Thursday, November 24, 2011

Homeless in the World of Harry Underwood

The Lindsay Gallery in Columbus ( is currently featuring the work of Harry Underwood, a self-trained artist whose work reflects the influence of popular and advertising culture, but little from the world of fine art. Underwood's works have a look reminiscent of tinted post cards from a by-gone era; of advertising enticements to visit or to buy property in Florida; of smiling satisfaction amidst Good Life artifacts: pools, green lawns, and vacation get-aways. Underwood has worked as a manual laborer. In his paintings, he continues to do so, but as one who dreams on the job.
The Orange Flame Vine of Florida., 35 x 48. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery
To anyone in shooting distance of Columbus, I heartily recommend seeing this show since the collection of work casts a particular spell. Each piece is fascinating, but Harry (as he signs himself) invokes a universe that  exists in a zone between memory, wishfulness, and the geography of Florida and Tennessee. The aggregation of work brings this alive.

knot to left of man's shoulder; wood
underlayer represents hair, man's body,
woman's body
Harry's fundamental outlook and the basis of his story are found in the choice and use of his materials. He works on plywood of the better sort, the kind used to face kitchen cabinets. Nevertheless, in several of the paintings, knots and other blemishes erupt through the painted surface. Harry makes use of the wood as a compositional element too, as he loves to  play with negative space. Instead of vacancy's taking the form of white, it is represented in the warm tone of varnished, grained wood.

Harry's method is to draw his design (the cartoon, as it were) on the wood with mechanical pencil, which not only leaves graphite lines, but slightly incises them too. Then he paints "inside the lines" with house paint, producing the characteristic flat shapes with no nuance. Any unpainted area exposes the wood and sometimes shows those precisely mapped pencil markings. If we take the painted surface to be the simplest representation of "reality," then the frequent appearance of the laid-out plan—the fundamental artifice—reminds us how very close "reality" and illusion are in this work. There's little that separates the surface representation from the artist's plan, below. All that stands between is a little casually-applied paint.

Watson Song Trio. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.

Paint adds color and  substance, but it also allows Harry to investigate the negative space. In this detail from Watson Song Trio, he does his by implying erasure, leaving "ghost" areas (thinly painted layers) around the women's images. More usually, he simply leaves blanks, as in My Permanent Daydream, below. The places he has not painted have a variety of pictorial meanings that heighten the unsettling sense of "daydream." For instance, the trunks of the palmettos are left natural: they are, after all, wood. Hair is not painted. It contrasts with skin and, in this visual context, looks the color of sun-bleached brown hair. But the windows of the house? Are they represented as open because they aren't painted in? Or are they boarded up, as I find it almost impossible not to see them. What's left out in this scene is more telling than what's applied.

My Permanent Daydream. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
A detail from West Dixie Highway illustrates several ways Harry uses negative space. As he often does, he defines the eyes by "blankness." Though it's hard to detect in this image, the eyes are unpainted areas. He's used the wood background to define "positively" the hair, handlebars, and part of the bicycles' structure. But notice the way that the green cycle's rider, even where painted, reveals the underlying drawing for the structure of the house behind her. Not only is her hair defined by negative space, but she becomes negative space herself, a ghostly form through whom we can peer. She's a fantasy--as if she were merely a thinly painted figure on wood!
West Dixie Highway, detail. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
The more I examine Harry's works, the less they seem like paintings in the simple, traditional sense. The paint is used in a matter-of-fact way, unmixed, to distinguish one area from another for visual reference. Harry manifests no interest in paint as a fascinating material that he uses with skill. To the contrary, he employs the grossest form of the medium, one designed merely for coverage, and he applies it with little apparent concern for details such as control of edge, or evenness of application. Its more important functions seems to be to provide a positive to negative space, and to create a smooth surface upon which he can write. For text is as essential to Harry's work as image is, and he demonstrates more concentrated attention on lettering and ersatz calligraphy than he does on other artistic features of the work.

