Saturday, April 11, 2020

A Coronavirus Dream

Robert Boyd

“What is common in all these dreams is obvious. They completely satisfy wishes excited during the day which remain unrealized. They are simply and undisguisedly realizations of wishes.”
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

I had a dream last week that illustrates this theory.

I was at an art exhibit’s opening night. It was in a non-art space, a large room that seemed like a cheap banquet hall with wood paneling. It was a casual group show as opposed to a curated show. The vibe reminded me of Houston’s great defunct art space, the Joanna, but the space was much larger than the Joanna had been.

There were two huge stone and metal sculptures—they were roughly ovoid-shaped boulders wrapped with bands of a shiny yellowish metal. As I looked at them, I wondered how the organizers transported them into the space. They looked like the weighed tons. I was wondering if the floor was sturdy enough to support them. I walked over to one of them and it disappeared, turning into a energy bar in my hands. Somehow I didn’t question this remarkable transformation and instead unwrapped the energy bar and ate it. But almost instantly I felt guilty for eating the art. Hanging next to the remaining boulder were a couple of crudely made sculptures. One was a model of plane, like a really old Cessna. But it was not perfect—it was kind of rough and lumpy, as if it had been made of papier-mâché. It reminded me a little of Tom Sachs’ work. Brandon Zech was standing nearby and I asked him if he knew who the artist was. He shrugged his shoulders.

 Tom Sachs, Crawler, 2003, foamcore, thermal adhesive, wood

There was a table with a variety of artworks on it. It was a folding banquet table, the kind you might see at a zine festival. And like that kind of table, it was strewn with small objects for sale. Some were three-dimensional, and some were small drawings. One pile attracted my attention. They appeared to be watercolors of faces, mostly of well-known people. They had a savage quality without being out-and-out caricatures. There were several pictures of Ronald Reagan. I wondered who had made them. I looked on the back for a signature and saw only a penciled price. They were all really inexpensive: twenty six dollars and some cents. It was a weirdly specific price and well within my price range.

I decided to buy two Reagans, then I noticed another artist had also painted a Reagan on paper. It was different but also appealing. I decided to buy all three. I explained to someone there that I thought Reagan was worth memorializing because it was his presidency that had started the USA on a dystopian libertarian downward path. By the end of the dream, I had also picked up a video with a Reagan theme. Why was Reagan in my subconscious last night? I don’t know. Then I woke up.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Archive Art

Robert Boyd

Just before coronavirus shut everything down, I went to San Antonio for Novel Ideas, Blue Star Contemporary's art book fair. The keynote speaker was Julie Ault, who had been a member of the art collective Group Material from 1979 to 1996. Group Material is probably best known for the AIDS Timeline produced in 1990. They produced research-based artwork, usually very political. Listening to Ault speak got me thinking about this kind of art. I've seen examples of it many times over the years, but for whatever reason, Ault prompted me to think of it as a specific genre of art. A kind of art that doesn't, as far as I know, have a name. I've been calling it "archive art" in my mind, but if any of you know an already existing name, please let me know.

I stumbled across a workable definition while reading America Starts Here, a big art book about the work of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler. It's been on my "to-read" shelf for a long time, and this quarantine moment seemed like a good moment to crack it open. The first essay is by Bill Arning, written before he moved to Houston to become director of the Contemporary Art Museum. In it, he wrote:
The list of strategies Ericson and Ziegler used to make artworks seemed very unusual at the time, though today's young artists regularly employ these methods, which include the following: 1) Researching arcane areas of knowledge and pursuing a passion for the aura of the archive; 2) Using mapping and other similar ways of schematizing life; 3) Creating a system that dictates all significant visual decisions about a work's presentation; 4) Employing found elements rather than causing something new to be made; 5) Viewing the entire country as a text to be read, engaged and decoded; 6) Using natural materials, like stone, leaves, and water, as they are inflected or coded by culture; 7) Critically engaging decoration and architecture for what they reveal about society; 8) Using Americana as topic, material, or motif; 9) Engaging cultural institutions, museums, and monuments, such as the Supreme Court, libraries, and universities; 10) Investigating governmental decisions about urban space and making them public; 11) Collecting and collating found language, which can subsequently function as a kind of found poetry; 12) Using the practical business decisions of others as a structuring device for works; 13) Designing projects that exist in multiple states, each of which creates meaning; from the first research to the final use of materials; 14) Insertting delays into a process that unnaturally extends the in-between period of a simple task such as landscaping or cleaning, rendering otherwise invisible processes conspicuous and examinable; 15) Allowing works to disappear through transformation, making them cease to be "art" and instead begin to fulfill a useful function; 16) Cooperating with people outside the specific disciplines of the art world in a way that gives them a non-artistic way to participate; 17) Choosing to work with each other as collaborators.
That is quite a list! And really, I think the totality of this list only applies to Ericson and Zeigler. But I think big portions of the list apply to many of the artists who create "archive art," like Group Material.

