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Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

You may ask yourself…

Here are some questions and thoughts I had in advance of and in response to a roundtable of arts writers on Eva Lake’s Art Focus show on KBOO. You can listen to the conversation here. Eva had called the group together on the occasion of D.K. Row stepping down as full time art critic for the daily paper, the Oregonian.

And first of all, I’d like to say that writing about arts writing, as talking about arts writing this morning, is by its very nature self-indulgent, (sometimes more so than others). And so I won’t hold it against you if you click on the next tab in your browser. [self-editor's note: I'm actually embarrassed to have written this many words about writing.] But I thought some might find it useful to think about questions like, What do we do when we write about art? What might we inadvertently do? What should we be doing? What is the value of arts writing to its many audiences? And how is the value of arts writing different in Portland than New York?

First up, let me invoke the words of the great Talking Head David Byrne to say that the situation post Row at the O will likely be “same as it ever was, same as it ever was.” Anyone who is surprised by the fact that the daily is no longer willing to pay for a full time art critic hasn’t seen the Monday morning Oregonian which is approximately twelve pages long, an apt metaphor for the fact that daily journalism is bleeding out. (Thanks a lot, internet.) And as I pointed out earlier, Row rarely writes about art exhibitions lately; he mostly writes about the regional arts ecology, big picture stuff about arts institutions, awards, etcetera. Criticism is and has been done mostly by freelancers. So no big diff.

There were only five of us at the table this morning. Eva Lake hosted and has written about art and hosted her radio show talking about art for many years. Barry Johnson worked for decades at the Oregonian (as well as the WW) as critic, cultural journalist, and editor. He blogs at Arts Dispatch. Jeff Jahn is one of the founders of the arts website PORT. He is also a curator. A freelancer, Brian Libby wrote arts criticism for the Oregonian some time back and now writes primarily about architecture on his blog, Portland Architecture and elsewhere.

And at some point Eva said, do you think there’s enough arts criticism in Portland? She thought not.

So I just quickly wanted to give you the off the top of my head list of other writers considering visual art in Portland: Matt Stangel (Mercury), Sue Taylor (Art in America), Victoria Blake (Oregonian), Stephanie Snyder (artforum.com), Richard Speer (WW), John Motley (Fourteen30/Oregonian), Katherine Bovee (Art Papers), Bob Hicks (Oregonian/Art Scatter), plus those who write for PORT and ultra: Amy Bernstein (PORT), Alex Rauch (PORT), Arcy Douglas (PORT), Patrick Collier (PORT/ultra), Victor Maldonado (PORT/ultra), Michelle Weidman (ultra), and Linda Wysong (ultra). Oh, and PNCA and PSU have multiple blogs. Apologies if I missed anyone.

So. What do we do when we write about art? We inform, introduce, invite the reader to consider something we’ve noticed. We notice. We describe so that you can see through our words and photos what we’ve seen. We question. We ask what is this trying to do and how well does it do what it sets out to do? We ask why is it trying to do that, and can the argument be made that it is a worthwhile thing to do? We provide context, engaging history and the contemporary with a kind of conceptual peripheral vision. We engage in a discourse that contributes to the meaning-making around the work by bringing whatever considerations of theory, of philosophy, that the work raises for us. And of course, let’s admit that we also misinterpret, misrepresent, miss the point, graft our own ideas and concerns onto a consideration of the work, etcetera.

One thing we didn’t talk about at all on the radio is the question I often ponder which is who the audiences for arts criticism are and what value they might derive from it. Because who cares what a bunch of critics think of criticism, right? There is a sense in which criticism is surplus value or what I’d consider false surplus value like most of the products traded on the financial market which have little to do with the goods produced. But even as artmaking/exhibiting/viewing/buying would certainly not stop if no one wrote about the art, there are outcomes of criticism, nonetheless, so we might ask, who, besides art critics (snicker), values criticism? What does arts criticism do?

