Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Show is So Over

Robert Boyd

I recently moved to a new place in Midtown. One of my reasons for moving was that I wanted to be close to the artistic center of Houston. While art is made and displayed all over the vast area of Houston and vicinity, it's hard to deny that Midtown--so close to all the museums and most of the galleries--is a great place for an art-lover like me to be. It's a neighborhood on the rise. In the late 70s and early 80s, I made a trek down to Midtown once a week with my friend John Richardson. We were taking painting lessons from Stella Sullivan in her house at the corner of San Jacinto and Southmore, built in 1935. It's just over the border of what is now "officially" Midtown. There have been many changes since then.

In the 1980s, as oil prices collapsed and city policies made it difficult to develop older neighborhoods, Midtown lost population and became seriously run-down. It was a neighborhood of boarded-up buildings. (It was also a refuge for recently arrived Vietnamese refugees who remain a strong presence.)

The official map of Midtown

But times change. I've heard that the city of Houston updated its sewage hookup rules, which made it possible to increase the number of hookups inside the 610 Loop. At the same time, starting in the late 90s, the price of oil began a long, slow rise. Hydraulic fracturing technology allowed small natural gas companies to grow into S&P 500 companies, bringing thousands of new jobs to Houston. The result was an increase in property development all over Houston, including Midtown. Midtown has been gentrifying over the past 20 years (as has the Heights and Rice Military). There are still abandoned buildings (I live right next to one) and empty lots. Plus there are are remnants of a time when Midtown was depopulated--specifically, the large number of homeless and addiction services are headquartered in Midtown. (Perhaps these charities and their clients will remind the dude-bros and basic b---hes who party down at the hip bars in Midtown that poor people exist.) Midtown is now a TIRZ, which means it can get tax money to help improve and redevelop the area. The Midtown Redevelopment Authority is the quasi-governmental organization that manages the TIRZ.

Midtown is defined by the Midtown Management District as being bordered primarily by I-45, 59, and Spur 527, with a few bits bordered by surface streets in the northeast corner and southernmost bit. That means that the intersection of Alabama and Almeda is officially part of Midtown. That's where Jamal Cyrus put up his temporary site-specific installation, The Jackson in Your House. The installation is part of a long term use of this site curated by Suplex.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

The official opening for A Jackson in Your House was on a recent Friday night. It was a mild, dry evening, so I decided to walk there--I moved to Midtown precisely so I'd have these opportunities to leave the car at home. On the way, I met a couple of friends who were also headed over there, and then we ran into and chatted with CAMH director Bill Arning, who was returning from the site. I could almost pretend for a moment that I was in a pedestrian-oriented city. Midtown isn't there yet, but it's evolving in that direction.

A Jackson in Your House consists of a giant, vertically-oriented sign painted with bold display lettering. The sign is black paint on two white bedsheets sewn together. It reads, "THE SHOW IS OVER... THE SHOW IS OVER..." I'd estimate that it is about 18 feet high. It faces east into the heart of the Third Ward, and is easily visible to drivers on Almeda and west-bound drivers on Alabama.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets.(Jamal Cyrus is standing in the center.)

The phrase comes from a Christopher Wool painting which consists of a longer quote: "THE SHOW IS OVER THE AUDIENCE GETS UP TO LEAVE THEIR SEATS TIME TO COLLECT THEIR COATS AND GO HOME THEY TURN AROUND NO MORE COATS AND NO MORE HOME" There are actually several versions of the painting, but they are all similar--all caps, no spacing between lines, arbitrary line breaks in the middle of words based on the width of the canvas, no punctuation. The lettering seems to have been hand done with stencils. The quote comes from a book by Russian writer Vasily Rozanov from 1917 called The Apocalypse of Our Time (Cyrus identifies Rozanov as a nihilist, but most references I've seen paint him as a highly eccentric conservative intellectual). The phrase was quoted in a Situationist polemic from 1967, and repeated in Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces.

Christoper Wool's studio, 1991 (from Parkett #83)

Cyrus and Walter Stanciell retain the hand-lettered aspect of Wool's painting and the line-breaks, but otherwise their version is far easier to read. Walter Stanciell is a 3rd Ward sign painter, and these letters, white outlined with black with a black shadow giving them a somewhat 3-D appearance, are unlike the letters in most signs you see in one important aspect--they are hand-made. When you get up close, you can see imperfections. It's warm, human lettering. Because every letter is repeated at least once, you can see how they slightly differ from one another. They are unlike a display font on a computer. They are unlike billboards and advertisements created by designers and ad agencies. But at the same time, they are unlike amateur signs you might see in a neighborhood--hand painted signs that say "Garage Sale" or "Beware of Dog," for example.

Stanciell occupies the middle ground, and his signage is pleasing to the eye. It used to be that sign-painting was an ordinary, common occupation, and its practitioners were respected craftsmen. (Of course, pop artist James Rosenquist came out of that world, as did pioneering underground cartoonist Justin Green.) It makes sense that Cyrus would recruit Stanciell for a project like this. It's part of a long-term project of reinterpreting text-based painting.

What does it mean hung on a building in the Midtown? One thing that will help make sense of this is that about half of what we call Midtown is historically part of the Third Ward. The Wards started out as political divisions in Houston. They were abolished as political entities in 1915, but have remained to this day as descriptions of large neighborhoods. The Third Ward and the Fourth Ward  were separated by Main Street, which runs down the middle of Midtown. The Third Ward had been quite diverse at one time (with black areas and white areas), but in the post-war era, it became almost exclusively African-American (my old art teacher Stella Sullivan was one of the white "hold-outs" in the neighborhood). But that African-American character has begun to change, especially in the Midtown part of the neighborhood.

Map of the Houston Wards from 1920

Cyrus's statement reads in part:
Initially written on Parisian walls during the revolutionary student movement of 1968, the text here has been rendered by Cyrus and Stanciell in the style of sign-paintings that have for decades characterized the visual culture of black Houston, and re-inscribed it onto the side of a formerly abandoned building at the heart of the Third Ward (increasingly known as Midtown), one of Houston's most actively contested geographies. [...] the nihilistic text becomes ambivalent, at once evincing a pessimistic assessment of the fate of black neighborhoods undergoing gentrification, and simultaneously asserting the optimism of the black freedom struggle.
I asked Cyrus about the piece, and he spoke about the squeeze on the Third Ward from developers on the west and University of Houston expansion on the east. The building he hung the banner on, The Axelrad, appeared to be empty. Perhaps it had been a small apartment building, or maybe a suite of offices. I couldn't tell. But it seemed to be nothing now. I asked Cyrus who owned it, and he wasn't sure of the owner's name, but he had heard that this owner was planning to open a beer garden in the building.

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

Later, I looked up the owner on the Harris County Appraisal District website. The owner of this property is the blandly named Brookhollow Venture Ltd. As far as I can tell, this company exist for the sole purpose of owning a small number of properties within two blocks of the intersection of Alabama and Almeda.

Brookhollow Ventures' properties

One of these properties is the abandoned gas station across the street from The Station Museum. The owners have allowed that property to be used for temporary art exhibits before, so one gets the idea that Brookhollow Ventures is friendly to artists. At the same time, you don't just own abandoned properties on the edge of a gentrifying neighborhood for no reason. Such properties are investments to be developed or sold later. It struck me as ironic that Cyrus would use this as his platform for an art piece opposed to gentrification.

The crowd gathered that night was about 50% black and 50% white. They sat around chatting, congratulating Cyrus, and so forth. I don't know if Stanciell was present. I wonder if he sees himself as a collaborator or if it's just another paying gig for him. After all, he doesn't come from the art world like all the people there that night do. For those of us in the art world, a large white banner with an enigmatic phrase on it hanging from the side of a building = art. I wondered what the commuters coming up Alabama from the east would think they were seeing. Would their interpretation sync up with Cyrus's expressed vision?

