Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Out West: Water and the Desert at the Palm Springs Art Museum

William Allan, Sanger Ranch, Wyoming Pond, 1997, oil on canvas,
gift of Neal Schenet (c) William Allan
"Especially in the desert, where it is scarce, water is even more vital for survival than in places where it exists in abundance. Its very lack defines the desert, and yet even that ecological system could not exist without it."

An excerpt from the statement to Reflections on Water at the Palm Springs Museum in California reflects one of the primary purposes of this succinct show of thoughtfully-selected art. Through works in many media—painting, photography, pottery, basketry, print-making and video—a single gallery provides the viewer with many evocations of water's meaning to humans in a region where it is a very precious element  The Northeast coast has been the subject for landscape and nautical painters; we know New England waters well as scene and fury. But this show asks us to consider water as a biology and ecology—as life or death, as time or extinction. Water in desert art is not only aesthetic, but urgent with prayer and reverence, and with arresting imagery of the world that wastes it.

William Allan's painting, "Wyoming Pond" is a touchstone. The shimmering reflections of greenery on still water, the implied coolness, and the sense of enduring peace all speak directly to deep human longings. The sight, sound, and scent of gently moving water are universally reassuring. Given our biological need, our psychological and emotional cravings for the sights and sounds of water, this painting is an idyllic point of departure. 

Stanley W. Galli, Vaquero Time for Talk, 1977, acrylic on linen,
gift of the artist 
This Romantic view of waters calm beneficence can be seen throughout  Reflections on Water. Water provides the setting for spiritual reflection and for unity with nature that washes cares away.

Whether or not Stanley Galli's 1977 painting of Mexican cowboys at a watering hole is supported by historically accurate pictorial details, he uses still water and morning light to add convincing piquancy to this moment of quiet camaraderie. The dust and lather of the vaqueros' work is implied by the cool and peacefulness of the pool where the horses drink.

Among the large selection of photographs in the show, there are several Romantic portraits that present Native Americans in sepia-toned paradise where they were One With Nature.This Edward S. Curtis image of a Native woman gathering water is particularly beguiling. The contrast between the barren land and the flowing water divides the picture, with the plump, musing woman sits in the middle, turned toward the burnished stream. The symbols and the composition are simple; the tone is warm; any possible menace nature could hold is swept away on the current. The woman is safe even if she is alone: the water is not only what she is gathers, but what she worships too from her prayerful position on the bank.
Edward S. Curtis, Getting Water - Havasupai, Plate 75 (from The North American Indian), 1903, photogravure on tissue,
 gift of Mrs. Ray Ingram 

The nostalgic scenes of peace, plenty, and unity with nature tend to involve individuals, not larger social groups. Mankind—contemporary, non-Native Mankind—this show suggests, doesn't go down to the river to pray. Rather, as a collective, people despoil what is precious, beautiful, and necessary in short-sighted pursuit of pleasures, or as the result of insufficient technologies.

Several beautiful and chilling photographs of the Salton Sea demonstrate the grief of despoiled waters. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California, located in a basin that has been, over geological time, sometimes desert and sometimes filled with water. In the early twentieth century it became a thirty-five-mile long lake, due to engineering mistakes that allowed water from the Colorado River to overflow irrigation channels and run off into the land below sea level. The Salton Sea was subsequently developed into a popular get-away for fishing, boating and recreation. Insufficient drainage beyond evaporation, and the agricultural run-off that fills it with chemicals have ruined it. The salination has risen to extreme levels, the pleasure sites are long-since abandoned, [Richard Misrach, Stranded Rowboat, Salton Sea, 1983, chromogenic print, museum purchase with funds derived from a previous gift from Kirk and Anne Douglas (c) Richard Misrach], and the lake reeks of dead fish rotting in water that sustains neither biological nor spiritual life.

Photographer, David Maisel's disturbing and disorienting, "The Lake Project 22," is from a series on the environmental effects of immense water-diversion projects in the West. [David Maisel, The Lake Project 22 (from the series , 2002, chromogenic print, gift of Joe and Pamela Bonino (c) David Maisel].  The image is in itself beautiful—the reds with touches of blue; the idea of a blood vessel running through what otherwise appear to be roots, sand, and other features of landscape. The mixture of colors and textures and colors is puzzling, but when connected to the word "Lake, then the weirdly beautiful becomes beautifully terrible—the sinister site of a calamity or killing that we didn't expect to find in nature. Do we see this from a distance, or close up? Either way, we hesitate to know. 