For the artist it can advocate for, respond (if a tree falls in the forest and no one writes about it…), validate or encourage, challenge (in a way that might clarify one’s thinking or stiffen one’s resolve), add to the C.V., provide a clip to include in a grant application, provide exposure (to new curatorial eyes, perhaps). I do doubt that the careers of Portland artists who are exhibiting internationally like MK Guth, Arnold Kemp, Storm Tharp, Aaron Flint Jameson, have been impacted in the least by local criticism. Don’t tell me that Whitney curators read regional arts criticism. But I think that the exposure I mentioned might also help artists of like mind find one another. And finally, I’m very aware, as a consumer of writings on art history, of the fact that an artist who is written about is the one that we, in decades hence, talk about. Pretty obvious. Am I missing anything?

For the dealer, well, this one I really wonder about. Has any work of art in any Portland gallery ever sold because of a review? Because it was written about in Artforum online? Does a review ever provide alternate ways in to talk to a collector about an artists work? I understand that if we were in New York, the “buzz” around an artist or a gallery via lots of critical attention would raise its cachet among collectors. But, and correct me if I’m wrong, it strikes me that in Portland, art is sold because of the personal relationships forged by dealers with collectors and secondarily because of personal relationships forged by artists with collectors.

For the collector, she might be introduced to an artist with whom she was unfamiliar. She might learn more about that artist’s program, be intrigued by it. But beyond that, see “dealer” above.

For the institution, is all publicity good publicity? Which is to say, does PAM just sing, in the words of Beyonce, “Say my name, say my name?” And I think the answer to that is probably yes. If the O puts PAM on the cover of the A&E, that’s what matters. It serves to remind the reader that something’s happening at the Museum. I doubt that curatorial cares one way or the other. And again, a review might provide supporting documentation for a grant application.

For the curator, well, I imagine that the curators share some of the values of artists, in particular welcoming discourse around the exhibitions they curate. Does a review benefit the curator’s career? I doubt curators in the academic and arts institutions are evaluated or given opportunities based on reviews of their shows in national publications, let alone local ones. How about independent curators? If a show receives a lot of notice, particularly of the national variety (has that ever happened for an independently curated show here?) I can see that gathering the resources for a future exhibition might be made somewhat easier. But I think it’s more likely that knowing that the exhibition is eliciting a response might also encourage the independent curator to ride again.

For the historian, the writing of the record is invaluable to get a sense of a time and place. I’ve read reams of reviews from the 70s and 80s in the WW by Paul Sutinen and Barry Johnson that have been so illuminating. And I’ve often thought about how the artists we continue to talk about are artists that have been written about by critics. Someone noticed.

And for the general public, as Barry Johnson has said after John Dewey, the job of the critic is to explain and explain some more. I tend to think of it as issuing an invitation to someone who might not have considered a particular artist or gallery, or may not have visited PAM recently, to do so, and to think about it. What’s more, writing about art can direct notice, yes, but it can also launch conversations about issues larger than the object and larger than art.

What happens when an exhibition is written about? I am using my imagination here, but I imagine it fosters conversation, incredulous artists calling B.S. on misguided interpretations or attention paid to undeserving work, congratulations to the well-reviewed. I also imagine that sharing links to online reviews might introduce new viewers (and perhaps new curators) to the artist.

On the website for an upcoming conference called Judgment and Contemporary Arts Criticism, there is this:

For many, the end of the twentieth century saw the mitigation of the importance of critical valuation established within high modernist discourses. Instead, many critics argued for a more open dialogue between texts and objects, pursuing modes of critique that allowed for the exploration of ambiguity and interpretation, thus detaching art writing from questions of quality.

And honestly a move toward “the exploration of ambiguity and interpretation” is really the kind of discourse around a work of art that I want to read. And I’ll say that for sure that there is a strain of arts writing that can be tethered to the actual art very tenuously as it floats into the theoretical ether…this is that “open dialogue between texts and objects”…but that just doesn’t happen in Portland much. Which is to say we don’t really deploy the kind of intellectual firepower that would require us to wring our hands about that particular problem at the moment.

The word judgment came up in the conversation on the radio more than once. Eva had earlier linked to the 2004 article Arts Criticism in Crisis which reviews a book by James Elkins in which, among other things he decries the lack of judgment on the part of the contemporary critic.