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets (as seen from a car in the intersection of Alabama and Almeda)

Later that evening, I crossed to the east side of Almeda to take some more photos. An African-American man in a white baseball cap was walking south and asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project. He asked what "THE SHOW IS OVER" meant? I explained that it referred to the changes in the neighborhood. I was careful not to use the word "gentrification." I wanted to see what his reaction was without me coloring it from the start. He was enthusiastic--in his view, the neighborhood had changed for the better.

He moved here from Denver a few years ago, living in a duplex owned by his uncle. As he described it, drug dealers and users would congregate in his front yard--he'd have to call the police at three in the morning to break up fights on his porch. But then they "cleaned up" an apartment building across the street from him and built new apartments next to those, and the presence of more people and a better class of people (i.e., fewer sketchy tenants) on the street had the effect of driving the drug addicts and dealers away. In his view, the gentrification he saw on his own block was wholly positive.

This intrigued me, and I wanted him to tell his story to Jamal Cyrus, so I suggested he cross the street to meet the artist. He begged off--he had just been working for 12 hours in the sun stripping cars, and he was eager to go get a beer. I couldn't blame him. He crossed Alabama and I crossed with him because I wanted to take some pictures from the south-east corner. Another African-American man was walking towards us. The car-stripper greeted him, "Hello, Mr. Jordan!" They shook hands and he continued south. Mr. Jordan asked me what was going on. I explained it was an art project and started taking some photos. He asked me if I could spare some change, explaining that he was homeless. I gave him a couple of bucks. Right then a car drove by and someone shouted out, "You better not take my picture!"

Jamal Cyrus and Walter Stanciell, A Jackson in Your House, 2014, paint on sheets

Mr. Jordan took that as an opportunity to warn me that I was in a dangerous neighborhood. "You're in the Third Ward! You can't be taking pictures at night!" He suggested that for my own safety that I should go home, and suggested the same for the crowd of people across the street at the installation. Well, I had taken all the pictures I wanted to take, so I took Mr. Jordan's advice. I didn't feel like I was in danger as I walked home--at least not until I got a block from my home in Midtown. There is an abandoned building one block from home with a covering over the sidewalk. It's very dark and there are always one or two people hanging out there. If someone wanted to commit a mugging, it would be a good place for it. I always feel a little nervous walking there at night. It's not like other parts of Midtown, where the sidewalks have lots of pedestrians at night.

But nothing happened, of course. Mr. Jordan may have been just playing a game of "Freak out the white guy." On the other hand, crime happens. And crime, as the man in the white baseball cap implied, is one thing that gentrification can positively impact. Another irony.

And a final irony--who are often in the vanguard of gentrification? Artists. You want a neighborhood to attract artsy people, do installations like A Jackson in Your House. Just beware of unintended consequences.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Some Thoughts on Quilts

Robert Boyd

I know some readers may get the idea that I'm leaving contemporary art behind and diving into folk and self-taught art given some of my recent posts. These are long-time interests of mine, but I don't often get the opportunity to write about them. When I learned that a new quilt show was opening in La Grange, I figured I'd check it out and continue this exploration of folk art.

Except that this exhibit, Art Quilts from the John M. Walsh III Collection (showing at the Texas Quilt Museum in La Grange through December 31), is not really a folk art exhibit. Almost all of the quilts made in this exhibit were 1) made by artists who received specialized art educations, and 2) made exclusively for display, not to put on a bed.

Catherine McConnell, Vermont Swimmers, 1991, heat transfers on acetate, cotton backing, machine quilted, 82 1/2 x 77 1/2 inches

My knowledge of quilts is quite limited. I don't know who started making quilts, or when the quilted blankets that we usually think of when we hear the word "quilts" became popular. My grandmother made beautiful quilts. I know quilting is often a collective, communal activity (quilting bees). I have a feeling that it is traditionally rural, but I don't know that for sure. I have that impression because my grandmother was a very rural person. I know that the designs on quilts are abstract and geometric, which is one aspect of them that has always appealed to me. I know that they are often made with scrap fabric--worn out clothes, for example, or left-over fabrics that are too small to be used for anything else. This recycling aspect also appeals to me. Quilting is something you learn from someone else, often an elder.

Given my limited understanding of the world of quilts, the quilts in this show were quite a departure. We can see that with Catherine McConnell's Vermost Swimmers, which is constructed like a traditional quilt--the top layer is constructed of a variety of patches sewn onto the batting and bottom layer. But instead of being "scrap", these patches are photographic heat transfers.

I think it's quite lovely, but part of me asks why it's a quilt in the first place. This could have been a photocollage on paper, for example. Of course, when you see Vermont Swimmers in person, you can see the puffiness of the batting. You see it hanging--not stretched or mounted. So it's slightly different than it would be if it were produced on some other kind of material.

Also, you are seeing it in a quilt show. I don't know anything about McConnell (she hardly exists online), but if she identified herself as a quilter, that's reason enough for this to be a quilt instead of something else. And if you are a quilter in 1991, you have the choice to avail yourself of whatever technology and subject matter you want--you don't have to imitate quilts from the 19th century. That's the attitude of the artists in this show.

Lenore Davis, Florida Surf, 1984-1985, hand paitined on velvet with Procion dye, 58 1/4 x 58 3/4

I sometimes think of quilting as sewing scraps together, but the definition of quilting has to do with binding three layers--top, batting and bottom--together with stitching. Lenore Davis (died 1996) used a single piece of velvet as the top part of this quilt. Then using Procion dye (which you may have used if you've ever made tie dye clothes), she painted the quilted design. I'm guessing that she used an airbrush because she seems to have hit the raised quilted shapes from the edge. The effect is quite striking.

Rebecca Shore, Night Light, 1991, wool, cotton and blends, cotton batting and back, machine pierced, hand quilted, 65 x 63 inches

Part of me prefers the traditional geometric quilts, and many of the artists in this exhibit hearken to that tradition. Rebecca Shore honors the tradition, but she is a highly trained artist (a graduate of and adjunct professor at SAIC) who has gallery representation and works in a variety of media, including very traditional ones like painting. So while she may have been thinking of traditional quilts, she may have also been thinking of the history of geometric abstraction in modernist painting. In any case, the precision of the image in Night Light feels a little to perfect for my tastes, though.

Anna Williams, Strings and Triangles, 1995, cotton, machine sewn, hand quilted by Mary Walker, 80 x 68 inches

Anna Williams (1927-2010) is apparently the only "unschooled" artist represented in the John M. Walsh III collection, and her biography on KnowLA describes her as "self-taught". But it also describes her first quilt as one made at age nine, which to me suggest that she had some instruction from an adult--a mother or grandmother or other relative. In any case, her quilt in the show is the closest to what I think of when I think of a quilt, and I like Strings and Triangles best. But this perhaps represents a sentimental, conservative impulse on my part when thinking about this art form. This exhibit was definitely an eye-opener about the possibilities of quilts.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Diminishing Returns of Being an Artist

Robert Boyd

I recently read a graphic novel called Angie Bongiolatti by Mike Dawson. It's his third book. It was published in April and when he got his first quarterly report from the publisher, Secret Acres, it had sold all of 106 copies. He wrote about his anguish over this in a poignant blog post entitled "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience." In the world of comics, this got a lot of attention. Here was a well-known cartoonist who has published three books. For many cartoonists, that spells success. But reading Dawson's cri de coeur shows this not to be the case. Dawson seems committed to comics. "But, sadly, as much as I’ve contemplated it recently, I just don’t feel like I can give up. I’m stuck with cartooning. I’m a lifer." But given this commitment, he writes, "Lately, writing a book feels like I’m taking my ideas, spending years building something elaborate with them, putting them in a nice box, and then burying them in the yard. Then I’m asking everyone I know to find a shovel and hunt around and see if they can dig them up."

