Archive for Sculpture

Lenny

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.

Why?

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Add on top of that, an outdated, but “alive and kicking” elitist attitude towards an open show, where anyone and everyone who calls him or herself an artist can exhibit, sans the sanitizing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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Lenny

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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Lenny

The Trawick Prize

In 2002, the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, a non-profit organization in that Maryland city created The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, a juried art competition awarding $14,000 in prize monies to contemporary artists in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

The founder, Carol Trawick, is committed to honoring contemporary visual artists with this award. Concerned because in the first few years of the Prize painters were being ignored by the jurors, Ms. Trawick three years into the Prize generously made the same commitment to area painters by creating a separate Bethesda Painting Awards(also funded by Ms. Trawick).

I cannot say enough good things about Ms. Trawick and the fact that in an area dominated by some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world, it has been a small business owner who has taken the challenge of ponying up a considerable annual cash prize to recognize an area artist and hopefully place the region on the national fine arts map, is the kind of act that makes one feel good about the generosity of individuals.

Over the years the Trawick Prize has gained momentum and recognition as the top contemporary art prize in the Greater Washington DC region, and some of the area’s premier curators have served as jurors.

In 2004 David Page of Baltimore, MD was the Best in Show winner of $10,000. The next year, Jiha Moon, then of Annandale, Virginia and now residing in Atlanta, Georgia won the top prize. In 2006 James Rieck of Baltimore, Maryland won top honors and last year Jo Smail from Baltimore, won top honors.

Last night I dropped in to Heineman-Myers Contemporary Art in Bethesda (where the show will he held this year) to get a preview and an early first look at the fifteen artists who have been selected as finalists for the 2008 Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards.

The work of these 15 finalists will be on display from September 3 – September 27 and the prize winners will be announced and honored on Wednesday, September 3rd at a special press event held at the gallery. As it is the norm, the Best in Show winner will be awarded $10,000; second place will be honored with $2,000 and third place will be awarded $1,000. A “Young Artist” whose birth date is after April 11, 1978 will also be awarded $1,000.

The entries were juried by Molly Donovan, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art; Irene Hofmann, Executive Director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, MD and Leah Stoddard, former Director of Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, VA.

Depending on who amongst those three jurors is the “leader of the pack” or the guiding hand for the other, will determine who will win the prize. Five will get you ten that the DC area artists in this show were muscled in by Donovan, Baltimore’s by Hoffman and so on. I’ve been on many “art-by-committee” panels and know how they work. As Jose Marti wrote: “I know the monster well, for I have lived in its entrails.”

This is why it is important for artists to ensure that they are known and their work visible, to their local area curators.

This particular jury committee did a really good job in selecting the 15 finalists. The exhibition is among the best Trawick Prize finalists exhibitions, and it is an crucial mix of art and conceptual ideas, a little play on kitsch themes by a couple of intelligent artists and even a touch of what’s trendy and slicky in the macro art world today.

If Donovan is the leading voice in the jury panel, then I believe that well-known DC artist Maggie Michael will be the winner. I have seen loads of her work and even curated some into past exhibitions. Her entry into this competition is by far the most complex and interesting work of hers that I have seen to date. In the gallery piece by Michael, she has combined all of her previous elements of poured paint, then she peels some of the layers back and nail some of them, with an interesting distressing of the substrate by drilling a big hole in the center and also by adding a graffiti like spraying on the background. I could be off slightly in my guess and Donovan may lead the prize to Maggie’s talented husband, Dan Steinhilber.

If Hoffman is the leader in the panel, then all roads lead to Baltimore’s Tony Shore, whose dark brooding works on black velvet play off a working man’s view of art as an intelligent and creative play on elevating a kitsch substrate to a high art level; the working class’ artist as hero is what Shore is all about.

If Stoddard has the leading voice in the panel, then the prize goes to my good friend and talented artist and blogger from Charlottesville, Virginia Warren Craghead III.

After visiting the show, and after considering in depth the work that I saw, here’s how I would give prizes in this show:
By Joseph Barbaccia
I would give a very good look and consideration to the shiny, elegant and very sexy forms by Joseph Barbaccia, slowly but surely becoming one of the nation’s capital area iconic sculptors. What Barbaccia does to contemporary sculpture is a three dimensional version of what Shore does to painting. They are both using kitsch elements and substrates of the contemporary world to create smart and intelligent works of modern art. Barbaccia’s spectacularly gaudy “Every Man’s Dream” is a glorious achievement of color and sequins and shininess and it is certainly worth of a very close look for the top prize and perhaps setting this artist’s career on an upswing.

