Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In the 50s, Abstract Art Was a Commie Plot. Today, They Go After the Gays

You thought going after gay artists or artistic themes was a relic of Jesse Helms. The resurgent right wants to rekindle the culture wars, though.
Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Eric Cantor (R-Va.) have threatened the Smithsonian over the National Portrait Gallery’s much-praised “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” exhibition. Boehner, the presumptive House Speaker-to-be initially threatened increased oversight and then demanded that the exhibition be “canceled.” Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, demanded that the Smithsonian take down the exhibition, reports The Hill newspaper. It is not clear whether either legislator has seen the show. (Tyler Green, Modern Art Notes, November 30)
This is just the first shot over the bow. The NEA will be their target next, as well as any museum that gets any funds from the government. Get ready to fight, Pan fans.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I Saw Boogie Woogie So You Don't Have To

This is not a review of Boogie Woogie. I don't have anything to say about it as a film beyond what has been said in the reviews in the New York Times and DVD Talk. I pretty much agree with what they wrote. It's not a dreadful movie--it's definitely watchable, but only just.

Briefly, the film is set in the London art world. There is a blue-chip gallery owned by Art Spindle (Danny Huston), a pair of collectors, the Maclestones (Gillian Anderson and Stellan Skarsgård), a pair of artists (Jack Huston and Jaimie Winstone), a pair of gallerinas at different stages of their careers (Heather Graham, whose character is about to quit and start her own gallery, and Amanda Seyfried, who has just been hired), and an older couple who own a Modrian that everybody wants (Christopher Lee and Joanna Lumley). Alan Cumming plays the enabling friend of Elaine, the lesbian video artist; he helps her career and gets nothing in return.

One thing really interesting about the movie was that it featured a lot of blue chip art. It didn't try to fake it, as many movies do. The art on screen was curated by Damien Hirst, and it is not surprising that the film features a lot of Hirst work.

He even seems to have fabricated a piece for the film. Paige Prideaux, the Amanda Seyfried character, has a medical emergency which results in a teratoma being removed. Bob Maclestone then commissions Hirst to make a really gross artwork out of it.

The Maclestone's apartment is loaded with art.

I can't identify all the pieces here, but the flower cart is by Michael Landy, the $ by Sue Webster and Tim Noble, and of course the Brancusi.

Not to mention a Warhol.

And Jake and Dinos Chapman. This movie has a lot of sex in it (all of it kind of horrible and compromised--which this image really speaks to).

Boob lovers will enjoy this movie. Heather Graham's character gets a boob job so she can have "power breasts" (I remember in the 80s when a yellow tie was, for some reason, called a "power tie" on Wall Street--thanks to Spy for telling me this. But this was the first time I had ever heard the term "power breasts.") She is breaking away from Art Spindle to start her own gallery, and has snagged Elaine, the lesbian Casanova who videotapes her conquests, for her opening. This is the scene where Graham is showing Elaine her new "power breasts".

Elaine then decides to show hers. 

Then she seduces Graham's character--while surreptitiously  videotaping it.

Elaine comes off as a combination of Nan Goldin (in her obsessive documenting) and Laurel Nakadate (in her exploitation of her subjects). Secretly filmed sex is hardly the worst thing that shows up in Elaine's video art.

That's the thing about this film. Literally everyone (except Dewey, the Alan Cumming character) is awful. And Dewey is a pathetic victim. I have no idea what the world of blue chip art is really like, but I have a hard time believing that everyone is this bad.

For some reason, gallery owners are almost never portrayed positively in movies. In Beverly Hills Cop and Legal Eagles, the gallery owners are actually murderers. Art Spindle is not quite that evil, but he does come off as a scheming scumbag. (The gallery owner in Age of Consent, however, was portrayed in a positive light. That seems to be the exception.) This is completely different from pretty much every gallery owner I personally know.

I would like to see a movie set in the art world at a lower level than this--not the blue chip world but the world that I encounter weekly, which is far larger than the tiny blue chip world. It might be hard, though, to find all that much drama there...

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It's Better to Regret Something You Have Done... at Art Palace

Of all the commercial galleries in town, Art Palace is perhaps the most adventurous. They regularly display works that are intellectually challenging, as well as works that would be difficult for a collector to possess--installations and video art in particular. This show carries on that direction, and it's really exciting but it makes you wonder how long Art Palace can survive as a going concern. (Or maybe--hopefully--I am underestimating the adventurousness of Houston collectors.)