Now as many of you readers know, I worked in the field of comics for a long time starting in 1989, when I took a job with my favorite publisher, Fantagraphics Books. And before then, I had been a devoted reader of "alternative" comics. And when I think about the 80s and 90s, I think about many of my favorite cartoonists: Michael Dougan, Carel Moisievitch, Mark Zingarelli, Dave Cooper, J.R. Williams, Doug Allen, Scott GilbertCarol Lay, Mark Marek, William Messner-Loebs, Mark Beyer, Krystine Kryttre, J. Bradley Johnson, Matthew Guest, etc. Maybe you don't know them. That could be because as far as I know, none of them still make comics. Each of them did a certain number of pages of comics. Some did maybe a few dozen in all, and some did hundreds. Dougan, Cooper, Allen, Lay, Marek, Messner-Loebs and Williams each had book collections published. But at some point, they each decided to stop being cartoonists--or at least to minimize the comics part of their practice. I'm sure they each had very specific, very personal reasons. In some cases, it might not have even been a conscious decision--cartooning had always been a sideline and they moved on. In other cases, it may have been an economic choice because comics--particularly alternative comics--is a spectacularly unremunerative occupation. In some cases, a better opportunity came along. Some may still do the occasional comic here and there, but their output has diminished to the point of near invisibility.

This reality breaks my heart. Obviously I'm not just talking about comics--I'm talking about art in general. So many artists start off with great promise--even great achievement--but ultimately give up in the face of economic reality, indifference from viewers, etc. It's one reason I started The Great God Pan Is Dead--to lessen the feeling of indifference that some artists feel. When I put up a post, I hope it lets an artist know that someone is paying attention. That someone who is not your mom cares about what you do. The same is true when I buy a piece of artwork or a graphic novel like Angie Bongiolatti. I mean, don't get me wrong--I'm not doing this as a charity. I get pleasure out of doing this blog (as well as collecting art and reading comics). But in addition to pleasing myself, I also hope that in some small way I contribute to some artist somewhere not giving up.

As for Angie Bongiolatti, it's not a bad book. The heroine is a young woman working in an e-learning start-up sometime after 9-11. She is involved with ultra-left wing protests and has a complicated personal history. It's not really her story--it's about people she knows, their attractions to her and their pasts with her. Dawson also rather deftly weaves in segments quoting Arthur Koestler about the psychology of revolution. It doesn't totally work, but it's the kind of sophisticated comic that I've always wanted--a multi-dimensional story with well-defined, complex characters. For what it's worth, I'm glad I was able to push its sales up--by precisely one copy.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Everyday Geniuses at the Art League

Robert Boyd

One of a Kind at the Art League

When it rains, it pours. First there was Kindred Spirits at the Art Car Museum. Now there is One of a Kind: Artwork from the Collection of Stephanie Smither at the Art League. Both are shows of self-taught artists. This is a type of artwork that is quite dear to me, and it my review of Kindred Spirits, I proposed a theory that this kind of artwork didn't "become art" until "discovered" by someone who has enough artworld credibility to declare it to be art. This theory was received with the vast indifference that it probably deserves, but as I was researching some of the artists in Kindred Spirits, I came across mention of Everyday Genius: Self-Taught Art and the Culture of Authenticity (2004) by Gary Alan Fine. Fine looks at the world of folk/outsider/self-taught art from the point of view of a sociologist. This is a potentially fruitful way to look at art--Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker both famously studied the art world (indeed, their studies helped to define the "art world"), and both men's work is referenced by Fine in Everyday Genius. And Fine does deal with what happens when a hitherto isolated self-taught artist comes into contact with a representative of an artworld.

Writing about art often comes from two poles as identified in the Raphael Rubinstein-edited book Critical Mess as bellelettrist and theory-derived. The former writers are poets and literary writers with an interest in visual art--think Baudelaire or John Ashbery--and the latter are those more heavily influenced by philosophy--think Clement Greenberg and Rosalind Krauss. But there are other schools of art writing that in many ways I find more appealing. There are journalistic writers--Robert Hughes and Jerry Saltz for example, and writers who come from the social sciences like those mentioned earlier, as well as sociologist Sarah Thornton and economist Don Thompson. My preference is for the latter two types--journalists and social scientists--because they tend to deal with art as a class of people and objects and activities that exist in the real world. This is what Fine does in Everyday Genius. He writes about the artists, of course, but also collectors, the market for this work, the institutions that collect and/or display it, the community that has developed around world of self-taught art, the issue of boundaries (what falls into this category of art and what doesn't?--"boundary-work" being a key concept in sociology, apparently), and the idea of an art world for this kind of art.

Part of creating boundaries for the field deals with what to call the field, and this is contentious. Almost every commonly accepted name for this kind of art is problematic--folk art, art brut, outsider art, naive art, vernacular art, self-taught art, visionary art and some even more obscure terms. When I first became aware of this art in the 1980s, "outsider art" was commonly used, but it has fallen out of favor. But some of the terms, regardless of their problems, remain in use because they have been institutionalized in one way or another--the American Folk Art Museum, Collection de L'Art Brut Laussane, the American Visionary Art Museum, the Outsider Art Fair, etc. Fine chooses "self-taught art" because it seems the most neutral, and I'll follow his lead here.

As I suggested in my review of Kindred Spirits, this is art that has a relationship with the mainstream art world but is not fully congruent. Many, if not most, museums are reluctant to collect this kind of material. While there are "mainstream" galleries that carry this kind of art--the best known was Phyllis Kind Gallery, which closed in 2009 after 42 years in business--many of the galleries that feature the work of self-taught artists look and operate quite differently from the standard white cube (for instance, the Webb Gallery). There are few places where a prospective art historian can study this work, and few places where an expert art historian can teach it. Collectors tend to specialize in it, as we can see in this exhibit. And while some pieces by a small number of artists can reach six figures, the prices for self-taught art are, on average, far lower than that of mainstream contemporary art. Fine doesn't mention it, but lower prices help make it easier in one key respect to collect the work of self-taught artists. But acquiring knowledge about what to collect is harder than it is for mainstream art, so while one barrier drops, another grows higher. (This is equally true of a kind of art I personally collect, original comics art. I am a collector of modest means, but I can easily afford to buy artistically-significant works of comics art because generally this original art is not terribly expensive. On the other hand,  my ability to identify artistically-significant work is the result of a lifetime of critical study of the field.)

Howard K. Finster, A Great Wood Carving Year, 1983, wood carving, 29 x 15 x 3.5 inches

Smither's collection includes work by some of the best known self-taught artists, like Bill Traylor , Howard Finster and Thornton Dial; work by regional (Texas) self-taught artists like Ike Morgan, Rev, Johnnie Swearingen and Frank Jones; and anonymous folk artwork. Without knowing for sure, I am going to assume that this show only represents a portion of her entire collection. (I make this assumption because every collector I know, including myself, is a hoarder at heart.)

Nearly all these artists learned their art more-or-less in isolation from other artists (obviously this is not the case with many kinds of folk artists who learn their art from elder craftsmen--quilters for example). This doesn't mean they were isolated from images--they live in a world where mass culture exists, and they can hardly have avoided coming into contact with movies, magazines, TV, advertising signs, graffiti, etc. But nonetheless, they are profoundly unlike elite artists who get MFAs during which they are immersed in both art history and in current artistic practices.