Why would artists be hungry for “judgment?” Are our MFA programs cranking out so many artists that one begs for the herd to be thinned by an opinionated critic?

Why would dealers desire “judgment?” To validate their own judgments? To bolster a sales pitch? To assist in placing their artists’ work in museums? Would a positive review (judgment) in the O facilitate that at all? A review on artforum.com? I wonder.

Do you like a work/value a work less if a critic derides it as art school stuff?

Perhaps critics value judgment as a way of establishing their own self-worth. (Clement, can you hear me? Clement?) But it’s not a monovoice world anymore, is it. From curators and dealers to twitter afficionados, information is shared, judgments are made, some artists win, some fade, history is written.

And I really do think we have to distinguish between what would happen to an artist’s career if her work was positively reviewed with a long piece in Artforum vs. on a blog in Portland, Oregon.

I think the greatest “judgment” one can pronounce is in the decision to write or not to write about something, to pay it attention. As Barry Johnson pointed out on the radio, Simone Weil said, “Culture is the formation of attention.” And I think our time is well spent pointing to and therefore contributing to the formation of attention around work we think matters, work that is surprising, compelling, smart, beautiful, important.

A final note. One thing that Row’s departure means is that now no one is getting paid much if anything to write about art. We might ask if that is sustainable. We might also ask why one would continue to do it then? And I can answer for myself that writing is a way of thinking. That writing is a way of working through to understanding. And that writing about work is a continuation of the conversation that begins when the artist hangs her work on the wall in invitation of response. It’s a conversation I want to have with you.

Through a Kaleidoscope, Darkly

Norbert Schwontkowski, courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash
Norbert Schwontkowski, courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash Between

Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art.
Will be welcome
We will be welcome.

Gertrude Stein, Saving the Sentence, 1931

For his 1920 Dada sculpture, “Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt,” Picabia attached a stuffed monkey to a wooden board and crudely painted the title around it. Painting is old-fashioned and silly, he seemed to be saying. Yet he kept painting.
Harry Swartz-Turfle, “Francis Picabia’s Style Problem”*

Francis Picabia’s are words invoked in the title of the current show Feldman Gallery and Project Space at PNCA. “Between my head and my hand, there is always the face of death,” is a show of easel paintings of the figure curated by PICA’s Visual Art Curator, Kristan Kennedy.

TEMPTATION No. 1: STOP AT THE FIRST QUESTION
I’m going to start by asking the first question I asked when I walked in the door of the Feldman: Why a figure painting show? Why now?

Kennedy was invited by PNCA to curate a painting show. And Kennedy, a painter herself (Elizabeth Leach Gallery), resisted doing a show of abstract painting. “It was too easy, too close to me,” she says. “I started with this painting by Norbert Schwontkowski that I saw in 2006 at the Armory show. It has this compelling mix of sweetness and darkness. In the sea of everything else there, all this big sculptural work, there was this traditional moment: looking in the window of the frame of the painting. And at the same time there were these dead, fleshy colors that I love. It stayed on my mind.”

For a small show, “Between my head…” is expansive, fragmenting the notion of figure painting into myriad rectangular planes as if through a kaleidoscope, darkly.

Amy Bessone, courtesy of David Kordansky
Amy Bessone, courtesy of David Kordansky

There are Amy Bessone’s broad black gestural brushtrokes tracing a kneeling figure in “Untitled (Nude with Ochre)” that make the still figure as dynamic as the hand (or arm really) that swung over its contours. And this is not to mention the ochre of the title playing of the criminally rich green-blues of the ground. (There are a couple “studies” by Bessone as well, simple black profiles on flat backgrounds that would be an effective tracing of process if there’d been a dozen hung side by side.) There are a series of fairly academic nudes by Kaye Donachie with geometric planes of obscuring shadow and faces (but one) obscured by loose brushstrokes. And there are two stop-motion animation works by Tala Madani featuring primitively painted, dark-haired male figures, as Kennedy puts it, “in compromising positions.” And as if to emphasize range here, the salon-style grouping avec houseplant (I want to title it “The Quick and the Dead”) of Elena Pankova’s old-school-Colorforms-meets-Constructivist faces neighbor Grant Barnhart’s masked self-portrait in his studio stacked with canvases (painted after Picasso, among others).

Barnhart’s masked figure buried under the literal weight of art history, a little disturbing with its lumpy-fingered hand, is kind of a microcosm of the Centre Pompidou show of figure painting from which I believe this show means to take its cue. Cher Peintre/Dear Painter was a 2002 group exhibition which, like Barnhart, attempted to situate contemporary artists in an historical lineage commencing with Francis Picabia’s late, not-so-great paintings of women whose subjects were taken from girlie mags. Like the painters in that show, these painters do not paint from life and we are to understand that they are engaged in projects that are something more than painting paintings, e.g. Bessone’s studies as illuminating process and the physicality of painting, Barnhart on constructed selves, constructed (re)presentations.

TEMPTATION No. 2: ROMANTICIZE
It’s tempting to write romantically about the return to the figure in an era in which writers write that many of our interpersonal interactions are mediated by technology. But I think that argument holds more water in considering participatory/social practice work. After all the painted figure is figure mediated by the material and the hand of the artist, n’est-ce pas?

What of the title of the show? It’s a Francis Picabia quote, and an odd one. Because it says that every act of making, initiated by the head, executed by the hand, is filtered through/affected by a contemplation of mortality. Is artmaking then an effort to live on after death via one’s paintings? Or does the thought that one might live on via that particular painting trouble its production?

It’s worth considering that Picabia’s own figure paintings are kind of a kiss off to legacy, Rage Against the Machine lyrics sung by a privileged heir. That he would deviate from some of his more innovative works to make a series of old fashioned figure paintings suggests he didn’t give a fig for legacy. There’s something to this rebelliousness that, regardless of what you see on the canvas, must be coursing through the blood of these painters who persist in painting the figure. After all, Boris Groys has pointed out that non-art image-making industries are much more efficient than art at making and distributing images, and I think that goes double for images of the body. When asked why he painted another series of fairly traditional works, Picabia apparently said something like, “Because I felt like it.” Few can get away with Picabia’s brand of cavalier insouciance so while that may be the reason all of these works are made…a painter must paint…there is, behind many of these paintings something else. And yet….

TEMPTATION No. 3: TALK BEYOND
Kristan Kennedy writes, in her essay on the project, about the mirror held up to the viewer by these works. (VU’s “I’ll be your mirror.”) This just plays into my temptation to talk beyond what is here on the canvas to what might be behind it. Shows like Dear Painter set this situation up (the tendency is widespread when it comes to paintings of the figure) in an admission, I think, that barring work by a very few artists, none of the painting itself is so different than painting you’ve seen before. (Ditto Picabia’s women.)

Merlin James actually attaches some kind of fiber, maybe hair, to the canvas of the dark, muddy “Untitled (Finger)” (which for some reason my brain wants to call “THE Finger”) in a pubic tangle. The visceral nature of these “hairs” (that incidentally are also dispersed randomly across the figure as if from a cheap paintbrush) by breaking the picture plane remind the viewer of the hand of the artist more than a brushstroke ever could. But the material detail of the fibers (as well as the finger that gives the piece its subtitle) transforms the piece from the play on Courbet’s “L’Origine du monde” that it is, into Duchamp’s last work “Etant donnés” and beyond. Cue Joan Jett’s Do You Wanna Touch Me.

THE LAST TEMPTATION OF
As the brain wrestles with spiraling off into the why’s and wherefore’s of appropriation and remake, the material detail of the “Untitled”‘s fibres demands that we refocus on the surface of the canvas, on what we see right now. And maybe that’s the point here: as painting is painting, looking is looking. Perhaps we should clam up, really look, and let that be enough.

APPENDIX

See more documentation of the show.

Playlist:
Velvet Underground (I’ll be your mirror)
Talking Heads (Once in a Lifetime. “you may ask yourself, how did I get here? …same as it ever was”)
Joan Jett (Do You Wanna Touch)
Rage Against the Machine (Killing in the Name Of)

Other things that came up in the jukebox mind over the long course of thinking about this work.

…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Macbeth Quote (Act V, Scene V). (Be advised: not to include the part about the tale told by an idiot.)

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 1 Corinthians 13

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

Robert Burns, “To A Louse”

* Harry Swartz-Turfle, “Francis Picabia’s Style Problem

FREE: Digital Space as Public Space

Art in Public Series: Digital Space as Public Space
Free, an exhibition at the New Museum, New York

by Linda Wysong

The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else, Lisa Oppenheim 35 mm slide projection 2006

Free is a fascinating exhibition at the New Museum in New York that looks at digital space as public space and explores how artists are using the virtual town square. It is an expansive group show that brings together a broad cross section of artists and approaches. The point of departure is “Dispersion,” an essay by artist Seth Price, in which he notes, “Collective experience is now based on simultaneous private experiences, distributed across the field of media culture, knit together by ongoing debate, publicity, promotion, and discussion.” (online catalog: http://www.newmuseum.org/free)

Simultaneous private experience as public space is in my mind, both an obvious reality and a radical departure. For digital space is democratic, free and simultaneous, yet the character of the digital is substantively different from the physicality of the public plaza.

As an artist who has experience creating installations in parks and city squares, there is a particular type of dialog that comes from the dynamic of mixing space, touch, and conversation. In digital space there are just as many participants, but the digital viewer reads and responds to the images from his isolated position in front of a screen, making monologue more likely than genuine conversation. There is also the fact that the digital experience privileges sight and sound and diminishes touch, smell, and taste. The shift in the input has subtle but important effects on the character of the discourse. Finally, the World Wide Web was developed by engineers for the transmission of data and therefore perpetrates the assumption that more information is equivalent to greater understanding. The structure of the Internet has little room for contextual relationships.

The curator of Free, Lauren Cornell, brings this important question of context and content to the forefront by beginning the exhibition with Joel Holmberg’s “Legendary Account.” Holmberg posts existential and philosophical questions on Yahoo! Answers. The results are often humorous and always quirky. By using this data focused site, he points out the foibles of open source content and the important link between context and understanding. The disjunctive conversations undercut the often held assumption that information is equivalent to knowledge.

“Legendary Account” exists both online, as a series of answers on Holmberg’s Yahoo! Answers account and as paper scrolls on sheetrock. The 10 printed scrolls demonstrate the difficulty of translating a conceptual and web-based work into a form appropriate for gallery viewing. The mundane graphics and functional printouts tacked onto wallboard are underwhelming in the heightened gallery environment. The physical impact of the work is definitely secondary to its social and cultural concerns. The dichotomy between its intriguing content and its pedestrian presentation raises a second question of context. Does the public space of the Museum enhance or diminish the viewing Joel Holmberg’s thoughtful investigation? Possibly the work is better presented in the manner it was developed, on a screen.

Legendary Account, Joel Holmberg 2007- 2010 digital prints on sheetrock

By contrast Lisa Oppenheim’s “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else” with its comforting clicks emanating from the vintage 35mm slide carousel needs the gallery space. It is a projection that consists of a series of snapshots of sunsets taken by US soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. She gleaned the photographs from Flickr and then re-photographed them against Manhattan sunsets. The two images taken across the world, one set in war and the other in peace, are remarkably similar, connecting us with the soldiers and evoking our universal humanity. This simple piece is truly global, reminding us of the world we share regardless of our circumstances, the digital network that allows us to instantly communicate our private moments, and how quickly technology reshapes our understanding of time and space.

19:30 Aleksandra Domanovic, 2-channel video, color, sound 2010

Aleksandra Domanovic brings together music and historic TV Idents, the introductory graphic sequences that precede nightly news broadcasts. Since 1970s, the central news show in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) was broadcasted at 19:30 every evening. The predictable event gave a rhythm to daily life and the name to Aleksandra Domanovic’s installation. The news is public information. The stories address public places and shared events, but ironically, we often watch them in the privacy of our homes. It is this interstitial space between public and private that is presented in “19:30,” an insightful combination of historic images and dance music.