The thing is, since Duchamp--and really since the Renaissance--context has been a really important aspect in understanding an artwork. Art made for a 17th century Dutch burger's home is inherently different from art made to decorate a 17th century Italian church--even if the subject matter is identical. This comes into play when discussing at least some of the artwork Art Palace's current group show, "It is Better to Regret Something You Have Done..." For example, Linda Post's Cozy Group has a slightly different existence in a commercial gallery than in, say, a non-profit art space like Diverse Works or Lawndale.

Linda Post, Cozy Group, televisions, sewn canvas cozies, DVDs (photo courtesy of Art Palace)

Four small televisions are on the floor in the darkened front room of Art Palace. Each is playing something. Each is covered by a custom fitted cozy, like a tea cozy, made of canvas. Obviously a TV cozy is a very different thing than a tea cozy--a TV cozy has no practical use. There is no need to insulate a TV to keep it from losing heat. The cozies, in fact, prevent the TVs from operating optimally by covering the screen and muffling the sound. Entering the room makes one think of scenes from movies where people enter a dusty old house where the furniture has been covered with sheets. The ghostly shapes of the furniture in such scenes are so suggestive and ominous that this scenario has become a cliche for haunted house movies. Likewise, the Cozy Group has a haunted feel--one that is amplified by the fact that the TVs are playing. The cozies make the screens glow softly and spookily in the darkened room.

So why does it matter that this is being displayed at Art Palace rather than a museum or nonprofit art space? Because by being in Art Palace, one is implicitly asked to imagine this in the possession of a collector. One must imagine this in someone's home--that someone would devote a room in their home to house this spooky, severe piece. (I realize, of course, that you could walk into a gallery and forget its commercial purpose and see the art within as art qua art--and if you can do that, you are a much purer person than me.) The interesting thing is that this piece (or earlier versions) has been shown in non-profit spaces in 2004-05 and 2009. Now as hard as it is to imagine someone owning this group, the thought is tremendously appealing. Imagining this scenario for me makes experiencing Cozy Group in Art Palace a richer experience than it would be at, say, the Incident Report Viewing Station in Hudson New York.

(The reverse would be true about an oil painting in a commercial art gallery. Oil paintings have a long history as objects of commerce, whose location in a gallery is to facilitate a cash transaction. However, an oil painting in a non-profit art space implies a theory or thought process is at work to make sense of it being there. An oil painting in such a space is the end result of a curatorial process, and thinking about that process adds something to the painting itself.)

 After the 2009 Lawndale Big Show, there were two nights of slide presentations by the artists.I'm pretty sure Jim Nolan was one of the presenters, and his talk, though brief, was memorable. (If I'm wrong, someone please correct me.) He described his work as being influenced by Joel Shapiro, which I didn't get. I associated Shapiro with those cutesy cast railroad tie men, like the one in the Cullen Sculpture Garden. But Shapiro has done a lot of other work that you can see as possibly influencing Nolan. This piece distinctly recalls some of Shapiro's wooden floor pieces:

Jim Nolan, It's Better to Regret Something You Have Done/First House, painted wood (photo courtesy of Art Palace)

Some of Nolan's pieces--including Not in focus yet / Grey, which is in this show--feature a string with the two ends attached to the wall (among other elements). This element has a casual feeling--it is literally hanging around--and the artist doesn't determine the form. Gravity and mathematics do. I think this is what appeals to me. A completely flexible string, hanging freely from two ends, will form one shape and one shape only--a parabola. The focus and directrix of the parabola will depend on the length of the string and the distance between the two endpoints. So Nolan has a great deal of control over what the parabola will look like, but still he is surrendering his decision about the shape of the string to the laws of gravity. It's a kind of humility.

Jim Nolan, Not In Focus Yet / Grey, carpet, wood, string and pushpins

And this leads to a second thing Nolan said at Lawndale. It was so memorable to me that I remember almost word for word. "If you keep working on a thing, does it get any better?" On one hand, this could be read as a rejection of craft. But on the other hand, I think it relates to the string, or to the unpainted wood in Double Rose. Or the flattened cardboard boxes that Robert Rauschenberg did (and which can be seen at the Menil). If it works, why fuss with it? If gravity makes a perfect parabola--an elegant shape--why not let it?

