I know, I know.

I should be writing about an artist I don’t really care for or agree with because that would make for an interesting piece of art writing but this is an art diary (of sorts) and, well, I can write what I want (for now)! I’m sure my writing will go into varying directions in the next month or so with a studio class on the horizon. I digress (per usual). For those that know me well, I preface (quite a bit) but I did that (yet again) because I constantly write about artists that inspire and move me.

Ellen Gallagher being one of those artists. Being a fan of Art 21, I found myself engaged by her work. The ability to take imagery and appropriate it in a repetitious fashion but making all iterations worthy of a look amazes and excites me. A great example of her collaborative work is the ‘DeLuxe’ Prints series. She adds to an image of Isaac Hayes in such a way that the viewer is forced to re-imagine a narrative. Her re-telling of a history through painting over what is there, magically, uncovers what has long been concealed. Think of that contradiction? Covering up to uncover. Re-appropriating to make appropriate, inevitably be re-appropriated and re-configured in the viewers mind. Gallagher works wonders. I guess I wrote about her because I’m hoping to do some of my own magic in this upcoming studio art class. We shall see!

Learn more about Ellen Gallagher here

Some time ago, I was introduced to the work of Sonya Clark. It encapsulates the truth, which resides in our bodies. Hair, for example, contains information about our biology that we often neglect or forget. Our predispositions, if you believe they exist are engrained in every part of the body. Clark explores hair in such a way that brings her understanding and experiences to everyone (not just African-American men and women). One of the many reasons I love Clark’s work is in large part due to use of the body and the tools we use to maintain our bodies. The Combs Series evokes how something so simple and trivial can reflect complexities and intricacies of beauty and self-care. Clark’s utilization of simple materials to create visual complexity contrasts how combs are often seen as cheap, plastic, low quality tools used simply to groom unruliness.

Clark notes on her site, when talking about her projects entailing use of human hair,

“Deep with each strand, the vestiges of our roots resound. In this work hair is formed into markers of chronology, wisdom, and adornment”.

Much of her work resonates with me because in the past few years, I’ve had probably close to a dozen different hairstyles in the past couple of years. Co-workers even rumored that I had shaved my head, which is far from the truth. I merely had an extremely short pixie hairstyle someone misspoke and interpreted as a shaved head. In any case, it dawned on me the importance people hold on hair and beauty. Some women allow such an external characteristic to define their femininity. Yet, Clark doesn’t (only) re-make and re-interpret her body to create beautiful pieces of sculptural work. She believes in showcasing how the body itself can serve as a medium. She profoundly sculpts the truth in our bodies within her work.

Please visit her site here

Another (recent) short paper I wrote on artist, Fernando Botero, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

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One of the fundamental lessons in drawing class entailed drawing untold numbers of fruit, boxes and bags.  The exercises were required to instill the importance of actually depicting what existed in reality versus what the mind believes or thinks exists.  I was often reminded that we first see everything the wrong way and that it is our brain that turns everything right side up.  Understandably so, as the world and human cognitive processes evolve, ways of governing ourselves and let’s not forget the ways in which we’ve created social and gender constructs to function in the world and society at large; we often forget to try and understand a photographic depiction.  We take it for what it is.  From finding a photograph aesthetically pleasing to a sense of repulsion, there are instantaneous reactions.  It’s the closest depiction of reality and how we physically see something.  Yet, with post modern nuances of art entailing a conceptual and performative slant, it should not be forgotten the effectiveness of painting.  I would like to ask the reader to combine the tenets of philosophy and art to re-contextualize the way in which painting, in contemporary times, can offer a much more powerful way of understanding politics and how it coveys philosophical concepts in such a way language is unable to capture.  From Botero’s classical painting techniques, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to navigate biopolitics (as Foucault has coined), social constructs and ideology through the canvas.

