Archive for the 'Détournement' Category

Apocalypto – Interesting Version

Enrique Chagoya has repurposed the bat signal to get the word out: the end is nigh. Instead of projected onto the clouds of the night sky however, Camazotz illuminates the top of several reconfigured one-armed bandit slot machines that form the center piece of the artist’s show 2012: Super-Bato Saves the World at Electric Works through July 2nd.
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Not that the end year of the Mayan calendar should throw us in a tizzy. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and after a few pulls at the machine levers you might just find yourself feeling pretty optimistic about the future. Chagoya has built up a colorful cast of post-mythological characters in a mash-up of American and Mexican secular and sacred iconography, past and present. He even provides a handbook for the perplexed, taking the form of an illegal immigrant’s secret guide and accordioned like a codex, to the strange groups that cluster together north of the border (“Liberals” are fittingly presented as a cartoon ball of whirling kicks and punches, from which the head of Batman emerges with a smirk).
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Armed with your primer to Cabbage Patch-faced Uncle Sams and forewarned about the weird ways Mexicans have been represented in pop culture (one particularly disturbing pulp is referenced in a number of works), you’ll probably resign yourself to the fact that things have been pretty chaotic up ’til now in any case. Once you’ve tackled one border crossing, there are plenty more waiting for all of us on the road up ahead.

Didn’t You Get The Memo?

I try to adhere pretty strictly to a self-imposed rule that I only post on exhibits I’ve actually attended. I feel I owe it to you, Dear Reader, to actually make the effort to visit a show if I’m going to urge you to do the same (some kind of Marxist theory of art appreciation no doubt). I’ve broken it once, when I was too sick to see a show that I’d been looking forward to, and now extenuating circumstances have again forced my hand. You see, the clock is ticking on a certain exhibit at SFMOMA and it turns out you’re the artist on this one. Not sure if you were aware.
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The 1000 Journals Project appears to be a straggler in the museum’s hit or miss The Art of Participation series, which reached dizzying highs with its inclusion of Janet Cardiff’s The Telephone Call but fared less well with some of the online exhibits accessible via terminals in the galleries. This one looks like a lot of fun though: starting out as blank journals, the books have been passed from hand to hand and crisscrossed the globe. On their many stops, additions have been added bit by bit, meaning that whether you’re intending to observe or add your own ideas there’s going to be plenty of inspiration on hand.
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The hope of course is that you’ll contribute, so the museum is providing material in just such an eventuality. If you, like me, are still kicking yourself for not getting in line to take part in The Gift, now’s your chance to get even with all those satisfied go-getters. It also seems perfect for those eager to participate but for whom the thought of, say, reenacting a scene from Life Boat on camera makes you want to curl up into a fetal ball.

A word of warning, 1000 Journals has their own dedicated website, but my attempts to visit prompted a Google advisory warning of potential malware like Trojan programs lurking in the background. I’m not going to link to it here: use your own discretion and note that it’s linked on the SFMOMA page. Oh, and congrats on your first show, but get crackin’: 1000 Journals closes on April 5th.

A Shovel Instead of a Fist

Although Union Square is bustling with Saturday shoppers despite the torrential rain, inside the Meridian Gallery it is quiet and empty. There’s nothing especially unusual about an empty gallery, except that I’m looking at a painting by Guy Colwell that four years ago was the center of a storm of protests, threats, and an attack on a gallery owner that eventually led her to close her business. Despite support from First Amendment advocates, Lori Haigh finally called it quits under the weight of unrelenting barrage of voicemail and e-mail threats, which included statements like “this is for lori haigh.. I am a purple heart owner and a patriotic american and I’m so sorry that you got punched in the face… I would have used a flat nosed shovel or a crowbar myself… so you got off pretty easy with just getting a slight little punch in the face.. us veterans would have probably slapped you in the face with a nice size shovel. So God bless America, support your troops in Iraq, or whatever… George Bush, we dont love him, but he is our commander and Chief and you can not give aid and comfort to the enemy, that is treason. So thank you for listening to me, and I hope the next guy uses a shovel instead of a fist.”

The painting was an interpretation of images already burned into our collective consciousness. So why did the acts of torture not provoke outrage, whereas a representation of them did? The answer is that Americans had turned their back on reportage altogether and under the guise of seeking more “balanced” media coverage had flocked to Fox News and other outlets willing to excuse whatever made the viewer too uncomfortable. Roadtrippin’ with the embedded journalists hadn’t helped too much either. I remember seething over duPont’s award to Ted Koppel, thinking it would have been more fitting had Columbia University refused to honor broadcast journalism that year. The dilemma is captured succinctly by one of the Art of Democracy posters on display a floor above Colwell’s painting. Claude Moller uses a classic image in his print If Vietnam Were Now 2005 that shows just how far we’d fallen from the work of reporters in the field during that war. Ted Koppel’s ride-along seems a pantomime compared to Dan Rather’s sojourn in the Sixties. The awful truth though was that in 2004, self censorship and suppression held the day. The problem wasn’t only that reporters were not delivering the full picture, but that their audiences were demanding it be cropped.

