Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Curated Comics Show: The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival

This December, I will be attending The Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, which is kind of a big deal for me because I haven't been to a comics convention outside of Houston for many years. This has partly been a result of no professional need to go (I no longer work in the comics business), no particular desire to go, and not enough money. But lately I've been getting the ache to check one out. I almost went to TCAF and SPX, but in both cases, they both conflicted with things I wanted to do here (the Art Car Parade and the Fringe Festival). But this time I bit the bullet and bought a plane ticket for a long weekend in NYC. I'll spend one day hitting galleries and museums, and the next day at the festival.

I don't know much about the festival, except that this is its second year and that it got a very good reaction after the first year. But its biggest distinguishing feature is that it is a "curated" show. I'm not sure exactly what this means--I've been told details will be published on their site. But if I am correctly inferring the situation from the comments in this article, it sounds as if the organizers decided who they wanted to have exhibit and invited only those people. This is exactly how a curator might curate a group exhibit in an art museum. But here, we are not talking about exhibiting art (although I believe that will be part of the festival), but setting up tables to sell stuff--comics, original art, etc. In short, this is a dealers room-style show where the dealers have been selected by the organizers. (The "dealers" in this case will be artists and alternative comics publishers.)

A curated festival is highly unusual in the world of comics. It caused a degree of argument and upset among the commenters in the article by the Beat But I think this was mainly because folks aren't used to this approach in the realm of comics festivals. In other kinds of art festivals (and in pretty much all group art exhibits), this is a common practice. For example, the Bayou City Art Festival is juried, even though it is a completely commercial event. Exhibitors are judged on the quality of the work they have for sale and on the quality of their booth design. But comics festivals--even ones that are deliberately alternative--are governed by a powerful sense of tradition and inertia.

The difference between the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival and the Bayou City Art Festival is that in the latter festival, potential exhibitors submitted a proposal, and the final selection was chosen from among the proposals. The BCGF apparently dispensed with the first step and solicited exhibitors they wanted. The upside to doing it this way is that you remove one difficult, time-consuming step from the process. The downside, however, is that you may miss out on a great new talent whose work you were hitherto unaware of.

But that is not a fatal flaw. In fact, I would say that every possible selection criterion for a festival of this sort is inherently flawed in some way. The traditional "first come first served" approach for comics conventions favors people who are already familiar with the comics world, who are, in a sense, insiders. It also doesn't guarantee the highest quality exhibitors, nor exhibitors who will be just right for the market the organizers are trying to reach. The BCGF curated show method also allows the organizers to reach out to potential exhibitors who might not ordinarily consider exhibiting at a show like this. It allows them to narrowly focus the festival for a specific kind of comics fan. I think this a completely reasonable, grown-up way to go.

As I find out more about the show, I will report it. And, of course, I will blog about the show itself when I go. In any case, it looks like it will be lovely. The guests include artists like Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, Charles Burns, Jordan Crane, Renee French, Mark Alan Stamaty and Adrian Tomine and many more.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Christoph Hüppi and Carlos Rosales-Silva at Box 13

There was a lot of exciting art in the new collection of shows at Box 13. Seriously, go down and check it out--lots of it need to be experienced in person to get the full impact (I'm thinking of the especially cool sound piece, Sounds for Stairs by Lina Dib). The Kenmore had a more ambitious than usual program (although not much can beat what it had at the Big Show this year). The Kenmore, recall, is a small refrigerator owned by artist Emily Sloan. She usually keeps it in her studio, but occasionally gives it duty as a micro-exhibit space. This time around, Ariane Roesch had a light installation inside, and a painter named Christoph Hüppi had tiny magnets and small paintings on the outside of the refrigerator. Hüppi's presence may be the result of a little evangelizing by Paul Middendorf, the guest judge of the Big Show. Evidently he liked what he saw in Houston and came down later in the summer to hang out and meet artists. Hence Hüppi, not to mention an upcoming performance at Skydive.

Hüppi's art is latter-day op art. It is abstract, and he uses exotic paints, including metallic paint. It's really hard to photograph--I took a picture with no flash and with flash, and it's like I shot two totally different paintings. I think he uses some fluorescent paints in his work, and my flash must include ultraviolet light in its spectrum. The thing about this kind of art--geometric, optical, etc., is that it has a kind of lowbrow appeal. A friend of mine once referred to it as "van art," and I've heard the term "dorm room decoration" in relation to this kind of thing. (Ironically, I had a little Kenmore fridge just like this one in my freshman dorm room.) One thinks of Victor Vasarely and the optically vibrating rock posters of Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso. There is also another influence that people associate with this kind of art.

