reviews and events

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

Ten Years After 9/11 by 9/11 Arts Project

The story of the defining moment is a shifty one, no matter which moment is under the figurative microscope. The punctum of interruption, the flick of a switch, the climax and everything after is the glow — nostalgia, the teachable moment, the revolutionary as icon, George Washington on a t-shirt.

Likewise the story of anniversary — an arbitrary pause lent weight by our obsessive love of time-keeping, clocks and calendars that say there is no insistence, only repetition.

But the media messaging of 9/11 as a central totem of our shared experience romps pretty forcefully over such delicate considerations as theory of time and memory. The tenth anniversary has been remarkable in combining equal measures of powerful restraint and substantial lack of tact. It seems that we cannot stop selling each other Budweisers and Suburbans, even as we agree to insist that “Never Forget” is a sentiment that transcends the prerogative of advertising.

Advertising is the language of our shared experience, and 9/11 is an event birthed in media, spectacle, and the proprietary communication of the image, before and after it is anything else, everything else.

And so it is that many if not most of the “artist’s responses to 9/11”, seeking an individual language to escape the dictates of the spectacle, settle for a hebephrenia of tortured brushwork, a torrent to be read by a viewer who is more or less actively importuned to step in and understand the anguish of the artist, perhaps as a metonym for her society’s larger suffering, but more likely simply as that baffled person being asked to “react” to an event which means to demand no reaction, only capitulation.

But it is better to understand than to be understood, as St. Francis taught. And there are artists who strive to understand rather than to be understood.

This striving, by turns private and public, abstract and concrete, is what I find in much of the best of Ten Years After 9/11, now showing at PEPCO’s Edison Place Gallery.

Several of these artists have found good reason to reject the rhetoric of the defining moment, the punctum of irreversible change that changes the vector of time’s arrow. Michael Platt is one. One who flirts with a mood that would be jaded or cynical in the hands of a younger or less astute painter. Instead of advocating resignation or aloofness, Platt’s The Journey insists that our choice of moments is subject to change, that defining moments can themselves be redefined in a moment.

Chawky Frenn’s Clash of Civilizations takes the same step back, to see this defining moment as but one dish on a serving table heaped with brutalities. From across the room, Frenn’s background seems to evoke the twisted girder of the Towers, but a closer approach indicates something less manufactured, more tender, heaped in smouldering piles behind the posing boy and child. An optimism salvaged from the carnage, or built on it? The painting has it both ways, as a painting will.

Taking the opposite tack of Platt or Frenn, Phyllis Plattner thrives on the punctums, on a history of moments and an art that is iconisms, images who strive to be our currency, who come from a time when art history was history, and from where the unravelling of that position is itself the unravelling of a common currency.

Positioned next to Frenn’s Clash of Civilizations, Plattner’s Chronicles of War/Saint/Moments almost hides out, posing as a work of resistance to the media story. But it seems more actually to want the media story just to be spoken in a different, older language, one that was once common, I suppose. If there ever was a time when easel painting was a Media That Carried Information, Plattner’s elegant archipelagos can be read as an elegy to that world and its information systems of yore.

Another path into and through the request to define a response is to develop a kind of secular sangha, a fellowship community without a creed beyond the common need to live with its formation-event, a sangha of consideration. Kurt Steger’s Burden Boat, is very nearly a rock star of this manner of encouraged contemplation, having debuted in 2009 after the Virginia Tech shootings in nearby Blacksburg, and receiving pride of place both in the gallery and in the broader fellowship ceremony held at the nearby Museum of American Art on 9/11/2011.

This kind of sangha-making is a substantial sub-theme of Ten Years After 9/11. Examples form a hopscotch path across the two rooms of the exhibition, from Steger to Sean Watkins, to WorkingMan Collective, and to Michael Pestal and Helen Frederick.

Watkins’s video installation discourages us from taking in its full measure, and asks instead that we surround it, forming a ring around its ring of inward-facing monitors. The self-regard of the mediated image is to be counteracted by the waves of people outside and above it, we might hope. It is a more hopeful strategy than we find in its neighbor, Despina Meimaroglou’s Rememebrance of Things Past , who quixotically tries to unwish the devil back into his jar through that archetypal alchemism of the modern tribe, setting the recording machine in reverse.