Last year Domanovic traveled to the former Yugoslavia, a country that had been violently dissolved in a succession of ethnically charged wars that began in 1991. She collected archival graphics and the accompanying sound (1945 –1992) from the now defunct national television network. She gave the audio material to DJs and asked them to use the samples in dance tracks. (To hear these mixes go to http://nineteenthirty.net/adaptations.) Then Domanovic videotaped young men with headphones dancing to this newly sampled music. Finally the artist created “19:30,” a spilt screen video. One channel shows the archival TV footage and the other is the energetic dancing in rough urban landscapes. The viewer dons headphones and both channels move to the music.

The result is a collage that evokes the memory of a lost national identity and connects with an international techno sound track. The group activity of watching the news is placed firmly in the past while we watch young men with iPods dance wildly to a sound track that could be found in New York, Paris or Tokyo. They are lost in their private moment while sharing the universal language of music and dance.

When sitting in front of “19:30″ I was struck by how the Internet has given us a shared soundtrack. The web has transformed current events into performances we can watch on our personal computer. It allows us to instantly view events from around the world but it also blends them into a performance accessible in our home. The era of the grand spectacle may be giving way to the world of private viewing. Our 15 minutes of fame may be about seeing our lives as performance.

Public art has traditionally been physical objects in public spaces. As the definition of public space grows to include the digital, the importance of the object becomes a part of the discussion. Lizzie Fitch tries to bridge the gap by creating large sculptural assemblages that reference the use of the Internet as a creator of style and purveyor of goods. She sources items from the realm of “lifestyle merchandise” and creates installations through a process of cropping and reshaping that consciously mimics the digital effects of Photoshop. These installations also reference the domestic settings where we store our merchandise and plug in our computers.

Pangea, Lizzie Fitch w/Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, David Toro, Ryan Trecartin and Telfar Clemens. 2010

Her piece “Pangea,” a bedroom assemblage illustrates the difficulties of the translation from the digital to the concrete. There are many witty plays on words such as the obvious windows in the bed and inversions and reversals using clothing or accessories that signify class, gender, or culture. Yet the connections are linguistic and the power of the physical world is not used to its full advantage.

Digital space is definitely a new realm of public space and will therefore be incorporated into the vocabulary of Public Art. As in all transitions, there are challenges both for the artists and the audience. One issue is economics, a homeless person can enjoy art in the park but computer access is not universal and will probably continue to be related to class for some time. Then there is the character of the screen; they are getting both larger, smaller and more adaptable but screens remain flat objects that turn on and off. The digital world encompasses time but not space. The almost mystical experience of an Anish Kapoor sculpture that taps into our intuitive understanding of space, touch, and beauty through shifting sunlight, rain, and wind cannot be replaced. But the tent is large and I look forward to the exploration of the digital as a way to expand the dialog.

Linda Wysong
February 2011

Review: Anna Von Mertens


Madame X’s aura, after John Singer Sargent, 2099, hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton, 83″ x 43 1/4

by Michelle Weidman

Anna Von Mertens’s Portraits reflect a desire to research and incorporate modes of knowledge (i.e. the pseudoscience of the aura) into an art historical context in a way that makes canonical knowledge and this pseudoscientific knowledge seem equally absurd and oddly co-dependent.

The show that is on view at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery until February 12th is composed of a series of portraits hand stitched and dyed in a range of strikingly vivid hues by Von Mertens. The images are figurative, although you have to look closely to realize it, and what is represented are not individual subjects in the traditional sense but rather twice-removed, subjective (arguably) reinterpretations of familiar paintings.

The composition and scale of each piece is derived from the original.  For example, Sargent’s Madame X is present in all of her aloof glory at 83”x 43 ¼. However, instead of impossibly translucent skin and folds of ornate fabric, what is represented is Madame X’s aura in electric red, yellow, and magenta.  Now, I know nothing about the science of the aura that Von Mertens may have studied in preparation for making these images. Von Mertens does not offer any kind of key to understanding what the colors chosen signify in relation to the sitter, and although Von Mertens claims that she is attempting a genuine representation of the subject’s personality through the use of this visual language of color associated with various kinds of energy, I can’t help but think it doesn’t matter. Neither do the particular images she has chosen to recreate other than signifying shared visual and art historical knowledge. What makes these images interesting has very little to do with what the electric red halo tells us about Madame X as an individual or about the relationship she had with Sargent, although I do find it important and interesting that Von Mertens does try to assert the importance of these relationships to the work, in a sense trying to imbue her pieces with meaning from the original history or narrative.


