Mera Rubell: 36 studios in 36 hours!

Background: As announced here:

“the Rubell Family Collection is one of the leading collections of contemporary art in the world. Started in 1964, soon after Don and Mera Rubell were married, the Rubell Family Collection operates as a non-profit organization based in Miami where it presents rotating, curated exhibitions and hosts a variety of educational and community outreach programs.

Mera Rubell will be one of eight esteemed curators selecting works for Cream, the WPA 2010 Art Auction Exhibition. Building upon the popular Experimental Video Series at the Rubells’ Capitol Skyline Hotel, Rubell has determined to see the work of as many DC-area artists as possible and select up to twelve to be included in the WPA exhibition and auction. Her visits to DC are typically 36 hours long, and she has devoted her next trip to this project.

For 36 Studios – Part 1, Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers will conduct 36 studio visits over the course of 36 straight hours. Each studio visit will last approximately 15-20 minutes and will take place starting at 5:00am on Saturday, December 12 and continuing until 5:00pm on Sunday, December 13.”

Got it?

So as all of you should have done, I threw my name in the hat for this spectacular opportunity to show my artwork to one of the world’s leading art collectors, and the same person (me) who once missed a 160 million dollar lottery grand prize by one number, hit it this time and I, along with 35 other lucky DC area artists, was selected to be visited by “Mera Rubell and a team of curators and writers.”

To say that I was ecstatic is the understatement of the year. I was dumbfounded and left a little speechless for the second time this month. An opportunity like this doesn’t happen very often, if ever.

When I returned to Earth, to my horror I realized that… ahhh… I had no work to show Rubell.

All of my work is still in Miami, safely stored awaiting for it to be displayed again at the coming Miami International Art Fair at the Miami Beach Convention Center from 5-10 January 2010.

Best known art collector in the world is coming to my studio and I have zip to show her.

Effing Great…

The Grand Admiral of the Soviet Fleet, Sergei Gorshkov once stated that the “reason that the American Navy is so good in time of war is because war is chaos and the US Navy practices chaos everyday.”

Thus, as a former Naval officer I have been well trained in dealing with chaos and once my heart slowed down I sat down to consider my options.

Should I put together a binder full of available work in Miami and pass it to Ms. Rubell in the hope that she would agree to check them out once she returned to Miami?

Should I sit her in front of a large flat screen TV and flash her digital images of my available work?

Or should I lock myself in the studio and create as many new art pieces as possible before her visit on Sunday afternoon?

Usually the hardest and most difficult path to an answer is the solution, and I decided to lock myself in the studio and create new art.

As a new father, this is not easy, and I discussed it with my wife. With her support, I chose the last option.

I spent the rest of Thursday doing and finishing up all of my chores, many of which had piled up while I was in Florida the previous week. I went to bed around midnight on Thursday night, with my head buzzing with ideas.

By 3:30AM on Friday, I was up, essentially unable to sleep and ready to create some artwork. This being the digital age, before I entered the studio I logged onto Facebook and began Facebooking the events about to take place.

Nine hours later, after a dozen sketches and several discarded starts, I had finished my first new drawing, a large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch, known to the world as “Che” and perhaps the most iconic figure in modern history.

“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
When I finished I had something special. The appropriated image of Che from a photograph by a Commie photographer somewhere (ironic that Communists always nationalize and appropriate private stuff, so I have no issues appropriating their imagery) is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. Behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the imperfect wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? in Cuban street dialect and is meaningless to all other Spanish speaking peoples. The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assassin. This is the second version of this ASESINO concept.

It is now well into Friday. More Facebooking and by now friends and family are encouraging me. Art critic Kevin Mellema advices me that “Sleep is for the weak. 72 artist hours is like a week and a half of work for 9 to 5′ers…. Of course you do want to be awake and coherent when they show up on Sunday…”

The next time that I sit down to draw I hit a groove and deliver five new drawings in about four hours. I’m employing a lot of charcoal dust to cover large areas and create a minimalist drawing concept. “Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar” is such a drawing. We barely see the naked superhero, but we do see his elongated shadow on the road below. The lane dividers are just erased charcoal, now showing the not so pure white Arches paper underneath. I toy with the idea of rubbing more charcoal dust onto the drawing to create the impression of the car oil stains one always sees in the middle of the lanes. I abandon the idea; it is a pure and clean highway under the Man of Steel.

“Superman flying naked and close to the ground in order to avoid NORAD radar”” Charcoal on Paper. 20×24 inches.
“True Believer” and “Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got on her back reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” come out next. Both are very quick drawings and the first one is a highly worked drawing with an almost fanatical message. I’m not satisfied with the charcoal aspect of the dripping blood from the newly finished tattoo and so I bring out colored pencils and apply a subtle sense of color to the piece. This is rare for me.

Now there’s red blood dripping down her arm. The second piece is the opposite: a rough almost unfinished drawing with a harsh, funny message. It is inspired by a cartoon I saw once which showed a burly sailor’s back. A tattoo on his back reads: “Don’t tell this guy what this tattoo says, he thinks he has a battleship.”

“True Believer” 22 x 14 inches. Charcoal and Colored Pencils on Paper.

“Woman who thinks that the tattoo that she just got reads ‘Bring Bush Back’” Charcoal and Conte on Paper. 14″x10″
I had set aside a nice vertical piece of dark paper and “Fallen Angel” materializes on it as I work furiously. It is the most minimalist of the pieces and it is finished in less that 15 minutes from beginning to end.

“Fallen Angel.” Charcoal on Paper. 21 x 11 inches.
On the radio, the pundits are discussing Obama’s speech at Oslo accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. I take a break and do some more Facebooking and I come across Mary Coble’s profile picture on Facebook and it triggers an idea in my head. Coble and Nobel seem to align and “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” is created. This is the second “Age of Obama” drawing that I’ve done. In the first, done while Obama was a candidate, the figure is canvas to a history of the candidate in the early days of the election. It is now in a private collection in Ireland.

In this second “Age of Obama” drawing, the figure is host to selected portions of the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

“Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” Charcoal on Paper. 16×12 inches.
I want to have some coherence to the work that I want to show Rubell, and many of these pieces have a seminal beginning in my historical interest in the Picts. And so out comes a Pictish drawing.

“Pictish Woman” Charcoal on Paper. 14 x 9 inches.
The Pictish drawing is the one that worries me the most. It is almost fantasy in nature. Will Rubell understand my historical interest in the subject and how it is the seed to the more contemporary work?

I take a break as I am tapped out and on Saturday afternoon we all visit some open studios and drop by the Washington Glass School, Red Dirt and Flux Studios. Rubell has already been to her designated visits there and excited artists tell me about her and her entourage. I sense some disappointment, some hope and certainly a lot of excitement.

I begin to gather another aspect of the impact that this influential person’s tiring and superhuman effort (36 studios in 36 hours) is causing on the DC art scene. Even the Washington Post, well-known amongst DC area artists for its apathy and indifference towards the local visual art scene has sent the Post’s freelance art critic along, and she has overcome her ennui about the DC artists and galleries that she is tasked with covering and is following Rubell to some of the studio visits, but soon drops out.

I’m angsty about the whole thing and can’t wait to get back to my studio and create some more work. I want to make sure that I make an impact.

On the drive home I pass by at least three Vietnamese restaurants and wonder why all the Pho places have a number after it (such as PHO 95, PHO 301, etc.).

My head has been filled by my visit to the studios with a need to be “shocking” in order to stand out. I waste precious hours struggling with a shocking idea. I visualize a man crawling away into the horizon perspective. We see his body clearly from the back, his buttocks clear and white, and his penis dangling between his legs as he crawls away. A tattoo with an arrow points to his anus and letters instruct “Insert Penis Here.” Another tattoo on his penis states “Suck This.” His butt cheeks sport tattoos that say: “Spank Here.”

The tattoo on his back says “Pat here” and the tattoo on his feet soles says “Tickle here.”

The title would have been “Man with Directions” but it never came about. It just wasn’t me. I’m no Chris Offili, taking a schlocky short cut to shock in order to gather attention. I feel guilty enough as it is about the drawing of the woman with the Obama tattoo on her back.

Instead another Che Guevara drawing begins to emerge. Much smaller, almost the opposite of the first piece. For almost a whole day the drawing looks like this:

A long-haired Che is to the left of the drawing (where else), with a vast empty space to his right. Long hair years before the Beatles and hippies, aloof and alone as an adventurer in a foreign land so much different than his native Argentina.

That night I can’t sleep much between fighting a nagging cough acquired while in Miami and racing ideas about how to finish the drawing.

On Sunday I wake up, calm and ready for the visit. And the last drawing crystallizes suddenly.

Finalmente Denunciamos a el que traiciono al Che (Finally we denounce he who betrayed Che). 4 x 24 inches. Charcoal on paper
The Spanish words announce that “finally we denounce who betrayed Che.” The capital letters answer the statement: FIDEL. I now have two of these… the circle is complete and I am ready for Rubell. It is 9:00AM on Sunday and I get a phone call from the WPA’s Lisa Gold.

Is it OK if they come around noon instead of the originally scheduled time of 2PM? She asks. I will be either the last studio visited or the penultimate one.

I tell them that I am ready.

And then, on that Sunday, around noon or so, when the doorbell rang, as chance would have it, I was carrying my newborn soon, whom I call Little Junes (for little Junior, the poor kid) around.

I went and opened the door; Mera’s Rubell’s “36 studios in 36 hours” posse was at my door-step, the 36th studio of the grueling tour.

She was here at last. All through the last couple of days my email inbox had been buzzing with artists reporting what was happening during their studio visit. “I think I’m in! said one email, “But even if I’m not, I’m feeling pretty good about my artwork!” it finished.