Reflections in Water is rich in Native American art and artifacts. This is happily to be expected as the Palm Springs Museum is rich in holdings of the American West and its cultures. [Installation photo by author.] In several examples of Native art I saw acceptance of the enduring facts of desert life that lacked the cycle of aspirational technologies and eventual despoliation resulting from Eurocentric attempts to modify and control nature.

Most of the Native American artworks in the show are contemporary, though to the untutored they appear to be from the nineteenth century or earlier. Aren't clay pots always found at archaeological sites? Weren't Navajo rugs made for White trading posts that grew up along the train routes, using the materials East Coast merchants imported for them to deploy?
(See "Navajo Weaving at the Palm Springs Art Museum"). The Native American traditions are strong enough to insure looks as timeless as the concepts they embody. Rather than coping with the calamitous results of    human engineering that gives out in unforeseen ways, they invoke the rain-making gods. While the latter seems risibly innocent to technological civilization, to those who practice it, it must have the advantage of avoiding large-scale evil outcomes.

I was impressed by the scale of the Native American artifacts. The vessels for collection of water at a source were small bottles and jugs, all decorated with symbolic art and fashioned of the natural materials available on the land occupied by the tribe. In the vitrine pictured below, a ceramic water bottle stands in the foreground. To its left is a large basket, the magnificent "Rain Eagle Basket," with its interior decorated with two mirrored eagles, wings unfurled. It's made of sumac, juncos, and deer grass, and its function also is water collection.

A Native weaving [Navajo Crystal Storm Rug, ca. 1940] and hanging sculpture that incorporates symbols from a variety of tribes [by non-Native O.E.L. Graves, 1960] demonstrate the symbolic and spiritual communion with Nature, which stand in contrast with the urge to end it to the ends of human engineering. 

The rug pattern symbolizes the home in the center, with lightening bolts emanating to four mountains that define the ends of Navajo territory. Red water beetles swim on the vertical ends, between the mountains. The point of the tableau is not an invocation but a reminder of the importance of rain and the power of the storm. Whether water is present or not, it appears pictured as an ever-present force in daily life.

Graves's sculpture is an homage to the tradition of rain dancing, using such symbols as corn in one hand (a drought-resistant staple crop) and cat-tails in the other, as a symbol of wetlands. Native Americans have husbanded water efficiently with hand-dug irrigation systems, and celebrated rains with dances greater than sighs of relief.

In this piece I have constructed one of many narratives possible in this excellent show. I think that any way one puts the experience together, though, it has to be as art about desert ecology and the use of its resources. I found interesting and inspiring such an unforced and beautiful show that brings science and environmental issues to the forefront. Reflections of Water was chosen by Daniell Cornell, the Donna and Cargill MacMillan Jr., Director of Art and Curator, Christine Giles, whom I thank for such thoughtful planning and choices.

Reflections on Water remains open through May 1, 2016 at the Palm Springs Art Museum

(The author regrets that Blogger seems to have given out toward the end of this article, disallowing the movement of images and the removal of duplicates….)

Monday, December 7, 2015

Wexner Center Shooting: Property Damage, or a Hole in the Heart?

How many nuances of sorrow are there to explore in the November 29 tragedy at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus? 

Did you miss it? No surprise if you did. Compared to the mass killings in Paris and San Bernardino; the pursuits of terrorists around the globe; and the confusion between refugees, terrorists, and worshippers, apparently it takes a lot of spilt blood to register beyond the local news any more.

What happened in The Ohio State University's contemporary art center went beyond the grand realms of religion, guns, and politics into the profoundly personal. A man, a former University security officer, who had once been a guard at the Center, shot himself in the galleries after vandalizing unspecified works of art in the show Art After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists. There has been little public follow up but to say that the show has been closed and packed up. It is suggested that the damage to some of the artworks was caused by gunshots. 

