Calls for Entry: Collage & Assemblage & Design

© James Dean (Lucky Strike) Ray Johnson, 1957.

© James Dean (Lucky Strike) Ray Johnson, 1957.

The Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, NY is seeking submissions for Collage & Assemblage – Deadline May 15.

Ok, so this one could really be anything you want to print on a postcard, so not just collage/design.  A Book About Death, inspired by the Ray Johnson project of the same name.  It’s a participatory project, anyone will be included who sends a set of cards as per the instructions.

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St. Patrick’s Four

I was completely bummed that I couldn’t make it to either of the two screenings of the local documentary on the St. Patrick’s Four at Cinemapolis this week. Did anyone else see the film and what did you think?

Tonight: Photo Forum at State of the Art Gallery

Tonight at 7:00pm State of the Art Gallery at 120 W. State Street in Ithaca will host a photography forum that’s open to the public.  This event is held in conjunction with their annual juried photo show.

The guest speakers are Wilka Roig, Keith Millman, and Andy Gillis.  Full info at State of the Art site.

Upcoming Art Lectures

Matthew Buckingham

Matthew Buckingham

March 30 – Matthew Buckingham: The Sense of the Past
5:15pm, Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall, Cornell University

April 2 – Megan Roberts and Raymond Ghirardo: Water Theory: New Installation Works
12:15pm, Handwerker Gallery, Ithaca College

April 2 – Spencer Finch: Beauty and the Scientific Mind
7:00pm, Textor 102, Ithaca College

Spencer Finch

Spencer Finch

Failure and Commitment in Art

Two recent talks – Carrie Mae Weems at Wells on 3/4 and Ellen Harvey at Cornell on 3/9 – had me thinking about how we artists look at and think about our own work.

Carrie Mae Weems "Untitled (Museum)" 2007

Carrie Mae Weems "Untitled (Museum)" 2007

Carrie Mae Weems is a powerful presence – grounded and commanding – and a self-described “woman in a constant state of longing for a richer, fuller future.”  During her talk at Wells she presented a retrospective slideshow and spoke passionately about her experiences making art.  Mindful of her mainly undergraduate audience, she peppered her recollections with advice to and questions for young artists. (You have to make what you want to see in the world.  You have to create the way you want to be portrayed.)

Carrie Mae Weems from "The Kitchen Table Series" 1990

Carrie Mae Weems from "The Kitchen Table Series" 1990

From the start,  she was inspired to create the images of black women that she wanted to see, but didn’t exist (The Kitchen Table Series).   Through the experience of exploring the questions raised by The Kitchen Table Series, she had a transformative, grounding experience that enabled her to move forward, explore more deeply, and set the foundation for her work as a mature artist (the incident involved receiving a phone call from herself, which I chose to accept as if reading Marquez).

Central to her work is the questioning of power and what it means to engage and challenge power.  (What are you committed to?)  Her genuine smile flashed and disappeared quickly, repeatedly as she spoke about the questions that drive her.  A recent series (photo at top) has her standing – solid, open, upright –  in front of various famous museums, embodying the black female artist, challenging entry. (How do we recognize, discuss, dismantle power?)  The message and images are more powerful for their simplicity, but the ramifications they imply are complex and varied.

Many other bodies of work were presented exploring slavery, architecture (Rome makes you feel that you must rush into the arms of the State), assassinations as defining civil rights moments, place and community.  She showed a recent video in which she expresses her love of Fellini’s work but inserts herself where he has not included her. (Fellini failed me).

Ellen Harvey "Bad Boy Klimt Lives!"

Ellen Harvey "Bad Boy Klimt Lives!"

Ellen Harvey, speaking at Cornell this week, began by pointing out that she starting working from a place of despair.  Having trained obsessively to gain technical skills as a painter, she realized that “painting doesn’t do anything well anymore” and is now only a signifier of “art.”  Non-artists were always telling her she should paint some beautiful thing they’d seen – a sunset, a neighbor’s dog,  their daughter.  She became interested in taking their suggestions and examining the cliches to see what was or could be interesting.  This lead to her most well-known work, the NY Beautification Project, in which she painted miniature landscapes atop existing graffiti.  The work questions the usefulness of painting, perceptions of graffiti and preconceptions about who gets to make art.  In response to this project, The Secession Contemporary Art Center in Vienna commissioned Harvey to create a work.  She convinced them to hire someone to tag the outside of the building with the phrase “Bad Boy Klimt Lives!”   She then painted fragments of the crown jewel of their collection, Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, atop the graffiti, which lead around the outside of the building (despite having permission, she was arrested making this work and had to be bailed out of jail by the museum).

Her other projects have explored street portraiture, museum collections (what’s seen vs. unseen) and other subjects – most examine a situation and question what is needed or called for.  She describes her overarching theme this way, and I paraphrase:

as an artist you’re always trying to do something extraordinary and change the world and you always fail.  This links art to the greater experience.  Your actions are more symbolic than real.  I’m now less interested in cliches and more interested in aspirations vs. reality.

Her monument to this idea of failure is The Museum of Failure, which she explains in the linked video.

As someone prone to perfectionist shutdowns when making my own work, Harvey’s breezy acceptance of failure as the inevitable end to any creative endeavor was both freeing and depressing to me.  Her consciously messy hair, slightly Fuddish (Elmer, that is) British accent and self-deprecating manner all served to support her general attitude towards art-making.  And she demonstrates how the acceptance of failure is the antidote for perfectionism.

