Archive for June, 2008

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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Joy Feasley at Locks Gallery

 

Weaving Spiders Come Not Here

June 6-July 11th

Locks Gallery, Philadelphia

“you made me so very happy” a 2008 painting by Joy Feasley

Anyone who has read more then a couple of my reviews will have no doubt noticed an extreme weakness in my writing. (a weakness that surpasses any spelling or grammar issues) I can wax for at least a paragraph on the things I don’t like and rant long and hard on philosophical differences between myself and the artist in question but I find it really difficult to describe why I like something. For instance; right now I find it hard to say anything else about Joy Feasley’s new exhibition of paintings at Locks Gallery besides; “Awesome, go see it for yourself”. Perhaps this is because I find it incredibly boring to describe something you like when you could instead be experiencing the thing. Why would you, dear reader, waste your precious time reading when you could be looking? 

It occurs to me that I have never loved it when a writer has gushed on and on over a description of a beautiful sunset, or the quality of light on water, or a mountain landscape, or the way the air makes you feel sometimes. These are things to experience, things I have never trusted words to accurately display, these are things you have to feel. Joy Feasley conveys these indescribable things in her paintings of night skies, sunsets, frosts, and landscapes and she conveys them with a nod to the fact that it isn’t possible to accurately describe them. 

Installation view of “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here”

You couldn’t call one of her canvases perfect. You might call them human, a little awkward, frail. Her production is artless; everything, from the plexiglass that creates her star/snowflake/geometric shapes, to the wooden frames of her paintings appears to be cut by an amateur hand. Everything is imperfect and yet this imperfection makes the description of a beautiful sunset all the more plausible. 

You could compare Joy Feasley to several painters (readily Chris Johansen, Clare Rojas, and Sarah McEneaney come to mind) but she doesn’t come off redundant after the comparison. I think her painting is genuine. I love it. It makes me very happy. 

“Hiking with You”

 

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A TOUR OF PHILLY II

 

Starting with the South Philly Biennial and heading north. 

This is part 2, start at part 1

Nate Ross and Don Thompson’s interactive landscape painting on view at The South Philly Biennial. 

 

Before I move farther north, it occurs to me that I ought to talk about a commercial space that has done just as much for the life of Philly then any of the non-commercial ones, that is Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. They host an annual group show of emerging Philadelphia artists and often end up representing or at the very least showing some of them. They have done a bang-up job of showing more class then (most) the rest of us (and certainly more class then I), under the direction of William Pym and I have every reason to believe that when Amy Adams (who is currently the director of Vox Populi) takes over things will keep moving along swimmingly. 

 

While on the subject of commercial spaces and because it’s next on my list anyways, let’s talk about Jenny Jaskey Gallery, located in Northern Liberties, an area of Philly best compared to Williamsburg in New York because of the fast and hip way it is being developed. Jaskey has recently filled a niche in Philadelphia that was really needed; a new commercial space committed to the area that isn’t afraid to take a chance. 

A detail of the landscape by Nate Ross and Don Thompson.

 

At the tip of the new northern development is the Crane Building, which is a vast warehouse of artist studios and galleries. I am almost afraid to mention it because it is a “one-stop-shopping” type of place, and the ease of it may discourage you from trekking the Philly streets to search out the harder to find (but I admit; not always better or even friendlier) art habitats. The Crane’s massive Ice Box Gallery has hosted some of the most ambitious exhibitions in Philly and there is always a worthwhile show at the non-profit Nexus

Past the Crane it gets a little harder to find a good place to eat and the real estate prices dive a tiny bit, but we’ll head north anyways because there are still some great things to see:

A recent Howard Kleger installation at The Institute. 

The Philadelphia Institute for Advanced Study (pifas), might be the hardest place, besides maybe Copy, to visit when there isn’t an event happening. While we’re on the subject, even though art happens there and artists have their studios there, I’m not sure that you can properly describe The Institute as an art space. They have seminars and lectures and workshops and language clubs. They have a tiny gallery called GUS.

Farther away then anything else, to the point where even I get lazy, is FluxSpace, a space most famous for having an amazing Oliver Herring exhibition. I suggest that anyone in town for the day try to make it out there, perhaps because they are so very far away, they are very friendly about setting up an appointment for you and every time I have gone out there it has been worthwhile.

There is more that I forgot to mention that I may have time for some other day. For instance, I have not even attempted to talk about the West; populated predominately by The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Institute of Contemporary Art, The Esther M. Klein Gallery, and The Slought Foundation. I also forgot to mention a space called Little Berlin, that I will no doubt review often, but I’m tried now so let’s break for lunch shall we? 

Anyone actually interested in visiting any of these spaces can certainly contact me, Annette Monnier at annettemonnier@gmail.com, and maybe I can help set up some kind of tour. 

The End.

 

 

 

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Lenny

Secrets by the Thousands

If you’re reading this blog, then chances are that you are quite familiar with the world’s most popular visual art blog, Frank Warren’s amazing PostSecret project.