Washington’s Molly Springfield is not only one of the nicest persons that you’ll ever meet, but also one of the most amazing talents in the DC area’s art scene, and her technical work is so superbly perfect that we fixate on its tiny imperfections to reassure ourselves of its creation by hand rather than machine. But she goes beyond that and marries her graphite drawings with interesting ideas, concepts and clues about her own sense of growing up and becoming an adult.
Art by Molly Springfield
Molly, at one time or another, has been on almost every finalist’s list for almost every prize in the area for the last few years, and it’s probably due to strike soon.
Painting by Heide Trepanier
Although I am not familiar with Heide Trepanier’s work, there’s something powerful and exciting about the piece illustrated here, which although tends to remind me a little of some earlier Maggie Michael, nonetheless leaps from it in the way that Trepanier has isolated the paint with lines to almost reveal to us Boschian figures and animals and aliens in her work.

My prizewinners would be:

Best in Show: Molly Springfield
Second Place: Joseph Barbaccia
Third Place: Tony Shore

A public reception will be held on Friday, September 12, 2008 from 6-9pm in conjunction with the Bethesda Art Walk. This is easily the best art show in DC this month - don’t miss it!

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Bill

Art versus the Olympics — a losing competition?

This is from a Wikipedia entry, so take it for what it’s worth:

Art competitions formed part of the modern Olympic Games during its early years, from 1912 to 1948. The competitions were part of the original intention of the Olympic Movement’s founder, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. Medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport, divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

The art competitions were abandoned in 1954 because artists were contended to be professionals, while Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Since 1956, the Olympic cultural program has taken their place.

Art competitions turn my stomach, truth be told. I don’t care whether it’s kids’ work or juried shows. It seems ignorant to me to treat artworks like Holsteins at the county fair. “Well, Bob, Glenridge Thunder’s got great head carriage, wrecking-ball testicles and a topline you could split wood on, but I watched him walk into the ring, and — bad news — he’s sickle-hocked. Sorry, Son. Maybe next year.”

In a short paper (pdf), Beatriz Garcia, a doctoral student at the Center for Olympic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona — yes, with all the world’s other problems solved, the A.U. of B. has gone on to tackle the desperate issues presented by the Olympics –  tells us about a clause in the Olympic host city contract that requires the production of an Olympic Cultural Program. But this provides little reassurance to that city’s arts organizations, which will now be competing for the attention the visiting hoards will lavish on the Games.

Ms. Garcia goes on to inform us in another, more-detailed paper on the subject (pdf), that Olympic Cultural Programs are wildly inconsistent from city to city, lasting from three weeks to, in some cases, four years. And here’s the kicker: proposals for cultural programs that were presented by cities during the bidding stage are often not followed through on once a city has been selected. There’s no mechanism in place to enforce promises made during bidding, apparently.

Funding for Olympic Cultural Programs is spotty at best. This makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t, considering that they compete for (incredibly exhorbitant) investment resources with the games themselves.

Perhaps the arts have only themselves to blame if people are apparently more interested in seeing the Torch Relay than in attending a show of Olympics-inspired artwork.

But that could be some seriously funny artwork. Let’s take a fantasy-walk through just such an exhibition, shall we?

John Currin’s stretched-out Neo-Mannerist women, cackling wildly while snapping their backs on the uneven bars.

Picture an Olympics-inspired Richard Serra — thick rectangular mega-tons of steel to suggest the airy flight of a gymnast.

“Tara Donovan’s installation, Mound, consisiting of ten million jock straps arranged into a forty-foot heap, suggests the myriad ways in which our male-dominated culture flaunts its testosterone-fueled fantasies while absolving itself of all responsibility.”

Here’s an Olympics-inspired Damien Hirst: a kangaroo split down the middle, posed in full running extension in a tank of formaldehyde.

Murakami could make giant fiberglass statues of his body-fluid-squirting boy and girl engaged in a competition for distance and accuracy. Perhaps they could be directed at a Bill Viola video of swimmers in ultra-slow-motion.

Maybe the host city’s museums win during the Olympics, and maybe their arts districts get extra visitors, too, and we should all be happy for that. But as far as the Olympic Cultural Program, Ms. Garcia makes it sound like an afterthought at best.

And really, artists of all stripes out there, when have you ever benefited from what the jocks are doing? Didn’t we always eat on opposite sides of the cafeteria?

But I could have it all wrong. If I ever visit a host city during the Olympics — which, incidentally, would be the perfect reason for me to stay as far away as possible — perhaps I’ll find that it’s become a worldwide nexus for the arts, with musicians on every street corner, theatre troupes performing in every park, and art installations on the water, in the air, and spilling out of every enclosed space.

Incidentally, if you’re in Beijing right now and you’re reading this, first, check behind you; I think you’re about to be arrested. But if there’s time before they slap the cuffs on you, I’d be interested in hearing about the Beijing Olympic Cultural Program.

Until I hear more about the Olympic Cultural Programs in Beijing and previous host cities, I’ll have to be content merely to marvel at a world that supports a Center for the Study of the Olympics, while no nation on Earth is apparently wealthy enough to feed a small island whose people are so destitute that their children are forced to eat mud.

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Lenny

How to sign your artwork

I was going to title this post “Signature Blues,” just to be cutesy in the wake on my last post on framing issues…

In the hundreds and hundreds of shows that I have organized as a gallerist or curated or judged as a juror or curator, one of my constant pet peeves is how artists sign (or not sign) their work.

My biggest pet peeve in that den of peeves is the common artist mistake of having a HUGE signature that makes such a bold statement as to often destroy the integrity and composition of the art itself.

Some artists, such as Norman Rockwell, often signed their works in bold, and even interesting ways that were designed to still be read when their paintings were reproduced as a magazine cover. For these master illustrators, it was very important that their name was recognized once their work was printed on the cover.

But most artists should not make their signature distract from the work itself. Do not sign your work somewhere, anywhere other than in a discreet location on the margin somewhere. Never a few inches into the work itself and never, ever in gold or silver or some other ghastly color scheme.

Amateur photographers are especially fond of signing their photographs with gold or silver pens. Did you notice that I wrote “amateur?” The visual presentation of a photograph should not be marred by that kitschy practice. if you sign your photo on the front, do it discreetly on the margin; otherwise sign it on the verso, also on the margin. I’ve also seen the practice of signing the mat in pencil, and I am OK with that, although I know some gallerists and museum symbiotes do not like that practice either.

Let me be clear: the art must be signed.

If the signature distracts from your own personal aesthetic, then sign it on the back of the work. To be blunt, most collectors demand signatures and there’s ample empirical data that shows that unsigned works always get less in auctions than signed pieces.

Vatican legend has it that when Michelangelo finished his Pieta, the night before it was to be opened to the public, he hid behind some columns as a bunch of priests and cardinals admired the masterful sculpture.

“Who made it,” asked someone.

“I think it was Raphael,” replied someone else.

Michelangelo was so incensed that his masterpiece was being attributed to his rival, that once the place was cleared, he climbed atop the statue and carved his name in bold letters across the sash that crosses Mary’s chest. He carved: “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This.”

I believe that it was the last piece that he ever signed.

And it was too big.

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Joanne

A Tale of Two Cities: Anish Kapoor in Boston and New York. (Part 1: Boston)

For Part 2, click here 

If you’re a fan of Anish Kapoor, this is a good time for you. And if you’re not a fan, it’s as good a time as any to become one.  Kapoor, the Bombay-born sculptor who lives in England and has an international career, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and two solo shows of new work (one still up) at the Barbara Gladstone galleries in New York City.

 Since this is a tale of two cities, it will also be a tale told in two parts. Here, Part 1: Kapoor at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston:  Past, Present, Future  (through September 7)

Although you’ll know a Kapoor sculpture when you see it, describing one does not come close to reflecting what a Kapoor sculpture is.  A sculpture by Anish Kapoor is monumental, yet it pulls you in close. It defines and reflects space; yet it suggests the topography and orifices of the body. It’s concave; it’s convex. It’s hard and smooth; it’s soft and powdery; it’s shiny, translucent, opaque, gooey. The materialty of the forms defines both what’s there and what’s not. Like the blind men defining an elephant by touch, Kapoor’s sculpture is all those things. And more. And less.

