In 1983 the historian Paul Fussell penned a minor classic of social satire titled Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. In it he dissects a myriad of class signifiers – housing, decor, transportation, diet, dress, posture, physiognomy, demeanor, vocabulary, religion, career, education, recreation – and from this deduces the following:
– Nine distinct classes (top out-of-sight, upper, upper-middle, middle, high proletarian, mid proletarian, low proletarian, destitute, bottom out-of-sight)
– Gross disparities in how each class defines luxury (extensively mined for humor by the author)
– The relation between class and income (itself a function of class)
– Class anxiety (a middle affliction)
– The phenomenon of prole drift (the societal tendency for all things to undergo proletarianization)
Three decades later many of the cultural specifics have changed, yet the underlying principles remain firmly in effect. (In a 2009 , Sandra Tsing Loh beautifully channels Fussell in her analysis of the subsequent rise of hip and fall of the economy.)
Beside the principles, what else remains unchanged is the predominant role of the visual in class signifiers. The reasons for this are evident, especially in American society, where a putative democracy combines with a historically wide distribution of economic wealth to result in rich interactions between agents of differing class. To preserve one’s social capital in such an ecosystem, it’s obligatory for said agents to quickly and efficiently categorize any others they choose to interact with (or not). And vision as a perceptual domain offers both the richness of stimuli and the all-important operation at a distance that are prerequisite for efficient class sorting.
In the same year Class was published, Jean Lowe received her B.A. from Berkeley. She went on to receive an M.F.A. from UCSD, and her subsequent career as a visual artist is based on a body of work which works notions of class as they manifest in the visual deployment of class signifiers. Interestingly, Lowe’s signature humor perfectly echoes Fussell’s dry satirical style in Class.
This begs the question of whether class is ever explicitly invoked in the critical/curatorial description of Lowe’s work. The answer – perhaps anticipated by Fussell in his noting of class as the great unmentionable in polite discourse – appears to be “no”. Lowe is represented in Los Angeles by Rosamund Felsen Gallery. The gallery website helpfully includes a collection of twenty-two reviews and press releases covering Lowe’s work in the period spanning 2003 to 2011. A search for the term “class” in these texts yields precisely one reference: “the grandeur of French high class society”, which misses the point since the body of work in question is unspeakably clear in its ultimate referentiality to class-dependent notions of American luxury.
The rule-proving exception appears in a separate text, not on the gallery website, by former SDMA director (and fellow Berkeley alumnus) Derrick Cartwright. His brief on Lowe – ironically for the San Diego Art Prize – invokes “conspicuous display”, a core term in the work of Thorstein Veblen, whose Theory of the Leisure Class was a model for Fussell’s book (not to mention a must-read for any ambitious artist).
Lowe’s work through the 90′s and 00′s – which referenced McMansions, SUVs, and an endless stream of self-help books – focused on the middle classes, which (per Fussell) offer the best material both in their active striving for the next rung up, and simultaneous anxiety over slipping in the opposite direction.
Then the great recession hit, peaking in 2008 with the collapse of the housing market and failure of several major financial institutions. Among the collateral damage: the visual arts, and the American middle class.
Faced with this double blow to her practice, Lowe responded by going down-market. The first evidence emerged in 2010 at the Lux Art Institute, which launched a pop-up art store co-founded by Lowe and Kim MacConnel. The store, titled J & K Souvenir Inc., offered selected work by Lowe in the low-to-mid two figures. And the content referenced was now distinctly prole: decorative mugs, cups, plates, in sum the typical inventory of a 99-cent store.
Similar work has since appeared in shows at Rosamund Felsen and at Quint Contemporary Art in San Diego. At a recent Quint show the low-end work had edged up to a still-affordable low three figures, even while the large paintings remained firmly parked at a solid five digits.
Seeing such work in a high-end space like Quint can be dizzying. Is the aggressive insertion of prole esthetic into a rarefied upper venue a trenchant commentary on American caste? Certainly. Is it offensive to some viewers? Apparently. Or is it merely an opportunity for the 1% to amuse themselves over the bad taste of their inferiors? Apparently.
(Perhaps the only decidability proof for the latter is to wait patiently and see if Lowe ever offers a future show of, say, Lowe-fied Roman de Salvo‘s.)
Lowe’s pièce de résistance of class gymnastics: Discount Barn, a 99-cent store simulacrum presented by the upper-class Quint Gallery as part of the relentlessly middle-class San Diego Art Fair.
Photo credits: © Jean Lowe, photo courtesy Quint Contemporary Art
~ Water, steam, air, and mud—and the energy to heat them—are precious resources to be cherished and conserved.
~ Cleanliness is next to impossible (but keep trying anyway).
~ Nakedness is almost always an excellent idea.
~ In addition to all its other charms, bathing is an accommodating metaphor.
Full of youthful ambition, and desiring to become a part of the gourmet bathing revolution, I wrote Leonard a letter in 1981 and convinced him to let me be his design intern that summer. I was psyched. When I arrived in Venice, California with my t-square and x-acto blade in hand (in the days before desktop publishing), Leonard told me this was to be WET’s final publication. Like Billy Preston jamming with the Beatles on their last album, there was something bittersweet about having a part in WET’s swan song but I embraced every moment.
“WET never took itself all that seriously,” said Leonard. “To paraphrase one of its contributors, WET was a parody of all enthusiasms, or more accurately, a parody of all enthusiasms taken a bit too far. WET’s most endearing quality was its wholehearted embrace of the absurd. Each and every issue wrestled mightily with seriously silly propositions: Workable Extremist Thinking. Waste Everything Twice. We Eat Tuna . . . Take your pick.”
Leonard’s post WET career has gone on to include an eclectic array of gigs directing Japanese music videos, being a popular culture commentator and most steadily as publisher of fifteen beautifully crafted books related to design and aesthetics. Some of the titles are; Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994) and Which “Aesthetics” Do You Mean?: Ten Definitions (2010). His current project is Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing. It will be published this coming mid-March, 2012 and will feature selected layouts and covers from each of the issues as well as a narrative of the more interesting episodes and personalities along the way to making WET.
AGITPROP: What is your current job description?
LEONARD KOREN: A guy trying to make a living by producing and publishing books. That is, books made of paper, not books intended for electronic devices. My book subjects are primarily design and aesthetics related—though I hope to move a bit into ethics also.
AGITPROP: Do you mean the ethics of design or are you referring to ethics in a larger social context such as justice, courage, temperance and so on?
LEONARD KOREN: The domains of design and aesthetics, in and of themselves, really don’t have much to do with notions of “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “bad” in the moral sense. In fact “stealing,” as in incorporating someone else’s ideas into your work, is almost institutionalized as a “best practice” in fields relating to design and aesthetics.
No one involved in the fields of design or aesthetics is necessarily bound to a particular moral code. By “move a bit into ethics” I really mean I want to bind myself more strongly to a personal code of right and wrong behavior in terms of what I produce and its effect on the larger community.
AGITPROP: Can you expand on this?
LEONARD KOREN: When I make an artistic decision, I try to consider how the ramifications will play out down the line, say 50 years or more. I try to keep in mind “do no evil,” but not as a corporate marketing slogan, as a personal credo. Frankly, I’m not always successful. It’s hard to account for all of life’s unintended consequences.
AGITPROP: In December 1980 you published the Fire Issue of WET. The cover photo was of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thích Quảng Đức, emolating himself as a protest to issues related to the Vietnam War. Would you please comment on the ethics of publishing that image?
LEONARD KOREN: A number of creators associated with WET felt the image was in very bad taste—almost sacrilegious. I disagreed. Someone gave their life to make a very visual anti-war “statement.” The more that image is reproduced the better, I thought. If WET was making fun of the burning Buddhist, that would be a different story. But we weren’t. I think it was a quite sobering cover.
AGITPROP: I think it was Mallarmé who said, “Everything exists to end up in a book.” (Or maybe a magazine!) You’ve published fifteen books. What is it about books that has created such strong devotion in you?
LEONARD KOREN: I like the physical qualities: the kinds of paper, the tactility, the “objectness.” I also like that you can stare at an open page for as long as you like, without glare, and really get into an image. I also like the totemic aspects of the book as a thing: just possessing a book, without even reading it, confers some kind of value.
AGITPROP: Digital books are revolutionizing the publishing industry. Any thoughts on how this change from tactility to intangibility will affect the consciousness of tomorrow’s readers?
LEONARD KOREN: I’m not sure how readers’ consciousness will evolve. The future for critical, thoughtful consideration of information inflows doesn’t seem too promising though.
AGITPROP: What is essential for you to be able to do your work?
LEONARD KOREN: Reasonably good health, time, and a little (physical) space for a desk and chair.
AGITPROP: Speaking of space, you recently moved from a city to the country. How’s that working out?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t miss the city, if that’s what you mean. I do like the quiet and beauty of the country.
AGITPROP: You’ve been in cities so long I was curious to know if you have noticed a shift in your focus and/or interests.
LEONARD KOREN: When in cities I find my concerns tend to be more reactive to the things around me; “responsive” is a more positive term. In the country, undisturbed by the noisier world outside, I tend to focus more on the perennial, existential thoughts that occupy my mind.
AGITPROP: How important is empathy for what you do?
LEONARD KOREN: Not much.
AGITPROP: So are your design solutions based on your own preferences or do you try and imagine a universal end user?
LEONARD KOREN: I try to satisfy what I imagine to be that universal part of myself that requires (1) clarity, (2) a sensual charge, and (3) some degree of novelty.
AGITPROP: During the 70s and 80s there was clearly a moment when Japanese culture was important to your development. Can you describe your first conscious encounter with it?
LEONARD KOREN: My mother was interested in the Japanese sense of order and beauty for as long as I can remember. I think she thought the Japanese aesthetic sensibility was smart, cool and, of course, beautiful.
At one point she had a Japanese carpenter build some furniture for my brother and my bedrooms. (Which I still have to this day). Then she instituted a rule that we had to take our shoes off at the entrance to our house, which made sense because we lived in the hills on a dirt road. . . . When I was around 16 or 17, my stepfather returned from a trip to Japan with a few books about Japanese architecture and design. I was fascinated by the concepts of asymmetry, refined rusticity, warm minimalism, et al, therein. I asked my mother if I could build a “Japanese tea house” on her property. She agreed and I set to work scavenging materials from the neighborhood. I designed as I built. I applied my interpretations of the photographs I studied whenever I needed to make a decision.
By the end of my teens I had moved on and was no longer consciously interested in things, or design systems, Japanese.
AGITPROP: Making WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing is your most recent book and it will be published in mid-March 2012. It’s the true story of how you created WET Magazine (1976-1981) and opened up a dialogue around the idea of “gourmet bathing” while pushing a pretty radical design aesthetic. Can you please describe the milieu WET was born out of and why it was important?
LEONARD KOREN: WET was born in Venice, California. I fell into Venice by accident. I grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles and Venice beckoned from high school on as a place of special freedoms. The Venice I lived in and knew was a community of artists and like-minded creators. Most of the artist/creators were open to having me come by their studios and hang out. I was able to study the degree of seriousness, both artistic and commercial, necessary to “make it” as an artist/creator. I learned that you had better make “success” happen yourself, because that is the only way it is going to happen, if at all. I also learned that each artist must create their own unique way if they want to have something of value to offer the world outside their heads. In sum: My time in Venice provided a metaphorical kick in the butt. And the permissiveness of the Venice culture allowed me to seriously pursue my silly work—making WET—and not feel like a complete idiot.
AGITPROP: Well, the idea of gourmet bathing certainly is a very silly and slippery idea in a perverse kind of way. What kinds of thinking and or activities were you hoping to encompass with it?
LEONARD KOREN: I wasn’t thinking out very far. I simply liked the semantic frisson of the conjoined “gourmet” and “bathing.” The term seemed to connote a kind of sensuous absurdity. I was, of course, interested in bathing as a source of artistic imagery. But I also knew that in the realm of art, any abstract notion can take on a solid existence if you plug away at it long enough, which is what I had hoped to do with the notion of gourmet bathing. Exactly how that would manifest, I didn’t know. That’s where putting one foot in front of the next, and not thinking too deeply about the consequences, comes into the picture. That is, start making something and the next step/s to take begin to reveal themselves.
AGITPROP: Anyone who remembers WET remembers that it was as mental as it was visual. What would you say was WET Magazine’s influence on the collective unconscious at the height of its influence?
LEONARD KOREN: I was too close to the enterprise to assess its influence. I do know that lots of art directors, designers, and many artists in the US and Japan were very into the magazine. I doubt if magazines like Ray Gun and Beach Culture would have emerged in the form they did if there wasn’t the prior example of WET. Also, there were some pretty high profile WET alumni, like Matt Groening who went on to co-create the The Simpsons TV show. And graphically, WET was once of the incubators for the style then known as “New Wave,” and later as “Postmodern.” Ultimately all of WET’s graphic and editorial innovations seemed to be absorbed into our visual culture. . . So to answer your question, I really don’t know how far or deep WET influenced the “collective unconscious.” If you have any insights into this question I’d really like to know.
AGITPROP: I discovered WET while I was an art director for a college humor magazine. It became my design bible. I think that was in 1979.I do remember that WET seemed to come along in that moment just before Postmodern style and New Wave came sharply into focus. My earliest impression of a Postmodern look was that it was about visual references to Classicism floating against a deconstructed grid! People were really having a field day with all the prefab graphics you could get on Letraset sheets and that fostered a kind of a collage aesthetic. Then when I did my internship at WET in the summer of 1981, I recall Matt Groening hanging around the office. He was doing Life in Hell and other comics. His visual style was humorous but primitive. His slightly misanthropic personality added a contrasting note to most of the other staffers I met. Wippo was another great character who really embodied the energy of the New Wave musical moment. Gary Panter’s work was also a revelation to me and referenced Japanese culture a lot, too. WET was not iconoclastic like punk. It always seemed to be more about bringing what was hidden into the open rather than destroying what was already in plain site.
LEONARD KOREN: Thanks for the snapshot!
AGITPROP: With so many talented people hanging around and contributing what did your experience with WET teach you about the value of collaboration?
LEONARD KOREN: I learned that people at a certain stage of their creative careers crave an opportunity to create, and a visible venue to show off their creations. In such circumstances they will work for free. I learned to honor and respect these contributions. I had fun as an art and creative director. I also learned that I need long stretches of solitude, away from these creators, so I can consolidate my own thinking and let my intuition come to the fore. In other words, I like collaborative environments and situations, but I need an equal amount of time away from them to recoup my energy and direction.
AGITPROP: Is there a connection for you between intuition and the conscious cultivation of a spiritual dimension of life?
LEONARD KOREN: I don’t understand exactly what you mean by the term “spiritual.” If you mean a non-rational poetic perception of the invisible underlying mechanisms of reality/realities, then yes, there is a connection between intuition and the spiritual dimension of my life. But I don’t consciously cultivate it.
AGITPROP: For me cultivating a spiritual dimension means being in a place that’s apart from the domain of ideas, words and logical thinking; a place where the mind can recognize itself again. Was gourmet bathing ever intended to fill that role?
LEONARD KOREN: Yes and no. Gourmet bathing was intended to engage your mind, to force it into an encounter with absurdity, so that you could no longer take your thinking or your ideas so damn seriously. Of course, it is easier to make such observations in retrospect. There wasn’t such a vigorously coherent agenda for gourmet bathing at the time I was publishing WET.
AGITPROP: How did you come around to the idea of making Making WET?
LEONARD KOREN: To make a book about the process of making WET was an impulse that has reoccurred to me about four or five times since the magazine’s demise. What was different this time, that is, why I finally made the book this time, are three factors. One, I have a young son, and I am an old guy. I wanted to impart some of the lessons I’ve learned about art, life, and business to my kid in a light, easy-to-digest manner. He won’t even know the book is for him, but it will give him some resonant clues about where he came from and how his DNA predecessor responded when confronted with certain circumstances. Secondly, the last couple of books I’ve made have been rather heady, veering toward the non-sensual. I wanted to get back to the sensual, the visual, the visceral, and Making WET allowed me to do that. Thirdly, I got an email out of the blue from an Italian bathroom fixture manufacturer abut a year ago asking if I would consider starting up WET again. I politely said no, but it made me realize that maybe the circle of culture had come around again and a dose of WET—this time in book form—was in order.
AGITPROP: Is there WETness after death?
LEONARD KOREN: Who knows?
Leonard Koren on the web
Leonard Koren’s books can be found on Amazon.com
A recent New York Times profile of Leonard Koren]]>
On September 10, 2011 Dita von Teese performed her burlesque show at MCASD’s Monte Carlo fundraising event.
POEM FOR DITA
Dita’s in the art (museum)
Doing illicit things America
Divine intervening trance-angel
Dancing imploring titillating attracting
Devotion – is this Art?
Devolution? Innovation? Transcendence? Adult
Disneyland? Intelligentsia take aim!
Diotema in the alley
Daring imitation that’s assumed
Distraction in the attic
Denoting ill treatment always
Despite impulse to arouse
Dangerous instincts to alms
Dementia increasingly touches Artaud
Decoding information TN A
Dollars inscribe, thumbtacks approach
Dance improves terrific abs
Deleted instantly time accelerates
Dionysus – is that art?
Dominatrix inside Tolstoy’s angel
Danger is terribly appealing
Dharma is true activity
Damaged id thinking aloud
Does inspire tragic answers
Declaring insanity, trashing allegory
Drinking in tomorrow’s art angel
Drinking in teats of absinthe
Drowning in tumescent anatomy
It is the Monday night after the close of Art San Diego 2011 contemporary art fair and time to reflect on my pilgrimage to the ad hoc temple of art at the Hilton Bay Front. Four days of initiation into the rites of curated chambers and the sacraments of VIP access, of the esoteric doctrines of the buying and selling of cultural indulgences also known as collecting art; of the temporal and spatial homage to corporate patrons and the magical incantations of the holy brand; of supplicants, applicants, innocents, protestants and sycophants all gathered under a single roof in an effort to resuscitate, revive and resurrect an art market struggling to emerge from its sepulchre. In the aftermath, I am left with many questions about what art is and what it has been in the past and perhaps what it will be in the future.
But for tonight, my friendly reader, let me temporarily put aside these brooding questions to watch Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams with friends Douglas and Roman. Each of us is a disciple of St. Werner and we periodically gather to baptize ourselves in the pathos, suffering and dour germanic humor of his cinematic genius.Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary film about the pre-historic art inside the Chauvet cave of southern France. The French government extended exclusive access to Herzog to film the interior of the caves and to tell the story of their discovery in 1994. It was a smart decision. Along with the anthropological, historical and scientific threads that tell the objective story of the caves, Werner weaves into this remarkable film, his own idiosyncratic narrative of the cave as a place that has the power to influence the dreams of those who enter into it.
Douglas, Roman and I settle down to break bread and watch. The film begins by establishing the beautifully austere and rocky landscape along the river valley below the cave’s entrance. Early on, we learn how the cave was closed off to the public by the French government very soon after its discovery by a group of speleologists led by Jean-Marie Chauvet. The cave’s fragile equilibrium is now preserved for scientific and scholarly research. The paintings are estimated to be 32,000 years old. Herzog interviewed several of the scientists involved in the project including one young paleontologist who was a circus performer before becoming a scientist. “Perhaps you tamed lions?” inquires Herzog, suddenly sensing a surrealist opening through which to pursue the interview. “No, not a lion tamer. I was an acrobat…a juggler,” comes the surprised reply from the gypsy-looking young scientist with a long ponytail and a wispy Johnny Depp goatee. He then recounts a series of revelatory dreams of lions inspired by the paintings of lions on the cave walls, dreamt during the time he worked inside the cave.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams was shot in 3D and although we watched on a flat screen at home, I can imagine how rapturous a vision it must have been to see it on an iMax screen. I was intrigued to find out that Herzog’s director of cinematography first proposed using 3D technology but Herzog rejected the idea as heretical – a gimmick of “commercial cinema.” However, once inside the cave, Herzog immediately recanted. The 3D technology takes full advantage of the ecstatic aura within, using light to conceal and then reveal the paintings, the stalagmites and stalactites, the calcium accretions collected on the surfaces of objects, and the curving, irregular surfaces of the cave walls. Besides being a temple of art, the cave was also a dwelling for animals. Throughout, the floors of the cave are covered with their bones. One room is named the Skull Chamber for a calcium encrusted bear cranium that sits on an altar-like pedestal of stone. In many sequences, the shadows of the film crew can be seen dancing across the cave walls evoking everything from the shadows of the original Paleolithic artists to the allegory of Plato’s cave.
So many of our myths about art and the artist, the painter in particular, are descended from these pre-historic paintings. The subject matter, gestures, textures, line, value and proportions of the paintings themselves seem entirely modern. Herzog comes back again and again to a series of horse heads painted on the wall. They overlap each other in an arching composition reminiscent of racehorses packed tightly together at the finish line. Even the idea of the image itself is contained here in a thick palimpsest of overlapping figures. After viewing the cave paintings at Lascaux, Picasso is said to have observed, “They’ve invented everything.” Some of the paintings show animals with multiple legs, creating the illusion of motion, as if the artist were attempting to animate the figures. Voicing over these shots, Herzog dryly and somewhat egomaniacally observes that they are a form of “proto-cinema.”
The sense of awe-inspiring silence that Herzog and his crew must have felt while filming inside the cave is palpable. In some sequences, the soundtrack uses choral music to capture the mood. In others, the soundtrack goes away completely as the camera pans slowly over the paintings. “Please, let us all be silent for a moment. And maybe we can hear our own heart beats,” requests one of the tour guides as the camera sweeps across the cave walls. With this scene, Herzog’s film subtly implies the origins of art as a ritualistic and spiritual practice. The first artist weas also shaman. Art itself is not only the paintings on the walls but encompasses the enchanted reality of its being inside the confines of the cave itself. Sequestered deep within the depths of the earth, the paintings are one element among others that combine to create the mood and contours of a phenomena to which we assign the inadequate term “pre-historic art.”
In a brief encomium titled “Origins – a false question”, Theodor Adorno decrees that speculating on the nature of the origins of art in the absence of historical facts is futile. But the urge to theorize is difficult to resist. In the film we meet an anthropologist who argues that the soul of the modern human being can be traced, if not to these paintings inside the Chauvet cave specifically, then, to the Paleolithic era from which they date. Through intelligent adaptation to the environment and the desire to communicate with the present and future by means of art, including images, sculptures and artifacts, homo sapiens first distinguished themselves. There are two other concepts that help in understanding the Paleolithic mind: fluidity and permeability. Fluidity can be understood as the ability of one thing to transform into another, for example an animal changing into a person and vice versa. Onto this concept Herzog tags the painting of a bison grafted onto one of a woman’s torso. Permeability refers to the ability of spirit to flow through and penetrate all things. The ability to grasp these concepts is what some modern anthropologists tell us set homo sapiens apart from their Cro-Magnon counterparts.
At the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog adds a surprising coda that brings into sharp contrast the abyss of time and history between modern humans and the homo sapiens of the Paleolithic era. Heated water from a nearby nuclear reactor has been routed to a biosphere where crocodiles live in a tropical garden enclosed on all sides by moats of steel and glass. Confined and cut off from their natural environment, the crocodiles have produced mutant albinos. Through a deft juxtaposition of imagery Herzog seems to raise the question; as we look back through pre-history to the origins of human culture and art, have we become so disenchanted from our original nature that we stand in relation to it like reptilian mutants gazing through a mirror at a distant reflection? The thought ripples like thunder over the terrain of our sense of self.
KUNSTMARKT 67 was the first contemporary art fair held in Cologne in 1967 and it continues to serve as a basic model for many art fairs today. Rudolf Zwirner who adapted a prototype based on the antiquarian fair in Stuttgart organized KUNSTMARKT 67. The fair’s ground plan was derived from the landestrasse (strip mall) with booths attended by gallerists, their staff and often the artists themselves – standard practices today. From the beginning Zwirner was unapologetic about the commercial intention of KUNSTMARKT 67. “Commodities can be herrings and [commodities] can be artworks,” he said. “Herrings will be forgotten, artworks will remain.” Such sentiments reflected his rationale for dispensing with art’s aura by reducing it to a commodity in order to market it more effectively.
Today’s art fairs have gone far beyond Zwirner’s vision by linking the commodification of art to corporate models of sponsorship, public relations, marketing and VIP pandering. This is not to castigate artists for wanting to receive compensation in exchange for their work, but artists should mindful about the morbid effect of operating under the sheen of a corporate structure and its negative effects on critical artistic practices over the long run. The art market is not immune to the reductive, self-referential calculus of the capitalistic culture at large. How well does this dynamic serve the interests of the artists and the communities they live and work in? It is up to artists to take control and to maintain a conscious awareness of the context of their art if they want to transcend the disenchanting logic of production and consumption .
Related articles and video:
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe A short film
Cave of Forgotten Dreams Wikipedia page
First Impressions Herzog became interested in the Chauvet cave after reading Judith Thurman’s New Yorker article.
The Birth of the Contemporary Art Fair by Christine Mehring
Such are the thoughts that passed through my mind as I viewed Joe Yorty’s series of photographs titled “Neighborhood” at Agitprop Space. When I first walked into the gallery where the photos were hung, I was confronted with a reassuringly boring array of uniformly cropped, framed and hung photographs that were so unobtrusive as to resist being noticed at all. The force they exerted seemed more centripetal than centrifugal and this is very unusual in a world where most images seem to explode towards your eyeballs. But slowly they began to pull me in with their subversive power.
I was puzzled by the deliberate artlessness of the images until I realized the artist (can the label of photographer be accurately applied here?) had stolen the photographs from Google Map’s street level views of his neighborhood. I say stolen but is it really stealing if you pick up a dollar bill off the sidewalk that someone left behind? Each image was cropped to draw attention to a single figure – an anonymous person caught in the act of doing something boring such as walking down the street or getting into a car. As I said, each photo is very much alike and nearly interchangeable from the others. What makes their presence even more self-effacing is that Google has created an algorithm that scans all its street-view photos for faces and blurs each one out. Deprived of facial features these figures seem to float across the picture plane like ghosts. Google’s deliberate blurring comes in tandem with the naturally occurring artifacts, those funny crystal-like clusters of pixels, that appear in cases of extreme magnification. This lends the photos an impressionistic and painterly quality completely accidental in terms of any desired aesthetic outcome.
My sense is that Yorty is bringing to our attention a new source of artifactual images and a realm of reality that is pervasive yet relatively untapped. The photos are presented in a way that preserves enough of their boring, everyday quality to make them seem somewhat shocking when considered as art. After all, art is supposed to dynamically reaffirm our humanity rather than negate it. There is a kind of existential oblivion at play in these photos that keeps them from being easily forgotten despite their flirtation with invisibility. The people in these photos have been coercively stripped of any romantic notion of what it means to be an individual, an ego or a personality. Has the disappearance of privacy and identity that these images document become our new human condition? How will we respond to the revelation that our humanistic values vanish so easily when seen through the eyes of our prosthetic gods?]]>
My memory, at this point, has become a little hazy, but let me try to recount some of the adventure.
In the entryway was a car that had been converted into a kind of mobile art gallery (on the inside) and the outside was completely covered in writing– black Sharpie only. Beyond that was the toll booth. I don’t remember the fare, but it was well worth the price (the event on 7/29 is only 8$). As you entered into the space and your eyes adjusted, the scene unfolded into an amazing, carny-esque, theatrically-lit, dream-like, bizarre setting. And a stage at the far back wall came into view as the main focal point. Onstage, a costumed entertainer was jousting the (fairly large) feisty crowd, “…if I had a dollar, I’d take you on a date, ha ha”.
(video of April’s Adult Puppet Cabaret highlights: http://vimeo.com/27641261)
God chimed in….
And then… there were more acts. Puppet Karaoke, shadow puppet performances, and other indescribable forms of entertainment.
There was an interactive puppet-making booth, a bar, and some of the most incredible food for sale– Indian flavored and fabulous. People came in costumes. I think I had my mouth open, in awe, half the evening.
You will see me at the next one for sure:
In the sense that I have continued to dwell on the “Dignity of Labor,” I would say that it was a success. Featuring work by artists Brian Zimmerman and John Dillemuth installed amongst SDMA’s collections and spaces, a screening of the documentary Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class and a live performance by “primal party rock band” LUMPS, the evening’s events were meant to encourage us to consider the idea of the dignity of labor in the context of this year’s overall SSS theme: What does a city need? Each week is meant to offer another layer, proposition or answer to that question, so it seems fair to take the SSS at its word and entertain it seriously: What do dignity and/or labor have to do with what a city needs? And where and how does art enter into this conversation?
First off, this phrase: “the dignity of labor.” It is so very loaded, and yet imprecise. Is there dignity in all labor? For whom? What does dignity even mean, anyway? And, for that matter, what is meant by labor? Its connotations are specific, and its use requires consideration, particularly in the context of SDMA’s exhibition Gustav Stickley and the American Arts & Crafts Movement. In my view, this phrase refers to particular kinds of labor, and particular kinds of laborers. What kinds? Well, perhaps the kinds described in Class Dismissed: the so-called working class or blue collar. We do not speak of computer programmers or office managers in these terms, though they certainly perform labor. When we speak of dignity in labor, it is usually in reference to the farmer, the mechanic, etc.—manual laborers. Similarly, there is also the artisan, craftsmanship strain of this discourse, seen in carpentry, woodworking, masonry, etc.
This is where Gustav Stickley, a furniture manufacturer who “offered customers a complete lifestyle based on his philosophy of simple design and quality materials,” becomes relevant. Stickley and the Arts & Crafts Movement generally, were very much a product of turn-of-the-20th century nostalgia for a supposedly simpler and more just pre-industrial era. Nostalgia was accompanied by a romanticization and aestheticization of the working classes, and of the products of their labor. This nostalgia, and the romanticization, should be quite familiar to us in the 21st century. The more stuff we acquire, the more shackled we are to electronic devices, the more “work” conjures up images of overflowing email inboxes and never-ending Skype meetings, the more we seem to be wistfully looking back to an imagined past where people made things and had tangible skills. The white-collar economy, built on speculation, inequality and hype, falters. What replaces it? I’m not sure, but judging from the popularity of “handmade,” “locally-sourced/produced,” “DIY,” etc., narratives and products these days, I’d wager that some of the answers floating around aren’t so different from those Stickley and his peers came up with over a century ago.
But what of art, museums and cities? While I was unable to view the Stickley exhibition—it was closed for a private viewing by the Circle Donors and their guests—I would guess that the exhibition of his furniture in a museum space would run somewhat counter to the ethos under which it was originally produced. In contrast to Brian Zimmerman’s impossible chairs, low and precarious, crumpled in corners, and towering on stilts, Stickley’s furniture is, by definition, for use. John Dillemuth’s hybrid sculptures require that we interact with them, but they are not exactly utilitarian. Instead they are fantastical and absurd renderings of functional objects: a wheelchair rocking chair, a pedal-powered bellows (of sorts), etc. The hand and labor of the artist are evident in all three, as indeed they are in the surrounding works of art in SDMA’s collections. What is also evident, however, is the scarcity of other types of labor (and other types of laborers), particularly of the “dignified” variety addressed by Class Dismissed and invoked by Stickley.
Fundamentally, these are questions of class. Class Dismissed asks us to consider how the working class is represented and framed by television; I would encourage us to also consider how the working class is represented and framed by museums, through this event and overall. “Dignity” in the context of “labor” is generally charged, and becomes even more so in certain settings. In attaching “dignity” to “labor,” it is possible that we participate in the erasure of a history of elevating some types of work and some types of workers over others, and of romanticizing class and class interaction. There are real consequences to such erasures and wishful thinking; they affect people’s lives, particularly in an urban setting. In the end, dignity and labor—as real things, not abstract notions—have a lot to do with what a city needs. Acknowledgement of the value and importance of all workers and all forms of work, as demonstrated through services, legal protections and representation, is integral to the success and vitality of a city. We all contribute, and we should all be included and addressed with equal consideration, and on equal terms.
Until recently my exposure to anime had consisted primarily of a satisfying addiction to anything Miyazaki. But then I learned of Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series written and directed by Hideaki Anno which spans 11 hours of television episodes and a concluding movie.
If Miyazaki’s work embodies classical art cinema à la Kurosawa, NGE comes off as a kind of mad dog masterpiece which strains so hard at its genre seams that it finally bursts into something entirely one of a kind. (Think Wagner making Saturday morning cartoons.)
NGE themes include rampant Christian symbolism, sex, opera, penguins, budget battles, gods, angels, robots, Nevada, domestic chores, death battles, clones, computers, mental illness, the United Nations, hubris, teen angst, global warming, bad parenting, motherly love, mushroom clouds, beer, Antarctica, spies, aliens, poetry, human extinction, crotch shots, Tokyos, origin myths, psychoanalysis, Beethoven, the Dead Sea scrolls, global conspiracies, existentialism, homosexuality, watermelons, and more, all set in a plot line as elliptical and labyrinthine as any novel you’ve ever tackled, and laced throughout with a pervasive underlying sadness.
Anno, who clearly knows his art house, created such a compelling pop series that when in the final episodes he abruptly took the story in a 720-degree left turn, the resulting viewer uproar included not just blistering criticism, but death threats. Hence the concluding feature film, End of Evangelion, which attempts to tie up various loose ends. See this one for the ending alone: a hallucinogenic apocalypse unmatched in the history of cinema.
If you’re willing to invest 12 hours in close-attention viewing — a task made considerably easier by the oft-beautiful imagery (Anno launched his career working for Miyazaki) — you’ll come out with a pretty good handle on how far anime can be pushed as an art form. The general consensus on the net is polarized between WTF and “the most moving story I’ve ever experienced”, which given the work is only to be expected.
The TV series and movie are available on Netflix, and can also be found (in bits and pieces) on YouTube.
The key to the show — and the conflation — is the use of duct tape as a primary medium. If this sounds implausible, behold the impoverishment of your knowledge of the world of duct tape, which is available in a myriad of colors (~35), patterns (leopard, plaid, Hello Kitty), and grades (utility, industrial, military, nuclear).
What duct tape offers artists is intriguing: the pieceability of textile; the luster and saturation of paint; and a variety of surface textures ranging in visual effect from fuzzy nubbin to reptile skin.
When viewed up close, these surface properties (fully exploited by the artist) combine with the high-def intercolor seams to lend the work a material heft unachievable through paint.