Reading through Eduardo Mendieta’s paper entitled, Moral Optics, my interest was piqued in how philosophy and art are combined.  We see this convergence in post modern thought and art practice.  He discusses Foucault’s Biopolitics and its relationship to seeing as correlated to biopolitics and biopower.  From this, the reader gains a broader understanding of how Botero’s paintings take the imagery of Abu Ghraib produced by photography and brings the seeing to an inevitable understanding of torture through re-contextualization via painting.  Mendieta inculcates the reader to re-examine and learn new ways of seeing Foucault’s archeological dives into the human condition through histories of sexuality and power, which is integral to the current discussion yet for the scope of this writing, the points most correlated will be highlighted.  In his reflection of Foucault’s look at politics and power, I find myself most concerned with the following:

This new form of political power, or biopower, has evolved along two axes. Along one axis, it has developed a series of disciplinary technologies that come to bear upon the body as a machine. These technologies conform an anatomopolitics that aims to optimize the capabilities of the body by rendering it more docile and pliable to be inserted within systems of economic and political control and efficiency. Along the other axes, the body is treated not singularly but as part of a spe- cies, a genera, whose basis is entirely biological and organic. Here the body is seen as part of a system of life processes: birth, mortality, health, life expectancy, and anything that increases or decreases any of these. The body is seen as an instance of a species falls under the regulatory controls that conform a biopolitics of populations (Mendieta, 6).

First, understanding that there is a way in which a viewer perceives their own body within a culture, a society of bodies, is crucial.  If we were to examine Botero’s painting from a philosophical standpoint.  There is an act of knowing and acknowledgement that must occur prior to engaging in Botero’s work.  With the base knowledge of the body being part of a larger system, the body and mind become part of a larger system of symbiotic relationships.  Exploration of those power relationships that Foucault is so well known for is all the power relevant in political and contemporary art.  The contemporary art museum and gallery patrons can see this with the advent of specific types of museum and gallery collections (ie., Museum of African Diaspora, alternative art spaces to reach and represent various under represented minority groups, etc.).  With many various groups in the arts and although a completely different discussion, I felt compelled to start with a specific way in which to view post modern (contemporary) painting from this lens.

One of the reasons Botero’s paintings are extremely effective is due to a certain level of detachment the viewer experiences at first glance.  There is a stage of processing that occurs which does not necessarily seem to be present in photography.  Since photography is the closest depiction of reality, painting offers a graduation in perception and comprehension.  As I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, when one learns how to draw and paint for the first time, there are various techniques incorporated into the teaching that force the student to view only the shapes, lines and form of the object.  One of the methods, from my experience, includes looking at an actual photograph upside down to relieve the mind and brain of affixing a meaning.  In a way, this is what Botero’s paintings allow the viewer to do.  Mendieta explains several ways in which one can view the art works claiming that:

On the one hand, fatness stands in his paintings for the excesses of the privileged classes, which more often than not are ridiculed, scorned, and demoted. The haughty expressions, the ornate dresses, the regal accoutrements, the imperial posturing, are all neutralized and deflated by the heaviness of unbridled and undisciplined bodies. On the other hand, this very same abundant, solid, cherubic and baby-like fatness can be read as a form of humanization. What from an angle can be seen as an anxiety, from another angle, provided within the paintings themselves, allows us to see a vulnerable subject. Against a bourgeois, imperial, sovereign subject –Cartesian, Kan- tian, but most exactly, against the Cortésian and Pizarronian subject—Botero juxtaposes the cor- poreality of the flesh that is undisciplined and undisciplinable. We are irreducibly creatures of bod- ies that hunger and can die both of starvation or gluttony. Our flesh thus is always a source of a profound unease, for it can betray us to the same degree that it is what makes us vulnerable to another’s violence (Mendieta, 8).

The very fact that Botero’s paintings bring up quite a dichotomous way of seeing and thinking in terms of how we place ourselves in time and space is what makes painting such a relevant art form in contemporary times, if and only if the painter makes the wise decision of provoking the viewer into that stage of detachment to see what is actually there and what ought to be understood.  Comprehending in such a way that questions acts of violence and torture through an understanding of the body is only possible if the painter creates something that we cannot easily place meaning upon.  In many ways, showing us what we think we know in an unparalleled and unconventional way.

