Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Magnificent Terry Waldo: This is Ragtime

November annually brings home to Columbus, Ohio the greatest living interpreter of ragtime and early jazz piano, Terry Waldo. Waldo grew up here and graduated from Ohio State. Waldo's many friends celebrate his birthday on Thanksgiving eve at Becky Ogden's Bungalow Jazz concert series. It's a tradition held as dear as the feast day itself, especially since the guests get the gifts at the honoree's expense of effort. The consummate entertainer, Waldo plays, sings, tells bawdy jokes, and even takes requests (within limits: Not Take the A Train: "It would be wasted on my talents," he suggests.) A one-man guardian of the vaudeville flame, Waldo declares himself willing to let the superficial reign, to make people happy, to have fun. 

Terry Waldo at his birthday concert, November
2013, Bungalow Jazz, Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by James Loeffler.
A Waldo performance is the delight that a sunburn must be to a Laplander in December. But tap your toes and laugh your head off, if you're paying attention to the music, you'll be astounded to find that he plays ragtime with a power one rarely ascribes to what we think of a merely a cheerful music. Waldo interprets and improvises from a depth of understanding few access. Protege of Eubie Blake for the last fifteen years of the great composer's life, Waldo began even in his teens to pursue this music and to sit in with the generation that invented it. He's become the world's premier performer and scholar of the music on the basis of experience-based understanding.

Here's Waldo's opening from November's birthday concert, "The Pearl," by Jelly Roll Morton:                  

Acute timing, articulation, and improvisation all leap out from this and all Waldo's performances, the latter being central to his understanding of the music. Over the years, he reports, he's been dragged into "pissing contests" with musicians for whom playing ragtime is a matter of copying old records. "It's not jazz," says Waldo. "You're always doomed to failure. If you're copying records note-for-note, musicians on the stand aren't listening to each other: It's not alive. I get into a lot of shit about that," he confesses. "My recordings are originals. Jelly Roll Morton wouldn't have done a tune the same way twice." How many ways has Waldo played Eubie Blake's "Troublesome Ivories?"

Waldo's education in ragtime and traditional jazz is the result of curiosity and the opportunities of a great scene in Columbus and Dayton. When he was in high school and college in the early '60s, he benefited from the legacy of the '40s traditional revival. He knew the great Johnny Ulrich, who played piano with one hand and trumpet with the other, who had played with Bobby Hackett and did Jackie Gleason's arrangements. He heard and learned from Gene Mayle and the Dixieland Rhythm Kings, the Gin Bottle Seven, and trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who taught him banjo. He founded his own band, the Fungus Five, in 1963, as a high school student, and a star was born. Or, at least, an indomitable artist was.
Selection of Waldo's releases, including 26-hour Public
Radio series, "This is Ragtime." Photo by James Loeffler.

During his student summers, Waldo played in a banjo band at the Red Garter in the French Quarter of New Orleans and got to know musicians still living from the original days of ragtime and New Orleans jazz. He worked in San Francisco during the '70s Dixieland revival, this time as a tuba player at Turk Murphy's club as a member of Earthquake McGoon's band.

In short, Waldo learned his art from the ground up as a young man, playing with and learning from the first generation men (and women—Alberta Hunter) who made his music. 

Although Waldo was both a band member and leader (his bands included the Ralph Emerson Waldo Jazz Band, Waldo's Ragtime Orchestra, and his Gutbucket Syncopators, which recorded several great CDs), he reminds us that ragtime is principally piano music. It was offered as sheet music; it's longer form than jazz; and compared to jazz band music of the Dixieland era, it's very complex harmonically. 
Illustration from This is Ragtime by Terry Waldo, Jazz at Lincoln
Center Library Editions, 2009. Wlado's High Society Stompers
with Sandra Day O'Connor on washboard.

Many casual listeners enjoy ragtime thinking it essentially uniform and predictable. But hearing Waldo play James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout," you can hear how the music veers among keys in both hands, changing colors crazily, rushing tempos, and making the listener stagger to keep up. We can tap our feet to it, but ultimately we have to just surrender to the exciting succession of tremblers that mark its irregular course. This goes back to interpretation and improvisation. While lots of sheet music exists for Ragtime tunes, as Wynton Marsalis points out in the introduction to Waldo's book, This is Ragtime, "Many times what you write is so much less than you can play."

During our evening with Waldo, it was interesting to hear him distinguish between band and piano music when a request was made for him to play the Lil Hardin delight, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," a Dixieland band favorite. The music is from his period, but he's a ragtime pianist, something quite different: Hear Waldo's reaction to this request. His brief performance could convince someone unacquainted with the tune that it had been a piano rag all along. 

Waldo greets fans at Bungalow Jazz. Photo by James Loeffler.
Waldo's first real encounter with Eubie Blake  was at the 1970 St. Louis Ragtime Festival. he played Blake's formidable "Charleston Rag." Afterwards, when Blake took the stage, he declared to the crowd, "This man Terry Waldo played my 'Charleston Rag;' if he'd have been a woman, I'd have married him." 

A friendship was formed that resulted first in Waldo's arranging a tour for Blake of colleges in central Ohio (Ohio State declined the pleasure). Eventually, Waldo transcribed most of Blake's music and resided with Eubie and Marion for several years as student and assistant. Waldo takes amused—but very sincere—pleasure in Blake's having referred to him as his "ofay son."

