Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Wojnarowicz in Houston

Paul Mullan

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled for ACT UP (detail), 1990

The Museum of Fine Arts Houston (MFAH) permanent collection is large but doesn’t get enough exposure. The planned expansion, designed by architect Steven Holl and dedicated to modern and contemporary art, may alleviate that problem. Construction begins in 2017.

Picturing Words: Text, Image, Message – one the MFAH’s small, occasional exhibitions of its collection – recently closed. Included was the print Untitled for ACT UP (1990) created by David Wojnarowicz to raise funds for the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in New York City, that era’s flagship AIDS activist organization.

More typical of the artworld during that period, Wojnarowicz’s work was deeply political and addressed issues like homophobia and AIDS, from which he would die in 1992. Two shows with which he was involved, Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing and Tongues of Flame, embroiled him in censorship conflicts with the Christian right. (Those forces used so-called “obscene” art – usually addressing sexuality, gender, or religion – as wedge issues to mobilize their base and to attack federal government funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.) Though distanced and not a formal member, Wojnarowicz was still somewhat sympathetic to ACT UP.

On one half of Wojnarowicz’s diptych is what looks like printouts of stock data: opening price, closing price, et al. The layout is similar to that of the Wall Street Journal and old, hardcopy newspapers The color scheme is green text on a black background, evocative of green-screen, monochrome monitors common then. Alphabetized ticker symbols run from GEB to GMP and from JR to KTF. A string of characters, “-K-K-K-“, introduces those companies whose names start with that letter. This is why the particular symbol range was chosen, per Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr.

In the late 1980s, ACT UP targeted drug firms such as Burroughs Wellcome, which was charging astronomical costs for the sole, and problematic, anti-HIV treatment then available, AZT. Perhaps coincidentally the symbols GLX and JNJ – respectively, Glaxo Pharmaceuticals and Johnson and Johnson – also appear among the stocks. In perusing existing, online historical archives, though, I cannot find any references to ACT UP campaigns focused, prior to 1990, on those two corporations.

Nonetheless: Healthcare under capitalism profits at the expense of human lives, and AIDS was killing tens of thousands every year in the U.S. alone. This problem with the economic system as a whole is articulated by embedding Glaxo and Johnson and Johnson in the listings. For emphasis, those are superimposed over an outline of the United States, targeted by a bull’s-eye in red and white at the dead-center of the composition.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled for ACT UP (detail), 1990

The diptych’s other half has (again) green text, with a different font and on a black and white background. The prose features the artist’s characteristic stream-of-consciousness:
"If I had a dollar to spend for healthcare I'd rather spend it on a baby or innocent person with some defect or illness not of their own responsibility; not some person with AIDS..." says the texas healthcare official and I can't even remember what he looks like because I reached in through the t.v. screen and ripped his face in half I was told I have ARC recently and this was after watching seven friends die in the last two years slow vicious unnecessary deaths because fags and dykes and drug addicts are expendable in this country "If you want to stop AIDS shoot the queers" says the ex-governor of texas
This passage’s final words have, for those familiar with our city’s history, unmistakable connotations.

Inflated oil prices spurred a boom in the 1970s in the Houston economy. Oil, however, peaked in 1981 at about $32 a barrel ($82 in 2015 dollars adjusted for inflation) and began to swoon, losing a quarter of its value by 1985. Prices collapsed a further 50% the following year, settling at approximately $12 ($26 2015 dollars) a barrel. This catastrophic downturn, from 1982-1987, saw the Houston area lose one out of every seven jobs, more than 220,000 total. (See the Greater Houston Partnership’s The Economy at a Glance: Houston, for March, 2012.) Huge swathes of houses were left abandoned or foreclosed. New office towers downtown – “see-through” buildings – were completely empty. The oil bust is legendary.

Troubled times for working people can give rise to political reaction.

In June, 1984, the Houston City Council passed two amendments called the Domestic Privacy in Employment Ordinance, which prohibited, in municipal jobs, employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. This was designed to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) city employees from homophobic bias.

Christian fundamentalist churches and others quickly began collecting signatures to demand a ballot referendum, assuming that a popular vote would likely overturn those two amendments. Antigay sentiment was much worse then: per Gallup, almost half of the population believed that consensual same-sex relations should be illegal -- versus only 30% as of 2014.

(Much of my information here comes from two sources. First, local archivist and historian JD Doyle has an important website on the referendum, with scans of newspaper and journal articles not available elsewhere online. Second is Dale Carpenter’s “The 30-Year Fight for Equality in Houston,” an excerpt from his book Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas and published at Outsmart in October, 2014.)

The KKK demonstrating against LGBT people, in downtown Houston in the run-up to the January, 1985 ballot referendum. The signs read: “Frag a fag” and “Houston is not a San Francisco yet: Vote No Jan. 19.”

Petition efforts were spearheaded by the Committee for Public Awareness (CPA), in which Council member John Goodner and Harris County Republican Party Chair Russ Mather were key figures. Louie Welch, a vocal bigot and Mayor from 1964-1973, and the Houston Chamber of Commerce, of which he was the President, also supported repeal. Veterans of Anita Bryant’s antigay initiatives in Florida advised. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which had shouted “death to homosexuals” during the Council debate, rounded out this front of establishment reaction.

The CPA campaign was virulently homophobic, a manifestation of “culture war” strategies that were to successfully expand right-wing influence around the country. Later “art wars” and attacks on Wojnarowicz, mentioned above, was part of all of this.

Pre-controversy, public opinion surveys had indicated that Houstonians opposed discrimination against LGBT people, by a nine-point margin. However, another survey in October, 1984 indicated that only 37% favored the anti-discrimination measures, with 50% against. On the day of the special election, January 19, 1985, the results were even worse: only 20% voted in favor of the amendments, with 80% against. This crushing defeat for the LGBT communities here would have wide-ranging political effects well into the 1990s.

The LGBT movement has, since the 1969 Stonewall riots, focused upon changing minds one-by-one. The idea that people should come out of the closet and tell their own, personal stories to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, church members, etcetera is powerful and, ultimately, quite successful

However, mass opinion can be swayed, not only by individuals dialoging with one another at ground level, but also by the dynamics of institutional, formal, official politics. What happens at the top, among political leadership, matters as well. Tanking support for LGBT people, from June, 1984 to October, 1984 to January of the following year – pressured by a roaring, right-wing offensive – makes this clear.

Moreover, mass opinion is not sufficient to win popular votes. Even the strongly sympathetic have to be mobilized to actually walk into the voting booth – which is a greater commitment. The Christian right’s advantage in 1985 was the organizing prowess of churches, which, after all, concentrate lots of politically like-minded people in community every Sunday morning. That was one factor in the lopsided referendum results.