It is therefore surprising to see how so many works of self-taught artists exhibit certain similarities.

Ben Hotchkiss, untitiled, 1980, colored pencil on paper, 14 x 17 inches

One commonality that we see frequently in Smither's collection is horror vacui--the seeming need for many artists to fill every bit of the surface on which they're drawing or painting. I first noticed this when I saw an exhibit of Adolf Wölfli in 1988, whose extemely dense artworks astonished me. We see it in the work here by Ben Hotchkiss (above), Frederick Harry Kahler, Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), Timothy Wehrle, Winfred Rembert and others.

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled, ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

When I first encountered this tendency to cover the entire surface with a dense skein of marks, I thought it might have something to do with the mental state of the artists. Wölfli was a mental patient when he produced his remarkable body of work, so I thought this might be a symptom of his mental illness. But now I reject such amateur psychoanalysis. There are two other explanations that I think are just as plausible. First, these artists cover ever square centimeter because to do otherwise would be wasteful. And a corollary to that might be that the artists might feel like they aren't giving their viewers their "money's worth" if they don't cover the surface with dense detail. Second, because they haven't received an ordinary art education, they aren't beholden to conventional esthetics that would require that artists give the viewers' clear foregrounds and backgrounds, "balanced" compositions and places to "rest" the eye. When an elite artist like Jackson Pollack broke all these rules, art history saw it as admirable iconoclasm. But with self-taught artists, there are no rules to break in the first place.

Of course, these are just guesses on my part. I find this density of design appealing and something you are much more likely to see in the work of self-taught artists than in the work of a conventionally educated artist.

Alan Wayne Bradley (a.k.a. "Haint"), untitled, mixed media collage, 15 x 38 inches

Frederick Harry Kahler, untitled (detail), ink on illustration board, 26.5 x 14 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame, colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Timothy Wehrle, One of many wrong remedies to put out an ungrateful flame (detail), colored pencil and graphite on paper, 23 x 42 inches

Winfred Rembert, Chain Gang Picking Cotton, dye on carved and tooled leather, 37 x 33 inches

Another feature of self-taught art, especially that by Southern artists, is that much of the art is by African American artists, particularly rural African American artists who had little or no access to art education because of their poverty. Such is the case with Winfred Rembert (b. 1945), who was unjustly imprisoned. Chain Gang Picking Cotton, done on carved leather, reflects his personal experiences as well as many other African American men caught up in the post-Civil War version of forced servitude. (You can see a documentary, All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert, on Hulu.)

The thought of bourgeois white collectors and dealers driving the backroads of the South looking for rural black self-taught artists is slightly uncomfortable. It has hints of colonialism, paternalism and slumming. This comes up in Everyday Genius.
This art world involves the intersection of groups who would not ordinarily meet. Such contact can produce condescension by the more powerful (and rage or amusement by those less powerful.) Does contact invariably involve colonization? [...] If elites treat the impoverished by elite standards, they can be criticized for cultural imperialism, but if they treat them according to their perspective of the other's culture, they can be accused of being patronizing." (p. 108)
Fine points out that African-American collectors rarely collect art by self-taught African-American artists. Some see the collecting the work as condescending. Whatever the reason, Fine writes collecting and viewing the work of  African-American self-taught artists is primarily done by white people. This is a complaint by Rembert, expressed in All Me. Rembert particularly regrets this because all his work depicts the historical reality (and biographical detail) of a youth and young adulthood in Cuthbert, Georgia, during the 50s and 60s. Rembert, who now lives in Connecticut, is pained that younger African-Americans don't know the painful histories of their parents and grand-parents. The film climaxes with an exhibit of his work at the Albany Civil Rights Institute (about 50 miles away from Cuthbert), where it finally gets wide exposure to many of the African Americans who shared aspects of Rembert's upbringing.

Of course, the most obvious "colonial" aspect is that collectors, gallerists and scouts can often get away with paying little (or even nothing!) for the work of a financially naive self-taught artist and selling it for many multiples of what the artist gets. That feels like raw exploitation, and often it is. Not every seeming case of exploitation is so straightforward.

Bill Traylor, untitled, 1943, poster paint and pencil on cardboard

For instance, One of a Kind features a painting by Bill Traylor (1854-1949). His work is the opposite of the horror vacuii school--his drawings, like this one, are minimal and witty, like a cartoon by Charles Schulz or William Steig. Traylor was born a plantation slave, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama in1936 because, "my white folks had died and my children had scattered." Homeless, he started amusing himself by drawing on discarded pieces of cardboard. He tried to sell them for five cents a piece without much luck until a white artist, Charles Shannon, discovered them (the standard discovery story). Shannon worked at the time to promote Traylor's work, putting together exhibits in Mongomery and New York City. Although the exhibits generated a lot of interest, sales were not forthcoming. Perhaps it was just too early for people to really see Traylor's astonishing work.

In the mid-70s, Shannon tried again to interest the art world in Traylor's remarkable oeuvre, which he had kept stored for nearly 30 years. This time he was very successful, and the work entered museums and became highly collectible, individual pieces achieving six figure prices. In the mid-80s, descendents of Traylor discovered that Traylor had become a well-known artist. They sued Shannon for a cut, claiming he had cheated Traylor. The case was settled out of court, with the family getting a large settlement.

So was Shannon a colonialist exploiter of Traylor? If Shannon hadn't come along and bought Traylor's work, it would never have become valuable in the first place. Nonetheless, the work did end up becoming a huge windfall Shannon--as if he had bought a seemingly useless piece of land and 30 years later discovered oil on it. My feeling is gratitude towards Shannon (and others like him)--otherwise, I would never get to see Traylor's art. And if Shannon had been more successful in promoting Traylor's art in the 1940s, Traylor probably would have shared the benefit in the years before his death. It wasn't like Shannon planned to hold onto the art until the 70s and get rich off of it then. But at the same time, such a relationship is obviously unequal.

Thornton Dial, untitled, watercolor and graphite on paper, 35.5 x 38 inches

Thornton Dial is represented in this exhibit with an atypical piece. Most of the work by Dial I've seen involve thick layers of scrap material collaged onto a surface. His works also tend to be much more abstract than this. Dial is one of the few well-known self-taught artists whose work seems not dissimilar from his contemporaries who got MFAs and came up through the contemporary art world. I find Dial's work tremendously appealing in general, but this watercolor does nothing for me.

He has a tight relationship with dealer/scholar/impresario William Arnett. I've written about this relationship before. Arnett has been raked over the coals more than any other art dealer because of the "exposé" on 60 Minutes. It's hard not to see his relationship with Dial as being paternalistic. However, when Fine visited Arnett, Arnett told Fine that he "consider[ed] this art [African-American self-taught art] to be the most important art of the century" and that Thornton Dial was the "Michelangelo of the twentieth century." Furthermore, he felt the reason that these judgments weren't universally held  was because of the racism or "Afro-phobia" of the art world. He hardly comes across as a colonialist.

Moses Ernest Tolliver, untitled, house paint on plywood, 24 x 30 inches

Moses Ernest Tolliver (1920-2006) is one of the most popular and respected of the African American self-taught artists. After an industrial accident left him crippled in the late 60s, he took up painting to pass the time. The birds in this painting remind me a bit of Bill Traylor, but the electric color on the faces made me think of Madame Matisse. This brings up the question of comparing the work of self-taught artists to art from the "mainstream" art world. Does self-taught art have a distinct aesthetic that requires a separate judgment? I don't think this is an easy question to answer. For one thing, almost all these artists started creating their work in isolation from one another. In the world of contemporary art, we can say that a young artist was influenced by an older art, or is responding to the work of older artists, or even was a student or studio assistant of an older artist. But we know for certain that Tolliver wasn't "influenced" by Traylor.