  

Reflecting on the exhibition: It’s simplistic to call this sinuous and beautifully polished structure a funhouse mirror because while it distorts, it makes you think about the ways in which all the work in the gallery changes your perceptions of shape and space.  Image by John Kennard, courtesy of the ICA, Boston

Take the the enormous polished red disc installed along one wall of the large rectangular exhibition hall (you can see this work reflected in the image above).  Standing before the disc you feel yourself get woozy. Are you falling into it? Is it somehow expanding itself to touch you? Eventually your eyes become accustomed to the spatial distortion and you see that it’s bulging out—until you check it from the side and realize the surface is concave. Next to it, a polished metal disc with a recitulated surface engages you with its reflecton–make that its thousands of reflections. What you see is never quite what you see.

 

 Looking at Lisson: I couldn’t photograph the show, but these two images–above and below–shot at the Lisson Gallery booth at Art Basel/ Miami in December, are of the same reticulated piece that’s in the ICA exhibition

 

 

Similarly, across the room, you see what appears to be a perfectly formed depression, about 48 inches in diameter, in the gallery’s white wall. It’s barely noticeable, but there’s a slightly darker ring that defines the concavity.  A guard prevents you from getting too close, and this is a good thing because in fact that depression is a bump which protrudes about two feet into room.  A pregnant wall! The effect is totally disorienting in a heady Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole way—and do let yourself take the trip—while at the same time it summons all your rational thinking: what, how, where, how big.

And so it goes around the room, 14 works created since 1980, each one challenging your perceptions of space and reality, as you fall visually into and out of the work.  In the center of the gallery is the undulating form of an enormous polished stainless steel sculpture. It’s tempting to call it a funhouse version of Richard Serra, but given its reflectivity, it engages you in a totally different way way. The  structure is both concave and convex, so what you see at one moment changes—elongates, compresses, inverts—as you walk its length. It is constantly reflecting and distorting the shapes which, on their own, have already altered your perceptions and disoriented you. Has the floor actually risen? Are you sinking?  Where is the object you thought was behind you?

 

 

Past, Present, Future  is the title both of this work and of the exhibition itself. Overnight when the template is still, that wax skin begins to slide. Image by John Kennard, courtesy of the ICA, Boston

 Then you get to the dome,  positioned against the far wall.  Now this is solid; no distortion, no reflection. Here is an enormous quarter sphere, some 30 feet in diameter, coated in viscous red wax. Given your experience with the other works in this gallery, you nevertheless find yourself wondering: Is the sphere pushing into the room or retreating from it? Indeed it’s moving, but not in the way you think. A large template is passing ever so slowly over the dome. You can hear its motor. During a 90-minute traverse, it reshapes the rubicund goo that is slipping ever so slightly down the surface of the dome. 

(What you can’t see is that about three inches of viscous wax has been slathered onto netting that’s stretched over a cast resin skin, which is in turn set onto a foam armature composed of 10 wedges, like the segments of an orange. The template is turned off at night, and its first pass in the morning smoothes and reforms the surface, smooshing the extra wax up against the wall (reader, I touched the smoosh).

But the back story shouldn’t take away from what’s before you.  Experiencing Past, Present, Future is sort of like watching paint dry—except that you can, if you are still enough and patient enough, watch it all take place in real time.  And there is a reward for such close and patient viewing. Given its reference to planetary shape and the way it is constantly remaking itself, its placental color and primordial goo—and of course, its title—you realize this imposing structure is nothing so much as a metaphor for creation itself.

Next post: Part 2, Anish Kapoor at the Barbara Gladstone galleries, New York City.

 Post Script: The ICA is itself an impressive sculpture of a building.

 

 The Diller & Scofidio-designed building is set into Boston’s redeveloping waterfront, not far from where the historic Boston Tea Party once took place. The dramatically cantilevered fourth floor contains the main exhibition space as well as a glass-walled gallery with a panoramic view of Boston, from  a small knot of downtown buildings at one end of the visual span to Logan airport at the other.

Links:  Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston;   Via You Tube, a guided tour of the exhibition by Nicholas Baume, curator of the exhibition and chief Curator of the ICA;  Via You Tube, 30 seconds of the red wax being applied ; a Flickr set showing the installation of the show, including unpacking and the application of the red wax;  Roberta Smith’s review for The New York Times Sebastian Smee’s review for The Boston Globe ; Richard Lacayo’s review for Time magazine    

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Bill

Knocking heads in the lobby of Yale University Art Gallery

People have become very friendly at Yale Art Gallery since they moved the information desk to the center of the first floor. I never found the place unpleasant to begin with, but I almost expected aromatherapy and a neck-rub after the radiant greetings from security and the desk crew during my recent visit. What a sweet bunch!