This victory emboldened CPA forces, which later in 1985 ran a “Straight Slate” of candidates against City Council incumbents who had supported the Domestic Privacy in Employment Ordinance. In a comeback attempt, Welch challenged Mayor Kathy Whitmire. In October, Welch was in a television studio, at the Houston ABC affiliate, preparing for a live interview. Someone asked him what his plans were for dealing with the AIDS crisis. Thinking that the microphones had not yet been turned on, Welch responded with: “shoot the queers.” The remark was inadvertently broadcast live, and an uproar ensued, with national exposure.

This is one source of Wojnarowicz’s text in Untitled. (Obviously, the artist confused the state’s governor with a Houston mayoral candidate.) Crisscrossing the diptych two halves are critical perspectives both on big medicine, suggested by the prose and stock-market numbers, and on the decade’s poisonous political atmosphere, suggested by Welch’s quote and the inescapable “-K-K-K-“.

In 2014, City Council passed the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). This is far more comprehensive than the 1984 amendments and bans discrimination based on sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, and pregnancy. Given the 1985 defeat – and a later one in 2001 – the right is, again, attempting to require a ballot referendum on HERO. Currently, petitions are tied up in legal moves and being counted by a judge.

The downturn in oil prices since July, 2014 is, once again, sending the Houston economy into a tailspin, with exploration and services firms now routinely announcing layoffs ranging in the thousands; and real-estate developments, such as mixed-use, office towers, and mid-rise apartment complexes, being cancelled or put “on-hold.” As should be clear, that can have unpleasant, conservatizing political ramifications. Moreover and for the third time in as many decades, any referendum will put to the test the ability of the LGBT movement to, not only change minds in society as a whole, but to institutionalize those changes in the official, formal sphere of politics. Even in today’s relatively tolerant culture, the latter will not at all automatically follow the former.

Even quite distant from its origins, Wojnarowicz’s Untitled for ACT UP continues to speak to us.

Hunting Prize 2015 Finalists

Robert Boyd

Hey, buckaroos, it's Hunting Prize time again, and they have uploaded photos of all the finalists to Facebook. In the past, Hunting has had controversy because of its prohibition of any art that anyone might possibly find offensive. A lesser controversy, but one that bubbles up most years, is that it seems to discriminate against abstract painting (although that complaint surely was silenced by last year's winner, Winston Lee Mascarenhas). But lending credence to this theory is that with this year's finalists, abstract paintings are vastly outnumbered by figurative paintings. That said, we don't know what the general pool of entrants was. Maybe this ratio of figurative to abstract among the finalists reflects what they received from artists entering the contest. Without more knowledge of the first round entrants and of the criteria by which they were judged, I am reluctant to say that the Hunting judges have a bias against abstract painting per se.

Below are a few pictures that caught my eye. Many of these works are by artists I already admire a lot, but the pieces that intrigue me most are the ones by people I've never heard of or are, at best, only slightly familiar with. I love coming across work like that, which is why I like open-call events like the Hunting Prize and the Big Show.

Alice Leora Briggs, Puesto, 2014, sgraffito drawing with acrylic ink and gesso on panel diptych: each panel 18 x 24 inches

Dean Liscum reviewed Alice Leora Briggs' work back in 2012.

Fernando Ramirez, Clouds

I haven't seen that many Fernando Ramirez pieces, but I have liked all the ones I have seen. They have a fearful edge that reminds me a bit of artists as diverse as Vince Locke and Brian Chippendale. But will the Hunting judges go for art that looks like it could serve as the cover of a death metal album? I doubt it, but who knows?

Gina Gwen Palacios, Abel's Lot, 2014, Oil on pane,l 37" x 36"

I was completely unfamiliar with Gina Gwen Palacios, but I liked the way the bleak landscape Abel's Lot collapses in the middle. It suggests sudden violence in a small town, like in a novel by Jim Thompson or Cormac McCarthy.

Harvey Johnson, Didn't It Rain

I'm glad I saw this Harvey Johnson image because it reminds me I need to take a road trip to Beaumont to see Harvey Johnson: A Triple Middle Passage at AMSET. His work is always great. (Why do we have to go to Beaumont to see solo museum exhibits by so many Houston artists?)

 Heather Bause, Honeycomb

I was surprised to learn that this drippy painterly abstraction is by Heather Bause, whose previous work has been pretty hard-edge in my experience.But looking at her recent work on her website shows that this is a direction she's moved into, and I have to say I like it a lot.

Jimmy Houston, Trailblazer

Every now and then I will see a piece by Jimmy Houston in a group show or during Art Crawl. But his work is generally not the kind of work you see in local galleries--illustrational, cartoony, "low brow," etc. But I like his work quite a bit and this particular Disney-crossed-with-steampunk image tickled me. Sure it's illustrational--and I like good illustrations.

Laura Lark, Arena

This is an unusual Laura Lark piece. If done using her typical stipple technique, it must have been rather tedious to create--it's so dark and dense.  I can't tell if it's a collage or if she just drew the male hand projecting from the woman's chest, but that combined with the darkness of the image and the bad surveillance photo quality give Arena a slightly sinister feeling.

Lindy Chambers, Party Animals

I loved Lindy Chambers' use of bold flat colors with clean outlines in Party Animals--it's like a cross between Patrick Caulfield and Hergé. She recently had a show at d.m. allison, which I liked but which also seemed a little heavy on the surreal/pop elements. By eschewing that stuff, this painting is much stronger. It's my favorite of all the finalists for the Hunting.

Matt Messinger, Sperm Whale

I have a silk-screen of three sperm whales by Matt Messinger printed on ledger paper from Dean's Easy Credit (which Messinger presumably acquired from Jim Pirtle). In my print, the whales are the usual black variety, but in this painting he goes for a singular white whale, perhaps a descendent from Moby Dick himself.

Mira Hnatyshyn, Mortal Immortal

I'm not sure what it is about these two monks (?) and their fans that appeals to me. It seems quite a bit different than the work I saw in Mira Hnatyshyn's studio in San Antonio a few years back.  Her work generally reminds me a bit of Larry Rivers--but not this elegant piece.

Seth Alverson, Useless Foot

This is the kind of grotesque work we've come to expect from Seth Alverson. But I also wonder if it's an homage to the foot paintings of his friend (and previous Hunting Prize winner) Lane Hagood. Whatever its inspiration, it's one damn ugly thing. I can't turn away. I love it. (I should disclose that I own a painting by Alverson.)