Overall, the framing of the subject and the artist outside the frame is integral in understanding Botero’s work.  As Mendieta points out with meditations on photography, painting has the ability to recontextualize systemic issues for the viewer that lead to a greater, deeper understanding of social, cultural ills.  In Botero’s case, specifically, painting offers a multifaceted perspective on the biopolitics of torture.  Mendieta asserts:

Painting has re-claimed its sovereignty over the field of representation and perception. Susan Sontag wrote, “photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself”…Painting, after the age of the mechanical reproducibility of chemically produced perceptual equivalences, teaches us that seeing itself is a way, a framing (Mendieta, 2).

Work Cited

Mendieta, Eduardo.  Moral Optics: Biopolitics, Torture and the Imperial Gaze of War Photography.  Stony Brook University, New York.  2009.

Although I haven’t seen Kathrine Worel’s piece, Rocking Horse Winner (2005) in some time, it’s unforgettable. In Fall 2008, I had the good fortune of spending one of the most lovely and enchanting evenings with the artist.

Rocking Horse Winner (taxidermy horse, tack, wood and rug 6ft high, 14ft long and 3ft wide), 2005

Worel’s assertion that the horse serves as a ‘simulacrum of memory’ is a perfect description of my experience with the work.  She provides the observer with a fondness for something they may have never experienced.  The piece itself is grand and majestic.  As you get closer, there is a growing sense of tension, an unnerving and unfolding of the past and all its imperfection.  This is captured in her deliberate attempt to keep the mottled spots of hair and apparent aged look of an already decrepid horse.  The saddle was once used by Worel when she was young. It is placed neatly on the horse as if it were waiting for a lucky rider.

Of course, upon meeting any talented artist, it’s inevitable to ask what piqued their interest in creating a particular art work. She mentioned the short story, Rocking Horse Winner by D.H. Lawrence and I immediately went home, pulled up the story and read it. I read it twice. From my recollection, it sparked an interest in what people hold dear and how one can believe that their actions can determine an outcome. All this from a taxidermied horse? Yes, folks. Although an MFA piece, it gives me goosebumps and in the best way. One may see it as a bit abject yet a paradox of statements ensues with the viewer (like/don’t like, ugly/beautiful, strange/familiar, etc.). A mere picture won’t do it justice, this is certain. I would love to write something more extensively about Rocking Horse Winner since it is both intriguing and captures the essence of juvenile fascination with the imagination in an adult world.

Original posting: 24 Aug 2010 / Revised: 11 March 2011

A (recent) short paper I wrote on conceptual artist, Sophie Calle, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

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There’s nothing overly theatrical about Sophie Calle’s work yet the response seems to illicit overwhelming feelings and emotions from the viewer.  From the documentation of sleepers to a man’s description of his life through the experiences of his colleagues, friends and family, Calle’s work emphasizes the absence of the artists to create portraits and capture universal ideas of contemporary life.  However, many people may beg to differ on her observations and speculation of peoples’ lives as a way to create something similar to what the paparazzi does with celebrity life.  Yet, she doesn’t glamorize and she is unapologetic in her creation of these individuals.  Strangely enough, she is mirroring back what is already there just not through the eyes of the subject.  They do that themselves.  Calle’s work, strangely, offers a therapeutic side effect as stated in an article in the UK newspaper, The Guardian:

“Exquisite Pain (2003) was prompted by her then lover’s failure to meet her in New Delhi. On each day of her journey there, she had taken a photograph and written how she was looking forward to seeing him. This became a book, which also included other people’s worst memories – a woman who had given birth to a dead child, a boy hearing his father had died.  Their stories did have a side effect: they made my pain manageable”.

Calle’s work serves as an example that post modern art involves the viewer within a much more voyeuristic perspective while eliminating herself from the artwork and examines the human condition, identity and intimacy.

