Photo: Rachel Short
Thanks to DJs Mike B. & Adam Freeland for turning us all into dancing fools.
When Muniz spoke at Williams, he was warm and articulate and his work was ambitious, but I was annoyed by the talk. In fact I was so bothered after this charming talk, I had to pause to think about the sources of the feeling.
On a pan of snow a student, Patrick Hubenthal, drew the Sphinx in ink. It was around 1990 at Williams College and the class, guided by a reading from Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies”, had just completed a discussion of the semiotics of materials. Patrick brought the pan of snow in from the cold, and as we critiqued the Sphinx it disappeared. Patrick also drew a man tenderly bottle feeding a calf, using beef gravy as his medium. Years later, in response to the same assignment another student injected bubble wrap with colored water to make a pixilated version of a Madonna which shown like stained glass when hung in the light. Yet another used her blood to draw a portrait of her mother.
After the Muniz lecture I was irritated that an important career like his has been crafted from an idea that I think of as an introductory design problem. Like the students inspired by Barthes years ago, Muniz showed multiple examples of drawings made from unusual materials like thread and food and garbage. But I don't complain when someone makes art from something as clichéd as charcoal, so perhaps it's best to consider the final product of Muniz rather then the originality of his materials.
But I was also annoyed that student works like those I described above, which were equally interesting to Muniz, are gone and appreciated by so few. But beauty disappears everyday, and often goes unappreciated. In retrospect annoyance wasn't what I was feeling after the lecture; it was a cover for grief, just a little grief over what is saved and what is lost.
With these feelings put to the side, it's easier to look at his body of work and consider individual works, many of which are very good. The "Memory Drawings" are really terrific examples of the power of photography to create collective memory. I also liked the "Sugar" drawings which tied the sweetness of children to the harshness of the lives of their parents who worked in sugar cane production. After these two pieces, I thought much of the work simply clever. But in a few works the symbolic nature of the material/s reacted with the image to make something resonant. The portrait of Sigmund Freud drawn in chocolate, for example, was a winner not only for the masterful splashing gestures, but also for the sensuality of chocolate and its potential as a vehicle for compulsion and its reference to all things anal. But Pollock in dripping chocolate was silly and an example of conceptual art reduced to a visual one-liner. I also liked the colossal copy of Caravaggio’s “Narcissus” traced in a huge scale with junk. This time he brought an image forward from art history but tied it neatly and poignantly to the ennui of modern consumer society. The portraits of Divas derived from the work of other photographers and drawn in diamonds are trashy-stylish, but I just don't find any sustenance in images of fabulous excess. And didn't Andy Warhol do the same thing in the “Diamond Dust” series?
Vik Muniz, Sigmund Freud (From Pictures of Chocolate), Cibachrome, 1997.
Vik Muniz, Pollock (from Pictures of Chocolate)
During the Muniz lecture, I kept thinking about Richard Prince and the Pandora's box he opened when he presented other people's photographs as his own. Or his joke paintings in which the joke written on the canvas, becomes more pathetic as its content becomes depleted by endless readings. These works had a deep sadness to them, as if there was nothing left to do or say, but only repeat, repeat, repeat what is already known. Muniz also borrows from artists and photographers with abandon, but without any irony or particular feeling. Quoting great art makes his work seem "cultured' and it provides a great composition at no cost. But too often Muniz does not find the chemistry between material and image that transforms the both of them into a new work of art and as a result many of his works are only copies of the art of others made in unusual materials.
I appreciate the thoughtful laying out of Mike’s annoyance with the Muniz lecture. I see the point about originality. But when I think about Muniz I’m thinking about photography and how it is used in ways that are different from painting and design. That’s where Andrea Serrano and his submerged crucifix in urine comes to mind. What we are looking at there is a photograph that triggers a response, which is what Muniz also does in a different way. His renderings of existing art in different media create responses that can be sensual, funny and also tender, all things I look for in art, even photos.
Also Muniz is from Brazil .where survival and joy of life live in the same house, and that sensibility comes through.
There’s a state, when you’re making a painting where you capture a certain liveliness of color and form, yet when you try to take a picture of it, you find it doesn’t translate to photography. You can’t get it. Muniz is able to capture those moments in a way that’s sensual and immediate, that photography doesn’t usually do—not well, anyway.
He has come upon a design-y way to make that media sing and laugh again. Yes, it is gimmicky, but it works. I look at his picture of Freud in chocolate and it’s ridiculous on the one hand, but it sucks me in in a way that goes deeper than just how it’s made. I think his Divas were trashy but that's what I want in a diva. (By the way I think the source for those pictures, were the credits for one of my favorite films as a child in Chicago, "Imitation of Life." )
I saw one of those diamond diva pictures the day before, at the Phillips de Pury auction house, and it was spectacular. First of all it was big and beautiful and the detail wasn’t tasteful like Andy, but glitzy and tawdry, more like a drag queen. Also Muniz was very strategic about the number of prints he made (three). So in one way he’s saying that photography isn’t precious, but then he makes it precious again, like knocking something off the pedestal and then putting it right back on.
While I appreciate what Roberto is saying, I have to agree with Mike on the point of originality. During the lecture I was totally captivated, but once I left—unlike a great concert where you keep replaying it in your mind with pleasure—the memory of it felt empty. Muniz is delightful and intelligent, his ideas are clever and the pictures are beautiful—but is it our goal to have clever ideas and make pretty pictures? Or is it to present something that provokes a deep emotional response?
