30 November 2006

California Dreamin'

Charles Ray, Tractor, 2003

I finally purchased the November Art In America... with its focus on Los Angeles and Speaking Volumes, 19 interviews with LA sculptors organized/written by Anne Rochette and Wade Saunders.

Look forward to a thorough digestion! As a lifelong westerner who simply could not take on the vast lonely wasteland of LA and chose New York, I sympathize with Rochette and Saunder's anthropological approach. As a UC San Diego MFA graduate, I owe much of my understanding of what sculpture is and what it does to Jennifer Pastor and Charles Ray. I am learning so much watching Liz Craft's work evolve--I am a big fan. I developed my own relationship between sculpture and performance by looking at Chris Burden.

This set of interviews is a greatest-hits album! My initial response to this article is too nostalgic to print! More to come.

29 November 2006

Malthus, Schmalthus

There is a sculpturally relevant op-ed in today's Times... Thomas Homer Dixon is basically saying that Malthus is right:

As energy becomes less easy to find, there will be more energy spent on getting energy, which means less energy devoted to innovation, which will lead to more same-old and less human can-doitude getting us out of this fine Climate Change Pickle.

And yeah, see, Malthus was a handwringing pussy with no sense of Real Magic. Innovation is not a luxury--something you throw your extra energy at the way you throw your spare change at a charity. Innovation is integral to making, building and fixing. For that matter, every sculptor who is really putting their back in it knows that innovation and problem solving are not like your bank account. You don't run out of innovation... it's more Deus Ex Machina than that. Things tend to work out. Not the way you think they should, and never the way you planned, but something always happens.

This article gets right to the heart of why I am so interested in climate change: it is a very sculptural situation. Just like the rest of us drivers, fliers and computer users, sculptors ride the Hubris And Redemption line--getting themselves into really big, arrogant physical pickles, and then working their way out. They set up physical, perceptual and methodological headaches that furniture makers and bricklayers wouldn't dream of, and then they make the headaches into epiphanies--new understandings of the way the world actually works.

To get your Malthus on is to deny the Real Magic of cause and effect that sculptors trade in, and everyone needs to know about and cling to this Real Magic right now. It is inevitable--the most amazing things are going to happen to this culture because of this ghastly threat of climate change... things we always wanted but didn't think it was possible to ask for are actually going to happen. We are going to live in a world that is cleaner. The relationship between the Built World and the Earth is going to change and make more sense. We will become healthier. I have no idea how... but the sculptor in me says that right now is a time of growth and innovation because on both a physical and an existential level we have no choice.

27 November 2006

On Risk

The Riskiest Thing I Have Made Yet: Throw, 2002, 98"x56"x72", styrofoam and duct tape over wood armature.

This weekend I wrote a review that is basically about risk, and I am left wondering about my relationship to risk. I look to other artists to expand my own beliefs and habits in the studio--it's a big reason I write criticism in the first place.

So what can I learn about risk?

I have an inherent relationship to risk--fear motivates and organizes my practice. I fear these things most:

1. wasting my time.
2. looking like I don't know what I am doing.
3. failure: structural, systemic, personal.

So I try to make work:

1. that is inefficient, inexpedient.
2. that has nothing to do with correct building practices--that would get me laughed off a jobsite.
3. that is about failure. That breaks the armature. That is about the largest systemic failure I can think of (climate change). That might not work.

There's One Catch:

If I only use these three organizing principles, I would never get anything done, and nothing would actually stand up and do its thing. The paradox is that a sculpture can be "about failure" all day long, but it still has to work--it's not an illusion. This is what makes sculpture so completely arrogant, and so unyieldingly optimistic.

The most fun I have ever had--period--is working on the easy side of this paradox. Just playing, keeping what I know at arm's length, following the logic of what is in front of me without worrying about what could happen. When I am in correct relationship to this paradox, I am just asking questions by acting on the thing, and dealing with the answers the thing gives back.

The other side of this paradox, however, sucks. It is easy to collapse into actually being afraid, forcing easy conclusions and skillful tricks, and making sense. I have worked enough jobs-for-money to become expedient. I have enough desire to demand a product instead of a process.

And to be perfectly blunt, it is much easier to be honest about working with your fears when nobody has any expectations of you.

Expectations are what create fear and risk. And the best advice I ever got from a teacher is to prolong that sensation of discomfort that comes from doing something risky for as long as I possibly can. And it's a weird yogic truism that the fun does lie in accepting that discomfort. I believe that--that's happened to me before.

I am going to go accept some discomfort today.

25 November 2006

Closing Today--Bradley Castellanos at Caren Golden

Greetings, 2006. All images courtesy Caren Golden Fine Art

If you have a chance to see this work in person today, it's worth the trip. In fact, I am sorry that I did not get it together to write about Castellanos' work sooner. See, they are very strange things, these photocollages Castellanos has created. Images of them don't do the work justice--they look like badly photoshoped images of Williamsburg and Nature when in fact they are the opposite of that.

This is not easy work. The images themselves are not sexy. They are a little too romantic, a little hackneyed. And somehow this becomes okay... or even more than okay. This becomes the point. The images are made in a very weird and thoughtful way, and so become a narrative of their making as much as they become images of things.

Castellanos makes photocollages--he starts with intricately hand-cut large-format photographs. This defiling of the photograph with scissors is satisfying because it's so much easier to do this in a non-committal way, in photoshop, for free, with infinite capacity for do-overs. It's a gesture of Castellanos' commitment, but then he commits himself further. These shreds of photograph are then painstakingly mounted on masonite or some other kind of board, and then made part of an oil painting.

That's right. Thick-n'-gooey, slow-drying, frustratingly amorphous oil paint has to contend with the crispness and the total flimsiness of the photograph. This is done in layers, with a coat of resin freezing in each layer of work. The result is a fattish wedge of image that you can look at from the side and decode a little bit.

And you want to spend time decoding this work. Perhaps decode is the wrong word. Above all else, this process reads as about its own improbability, the sense that it really should not work. This turns each photocollage into a Don Quixote story of its making, with clunky, difficult passages that are redeemed by areas of transcendent effortlessness. You wind up trusting Castellanos' craft to guide you into a very slow looking session. Looking at how, looking at the junction between things, looking at decisions.

Of course the strangest part about this work is that you are left with an image that you are very invested in, having looked at the how of making it, but that does not thrill... yet. Castellanos is after something very difficult--these pieces should utterly fail, and it is their near failure that makes them intriguing. This failure and its constant overcoming is meaningful when we look out on so much that is failing or threatening to fail. It's this flirtation with failure that could get pushed into someplace we haven't been before. I trust Castellanos to take me there, but he's not yet.

Breach, 2006

Chelsea is a very safe place right now--artists are making fewer truly dangerous choices and often have no recognizable relationship to failure. Castellanos is a brave stand-out in a digitized, professionally fabricated, easy-to-describe scene... but of course he is human. There are safe choices in Deadland that need to be mentioned because the work's meaning seems to be a function of its riskiness. I like the romantic imagery--it reads as daring when it works, more evidence of the artist's commitment. It's Rockmanesque. But Castellanos' reliance on the scale, composition and logic of the original photograph seems like an arbitrary limitation. And I hope to see a much more fucked up paint-to-photograph relationship in the future. Of course I am biased, but I want more mistakes, more calamity. More redemption. More like Breach, above, and less like the landscape work, which tends to be easier, more paint-by-numbers.

But what I really want is to see more of this work soon. It's generous and committed, and could explode into something truly thrilling.

20 November 2006

More Brownfield

14 November 2006

Virtual Studio Visit

Not sure what this is called yet... it's not done. I took a stick with a crack in it, and started screwing carpet and cardboard to it. The goal was to make the carpet and cardboard break the stick.

That wound up working. Right now it's in a state of equilibrium--the carpet and cardboard broke the stick, but they also keep the stick together.

12 November 2006


AFC questions whether sculptors have some deeper understanding of realism than photorealistic painters do... whether we share some kind of secret knowledge that keeps us from fetishizing the mundane and makes our decisions around representation smarter. And while I would love to ascribe Wise Status to sculptors everywhere... there is no secret knowledge at work here.

Making a three-dimensional representation of a thing that already exists in three dimensions is a uniquely stupid thing to do, and because making anything is so much work, stupid decisions are usually abandoned before completion. Unlike a cellphone snapshot or even a flat canvas, you have to figure out how to make this thing that is in no way different from the thing itself... and that is only the beginning. Once it's made you have to lift it and carry it around. Find a place to store it.

I would argue that you've got to have a reason to do something as silly as remake something that already exists... and when it works, it works really well because of this very silliness. Working toward an exact representation of a thing that already exists can result in an act of Platonic Jujitsu.

Charles Ray's Unpainted Sculpture is freaky because it is a perfect replica of a very specific car--every single part was taken apart, painstakingly modeled in clay, a mold was taken of each part, it was cast in plastic, and then the whole representation was put back together.

And of course Duane Hanson works the deadpan absurdity axis like none other. What is the difference between wax Whoopi Goldbergs and these folks? The only difference I can find is that these are not celebrities.

Yeah... see, this Daniel Edwards effort doesn't do the same thing for me. It's funny, but it has the logic of a painting... or a wax museum piece. It's a representation of an idea, and the idea is not particularly spatial because Spears exists for most of us as a flat image and not a real thing in space.

The silliness of representing what is already there makes absurdity possible--it's a doorway to changing reality. Charles Ray's Family Romance above.

That's what Mueck's doing. I think these pieces work simply because they are big and real at the same time.

08 November 2006


Dearest Regular Readers:

My wrists are suffering from excessive drill use, paired with entirely too much pushing with my thumbs. Until this soreness turns to strength, I have two choices: master the form of haiku or stop posting.

02 November 2006

Space Is The Place

Turnpike Condos, David S. Allee, currently on view at Morgan Lehman

I can be stupid about photography. It's about light and illusion and it's extremely immaterial, and I have biases that make me wrinkle my nose and dismiss these concerns as lightweight. So I am happy to report that I finally found a photographer for me, who speaks my language and can therefore shake some of these biases loose for me. David S. Allee's Cross Lands at Morgan Lehman is using the language of physical space to create surprisingly abstract photographs that leverage physical space against photographic concerns like light. The resulting images are beautiful little pushes away from the known world, into the meaning these junctions between things create.

The show's organizational conceit is about land use--what happens when the freeway meets the housing development. These are photographs about boundaries, blurred and clearly defined. This principle is inherently didactic--Allee studied to be an urban planner--and this work could easily lapse into information or documentation, but usually it doesn't. Rather, at their best these images are abstractions that seem to be made by stuffing Allee's knowledge of three-dimensional space into a medium-format camera. Turnpike Condos is not a straightforward documentation of the no-mans-land between a barrier and a row of houses. It's not about this area of grass in the foreground. By using a long exposure, Allee winds up making the otherwise invisible freeway behind the barrier much more present than the grass, even though you can't see it at all. This is a trick of light that winds up uncovering how that no-man's-land feels spatially, what it sounds like, what the pressure of movement on the other side of the wall does to the person standing where the camera was. The sensation the photograph winds up conveying owes much to Richard Serra, and that sensation would have made me swoon if Morgan Lehman had room for much larger prints.

Serra effects using light instead of tons and tons of weight? Nice! Maybe light is not lightweight at all. Obviously it can tell you a lot about matter, and can describe physical relationships in an interesting, poetic way. Using ambient light to highlight the difference between spaces or describe the effect one space has on another is one of his favorite strategies. The ballpark behind a suburban house creates a big, mysterious aura in the front of the house. The fast-food restaurant bathes daffodils and a fir tree (all nicely hemmed in by a concrete curb) in a freakish, flat flourescent white.

This work is meaningful because it moves past the presentation of contemporary life and into the representation of what contemporary life feels like, what it amounts to. In this way, Allee's work aligns itself with similarly brilliant photographer Florian Maier-Aichen, but also sculptors like Adam Frelin, who is similarly interested in manipulating both the optical and spatial effects of real things in real space.

There is a lot of large-format photography out there right now, and it seems to specialize in documenting the bleakness that surrounds us. It is a rare treat to watch someone really mine the contemporary landscape for meaning, instead of relying on its formalist freakiness for an instant hit.

01 November 2006

Fear The Lameness

Photo Credit: Dash Snow

HighLow has a good post about the latest Saatchi effort, USA Today, and sews it up with a quote from reviewer Adrian Serle of the Guardian:

It may not be great art, but it doesn't need to be. That's the problem. I want an art more powerful - not just loud, not just blunt. Most of art's audience already know what they think about the state of America and the war on terror. The job of artists, novelists, film-makers, musicians and playwrights demands that they go further than stating the obvious. USA Today is an expression, more than anything, of impotence.

And well, yeah. I'm right with you, Adrian. Politics is about positions, is about right and wrong. left and right. CNN and Fox News. Hannity and... oh, you see my point. This kind of binary, oppositional thinking is exactly what leaches art of its power. Powerful art makes the beautiful ugly and the ugly beautiful for a second. Powerful art fucks with your head. It confuses you and makes you feel all Whitmanesque, you multitude-containing motherfucker!

This drive to bothness and complexity that characterizes powerful art is antagonistic to politics. Politics is about selling a position that jibes with what is already known. Art, when it is powerful, moves beyond what is known and into the realm of what is possible. Powerful art dreams. Much American art sells, and is therefore political even when it is not about a specific political topic.

Why do we do this? Why do American artists obsess over our inferior selves and collapse into the well-worn path of the known world, when we could be pushing out that space between what we believe and what exists in a way that makes us huge and powerful? Why not go further than Lifestyle Propaganda? Why not make complex images that open up the collective American Mind to the idea that we could overcome this amazing mess we find ourselves in?

Why not do more than capitalize on despair?

It's not like Marianne Boesky or Dash Snow's parents or Saatchi himself wouldn't be thrilled to back a work of art that really takes some chances and doesn't resolve itself into an easy sales pitch, right? That moves beyond regurgitating talking points and lameass exercises in art-school-stylization that conflate dirtiness and progressive thought, right?


I mean, if art is supposed to be a rather raw expression of intellectual and financial power, then wouldn't the market drive us all not to the safest, most conservative art that cashes in on what we already know, but to art that truly has the power to uplift and expand our notions of who we are and what we can accomplish?

Enron, WorldCom and the Bush Administration's pandering to Halliburton aside... don't you trust American-style capitalism to priviledge the best products available?