WorkingMan Collective’s Steps is at once more telling and more sly in its encouraged contemplation than Steger’s Burden Boat, or most of the other work around it. Steps will not settle for for the demarcated, deputized “participation” of our writing, but calls for us to walk in, encounter another, and go belly-to-belly in order that we may emerge out the other side. Intimacy is radically transformative — of course we all know this — way beyond anything a video monitor can ever show us.

It is, simply, perverse, to blame an artist for bringing too much to the party, or to accuse them of dissembling when they do. But both of this show’s curators seem bent on outdoing themselves, with installations that threaten to cancel out their impact through the proliferation of dimensions, objects, and ambitions.

William Dunlap has always preferred overload to understatement, given the choice, and Repeat After Me, “They hate our freedoms!” continues the all-in style of play that makes him an artistic card sharp in the eyes of some. I counted no less than four fully-realized Dunlap works in this assembly, another half-dozen appropriated artifacts, and a house payment’s worth of minor antiques and curios, including a katana sword and not one but two preserved snakes. Everything matters in this one man’s history, and the universe remains a local phenomenon.

It all comes together, as they say, through Dunlap’s discerning eye and powerful taste. Immanuel Kant called it, “Discrimination”, a word that carries a very different load today; but one that we would do well to remember in consideration of the range of sublimations, deferrals, and adjustments that Dunlap brings to bear on a world where, we might easily suspect, he sees too much, feels too much, and finally says only a small fraction of what he has come to know.

Helen Frederick’s work has explored the sangha of crafted thought for much of the the last thirty years, combining and collapsing media, and combining and collapsing the roles of painter, printer, actor and director. Her Loss of Innocence makes use of many hands, but it seeks the use of still more. One of Frederick’s Hungry Ghosts, this is work that longs for the touch of many, to acquire the stamp of wear we see in ancient objects, ancient truths.

For now, it seems to have too much of the new to it, and I look at it and wonder — will it ever be touched by enough hands to receives all the caresses it cares for, to take on all the wear, all the cares it seems so capable of taking on — just as the punctum of time, even after ten years, remains too fresh to be integrated into our quotidian living, our lives, our selves. Someday our defining moment will be ancient history, too, perhaps.

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Is Marriage for White People? by Ralph Richard Banks

Despite the implicit “yes’ that would seem to answer the title of his new book, perhaps the most unsavory outcome of the research Ralph Richard Banks has assembled in Is Marriage for White People? is the plain assertion that marriage is “for” fewer and fewer of us, of any color, with every passing year.

The media’s culture-war narrative has declared the sacrament a battleground, but Banks’s exploration of statistics from the last fifty years revelas that marriage is for, well, married folks — and married folks is a group that is markedly shrinking.

“Let those who are married keep as they are,” quoth Prince Hamlet, a boomer 400 years avant la lettre, “but for the rest I say, we will have no more marriages.” Or something like that. The prince has quite his own reasons for questioning the institution; but the ambivalence he plays with is one that frets much of this book. Banks’s well-blended mix of anecdote and statistic portrays a social bond and a social longing that we still value, sometimes without reason, and sometimes for reasons very different from what we thought they were.

The ambivalence Banks finds in his research and articulates in his prose is neatly covered in the phrase “relationship market”, a phrase that frames his analysis, and one that sounds nearly guaranteed to make you marriage-lovers out there shudder. The supply of men and women has been changing, in the labor market and the relationship market, and these two market influence one another and the questions of who, when and whether to marry.

The structural disadvantage women have historically faced in the labor market has eroded; the value of men as material providers has taken a nose-dive. That oversimplifies the matter, but speaks to a powerful influence on marriage as an institution.

Banks pulls data from several sources and slices it in many ways, and leavens it throughout with tales from women and men who are interacting in this relationship market. Most of the anecdotes come from women; most of the women are educated and professionally accomplished. As such they find themselves in something of a bear market, outnumbering their male peers by a wide margin. Financially autonomous, these women live lives with romantic, social, and family structures different and more complicated than a 1::1 partnership.

