Friday, February 25, 2011

Alexa Hoyer and Walsh Hansen at The Laundromat

Of the exhibitions on view last week for Beat Night in Bushwick, a major highlight were the pieces of performance and video art made by Alexa Hoyer and Walsh Hansen. Hoyer had on view the written transcripts of a series of conversations she had heard on the subway:

Alexa Hoyer, Eavesdropping, 2010, partial written text.

These, in turn, were re-enacted on Friday and Saturday nights:

In the next room, Hansen had running a few videos, one of which consisted of a pair of lawn ornaments (a duck and a squirrel, with respective voice-over personifications) having a fairly serious late night chat about nuclear war and global politics. The works, curated by Kevin Andrew Curran, are both fun and funny, and were marked by a general sense of irony and humor.

Irony doesn't always play that friendly of a role in a gallery environment. An awful lot of the time, the high brow "joke" implicit in a work of art comes more from a place of quiet hostility than inclusiveness, more of a smirk than a smile. Pleasure is often sacrificed to make greater room for braininess. It is as if, rather than welcoming the viewer into an even field of silliness and play, a joke must point downward at the subject, institution, or viewer as an object of intellectual mockery.

Hoyer's and Hansen's works are special because they treat playfulness and whim as assets rather than  impediments to the high-minded engagement that so many contemporary artists strive for. The point of the joke isn't to separate the people who might "get it" from those who don't, but to draw the artist, performers, and viewers together to listen, observe, and, as a reward, laugh.
The Laundromat is at 70 Wyckoff Ave. Apt. 1J, Brooklyn, NY. Visiting hours are made by appointment via

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Duke Riley: Two Riparian Tales of Undoing

Magnan Metz Gallery is proud to announce Two Riparian Tales of Undoing, a solo exhibition of sculpture, video, collage, and installation work by Duke Riley. The show will be on view from February 26 – April 9 with an artist reception tomorrow, Friday, February 25th from 6-9pm.

This is Riley’s third solo exhibition with Magnan Metz. Viewers unfamiliar with Duke Riley's work might be interested in this video about ruckus he started when he was found floating around in the Hudson River in an antique submarine:

or the Roman-style mock naval battle he staged in Brooklyn two summers ago:

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mary Judge at Storefront

Several galleries in Bushwick will break from their regularly scheduled hours by being open this Friday, from 6-10. Among the galleries involved are Norte Maar, Famous Accountants, English Kills, Arch Collective, Centotto, Fortress to Solitude, Laundromat, Curbs and Stoops, and Storefront, whose exhibition of new works by Mary Page, Pop-Oculus, will be on view for only a couple more days. It's definitely worth a look.
Mary Judge, Pink Brush, 2011. Pigment and acrylic wash on canvas. 7 5/8 x 7 5/8.

While often compared to artists in the Modernist or Minimalist canon, Judge's soulful, delicate works in pigment have frequently looped in notions of primitivism. Her implementation of spolvero, a centuries-old technique wherein pigmented dust is sifted through small holes in paper or onto a hard stone surface, seems to reinforce this idea, and many of her works, after all, could be described as murals.

Mary Judge, Wall Painting, dry pigment. 11 feet (dimensions vary)
This last feature seems to put Judge close to many seminal figures in postminimalism. With Eva Hesse or Richard Tuttle, Judge has in common not only the practice of working  directly on walls, but also with imbuing modular, geometric shapes with the fallibility of a human hand and the nuanced effect of chance. The way powdered pigment falls just barely outside the contours of a few, sharp lines, one sees in these works of Judge's an effort to work out a few simple, formal ideas of proportion and harmony on the paper or wall and imbue the resulting shapes with a soft-spoken, meditative quality and an inescapable sense of intimacy and warmth.

Storefront Gallery is on 16 Wilson Ave., near the Morgan Ave. stop on the L train. Useful information about participating galleries that will be open late tomorrow is available here.