You’ll find a number of interesting pieces in the lobby nowadays, but three pieces in particular, lying in fairly close proximity one to another, have needled at me in the week or so since my visit: Ann Weathersby’s “Untitled” from 2002, Robert Arneson’s “Last Gasp” of 1980, and Zhang Huan’s “Ash Head No.3” from 2006.

Weatherby1

Ann Weathersby, Untitled, 2002

If, like me, you spent too much time in front of the TV during the 1970’s, you probably thought “Brady Bunch,” on first look at Ann Weathersby’s “Untitled.” But Sherwood Schwartz would have balked at the sterility of this arrangement. It’s a cheerless piece, nine naked and emotion-free portraits like so many Caucasians caught sitting on examination-table paper, waiting patiently for the doctor to arrive, examine, and modify their Prozac dosages. The stark lighting and lack of any other visual stimulus drove me to look for scars and other hints at imperfect living, but I couldn’t find any.

Weatherby_detailUntitled detail

In contrast to the preservation of the Kodak moment seen in family photos (I realize this might not be a family), these images preserve, like taxidermy-sporting museum cases, specific arrangements of anatomical elements. I view “Untitled” as a meditation on the shapes and forms of flesh as it changes through life, and, simultaneously, a joke about the futile yet persistent sense we have, against all knowledge, that our physical existence has any real endurance.

Arneson_lastgasp

Robert Arneson, Last Gasp, 1980

The chuckles are more on the surface in “Last Gasp,” which flanks Ms. Weathersby’s “Untitled” to the right. In this piece Robert Arneson decapitates himself and sets his bearded head, mouth agape, on a pillar-like pedestal. A wash of bluish glaze drips down from the pedestal top like so much rancid, deoxygenated blood. The hair feels plastered down as if in a final stress-induced sweat, and the beard reads less like hair than like so many maggots feeding on Arneson’s putrifying flesh. He’s made other self-portrait heads on pedestals, but unlike them “Last Gasp” comes off as a true death depiction through the ‘pose,’ the slack jaw and dead look in the eyes. It reads as a comic meditation, the artist laughing while brooding upon the limits of his own existence, both physical and cultural. In what might be a supreme act of self-effacing humor, Arneson presents his own severed head as a trophy for his enemies.

ZhangHuan_AshHeadNo3Zhang Huan, Ash Head No.3, 2006

Flanking “Untitled” to the left is “Ash Head No.3,” by Zhang Huan. Cut like a classic statuary portrait, the head of an Asian male lolls very slightly to one side atop a simple three-legged pedestal. It’s not clear to me whether the subject is deep in meditation, asleep, or dead, although from reading of Huan’s Buddhist influences I suspect it may not matter. The nature of the ash puzzled me at first, until I saw this video:

“Ash Head No.3” is composed of the accumulated meditative acts of thousands of devoted Buddhists. It exists because of a persistent, pervasive human need to face mortality and to somehow grow beyond it, to master existence and its limitations. There’s an irresolvable tension at its root, the refusal of flesh to accept what it is and the ironic ability of the human psyche to comprehend and to yearn for something tangible beyond the limits of flesh. I’m reminded of sutras in which readers seem to be encouraged to become trickster-heroes, to outwit reality through understanding and subverting the illusions it puts forth as truth. A portrait is an illusion of sorts, the molding of form into a recognizable mass. “Ash Head No.3” appears as though it might tumble back into a heap of incense ash at any moment, making it a telling portrait of human identity, composed as it is of so many disparate temporal elements cohering through ego’s pervasive illusion.

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Lenny

“Living Without Them” at the Katzen Museum

Installations… because I’ve seen so many of them, after a while they begin to repeat themselves, and thus it takes a lot for an artist’s installation to really impress me.

Having said that, if your’e in the Washington, DC area anytime until July 27, you just got to drop by the Katzen Museum of the American University and see the installation “Living Without Them” by Lilianne Milgrom/Saul Sosnowski on that gorgeous museum’s first floor.

Because the Paris-born Milgrom and I had exchanged words years ago about our experiences in living and being in the Middle East, she asked me to write some words about her installation for the museum’s brochure, and I did so after viewing her plans and a video about it.

It still didn’t prepare me well enough for the actual visual reception that my maind received when I saw it installed at the Katzen.