Which reminds me of a story. I was a freshman in college, and I got it into my head to do a Victor Vasarely-style piece of art with red and green markers (colors that totally vibrated when placed next to each other). It was a grid with an undulating, bubbling surface. The markers really reeked though, so my roomie kicked me out of the dorm room for the duration. So I was sitting on the floor in the hall, patiently drawing this ridiculous piece of work, when two guys walk up. They weren't people I knew, but they were obviously students. They asked me about the piece and we chatted and then they invited me to lunch the next day. I went, and it turned out to be an evangelical Christian gathering, filled with people like me who had been likewise tricked into attending. But why did they pick me? One reason was that I was alone, and it's easier to gang up on a lone person. The other was that I was doing this freaky, psychedelic drawing. And the only kind of person who would be doing that is a druggy in desperate need of being saved, right? Ironically, while I wasn't a drug virgin, I was close. Certainly I wasn't the acid-head that this drawing might have lead them to believe.

So that's the other influence for this kind of art--LSD. And mushrooms, I guess.

I have no more notion if Hüppi's work is influenced by drugs than the two wandering God-botherers had about me. I make no assumptions. However, in honor of this psychedelic lineage, I have made a gif of one of Hüppi's pieces consisting of the version shot without a flash and the version shot with a flash.

Cristoph Hupi
Christoph Hüppi, Pipe No. ?, acrylic on board

All these pieces are named "Pipe No. XX", but I can't remember what number this one was. Actually, giving these abstractions a name like "Pipe" suggest one other influence: Peter Halley, whose geometric abstractions were given a pomo gloss by being identified by the artist as paintings of "cells" and "conduits."

The big show up in front was by Austin artist Carlos Rosales-Silva. He takes as his subject Hispanic and Native American identity. He plays with cliches that come from Anglo culture, but also from Hispanic culture. For example this untitled piece:

Carlos Rosales-Silva
Carlos Rosales-Silva, untitled, custom fleece blankets, latex paint, wood, found objects, 2010

I'm guessing the guy on the right is Rosales-Silva himself, in all his highly unidealized glory. Show him a cultural cliche or two dealing with Native Americans, and he'll take a whack at it as well.

Carlos Rosales-Silva
Carlos Rosales-Silva, Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before..., modified found objects

This next one I don't get. I see the op art quotation, but I don't see how the lowbrow text, an update of "No Viet-Cong ever called me nigger," has any particular relationship with Op Art. The only thing I can think of--and this is a stretch--is that Mohammad Ali made his famous statement in 1966, more-or-less at the same time that Op Art was at its height, and Op Art was definitely a kind of apolitical art. So maybe Rosales-Silva is taking non-engaged art to task. (I told you it was a stretch.) See for yourself:

Carlos Rosales-Silva
Carlos Rosales-Silva, Op Art, archivally mounted digital print

If this is a jab at unengaged, purely optical art, it is ironic that it is being displayed in the same place as Christoph Hüppi's optical semi-abstractions.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Edward Lane McCartney at Goldesberry Gallery

I had seen Edward Lane McCartney's work before at Goldesberry and in a group show at Gallery 1724. The thing to remember about McCartney is that he is something of a crossover artist. He is a jeweler, which is to say he works in a form of art often associated with "craft." But he also creates objects that can only be thought of as sculpture. Despite the wall between "craft" and "art" that has existed since at least since Vasari, there are craftspeople who work very hard at making the distinction meaningless. We saw that at Hand+Made. There are other seeming contradictions in McCartney's work. He is a jeweler, skilled in shaping fine pieces of metal into rings, bracelets, necklaces and broaches. But he is just as likely to make jewelry out of plastic cable ties as gold. Some of his materials are extremely humble, and some would count as found objects. As a sculptor, he is in many of his pieces primarily and assemblagist.

Edward Lane McCarthy, Don't Ask...Don't Tell, steel, plastic army men, cable ties, paint

He has used tiny plastic army men in his sculptures before. You know the type--you could order them from comic books back in my childhood. This piece is quite large, and from a distance appears to be a rough but textured triangle of some undetermined material. You can only tell they're army men when you get in close.

Edward Lane McCarthy, Don't Ask...Don't Tell detail, steel, plastic army men, cable ties, paint

As a piece of political art, it's not subtle (but it is very timely!).  McCartney's weakness is his obviousness. Particularly when addressing issues where there is clearly a right and wrong side. For example, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing.

Edward Lane McCarthy, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing, acrylic, brass, copper, sterling steel, paint and photographs

Here's a detail.

Edward Lane McCarthy, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing detail, acrylic, brass, copper, sterling steel, paint and photographs

Get it? Here is a beautifully crafted piece with the message that priests abusing children is BAD! I am sure this is something that McCartney feels strongly about, and I certainly don't doubt for one second his sincerity. But art is most powerful, it seems to me, when it draws you into its metaphors, its subtleties, its mystery. When it leaves at least part of the  "work" ("work" that is, for me, pleasure) to the viewer. This doesn't. It has the subtlety of an antiabortion billboard on I-45.