Rules by Reidsinger

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation

        If the goal of your work is to persuade--that is, to convince the viewer that your take on an issue of cultural or social concern is on the side of the good--then you're well on your way to making bad art. This isn't to suggest that all art or music that carries an explicit message about religion or politics is necessarily bad. In 1967, Martin Scorsese made a short film, "The Big Shave" (1967), and its moral evaluation of the Vietnam War was fairly straightforward. It's worth a look. People could deride Public Enemy's lyrics about poverty and race as preachy and unsophisticated, but that doesn't make their music not worth listening to. Scorsese and Chuck D have made work whose subject matter is explicitly political, and they've done it well. The difference, it seems, between their work and that of the artist or musician who tries (and fails) to make work with a "message" is the difference the artist who is trying to be an artist and the artist who is trying also to be an activist, or maybe a rhetorician.

        Whereas in art, ambiguity is welcome, in rhetoric, it is a cumbersome impediment. The most effective rhetoric engages with our thoughts and beliefs with the distinct goal of bringing someone from one point-of-view to another. The best kind of art engages with the thoughts and emotions that we paraconsciously attach to what our ears hear and our eyes see. In the real world, these thoughts and emotions are rarely simple, direct, or pure, and so it's mostly in bad art that they're depicted that way (see: Donald Hall, To Read Poetry, Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 1982). I've seen an awful lot of art that has presented itself as politically-themed (much of it made well before I was born), and most of it (particularly the kind with an explicit goal to persuade) has been mediocre. The artists I've met who hasten to emphasize the political aspects of their work have generally reinforced this perception.

        As a result, I've remained prejudiced against work that seeks to excel both as art and as activism. My prejudice has waned, however, since getting to know the work of Newton and Helen Meyer Harrison. A husband and wife who have been collaborating in the field of ecological art since the late 1960s, the Harrisons have sought to make works of art out of models of ecological change in places like the Sava River in the former Yugoslavia, or the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the Central Coast of California. These models are in turn documented (often over formidable stretches of time) in photography, video, verse, and computer animation.

        For virtually their entire careers, the Harrisons have been criticized either (1) for making works of art that would be more competently executed by a "real" environmental scientist or (2) proposing models of environmental activism that are made weaker by the intruding egotism of the museum, gallery, and artist (see: Stiles, Kristine. "Helen and Newton Harrison: Questions." Arts Magazine 52, no. 6, pp. 131-32 and Perrone, Jeff. "Review." Artforum, April, 1974. A concise bibliography for the Harrison's is available on the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts website. I still lament the lack of a footnoting feature on blogspot and encourage you to reread the last sentence if you've lost your train of thought). Indeed, the Harrisons would be harder to take seriously if they affected a greater expertise in the sciences than they really had, and notes of elitism do come through in their decision to display their work in a gallery or museum setting rather than, say, through television.

        This criticism, while altogether reasonable, seems to miss the point of what the Harrisons have been trying to do. By establishing models for ecological preservation and sustainability that many local and state governments have actually put into practice, they lend substantial credence to the notion that cultural figures deserve a seat at the table of environmental policy. While the "results" of the Harrisons work (photographs, maps, slide shows, etc.) are best displayed in a gallery or museum setting, it is only because their real product is (at the risk of sounding New Age-y) in the land. It has no fixed boundaries, no temporal limit, and no real way of being compartmentalized or packaged. I was downright delighted to hear a story of a collector who wanted to blow up one of the more picturesque photographs the Harrisons had used in one of their shows to place over his couch. They turned him down.

        Part of what An Adaptation does is indeed political and rhetorical. One walks away with the understanding that global warming will change the delicate ecological balance of places like the Sacramento San Joaquin Drain Basin forever, and that only through concerted, nuanced political action can we expect to meet those changes in a way that will incur minimal harm. The power of the Harrisons' work, however, doesn't really come from the purity or directness of this message, but from the delicacy and nuance with which they have described their subject. They have sought not so much to make art, as to tell a story. And they have excelled.

Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation will be on view at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts (31 Mercer St, New York, NY, 10013) until March 26th.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Drum

Sirens by The Drum

Jeremiah (a friend of mine) and Brandon (a friend of R. Kelly) are producing together now. Forming a new project, The Drum, they now join the illustrious company of Television and Health in the category of Bands That I Really Like But Who Are Hard to Google.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Elisabeth Munro Smith

Elisabeth Munro Smith, From here to there, 2010, Basswood, oriental bittersweet, cedar, masonite, acrylic paint

            Last Thursday, I was able to meet and speak with the sculptor Elisabeth Munro Smith, whose exhibition Going from Here to There: New Work about Landscape will be on view at AIR Gallery in DuMBO until February 27th. Smith's sculptures are similar to R. Justin Stewart's in that they are full of references to maps and map making. They are also similar in that they represent space, distance, and proximity in a very particular kind of abstraction.