In 2012, artist Robert Gober produced a notable example of archive art for the Whitney Biennial. He created a mini-exhibit of work by Forrest Bess. The archive part of came in vitrines devoted to Betty Parsons (Bess's gallerist) and John Money, a researcher who studied sexuality and who corresponded with Bess. This doesn't exactly fit into the approach outlined by Arning, except maybe 1) and 4). But it did require original research on Gober's part. This micro-exhibition was expanded into a major solo exhibition by the Menil Museum. Gober is not typically an archive artist--he is best known as a maker of intriguing, enigmatic objects. But he totally stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park in this project.

Two years later, the Biennial had another notable piece of archive art, The Gregory Battcock Archive by Joseph Grigely. Grigely serendipitously discovered a bunch of Battcock's papers in the building where he had his studio in 1992. Battcock was an art critic who appeared in several Andy Warhol films over the years and was the subject of a notable Alice Neel painting. He was murdered in 1980; the murder remains unsolved. In his statement about the work, Grigely describes the archive as a kind of portrait of Battson: "A document is both a material artifact and a node within a network of human relations. We both draw and draw out Battcock from these relations--the artists he talked with, the critics he argued with, the meals he shared, the students he taught, and the tricks with whom he had sex--they are all here, some with names, some with pseudonyms." I remember being fascinated by The Gregory Battcock Archive when I saw it at the Biennial--it was perhaps where the idea of "archive art" first lodged itself in my mind as a distinct category. That said, the problem with such art is that it doesn't have much visual interest. I'd much rather see an Alice Neel painting.

Alice Neel, David Bourdan and Gregory Battcock, 1970

The lack of visual pleasure is the biggest failing with this genre of art. But Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler are exceptions to this airless approach. The work they did fits into Arning's schema while also being visually beautiful.

Carrie Schneider, installation at the CAMH, 2014

One local artist who has long engaged in this kind of artwork is Carrie Marie Schneider. Her exhibition, Incommensurate Mapping, at the CAMH in 2014 was a perfect example. She studied the CAMH's archives and used them to critique the CAMH in an amusingly subversive way. I wrote about this exhibit at length when it came out in two posts for this blog.

There have been other notable examples of this kind of art (loosely defined) in Houston. For example, City Council Meeting, a semi-theatrical piece of participatory artwork put on by Aaron Landsman, Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay under the auspices of DiverseWorks at the El Dorado Ballroom in 2012, or Liz Magic Laser's Tell Me What You Want to Hear at DiverseWorks in 2012. Or Ericson and Zeigler's Red House (1979) and several other projects from the same time in Houston, as well as an installation at DiverseWorks in 1987. Obviously, DiverseWorks has been a major venue for this genre of art for several decades.

For me, this work sometimes is remarkably good. The idea of researching and presenting one's research has a natural appeal to a bookish person like me. It depends on how well the artwork is constructed and how much the artists' obsessions line up with my own. In the case of The Gregory Battcock Archive and Incommensurate Mapping, they worked for me very well indeed.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Go Read My Review of Patrick Renner's Current Exhibit

I wrote about Bounty, Patrick Renner's huge new installation up not at Redbud Gallery. The review is up at Glasstire.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

An Apocalyptic Dream

Robert Boyd

I dreamed I was living through a societal collapse. Things were breaking down and not getting repaired, and people were just dealing with it as well as they could. A slow-motion apocalypse. In this environment, I was trying to organize my various family members into a string quartet. Why this seemed like an important thing to do, I don't know. It was a bit of dream logic.

But when I thought about it, I was reminded of the story of Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Olivier Messiaen. He was interned in Stalag VIII-A after being captured at the beginning of World War II. He composed this startling music in the camp and premiered it there in the rain before an audience of prisoners and guards. It must have seemed to listeners like a tiny piece of culture in the face of the end of civilization. As the USA continues its slow motion collapse, we still need art to be created, even when is seems at times like a frivolous indulgence.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Man Without Talent

Robert Boyd

Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Man Without Talent (2019, New York Review of Books)

Yoshiharu Tsuge, "Red Flowers" published in RAW 7, drawn in 1966, published in English in 1985

Back in 1985, Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Red Flowers" was published in RAW number 7. It was published as an inset booklet inside RAW's oversized pages. It was for many art comics readers our first encounter with the work of this genius. RAW published another Tsuge story in 1990. I have been waiting over 30 years for a book of Tsuge's work to appear in English. When the flood of translated manga started being published in English in the 90s, I felt certain some publisher would step up. But for some reason, Tsuge was reluctant to allow it. (The story of that reluctance would be worth knowing. I had heard that he had given up comics to spend his life fishing, but reading Ryan Holmberg's essay in this volume suggests a psychological reason.)

