Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Artists in conversation. Video to video. Picture to picture.

At Queen's Nails Projects, SF—an off-site extension of the California Biennial 2008 this year curated by LAXART—Kelly Barrie's video Astral Fields faced Mary Kelly's Antepartum.

Antepartum is a Super 8 film, 1:30 minutes long, made in 1973 of Kelly Barrie in utro-in the belly-moving hidden in the full-term pregnant belly of his mother, Mary Kelly.

Astral Fields is a digital video, 1:30 minutes long, made by subject-turned-artist, Kelly Barrie in 2008. Animating a series of photographs of himself in a spray of flour and light, he mimics the gesture of the earlier piece. In both films, Barrie is the subject—floating in uterine space, or in a semblance of astral space. A turn within a turn, worlds within worlds. Mother and child, child to mother. A slight gesture, almost a wave, between artwork and artwork.

Still images into. . .

moving, twirling film.

Mary Kelly's work ponders the question of identity. I suggest above that Barrie is the subject of the film. But the film is also a self-portrait of the artist. Barrie's responding-corresponding film seems to suggest his work/identity lies within his mother's sphere. Here is generational history, artistic legacy, looping forever belly to belly, face to face. Just how it is: the nature of the cosmos is interrelated, self-reflective, integral.

Vegas Video

Another video conversation is happening over at SFMOMA. Double Down:Two Visions of Las Vegas pairs video projects by Olivo Barbieri and Stephen Dean. I'm not really sure why Las Vegas, other than the coincidence that these two recently made works exist. Las Vegas is so strange it is always a good subject and of course artists will approach the same subject differently.

Barbieri was "tired of the idea of photography allowing you to see everything" so took to taking arial photographs with a tilt-focus lens. The tilt allows him to choose what is in focus in a sort of plane of clarity, the rest rendered blurred. The result is a strange distortion of wide swaths of land, cities rendered into tiny toy landscapes. It is very odd. The world becomes a model world. The photographer on high, the world below strangely miniature, plastic, silly. It is certainly god's point of view—the view from eternity—humanity's hubris diminished.

The effect is clearly seen here in a photo of the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA.

In a series called Site Specific he's been to Rome, Amman, LA, and Shanghai to make photographs and films using the tilt focus lens.

Site Specific_LAS VEGAS 05 is single channel video with audio, 13 minutes long. Sweeping across the desert and up and around the parking lots and fantasy buildings of Las Vegas is like a tour of a train set—tiny buildings, even tinier people and cars. The weird focus makes the ride a bit nauseating and it is with some relief it ends and the screen goes blank.

One film ends and the other begins. You swirl around on the bench [yay! a bench! What is it with video installations with no seating?] and the opposite wall fills with colored squares.

Stephen Dean closes in on his subject and picks up on patterns. In Las Vegas he focused on neon, those huge banks of lights and panels blinking, changing colors. Soon silhouettes appear: men on cranes come to fix the lights. The film is nearly an abstraction of shapes and colors accompanied by the cacophony of electronic slot machines, bells, talking, clanging—the ubiquitous, omnipresent noise of the casino. Barbieri takes you up and above; Dean takes you close in. Why is it called No More Bets? That's the call before the wheel spins or the dice is thrown. The high stakes moment. Win or lose. Hold your breath, this is what gambling is all about, that moment, the chance moment. And these are the lights and sounds that frame that moment like all the drums and horns, flames and firecrackers that accompany divinations and trance.

Unlike Barrie and Kelly, Barbieri and Dean's films complement each other, but don't really converse. Their pairing was a curatorial coupling augmented by screenings of Viva Las Vegas and Showgirls.

And Yet Another Conversation

Conversation 1. Mr. Davis said, "I'm feeling really weird," recalled his wife, Pebbles. The two lay down for a nap and when she woke up, her husband was dead.

To tie all themes together: Conversations happens to be the title of a series I've done in collaboration with Alanna Simone. . . my daughter. We mingled and paired photographs creating diptychs, double visions sometimes, or complementary. Then, using a chance technique, we titled them with fragments of news. The whole process a mingling of memories, responses, and by creating one work, a merging of identity—which you kind of can't get around when you're family. Next stop, curiously enough, is Las Vegas.

Conversation 3. Grandpa always wanted to visit the Soviet Union.

Barbieri's Long Beach photo courtesy of Metropolis Magazine.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Conscious Yet Slight

I passed a chunk of concrete on the sidewalk. It was a chunk of concrete. I remembered how in the gallery, inside the two plastic pots was a chunk of concrete. This was an artwork.
Don't you love art?!
It is a beautiful thing.

I saw this artwork by Bill Jenkins at Jancar Jones Gallery (SF), a special set-aside place for having special art moments. You don't need a password to enter the gallery, but you do have to wait at the gate of the building to be let in. The reward is at the end of the meandering hall and up the stairs in a small—no, tiny is the word—space the size of my bathroom. Yes, tiny is the word. But once there, in this demure space, there is work that gives you pause, the way only minimal art can.