The growing absolute and relative numbers of educated, successful black  women are negatively complemented in Banks’s study by the shifting fates of African-American men during the same period. They are only half as likely to go to college as women, less likely to graduate, and more likely to take longer to graduate when they do.

Thus the supply side of the relationship market; the demand side has evolved as well. As Banks summarizes, marriage as a relationship has largely supplanted marriage as an institution, and as such has very nearly turned on its head. Rather than making a contribution to prosperity, marriage has become an “achievement, one that requires a certain degree of financial stability.”

Most of Is Marriage for White People? explores outcomes that result from this shift in the meaning of marriage in a relationship market, outcomes that are on the increase and ones that are not. Many people reconcile differences in class background, income, race, and desire the search for a mate, some more successfully than others.

When marriage no longer has the aura of institution, however, many will choose not to negotiate those differences and make those reconciliations. That is the growing statistical case for all races, Banks demonstrates. African-Americans happen to be on the leading edge of a social development that is becoming the default reality for all Americans.

Is Marriage for White People? is an attentive blend of head and heart. It comes to conclusions that are startling and nuanced, and that in itself sets it apart from much of the discussion.

Monday, August 22nd, 2011

Soapbox at Hillyer Art Space

There’s a breakdown in the street team, and that would seem to be an issue, since the collaboration of DJ and MC is one of the defining art actions of Pax Americana. But in Chukwuma Agubokwu’s “Cuirass Cavus” the infrastructure that has been articulated to accessorize the situation, A.K.A. The Swag, bogs down and finally stops the flow.

Of course Swag didn’t always or doesn’t always mean gear, stuff. It also refers to its polar converse — the immaterial animation of character and spirit that makes a body move. But that kind of inspiration is fleeting and fickle, as the poets say; it’s easy to get hung up on what you do or don’t have as a reason for why it isn’t happening. And it clearly isn’t happening for Agubokwu’s gear-heavy protagonist, even as the erstwhile laptopper at stage left starts and restarts the grind, giving him his opening again and again.

Finally the MC sheds his hat and shades, jacket and pants, the hypertrophied chest protector that gives the piece its name, and, with most difficulty, his jumbo wristwatch (just a mistake? Or is it really hardest to give up “being watched”?) and removes himself from the riser. We’re left with a few more reps of the beat. It’s like that in history, when innovation gets absorbed into the spectacle and becomes commodity, harmonized into the seamless flow of total product. Know Resistants?

It doesn’t seem right to attribute some larger theme or value to the three performances that comprised the second episode of Soapbox, Hillyer’s new performance series, last Friday. Each act grappled with the terms of its presentation, with its mediation and its content, and that grapple could easily be mistaken for a “discourse” on “violence” or “institutions”. It’s the individual, not to say eccentric, angle that each artist takes in presenting themselves in the space that is the take-away.

Wilmer Wilson IV’s “Blank Shot”, the middle set of the three, casually foregrounds gun violence, but explores the artist’s own mediated unfamiliarity to surprising effect. Wilson is the shooter, and his audience his targets. But the gun here is a sticker gun — first I said to myself, “a pricing gun” and about five different resonances of monetary life and gun violence came to mind. But then I got stickered, and I got to see that the gun was spitting out “Use By” date stickers — no, there’s not a price on your head, not necessarily. But you do have an expiration date. That date is left blank, as I suppose it must be.

As in “Cuirass Cavus”, the accouterments comment on the act. Even as he takes on the malevolent silence of the psycho shooter, Wilson sports appropriate eye and ear protection. Not down from the hills, but in from the burbs, and literally, not gunning for the home room, but right in the middle of the city. If this is class war, then we might want to ask, who’s waging it on who? Logically, a good deal of the firing in “Blank Shot” is turned on Wilson himself, as he covers his chest and forehead, a self-mutilation that is no less real for its being easily removed.

A kind of deflected self-mutilation also happens in Chajana denHarder’s “Door”. But it is happening as a kind of fourth-level drill down in to the actions and set-up she’s chosen. Traversing boundaries is her theme. denHarder’s performance incorporates shades of emotional resonance that make unification a more fraught adventure than is usually advertised.

