Thursday, April 26, 2012

Keeping it moving

Charles Atlas, Painting by Numbers, 2011, video (Photo: Carol Diehl)

When I first saw the impressively wall-size Charles Atlas video installations at Luhring Augustine Bushwick (up through July 15th) I was excited. Animated abstraction—they could be paintings come to life. But unlike a good painting, where your interest grows the more you look at it (I’m thinking of my experience with the de Koonings at MoMA) these pieces, upon extended viewing, became more repetitious and tedious. How could that be? Video and film, just by being able to incorporate movement, should be more interesting than, say (for comparison, given the scale) a Sol LeWitt wall drawing. And it can happen: Nam June Paik, who started the whole video phenom, was a master of surprise. Christian Marclay’s film smorgsbords can keep you transfixed for, well, 24 hours.

But then not all that looks new, is new. On his Facebook page, British artist Alasdair Duncan, who I met when he was installing his exhibition at  Stephanie Theodore in Bushwick, posted examples of abstract animation that offer some historical perspective. Enjoy! And thank you, Alasdaire.

Len Lye, “Trade Tattoo,” 1932, made in association with the British General :
Post Office:

Len Lye, “Color Flight,” 1937, also made in association with the British General Post Office.

More Len Lye here and here.

John Whitney, “Catalog,”1961

John Whitney, “Matrix III,” 1972

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Life, death, and abstraction

At first I wasn’t going to write this post because it seemed too personal. But then I couldn’t justify the difference between reading my poetry to 150 people at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, as I used to, and putting it on the Web. Anyway, this came up because of the week-long kundalini yoga workshop I just finished at Kripalu, along with another 3-day course just a couple of weeks ago. I love kundalini because it works on energetic alignment as well as physical; when I do it, I feel as if I’m straightening out my brain.

In the workshop our teacher showed the TED video by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, describing her stroke and the experience of coming close to death (note: it’s inspiring, not depressing, otherwise I wouldn’t share it; I’m not into depressing).  I had a similar experience—without the stroke part—and hearing it so aptly described and close to my own, was startling. I’d also never heard right and left brain function defined precisely this way: that the right brain thinks in pictures and is about the collective, while the left brain is linear, wants to name things, and is concerned with establishing an individual sense of self. I used to owe it to my lack of formal higher education—and that could be part of it—but now I also understand that from going to the other side and coming back, where everything is new again, I developed the peculiar ability (which both helps and hinders me) to stand outside a thing or situation and see it without the names or the layers of meaning society has given it. I can still often look at humans and view them as an alien might coming across them for the first time—and believe me, compared to other animals (I think it’s the lack of body hair with the thatch on top), they ‘re completely weird and funky-looking.

I also realize now why I’m so ardent about letting art speak for itself, about allowing for the possibility of emotional response rather than always having to define it or give information that makes it seem rational. This is why I rail against the museum wall texts and idiotic artist’s statements that become the lenses through which art is viewed. Art, like music, is a language without words, and the way it invokes sensation is mysterious and inscrutable. I’ve chosen to be an abstract artist because it’s an investigation into making something that’s essentially unknowable, where the possibilities of interpretation are boundless.

But then I’m also a writer, which gives the lie to it all, as I go about creating defined situations in order to promote undefined ones. Life is a paradox.


They say write about what you know
Well I know
about death

I have felt death’s
icy numbness
creeping up my legs
toward my heart

I have seen faces
hovering over me
as I am pumped full
of the
of strangers

I have felt my body
into a pillar of

Don’t scream, the doctor said

I have wished for death and prayed for life
to a god I didn’t believe in
but promised
I would
If I lived

I have known an aloneness beyond description
before descending
into unpeopled blackness

And I have wakened
to the cruel bright whiteness
of a recovery room

too loud, too alive
with voices
the clatter of metal against metal

My husband, noting I am conscious
fills me in on current events
He and Willy had been talking about it
In the car on the way to the hospital
and now he is giving me
an update

And I’m feeling guilty
because I’m alive
and I don’t believe
in God

After two weeks I go home
everything is strange
I feel like an immigrant
newly arrived
who happens to speak the language
but doesn’t know the customs
and no one I meet
has been where I’m from

So now I know about death
but I’m no longer afraid
I believe in a god
And I’m not married anymore.