A piece that works much better is this one.

Edward Lane McCartney, Is the Cure Worse then the Disease?, sterling silver, fine silver, transfer print on linen

This is another beautifully crafted piece, and every aspect of it refers in some way to the medical regimen that people with HIV must undergo. The title seems to indicate that McCartney has a specific beef, but the work itself is much more ambiguous.

Edward Lane McCartney, Is the Cure Worse then the Disease? detail, sterling silver, fine silver, transfer print on linen

The preciousness of the material must in some ways reflect the preciousness of the drugs--both in actual cost and in terms of what they give someone taking them--more hours and days and years. The presentation reminds me simultaneously of a rich medieval place-setting and of a sacrament. Of course the chain and cuff connected to the goblet are a reminder that you can never leave the regimen. So it is a blessing to be alive and a burden to be chained to these drugs forever.

Edward Lane McCartney, Wounded, wood, acrylic, paint, band-aids

I'll close with this witty piece, made out of the very humblest materials imaginable. When I see someone produce a piece with a strict grid, I inevitably think of Agnes Martin. But her work is calming, partly because grids are calming, and partly because of the materials and colors she used and finally I think because her grids featured horizontal rectangles instead of squares. McCartney makes his grid the opposite of calm. Aside from the obvious association of band-aids with cuts and scrapes, the rigid squares within squares don't give the viewer the feeling that the squares are resting on something. Unlike Agnes Martin, this piece doesn't suggest a landscape. Nor does it suggest a figure or a portrait. It's a true abstraction made of many small pains, a gameboard of tiny wounds.

This show is packed--there are many more pieces besides the one I have described here. McCartney is an interesting and highly skilled artist, and his work is well worth seeing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Last Chance--see Boozefox and Tobiah Mundt at Lawndale

I am so behind on writing about shows I like that the shows are almost over when I get around to writing. These shows--"Math of the Aftermath" by Boozefox and "Being" by Tobiah Mundt--end on September 25, so go see them now!

These shows both should have been Halloween shows. Mundt's spooky bone-white plush figures and Boozefox's giant walk-through skull--they are like two parts of an excellent haunted house. But Lawndale traditional has its Dia de los Muertos retablo show for Halloween. So consider these two as teasers for Halloween.

Tobiah Mundt
Tobiah Mundt, Roscoe, felted wool and mixed media, 2008

Roscoe here is a book worm with some very nasty claws. He's the kind of creature that might pop out when you open a really good Stephen King book very late at night.

Tobiah Mundt
Tobiah Mundt, Octobunny, felted wool and mixed media, 2008

Cute and disturbing are not things that can be measured on a one-dimensional scale: they are orthogonal. Octobunny proves this by being simultaneously cute and disturbing.

Tobiah Mundt
Tobiah Mundt, (not sure about the title), felted wool and mixed media, 2008

If I were a collector who bought this piece and brought it home, set it up on a shelf or a plinth in my bedroom, fully conscious of what I was doing, I think I'd still scream when I saw it if I woke up during the night.

But maybe I'm just a big old chicken, because Mundt thanks her son Maddox "for thinking my work is funny--not scary."

Boozefox is an Austin-based collective consisting of Mike Phalen, Jules Buck Jones, Scott Eastwood and Drew Liverman. The best way to experience Math of the Aftermath is to walk through it, so I did.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Notes on the Joanna Gala

Saturday, The Joanna had their "gala." It was not a black tie affair. In fact, it was officially a costume party. The theme? Sexy Godz. Guess who I came as.

Robert Boyd

This photo was taken by Troy Schulze, the art writer for The Houston Press. Someone I know once complained to me that Schulze writes too many bad reviews, but I say, kill 'em, Troy. Reviewers need to challenge artists to do better, and to challenge readers to expect more.

Cody Ledvina

Cody Ledvina was the maestro of the raffle. They did it Box 13 style. But they made an error when they set up the raffle. They made the tickets too cheap: $1 each. It was too easy to game it. Consequently, I ended up winning four pieces. (I'll put them up later.)

Robert Boyd,Skeez

This photo was taken by whoever was holding Aimee Jones' iphone. From right to left: Skeezer Stinkfist, me, Aimee Jones, and some person I don't know.

One pleasing thing about this party was the large number of beautiful women there. There were even a pair dressed as nymphs (or elves, but since I was Pan I chose to interpret them as nymphs). But I have to admit, being around young pretty women like this made me feel like a dirty old man. (But I felt like a dirty old man at the Rice-UT game a couple of weeks ago, so perhaps feeling like a dirty old man is a natural result of being 47.)


The most interesting conversation I had, in a night full of interesting conversation, was with a sculptor who I won't name who ragged on painting. He considered it a pointless, archaic exercise, the need for which was utterly obviated by computers and various graphic softwares. He was specifically talking about how wrong it was, in his opinion, that painting seemed to be favored at UH over sculpture. And he spoke of sculpture's obvious superiority over painting--how sculpture could be almost anything: assemblage, installation, performance, etc.

Now I thought this argument had begun in 1979 with "Sculpture in the Expanded Field" by Rosalind Krauss and ended in 1981 with "Last Exit: Painting" by Thomas Lawson. But apparently it is alive and well, and what was kind of exciting was that this somewhat theoretical argument had a real-world effect--the focus of teaching studio art at UH. I liked the passion the sculptor had. What do you think, painting fans? Can you defend this ancient artistic medium?

Anyway, that was the Sexy Godz Gala. I'll try to refrain from writing about (or attending, for the most part) galas in the future...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

St. Boniface's Last Days at Art Palace

The new exhibition at Art Palace is beautiful and mysterious. Peat Duggins, an artist living in Cambridge, MA, but with lots of ties to Austin, made the pieces here. St. Boniface was an Anglo-Saxon priest who went among the Frisians and Germans to convert them from paganism. His big symbolic act was to chop down a tree, Donar's Oak, dedicated to the god Donar. He challenged Donar to strike him down, and when no lightning bolt appeared, he was able to convert the Germans. (The legend has it that he didn't even chop the tree down--once he started chopping, a wind came and blew it over, proving that God was on Boniface's side.) One interpretation of this is that this represents a change in the Germans' relationship with nature. No longer was nature sacred, once Boniface chopped down a holy tree. And to be certain, Christianity is notably lacking in holy natural spots--no sacred groves, for example.

The historical record of St. Boniface (such as it is) has his last days among the Frisians, trying to convert them with limited success, when his party is attacked by Frisian bandits and Boniface is killed. But Duggins seems to imagine a different end for him. One where he makes peace with nature, perhaps. Does Boniface roam among the trees in a cloak of leaves?

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Spooky, no? Especially the way the face is completely covered. It makes one think of the Spanish penitents who wear masks during Holy Week, as well as the itinerant Zen monks called komuso who wore woven baskets over their heads to symbolize their detachment from the world.

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Peat Duggins, Robe, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

But Robe is not a depiction of St. Boniface. It's literally the robe. Supporting it is a custom-made tailor's dummy. It's the part of the piece made of fiberglass and wood marquetry.

Peat Duggins, Robe detail, felt, silk, wood twigs, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

The fiberglass in his pieces takes the place of finely carved wood. If he had been working a century ago, he would have made his tailor's dummy out of wood, doing some amazing decorative carving then staining it rich dark brown.

Peat Duggins, Bust, felt, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass

In Robe, the leaves were a garment. Are they still a garment here, or they actually his face? It could be a seen as a fiberglass bust with a leaf mask, or a bust with leaves for the skin. Again he uses fiberglass as a substitute for carved wood, making it deep brown and setting the marquetry within it.

Peat Duggins, Bust detail,  felt, wood veneer marquetry, fiberglass, 2010

Duggins' marquetry is gorgeous, and portrays nature as a violent place, as in Alterpiece (Snake).

Peat Duggins, Alterpiece (Snake), wood marquetry drawing and fiberglass, 2010

The image is grimly witty: a snake is consuming a frog, whose dying act is to eat a butterfly.

Peat Duggins, Alterpiece (Snake) detail, wood marquetry drawing and fiberglass, 2010

This suggests that seeing this show as a simple repudiation of Boniface's symbolic act against nature (felling Donar's Oak) is probably an over-simplification. After all, he is depicting nature as "red in tooth and claw." That phrase is significant. It comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam A.H.H.:
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed
Tennyson, in this line, seems to be setting pitiless nature against the idea of God as love. And this is an issue for neopagans and Christians alike. If you sanctify nature (either as a holy place, in a pagan sense, or as part of God's creation, in a Christian sense), you have to accept that the snake eats the frog and the frog eats the butterfly and that there is a lot of violence and death there.

Perhaps that is what Duggins is playing with here. Our complex spiritual relationship with nature, regardless of what religion (if any) we choose. But the work is gorgeous, and maybe that makes interpretation unnecessary.

The exhibit also contains a very interesting animated video and an artists book in its own fiberglass case with wood marquetry. (Oh I craved one of those. But it was understandably pricey.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

This Post is for Digg!

(Pay no attention to this post--it's just to get Pan into Digg.)

