24 December 2007

New York Times To Chelsea: You've Dropped Dead

The first step to improvement is admitting you have a problem.

The New York Times has summed up all of 2007's visual arts activity in three scant articles. At the back of the paper. Each one of them more of an indictment than a summation.

Holland Cotter played the straight man and attempted a legitimate trip down memory lane, but could only attack such an exercise after deploying a disclaimer, making the gist of his article go something like this:

Art is merely businessy slick marketing. These were the few things that escaped this glossy existential vacuum. Some of them were kind of dumb. But at least I remembered them.

Roberta Smith opted for more of a two-bird salute. Instead of traipsing through the year that was, she wrote a stiff memo condemning us all for sanitizing and professionalizing a business that is best left to dirty unprofessionals who don't quite know what they are doing. She did this by focusing on three words we all use when we talk about art, and yes. This is an effective strategy for dispatching lots of serious problems in a thousand words. Words like reference or imbricate do point directly at (more than) a year of gobbledygook posturing as actual intellectualism. The word practice is an efficient vehicle for unpacking the problem of the MFA; the professionalism it creates; and how that professionalism devastates the artist's ability to make no sense and solve no problem.

Carol Vogel's little back-page ditty on, basically, stuntsmanship as lame visual art, rounded out this trifecta nicely. Consider the gauntlet thrown! Finally, instead of just not covering arts very much, the paper of record has very clearly explained why visual arts receives so little coverage. From the sound of three of its arts journalists, it sounds like there is little happening that is legitimately "fit to print."

There is nowhere to go but up!

21 December 2007


I was dragging my eyes through comments, in which readers alternately praised Stanley Fish for pointing out the naked king and discredited him as a philistine, and this jumped out at me:

I don’t like art that shows me stuff I’ve seen (as in the New Museum). I like art that shows me stuff I’ve never seen (e.g., Jackson Pollock). And best of all I like art that shows me stuff I mistakenly thought I’d seen (Cezanne).
— Posted by Anthony D'Amato

Perfect! This comment wastes no time on what is or is not art, and wastes no time on charges of philistinism or fakery, and I like that. It simply stakes out some ground for deciding what one should value in art.

Of course, the whole point about contemporary art, the thing to "get," is that anything goes. But does it really? And should it? What point, other than fealty to Duchamp, does this en masse expression of gullibility prove?

There is no magic in art if it is already right, if anything really does go. And this absence of common critical ground winds up disrespecting artists, whose work must be engaged either in terms of bobble-headed approval or retarded strawman arguments about what is or is not art.

There's no good reason for art to be this kind of sucker's game.

20 December 2007

The State Of The Residency: Tomorrow At Dieu Donne

I'm participating in this panel discussion tomorrow night at Dieu Donne:

Dieu Donne
315 West 36th Street
New York, NY

Artists & Admin:
New York Workspace Residencies
Friday, December 21, 2007 – 6:30 pm
Moderated by Patricia C. Phillips

We will be discussing "the current state of New York City's workspace residency programs." I don't know what that means...yet! But if you are a regular reader of this blog, you already know that ignorance has never before stopped me from having an opinion.

Seriously, I don't know what the real questions will be, but I go into this discussion noticing that spaces like Socrates, Dieu Donne and the Lower East Side Printshop are keeping traditions alive as much as they are offering artists commodities like space. And that the "post studio" situation (movement? condition?) creates interesting challenges and prompts adaptations from these nonprofits, who are defining themselves against specific kinds of studio practice.

It should be fun. I'll be rockin' the house not just with moderator Patricia C. Phillips, but with these fine artists and arts administrators: Sonya Blesofsky, Noah Loesberg, and Jean Shin Jeanne Gerrity, Felicity Hogan and Dona Warner.

Hope to see you there!

17 December 2007

I'm Adding Stanley Fish To My Harem Of Old Men

Stanley Fish tippy-tapped his thoughts about the New Museum, sounding kind of like Charlie Finch's older, nicer brother. Or Eric Larsen's merely wistful, less histrionic colleague.