            You might say that all maps (even those that don't present themselves as works of art) could be described this way. On one hand, what we rely on from maps is very similar to what we hope from paintings, drawings, and most of all photographs—that is, an ability to describe space and distance as they appear in nature. There is a certain satisfaction in representing the world as faithfully as possible that the craft of map making seems to embody. One is overcome with this sense of dedication to accuracy when looking at certain Dutch landscapes or still lifes from the Seventeenth century, and it's worth mentioning these when you consider that that particular "visual culture" held astronomy and map making in very high esteem (see: Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing, University of Chicago Press: 1983). When I was a little kid, when I first recognized the lines and shapes from a globe in what I could see in a photograph of the Earth taken from space, my first thought was, "Cool. A map looks just like that." We generally think of maps as  pieces of representational graphic art, meant to imitate nature passively and without distortion.

            There are, however, many instances in which maps are distorted quite intentionally. To make elevation sensible on the textured surface of a basketball-sized globe, the height of the Andes and Himalayas relative to the size of the Earth is exaggerated by a several degrees of magnitude. To make the Uptown-Downtown axis parallel to the North-South poles, the New York MTA reorients its subway maps about twenty degrees:

            This isn't the only way in which it might make sense to compare subway maps to certain map-oriented works of art. In addition to tilting the North-South orientation, the paths on subway maps are generally made bolder, straighter, and with fewer nuances and curves, all to make them simpler and easier to read.  Maps that display stops as a series of dots along a straight horizontal line take this schematization one step further, giving you all the information you really want, and ruling actual physical space almost out of intelligibility. A map of locations is virtually converted into a map of ideas.
            All of these adjustments are--for lack of a better way to describe them--abstractions, and while relative space is still relevant, it isn't really more important than the purposes of the viewer and the ideas the map maker is trying to convey. I hope I'm not selling short the work of Stewart, Smith, or Ben Joyce (or any other artist whose work engages with topography, for that matter) when I say that this is true for their work as well. As a craft, map making offers artists who are accustomed to working in abstract modes the opportunity to use skills that are usually geared towards mimetically representing nature. For artists who are interested in depicting proximity, distance, or direction (figuratively or otherwise), this can be very attractive.

Going from Here to There: New Work about Landscape is on view at A.I.R. Gallery (111 Front St, #228, Brooklyn, NY) from February 2 to February 27. The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 AM to 6 PM.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Helen Meyer and Newton Harrison: Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, pioneers of ecologically-oriented art whose proposals have often influenced long-term public policy planning, will exhibit a multi-media installation that addresses the effects of global warming on one of the world’s great mountain chains covering 28,000 square miles. The project, Sierra Nevada: An Adaptation, is commissioned by the Center for Art + Environment (CA+E) at the Nevada Museum of Art whose fifty-year commitment to the evolution of the work is unprecedented. This latest project is part of Force Majeure, a series that has evolved over the last five years in which the Harrisons propose ecological adaptation on a large-scale.

The exhibition features a forty-foot aerial image enhanced with drawing and text that rests on the floor, allowing the viewer to “walk” the mountain range. Wall panels of watershed maps and photographs express current and future ecosystems visually; text panels include narrative and Socratic questioning to encourage public discourse. Two animated projections contemplate contrasting futures over the next fifty years: a landscape that has been overgrazed and overcut with minimum intervention versus assisted migration of beneficial species with the object to regenerate top soil. The Harrisons place themselves on the side of the debate within the reclamation/restoration world that calls for human intervention, albeit not in all cases, rather than allowing nature to run its course.

Opening Reception: Thursday, February 10, 5-8PM, 31 Mercer Street, New York, NY 10013-2595.  From 5-6PM, there will be a preview and reception announcing the Nevada Museum of Art’s 2011 Art + Environment Conference speakers and program. Major sponsorship by the Wilhelm Hoppe Family Trust and the Elke Hoppe Youth Advancement Trust. Additional support provided by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts