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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Art in Review: Special Effects 

Sam Durant: Scenes from the Pilgrim Story: Myths, Massacres and Monuments at Blum and Poe
I'm a big fan of Sam Durant, whose improbably poetic and pointed combinations of disparate references -- Noguchi and Southern rock, Eames chairs and pornography, Robert Smithson and Kurt Cobain -- have always struck me not only as politically astute, but funny, with a tinge of the absurd. His works are serious enough to make their point, but don't take themselves too seriously. Given the wide-ranging scope of his previous works, his latest installation at Blum and Poe is a little disappointing.

The project is a critical restaging of the Plymouth National Wax Museum, complete with dioramas (purchased from the now defunct museum), wall text, a reading table and a documentary-style video. Its intention -- to educate people (specifically, Americans of European descent) about the true history of the Pilgrims' arrival in Massachusetts (they were not, as is popularly imagined, peaceful settlers, but grave robbers, thieves and murderers) -- is earnest and worthy enough. But the copious wall text and didactically reconfigured dioramas are a bit heavy-handed.

In Pilgrims and Indians, Planting and Reaping, Learning and Teaching, Durant recreates two museum dioramas on either half of a circular rotating stage. One illustrates the classic tale of how the English-speaking Indian Squanto taught the pilgrims how to fertilize crops with fish. The other depicts Captain Miles Standish beating a Pequot Indian with a stick, an attack that led to the massacre of the Pequots and the real first Thanksgiving feast (which the Indians did not attend because they had all been killed). The dioramas are oddly engaging (as creepy, unblinking mannequins are wont to be), and their rotation, almost imperceptible at first, lends the work a Disney-esque showmanship. The two stories are opposite sides of the same coin, here made literal in the circular shape of the platform, but the bombastic physical presence of the piece feels like overkill for what is essentially a simple argument.

You can feel Durant's passion for the material, his desire to share what he has learned, and his insistence on uncovering every willful untruth. Unfortunately, the format and presentation of these stories mimics its source too closely. The lightning bolts of recognition or insight that made Durant's previous works so compelling are replaced by a plodding revelation of a power imbalance that most people (at least in the lefty art world) are already familiar with. Perhaps I spend too much time with folks like myself, but I take it for granted that people know that Native Americans were and continue to be exploited, massacred and dispossessed, and that Thanksgiving is really just an excuse to pig out.

The show also attempted to sever the tie between image and story, allowing us to peer between the cracks at the constructedness of history. In this regard, the video -- a sequence of Ken Burns-style shots of the original dioramas combined with the audio narratives from the museum -- was most successful. Even as the narrative and familiar format pull you into the story, every now and then one the diorama scenes sticks out and becomes truly macabre. The lifelessness of the mannequins and the artificiality of the story are only heightened by the voiceover's attempt to enlist our sympathies. It's too bad the rest of the show failed to create the same sense of uncanny discomfort, and relied too heavily on text.

Mitra Fabian and Robin McCauley at Bandini Art
For some reason, I seem to be drawn lately to highly aesthetic, obsessively repetitive, phenomenologically oriented works. Maybe I just want to look at something pretty. At any rate there seems to be no shortage of them. Robin McCauley's drawings are seductive, but only because they're made of hair. McCauley outlines reductive forms -- Greek temples, horses, birds -- and stitches them with long strands of black horse hair, which hang down shaggily over the front of the image, looking a bit like a balding muppet. The works possess a slightly unnerving physicality, and draw potentially fruitful parallels between hair and the drawn line, but otherwise don't offer much beyond the gimmick of their construction.

I found Mitra Fabian's work a bit more compelling, although hardly original. In the vein of Tara Donovan or Rosana Castrillo Diaz, Fabian uses everyday materials -- scotch tape, white glue, windowshades -- in obsessively repetitive patterns to create works that reference the body, geography and perception. Her floor pieces, small landmasses that coalesce out of snakey, pleated strips of windowshade, create engrossing textures that suggest fantastical miniature topographies. In a wall piece, small, regular strips of scotch tape mounted on plexi swirl and coalesce to form three disembodied breasts. Like Eva Hesse with office supplies, the work found an unexpected resonance between a mutant biomorphism and the milkiness of the layered tape. I only wish that Fabian would take it one step further and find some conceptual coherence between her materials and her forms so that her work would be more than just pretty shapes coaxed from unexpected sources.