Sam Doyle, untitled, housepaint on found roof tin, 52 x 31 inches

Sam Doyle (1906-1985), another African American self-taught artist, lived on St. Helena Island in South Carolina. Like Winfred Rembert, his subject matter is highly localized.Many of his subjects have to do with illness and local traditional healers. This one seems particularly grim. What sticks in my mind, however, is the combination of blue and black and especially the corrugated tin on which it is painted. This provides a connection between self-taught art and contemporary art--bricolage. Self-taught artists by necessity and because of their lack of formal training use whatever materials are available. We can relate this to assemblagists like Robert Rauschenberg or Ed Kienholz. But for fans of self-taught art, this bricolage is a sign of authenticity, one of the most valued qualities that a self-taught artist can possess. Sam Doyle gained a certain amount of fame from his inclusion in Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980, a 1982 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, and the market for his work expanded accordingly. If he had started using Winsor Newton paints and doing his work on stretched and primed canvas, would it have lost "authenticity"?

Ike Morgan, untitled, pastel and pencil on paper, 26.5 x 18.5 inches

I was a little startled to see this drawing by Ike Morgan--up to now, I had only seen his portraits of presidents and historical figures. But his style is instantly recognizable. He has two big wins in the self-taught artist authenticity race--he's an African American from a rural background (born in Rockdale, TX) and he is mentally ill (schizophrenic). (He even has one further somewhat dubious mark of authenticity--he committed a horrible crime. Morgan murdered his grandmother. It was this act that landed him at the Rusk Hospital for the Criminally Insane and later the Austin State Hospital.) Synonyms for "authentic" might include "unpolluted" or "uncontaminated." "Childlike" and "naive" are two rather patronizing synonyms for authentic. It's a problematic term, in other words. Of course Fine discusses this at length, without really trying to define authenticity or judge whether or not it is a positive aesthetic quality. His interest is in the use of "authenticity" within the field--its value to collectors, dealers, curators and the artists themselves. He writes, for example, "Members of this art world have a strong preference for early 'uninfluenced' works by self-taught artists, although later works my have more artistic power, as an artist learns from experience, but such a view flies in the face of the assumptions of the field." A dealer Fine spoke to remarks that artists whose authenticity is beyond question--Bill Traylor and Martin Ramirez, for example--are the ones most likely to sell in the six figure range.

As problematic as the various categories of the authentic (self-taught, rural, impoverished, mentally ill, isolated) and the inauthentic (MFA, contact with other artists, middle-class, mainstream, subscription to Artforum) in this field are, perhaps the most dangerous notion is the idea that if an artist is a good businessman, that makes him less authentic. A key example of this is the Rev. Howard Finster. When his work was discovered by collectors, he and his family started to aggressively market it (even setting up an 800 number). Somehow this overt concern for one's own career rubbed collectors wrong, and now works from the late 80s, when Finster started marketing the work heavily, is worth less than the earlier work, which is seen as more authentic. For a self-taught artist to achieve a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle (much less to become rich) is to lose authenticity. Poverty is seen as authentic and real.

Frank Jones, untitled, colored pencil on paper

Frank Jones (1900-1969) scores super-high on the authenticity scale. Convicted of murder, he served a life sentence in Huntsville, where he began to draw. He saw "haints" (ghosts) and devils, which he housed in spiked dwellings, as in the picture above. It seems symbolic of his own circumstance and dwelling--where monstrous men were locked in tight cells in a sturdy building ringed with barb wire. Jones' drawings are humorous (the devils are smiling) but also disturbing. Jones' devil houses are fearful places.

Roy Ferdinand, Jr., Portrait of Frank Jones, 1994, paint, marker and ink on paper

Roy Ferdinand, Jr. (1959-2004) was an artist who painted violent scenes from his home of New Orleans. (Despite what you might guess given his subject matter, Ferdinand's early death was due to cancer.) Smither commissioned  portraits from Ferdinand of other self-taught artists. There are four of these portraits in the show, including this one of the late Frank Jones.

François Burland, untitled, watercolor on paper

Smither's collection includes European self-taught artists, like the Swiss artist François Burland. Burland's work in this show reminds me of Stéphane Blanquet's silhouettes--they each have a deliciously creepy quality.

Alfred Marie (a.k.a. A.C.M.), untitled, mixed media, 20 x 18.5 x 9 inches

Alfred Marie (aka A.C.M.), unlike most of the other artists here, received an art education and couldn't be reasonably said to have created his art in total isolation from the art world. But he withdrew from world of mainstream art and his work gets classified as "visionary." A.C.M. is a good example of how the nomenclature doesn't totally overlap. One can be a visionary artist without being a self-taught or folk artist. I'd put Charlie Stagg in that category.

anonymous, untitled, ink on three envelopes

Fine doesn't much discuss anonymous art. One exception is the Philadelphia Wireman, whose identity is unknown but his works are distinctive. In the context of, say, a museum exhibit, he wouldn't be treated by an ordinary anonymous folk artist--his work would be credited to him particularly. But often when we think of folk art, we think of truly anonymous works. A real folk song is not one written by Woody Guthrie or Pete Segar--it's a song written by nobody, a song that has been passed around and tweaked by dozens if not hundreds of anonymous performers. But in the world of visual folk art, biography is important. For one thing, it adds authenticity.

But Smither showed some truly anonymous works. Some were classic examples of folk art, but I was intrigued by these envelopes, which are identified as "prison art." The catalog that accompanies the show has a paragraph accompanying each piece--but this one is blank. The art is skilled and reminds me of the kind of art you'd see on vans in the 70s. Symbols of freedom and imprisonment cover the envelope in a dense design. They were obviously meant to be used to send letter--the artist left spaces for the stamps and mailing address. It's easy to imagine the prisoner fighting the boredom of prison life creating these lovely envelopes, which he could then trade to fellow inmates.

Anonymous, untitled, matchstick clock sculpture, 38 x 9.5 x 8 inches

This clock feels more like traditional folk art. It may not be the work of a self-taught artist--this artist may be part of a tradition and learned this craft from an older master. Nor is it personally expressive. While the designs may be original, they are fundamentally decorative. For many collectors, this is not appealing--they want work that is highly meaningful to its creator. Visionary and religious art is highly desired. But Smither's collection displays a wide spectrum of art that falls within the folk/visionary/self-taught field.

Collectors specialize. We have some category that we end up focusing on--whether it is the work of particular artists, work in a particular genre, or work by a type of artist. Fine suggested that self-taught art is a kind of identity art, where the art is important, of course, but so is the biography of the artist. Some collectors may specialize in African American art, others in art by women, others in Japanese prints and others in Netherlandish art--Smither chose this field. The paradox is that this identity may be prevent self-taught art from ever being mainstream. It is its separation from the mainstream art world that makes it so treasured by its aficionados. So even though Thornton Dial does work that to my eyes seems strikingly contemporary, he is not considered in the same breath as other more mainstream assemblagists. Some self-taught artists choose between the self-taught art world and the mainstream art world--Bert Long and Patrick Turk (whose work is included in this exhibit) seem to have deliberately chosen to be part of the mainstream art world of grants and prizes and residencies. But many of these artists weren't given that choice due to their poverty, lack of education, mental issues, etc. Nonetheless, this exhibit amply demonstrates that their art is worth considering alongside that of the mainstream art world. It is equally capable of being exciting, beautiful, provocative, expressive, etc. It is a bizarre coincidence that two similar (indeed overlapping) exhibits of self-taught art are happening in Houston simultaneously. Do yourself a favor and see both.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Confronting the Deep: Christina Karll Studio Visit

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

We were barely ten minutes into our drinks at Poison Girl when Christy Karll mentioned parallel universes. I knew at that moment I would investigate the art she is exhibiting in Journey Through the Trees and Beyond, which opens at the Jung Center on October 4. Over the course of several studio visits I learned the following:

Christina Karll, Symbol Transcendence, 2006, Latex and plaster on panel, 96” x 48”

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: You comfortably use words like “time travel” and “force fields.” What solar system did you come from?