Apparently the deceased had a contentious relationship with the University, where he had worked in several departments. Wexner was the last of these, so perhaps that's why he chose it as the death place. Or did it give him the greater scope for his anger by providing victims—"fish in the barrel"—in the form of art to deface and neutralize? Had he shot other people, we'd have called it a terrorist shooting. Yet by shooting up artworks, surely he caused more than property damage. This too was terrorism perpetrated on the living.

Khaled Hourani, Picasso in Palestine, 2011. Installation view, (IAAP) Ramallah.
Courtesy Khaled Hourani; Photo Khaled Jarar.
From the show at the Wexner Center, "
After Picasso: 80 Contemporary Artists"
The shooting has direct repercussions of all sorts of people. I can hardly imagine how unnerving this incident has to have been for the committed guards and staff who work in the building; for the administrators who are charged with guaranteeing the safety of millions of dollars worth of art loaned by collectors around the world; who have to balance access and security and insure that Wexner retains its reputation as a trustworthy place to loan: the Center has no permanent collection of its own.  And then there are the collectors whose works have been damaged: It's difficult to imagine the return of horror for their generosity in lending for the public's enjoyment.

These individual griefs and challenges are still not what I think form the heart of this episode. I mean that attacks on artworks are thinly-veiled attacks on all of us. In defacing visual art; burning books; or censoring the airwaves, a perpetrator attempts to weaken us all, to dilute our central community of human values and conversation. 

Any artwork—even a rosy-cheeked Renoir dancer—is a challenge to a person wracked with anger, doubt, or dogma. Artworks don't lower their eyes or try to avoid issues. The consequence of observation and detail is commitment that doesn't do an about-face when confronted by hostility  The implicit courage and conviction of art has to frighten the dogmatic, weak, or hostile. Maybe you can terrify the spirit, poise, and straightforward gaze of the artist's eye if you shoot the art, but art is notably durable.

Khaled Hourani's photographs in "After Picasso," seem all the more powerful now that the show has had its untimely close. In the image, a lent Picasso is heavily guarded, the presence of the loaned painting a remarkable event in the unstable Territory. No harm would be allowed to come to the precious painting—precious not only for its insurance value, to be sure, but for the effects it would have on a people hungry for its powers—aesthetic, spiritual, intellectual, political.

We are used to lightly guarded shows; we assume  we can see the world's treasures without inconvenience beyond entry fees. Hourani's photo and the Wexner incident both make me think that maybe we who go to see art or who go to concerts are the ones who are guarded. We keep ourselves within limits no institution need bother to set, for we do it ourselves. We stroll by; we sit in the rows nodding off. Why guard us who come as tourists, taking snapshots and moving on, neither seeking, wondering, nor committed to engagement beyond the surface—thumbs up or thumbs down.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

"The Waning of Justice" by Charles Atlas at Columbus College of Art and Design

Charles Atlas, The Waning of Justice, detail, 2015, video installation with sound.
Courtesy of Contemporary Art Space.
This Charles Atlas is not the one I grew up with, the grinning body-builder who defined the he-man. This one is the videographer whose career began filming for Merce Cunningham in the 1970s. Atlas expanded his work to develop dance explicitly for the camera rather than for live audiences. The Waning of Justice shows him working not in dance but with a melange of elements—landscapes of sunsets over the ocean, projected grids of numbers, a digital stop-watch ticking its urgent way to zero, enormous words splashed across the walls, replacing one another as if in esoteric  succession. Finally, all this ends by being a weighty, menacing introduction to a wildly upbeat performance by the drag queen Lady Bunny of "You Are the One," filmed close-up.

This massive work fills two high galleries at CCAD's freshly configured Contemporary Art Space. Atlas presents, edits, combines, and overlays video of several kinds into a work that staggers the viewer one way or the other. One either hastens through the room, shaking head  flashing cartoonish question marks; or one pauses with jaw dropped in bafflement. Some will decided to stay and try to answer the rhetorical question, "What the hell is this?"  

This is the question, I'll admit at once, that I asked myself when I encountered Atlas's installation. Had I not been accompanied by the curator, Michael Goodson; had I been in a sullen mood, it's easy to imagine myself as the visitor who decides that life is too short and then clears out quickly. Goodson's enthusiasm, based on his deep knowledge of contemporary art and acquaintance with this artist, held me. His excitement assured me that I should linger and think about this: Lucky me! Still, I lack a contemporary curator's acculturated comfort; each work is a new proposition for me, as it is for many gallery-goers. Trusting Goodson's informed eagerness, what was I to make of this?
Charles Atlas, The Waning of Justice, detail, 2015, video installation with sound.
Courtesy of Contemporary Art Space.