Like Carrie Mae Weems, she describes her work as inspired by questions and advises artists to follow their curiosity and their same questions will arise over and over.  “The job of art,” Harvey said, “is to seduce people into thinking.”

Ithaca’s Earth Art Legacy

Robert Smithson's "Ithaca Mirror Trail" 1969

Robert Smithson's "Ithaca Mirror Trail" 1969

I’m a bit late getting to this post, but I didn’t want to miss a chance for conversation about the subject of Wylie Schwartz’s engaging recent article in the Ithaca Times, “Art of the Earth” about the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Art show, which happened here in Ithaca.  While the questions raised by taking the art out of the museum and the impact of using elements of the natural environment as the materials are still being explored and felt in the art world, I was also interested thinking about the impact this event had on Ithaca as an arts town.

Was this event a bit of a hit and run?  Something that happened to Ithaca that we have not fully integrated into our artistic and town history?  People are quick to metion Andy Goldsworthy’s work in Ithaca but, as he says, his work is about time and impermenanace.  Busting away from traditions,  not so much.   What I think about is not in the Eco or Earth subject matter, but the moment of shattering traditions and preconceptions about the confines of what and where is art.  As we all come out of our burrows at the start of spring and the start of a new administration, squinting in the light, what is possible now?  How do we reconsider what art is and can be now in Ithaca?  I don’t have much of a clue, but I have the sense that it doesn’t involve a wall.

What else are you thinking about this anniversary?

public art: not for the fainthearted

The architect Peter Eisenman, the artist Mark Dion, and the architect/city planner Nicole Blumner have all spoken at Cornell within the past couple of weeks, and I somehow happened to hear them all. Though it wasn’t the primary focus of their talks, all three had strong words to say about public art and its challenges, especially here in the U.S.

On February 17, Eisenman spoke at Sage Chapel about the Holocaust memorial he designed for Berlin. He had initially started working on it with the sculptor Richard Serra, but Serra ended up backing out (Eisenman recounted this in a rather humorous way…) because the large and intimidating Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was *extremely* involved in the project, wanted to make changes to their concept. Eisenman is used to working with clients practically as collaborators, so Kohl’s input wasn’t too big an issue for him. And a Holocaust memorial is always a high profile proposition, especially in Germany. Nevertheless, Eisenman marveled that the chancellor of Germany himself and so many other people in the country’s government make public art and memorials such a priority in general. He recalled being greeted on the street by various ministers, and said that would never happen to him in Washington. When Eisenman showed pictures of the completed project, which I found stunning (and even more interesting after hearing him describe his intentions, actually), I swear the first thing I thought was: “Holy crap, somebody could get really hurt on that.”

How very American of me. I doubt that this beautiful array of stone blocks, which, as Eisenman intends, can be a site for immediate human experiences and interactions of many sorts, would ever make it off the drawing board over here. Public officials would be too afraid of the inevitable cascade of lawsuits as various sort of behaviors, fun and otherwise, went down amid these stark, angular, hard, and probably slippery-when-wet forms. Eisenman didn’t address this issues of litigation and liability in his talk. I wanted to ask but didn’t get a chance, and was surprised no one else did.

My growing suspicions about the slow-to-sue Germans were goosed by Nicole Blumner’s talk, on Feb. 27, which was a comparison of German and U.S. interim land use. She defined interim uses as legal (i.e., squatting wouldn’t count), intended as temporary, and ones that “activate” a site–so, not a parking lot or a storage area. In Germany such uses have included an indoor skateboarding area, artist studios, art and performance spaces, community gardens, nightclubs, and festival grounds. The issue of liability came up right away during the q&a, and Blumner admitted that the litigiousness of U.S. society is one, but by no means the only obstacle in developing interim uses for vacant land and buildings here. But to give an example of how devil-may-care the German citizenry is, she described in some detail a horrifyingly dangerous playground she went to with her child while she was over there. It sounded fantastic to me.

Mark Dion raised the issue of public art unprovoked at a talk after his funny and visually entrancing (for all you collectors, hoarders, birders, general nature nerds, categorizers, and filers out there) slide lecture at the Johnson Museum on the 26th. He basically said he hates doing public art projects, and for reasons that sounded reasonable to me: there’s no funding and because public art in this country is almost always decided upon by members of community boards and city councils and attendees to their meetings rather than by special art commissions of art professionals or artists, you can’t do anything interesting, because anything interesting will always be seen by someone as offensive or dangerous (I paraphrase). Michael Kammen, author of the new book Visual Shock and a Cornell American cultural history professor, was also at the talk, and he told the story of the infamous Robert Motherwell mural at the JFK Federal Building in Boston, which was protested for about a year because one of the papers leaked the untruth that it was meant to represent the president’s head on impact of his assassin(s) bullet(s). But the project was completed and eventually most people decided they really liked it, especially since it really wasn’t a depiction of anything, being abstract. Other anecdotes followed about museums resorting to draping sheath over sculptural nudes and other measures taken to protect the delicate American psyche.

Anyway, all this got me thinking even more about public art possibilities in Ithaca. I would love to hear if anyone has any thoughts, including practical procedural ideas, for how to clear the path for exciting new uses of available spaces in Ithaca, especially the vacant indoor spaces downtown. How can we get everyone involved without ending up with art that’s too safe, in every sense of the word, or (much worse!) with no new public art at all?