John Singer Sargent, Madame X, 1884, Metropolitan Museum, New York, Oil on canvas, 82 1/8 x 43 1/4

So then, what do these images have to say, and what about Von Mertens’s passing reference to Benjamin’s concept of the aura? In a very straightforward sense they can be seen as an exploration of the relationship between unique works of art and their reproductions or reproduction as the work of art and the kinds of knowledge gleaned from those differences. Benjamin’s concept of the aura was based on technological reproduction while Mertens very purposefully manually handcrafts each piece. Additionally, while, as Walter Benjamin expresses, “It might be stated that as a general formula that the technology of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the sphere of tradition,” Von Mertens seems to be testing two elements that are essential to Benjamin’s discussion. First, the difference, if any, that technological reproduction has now from manual reproduction when the manual reproduction occurs in the presence of so many technological reproductions. Second, the separation from the history of an Artwork as an object by the very nature of its being a reproduction. Rather than jeopardizing the authority gained through tradition, which is what Benjamin claims for the nature of technological reproduction, Von Mertens makes handcrafted objects that count on and still gain authority (or actively attempt to) from our previous knowledge of technological reproductions of the source images referencing a new tradition based on reproductions. So, perhaps, some semblance of the aura still exists, and if so, is Von Mertens asserting that maybe it should?

To get back to the images for a minute, the source images that Von Mertens has chosen do not seem to follow any essential logic. In addition to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X represented are Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro’s auras, after Piero della Francesca and Marilyn Monroe’s aura after Andy Warhol. The choices read like a review of lower-division art history surveys, something titled “Art of the Ages: from Early Renaissance to Pop and Beyond” (and the textbook would probably be published by Thames and Hudson). This is smart of Von Mertens considering the amount of abstraction applied to the images. It is necessary for the titles to be recognizable and to immediately conjure the source material for the reinterpretations to be effective in referencing previous reproductions. Without the titles and the hand stitching the pictures could be mistaken for particularly luminous and blended stain-paintings maybe with a nod to Frankenthaler. Each piece, as mentioned before, is hand-dyed and to correspond to the sitter’s aura while the outline is hand stitched over the biomorphic forms of color. Some of the outlines are more involved than others down to details such as the precise angle of Federico da Montefeltro’s disfigured nose.


Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro’s auras, after Piero della Francesca, 18” x 13” each, hand-dyed, hand-stitched cotton.


Pierro della Francesca, Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and His Wife Battista Sforza,(1465-66), Panel, 47 x 33 cm (each), Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze

Von Mertens is visually and conceptually referencing the New Age belief in the aura. Is there anything to this reference other than a parody play or words? Von Mertens says yes. I say yes as well but perhaps for different reasons. While Von Mertens asserts the presence of personal belief and sincerity in her study of the aura, I think that her use of this method is more interesting when looked at in relation to, again, Benjamin’s analysis of the decline of ritual in art and the rise of politics in its place in relation to the use value versus exhibition value. These intricately handcrafted images are relying on a system that is anchored in spirituality, not material origins. They are trying to assert a belief system over images that have had, to a certain degree, been stripped of their aura as unique works of art through their endless reproduction. While Von Mertens interest in this field of knowledge seems to be in contradiction to Benjamin’s materialism, the work could also be seen as being in conversation with Benjamin’s ideas, not a rejection, not a prescription or rather perhaps a rejection as well as a prescription.

Carlos Gonzalez: 4More

Come here.
Come closer.
Go away.
Come here.

0
Prologue. Ahead of time.

Carlos Gonzalez’ compelling performance 4More at Appendix Space last night was about proximity and distance both literally and metaphorically. In four acts, Gonzalez silently drew a capacity audience into (again both literally and metaphorically) a strong performance work that addressed shared experience, the distance(s) between us, public and private space (how we carve it out and how we use it), and an aspect of the artist’s identity at an oblique angle.

