Sunday, December 1, 2013

Live by Your Work

A display of Carl Jung’s opus, The Red Book marks the opening of the 55th Venice Biennale’s The Encyclopedic Palace. The tome reflects Jung’s sixteen-year journey into the depths of his unconscious in an attempt to reconnect with a primitive collective energy (the soul) that had been suppressed by the limitations of modern rational thinking. The Red Book serves as an apt signpost for an exhibition focused on the spiritual and communicative powers of art and the utopian impulse as expressed through visionary and obsessive manifestations of the creative act.

Carl Jung's Red Book, 1914-1930

While The Encyclopedic Palace has been criticized for being apolitical and out of step with contemporary art trends, I found the tone and nature of the show to be refreshing in world populated by art-about-art and work made through superficial gesturing, what Mira Schor has referred to as “recipe art,” work made in an “endless loop of appropriation” and “meant to be incorporated into the market and the discursive stream of the academy.”

Maria Lassnig, You or Me, 2005, oil on canvas

In many instances, The Encyclopedic Palace avoids the art market loop and favors works generated through authentic expression untainted by the tropes of the art world. Models influenced by relational aesthetics flood the contemporary art scene, but often fail at their promise of democracy. Many works in this vein are opaque and inaccessible except to a select group of the already initiated. The Encyclopedic Palace poses an alternative (albeit an old-fashioned) model for an exchange between the artist and viewer based on an intimate one-on-one communication, not unlike the experience of reading. The exhibit proposes that art can be a universal language accessible to anyone and that formal training is not required to make or interpret art.

 Frédéric Bruly Bouabré from the series, Knowledge of the World 1982-1996

There are books throughout The Encyclopedic Palace, some remain whole and bulging with the energy of the artist as collector, while others have been gently pulled apart and laid out as mystical taxonomies. Books offer a quite beckoning, a haptic intimacy that is often blotted out in the big, shiny, and new of contemporary art. Books hold and may be held and speak to the transmission of knowledge.

José Antonio Suárez Londoño, Franz Kafka, Diarios II,  2000, mixed media, 13 x 20cm, each page

Art has become intensely professionalized and distanced from both spiritual and utilitarian functions. It may be unpopular to embrace the utopian vision that art can serve as a powerful means for both communication and healing, though, in a time when many systems are failing, perhaps we should move away from the frenzy of the current art market to a model that recognizes the value of authenticity and singular expression. “Live by your work” one of the phrases inscribed on the walls of Marino Auriti’s visionary museum model (and namesake of the exhibit) The Encyclopedic Palace, could serve as a creed for my hopes for the future of art.

Marino Auriti, The Encyclopedic Palace of the World, c.1950s, installation view, Arsenale.
 Courtesy: La Biennale di Venezia; photograph: Francesco Galli

My recent participation in Micol Hebron’s collaborative project Gallery Tally: a call for gender equity peaked my interest in the gender break down for the Biennale. While a May Art in America article announced “Women Dominate the Biennale’s 2013 International Jury” the odds for female artists showing in the Biennale were not so glowing. Of the 159 artists listed on the official site, 120 were male with only 39 female that puts the odds at 75% male vs. 25% female. While 25% is a vast improvement over the 9% of women included in the 1995 iteration of the show, the number has actually dropped from the high-water mark of 40% in 2011. While women are not equally represented in the show, works by women were some of the most memorable pieces in the show. 

Dorothea Tanning, Self Portrait, 1944, Oil on canvas, 24" × 30" 

Dorothea Tanning’s Self Portrait from 1944, reflects a solitary, humble figure looking outward to the vastness of nature. While the woman is tiny, she possesses a strong presence as she stands on the precipice of her future. Tanning speaks of the work that was made in the studio not in the alfresco style often associated with the landscape painting “…in the studio alone with my dream I would record it like a diary entry, just like that.”

Emma Kunz, Drawing No. 086, n.d. © Anton C. Meier, Emma Kunz Foundation, CH-5436 Würenlos, Switzerland

While in her late teens, Emma Kunz discovered her gift for telepathy and premonition and began using a pendulum as part of a healing practice exercised on behalf of herself and her patients. Kunz’s large-scale renderings were produced in a single-session and were divined through her sensitivity to shifting energy fields and the paths produced by the motion of the pendulum. Kunz didn’t view her work as art, but as a manifestation of her activity as a healer and researcher in the field of alternative and natural medicine.