In this video of Eubie Blake himself playing "Charleston Rag," one is reminded of two aspects of ragtime that are always shine from Waldo's performances. First is that, for all the fun, it is cerebral music. The rhythmic and harmonic intricacies—What work it must be to transcribe a performance!—are great. Glad as it makes us feel, there is nothing simple about it, certainly in conception. The other thing is that despite its musical demands, ragtime is always presented lightly, as an amusement for the performer and audience alike. Eubie Blake puts himself through his paces, but not without intermittent jokes about his ability to recollect the tune.

Waldo's material is accessible and engaging: "I see it as show biz." He sees himself as actively in the vaudeville tradition because even Dixieland jazz bands played vaudeville. When they did, they played no more than fifteen-minute sets with maybe five tunes per set, including drumstick showmanship and visual gags. It would be part of a larger entertainment with "singers, jugglers, comedians, an unnatural sex act—whatever made it work." 

Terry Waldo's history of ragtime and early jazz piano.
So while he is the consummate interpreter and teacher about ragtime and early jazz piano, Waldo also does television and, radio, produces musicals and is, of course, a composer in the ragtime and vaudeville veins. No show is without his own songs, always bawdy or satirical with a stinging political or social edge. After performing on request Tom Lehrer's "Vatican Rag" last month, he followed up with his own, "Let's Pray Against Someone." It's fun, but fun is also essential to the tradition.

"I do know vaudeville, and I act in my shows. Eubie was a great actor and performer," Waldo told me. "As a Black actor, he was like a boxer: You go out and give 'em everything you've got—Bam bam, no apologies, you don't be messing around! You have to have a sense of humor: Give them comedy; give them novelty songs: 'I like bananas because the have no bones.'"

For these reasons, Waldo the entertainer, the vaudevillian, takes exception to many existing presentations of ragtime, especially to people who record hour-long "archival" CDs with no breaks, simply one tune after another without suffusing any essential levity to keep it various and interesting.

Terry Waldo's knowledge about ragtime is the result of unbridled, lifelong curiosity, pursued since his 'teens. He's plunged into any opportunity he could find or create for his whole life. His book about ragtime is only one form in which he has transmitted his knowledge about early jazz. His National Public Radio series is available through his website. He has also recorded lectures for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which are available on YouTube. In these videos we can appreciate the entertainer, but we primarily see the excellent pedagogue who knows his material so deeply that he needs no recourse to academic or obfuscatory language to impart either facts or enthusiasm to his audience. He assumes we are interested and listening: He makes it fun: Terry Waldo Discusses Ragtime.  Here you can hear his own performance of the "Charleston Rag" as well as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." 

Terry Waldo's an artist I admire because the depth of his knowledge is based on his experience of his art—he understands it from the ground up, through his ears and muscle memory, through observation and conversation, trial and error. I also respect Waldo's lover-like commitment to what he knows and does. "I'm a dinosaur," he once told me. The revival of the '70s is long gone and the people who are interested in playing traditional jazz come through academic historical interest to a music of guts and laughter. I'll show up to his party, though, as long as it lasts, just to "come and hear." 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Noah Purifoy's Outside: the Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum

Noah Purifoy, Shelter. Joshua tree in foreground.
Noah Purifoy, interior of
My children have got me into most of life's great experiences and so it was once again that through my daughter's reconnoitering I visited Noah Purifoy's home and Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum in the Mojave Desert. We entered when the early morning shadows cast by the cactuses of greater Joshua Tree, California were still long on the sand. This collection opens very early in the morning. Empty parking spaces for five and six cars abut a neighbor's property across the unpaved road, and neither guards nor doors nor walls enforce the posted hours of operation. The Museum is just there: a circus, a shrine, a stunning collection of sculpture and installation existing as a fact of life, an integral part of the desert landscape demarcated only by an occasional barrier of inclusion. We enter the Purifoy site as we enter a theater and see the stage, with imaginations tingling. The only limits here are set by our own capacities to appreciate the unity of action set before us.

Noah Purifoy, Bowling Balls. One of
three bowling ball towers.
In 1989 Purifoy left Los Angeles, where he had been a founding member of the Watts Towers Arts Center in 1964. He had gleaned rubble from the infamous race riots to use as sculptural materials, and he continued to use found materials for the rest of his career. He moved his practice to Joshua Tree, where he spent the last fifteen years of his life. On his ten acres he created over a hundred works from discarded materials. 
Noah Purifoy. Possibly, Three Witches. It was hard
for me to keep up with titles as the map of the site is
schematic and nothing is labeled. But the interplay of
Art and Nature is wonderful and not unusual.

In popular imagination, people who retreat to the desert are saints, hermits, or kooks. Wise men go for spiritual discipline and reflection; monomaniacs discover that odd kingdoms await them there. These people re-enter society either as Jesus or as Brian David Mitchell, the prince of a two-person sect of child abductors. People who go to the desert are rarely like the rest of us.

The desert symbolizes circumstances of deprivation with no joy. But the power of symbols lies in their lack of specificity, so we don't imagine the desert in any detail, as a place with properties beyond absences. When we think of the lives of hermits and saints and outcasts, we don't envision the desert earth as nurturing flora and fauna; we don't think of the vistas, sunsets, or the subtle gardens at their feet. The actual, living desert inspires habits of alertness, observation, and awe. Its phenomena exist on a very broad scale—as vast as the endless sky, as minute as sand-dwelling insects built for survival.
Noah Purifoy. Rear, Ode to Frank Gehry. Foreground, Sixty-five Aluminum Trays.