Terry Crump, Savannah Bridge

A few years ago, I saw a painting by Terry Crump at the Big Show at Lawndale that I really liked. With his splashy, non-local pastel colors, his work feels like the lite-beer version of Matisse. I guess that at best sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I like Savannah Bridge a lot. It's pretty, and while sometimes I love ugly (as mentioned above), pretty's OK with me, too. "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

There's much more. Check out Hunting's Facebook page to see them all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Toppled Twombly

Robert Boyd

Devon Britt-Darby posted the following comment on Facebook today: "The Menil Collection's reinstallation of its modern and contemporary galleries is earth-shatteringly amazing. I don't think they've ever looked that good." He wrote this about an hour ago. Twenty minutes ago, as I write this, something or someone caused a Cy Twombly sculpture, Untitled (1954), to fall over. John Hovig was there and texted me this: "Just 5m ago someone knocked over the old cy twombly sculpture in the newly-rearranged modern gallery. I think someone fell. I heard it, loud crash, but didn't see it. But I see it lying on the ground." He took this photo of the damage. It don't look good.

Cy Twombly, untitled, 1954 (on the floor in the background). Photo by John Hovig.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Flex School

Betsy Huete

In place of The Brandon is a new gallery, spearheaded by artist Lynne McCabe, called She Works Flexible. The gallery opened with its inaugural show entitled Sensational Landscape on January 13, which includes artists Erika Lynne Hanson and Cat Clifford and will run until April 3.

But reflective of McCabe’s personal artistic practice, She Works Flexible extends beyond the traditional gallery model, reaching its tendrils into generating publications, hosting an online collection, and facilitating a unique pedagogical approach called Flex School.

Flex School kicked off this past month with a series of lectures—although he would call them “conversations”—by philosopher Joshua Lawrence. The first of three Flex School sessions happened on February 12, where Lawrence spent most of the time giving a crash course on Immanuel Kant and Kant’s relation to the sublime.

Cat Clifford (from sheworksflexible.com)

It’s clear by labeling the school sessions as conversations that both Lawrence and McCabe wanted the classes to operate more in a seminar format than a lecture, but by and large these classes were lectures, as they should be. It seems that, through all the classes I’ve attended in my years of college and beyond, that the word “lecture” is some kind of taboo, as if the person giving the lecture is terrified of coming across as boring. The first session Lawrence seemed just that, nervous and worried that his small class of twenty or so people would quickly get that glazed-over, get-me-the-hell-out-of-here look on their faces. In retrospect I could understand how he would have felt that way—the class was dead silent for most of the first class, and the question and answer session afterward felt unnatural and forced. But I don’t think that the vast majority of the class was bored; in fact, it seemed quite the opposite. The information was enthralling, and Lawrence, in a congenial and generous delivery, laid all of it out in an understandable, digestible way. But it was also a lot, and it was easy to see that everybody’s brains were full, and that they were just quietly trying to process it all.

Erika Lynne Hanson (from sheworksflexible.com)

So if these classes are actually just lectures, then what makes Flex School’s pedagogy different than, say, any other public lecture in Houston? After all, the Menil, Glassell, and numerous other institutions provide similar educational programming. What makes Flex School interesting, and totally different, is the divergent subject matter. While the Menil and Glassell will generally bring in artists, curators, or art historians to discuss art, Flex School covers topics that are tangentially related to artists: we aren’t looking at or discussing art per se, but we are engaging with and learning about other kinds of information that artists are generally interested in, subjects that although may not be directly art-related, still crop up in many artists’ works. No, perhaps most artists do not deal with all the ins and outs of Immanuel Kant and his philosophical works, but the questions that Kant and other philosophers engaged with in respect to the beautiful, the sublime, and the uncanny are things that most artists, in one way or another, are interested in. Flex School is kind of like Cabinet Magazine, but a school, and free.

By the third session, the number of people in the class had whittled down quite a bit, but the atmosphere felt more comfortable, the students looked a lot less overwhelmed and bombarded with information, and the class generally felt more like the “conversation” that Lawrence and McCabe were after in the first place. The class also felt more varied: while it seemed to start out with more art people, the class this time felt split between art and philosophy people. This is perhaps the most fruitful aspect of Flex School, the comingling of different kinds of thinkers and makers.

Joshua Lawrence’s sessions at Flex School occurred on February 12, 19, and 26, at She Works Flexible.

Monday, March 9, 2015

I’m Just a Simple Artist Who Travels: A Talk with Bas Poulos

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

To admit a visitor, Bas Poulos must take the time to unlock his security gate, which means that despite all the granite counter-top town homes that surround his house and studio, West 23rd street has yet to shed its criminal element. On one of my visits, Poulos told me about the Cadillac Escalante parked by a neighbor’s guest which was found the next morning on concrete blocks without wheels. I pity the misguided dumbass who does bust in on Poulos, because despite his age (b. 1941), the artist appears to have the strength for which his Peloponnesian ancestors are known, a physical attribute solidly backed up by literary tradition. It was Thucydides I think who estimated one Spartan was the equivalent of several Greeks from another region, and there’s consensus among the ancient writers that the original inhabitants of Arcadia were so undeniably tough they were born of the soil, ate acorns and existed before the moon.

The brilliant scholar H.D.F. Kitto said that talk is the breath of life to Greeks, which Poulos amended to “to tell a story,” so I must tell the story about Poulos’ Peloponnesian Uncle Pano. In 1938 Poulos’ grandmother summonsed her son, Poulos’ father, back to their Greek village from America because she had found him a wife, but when his father met the woman to whom his marriage had been arranged, he refused to marry, and then committed the sin marrying another woman from a different village, who would become Poulos’ mother. This was not how things were done. The rejected woman’s relatives voiced outrage, which led to a meeting to discuss the insult. It was Poulos’ father’s cousin, Uncle Pano, who settled things. “Uncle Pano was tough,” Poulos said, “he was much older when I knew him, but as a younger man in the early forties he had been part of the Nazi resistance and did things like ambush German convoys, and he was so fearless they called him the Jackal. Uncle Pano told the woman’s family that my father had indeed disrespected tradition by rejecting her, and then bringing his new wife into the village. But my father, the Jackal told them, would be leaving in a few days, while he on the other hand would be there the rest of his life, so anyone who fucked with my father would have to answer to him.”

When I saw his “Mycenaean Bridge” series, I knew I would write about Poulos. Here were deliciously colored landscapes comprised of Bronze Age objects that were part of a network of ancient roads built for chariots. With this art I could relive visits to Mycenaean archaeological sites, and bore people on the topic of Agamemnon. What could be more fun? But it turned out Poulos was uninterested in the arts’ Mycenaean and Homeric significance. “I am interested in the symbolism of bridges,” he explained. Bridges connect two land masses, which symbolizes my personal history, as a Greek American with links to the Greek landscape. The paintings represent my walking across these bridges.”