When I was in my late twenties, I had the honor to wear the uniform of a naval officer in the United States Navy, having worked my way up to a Lieutenant (Junior Grade) from a Seaman Recruit. One of my most memorable images from my naval career resonates with Lilianne Milgrom’s installation on a personal and visual note, and thus why I think that my voice, as a critic, writer, artist and curator, coupled with my own history as a young Navy officer in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983 gives me a special set of eyes to interpret “Living Without Them.”

There is so much stuff in rubble; it all looks so big and solid on television, but until you get your hands on a chunk of cement or twisted steel, and pull, and pull, and pull, to try to move something out of the way, at the same time that you are listening to cries and screams from those trapped below, you become superhuman.

You are in shock, and rubble moves.

Milgrom knows this, and her installation shows it. And it is because Milgrom lived in the very volatile Middle East for many years, and like the poet Jose Marti wrote: “I know the monster well, for I have lived in its entrails.”

art by Lilianne Milgrom

Milgrom lived in the paradoxical world of the Middle East, where bombings, bombs and their after effects were daily common life. And her psyche and her artistic persona were forever shaped by terrorism and a world where murderers are often heroes to some and demons to others.

Her knowledge shows in the acid perspicacity of her installation, which is coupled with the power of words from Prof. Sosnowski – at first they shock us with a solar plexus punch of destruction.
from installation by Lillianne Milgrom
Then the floating porcelain pages, gently moving in the aftermath of an explosion deliver an anti-punch that is exponentially multiplied over that of the power of the explosion itself. It plants on the mind of the viewer the violence of the act, which maybe sought to kill ideas that went against the bomber’s belief.

“Ideas cannot be killed!” shouts Milgrom in this work – “you can kill people, you can kill poets, you can kill artists, you can kill women who refuse to hide their faces, but ideas will survive and even dance in the death wind of your violence, and in their dance they will spread and multiply.”

And they will use your terminal actions to ensure their infinity and their germination.

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Admin

Things to do in Canada when you’re dead or have a cat

In Toronto they have really good veggie-dogs that you can buy off of street vendors.

I haven’t been MIA. I’ve been in Canada for the last couple of days. Toronto specifically. Before I even exchanged Washingtons for Queens I started reading artfag, which is now my favorite reading material in all of the art world. Here’s a little excerpt, though you should read it all, and everything else

“Ladies and gentlemen, we realize that the following may not be the best thing for a critic of any stripe (let alone a stripe so platonically ideal as ourselves) to admit, but we are nothing if not truthful; as soon as we received the notice for the “Love/Hate: New Crowned Glory in Toronto,” exhibit at MoCCA, we were prepared to make the full swing to the right of that titular forward slash and hate every bloody inch of it.”

When I read it I had never thought about The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art before, but after reading I began to love/hate it like I would an old college chum whom I’m insanely jealous of. The question for me was; would Toronto live up to such great criticism?  

In many respects the answer was sadly no, but in all fairness the majority of my gallery hopping occurred on Father’s Day and many of the places I attempted to visit were closed. Below I have laid out my Canadian odyssey:

Nancy Davenport’s “Bombardment” (photograph)

 

THE POWER PLANT

Not Quite How I Remember It

Most internet searches and guide books for arts and culture in Toronto, Canada will have you believe that all roads lead towards The Power Plant. It seems like a promising exhibition space for contemporary art, and takes an hour or less to get through. Admission is free for the summer right now. 

The exhibition I attended explored artist’s re-enactments of the past. I enjoyed the “documentary” photographs of Nancy Davenport, but thought the entire show belonged to Diane Borsato’s three channel video installation, which was a recreation of three famous performances; Bonnie Sherk’s Public Lunch, in which the lady sedately eats a meal while ravenous tigers devour raw meat next to her, Joseph Beuys’ Coyote: I like America and America likes me, in which JB isolates himself with some felt and a cane in a room with a coyote, and Maria Abramovic’s Dragonheads, in which the lady sits surrounded by ice and covered in boas and pythons.

Diane Borsato with kitty cat /Joseph Beuys with coyote.

The twist in Borsato’s piece is that all of the bad-ass hard-core parts of the performances (i.e. the snakes, the coyote, and the tigers) are replaced by a kitty cat. My slightly mean reading of this is that artists of today find it impossible to live up to artists of the past, my other reading of this is that it makes the legendary work of Beuys, Sherk, and Abramovic seem more then a little ridiculous. 

“Bitch Killin’ Machine” (photograph) by FASTWURMS.