What does it mean when we are compelled to watch something we cannot see? That is, in some old etymology, what we mean when we say, obscene. Something there is off-limits, and it is out of sight, as a metaphor for that condition.

The lights dim, and that movie-theater gesture may enough to propel us into a world of uncertain fantasy. A sheet of paper has been stretched across the doorway and backlit like a shadow-puppet screen. As the artist’s hands make their appearance, spattering and caressing the paper, we get the essential moment of horror, drained of all the gore and trappings. It is the same as intimacy. Maybe this is the subtlest part of the scary movie, the kind of love that can tear flesh, the kind of knowing that can make it happen.

As the scrim of paper stands between us, it can also stand in for us, a mirror or a mannequin. And when the artist begins to fretfully pick and tear at wet spots where the paper has weakened, we can feel it, the emotional singularity of dwelling on/in a physical wound as a way to process a psychic one.

The paper eventually shreds into long  jagged vertices, and glimpses of the other side appear peek through, direct light and color. Throughout the process, I thought of lots of other things that seemed related, but I think I was mostly seeking analogues to process the sensation — “Heart-Shaped Box”,  Mullholland Dr., a handful of other artworks that stand, as Joshua Clover puts it, “at the corner of creep and shame“. It’s the other side of “crossing boundaries”, mixing the seen and the unseen, the past with the future, that makes performance vivid and ephemeral at the same time.

Wednesday, August 17th, 2011

Gun Show @ WPA

John James Anderson is a artist who works in ideas more than in any physical medium; the work he shows is often more proof-of-concept than finished product. In that sense at least, WPA’s Coup d’Espace Project series, as much an idea about exhibition as a gallery space, is the perfect container for Anderson’s rough draft of inquiry about guns and the District.

What had been premised as a “gun store for my next project” turns out, by the time of its launch, to be show of texts about guns. Maybe this reflects WPA’s series requirement that installations include “no pyrotechnics”, and the actual firearms will come up in another place at another time. That itself reflects a real part of our discourse about guns: it’s always someone else, somewhere else, where they actually set it off.

The center of Anderson’s installation is about three-dozen blockquotes representing many details, positions, and curiosities of the gun debate, each looking like a a breakout quote torn from a gargantuan newspaper. Anderson’s work has taken on the newspaper as an obsolescing source of community debate before. Each quote is hand-lettered to look like the tatty carbon copies that are for Anderson the state of the debate, and hand-torn to simulate the care-worn state of each side of the issue.

Handmade replacements for machine processes is the other element of the installation’s design. Accompanying Anderson’s quotewall are seven plainly datacharts hand-drawn in colored pencil. They show the distribution of schools, churches, groceries, and other cultural assets ward-by-ward in the district. Like Anderson’s wall, the charts echo previously-uttered positions; the artist’s effect seems to be a net loss of clarity.

But in these issues, what seems to be clarity is often only stubbornness, and a chart that clearly demonstrated that people get shot where there are bars and not where there are hospitals would first be denounced by the other side before anyone got a chance to think about what that might mean. That’s how we roll these days.

Anderson’s handmade look extends to the digital realm, and we couldn’t have it any other way, I think. “Five Years of D.C. Homicides” is a 10-minute flash animation that counterpoints the kid-simple wall charts with a jittery text and rolling counter of deaths and non-gun deaths in the District 2006-10. Blown up big on WPA’s flat screen, Anderson’s flash can’t help but project a seething nervousness. Are we rooting for non-gun deaths to pull ahead? Sorry kid, not gonna happen here —

Anderson’s handmade data and phantom news quotes brought together a room of people who may have thought they agreed on this issue, only to find, in the confines of the Coup d’Espace, that they were much less sure. In times when all sides of any issue seem galvanized in righteousness, much more in need of debate than they can admit to themselves, Anderson’s puzzling tentative and inconclusive Gun Show becomes, not the conclusion it wanted to be perhaps, but instead a good start.

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

Writing a Great Kickstarter Project

One key to getting the Kickstarter people to shine a light on your project, and getting a strong response from their community, is the value proposition. That is to say, donors want to know what they are getting, and judge projects according to the actual takeaway.