The PostSecret story is one of the great art success stories of all time; a success story that probably would not have happened before the information explosion facilitated by the growth of the Internet.

It’s quite a simply brilliant concept. A few years ago Warren pre-printed a few blank postcards and began handing them out at various locations, most famously at the 2005 Artomatic show in Washington, DC. The idea was that people would write a secret on the card and then mail them back to Warren, who would assemble the secrets as an art installation, both online as a blog, and in galleries where the cards would be displayed.

The project exploded.

Not only did the blog become one of the web’s most popular sites, but PostSecret also gave birth to multiple best-selling books, dozens of gallery exhibitions all over the nation, and almost a whole new form of art, as the cards evolved and morphed over the years. For the soft-spoken Warren, it gave him near cult-status in cyberspace and college campuses, and his exhibitions and lectures pack them in at a rate that leaves most new acolytes shocked.

Frank Warren of PostSecret

And now Frank has a storage issue! In the above photo we see Warren holding the box that he bought originally to hold the cards that he expected to get back. Behind him are over a quarter of a million cards that he has received from all over the world so far.

Visit PostSecret here or mail your own secret to:

PostSecret
13345 Copper Ridge Rd
Germantown MD 20874

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A TOUR OF PHILLY (in two parts)

Starting with the South Philly Biennial and heading north.

Though it took up no more then a parking lot roughly the size of one-third a football field (if that) and I’m not sure if it can yet properly be called a biennial, this being the first and possibly last year of it’s existence, the “South Philly Biennial” seems about as good event as any to stop and reflect a little on the myriad of players in Philadelphia’s art scene. I’m going to be writing about the shows I see in many of these tiny and often hard to find alternative spaces, or smaller commercial exhibition spaces, so I thought it might be a good idea to give you some background. . . as often times with art, the location of the show and the people who made it possible are overlooked. 

The blog for the event, is a very good place to start, as I’m guessing Athena Barat (the biennial’s organizer), wrote nice little summaries about many of the groups involved. Through it you can become intimate with legendary Philadelphia art-bloggers Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof, who were both given awards at the biennial for “helping art grow”.  Libby and Roberta seem to get to just about every show in Philadelphia, always check artblog before a trip into the City of Brotherly Love, or you might miss something you would rather not. 

Libby Rosof and Roberta Fallon receive an award from Athena Barat. 

One of the only actual “South Philly” spaces represented at the biennial was Bobo’s on 9th, a gallery that is also a band formed of Nick Payne, Phil Cote, and Drew Gillespie. Bobo’s has some really wild shows that often involved outsider-looking drawings, neon colors, and tape. Famously, one of the gallery’s window displays, that involved photo-copied money, was confiscated by some government officials. My favorite part of the exhibition space is the fact that they change the floor covering for every show (one month it might be covered in cardboard, a rug, fake stone, etc.). Reading their biennial page I have become aware that the spaces’ founders are orchestrating something for Foxy Productions (New York) in July, so you might be hearing more on them. 

Moving North, I’d like to introduce you to two of the cities longest-running artist-run spaces, and by their very obvious differences open your awareness of just some of the differing paradigms artists work under these days:

Space1026 constructs a structure for Locally Localized Gravity at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia

Space 1026, Located at 1026 Arch Street, in what is pretty much the southern tip of Philadelphia’s “China Town” neighborhood, has been around for ten plus years now. They are a huge force in Philly, summoning large amounts of energy from their ever rotating and large mass of members, which at Space basically means a person who rents a studio at 1026 Arch Street, or anyone who would like to donate their time. Screen-printing is the thing at Space 1026 and I like to imagine that years from now I will see someone on Antiques Roadshow announcing that “the prints they have were made in Space1026 an artist collective in”. . . because there is certainly a “Space-look” to most of the work made there, and much of it deserves to have it’s little place cut into history. Famouser Spacers include Andrew Jeffery Wright, Jim Houser, Thom Lessner. . .  (I could go on but just check the website, if I try to name everyone someone will get upset with me). 

In direct contrast to the paint-splattered DIY floors of Space1026 stands the white-walled Vox Populi, an artist-run for-really and legally non-profit with board members and everything. Vox currently resides on the 3rd floor of 319 N. 11th St, on the northern tip of China Town, not more then a five-minute walk from Space1026. Vox Populi has been around for 20 years (not all of them in the same location), like space it has an ever-rotating cast of artists, but the artists at Vox seem more geared toward conceptual thinking and the experience of an exhibition at Vox is usually more cerebral then visual. You will never be able to say that the artists of Vox Populi all make a similar product, use a similar medium, or even have the same underlying ideology. 

Next to Vox, on the same floor, in the same building, is a little space I help to run called Copy. Copy can be loosely described as an experiment in trying to figure out what art means today, each month is curated by a different member. Copy is in the same location as the first gallery I was ever a part of, Black Floor. When we changed the name and ended the first venture, we simply made the space smaller and sanded off the black paint. 

Luren Jenison and Jamie Dillon sand away Black Floor to make Copy.

There’s still more to come, so look for part two of my little tour tomorrow!

 

 

 

 

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