Linda Fregni Nagler, The Hidden Mother, 2006–13. 997 daguerreotype, album, photo and ferrotypes.
Photo: Francesco Galli.Courtesy la Biennale di Venezia.

Linda Fregni Nagler’s Hidden Mother series features nearly a thousand daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, ferrotypes, albumen prints, and polaroids produced between the 1840s and the1920s. The images depict infants and young children floating against veiled mounds or a top hovering curtains that conceal the comforting presence of their mothers. The decidedly haunting images came out of the necessity to keep children in place through the long exposure time of early photography. The collection’s repetition of the concealed maternal form speaks to the suppressed agency of women at the turn of the century and evokes the weight that hangs heavy over all mothers to protect their offspring from danger and it’s most extreme variation, death.

Viviane Sassen, Belladonna, 2010, Courtesy Motive Gallery Amsterdam and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg 

Viviane Sassen’s modestly scaled photographs exist at the intersection between performance and ethnographic documentation. Trained as a fashion photographer, Sassen’s images teeter between the real and the theatrical. Her images, often shot in remote parts of Africa possess a quite magic and intimate stillness.

Cathy Wilkes, Untitled, installation, 2013

Cathy Wilkes' untitled sculptural installation included haunting figures, fabric, and fragments of debris. Through her arrangement of bodies and modest objects, the artist developed a community complete with interrelationships, power dynamics and methods of exchange. Pieces of junk are laid out with precision and indicate an investigation into the often-arbitrary system of valuation.

Andra Ursuta, T, Vladimirescu Nr. 5 , Sleeping room, 2013, wood, metal, glass, fabric, paint 18” x 13” x 20”

Andra Ursuta’s dollhouse-sized replicas of rooms from the home where she grew up in Romania memorialize a private experience of a place that was demolished and now remains only in the artist’s memory. The abandoned rooms are solemn places of loss and decay as the remnants of the former inhabitants rust upon dusty tables and shelves. The works speak of Ursuta’s private nostalgia and reference Romania’s Post-Cold War struggles to modernize.

Eva Kotatkova, Asylum, 2013, la biennale di venezia© blarco + hunt kastner 

Eva Kotatkova’s Asylum, incorporates a display of hanging objects, metal sculptures, and paper fragments arranged upon a large table. The images and objects reference the absent bodies of asylum patients and display symbols of loneliness and confinement. Fragile pages, seemingly drafted by patients list “all my fears” or “all the contents in the room.” The chilling handwritten scraps speak through a voice that is personal and disembodied. Through her careful archive, Kotatkova renders the chaos of madness into a visual narrative on the universal human longing for connection.

Sharon Hayes, Ricerche: three, 2013, Single channel HD video 38 minutes

Sharon Hayes’ video Ricerchethree addresses the complexities of female experience through a discussion with a group of students on the campus of a New England women’s college. Hayes asks direct questions about sex and identity and allows the conversation to develop organically as the young women react and respond to one-another. There is a clear tension and intensity as the women struggle to articulate their views on issues with both personal and global resonance.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Disappearing Acts

And to make an end is to make a beginning
                                                                    T.S. Eliot

The cyclical nature of time is a reoccurring theme in Sara Wookey’s solo performance Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects: Concerns of (a) dance artist(s) then and now, which had its US premier at Automata last weekend. The work, constructed in three parts, is a lecture conveyed through the use of movement, text, and projected media. Wookey began the work on a darkened stage illuminated by a bare bulb held on the end of a long cord. She moved slowly towards the audience, swinging the bulb with greater intensity until she produced an ellipse of light that hovered over the stage like a magical sign. This luminous marker referenced the path of a creative trajectory that is forever impacted by both memory and time.

Wookey drew upon her extensive career working in dance and public interventions in Europe and US, as she spoke about a kind of visceral memory. She contrasted the movement knowledge contained in her body against the disembodied stacks of video tapes that clutter her studio apartment. Which is a more true representation of the original performance, a collection of gestures recalled from memory or the mechanical reproduction? Wookey is concerned with what is always lost in gestures to capture the live performance and she favors acts of erasure over attempts to secure permanence. In this vein, she danced a fragmentary sequence of movements that comprised all the dances she could remember from the past ten years of her practice, ending with a clocklike motion as she made a loud ticking sound.