(EL, I know you hate Stanley Fish. I am making a point here)

And once again, it is important to respect one's elders! To actually read and love the Old Man Argument, and see the value in it without collapsing into that backward-looking, all younger people are stupider than older people and all the good galleries are closed and this old art is so superior to this new art gobbeldygook.

These are intellectual traps.

Stanley Fish. It's not about the inadequacy of the New Museum's cafe, or the cracks in its unpretentious-pretentious floor, or the fact that the stacked-box effect made you fussy.

It's not even about the superiority of permanence. You wrote, wistfully, that art once aspired to permanence, and that is about the most irrelevant thing art could aspire to right now. Look around you, man! The ice caps are melting and we, ourselves, are drowning in a sea of our own detritus, our own shopping bags and complex financial products and USB cables and wireless radiation. Everything is changing, and it had better! We are ripping apart the Middle East; becoming more economically similar to Mexico than any other developing country; out-Tancredoing Tancredo; refusing to admit that waterboarding is torture; buttfucking habeas corpus.

The last thing we need is to think of is permanence, because we are in trouble!

What you mean, perhaps, is that we can find meaning in all this ephemera, and the need for change, and the deep knowledge of transience without succumbing to mere crapulence. Transience, the fact that everything changes and is changing, is not an inferior idea to permanence. It's just that western culture is treating it that way right now. You are right about that.

16 December 2007

Top Ten List of Fears (art-related)

Deborah Fisher, Break (detail), 2007, carpet, cardboard and drywall screws stressing a wood armature

I am afraid to make something:

1. that isn't relevant in a specific reality-based conceptual (Kaprow, Burden, La Va) way.
2. decorative
3. too "Sculpture Magazine"
4. formal
5. crafty
6. that merely illustrates an idea
7. that doesn't illustrate an idea
8. clever
9. that's "just sculpture"
10. stupid

Trust Fall for 2008:

The ideas are in the making of the thing. Fearing the actual making of the thing and privileging my mind can only dilute the actual ideas. I trust the feedback formalism and craft are giving me--I trust their generative power. Fuck ideas from me, fuck Alan Kaprow, fuck Chris Burden and Barry LaVa too!

I am going to just make the stupidest, prettiest sculptures that I possibly can. I am going to trust that I actually have something to say, and that it will come out if I let it.

14 December 2007


I got into a discussion with someone about elitism recently. It all started because he thought skiing was the most elitist sport ever. You have to go far away from where you live, he said. Pay for a hotel room, plane fare, all your meals. And all the expensive gear! You need to buy skis and the appropriate clothes.

He said he was opposed to snow sports on principle. The only reason he concluded anyone would do it is to show off how much money they have.

And I countered that this is a matter of location. You don't live near good skiing. But if you lived in, say, Hailey Idaho, you'd go skiing three times a week even if you were buying your groceries with WIC's help, because in Hailey Idaho, skiing is less expensive than going to the movies or any other form of entertainment around and everyone inherits a pair of hand-me-down skis.

This got me thinking about the nature of elitism in general. I have never liked the word because it is used as such a blunt tool. Everything can be labeled elitist if you can't have it or don't see the value in it. And that self-oriented use of the word totally eclipses the idea that it might actually be valuable to preserve an elite tier of things.

You wind up with serious intellectual problems that are structural in nature. You substitute injokes and cliquishness for hard and interesting work. You toe the line of popular culture instead of actually being avant garde.

It's funny, the way the word elitist cuts two ways. And I wonder how these two spheres of elitism, the actual value of something that is legitimately better and the in-crowd effect, work together.

There are known problems with this idea that anyone can agree that some things are simply better than others. We all went to college. We all know that in order to rank stuff, someone has to be the ranker. And we all know that while the Bush Administration is brimming with folks who are willing to step in and make these choices...

...liberal, thinking people tend to avoid assigning hierarchical value like the plague.

It's potentially a stupid thing to do. You might leave something out, or otherwise expose yourself as a philistine. It was so easy to be an elitist when we believed in objectivity. But in a world without objectivity, it seems smarter to be an assigner of qualities who can see the value in anything. It's best to avoid elitism.