Jillian Conrad's art is similar in the sense that she allows her modest, unlovely construction site materials look like what they look like, without any attempts to beautify them. This was apparent in the work she showed at the Art League earlier this year, which looked like detritus recovered from a construction site (with glitter added). This effect is also apparent in her work here, such as the piece Sweet and Lowdown.

Jillian Conrad, Sweet and Lowdown, concrete blocks, plaster, clay, wood and pigment

Jillian Conrad, Sweet and Lowdown, concrete blocks, plaster, clay, wood and pigment

What makes this piece for me is the line on the floor--all the rest of it could be a sculpture in a tradition sense (broadly speaking), but the line on the floor really fuzzes things. If Rosalind Krauss is right and sculpture prior to the '60s could be described as not-landscape and not-architecture, then that little line makes you wonder if this is architecture--a corner of an unfinished structure. Of course, she suggested that minimalist and post-minimalist artists had expanded the field of sculpture--"sculpture"could now be simultaneously architecture and sculpture. But with Conrad's work, I am reluctant to use the term "architecture"--I want to say "building." (I would say "construction," but that is a term already loaded with specific artistic meaning.)

This again is work that is strange in an art gallery. Removing it to a collector's back patio, say, would make a viewer wonder if she was looking at a piece of art or an unfinished building project. And because it is in a gallery and has a price attached to it, I personally can't help but imagining that very scenario. In fact, imagining it is highly amusing for me! A piece like this is ambiguous--depending on context, it may announce itself as non-art or art. And ambiguity can be really funny. And that makes me love the work even more.

I wonder why Nathan Green was included in the exhibit. Maybe they thought the exhibit needed a splash of color, which Green provides in spades.

Nathan Green, Tumblr Totem, mixed media, 2010

Green's paintings (to go by his website) are deliberately crude mostly square canvases. So here it looks like he has literally stacked paintings on top of one another. Instead of a painting being a "thing," here it is an "element". A very distinct element--each painted part is very different in color and value from the ones below and above it. The use of the word "Tumblr" in the title in interesting. I can't find any obvious relation between this work and the popular blogging site (as far as I could determine, Green doesn't have a blog). So let that remain a mystery. All I can think of is that these canvases stacked on top of one another look like they could really easily tumble off the wall at any second.

Nathan Green, untitled arrangement, mixed media, 2010

Here Green takes has paintings and creates a kind of taxonomy of how paintings could exist relative to a wall., They could hang on a wall ( the black and white canvas on the upper left); they could be painted right onto the wall (the yellow and green stripey rhombus); they could lean against the wall. In a way, Green reproduces in a minimal form a painter's studio, where one is likely to encounter paintings with all of these relations to the wall.

Neither Barry Stone's Ikea collages nor Kara Hearn's line drawings of weeping comedians did much for me. But four out of six ain't bad.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Laurel Nakadate, Humiliating People in the Name of Art Once Again

If there was any doubt about the moral vacuity of Laurel Nakadate's art, this new video demolishes it. She brought porn performers in, telling them that they were reading for a role. She then had them read poems by Dora Malech. The "try-outs" were the roles in the video. The porn actresses are wearing lingerie, woodenly reading these poems, occasionally mispronouncing hard words. Jeez, I hope these women at least got paid for it.(I wonder what Malech thought?)

Whatever her artistic justification, the effect of this is to humiliate these women. It's like the mirror image of Beg For Your Life. To me, her work says this: "I'm Laurel Nakadate, artist-exploiter, and pathetic, unself-aware, uneducated people are my medium."

Untitled from laurel nakadate on Vimeo.

I feel guilty for even disseminating this...

I know a lot of people think Nakadate is just great. If you think that, I welcome you to explain why in the comments.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

WHAM and Artcrawl 2010 part 2

After I left WHAM, I came over to the Elder Street Artist Lofts. The first piece I saw there that I liked was this sculpture by Jonatan Lopez.

Jonatan Lopez, Redeemer, found steel and animal bones

This piece recalls Vessel States, the installation Lopez did at Project Row Houses last year. But the level of craft displayed here is higher. I don't know if this reflects a growth in Lopez's abilities, or if it's just a result of the demands of the piece itself. Still, the use of headless bodies and chains is common in both works--and equally spooky. One thinks of prisoners or slaves, as well as s&m imagery. (I remember an interview with Leon Golub where he admitted that in order to create his searing images of interrogations, he often referred to S&M magazines for poses. And horrifically, this association came around recently with the stomach-churning photos from Abu Ghraib.) Removing the head does several things. It dehumanizes the image, but it also in a way classicizes it by making us recall sculptural fragments from Greece and Rome. It is suggestive of horrific violence--a dismembered corpse. I don't know if Lopez is influenced by Golub, Goya, the Marquis de Sade, or the Chapman Brothers. I am disturbed looking at Redeemer and Vessel States, and that's good. This kind of work is probably something Lopez should continue to explore.