Sara Wookey, still image from reDance, 2011

At two points, Wookey directly engaged temporal issues by dancing with a version of herself from the past. In the first instance, she recreated a movement from a projected still image. Her body in real time could not match the frozen precision of the photograph, and the live posture slowly deteriorated under the weight of gravity as the Velvet Underground's I’m Sticking with You filled the spaceLater in the performance, Wookey moved along with a video of herself dancing in her apartment on the occasion of her 40th birthday. The “birthday dance” was a spontaneous bodily expression and she explained the difficulty in learning movements when they were detached from the original purity of experience. It is hard to recapture the past, especially the emotional eruptions of joy or despair.

Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects continually circles back to issues of the value of dance, ownership, and preservation. References to Trio A, Yvonne Rainer's seminal dance work from 1966, occur throughout the performance. As one of only five instructors certified to teach Trio A, Wookey is part of the legacy of Rainer's work. Wookey's body is a conduit to transmit Rainer's work into the future, and It is daunting to consider the fragility of the body-archive that is forever vulnerable to injury and decay.

Sara Wookey, Trio A, 2011 Photo: Guy L'Heureux

I want to suggest another mode of thinking: When we, as artists, accept or reject work, when we participate in the making of a work, even (or perhaps especially) when it is not our own, we contribute to the establishment of standards and precedents for our cohort and all who will come after us. 
Sara Wookey, Open Letter to Artists, in response to auditioning for Marina Abramovic’s MOCA gala performance, November 2011

Wookey’s concern for the preservation of dance and the importance of artist labor rights is evidenced in the now infamous letter she wrote in regard to Marina Abramovic’s 2011 MOCA gala performance. She devoted a section of Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects to “the letter” and shared the note of regret she received from the Abramovic project when she declined to participate. Wookey also showed quotes from the community in response to her action. This brief section of the performance illuminates the disparity between European and American models of arts support and questions the notion of competition against the more utopian goal of a supportive arts community based on truth and goodness.

Sara Wookey, image from Disappearing Acts & Resurfacing Subjects, 2013

At several points throughout the performance, Wookey showed a projection of a snail, inching across the frame followed by a slowly dissipating trail. Wookey, like the snail, keeps moving forward, propelled by her own will against the fleeting nature of time. Her path will also dissolve behind her, left only as a trace, a memory of what has been lived and lost.

…And to make an end is to make a beginning…

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mother of Invention

Barbara T Smith, Pink, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In 1965, Barbara T. Smith was a housewife living in Pasadena with her husband and three children. Smith had the idea to make a make a lithographic print combining gravestone rubbings and flowers. In need of technical assistance, she approached the newly established Gemini G.E.L. print studio. Gemini rejected Smith’s inquiry, but she was not discouraged. She turned to the newest printing invention of the 20th century, the Xerox machine. Smith leased a copier and set up shop in her dining room. Over the next year, she produced a prolific output of images that are presented in The Box’s current exhibit, Xerox: Barbara T. Smith 1965-1966.

In many of the pieces, Smith uses the form of the book to collect and contain a series of images. Not unlike the multiples produced by Fluxus artists, Smith’s Xerox works speak of a blurring between the intimacies of art and life. Her work reflects imagery drawn from domestic life including flowers, food-stuff, undergarments, her children, and her own nubile body. Even within the history of Feminist art, it is rare to find examples of art from a mother’s perspective. One notable exception, Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document is clinical and distant in contrast to Smith’s more tender and fleshy renderings. Smith’s works have a warmth and accessibility, like scrapbooks that contain and document moments in time.

Barbara T Smith, Katie, 1965-1966
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

In a text that accompanies the exhibit, Smith states, “My overall interest had to do with light, identity, the erotic body and the passage of time.” Issues of time, body, and identity can be linked to Smith’s later performance works and in some ways the Xerox pieces are performative works themselves. Smith pressed her body onto the glass of the machine, capturing the imprint of her flesh. Like Ana Mendieta’s Glass on Body, the gesture is a performance for the camera, or the machine. The erotic tone of the work comes through the mortal weight of the body pressing against the boundaries of the transparent “mirror”, as female flesh is revealed to be potentially boundless and terrifying.

Obvious to me, just bursting with my need and desire to “come out” as a full active erotic being, was to put my face and body onto the machine and print it. My sexual drive was at a fever pitch in 1966 (my mid 30’s). I was totally devoted to the idea of doing as art and art as action in life. This is why I liked the books so much for you had to hold them and do something with them to perceive them.