When Purifoy moved to the desert, he must have been profoundly aware of both the symbolic and specific power of the place, for it's not only his genius as a sculptor that is so moving, but it's his genius as an artist in the fullest sense—his ability to see beyond what he has his hands on. On his property one encounters not only the many sculptures, but also the size of the space itself, the infinite sky, the continuous desert, and the cactuses that grow undisturbed among the many man-made phenomena. In his museum,  the visitor never loses consciousness of the environment and its components of sand, plants, sun, and sky. Purifoy clearly considered and built with those in mind. They unify the property and they unify his efforts across time. He uses cactuses to pull together groups of several sculptures, or, sometimes, he places artworks with a cactus as the focal point. Purifoy's use of his complex setting reveals the observational basis for his art that seems at first encounter marked by pure imagination.

Noah Purifoy, one car in the long train he built on the site

Purifoy's property is on the edge of a Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center. His desert retreat was not obtained for the purposes of landscape painting; he seems not to have inspired other artists to follow or colonize around him. Whether he was visited by agents, gallerists, and curators, I do not know, but the site is so unified and concentrated that it's difficult to imagine anything obtruded on his focus there. The Foundation quotes Purifoy with saying, "I do not wish to be an artist. I only wish that art enables me to be," words that reinforce the impression the Outdoor Museum conveys, that this work was made from inner compulsion, not for reasons of career.

The photograph (left) shows where Purifoy segregated his accumulated materials or, as any self-respecting neighbor would call it, his junk. Every scrap that appears in his constructions is used with self-conscious wit, grace, humor and punch. The space—as large and composed of hundreds of thousands of individual elements as it is—feels animated by the life stored in those myriad parts and activated by their use in artworks. Because it's clear that nothing is arbitrary in this world, the effect is musical. There are naturally-occuring vibrations, like sound-waves; particular harmonies generated by a place so perfectly and intuitively orchestrated. I've experienced nothing like this—visual unity of such a vast scale—outside of grand gardens, symmetrical in plan. 
Noah Purifoy, No Contest. The "building" is a facade.

It's unusual to find as little repetition in a body of work as one does in the Outdoor Museum. "Outsider" artists may   limit themselves throughout life to a single approach, material, or style. Contemporary academy-trained artists produce bodies of work, based on a career model of development that assumes ever more favorable judgment awaits their ever-changing work, where change equals improvement. 

In art—in every enterprise—the perception that one has succeeded is a great inducement to continue doing the same thing: Success is seductive, even when it's damaging to broader expression of creativity. But here, Purifoy has built buildings one can enter; he's constructed facades, earthworks, towers. There are abstract sculptures, simulacra, miniature environments; some works are busy and elaborated, and others are no more than the barest suggestions of form. There are works that focus attention on the environment, the church, or on art itself. It seems that nothing recurs.

Noah Purifoy, Sculpture made from the aluminum
tube frames of patio chairs, enhanced by shadows
Alone in the desert, though, liberated from the effects of outside judgment, what is there to short-circuit the exploratory impulse? I believe that this extraordinary place is testimony to the stifling effect that organized Art can have on the connection between creative impulse and individual production. Under the sun on the Mojave Desert, Purifoy would have experienced little daily commentary, opinion, or intrusion on his creative independence. Of course he could have built nothing but gates for fifteen years—anything is possible. But his setting seems to have given him the privacy to fill mental and spiritual as well as physical space and he did it in a broad and balanced way, without expressing any observable need for self-replication.
Noah Purifoy, detail of architectural
installation with ornamental and structural use
of toilets, reminiscent of classical columns

Again, the desert sun both reflects and shines like a spotlight on Purifoy's achievement. It seems to move with the viewer among the works on the site, calling attention to the uniqueness of each—to its relationship to its environment, its outstanding form, materials, and spirit.

Separate Purifoy from the art world; isolate him in the desert, away from the commerce of galleries, from separated and denominated museum rooms (Black, Contemporary, American, Twentieth-Century); remove him from having to hear, speak, or interpret Art's professional jargon—do all these things and you can come up with Purifoy as a genuine outsider artist. 

In Purifoy's personal garden adjacent to his trailer

The CV available on the Noah Purifoy Foundation site makes it evident that Purifoy did not at all fit the technical definition of an outsider: He had an art degree, many solo shows, prestigious fellowships and awards. But could these facts ever make an insider of an Alabama-born Black Angelino, whose mature period work is formed from the rubble of an infamous race riot? It seems to me that it's a very doubtful proposition. Socially and psychologically, there would be much to place him as an outsider.

But as an artist, Purifoy strikes me as an outsider in the best, most liberated, enviable sense. The Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum is a brilliant, unique place created only by an artist contented with own thoughts and imagination. He appears to have turned out his ideas with a patient spontaneity untarnished by vogues, criticism, or suggestions. The harmonious mixture of calm and excitement I felt there undoubtedly had to do with Purifoy's outsider perspective: He put himself beyond everything that is usual but extraneous to the central work of an artist, which should be observing, thinking about, and doing what is most important to him. How far out can you go? Here, Purifoy is, in every aspect of his work and life, a nonpareil—excellent and right.