“Mera Rubell..a total life force!!!! My studio still vibrating with her energy, dialogue, quick take on everything…..her bowler hat — ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ bowler hat. I haven’t felt such positive power in DC for so many years!!!!” shouted out another email from a very talented DC area artist.

And now she was in my house.

It all happened fast, but soon we were talking about the artwork on the wall, with one of the visitors commenting that she had some Sandra Ramos’ works in her collection. The photographer documenting the visit was meanwhile admiring the photographs of Cirenaica Moreira and asking about her.

The eyes and attention turned to Ramos as people looked around my first floor. Someone of the locals recognized an early Tim Tate sculpture, which I had acquired at his very first solo show.

Meanwhile the wife offered fresh coffee, which was accepted by the tired, bleary eyed group. Little Junes, of course, was a big hit with everyone. Someone poked him on the side and he let out a big grin. “Everyone in the Campello household is working this visit except me,” I thought to myself.

“So, who’s the artist in this house,” asked Ms. Rubell, looking at me and Alida.

“I am,” I responded, but quickly added that Alida also had a formidable arts background, after all the Professor studied art at Colgate, Corcoran and MICA and was in the graduate program in printmaking and photography at the Art Institute of Chicago before she decided to focus on special education.

Before I knew it, we were looking at the only piece of my artwork that hangs in my house: the 1981 collage of Frida Kahlo that I did while a student at the University of Washington. I almost panicked when I realized that we were discussing a 28-year-old piece of art done as a class assignment under Jacob Lawrence.

“Maybe we should get down to the studio and see the work that I have for you,” I said.

We went down to the basement and Ms. Rubell looked to a wall full of certificates, photos and framed paperwork.

“Who’s got all these degrees?” she asked, a little amazed. I laughed and explained that I was a former Naval officer and all that stuff is what we call in the Navy the “I love me wall.”

There, framed for all to see was my entire Naval career: ships, submarines, medals, certificates, photographs, Arctic Circle papers, Equator crossing certificates, Suez Canal certificates, etc.

She looked with interest at a photo of a massive Soviet Typhoon submarine, which I had taken from a British helicopter that I’d been riding at the time somewhere over the Kola Gulf. I identified the huge sub to her. “I was born in Russia,” she stated. None of us knew that. I told her that Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the US Nuclear Navy had also been born in Russia.

She thanked me for my service, told everyone that she had her Naturalized US citizen certificate framed and on her wall, and then we all entered the well-lit mess that I call my studio.

“Show me what you got,” she said, settling down on a stool.

And so I was in the position where I suspect every artist on this planet would love to be: Ubercollector Mera Rubell and a small entourage were in my studio, waiting for me to show them my art work.

But I am of Cuban ancestry, so rather than showing work right away, I started talking about it.

And because I am of Cuban ancestry, before I started to talk about the artwork, I talked about what led to the artwork.

I told them that when I found out on Thursday that I had been selected to be visited by Rubell, I was ecstatic and glowing with anticipation.

And then I told them that I had immediately realized that I had no current work to show them, because all of my work is in storage in Miami waiting to be shown at the Miami International Art Fair.

“Do you know about that fair?” I asked possibly the world’s leading art fair goer. She said yes.

“So I thought that maybe I could ask you to visit me at the fair and see the work.” I paused, and everyone looked a little alarmed, mostly me at seeing them a little alarmed.

“You have nothing to show us?” Someone asked.

“Yes, I do.” I answered. “Because what I decided to do when I realized that I had no work to show you, was to create as many drawings as I could between then and now. And so between Friday at 3:30 AM and this morning at 9:00 AM I created everything that you will see today.”

Rubell looked a little amazed. “You mean that you did all the work in the last 36 hours?” She asked.

I said yes.

“You see,” she turned to the entourage, suddenly filled with vigor and energy, “this is the first artist who crated new artwork just for the visit!”

“Ahhh…” I stammered a little embarrassed. “I had to! I had nothing to show you.” But I was inwardly feeling that things were going well now.

“What have you got to show me?” She said, the studio suddenly bristling with her energy. “This is a dynamo in human form,” I thought to myself.

And yet, I delayed a few precious moments more, and then really started talking about what drives my imagery.

I talked about how I had discovered the Picts in my childhood reading and then re-discovered them in Scotland when I lived in that breathtaking nation from 1989-1992.

I told them about the research that I had done as an amateur historian on them and their tattoos, and I showed them some examples of Pictish artwork that I had pinned to my studio wall.

In this photo by Lisa Gold, Rubell is looking at me describing the tattoo artwork of the ancient Picts, as I weave a artistic genetic line to my current work.

I described how a few years ago I had a show where it was all about Pictish art. And then I led the discussion, minutes gone by, to the trail of that artwork to my current work.

I’m a good talker, and I think that they were all interested in this historic genetic line that I was weaving. No one was yawning, and the room was still charged with electricity.

I explained how the tattoos married with my interest in narrative art, and art that tells a story or makes a point, backs up an agenda or delivers a social commentary.

And then I turned over the gigantic drawing of Che Guevara with the writing on the wall behind the Argentinean icon.

“Asere, Si o No?” 19″x48″ Charcoal on Paper
As I’ve described before, this is a huge charcoal drawing of Ernesto “Che” Guevara de la Serna Lynch. Che is to the left in a very Christ-like pose. behind him, a slogan or graffiti on the wall asks the question in Cuban slang: “Asere, Si o No?” which means “Friend, Yes or No? The capital letters answer the question by spelling out ASESINO or assasin. I explained all these Cuban nuances to the Spanish language and my agenda behind it.

“You did this in the last 36 hours?” Someone asked a little quizzical.

“You see!, You see!” beamed Rubell, this is what I’m all about!” she gestured at the piece as I discussed my historical affinity to Che Guevara, both as a hero to some and as a mass murderer and racist to others. Rubell noted that I had captured a strong sense of the zealous Maoist in his eyes and face.

“What else is there?”

The next few pieces went fast. With each I explained what the drawing was all about. I discussed the intimacy of drawing the viewer close. I discussed humor in art when I showed them the Superman drawing. I discussed being very tired and possibly hallucinating when I did the “Fuck Elections” Obama drawing. I discussed the nuance of words when I showed them the “Age of Obama - Nobel Peace Prize” drawing.

“Is that Catherine Opie?” Asked Rubell when she looked at “True Believer.” I told her no (the model is actually a local Sunday School teacher). “She really looks like Catherine Opie!” she commented. Note to self: contact Catherine Opie and see what she thinks of the likeness.

I was in a groove, and I can’t remember why, but there was a lot of laughter all the time. I think that I asked them if they were laughing so much because they were delirious from lack of sleep. They exploded in laughter at that. I laughed too, because I was indeed super tired from the last 36 hours, but I was also feeling quite on track.

I could sense that Rubell really liked my drawings, but that she also liked the reason for them, the “why I draw this” idea. Somewhere in there I talked about conceptual art and how often the idea is more interesting than the final product and people agreed with me.

More talking, more good vibes.

“Awright,” she says, “can you step out for a minute?”

I leave them and go upstairs. “How’s it going?” asks my wife.

“I think it’s going great,” I answer as a series of raucous laughter blasts emanate from the basement. My wife, Little Junes and I look at each other and wait.

An eternity goes by before I am called down to the basement.

“We were wondering,” says Rubell with a devilish look in her eyes - this woman is not tired, at least not now, after a grueling 36 hours marathon of studio visits; that much is clear to the most casual observer.

“We were wondering if…” she pauses, “considering that you were a Naval intelligence officer… if you had done some intelligence preparations ahead of time and had all these drawings in your flat files and just pulled them out just before we came?”

I could see a glint of devilishness in her eyes and I wasn’t really worried that they thought that was the case, and so I easily denied the issue. Nothing like having the truth on your side.

“Raise your right hand!” ordered Rubell, her Russian-ness suddenly coming to the front. I did.

Next I was made to swear that all the work had been created in the last 36 hours, while Jennie Yang recorded the event with her camera. For a moment there I flashed back to my days in the Navy, with the myriads of re-enlistments and ceremonies where oaths are taken.

But I was in a good place, and my tired bones and eyes were testament to the truth of my creation of these works in the last 36 hours. The swearing was easy, with the relaxing backing of the truth.

We all filed out of the studio. On the way out she looked at a handmade Valentine Day’s card from my wife that I pinned by the door. “This is a love nest,” she stated, “another love nest…”

“We’ll let you know soon,” said the WPA’s Lisa Gold, efficient and precise to the last minute, and reading my mind as it wondered “Am I in?”

We got upstairs, and started to say goodbyes… it all felt good. And at this point I was just glad that this electrical woman had decided to work her tuchus off and charge up the artists of the DC area.

“So what do you think of the Washington art scene?” asked Mera as she prepared to leave the house.

She turned and looked at me, and I began to answer her.

If you are a reader of this blog you already know the answer that that immense question, and I began to answer her. I told her how DC area artists were very lucky in many aspects and that (in the opinion of a world traveler and frequent flyer with an interest in art scenes) this region had one of the most vibrant and best art scenes anywhere in the world. I also told her about how diverse the artwork and artists were, and I told her about Art-o-Matic as a magnet for gathering artistic energy. I told her about the wealth of exhibiting opportunities that abound in our region. I told her about the many artists’ groups that deliver support and community and advice to local artists. I told her about the strong sense of artistic energy that soaks into everything around the nation’s capital.

She asked me about the local museums and I began to peel the scab from the other side of the coin, the negative side of the DC art scene; the side that outsiders see; the side that many focus on; the side that symbiots feed upon.

I then submitted my opinion, based on my observations and discussions with artists and dealers over the years, about the lack of attention that local museum curators give to our area’s artists.

