Friday, October 24, 2008


The Dutch have been thinking about the Midwest. The US Midwest. In collaboration with the Smart Museum of the University of Chicago, the Van Abbemuseum (in Eindhoven, Netherlands) has created an introduction to the art of "an unknown part of a well-known country." Heartland features works by artists and institutions of the region either side of the Mississippi River.

I love the idea of tapping into what's happening in the middle—for there surely must be art happening in places between the coasts—but isn't it interesting that from the get-go we're seeing from the outside in? I mean, only an outsider would consider the length of the Mississippi a region to itself. An American looking at the map instinctively knows Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, that's the South. Culture doesn't really follow the river, but the flow of history.

The midwest map of the US Census Bureau shows the demarcation lines fall more horizontally: the heartland is wide. The South is the nether land, and it ain't Dutch.

Am I quibbiling? Just a little. It seems good though to remember the framework a story is told through. Let's not forget the impact the Dutch had in helping define the mercantile character of this country.

But hey, speaking of the story, one of the projects presented fits right in on the trip down the mighty Mississippi. Miss Rockaway Armada is an ongoing collaborative art project involving handmade rafts and boats carrying artists and performers from Minneapolis to New Orleans.

Floating down the Mississippi River on a boat we built from trash.

It's sort of Black Rock City on water, bringing utopian wackiness to the staid residents of the midwest. Sort of like feeding the masses... The missionary aspect of the project disturbs me a little, but the boats are so wonderful. And everybody seems to be having a right good time.

On the other end of the spectrum, Heartlands introduced me to the work of Scott Hocking— incredible photos of the decay of Detroit and beautiful installations, a ziggurat of bricks in an abandoned factory, a midden of rusty trash. This is melancholic work, dealing with cultural and material detritus, echoing the scale and weight of Anselm Keifer.

Also new to me is Dutch-American video artist Julika Rudelius. Her staged short films have people from various socio-economic strata talking, musing on values and mores. This still is from Forever, 16 minutes, a 2 track film of upscale women talking about happiness. Priceless. In other films, ordinary people talk about wealth (and poverty), race, relationship—all the essential things.

Deb Sokolow, an artist from Chicago, likewise does wry portrayals of people and their wiley ways. She portrays them in drawings with narrative text, drawings that are sometimes installations lining the walls (or drawn on the walls) of a space. The reader follows the story around the room, labyrinth-like, sometimes following a dotted line down one way or another. In Eindhoven, her installation, Dear Trusted Associate, is nearly 50 feet long. She says, "Generally speaking, the piece involves a story about the CIA, petroleum, an email spammer from Nigeria, and the Chicago 'organization'."

Jaimie Warren, from Kansas City, is a young photographer of the docu-everything-especially-the-mundane-and-personal variety. I'm not complaining. There's just so many parties you can go to, that's all. But still, there is a necessary and valuable place for her kind of documentation of the everyday, especially the everyday of a place I may not ever go to but where people live and breed and vote.

So I go all the (virtual) way to the Netherlands to get a glimpse of the mid-lands. And this is one of the things I see there.

Miss Rockaway Armada pics courtesy of their blog. Many more pictures on their Flicker album.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

At the de Young

Dropping in at the de Young to see prints by Martin Puryear...

I came across an early assemblage by Mark di Suvero. So here's another of his works to add to the list.

Oh my. The room seemed barely wide enough for this piece, I couldn't back up far enough to get the whole thing in the picture. It's a baby sculpture compared to his later works, but still big—a conglomerate of tree trunk, phone pole, 2x4, and tire. The space certainly couldn't contain the energetics of this unwieldy, yet strangely balanced almost anthropomorphic work. It needs far more space around it and nothing—no Sam Francis nor Diebenkorn—on the walls. And yet, despite the cramped quarters, or maybe even because of them, the parts seemed especially heavy and the the magic of the work even more mysterious. How does it hold up? I mean the tree trunk is massive.

One of the parts I loved best was the 2x4 joined to the telephone pole with steel plate and rivets.

About those rivets...

What is so stark about the piece is that there is all of the work that happened with riveting—that was a special way of joining steel before welding was invented. People built beautiful things then that mostly ended up in the scrap pile. Riveting was a way of handling the hot iron, the rivets themselves, and I find the pieces beautiful because of that. Those forms are part of an industrial landscape that had been dismissed.

He's talking about another work, Yes! For Lady Day, which is all steel, but the rivets are the same.

Di Suvero elsewhere talks about wood joints.