Two Books by Norman Lindsay

by Robert Boyd

Earlier this summer, I wrote about Age of Consent, the late 60s movie based on the 1938 novel  by Norman Lindsay. Lindsay (1879-1969) was an Australian painter, print-maker, illustrator, and novelist. Seeing Age of Consent made me very curious about this figure, a man both geographically and stylistically outside the mainstream of art history. People like this are often fascinating figures, and Lindsay more than most. Here's what his art looks like:

Norman Lindsay, Crete, 1940

He was also a skilled watercolorist, as you can see here.

Norman Lindsay, Visitors from the Moon, watercolor

(I wish this image were better reproduced. I suspect his work looks a lot more vivid in person.) So you get the idea. Norman Lindsay, a Victorian lad, loved nothing more than to paint and draw and sculpt naked ladies. His work was a scandal in early 20th century Australia (and the USA), and Lindsay himself lived a bohemian life worthy of French artists--lots of sex, lots of living in sin--before marrying and moving to a country estate (more on this later).

So to follow up on this odd character, I got copies of the novel Age of Consent and his memoir, My Mask.

Age of Consent follows a bachelor artist named Bradly Mudgett into a remote coastal area away from people where he can paint. In the movie, Mudgett is a very successful artist coming off a huge gallery show in New York--here, he lives a fairly marginal existence on the collectors in Sydney, which was something of a backwater in the English-speaking world back then. Mudgett is a misanthrope and shy around the ladies (he sees a prostitute occasionally when he has some cash).

Aside from the period, Mudgett's level of success, and the location (in the novel, the action is near Sydney but still remote; in the movie, they have to go out to The Great Barrier Reef to get a suitably remote location), the movie follows pretty close to the novel. One difference is that when Mudgett starts painting Cora and posting the canvases off to his dealer, they start selling. That's actually an important plot point, because Mudgett, though he is living on next to nothing, is nonetheless running out of money. And now that he has discovered Cora--his model and his muse--he is reluctant to leave. The money from the gallery enables him to stay. And just as in the movie, Cora ends up staying with Mudgett.

This book is quite amusing, and really, it's like the ultimate middle-aged male artist's fantasy--finding a sexy young model who you end up sleeping with. I wonder if it caused any scandal when it was published. There are no sex scenes or much in the way of "vulgarity," but sex is assumed and nudity is constant. It is easy to see how the painter who so loved the female form--and not in some abstract way, but specifically as an erotic object--would write a book like this.

Norman Lindsay, Spring's Innocence

When Lindsay wrote his memoir, My Mask,  in 1957, he wrote it assuming the reader would have read some of his books, which I understand were pretty popular in their time. He is constantly telling the reader that this or that person from his life is the model for this or that character. If, like me, you've only read one book, this becomes tedious. His roundabout way of telling his life story is also kind of a drag. I would really like to read a biography of Lindsay written by someone else.

He tells the story of his birth and continues up to when he and his second wife settled down at Faulconbridge. His father was a doctor who loved life, and his mother was a highly religious woman who (according to Lindsay) suppressed this life-loving side in all of them. As he and his siblings left home, they all became artists and pleasure-seeking bohemians. Over and over, the ideal of hedonism is expressed in Lindsay's book. He goes over to London in 1910 with his friend Bill Dyson and his sister Ruby, whom Dyson had married. He later brings his model/girlfriend Rose over, and sets up house with her. Bill and Ruby, one-time bohemians, disapprove of this unmarried shacking-up! Lindsay is outraged at their hypocrisy and their new-found Victorian morality, and the friendship ends. He and Rose return to Australia later and he tragically never sees Ruby again (she died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919). Lindsay married Rose in 1920, but the implication is that he may have dallied with the occasional model subsequently.

So he seems like a very appealing character. But there are aspects of him that rankle. He comes off in one point as a white supremacist (positing that the white race began in Atlantis, and the most beautiful women were those who were most directly descended from the Atlanteans). Fortunately, this is not a theme he repeats. He also seems extremely closed-minded about modern art (forgivable given when and where he was born and given his own preferences as an artist) and about France in general (despite loving the novels of Balzac).

These two books have given me a powerful urge to see his paintings. Maybe a trip to Australia is called for!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jeff Forster and Jillian Conrad at The Art League

These two artists have a small show up in the front gallery at the Art League. I wasn't familiar with Jillian Conrad, but Jeff Forster's work is work I have encountered several times over the past few months, up to and including winning a piece of his in the Box 13 raffle. So I was eager to see what he had for this show.

Jeff Forster
Jeff Forster, Endangered Species, native clays and palm fronds dipped in porcelain then fired, 2010

Palm fronds dipped in porcelain then fired--so that's how he makes those little clay chips. I was wondering that ever since I saw his piece Frailty. What interests me about the process is, what happens when you take something organic and/or flammable and fire it in a kiln? Does the organic part burn away, leaving just the ceramic part? This has been on my mind ever since I won the two Marie Weichman porcelain rags which were apparently made in a similar way.