Copyright © 1994, Carol Diehl

Carol Diehl, Alexandra, 2011, pastel and pencil on board, 9' x 12".

Monday, April 9, 2012

Kehinde Wiley: Sell-out or provocateur?

I just finished writing my review for Art in America of the Kehinde Wiley exhibition at the Jewish Museum, The World Stage: Israel  (to be published sometime during the run of the show, which is on through July 29th).  I’ve been interested in Wiley’s work for some time, and in 2008, commissioned from him a portrait of Obama for the cover of TIME which, sadly, never ran.
However what I love about this exhibition is the totality of the experience: the paintings in the context of Wiley’s selection of examples of antique papercuts and textiles from the museum’s collection, and the grand, historic Fifth Avenue mansion that houses it. I began to think about how frustrated I’ve become with the white-box gallery format, so sterile and one-dimensional it rarely shows art to advantage—like staging a fashion show in a hospital. However, uncharacteristically, I don’t have an answer to the problem. Most “designed” museum exhibitions are even worse.  Like Jorge Pardo’s installation of Pre-Columbian art at LACMA, they always seem to be in competition with the art they’re showcasing. The Tod Williams and Billy Tsien design for the 2008 Louise Nevelson show, again at the Jewish Museum, stands out as the best I’ve seen. Probably I’ve never gotten over seeing a stunning Pop Art show, many years ago, in the baroque multi-balconied atrium of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (including a 20-foot high Warhol Mao), where the contrast and interplay of old and new showed both to exciting advantage. That’s what happens here as Wiley’s hip-hop sensibility is set off against the cased antiques and the wood-paneled opulence of the museum’s interior.

Photos: Bradford Robotham/The Jewish Museum.

Doing my research I read “The Diaspora is Remixed,” Martha Schwendener’s review in The New York Times. As I remember, she’s written other pieces that didn’t raise my hackles (or you would have heard about it!). This one, however, is marked with surprising vitriol, as if there’s a subtext we’re not getting.
….the show raises some difficult questions. For instance, what is the position of the Ethiopian Jew in Israeli society? The gallery installation gives the impression of Jewish culture as a seamless visual narrative, slipping faultlessly from old Europe to modern-day Tel Aviv. It also posits, particularly in a video accompanying the paintings, Israel as a haven for persecuted Ethiopian Jews.

First, I question if it’s fair to critique an artist on the basis of the success or failure of his presumed intention, rather than on the work itself. Secondly, what is it about the “gallery installation” that gives the impression of Jewish culture as a seamless visual narrative? The fact that Wiley’s paintings are shown alongside works from the museum’s collection? If that’s what Schwendener is referring to, my understanding is that the antique objects are part of the exhibition because Wiley was inspired by such patterns and it provided an unusual opportunity for the museum to display them. To see it as an attempt to rewrite history is a stretch worthy of Fox News.

Also, in the video where Wiley’s subjects talk about their lives in Israel, it’s about not being fully accepted. As for Israel being a “haven,” maybe it is, all things being relative. Perhaps being discriminated against is better than being persecuted.  

By not mentioning the others, Schwendener gives the impression that Wiley has focused solely on Ethiopian Jews, when they’re only a third of his subjects. The rest are dark-skinned native-born Israelis and Arab Israelis—who, no one can say, have had an easy time of it. On the hand-carved frames Wiley designed for the Arab Israelis, inscribed in Hebrew, is Rodney King’s famous cry, “Why can’t we all get along?” The point made in the video is that hip-hop and reggae have brought these spurned groups together; the music scene is the “haven” where all are accepted.