The Meridian’s exhibit then is appropriately titled The Art of Democracy: War and Empire. In a society that responds to images of sadism by attempting to redefine the word “torture,” apparently a photograph is not enough. Several of the works on display tackle a culture that will not be shocked by pairing the appalling with the beautiful. Fernando Marti’s Poppie/Amapolas, which can be viewed here, pairs orange jumpsuited detainees bound by plastic wrist cords kneeling within the confines of a razor-wired encampment and a field of orange poppies in a mountain valley. Ala Ebtekar’s falling bombs, reflecting back the Arabic script of the background, fall through swirls of stylized clouds redolent of Sufi miniature paintings.

A number of the works evoke Pinocchio in response to the lies that helped fuel the war and continue to distort the view of events. Enrique Chagoya’s Poor George- After P.G. (24.28) 2004 is a nod to Philip Guston’s Nixon series, giving George W. and Cheney the inglorious nose job. In The Long Road to War, all of the action plays out on the long schnoz of a grinning figure, with carnival pomp, balloons, harps and drums accompanying the marching bayonetted soldiers and prostitutes as they promenade toward oblivion. Death himself, closeted along the left hand border, seems startled by the procession. As per usual though, it is William T. Wiley’s The Furor Over the Truth 2005 that makes the most impression on me. The masking tape wrapped sculpture, constructed of paper towel spools and cardboard boxes is graffitied over with punning word play and allusions. “So this furor.., over the truth(s)? The Knows… is growing with each fib (or was it fbi… the dialogue had become initials w.m.d, d.p.u. ecc etc.” Appropriately, the complex writing runs in circles with occasional side trips all of which highlight that the truth isn’t so hard as we may make it. Indeed, we may be making it harder than it is because it’s difficult to face. “Dick’s scabbard – So Adolph P. Nixon becomes… George W. Pinocchio who may not look bushed right now… but he will…” And he does.

Which leads us to Francesca Pastine’s work From the Iraqi Casualty Series 2006. Three pages of text from the New York Times have been obliterated with graphite. What remains are the images: family trees with sections blacked from view, colored blankets draped over coffins, another set of coffins covered in plastic, a pile of Saks jewelry encrusted with diamonds. Normally it is the context that is elusive in news reporting. This war is one that will in retrospect be associated with a battle of images: the possible staging of the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein, the banning of photographs of soldier’s coffins, the attack of a gallery owner over an image inspired by the Abu Ghraib scandal.

While world leaders can be held to task for their actions, the entire exhibit on display is a sharp look at the response of democracy to war and its response to itself. It is very easy to relinquish responsibility, but it is shameful when to excuse one’s complicity, the individual lashes back at democracy in an attempt to bring it to quiet submission. The Art of Democracy comes to an end on Tuesday when there is the possibility that a new direction for the nation will come into being and an end will be in sight for eight years of tragedy, the effects of which will linger for decades to come. But a confrontation with those eight years is crucial if there are to truly be any endings or beginnings, and I have a feeling that they now seem as far away to people as the place we still occupy that no longer gets top billing on the newscasts. Because therein lie the answers to why someone would paint a picture inspired by the events of Abu Ghraib, and why news blogs exploded across the web during this period. Bloggers aren’t journalists? Perhaps. But unfortunately journalists weren’t journalists either, so what was Joe the Blogger to do? Perhaps the problem is best captured by Frances Jetter’s offering, a silkscreen of a figure whose tongue is pierced by an enormous lock. Fittingly, the key is palmed in his own hand.

Thanks to my friend Erin who helped track down a particularly elusive link for me.

Fever to Tell

The exhibition of work from the recipients of the 2008 Murphy and Cadogan Fellowships in the Fine Arts has come and gone, but I arrived in time to snap some pics before it vanished. The show filled the small gallery in the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness, a venue that housed Meat Show a few years back. I seem to have no knack for hitting the performance pieces. I missed the functioning hot dog stand at Meat Show, and this time around I wasn’t able to attend any of the performance/discussions held on Anthony Marcellini’s stage installation called A Grass Mound (With Kind Regards to Utopia). That said, Meat Show still remains one of my all-time favorite SF gallery experiences and I have a feeling that the pieces on display at Immediate Future will linger in my mind for some time to come.

Annie Vought’s Scatter, 2007 presented words pinned like lepidopterist specimens to the wall.

All by its lonesome to the extreme right you can find “hope.”