This piece (and one other in the show) were made out of similar little ceramic pieces. Installing them means scattering the stuff on the floor, so the dimensions are, as they say, variable. I think maybe the are meant to evoke a sense of crumbling ruin, as if you have stumbled across a site that was once built up but is now a shattered and decayed remain. That's how it feels to me. There is something amusing about transporting this into a pristine art gallery.

Jeff Forster
Jeff Forster, Remnant of Reflected Space, fired native clay, mirror, and naturally collected vegetation, 2009

If the former piece was meant to evoke the decay of something man-made, this piece seems like an attempt to contrive something that appears natural. Except for the mirror--I'm not sure what that's all about. The location is particularly interesting--against a glass. It can be seen from the outside and when you view it from the inside, you see the sidewalk and the street and trees and passing cars, forming kind of a backdrop for the piece. If the object is man-made nature--a "rock" formed from natural clay (as slate is nature-made rock formed from clay), then what we see through the window, our built and grown environment, is also man-made "nature." Maybe then the mirror is meant to remind us that the "rock" is a reflection of what we do in our cities and towns. We build our own "nature," our own environment.

Jilliam Conrad
Jillian Conrad, Pile, wood, concrete,foam,paint, glitter, 2010

Jillian Conrad, at first glance, seems like an apt partner in this exhibit. But there is a difference in their work. While Forster's work may be chaotic and may resemble decay, it is ultimately crafted  using one of mankind's oldest crafts. Conrad's pieces, while constructed, seem deliberately uncrafted. For instance, the wooden table in Pile is not the result of carpentry, but rather the result of nailing pieces of wood together. The concrete looks more like concrete accidentally spilled at a worksite than concrete deliberately formed for some purpose. That's the feeling I get from looking at this--a temporary work-table assembled at a construction site. All the materials (save the glitter) are materials construction workers might use to build a house or commercial structure. It's the kind of object that, after the job was done, would be broken up and thrown in the dumpster with the rest of the waste products. Put in a gallery recontextualizes it. Whether this interpretation has anything to do with Conrad's intent, I have no idea. But it's what I saw.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Note on Leo & His Circle

Gallery owners are some of the key gatekeepers for art, and some have the ability (and good luck) to be tastemakers. This is a fact that drives artists crazy, and causes them to conceive elaborate strategies to avoid being gallery artists. Personally, I'm for whatever works to get art to people who want to see it. That necessarily includes galleries.

And the fact is that it's hard to successfully run a gallery (I would be surprised if they had a success rate significantly higher than restaurants). And few gallery owners succeed in bringing truly great artists before the public eye. But some do, and because some do, anyone interested in the history of art needs to know something about galleries and their owners and directors. (Just as, likewise, anyone interested in the history of culture has to be aware of the great editors and great A&R men and great movie producers and great impresarios.)

For that reason alone, Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli by Annie Cohen-Solieil would be worth a look. That it is a really well-written, compelling biography is an unexpected bonus. Castelli was born Leo Krausz in 1907. His family was forced to adopt his mother's family name when Mussolini decreed that all Italians must have Italian names--a decree that was apparently aimed mainly at Trieste's Slovene population. But Castelli's father, a Hungarian Jew, was affected by this decree as well. The book deals with Castelli's complex family roots--as complex as the city of Trieste itself. Partly Italian and partly Austro-Hungarian, Italy got Trieste as settlement after the first World War. One result of Castelli's multinational upbringing is that he was himself multi-lingual. Combine that with an extremely suave personality, superb social skills, and a fantastic feel for art, and you have the perfect recipe for a successful New York art dealer.

The book discusses how Castelli got there. It wasn't instantaneous, to say the least. He and his wife collected art and then just before World War II, Castelli opened a gallery in Paris with a dealer named Rene Drouin. Talk about bad timing! This was the exception, though. Castelli was really a guy who mostly lived off his wife's family's money until he was 50. They helped him get jobs, set him up in business, while he spent his time as a socialite and art lover.

But as an art lover, he got deeply involved in art, especially in the art being done in New York after the war. He got involved in what was going on, helped people, acted as a host for parties, etc. Nothing that made him any money, but stuff that made him an important figure on the scene. He laid the groundwork for a gallery. And finally, in February 1957, he opened it up in his apartment. He was 50 years old! A true model for all late-bloomers.

He quickly signed on such artists as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, etc. He put his artists on a salary of sorts, so they could live between shows. This was risky behavior for a gallery owner, and some of the minimalist and post-minimalist artists Castelli scarcely paid off this on-going investment. He also franchised his gallery nationally and internationally with galleries he owned as well as with strategic partnerships. (I wish the mechanics of the latter had been better explicated in the book. If, for example, if there was a Roy Lichtenstein show at Janie C. Lee in Dallas, how did Castelli get paid?)