Bronze Age Mycenaean bridges are rare, but Hellenic stone bridges made for seasonal crossing of river beds and gorges are plentiful in the Peloponnese, and Poulos discovered over thirty of them within one day‘s distance from his home in the village of Karies. Figuring he might be the only American to return to his ancestral home and artistically capture these bridges, the director of Sparta’s Koumantareios Art Gallery who is organizing an upcoming exhibition encouraged him to try to learn the bridges’ names and ages by way of documentation. “The bridges were seasonal,” Poulos said, “not for cars, but for shepherds and goat herds. My Greek was good enough to ask the old men in cafés and gas stations about the location of their village’s stone bridge, and of course they all had different answers, and argued, over location, over how many arches, if it had collapsed, and more than once I found myself parked on some blind road curve, or behind an olive grove with my rent car searching for the bridge. A few times villagers offered to take me to the bridge their father showed them when they were kids, but try to arrange a time and date, no damn way. Once near Dimitsana I was able to find the bridge because I heard the sound of the gorge water. I eventually told the Sparta curator, look, I’m an artist, not an art historian or archaeologist.”

Basilios Poulos, Arcadia Vista A of the 'Greek Landscape Series', 2012/13, Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 60"

If Poulos’ bridge series got my attention, his “Greek Landscape” and “South Carolina Landscape” series silenced me. The seductive colors in these paintings bring home Matisse’s statement that his “beautiful blues, reds, and yellows were meant to stir the sensual depths in men.” Essentially, Poulos’ pictorial sensibility approximates a central tenet of modernism which favors an unforgettable visual experience over representational accuracy, and distances the image from objective reality by use of emphatic color and irregular form. Poulos’ announcement of his March 14 exhibition Journey into Landscape at Houston Baptist University made me want to know more about him and his art, which led to several lengthy studio visits in which I learned the following:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: It was fun to learn in Robert Boyd’s December 2014 post that you photographed yourself in front of Jackson Pollock’s The Deep. I studied that painting when I wrote about it in 2007.

Bas Poulos: It’s a great painting, and I like to think it played a part in my coming here, and I’ll tell you how. When I came to Houston in 1975 as “artist in residence” at Rice University, and in 1978 would accept a tenure track position, I was unsure about the job. This was at the time of my Guggenheim fellowship and I had a studio in Manhattan, and I was showing with Andre Emmerich gallery, and Clement Greenberg had praised my work, so naturally I had reservations about leaving. Then I saw Pollock’s The Deep at MFAH and it convinced me Houston wasn’t the boonies, and it was okay for me to leave New York and all the activities and museums. Later that painting ended up in the Pompidou center as a gift to France in honor of John de Menil, and I’ve visited it many times in Paris, and documented my trips to see it with my camera. I consider it a masterpiece, although many of the critics disliked Pollock’s late paintings, I think it was a wonderful period.

VBA: To hell with commentary. How refreshing to interact with art made solely for the purpose of being viewed. I liken it to an act of piety. What interesting variation in the degree of abstraction among your landscapes. In some paintings the bridge is unrecognizable, or completely hidden in foliage, and in others it is recognizably distorted. Arguably, where you annihilate the object, there is greater impact.

BP: The “Lost Bridges” series illustrates that. Its bridge arches are removed from nature through abstraction, because as you know I have no desire to accurately reproduce the object.

VBA: On one of my visits you showed me a photograph of a wooded area in South Carolina that captured sunlight cast against tree trunks and across the ground. That photo provided insight into your process, especially when seen transferred to charcoal line drawing on canvas, and preliminarily blocked in with wide swatches of acrylic, which by the way made me think of stained glass.

BP: That’s a photograph of my family’s land in Columbia, South Carolina. You know Picasso said he observed the landscape then entered his studio. I take it one step further and walk the landscape, which allows me to see how the light filters through foliage, branches, and leaves, hits trees and the ground plane and how shadows are cast by tree clusters, so my beginning impulse is observation. From the photo or sketch I create the armature or structure of the painting, the drawing and blocked in colors, then arrange for cohesiveness. I’m not creating a portrait of the landscape, but a visual experience. It’s the same with bridges, the patterns of stones in the arches form the drawing armatures for color that works in opposition to organic shapes of the foliage. I’m not interested in documenting the bridge, just taking from it for the painting’s armature, which with color and luminosity factored in, are crucial elements of the visual experience. Braque did this with his Cubist paintings of the L’Estaque viaduct, and I actually painted several ancient viaducts I found in Greece.

VBA: Sensual color and luminosity do not exclude the use of black, which in your art helps to define form. In some areas black isolate patches of color, and throughout it compliments and enhances color.

BP: You see that. One color represents the bridge, another the sun behind it, another tree silhouettes, and I use black to help define the landscape, for instance this fallen tree trunk in this diptych, but like Ad Reinhardt, you can add red to black to make a warm black, or add blue to black to make a cool black, notice none of these black tones are the same in this South Carolina landscape. The swatches of yellow in this painting were inspired by how sunlight appeared to me in the wetlands, you sense the color yellow where water reflects light. So I use drawing and Fauve-like color to describe the structure of the landscape, drawing is armature that supports the color. Color is the primary element of my abstract sensibility, along with the idea of luminosity and time of day.

Basilios Poulos, "Bright Day" Congaree River Basin of the 'Carolina Landscape Series'. (Diptych) 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 48" x 72"

VBA: Several times we’ve discussed the influence of Derain’s “L’Estaque” landscapes, particularly the small one in MOMA which you admire. Derain does a devilish thing in that passage with the bridge arch. It’s a miserably drawn object, crudely executed, but its colors are incomparably exuberant.

BP: The Derains are important, and the smaller landscape in the Museum of Modern Art is possibly a better painting than The Turning Road, L’Estaque in the MFAH’s Beck collection.

VBA: Rather than record nature Derain sought to create images that were timeless and enduring. In my opinion, your 2014 Window to the Landscape (Homage to Pierre Bonnard) fits that category. The painting’s spatial compression is unexpected, and its colors resonate.

BP: I painted Window to the Landscape in 2014, at the same time I began painting landscapes with abstracted human figures. I intended the painting as homage to Pierre Bonnard. I saw several Bonnard retrospectives, and was moved by his depictions of Marthe nude in the bathtub or on the bed, and particularly by the paintings of windows opening to the landscape, which of course Matisse did as well. Bonnard presents his window within the context of the interior, but mine has no direct reference to the interior or exterior. Unlike Bonnard’s depiction of the interior with table and still life objects, mine is abstract, interior and exterior spaces are indistinguishable. I constructed an abstract architecture which includes the interesting concept of a frame within a frame which isolates the flat area of green in the center to represent the landscape beyond the window. Some will laugh at me for linking myself to these giants.

VBA: Only sanctimonious dimwits. You’re honoring Bonnard.

BP: Yes, honoring.

Basilios Poulos, Window to the Landscape (Homage to Pierre Bonnard), 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 48"x60"

VBA: Many people still remember the painting you exhibited thirty years ago in Fresh Paint: The Houston School which was critically praised by Thomas McEvilley in Artforum as one of the exhibition’s best. That was no intensely colored, spatially ambiguous landscape.