 

PAUL PETRO SPECIAL PROJECTS

Wild Things

This exhibition was a bit silly. I was happy to be introduced to the work of FASTWURMS, which is the trademark and joint authorship of Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse.

A good interview and flicks of some of their work can be found here

A “gum blonde” by Jason Kronenwald

 

LE GALLERY

A Fresh Pack of Gum Blondes

I was very excited to see these works of Jason Kronenwald; portraits of blondes crafted from gum, until I saw them in person. I discovered that the “paintings” were so covered in acrylic resin that you couldn’t even tell that they were made of gum. If something is made of a food-product I want to see it rot. (Don’t worry Jason, I’m sure I am in the minority with that opinion.)

I tried to visit TPW and  XSPACE and did visit AWOL gallery (if you can’t say something nice. . .). Toronto has many back alley’s (mostly off Queen’s Street) full to the brim with graffiti, and it’s a beautiful city for just walking around. I found many things to appreciate without ever walking into a gallery. 

C’est tout. 

 

 

 

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Lenny

Studio Visit: Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

She has been called “one of Boston’s most prominent artists,” and as evidence it has been submitted that the Cuban-born artist has shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, the Smithsonian, the Venice Biennale, and many other prestigious venues around the world.

And last year the Indianapolis Museum of Art hosted “Everything Is Separated by Water,” a mid-career retrospective of Campos-Pons’ paintings, sculptures, photos, and installations.

IMA poster for Campos-Pons exhibition

I visited Magda, as she is usually called, and we met in her four year old gallery, Gasp, which she and her husband opened in 2004 — and which according to the Boston press “specializes in group shows of young experimenting artists and stars from the international art circuit that her own stature attracts. It’s one of a handful of galleries in town that aren’t primarily commercial or institutional.”

“You look like one of my cousins,” she told me with a huge smile as we met; the smile would rarely leave her face during the three plus hours that I spent talking with this dynamo of a woman.

Campos-Pons was born in La Vega, in the province of Matanzas, Cuba, a sugar plantation town where her Nigerian great-great grandfather worked as a slave in Cuba’s brutal slave system, in which sugar mill owners often owned thousands of slaves and where life, death and rape were common parts of life.

In Spanish, Matanzas means “Slaughter” or “Killings” — imagine a US state or a Canadian province named “Slaughter.” It commemorates the actual suicide deaths of tens of thousands of Taino Indians who committed suicide rather than become slaves to their white masters from Spain as Kubanacan (as Cuba was known in the native Taino language) became a colony of the mighty Kingdom of Spain.

When Cuba’s native population died out from suicide or disease, the Conquistadores began the America’s slave trade and brought in African slaves purchased from the Arabs, and mostly on the brutal labor of their backbones, a new Cuban nation was forged eventually.

And as an Afro-Cuban woman, Campos-Pons has used her cultural and racial background the initial key theme of her own work, with long ties to her Cuban homeland, but also with a powerful influence of her evolving Americanosity.

We talked about Cuba, about her background there, her education, her growing disappointment with the intolerant and repressive Castro regime, her trials and tribulations in leaving the land that she loves so much, her marriage to the talented American musician Neil Leonard, the struggle to get a legal visa to the US - during which she lived for a year and a half in Canada on art fellowships with her husband visiting her on weekends, before she was allowed to immigrate to the US at the end of 1991.

We switched between machine-gun Cuban Spanish and English, as she described her gallery, which she is heroically building one room and idea at a time. I was amazed by a wide-planked wood floor that Magda constructed herself, the doorway that she cut through the wall, the translucent plastic materials that she uses very elegantly to cover up and separate areas and to create a resident artist’s studio, and the new expansive room that she is now building. “This gallery is an art installation in progress,” I thought to myself.

We discussed her then current show at the gallery, Are We There Yet? - curated by Dawoud Bey. It featured work by Howard Henry Chen, Alan Cohen, Christine DiThomas, Aron Gent, Rula Halawani, Surendra Lawoti, Curtis Mann, Oscar Palacio and Adriana Rios. I was particularly impressed by the work of Curtis Mann and Christine DiThomas. Mann’s compositional abilities and a very effective technique of distressing paper in order to acquire a good ground for the piece, really yields very memorable imagery, while DiThomas’ photographs transcend the focus of the show and float - aided considerably by the very elegant presentation and soft focus - a sense of time and place; they can be “modernized” images from the 50s, 60s or even colonial America.