Throughout Calle’s work, there is a strong sense of detachment between the art and the artist.  Calle presents her work in such a way that there is a definite detachment between the art and the artist.  She depicts this best in her work entitled, The Sleepers (1979).  Detachment from the subject matter allows her work to take on the distance necessary to capture facts necessary for the viewer to form emotions and/or thoughts.  In the sciences, we see the necessity to detach the clinician from the patient, the subject to come to conclusions about disease states and reach some hypothesis that brings the researcher to some idea of standard of care.  To some degree, this is what Calle’s work tries to show the viewer.  That her experiments necessitate a distance for the observer to piece together the connections between the relationship of the artist to her subject in their minds.  To have the viewer engage in the way that Calle was unable to do so.  To show a rift of some sorts.  Weintraub states,

Calle exposes the causes and symptoms of today’s soullessness by identifying various profes sions that serve as proxies for personal relationships.  For instance, psychologists plumb meticu lously preserving “professional distance”.  Memories, motives, passions, fears, and obsessions are ferretted out utilizing the dispassionate tools of science and cognition.  In her best-known work, Calle dramatizes how psychological research has replaced love and affection as the means to access intimate aspects of personality (Weintraub, 66).

Aside from emotional detachment, Calle presents her observations as findings through the most minimal of aesthetics in this particular work.  It has been observed that the camera is her uncongenial tool that she uses to exploit its intrusive lens and accedes to its mechanistic anonymity.  Through it, she formalizes her role as an observer, not a friend or a lover, of her bedroom partners (Weintraub, 67).  As I viewed photographs of The Sleepers (1979), my first impression was a strange sense of intimacy even though the pictures were in black and white and followed one right after the other within columns and rows.  I wanted to know the stories of each person and to be included, somehow, in the room as well.  The minimalist look and feel of the photography provoked me to imagine the relationships Calle may have, inadvertently,  formed through this work.  Even though she separated herself and is showing and telling of the participants, the permanence created within the documentation achieves what Calle was wanting from the viewer – to show the effect of detachment and the ambivalence it creates.  The viewer is unintentionally drawn into an intimate moment that has been made public and to have the viewer create what they will.

Detachment is crucial, Calle creates an unusual dynamic where voyeurism and scrutiny of the subject play an integral role in our desire to know what is unknown.  In the work, Suite Venitienne (1980), Calle follows a man to clandestinely capture a portrait based strictly on his daily activities in the hopes of an adventure or drama.  Classified work, espionage and intrigue pique our collective interest.  From film noir to horror films, individuals seem to seek that which thrills them and excites the senses.  Yet, it’s not common practice to follow people around to see if anything interesting comes to fruition.  Frankly, we leave this activity up to detectives or conceptual artists like Calle.  In Suite, Calle equips herself with the detective paraphernalia of a Grade-B movie and embarks on a thirteen-day escapade that mimicked a romantic melodrama but was devoid of its most essential ingredient-passion (Weintraub, 68).  Only every now and again does one stumble upon something on the street or walking through an empty corridor and serendipitously find something unique (i.e., a receipt, a movie stub, or a note) that we can fathom of a life other than our own.  That is what most of us do from childhood into adulthood.  We imagine when we’re young and as we age, we still imagine.  Yet, what we imagine is usually derived from our own neuroses and inclination to compare and contrast our lives.  Weintraub claims, “The narrative reverberates with the ache of a loveless life.  It is a reminder that the only romantic adventure in many people’s lives is contrived.  Suite Venitienne is an artistic fabrication, but it tells the true story of people whose erotic sensations depend on fantasy (Weintraub, 68).