...I started using the wood that they tore out of these hundred-year-old buildings and they made giant fires out of them down on Water Street. I could see the skyscrapers dancing through the fire. I used the wood because I knew how to join it together. All of those structures in the first show I did in less than six months, and then my back got broken because I was doing a job that paid the rent. The real part of the work is the joinery, which is invisible, and a lot of that hasn’t survived because they’ve been taken apart and put together too often, and they weren’t made for that. Since then I’ve developed a more complicated kind of joinery, which allows for many parts coming together and yet looks very simple. But part of the beauty of learning and loving the technique is that you make something very difficult look easy, like Bach. (Laughs)

Well, this work does not look simple to me. How the parts balance is very strange—like a hidden power is streaming in the steel—an animal power, brute strength. I think of the Hulk. I'm waiting for the parts to be flung through the air.

What I love about di Suvero is his engagement with the materials and tools—the craftsmanship of working with iron, steel, wood. And he is hands-on, especially with his early works like this one at the de Young. You can imagine him constructing the base and then hoisting the wood, cranking it up by hand even.

You know, if you stop being explorative, you may as well stop making art altogether. I had to change from working in wood, where you need your body to work through, to steel where there is equipment. By moving into that, the constructive part of my work became much more dominate. I ended up learning how to run a crane, and buying one with a grant that the National Humanities for the Arts gave me. Manuel [Neri] bought a church, I bought a dead crane, and learned how to fix cranes. But then you change, you change once you have a different set of tools, and the tools really determine how far you can go.

How far, how big, how grand. Yes.

Another unexpected sighting at the de Young was a sculpture by Bruce Conner which I wrote about in my remembrance of him in July. Encased in a pristine vitrine is Snore, his homage to the dump truck made of wood boards and cloth remnants wrapped in nylons and hung with testicular bags of cotton stuffing. It was great to see it in the flesh, as it were. It is fleshy. Fleshy and soft, and how like all things fleshy and soft (except for art encased in museum glass cases) eventually ending up on the dump heap. Not melancholic, nor morbid, I think Connor was truly honoring the ending-up of things. So there it is, the end-up, an icon in the church of art. How right. Just so.

And then, after all, there were the etchings by Martin Puryear.

I look at Puryear's sculptural forms—dark shapes or these see-through vessels—and I think of Richard Serra's massive slab prints. I'm not sure why, but sculptural ideas seem to translate more readily into prints than painting or drawing. Perhaps it is the machine intermediary. These prints are sculptures on paper.

These two, Untitled, State I, State II are 35 x 28 inches large. Not only do they resemble alchemical vessels, but the act of producing them is alchemical. Besides the chemicals and tar, there are the calculated steps to the procedure leading to stages of transformation, states of being. Spare and mysterious, they are forms which point to something else unnamed, hermetic yet resonant. Really beautiful.

First quote from interview with Jan Garden Castro inSculpture Magazine.
Other quotes from interview with John Yau of the Brooklyn Rail.
Puryear pics courtesy of Barbara Krakow Gallery.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Postscript Opie

In April I wrote a piece that included some ruminations about Catherine Opie's new portraits of football players showing at Regen Projects, LA. I wasn't completely enthralled by them, felt something missing.

Recently I read this bit of explanation in a NY Times review by Hilarie M. Sheets of Opie's mid-career survey taking place now at the Guggenheim Museum.

Another current project is photographing high-school football players around the country. Rather than snapping the perfect catch or play, she chooses moments in between the action on the field, capturing the American cultural landscape from a different angle. “I’m very empathic to the construction of masculinity within our culture and how we build these identities up,” Ms. Opie said. She pointed out that [her son] Oliver’s father, Mr. Hill, had been the 6-foot-4-inch teenage gay boy with the football coach father. The political and personal are inextricably linked for Ms. Opie.

“At first I had the little boy who wanted to wear the pink tutu and dress up,” she said. “Because he’s not in a traditional household with a football coach dad, he was never ashamed. Now I have a 6-year-old who only wants to play Pokémon and kill aliens on the Xbox.”

She hasn’t decided which she likes better. “He’s now very aware of the social structure of masculinity,” she said. “He’s trying it on and seeing what it feels like.”

I still feel the football series is weak, distant, but I applaud the effort to capture the build-up, like clay on an armature, of the "social structure of masculinity." It is an elusive thing, to catch its effect on consciousness—an imprint on flesh, as it were, the buckling on of body armor: knee pads, face guards, or lipstick on little girls. Perhaps because personal social construct is hard to define, let alone pin down, it demands intimacy. And, I suppose, persistence. It won't be long, Oliver will be in High School.

Photo of Oliver in tutu courtesy of Regen Projects.