BP: That’s correct. At that time I painted color field abstraction in the vein of Morris Louis, Kenneth Nolan, and Helen Frankenthaler. I was engaged in this kind of art for a very long time, had many exhibitions, in fact for a time I worked with four galleries simultaneously, showing regularly in Houston, San Francisco, New York and Atlanta, while teaching full time at Rice. I was young, and felt powerful then, but eventually realized I could not sustain it, primarily because abstraction has to be supported with critical theory, and I realized my theory was based on nature, that I was a landscape painter.

VBA: Tell us about your shift into figuration after color field abstraction.

BP: Although I never gave up the idea of the expressive use of color, color as the vehicle for expression, in about 1987 I abandoned color field abstraction, its formalist attitude, stopped painting on canvas, and started painting on wood. I had been looking at Byzantine art, and visiting monasteries in Greece. I would walk in and tell the monks I’m a Greek artist and I want to see the old icons, and they wouldn’t hesitate to take me into their treasuries, and just like that hand me a valuable icon. So I began working with figuration, using iridescent and metallic pigments, a framing device, some in diptych format, I painted icons until about 2005, 2006, and then had to re-invent myself again.

VBA: Did the monks serve raki?

BP: It’s tradition. They welcome visitors by serving raki or a cool glass of water, and a loukoumi which is a Turkish delight.

VBA: I love that about you Greeks. I remember being served raki the instant I entered a village market. And you probably don’t remember the day I found you searching for loukoumi so you could properly greet visitors from the Columbia Museum of Art who were coming to your studio.

BP: My art is in their permanent collection. They were coming to Houston to see their museum’s “Monet” in MFAH’s Monet “Seine” exhibition, and planned to visit my studio after.

Basilios Poulos, Two Figures in the Landscape, 2014, Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48"

VBA: Bas, your figuration in the form of disordered representation of nature is quite unified. Viewed collectively, the Greek and South Carolina landscapes form a continuum with the other subject matter, the icons, and architectural scenes of Greek classical temple columns and theaters that are abstracted to the point of non recognition. They concur with the superbly colored “Three Graces” and “Dance” series of female nudes, which though classically posed are intensely erotic due to stylized rendering of hips and breasts, and also link to your displaced odalisques, black stocking floozies, and various torsos and body fragments. It’s my judgment that the entire figurative corpus looks ahead to the new paintings of nudes abstractly hidden in the landscape.

BP: An artist can’t stand still. I had to move ahead after the landscapes, to making figures in landscapes. Cezanne did that. More than once he revisited his “Bathers.”

VBA: There are cornerstones of modernism that are so familiar, I sometimes misremember them. Our talks inspired me to look again at Cezanne’s nudes, and I found myself startled by the blue and green contours he employed to corrupt the figures, and disembody those lovely nudes.

BP: I’m also inspired by the German Expressionist Kirchner ’s Three Bathers of 1913, a memorable painting of nudes in landscape. And Picasso created cubist-style figures in landscapes, particularly the one in the Picasso Museum from 1908 which I saw about 12 years ago. You know it’s only 28 inches wide. Compositionally, it has a nude reclining, and another standing inconspicuously near the trees; stylistically the figures are practically unreadable, with facial features abstractly eliminated. Picasso drew with the brush you know, compared to Matisse who painted with it.

VBA: What happened to the woman your father refused to marry.

BP: I actually saw her. One summer, I’m in the village of Karies, in the plateia near the giant sycamore tree near the café tables and chairs, and I look up and see Uncle Pano the Jackal opening his eye widely to give me a signal, so I go over and he asks me if I want to meet the woman who almost became my mother. I wasn’t so sure about meeting her, but told him I certainly wanted to see her, so he pointed to a plump old lady sitting with the old men. It turned out that after the rejection her family sent her to another village near Githio where she married and had a family, so the day I saw her she must have returned to our village to visit her family.

VBA: Is there anything else you want readers to know?

BP: Remember that my show at Houston Baptist University Contemporary Art Gallery opens on March 14 and runs through April 15. I will exhibit fourteen or so works, ones that are purely landscapes to represents the beginning of my landscapes, and one from the “Arcadia Vista” series which was recently shown in Greece and Turkey. I’m also showing two tapestries that represent the end of my work with the Greek landscape. A bulk of the HBU show will be “South Carolina” landscapes because these represent the end of my work with landscapes, including a diptych. And I will also show the painting we talked about, Window to the Landscape,” inspired by Bonnard. There’s something else I want to say. Since retiring from teaching at Rice in 2008, I have returned to being just a simple artist who likes to travel. That’s what I am. In fact that’s the title I want for this interview! Virginia, I’m just a simple Greek American artist, who travels.

Monday, March 2, 2015

On Not Writing

Robert Boyd

In the past few weeks, I've hardly written a thing. The Great God Pan Is Dead is my blog, but only one of the past seven posts has been mine. I started a post in January on Prospect 3 in New Orleans but didn't get too far. A friend of mine noticed this, but generally it has been unremarked. Which I would expect. I'm not so vain to imagine that people miss my writing here.

There are some practical excuses. I've been working more lately. I have an actual day job that has been requiring more hours and more focus, leaving fewer hours and less mental energy to devote to this blog. And then there has been some personal stuff that has demanded a good deal of my attention. Life happens, and there are only so many minutes a day one can devote to one's hobby. And writing this is a hobby. (I have been paid a little to run this blog, so I guess I can't claim that it purely a hobby. Since commencing in August, 2009, I have earned $537.65--$500 from Box 13 for an ad, and $37.65 from Amazon for books sold through this site.)

These excuses would explain diminished output--but not silence. The fact is, while I could have been writing (and attending openings and looking at art), I've been filling up my time in less productive ways. I've caught up on my television (Marvel's Agents of Shield is completely stupid but highly entertaining). I've drawn a lot; little more than doodling, really. Nothing that anyone but me needs to see. But it's pleasurable, and it has reminded me that drawing as an untheorized activity has a high value. And I've read a lot. That's part of the problem.

Since the beginning of the year, I've read 24 books. Eleven of these have been books of comics which generally require less of a time commitment than prose books. So let's say 13 books. Not to mention the New Yorker, the Brooklyn Rail and various online publications and blogs. Right now, I'm reading Nature and Art are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008 by Rackstraw Downes. Downes is a painter whose work I don't dislike, but in which I have only a little interest. I don't even know why I bought the book. Maybe it was the unusually modest but extremely handsome format--it's like a blank mass-market paperback untouched by an art director. And I totally judge books by their covers.