A plastic refrigerator jug one third filled with—what are they? pebbles? (paper maché)
A slab, a slab, two plastic pots, and a chunk of concrete.
And hung on the wall, a coated-wire frame with painted styrofoam bricks.

The plastic jug sat on the floor. I bent over to peer in it.

The slab stack was on the floor too, but somehow it seemed less humble, more reverential. I am reminded of Wolfgang Laib, only not the exquisite intensity of pollen or the purity of milk. Here the dusty cast-off stacked just so created the resonant effect.

Making something out of nothing much.

And the gallery, making space. From the website: "The gallery was opened in February 2008, by Eric Renehan Jones and Ava Jancar. The aim was to create a space in which the gestures of the conscious yet slight could be appreciated." Gestures of the conscious yet slight—lovely phrase, that.

I love minimal art. It gets me every time. Especially minimal art made of humble materials. Like a good koan, it takes you out of yourself and the hoo-ha of purposefulness and busyness and pops you right back directly into wonder, where all good things are.

Today, online, searching for Catherine Yass (and her video of the Wall), I came across these:



Ceramic pieces by Hannah Wilkes. Ceramics is a medium that takes the gestural and freezes it—well, fires it, like taking a photograph of a wave. These are so wonderful, I just had to throw them into the mix.

Over at Haines Gallery I had another zen/art moment. Bill Fontana who works in the visually minimal, invisible medium of sound showed a new work, Silent Echoes, which includes video—albeit a moving picture without movement. Here's the thing: Fontana works with sound, like the Sound Landscape he made with speakers buried in a park in Vienna or Sound Sculptures Through the Golden Gate, a live duet of sounds from the Farallon Islands and the Golden Gate Bridge that was transmitted to the façade of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He finds sound, takes it and relocates it.

At Haines, he brought in the sounds he found resonating within massive bells hanging at various Buddhist temples in Japan.

This is the bell of Chionin, Kyoto.

And Ohara, Kyoto.

The bells reverberate with sound even when not struck. With accelerometers attached to the metal and acoustic microphones suspended in the interior he was able to capture reverberations of the seemingly silent bells. He also filmed them, recording the seemingly still, motionless bells. They appear to be not moving, not responding, and yet they are, and the sonorous waves of reverberation fill and hum around the room. It is the sound of bells breathing. A conscious yet slight meditative work. Graciously the gallery provided a bench to better sit with the experience of it.

Hannah Wilkes photos courtesy of Alison Jacques Gallery, London.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Please Read This

The Fan: Damien Hirst on Francis Bacon

I think Bacon is one of the greatest painters of all time. He's up there with Goya, Soutine and Van Gogh: dirty painters who wrestle with the dark stuff. He's complicated. It's not essentially about formal skill or technique or dexterity. It's about belief. I believe! And the struggle, the sense that you somehow grunt your way though it by sheer will. That's what's inspiring to me, alongside the sheer bravery of confronting the dark side, the shadows, the full force of the human psyche.

If you compare him to Lucien Freud, say, it's obvious that Freud is the more technically accomplished painter. He can read what he sees, and render it. Bacon couldn't do that. If you look at the feet in his paintings, they're bloody awful. He can't do boots. [Laughs] But it's so bloody powerful. His work always veers into the imagination. There's always this raw, dark power, this visceral energy that is compelling. The paint is alive.

Great art comes from nowhere. In a way, I think Bacon said "fuck off" to what went before. He didn't go the traditional route that the great painters went. He didn't have the patience to be like Velasquez or Ingres or whoever. He used to look to these guys, but he just didn't have the patience to be like them and do what they did. He painted from photographs, he stuck bits of corduroy in there, bits of glass, whatever it took to get there.

He talked about the brutality of fact. It's incredibly brave to take that on, to face up to the horror and stare it down. Over and over. I mean, I've made maybe four good pieces and the rest are, you know, sort of happy. He wasn't like that. He was his own worst and best critic. He pushed himself to the edge every time. They give you the shivers, his best paintings. He looks into the room that no one wants to look in. He looks in the mirror and he sees meat. He shuns tenderness. He wants to sleep on a hard bed. I think he saw the brutality early on and he decided to take it on.

I saw him a few times in the Colony but I avoided him, because he was my hero. And I saw him be cruel and abusive to people around him. He was a bad drunk. He was wrestling with the darkness all the time. The idea of putting yourself into your art is a weird one. It makes for a hard life. The fears, the dread, the hopes even; you have to stand naked. I once made this work called Standing Alone on the Precipice and Overlooking the Arctic Wastelands of Pure Terror. It's from a book I read. I actually think Bacon lived like that. There's a nasty, angsty, brutish edge to his work that is somehow about the nasty comedown side of things, the horrific hangover, the psychic fallout of the heavy drinking, the shadowy things you glimpse at the edge of your vision, the existential terror. It's like you can surround yourself with things that give you comfort or you can live an animalistic life. He chose the latter, leaving his animal tracks in the snow.