These details from Flame Vine of Florida show Harry's attention to letter forms. "The calligraphy" across the top is particularly painstaking because it wasn't made by smooth strokes of a pen, but by imitations in pencil. Harry would have had to outline these shapes and filled them in, just as he does his figures with paint. The difference is that these letter forms contain hundreds of tiny, carefully executed marks. The smaller detail shot of words at the bottom of the painting shows his combination of lettering and script. The script is, again, a pencil imitation of Roundhand script's combination of thin and thick elements. His lettering is like a typeface, with serifs and some distinction in the width of elements.

In his choices of materials and methods, Harry literally provides the structure that upholds, and the frame that sets off, the world he pictures. His vision, like the fabric of his work, depends on a contrast between the highly generalized and the minutely specified. His work, viewed from across the room, tells stories that involve an idyllic, palm-peppered Florida of tourist motels, turquoise swimming pools, and a good life for people who wear shorts and tend the lawns of their bungalows. Harry's show at the Lindsay Gallery highlights the public dream, as advertised, in vacationland. Yet there's the built-in, central irony that some people live their real lives in vacationland.

Cares of Everyday. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery. NB: sign in window of house reads,
"So Sorry."
For those people-for Harry, represented by a figure who appears in Drive Away the Cares of Every Day, My Permanent Daydream, and Waymark--there is the problem of privacy and interiority. Those can be seen, however, only on close inspection, for privacy exists largely in thoughts that the viewer may not even notice, since they are reported in the small text fastidiously written across the surfaces. Through text, Harry allows us into that private world of house and garden filled with hopes, dreams, memories, associations--a world as shifting and unpredictable as the outer, public world is highly composed and orderly-at least when seen from a distance, with little detail.

Waymark, 31 x 38. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery.
Even the placement of the grandest text is off-kilter. The headlines for The [absent] Orange Flame Vine of Florida take a stab at formal composition but get lost and lopsided in the attempt. The Watson Song Trio appears perfectly placed until the line proves too short and the words are shuffled onto another as an afterthought. In this painting, as in most, he labels each anonymous-faced person with that name that gives it individuality, at least to him. In Waymark, Jimmy receives a comment below his name: "These cowboy boots were a good value and attract many kind compliments." The man walking in from the right, facing the the others who look the opposite direction, is named Harry. Since he is looking down, faces would be as blank to him as they are to us. Floor-gazers notice boots, though. Maybe those are Harry's boots, remembered?

The text in the upper left corner of Waymark reads, "Do not 'Shilly,' and do not 'Shally.' Here is your very own opportunity to dine and be received at Camelot. In the hot sandwich hemisphere! Passengers arriving would prefer meals at home, but home is far away." In smaller script, across the top of the southbound departures board, Harry has written, the droll observation that, "In the face of all that is impermanent we still find the time to go on vacations."

No one has a suitcase in this picture, despite the fact that only departures are listed. The text is ambiguous: We want to dine at home, but home is far away; still, it requires travel-a "vacation"-to achieve the Camelot of our desire. Are these people without baggage waiting for a bus? Or do they welcome the returning traveler, Harry, who enters the picture? Perhaps he is coming home to Camelot. Perhaps this sad Harry feels alienated by all the promise of home's enchantment; by the conflicting claims that home and Camelot and vacationland turn out to be the same place.
West Dixie Highway, 23 x 27. Courtesy, the Lindsay Gallery
Coming and going-transcience-is a theme inherent throughout the Lindsay Gallery show, whether or not transportation is explicitly pictured. West Dixie Highway shows us two girls happily riding their bikes out of the frame  and in Cares of Every Day, Harry stands with his bicycle, potentially ready to go. A portrait of a bicycle, Columbians, that I have not shown here, testifies to his interest in this venerable means of transport and escape (see his website for the five-painting bicycle series:

Harry's many depictions of motels, of which Orange Flame Vine is but one, remind us of transience. But his composition of nearly every work places permanence into an aching relationship with transience, giving rise to the sense of loss and longing that pervade this world. In Supermarket, for instance, the very solid supermarket moves into the picture like the engine of an oncoming train and the man, who could very well be simply a small-town idler, could equally be waiting for a Coming of some sort. That the name of the market is cut off, leaving only "'far," adds to the sense cautious anticipation in a portentous setting.
Supermarket, 24 x31. Courtesy of the Lindsay Gallery.
The smudgy text, however, keeps the expectations low and childlike: "I'm happy at the Supermarket. Ingrediants [sic] and clean packages of food. Everything is fresh and organized. One time in nineteen eighty six, my wallet was taken from my car in the woods. When someone found it, they brought it to my mother at the supermarket. Supermarkets are repositories of conveniance [sic] and sweet drinks are sold there." Is the man remembering childhood? Is he the child, still waiting for something more to happen? Does he know what to hope or watch for, stuck permanently in a wish to move on?

Standing in the middle of the Lindsay Gallery, surrounded by Harry's work, it feels more natural to feel that Harry has created a tableau than a series of paintings. Everything around the viewer adds up to a town: There's the shoe store, the gas station, supermarket, motels, houses with yards and swimming pools. There are the bus station, the lazy streets; the youth on bicycles, with their old cars, or tenderly kissing in the grass under a palm tree. The viewer stands in the middle, as on a town square, and people look as they do at a distance, inspecific but recognizable and familiar.

As we approach the individual scenes, we discover the permeability and elusiveness of what lies before us. The texts on these surfaces send our thoughts glancing off from the scenes, just as our thoughts do when we are around familiar, everyday people in places we've inhabited a million times. When home is the advertised ideal of the place to visit for transient happiness, we remember not just our genuine experience, but the ideals made by advertising and collective illusion. Coming, going, or holding still, maybe life is but a dream where genuine pleasure is difficult to feel and reality difficult to know.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Human Image in Ancient Ife Art

"Awe," once a word meaning reverence, fear, and wonder, is currently considered to have broader application. "Awesome" may be used without prejudice to describe the flavor of chewing gum. I hesitate to use "awe" and its derivatives for the sake of clarity. But no other words will do for  "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria." This show of ancient treasures lent by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria is currently showing at the Indianapolis Art Museum until January 16, 2012. I've seen it twice; I hope I can see it again. Everything about it inspires awe: the artistry of the  finely wrought copper and terra cotta statuary, and the human qualities that emanate from the faces represented.
Head. Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century C.E. Copper alloy. Fundación
Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art.
 © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 
The works in "Dynasty and Divinity" date from between the 12th and 15th centuries. Great caches of statuary were first discovered accidentally during 1938 construction projects in the city of Ife. In Yoruba legend, Ife is the site of the world's beginning. The Yoruba people deified both ancestors and deceased rulers, and worshiped a pantheon of preexisting deities that numbered in the hundreds The show's catalogue explains that more than language, metal working, beading, ceramics, and weaving were the primary vehicles for recording the culture's fundamental stories and values.

Our era studies foreign cultures through anthropological research and documentation. It's common to look at the ancient art of far-away places through an academic lens with barely a comment on art's transcendent aspects. It's not just scientific customs of objectivity that allow this to happen. Encounter any foreign thing and we all become children: "What's that big thing he's holding?" "Why does that man dress so funny?" Simple curiosity always leads us to investigate the properties of something new—unless we allow an investment in sophistication to quash that natural reaction. But satisfying the identification level of curiosity won't necessarily lead us to questions art asks. Observers (often led by exhibit labeling) can get so caught up with tribal manners, dress, and social customs that any universal aspects of the art escape notice.

For this reason, I leave the fine points of Yoruba history and culture to others. The show's catalogue, in fact, provides thorough essays about historical, technical, and sociological topics, and, moreover, it beautifully documents the show. The Amazon link will take you to copies.

What I have to say is about portraiture and the representation of individuals. How can there be a more piquant subject than the human form, from any period or place, in any medium or style? Put the human image in any costume or setting; represent our own figure in any style however abstract or minimal; and we will  always find someone we will relate to, every bit as exposed and elusive as we ourselves are.