In any case, he stopped drawing comics in 1987 and withdrew from public life until he drew this book in 1998. It may have felt a bit like Marcel Duchamp withdrawing from art making to play chess, only to return with one final work, "Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage" (1966). Tsuge returned with this book in 1998. But while Duchamp was officially involved with chess, Tsuge's withdrawal seems to have been fueled by depression.

This book is a first person novel that is quite autobiographical, although the primary activity of the main character, Sukezō Sukegawa, is selling stones, something that Tsuge apparently never did. (Tsuge's life is described in the introduction by Ryan Holmberg, who also translated the book.) Even though Sukezō had worked as a comics artist, for some reason he has given that up. He and his wife and son live a precarious existence of abject poverty as Sukezō comes up with various improbable schemes to support his family. He briefly has a little success buying and repairing old cameras he finds at flea markets (something Tsuge did), but when the fad for buying old cameras fades, so does this source of income. In the meantime, he encounters a variety of equally pathetic entrepreneurs scrapping together existences on the margins of one of the richest capitalist economies on Earth. 

 Yoshiharu Ysuge, The Man Without Talent p. 166

In this page, we can see that he has given up his old profession, dramatically demonstrated by the fact that his ink has become moldy. (Note that the pages are designed in a mirror image of how western comics pages are design--right to left.) You can see that his art is not flashy. It is simple and unadorned, without flash. It is basically realistic, but the figures are undeniably cartoons. This somewhat stripped-down approach typifies Tsuge's work, although he has a gift for drawing beautifully detailed scenes of nature. But his bitterness towards art comics--of which his work is a shining example--is understandable. There are few art forms as labor-intensive and unremunerative.

He meets a bookstall owner, Yamai, who is like himself. He, too, strives to vanish from society by being useless and invisible. He gives Sukezō a book of haiku by a 19th century poet Seigetsu Inoue, who appears to have been a real person. In reading about Seigetsu, Sukezō seems to have found an earlier avatar of people like himself and Yamai. Perhaps that is Tsuge's intent--to describe a class of people who by their very nature choose to become invisible, to fade out and vanish. Apparently Tsuge has done this frequently throughout his life. Though the book doesn't say overtly that this a result of mental illness, a reader could conclude it. The Man Without Talent is a profoundly sad book, but there is a kind of embedded hopefulness in it. Tsuge did, after all, write and draw it. He could have just vanished instead.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Pictures of Artists

Robert Boyd

Last weekend, Jack Massing hosted a one-day only exhibit dedicated his recently deceased partner Michael Galbreth. (They were the Art Guys.) The entire Houston art community showed up. I decided at some point to take phone photos of as many of the artists, collectors, etc., who were there. I missed a lot of people I wanted to photograph, but I got a few. And here they are.

Britt Thomas. Thomas has an exhibit up at the Galveston Arts Center through April 12, 2020.

Clint Willour

David Aylsworth

Dean Ruck. I've written about Havel + Ruck projects several times over the years.

Debra Barrera. Here is a post that Dean Liscum wrote about a Debra Barrera exhibit.

Dennis Nance.

Elaine Bradford. Here's a post I wrote about Elaine Bradford.

Emily Peacock. I've written about her several times over the years.

Emily Sloan. Emily Sloan was one of the first artists in Houston I ever wrote about.

Iva Kinnaird.

Jack Massing.

James Surls. I've written about this giant of Houston art several times.

Jim Pirtle. Jim Pirtle has appeared in this blog many times.

Joachim West.

Julon Pinkston. Julon Pinkston has had several appearances on this blog.

Neil Fauerso.

Paul Kremer (l) and Phillip Kremer. I wrote about Paul Kremer's former collective (maybe it would be better to be call it a club), I Love You Baby.

Paul Middendorf. Runs Space HL (formerly Gallery Homeland).

Peter Lucas.

Scott Gilbert.

Sharon Kopriva (center) and Brad Barber (right)

Susan Budge.

Travis Hanson.

Tudor Mitroi.

William Camfield.

Xandra Eden. Director of Diverse Works.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Revised Best Comics of the Decade Lists

Robert Boyd

At the beginning of the year, I conflated 6 best-of-the-decade lists into one list (two actually--one for publications, one for artists). I figured my work was done. Then this week, I heard about another list that intrigued me, so I wrote about it. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the site that published Kim Jooha's list also published best-of lists from its other contributors. So there were five best-comics-of-the-decade list on this site, a new comics news and criticism site called Solrad. The lists were by:
  • Ryan Carey
  • Rob Clough
  • Daniel Elkins
  • Alex Hoffman
  • Kim Jooha
I liked their lists because they were closer to my tastes. (I have since discovered other best-of lists that were pretty much all superheroes, which I have chosen to ignore.) So I decided to update my list taking into account the five Solrad lists.