Although entertaining to some degree, Calle also shows that identity is dichotomous because it is both private and public.  Personal information becomes public for specification and nominal purposes.  Yet, when is it permissible to utilize an identity for the sake of creating art?  Calle oversteps the boundaries and limitations of real world situations to create art work for the masses in such a way that is not too dissimilar to what celebrity writers and inquisitors have been doing for ages.  The only difference is that Calle asks the art world to examine through a different lens, universal ideas of social constructs through self-eradication (as Weintraub titles her essay on Calle’s work).  This dual nature of identity must be seen as a voyeur and she sets this up perfectly through The Notebook Man (1983).  She takes the liberty of creating an investigative report out of a found object – an address book.

Interviewing and photographing the individuals listed in Pierre D.’s address book, Calle gathered information about his professional, social, and personal life.  The results comprise an artwork that took the form of thirty installments published in the Paris daily newspaper between August and September 1983.  The newspaper setting escalated the power of this intrusion.  Art may be a fic tion, but newspaper reports are assumed to be factual (Weintraub, 69).

The use of a an address book and other people’s accounts of an individual to create a portrait and summation of an individual other than the individual themselves is what Calle tries to show may actually be the truth.  Maybe, her ability to investigate the notion of a self through others is meant to show how self-reflective others perceptions may truly be.  This is prevalent in most contemporary art.  The idea that the process and the actual searching and finding of the subject is much more interesting than a final product.  In showing us the personal and intimate moments of a stranger (even herself), Calle shows something universal, our ultimate solitary existence with the compulsion to be interconnected.  Yet, with all the trappings of modern technology, her older still remains relevant in our own examination of how we place ourselves within a community, a culture and within the global landscape.  As one reads in Weintraub’s conclusion of Sophie Calle’s work,

Today’s workplace and home life often deprive people of opportunities for human interaction.  Surveys report that social disintegration is rampant.  Community bonds are rarely established because we move frequently.  Our network of acquaintances is dominated by work, not family.  Single-person households proliferate.  Home is often a refuge from danger and not a center of congenial social exchange.  Televisions supply mealtime conversation.  Hallmark cards express our intimate communications.  The computer, bureaucracy, and the media impersonalize life.  We can dial for shrinks, sex, jokes, and horoscopes.  These are some of the causes.  Sophie Calle documents their effects (Weintraub, 70).

Works Cited

Weintraub, Linda.  Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary Society 1970s-1990s.  Litchfield, CT: Art’s Insights, Inc., Publishers, 1996.

Wikipedia entry for Sophie Calle

UK Guardian Article, Sophie Calle: Stalker, Stripper, Sleeper, Spy

Reference and brief description of The Sleepers on Art We Love

The virtually untraceable art collective HUSH has done an excellent job at creating work that is fugitive and fleeting. Contemporary art increasingly entails questioning aspects of consumerism, commoditization, and the prevailing system of values over creating something for our eyes to gaze upon. HUSH’s work—a hybrid of activism and criminal activity—provokes us to see all the aforementioned within a legal construct, yet through an artistic lens. Politics and law serve as their ready-mades. They command our intellect be involved when examining their work and to react with a critical eye.

The surreptitious nature of their art heightens its value without much effort on their part. Based on the economic model of supply and demand, HUSH’s work is priceless. Not only is it unfeasible to sell the output of what they produce, the group takes it a step further and manages to catapult any documentation of their work. It becomes irretrievable and irreproducible.

In reminding us that art does not have to become a commodity, HUSH also calls into question the necessity for a maker. Is identification necessary? Should the public or HUSH followers know these renegade, almost vigilante, artists? I say no. The only individuals who should be privy to their identities are the collaborators themselves. This enigmatic nature makes their work all the more potent and proves a serious challenge to the art world. In some ways, their effective anonymity could herald the demise of the concept of the artist. Yet, I’m sure with their continued efforts to create incendiary work that provokes and thrusts its way into our visual landscapes, they must continue to stay apparitions.

Paradoxically, there is safety for these artists living and working outside the boundaries of the art world. Their activities seem to show us that we are not as free as we would like to think. I’d like to imagine that this clever art collective sits and connives atop some constructed Bentham panopticon, keeping watch.

Originally published to Art Practical for Shotgun Reviews April 2010