Like a sampler of world cuisine, the art appreciator is supposed to have a broad palate. And I'm no Hilton Kramer. I don't have any bones to pick with this broadness per se. Art should be a place where you can see things that might blow your mind, but may not be entertaining. Art should be a place where you might have to stretch yourself in order to get what you see.

The thing that I am curious about is how this very openness becomes its own elitist dogma.

I see this at the park all the time--people look at the art in the park according to their real-world rules, in which they assign a certain amount of value as a matter of practicality, so that they can navigate and understand the world and their place in it. When confronted with something that makes no sense, like a piece of art, located in a public park, that is made of a material children find irresistable, on the ground, in unstable condition so that children can pick it up and play with it...

...they make a judgement. They say to themselves that it's obviously OK that their children are jumping up and down and pulling at this thing until it breaks. If it wasn't okay, then the sculpture would be out of the way of the children, or made out of a different material. And the fact that it's not withstanding the treatment their children are dishing out is not proof that it should not be touched. It's proof that the sculpture wasn't executed well. They don't have any problem seeing that this sculpture failed in this context for simple reasons.

This drives the administrators of the park (including myself) crazy! Don't these philistines understand, we say amongst ourselves, that it's not a playground, that this is art and should be respected as such?

What I find funny is the way this type of situation inverts the direction of elitism. I am the elitist one in this instance--I am the one shining down some rule that makes no sense, and that provides this sculpture with special privileges that are not even appropriate in this context. And the parent, or the judger, is the one who is just being as broad and sensitive as possible to what is actually around them.

13 December 2007

New Review On ArtCal Zine: Liz Craft at Marianne Boesky

Liz Craft is a hero of mine. The review I wrote of her latest untitled effort can be found here.

And while you're at the Zine, you can also read a great review of 3 Modifications by fellow UCSD alum and appreciator of the City Reliquary Brody Condon.

12 December 2007


This is not touchy-feely. I am being serious.

The converse of risk is trust. I love the physical sensation of taking a risk, but I hate that sensation of trust that necessarily accompanies each risk. I am not a trusting person.

An example: my husband is an excellent driver who has never been in an accident. And every single time he drives, my knuckles are white and the imaginary brake pedal is going crazy.

And yet the best things that have ever happened to me happened only because I figured out how to stop doing that kind of reacting and trust them.

This is what I mean.

I don't think I am going to look at risk from the yang side anymore. It plays into my weaknesses. I'm going to think about trust for a week and see what happens.

You trust? Is it harder than risk for you, too? What is the one thing you should trust but can't?

08 December 2007

Risk and The Idea of Risk

Deborah Fisher, Twist (detail), 2007, carpet, cardboard and drywall screws deforming an autobody armature

So I wrote a review of Liz Craft's untitled effort at Boesky for the Zine that will be published eventually, and it centered on the idea of risk--what exactly Craft is risking. And it got me wondering what I risk.

I tend to say that I risk failure, but that's like cooking pots and pans for supper, isn't it? Besides, failure is an idea, and I think that sculpture is beautiful because it is flesh. It's not ideas made flesh. It's flesh that you can derive ideas from. So I woke up this morning wondering where the flesh is.

I have no answers to that. I like the idea of risk so much that my practice is clotted with instances where the idea is more important than the flesh. I invest heavily in ideas like structural failure and make a bunch of things that are breaking and eating themselves. This is a fun sthick and I've gotten a lot out of it. And it may be a sauce that smothers the meat.

Not saying that I'm bad. It's more like when it gets dark at 4pm, it's a fine time for introspection.

Anyone else find that what they think they are doing gets in the way of what they are doing? Is it advisable to even try to know what you are doing? I'd love to hear what you all think.

04 December 2007

New Orleans Elegy Extended All Winter

Take advantage of global warming, get yourself on an N or a W train, and visit Socrates Sculpture Park this winter!

New Orleans Elegy--a steel and bronze monument based on a map of New Orleans that is destroying itself a little bit more every day--has been invited to stick around until spring. And if I do say so myself it's a particularly appropriate context, with the big cement ruin it sits on serving as a perfect perch from which to watch boats on the East river, and an unusually strong Emerging Artists Fellowship show rocking the rest of the park.