I came back to this piece a few times while wandering through the exhibit. Untitled (plane), 2008 captures the fragility behind many of the things in the modern world in which we have a misplaced feeling of security. There is more to it than the simple jitters of travelers or the world’s collective memory of a horrifying attack. With the price of oil skyrocketing and the world tottering on the brink of economic meltdown, the idea of air travel as leisure activity is less than secure. The image itself is a springboard for any number of conceptual shifts that are occurring as we reevaluate the legacies of industrialization and First World economic hegemony. Claire Jackel’s paper sculpture is simple and haunting in its delicateness.

The more jaded might find this one rather frivolous, but I kind of adore this love letter synechdoche-style. Including furry paens to My Dad, David Crosby, My Muse, and My first true love, collectively Gina Tuzzi’s Beards of Paradise have a kind of Burger King crown charm to them. Peter the Great and other misopogons need not apply.

Dollar Heroes, 2008 are the result of a unique barter system that Elisheva Biernoff set up whereby the responses of those who received her art paid back inspiration in turn. The initial set of hand painted images represented someone the artist respected. As she passed them off a day at a time to people she admired for “their small acts of heroism or common decency,” the recipients offered up their own figure to be represented on a replacement.

The piece is accompanied by a record of the transactions, with descriptions like “May 20, 2008. Ned and Michael were playing a banjo and guitar in Café Trieste. I gave Ned the Gregory Pincus dollar. His hero was Samuel Gompers, American labor union leader.” The hand painting over the mass produced, the act of giving away what is deemed something of fixed value, the exchange of stories: all the elements add up to an exercise in rewriting human experience over the bureaucratic and systematized.

A great unwritten chapter in Art History is that of the exhibit in the tiny, dark, booth-like alcove of a museum or gallery. Even arcades forced those in search of private entertainment to indulge in it while bumping shoulders with the rest of the hoi polloi. But seclusion is the name of the game if you want to endure a few minutes of Paul McCarthy’s Clown Torture. Tucked away around a corner near storage is April Grayson’s looping video Another Word for Family, 2007. The short film is an exploration of the filmmaker’s hometown in Mississippi. Personal stories relate how the experience of racism seared the lives of residents. One woman describes the memory of burning crosses on the front lawn. Another attempts to reconcile his memories of an idyllic childhood with the fact that people from other parts of the country view his state with unconcealed scorn.

Jeff Ray’s Heterotopia: Sauna with video and sound installation, 2008 took me back to another Paul McCarthy exhibit, wherein I found myself dressed like a reindeer sitting inside a little wooden shack with a similarly clad Japanese businessman watching a video of a swearing elf covering herself with chocolate. Ray’s exhibit is all about how a space can be infused with the personal, less a haunting than a habitation. Reading the accompanying plaque and sitting within the wooden shelter, it becomes clear that transplanting a small building within a gallery is not an act of eccentricity but a necessity. There are two stories playing in projection inside. I watched the one about the Swedish woman relating her still vivid memories from childhood of her family’s sauna. The work, according to the wall signage, was inspired by the artist’s intention to erect a shelter at his mother’s home in response to her “battle with cancer caused by the toxicity of her home.” The effectiveness of the finished work for me is its ability to capture experience through the tactile and through the interaction of the visitor who “moves into” an environment suffused with personal emotions.

What at first glance look like row upon row of crayola crayons are actually replicas of M16 shells made from plastic.

Take a few steps back and the picture of George W. comes into focus. WARHEAD, 2008 by Moses Nornberg demonstrates that less is more, in every possible sense of the term.

S Patricia Patterson’s watercolor Curtain, 2008. The self assured expression of the eldest along with her relaxed posture contrasts so beautifully with the unreadable nothings radiating out from her siblings.

I can’t remember the last time I encountered works as daunting as Jina Valentine’s Consumption II(a), 2008 Marx vs. Foucault and Consumption II(b), 2008 Kaprow vs. Nietzche.

Tiny scrawled writing occupies every available inch of the twinned dry erase boards on display.

Try not to give in to the inevitable feeling of intense guilt at not reading every bit of it. Of course, once that starts, you begin to think: do I have to read the whole thing to be able to comment on it intelligently? Perhaps I can look at it conceptually, the fact that she is using a medium that screams impermanence or the fact that the labor involved in something that is ultimately perishable says something about the folly of creating “for the ages.” Perhaps if I throw in a bit of text, that’ll somehow give the illusion that I read it start to finish: “Contemporary art production is a multi-valent and self-perpetuating creation circuit. At the most fundamental level, art objects demand that we form words about them/ and the words formed about these objects inspire the creation of other art objects.” Oy vey. That’s only line one.

Even if it points out the limits of patience (i.e. laziness) of today’s viewer faced with a work painstakingly inscribed and displayed for viewing or even if it’s an elaborate joke masquerading as message, I liked it if nothing else because its impenetrability is linked directly to your input.