Barbara T. Smith, Coffins Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

Smith calls her book works “coffins”, as they hold a “reality of a fixed location in time and in space”. The works contain a kind of body knowledge, haptic experience that we can all conjure from our own memories. We understand the sensation of the body on glass, the warmth of paper lifted from a copy machine, the feel of pages as they are collated into the form of a book which holds and can be held. In a comment about her book Pink Rose (two) Smith says, "A life that becomes a relic. Something like the Shroud of Turin, the Xerox becomes a mark that it was actually there. The question of the actual. A sort of sickening carnal nostalgia." Through the humble process of the copy machine, Smith found a way to capture layers of the sublime through images that evoke memory, loss, and the fleeting nature of time.

Barbara T. Smith,  Installation View, 2013 
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, courtesy of The Box

XeroxBarbara T. Smith 1965-1966 is on view at The Box February 16 through March 23, 2013.

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Sandy Orgel, Linen Closet, Womanhouse, 1972. Photo courtesy Through the Flower Archives.

In 1972 a group of artists in the Feminist Art Program took over an abandoned house in Hollywood to create Womanhouse, a seminal work in the history of art. The women collaborated to transform the space through site-specific installations and performances drawn from their personal experiences as daughters, wives, and mothers. The living room served as the theater where Faith Wilding presented Waiting her solemn meditation on female isolation and longing. Other performances included Cunt and Cock Play, a power struggle between husband and wife over housework and Maintenance where women enacted household chores to reference the never-ending demands of domestic labor.

In her essay After the Revolution, Who’s Going to Clean up the Garbage?, Christine Wertheim discusses the complex system of relationships between the woman and the house:
Within this space, Womanhouse seems to say, woman-as- housewife is trapped home alone, infantilized, her body becoming at one with the house and furniture, turning into a nurturing carapace in which “she” as a subject with her own needs and desires disappears. In this strange space of the home, simultaneously a workplace (for her), a leisure place (for her husband), a space of nurturing (for the children, the sick, and the aged), and a sexual place (for the couple), the woman-as- housewife is far more than merely a sexual being (object or not). She is a worker, a caregiver, a nurturer, a cleaner, a teacher, a drudge, and a hostess. She is also idealized, fantasized, trivialized, and isolated.

The history of advertising portrays most idealized images of the housewife as a beautiful, beaming lady who is overjoyed by the prospect of sweeping floors and doing dishes. Womanhouse defied this image of perfection and revealed the realities of women’s lives, like menstruation, the demands of beauty rituals, and the exhausting and alienating pressures of homemaking. Thankfully, we have a come a long way since the 60s and 70s, we are no longer defined through the roles of wife and mother, we have been liberated…

So what's up with the new series of TV spots for Target’s The Everyday Collection? Laundry shows a glamorous blissed-out woman floating through space as silky ethereal fabric and a bottle of Tide circle around her. An off-camera sultry female voice says “we all long for something…” “…and that something is the other sock”. While the message is cheeky, it also diminishes female desire to the most vacuous and mundane level.

In Bake Sale, a Mom struts down a catwalk, whisk and egg in hand as boxes of cake mix erupt around her. She crushes an egg with her bare-hand in a show of sheer power. The aforementioned disembodied lady voice echoes “dominate that PTA bake sale”. This Mom is kick-ass (in the kitchen) as all of her potential power is channeled into the home. Like the mechanical brides of 1950s advertising, she must play the role of the good mother, she must consume, and her pretty red-lipped smile is evidence of her contentment.

Cowgirl, one of the more distressing ads, shows a high-heeled Mom in lily-white cowgirl gear straddling an infant as she changes a diaper. She slings wipes and diapers, but there is no sign of spittle or shit in the spotless space. She is flawless, she defies the signs of childbirth like stretch marks and weight gain as she poses like a coy pinup girl. There is a weird sexual current caused by the mix up between innocent little girls playing dress-up and sexy mommies role playing as fetish cowgirls.

The sexual content of Under Pressure is more overt, as a self-assured woman wields a hose with a gushing stream of water. She makes a stand and takes aim. Is she fighting crime? Extinguishing a five a alarm fire? No, she is making oatmeal!! The throbbing rock soundtrack with the exalting lyric “woman you got to be a woman…” adds to the illusion of her strength. In the end she is pleased with herself as boxes of Quaker Oats slowly turn atop pristine pedestals.

All the ads in this series, feature a beautiful “empowered” woman and the product she “needs.” According to the Target corporate blog, The Everyday Collection marketing campaign is “cutting-edge” “fusing high style with food and other essentials”. Selling women products through the allure of glamour is nothing new, it’s an old trick well used since the rise of the ad campaign in the 1960s. So why does this mode of advertising still exist? Is it necessary to continue to sell women the virtues and pleasures of housework? Do these ads create or reflect the status quo? 