Downes wrote for ARTnews, Art in America, The New Criterion, Bomb and other publications. His writing is often epigrammatic. (The long preface by John Elderfield is irritating because it quotes so many of Downes' best lines that the reader is about to read for himself. It's like serving the dessert first.) Writing about Charles Burchfield in 1970, he drops this line: "But although the vanguard is presumed to march in the name of freedom and originality, to some artists its revolutions tend to look distinctly like the palace variety, with built in exclusions as rigid as those of the academic whipping-boy it presupposes." Downes is a brilliant defender of a reactionary aesthetic. And by "brilliant," I mean he is an unusually good writer--the sentence above is a perfect example. He employs humor "the palace variety" and inverts the revolutionary program of modernism. He points out that modernism was invented in the name of freedom from the stultifying conventions of academic painting but had at some point become increasingly rigid and puritanical. And even though we can say we are in a post-modern period, our revolutions still seem to be "of the palace variety." Regardless of how social "social practice" art is, for example, the only people who concern themselves much with it enough to read books about it are art insiders like me.

Downes managed to make me think differently. It wasn't a drastic change; let's just say it made me appreciate Neil Welliver a little more and Barnett Newman a little less. And that's nothing to sneeze at! But more important to me as a committed hedonist was that reading Nature and Art Are Physical was pleasurable. Downes comes out of a literary background--he studied literature before switching to art. This shines through both in his elegant writing style and his erudite use of literary examples as well as artistic examples to explain his arguments. I like that he can easily analogize between different art forms--it's something I sometimes do in my own writing, but never as effectively as Downes does.

For example, he wrote an article about Claude Lorrain. He quoted the great English landscape artist John Constable on Claude, an artist who Constable revered: "Claude's exhilaration and light departed from him when he was between 50 and 60, and then he became a professor of the 'higher walks of art' . . . so difficult it is to be natural." Then Downes recalls that Paul Valéry, in comparing the poet's means to the composer's suggests that a poet uses the constantly shifting and evolving substance of human speech while a composer uses a set of specific sounds, "counted and classified," that are quite distinct from noise. (Keep in mind that Valéry was writing this 100 years ago or so).

So, "if the nature painter, who tries to respond directly to whatever is in view, might be said to resemble the poet in Valéry's comparison, Claude increasingly resembles the composer. His drawing expeditions to the Campagna decreased sharply after the age of 50 . . ." Claude's later works were constructed by looking at elements of his earlier work.

What I love about this small section in a longer piece about Claude is the effortless way Downes brings together three artists (Claude, Constable and Valéry) and three art forms (painting, music and poetry) into a tight and perceptive critical insight.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Pan and Syrinx, 1656, graphite, pen and brown ink, brown wash, heightened with white, on brown tinted paper. (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Likewise, Downes' essay "Henri Rousseau and the Idea of the Naïve" was a revelation because he connects naïve art (i.e., "outsider" art--the shifting nomenclature of this kind of art was noted by Gary Fine in his book Everyday Genius) to Schiller's essay "Naïve and Sentimental Poetry," where Schiller compares poets who seek nature with poets who are nature. Given that this is a subject of long interest to me (since the 80s when I first saw work by Henry Darger and Adolf Wölflli), I found Downes' long meditation on the subject eye-opening and fresh--or as fresh as a German essay from 1795 can be. But this, not surprisingly, is typical of Downes. He writes in "What the Sixties Meant to Me" that the Hegelian or Marxist idea of dialectical progress was a category error in Modernist theory, and that artists often make their personal breakthroughs by looking into the past instead of the future.

I think you can see the problem here. I'd rather be reading Rackstraw Downes than writing my own reviews. I've heard writing teachers complain that their students don't read enough. That seems counterintuitive to me, since it is reading that has long fed my desire to write. But right now, it is inhibiting that desire. I read something great and it makes me think, why bother? What does my writing add to the world that this thing I'm reading now doesn't already do so much better? And if my motivation for writing is personal satisfaction (or, as I prefer to think of it, pleasure), what if I get more pleasure from something else--like reading other people's work?

And when you go beyond behind art writing--a very narrow genre--the potential for pleasure increases exponentially. After, art writing is writing in service of something else. It isn't written in order to be art. If it achieves that, it's kind of a miracle. Now I want to express a value judgment here. I'm not attempting to define a universal truth--this is a very personal and subjective opinion: novels are the best form of art. They just are. I love all kinds of art, but none has given the intellectual engagement and pleasure that novels have over the course of my life, from the first novels I read (probably the Oz books of L. Frank Baum) to the last novel I read, The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

The Flamethrowers starts off in a very Hemmingway-esque mode--indeed, there are two equally Hemingway-esque stories being told in alternating chapters. In one, a young woman picks up a motorcycle in Reno and drives it out to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where she attempts a personal speed record. The other story follows an Italian motorcycle soldier in World War I under attack by Germans. This beginning made me think it was going to be a certain kind of novel. I had expectations. It's OK to have expectations and have them filled--generally speaking, that's something I approve of in art. It means I wasn't let down, and frankly that's usually enough

But The Flamethrowers pulled the rug out from under me. We never know the protagonist's name--she is called Reno by some of her acquaintances, which fits in with the initial feeling that we might be reading a novel by a hard-boiled descendent of Hemmingway. But instead, the novel sprawls out in unexpected directions, in the art scene of New York in the early to mid 70s; in the radical political scene of the Lower East Side in the late 60s; to the "years of lead" in Italy. Reno is inserted into an art world that for those of us familiar with the history (and the mythology) of the era will recognize. Certain characters and locations are obviously analogs of actual people and places.

And these parts of the novel felt like a true representation of what it was like to be an artist. I don't know if an artist from that period would agree, but the thing is that Kushner convinced me. I am friends on Goodreads and Facebook with someone I've never met but who is married to an old colleague of mine. I hope Peter Landau won't mind me quoting his Goodreads review: "[The Flamethrowers] explores the incendiary actions of artists, the mythologies they create and the damage such creations leave in their wake. [...] I couldn't help but compare and contrast, whether right or wrong, this successful novel with a less successful autobiography I recently read that treads similar themes within the same time and place." I think the book he's talking about is probably Just Kids by Patti Smith, and The Flamethrowers reminds you what a superb writer can do (as opposed to someone who is a really good writer for a rock star).

But again I felt discouraged. Here was a book that was so intricate and harsh that I could never in a lifetime ever hope to match it. She was not engaging in "art writing" like Rackstraw Downes, but she said more about art in The Flamethrowers than I have in writing this blog for five years. Or maybe this is just me feeling down on myself. 

A few days back, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a beautiful tribute to David Carr, the recently deceased New York Times journalist and author of the harrowing The Night of the Gun. Carr had hired Coates for his first reporting job to at the Washington City Paper. Coates talks about Carr's mentorship and his philosophy of journalism--that a story could be about a big subject, but it needs narrative to drive it forward. Oh, I know and Coates knows that Carr didn't invent this. One can think of Willie Morris's Harpers, or many of the best writers for the New Yorker or Esquire. But Coates learned it from Carr and it obviously informs Coates' writing.