Apparently few full Ife figures survive. The 20" copper alloy figure (loosely dated around 1365 C.E.) labeled Figure of a king is a fascinating place to start because of some tantalizing contrasts.
Figure of a king. Ita Yemoo, Ife. 14th century C.E. Copper alloy.
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commissionfor Museums and 
Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Juan Jesus Blázquez 

The king wears a large, upright ornament that makes his headdress a crown and necklaces of extravagant number and sizes. He grasps apparently ceremonial items in his hands All of his ornaments seem to have deserved close attention, for they are depicted in great, repetitive detail. Every bead on every necklace; every detail of the crown is articulated. What does the detail signify? Does this specificity indicate the value of his accouterments, and thus reflect the wearer's? Or does this simply manifest a certain visual tradition?

In contrast to the minute renderings of costume details, though, the considerable proportion of the statue's surface represents skin and cloth and is smooth (though somewhat pocked by corrosion). The proportion of smooth to worked surface calls attention to another issue of proportion, that being the immensity of the head and feet in relation to the round-bellied torso of His Highness.

The king's feet are long and broad enough to support him (or they once did: A discreet metal brace insures the statue's posture for the exhibition). His stance is balanced both literally and metaphorically. It is natural, poised, secure.

When I return the king's gaze, I find myself looking not into blankness but into the future, reflected in his eyes from somewhere behind me. He seems to contemplate the past and the future at once. His expression isn't empty, but specific to a monarch. It's the gaze of a person who divines events and morality; the look of a person who holds everything up. His presence is tremendous, and that presence is communicated through the steady gaze of the outsized face, the secure stance, and a stillness as real as it is difficult to describe.

The Figure of a king wonderfully fuses literal realism (ornamental detail), naturalistic detail (the healthy roundness of the figure) and the spiritual, transcendent portrait of a ruler through manipulation of body proportions.

Head, Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century C.E.Copper alloy.
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commission for Museums and Monuments, 
Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Most of the "Dynasty and Divinity" collection is heads and faces so beautiful that I wasn't moved to speculate about the lost bodies. This head was found with many others in the first, serendipitous excavation at Ife. The king (above) came from a different location; it stands just short of 2' high. This Head is life-sized. Like many, it bears some traces of red and black paint. Like some, it has cicatrized (scarred) skin and lips. Some heads have one or the other; some have neither.

If I had a close up view of the king figure's head, it would be clearer that it is similar to this in being clearly a portrait head. This one is indisputably the face of an individual. The face's shape and  unique expression are clearly indicated by musculature around the mouth, descending between the eyes and nose, and arising from the outside edges of the brows into the forehead. He is big and strong: His neck is almost as wide as his head. The rings circling his neck do not run all the way around, but apparently represent folds of flesh meant to suggest, like the king's belly, his economically comfortable status.

In this Head, as in most in the show, we find a tranquil, dignified presence with the transcendent gaze. Because the Ife artists had the skill to communicate distinct individuality, this gaze, characteristic of the sculptures, must reflect a common outlook or valued attitude—certainly a recognized demeanor—among the people. I think that the stillness represents qualities of genuine nobility: endurance, far-sightedness, determination, and wisdom. This is the representation of a person who distinguishes adulthood from childhood; who understands justice; a person who would perform hand-to-hand combat fearlessly and suffer his wounds stoically.

Head with crown shares the characteristics of the others: The crown, presented with minute, regular details, sits atop a portrait head that exhibits noble bearing and attitude. The shapely face with high, round cheeks, receding chin, and slender neck shows it to be the portrait of a particular individual.
Head with crown. Wunmonije Compound, Ife. 14th-early 15th century
 C.E. Copper alloy.Fundación Marcelino 
Botín/Museum for African Art © National 
Commission for Museums andMonuments, 
Nigeria  Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Beyond the air of the kingly or otherworldly that emanates from each sculpture, each has its unique physical features that we respond to. I find this regal face particularly beautiful. Nothing in the exhibition's labeling or the catalogue suggests that any of the figures is feminine. Yet this one stands out for me for its feminine features-the roundness of the cheeks, the slender neck, the small jaw. Or perhaps this is a boy? I find this work particularly poignant for the delicacy of the head and features that bear such a large crown and so grave a dignity of aspect.
Head. Ita Yemoo, Ife. 12th-15th century C.E. Terra-cotta..
Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art. 
© National Commission for Museums
 and Monuments, Nigeria. Photo, Karin L. Willis 