Another question is why Mr. Wiley’s work focuses solely on young men, when many of the textiles on view were made by women, and, as the catalog informs us, one of the best-known Israelis of Ethiopian descent is a female singer named Hagit Yaso, who won last year’s edition of an Israeli show similar to “American Idol.”

My answer to that, which is the only answer to why any artist does anything, is because he wants to.  Why didn’t de Kooning paint men? Because he didn’t want to. (Has anyone even asked that question?) Are we obligated to be equal-opportunity artists, presenting society as society would prefer? However if it must be discussed, Wiley has explained that his initial impulse came from having seen, in his childhood, portraits in museums of men who didn’t look like him—which could have little to do with painting women, regardless of the fact that….

Part of the answer is that Mr. Wiley has generally painted preening young men, and there is a strong homoerotic element in his work that is glossed over here.
Gasp, Wiley is gay! I don’t know who’s glossing it over, since he’s hardly in the closet. Is it mandatory to discuss in depth an artist’s sexual orientation at every turn?  (Or rather a “gay” artist’s orientation, since the same does not apply to straight artists.) Should the Jewish Museum, in their promotional material, be faulted for not making a bigger deal of it?
And finally….
Just as music critics have complained of hip-hop’s becoming a corporatized global commodity, Mr. Wiley can be accused of using it to neutralize differences and difficulties….And it is those very difficulties that we rely on art to broach.
[This when, a few paragraphs back, she writes, “the show raises some difficult questions.”]
Regardless, I never thought art had a responsibility (to whom?) to broach differences and difficulties. (I’m becoming more and more grateful that I’m an abstract painter.) Further, by highlighting the “disenfranchised” (Schwendener’s word, BTW) in a way that enables them to be seen and empowered as individuals, it would seem Wiley is doing just that. It’s not Wiley who is somehow using hip-hop to “neutralize”—i.e. make it seem as if differences don’t exist. His work celebrates a vibrant global community that does not recognize racial distinctions thereby, quite literally, neutralizing the differences—which can only be a good thing.
Everything Schwendener criticizes Wiley for avoiding, he seems to have provoked her into discussing. In other words, his art has made her think about and explore the very issues she is critiquing him for lacking—by her own criteria, Wiley has succeeded!
It seems that unless black artists approach their subject matter in a thoroughly predictable, heavy-handed and didactic manner, they’re not doing their job, are not “political” enough—and apparently poor Wiley has the double burden of not being gay enough either.
A gay black artist—especially one who gets involved with anything having to do with Israel—just can’t do anything right.
Note: The rumor that Wiley himself does not actually paint his paintings, that they’re farmed out to workers in China, is perpetuated by Schwendener when she says that they look “factory-produced.” In the interest of thoroughness, I called his gallery, who told me that although Wiley does, like many artists, have assistants who may help with the intricate backgrounds, but he alone is responsible for the central figures. Not that I care, one way or the other. They are beautifully painted and the marginally mass-produced look relates to the intention, like images on postage stamps, posters depicting African potentates—or covers of TIME Magazine. More about his process here.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Draw it with your eyes closed....

My first thought was, this is all about teachers showing off.

You’d never catch me giving assignments like these, because I believe that the most important ingredient in any successful endeavor is INTEREST, and I’ve discovered that students are most interested in what they make up themselves. Therefore if such a thing were to occur in a class of mine, it would be because I encouraged the students to make up the assignments (why waste another opportunity to engage creativity?) and decide among themselves which to pursue.