Magda was enthusiastic and energizing in describing the show and the artists, and relating - from one gallerist to another now - the struggles and successes of running an independent art gallery: dealing with landlords, helping the emerging Brookline neighborhood establish a separate but individual identity rather than become another cookie-cutter gentrified neighborhood. She is a hurricane in action, one moment telling me about her plans to talk to a friend restauranteur into opening an Iranian food cafe that would feature artwork; the next moment talking about forging friendships with the new small businesses that have opened since they opened Gasp.

In the middle of this, a Chinese lady pops into the gallery. “I just cooked these and wanted to give you some,” she tells Magda as she hands her a bag full of noodles. She is the owner of a tiny new Chinese restaurant down the block. It is the perfect exclamation point to our conversation.

I’ve been there for over two hours and I still have not talked about her own work, but I have been hypnotized into talking for hours about Cuba, the gallery business, art, race, immigration, the press, Cuban food, cooking, her neighborhood, Boston, and even issues dealing with the plight of illegal aliens.

Her 15-year-old son Arcadio walks in, already half a foot taller than either one of us; it is time for Magda to check his homework assignment. They disappear for a while in the back of the gallery while she checks his laptop report. Later on I find out that Arcadio’s homework assignment is in fact assigned by his parents in exchange for computer gaming time. The assignment? To write four gallery or museum reviews a month. “He is really developing into a very good writer and critic,” the proud mother tells me.

When I am not here/Estoy Alla by Magda Campos-Pons
“When I am not here/Estoy Alla” c. 1994 by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

We digress into a discussion about children and she laughs as she tells me about the surreal experiences of a Cuban black woman in the wee hours of the morning taking her very Bostonian child to hockey practice in a freezing ice arena and also relates Arcadio’s visits to Cuba and how well he fit into the Cuban world of La Vega.

My wife calls and wants to know if she can run from the downtown hotel to the gallery and meet us. Magda, who also runs regularly, changes gears and gives her directions and is amazed when my wife shows up forty minutes later. “You ran from Copley to here already?” she asks amazed.

We start the gallery tour all over again - this is a gallerist possessed by love for her art and love for her gallery and the opportunity that it affords to the artists that she show. “We have a different model,” she tells us. “We have a curated show each month,” she explains, “with a thematic exhibition by several artists as well as a show by a new, emerging artist in the back room.”

We walk upstairs to her studio, on the way up she apologizes about the mess that we’re to expect. “All artists do this,” I think to myself. I have never been to a neat artist studio, and hopefully I never will.

She immediately begins to root around for things and artwork and post-cards and books and memories. “I never throw anything away,” she warns us as she dances around the crowded two rooms that make up her studio space. The walls are packed with both work by other artists, really advanced work by her son, and works in progress by Campos-Pons.

Like most Cuban artists, Magda is highly trained in nearly every facet of the fine arts: she is a printmaker, a painter, a sculptor, a videographer, a photographer and even a glass artist.

Over the years her photographic work has been a prominent member of the leading visual imagery of contemporary art; the one below (of Magda and her mother) once graced the cover page of the New York Times’ art section…
Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

As most artists who dance at the top of the art world know, it is a hard dance, and continuing exploration of what fuels the fire of being an artist becomes an essential part of continuing success.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons. Backyard Dreams #5, c.2005.

We begin discussing her latest works and Magda dissolves and melts in front of my eyes, and reforms herself into a fountain spewing multiple jets of information at once.

There’s something unique about this talented artist - she’s the Cuban art world’s Pocahantas to the New Yorkish John Smith art universe. Through her and her work, Cuba’s bloody African entrails are exposed, perhaps to the chagrin of Miami’s powerful and nearly all white Cuban-American population. Like Pocahantas, she learned English harshly and quickly, and also like Pocahantas, she learned to adapt as needed and become a new entity in an almost colorless new world.

Through her and her art, first Bostonians and then the art universe was given a high dose of Cuban art education, and within that art world even African-Americans were also initiated: “you are not the only ones, my Northern brothers and sisters,” her artwork shouts to the four corners of America.

It is all a good thing for art, because the most important achievement that her artwork has caused is to deliver Campos-Pons from precisely all those boxes and labels that we are all so fond of trying to pin on artists.

In a very strong sense, her artwork and her success has liberated her from labels, and while her Cubanosity has certainly fueled her artistic personna and productivity, it is her talent and work ethic as an artist that now has her as just a brilliantly talented artist simply producing great art.

Art.

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