22 February 2007

Three Cheers for Zizek!

Both Jodi Dean and HighLow were right to start by looking to the horse's mouth:

The true victory (the true 'negation of the negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat. It occurs when one's specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy.

--Slavoj Zizek presents Mao: On Practice and Contradition

And Dean wastes no time asserting that the political left in America has simply not figured out that the terms of the dream must change, that their message is not just accepted by the enemy... it's really being put to work by the enemy. (I particularly like her example of imperialist asshole presidents "spreading democracy...")

Dean's diagnosis, a'la Zizek? Because the enemy has taken over our language, we lack even the ability to say what we want, to state exactly what's wrong. We have lost the language for dreaming.

Highlow superbly takes this one step further, past politics and into art. He's right about irony and all those other "tried and true methods of revolt - ugly painting, pornography, appropriation, "low" art..." These strategies are no longer saying No to anything. They are referring to a tension that is such old news that the art doesn't just look stagnant or mannered. It looks as conservative as "spreading democracy."

Highlow sees the empty rhetoric of protest art being rebranded as a "niche style(s) that in fact resemble the establishment more than they confront the establishment and the practitioners are allowed to continue on with their illusions of dissent."

And honestly, I think he's being too nice. Allowed to continue on with their llusions of dissent, my eye! I could just be crabbin' on Armory Season... but I think the picture is much more round. I think art buyers are out there actively rationalizing imperialism by buying art that has a specific countercultural manner.

All this leaves me shilling for an old argument: The most important political action an artist can take is to make apolitical art. Political strategies in art wind up telling viewers what to think, and this works too well, and takes us all away from Zizek's goal:

...in a radical revolution, people not only have to 'realize thgeir old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams'; rather, they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming.

I know that this is frustratingly indirect, and that we live in perilous times, but I will say it again. Art that moves past all those old counterculture tropes and into the unknown is about the only thing that can get us back on the dreaming path.

19 February 2007

Get Thee To Pierogi

Michael Schall, Mining The Crevasse, 2007. Image stolen from Pierogi's website.

There's a hint of earnestness in the air. And I like it.

I know, I know. That is not a sexy hook in a world where Dash Snow still manages to titilate. But it is interesting. Instead of seeing Some Lazy Strewn Something, or Documentation of a Studied, Self-Oriented Artist's Personal Obsession, or Pretty Doodles...

...I walked into Pierogi Saturday and found art that takes itself a little seriously. That does existential heavy lifting. That asks questions.

Michael Schall's drawings and Jonathan Schipper's Pinnate Phlogiston installation work well together--it was great to look at Schall's work while smelling exhaust and listening to gallerinas explain that they can only run the sculpture for thirty seconds because it poisons them. This atmosphere gave the drawings a sense of danger that they would otherwise aspire to. And Schall's drawings evoke a bleakness and carefulness that sets a person into the right frame of mind to watch Schipper's Firebird birds slowly, lamely turn. There is a stupidness to this piece--the way it poisons, the inelegance of the kinetic gesture and how that clunkiness compares to how expensive it looks--that could turn a viewer off. You could look at this thing and start trying to fix it, or start running up the budget for it in the McMaster-Carr Catalog In Your Mind. But in this installation, after looking at Schall's drawings, you can see it for what it actually is and kind of fall in love. This thing is a poem written by a teenager, complete with shadowy effects and too much explanation and eight cylinders of bravado with no wheels, going nowhere. It is the first effective thing I have seen come out of the 2003-04 Chelsea Goth Obsession. It actually harnesses angst to a larger, truly important question. It actually asks about the space between the engine and the tree. How necessary.

Schall's work is much more straightforward--less ambitious, but also less frought. These careful blandscapes out of graphite on paper are looking at the space between what we build and the earth it sits on. And they derive a certain cold elegance by focusing pretty much exclusively on that boundary and nothing else. The logic of these drawings seems to be in flux. Sometimes the image is driven by verbs--the earth swallowing up or lifting the built world--and sometimes its more of a visual thing, as in: I see a vista of spindly peaks and imagine that there are conduits inside these peaks. Of course, I am biased. I like the verb-driven drawings. A lot. And I like them because they are cold and elegant and simple. They are the opposite of histrionic. They want to understand, not judge or fear.

If they don't already, I think that Schall and Schipper should collaborate, or at least have coffee regularly. I envision a world in which Schall takes more chances, and in which Schipper makes elegant choices that foil or complicate his desparation and striving, and that world makes me grin from ear to ear. These artists are doing important intellectual work, and it is going to be great fun watching them continue to grow, learn and push. They are framing "the environment" as the existential problem it is, and we all desperately need this kind of understanding.

Even if it means abandoning irony and taking a chance on riskier, more rigorous tactics.

10 February 2007

More About Truth, or What I Saw On My Trip to Los Angeles

Let me start with a quote from Artblog Comments:

Now, if consciousness and selfhood derive not from a single coherent source such as a soul, but from many scattered sources, for me to allow my current idea of who "I" am to determine what my work will and won't be is at the very least restrictive. Better in my estimation to let the impulse to create and my responses to the results instruct me on what this "I" truly consists of, its boundaries and its true nature.