This site is an inspiration to any artist in any medium. That this place is so suffused with its creator's values shows the excellence of stepping wholly away from organized art's—from society's—congested sphere of comparison. The desert is purifying and solitude is refining. It's hard for me to conclude otherwise after visiting this sacred place, Noah Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. 
Panorama of Purifoy's Joshua Tree Outdoor Museum. Photo by Margaret Starr.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

For Instance Laura Bidwa

For Instance Me is the title of 
Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (green), 2012. Oil and acrylic
on panel, 11 x 15."
painter Laura Bidwa's current show in Room, an intimate gallery space at Columbus College of Art and Design. You'll have to sprint to see it by the time this review comes out (it closes on November 15), but your raised pulse will calm once you get there. Bidwa's work is contemplative, mysterious, and serene. A visit to this show is like looking into  the variety and nuance of one beautiful, thoughtful mind. The thirteen paintings arise from one visual premise yet they show great variety. There's no doubt that you stand in a unified, unique environment. You have the opportunity to explore its fascinating details, for within the given of a loosely gathered, pastel mass situated against a black background, each painting is wholly independent of its neighbors. It's one cast of mind with many kinds of thoughts.

Bidwa engages us with the figures—those irregular, translucent forms that sometimes drift, sometimes propel themselves across the black, sanded fields of her paintings—by means of suggestive titles. These never explain, declare, or pin down her subjects because ambiguity is their nature. 

Laura Bidwa, Creature I Don't Know (yellow, 1), 2012. Oil and acrylic on
panel, 11 x 15."

A big part of my pleasure in Bidwa's work is a sense of peace with undefined outcomes. Four of the thirteen paintings are Creature(s) I Don't Know. Well, I sure don't either! But there they are, whether or not I know or can define them. These paintings—with figures of various colors, densities, shapes, positions; placed against backgrounds of greater or lesser opacity—have quite a strong effect on me. They remind me of the frequency of my own "unknown," subliminal thoughts. Do they move across my consciousness like meteorites; like dust; like clouds? Are they fragments, or blind spots? Do I see the thoughts I don't focus on? Or do I simply neglect them? My ideas may have nothing at all to do with what Bidwa thought or sought to do. But the multivalence of art is one standard of its power. Considered this way, Bidwa's is explosive.
Laura Bidwa, Literally. Oil and acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

Bidwa is clearly not an automatic painter—she does not paint in a trance, nor give us what comes to her spontaneously. But it is part of her art to convey a sense of the momentary, yet to still it so we can seize upon the flashpoint of connection, when a word or a vision blinks across the mind, usually to be lost as it occurs. I cannot parse or explain her painting, Literally. But the invitation to connect the word, the concept, and the image can't be passed up. "Literally" makes us think of something accurate, real, and certain. What does it mean that the figure is suspended, has substance, and pleasing color? That the black background is rent, exposing a creamy beyond? Bidwa nudges us into alertness to quiet questions, and into a sense that they are all around us, breathing into the thin fabric of daily consciousness.

Laura Bidwa, That's the Way That It Ends, Oil and Acrylic on panel, 17 x 22."

I particularly like the painting,That's the Way That It Ends, especially in its relationship to the others in the show. In this one, Bidwa has not sanded off any of the black paint. In fact, she has returned with it to partially paint over the colored figure. She has applied dots of color to the surface of many of her paintings in a way that feels almost light-hearted. When she does it here, their force is different because they bolster a sense of spatial depth. In all of the paintings one feels three dimensions, but in few do the layers of space seem to impinge on one another. Here they do, as the figure seems to be absorbed into the unbroken background. That's the Way That It Ends, folks. This image is unrelieved and heavy in contrast to its neighbors, adding an arresting change of mood and idea to the show.

For Instance Me is a masterful show. Bidwa does subtle and resonant work with a just a few, repeated visual elements. She is utterly confident in her process, materials, and the strength of her communication. She is also aware of the breadth and depth of her potential audience. Through her titles especially, she open doors to the mysterious paintings and encourages our minds to travel the ground she has traced.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Ghost Stories: Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa's Tour of "Resurfaced" Japanese-American Internment Camps

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Leupp Isolation Center, Leupp, Arizona, 2011.
Archival inkjet print, approximately 8" x 10." Courtesy of the artist.
I'm a fan of documentary photography. I love reading the stories in the images, the more complex the better. So Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa's November show at the ROY G BIV Gallery in Columbus immediately struck me as something special. In Resurfacing, he presents both barren desert landscapes and urban landscapes uncannily desert-like, for none of them—vast as they are—include people. They are as remote, dry, and washed-out as the plains of sand and sagebrush devoid of habitation. How do we know these are not merely landscape shots? Because he has captioned them, and his captions both identify places and serve as titles to the stories that accompany them.

Kuroiwa's sites, so impersonal in appearance, are all related by what has been erased: the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in internment camps on these sites during the Second World War, and camp structures that held them.

Were it not for Kuroiwa's caption and the two-paragraph note that accompanies this photo, we wouldn't know that the image, left, is of the Leupp Isolation Center where "problem inmates" from other camps around the West were transported for discipline (read: torture) in rumored underground facilities. Lacking material evidence beyond these couple of disintegrating structures, how does collective memory last? How is history documented?

Jesse Ryan Kurroiwa, Golden Gate National Cemetery (Overlooking the Shops at
Tanforan), San Bruno, California),
2011. Archival inkjet print, approximately 18 x 23."
Courtesy of ROY G BIV Gallery.
The premise of this show is that physical evidence can indeed be blown away, knocked down, or resurfaced. In human cases, it can be silenced by violence or death. 

Kuroiwa's eerie view of the symmetrical, perfectly laid-out Golden Gate National Cemetery has a story fraught with invisible ironies. In it are interred the bodies of Japanese-American combat troops, men released from internment camps to fight in the War. The story he tells in the note to the images says that 14,000 such men fought, leaving their families behind in camps. Theirs was the most-decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of the military. Yet the Tanforan mall, beyond, occupies the site of the former Tanforan Racetrack, were Japanese-Americans were lodged in horse stables on their ways to permanent camps.

All the internment camps were situated in barren countryside—desert or scrubland that would discourage escape attempts. One of the aspects of the invisible story, though, is that the camp populations were not bent on escape, but tended to established their own well-organized, coping societies in accordance with gaman, the Japanese discipline of acceptance and hard work, a turning inward rather than to aggression. That civilized characteristic, too, has been scrubbed out of history.

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Orchard, Manzanar Relocation Center [CA], 2011.
Archival inkjet print. Approximately 8 x 10." Courtesy of ROY G BIV Gallery.

The photographs in Resurfaced emphasize the sense of the missing by Kuroiwa's choice of points of view. These emphasize sky, distant horizon, or, in the Leupp photo, an upward leading line to a eternal vacancy, away from the ground under which men were tortured.

Kuroiwa's show wholly depends on the interplay of image and text. I took in the hazy, haunting photographs, which left me feeling a little disturbed, with more questions than answers about their significance. Turning to the texts provided shocks: The stories are always grim or heart-rending. They sent me directly back to the photographs, which were instantly filled with the stories that had been invisible before. The haze was still there, but the ghosts had souls; the sand was marked with footprints of women and children who planted gardens in spite of everything.  

The quality of the texts is as important as the elegance of the photography in a project like this. These two skills do not always coexist in visual artists, but Kuroiwa does well in most cases, maintaining a lapidary style that fits his purpose of documenting history in which he has investments of moral value and emotion.
Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Tula Lake Segretation Center, Newell, California, 2011.
Archival inkjet print. Approximately 8 x 10." Courtesy of ROY G BIG Gallery

Of the "Tula Lake Segregation Center," right, he writes:
"On May 24th, 1944, Shoichi James Okamoto was shot and killed on this site. Okamoto had been sent outside this camp to retrieve lumber by a construction supervisor. At the time of the shooting, Okamoto was attempting to re-renter the relocation center. The guard who shot Okamoto was later acquitted except for a $1.00 fine for unauthorized use of government property—the bullet."

Well done. It's a description brief and unadorned, as spare and cold as the image presented. He doesn't tell us about the weather: He lets our imaginations worry over the particulars; we inhabit both the photographed and unseen space. 

Here, the written and the visual meet the ideal of being equal partners. Neither, alone, could tell the whole story nearly as powerfully as the two. It's noteworthy that the artist provides with his statement a bibliography of recent historical research sources that inform his project, so we are not left questioning the veracity of his anecdotes. He notes when information is reported rather than documented. 

Jesse Ryan Kuroiwa, Heart Mountain Relocation Center,
Heart Mountain, Wyoming, 
Archival inkjet print, approximately 18 x 23." Courtesy of the artist.
This show succeeds on so many levels. As unlabeled photography, it is haunting. The flat, seemingly featureless landscapes are imbued with life by incidents we would in other places barely notice at all. The splintery poles and the rusting tanks are focal points in apparent nothingness. Add the scripted stories, and those strange, scarce populations of indifferent things assume poignant and sometimes terrifying meaning: The documentary purpose is revealed, as is the passion of the artist. 

In his statement, Kuroiwa writes that he wants to translate the "Japanese facade of 'Gaman'...into the tangible shame, pain, and injustice under the surface." He's achieved his goal. He's done it not without exhibiting gaman himself, if that quality means facing hardship with self-control, kindness, and discipline. Resurfaced demonstrates all of those qualities. But there is translation too: By the end, we know who he is, where he stands, and just how he feels.

Kuroiwa's show remains at ROY G BIV through November 30, when there will be an artist's talk at 2:30 p.m.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Through November 17, Hammond Harkins Galleries in Bexley, Ohio is showing Naked, a group show featuring faculty members of Columbus College of Art and DesignChar Norman, Dean of the Faculty Emeritus at CCAD, curated the show. 

Norman's Curator's Statement in the handsomely-prepared catalogue tells us that her "call to the artists was to interpret the word ["naked"] in any way imaginable..." The variety of interpretations is broad indeed: Don't worry about crossing picket lines of the morally outraged when you come. Few of the 25 artists interpreted "naked" as "nude." In general, it appears that they interpreted the theme as another route into the problems of their own, continuing practices, in form and content both.
Gordon Lee, # Pink Princess. Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Framed: 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 inches (image: 30 x 30 inches)

Gordon Lee's # Pink Princess is a smooth-surfaced, flawless presentation of a nakedness created to be covered. Stripped to its insensate skin, the Barbie-style doll is a clothes horse with nothing of beauty or real attraction underneath. Her nakedness is either appalling or—perhaps worse?—indifferent. 

The details of the doll's ensemble are laid out around her on the blue pattern grid. She will have designer sun glasses, Italian purse, 4G phone, and 3 carat ring to accompany her pink gown, the cut of which sure looks Chinese—for the all-American beauty.

In a materialistic world, naked has no value for being literally no-thing. Were Barbie nude, would she matter more?

Doug Norman, Reclining. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches
Figure studies in graphite torn from a sketchbook are among Doug Norman's offerings to this show. The flesh they evoke is the sort that humans wear; the sort to which adding more layers is, aesthetically speaking, optional. Even in focused studies of foot and face, here is nudity.