Another key element is your project’s backstory. Projects that succeed in finding backers have a compelling story beyond the obvious need for funding. There is a problem to be solved, a need to be fulfilled, or an opportunity to be seized. In many cases, much of the project’s work has been done, and part of the backstory is that outside funding is neede to reach a specific and crucial goal.

A study of art and/or writing project descriptions that are getting supporters reveals that there are three crucial parts:

1) the project — what are you going to do with this money? Usually this translates as “create new work”. Sometimes it’s more specific, like “buy a special piece of equipment” or “go to a unique place to work”. Your ability to talk in terms of a plan and a concept for a body of work will help you attract supporters. A “project” that only says, “hi I am an artist and I would like some support” is not really adequate for Kickstarter.

2) the premium — what’s in it for your patrons? Yes, some of the new work that would be underwritten through Kickstarter would go directly to those people who sign on to your cause. The premium seems to be the easiest of the three to think up, right? “Give me $$ to paint, and I’ll send you a painting”. Many of the successful entries take it a step further, along the familiar web-friendly lines of access, inclusion, and interaction. Good Kickstarter campaigns have variable levels of commitment with different premiums for each level.

3) the person — what makes this project special? The specifics of well-received Kickstarter campaigns always tie back to the story the artist tells about themselves. Sometimes it can seem a little gimmicky (or a lot), but a cool project says a lot about its creator, too.

The Kickstarter universe is filled with good projects posted by good people. But Kickstarter is not for charitable giving. It’s for project funding, so defining a clear, specific, and compelling project is the best way to attract the backers you want to find.

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Lindsay Rowinski @ Transformer

Lindsay Rowinski’s Trying to Be There is a short-term show that stages itself as both intervention and discovery, and demonstrates an art that is necessarily only part of the larger multi-human systems in which it finds itself.

Two wide-carriage prints of landscape details tell the main tale of Lindsay’s idea: stuff has been left everywhere, stuff that sublimely and sneakily teaches us how to act in the world despite ourselves. One print stages discovery: a fabricated bloom of curbwork has grown out of the side of a sidewalk, a polyp appearing overnight on the body of a parking lot.

The second print brings the parking lot home. A carelessly-finished concrete stoop has been embalmed in traffic-lane yellow paint, as if to stabilize with color steps that almost want to slump down to the street.

Of course, values like intervention and discovery are tentative and plausibly reversed; Rowinski could have found that strange little bubble of a curb already poured in place, and/or decided to brighten those stairs with an indelible industrial yellow. The two prints, facing each other across a few feet of Transformer’s P St. space, trade and share values just as they blend their hybrid means of photography, sculpture and high concept.

They remind me of Robert Smithson’s work, which usually “occurred” in open spaces, but inevitably came to us in the cropped and limited forums of the gallery and the catalogue. Here I especially think of Smithson’s poured works, documented aftermaths of pouring a 55-gallon drum of glue or oil down the slope of an industrial middens. Smithson was not an easy environmentalist, and using degradation to talk about degradation means we may end up in bed with the real thing when all the time we thought we were just on a chat.

Staging and/or finding her subject in disused or misused public space, Rowinski plants a flag for the republic of art in a hostile territory. And yet the expedition transforms the captain, too — the vector of force has more than one head. The effect going native has had on the artist is embedded in two architectural flourishes that frame the gallery space. The first encloses the end of the gallery, a diminutive doorway of clapboard and whitewash that looks for all the world as if Li’l Abner left Dogpatch and built a little cabin in Hennepin County, down the road a piece from the Browns and that weird dog.

Overhead, Rowinski has fabricated a memorial to the kind of architecture that needs no preservation. It’s a mysterious buttress whose function is vague but implacable, and whose form is palpable but untouchable. It looks like a mistake, but one that has been so well-integrated into the world that we must admit it has a use.

The incidental public spaces where we spend so much time are not barren; they are overloaded when it comes to meaning. Some part of us wants to bring that overload under control, or failing that, deny its existence, its power. But Rowinski’s work makes it clear that this overload of meaning is meant for us. It is what we live for.

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