Wednesday, March 23, 2011

art tribes, old and new

Thanks to a ruling by U.S. District judge Deborah Batts, photographer Patrick Cariou will soon be in possession of a bunch of Richard Prince’s paintings and exhibition catalogs. Prince’s 2008 show, Canal Zone, borrowed heavily from Cariou’s 2000 photo book, Yes, Rasta; Cariou sued; and Batts ultimately deemed those borrowings fell outside of what can be considered fair use.

A further bizarre twist: Anyone who happened to buy pieces from that Gagosian show (the gallery sold eight pieces to the tune of about ten and a half million dollars) is now forbidden from showing the work. Guess I'll just have to leave my own million dollar Prince piece in the crate, then.

Read all about the decision

Reactions have been all over the spectrum. A lot of painters and photographers I know personally have been gleefully stamping their feet, decrying Prince’s laziness as a producer, and questioning the ways appropriation and recontextualization have become accepted practice in gallery culture.

Me, I’m a fan of fair use, and however ambivalent I might be about Prince’s methods in this show in particular—he apparently requested multiple copies of Yes, Rasta from Cariou’s studio without declaring his intent, and went on to use 35 photos in some 28 paintings total—the ruling threatens to turn contemporary art on its head, and will, if it stands, certainly change the way some galleries decide what to show.
Greg Allen explains why:

In a series of truly amazing statements, the most shocking is Batt's cursory finding that Prince, Gagosian, and the gallery all acted in bad faith by not proactively pursuing permission from Cariou to use his images. In other words, operating under the assumption that an artist enjoys a fair use exemption to use or reference a copyrighted element, or that an artist is using copyrighted material in a transformative way, is, on its face, bad faith.

The heart of the matter, though—and this also came up in the Jeff Koons decision back in 1992—seems to be whether or not Prince was specifically commenting on Cariou’s work by appropriating it. Batts didn’t think so; Ed Winkleman disagrees:

This is a philosophical question, and, of course, those who feel their copyrights have been infringed deserve to have their day in court, but "inherent in the process of appropriation is the fact that the new work recontextualizes whatever it borrows to create the new work" (emphasis mine). To my mind, that recontextualization is, in and of itself, always commentary.

So what was Prince commenting on, exactly? He didn’t do himself any favors by claiming in testimony that the work didn’t really have a specific message--that it was actually just part of some sort of big postmodern rock opera or something.

Yet the Canal Zone pieces actually are pretty easy to read: By juxtaposing pornographic images of Western women with romanticized black and white pics of Rastafarians, Prince seems to be commenting on the continuing Western fantasy of the exotic other—and the use of that fantasy as cover for bad behavior.

Since I’ve just written back-to-back pieces about
Picasso and Gauguin, I can’t help but think about these images in the context of modern Western painters at the start of the 20th century appropriating strategies and formal innovations from the frontiers of empire.

Picasso apparently visited the African art in the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro in 1907 and subsequently painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon—which, in the faces of two of the figures, shows the clear influence of African masks.

Picasso's African period was brief, but full of extensive references to the African art he began to collect. For Picasso, African art held useful distortions—which, to the artists who made them, were not distortions at all, but devices in the service of an entirely different idea of what representation is and how it works. Picasso pried the devices loose from context and used them for his own purposes.

Gauguin, meanwhile, happily threw together references in his painting to Easter Island, art from New Zealand, Hindu idols, and whatever else came to hand, weaving his own personal fantasy of what life in Oceania, or New Zealand, or Martinique was really about--which, to him, seemed to involve lounging around with scantily clad, yellow-skinned ladies in some sort of primordial paradise.

It’s hard not to think of Patrick Cariou’s descriptions of the Rastafarians he visited in the same light: He described them as “...a spiritual society, living simply, independently, and in harmony with nature, apart from the industrialized world of environmental pollution and materialism which they reject and refer to as ‘Babylon.’” How different is this from, say, Gauguin’s Oceania, which became for the artist merely a metaphor for Eden or Arcadia?

Seen this way, Prince’s art really is a direct comment on Carious’s underlying assumptions. But that's an argument Prince seemed unwilling to pursue. In fact, Prince insisted he hadn't thought about Cariou’s intentions at all, describing his photos as “mere compilations of facts...arranged with minimum creativity.”

At the heart of Prince’s dismissal seems to be an assumption that Cariou is not a part of the contemporary art world. His work provides raw fodder for Prince’s own development of an idea, but without Prince, it has no merit—and, presumably, if Cariou were part of the art world, he wouldn’t be making these kinds of photos, anyway.

Oddly, this makes me think of
Roger Fry’s essay, "Negro Sculpture," first published in 1920, in which Fry describes what he thinks would happen to African artists were they to encounter Western art:

It is for want of a conscious critical sense and the intellectual powers of comparison and classification that the negro has failed to create one of the great cultures of the world, and not from any lack of the creative impulse…the lack of such a critical standard to support him leaves the artist much more at the mercy of any outside influence. It is likely enough that the negro artist, although capable of such profound imaginative understanding of form, would accept our cheapest illusionist art with humble enthusiasm.

Yikes. Thanks, art history, for creeping me out!

Anyway, I swear I’m not trying to equate a privileged Western photographer dude's predicament with the fates of oppressed races and cultures here...but it does seem like an eerie parallel: Prince considers Cariou’s work fair game because it doesn’t operate by the same critical standards as Prince's own contemporary gallery culture.

Seen this way, Prince’s work isn’t just commenting on the construction of the exotic other by the West; he’s actually mirroring the ways modern artists appropriated formal ideas from cultures they saw as inferior. Which I find strange, problematic, and kind of fascinating.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

green hell

Rather than my usual lame attempt to commemorate St. Patrick's day by posting a Pogues YouTube video, today I will celebrate my 1/4 Irish heritage by offering links to audio re: Flann O'Brien.

Flann O'Brien, of course, was the pen name for Brian O'Nolan, a mid-20th century Irish author who was largely ignored during his lifetime, and who is sometimes considered a sort of Irish proto-Postmodernist.

In his 2009
review of O'Brien's Complete Novels, Fintan O'Toole gave this appraisal of O'Brien's convoluted first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds:

This is a book that begins by questioning why a book should have just one opening, and proceeds to give us three. It is a book by a man (Brian O’Nolan) who invents an author (Flann O’Brien) who is writing a book about an unnamed student narrator who is writing a book about a man (Dermot Trellis) who is writing a book. The narrator openly declares that “a satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham” and that “the modern novel should be largely a work of reference,” since virtually all characters have already been invented. Its governing caprice is that fictional characters do in fact already exist, have independent lives, and are capable of revolting against the author who seeks to deploy them. The novel is a treasure house of brilliant pastiches of everything from Gaelic sagas and Irish folkloric narratives to the Bible, Victorian encyclopedias, scholasticism, pub poets, cowboy novels, and trashy thrillers.

You can listen to O'Toole talk about O'Brien's life and work in this New York Review podcast.

The most beloved book by O'Brien is one that was never published during his lifetime: The Third Policeman. It's a truly wondrous and bizarre novel over the course of which it becomes clear that the nameless narrator is in some sort of circular chain of events--is, in fact, dead and trapped in some sort of parallel hell, where the same disturbing inexplicable things occur over and over again.

this Hirshhorn podcast, you can hear David Wilson, founder of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, read a passage from The Third Policeman featuring an infinite succession of nested wooden boxes. Worth your time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

exotic fever

My review of Gauguin: Maker of Myth is in this week's Washington City Paper.

Read the piece

Also in this week's WCP: Kriston Capps and Louis Jacobson reflect on the passing of Fraser Gallery in Bethesda.

Read that story
here; read Lenny Campello's extended remix of the hows and whys here.

And, while you're at it: I don't see how you can pass up the opportunity to read WCP Arts Editor Jonathan Fischer's
curious cover story featuring tales from Ian Svenonius's Bruise Cruise, a garage rock weekend invasion of a Carnival cruise ship, featuring nine bands--including Surfer Blood and Vivian Girls--and 380 tattoo-and-jorts-clad fans.

Read all about it

Pictured: Paul Gauguin, Te Rerioa (The Dream), oil on canvas, 1897

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

irregular roundup

Things, in no particular order:

I went to the
Armory Show last week. It was exceptionally meh. I don’t go to a big art fair looking for smart art or subtlety (who does?), and, as expected, I didn’t get either…but I also didn’t get the vulgarity, spectacle, or gee-whiz factor that I assumed would be on offer. I saw lots of mirrors, mirror-in-the-abyss gags, angular metal sculptures, scruffy slapdash painting…and then I went home.

It was a short trip, and I went to no other fairs, which was a huge mistake—really wanted to see
Ed Winkleman’s video fair in particular--but I was in the city for one day, and I put all of my eggs in one eight-hour basket, and that’s that.

While I was there, I ran into fine AAC residents
Matt Smith and Lee Gainer. You can read Lee’s impressions of the Armory show in her blog, PEEK…which I am suddenly realizing is not featured in my almost-never-maintained blogroll. Instead, I have lots of defunct links and blogs that haven’t been updated since last October over there. It’s a vibrant community of shipwrecks and neglect in that sidebar o’mine.

What else?
Mel Chin randomly showed up at AAC last Tuesday. I introduced him to departing AAC visiting artist Mia Feuer—check out her show at Conner Contemporary opening on March 19; it’s going to be huge (literally)—talked about what’s going on with Operation Paydirt (it continues to move forward!) and took him to dinner with a small group including my wife and son. Mel is not only an incredible artist, he’s a down-to-earth, funny, completely engaged and engaging character.

Artists: Apply for things. Apply for these two things in particular:

1)PLANNING PROCESS. Do you make preparatory drawings for your projects? Do you kinda like those drawings? You do? Well, would you like to show your drawings and your finished project to
Helen Allen, former Executive Director of PULSE and current co-organizer of DC’s upcoming (e)merge art fair?

That’s a rhetorical question. Download the entry form
here. Deadline: May 2.