Among the terra cotta sculptures, another Head touches me in a similar way. Once again, I find myself wondering if the subject wasn't a woman or a youth, because of the round face and the slight jaw. I find something especially touching in the protrusion of the underlip and in the unusual down cast eyes. The bowed head under the extremely ornate crown suggests a pensive or hesitant air that is completely missing in the upright heads with their secure outlooks. This departure from the most common expression in the show is perhaps the most thrilling example of the sensitivity of the Ife artists' portraiture, and to their  naturalistic practice.

The piece I'd take home from the show, though, would have to be Head called 'Lajuwa,' a terra cotta that the gallery notes speculate represents Lajuwa, a palace chamberlain who, in legend, killed the king (the Ooni) and usurped the throne by dressing in his garments. Lajuwa was caught and beheaded but has neverthess come to be cherished as the protector of servants.
Head called “Lajuwa.” Ife Palace, Ife. 12th-15th century C.E. Terra-cotta.,Fundación Marcelino Botín/Museum for African Art.
 © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria. 

Karin L. Willis 
This is the only sculpture suggested to represent a character instead of an actual person. Still, it must have been been modeled from an individual, for the face is unique. Its expression, too, is unique, for haing the hint of a smile in it. Compare this to the faces of the three figures, above—two crowned and one not—and this one lacks intensity by comparison. The set of the mouth is not so firm. In none of the others are the lips even slightly open, as these are at the corners. Is it the softer mouth that puts light in the eyes, keeping their gaze in the present? Does the lighter affect have anything to do with the upward tilt of the nose, which is, again, unlike any of the others'?

Perhaps Lajuwa is subtly different because he is not represented as royalty. Whether he is read as a malefactor of legend or as a person who wears only a cap, not a crown, his beautiful, filled-out face tells a subtly different story. That such differences are present yet so difficult to define is one breathtaking aspect of the artistry of ancient Ife sculptors.

For an interesting blog with pictures of African tribal masks and costume, you might look at Loxolop Facade.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Is there a Message in this Medium? Consumer Materials in Contemporary Art

The Canzani Center Gallery at the Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD) is now, as so often, an excellent  place to slow down and enjoy an encounter with cutting-edge contemporary art. "Supply and Demand," the first show from exhibitions director Michael Goodson, is curated by Lisa Dent, CCAD faculty member and associate curator for contemporary art at the Columbus Museum of Art. The exhibit showcases art that uses mass-produced, consumer materials in a significant way. The work was chosen from outstanding local collections.
Alejandro Almanza Pereda, White Carpet Treatment, 2009. 20x36."
Pizzutti Collection. Courtesy of CCAD.  
Alejandro Almanza Pereda's White Carpet Treatment is an exquisite work composed entirely of incandescent light bulbs, porcelain sockets, and electrical wire. It must be an especially intuitive, associative process that brings Almanza to light bulbs ("Eureka!"), for this little "carpet" shows the unusual qualities of mind and eye required by an artist who faces the almost infinite world of commodities, yet isolates the one particular item that serves his ideas. This is quite a different thought process from shopping through the departments of an art store, with its time-honored arrays of pencils, canvas, and clay.

Even in 2009, the world was embracing the CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps). Incandescent bulbs will soon be entirely off store shelves. Almanza's carpet is made, moreover, not of the bulbs one puts in a lamp, but of round, satin-finish ones used in a make-up mirror, or even on a marquee; they radiate the abundance of light that signals old-fashioned movie-star glamour. This photograph of White Carpet Treatment in a dark room—like a marquee against a night sky—reveals a pattern carved out by disabled bulbs, in this case a traditional, double diamond rug pattern. But as installed in the Canzani Center Gallery, it sits on a concrete floor in a brightly-lit room, and it hovers like a shimmering cloud.

The title, White Carpet Treatment, suggests a couple of locutions, "red carpet treatment" and "white glove treatment." The Red Carpet is where the principals of marquee glamour pose in the spotlight, even though they are shadows of real royalty for whom the red carpet was first unfurled. White glove treatment is the painstaking care with which important people are treated. Almanza's VIP carpet, however attractive, is reduced to symbol only, though: it cannot be walked. It is brittle glitter only, barely big enough to stand on. What a brilliant use he's made of lightbulbs—soon to be as outdated as glamour and royalty?

Jim Hodges, Study for a Brighter Light,2002, 32.5x25" framed. Collection of Dave and
Nancy Gill. Courtesy of CCAD.
Study for a Brighter Light, detail
Study for a Brighter Light by Jim Hodges (2002) mounts a "broken" (carefully cut) mirror on paper in a manner that can suggest either that it's exploding, or that its shards are being pulled back to the center for reintegration. Study is a work that almost eludes the viewer, there is so little to it—it has just enough frame to hold it together, and it's hung on a white wall in a room where the mirrors reflect yet more white wall. But this succinct work challenges the viewer to hunt around for something to see. The effort is rewarded over and over. It's actually bursting with subtle events, from the way the paper's matte finish and the texture serve as a black hole behind the mirror's shining reflections; to the sharp sparkle given off by the cut edges of the glass; to the surprising discovery that the "empty," flat paper in the middle can feel like a light source. I don't think, though, that Hodges was inspired by a mass-produced object when he made this. It feels more like the mirror was a collage material that, in combination with paper, could reveal his subject: light.

Jeff Sonhouse, Meeting at the Crossroads, 2003, 65x75." Pizzuti
Collection. Courtesy of CCAD.

Sonhouse, Meeting at the Crossroads, detail.
Similarly, Jeff Sonhouse's colorful, aggressive double portrait, Meeting at the Crossroads (2003), is an exceptional painting enhanced by the use of burnt book matches to represent the Afro-styled hair of the subjects. Sonhouse takes pains to dress his fashion-conscious conjoined twins in luxury pinstriped suiting and silk ties. One twin wears a match-book fox stole. The clothing is all painted with trompe l'oeil finesse. In fact, it took some discipline not to touch the painting to determine whether the suits were made of paint or collaged cloth.

Since the close, painted imitation of reality is one important element of Sonhouse's painting, the use of real products (obvious pretenders to reality) stands in a different relationship to the whole than in a work like Almanza's light-bulb sculpture. Here the mixed-medium is the message, and would seem to support interest in mixed personalities, mixed identities, and mixed social roles. Does an Afro made of matches mean something "real" and incendiary—"in your face?" Does a trompe l'oeil pocket handkerchief suggest the elusive, inscrutable reality to be guessed at?

In her catalogue essay, "Marginal Cost," Dent tells us, "'Supply and Demand' examines the work of artists who...contemplate the necessity of the things we think we cannot live without. As the economic health of modernized nations has become more and more dependent on the production and distribution of commodities, developed countries have found themselves drowning under the weight of consumer goods. Many visual artists have found this situation as an opportunity to consider the consequences of a global economy and the possibilities for creative outlets."