Best publications

Titles author Number of times ranked
Daytripper Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon 4
Hawkeye Matt Fraction and David Aja 4
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Emil Ferris 4
Prince Of Cats Ron Wimberly 4
You & A Bike & A Road Eleanor Davis 4
Girl Town Carolyn Nowak 3
Hark! A Vagrant! Kate Beaton 3
Lumberjanes Grace Ellis, Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Kat Leyh, Brooklyn A. Allen, Carolyn Nowak, Carey Pietsch, Ayme Sotuyo, Maarta Laiho, Aubrey Aiese 3
Mister Miracle Tom King, Mitch Gerads, and Clayton Cowles 3
Saga Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples 3
The Love Bunglers Jaime Hernandez 3
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Ryan North, Erica Henderson, Derek Charm 3
A Bride’s Story Kaoru Mori 2
Alienation  Inés Estrada 2
Batman Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo 2
Berlin Jason Lutes 2
Big Kids Michael DeForge 2
Black Hammer Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston 2
Copra Michel Fiffe 2
Everything Is Flammable Gabrielle Bell 2
Giant Days John Allison, Max Sarin, Lissa Treiman, Whitney Cogar, and Jim Campbell 2
Goodnight Punpun Inio Asano 2
Grip Lale Westvind 2
House Of X/Powers Of X Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, Marte Gracia, Clayton Cowles, and Tom Muller 2
Julio's Day Gilbert Hernandez 2
Last Look Charles Burns 2
Monstress Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda, and Rus Wooton 2
O Human Star Blue Delliquanti 2
The Immortal Hulk  Al Ewing, Joe Bennett 2
The Nib Mat Bors and a cast of thousands 2
The River At Night  Kevin Huizenga 2
The Wicked + The Divine Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie 2
This One Summer Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki 2
Thor Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman 2




As you can see, the top titles of this revised list are quite different than the previous list. As for the best-ranked artists, the new list looks like this:

author Number of times ranked
Eleanor Davis 7
Matt Fraction 7
Carolyn Nowak 6
Fábio Moon 5
Gabriel Bá 5
Jaime Hernandez 5
Jillian Tamaki 5
Brian K. Vaughan 4
David Aja 4
Emil Ferris 4
Emily Carroll 4
Noelle Stevenson 4
Ron Wimberly 4
Scott Snyder 4
Tom King 4
Alan Moore 3
Aubrey Aiese 3
Ayme Sotuyo 3
Blue Delliquanti 3
Brooklyn A. Allen 3
Carey Pietsch 3
Derek Charm 3
Erica Henderson 3
Fiona Staples 3
Gilbert Hernandez 3
Grace Ellis 3
Greg Capullo 3
Inio Asano 3
Jason Aaron 3
Kat Leyh 3
Kate Beaton 3
Lale Westvind 3
Maarta Laiho 3
Mariko Tamaki 3
Michael DeForge 3
Mitch Gerads 3
Ryan North 3
Shannon Watters 3
Tillie Walden 3
Tom Muller 3
Aidan Koch 2
Al Ewing 2
Ben Mendelewicz 2
Charles Burns 2
Chris Ware 2
David Hine 2
Dean Ormston 2
Francesco Francavilla 2
Gabrielle Bell 2
Gina Wynbrandt 2
Inés Estrada 2
Jamie McKelvie 2
Jason Latour 2
Jason Lutes 2
Jeff Lemire 2
Jim Campbell 2
Joe Bennett 2
Joe Caramagna 2
John Allison 2
John Porcellino 2
Jonathan Hickman 2
Kaoru Mori 2
Kevin Huizenga 2
Kieron Gillen 2
Kyoko Okazaki 2
Lissa Treiman 2
Marco Failla 2
Margot Ferrick 2
Marjorie Liu 2
Marte Gracia 2
Mat Bors 2
Max Sarin 2
Michel Fiffe 2
Olivier Schrauwen 2
Pepe Larraz 2
R.B. Silva 2
Raina Telgemeier 2
Rus Wooton 2
Russell Dauterman 2
Sam Alden 2
Sana Takeda 2
Sarah Glidden 2
Shaky Kane 2
Simon Hanselmann 2
Walden Wong 2
Whitney Cogar 2

The addition of the Solrad lists moves Carolyn Nowak way up on the lists, and adds a lot of artists not present on the previous list.

Solrad is brand new. Their first post was on January 1. Tom Spurgeon's sudden, unexpected death has ended his site, The Comics Reporter. I don't think Solrad will replace it--their focus is a lot more art comics, whereas Tom was kind of an open filter.  But art comics are my interest, so I am looking forward to what they publish. If they display a weakness in their first week of existence, it's that their 5 best-of lists were produced by four white guys and one woman (who I think is of Korean ancestry--at least Jooha seems to be a Korean name). Dudes--this is 2020!