On these two pages, the artist contrasts the darkness of areas to which he has committed the efforts of minute detail to those he has merely outlined, leading up to and out again from the focal details. In both drawings, erogenous areas are the ones hinted at, breasts and buttocks. Left almost as implications, the eye nevertheless lingers as it passes over them, delicately. 
Doug Norman, Hands and Feet. Graphite on paper.
Framed: 13 x 16 inches (image: 5 x 7 inches)

Some artists move beyond representations of the body to metaphors for either the naked figure or for its exposed parts—but they still invite us to connect the idea of "naked" to the human body.

Several pieces of Kelly Malec-Kosak's sculpture are included in this show, all executed with nylon stockings. They evoke skin (between the body and the world) or membranes and linings (demarcating the interior's soft tissues).

Kelly Malec-Kosak, Dimpling. Mixed Media: Nylon,
cotton, thread. 
2 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 20 inches
Dimpling, made from a pair of pantyhose, retains its association with legs even after considerable alteration of the stockings. In this, as in her other work in this show, Malec-Kosak employs flesh-tone (for white people) hosiery, which is made to give the impression of enhanced nudity when it is worn. Nylons are "see-through" apparel, traditionally marketed to increase the sex-appeal of a woman's legs.

If we think of this piece as legs, the dimples are lost between the growths, which appear as fields of warts with long, black hairs like one would see on a witch's face—where dimples would be for that matter. 

But think of these as legs, nose, face, fingers, or any body part, and it's hard to avoid the irony in the artists's use of a medium (pantyhose) that so effectively suggests truths about nakedness. Cover up that skin with all its disgusting flaws! 

Must naked flesh be sexy or attractive? Will cosmetic embellishments—silky sheer stockings—make a difference? What a piece of work is man.

When Char Norman takes on nakedness, there are similarities between her epidural focus and Malec-Kosak's. Both women move their viewer into territory where the values of naked and covered compete and we have to wonder about the standards: Is nakedness more authentic? Is it less pleasing aesthetically? If so, should we be ashamed to admit it? What do we keep secret and what do we display?
Char Norman, The Naked Truth.
Mixed Media: linen, flax, tree bark. 29 1/2 x 8 1/2 x 8 inches
Where Malec-Kosak's image is more disturbing than not, Norman's The Naked Tree keeps the viewer slipping back and forth between aesthetic beauty and the meaning of the natural forces that produce it. 

This sculpture could very well be interpreted as a reliquary, or any object of veneration. In this piece, Norman has taken extreme care to use natural materials polished and manipulated so their native beauties stand out. Suspended from the stick, finished and polished to such a degree that it looks like bronze, the beautiful cocoon dangles, its exterior is made of bark from an ash tree. The tunneling of ash borer beetles, which have gone far to kill off the tree species, is in plentiful evidence inside the "skin." Those whimsical tunnels are reflected in the woven fiber rope that loops and fills the split cocoon. Like the tree, it is blasted—beautiful, but killed by being opened. 

Nakedness is exposure, and those intimacies—the beetle in the bark, our examination of the interior of this "cocoon"—are killing. The Naked Tree is one of the most exquisite works in this show. It's as elegiac as it is beautiful.
Kathy McGhee, Cottonwood Stand
Intaglio -- photogravure using 2 polymer
Framed: 14 x 12 1/4 inches
 (image: 5 1/2 x 3 3/4 inches).
Photographed under plexiglass.

Kathy McGhee uses trees to exemplify nakedness in a way we know from Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 

The naked boughs in the layered photogravure, Cottonwood Stand, form an elegant image in which each branch is in intimate, organic relationship to all the others. There appear to be systems real and reflected, all affecting one another.

What is the idea of nakedness in McGhee's print? The leaves have gone from the trees, yet being stripped, the trees don't appear vulnerable, inappropriately exposed, or reduced to a final layer. Rather we have a richly built-up image, graceful and complex. If it is naked, it is so in the way of the anatomical invisible man demonstrated in layers of transparencies. His nakedness reveals everything about him in full and specific detail, showing him at his most complex when unclothed.
Susan Li O'Connor. Inkblot No. PA150004
Microns black technical pen on Bristol board and vellum
14 x 17 inches

There are many more artists well worth discussing in Naked. I was very taken, for instance, by a series of drawings by Susan Li O'Connor—black ink on board with ink on vellum in one or two layers on top. The cellular, organic quality of the forms and the floating, receding aspect of the vellum layers are both beautiful and suggestive of microscopic life. The relationship of these images to the theme of "naked" would be worth the poetry I expect to be found at the end of further consideration.

The catalogue to Naked includes statements from the artists regarding their work in this show. I don't recommend that the visitor refer to these as aids in viewing the show, for I find that artists' comments are usually much more limiting than helpful to visitors who bring any of their own viewing history to the show.

Many of the artists tell us what their work is about or why they made it. No doubt they give truthful accounts. But when an artist tells us about specific references, and how they interpret their own work, they tell us what they are to have let go of in presenting completed work. It's for the public to interpret now. 
Julie Taggart, Bye, Baby Bunting
Oil on panel, Framed: 7 1/4 x 7 1/4 inches,
(image: 6 x 6 inches)

"It is more serious in tone and explores what it means to be psychologically naked in the presence of political propaganda; the figure is turned away to our left and trying to ignore the bluster around her..." "The white crosses I use are partly inspired by A Monument to Betty, which is a large white cross on a hill overlooking Nelsonville, Ohio, that was at one time billed as the world's largest freestanding cross. The environments suggest a world formed by our unending thirst for fossil fuels."

While these comments may be of background interest, statements like these risk being reductive. And, ultimately, do they matter to our experience of the works?