J.P. Hartman, Vatican (Past-Present-Future), assemblage, 2005

J.P. Hartman was someone whose art I had seen before at The Big Show. His work is all brightly painted assemblage and sculpture, usually with a socially-aware or political point. Some of the politics are simplistic--messages like "Republicans are bad" or "G.W. Bush is a rat" are common. That's the difficulty of doing political work in a visual medium. Hans Haacke can pull it off without producing mere propaganda, but not too many others. That said, these assemblages are great. They have a real funky energy to them. They were on display in this crowded apartment (it's misleading for Elder Street to refer to its apartments as lofts--as far as I can see, none have high ceilings or open plans). One thing he did that was cool was to place them on bright red plinths. Obviously J.P. Hartman is not a "white cube" kind of guy. Visual maximalism seems to be his approach.

Naz, performance piece (title?), woman in a wood and glass box, 2010

I went to the Houston Foundry next, where I saw Naz--who I think is a U.H. student. This was another piece that made me uncomfortable. Girl in a box, imprisoned and on display. She wasn't doing a Laurel Nakadate deal--she wasn't showing off her body--but she was attractive, which accounted for part of the discomfort. How can I, a 47 year old hetero man, not feel like a creep looking at her (and taking her photo)? So, good piece. Mission accomplished.

Haden Garrett, A New Sculpture for Artcrawl, mixed media, 2010

Haden Garrett is a sculptor whose work has been displayed at Poissant Gallery in the past year or so. This photo is only part of the installation he did in this narrow hallway. I like the cartoon hands coming out to me.

David Graeve, big weird photo balloons

David Graeve has a studio at The Houston Foundry, where he fabricates beautiful melted glass sculptures. (At least I think he has a studio there--he had a lot of stuff on display). But the things he does that I like best are these big balloons.

Then I crossed the freeway and checked out the galleries in the McKee street neighborhood.

I don't know why, but I liked this crumbling abandoned building with its aggressive graffiti at the corner of Rothwell and Hardy.

Chris Cascio, two paintings

There was a show in the old Temporary Space (RIP) space featuring work by James Burns, Christopher Cascio, and Nick Scott. I had seen Cascio's work before at Lawndale--really big collages. But I like these paintings of his better--deadpan recreations of old stereo equipment ads. Very nostalgic for a guy of my generation.

Alex Wilhite, various paintings

In the cacophony of paintings that I saw in one of the studios (can't remember the name), Alex Wilhite's mostly white canvases were a visual oasis. Rough-hewn and austere, they struck me with their beauty. Wilhite had a sign up telling people he was deaf, and asking them to tap him on the shoulder if they wanted to speak with him. These painting ironically made me think of white noise.

Jimmy Houston, Poor Ol' Rufus, oil on iron skillet

Jimmy Houston had a bunch of humorous, cartoonish paintings that I liked a lot. His work reminds a little bit of Bob Zoell's--not so much in style but in manic lowbrow energy.

Mother Dog Studios always has pretty amazing stuff for Artcrawl, which makes sense given that they are the ones more-or-less behind it. Someone there--I don't know who--had this huge area that he was letting teens and children paint in. Update: I've been told this is the studio of Mitch Samuels, aka "Grystar."

Then there was a dog-oriented exhibit that included these pieces by Maria Smits:

Maria Smits, from left to right: Adam, Mother Maria, G sus, Mary Magdalena, Eve, pastel & charcoal on paper, 2010

These drawings by Maria Smits seem very closely related to the show she has up currently at Lawndale. I like the striking, muscular drawing, even if I don't quite get the dog heads. (Full disclosure: I own a small Maria Smits drawing.)

This guy was standing guard at the entrance of the dog show. I don't know the artist, though.

Greg Budwine contributed these beautiful dog portraits. I love the old fashioned magazine illustration style on display in these paintings.

Greg Budwine, Ruffles, acrylic, 2010

Greg Budwine, Domino, acrylic, 2010

I also like that for a show of art that was a little more cutting edge that whoever put this show together thought it worthwhile to include these highly illustrational pieces. Budwine has great technique and in these and other pieces, he takes sentimental subject matter and gives it a weird little twist with his idealized portrayal.