While entertaining to read, none of the assignments made me want to stop what I was doing and try them—so, were I the student, my demonstration of “freedom and risk-taking” would be not to do them. Also, while they might have been of use in the 70s, in the current climate, where “cool” and wacky ideas are routinely used to bolster insubstantial art, I fear they could send the wrong message. I asked three friends (two teachers and one student) to comment:

Matt Freedman (Penn): It's funny how fast that review went viral. Touched a nerve I guess.  Even before it ran my friend Cathy in Paris sent me the link. Then Friday morning I was having a studio visit and the visitor brought it up, noting that the "make all your clothes into art" assignment would be most unfortunate if you were wearing an outfit you really liked. My initial reaction was like yours, teachers showing off—art school as performance piece. On the other hand, the list of contributing artists contains some really good people and several great teachers I’ve worked with myself, so the project deserves some default respect on sheer talent alone.  Also, I have some skin in the game, since the graduate drawing seminar I teach tiptoes close to assignments that verge on the utterly conceptual. Not to mention that I've always loved the Thek list and used it a lot. Two things, though.  First, as my mother the kindergarten teacher points out, it’s control of the classroom, whether for six-year-olds or grad students, which determines whether learning happens or not. In that sense, the idea of the “school-in-the-book,” though appealing, is the problem, if it suggests just another shortcut to something…let’s call it, for our own amusement “enlightened art making.”  I’ve seen seemingly dopey assignments yield wonderful work and great breakthroughs, and conceptually tight, innovative assignments produce boring, conservative responses. The difference (besides dumb luck!) is how the class is run, and also what particular thing turns the student onto something new.  Breakthroughs usually happen not because of an assignment, but when teacher and student line up perfectly for a moment and something useful is communicated between them.  In Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century, a number of artists comment on their best learning moments. They were all, as I recall, about those passing watershed moments as opposed to the assignments they were given. Those I remember working best for me:  an undergraduate TA in a life drawing class showing me how to move my arm loosely, an ancient professor getting down on his hands and knees and cutting out a piece of his office carpeting for me to use in a (failed) casting experiment.  Both events were notably non-intellectual demonstrations of freedom and risk taking. It's a coercive and hierarchical environment, art school, in which we try to teach the very opposite.  The paradox is the problem, the challenge, the game and the reward. More to the point, the best assignments, when you do offer them, offer solvable but challenging problems that are geared toward the student, rather than depersonalized demonstrations of the creativity, progressive thinking and/or sheer cleverness of the teacher. That said, perhaps taking off all my clothes in the middle of my graduate studio would have been a great liberating experience that would have accelerated my development by ten years, or at least ramped up my social life for a moment.  

Mike Glier (Williams): Most of the assignments listed here develop creativity by encouraging students to challenge convention and engage in divergent thinking, and are useful for beginning classes in which students are reluctant to take risks. They’re fun and help to bring a world of possibilities into the classroom. But an equally important part of teaching art is the discussion of the artwork after it is made. Here, critical skills are developed through some very old-fashioned methods, like learning to observe closely, acquiring the language of visual analysis, memorizing the history of art, reading and applying theory, composing logical arguments and perfecting the art of oral presentation. First-rate art education supports invention by inviting the unexpected, the inchoate and the improbable into the tank, but once these slippery, silvery things enter, they’re held in a net of observation, contemplation and analysis to be sorted, then cooked, assembled, garnished and presented with a dash of confidence and a drizzle of doubt. 

Nikolas Freberg (Cooper Union): Generally when I'm assigned prompts as a student, such as the ones mentioned in the article, my first inclination is to jump off the nearest high building. Usually I stop myself because I know that the 4-hour-long critique of my dead body would be way too ironic and obvious in an art school setting where students seem to think that their lives depend upon a project that took the whole of 2 weeks to complete.  Assignments like those mentioned in the article are basically what drive any "conceptually-oriented" art school, the result being that you get ONE kind of student who just happens to be even more irreverent than the prompt itself and may actually succeed in, say, designing an enclosure for Robin Williams made out of Q-tips, and everyone gets a brief moment of "isn't that clever" and then you go get coffee. The reality is that said student doesn't even want to be an artist, thinks that any form of drawing or painting is too obvious, and will probably end up working in construction when their "noise" band fails to go viral.

Keith Haring, Untitled (Exploding Head), 1983