I went around to his studio one night when I was on the charlie [cocaine]. John Edwards took me around. John was really upset about his death and we were all off our heads, but you could feel this huge presence. And this huge absence. It was palpable.

I was obsessed with him as a young painter. I was into punk and I was into Bacon. He was out there on his own. You had the Surrealists, the Impressionists, the Pointillists and all the other ists, and you had Bacon. I gave up painting at 15 because of him. I was just doing bad Bacons. I saw his work and I stopped wanting to be a painter. I stepped aside into sculpture. I've gone back lately, though. For the last two years I've been in the shed slapping paint on canvas. Big and small paintings. Skulls, crows, tryptichs. Dark blue. Baconesque. He's a supreme colourist. Beautiful colours. He seduces you with colour.

I have five Bacons now. They'll end up in the Manor [Hirst's country estate in Toddington]. I have one on the wall by the TV. I watch it more than I watch the TV. You can't not look at it. It demands your attention, pulls you in. It's just unbelievable to me that I own them.

He popped into the Saatchi once to look at my work. They called me and said, 'Bacon's been in, he was here for about an hour.' I didn't really believe them but then here's this letter he wrote to Louis Le Brocquy, the Irish painter, where he says, 'I saw this Hirst fly piece and it really worked.' I still can't quite believe it.

From an interview by Sean O'Hagan
The Guardian Observer, Sunday August 10 2008

Francis Bacon Retrospective at Tate Britain until January 4, 2009. (It goes to Madrid's Prado from February 3 to April 19, 2009 and then to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 18-August 16, 2009. The question is, Where will I see it?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Waste Not, Want Not

This, that, and the other led to the an online encounter with my new fav-o-rite photographer, Chris Jordan.

My discovery coincided with the announcement of the winner of the Prix Pictet, a new global prize celebrating the work of both professional and amateur photographers. Awarded last week in Paris, the Prix Pictet is the first competition of its type to focus on the global issue of sustainability—this year in particular, on water. The winner of 100,000 Swiss francs ($86,000) is the Canadian photographer Benoit Aquim whose photos of the desertification of China are truly disturbing.

Strange other-worldly landscape reflecting the dryness of spirit at the core of China...

But this entry is about Chris Jordan, an American photographer whose series of photos of post-Katrina waste were also entered into the competition. He was on the short list along with 16 others, but there was only one prize. He calls his series, Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster and his artist's statement reads like an indictment.

There is evidence to suggest that Katrina was not an entirely natural event like an earthquake or tsunami. The 2005 hurricane season’s extraordinary severity can be linked to global warming, which America contributes to in disproportionate measure through our extravagant consumer and industrial practices.

Never before have the cumulative effects of our consumerism become so powerfully focused into a visible form, like the sun’s rays narrowed through a magnifying glass. Almost 300,000 Americans lost everything they owned in the Katrina disaster. The question in my mind is whether we are all responsible in some degree. The hurricane’s damage has been further amplified by other human causes, including failures of preparedness and response on many levels; existing poverty conditions; levee problems that were mired in political maneuverings; poor environmental and wetlands practices that left some areas more vulnerable; and the conspicuous absence of federal resources that were already being used in the Bush Administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Isn't this an incredibly sad, poignant photo? Like someone strung up.


Waste has been his main theme and he finds it everywhere.

Mixed Recycling, Seattle.

In 2003 he started taking pictures around shipyards and waste stations drawn in by the scale and strange beauty of the collected detritus of our voracious consumer society. "The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful." What he says is true. The piles of sorted waste—cell phones, bottles, canisters, cars—make puzzling viewing.

Circuit Boards, Atlanta.

The series, 2003-2005, is called Intolerable Beauty.

"Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits."

And so his work becomes a cause, a moral undertaking; his photos a revelation. What we toss comes back to haunt us—on the gulf stream, on the tide. There's no getting away from the vast emptiness we try to fill—admonished by our president even to buy more, drill more, manufacture more. It is painful to see, astonishing, and certainly intolerable.

E Waste, New Orleans

But here's what's hopeful: the waste, our waste (own it!), is sorted, organized, contained. That's partly what is astonishing—and charming, in a twisted way— in these pictures, the arrangements are aesthetic. And isn't creating order out of chaos the first step towards knowing what to do with it? I'm going to believe in the reality of these pictures, the excess, and in the possibility of reduction as well as transformation—and I don't mean turning trash into art. I'm going to continue to believe in the power of art to reveal and to make connections. Buy first, pay later. It's time. It is very obviously time to pay up.

Crushed Cars, Tacoma.

Chris Jordan didn't win the prize, but he takes the cake.

Container Yard #1, Seattle