Mother Dog Studios honcho John Runnels was part of the dog show. He had several pieces that were like this:

John Runnels, part of Bayou Beauties; the way some women walk the dog, inkjet on paper, 2009

Ladies, if you want to have John Runnels photograph you in the nude walking your dog along Buffalo Bayou, send Runnels an email at motherdogstudios@earthlink.net.

Runnels also had a room full of interesting work, including models for his Buffalo Bayou Park entrance and a bunch of work made of cigarette butts.

John Runnels, cigarette chair, chair with cigarette butts

Runnels is always worth looking at. A crazy artist, a lover of naked females and the word "fuck," a protean imagination--he always produces interesting work.

John C. Runnels, House of Bausch (A Danger to be Safe in), graphite, Chartpack letters on tile and wood, 2010

One last Runnels. He is a capable drafstman as well as being a great assemblagist and conceptualist. I love the feel of this piece--the perplexing drawing with its combination of Clovis Trouille and Walt Disney's Lady and the Tramp--with it's equally perplexing collage elements. It makes for a mysterious, beautiful whole.

After Mother Dog Studio, I went over to the hardy & Nance Street Studios. I was pretty bushed and I wasn't seeing a lot of stuff I liked--but maybe if it had been my first stop, things would have been different. I was suffering from art fatigue (as you, my readers, are probably suffering right now). But I did like the childlike, minimal paintings of Celeste Tammariello.

Celeste Tammariello, Untitled: Overlap, silkscreen, latex print

That's it for this year. Next year I think I'll start from the Southeast corner of Artcrawl and move roughly north and west. That way I won't poop out before I get to El Rincon Social and Aerosol Warfare.

WHAM and Artcrawl 2010 part 1

Last weekend was Artcrawl and WHAM (Winter Holiday Art Market). As I have already written, I bought a Brian Piana painting at WHAM. But I also checked out everything and took lots of photos. So here's what I saw and liked at WHAM and Artcrawl.

WHAM is kind of a craft show but with a few full-on fine artists included. The crafts tend toward the artsier end of craft as well. It's a pretty good mix. I like that it's not clear where you should place these skateboards--art or craft? That distinction is becoming less and less important (or interesting), fortunately.

Daniel Zorrilla, skateboards

Zorrilla is a tattoo artist who paints of skateboards and surfboards on the side. I liked this clash of elegant Japanese imagery with all-American skateboard decks.

A lot of the craftspeople were displaying clothes and fabric. I really liked this elaborate dress.

"The Stitch Witch," dress

The artist is a bit coy about her name (at least I can't find it online), but she goes by the nom de needle "The Stitch Witch." This dress reminded me a bit of the Victorian mourning dresses in Dario Robleto's An Instinct Towards Life Only a Phantom Can Know.

Matt Messinger's booth

I have been on the fence on Matt Messinger's artwork, but I finally have decided that I like it. Somehow, seeing it all in this booth was what tipped me in its favor. 

Matt Messinger, (title unknown), paint and graphite on wood (?)

I like his rough-hewn paintings with their classic cartoon characters. It's as unslick as the crummy black-and-white film stock used in early Disney and Fleischer Bros. animated cartoons. R. Crumb, talking about old comic strips from the early 20th century, spoke about the smell of boiling cabbage that wafted from these working class fantasies. I get that from Messinger's paintings--but mixed with the smell of tacos, too. Working class food for working class paintings.

Steven Trimble's booth

I liked Steven Trimble's paintings, and I really liked his sign--very striking! 

David J. Webb makes linoleum block prints of images from old stamps. The level of craftsmanship is really high (this photo does not do it justice). He spoke of using a microscope to cut the finer lines in the blocks.

David J. West, stamp images, linoleum block print

He told me that he is sometimes able to get 100 crisp prints from a single piece of linoleum.

Bill Davenport's booth

Bill Davenport came out with his junk. He wasn't sure how it would go here, but he said he likes trying out different venues to see what works where. He had a humorous attitude toward all the handicrafts being sold elsewhere at WHAM: he said it would all end up in his store eventually. That lead to a interesting conversation about the value of art.

Black Swan screenprinting

Black Swan had a bunch of really cool T-shirt designs. Unfortunately, I don't see a lot of them on their website, but the website promises more designs coming soon, so keep checking.

Jim Keller, Foxfire Studios

Jim Keller is a woodcarver from Richmond, TX, who makes highly polished abstract geometric wood sculptures. But what really sticks out for me is that he will allow the "flaws" of the wood--cracks, rough spots, bark--become part of the sculptures. So you get this pleasing tension between rough and smooth, polished and unfinished.

Valerie G, Cultured Critters booth

One thing I don't quite understand is the popularity amongst hipsters of those little vinyl toys. Domy does a big business in this stuff. Lots of artists I like and respect have made vinyl figures. They remind me of the little statues of superhero characters you can get at comic stores. They just seem like nerd porn to me. Here's a story. A little under 20 years ago, I interviewed for an editor job at Dark Horse Comics (which I got). I went down for my interviews and an office tour, and I was surprised to see the offices of the editors and even the president of the company were filled with these kinds of toy and statuary. I was actually a little shocked by it. These were fully grown adults! I was coming from Fantagraphics, where the walls were covered with rock-n-roll flyers. So later, I asked Ryder Windham, a friend of mine who was already an editor there, "Ryder, what the fuck is up with all these toys?" He quickly cautioned me not to make fun of them or even mention them--that editors there were dead serious about their statue collections. Ohhh-kay. Needless to say, I ended up with the barest cubicle of all--I just wasn't a team player, I guess.

Anyway, I guess it's a bit wrong for me to talk about my disdain for these toys and then praise the Cultured Critter Collective. But I thought the figures that Valerie G created were pretty cool. I wouldn't want one for myself, but I can see my five year old niece and various 20-something hipsters loving them. I liked this guy especially:

Valerie G, Fuzz the Undercover Pirate Bear, vinyl, acrylic paint and ink, varnish, pom poms, sculpey, fimo, found objects

That's it for WHAM. My next stop was the Elder Street Lofts. And I'll continue this in part 2.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Housekeeping Update

I've been writing this blog for a little over a year now, and also have been slowly acquiring art for the past few years, which I document here. Now this means that by this time, there are an increasing number of cases where I will review an exhibit or an artist whose work I own. While I don't think my reviews actually have any affect on the value of the art reviewed, there could be at the very least, the perception of a conflict of interest. I',m not going to stop writing about work I like or collecting, so my new policy is, when I discuss art by an artist, and I own a piece or pieces by that artist, I will acknowledge the fact in the post. This doesn't remove the perceived conflict of interest, but it does bring transparency to my writing--and given this, the reader can decide for herself how to interpret my praise (or censure) or artist X.

Collectors as Artists, part II

In Austin, they have just nominated folks for something called the Austin Visual Arts Award. So I was looking at the nominees (some of whom will no doubt be familiar to Pan readers). I read down the list of nominees in each category, starting with "Artist of the Year--2D" then "Artist of the Year--3D" to "Artist of the Year--Photography/Printmaking" (kind of arbitrary to distinguish this from 2D artist, don't you think?). Then there was "Artist of the Year--Early Career" and "Artist of the Year--New Media." So far, so good. Then there was this category: "Collectors Circle Award". At first I was thinking, "Oh no--an award for best collector?!" But it turns out that it is an artist award also. Whew! Dodged that bullet!

But wait--at the very bottom is the award for "Art Patron of the Year" which is being awarded (no nomination list for this one) to a collector, Michael Chesser. He is also a big supporter of the Blanton Museum and Arthouse, which is cool and worthy of praise. I'm not condemning the AVAA for giving this award--without "patrons," organizations like the AVAA would not exist. But when you start giving art collectors art awards, you create a weird equivalency between artist and collector. After all, they could have an award for "best art writer" or "most tireless volunteer." But they chose for their one non-artist award to award the "best patron."

The Weird Impulse of Collectors to Pretend to be Artists

I read a really great travel book about Texas years ago. I can't remember the title or author (which kills me, because I would love to reread it). I bought it in London in the late 80s, and it was by an English writer. He made really funny, astute observations about Texas in the 80s. For example, he was at a party in Dallas, and mentioning some behavior he had witnessed earlier, one of the guests said to him, "In Dallas, the guy who collects the art is more important than the artist."

This observation really shouldn't be limited to Dallas. In the context of the book, it was about the crassness of Dallas, the naked worship of wealth that typified Dallas. But really, is Houston or anyplace in America all that different? Especially now when we have the widest gap between rich and everyone else that we have had since the gilded age.