The reason I mention it is there is something bloodless about writing a review. Maybe if I was meaner, it'd be more fun. But stories--that's where the real fun is. I think my best posts have been basically first-person narratives: for instance, "The Show is So Over" and "Searching for Forrest Bess." 

What I've concluded is that I don't want to write reviews anymore. So what this means is that the focus of this blog will change somewhat. Posts may get a little longer. They will definitely more based in narrative. I think this may be the way to rekindle my interest in The Great God Pan Is Dead.

Of course, there will probably continue to be reviews by this blogs other contributors. See for example Paul Mullen's review of Mel Chin's show at the Contemporary Art Museum. I hope we'll see many more posts as thoughtful as that one was. But my own writing henceforward will be a little different.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Mel Chin: Rematch

Paul Mullan

Mel Chin, M-16 (wound brooch), 2005-6, Precious metal, gemstones, 2 1/8 x 2 1/2 inches

Numerous institutions are currently highlighting the work of Mel Chin, who was born and raised in Houston and spent formative years (1975-1983) here, as well. Four decades into his career, Chin is known nationally as a “conceptualist,” one with a political bent.

Mel Chin: Rematch originated at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and is organized by Miranda Lash, formerly NOMA Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and currently Curator of Contemporary Art at The Speed Art Museum in Louisville. In Houston, the exhibition is presented as major collaboration between the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum, the Contemporary Arts Museum (CAMH), the Asia Society Texas Center, and the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. At the latter, “Degrees of Separation” includes an homage to Chin by other artists and collectives. The Art League Houston’s separate show on Chin, “Paper Trail and Unauthorized Collaborations,” just closed. Given this sprawl, I will mostly limit my discussion to the CAMH, where works are installed in the lower-level Zilkha Gallery.

There are various possible modes of relating art and politics. Art can represent oppressive social conditions through an imagistic form broadly accessible and readable by public audiences. Art can also, in a similar approach, represent the really-existing political struggles against those conditions. Paraphrasing a chestnut from Karl Marx, the distinction is an understanding of the world, in the former instance, versus an effort to change that world, in the latter instance. For example, Social Realism prominent in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, encompassed both of these strategies.

Eschewing mere “passive”, distanced representation of a situation, such as economic misery, is a third mode. Simultaneously, this mode eschews simple representation of political movements: organized to transform those situations; external to the sphere of art; and orientated more towards the future. Instead an art is created which can itself, through its internal processes, more directly and immediately materialize a new, changed set of conditions in the real world and in real time. “Social practice art” is one name for this contemporary approach.

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing, Plants, industrial fencing on a hazardous waste landfill. An ongoing project in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, senior research agronomist, USDA

One aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has been associated with this art and has a greater prominence at the Blaffer installation. Revival Field (begun 1990) was a collaborative project between agronomists with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the artist. The first Field was in Saint Paul, Minnesota at a former landfill for industrial waste, one where soil was badly contaminated with poisonous metals such as cadmium and zinc. Chin’s work tested the effectiveness of hyperaccumulator plant species (including types of corn and lettuce) in absorbing those metals and making the land safe once again. These experiments actually provided useful data for scientists examining this “phytoremediation” process.

Rather than centrally representing this threat to public health, or engaging in conventional political campaigns – petitioning or pressuring the government to take future actions that may or may not happen – Chin’s initiative helped to immediately and directly resolve a problem on the ground. This is considered a strength of social practice art.

At the CAMH, another aspect of Chin’s oeuvre has greater prominence – that of traditional representation vis-à-vis politics.

Mel Chin, Night Rap, 1994, Polycarbide plastic, steel, wireless transmitter, microphone element, batteries, 24 x 11 3/16 x 5 1/2 inches

The vicious 1991 beating of African-American Rodney King by Los Angeles police was (unusually for the time) captured on video and shown extensively on national news reports. Despite popular outrage, the following year a jury – of ten whites, one Latino, and one Asian-American – acquitted officers on charges of excessive force, triggering in LA the largest urban rebellion seen since the 1960s. There are parallels to the recent Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri.

Made two years later, Chin’s Night Rap (1994) looks like a standard-issue, black police baton mounted on a mike stand, dramatically spotlighted – as if on a stage – in a lonely corner of the CAMH’s gallery. Seamlessly attached to the “business” end is a microphone, turned on, with ambient sound projected through speakers mounted elsewhere in the gallery. Hip-hop – including groups such as NWA and Body Count, rapper Ice-T’s metal band – during this period spoke out energetically against police brutality. Chuck D of Public Enemy declared – in the paradigmatic reading of the art form and referencing the then-important (now superseded) news network – that “rap is CNN for black people”.

The “business” end is suggestive of state violence against African-Americans: a “rap” over the head. Metaphors here have a literary quality, which appears elsewhere in Chin’s sculptures and titles. Simultaneously, the microphone is suggestive of how such violence becomes part of the material foundation for rap and the projection of radical, black voices: oppression breeds this resistance.

A third interpretation is possible. The 1991 Rodney King video “exposed” police abuses for the doubtful: to wit, white people. Black people, Latinos, and those at the bottom of the economic ladder are not as likely to have such doubts, to say the least. This widespread “exposure” of something hidden, disguised was a factor in sparking the 1992 LA rebellion. Today, on the other hand, that is arguably less the case. Cameras are everywhere – on phones or tablets, in surveillance systems for cities and private buildings – and their images are ubiquitous. The recent choking-death of African-American Eric Garner by New York City police was recorded by a passerby on the street and can be seen globally on YouTube. That hardly prevented the brazen killing, or a grand jury from refusing to indict the NYPD officers.

The microphone, then, in Night Rap does not primarily posit the resistance of rap and hip-hop culture. Instead, that posits the state’s recording of its own acts of violence – and the broadcasting, unambiguously and unashamedly, of its willingness to kick your ass and let the whole world know it.

Mel Chin, (Belief/Punishment) Yaqin Saza (for Jam Saqi), 1986, Books, asphalt with hair and glass fiber, encaustic, paper, steel, rivets, wood, 53 x 75 x 9 inches overall

Jam Saqi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan, was arrested in 1978 and imprisoned for years by the government of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Chin created (Belief/Punishment) Yaqin Saza (for Jam Saqi) (1986) for a Houston fundraiser by Amnesty International, to publicize Zia’s human rights abuses.