Christina Karll: I know. I don’t fit in. I never did feel like I belong here.

VBA: Me too. Your Jung Center artist statement announces quite decisively that the drawings, paintings and three dimensional artworks originate primarily in your subconscious mind, so let’s discuss the hidden and unconscious sources of your art.

CK: There’s no other explanation for the narrow columnar forms that appear so frequently in my drawings and paintings. They are unfamiliar, and must come from an unknown part of my consciousness. It’s true they are partially inspired by Chinese landscape painting, in which tall rocky peaks summon nature’s energy, and which in Taoist belief express the vastness of the cosmos. And I’ve entertained the idea that the vertical marks continue to emerge because cells in my body hold memory patterns of past human existence in the Himalayas. It’s possible my imagination devised them to symbolize the big mystery at death.

VBA: According to the artist statement, recurring images of distorted stair cases also surface unconsciously.

CK: Yes, the deeper less accessible part of my mind must be their source, because I never consciously decide to walk up to a canvas and paint one more staircase. Some collectors believe the ascending “steps” express our journey to higher awareness, and surely expanded consciousness is a valid interpretation. But it’s significant that I painted Water Stairway after reading the The Tibetan Book of the Dead, from which I learned about the four colors the dead person sees in the Bardo state between death and rebirth. Those colors float through my painting. When my father was dying I urged him to focus his consciousness on the radiant white light described in the book.

Christina Karll, Water Stairway, 2011, Latex paint on panel, diptych, 96” x 96”

VBA: Christy, your familiarity with Jung’s essay on the Tibetan Book of the Dead got my attention. In the early seventies I first came to know the piece in which Jung articulated that the apparitions in the Bardo state, which are projections of our minds, are essentially part of a journey to meet the self, which corresponds precisely to the point at which we meet the divine. Jung stated, “One’s own consciousness is a radiant Godhead itself.”

CK: You can see how he familiarized himself with Hindu, Gnostic, Tao, and Christian traditions. I like that. And it interests me that although he was a scientist, he studied the occult. Did you know Jung participated in séances?

VBA: I can’t look at your images of staircases and strange waterfalls without thinking of Pat Steir. How familiar are you with her work?

CK: I’ve studied it closely. In fact I visited her studio on one of my trips to New York. It’s not that I purposefully set out to imitate her, but her art has been tremendously influential. Actually it was Gael Stack who introduced me to Steir’s work, years ago, she looked at my work, and came up and handed me a book on her, my art was similar, the images as well as the process, first the meditation, then the mark making, it was all familiar. Once I attended a lecture at the CAMH where Steir was part of a panel discussion, and I could actually see her aura, literally see it, not the other speakers’--only hers. I spoke to her afterwards and told her I saw her halo and she looked deep into my eyes, as if unsurprised by that.

VBA: Jerry Saltz described Steir’s paintings as “internally lit,” an apt summation of your paintings. You are surely aware that Steir believes an unseen force directs the pouring and removing of paint, it is done according to the universe’s rhythm.

CK: The pulsation guiding Steir is the chi, but when I studied this flow I learned that the correct word is “Qi” and it is pronounced “Ji.” Pat Steir was influenced by classical Chinese landscapes. Those landscapes represent a cosmic force, and mine do that, the animating force. My art is a meditation on energy.

Christina Karll, Untitled, 2013, Latex and plaster and conté pencil on panel, 60" x 48"

VBA: Do you practice meditation?

CK: Every day I stretch and just receive the energy. It’s a way of thanking the universe. Also for me, walking in the woods is meditation, as well as working in my studio. Once I’m in the zone, drawing or painting becomes a form of meditation. It could even be considered channeling. I often have music playing while working, and quite often I dance, I love to dance because it raises the energy. I move my body and redirect good energy and animation into the work, and also I think positive thoughts. It works, and it makes a difference. Jackson Pollock did a similar thing in the early part of his career when he borrowed ceremonial movements from Native American sand painting rituals to allow his unconscious mind to form mythic images. He was like a shaman, moving rhythmically around the painting to try to open up lines of communication between the supernatural and natural worlds. I remember reading that Giacometti also tried to inject mystical power into his work. He was interested in magic and alchemy. When I made large paintings for a restaurant commission they were on the floor of my studio, and I moved around them in a meditative way. It makes me feel as if I am part of the painting.

VBA: The image of bundled sticks is far out, admittedly the most perplexing of the repeated and unconscious motifs. By rendering it in bronze you seem to have elevated it to mythic status.

CK: Those bundled sticks have become a primary iconographical element in my art. The image first appeared in drawing in 1990, followed by a painting series, and then I created it in the three dimensional using bronze, which indicates to me it’s extremely important to my psyche, but I don’t know its meaning. On one level the biomorphic form voices my concern about humans harming the planet, while it more broadly signifies the universe’s connectedness. In the 1990 drawing Earth-patch Bundle I depicted the stick bundle floating in a mysterious landscape, it levitates in the tree tops and hovers in its own force field. By combining, layering and erasing the form it becomes ambiguous, and vanishes and reappears. Its wider significance which is not yet fully understood, not yet fully revealed to me, relates to quantum physics and the limits of time and space. I’m talking here about the nature of reality.

Christina Karll, Earth-patch Bundle, 1990, Pastel and conté pencil on paper, 58” x 64”

VBA: Mercy. We’re confronting the deep. This level of contemplation puts me in mind of Pascal’s admission that the silence of infinity frightened the pants off of him. The immensity of the unknown sent the scientist running back to church. Your stick bundle is a pictorial reference to extra dimensional reality. Do you associate it with your deceased sister’s essence?

CK: I certainly do.

VBA: Do you think she exists?

CK: Somewhere on another plane, in another dimension. Look, there are parallel universes, and they are right here! I actually began making art after my sister’s death, her death was the impetus for my art. She was the true artist, she was a great artist, it was so easy for her to create, and it is very difficult for me. I struggle constantly, like I am with this large Untitled, it’s going through so many phases. I’m sure I began making art to connect to her once I lost her, and it might sound silly, but at times I feel as if I’m channeling her. Every once in a while I say “Susan, I need some help here,” I do, I ask her for her help, to send me energy. If I could harness her creativity, her talent, I would be so good.

VBA: Leading physicists, Brian Greene, and the late Werner Heisenberg who won a Nobel Prize, would agree with your statement about parallel universes being right here. In their understanding of quantum physics, parallel universes exist alongside our own, and there are possibly eleven multiple dimensions curving through ours, which in my estimation calls for a radical revision of our beliefs about ultimate reality.

CK: This expanded view of reality is the reason I used the word “beyond” in my exhibition title. I’m trying to understand myself, as well as the mystical aspects of existence, through a wider investigation of quantum physics, philosophy, comparative religion, mythology and even ancient writing. My art is a journey to understanding my own deep inward mystery. Rothko did that. He was a visionary. When I saw the Rothko exhibition at the Tate I learned that he valued repetition, he believed that if an image was important enough to paint once, it should be done over again and again, like my bundled twigs. This was aligned with Jung who made it a rule to never let a figure or figures that he encountered leave until they had told him why they had appeared to him.