Anyway, what got me thinking about this stuff this morning was this hilarious post on Hyperallergic.
A not-unexpected surprise awaits visitors to the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection’s website. Scion of collector royalty and son of Don and Mera, Jason Rubell is releasing a catalogue of a show memorializing the works he collected from ages 13 to 21, an illustrious and mature body of art that Jason also gathered into a senior thesis exhibition in college. Pay attention folks, this is a lesson in narcissism that’s likely to go unparalleled in the art world for a little while. [...]

To call this conflict of interest would be ridiculous because we’re dealing with a wholly private collection. Rubell can do what he wants. I’m just calling it stupid and self-obsessed. Are we supposed to believe Rubell’s posing his early “collecting work” as some kind of curatorial accomplishment? This catalogue is self-mythologizing in the worst way. And worse yet, a (Thomas Ruff?) portrait of the collector as a young man is the only thing to grace the cover of the volume.

This is a catalog memorializing Rubell's precocious brilliance as a teenage art collector? Astonishing. I hope Holland Chaney will have enough class to avoid this kind of thing 25 years from now.

That said, there is an impulse among collectors that I am personally very well aware of--the tendency to take pride in one's collection; to view it as a reflection of one's own self-worth. And this is true of any kind of collector--stamp collectors, comics book collectors, collectors of glass insulators--anything really. The only difference between the Jason Rubells of the world and a dude with a truly awesome barb wire collection is that the Rubell types have huge amounts of money to promote their collections. Some do so in ways that are hard to criticize (the Menils, for example, were civic minded exemplars of noblesse oblige), and some--like Jason Rubell--do it in ways that make them the target of ridicule by bloggers and other poor people.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Acquisitions: Brian Piana and Jim Woodring

Yesterday I went to the Winter Holiday Art Market and while there went ahead and bought a Brian Piana. He was selling pieces to benefit both Spacetaker (the sponsor of the event) and Skydive. I don't exactly understand what Spacetaker does--I mean, they do a lot of things, but I don't know what they see as their mission. As for Skydive, I don't exactly understand their mission either, but I love it anyway.

RGB and SY 6-27-10
Brian Piana, RGB and Sometimes Y (captured June 27, 2010, 11:13 CST), acrylic on Arches paper, 2010

I asked Piana how sales were going. He had sold a few paintings by that time, and gratifyingly, two customers had mentioned my profile of Piana. So I may have had a small effect on actual art sales! Take that, Don Thompson!

I also recently won a Jim Woodring page in an auction. It's from Woodring's latest book, Weathercraft. Here's the cover.


The page I bought is page 24. The action takes place after Manhog has escaped (and dismembered) the Whim. The escape has left Manhog beaten and exhausted, hence this little bit of typically self-destructive slapstick on waking.

Jim Woodring
Jim Woodring, Weathercraft page 24, ink on bristol paper, 2010

These are two very different pieces, but both are very satisfying additions to the collection.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Data Art of Brian Piana

Robert Boyd

Readers with longish memories will recall that I interviewed Brian Piana last year about his project (with Aram Nagle and Heath Haynor) called Wishing Well for Houston. I was especially intrigued by the project because it was a highly unexpected piece of data visualization. The piece was a large plywood construct that formed a map of Houston as divided by "super-neighborhoods." What Piana, Nagle, and Haynor did was to take the average income for each super-neighborhood (as taken from the last census) and transform that income number in to a height. The highest incomes--Memorial and River Oaks--were built up in this map to be quite tall--over six feet high. The lowest income neighborhoods were quite close to the floor. Inside each super-neighborhood's wooden box were chimes. The idea was that guests would throw coins into the super-neighborhoods, ringing the chimes. (At the end of the show, the money was gathered up and given to Avenue CDC.)

This was my first exposure to Piana. His work seemed quite different from other work I was seeing around Houston. I was told he would be a featured artist at this year's Winter Holiday Art Market, so I took the opportunity to contact him and ask him a little about his art. He showed me around his studio (which was a tiny room with a computer and a table for painting) and we talked about using data as a source for art.

We live in a society brimming with data. While lots of this data has always been available to intrepid researchers, the internet has made it super-available. It's astonishing what datasets are available to the public, both from government and private sources. The U.S. Census website is a goldmine. I regularly use data from the BLS and EIA in my job, as well as data from private companies that share reams of it publicly. With a giant spreadsheet and a little statistics, you can be really dangerous. Add an ability to do data visualization, and you really have something powerful. Of course, most visualizations of these sorts are motivated by the desire to communicate information in an efficient and easily graspable way--these are the charts and graphs you see in the news. But there is no reason why data shouldn't be a subject for artists.