Mmmm, truth. How can such a simple idea be so slippery? I think that the problems with truth are all in where you put your perceiving organism. It's a problem of vectors, and Bill illuminates this by thinking about the source of consciousness, and his lovely assertion that the vectors moving between the creator and the creating are going the wrong way. We are accustomed in western culture to looking at consciousness as an inside-outside problem, and to think that it's a matter of getting our insides out for all the world to see.

Caspar David Friedrich, Prehistoric Tomb in the Snow, 1807, shamelessly lifted from the Getty's website

Joel and I were talking about this at the Getty, where there is currently a weird little show juxtaposing Caspar David Friedrich and Gerhard Richter. Of course, Friedrich is supporting the dominant paradigm here. His paintings are sublime because he takes what's inside and throws it outside, through his eyes, onto what he sees in the landscape. So if you were going to draw vector lines to understand the truth of a Friedrich painting, you would draw two lines going from his "soul" inside him, out his eyeballs, into the world, where they then coat everything he sees in his sense of self. In other words, each Friedrich is an outside that is full of his insides. We know this paradigm--it is a staple of expressionism. And I would argue that we have not rejected this relationship between the artist's inside and outside, but we do think that it's more ironic. After all, Friedrich's truth is not my truth, and who does he think he is to speak for me, that Dead White Motherfucker?

Kendell Carter, Hommie, 2006, shamelessly lifted from the Hammer's website

There is much contemporary art that still shadowboxes that basic inside-to-outside paradigm, but to much less thrilling effect because it's not about truth anymore--rather, it's about truth's absence. Kendell Carter's artist-as-consumer installation at the Hammer is not offering a new set of vectors as much as it's shortening the lines. He sees design, hiphop culture, breakdancing, ikea, graffitti and bling, and he is therefore a part of its commodification. So his insides still move out into the world, and they still take what is external to the artist and infect it with meaning, but the meaning isn't about truth.

And this makes sense, because we know that Friedrich and Pollock were both living a kind of arrogant lie, right? That this is not a good way to find truth, right? But I would argue that it might be more fun and more powerful to find new avenues toward truth instead of issuing an ironic statement about the lying nature of this relationship.

Carter is smart with his eyes, and he knows that looking at things gives them values that shift from context to context, from class to class. And that's what Hommie/Homey is about--it's about presenting signifiers from different kinds of people together, with a big handful of hiphop and graffitti over the whole thing. Carter's statement is loud and clear:

"I feel bad about the commodification of hiphop/graffitti/breakdancing culture, and yet I am a part of that act of commodification because here I am, self-conciously, in a museum, and I see that."

And yes. Carter is right, but it lands with a thud. What's the larger point? Where is the redemption? Why am I standing here?

I stood in Carter's installation for a long time because the obligatory video verite included some really fun breakdancing footage. And I kept thinking to myself, you know, I am a skinny little white girl from the whitest town on the planet and everything, but I can't help but think that Carter should be watching the breakdancers and ditching the design fetish. Design is part of that taking over the external world with your eyes paradigm that Friedrich represents for a few more paragraphs, and Carter obviously knows that this is a dead end. But the breakdancers are doing something else entirely. They are throwing out if-then statements about the relationship between their bodies and the sidewalk, and in doing so they are finding a thousand tiny truths about gravity and their own biology, and how they can bend and break these rules of physics and physical embodiment. What they are doing is powerful.

Like Bill Gusky, the breakdancers are switching the vectors. Instead of looking out into the world and attempting to grab and hold and own and conquer, because we know that's a dead end, they are letting the world (the floor, really) hit them and responding. And in that constant adjustment, they are finding more than what we previously thought was possible.

Um... and I would call the results from that process of infinite adjustment a large set of tiny truths that are beholden to no individual because they came from without and not from within.

Gerhard Richter, Wald (892-1), 2005, shamelessly lifted from the Getty's website

Okay, back to the Getty. The Friedrich paintings were juxtaposed with Richter paintings. And yeah. This seemed awfully random to me as well. But if you sit down and really look at the show, the vectors become quite clear. Richter, like Carter's breakdancers, is moving from the outside in. His work is consistently about these kinds of small truth, about the truth paint contains when subjected to a negotiating process, about the truth of a photograph, the truth of images. Perhaps Gusky would say that Richter is not restricting himself to talking about himself, that he would rather be a conduit through which experiments about the nature of reality pass.

06 February 2007

Some Influence: New Sculpture At Dangerous Curve

I'm back in New York, and LA was a blast! I saw great art, I met fantastic people, I had a really, really nice opening. For now, I cannot thank Tim and Kathy at Dangerous Curve enough, for taking a chance on an out-of-towner, and for throwing such a generous party, and for being so great in general. I wish I had some paparazzi shots, but for now this will suffice. Here are a few candid images of the art, courtesy James Graham:

There is so much to write about. Brent Burkett, hold on to your hat: I am finally ready to talk about the difference between LA and NY... after I unpack.