Christina Karll, Antler Mountain Chair, 2014 Mixed media, 36 x 22 x 24 inches

VBA: Even without knowledge of the biographical fact that you help Jane Goodall raise money to protect chimpanzee habitats, one “gets” your connection to animals, which is detectable in the art. Comment on the theme of animals.

CK: The bond with them is practically indescribable, it’s extremely deep. The animating force or consciousness that runs through everything is in them too, and I want to understand it. They are immensely mysterious. Animals interact without words, which seems advanced to me, there’s probably a lot there to enlighten us.

Look, I’m not a vegetarian. I eat meat. Several things are going on in works such as Antler Mountain Chair. For one, the antlers have a magical totemic quality. I’m also commenting on inhumane treatment in the way we harvest animals for food, and the trafficking of exotic animals. Clear cutting of forests destroys habitats which is devastating to animals. The lumber companies are dually complicit because poachers ride on the logging trucks to capture exotics and to kill for the illegal bush meat trade, which operates at about $19 billion annually and leads to species extinction. And did you know that the Ebola virus which is blasted all over the news because it’s killing all those people in Africa can be linked to eating infected wild game or bush meat?

There’s another connection. Dreams as you know are the mess of our unconscious mind, and they are also a source of my art. My painting of the human figure with the deer face that gazes directly at the viewer is grounded in a vivid dream in which I was a deer, I was actually in a deer’s body, and extremely frightened by a noise from a machine that was coming closer. I felt threatened by something awful and hidden, but close by. I often call that deer-face figure “Shakespeare,” I’m not sure why but I’m relating him to the greatest writer of human tragedy in the English language.

I want to tell you something because I believe it’s relevant to my art. For my entire life I’ve been inarticulate, which is probably an important reason I paint. When I was a child I was painfully shy and developed a slight stutter, and felt uncomfortable around groups of people. My mother took me to the speech therapist her friend's son was seeing, he was a handsome, shy boy and I had a crush on him. My condition gradually improved but his worsened, and years later I learned sadly that he killed himself and I know it was from crippling self-doubt, because I’ve felt it. As a child I spent quite a bit of time alone, with my dog, with animals and out in nature, and my communication skills improved. Looking back, I find links between the past and the path I’ve chosen. This is called “introversion,” one of Jung’s favorite terms by the way. This interview is another introspective process for me, a scary one.

VBA: The installation you created for the Jung Center’s main gallery is tied to the theme of animals, and has much deeper implications.

CK: My installation I Will Become a Mountain Again, (material prima) visually suggests animals and mountain landscapes, as well as my body, and is based on Jung’s correlation of the principles of alchemy as detailed in the Magnum Opus to the process of realization of the self, which he called individuation. According to Jung’s construct the “negrido” alchemical stage symbolized by the color black stands for darkness, confusion, and the shadow, and the “albedo” stage symbolized by the color white denotes purification, spirituality and understanding. The piece is made of stacked layers of sheer colored metallic fabric that symbolize the alchemical transformation of common metals into gold, and nod to the four alchemical symbolic colors. It cites our evolution through hazy incomprehension to enlightenment. You will notice bare feet beneath the fabric, they are haunting, no? Those are casts of my feet, and they complete the image of my personal transformation into a deer and a mountain, and the integration of my psyche.

It’s important you recognize that my paintings also model the stages of the Opus because they evolved in phases. Their ghost images and visible traces resulting from alterations, beneath layers of poured and dripped paint, are important components. These artworks represent an act of transmutation.

VBA: Integral to transformation is that absurd notion of time.

CK: Precisely, time is an ingredient in my art. And, it’s so weird that time might not be real, even if it feels real. Moments do seem to move forward.

VBA: Einstein spoke of relativity’s “incomparable” beauty.

CK: Beautiful yet inexplicable. When my father was dying he had some kind of revelation about time. I don’t know what happened to him, but his expression indicated it was transformative. He was unconscious, then he came back, and he said, “Christy! Time is all relative!” I think he travelled. When he was unconscious he held his body straight with his toes pointed forward, and his hands flat on each side, like he was floating. I believe he was time-travelling. What’s spooky is he saw something in my future that upset him. He said “Oh no! Christy, it’s you, no!” I wonder about that.

Christina Karll, Untitled (Connectivity) Slate Blues and Greens, 2006, Latex paint, oil stick and conté pencil on panel board, 96” x 48”

VBA: Several times we’ve discussed important Neolithic sites we have visited. Being at those sites, Catal Huyuk is an example, reinforces for me the extreme depth of time, and the fact that human consciousness extends so deeply through it, and invites me to wonder if consciousness and intelligence are eternal, in the Vedic sense. The Upanishads tell us everything existed in the beginning, and it always will.

CK: When I saw Neolithic sites in Scotland it touched something deep within me. I saw myself! It went beyond perception, I felt connected to the earth and the cosmos, and thought “I am this.” It was deeply felt, and inspired my art. Some symbols and figures were quite unfamiliar and Jung might have categorized them as primordial images and archaic remnants without known origins, but they felt familiar to me. We probably share DNA with others from distant eras, and I’m trying to capture that mystery in the art. One way is by incorporating texture made from organic materials. I create relief in my paintings with a mulch of paper and leaves and hair, usually my own hair.

VBA: How can anyone have that much hair? It’s Pythian.

CK: Oh, my mother thinks I should cut my hair.

VBA: So how come you haven’t used the word “spiritual?” I’m usually up to my ass in the word spiritual when I talk to artists. They love to use that word.

CK: My art is spiritual because it’s a tool for self knowledge.

VBA: Self knowledge is the most sensible thing one can achieve according to Socrates, and by the way, your philosophy coheres with the fundamental spiritual premise that where we attach our inner mind, is where we meet the self, and is precisely where we find heaven and hell and the gods.

It came to pass that a fellow artist decided it was important to set me on the right track regarding your art. Last year Keith Hollingsworth contacted me and encouraged me to “investigate” Christina Karll’s art. “Dig beneath the surface,” Keith insisted.

CK: And I didn’t know my friend Keith talked to you about me, until recently. Naturally when I heard, I felt I had to follow up.

Christina Karll, Journey Through the Trees, 2009, Latex paint on canvas, 96 x 60

Coupla Guys Sittin' Around Talkin' About Art Fairs

Robert Boyd

I wrote about Brian Piana's podcast, Spill Some Stuffearlier this year, and now I have the pleasure of being a guest on it. He wanted to talk about art fairs. We started by talking about Frieze and the smaller satellite fairs in New York and compared those fairs to the two we have in Houston, the Texas Contemporary Art Fair and the Houston Fine Art Fair. We discuss a lot of specific artworks (Jonathan Monk gets a lot of ribbing), and close with a brief discussion of an art fair that I'd like to see in Houston.

When Brian Piana decides to engage in a new hobby, he goes whole hog. This was evident in the excellent home-brewed beer he served me, and in the podcast set-up he uses. It consists a large chrome-plated microphone (that looked like it could have been used in radio broadcasts from the 1940s) mounted onto a wood plank, with two microphone screens on flexible necks between us and the microphone. Visually, it was amazing! This was sitting on a small table. I sat on one side and Brian was on the other. He was monitoring the recording on a computer screen as we spoke. And all this set up paid off--the interview sounds great. You know how when you hear your own recorded voice, it usually sounds really weird? At least for me, it never sounds right. Up until now, I've always assumed that had to do with the way we hear our own voices. But now I wonder if that's true. I was amazed at hearing my own voice on Piana's podcast--it sounded natural. It didn't have that "off" sound that recordings of my own voice usually have.