2)Do you want an AAC SOLO show? Also a rhetorical question! I should just go declarative already.

The form isn’t up on the website yet, but the jurors are set:
Karen Milbourne, curator at Smithsonian African Art Museum; Klaus Ottman, newly appointed Curator-at-Large for the Phillips collection; and J.J. McCracken, undeniably awesome artist, performer, and independent curator.

The deadline will be July 1, so start thinking about it.
Next installment of SOLOS goes up April 15—details here.

Finally, as you may have noticed, I have been hungry to look at and write about art again of late, and my editors have been happy to give me reasons to do so: I had that piece on Philip Guston: Roma a few weeks back; I have another WCP piece coming out this week on Gauguin at the NGA…I wrote about Picasso at the VMFA for the WaPo a couple of weekends ago and will turn in my second freelance assignment for them next week.

(I mentioned AAC resident artist
Matt Smith above; read Matt's own quick take on Philip Guston at the Phillips--and see a lot of images from the show--here, at New American Paintings.)

I’m also writing a catalog essay for Helen Frederick’s show at
Hollins University in Roanoke…which I guess means I’m driving to Roanoke this month, doesn’t it? Yes, Jeffry, it does.

Monday, March 07, 2011

on the road: radical pedestrianism

On Saturday, March 5, 2011, as part of our current exhibition, ON THE ROAD, Baltimore artist Graham Coreil-Allen unlocked the secret lives of Arlington's liminal spaces--and invited a select group of tour-takers to enter the world of Radical Pedestrianism.

What, you may ask, is a radical pedestrian? "If a pedestrian," the artist tells us, "is simply a person traveling by foot, a radical pedestrian is one who travels by foot through infinite sites of freedom while testing the limits of--and redefining--public space."

You say "trespassing"; Graham says "drifting direct action" and "insightful discourse".

Pictured: Graham hands out buttons and signed, limited edition tour-only maps.

Twenty people joined Graham for his tour of Arlington's
New Public Sites--overlooked or marginalized spaces that the artist extensively catalogs in a book available at aac and downloadable for free here.

From the intro of The Typology of New Public Sites:

Somewhere between a suburban strip mall and its urban surroundings lies a poetic amalgam of space both epic and discrete. Situated within disparate zones of overlap, contradiction, ambiguity and interstice, the ongoing New Public Sites project investigates the ways in which invisible sites and overlooked features exist within our everyday environment. Based on a critical approach to understanding public space, this project proposes alternatives for signifying and activating sites through urban analysis, mapping, installations, video, tours, and this book.

The tour begins!

Graham invites participants to join him in Seclusion Acres.

Seclusion Acres: A void of privacy surrounded/by gathered screens of green.

Graham leads the group to our next stop: The Perpendicular Extreme.

Perpendicular Extreme: When walking planes juxt/opposing sharp mass,/standing tall over/whelming spatial balance.

Graham points out how sometime in the past, clever Arlingtonians have laid stones to ease their passage diagonally from sidewalk to parking lot.

Graham encourages the crowd to touch and investigate the Box of Uncertainty--do the people living in the tower really expect us to believe that they don't experience comfortable heating and cooling? What compels them to hide the devices that provide this comfort? Food for thought.

Box of Uncertainty: A box of harmonious form/and demeanor, ever so/quietly undone by subtleties/of sound and/or entropy.

HVAC Exhaling: Passing through grates of expulsion/ building lungs release/Heating, Ventilating,/sonic Air Conditions.

The building is breathing!

Graham cautions us not to look across the street: The building is cloaked by an invisible screen of security. (Please: No pictures! Men in uniforms will stop you. Not kidding.)

Onward in search of the Empty Signifier.

Graham draws our attention to the Empty Signifier--an incomplete sign, referring to a never-created development, appropriately stranded in the middle of a funeral home parking lot.

Empty Signifier: A post or pole absent/its original sign and/or meaning.

(Where is this "Club"? When and how might we join? Sounds luxurious.)

Anti-berm: A linear strip of earth/serving as path and platform,/that frames and directs one/towards an adjacent site.

Watercourse: A channel of bed and banks,/through which water flows.

Margie, one of the tour-takers, informed us that this is actually an underground stream, briefly emerging here by the tennis courts. Despite our having learned this, the Watercourse still retains its aura of mystery.

Having passed under the Skygate (not pictured), we head for the Median Refuge.

Graham considers stopping traffic, but thinks better of it. Should've brought the bullhorn!

Median Refuge: A liminal zone of linear respite/between parallels of churning traffic.

Radical Pedestrianism seems to require a significant adjustment in your thinking about where you should or shouldn't stand/walk/be.

Uniforms are important. Especially in performance art.

Secret souvenirs: Graham encourages us to find our own keepsakes here in the heart of the Void.

Void: A framed, open space imbued/with the psychic presence of a former mass/and or the profound immersion/of seductively infinite nothingness.

Having thus been thoroughly seduced, our weary band breaks up and heads home, perhaps considering new paths over, around, and through previously familiar (now exotic-seeming) terrain.