03 December 2007

Sculpture Is About Imbuing Things With Some Sort Of Meaning: Charles Ray v. Martin Puryear

Charles Ray and Martin Puryear have very little in common. But they are both working consistently with a specific sculptural trope:

How do I take this thing and turn it into another thing that is an idea. That is not a representation of this thing, but is more about why I can't stop looking at it in the first place?

What is the existential significance of looking at something, of holding it in your hand? What does that interaction prove? And how does that meaning transmit to a larger culture of people who, like sculptors, look at and hold things?

Puryear is really lyrical and dreamy about this questioning. He moves from wheelbarrow, or head, or tool, to African sculpture, to the material itself (usually wood) to structural concerns like a volume's inside and outside...

...he's doing two things. He's staying pretty well within the ideas you find while making the thing--he's using sculpture to talk about sculpture. And his thinking is in no way rigid. He's no conceptualist--he's not out there to make sense. He's in it for the music.

Charles Ray is a conceptual sculptor. He endeavors to make a very specific, even narrow, kind of sense, and is harnessing the language of sculpture to the world of seeing that we all share. His work is much easier to pick apart in terms of how it imbues a thing with meaning. Unpainted Sculpture is an almost exact replica of a car that someone died in. Every single piece was taken out of the car, catalogued, re-created in clay, cast, and then the car was rebuilt, in an effort to understand the mystery of the death car. What you get, of course, is a car that is not quite right because every piece has been translated by a carver, and this imbues the car, which once had this mystical allure of death, with a new, literal uncanniness of strange fit. Hinoki began as a real fallen tree that struck Ray with its Platonic power. It felt like The Fallen Tree to him, not just any old tree, but the original from which that idea of "fallen tree" is stamped in your mind. So he took it out of some guy's field and brought it to his studio, made an extremely intricate mold of it, cast it in a material that would travel well (fiberglass?) and sent that new representation of the tree--the one that would not fall apart--to Japan. Where it was reproduced by expert carvers in wood. Specifically, hinoki. The best Japanese wood. The kind of wood that you make a casket or a temple out of in Japan.

A Charles Ray sculpture is, generally, about the story of its making. And it contains questions about how it is that we make a thing or perceptual moment meaningful. Is it in the act of looking, like the moment of driving past this tree and seeing its iconic power? Or is this power to create meaning about effort on our part? Is it that effort to imbue an object with meaning that Ray is striving to reproduce as he creates iterations upon his iterations?

I like Charles Ray's work because I like its fastidiousness, its total commitment to the idea that the logic of sculpture can explain these unexplainables, like how it is that the car itself is rendered creepy once someone dies in it, or where, exactly, the platonic ideal of the fallen tree was located. In its shape? In its woodenness? Inside of Ray as he drove by, or in the tree itself, now thrown away and replaced with a much more perfect replica? Ray seems to define sculpture as the physical evidence of a set of specific spatial questions. It's about relationships: you and the thing. The thing and its meaning. And so on.

Puryear is older and is working with a different paradigm, so he does not need to go to this questioning place. Like a good modernist should, he takes it as a given that he imbues things with meaning, which is why he can play so well, and work so easily with abstraction. Instead of rigorously questioning the mystery of thing into icon, he plays with how exactly that process works on a formal level. The result is a sculpture in the easiest sense of the word. Puryear seems to define sculpture as a thing that takes information from the world of things in a physical way, so that its very thingness is conceptual and actual at the same time.

I like Puryear's work because it has a high fun-to-effort ratio. It's whistle-while-you-work sculpture that glorifies the actual looking and doing instead of getting all meta about the what labor does, or what looking is. Besides, because Puryear is actually shouldering the intellectual burden of creating that meaning

(because he's The Imbuer)

instead of making work that questions this role, he has a lot of freedom.

Ray is making work that is much more relevant to me and my experience of the world. At a time when we are so obviously damaging the world with our ideas of it, it makes more sense to question that capacity for humans to make meaning in the world than it does to take it as a universal truth.

But is it possible to find any of that Puryear-style freedom in this questioning?