I suggested that it was easier for a local museum curator to take a cab to Dulles to catch a flight to Berlin to go see the work of an emerging artist than to catch a cab to Georgetown to do the same. I offered that this was perhaps because our museums saw themselves as “national” or “international” museums rather than a city museum and thus ignored their own back garden.

I also offered that the new Katzen Arts Center was a refreshing change from that and that it was the only local museum to have a connection to the local art scene. Several entourage voices agreed with me and explained to Mera about Jack Rasmussen’s (Katzen Director and Curator) deep DC area roots.

She asked me about the Washington Post and about specific writers there. “This is an informed person beyond one’s wildest guess,” I thought to myself as I unloaded with all cannons on the local newspaper.

I described for her how the Post has decimated its visual arts coverage in the last few years. She asks me informed questions about specific writers. I realize that this is a woman who already knows more about many of the inside parts of the DC art scene than most of the writers tasked with writing about it.

I give her my opinions and back it with specific events: the critic who once wrote about a print without realizing that it was a copy of a well-known Picasso painting - I give it as an example of that critic’s suspicious art history background; or the writer whose snarky writing has improved over the years, but still betrays the writer’s scant training in writing about art. I talk about the writer who got caught discussing a show that he’d never been to; I mention the ones that got fired because of ethical issues. I mention the art critic who covers New York galleries but seldom DC galleries.

DC is a small town and everyone knows about all that happens here. And you reap what you sow and right now some pens filled with apathy and ennui and snarkyness are reaping the caustic results of my opinions. I’m back in the groove on a different, if favorite subject of mine, and I’ve got the ears of one of the world’s most influential art persons.

I’m talking too fast, but I know that she’s absorbing it all. She asks me about a specific critic and wants to know what I think of the critic’s writing. I give her an honest answer, which comes out somewhat more positive than I would have expected.

“Is that writer the best one to write about what goes on in DC and about DC artists?” comes the question, at least I hear it that way.

“No,” I answer very quickly.

I predict her next question when she asks, “then who?”

I give her a name, and I am pleased that several voices in her entourage, agree with me immediately.

“Then why isn’t that writer covering this event?” she asks of them, not me.

Someone explains about the writer recusing from covering the event because of a relationship with one of the artists. “That’s stupid,” she opines, “the critic could have just recused from covering that artist.” Afterwards, when I was discussing this with a friend, I was told that this wasn’t the case and that the critic in question didn’t recuse himself.

I keep to myself how in DC it is a certain impossibility for writers and critics not to have some sort of relationship with some of the artists they cover.

Someone adds that the writer in question is the only one who really has a finger on the pulse of DC area artists.

She soaks it all in, but I suspect that she may be asking questions to which she already knows the answer.

They leave and I’m on Cloud 9 and I play the Beatles’ White Album with a smile on my face.

This electric person is going to do wonders for DC artists and erase decades of neglect from our press and from our museums… Helter Skelter baby!

Update: Rubell picked the “Age of Obama” piece for the Katzen Museum. At the auction the piece received furious multiple bids and sold for 170% higher than the high estimate!

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Who will win $150K tomorrow? Not an emerging artist…

The new Jack Wolgin International Competition in the Fine Arts, at $150,000, is the largest juried prize in the world, and it is supposed to go to an individual emerging visual artist.

Philadelphia banker and real estate mogul Jack Wolgin is a very generous man who wants the prize to be awarded annually, and he wanted it to be “intended for an artist who has not yet received widespread recognition outside of the art world and whose work breaks new ground by crossing traditional boundaries.”

Words count. When I first announced the establishment of this new art prize in this blog back in 2008, I wrote:

This is great news for visual artists all over the world and even greater good news for the Philadelphia art scene. I will immediately comment that I am hoping that their selection panel will have the cojones to look truly to nominate artists at “a critical professional juncture” and not just xerox out a bunch of names of the usual suspects.

I remember fondly the days when museums like the Whitney and others would take chances on “new” artists, and as a result in the 80s they would give artists their first museum show ever (from memory I think both Fischl and Schnabel got their very first museum show, both while in their 30s, at the Whitney).

The days when museum curators want to be “first” are long gone, and seldom do we see a major museum take a chance with a “first” anymore. The same lack of cojones seems to have infected the major art prizes of the world, and I for one hope that Tyler and its selection jury get some brass into their system and make a statement with this new and generous prize.

Wishful thinking on my part!

The initial award set of jurors picked to award Mr. Wolgin’s money: Ingrid Schaffner, Senior curator at Philadelphia’s Institute for Contemporary Art, Paolo Colombo, adviser to the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, and Melissa Chiu, director of the Asia Society in New York, have all taken the expected lazy interpretation of the focus of the competition and have selected Ryan Trecartin, Sanford Biggers, and Michael Rakowitz from a larger pool of only 14 nominees.

The nominees were selected by “a group of nine prominent international art world figures from museums and educational organizations, representing the range of media eligible for consideration. The 14 nominees were then invited to submit an application, which was reviewed by the three-person jury.”

Ryan Trecartin, Sanford Biggers, and Michael Rakowitz are all terrific and highly accomplished artists, but in my opinion are all artists who have exhibited far too widely (I think that by the time you get to exhibit in London’s Whitechapel alongside Shahryar Nashat, you’re waaaay past emerging) and are too well known to fit into the category envisioned by Mr. Wolgin.

Remember this prize is supposed to go to “emerging artists.”

“There was a great deal of discussion about the term ‘emerging artist,’ ” said Ingrid Schaffner, referring to the competition’s main criteria. But after the lazy jurors had defined their terms, she admitted that they “surprised everyone by coming to a consensus fairly quickly.”

Very lazily if you ask me. I hope that Temple University’s Tyler School of Arts, who hosts the prize, is as pissed off at paying jurors that don’t do the expected work, and that Temple has learned a very valuable lesson from this initial go around and realizes that seldom does a museum curator or an advisor to any museum (whatever that is?) is really at the leading edge of knowing who is really an “emerging artist.”

In fact, one of the criteria if a museum curator is ever selected for the jury pool again should be: “Have you ever given an artist his/her first museum show?” And maybe even: “How many artists’ studios have you visited in the last five years”?

Back in the 80s museums such as the Whitney in NYC used to give artists their first ever museum show. That was the last time that most museum curators actually were deep in the weeds of who was really an emerging artist.

Let’s hope that this outrageous failure to focus Mr. Wolgin’s initial prize money on the intended pool of emerging artist recipients will put this generous prize back on its intended path. And 2010 jurors, the intended recipients are supposed to be emerging fucking artists!”

The three finalists’ work is on view at at the Temple Gallery through Oct. 31, 2009. The prize will be announced tomorrow; personally I am rooting for Ryan, so that at least the $150K loot stays in Philly.

My hopes for 2010 remain grim. Unless Temple learns this lesson, this $150K will continue to go to the usual suspects because it takes a lot of work to do the job right.

How hard? An independent survey sponsored by The International Art Materials Trade Association (NAMTA) and American Artist magazine recently reported that there are 4.4 million active artists in the United States alone (600,000 professional artists, 600,000 college art students, and 3.2 million active recreational artists). That’s a lot of artists, 99.9999999999999999% of whom are emerging artists, and at least 16 of them (more than 14 anyway) I bet are breaking “new ground by crossing traditional boundaries.”

I hope that Mr. Wolgin is as upset as I am; I intend to mail him a hard copy of this post, and then call him, and I hope that he then picks up the phone and tells Temple to get their act right with his prize money in 2010.

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Colleen Henderson at Multiple Exposures Gallery, Virginia

Colleen Henderson, Chatham Light Beach

If you’re a photography fan in the Greater DC area, then you know that Factory Photoworks Multiple Exposures Gallery on the second floor of the Torpedo Factory is one of the best photography galleries in the Mid Atlantic region and they rightfully boast in their website a very cool recommendation by my good friend Kathleen Ewing:

Multiple Exposures Gallery is a showcase to view quality fine art photography produced in our community. I have always been impressed with the professionalism, variety, and quality of photographic images exhibited at Multiple Exposures.

So I’m never surprised when I wander into MEG and discover yet another strong show.

But this time the photographs by Colleen Henderson… the set on the red wall of the gallery, floored me! It is the mastery and simplicity that she has achieved with the work that faces the viewer as one enters the gallery that merits this glowing adjective.

This is as close as painting with a camera as a photographer will ever get. How Henderson has managed to dilute and trap color, and then use her magical photography skills to re-hue them and present us with works that suddenly become a photographic cousin to the legendary colors of the Washington Color School and even would have drawn a gasp from Mark Rothko… is beyond my understanding of the mysteries of the camera at the hand of a master.

Colleen Henderson, Blue Clearing

And in “Blue Clearing” she traps that scene that all of us have aimed a camera at; that sudden instant when the marine clouds and the beach light and the ocean all become one lazy dreamscape that re-enchants us with our blue planet. We all get crappy pictures that look good to us. Henderson gets a photographic painting that belongs in a Richter exhibition.

Colleen Henderson, Cambridge Dawn

In “Cambridge Dawn” we’re brought back to Earth a little, as she offers us more hints of real life, besides dazzling us with color and fantasy, as the dark marine forms in the water anchor an otherwise ethereal scene.

There’s an artists’ reception on Sept 10th 6:30 - 8:30PM.

Multiple Exposures Gallery
Torpedo Factory Art Center
Studio 312

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On District 9

By now, anytime that film critics all over the place have been rave about a movie I get suspicious that I am about to see either a heavy-handed, thick movie or something that informs us yet again. And critics have been raving about a science fiction film titled District 9, and the trailers and storyline behind the film really sounded and looked good, but I had one suspicion because of a hidden code that I kept reading in nearly all reviews.