Castelli was famous for having a waiting list to be able to buy art from particular artists. How this waiting list worked was fairly arbitrary--Castelli wanted to make sure you were the right customer to be buying the art. He well understood that there was a brand value to certain collectors. What the book doesn't say is whether Castelli originated this practice, which has been used since (my friend Robert Weiss was on waiting lists for Robert Williams paintings--it was a strictly numerical list, and when a new Williams show opened, there was a lot of trading of spots among collectors. Weiss eventually acquired two Williams paintings before his tragic death in a car accident. He was the first serious art collector I ever knew).

In the 80s and 90s, young gallery owners who learned Castelli's techniques started to eclipse him. Some of his top artists jumped ship. Still, he had an extremely successful career, and it is reasonable to ask if the recent history of art would have been the same without him. (Cohen-Solal implies it would not have been.) Would Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg have been the giants they were if Castelli hadn't been there pushing their work? It's not a totally comfortable question to ask, but it's true that cultural gate-keepers like Castelli may have an effect on the art form with which they are are associated. The magnitude of that effect is impossible to quantify (because it is impossible to test the alternative outcome). But the effect is there.

Malanie Crader at O'Kane Gallery

O'Kane Gallery may be off the beaten path for lots of art lovers in Houston, but it always has interesting shows. The Eula Project by Melanie Crader is no exception. When you walk in, you'll see a variety of small geometric paintings that mostly look quite abstract. (I want to apologize right now for not getting the titles of these pieces.)

Melanie Crader
Melanie Crader, don't know the title, some kind of paint on board

They are maybe a foot wide by about 18 inches high--maybe a little bigger, but not much. Painted on board, they don't have much three-dimensional presence. Crader uses some kind of metallic paint or leaf on some of them.

Melanie Crader
Melanie Crader, don't know the title, some kind of paint on board

Some of the images are not really abstract. Occasionally you can see that Crader is depicting some real thing, like this envelope.

Melanie Crader

Melanie Crader, don't know the title, some kind of paint on board

But mostly the pieces seem to be patterned abstractions, usually with fairly restricted color-schemes (but not always). They look great. The size, the flatness, the colors all work. They feel familiar, too.

Melanie Crader

Melanie Crader, don't know the title, some kind of paint on board

And there is a reason for that. Crader's grandmother was not much of a packrat, apparently. She died fairly young, and passed on a small number of objects to her children. Crader discovered a small box of these objects ibn her mother's attic--all that was left of Eula. The objects are on display as well.

Melanie Crader

Now the paintings are not free-floating abstractions. They are depictions--abstracted to be sure--of her grandmother's last possessions. They collectively form a sort of portrait of Eula. A pretty strange way to depict a person, no? Maybe, but this has a long history in American art. Had Crader been a late 19th century American artist, she could have made her "portrait" of Eula in the fashion of William Hartnett or John Peto--her ancestors. They too used mundane, modest objects to tell personal stories.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

My Comic Art Collection

I am a collector of comics art in addition to collecting contemporary fine art. Collecting comics art is a lot easier than collecting contemporary fine art for one simple reason--original comics artwork is a lot cheaper. Why? I don't really understand it, to be honest. It seems like in the past decade especially, there has been a growing acceptance of the importance of comics as an artistic medium in this country. This has affected a lot of things--the format of comics (they are much more likely to be published in book format as opposed to the more disposable comic book format), the acceptance of certain comics in the literary world. and obviously (and somewhat regrettably) the embrace of comics by Hollywood.

James Kochalka
James Kochalka, Skull, acrylic on paper

But the art world lags behind. Comics art is not collected by museums (that I know of) and there are few art galleries that deal with it. The MFAH has a page where you can search their collection, which is mammoth. I put in the names "Herriman," "McCay," "Crumb," "Spiegelman," and "Chris Ware" and got bupkis. The CAMH had a show called "Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Comics in Contemporary Art" in 2003. It featured the following artists: Laylah Ali, Candida Alvarez, Polly Apfelbaum, Ida Applebroog, John Bankston, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dara Birnbaum, Roger Brown, Enrique Chagoya, Michael Ray Charles, George Condo, Cat Chow, Renee Cox, Henry Darger, Jason Dunda, Michael Galbincea, Kojo Griffin, Trenton Doyle Hancock, Keith Haring, Rachel Hecker, Arturo Herrera, Roy Lichtenstein, Liza Lou, Kara Maria, Kerry James Marshall, Julie Mehretu, Takashi Murakami, Elizabeth Murray, Yoshimoto Nara, Raymond Pettibon, Sigmar Polke, Robert Pruitt, Mel Ramos, David Sandlin, Peter Saul, Kenny Scharf, David Shrigley, Roger Shimomura, Andy Warhol, and Jennifer Zackin. In short, it had precisely zero comics artists. That is indicative of the lack of respect (if not outright condescension) comics art gets from art world institutions.

OK, enough griping. The point is, I think this is a cultural error. But this is how it is, and for me, one unexpectedly nice aspect of this is that comics art is relatively cheap, as I mentioned above. So I have bought a bunch of it over the past few years.

James Kochalka

James Kochalka, Worms, acrylic on paper

There is a website called Comic Art Fans where collectors post their collections. Now most of these collections are pretty mainstream--not what I personally would consider artistically interesting artwork. But there are a lot of adventurous, sensitive collectors who post there. For instance, Suat Tong Ng's collection, or Dries Dewulf's (you can deduce from the names that the collectors come from various points on the globe). 

James Kochalka
James Kochalka, Worms, acrylic on paper

I have put my own collection up there (there are still a couple of pieces I need to photograph, but this is most of the comics and comics-related art I have). Take a look. What's enjoyable about this site is that it becomes a database for the work you have collected, which means it becomes a database for everyone's work. I can easily find people who have similar interests as collectors as I do, and vice versa. So it is a small but perfectly focused social network. 

If I ever get my comics festival off the ground (unlikely given the resounding shrug of indifference the proposal has evoked in the readership of this blog), CAF will be a valuable resource. For example, if I were curating a show of Chester Gould Dick Tracy originals, focusing on his use of silhouette, I could look Gould up on CAF to see what collectors have examples and if there might be any I want to borrow for the exhibit.

Yirmi Pinkus
Yirmi Pinkus, untitled, pen and ink and watercolor, 1998

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

New Acquisition: The Great God Pan Is Dead by Gary Panter

Gary Panter has this really cool thing he does. He allows you to commission art from him for a highly reasonable cost!
Limited time offer 3.0. Customized drawing by GP for you. 6 x 8" ink-drawing on 3-ply Strathmore bristol. On the subject of your choice (within reasonably wide parameters of taste). You provide one-to-three keywords (see samples below) and the artist will free associate thereupon. The drawing will be signed to your name or initials.
He charges $225 for them. I had one made in 2004 and decided to celebrate a year of blogging with a new one. In 2004, I hadn't thought too hard about art values, but now that I have, this deal that Panter offers is very interesting to think about. Panter writes:
Often I am selling art objects for thousands of dollars and I hope to continue doing that; however I realize that a lot of the people who like my work don't have thousands of dollars with which to purchase fine art. So for a limited time, I am offering this reasonably-priced little drawing in case you do want a drawing by me for you.
So how does he price these drawings? If Gary Panter drawings were interchangeable commodities, the price would be no higher and no lower than the market price. If he priced them significantly lower than the market price (determined by auction), there would be an opportunity for arbitrage. A buyer could buy as many custom drawings from Panter as possible for the low price and then sell them for the market price (at a profit). Depending on how many drawings Panter could produce, the market price would gradually decline as the market was flooded with new 6x8" Panter drawings.

So Panter should definitely not price the drawings lower than the market price according to this logic. Can he price them higher? Yes. Because they are unique items, and because they are commissioned, the buyer is getting something she will want more than anyone else. They are more valuable to the person who commissioned them than to the market as a whole. So according to this logic, his price should be either the market price or the market price plus a premium.

But wait! Panter is primarily a painter. But his paintings, as he says above, go for many thousands of dollars. Many collectors don't have that kind of money now, but will later. (As people age, their earning power increases.) Panter may be engaging in a strategy of enticing beginning collectors, who have relatively little money to spend on art, into collecting his work. As one learns in marketing, the best predictor that someone will buy something from you is if they have done so before. (This is a far more powerful predictor than any demographic or psychographic measure.) So Panter is creating Panter collectors by offering inexpensive art in hopes that they will eventually buy more expensive art from him. By that logic, he should sell for less than the market price.

But that still leaves him open to arbitrage, which he doubly doesn't want--one because he doesn't want these drawings flooding the market and pushing the market price down, and two, he doesn't want the people buying these drawings to be mere speculators (as anyone engaging in arbitrage is), but rather collectors who may buy again in the future. So he creates a "poison pill" that might (might) make these drawings less valuable in the market--he personalizes them. The one I just got says:


So if you are buying Panter drawings on the open market, you probably don't want one that is personalized to Robert Boyd. Or, all other things being equal, you would prefer one that wasn't so personalized.

Given all these considerations, I suspect Panter is underpricing these drawings. But it would take more research than I am willing to do to find out for sure. In any case, I think this is a great program Panter is doing, and I would encourage other artists to do something similar.

Oh, and by the way, here is the piece I bought.