Sean Higgins at sixspace
Sean Higgins creates eerie, isolated landscapes by mounting inkjet prints on plexi that has been abraded and dulled to create a milky translucency. The images of rock formations, islands or ocean swells, whether extending to fill the picture plane or floating in white space, are peaceful and ominous and strangely moving. There's something about their misty elusiveness that feels nostalgic and a bit melancholy, like an old photograph. The images of rock formations are especially intriguing, since the refraction of light through the plexiglass makes the images appear to be 3-d, creating an impression of mass that shifts ever so slightly as you walk by. At times, as in Magic Numbers -- a group of rocks floating on a white ground -- this effect feels a bit forced; it's a neat visual trick, but it draws too much attention to itself. One other quibble: some of the larger images are obviously pieced together from several smaller inkjet prints, and the edges of the paper where they have been seamed together are visible. I can't think what the conceptual or aesthetic reason might be for interrupting these otherwise engrossing images with the signs of their fabrication. Rather than be reminded of the limitations of the artist's printer, I would have preferred to imagine that these mysterious landscapes arrived fully formed, like memory or dreams.

Eric Freeman at Western Project
I don't have a whole lot to say about this show. It's basically four, large, expertly executed oil paintings that all depict the same square shape -- a blurry black frame against a creamy ground. Somewhere between Op Art and Color Field painting, Freeman is a master of the optical effect in paint -- I think each painting had a slightly different hue in the center area, but it's hard to know if that's the pigment or just an ocular after effect. I understand what I'm supposed to get out of work like this -- it's supposed to turn me back on myself, make me aware of my viewership and the contingency of vision. In short, it's supposed to be an experience. And it is, it's just a rather superficial one. To my mind, Freeman's paintings are trying too hard. It's not a fair comparison, but I kept thinking about Ad Reinhardt's black paintings and how fascinating they are to look at. There's a poignant searching involved that makes you not only aware of yourself as a viewer, but brings you into a narrative of perception: searching out the barely perceptible becomes is a spiritual experience, an analogue for the search for the numinous. Freeman's work seems interested in these same issues, but without the same depth of soul.

9:39 PM

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Art in Review: Culver City 

This is the first in what I hope will become a semi-regular series of posts on shows of note I've seen recently.

Harrell Fletcher: The American War
Fletcher visited Ho Chi Minh City in 2005 and photographed every image and text description in The War Remnants Museum, a memorial to what the Vietnamese call "The American War" ("The Vietnam War" to us, of course). Displayed in plain wooden frames around the gallery -- with walls painted a pale shade of blue -- the photographs basically re-create the museum, or at least the museum's contents. Heart-rending pictures of massacred mothers and babies, American soldiers torturing Vietnamese and/or exulting over their mangled bodies, children born with horrible deformities due to their parents' exposure to Agent Orange, atrocities the shock of which even the distance of several generations of photographs -- many of the museum's images look as if they are already several steps removed from their source -- cannot soften. It's an opportunity to see the war and its aftermath from the other side -- through the eyes of the Vietnamese, although not surprisingly, many of the images are taken from Western books and magazines like Life. The paucity of the museum's budget -- evident in the low and inconsistent quality of the photographs and captions -- and its didactic rather then elegiac intent is a stark contrast to our elegant, minimalist, well-maintained Vietnam memorial. Fletcher's lightly mediated presentation of the museum's contents is a deeply moving, disturbing, powerful work of art.

But is it art, or documentary, or merely overblown tourist snaps? It hardly matters. If Fletcher is able to use the system of galleries, the pretense of "art" to distribute these photographs, then so much the better. If nothing else, it's a potent, visceral reminder that comparable atrocities are happening on the ground, right now, in Iraq. It's also a testimony to the importance of the archive, of collections, of research and study. Outside the gallery, Fletcher has designed a billboard in conjunction with the exhibit, an image of two stacks of books about the war. It's a visual catalog of a wealth of knowledge and experience that should carry the historical weight of its billboard size, but which we've obviously forgotten, enmeshed as we are in another quagmire.

In a project of this nature, it's easy to retreat into discussions of representation and ownership: Fletcher's photographs are hopelessly inflected with his point of view; it's impossible to faithfully recreate the experience of visiting the museum; there is an appalling voyeurism in consuming such shocking imagery. Still, the work feels entirely earnest and not so much side-steps as bulldozes these issues with the heartfelt urgency of its appeal to our humanity. Fletcher asks us not only to remember, but to feel, as we imagine he did, that day in the museum.

Soo Kim
Soo Kim's large scale photo collages are intensely layered urban landscapes. Printed on clear film and mounted on clear plexiglass, the three images in the series They Stop Looking at the Sky feature the same Istanbul street scene, but in each image, cutout portions let a variety of other images and textures peek through -- other landscapes both urban and pastoral, Islamic graphic patterning, curvilinear organic blooms, the white gallery wall. With their amateurish edges, the cutouts feel provisional, the images, haphazardly pasted together suggest complexity run amok -- urbanism out of control, cancerous. But the cut out areas also suggest bombed out buildings, especially where the stark white of the wall shows through -- as if something has been violently, quickly removed from the scene. I suppose the works' charm is their ability to turn these erasures into windows onto other worlds, some entirely fantastical. Especially in They Stop Looking at the Sky 1, in which the whited-out areas are covered with Islamic patterns in clean black lines, there is a cohesion to the image, an all over energy that knits it together despite being so roughly cut apart.

Sarah Cromarty
I wouldn't even mention this show except that it resonates formally with Kim's above. While I found Cromarty's extruded album covers -- amateurishly (but not in a good way) "extended" with cardboard into three-dimensions (a bit like pop-up books) -- distasteful in a visceral way -- can't even quite put it into words -- perhaps it's a combination of their cheesy 70s iconography (Neil Diamond, the Allman Brothers, the Carpenters) and the grodiness of glued cardboard and glitter. Perhaps grodiness is the point, but frankly, I don't understand why. Anyway, Cromarty also exhibited a selection of "vintage books" (might have been good to know their titles, then again, if it didn't matter to her...) that she opened to a photograph of a particularly iconic retro-detailed interior and then "carved" chunks out of along the lines of the interior's windows or doors or floor tiles so that other pages showed through. A similar tactic to, although less sophisticated than Kim's, letting us see the layers of time or experience compressed in a book. I like the violence of the work -- short circuiting the books' narrative sequences to emphasize their physicality -- the depth and texture of the pages becomes palpable in this excavated form -- but wished that the cutouts revealed more than just the sunset that serendipitously aligned with the window, or the suggestion of stars scratched out of a black endpaper.

Mario Ybarra, Jr.: "Bring me the Head of..."
Anna Helwing
I've recently become a fan of Ybarra's. He strikes me as just the kind of artist I most appreciate: subtly, yet incisively political, conceptually grounded, sincere, and yet, irreverent. This latest show doesn't disappoint. Ybarra gets right to it with Where My Dogs At? a pair of "his and hers" spiked leather dog collars on (very short) leashes embossed with "Ybarra" and "Helwing" respectively. Although a bit of a one-liner, it introduces a note of levity and parity into the artist/gallery relationship while acknowledging its undertones of ownership and control. Similarly, in Protest Flag, the finial on the pole of an American flag is a golden Mexican emblem instead of the usual eagle, a detail that would have gone unnoticed were it not for the exhibition list. This subtle blending of quintessentially American and Mexican tropes is Ybarra's hallmark, and a more accurate depiction of cultural collision and fusion than the usual "culture clash." In this vein, the most satisfying work in the show is a series of 20 drawings titled The Ballad of Chalino Sanchez, which tells the fragmented story of a Mexican American cowboy/gangster figure. Although rendered in a sketchy hand, the style of the drawings is reminiscent of racy Mexican comic books, and Sanchez is shown with gun in hand perpetrating a variety of outrageous crimes -- murders, drug deals, rape. But he's a singer, too -- we see him on stage (gun in pants), and on a (imagined?) record cover -- and also works as a dishwasher. Ybarra here blends stereotypes associated with Mexican Americans -- gangsters, entertainers, laborers -- into one grotesquely comic figure. Trading in the language of over-the-top caricature, the drawings deconstruct themselves, showing the stereotypes to be just as fictional, and comical (though hardly harmless) as Chalino Sanchez himself.

On the radar: Strange New World: Art and Design from Tijuana at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Sasha Bezzubov at Taylor De Cordoba, Matthew Pillsbury at M+B (look for my review in WiredNews next week).

2:39 PM

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Friday, January 12, 2007


Over my holiday vacation I ended up seeing both Mike Judge's Idiocracy, (the latest comedy from the maker of Office Space, Beavis and Butthead, and King of the Hill that was unceremoniously released in only a handful of cities without any promotion whatsoever) and Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a big-budget Oscar contender from the director of Y Tu Mama Tambien and the third Harry Potter. I say coincidentally, because although both films present dystopic, cautionary visions of the future, I didn't expect them to have anything in common, let alone much to say to one another, or rather, against one another.

COM is a serious film. It artfully and self-consciously deals with weighty issues -- reproduction (in the year 2027, no children have been born for 20 years), immigration, oppression, resistance, alterity, the future of humankind itself. On the surface, nothing could be further from Idiocracy, a broad farce by a master of lowbrow humor. But Idiocracy is also a very serious film. An average GI named (what else?) Joe and an unlucky hooker get cryogenically frozen in an army experiment only to wake up 500 years in the future to find that human intelligence has devolved so egregiously that they are now the two smartest people in the world. Mayhem and hilarity ensue, but not without a savagely funny depiction of an over-sexed, hyper-violent society where corporate domination is so complete, they water the crops with Gatorade.

Philosopher & cultural critic Slavoj Zizek (!) on COM's image of the future:

A good portrayal is more you than you are yourself. And I think this is what the film does with our reality. The changes that the film introduces do not point toward alternate reality, they simply make reality more what it already is. I think this is the true vocation of science fiction. Science fiction realism introduces a change that makes us see better. The nightmare that we are expecting is here.

[Read the full text.]

The same could be said about Idiocracy. In its vision of the future, the world is drowning in garbage, Starbucks lattes come with hand jobs, healthcare is dispensed like fast food, and everyone wears shiny, skintight clothing covered with corporate logos. Sound familiar? The nightmare is here.

Even more disturbing is the way in which the film portrays this dumbed down society. Everyone speaks a patois of ebonics, Valley Girl, and slacker-speak. The president of the U.S. is a large black man who dresses and acts like a professional wrestler -- James Brown on steroids with an AK-47. I can't think of a snootier vision: the devolved future belongs to subcultures, and boy are they dumb. While the film is undeniably funny -- perhaps it's just the uncomfortable laughter of recognition -- it also dismisses the radical potential of subcultures to resist or challenge the status quo. By suggesting that they are merely a symptom of the decline of American society, the film denies the hopeful (albeit sometimes kooky or downright destructive) options alternative cultures have always provided. Although Judge also lampoons childless yuppies in the film's opening sequence (their unwillingness or inability to reproduce are the reason that stupid folk have overrun the planet), he implies that traditional, mainstream forms of culture are the true and only form of American intelligence. While the dumbing down of American culture is irrefutable, and Idiocracy makes this point abundantly clear, it does so at the expense of many of the people who have elevated Judge's prior projects to cult status -- slackers and white trash and working stiffs. I couldn't help feeling that perhaps it wasn't only the heavy-handed portrayal of corporate evil-doing that prompted Fox to stifle the film's release, but the Cro-magnon portrayals of people who think, act, and talk like...well, like people we know, or have at least seen on reality TV. Perhaps its vision of "Uhhmerica" hits a little too close to home.

By contrast, in COM, subcultures are sites of resistance and the only hope for the future. In a UK obsessed with rooting out and deporting immigrants, a repressive, paranoid police state has arisen, resulting in huge, squalid refugee camps and an underground movement of activists and terrorists. (Sound familiar?) Among the latter, (warning: plot spoiler) a woman -- young and black, no less -- discovers she is pregnant, the first pregnancy in 20 years. The metaphor is obvious -- from the loins of the oppressed comes hope for the future. It's a very 60's-ish conceit, which Cuaron wisely references in his portrayal of the main character's father, a pot-growing hippie recluse living off the grid in a secret, sylvan hideaway. Yet rather then a retread of outdated politics, COM is, as Zizek suggests, extremely contemporary, a revitalization of 60s-style hope and humanism in the face of an even more hermetically sealed militarism and intolerance.

It's not surprising that such a vision -- through the smallest crack in the facade of global capital walks the least of us, humanity's savior -- should come from a Mexican director, whose previous tale of sex and death (Y Tu Mama) was also a quiet portrait of inequality and endemic poverty. And it's unfortunate, though not surprising either that Judge, a quintessentially American talent, should despair as he pokes fun. From his perspective, Cuaron looks naive -- the world's going to hell in a handbasket, so why not drink some more Gatorade? Why not? Because from the point of view of the underdog, there's still too much at stake.