The statistics bare out that housework still falls heavily into the hands of the lady of the house. A 2012 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey reports " On an average day, 19 percent of men did housework-- such as cleaning or doing laundry-- compared with 48 percent of women. Forty percent of men did food preparation or cleanup, compared with 66 percent of women."

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Last weekend, a large crowd turned out for the opportunity to hear art lumineres, Barbara T. Smith, Carolee Schneemann, Judith Bernstein, Theo Altenburg (artist and long time friend of Otto Muehl) and Paul McCarthy speak on the topic of painting. The panel was presented in conjunction with the exhibit Painting and was moderated by Principal/Curator of The Box, Mara McCarthy.

Installation view of Painting, The Box 2012, Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

The show Painting is an odd mix of works, many of which were created in the 70s. The show, conceived by Paul McCarthy and his curator daughter Mara sought to challenge traditional notions of painting and includes artists who have maintained intimate connections between their life and art practice despite the influences of “the art world”. The blurring of art and life brings to mind Fluxus art and the history of women's art made within and in reflection of domestic spaces. Artists like Schneemann, McCarthy and Muehl, used mundane and found materials like tin cans, broken glass, dirt, and ketchup in place of honored substances like oil paint. There is an immediacy to much of the work bore out of insistent surfaces that threaten to fall apart before our eyes. Michael Henderson's Castration of 1968, is literally torn away from the stretchers. McCarthy explained that the two Henderson works included in the show are the only two pieces that survived a fire that consumed the artist’s early work in 1985.

Michael Henderson's Castration, 1968, Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

As is often the case with panels comprised of a group of stellar artists, the dialogue was unfocused as each artist took the reigns to discuss their own ideas. One of Mara’s most interesting questions  “what is the relationship between your painting practice and your work in performance?” went unanswered, but lead to some compelling personal reflections around female sexuality and power dynamics.

Barbara T. Smith shared her continued dismay over the misinterpretations of her 1970s performance Feed Me. For the work, part of an evening-long performance event, Smith took up residence in the ladies’ room. The space contained an oriental rug-covered mattress, a sink, incense, body oils, shawls, books and music, a taped loop played the words “Feed me." Smith was nude and accepted one person at a time into the private space. She said the work grew from her personal experiences of being continually harassed by men in public. She wanted to regain control and establish an exchange where the viewers (both men and women) had to ask permission for her attention. She was nude and seemingly vulnerable, but she held the power to affirm or deny the desires of her interlopers.

Barbara T. Smith, Feed Me, 1973 

Smith’s intentions got turned upside down when rumors spread that she was having sex with each visitor who entered the ladies’ room. Her power was stolen as Smith was transformed from artist into whore. Smith was criticized by many of her fellow feminists for her supposedly obscene actions. The rumors around the performance took hold and were perpetuated in countless texts and art history books. It’s distressing to consider how the impermanence of performance can allow for wildly inaccurate histories.

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 16mm film, 18 minutes, 1965

Carolee Schneemann also shared troubling responses to her erotic work. Her 1965 film Fuses has been censored countless times and was even arrested in El Paso in 1985. Fuses is a masterpiece of experimental filmmaking that records Schneemann and her partner James Tenney making love. The work is anything but pornographic, as the film becomes the sensual surface that is cut, colored, and imprinted by desire. Schneemann mentioned that her  most known work Interior Scroll has also been censored in recent years, revealing that female sexuality may still be taboo in proper culture.

Judith Bernstein. Five Panel Vertical, 1973.

Judith Bernstein discussed her on-going body of work that addresses power dynamics in art and culture. Her monumental gestural drawings portray phallus/screws that dominate and threaten to take over the space. She shared her passion for raw humor with a political edge and more than once let out a jibe about “size mattering”. She has also been "marking her territory" with giant signature works that claim space as she boldly inserts herself into the ledgers of history. Like many women artists of her generation, Bernstein is a late bloomer in the museum world, her first solo museum show Hard is currently on view at the New Museum through January 20, 2013.

Judith Bernstein, recreation of Signature Piece, of 1986 for her solo show at the New Museum in 2012.

I didn't I gain any new insights about painting, but I was happy to hear the passion that still pulses in Smith, Schneemann, and Bernstein. All these women are over 70 and continue to engage in serious art practices. I am in awe of their strength and courage and inspired by their undying devotion to art making.

The exhibit Painting is on view at The Box until January 26.

Read reviews of the show on Notes on Looking and at the LA Times.