The works I've mentioned don't do that. Two works by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz do. Muniz has gained fame not only for work like the pieces in this show, but for his film, Wasteland, which documents his efforts to improve conditions for trash-pickers in Rio de Janeiro. 
Vik Muniz, Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 2006, 53x40." Collection of
Chuck and Joyce Shenk. Courtesy of CCAD.
Vik Muniz, Medea about to Kill
her Children,
 2006, 50x40." Collection of
Mary Kidder. Courtesy of CCAD.
Orestes, Pursued by the Furies (After Adolphe Willam Bouguereau, a late 19th-century academic painter) and Medea, about to Kill her Children (after Eugene Delacroix) are both from Muniz's 2006 series, "Pictures of Junk." Seen from a distance, each photograph resembles a muted-palette version of a painting with a dramatic classical subject. Upon approach, the viewer discovers that the "painting" in large-format photograph of a scene described in junk, laid out in enormous space on a warehouse floor. Orestes, Medea, and the other figures are outlined in chains, cables and ropes; shadows are made by more or less dense arrays of washers or nuts; and the higher and lower values, the shapes in the background, are formed of rusted paint cans, engines, bottles, tires, barrels, crates, hardware, ladders, furniture, appliances...anything inorganic and mass-produced that can be thrown out by one party and salvaged by another. With this paraphernalia, Muniz undertakes to reproduce canonical paintings of ancient Greek myths that are known to us through the great tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Centuries of highest culture translated and retranslated from one elite medium to another until it's on the concrete, defined by junk. Culture shock, anyone?
Vik Muniz, Medea...Detail, interior of figure showing use of washers.
"Supply and Demand" is a fairly pristine show. The two Muniz pieces excepted, the rest of the work--even the Sonhouse painting--makes sparing use of materials. Even if they were pulled from the trash heap, the elements of each work have been purposefully selected to invoke ideas. Muniz's work is different because he doesn't use trash as metaphor for something else, and he uses lots of it, indiscriminately. In his photographs, the junk is junk, barely sorted.
Vik Muniz background includes typewriter, propeller, muffler.

Neither Orestes, Pursued by the Furies nor Medea, about to Kill Her Children protests the heaps of junk, however. Where Muniz the man is apparently involved in social action to improve the lives of people who have to survive off trash; and though he does this by making art works like these and selling them, it doesn't add up that the artworks themselves protest the existence of the junk or constitute activism. The piquant point in this work is the contrast between trash and cultural treasure. Depending on where one stands, either junk or the art canon may be deplored; either may be valued. But about recycling, or the excess of abandoned consumer goods, I think there is no political statement in the works themselves.

U.S. first class postage stamps, 2011
Recycling, consumerism, and over-population are pressing social issues, so it's reasonable that they would interest contemporary artists. It's incorrect to assume, however, that discarded and repurposed commodities are the subjects of art they appear in. For many middle-class Americans in the early 21st century, junk of the sort Muniz depicts induces  mixed feelings. There's the guilt and anxiety we feel about our roles in a wealthy and wasteful society. But guilt conflicts with aesthetic tastes formed by the culture's elevation of what is by now called simply Design. We never imagine well-designed goods as part of the junk stream, no matter how many broken plastic Eames chairs or shapely Crate and Barrel Plexiglas canisters are thrown out. We make socio-economic and aesthetic assumptions when we think about trash.

For others, on the other hand, consumerism's cast-offs represent abundance and play. Tinkerers, flea market optimists, antiquers and collectors will take the risks of finding golden needles in the flotsam and jetsam. They believe not in recycling, but in alchemy.

Jean Tinguely, Heureka, at Zurichhorn. Photo by Roland zh.;
licensed under Creative Commons.
The Dadaists exuberantly appropriated anything they could reimagine. The Swiss sculptor, Jean Tinguely (1925-1991) made kinetic sculpture from his enormous collections of industrial parts and equipment. He was a satirist of mass production in fact, but his work is now beloved more for its antic whimsy than for its sly commentary. It's comparable to movie maker Jacques Tati's anti-industrial irony in the figure of M. Hulot. Hulot's humanity is radiant in any generation and circumstance.
Simon Rodia, Nuestro Pueblo, detail,
Photo by Polylerus; licensed under Creative

Along the same lines, outsiders and artists working in folk traditions have always re-purposed consumer goods as art materials. Simon Rodia's Watts Towers (Nuestro Pueblo) are built from found objects secured to armatures of pipes and mortar. They incorporate cast-offs from a pottery factory, bed frames, and soda bottles. Rodia scrounged materials himself; his project attracted found contributions from many interested people.