Let me reveal a secret, not about the film itself, but a little secret code that us geeks who have always enjoyed science fiction, since childhood, through the demise, rebirth, re-demise and re-rebirths of Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Wars, etc. have devised since the mid 1960s.

This code lets true SF insiders know immediately who really knows what Science Fiction is all about, besides the usual drivel that Hollywood pumps out, with the occasional gem thrown in the mix, almost like a visual arts group show.

Whenever you read or listen to anyone writing or talking about science fiction, listen or read closely. If they say “SF” or “science fiction,” then they are part of the brotherhood; if they say “sci-fi” then you immediately know that they’re outsiders peeking in.

“Sci-fi” is politically incorrect and word suicide in the world of the genre’s true aficionados and followers. Nerd code for “has no idea.”

And what film critics all over have been raving about, is the interesting and (to them) unusual storyline in this “sci-fi film” about the tried and true “man meets alien” storyline.

The D9 storyline stands out not because SF hasn’t got a rich and diverse set of ideas and novels about the subject, but because when dealing with aliens, Hollywood has repeatedly followed one road when giving us a movie about us meeting them. There are some exceptions, of course, but generally speaking… well you know what I mean.

District 9 will be the blockbuster of the summer season. This is by itself an unusual thing, since the movie has no stars in it, and was made by a 29-year-old South African director whom nobody ever heard of (Neill Blomkamp), and was filmed mostly in a garbage dump/landfill in that ghastly and ugly city that is Johannesburg.

The back story is that decades ago a massive alien ship appeared over Johannesburg and just sat there motionless. They didn’t attack, or make contact, or anything. They just floated there, above the city. Once humans got curious enough, we broke into the ship and found a million starving aliens, apparently helpless and clueless.

First contact is not a pretty or as impressive as we expect it to be, and soon humans lose patience with the ravenous and violent aliens and segregate them into a ghetto outside Johannesburg which is called District 9.

As the present day storyline in the movie begins, a multinational corporation, seeking to profit from the alien war technology, assigns a geeky employee (Sharlton Copley, who does a spectacular job in the part, even though this was his first acting job, ever) the task to begin a massive re-location of the aliens to a refugee camp far from the city.

Geeks will be geeks, and my first issue with the movie storyline began as soon as I learned that the aliens had much more advanced technology that humans.

And yes, I do understand the interesting facets of the film addressing social issues through metaphor (although it is by far not the first time that SF has addressed social issues, often ahead of all other genres). The aliens are segregated, humans refer to them in a derogatory (racist?) manner as “prawns” because of their appearance, and everyone dislikes them, and they have no rights, etc.

But technology rules every time that two civilizations meet. In 1571, Don Juan de Austria led the Spanish Armada and ships from the Holy League against superior numbers from the Ottoman Empire. Outnumbered by almost 50 ships, Don Juan had superior technology and new tactics on his side, and the defeat of the Turks probably saved Europe from force conversion to Islam.

Just a handful of years later, in 1588, as an aging Armada approached England, it was English technology (better cannons, faster, smaller ships) and new tactics (run instead of fight, fireships) that saved the day for the British.

And it was technology that allowed a handful of Europeans to conquer much larger Native American empires, as Cortez in Mexico and Pisarro in South America did.

And it was technology and tactics that allowed the evil Nazi war machinery to sweep across Europe in the early years of WWII. Never mind the brave Polish horse cavalry charging against German tanks.

In D9, the aliens have ass-kicking war technology that only the aliens can operate, as the weapons are genetically matched to them. Humans can pull the trigger, but nothing happens.

So, how did we humans manage to corral a million technologically superior, often-violent and definitely ravenous aliens into a ghetto? The movie doesn’t address this key point. We just fenced them all inside a nasty, ugly ghetto outside Johannesburg.

In the alien ghetto, Nigerians are depicted as evil profiteers who trade in alien weaponry for cat food, which apparently is a delicacy for the aliens. The Nigerians mistreat and insult, kill at random and even eat the aliens. Meanwhile the aliens just walk in and trade superior weaponry that only they can trigger, for canned cat food.

In a real life scenario: point, shoot, kill, take the canned food.

Makes my head hurt.

I’m sorry, but I am pedantic and this issue really blows the storyline for me.

Anyway, once we get past this, the main character goes to the alien ghetto to inform them that they are being relocated, runs into an alien scientist-type and his son, gets sprayed with some alien technology matter and things begin to change for him real fast.

It is an entertaining, fast paced movie full of great special effects and action. As such it is a good SF movie, but definitely not worth all the unusal accolades that it is receiving as a high brow, spectacularly intelligent, different “sci-fi movie.”

You want intelligent, socially-relevant SF? Start making movies out of the stories by Harlan Ellison, Phillip Jose Farmer, etc.

By the way, at the end, the aliens do get moved, by then there are almost 3 million of them, and they now live in District 10.

Sequel en route.

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On Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center

If you’ve ever been to Alexandria, Virginia, chances are that you’ve walked down King Street to the beautiful Potomac River waterfront and explored the Torpedo Factory located where King Street meets the river. They’re in the local news:

“As its name suggests, the Torpedo Factory originally was used to construct bombs. But after World War II, the building was used for everything from storing dinosaur bones to Nazi war documents. In the 1970s, the Torpedo Factory was transformed into an art center where visitors could watch artisans in their studios and purchase original works. But Alexandria Councilman Rob Krupicka and others are calling for changes to the art center — longer hours, movie showings, maybe a coffeehouse or wine bar. Other ideas? Lifting the ban on the sale of art reproductions and establishing term limits for the studios to encourage artist turnover.”

Listen to Michael Pope on WAMU here (scroll down) and he also has an article in the Alexandria Gazette here.

A SENSE OF uncertainty is palpable among the artists at the Torpedo Factory, and opinions range from those who would like to see major changes to those who would prefer for things to stay the same. Whatever changes are suggested, many say the discussion has been driven by a sense that the Torpedo Factory just isn’t as exciting as it should be.

“You won’t find much particularly edgy work here,” said Joan Aldrich, who has a studio on the first floor. “If we see ourselves as a premiere art center, we should have some work here that’s new — that’s perhaps by definition offensive to some people.”

I am told by separate sources that the articles and the WAMU report contained a few inaccuracies that somewhat upset Councilman Krupicka, who is a supporter of the Factory.

What do I think about all this? This is a very complex situation, with many different angles and approaches, and deserves some thoughts on the subject(s) from a variety of perspectives. In fact, I submit that from a variety of senses and sensibilities and experiences.

I could submit an opinion from the Campello who is an artist, another different one from the Campello who is an art critic, another one from the Campello who is an art dealer, one more from the Campello who is an art collector and yet another one from the perspective of an arts marketeer.

No one at the Torpedo Factory has asked my opinion, and they do have some sort of task force working on ideas to re-invent that amazing place, but I want to express some opinions and start a public dialogue here for anyone else who has something to say on the subject.

After all, the Torpedo Factory was and is a labor of love by a visionary few who took out truckloads of garbage out of an abandoned building and converted it into one of the great art center locations in the nation and the key to the entire revitalization of Old Town Alexandria. The city and the region owes a lot beyond just artistic output to the artists of the Factory, and the $3 million dollars a year that the city of Alexandria spends in subsidizing the Factory has been repaid a thousandth fold over the decades, not only is peripheral income associated with the Factory, but also in the immeasurable way in which the TF kindled and started a complete urban renewal in Old Town Alexandria a few decades back.

So the first thing that comes to my mind is that the bulk of the decision should be made by the Torpedo Factory artists themselves, and although I don’t know who is in this “task force”, I suspect that it is driven by the Torpedo Factory Artists Association (TFAA) members.

But with all due respect to many of my good friends in the TFAA, they also need to be careful that in their zeal to do a good thing, they become too myopic about their own environment and lack an outside view and sanity checker.

Most (not all) artists often make fatal assumptions when it comes to the business of art, and it seems to me that what makes a significant ingredient in this TF re-invention soup, is the business of running the TF as a complex tapestry of things.

That includes artistic presence, focus, business approach, artist turnover, genres, medias, diversity of businesses within the TF, etc.

“Some more divisive recommendations being floated would allow commercial reproduction prints to be sold and create term limits that would bring in a younger set of artists to the building,” writes Pope in the Gazette.

Let’s examine the issue of reproductions.

First of all a lesson in the misuse of the word “print”.

One word that has been hijacked from the art lexicon by the art merchants is the word “print”.

A print is a woodcut, or a linocut, or an intaglio etching, etc. It is created by the print maker, from beginning to printmaking. Anything else is a reproduction.

So if the original is a watercolor, or an oil, etc. and then you get digital copies of it, or four color separations, etc. all of those are reproductions of the original. However, it’s hard to sell something when you describe it as a reproduction, and thus why dealers and artists alike describe their reproductions are “prints”.

Giclees is a modern artsy way to describe a reproduction. Giclee is the French word for “spray” or “spurt.” It describes the Iris burst printers originally used to make the beautiful new digital reproductions that started appearing in the art world around 15 years ago.

Nothing pisses off a print maker faster than hearing a reproduction called a print.

Currently Section II of the TF Bylaws state in (D) that:

“Work created at the Art Center must be original as defined by Standards and Practices For Arts and Crafts in the House Rules. Such work is not to be competitive with local merchants.”

So the TF artists are not supposed to be selling reproductions of their artwork from their studios, and I understand that the membership will request to the Board of Directors that this section be deleted and thus allow artists to sell reproductions of their work.

I’m torn a little by this.

On one hand, in theory it gives the general public an opportunity to acquire a signed reproduction of an original work, and in theory that cheaper more affordable art commodity offers the artist a new avenue of income. Those who can’t afford the original buy a signed poster reproduction, usually described as a “limited edition, signed and numbered print”.

