culture.

Twenty years later, ill and nearing the end of his life, Rauschenberg reworked his photos of China into 12 inkjet photogravure prints. They are spare, simple affairs, mostly just four images juxtaposed with a recurring imprinted lotus blossom. In his usual work, his combines and prints, there is lots of overlapping simultaneous imagery—here there is less and white space—also the floating lotus. Hovering over and under images of street life: doors, billboards, banners, and bicycles; and cultural artifacts of another time: sculptures, the zodiac, temple tops—hovering around the 10,000 things of ordinary and perpetual life, is the lotus, throne of the Buddha, pure mind, bodhi.

It seems significant to me that in his last days, taking stock of a host of images of a country he was getting to know, looking over sights and signifiers of culture, of life, he'd work up this conversation between teeming activity and philosophical contemplation. At last it comes down to this: there is life, and out of life grows understanding; without life, no enlightenment. These are sweet and wise works of an extraordinary and generous man who loved life and was friendly to all its forms. Om Mani Padme Hum, a prayer for Robert Rauschenberg, RIP.

In a related way, I was reading an interview with Ai WeiWei in this month's Art in America in which he describes the underground nature of contemporary art in China in the 80s and 90s. China was only then being introduced, in a controlled way, to Western ideas, philosophies, and artistic concepts. This was the time when Rauschenberg held the ROCI exhibition in Beijing, 1985. What was inspired and exchanged in 85 was swiftly suppressed in 1989—the year the exhibit, China/Avant-Garde, in the National Gallery was shut down and when students were crushed in Tiananmen Square. It is easy to forget, at a distance, just what conditions were (and are currently) like under Communist control. It is difficult to comprehend the deep societal and cultural attenuation that results after an sustained era of oppression. Change, WeiWei says, comes slowly.

It's a very complicated issue because China is a nation that needs change. The change is inevitable, given that the old part is really rotten and cannot meet contemporary standards of usage or practice. The question is how to change things and to what degree and, after the change, who reaps the benefits? What is going to be damaged in the process?

This from the artist who drops a Han Dynasty vase. He knows something about holding on and letting go relics.

Like Rauschenberg, WeiWei believes in first-hand contact and exchange. As his contribution to Documenta 2007, he brought 1,001 Chinese people to the exhibition in Kassel.

My intention was to use art to directly affect people and groups who are not generally associated with art. I'm fascinated with individual consciousness, awareness, a new sense among the participants that possibilities exist in the spaces between different cultures. We essentially created a big space of freedom there. The work itself had no other formal determinants or goals. The whole purpose was to encourage people to use their imagination to act on their own. The "visitors" ranged in age from 2 and a half to 70 years old. Many of these people would never ordinarily have a chance to go outside China or even leave their province. There were many farmers, people from almost every profession, and from 20 or more different provinces. Their experience of Kassel and of this contemporary art event affected their lives deeply. They often write to me saying it has marked their whole life. Now they will look at the world and understand the world very differently; the visit continues to shape them.

So there you have it: Overseas Cultural Interchange = Art Saves. It's true.

A nicely informative page about Ai WeiWei can be found at Artsy.

Pic of Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn courtesy of Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Cakes n Cookies

The things that can get in the way. Jury duty, for instance.
And cats. Cat sleep-overs, I've learned, aren't about sleeping. This cat will talk all night long. That gets in the way. Of sleep for sure.

Well I have things to say too. About art seen in LA.

There was, to begin with, Make It Rain, a full-wall projection of a 5 minute, 32 second video by Julius Friedman at Patrick Painter.

Footage of art-house auctioneer Simone du Pury in action taking bids and wielding the gavel is edited and matched to an audio mix that is alternately soaring symphony and chunky beat. The end result is an homage to the shamanic conjuring of monetary energy that is the big ticket art auction experience.

Dipping and bowing, du Pury makes it happen, makes it rain—and the automated tally board displays the quickly transforming numbers, dollars, yen, pounds, and euro—five figures, six figures, and the crowd cheers! Rainmaker, indeed. It's a "small" work (even if it is projected hugely)—a wry testament to the heady, magical, out-of-the-ordinary nature of the art world.
Also wry and upending is Friedman's resume.

What more is there to say? Is anything else necessary?

Give that man a cookie.

A couple of doors down, at Richard Heller, there was meat. Doesn't get any more elemental than this. Victoria Reynolds paints portraits of flesh.

I remember seeing one of her works, much like the one above, close-in view framed in ornate frame, some time ago here in San Francisco. I was awe struck by the deft rendering and the Victorian woodwork which mimicked the marbling of flesh and fat.

In this exhibit, she shows a series inspired by carvings of slaughtered reindeer she witnessed in a traditional harvest in Norway. The flesh is painted hung against a black background and framed in black. The black offsets the carnation and gives the work gravitas in the same way that the light/dark contrast worked for the Dutch Masters. This is Reindeer Vision, 44 x 32 inches.

The paintings are stark, no frills (save the frames), somber and respectful of the flesh (even if the titles are witty). This one, called Uteral Bonnet (26 inches square) is especially interesting as the piece of flesh, the form itself is something amazing.

It seems to me, though, it could get redundant, portraits of meat, an exercise again and again of the same thing, slight variations. She could venture sometimes off the mark, it seems to me, outside the tight parameters she's set herself. Otherwise it is: Victoria Reynolds, the meat painter.

I was thinking this and then I came across Cindy Wright. She paints, on occasion, meat too, to a different effect.

Bacon Cube 3, with bright light at 78 x 76 inches is certainly cinematic.

Meat 3, 67 x 47 inches, is right in there, so close you can smell it, and it is also about the paint. Wow!

My favorite, not flesh, but fish—Fishbone—is fantastic, dramatic, clean sweep. I used to paint carcasses so I am partial I suppose, but still this is a truly arresting painting getting to the guts of the matter with verve.

I discovered Cindy Wright at Mark Moore Gallery where another, very different, terrific painter, Alli Smith, was showing five new big canvases. Talk about the paint! They knocked me out!

Look at all that's going on here. I chose this example, Siren Crown, because it shows in the pic the different uses of paint—flat panel, painterly, globular—collisions and compressions—it's so dynamic! And her colors, the precision, punch. This is such confident exuberant work.

This is Never Enough, 64 x 68 inches, and absolutely, I could never get enough. Alli Smith takes the cake!

Across town, at Christopher Grimes, there was another painter showing. Joshua Podoll also paints large canvases of varying application. I know it isn't fair to compare ... but I have already done that in this post, so what the hay...

Air-brush meets brush work and strange perspectives and juxtapositions happen, but overall the effect is flat and I was left feeling dull. Having just experienced Alli Smith's paintings, I was quite aware of the contrast.



Enough said.