In the sixties, it was said that Pop artists, by taking commercial images as their subject, were acting as "painters of modern life" in the sense of Baudelaire discussing Manet. Our modern world, where individual people go out of focus and become statistics and media noise, calls for a different kind of art. I would say then that contemporary artists like Piana depict modern life by using data as their subject.

Piana studied visualization science at Texas A&M and went to work for a tech company at the end of the tech boom. But he was interested in the artistic side of visualization, and went back to get an MFA at UH. (He also needed it if he hoped to teach art. He now teaches at San Jacinto College.)

The data that interests him the most is the continuous stream of data that comes over Twitter. There is an obvious appeal here. Twitter doesn't allow you to write much. Personally, I can't stand it because there is literally nothing worth saying that I can say in 140 characters. But I'm obviously in the minority, as much of America and the world blurts out whatever thought comes into their minds on Twitter. Twitter is like the world with tourettes, the collective id. The seeming lack of a filter on Twitter obviously appeals to Piana. But there's something else about Twitter he likes. Because Twitter wants third parties to write apps for it, they make it possible for programmers to access every Tweet.

Piana, working with a programmer friend to help him write Twitter scripts, has taken advantage of Twitter's openness with its data to create several artworks. One is a web page, The Journal of the Collective Me. Everytime the word "me" shows up in a Tweet, this page notices it. By clicking on the page, you will see the most recent Tweet with the word "me"--stripped of context and authorship. We don't know who is Tweeting or why. The results are banal, obscene, tragic and often hilarious.

me: a yo mom i love u a yo mom whats for dinner a yo mom lets play wii Ha shes getting so annoyed lmao

I've looked hard at myself and realized everything is wrong w| me. nobody stays and everybody pushes me away

when i tell people i dont have a facebook, they look at me like i have some infectious disease that they could catch.

Watching a bum pee on the car next to me. "don't worry, I don't piss on American made." .....

These are all from the last few seconds! This is a piece of art using data from the internet that exists only on the internet. For Piana's most recent project, he takes Twitter data and turns it into a physical object.

RGB and Sometimes Y starts with yet another Twitter script. This time, the script looks for Tweets that contain the words "red," "green," "blue" or "yellow." The script converts these each use of one of the words into a vertical band of color. The bands are placed next to each other in the order that the words are used. So far, it's an entirely automated, electronic process. But at this point, Piana intervenes. He looks at the images of the stripes on his computer monitor. If he likes an image or part of an image, he saves it. Then is a surprising reversion to preindustrial craftsmanship, he carefully paints the image by hand.

Brian Piana, RGB and Sometimes Y (captured June 27, 2010, 11:13 pm CST), acrylic paint on paper, 2010

The paper is heavy Arches paper with a coat of gesso on it. The colors are liquid acrylic (chosen because it goes on smoother than paint from tubes). He mixes the green and blue--the red and yellow come straight from the bottle (Golden brand naphthal red and primary yellow). When he was working with larger pieces in a larger studio, he would use rollers to apply the paint in order to show an "absence of hand." As it is, you have to look very carefully at the pieces to see the facture--the minute imperfections, the tiny parallel ridges left by the paint brush dragging the acrylic across the paper. But from a distance of more than a few inches, that is all invisible.

These are the paintings that Piana will be showing at WHAM. Sales of these works will benefit both Spacetaker, the sponsor of WHAM, and Skydive, a artist-run multi-purpose institution that Piana belongs to. (They were located right under the Sky Bar on Montrose. I haven't yet been to Skydive's new digs on Norfolk. I'm sure the view is not as nice, but it is conveniently close to Star Pizza.)

As we were talking about RGB and Sometimes Y, I asked Piana if it would be possible to associate other words to the colors he uses. After all, you don't have to be Ferdinand de Saussure to realize that the link between the word "red" and the color red is completely arbitrary. So Piana indulged me and changed the script so that "Picasso" was blue, "Warhol" was green, "Koons" was red, and "Woodman" (because I had just seen the documentary The Woodmans) was yellow. This is what he got:

Brian Piana, Four Artists, digital image, 2010

Piana points out, however, that this Woodman isn't Francesca Woodman but author Marion Woodman. So I guess it should be called "Three Artists and a Writer."