Nearly everyone else does it, and locally in the Greater DC region, one of the top art galleries is also become nationally well-known as the print maker to the art stars, and in the last few years nearly all galleries, both regional and national now offer more affordable reproductions limited editions of their pricier, more popular artists.

I have done it myself in the past with some of my larger, more expensive original drawings.

On the other hand, allowing selling of reproductions does in some sense dilute the sense of art as an original commodity. And then we start getting into the 21st century argument of what is an “original” in digital artwork, and what about photographers with multiple editions, and photographers with open editions, and even true print makers who once they sell out of the original set of prints, decide to dig out the original plate and pump out a second set of prints or a second edition.

See how complicated this got really quick? Nothing in life is really simple.

But the artists have apparently already voted and will soon request that they be allowed to sell reproductions, so in this case, my opinions and the issues have been overtaken by events (OBE) as they say in military lingo.

Although the Board still has to vote on it, I think. But let’s file that for now.

What about bringing in a “younger set of artists” to the building?

For their own sake, I hope they mean “younger” to really mean in terms of artistic development and not just age. Otherwise expect lawsuits from the gray-haired artist who just finished his/her MFA at MICA at age 60.

But this idea does have some merit and deserves some critical thinking.

I am and have been for years a great supporter of the TF and its presence, but in my opinion their Achilles heel is in fact their greatest paradox in a sense, and it is their artistic refreshment rate. If it wasn’t for the terrific job that the Target Gallery (on the first floor of the TF) does with their national calls for artists, we’d rarely see a new name at the Factory.

Paradox because one of the greatest assets of the Factory is the continuous presence of some of their power artists such as Rosemary Feit Covey, BJ Anderson, Susan Makara and others. But because the turnover rate of artists retiring or leaving is so rare and slow, it takes a long time for a studio to become available, and new artists show up almost always through complex process of studio subletting, temporary subleasing, etc. Many of the artist tenants have been there since the very first day that the TF opened its doors to the public (in fact I curated a show of their work a few years ago).

Achilles heel because it is very difficult for a “new” artist to get a permanent space at the Factory. Once a year, the Torpedo Factory puts out a call for artists who wish to be considered for a studio space. Generally about 70-80 applicants enter the annual jury process and about six or seven are accepted. But “accepted” doesn’t mean that they get a space; rather it sort of means that they are in line for when a space becomes available.

Every time that I post the TF’s call for artists (there’s a fee involved), I get a flurry of emails from artists complaining about the process.

This needs new thinking and a new approach, for I am on the side of those who opine that new blood is always good for any artistic community endeavor.

As with any group effort, I am pretty sure that about 5% of the artist members of the Factory do 95% of the actual communal work to keep the Factory working. That 95% will be the, however, the most vocal opposed to any change that may put some studio space in jeopardy.

It has to happen.

Not that it will result in immediate improvement, nor in the way that the art critics around this town view the TF (traditional artwork only, whatever that means). Don’t expect Jessica Dawson or Blake Gopnik or any most of the art bloggers to suddenly put the TF in the same perspective as the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh or the Painted Bride in Philly, etc.

Even if Andrea Fraser decided to do her new naked nude museum/art center sex video at the TF or Shepard Fairey decided to move his studio to the TF tomorrow (and got accepted), the galvanized minds of many would be hard to convince that “change” has come to Old Town Alexandria’s first among equals.

But slowly and surely it would work, and here and there a new, “young” artist would push some of the traditional and well-known buttons that get artists and their art instant notoriety and press: sex, nudity, anti-Christian art, bodily fluids, flag desecration, anti-President, anti-Israel, pro-some anti-American dictator, etc. Some if not most of that is hackneyed recycled art in new wrapping, but among the set of “younger” artists would almost certainly be those with new ideas and new concepts and new vitality and energy, which after all is the essence of what I think the Factory thinks it needs.

And a warning to the politicians who subsidize the TF: be careful what you wish for. With new artists and new ideas will come some of what I described above, and then what will happen (as it always does) is that the ugly hand of censorship will rise and the politicians will get involved and demand censorship or the $3M yearly subsidy goes away.

This will of course, bring instant worldwide press to the TF: “Torpedo Factory artist censored by Alexandria Town Council!” the headlines will shout.

But enough nonsense; how can the TF refresh their artists base on a more regular schedule/rotation?

The easiest way would be to make a certain number of studios available on a resident base, so that visiting artists could have the studio space for a year or two and then rotate (maybe they already do this, I’m not sure). Some of these residencies should be made available to recent MFA graduates, perhaps some should be made available to genres currently not represented at the Factory, such as the 60-year-old genre of video art.

Perhaps another, and harsher way would be to have an established procedure where current artists are re-examined on a yearly or biannual, or whatever time frame to re-evaluate their performance and artistic qualifications for having a permanent presence at the Factory. In a sense like the academic community does for their tenure track faculty.

Produce or be gone, or in this case, show us what you are doing, other than painting the same painting over and over again and selling it off to the tourists.

Awright, awright… so I’ve rambled enough and only touched the surface of this complex issue; expect more as I dig out more information and more ideas. This is the surface of the artberg and some of the above ideas and perceptions may be off base, but they’re my opinion… so far. I’d like to hear your opinions and constructive criticism. Send me an email (to lenny@lennycampello.com) and I will publish them here and start some sort of dialogue.

To the TFAA: I will also gladly ramble in person with any/all of you if you want my input ad hoc as it comes across.

More later… stay tuned.

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I’m so confused (or not?)

I’m not sure if this review by Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post’s Chief Art Critic is a good one or not.

“There’s not much to see in two art projects now on view in Baltimore. That’s why it’s worth rushing out to get a look at them before they close in the next few weeks.”

In fact my plebian mind fails to understand the bipolar nature of the points in the review, wondering from negative to positive to negative again, and ending in positive (I think), all the while while seeming to praise the actions of a former art curator heading to the fold of a mad South American dictator while rehashing traditional critical arrows at the heart of art and style as if they themselves were new. I think that Blake may be somewhat brilliant in the way that he managed to confuse me, but then again, I could be wrong. Prepare to be confused here.

For an equally brilliant counterpoint, Richard Whittaker interviews Jane Rosen:

“Jane Rosen: I want to make work that you don’t have to have a Master’s degree in Art History to understand. When I lived in St. Martin there was something about the quiet and the water. I became interested in fishing and met an elegant old black man, Mr. Anstley Yarde, who was very tall and thin and had a great presence. He taught me how to fish. You use a can and string. He’d get me at six o’clock in the morning and we’d get these snails. We’d sit on a rock and drop soda-can lines and just sit there. I never caught a fish but he’d catch them. He’d hear them…and I thought, this man has knowledge. And one day, we’re sitting on the rock and he asked me what kind of art I made. I knew Mr. Anstley Yarde would not understand the art I was making at that time, and I realized I wanted him to understand it. It raised that question: who and what does my art address? Who did I want to talk to and what did I want to talk about?

… Theorists will start talking and I’ll start thinking, “O God. I’m illiterate!” But in actual fact, I’m literate about another range of experience, a range they are not connected to. It’s simply not an issue for them!”

Read the interview with Jane Rosen in Conversations here.

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In DC: Artomatic is coming again!

If you are an artist or art lover reading this post, then chances are that you already know what Artomatic (or AOM) is and all about this amazing spectacle.

But just in case, a little review.

About once a year or so, under the guiding hand of a board of hardworking artists and volunteers, a large, unoccupied building in the Greater Washington, DC area is identified, and eventually filled with hundreds of artists’ works, loads of theatre and dance performances, panels, and everything associated with breathing a powerful breath of energy into the Greater DC art scene.

Let’s review: The idea behind AOM is simple: find a large, empty building somewhere in the city; work with the building owners, and then allow any artist who wants to show their work help with staging the show, pay a small fee and work a few hours assisting with the show itself.

Any artist.

Artists love AOM, but most DC area art critics hate it.


I think that in order to write a proper, ethical review of AOM, a writer must spend hours walking several floors of art, jam-packed into hundreds of rooms, bathrooms, closets and stairs. And I think that this is one of the main reasons that most art critics love to hate this show. It overwhelms them with visual offerings and forces them to develop a “glance and judge” attitude towards the artwork. It’s a lot easier to carpet bomb a huge show like this than to do a surgical strike to try to find the great art buried by the overwhelming majority that constitutes the great democratic pile of so so artwork and really bad artwork.

Add on top of that, an outdated, but “alive and kicking” elitist attitude towards an open show, where anyone and everyone who calls him or herself an artist can exhibit, sans the sanitizing and all-knowing eye of the latest trendy curator, and you have a perfect formula for elitist dismissing of this show, without really looking at it.

This harsh and elitist attitude towards art is not new or even modern. It was the same attitude that caused the emergence of the salons of the 19th century, where only artists that the academic intelligentsia deemed good enough were exhibited. As every art student who almost flunked art history knows, towards the latter half of that century, the artists who had been rejected from the salons (because they didn’t fit the formula of good art) organized their own Salon Des Refuses, sort of a 19th century Parisian Art-O-Matique.

And a lot, in fact, most of the work in the Salon Des Refuses was quite so so, but amongst the dreck were also pearls like Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur ‘Herbe (Luncheon in the Grass), Monet’s Impression: Sunrise, (and we all know what art “ism” that title gave birth to) and an odd and memorable looking portrait of a young lady in white (The White Girl, Symphony in White, No. 1) by an American upstart by the name of James McNeill Whistler.

Everyone who was anyone in the art world hated and dismissed this anti-salon exhibition; except for the only one that really counts: Art History.

But how does a writer cover an arts extravaganza of the size of AOM once the eyes and mind become numb after the 200th artist, or the 400th or the 1,000th?