The sculpture’s left part is a circular agglomeration of books: perpendicular to the wall from which they are hung, with tails facing the viewer; and smeared with asphalt, pages fused together, and titles obscured. In the stack’s center is a lone, unmodified book with a red cover; the text is not visible, only the bottom. The disc is tightly bound by a ring of riveted steel. All of this allegorizes abstracted “belief”, as a category, and its containment by the state. The specificity of this belief is undefined, which is oddly consonant with the military dictatorship’s zeal to render invisible and destroy the secular leftist opposition – not coincidentally, to ultimately be supplanted by another “opposition” more in accord with the interests of the Pakistani regime and its US backers. That is, of course, Islamic fundamentalism, further strengthened by US support for rebels who fought Soviet intervention in neighboring Afghanistan from 1979-1989.

The right part is a club wrapped in paper treated to look like flayed skin, per the exhibition catalog (although that would be cryptic to anyone in a museum audience who does not torture people as a profession). In this allegory of “punishment”, Chin was influenced by Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which argues that pain “unmakes” human consciousness. Through historical studies of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the 1967-1974 Greek military junta, and others, Scarry also notes that implements of torture are commonly presented visibly and in advance to the victim – who then must imagine torments to come.

In Night Rap, the police nightstick represents not only an instrument of state violence, but how representation itself, whatever its good intentions, can be complicit in reproducing that violence – via its recording and broadcasting. Belief/Punishment presents, again, not only such an instrument, but how presentation itself is embedded in the structure of torture.

There is one distinction. The former work proposes a Foucauldian counter-power, in rap, “made” by power itself. This is absent from the latter work, in which power – via the club and containment – is proposed to operate in a traditionally conceived, purely repressive mode of “unmaking”. Only the red book at the disc’s center – signaling the heart of the human subject and its autonomous commitments, not constructed by an external power – survives such destruction.

Chin is registering ambiguities of representation and problems of classically liberal strategies of ideology critique – of “exposing” something “hidden”, expecting that will be decisive in resolving the problem. Only during certain, limited political periods does such ideology critique have any efficaciousness.

Mel Chin, Elementary Object (For Corsica), 1993, Corsican briarwood, steel, plastic, concrete / vermiculite, excelsior packing material, flannel, paper tag, fuse cord, triple-F blasting powder, 3 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 10 1/4 inches (object in closed case)

What initially resembles a smoking pipe, in Elementary Object (For Corsica), sits on a bed of wood shavings in a steel strongbox. The box is presented on a horizontal plane, in a wall-mounted, glass display case; its lid is open; and when observed from above and at an angle, the “pipe’s” orientation and the shaving’s color scheme evoke Surrealist René Magritte’s well-known The Treachery of Images. The “pipe’s” bowl is sealed, with a wick inserted: it is actually a bomb, (nominally) complete with blasting powder. As is frequently the case with Chin, this can be recognized only by way of the wall labels or secondary commentary.

René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1929, Oil on canvas

A key question here concerns the artistic image’s ontological ground or model – a “real” pipe in the outside world – and the contrast between similitude and resemblance. Magritte’s painting was famously interpreted by Michel Foucault as setting into motion a network of similitudes, internal to the work itself, and definitionally without that grounding origin. Elementary Object points, instead, towards a relation of resemblance, per se based on that model.

This is a linguistic play on “pipe bomb”, frequently used by Corsicans organized underground to fight for their island’s independence from France (one of the national struggles persistently bubbling just underneath the surface in Europe). The disjunction between iconic signifier and its proper referent – between the explosive “pipe” and a real pipe – is, then, the “treachery” in question, one with potentially fatal consequences.

Conversely, theses concerning state violence in Night Rap or Belief/Punishment presuppose a proper correspondence between iconic signifier and referent. Crucial to their functioning, the club and the baton are objectively, correctly decipherable as such. Once more, “truth” and veridicality seem to be on the side of power.

Mel Chin, Scholar’s Nightmare, 2001, Wood, dye, animal part, 30 3/4 x 60 1/4 x 21 1/4 inches

Surrealism is evident elsewhere, including Scholar’s Nightmare (1991) at the Asia Society. A domestic table leg morphs into an animal hoof, echoing Magritte yet again – specifically the boots merging into human feet.

Mel Chin,Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version, 1990, Razor, velvet, wood, brass, mirror, 10 x 13 x 2 inches (open), 10 x 6 1/4 x 2 inches (closed)

Two early-twentieth-century poems from Rainer Maria Rilke were Chin’s inspiration for Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version (1990), a modified straight-razor resting in opened shaving kit. “Archaic Torso of Apollo” enjoins: “You must change your life”. Further, from the “First Elegy” in the Duino Elegies:

Beauty is only
       the first touch of terror
              we can still bear
and it awes us so much
       because it so coolly
              disdains to destroy us.

This concept, art’s transformational power and its demands, is figured in the silhouette of the Venus de Milo hand-carved into the razor’s cutting-edge. That ancient Greek statue has long been considered a canonical moment of beauty in western art. One can imagine the “terrible”, “destructive” wound that would result from this instrument, the force of beauty. This imagined wound – a jagged tear, abstracted, and without form – can be counterposed to the Venus’ rigorous, classical form.

Traumas of very different origin are given well-ordered form in M-16 (wound brooch) (2005-6), made during the US occupation of Iraq and based on photographs of bullet wounds from an M-16 – the US Army’s standard-issue rifle since 1967. The center is a roughly circular hollow; surrounding rubies reference blood; and onyx references contusions. Other works in this Cluster series similarly fix, as decorative jewelry, the size, shape, and – sometimes – position of real instances of war injuries, as revealed by medical and forensic documentation.

Mel Chin, AK-47 (liver wound/sulfobromophthalein collapsing necklace), 2005-6, Precious metal, gemstones, Variable/wearable

In both Rilke’s Razor, Jung’s Version and M-16 (wound brooch) are overtones of a highly dualistic reading of gender. In the former, the grand theme – the source of art’s rending of consciousness – is feminized in the Venus. Its mode of appearing is banal and quotidian – the masculine activity of shaving, personalized through the small, intimate mirror and sequestered via the velvet-lined, wooden box. In the latter work, rending is more literal and more deadly, a paradigmatically masculinist, collective act of war. Its mode of appearing is feminized costume jewelry, properly for display in public space.

Within modernist thought of the blood-soaked twentieth century, an equivalence was not infrequently drawn between the shattering potential of art and the destruction inherent to politics and war. Chin, laudably, tries to attenuate this troublesome equivalence, by way of a dialectic of form – and the more debatable, gendered metaphors.

“Points of view established in the past are no longer up to date,” Chin states of this current retrospective. “It’s time for a rematch.” Nonetheless, despite some being almost three decades old, his works at the CAMH still have a striking resonance today.

“Mel Chin: Rematch” is currently on view in Houston: at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, through March 21; at the Contemporary Arts Museum, through April 19; and at the Asia Society Texas Center, through April 19. “Degrees of Separation” continues at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art through May 1.