Monday, August 8, 2011

The CAMH speaks in the vernacular

by Dean Liscum

On Saturday July 30, 2011, Darsie Alexander did some plain speaking about the "The Spectacular of Vernacular" exhibit, which she curated at the CAMH.

I don't think the talk had a formal title, but if I had to label it I'd call it "The art of everyday things." Alexander started her spiel off with the historic origin of this style of low-brow art. It, like Warhol's Pop art, began as a reaction to the abstract expressionism of the 50s, as practiced by Pollack and De Kooning. Having been told that representational, narrative art was dead, a group of artists immediately sought to revive art-life relationships in their works and inform it with popular culture and media imagery. Next, Alexander provided the definition of the vernacular that she used to develop the show in which she emphasized its linguistic origin and idiom and dialect, but also acknowledged its use in architecture to highlight regional-geographical trends.

Placing the show in the contemporary context, she noted the irony that the more global we get as a society, the more interested we are in local activities and aesthetics. This localization of aesthetic constitutes another facet of pop art. Not the mass production of media images à la Warhol, but the popular, amateur, naive aesthetics made by regional population's approaches to issues of lose, grief, remembrance, celebration, exaltation. This type of pop art is characterized by inherited histories passed along through domestic artifacts, extremely detailed works, craft-ish media.

Alexander then conducted a brief tour discussing selective works from the exhibition and discussing how each embodied the vernacular aesthetic.

The first pieces that she drew the crowd's attention to was Faith Ringgold. Her large fabric piece is a patch work quilt with images of women painted or silk-screened on. These possess the spirit of femininity, but are no less feminist. Working in vocabularies of the domestic sphere, they are cogent in their insistence for equal rights for women.

Next, she highlighted two piece from Kara Walker's pieces from her Selections from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated) (different from those in the catalog because some of the pieces did not make it from the original show at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota to the CAMH). Walker imposes silhouettes, which were popular among the bourgeoisie in the 18th-century, over Harper's illustration of the civil war. In combining these two popular media, Walker re-purposes an iconography that's lost its original meaning and power to question (although the meaning is sometimes ambiguous) the social values associated with both.

Selections from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)
Mixed Media, 2005
Kara Walker

As I mentioned, this show debuted at the Walker Art Center where Alexander is the Chief Curator. When she assembled the show she pulled included two pieces from Minnesota native Aaron Spangler. His works draw from woodcarving tradition of that region. Spangler's technique draws from native american traditions in the area as well as chain saw art of the local logging culture. His work celebrates the regional culture but he also injects into these tapestries violence and strife that constitutes such a life.

I Owe My Soul To The Company Store, 2009-2010
carved and painted basswood graphite on welded steel base
Aaron Spangler

Dario Robleto attended the talk and Alexander asked him to comment on his piece, Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines. He echoed Alexander's sentiment that this work came out of the tradition of  the momento mori, which was a popular means for people to express and deal with loss. After 9/11, he turned to this vernacular folk art of the 19th century as a creative/therapeutic response to loss. As an artist he finds in the language of craft and its meticulous craftsmanship and labor an expression of love and hope.

Demonstrations of Sailor's Valentines, 2009
cut paper, various seashells, colored wax, cartes-de-visite, silk, ribbon, foam coare, glue
Dario Robleto

Butt Johnson was also in attendance and he echoed Dario's sentiment about the importance of the labor intensive process. Using the technique of pastiche, he combines the trope of engraving and 19th century floral motifs in his two works. Each piece references a flower from Georges Bataille's essay "The Language of Flowers" but more importantly and indirectly to reference those flowers that are emblematic of human emotion. In his handling of popular symbols and techniques, the works equate to today's mashups.

