Thursday, April 26, 2007

Torpedo Factory

Katherine Knight

The Torpedo Factory. I’ve been hearing about it from the moment I set foot in DC. At first it was ‘New artist in town? You must visit the Torpedo Factory! You’ll love it.’ Once I was renting studio space from an artist’s co-op in Takoma Park, visitors would say ‘these studios are nice, but have you been to the Torpedo Factory? Wow, now there’s a facility. The artists there are really something.’ Then, when I was teaching classes at a community center in southern Maryland my adult students would say ‘I used to take classes at the Torpedo Factory; the teachers there are really top notch. If it wasn’t for all the traffic on that bridge…’ I won’t pretend that this didn’t get really old, really fast. The final straw, though, came about a year ago when I heard a lengthy NPR segment expounding upon the many virtues of the Torpedo Factory- their talented artists, the good they did in the community, their lengthy history in Washington (it’s in ALEXANDRIA). That did it. What did these guys have that the rest of is didn’t? Hadn’t my studio been thriving in DC proper for over 20 years? (Yes, it had!) Wasn’t my community center doing good by offering cheap art classes to underprivileged kids who didn’t get art in school? (Yes, it was!) What made these guys so special? Fancy real-estate? I had had it. The Torpedo Factory was dead to me. They were my nemesis. I vowed never to set foot in the place.

Until today. I don’t know what came over me. Maybe, it’s because my first year of grad school is rapidly drawing to a close and I’m already freaking out about life after school. It is likely that I will remain in DC for a while, and if the Torpedo Factory really is the bee’s knees in DC, maybe it’s worth looking into. I could at least check it out. What harm could that do?

It pains me to admit that at first glance, everything I’d heard about the Torpedo Factory seemed to be true. It is beautiful. The first floor studios are huge, and each backs up to a two story window. A few of these windows look out over the Alexandria marina and the Potomac. It houses five separate galleries, the Art League school, 82 working studios, and over a hundred individual artists. The space is modern, open, and inviting. Plus it was surprisingly busy for 3:00 on a Tuesday afternoon.

I started to notice things, though, as I wandered around. Most of the studios are occupied by two artists if not more. This would be fine except that the majority of each studio is dominated by a large exhibition or display space, with a tiny or even miniscule functional workspace crammed in the back. In most cases, it would be impossible to fit more than one person into the workspace at a time. How do they get anything done? Do they organize shifts? Furthermore, all of these work spaces are pristine (even the ceramics!). Out of all the studios I visited, I saw not one mess to rival the mess in my studio on its cleanest day. It was at this moment that I noticed the most shocking thing of all: I was looking at all of this through glass. One entire wall of each studio -not the windows I mentioned earlier, but a wall facing the open interior of the building- is made of glass. You can go in your studio and shut the door, but there is always the possibility that someone will be looking over your shoulder. Many of the artists I saw were working on tiny collages or watercolors at the sort of desk appropriate to a CEO’s office. Others were working on easel paintings while chatting to friends or visitors over their shoulders. Remember that this building is open to the public and busy; even on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s like an artist petting zoo. The only people who seemed legitimately at home were the jewelers.

I cannot imagine being creative in such an oppressively clean, non-private environment. How is anyone able to actually connect with what they’re doing? I realize that disorganized privacy might be a particular neurosis of mine, so to this end I decided to question one of the artists about the Torpedo Factory lifestyle. Who knows; maybe the benefits outweigh the inconveniences. Finding someone to question proved to be difficult; not because the artists were rude or standoffish, but because I felt so bad about interrupting them. Finally, on the third floor, I encountered someone who seemed amenable to questioning. Laura Weaver Huff is a printmaker who has been a member of the Torpedo Factory since the 1970’s. She was able to answer all my questions.

The Torpedo Factory is a completely artist-run organization (there are no hired administrators). Each artist has to be juried in by a committee of artists/ teachers/ curators who are not affiliated with the Torpedo Factory. The selection process takes place once a year. There are many more admitted members than there are individual spaces. Admitted members who are not studio lease-holders are Associate members. They are allowed to sublet space, or a portion of a space, from full members, or to join a group and utilize a group studio (such as the Printmakers Inc). Artists who neither sublet nor join a group are put onto a waiting list, where they stay until a full member picks them for a sublet/group, or their number comes up. These individuals have to keep reapplying every year until they gain access to studio space.

This is where the conundrum begins. Each artist pays dues each month and rent, which is dependant on the square footage of the studio (or whatever you work out with your lease-holder, if you are subletting). The city of Alexandria subsidizes the rent because otherwise affording anything on the waterfront would be impossible. I did not ask specifically what the rent was like, but owing to the number of people squeezed into the studios I imagine that it is not inconsequential, even with the subsidy. In return for subsidizing some of its best property, the city requires that the Torpedo Factory do its part to ‘educate’ the public about the arts. This means that the studios are open to the public, and that the artists themselves are required to be there to keep their studios open during business hours between three and four days a week (the number of required hours per week increases with the number of artists subletting the studio- some artists expected to volunteer up to 30 hrs/week!). Thus the conundrum: who can afford it? The amount of volunteer hours would make it difficult-if not impossible- to have any kind of regular job, but who can afford the rent without a job? Laura Weaver Huff explained that there are basically two types of artists at the Torpedo Factory: Those who actually sell enough work to pay the rent, and those who are retired, are being supported by their spouses, or are otherwise wealthy enough to absorb the cost.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the Torpedo Factory: it is a self-limiting system. To be a successful Torpedo Factory artist there is pressure to be commercially appealing; moreover to be commercially appealing to the type of consumer that is attracted to Old Town Alexandria (you can draw your own conclusions about this). Those artists who are exempt from the financial pressures must belong to a certain tax and often age bracket, and are also likely to produce a certain kind of art. Furthermore, the place itself, with its glass walls, tiny workspaces, and aestheticization of process, would drive away any artist unwilling of making their work in a living room-like setting. What that ultimately means is that at the Torpedo Factory you will find nice art. It is well crafted, pretty, and would look good on any wall, on any coffee table, or in any niche next to the telephone. It is comfortable. With one exception (Rosemary Feit-Covey’s dark prints) it is not challenging or thought provoking in any way.

I get the feeling, though, that the Torpedo Factory is fine with all of this. I don’t think they are bothered one bit by the fact that their self-limiting system keeps more ambitious, less conventional, or frankly younger artists out. In fact, they might even prefer it that way. There are benefits to working at the Torpedo Factory. A lot is done to promote and publicize the work of their artists. They have the opportunity to teach classes or workshops at the Art League School to supplement their income. And of course there is the prestige and attention that comes with being associated with such a highly visible organization. I find it frustrating that these resources and opportunities are being provided to a section of the art world that may not really need the help; namely the well-off, appropriate, and/or commercially viable. I do not deny that this section of the art world is as valid as any other, but wouldn’t these particular people be as successful in any other setting? The Torpedo Factory, in my mind, would be far more exciting if it provided space and opportunities for emerging artists, experimental artists, and people who were actually engaging in their work. Sadly this will never be; primarily because the Torpedo Factory has no interest in doing that, but also because the entire infrastructure, from the way the group is organized to the building’s design, would be unable to support such a change. The Torpedo Factory has sought out and filled a very specific niche, and there it will have to stay.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Freebasing with Blackberries

Thomas DeBari reviews Tony Just
at Gavin Brown Enterprise

There were two types of work in the Tony Just show. The painting work was further divided into two categories. First was painting work from street posters ripped from their everyday context. Second were canvases with pop images in a “trapper-keeper” aesthetic. The work commanding the room was sculptures featuring break-dancers after Keith Harring and a few after Picasso.

The sculptures were painted to random effects. The idea of brings together someone like Harring, a king of free speech and the positive message in graffiti art, with community. Also he brought in outside monumental sculpture indoors on a smaller more manageable scale. Are they bootlegs? In appropriating from other artists, generational masters if you will, different approaches in application created a loss in cohesiveness. With that aside it must be the greatness of expression. The variation of culture, different aesthetics, envelop the same starting forms. This is the spirit of the high eighties.

Information not presented to you in the beginning of this exhibit was that the thirty something sculptures while all made by Tony Just were painted by other people during a party. Evidence of this cannot be found anywhere. Here is the disconnect though. It seems important to think about them as being completed in a painting party. Yet not stated the work is confusing. In doing such a varied degree of representation the work is all over and grasping anything is tough. Feeling overwhelmed and crowded by them you just want to dismiss them. I truly believe in the template of the work and the idea of people coming together and the quality of that experience. I think that by not announcing the sculptures as a reason for that event, belittles the magic of the moment. Also in knowing the people involved it feeds a like a wonderful idea of the artist community also present in the 80‘s. Also it mimics the Eighties community of Basquiat Scharf and Haring all on one block making work.

With and without information I foresee two conclusions one in which is positive the other is problematic. The problematic sculptures felt crazy with unresolved identity. The positive sculptures were a diversified field of self-expression. It sucks informational details matters this much. Polke loves it.

The street pieces were edited with paint to show in the moment of concision beauty of the everyday 21st century. Painted out and glazed over the surface a field of paper floated off the wall due to its crustiness. The information obscured was still there under the omitted of info. The edges contained the info that they were ripped down. Promoting the refinement of the work lets the work transcendence with the craft not being problematic. What he does now has a basic system aware of where it came from. That is now the strength of the work. This work also is just caught between the gallery and the street. Provocative, yes, but overall it suffered from the strength of the contextual cube.

The other painting pieces are of street culture. Text messaging and simple design formats dominate the work. Outsider informational pieces talking about aesthetics’ of pop culture. Neo-Expressionism, fluorescent color, and the small scale defined this work. All so diverse there were even cloud studies in pastel and a neon pastel reinvention of leopard print. I feel as if it was a throw back to Monet painting the factories in Paris or even still the moment in Vanilla Sky when “The Cruise Character’s” life becomes computer generated. Allover the work varied greatly. It was hard to grasp the obsession of this person. It felt like a conceptual distancing was done towards this Idea of expressionism. This distance feels like youthful agitation. Some sort of playful wonder at the contemporary culture. Puzzling jargon because of it being out of context, reaffirms the everyday by products of man being mutated. It’s attachment is to the techno based society we have become. Technology shapes and informs society changing us into mutated humans. The show is puzzling and uplifting.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Now On View

MFA Thesis Exhibit on the Third Floor
Katzen Arts Center

Marty Weishaar
Jenny Walton
David Waddell
Kelly Ulcak
Max Kuller
Rebecca Johnson
Ellen Ann Gallup
Thomas DeBari
Graham Childs

*reception held on May 5, 6-9pm

Andy Warhol is a Black Hole/ Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting by Bradley Chriss


I am used to thinking: I fucking hate Andy Warhol. I don’t mean a casual dislike or a simple philosophical disagreement, I mean: I fucking hate Andy Warhol. I hate his personality, his work, his whole attitude, everything that I felt he represented. I hated “pop”, I hated his paintings, his films, his sculpture, his performance, everything. I felt like Andy and all of his activity was just a cheap ploy to make a buck. My perception of his work did not change a lot for me over time. In undergrad when I was learning how to be a purist/modernist, a single artist making sincere work and authorship, I thought his two-dimensional work was just silly, boring, pointless, good for the moment it was in, but bad for (A)rt as it evolved. I felt like it lacked any cross-generational self-sustaining quality, that Martin Johnson Heade had more laps in him than Warhol did. My ideas changed slowly about Andy. I graduated from undergrad with my lousy fucking B.F.A., got into a world where money was more and more important and really o.k. to get and make and use. So even though my core ideas about Andy never changed (still just a move to make a buck) I didn’t feel like it was a “cheap ploy” anymore, just a good one simply because he had more money than I had (have). But that’s no reason to like Andy’s work any more or less; other artists have been incredibly good at making money. I saw a Jasper Johns exhibit recently at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Target sponsored the event, and I began to think about how Target is getting involved in (A)rt and helping people in the lower and middle classes feel elegant and wealthier and more “in” with the upper class. I thought about how Target is a mediator between classes as a seller of a look and feeling of class. I then thought (approximately): Holy shit, Target is pulling a Warhol. I looked around the Johns show and all I could see was Warhol, everywhere.

I am now becoming accustomed to thinking: I am scared shitless of Andy Warhol.


"If you want to know about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

--Andy Warhol

“Andy Warhol’s cool, ironic pop masterwork “Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot)” of 1962 was the top lot of the evening. Larry Gagosian (on behalf of Los Angeles collector Eli Broad) beat out only one other buyer to acquire the work. Broad paid $11.77M to its consignor Irving Bloom who had acquired the painting in a trade with New York collectors Eugene and Barbara Schwartz in 1967. At just 20 by 16 inches, this hand painted oil on canvas from 1962 might be one of the most expensive per square inch Post-War works ever sold. Based on a black and white photograph by early Warhol collaborator Edward Wallowitch, this “distressed” version of the Campbell soup can anticipated the “disaster paintings” with their existential contemplation of the darker side of modern 20th century society.”- Brian Appel, July 2006

Let me be clear for a second, I have never studied Andy Warhol in a classroom. I never took a class on pop, or Warhol. My tastes (for better or worse) always landed me somewhere away from Warhol, somewhere with more guilt, somewhere weird where my hidden ex-protestant guilt for pleasure still resonated as a positive like somebody trapped in the German High Gothic. I have also had a tendency to believe myself too much. I would give myself a read on work or a body of work and stick to it for too long, I defined my art around “fuck you’s” to other art, in other words I always defined my work according to work existing around me instead of actually looking at my own work as critically or as vitally as others. Until three weeks ago Andy was a “fuck you”.


Life becomes an anomaly in Warhol, living things lose their claim to life, walk an edge, become vampires or zombies, things with a half-life. They sap their strength off of reality, feeding off of the real, only to show the real as weak, impermanent and doomed. Death becomes the norm as the dark matter seeps into the light. Warhol’s work to me is like Beckman’s Apocalypse (but in the round), the black paint becomes the sun/light/life, the dead take the place of the living, no wonder Beckman didn’t finish that thing, I would be scared shitless too. It is the half-life quality of Andy’s work that is a part of what makes him a poltergeist. When he died and his work still fed off of life, showing us the desire for life and the stupidity and weakness of it, Andy became a monster, hating and loving us, needing us for his work to continue, even though he was gone, buried in the void.

When I see shows of dead peoples work I tend to classify them in a “ghost” category. They are dead, no longer producing and this is what we have left of them, which is enough to put some work in a room and to attach their name to it, whether or not they would approve or disapprove. The “ghost” is the type of artist that works through their life and tries to achieve some goal while they’re living, surrendering all or most of their control over their work in death (presumably hoping that the work internally has self control). Andy Warhol is not a ghost. Andy Warhol is a Poltergeist. Andy, I believe, was very aware of his work after his death and wanted it to continue to evolve in a more controlled way. Interview magazine is still here, Basquiat is still hot shit, the Warhol foundation is perpetuating his goals, and he has his own museum/culture bunker. Andy is like Carnegie, in 100 years you’re still going to see new projects paid for with Andy’s money. Not only is he in the (C)anon, but he is still an active force in and around all types of art worlds.

But painting, sculpture and film and performance weren’t his only work. He was pretty good at making money.


The Gagosian had showed some Andy Warhol’s this past winter in New York on 21st and 24th Streets. I saw the show, it was fucking huge. The paintings were huge, the room they were in was huge, the gallery is huge, and the void of feeling I got, or didn’t get from the work was just as huge. I wrote it off, the void was too much, too disenfranchising. At places like the Gagosian, they don’t put the price tags next to the work, which means that the price of one piece in that show was enough to buy all the houses on the street I grew up on. This used to not be the case for Andy’s work. But, now it is the case, and now the work is all of a sudden different. Why? Andy’s work seems to emptying out faster and faster, the greater the dollar amount the less the work becomes about the subject it first appeared to discuss (but this may have always been the case). His work is only gaining in value at a rapid rate, the more his work gains value the more of a monument he becomes to himself, perpetuating the (C)ool from beyond the grave. I am now aware that one possibility of fulfilling (C)ool would be to own an Andy that costs more than my old neighborhood. But, I can still buy a t-shirt or poster or whatever at the online store, or at his museum. (C)ool is still accessible.

Warhol was a mediator, a mediator between all classes. He made (A)rt that everybody wanted. He constructed (C)ool and sold it to everybody. If you didn’t like his work, tough shit, he made it so that your work “ wasn’t like Warhol” not “ Warhol’s work isn’t like mine.” It is hard to tell what class Andy Warhol was a part of. He was all classes at different times in his life, but he tried to even himself out for everybody at all times too. Andy knew that the middle and lower class wanted to feel better, to feel good. They wanted to feel like the upper class, they wanted the sensations of pleasure that the rich had (and we still do). You wanted some Warhol, you could probably get it, even if it was a knock off it didn’t matter, at least you had the style, a resonance of the (C)ool. They wanted the feeling of drinking a Coke like/with Elizabeth Taylor permanently embedded in their lives. How anybody could get this feeling was the same access point, commodity. Andy was the guy who owned/owns commodity in (A)rt, hell even art. All a/(A)rt has to say yes or no to commodity, hence yes or no to Andy.


The living always seem to recognize their life by recognizing the dead. This recognition puts the living into the positive space, because the dead do not belong to our world any longer. It seems like people believe that the dead always position themselves against the living. The living, however, have to position themselves against a poltergeist. The poltergeist is a force, a thing to reckon against, it is not just an apparition, a poltergeist will try to manipulate the world which they no longer are a part of, try to reverse the role permanently. This typically does not seem to happen to often in art, it happens in governments, corporations, religions, but not art all that much, maybe with ideas, broad concepts, but individual artists, no way. What dead artist forces me to position myself against them? DaVinci? No. Titian? No. Duchamp? No. Warhol? YES. Why? Because Andy is the first artist to completely tie his a/(A)rt into every primary aspect of a culture. He is the first to take all aspects of access and catharsis in a capitalist, consumer middle class culture and use it and appropriate it. Andy and our culture became the same thing, they fused, he turned himself into a physical manifestation of the culture of American life, and it spoke through him like God should speak through a pope. When Andy died, so did our culture, like a sun collapsing on itself, but the death of the light does not mean the end of things, we just turned into something else, something recognizable (?).

Andy/America/Art became a black hole, because when he died everything was sucked into that void with him, inverting itself and presenting life as a position against the dead, no longer the dead being forced to position themselves to the living. Andy turned art and artists, capital a (A)rt or no, into a representation, a reflection in the mirror no longer needing the body to exist. We still recognize ourselves, but the recognition is a trick, a sleight of hand, what we, what I have become, I am not so sure. I am sure that

Andy swallowed all of the art and (A)rt in America (who knows where else?) and turned it all into a single void, a black hole, a void that has so many names and only one face.

Copyright: Andy Warhol museum

Jasper Johns: An Allegory of Painting, 1955-1965

At the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

I’m from Ohio. I have spent most of my life in Ohio, poor and unable to travel. So my experience with Jasper Johns has been lived entirely through reproduction. I was exhilarated/excited/interested(?) to see this major survey of Johns work at the National here in Washington. The first weekend of the show being open I hopped on the green line down to the National. I find my way to the show, which is located in the east wing, and wham, I’m staring at a room full of Target.

Wow, this is the kind of show you almost only hear about in Ohio (sometimes a show of the scale will show up in Cleveland sometimes Toledo but not nearly enough). All of the early hits from 1955 to 1965 exemplifying everything I’ve learned about John’s from the text books: Doubled meanings, primary colors, targets, transcendence, tonal mastery, mechanical, sculptural, ephemeral, over all a tremendous challenge to Greenbergian notions of painting. His encaustic surfaces are delicate, meditated, colored body parts becoming a code that disappears once it is seen. Arms stretching from nowhere(somewhere?) past geometrical spheres reaching into an ether that hasn’t (hadn’t) been seen in art for centuries. Holy studio machines built onto canvas indicating long gone activity, but always pressing our imagination into wondering what the action was like for him, but also for us. Johns blurs the lines of how the viewer is accustomed to seeing themselves in relation to paintings. Should we shoot the target, should I move the ruler? The moment I imagine the action I have already shot the target and moved the ruler, a secret transgression holding strong in the imagination like a pubescent crush.

Just because the crush is pubescent, does not mean we should ignore the monumentality of the crush.

Goddamn, what is that chill? This show pamphlet seems awful heavy and cold, clammy almost. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. There’s a goddamn ghost in the room? How did that ghost get here? That is no ghost, that is a goddamn poltergeist. A poltergeist laughing, and hurting us, poking fun at the living and we can’t even see it, but it is here(there). How the fuck did Warhol get in the room?

“This exhibition is proudly sponsored by Target as part of its commitment to arts and education.” -The National Gallery Web Page.

What is Target doing here? What is Warhol doing here? Why does Target want to put on this show? It looks good I guess, it’s pretty funny, the play on Target, I guess? There’s more to this though. Target has recently been buying artists images and putting them on towels. Rob Pruitt and Kehinde Wiley are just two examples of artist who have agreed to put their work on Targets towels. Target has also been hiring famous fashion designers to make lines for the “every man” for a few years now. Why is Target making this foray into the ivory tower that is high art, why make a move into the canons of now and then?

Warhol just had a show at the Gagosian this past fall. Of course Warhol did not have the show because he is dead, however he did have the show because he is a poltergeist. Warhol had a direct tie with the everyday, the pop, people wanted to look Warhol, buy Warhol looking things, endless posters of Marilyn. Warhol being so closely tied with capital, makes the resale of his work not a posthumous condition like the high fetching prices of a Van Gogh, no the work is permanently tied to its perceived value, the cross generational revival and sale of Warhol’s work becomes more the subject than all the last suppers and Elvis’s and Marilyn’s Warhol could ever manufacture.

So what? What does this have to do with Jasper Johns and Target?

Target is employing a strategy that was invented by Warhol, make art accessible, immediate, and cool and then make some loot. Like Warhol, Target is selling a concept of coolness to the middle class, and even me the lower class. Target did not sponsor this event out of a moral need to educate people, they’re not helping anybody except the museum by doing this, and themselves I suppose. Popular culture sellers (whoever and whatever it/they is/are?) have noticed that one need not constantly invent new things to increase profit. One must simply wait ten or fifteen years and reintroduce something that was already popular. Introduce the old as if it was new. This is most common in kids toys and television shows: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Batman and on and on. Target is using more subtlety with the adults then with the kids, but the strategy is the same. Target is going to make art cool again, make art accessible, affordable and popular. Target is taking art out of the ivory tower and putting it on a towel.

The coolness and access that Target is selling is only a ruse though, just a cheap catharsis. Warhol’s work is only gaining in value, the insurance to have the John’s exhibit must have been astronomical. The art market is not slowing down, it only seems to grow and grow. The cost of work is not declining. So for a person like myself to be able to own a chunk of Wiley on a towel will provide me with a moment of joy, the joy of pretending to be of a class I have no access to, and only dream about. There is something noble about taking art out its ivory tower, and giving it to people in a way they can afford.

But, Warhol, Warhol is laughing, that goddamn poltergeist making/revealing(?) a joke out of one of the few ways most Americans know how to make themselves feel better. Warhol is taking my catharsis and appropriating it, even after his death. His work is constantly pointing to an increasing void of meaningful subject in a consumer lead culture. Warhol has become a black hole crushing all attempts by any mediator to bring art down from the upper crust into the lower. Warhol is pointing out and laughing, because he claimed ownership of that game, showing us the futility of our lower class catharsis, the rich still have rich stuff, and the poor, still have the poor stuff, as great a void as the last supper in silk screen, a growing banality spreading like a disease, like a quiet cultural epidemic.

The problem becomes this: Once I read that Target paid for this show on the back of my free pamphlet, Target becomes the mediator for me in a free museum, bringing Jasper down from the Upper Crust to me down in the Lower Crust, and as Target mediates Johns work to me, Warhol takes over, blanketing the show, showing me how much of a fool I am for wanting to enjoy this, that real enjoyment of this work would only come from a direct ownership of the objects.

Warhol’s poltergeist is laughing from just beyond where I can see it, but I know it’s there, killing any goddamn joy some poor jerk from Ohio can get seeing his first big Jasper Johns show.

p.s. Jasper, you should have said no, I would have waited for you.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Oliver Vernon, Macro/Micro

Irvine Contemporary

April 14-May 19, 2007

by Lauren Rice

Before even looking at the press release, our resident genius, Geoffrey Aldridge, asked me which artists Oliver Vernon was influenced by. When I could not adequately answer, he exclaimed, “This guy’s work looks like Matthew Ritchie and Julie Mehretu.” You go, smarty-pants, because before I could even explore Oliver Vernon’s assessed fixation with the work of the aforementioned artists, Irvine Contemporary’s press release identified his influences by stating, “His work represents a bold and confident fusion of many trajectories in contemporary painting never before combined in one coherent vision: post-pop surrealism and visionary art, high-tech science fiction, figural abstraction, street and graffiti art, and the multi-layered, complex visualizations of Matthew Ritchie, Julie Mehretu, Fred Tomaselli and Ryan McGinness.”

After doing my research, I realized that Vernon’s work most resembles the work of British-born Matthew Ritchie. Literally, Ritchie’s The Living Will, 2004 could have been inserted into Vernon’s show without anybody noticing. This is by far my biggest complaint with Vernon’s recent body of work. While Vernon’s graphic/calligraphic aesthetic is clearly affiliated with the work of all of the artists listed in the press release as well as additional art historical examples, Ritchie’s influence on Vernon is far too overpowering. Furthermore, I also felt that Ritchie, Tomaselli and McGinness’ decision to often break away from canvas painting into installation was perhaps something that Vernon could have been more influenced by. Vernon’s sand castle sculpture in the center of the gallery did not add to or explore concepts presented in his two-dimensional works, but seemed to be the start of a completely unrelated idea. Although architectural elements existed in his paintings, I could not quite figure out why he chose to build a sand castle instead of a form that more closely related to his paintings. Perhaps this dissimilarity was heightened by the homogeneity of the painted works.

All of Vernon’s paintings seemed to be details of a larger situation, like small glimpses of a missing whole. While I feel that this is relevant considering the artist’s interest in the organic facets of the body in relation to outer space, I would have liked to see a few pieces that were either more contained by the canvas or that stretched beyond the canvas. Vernon made a few attempts at painting on irregular rectangular shapes, however, I feel this challenge could be explored further.

Initially, I was drawn to Vernon’s work. The repetition of modules, calligraphic-like designs, and even maps in the paintings did have a relationship to science fiction and technology that seemed to add to the history of abstract painting. On this same note, I also liked that from a distance the work could have been digitally generated, but upon moving closer I was aware of the artist’s hand, his struggle in the painting. However, I was also aware that the artist could benefit from a palette expansion/exploration. I felt that the same greens, light blues and neutral tans were used in almost every painting.

In light of my criticism, I feel that in my own work, which often deals with the blurring of interior dwellings and exterior landscapes, could benefit from relying more on the disconnect between the interior and exterior. If Vernon is really interested in the idea of macro and micro, perhaps he could also disconnect the two and explore each idea in a separate painting. Or, even exploring the two ideas in the same painting without allowing them to merge could be interesting. Overall, I just feel that not enough exploration had been put into the work. It seemed to rely to heavily on an aesthetic that is currently en vogue and was not done as well as the other artist participating in this particular aesthetic.

Yoko Ono, Wish Tree for Washington

Sharon Servilio

Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn is much more successful in setting the tone and expectations for Yoko Ono’s “Wish Tree for Washington, DC.” In keeping with Ono’s tradition of simple and concise instructions, the museum simply provides a sign letting visitors know about the tree’s presence in the sculpture garden as well as our own role in creating the piece: we are to write down our wishes and tie them to the tree.

Ono’s work always rides the edge of the poetic and idealistic, ever threatening to teeter over into hokeyness. Reading the description of the wish tree is enough to make a jaded art viewer cringe, expecting the worst. However, upon actually seeing the piece, my own cynicism was disarmed. A reading the various wishes showed that the work has a very human quality. The wishes included the expected altruisms (“I wish for world peace”) but also the politically charged (“I wish for an end to abortion,” “I wish for no more Bush”), the sarcastic (“I wish Yoko would stop making music”), the alarming (“I wish for more guns in my house”), the completely random (“I wish I could catch a seagull with my bare hands”), the libidinal (“I wish for hot sex”), and the heartbreakingly personal (“I wish for a cure for MS,” “I wish my mommy and daddy were back together,” “I wish for my brother to come home from Iraq”). The piece seems to involve an honesty and a breadth of human experience, as well as a democratic nature. As one gentleman in the sculpture garden explained to his children in a matter-of-fact southern drawl, “Some people wish for small wishes and some people wish for great wishes, but we all get to wish for what we choose.” It is satisfying to note that Ono will not read or censor any of the wishes but will include them all in a peace monument she will build in Iceland. This is refreshing in a time when many equate peace with heightened security, which involves censorship and suppression.

Ono did not invent the idea of the wish tree; it is a Japanese tradition to tie prayers to a tree. It seems almost like an offering, returning the paper back to its source. The wish tree is in some sense a modern day version of prayer; in a world where many no longer believe in a god, people still want their inner desires to be heard.

Ono’s work lacks the heavy-handedness so common in the art world today. Her instructions are minimal and so she allows participants to bring their own interpretation to the work. This may be why it can succeed even when dealing with potentially cheesy subject matter, and why there is not a wide gulf between the actual work and how the artist or curator frames it.

The Collection of Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen

Lauren Rice

My opportunity to tour benefactors Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen’s apartment was certainly a rare and generous honor. That said, I am certain that any person that experienced claustrophobia in Whistler’s Peacock Room experienced it twofold under these circumstances. I am reasonably comfortable in tight spaces, particularly those crowded with inanimate objects as opposed to people so I was engaged instead of overwhelmed by the situation. The Katzen’s art collection is so large (and continues to grow!) that every spare wall surface was covered with examples of work by artists as diverse as Nancy Graves’, Pablo Picasso, Larry Rivers, Dale Chihuly among many, many others, including AU’s own Don Kimes and William Willis. Sculptures and glass works sprouted out of every corner. Most table surfaces were also used as exhibition areas. Furthermore, the artworks were surrounded by fantastically ornate furniture and patterned rugs, which added to the eccentric personality of the Katzen’s home. I find it extremely difficult to base this review on the quality of every individual piece of work at the Katzen’s apartment, or even give a complete sense of the breadth of work on view. Although, a few works stood out in particular, such as lovely little drawings by Modigliani and Milton Avery in addition to a Bill Willis painting entitled Heroes, I believe it to be much more relevant to discuss the Katzen’s space as a whole, specifically considering the Katzen’s collection of chachkas or kitsch collectibles. Furthermore, I believe it relevant to discuss kitsch’s relationship to fine art in general. Several questions come to mind based on the Katzen’s display of both kitsch and fine art. What are the differences between the two? Is there a different system of value for each type of work? Finally, how significant is humor’s role in an artwork? ( I don’t think I can answer these questions in a short review. However, I believe they are important to consider in relationship to the Katzen’s collection.)

Kitsch is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as “Sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts,” whereas the term fine art is described as “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics and architecture.” Clearly these definitions value high art over kitsch. However, given many significant artist’s use of kitsch as their works subject matter and/or the “productness” of art as their works content, the matter becomes stickier than the above definitions allow.

In addition to being kind enough to open up their home to such a motley crew of art students, the Katzen’s also lead the tour, providing myriad anecdotes along the way. Dr. Katzen was most engaged with his stories about his chachkas, delightedly showing us his collection of battery-powered dolls, including a furry gorilla that sang “I don’t want to work, I want to play drums all day” as it naturally banged on two miniature bongos. A metal sculpture of Picasso with a girl bathing in his stomach sat beneath several Picasso drawings and ceramic works. Many of the works were slightly off-color, not my grandmother’s Hummel figures by any means. My favorites of these were a series of sculptural works made by a Texas artist depicting scruffy, southern bandits hiding in trees, waiting to shoot the good guys. When I said this aloud, Myrtle, who is a painter herself, decidedly stated that she preferred the serious works while her husband liked the humorous trinkets. So I got to thinking about art and seriousness. Although I do believe that making art should not be taken lightly (and neither should looking at it), I have found myself looking more and more for humor in my work and the work of others.

Considering that the Katzen’s collection was overridingly Modernist, I began to wonder why the paintings (except perhaps for a few Larry Rivers relief paintings) and chachka collections were so disparate. Why, for example, aren’t the Katzen’s collecting Jeff Koons whose work focuses on “Art” and kitsch? Or even John Currin (I say this through gritted teeth)? For indeed, the close proximity of the chachkas and the paintings made a simple statement: art and chachkas are both products. The Katzen’s display of their collection knocked down the intellectual and emotional effect of the painted works while it built up that of the chachkas. However, the crammed apartment and the display of the chachkas added humor to the otherwise sober collection of paintings.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Barbering: A Dying Craft (And An Undergraduate Show, Floundering At Best)

Cory Oberndorfer

As a child, I spent little time alone with my father. He played the traditional role of the family breadwinner and house handyman. But once a month, we would get haircuts. Being raised in the Midwest, this meant a trip to the barbershop. It was easy to spot with the rotating white, red and blue barber pole outside. The clientele consisted of men. Old men with little hair, middle-aged men with slightly more hair, and on Saturdays, men with their sons. There was also no shortage of mustaches in the area. For years I was under the impression that barbers were required to have names with three letters or less. There were always men like Ed, Ted, Tim, Mac, Bud, Bob, Joe and at least two Jims per shop. Barbering was a family tradition and there were usually brothers or fathers and sons running the shop, and one thing was always certain—when you came in you would get a haircut. And by this, I mean you would get “the haircut”. There were only slight variations on the outcome of the haircut.

Today, for the first time in many years I visited a place I was proud to recognize as a true, honest-to-god barbershop. Hidden in a nearby residential area next to a bowling alley(natch) was the Westwood Barbershop. I didn’t need to make an appointment as the place only takes walk-ins and cash. As I walked though the door the nearest barber removed the cape from the back of his chair in a silent invitation to sit. He was a man I would estimate to be in his 80’s and I could only assume he held this profession his entire life. He deftly wrapped my neck, draped the cape over me and proceeded to begin his work with an electric razor. He used his comb to part my hair on one side and asked how I wanted my hair to lie. It took me a second to understand what he meant since I haven’t owned a comb or parted my hair in over fifteen years and my hair rarely “lies” in any particular fashion, if it “lies” at all. He emphasized that I would require hair gel to get it to lie properly at the length he was cutting it. Apparently, he takes great pride in getting hair to lie in a certain way.

As he worked on my hair with nary a word spoken, I enjoyed the time to drink in the surrounding atmosphere. The shop was small, with room for five barber chairs lined up near a counter on one wall and red vinyl chairs lining the opposite wall. There were no sinks, as a barber does not provide washes. There were no hairdryers or styling products. In the vinyl chairs sat several older gentlemen reading the paper, an act I can only assume they would continue for most of the morning. In the other barber chairs were several more gentlemen with hair only on the sides and back to be cut, as well as a man in his 30’s sitting in a chair adjacent to his 10-year-old son getting a haircut. There were probably four generations being represented. Very few words were spoken in the shop. The only conversation I could hear was that of the man next to me discussing what type of fertilizer he uses(he used to use manure but now uses this processed stuff that contains no phosphorus). The five barbers all wore the same hairstyle and matching short-sleeved blue shirts that zip up the front. None seemed under the age of 65. I’m sure the barber in his 60’s was probably referred to as “the kid” or “the new guy”. From my vantage point, I was able to see several of the name plaques displayed in the stations. They read “Joe Santini”, “Nick Santini” and “Nickolas Santini”. It just seemed right that they were all family, despite the fact that some of the names were longer than three letters.

I watched as the men displayed a mastery of their craft. In the ten minutes that my haircut lasted, Nick worked effortlessly with his razor. He never needed to check the lengths or even out the sides, as they were executed perfectly on the first pass. The top was trimmed with just a few passes of the scissors. He then placed warm shaving cream around my ears and along my neckline before taking care of the edges with a straight razor. I peeked over at Joe in time to catch him trimming the nose hair of his client.

At this point you may be asking yourself why I’m writing an art review of my trip to get a haircut. The answer is simple…pride and dedication to craft. These men had all chosen their lot in life and honored the tradition that came with it. Just as a painter makes a mark, the barber works his shears. He provides a work of art for the individual to present to the world. Call me nostalgic, but I can’t help holding the highest level of respect for these barbers and their art. Plus, Art is a perfect barber name.

American University Undergraduate Exhibition

As an American University MFA candidate, I was very curious to see what our program was churning out on the undergraduate level. After all, these are the students representing my school and its reputation. But having high hopes and expectations runs its risks…it’s easy to be disappointed. After viewing the show, I was wishing I were merely disappointed. Instead, I was appalled and ashamed.

I am well aware of the fact that the visual arts department does not emphasize Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees and that very few students seek this degree. But I also know that there are many students introduced to the arts through curriculum requirements. I also know that American University has pedigreed faculty members teaching these students. So what went wrong?

I did not see any sort of art education or instruction in the work presented in this show. There were drawings and paintings of a very naïve nature. Knowledge of line, value, contour, form and content were hinted at, at best. I did not see what I would consider a single finished piece. Most were incomplete or presented as studio sketches stuck to the wall with pins. The museum wall, I should add.

Was this show representative of the curriculum? If so, the requirements have a misguided standard. Were the advanced students not represented? Doubtful. Most artists would be thrilled at the opportunity to display their work in a museum. Is it possible that our high-quality instructors do not push the students? Perhaps they do not push them to create “finished” work, but even if the exploration of the work is the focus I could assume at least a few final products would slip through. Does the problem lie in the facilities provided? Although the new Katzen Art Center is not extravagant, the studio spaces are definitely functional and should not be a hindrance to the process.

These are just a couple of the questions the administration should be asking themselves in search of a significant improvement to the program. It is now weeks later and I am still speechless over what I saw. I could as more questions or make more observations but to be honest, I am at a loss for words.

There were, however, two parts to this show. The second part being that of the graphic design students. In my opinion, this part of the show faired better than that of the drawings and paintings, but the standards and expectations are different. Most design students with a bachelors degree are expected to enter directly into the professional world. Unfortunately, with the accessibility of computer-based design programs this field is not as elite as it used to be. There are now many graphic design degrees that can be completed over the internet, in condensed programs and through night classes. This severely ups the ante of what is expected from a quality University program. Pleasantly, it was obvious that craftsmanship is stressed in this program. Not only was the work well-presented, but the cleanliness in the layout and content was also apparent. Which leads me to the one word I would use to describe the design part of the exhibit…predictable. I saw no work that varied from the aesthetic prevalent in Print Magazine. This is often what happens when design is being taught in an educational environment by other designers. I have a feeling that many of these students will be disappointed and frustrated when they begin positions in the professional world. A world full of restrictions, and worse, clients. Their once beautiful product layouts fall victim to cost issues, quality issues of inks, paper and other materials, the bad taste of clients who feel obligated to override any decision the designer has made, and the issue of overall practicality.

To the design students, I applaud your efforts and wish you luck in your pursuits. It is not your University education that will form your career, but the first few years floundering in the real world. Brace yourself.

**With this criticism, I am admitting the fact that I am making generalizations of the show as a whole and intentionally do not mention the success or failure of individual artists.

Virgil Marti and Pae White: Directions, Hirshhorn Museum

The wall text for Marti and White’s installation in the Hirshhorn’s lobby calls it a “transformation” of the space. In its failure to live up to this buildup, the actual work is ultimately a disappointment, seeming more of a collection of disparate pieces than a space-altering installation or cohesive collaboration. The installation, however, does contain the beginnings of several interesting ideas, which would be convincing and powerful if explored further.

There are four main components to the installation. Marti created decorative sculptures in a playful goth style, with curtains made of golden bones as well as colorful chandeliers composed of resin branches and flowers and hung from the ceiling with macramé. White’s contributions ranged from a giant window decal portraying a network of bright cartoon lines to lumpy sofas draped with tapestries that depict enlarged scraps of newspaper or yellow pages.

Approaching the museum from the outside, one senses an avenue the artists could have investigated further. From outside the building, the lobby has the appearance of a gloomy, somewhat creepy church. White’s window piece acts as an out-of-control, spider-webbing stained glass window, while Marti’s chandeliers glow within. It brings to mind the idea of the museum replacing the church as the new institution that controls art. Upon entering the lobby, unfortunately, the effect is lost. The original feel of the space tames and overpowers any new feeling suggested by the installation (unfortunately, it’s difficult to find shows where that museum feeling doesn’t overpower the work). In the interview White reveals that she had considered “covering the windows completely with huge heavy tapestries;” this raises the question of why she did not choose this route, which may have helped bring about that desired transformation of the space.

The most interesting idea in the installation (and the place where collaboration is most evident) is the dialogue between Marti’s curtains and White’s newspaper sofa. White’s sofa transforms important news events into objects that are sat on while their significance goes unnoticed. In an interview she discusses the awkwardness of “a tragedy in Somalia yesterday becom[ing] furniture in Washington, DC, today.” In light of this, Marti’s curtains are laden with a new layer of meaning; the bones allude to the atrocities we commit or at least allow in order to maintain our golden wealth and status. Together, these two pieces speak of first world commodification of third world suffering. An advantage of this idea is that it doesn’t necessitate the aforementioned transformation of the space, since it seems more like a subversion of the system from within. However, it seems the artists stopped short of truly exploring the fertile territory hinted at by this idea.

In the end, the problem may be partly rooted in how the museum frames the work. In addition to the “transformation” issue, another example is a relic from the artists’ first collaboration at Skowhegan. Originally it acted as a suggestion box to fuel their interactive piece. The museum text justifies its presence as a reminiscence of the artists’ history, an allusion to the nature of collaboration as an exchange of suggestions, and an object that “echoes the form of the museum shop.” The first two reasons are valid, but the third makes me think, “So, the suggestion box and the gift shop are both sort of rectangular boxes; isn’t that kind of a stretch?” This is diagnostic of an overall attempt of the museum to justify the installation through a description that may not actually apply, thereby confusing viewers with wrong expectations and awkward inconsistencies.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Francis Bacon: Paintings from the 1950's

The Milwaukee Art Museum

by Amy Misurelli Sorensen

I had marked Francis Bacon’s “Paintings from the 1950’s” on display at the MAM on my “to do list” while I was home in Wisconsin for spring break. I wanted to proceed into the exhibition with a dispiriting voice, recently disappointed by a “muddy mess of a pope” painting on display at the Met in New York. Looks like the Met had an abstract pro-Americana agenda at the time of this purchase; it is a diminutive and mediocre piece in comparison to the works on view in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, The Met, one of the most attended art museums in the world, gives little recognition to Bacon as one of England’s most celebrated figurative painters of the twentieth century.

I was also disturbed with Bacon’s film memoir, Love is the Devil, which I viewed days before the exhibition. The film is a half-ass documentary on the tortured life of Bacon and strategically highlights the tortures he administered to himself, friends, and lovers. The opening scene initiates a narcissistic portrayal of Bacon with an aggravated burglary. Bacon calmly encounters the thief in his studio, he propositions the thief “Go to bed with me and you can take anything you want.” The documentary did not depict his expulsion from his family at the age of sixteen for being gay, his father’s brutality towards the young Bacon, or the devastating losses of his beloved nanny and male lover. It did not emphasize the anxieties and struggles of learning to paint. The film made Bacon out to be a monster. It works successfully with its visual distortions mimicking the technique Bacon used in his paintings. However, it did not compliment Bacon’s psychological sensitivity of portraying the figure. The self-consumed, loathing monster, I envisioned, died at the doorway of this exhibition.

In this exhibition, I recognize the trials and tribulations Bacon faced with the process of painting. The paint and his content bastardized Bacon, like his family. Bacon knows human tragedy and despair in their most primal states. He is also a great painter.

Upon entering the gallery, I am confronted by a photomural of Bacon’s infamous studio littered by resources. The walls are spotted, used by Bacon as an unlimited palette. The studio is windowless, with the exception of a skylight, echoing the chaos and confinement found in his work. On display are more than fifty paintings from a prolific decade in Bacon’s life. Many of the paintings, revealed to me for the first time, are on loan from museum and private collections from around the world. They reflect the self-taught Bacon’s plagued life. After familiar abandonment, he encompassed a Bohemian lifestyle dominated by the bottle, sex, and gambling. He lived without a fixed address for years all while establishing himself as an artist. It was not until the 1950’s that Bacon gained financial and artistic success, thirty years after he started to paint.

Bacon taught himself to paint. He dedicated himself to habit and practice. He studied from the masters. “Figure with Meat” on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, depicts a screaming pope and flanks of meat showing Bacon’s obsession with Velazquez and Rembrandt. Also included in the exhibition are sphinxes, animals, studies from and of Van Gogh, and triptychs of the twisted faces of friends, including protégé Lucian Freud. Pablo Picasso, Bacon’s greatest influence may be credited for the dynamic single figure compositions referencing cubist and surrealist traditions. He researched film, the media, and his community with an intuitive eye. He questioned the process of painting-by-painting on the wrong or unprimed side of the canvas. He used tools, including his hands to manipulate the paint. He vigorously built up the paint to create seductive textures juxtapose saturated washes. His palette is rich and brilliant with fuscias, crimsons, pinks, and minty green. I dare say, in Bacon’s biggest defense, the quality of reproduction of his paintings do little justice to their presence in person. I actually compared the exhibition catalogue to the works on the wall at the exhibition, and the book’s plates were dull, off color, and dark in comparison. What a shame and discredit to such an exemplary show.

I encourage fans and foes of Bacon to view this traveling retrospective; it will be traveling from Milwaukee, WI to Buffalo, NY in May.

Be skeptical of reproductions, good paintings should look better in person.

Be critical of the early financial success of young emerging artists and thieves today (umm Cicely Brown). It takes years; sometimes even a lifetime, to be a great painter.

Bacon takes the throne as the father of macabre. I admire his rejection of the two major art movements, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, of his time. He stays committed to the figure and instead of joining forces with American Modernism portrays the devastation of modern man.

“It comes from such a buoyant, optimistic person – these dark images, and that’s part of his genius,” – Michael Peppiatt curator, biographer, and friend of Francis Bacon.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Gucci Partially Anew by Andrew Blair

Pulling away from the Celebrity ideal that plagued Tom Ford’s Gucci Frida
Giannini has brought back moderation and humility to the Gucci name. Frida
Giannini, the new head of both the female and male lines, has made it a goal
to bring Gucci back to its modern roots, an idea established by Tom Ford (1).

Admiring Ford’s desires to reestablish Gucci’s vintage icons, Giannini
has engulfed every line with patterns, fasteners, and straps that where once
associated with the name Gucci.

With further aspirations to bring Gucci’s look full circle during its’ 85th anniversary,
Giannini remodeled the sexed-up Gucci instituted by Ford. With warm brighter
colors that dismissed Ford’s dark rich colors Giannini shows her appetite to develop
Gucci’sallure with her personal interpretation of Guccio’s original vision (2).

In an attempt to change Gucci’s appearance successfully Giannini’s first
line was light and fun, a departure from Ford’s serious and imposing style.
With the use of Gucci’s vintage Flora print, and the revamping of the Gucci
monogram with a lighter less dense typeface Giannini began Gucci’s ascension
past Ford’s sex driven ideals to the realm of beauty (3). From the catalogue to
the ad campaign Giannini’s progression towards Gucci’s principles of beauty
and métier where unmistakable.

No one would deny that Giannini’s progression of Gucci was necessary. With
the absence of Ford, Gucci needed to become anew, and Giannini answered this
desire cohesively and abruptly. Though the majority of critics would agree
with this, many thought that Giannini’s choices where safe and uninspired
(2). It is this overwhelming consensus that seems to hinder Giannini’s
vision, at least in how Gucci has chosen to portray her latest summer line
within their ad campaign.

With the notion that Giannini’s last line was too innocent, Gucci has chosen
to reestablish Ford’s mentality of sex over beauty. Because of this lack of
faith in Giannini’s vision Gucci has refashioned ads from Ford’s time at Gucci
in an attempt freshen up Giannini’s clothing.

With Ford’s vision of glamour infused into the current advertisements for
Gucci, Giannini and Gucci’s vision has been hindered. Using Ford’s tactics
deters both the progression of Gucci and the ideas instituted by Frida
Giannini. If Gucci is looking for a long term relationship with Giannini one
may assume her lines will need some breathing room away from that which was
Tom Ford.

Work Cited:
(1) Gucci by Gucci, Douglas Lloyd. Vendome Press, New York. 2006
(2) New York Times, Cathy Horyn,,
March 30,2006.
(3), Nicole Phelps,, June
14, 2006

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Water Media on Paper Competition at Heineman Myers in Bethesda

Katherine Knight

I attended the opening of the Harriet L. Newbill 2007 competition for Water Media on Paper. I went to support four of my classmates who were entered in the competition: Amy Sorensen, Kelly Ulcak, Marty Weishaar, and Sharon Servilio, but I also went to see which one of them would win the competition. Since four out of the six contestants were from American University, it seemed a no-brainer that one of us would take away the $4000 prize, the only questions was who. Each of their pieces were so different: Amy’s provocative and confrontational acrylic-tinted prints, Kelly’s delicate organic patterns in watercolor, Marty’s colorfully abstracted contemporary landscapes, or Sharon’s quirky and whimsical gouache collages of everyday scenes. Each of them seemed to be using their very traditional media in a thought-provoking and non-traditional way; for the most part by denying the pastel softness and fluidity typically associated with water media, in favor of bright colors, sharp edges, and tight control.
In my estimation, this re-evaluation of the media should have been one of the criteria for a contemporary water-media competition. Unable to select a clear winner for myself, I decided that the prize would hinge on the judge’s personal taste. Little did I suspect what a problem this would turn out to be.

I noticed that something was off before I even left for the gallery. The reception was held on Sunday, as I have said, from 2:00 – 4:00 in the afternoon. While this is certainly not unheard of, every other reception I have ever been to has been held in the evening, and usually on a Friday or Saturday. Maybe they are hoping to attract the after-church crowd, I thought to myself sarcastically, and then laughed as I tried to picture my stereotypical church-goer face to face with one of Amy’s prints.

Upon entering the Bethesda gallery, I realized that my church hypothesis was not far off the mark. Scattered among the expected crowd of proud parents, art students, and neighborhood culturati was a significant showing of stately, pearl and tweed be-clad elderly men and women who indeed looked as though they came straight from church. A glance at the program confirmed my suspicions: the event was sponsored by the National Society of Arts and Letters, which I knew to be a non-profit, volunteer organization designed to ‘create opportunities’ for young artists. Who has the time and finances to ‘create opportunities’ for young artists? Elderly wealthy people. Yup, the tweedies were in charge. (A later visit to the NSAL website’s photo-directory was further validation. In fact, the Washington DC chapter, one of the oldest chapters, was originally known only as the Chevy Chase chapter.)

Wait, wait, wait. I stopped myself before I became too cynical. The competition was judged by a collection of outside artists and curators, among them Judith Brodie, prints curator for the National Gallery, Stephen Bennet Phillips, curator for the Philips Collection, and Nicholas Simmons, local watercolor phenom, and the only judge present at the reception. Surely these are just the sort of forward thinking people to appreciate the work of one of my friends.

Let me pause here to describe the work of the other two contestants. First was Shelly Voorhees; an Angelina Jolie look-alike whose darkly ethereal acrylic ink and watercolor figures seemed straight out of Interview with a Vampire (a fitting observation for which I can unfortunately not take credit). Next was Jennifer Davis, whose oversized watercolor portraits of young women (presumably her friends), while technically impressive, seemed stale in their photo-perfection and were very, very conventional. Incidentally, at 17 Davis should not even have been allowed in the competition (the age range being 18 – 29), but whatever.

When the results of the judging were announced I was disappointed, if not totally surprised given the circumstances, to hear that Jennifer Davis had won. A second component of the prize is an all-expenses paid entry and trip to the national National Society of Arts and Letters water-media competition (with a prize of $10,000). Surely our forward-thinking panel of judges had their audience in mind, and selected the artist most likely to please their conservative benefactors. Moments later, when I overheard judge Nicholas Simmons admit enigmatically that his initial choice had been ‘overruled’ I wondered if the Society had not in fact applied a little pressure on the panel to make a more conventional choice. Pure speculation, of course.

This whole affair got me thinking about two things. First, it made me consider the prejudices and biases that colored my experience from the beginning. As someone who has worked closely with the comfortable enough (if not affluent) ‘over 65’ crowd for several years, I should be the first person to admit that their tastes and views are as diverse as those of any other demographic. However it’s difficult not to fall back on the ‘rich elderly people are conservative’ stereotype when events such as this play to them so obviously. Second, I had to consider where the money is in the Art world. If a large portion of the Art market is controlled by the demographic described above, why do we drive ourselves crazy trying to make provocative, contemporary work that will inevitably alienate them? This competition served as a glairing reminder that, most likely, none of us are in it for the money, and that we all surely have a long, hard road ahead. Hopefully it will be enhanced by other sorts of rewards.

By Chance at DCAC

Lauren Rice

By chance, I wandered into the DC Arts Center on a pretty Saturday afternoon that just happened to be the next-to-last afternoon of an exhibition. D.C.A.C., a non-profit gallery focuses on local emerging artists and curators and I felt that the work on view might give me a good idea about the young or under-represented artists in the area. So I stopped putting off the visit and whaddayaknow, by chance, I had the opportunity to see the exhibition entitled By Chance. Naturally.

The idea for the exhibition is pretty fantastic. Inspired by a curatorial experiment by British artist Tacita Dean, the emerging curator of By Chance, Lisa McCarty, picked three artists whose work deals with chance. Next, each artist chosen by McCarty picked an additional artist unknown to the curator to join the exhibition. Therefore, the entire show itself turns into a painting problem. For example, artists choose to work with specific elements (medias), however what is made with them, well, a good portion of the outcome relies severely on, yep, you got it, chance. Furthermore, one conclusion in art making often determines the next question. It is too bad that the gallery space is so tiny—it would have been very interesting for this chain (or chance?) reaction to continue for a while longer. (I have to add that although small, the gallery has a great atmosphere. It’s funky and interesting, not pretentious at all.)

Anyhow, the work of six artists was on view at DCAC. And as it was not explained in the exhibition brochure, each artist’s use of chance occupied my mind as I toured the exhibition. The first work that caught my eye was the work of Thomas M. Lowry. Overall, his works were the ones I was most drawn to in the show. However, they felt very familiar, as if I had seen them before. And I don’t think I have actually seen his work before. However, despite my ignorance, his awkward drawings on paper and canvas had a Where the Wild Things Art feel that initially drew my interest. Lowry’s drawings seemed to involve chance because he was inspired to draw whatever was around him. A collage of 12 small drawings near the end of the exhibition (I loved how his drawings were either taped or tacked to the wall. Refreshing!) entitled Drawings from the Studio Floor was made up of cartoons, sketches and drawings of things around him such as a work called Things on My Desk that consisted of tiny juxtaposed renderings of objects currently occupying space on the artist’s desk. Lowry’s works gives the sensation that the artist is a collector, of things and information, and all of these things inform his work.

Printmaker Michael Mateson’s circles of luminous illumination on black grounds also intrigued me. I know nearly nothing about digital printmaking, however, I gathered that the chance element in his work had something to do with the printing process. (Duh.) Mateson’s prints were really beautiful, actually. They possessed both a fragility and awkwardness that transcended the viewer’s curious wonderings of what the source of the lights could be.

I also particularly liked one sculpture by LaRinda Meinburg. My first thought, though. was what is this made out of? The three small sculptures on a pedestal appeared heavy, as if made of stone or glass. In fact, these works were made of plastic water bottles. What a way to recycle! Again, I assumed that the work was created by accident somehow, that the artist did not have a specific intention in mind and let the material choose its own form.

Jym Davis’ video, too, held my attention for longer than I anticipated (I have video art ADD). The work was made up of two segments entitled White Space and In-Flux. Both sections involved a full screen of a face (perhaps the artist’s face?) and seemed to deal with the chance of the montage. Ghosts of images often appeared in the work and the face constantly disappeared or reappeared as pattern. It was a progression of images and I could only presume that connection of the images was developed by chance.

Jolly Cowboy, at The DC Arts Center

Lauren Rice

March 16-April 16, 2007

Lump Lipshitz’s text piece on view at DCAC’s Jolly Cowboy exhibition reads, “I never wanted to be a cowboy.” Contrary to Lipshitz’s opinion, I have always wanted to be a cowboy(girl). Or more accurately, I have always wanted to date a cowboy. (OK, and I always loved Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls get the Blues. The book, not the movie.) To me, the idea of the cowboy represents several disparities to which I am strangely attracted and repulsed. Among others, these dichotomies come to mind (and I am aware that some of these may not really be dichotomies….): innocence/guilt, sensitivity/distance, construction/destruction, sex appeal/misogyny, to reveal/ to conceal, to liberate/to enslave. I just can’t get Brad Pitt from Thelma and Louise out of my mind.

One definition for the word cowboy, which I find particularly interesting, is as follows: “An irresponsible or reckless person, especially a show-off or one who undertakes a dangerous or sensitive task heedlessly.” How did this come from “ a man who herds and tends cattle on a ranch, especially in the western United States?” Clearly, the former definition was derived from the stereotypical behavior of cowboys. I mean, we all know, Willie Nelson’s song “Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Furthermore, American culture, which has (and still does), relied heavily on the cowboy agenda, is equally as compelling to me. So naturally, I was interested in reviewing a cowboy exhibition and was thrilled that it happened to be at DCAC. ( I love the space and it’s in my neighborhood.)

Based on the work in the exhibition and the corresponding catalogue, it seemed as if the participants felt similarly to myself. In most works, there was a clear attraction to the image of the cowboy, based on its choice as a subject. However, as in Lipshitz’s work, most pieces in the show posed a critical judgment on the cowboy ideal. Varying from not wanting to be a cowboy or being “sold on the cowboy wardrobe” all of these artists were similarly compelled to deal with issues of the “cowboy” in his or her work. I find this fascinating; it does not matter if one is obsessed, curious, or genuinely repulsed, they are still driven to create. However, I must add that much of the work in the exhibition felt as if the artist were bored with the idea of the cowboy, or was never really invested in the idea from the get-go.

Needless to say, I was not enthralled by the work in the exhibition. The idea for the show was far more interesting than the work involved. Some of the work felt like it was created specifically for the show and not based on any long-term interest. Other works, such as Rene Trevino’s drawings, showed the artist’s compulsion to create a detailed drawing, but were really not that interesting in terms of adding to ideas of the cowboy mystique or even what “art” is about. I mean, the cowboy is such a great subject—it is a person loved and hated, both compelling and repulsive. Overall, I did not get this sexy contradiction from a single work in the show.

I found the most interesting work to be a small diorama created by Ukrainian artist’s Elena Volkove’s daughter Katrina. And it wasn’t so much the cowboy aspect that drew me to the work, as the sweet creative innovation that made the other work feel dull and forced. Note to all artists: Never put work in a show also exhibiting children’s work, you will pale in comparison.