Bill Miller, JFK Freak Flag,14x20." Courtesy of
the Lindsay Gallery
Contemporary artist Bill Miller works with folk motifs but isn't motivated by necessity to salvage linoleum from buildings facing the wrecking ball. In JFK Freak Flag, old linoleum patterns put images of the 1960s into a context of folkloric "bygone days." Space travel, the Peace Movement, and iconic images of the Viet Nam war are mythologized—both augmented and de-clawed at the same time. The linoleum lends the feel of the '30s or '40s. That aura of a time even farther away, a period of greater simplicity, adds to the poignancy of Miller's work.

Especially in the Third World, discarded consumer goods are recycled into striking, useful items by crafts workers who profit by their sales. These photographs show how of newspapers that are rolled and used to make mats. The coin purse is made of woven candy wrappers. But these charming works, unlike those sponsored by Vik Muniz, fetch $5, not tens of thousands. Why? They are consumer commodities, not art, that singular commodity that few can afford.

When it comes down to activism—doing something about the proliferation of trash—workshop artisans have it over the artists: They are consistently and systematically doing something to reduce the junk heap. They're trying to earn a living, but their occupation is all about the materials. 

Obsolescence; death; waste; greed; abundance; material display: These are all themes for art. Many materials can be used to express them. The connection between materials used and ideas arising from a finished work of art is a result of the artist's skill. It's unlikely that reassigned materials will tell the story by themselves.

"Supply and Demand" is a terrific show. Dent's catalogue is printed as a glossy pamphlet the right size to carry and read—or to ignore—while viewing the show. Refreshingly, there is not a single label in the gallery. Whenever you're ready for discussion, you have a booklet with the thoughts of a deeply informed person who's been reflecting on contemporary art for her whole career: the ideal interlocutor. My disagreements with Dent on some points are a sign of the show's strength and ability to engage. She gives us great work and pitches guiding ideas. The table's set for a smorgasbord; let the viewer step up. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In the Works

Here's what's cooking at Starr Review: This week I'll post about a show of cutting-edge contemporary work that uses mass-produced items as art materials. 

After that, I'll be writing several pieces about African art. 

First, I'll return to Indianapolis for another look at  "Dynasty and Divinity: Ife in Ancient Nigeria." It's a show of heads and figures made in the 12th through 15th centuries from terra cotta, bronze, and copper. An October 30 article in the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times reports that the British Museum has chosen "100 objects that distill the history of the world." A figure in "Dynasty and Divinity" is among the those one hundred.

In December I'll spend two weeks in Dakar, Senegal and plan to see the Musée de l'Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire—the museum of West African art— the Galerie Nationale, and Salon Michele Ka, a famous folk art gallery that happens to be in a hairdresser's shop. This will be my second trip to Dakar, so I'm already aware that what constitutes art materials in Senegal is a fascinating topic in itself. Stay tuned. 

Thanks to you, my quickly expanding readership, I'm happy to find how much steady attention Starr Review garners; it's read widely every day, not only when I post. Thank you for recommending it to your colleagues and friends, for it's clearly getting around.

I'm thinking now about financial support for Starr Review, as I'm incurring costs, especially the need to pay for rights to publish images. Most of the time I can obtain images gratis, but sometimes I have to purchase the right to post a picture, and then those rights last only for a limited time. I'll always choose to acquire rights rather than decline to write about something I'm interested in and excited about. A density of images is important to bringing readers along with me—to the development of our unspoken discussions. 

If you'd like to contribute to Starr Review, I'd be happy to accept your donation and to list your name (or your anonymity) along the right-side column of the page. The Review is not a non-profit, so there is no tax benefit, alas. I've decided against seeking advertisers because in advertisement-supported blogs there is lots of visual conflict between the art images and the sales images.

If you'd like to make a donation, email me at annstarr AT sbcglobal DOT net and I'll send you my address for your check. I am not a fundraiser who proposes amounts, or plans to honor a person who offers $10 over one who contributes $2. I'm happy for any support that just makes writing and sustaining Starr Review a little easier. (Don't worry, though: It will be written, no matter what!)

Thank you. Look for "Is There a Message in this Medium?" coming soon!

Jean Tinguely, Tinguely Fountain, Basel. Photo by Roland zh;
licensed under Creative Commons