As an art critic, I once started a review of a past AOM by complaining how much my feet hurt after my 5th or 6th visit to the show, in a futile attempt to gather as much visual information as possible in order to write a fair review of the artwork. Over the years I have discovered that it is impossible to see everything and to be fair about anyone; the sheer size and evolving nature of the show itself makes sure of the impossibility of this task. But AOM is not just about the artwork.

As a gallerist, I also have visited AOM looking for new talent amongst the vast numbers of artists who come together under one roof. Over the years, together with my fellow DC area gallerists, we have plucked many artists from the ranks and files of AOM. Artists who since their first appearance at past AOMs have now joined the collections of museums and Biennials and have been picked up by galleries nationwide. Names like Tim Tate, the Dumbacher Brothers, Kelly Towles, Michael Janis, Kathryn Cornelius, Richard Chartier and that amazing worldwide phenomenon and best-selling author Frank Warren of PostSecret fame. But AOM is not just about the emerging superstar artist.

As an artist, one year I decided to participate in AOM, just to see what the guts of the machine looked like. “I know the monster well,” wrote the poet Jose Marti, “for I have lived in its entrails.”

My volunteer hours patrolling the halls on a Wednesday night at midnight, and still seeing people come in and out, and explore art on the wee hours of the morning, also left a footprint on the public impact of the exhibition. Dealing with prima donna artists, recharging my own artistic batteries from hundreds of fellow artists, many of them in their first public exposure, also left an impression. But AOM is not just about the public.

AOM is two things to me:

It is perhaps the nation’s most powerful incarnation of what it means to be a creative community of hundreds of working creative hands all aligned to not only create artwork, but also put together a spectacular extravaganza that re-charges the regional art scene as no museum or gallery show can. AOM is a community of artists employing the most liberal of approaches to art that there exists: the artists are in charge, and the artists make it work, and the artists charge the city with energy and zeal. And these descendants of those brave souls who challenged the academic salons of the 19th century face the same negative eye from the traditional art critics and curators of our museums, who challenge not just the art, but the concept of an open, non-juried, most democratic of art shows: a community of artists in charge of energizing the community at large. All good group shows must be curated! shout these chained critical voices.

And AOM is certainly the easiest and most comprehensive way to discover contemporary art at its battlefront lines, right at the birth of many artists, paradoxically showcasing the area’s artworld’s deepest and also its newest roots. This is where both the savvy collector, and the beginning collector, and the aspiring curator, and the sharp-eyed gallerist can come to one place with a sense of discovery in mind. And the ones that I missed in the past, and who were discovered by others, are ample evidence of the subjectivity of a 1,000+ group art show.

Viva AOM!

This year’s AOM runs from May 29 through July 5, 2009, and it is located at the new building at 55 M Street, S.E. - essentially on top the Navy Yard Metro - celebrating its tenth anniversary in a newly built 275,000 square foot “LEED Silver Class A building”, whatever that means. It is all free and open to the public and all the details and dates and parties and performances and panels, as well as all the participating artists can be found at Artomatic.org.

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Spring Break in New York City

A guest post by Robin Tierney

Here’s a cure for cabin fever: a recession-priced escape to Manhattan.

If you’re around the Mid Atlantic area, look for a discount fare on the Amtrak Acela (tip: board the no-cellphone “Quiet Car”). Rate-surf for the New Yorker Hotel, an architectural classic one block from Penn Station. It completed a massive renovation in time for the economic bust, so you can get a bargain and colossal views. Next, buy a $74 CityPass that gets you VIP admission at a bunch of iconic venues, and a $7.50 FunPass for 24 hours of unlimited subway riding on days you don’t feel like walking, although walking’s easy from this central location.

Now, some quick takes from my long weekend of art-spotting.

Big venues are scrambling more than ever to lure more visitors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art hit the bell with its new “It’s Time We Met” ad campaign built on photos submitted by museum-goers. Winners got a couple hundred bucks and an annual pass. So if you dream of having work shown at the Met, instead of slaving over a hot canvas just click some whimsical scenes with your cellphone.

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when security sentry Guy Anglade told me that visitors have asked which way to the “We Met at the Met” exhibition. Anglade shook his head: “Forget Carravaggio, where are the Flickr photos?”

Six-year-old emulating Edward Hopper! His own choice, said his mother
“Six-year-old emulating Edward Hopper! His own choice, said his mother.”
By Robin Tierney

The supersized images are plastered on billboards, buses and fencing in front of the museum. Evidently in the social media age, there’s an unquenchable thirst for acts of cuteness executed against fine art. Imagine your life’s work functioning as a background for goof-shots.

One special exhibition revisited the debate that won’t die: “is photography art?” “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard” arrested scores of onlookers during my visit with its documents of Americana arcana culled from the photographer’s collection of 9,000 postcards. For most of the cards, the photographers remain unknown, but several of Walker’s own postcard creations are on view. Through his 1936 experiments, he taught himself to crop for maximum clarity and intensity. Walker then worked decades to free this humble genre from the pigeon-hole of nostalgia and get respect as an art form.

View of Easton, Pennsylvania

Walker Evans (American, 1903–1975) View of Easton, Pennsylvania (variant), 1935 Postcard format gelatin silver print 8.6 x 13.7 cm (3 3/8 x 5 3/8 in.)

Whatever you call them, their allure overpowers: viewers studied b&w and hand-colored portraits of beach towns, main streets, train depots, river ports, windswept cliffs, hometown jubilees, fan-dancers, sanitarium patients. The alchemy of documentary and lyricism includes original Coney Island amusements (“Atlantis, the Sunken City”), San Francisco’s Valencia Hotel vaulted out into the street by an earthquake, even an electric chair at Sing Sing prison.

The postcard exhibition closes May 25; check out curator Jeff Rosenheim’s terrific catalog.

Across the hall, I caught the final day of “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography.” Interesting selections included faux-to-journalist David Levinthal’s staged battle using toy soldiers, flour and plastic bags shot using a very narrow depth of field. Mark Wyse documents a squirrel ignored in the road after falling to his death in his “Marks of Indifference” series.

Downstairs, “Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors” offered an opportunity to observe the graphic shorthand of dots, dashes, loops, spirals and zigzags the modernist used to record images and to compose paintings.

Make time to meander in Central Park.

Just south of the park you can overdose on eccentricities all day at MoMA (AKA the Museum of Modern Art). Sleep-deprived, I lacked the patience to mine for meaning in the temporary exhibitions that left me plagued by an earworm of “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” (from “Gypsy”). Such as Klara Liden’s projects, partly due to the medium designation of “interventions.” And a performance artist’s self-imposed year-long confinement to a cell. “Four Decades of Contemporary Art” felt like a Target commercial on drugs.

The ennui evaporated once I remembered to fetch my MoMA audio tour.

It’s worth scaling the steps for the survey spotlighting Martin Kippenberger, who has lambasted the vagaries of modern culture in nearly every medium. Consider “Psycho buildings” and the sprawling recession-ready installation presenting job interview as sporting event, complete with bleachers and cheerleaders.

MoMA admission gets you a free all-day ticket to use when you wish at P.S.1, the contemporary/indie art haven two subway stops east in Queens.

Cheerful New York Graffiti in Building near P.S. 1

“Cheerful New York Graffiti in Building near P.S. 1″
By Robin Tierney

Speaking of gimmicks, even art-grumps might crack a smile at the swimming pool that mixes false bottom with false illusions. Darker spectacles play out on dual-sided screens showing Kenneth Anger’s surrealistic brain dumps. His lyrical 40s-style b&w “Faux D’Artifice” held me spellbound while others crowded before flickering frames of Coney Island biker escapades in “Scorpio Rising.”

Jonathan Horowitz commanded a bunch of spaces with jarring works in a range of media. Player piano playing songs from the Who’s “Tommy” paired with disturbing clips from “The Miracle Worker” and other movies. Commentary amusing and sinister about politics and celebrity, the universal appeal of violence and scandal, and imperialism as foreign policy and entertainment from the Roman Empire onward. It’s interesting. Really.

Watching Yael Bartana’s videos of vehicles eerily coming to a stop on a dark highway made me contemplate the narcotic effect of film, especially after I nodded off for an uncertain duration until a lady guard told me it was closing time.

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The Sedona, Arizona Gallery Art Scene

By the time that this posts, I will be airborne heading West to Sedona, AZ, and I thought that it may be a cool idea to rehash some of my older thoughts on the area for all the newbies to the blog.

While there’s no doubt on the planet that Sedona, Arizona is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, as I discovered while visiting there the last two years, it is also one of the key spiritual magnets to a variety of religions and beliefs, including the significant number of people attracted to Sedona as a result of its “energy Vortexes.”

Let there be no doubt that this is an area of profound beauty and full of a palpable sense of energy and power. I loved it and will be back many times, as there are dozens and dozens of trails and vistas to explore. This visit may get interesting as far as hiking, as I am nursing a really sore Achilles tendon (too much basketball).

On my last trip in 2008, I focused some time and comments on the Sedona art scene, a “scene” with some national footprint, regardless of where you stand on the planetary scale of the art world. in fact, within a few minutes of anyone discussing that they’re going to Sedona, someone will immediately pop in and describe the city’s great art scene.

Last year I approached those views with the prejudiced eyes of the artsy Easterner, accustomed to white cube galleries, minimally presented with austere framing, white matting, and where even title and price labels are often eschewed in preference of a discrete price list on the gallerist’s white or light wood postmodern design table.

Let start with Sedona art galleries, which seems to have shrunk a little in membership since last year - probably as a result of the economy.

But first, extrapolating from to the city’s website, the city probably has around 12,000 people, about 90% of them non-Hispanic whites, and last year with a median household income roughly $100,000 less than Potomac, Maryland and paradoxically (also last year) with a median house price about $100,000 more than Potomac’s pricey homes. I’ve been watching those house prices dive bomb over the last year, but they’re still up there.

But this dollar discordance is the first of many paradoxes about this gorgeous place.

Depending on who you believe, Sodona also gets between four and five million visitors a year.

The Sedona Visitors Guide tells these millions of visitors that Sedona “not too long ago had 300 residents, now has 300 artists and more than 40 galleries.” We also learn from the guide that Sedona averages one gallery per 300 residents, and for every dollar spent on art, the art buyers spend $12 on other Sedona stuff.

I often wonder how the granularity on these statistics take place.

The guide also claimed last year that statistics show that approximately 33% of the city’s visitors are attracted there by the art, and that these art aficionados thus spend between $200,000 to one million dollars in various Sedona businesses each day. We thus can extrapolate that around $16,666 to $83,333 dollars are spent each day on art in this small town.

One issue appears to be clear: it’s the tourists who buy art, not so much the locals (does that sound familiar?). This makes sense, after all, how much art can 12,000 residents buy from 40 galleries?

“Locals don’t buy any art,” told me last year a former Sedona gallerist, who prior to opening a gallery in Sedona had been a dealer in Chicago. “There are a lot of retired people here [the median age is around 55] and although there are some very large multi-million dollar homes, there are also a lot of modular homes [a fancy way to described a souped-up trailer].”

To the prejudiced and minimalist Easterner eye, the riot of color, subjects and presentation that characterizes most Southwestern art is an assault to long-held visual sensibilities created by the black and white world of the East Coast and Left Coast artworlds and its European and Latin American brethren.

I am shocked to discover that perhaps there’s something of an elitist in all of us, as the preconditioning of being an artist, an art critic and an art dealer raised in all those aspects, and mostly along the Eastern states, prejudices my eyes to what I’ve referred previously as “coyote art.”

My better half, who many years ago interned in Santa Fe with the legendary Gerald Peters Gallery (and Peters is credited by many as energizing the interest in Southwestern art and placing Santa Fe and the Southwest in general on the art scene), tried over the last couple of years to educate me somewhat as to the different sensibilities between what she labels “an Easterner, with an East Coast vision of what a gallery should look like, looking at a Southwestern space.”

It will take time, but then again, at one point in his life Duncan Phillips hated Impressionism and then eventually was seduced by it and became the American champion for it.

On the other hand, Wisconsin farm girl Georgia O’Keefe, even in her Southwest years always kept her austere black and white world where colors were generally reserved for her paintings.

So for the last two years I have proceeded with as open as a mind I can have, maybe somewhere between Phillips’ eventual enthusiasm and O’Keefe’s steadfast minimalism in personal tastes.

I am curious to see what changes the economic downturn has wrought but there were a lot of spaces in and around Sedona that sell artwork. I’m not really sure if there really are 40 galleries, unless one includes a lot of spaces that sell a lot of Native American and Mexican crafts.

Sedona itself is sort of divided into two areas, and as one comes to it from Highway 179, Uptown Sedona is to the right and the other Sedona to the left. Most art spaces are either located on 179 itself or Uptown Sedona.

The first set of galleries one comes across on 179 are located on a shopping area to the right as one enters the city, with a spectacular view (from the shops) of the Sedona rocks and the city itself.

And when you drive up Highway 179 into Sedona, one of the first galleries that you come across is the huge Exposures Gallery, which is located on the right side of 179 as one approaches the city.

exposures gallery in sedona, arizona

Over 20,000 square feet, not including the outside sculpture gardens (I assume) make this the largest art gallery in the state, and probably one of the largest in the nation.

There’s no gallery in the world, in the many, many galleries in nearly all continents that I have visited, that I can compare to this place.

Exposures is a perfect example of what makes most Southwestern art galleries so different from most other fine art galleries in the world; galleries which follow the white cube example of white walls and minimalist hanging styles, coupled with total lack of information about prices, etc.

Not so in the Southwest gallery model, and Exposures is a perfect example of this model for Southwest galleries.

Upon entering the huge spaces, the East Coast gallery sensibility is immediately assaulted by a riot of colors and by a fear of empty space that yields a huge gallery space filled to the brim with art, photography, sculpture, crafts and jewelry.

This is 21st century salon style presentation married to the joy of colors that is the Southwest.

There are probably a few thousand pieces of art hanging and displayed in this gargantuan space. In fact, so much artwork, and so much variety, that the snobbery of the art world would immediately tend to dismiss this gallery as another “art store” filled with “wall decor.”

Not so fast.

There are plenty of art galleries in Sedona that offer wall decor, and the same in the Southwest, and for that matter all over the nation.

Don’t be fooled by the sheer scale and invasion of the senses that Exposure offers. This is a very successful galleries which offers some very good artists, some so so artists and some mediocre artists. In other words, just like any other reputable art gallery, but definitely not a cheesy art store. This is a very good Southwestern gallery working flawlessly on that model.

Exposures’ success is clearly evident not only in its size, but in the small army of people that it employs, as well as its history, which essentially repeats the usual gallery story: art-loving couple moves to Sedona, open a small gallery; they do well and open a huge one.

And because Sedona’s art buying market is comprised mostly of visitors, this gallery has to operate on the model of exhibiting everything that it has to offer all at once.

It works for them.

So once we get past the fact that this overcrowded gallery space has found its formula for success, and we begin to look at the artwork itself, as I stated before, we find the same mix of great, good, average and mediocre that one finds in any gallery in the world because art truly is in the eyes of the beholder — or in this case the husband and wife team that picks the artists that they choose to represent and sell.

And sell they do…

On exhibit are works by more than 100 artists; yep, 100… and prices, I was informed, range from $29 to $290,000.

The catchy price range seems to have done wonders for both the artists and the owners.

Not everything is about money and sales; but money and sales make most artists, and definitely most gallery owners happy.

About the artwork itself…

Nearly all of it shares a flawless technical skill and delivery that would make most postmodernists elitists raise their noses a few inches higher. As an admirer of technical skill, I have learned to respect technical skill, but also have learned to then look past it and see content, ideas, context and intelligence in the work.

But before I get to the few artists that stood out for me last year, I must note that the one thing that, in spite of over 100 artists, the gallery lacked was monochromatic or black and white works in this wildly colored universe of art. It could really use a few drawings here and there to break up the dominance of color and painting. But I am biased.

As far as I could see there were only two artists working in drawing. Of the two, the two delicate small graphite drawings by Charles Frizzell stood out like little orphans in an ocean of color.

The charcoal and watercolor pieces by an artist named Yuroz also could mostly be qualified as drawing, but the works themselves were rather forgettable, as Yuroz seems to be channelling several of Picasso’s periods — including a rather mediocre stab at cubism — in his paintings and drawings. There is too much Picasso in Yuroz, but there is also too much of Yuroz in Exposures, which in economic terms means that someone must be buying lots of his work. I didn’t like any of it.

Let me tell you what I did like.

There was some very good photography by Scott Peck, and yet I personally test all flower photography to the spectacular work of Andrzej Pluta, or Joyce Tenneson, or Amy Lamb. In fact if Peck’s work is doing well in Exposures, then the art dealer in me is sure that Tenneson, Pluta and Lamb would do even better at Exposures.

Upon entering any business in Arizona that sells imagery, one is bound to find photographs of the desert rocks and formations. By the time that you visit a dozen galleries, one is sick and tired of desert photography.

And yet, one of the most memorable artists in Exposures is a photographer named Martii, whose spectacular desert shots, coupled with superb presentations, make his or her photography one of the best finds in the gallery. And in writing this, I think that another photographer whose work would do well here, would be the split reverse image digitally manipulated split desert photographs by John DeFabbio, who works out of the Washington, DC area. For years DeFabbio has been trekking around the world photographing nearly everything that he sees, then digitally mirroring each half of the image to discover amazing new images in the manipulated work.

But back to Exposures.

The best work in this amazing gallery when I visited last year were beautiful abstract pieces by a Brooklyn-born artist named Eric Lee, one of the rare non-representational artists in the space. Lee creates wonderful reverse paintings in glass that are standouts of skill and delivery. They are fresh and beautiful and add a calming effect to the gallery’s riot of color.

There are two galleries in Sedona claiming to have been voted the best gallery in Sedona. I’m not sure who the voters were, but of the two, Exposures is by far the best and certainly one of the most amazing art spaces in the entire Southwest.

And now I have used the example of Sedona’s huge Exposure Gallery to discuss what I call the Southwest gallery model — a gallery packed to the gills with art in a riot of color and fear of empty space — as opposed to the more standard gallery model of a minimalist white cube for a gallery.

There are a lot of art venues in the Sedona area, nearly all of them, with one notable exception, follow this Southwest model. Most of the better spaces are listed in the Sedona Art Gallery Association website.

Of these, last year Kinion Fine Arts seemed to offer a blend of the two gallery models. In 2008 they had recently moved from the Hozho Center (located at 431 Hwy 179 and home to several galleries) to uptown Sedona, relocating the gallery to a former bank building, safe room and all. The Kinions have divided the gallery into two rooms; at the entrance the Southwest model is in place, but the bank’s vault is used for solo shows apparently hung in the cleaner, less cluttered style of the white cube. They’re also one of the few art spaces in town where not everything is Southwest art centric.

A new gallery just up a few steps from Kinion Fine Arts, located at Hyatt Pinion Point, is the very beautiful space of the Vickers Collection (there are three of these galleries in total and the one in Sedona is called VC Fine Arts), opened just a year ago and by far the only gallery in the area that fits the cleaner white cube model.