More unexpected is the effect these same properties have on the work when viewed from afar, which manifests as a near-ineffable deviation from the look and feel of paint, keeping the work slightly off-center, and so remarkably free of the cliche that op can so easily fall prey to.
Most unexpected of all: how well neon op harmonizes with the traditional Spanish architecture of the Athenaeum space. There’s simply no good reason for this, but there it is.
Photos David Fobes
Two monks sat meditating in the woods. Suddenly one called out to the other with a laugh, “They call that a tree!”
Since first reading Emerson’s essay on Transcendentalism in high school, I have been interested in Eastern philosophy and meditation. Back then I thought the object of meditation was to make my body float, literally. For several nights I sat in my darkened room surrounded by the artifacts and conditions of my teenage delirium and attempted to levitate – but I could not get off the ground! Gradually I lost interest. I don’t recall why I even thought it was a good idea to begin with. Perhaps it had something to do with my 15-year old boredom, or more likely, it just sounded like an excellent magic trick.
Over the years, my experiences with Eastern thought and meditation have evolved. I’ve practiced Taoist meditation with the goal of developing longevity and health, and Buddhist meditation with the goal of developing compassion. From time to time I meet artists who express interest in using meditation for the sovereign development of their own creative minds. Foyan, a twelfth-century Buddhist Chinese Zen master, was known to exhort his young students with an enticing paradox: “When you can see without seeing, objects and cognition merge, substance and function are one.” Could it be that seeing without seeing is the Zen equivalent of X-ray vision?
Back in the pre-modernist days, Western intellectual categories existed to keep art separate from non-art. The art object itself was defined as an artifact made by the hand of the artist. It was thought to be as distinct and disconnected from the artist and viewer as a bicycle is from an elephant. Gradually, over the course of the 20th century, the web of relations between artist, artwork and observer became more evident. Allan Kaprow famously declared that he wanted to blur the boundary between art and life. John Cage, who was a student of the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, said he was interested in observing that there actually is no barrier between art and life.
Today it’s safe to assume many artists have meditated or studied some Eastern philosophy. However, the discourse between Buddhism/Taoism, and contemporary art practice seems somewhat underground even though, or perhaps because, it has been fifty years since John Cage and Allan Kaprow first opened their minds to Zen as a way of structuring their art.
Jacquelynn Baas and Mary Jane Jacob have edited a book of essays, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, which is a fascinating attempt to chart the connections between art, psychology and Buddhist ideas and practices. One of the ideas investigated is what psychologists and cognitive scientists refer to as field dynamic phenomenology. It is being aware of everything seen and felt within the sensorial field without focusing on any particular aspect…of seeing without seeing through the noise of cognition while becoming attentive to the big picture. Zen has a very nice term for this state of awareness – big mind. Athletes refer to it as being in the zone. Artists regularly enter this state of mind when engrossed in their studio work. It is the fruit of the meditative or aesthetic state.
The centipede was happy / Until the toad in jest asked / “Pray which leg goes after which?” / This worked his mind to such a pitch / He lay distracted in a ditch / Considering how to run
In Mark Epstein’s essay, Sip My Ocean, he talks of how James Joyce used the word “beholding” to describe the proper attitude for experiencing art. Through beholding, the observer gains access to and “catches the drift” of an artwork. If you pull the artwork in too closely, Joyce warned, the aesthetic experience becomes pornographical. On the other hand, excessive distance invites a critical attitude that spoils the mood. The optimal experience happens in the neutral gap between these two extremes.
Joyce’s guidelines for experiencing art can be turned around and used to develop the conditions for creative insight. Artists intuitively understand how to do this, though they may not be aware of it. The mind, in a receptive aesthetic state, is something like an empty sky waiting for the lightning strike of a manifesting idea. The more empty the sky, the greater the flashing of insight. All that’s required is patience and clarity of mind.
There is a particular kind of creative personality that seems to always be in the midst of this mental continuum (Tibetan Buddhists call it “spy-consciousness”). Their internal dialog seems to be suspended for long periods of time as they listen in on their environment, waiting for the lightning strike of inspiration. One of the challenges of simultaneously being an artist and being in the world is how to manage this state: how and when to summon it, how to keep it, how to teach it, and how to use it to lead a more integrated life.
Two kindergarteners were eating lunch when the first one put on a pair of X-ray glasses. “What are those for?” asked the second kindergartener. The first replied, “They let you see through all the poop.”
John Dillemuth‘s work that was on view at the Palomar College Boehm Gallery was another tour de force offering by one of the most innovative and creative practitioners in the San Diego visual arts community. Mr. Dillemuth is a mid-career artist producing an array of well conceived, mature works of art. The show is titled, un/bridled and in his own words: “explores two aspects of a linked theme related to nature and culture, the wild and the tamed, the unruly and the domesticated. In the play room interactive contraptions act out pleasure and pain scenarios. These crude mechanisms are attired with intimate apparel, skin, that alludes to desire and the drive, references the body, and tickles the funny bone. They also function as toys embedded with boyish narratives, and quirky movements. The whimsical, playful, and interactive nature of the work invites the viewer to actively participate in these stories.
In the other room, the bridled space, are mixed a number of different materials, styles, and applications to create a comic and romantic version of the home. This is a tamed space; a complete piece of staged Americana, partly constructed with materials from Home Depot and decorated with items from thrift stores. The car and sofa are my own handiwork. While this space is not a playroom, the car and washing basin do contain moving parts, and function similar to toys. Like the playroom, there is also a suggestion of a presence, not the boyish, but grandmotherly and the feminine.”
The contraptions that Dillemuth constructs are a combination of either large, wooden machine forms fabricated out of hand carved/whittled sticks, branch and board and joined with tinker toy like connectors with fabric additions, while the other objects are wholly sewn forms without any wooden structure. The machine forms all have articulated joints allowing the parts to move with a variety of nonsensical but visually, logical functions. These works are interactive and invite the viewer to complete the creative process by becoming the activator/operator of the machine or contraption. The wholly sewn forms are much more passive in that respect. It is in the articulation of the joints that imbues Dillemuth’s work with deeper meaning. To the casual viewer we are at first struck by the sheer delight of these objects, the color the scale and the movements, but with a more sensitive inspection of the relationships between the various parts, a deeper psychological implication begins to emerge. The skins of fabric are pulled and stretched across, over and through the lattice stick structures as in the piece titled, ‘Double Decker Long John Minimal’ Men’s, white, cotton, long underwear have been cut and stretched in various directions across two, stacked, cubed space frames. The upper stick frame is joined to a twin lower stick frame at a common hub at each vortices and the entire structure rests on four bedsprings. When activated by a foot pedal and a small motor, the entire structure begins to shiver and shake, and the stoic minimalism of the cubed forms is instantly transformed into an anthropomorphic gesture of sexual innuendo.
Mr. Dillemuth’s allusions to boyish or girlish bodily innocence are loaded with psyco-sexual drama, and his craft of joinery and articulation of parts goes far beyond their material means. Symbol is joined to symbol, the movement of one form in relationship to another creates symbolic gestures which in turn often set in motion a stream of thoughts or ideations triggering the funny bone which in turn creates that wry smile you see throughout the gallery audience. We are taken from our initial Rube Goldberg, Dr. Seuss perceptions of these colorfully exotic and absurd images into a mental construct, closer perhaps, to an artist like Henry Darger, with all of the implications of the dangers of childhood innocence. Dillemuth’s ability to invoke and decipher profound symbolic meanings about gender, relationships and our own sense of innocence is masterful and delightfully pure, both in concept and expression.
un/bridled ran through March 2nd.
Mr. Dillemuth is represented by theKunstRaum H&H Gallery in Cologne, Germany he is also on view at the Z-one Gallery in Osaka, Japan.
Half-consciously, though, there is the more indigenous dream that the adventure is everything…
— Kaprow, Happenings in the New York Scene
Last month Agitprop presented Coatlicue mi Amor, a performance by The Border Corps, a group of San Diego artists, musicians, and performers. In its density of information and feeling, Coatlicue was by far the most ambitious and successful event I’ve witnessed to date at Agitprop, and not by coincidence it’s taken me a month to figure out how to write about it.
Billed as a happening, Coatlicue felt more closely positioned between traditional performance art and current trends in interactive theatre. Its hybrid nature made for a wild ride: rather than simply disappearing, the fourth wall seemed to be in constant motion throughout the Agitprop space, flying up, down, or inverting polarity as various scenes unfolded.
Throughout the fourth-wall gymnastics, backstage remained overhead and crucial, as Border Corpsmen Armando de la Torre and Anthony Vasquez worked full-time through the performance spinning a dense web of real-time audio and video around performers Endy, Perry Vasquez, and Shondra Dawson.
The work was structured in three parts: the dreams of two vividly REM-state dreamers; a satirical review of recent and ongoing commercial crypto-genocides (the gods are more subtle these days); and a traditional Catholic liturgy recounting in lurid detail the historical genocide of the Island Carib people at the hands of conquistadores.
At this point I’d normally attempt a detailed description of these parts, but doing so would require more pages than could fit on this blog, and would only lead the reader further and further away from the intense theatricality engendered by the performance. Words fail me — you had to be there.
Never overplaying its hand (except perhaps in the topical Haiti references), the entire production displayed subtle signs of being well-thought-out to the n’th degree:
I know of several people who missed this event and regret it. Word is that a repeat performance may occur at Agitprop in the indefinite future — watch for it.
Machine Project is a Los Angeles based non-profit arts organization, a storefront exhibition space, and purveyor of DIY workshops in the spirit of the Maker Faire.
LACMA is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the largest encyclopedic museum west of Chicago, and a patchwork complex of seven buildings ranging in style from 30′s streamline moderne to Jetsons 60′s to bad 80′s to Wright-ian organic to bland contemporary. (Hold that thought.)
Machine Project at LACMA was a one-day event where MP took over the LACMA campus, inserting Machine esthetic into a museum setting to the tune of 55 artist projects.
MP’s artistic logic was straightforward: counterpoint the classic museum attributes of stasis, high art, and quiet contemplation with ephemerality, low craft, and sonic assault.
LACMA’s institutional logic for hosting such an event proved cagier and ultimately more satisfying artistically: in a word, demographics. Anyone familiar with current art museum programming knows of the various special programs designed to lure anybody under 30 into the galleries. Compared with such events, MP at LACMA was a veritable Burning Man of youth programming.
And the primary lure was all too familiar: the dominant global art form of the past half century, aka music. To MP’s credit there was not a DJ in sight; instead we got tablas, glass harmonicas, feedback loops, ambient drone remixes, elevator marching bands, barbershop hum quartets, mid-century modern folk song, speed metal guitar solos, and build-your-own synthesizers. In sum, everything necessary to retool the museum’s traditionally contemplative space into the kind of high-stimulus environment necessary to captivate a generation of electronically-enhanced short attention spans.
What made so much of it work so well (recall held thought) is the structural irregularity of the LACMA campus: the very same irregularity that the LACMA trustees once dreamed of razing. But bad architecture can make for good ecosystems, and the LACMA campus offered dozens of niches for MP interventions that in their siting showed signs of acute intelligence operating behind the din.
The speed metal guitarist was planted on the second-floor patio of the Art Of The Americas building, enabling his blissfully context-free sonic projections to blat through various museum courtyards like thunder through the canyons of the High Sierra.
Similarly, the elevator marching band could be heard continuously as its elevator car floated up and down the atrium lobby of the Ahmanson building, changing only in volume as the door opened and closed on various floors, revealing the heretofore unknown acoustics of elevator cars and shafts.
As the day wound to a close, natural processes contributed the strongest project of the bunch, wafting the entire LACMA campus with the delicate scent not of popcorn but burning chaparral, conceptually fulfilling the prophecies of troublemakers from generations past.