3:22 PM

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Notes on sneakers 

I've been doing a little research into sneaker culture -- that subculture of collectors and fans loosely overlapped with skater and hip hop culture, mostly centered around permutations of the Nike Dunk -- and have been struck not only by the sheer number and creativity of sneaker designs, but by the ardor and devotion of the fans. People (almost always youngish men) line up overnight to pay hundreds of dollars for rare artist-designed limited editions, and spend hours online (here, and here, for example) documenting and ogling sneak peeks of future releases. The much-touted female fascination with Manolos or Choos pales in comparison.

To be sure, sneaker subculture smacks of otaku, the Japanese word that roughly translates as "nerd." Young men now collect sneakers with the same intensity with which they might have earlier collected comics or baseball cards or transforming, mutant robots. But unlike those obsessions, sneakers are fashion items. As clothing, they are more intimately tied to self presentation and identity. They're there, not just for the wearer, but for other people as well. As my husband has noted, signature sneakers are an easy way to jazz up your look without going metro (-sexual, that is). And wearing unusual shoes, as many a woman can attest, is a quiet way of saying you're unique.

I think the high demand for these "special" shoes is a response to the ever-increasing homogeneity of our cultural environment. With the ubiquity of online stores and the same chains selling the same merchandise in every mall in America (and abroad), unless you make your own clothes, buy vintage, or can afford custom designs, it's hard to differentiate yourself. These limited edition designer sneakers are the closest approximation of couture in our mass-produced world. They give their owners a sense of belonging to a small elite of cultural insiders, and most importantly, the impression that they are different.

And it's almost an authentic feeling. There's something nearly artisanal about the whole thing -- artists and celebrities design limited editions in much the same way as a printmaker or photographer. The phenomenon pushes mass production to approximate personalization, dividing and subdividing the differences between products -- sometimes it's only a color or insignia that differentiates a special edition from its widely available counterpart -- into thinner and thinner slices. (In the world of online retail, the concept of the "long tail" comes to mind -- the way in which a company like Netflix can afford to carry specialty movies because they increase the overall number of rentals and customers.) Certainly, the basic structure of the shoes remains the same. Each style -- Dunk, Jordan, whatever -- is a blank canvas for selected colors, patterns, and textures. It's a brilliant marketing scheme -- introducing barely perceptible differences as a way to sell what is essentially, structurally the same shoe over and over. But even though it's a classic example of aesthetics superseding use-value, it's also a way for people to express themselves within the logic of consumerism. And in a world where there's nothing else, that's better than nothing.

8:14 PM

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Apocalypse now (again) 

I know the 80s have been back for awhile, but can there be such a thing as Cold War nostalgia? Or perhaps it's not nostalgia, but renewed fear that accounts for anxieties over nuclear holocaust that have cropped up recently in our favorite alternate reality: TV. It's hard to think of a scarier scenario than the (very real) one that came to light these last few days: nuclear arms in the arms of Kim Jong Il. But two new dramas -- "Jericho" and "Heroes" -- both revolve around nuclear attacks on the U.S. Something's in the air, because the other day, flipping channels, I came across a re-broadcast of The Day After (1983), that momentous made-for-TV movie that envisioned an immediate post-nuclear future with a stark, heart-breaking realism intended to turn us all into anti-nuke activists.

I haven't seen "Jericho," but my first reaction to the "Heroes" premise was "Come on! Can't they think of a more original cataclysm than a nuclear blast in Manhattan?" As someone who came of age with the (real or imagined) daily threat of nuclear annihilation -- "War Games," "Mad Max" -- only to see the issue all but disappear (thankfully) from popular consciousness, these re-treads of the "end of the world" scenario feel lazy. What a conveniently extreme circumstance around which to create drama! But then I realize that we are once again in an anxious nuclear age, although both the game and the players have changed. Instead of a chess match between two superpowers, it's a Wild West free-for-all: much less predictable, much more frightening.

Yet, these new representations of nuclear holocaust for me don't hold nearly the horror and impact of that original broadcast of "The Day After." Perhaps that first reaction was just a function of being an impressionable teen. Or perhaps I still haven't re-awakened to the fact that in one instant, the world as I know it -- the physical, tangible world -- could be utterly decimated. Does it seem less horrific now because I'm jaded, or because it just (naively) feels impossible? Or perhaps the threat of nuclear holocaust has become such a regular presence in our world that it really is just another dramatic scenario.

9:56 PM

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