Spill Some Stuff's podcast studio

Even though I managed not to sound completely dreadful, Piana as always sounds great. KUHF should give him an hour every week to chat with whoever he likes. (Of course, it's hard for me to be completely unbiased about a full hour of me spouting off on this and that. Because obviously it's great.) Anyway, Spill Some Stuff won't exclusively deal with art in the future, but so far it has really had some great local Houston art content. Give it a listen.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

HFAF 2014: The Good Stuff

Robert Boyd

OK, I was pretty harsh on the Houston Fine Art Fair here and here. These things are always a mixture. You have the good and the bad and a lot in between. The problem with HFAF was that the bad was so bad, and there was so much of it, one wonders if good galleries like Shoshana Wayne Gallery and Mark Borghi Fine Art will want to continue their association with the fair. Art fairs need to be curated to an extent, and there was little sense that HFAF was particularly selective.

But even if their inclusion criterion was nothing more than a gallery's willingness to pay the booth fee, some good art sneaked in. Here's some of my favorites.

James Surls at Wade Wilson Gallery

James Surls at Wade Wilson Gallery

I love James Surls and was struck by how nice these large sculptures look inside (I think they are meant to be outdoors sculptures). I was a bit surprised to see Surls associated with Wade Wilson (I though Barbara Davis was his local gallery when he bothered--but a look at the artists page on their website suggests that is no longer true.Wade Wilson Gallery closed their Houston location after opening a Santa Fe gallery. I was a little surprised to see them in Houston--at least one Houston artist had to sue Wade Wilson to get paid in recent years.

Michal Rovner, Yaar (Laila), 2014, LCD screens, paper and video, 46 1/2 x 40 1/2 x 2 3/8 inches at Shoshana Wayne Gallery

Not surprisingly, there wasn't much video art at HFAF. I think there were literally more lenticular artworks than video artworks. But one video piece I liked was this eerie one by Michal Rovner, featuring two lines of people endlessly marching on what looks like the face of a cliff. A group of cypress is in silhouette in the foreground. The latter feature seemed slightly unnecessary--the point of the work was the endless line of marchers. But as I looked closely, I realized that the center tree covered a seam between two video monitors. I guess you have to work with monitors that are actually manufactured, and if you want to have a nearly square image like this, connecting two monitors is the only way to do it. It detracts from the main idea, unfortunately. But I still found Yaar (Laila) to be a rather haunting piece.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hearts and Hands Brown and Blue, 2014, 16 mm polyester film, polyester thread, 23 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches at Shoshana Wayne Gallery

I saw Sabrina Gschwandtner's work earlier this year at Pulse. Aside from creating very interesting collages with old bits of 16 mm film, her surname has the highest consonant to vowel ratio of any other artist that I know of. Her pieces require a lightbox to be seen properly. Because the strips of film are sewn together, there is a rather quilt-like quality to her pieces. I find the patterning quite hypnotic.

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Hearts and Hands Brown and Blue (detail), 2014, 16 mm polyester film, polyester thread, 23 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches at Shoshana Wayne Gallery

John Chamberlain, Flywheelsonata, 2007, painted and chromed steel at Mark Borghi Fine Art

This rather antic piece by John Chamberlain exudes a happy feeling not always present in his work, which can be a little anxious in part because the association one may draw from it with car accidents. I know he always claimed to be a formalist, but still his work is from the high tide of the automobile (and thus the auto accident). It's nearly impossible not to think about that. But here, by using narrow strips of brightly painted sheet metal, I get an entirely different feeling.

John Chamberlain prints for sale to benefit the Asia Society

In addition to the John Chamberlain sculpture, HFAF was auctioning off two John Chamberlain prints (and some other artwork) to benefit the Asia Society.

Larry Poons, Untitled #13, 1973, acrylic on canvas, 55 1/2 x 29 inches at Mark Borghi Fine Art

This alarming snot avalanche by Larry Poons was perversely fascinating. 

Luis Jimenez, El Buen Pastor, colored lithograph, 1999 at Redbud Gallery

Redbud Gallery had several Luis Jimenez prints, including this powerful portrait of Esequiel Hernández, Jr., the goat herder killed by U.S. Marines in 1997.

Jim Dine, Double Iron Man, woodcut, 68 x 98 inches at Adamar Fine Arts

When I saw these antic woodcuts, I immediately thought, "Wow!" I would have never guessed that they were by Jim Dine. There is something about these two faces that really grabs me--a combination of the crude cartoonish rendering, the intense and unexpected colors and the restless texture.

Donald Sultan, Screen Aug 25, 1987, aquatint with relief print on reverse, 63 x 144 inches flat at Parkerson Gallery

I wish they had displayed this Donald Sultan on the floor so that we could see both sides of the screen. The image on this side is simple, but I love the smudginess.

Bert Long, Search, 1987, mixed media, 26 x 44 1/2 inches at Deborah Colton Gallery

Great colors on this Bert Long at Deborah Colton Gallery, which had one of the more interesting booths at HFAF.

Suzanne Anker, Carbon Collision in the Diamond Mind 33-40, 2013 metallic glazed porcelain at Deborah Colton Gallery

Suzanne Anker's little porcelain statuettes look decidedly dangerous.

Ferhat Özgür, Corps of Honour, 2011, watercolor on paper, 15.75 x 23.62 inches at Deborah Colton Gallery

Ferhat Özgür had a whole series of bizarre, slightly martial watercolors, including this tender moment between two Turkish soldiers.

The Houston Artists Hall of Fame

Jackie Harris, The Fruitmobile, 1967 Ford station wagon modified 1984

The fair devoted a considerable amount of space to the Houston Artists Hall of Fame, an exhibit of artists chosen by Patricia Covo Johnson. The idea is that there will be new artists added each year. In a way, it might have been a bad idea for HFAF to host this because it showed how weak most of the exhibitors were in comparison. It was nice that Johnson included an art car (one of the very first art cars, in fact) , recognizing the importance of this oddball vernacular art form to Houston.

Jesse Lott, Ascension of the Fire God, ca. 1974, wire and other found materials

two Jim Love sculptures

Manual (Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom), Louis Corinth in Vermont, gelatin silver

Mel Chin, Cross for the Unforgiven, n.d., AK47s and steel

Alabama Song's booth

As they did last year, HFAF comped Alabama Song a booth. Work was hung salon-style and was for sale at all different price points (good idea!). They also had some participatory art happening. Rocky Wang played ping pong with all challengers.

Rocky Wang taking all comers with a shoe

Despite the fact that he handicapped himself by playing with his shoe instead of a paddle, Wang eviscerated every challenger.

Rocky Wang's hat with a tiny ping pong paddle

Rabéa Ballin at Alabama Song

Miguel Amat at Alabama Song

Miguel Amat will be having a show at the Blaffer Gallery later this fall--I'm looking forward to it and so should you.

Fotofest also had a booth which featured an intriguing selection of Arab photographers.

Ahmed Mater, from the series Illumination (Ottoman Waqf), 2014, gold leaf, tea, pomegranate, Dupont prints at Fotofest

Ahmed Mater, from the series Illumination (Ottoman Waqf), 2014, gold leaf, tea, pomegranate, Dupont prints at Fotofest

Hassan Hajjaj, Odd 1 Out, 2000/1421 from the series Kesh Angels, 2009-2012, c-print, walnut wood frame, tomato cans at Fotofest

Lalla Essaydi, Harem #29, 2012, chromogenic print at Fotofest

So it wasn't all bad. But HFAF still has to improve a lot, and their trajectory over the past couple of years has not been in the right direction.

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