While it would be overreaching to read into the works collected as indicative of some kind of impending trend, I found it heartening that so many of them seem to place so much of an emphasis on narrative. The replacement of the impersonal dollar with the personal story and subjective determinations of heroism, the word cloud of Annie Vought, the posture of a charred paper plane as the limp body of a dead swan, a tiny shack with memories on playback, indeed all the works mentioned here have a desperation to them, the need to explain, to relate. Damien Hirst’s works are zipping through the auctions right now, but so are many works by Chinese artists, where themes of history and memory collide. In the face of globalization, the leavening of the subjective in lieu of the official, the brand, the franchise, these are anxious attempts to speak us back into existence.

Bonfire Night

The flame erupting upward in Jon Casey Clary’s Campfire is like a spiritual twin to Hokusai’s Great Wave. It dominates the frame, daring the viewer to look elsewhere, knowing that it will be the thing remembered when the gazer looks away. Gathered around it in a loose circle are the campers, visible only where the blaze has illuminated a scrap of clothing, an arm or a head. Their faces are signified only by an erasure: the fire has stripped their features and individuality away completely. The pale ovals serve as looking glasses reflecting back the conflagration.

Clary makes up one third of Root Division’s recent show Three Angles. The works of all three artists grabbed my attention, but Campfire dominated much of my visit, not only because of its striking composition but by virtue of the fact that it rewarded repeat viewings. The signage reveals that it’s constructed of paper mounted on a panel, the former incised to reveal the blaze of orange underneath. Those spots illuminated by the fire, the faces or a ribbon of torso, are also the result of stencil-like cut-aways. If you look closely at the heads there are scratches or the pattern of a thumbprint visible on some of them. Near the top of the flame where it stretches to engulf the top left of the picture there are sworls and eddies where Clary overpainted thickly applied curlicues or applied glue to the canvas. They are invisible at first but pop out when seen from an angle and the overhead gallery lights hit them right.

The scene is a stark contrast to camping outings as I remember them. Generally you huddled about the fire, close but wary, hunched on the ground or a rock. The fire sputtered happily in front of you, hypnotic to watch, and the spread of night above you tended to make you feel smaller: a reminder of your place in the scheme of themes. The campers in the painting all stand, hands thrust into hoodies or jean pockets dumb to the torrent in front of them. The tableau seems something more akin to Viking funeral pyre or pagan ceremony. The campfire, expanding like a geyser, gives every indication that it threatens to get out of control. The nonchalant postures of those gathered about it add an air of mystery to the proceedings. If danger exists they are unconcerned, complicit. But the sky is the same as I remember. Clary has captured the look and feel of a starry night unmarred by the lights of city or suburb by splattering white paint against the black oil and acrylic.

Nearby, in another piece, he has mimicked the look of old classic travel posters, if not the message. A cruise ship is set against a sheet of clear water with mountains looming on the horizon. A flowery font proclaims the name of the piece Fly Now, Pay Later. As an added reminder of the high price our planet is paying for our extravagant indulgences, the spindly scaffold-like legs of an oil derrick project from the bottom of the boat freezing it in place.

His Interior With Alcatraz eschews no such easy to read message. The room is hard to identify. What look like trays or glass boxes line the walls, and a grid stretches along the ceiling which might be a skylight, a grating or fluorescent lighting. Floating in their midst is a model-sized representation of Alcatraz Island seemingly scooped right out of the Bay. Perhaps it’s some kind of architectural salad bar or science lab?

One of Root Division’s staff pops out of nowhere to light up Holley R. Coley’s paintings tucked away in a back corner. Turns out she’s not part of the exhibit but they’re worth noting for their tongue-in-cheek fondness for their subject matter. In each Coley makes a sly jab at our representations and expectations of those who have proved too darn stubborn to “cross over.” The ghosts retain their supermarket Halloween sign salt and pepper shaker physiques, their eyes and mouths interchangeable “O’s.” In one they don curly locks or flapper cuts to cover up their terminal baldness and in another we find an elegant looking mermaid ghost, stretched out to sun herself no doubt, but mouth ready at any time for a good unearthly wail.

I chose in this post to focus mainly on a single piece so unfortunately the other two featured artists do not receive the attention here they deserve. But if you catch their names showing up in future shows I urge you to seek them out. Joshua Aaron’s experiments in détournement mix Phaidon regulars with cel animation stills, personages from Corbet and van der Weyden mingling and scrambling along Looney Tunes forest landscapes. Kevin Earl Taylor’s The San Francisco Mammal (Second Sighting) presents our fair city hitching a ride atop a massive sperm whale. Lou Reed’s Last Great American Whale perhaps? I’m currently plowing through Moby Dick so this massive oil painting of a species hunted nearly to extinction served as a nice complement to the reading, and perhaps a warning or a rebuke. We all go down together after all.