If the artists were driven by narrative or expositional ends, did they make the works as illustrations to help articulate their ideas? Was there discovery in the process? Can we find it? If not, much better to leave us to our own imaginations, references, and stories, attaching each piece to the theme as we examine and interpret works with the independent eyes and minds that one hopes all viewers bring to the gallery. Artists' stories count, but they shouldn't lead our first impressions. It's up to viewers to speak to artists, who often can't see what they have in fact done. Artists often miss how richly they affect the minds of viewers, even when it's in ways they did not set out to achieve.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The 2013 Carnegie International: Museum within a Museum

Courtyard, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Author photo.
I felt very lucky to go to the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh when it opened for media preview on the first weekend in October. I've never been to any of the international biannual shows that seek to define the Moment in contemporary art; that make and mould the careers of artists and curators; and that satisfy the needs of art- and social-columnists for a glittering month or two. The remarks welcoming the press were delayed as people enjoyed reunions over Danish pastry. I was impatient. "Let them dawdle over coffee and pastries: Where's the art?" I left the strudel and introductions untouched. A sympathetic guard saw what I wanted. He hit the elevator button for me: "When the door opens, turn left," he said with a grin.

Among the great proliferation of biennial and occasional international art shows around the world, the Carnegie stands out. It's not a "pop-up" show that lasts for a few brilliant months and then disperses again, all its works returning whence they came. 

Ever since the Carnegie Museum of Art was founded, this show has existed not only to showcase contemporary art, but to serve as an acquisitions pool for the Museum itself. Andrew Carnegie ardently collected the art of his time: He is attributed with having said that he wanted "the old masters of tomorrow." Charles Burchfield, Marsden Hartley, and Louise Bourgeois are among those the Museum acquired as contemporary artists through Internationals. During their lifetimes, they were working the cutting-edge, even if we see them now, through history, as venerable modern (old) masters. 

Pedro Reyes, Disarm, 2012-2013. Instrument made from decommissioned weapons. 
7-7/8 x 19-11/16 x 19-11/16 in.
Courtesy of the artist, Lisson Gallery, London, and Alumnos47 Foundation.

The size of the Carnegie International pushes the usefulness of the terms "show" or "exhibition." What the three co-curatorsDaniel Baumann, Dan Byers, and Tina Kukielski, have actually done, is to install a museum's worth of new art inside the existing museum. Each of the thirty-seven artists included is represented by a selection of work sufficient to stand alone as a gallery show. These are scattered among the existing Museum collection in rooms that have been adjusted—not always completely evacuated—to receive their new neighbors. The excellent  idea is to allow the existing collection to go to the game together with these new works just in off the street; to have drinks with them; sit in the same traffic jam; be coexist in such relationships as the visitors see and understand. I think it's a great idea.

I had no more chance of seeing the 2013 Carnegie International in a day than I would have had to explore the whole Carnegie Museum that houses it. And who would want to? The pleasure of looking at art is to look at it, after all, spending time to think about what the artist did delivers something useful or valuable for me. Art takes time. Still, I quickened my step; I moved like a kid in Candy Land, trying to taste as much as I could. These were my three favorites artists.

Henry Taylor, Huey Newton, 2007.
Acrylic and collage on canvas, 95 1/8 x 76 1/4 in.
Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg. Courtesy of the 
artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, and UNTITLED, New York

Henry Taylor.  (American, lives and works in Los Angeles).
Taylor's paintings have such freshness and energy and complete lack of preciousness. In their bluntness, they hit precisely that wonderful spot in culture where urban and rural are deeply related. You feel that the characters in his paintings could be in transition from one environment to the other, whatever the setting they are portrayed in. 

In the big gallery where his paintings congregate, Black Panthers, rural old folk, and a magnificent woman jumping hurdles  form a convincing, if random, neighborhood. Perhaps it wasn't Taylor's point, but the convinced, outspoken, sudden way he uses paint is applied to every subject and unifies them. He's peopled a multi-talented world where there's dialogue and a lot of humor.

His portrait of Huey Newton is broadly copied from a famous news photo, in which the seriousness of the Black Panther is heightened by the eyes that so conspicuously stare out from the painting: They are mesmerizing. The back of the chair is printed with snippets of news clippings about killings. Improving on the original staging, Taylor suggests in the form of the chair an outline map of Africa. The zebra skin isn't simply an exotic reminder of a distant connection, but a maze of black and white; it is lines drawn, separations, definitions. Taylor has also added a big brown cross that intersects behind Newton's head. Christian symbolism? Or, more likely, an indication of where one plugs into the energy source, in Newton's head?

James McNeil Whistler, Arrangement in
Grey and Black No. 1,
Oil on canvas. Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
In the same room, Taylor gives us a terrific portrait of Eldridge Cleaver in tight, sky-blue pants against a field of bright green. With cigarette in hand, gazing into space, he is very cool. Of course Taylor has amusingly composed this after the painting we call "Whistler's Mother," but which Whistler called "Arrangement in Gray and Black," denying that it had to do with the human subject, but with the formal and aesthetic qualities, especially the restriction of colors essentially to gray-scale.

Henry Taylor, Eldridge Cleaver, 2007. Acrylic on canvas, 75.75 x 94.75."
Collection of David Hoberman, Los Angeles, CA. Author photo.