Vickers uses the white cube model, and also offers the most diverse set of artists, not just a heavy-handed focus on Southwest art (as most Sedona galleries do, driven by the tourist art market).

It will be interesting to see if Vickers can survive as the sole Sedona gallery (at least that I’ve seen) that offers a diverse set of artwork; the type of art that could easily be seen in New York, or Philly or DC. I’ll let you know later this week after I drop in again.

At VC I quite liked the bronze sculptures of Bill Starke, a refreshing change of pace from all the bronzes of horses, bears, javalinas, Indians, deer and cowboys that inundate most of this beautiful town’s galleries.

I also liked Chris Nelson’s smart and intelligent reverse paintings on plexi, which upon further examination are more than just paintings, since the artist also routes the verso of the plexi so that the textured reverse plexi interacts with the acrylic paint to actually create grooves and channels that on the front of the work create smart landscapes. As interesting as this work is, this artist has to be careful that he doesn’t fall into a repetitive pattern in his work.

Since I have been in the advice-giving mood, an artist that would be a perfect fir and would actually sell like gangbusters all throughout the Southwest are the amazing storm paintings of the Washington DC area’s Amy Marx, who recently had her first solo in New York and whose breath-taking, hyper realism captures massive storms and weather patterns like no artist that I have ever seen.

Another East Coast artist who would be an instant hit in the Southwest is Alexandria’s Susan Makara, whose beautiful stacked stones series sell as soon as she is finished with them from her studio in Alexandria’s Torpedo factory.

Still in uptown, the Sedona Art Center rounds up a very good artists’ run membership gallery of local artists.

There are also quite a few galleries located in a faux Mexican village called Tlaquepaque; after two trips to Sedona, I still can’t pronounce it. From there you can cross Oak Creek by foot and visit a whole bunch more galleries on Hwy 179, although the ongoing construction on 179 seemed to be really hurting the gallery business on that road.

Last year I also drove up to Jerome and was very pleased with their galleries.

Jerome, Arizona sits straddling the side of a mountain about a mile high from sea level and less than 30 miles from its more famous cousin Sedona.

“America’s most vertical city” — I am told — is home to about 400 people, but once boasted 16,000 inhabitants and a brothel madam who was Arizona’s richest woman.

Although I think that the whores are long gone, today the town still manages to attract a few million tourists a year, not only for the spectacular views that it affords from nearly every vantage point in this tiny and beautiful town, but also because of a budding gallery scene that although seemimgly having fairly established roots, it only seems to be blossoming out recently with a significant number of art galleries and venues and a rather successful monthly art walk on the first Saturday of the month. With 30 galleries and artists’ studios participating in the art walk, it reflects the huge impact of the fine arts in a town of 400.

Most of Jerome’s art galleries seem to fit the Southwest style of galleries that I discussed earlier in reference to Sedona. However, and very surprising to me, Jerome’s art spaces seem more individual and original — in most cases — than Sedona’s cookie-cutter model of galleries.

There are several cooperatives that I observed, most noticeably the Jerome Artists Cooperative, where the hilarious (and smart) watercolors of Dave Wilder were on exhibit on that day that I visited in 2008. Full of irony and delivered with superb technical expertise, Wilder flexes well-developed observational skills that challenge the genre of “cowboy art” in a new refreshing manner.

Big Hat by Dave Wilder

The Spirit Art Gallery, although an independent commercial art gallery, seems to be run like a coop as well, with work by 30 artists on display at once, with some very good talent among them.

My Mind’s Art Gallery, which features the work of its owner, Ukrainian painter Joanna Bregon, a surrealist artist who has found a home in this unusual little town, also stands out from the cookie cutter cluttered gallery model.

It was refreshing to see diversity in art and rugged individuality in each art space, regardless of how one feels about the quality of the art itself, in some cases.

And then, while walking through the various galleries and talking to some of the owners and artists, it dawned on me that the Jerome galleries and shops is what I had expected to see in Sedona: unique, one-of-a-kind shops, art venues and art galleries.

I also discovered that nearly everyone that I talked to in this tiny town seemed to know everyone else, and also seemed to have a grudge against either the land developers and the expansion of homes in nearby areas (and competition for water) and/or against the Jerome city fathers for a variety of reasons, most dealing with construction issues.

Finally I trekked down to the town’s former High School, an ancient multi-story set of buildings that has been converted into artists’ studios and workshops - 20 of them.

There the work of Michael MacDonald and Derryl Day really stood out, especially some of Day’s older portraiture works, which were exquisite color pencil pieces full of personality and grace, as well as tremendous technical skill. But the key here, with an exception here and there, is that these were all artists in the overall, rounded, sense of the adjective — not just “Southwest art” artists; it was refreshing and interesting.

As small as Jerome is, it’s clear that the town’s colorful past, coupled with its amazing location and vistas, and more recently married to a creative artistic community and over-protective city fathers, all act as an irresistible magnet to the hordes of tourists that visit it every year.

It’s also clear that there’s something special about this place; it can be felt in the air, in its people and in its streets, and the dealer in me wonders if this special spot would not be an ideal place for some sort of very specific and focused art fair - a mini model of my “new art fair model.”

Sedona and Jerome are like kissing cousins of the Arizona tourist draw. I think that together, they can also become complimentary partners for an art draw of its own.

As the above words are being published, I am airborne and heading West to Arizona, eager to see what changes have taken place, and what new spaces may have emerged, and in the coyote-eat-coyote world of art, which gallery has closed.

Stay tuned… more later.

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On the return of stolen Cuban artwork

There are a lot of museums in Europe, mostly France, and a lot of collectors in Europe and Asia, and several major auction houses that are nervously looking to what happens in Cuba once its brutal dictatorship finally ends.

They are nervous because worldwide courts have consistently recognized the right of original owners to the return of artwork which has been looted by governments and dictatorships, confiscated, sold and re-sold.

It has taken in some cases several decades for the artwork to return to the familial descendants of the original and rightful owners, but essentially international law is pretty clear on the subject that generally no government can confiscate private property.

There are, of course, many dictatorships worldwide where one of the foundations of those regimes is that private citizens under their yoke cannot own private property.

It occurred to me recently that when the current Cuban dictatorship took control of that unfortunate island on January 1, 1959, one of the first things that they did after they executed thousands of people, burned and banned books, jailed all political opposition, and closed down newspapers and magazines, was to confiscate most private property.

And there was a lot of artwork confiscated in Cuba; stolen from their rightful owners. A lot of that artwork in now in Europe.

We’ve been led to believe that in 1959 Cuba was just another Latin American cesspool, but the facts are that in 1959 Cuba had one of the highest standards of living of any nation in the Americas and a higher per capita income than several European nations and higher than Japan, as well as a positive immigration flow from Europe to Cuba, as well as the third highest protein consumption in the Western Hemisphere. Today the island’s food rations are actually lower than the slave rations mandated by the Spanish King in 1842.

The island also had the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America and the 13th lowest in the world, ranked ahead of France, West Germany, Belgium, Japan, Austria, Italy and Spain. The average wage of a Cuban worker was higher than for workers in West Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium and in the late 50s Cuban labor received 66.6 per cent of the nation’s GNP, again higher than several European nations (the US figure is 68%). And the 8 hour week was mandated by law in Cuba in 1933, five years before FDR’s New Deal got to doing it in the US. And in the 1950s, 44% of Cubans were covered by social legislation, a higher percent than the US at that time.

And while we’ve been led to also believe that Cuban peasants and farm workers lived in a near feudal state, the average farm wage in Cuba in 1959 ($3.00 a day) was higher than those of farm workers in France ($2.73), Belgium ($2.70), Denmark ($2.74) or Germany ($2.73). In the US it was $4.06. And in 1959 only 34% of the Cuban population was rural and the nation had the lowest inflation rate in the Americas, 1.4% - the US was at 2.73%

So this was not a nation mired in poverty, as we have been led to believe, but a nation under the yoke of a very brutal dictator in the person of Fulgencio Batista.

The very wealthy Cuban upper and business class hated Batista and became the financial backers of the Castro Revolution, raising millions of dollars for the rebels. They also owned many art masterpieces from both European and Latin American masters.

As a thank you, nearly all of this work was confiscated by the Castro dictatorship and by 1961 most of the best work had made its way to government-owned museums and collections, and most of the owners had made their way to the United States in the largest proportional mass exodus in contemporary history.

When the abomination known as the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s and Cuba’s sugar daddy stopped sending billions of dollars in subsidy to the Castro brothers, the Cuban economy collapsed, and one of the results of that collapse was the mass selling, by the Cuban government, of those confiscated masterpieces, most of which found their way to European museums and European and Asian private collections via French auction houses. Thus many masterpieces once owned by the Fanjul family, or the Bacardi family, or by sugar magnate Julio Lobo (whose interest in Napoleonic memorabilia led to him amassing one of the world’s largest collections of Bonaparte memorabilia such as weapons, furniture, paintings, letters, etc.) were sold to European museums and collectors.

But now I think that the end of the brutal Castro dictatorship is nigh, and one day soon, when the rule of law and democracy and freedom returns to Cuba, one of the first things that the descendants of those families should do is to go after whoever now possesses their families’ stolen artwork and goods, and in some cases even copyrights.

And the details of these illegal sales have left bloody footprints. For example, according to Maritza Beato’s excellent article in El Nuevo Herald titled “El Saqueo del Patrimonio Cultural Cubano” (The Looting of the Cuban Cultural Patrimony), the sale of the Julio Lobo Napoleonic collection to a French museum was orchestrated by a French official attached to the French Embassy in Havana. His name is Antoine Anvil.

And if I was one of those auction houses or museums in Europe or collectors or dealers around the world, I’d be a little nervous.

What goes around comes around.

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