Approaching contemporary art, I search for an interpretation, a way to "make sense" of it. I think that I know when to stop rationalizing, for there are works that yield nothing words can explain. Such art  transports us through feeling or sensation with minimal appeal to our verbal understanding. Some of the art that affects me the most deeply—that is indeed most meaningful to me—is of this sort. 

I think what made The Waning of Justice so disconcerting for me was that the installation is filled with the markers of interpretation: number grids, words related to the projected seascapes, a count-down clock, and, of course, its title. Then, there is the whopping contrast of the final element, the amazingly costumed and be-wigged Lady Bunny gesticulating, shaking, adjusting her wig, completely lacking self-consciousness as she sings disco with spirited instrumental backup. "You Are the One." And how you believe it: She's singing to you.

Atlas produces all these common markers of verbal, rational meaning, but outside of a context that supports intellectual interpretation. They are superimposed on tropical sunsets; numbers line up to float in a vast, darkened space; words are massive but transparent—insubstantial—at the same time. They are juxtaposed with the atmospheric, with the contrast between the fiery red and yellow of the sun setting over the ocean; of the symbolism of the sunset intensified by the clock's running down; by the black void space of the room. The sensations the work delivers are in fact the matter; the words, numbers, grids are secondary to the feeling generated by atmosphere Atlas creates visually. When the clock expires and the sun sets, then Lady Bunny performs in the smaller room, deeply artificial and wondrously positive in her emphatic, multi-costumed performance. It's a change of mood, at the least.

 Charles Atlas,The Waning of Justice, detail, 2015, video installation with sound. Featuring Lady Bunny.Courtesy of Contemporary Art Space.

The Waning of Justice makes sense in the way that mood makes sense. The combination of natural beauty, numerical grids on a black background, the ticking clock, and the elegiac mood invoked by the implied relationships between setting suns and all the other elements reminded me of such usual experiences as reading the Sunday Times. Isn't that the way my world feels, the combination of daily countdowns, the anxiety of the all the half-understood numbers that constrain me, my fleeting perceptions of beauty, my sense of a world in decay? While none of the individual aspects of this installation seems to me to have exceptional meaning, the experience affects me as a scaled-up experience of the Zeitgeist. But with hope added in the form of art. Art of the most brazen, self-confident sort, affirming the viewer as well as the artist.

What an amazing artwork. I am glad l that I stayed to think about it. The thought that I put into it reminded me that the rational exists in a world that is not. If I remember it, I can use that relationship to my benefit.

Perhaps this is why people duck through galleries like this one, though. I can appreciate the urge to flee. Yes, it's time-consuming work to think about something as strange-looking as The Waning of Justice. Nearly everyone is put off by what is alien to their experience. But that doesn't make it desirable to shun new experience, especially experience in the safe zones of art. Where better to exercise the mind and imagination, to solve puzzles, to make connections with the minds of artists who experience and respond to the same world we are living in? 

America has become a place where people are willing to believe that what we don't recognize is alien and therefore threatening; that it is in opposition to us or harmful to us. This is the national attitude toward other people, other cultural practices, and even toward free speech. Contemporary art provides a route to surprises of joy, new ideas, and enhanced experience of the world we occupy daily. It reminds us how to observe closely, how to defuse our suspiciousness of of the odd or alien, and to come to identify with—and so, to love—what we invest time and attention in.

Nothing external makes us stay or go when it comes to art experiences. We like what we know, but what we know usually defines times and points of view long gone by the time we learn them. Even our ideas of beauty, so static, are nostalgic and can make us regretful of a world in which we have doomed ourselves to ignore beauty's new sources and expressions. 

Atlas's The Waning of Justice is, like many frightening new works, art that gives those willing to consider it a receptiveness to expanded ideas of beauty and how to retain them, both in the gallery, reading the market report, regarding nature, and moving through everyday's wildly disparate experiences of meaning, indifference, and absurdity.