Cleaver is a man of color and he is sitting upright in no straight-backed chair: a lounging Eames side chair befits his sophistication and ability to get things done. As for composition, he sure is composed. And self-sufficient. His chair legs, his feet don't hit the floor—he's grounded in a completely different sense than Mrs. Whistler is. He levitates as he meditates, not merely patient, but ready.                                                                                             

Henry Taylor, Mary had a little...(that ain't no
2013. Acrylic on canvas. 96.5 x 71.75 x
2.5." Collection of Lonti Elbers
 Taylor teases, too, by putting droll spins on folkloric images of rural Black folk. Mary had a little..(that ain't no lamb) presents the old woman among her drying sheets with a calf in the background. The title invokes "fleece as white as snow," a trope implicitly useless and tiresome to a Black elder undoubtedly sick of hearing about snow-white and about fleecy, wooly hair. Yes: That ain't no lamb. It's a cow, and the sheet hanging to her right, resembles in form a side of beef in a butcher's window. There's no sentiment here for lambs, little girls, or day dreams about pretty hair. It's a painting of a world of realism. Metaphor is in art, where paint drips can suggest dripping blood of everyday violence.

Nicole Eisenman. (France, lives and works in New York).
Eisenman has won this year's Carnegie Prize, the highest award given by the International. She is showing twenty-six works, seven of which are plaster sculptures, the rest being oil paintings, for which she is better known. The paintings are remarkable for their range of art historical allusion turned to the ends of poignant and absurd commentary on contemporary life's sorrow or stupidity.
Nicole Eisenman, Big Head Sleeping, 2013. Plaster and
graphite, 27 x 49 x 36." Courtesy of the artist and Koenig &
Clinton, New York. Produced in conversation with Sam Greenleaf
Miller. Author photo.

I was especially touched by her sculpture, though, which is both crude and heart-wrenchingly normal, rather in contrast to her witty and pointed painting. The larger-than-life-size statues are installed side-by-side with their genteel classical counterparts on the gallery-level rail of the stately Hall of Sculpture. For some of the Graces and goddesses that usually occupy the gallery, Eisenman's lumpy mortals have been substituted. Their extreme, bleach whiteness seems not to reflect the intrinsic beauty of pure, precious material like marble; rather, it appears to be an intrinsic deficiency of the flesh. The plaster figures have an all-too-human presence and an embarrassing lack of self-consciousness.

Eisenman's plaster people do not, above all, rest on pedestals. Their plinths are covered with rubble that not only underscores how short of the ideal these figures fall, but suggests that they are not victims of human nature alone. Circumstances thwart them. The road is rough. The shards and detritus that they stand or sit upon make life tortuous to begin with.
Base detail from Eisenman plaster statue.

From the direction I entered the gallery, I had to do some quick footwork not to stumble over the Eisenman statue of a naked, stupefied man sprawled on the floor with blackened feet and an ivy garland sagging over his slumbering brow: The morning after the Bacchanalia? The garland is also a classical symbol of personal victory, or championship. Again Eisenman reminds us how humans stagger between frailty and pursuit of great goals.
Nicole Eisenman, plaster sculpture installed on Hall of Sculpture balustrade at 2013 Carnegie International. Eisenman paintings
along the wall. Author photo.

Erika Verzutti. (Brazil)
One gallery, unconnected to any others, is dedicated to Erika Verzutti's bronze, clay, and concrete casts—small works on the floor that map like archeological sites of ancient cities where encrusted tools and dishes, vegetables and artists' brushes are to be found. Aside from a slender tower of egg-shaped units that reaches like an exotic minaret toward the ceiling, most elements of her sculptural work are small enough to make the viewer feel large. Looking into the gallery gives one the feeling of surveying an ancient plain from the sky. Mixed awareness of contemporary and ancient never left me as I explored the room. Displacement in time was like a sparking current that would jolt me if I began to grow too easy.
Erika Verzutti, Floor installation of stones and casts at 2013 Carnegie International.
Author photo.

I love the open quality of her work, which seems so primal in its features and materials that it must induce strong feelings and associations in anyone who sees it. Even those who will mutter, "How childish!" of the neatly laid-out objects— overlooking the details of the surfaces, the materials, and their particular relationships—that person can still find great pleasure in what is indeed there: the desire to collect and to order, to find meaning in arrangement and classification.

Erika Verzutti, detail of installation, above. NB cast artichoke, melon,
eggs, magnolia seed pod; paint brushes, watercolor trays?
Several elements of this installation are casts of squash and melons, vegetation rendered permanent. Also conspicuous among the contents of the walled area are paint brushes and small, subdivided dishes—the sort one would use for mixing watercolors or inks. I like the associations Verzutti sets up between nature's beautiful bounty and art-making. The artificiality of the fruit resonates with the artists' tools. The relationship between art and nature, between real and represented, natural and contrived, are suggested in a most beguiling way in this artless installation.

Another floor installation nearby is not walled like the one above, yet its creation from similar forms defines its own site. Perhaps it is an ancient ritual site, or, as I prefer to
Erika Verzutti, Installation at 2013 Carnegie International, cast bronze and concrete
with acrylic, 2013. Author photo. 
see it, a burial ground marked with shaped stones, faces forward. The shapes are intermediate, between headstones and figures. The black borders of the tall ones suggest to me women in shadours; yet the luminous foreground rocks with gleaming, mixed-color interior seem like glistening geodes. 

What are they? Who are they? What does the group of individuals add up to? The pleasure of Verzutti's work is that it can be studied through so many lenses—in the aggregate, as individual pieces, as references to the past, as au courant; for its evident sensual properties; for the many trains of thought it sets in motion. I love this work that is concrete and allusive, extremely grounded and so conducive to curiosity and dreams. Like so much in the Carnegie International, the embarrassment of riches makes me only long for more.