Untitled Floral Pastiche (Waterlily), 2009
ballpoint pen ink on paper
Butt Johnson

Mike Kelley's contribution looks anything but vernacular. Although the Walker Center version of the show featured his Afghan quilts (which are pictured in the show catalogue), the Houston installation substitues a mobile that looks more like a constructionist sculpture. Alexander deconstructs the mobile, revealing the autobiographical inspiration for each part of Kelley's work. A nest of wires refers to a bush from his high school that students would go behind to make out. Other shapes represent classrooms and public spaces in the school. At least one member of the crowd questioned if these referents for abstract work from the cannon made it "vernacular." Alexander acknowledge the point and added that Kelley works from an Irish belief/custom that to give something personal, something made by hand and unique, can never be repaid.  The specificity and uniqueness of the object make it one of a kind, something that can never be repaid. Kelley has further stated that he looks to always make his work highly personal.

Part of the vernacular is the impulse to collect, Alexander revealed that many of these artists are self-professed "voracious collectors." They then reuse these collections and create from what the culture casts off. In Rachel Harrison's series, Voyages of the Beagle, she collects portraits of the culture by photographing busts of high- and low-brow figures (classic sculptures to cartoon characters). She then scales and presents them all equally, democratically editing the photos to be uniform in size and orientation.

From Voyage of the Beagle, Three 2010
pigmented inkjet prints
Rachel Harrison
From Voyage of the Beagle, Three 2010
pigmented inkjet prints
Rachel Harrison
Moving west, Alexander addressed the California quotidian as not maple trees or mason jars but massive messaging. She indicates that visual pollution/seduction pervades the landscape. In Larry Pittman's piece, he chooses to play with it both criticizing and co-opting the aesthetic.

Alexander concluded her talk with anecdote that illustrates how interest in and inspiration from the vernacular spans generations. A few Walker Evans photographs are in the exhibit. Alexander drew the crowds attention to model of a small scale replica of a country store in the deep south by William Christenberry that resembles the photographs. The store does not mimic the photographs by accident. Christenberry's family owned some of the buildings that Walker photographed. Christenberry saw the photos in one of Evan's books and contacted him. The two then revisited several of the sites and visit inspired some of Christenberry's art work.

To summarize her curatorial approach, Alexander stated that these artists and this show is a rejection of minimalism and conceptual-ism in the great conversation of art. That may be true, but it's also full of humorous salvos in that spirited debate. Being a child of the cold-war, Jeffrey Vallance's pieces tapped into childhood-angst and made me erupt with nervous laughter.

Blinky Bone, 2006
mixed media
Jeffrey Vallance

Vladimir Lenin: Relics of the USSR, 2006
mixed media
Jeffrey Vallance
The exhibit runs through September 18, 2011.



  1. So "vernacular" is the new codeword for "kitsch".

    I found the show incoherent. There were some good pieces of art, but they made no sense in context. The show didn't come together. It was like a "summer show" at a commercial gallery. I mean, Marina Abramovic feeling herself up on one side of the gallery, and racially-updated classical paintings on the other?

    Nor do I buy the notion that "the more global we get as a society, the more interested we are in local activities and aesthetics". Unless by "more interested" you mean that our increasingly monocultural age actually makes local activities and aesthetics harder to find in the first place, and thus more precious and notable to those who think such things are worth worrying about.

    Again, there is a bunch of good art in this show, but it makes no sense in combination. Nothing bound one work to the other. It was a big closet full of stuff. And the fact that the art was a reaction to -- or product of -- the universal monoculture of art makes the central concept questionable in the first place.

    Which I think is Bill Davenport's shtick. Let him curate next summer's show at the CAMH. (No, seriously. I'd absolutely love to see that). Or let him re-install his shop at the CAMH like he did a little while ago. Then we can talk "vernacular".

  2. Good comment. I agree that the show seemed half-baked in a curatorial sense, while having pieces of interest. To be honest, that's about all I ever expect from a group show--that there be some individual pieces that I like.

    That said, I think that suggesting that we are in an increasingly monocultural age is wrong. I agree that local cultures are becoming weaker--and I would suggest that they have been since the advent of coast-to-coast radio broadcasts. However, I think non-localized subcultures are stronger than ever. Snail mail, the telephone, and now the internet have allowed people to form geographically far-flung subcultures that neither are neither outgrowths of the local vernacular nor imposed top-down by large scale national monoculture. I think working around subcultures could yield interesting exhibits.