The piece begins and ends with Gonzalez’ beautiful hair-free head.

1
Proximity

The “stage” is a one-foot wide strip at the back of the garage space marked off with duct tape. Gonzalez gestures to the viewers to come closer. Closer. He closes the garage door. Toeing the line, the few in front watch him disrobe and vigorously, audibly rub lotion on his arms, calves, and scalp. Read this as a reveal, but not a real reveal: 10 of the audience members learn that Gonzalez appears to have no hair on his arms or legs either, implying this condition as a subject of the piece (for those who saw this part of the performance). The rest of us just see him rubbing something on his head that gleams in the pool of light.

Aside: My partner brilliantly called Gonzalez’ movement “impatient Butoh.”

2
Rock and Roll, Recognition, and Spontaneous Participation

Gonzalez dresses, dons earbuds, bends low, and weaves through the cloud clapping out a rhythm and absentmindedly humming fragments of a tune. In a great moment of simultaneity, it dons on all of us at once that he’s listening to Gary Glitter’s Rock and Roll Part 2. We join in at “Hey!” generating a kind of metaphoric proximity in which we’re not only close to the action, we are the action. Thus Gonzalez cleverly makes us complicit in whatever is to follow.

This raises an interesting aspect of the performance that we dealt with throughout: as we were continually moving toward and away, in and out, we continually made conscious choices about how close we wanted to be to the action, to Gonzalez. I was very aware of the tension between wanting to be close to be able to see and wanting to establish distance so that I’d have the option to participate or not depending on how much I felt I trusted Gonzalez. Sometimes the choice was made for us…

2.5
Distance

He pushes each of us out of the space, one by one with his shoulder or back. Some make him work harder for their exit than others…which I guess is as it should be if this is to be a kind of metaphor, but I was tempted to drag the final stubborn upstaging few out of the damn garage myself so we could move on.

Note to girl who sat down on the floor: everything is not about you.

Visibly exhausted, Gonzalez shuts the garage door.

3
Circles and Prisms and Second Guessing

Garage door up on duct tape circle in center of floor. We are motioned to gather close around the circle, and Gonzalez closes the garage door again. Lying in the middle of the circle like the needle on a human compass, he repeated a series of movements/positions at several points on the compass. It took some time for me to understand that the sounds of exertion he was making, the labored breath, were perhaps caused by his lifting himself off the floor just barely with the arm tucked beneath him. Curiously, I just now finally read the description of 4More that was part of the invitation. It says that Gonzalez was “examining the knot of personal identity through abstracted acts of sport.” Oh, prism of reference, how you refract the actual into a million shards of possible. This of course recasts Gary Glitter as a sports anthem (something probably only I missed in the moment). And in light of the description, Gonzalez is perhaps wrestling himself or an invisible other, working himself through a number of holds and pins. Without the sport reference, I had situated this abstract but purposeful exertion as an interesting sequence of task-based contemporary dance.

Possible unintended consequence: one of the positions he held looked like the number 4.

4
Now It Is Personal
Garage door up. The audience space is taped off on the floor in a flying wedge shape. At the point of the wedge, there is a white bucket. Gonzalez again gestures us to come into the space he has made for us. In this the final act, Gonzalez uses the top of his head to paint on the walls in purple paint, letters as tall as he can reach. We had returned to the spectator role as of the last act, but the afterglow of our participation still smolders. Now there is perhaps the most physical distance between us and Gonzalez that there has been all night. Slowly the letters, painted non-sequentially, cohere into his final invitation, “UNDERSTAND ME PLEASE.”

How does Gonzalez get away with this phrase that could read as trite in other circumstances but here brings the piece into relief with a snap? It’s some alchemical combination of acting with conviction, conviction that the audience can read in every gesture, every expression or lack thereof (do I have to say that I don’t mean acting-acting, but taking action) AND constructing an audience experience…involving us in the performance individually and collectively…that fosters buy-in and empathy to the point where by act 4, we are open to such a request.

Thank you Travis Fitzgerald of Appendix Space for first two photos.