What is it we’re always telling our writing students? “Show, don’t tell.” Well it’s true for visual art as well. The best art suggests rather than tells, creates mystery, doesn’t give away the entire story but provides places for our minds to wander in new ways. A truly great work of art bears repeated viewings; every time we look at it we find more to see, experience it differently. When we’re confronted with art-about-art such as Muniz’s, because it’s a treatment of an image we already know, we swallow it whole. There’s no tension because the end of the story was given away in the first paragraph.
I’m an advocate for original imagery not because of any particular art world snobbism or belief in its preciousness, but because the quest for an image that speaks for an artist is supremely difficult and challenging, and that struggle with success and failure ultimately becomes evident in the work, making for a deeper, more satisfying experience for the viewer.
Vik Muniz, Pictures of Color
Gerhard Richter: Betty. 1988. Oil on canvas, 101.9 x 59.4 cm. The Saint. Louis Art Museum. Copyright Gerhard Richter. Photo courtesy Saint. Louis Art Museum.
This may seem incongruous coming from an artist who uses found imagery in her own paintings, and who has professed her admiration for Shepard Fairey and Olafur Eliasson: one who takes a certain pride in his lack of technical ability, who samples the work of others to create his images, and the other who works with a team on his ideas. Yet to me this is not at all contradictory—these are simply methods, different avenues taken to arrive at unique statements that engage on a wordless emotional level.
Kehinde Wiley, After John Raphael Smith's A Bacchante after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2009, Photograph, 31 5/8 x 39"
The last two contained examples of “art about art”: Most of Kehinde Wiley’s photographs are examples of young Black hip-hop guys in the same pose as famous women from art history (odd that no one mentioned Robert Colescott here), and Janine Antoni’s refers to, among other things, Louise Bourgeois’s multiplicitous spiders.
You know my stance on wall text (so can imagine my reaction when David Carrier said he didn’t fully grasp the Wiley paintings without the labels) but have I ranted sufficiently about how utterly lame I think most “art about art” is? Especially when it devolves, like the Antoni piece, into a game of “Find That Reference.”
I want to see art that’s powerful enough to keep me in the experience all on its own, not as a comment on something else, and not something that I have to bring extraneous information to—such as the “artist’s intention”—in order to “get” it.
Or, to put it another way, reference to other art, or anything outside the work itself, triggers an intellectual response that can get in the way of an emotional one. It offers only one interpretation, which makes for a closed circuit, rather than serving as a stimulus to the viewer’s imagination and opening it up to myriad possibilities.
“Art about art” is a lose/lose situation: if artists are better than those they reference, the citation only drags them to a lower level—and if they’re not as good (somewhere I think I used the example of David Salle’s paintings after Chardin) then all the viewer can think about (after “Oh yeah, Chardin”) is how they’d rather be looking at the original..
Uh, except maybe in this case…
Kehinde Wiley, After Jean-Bernard Restout's Sleep, 2009, Photograph, 30 5/8 x 49 1/8"
As I’ve boasted elsewhere on this blog, that despite being a certain age, I have nearly perfect vision, distant and near, and don’t require glasses even to read a telephone book (not that anyone uses them anymore). But I noticed changes in my focusing ability in the last couple of years, so took myself to a behavioral optometrist in Northampton who pronounced my eyes healthy and my vision good except for a “convergence problem.” When I told her I didn’t believe in glasses she said was not against them entirely and there were situations where they could be helpful, but mine was not one of them and in fact glasses would make the condition worse.
The upshot was that I had an hour-long test on Thursday and, in addition to doing 15-20 minutes of daily exercises on my own, for the next six months will be driving to Northampton once a week for vision therapy. What’s interesting about the test was that it didn’t seem to have as much to do with the eyes as the brain. It was all about perception (“look at this image and tell me which of the images below matches it”) and visual memory (“look at this image for 5 seconds and after I take it away tell me which one it matches”) and reading comprehension.
The last reading comprehension test I took was in high school, where I excelled at being an “under-achiever” in the parlance of the day. In an effort to get at the root of the problem (nobody figured out that I just wasn’t interested) I was given a reading comprehension test on which I scored 100%, but because they didn’t know what else to do with me I was put in remedial reading class anyway—after which (surprise!) I again scored 100%.
This time my score was 80% and when I was taking this and the other tests (which I would have assumed, being an artist, I’d be better at than most—and might be for all I know; Michelle, the therapist was supremely noncommittal) I could almost feel parts of my brain being grouchily awakened, as if from deep sleep. It was actually uncomfortable, not fun at all, and in order to prepare for the hour-plus drive back I took a therapeutic walk—to the candy store for a dark chocolate pecan turtle.
My chiropractor is enthusiastic, saying that the therapy will forge new brain pathways and even cause me to use my body better—“It’s all related,” he says. Even so, I’m not sure I’d make this commitment were I not an artist, and if I hadn’t recently been reading about the brain and the importance of exposing it to non-habitual activity.
To that end I’ve also resolved to use the hour each way in the car to study French. I originally learned it as an adult (for three years at The New School with Huguette Martel, an inspired teacher of subtle humor who has also done cartoons for The New Yorker) and was appalled to find, on my last trip to Paris, that only the nouns were left.
However for me to stay interested there has to be an aesthetic component—I can’t imagine anything more tedious than driving back and forth to Northampton repeating phrases like "Où se trouvent les toilettes s'il vous plaît ?" –so I’ve decided to memorize French poems from podcasts by a woman named Camille Chevalier, who makes even the depressing and pedantic 19th century poem El Desdichado by Gérard de Nerval sound musical and uplifting. After a few trips I may not be able to locate the bathroom but I’ll be smarter and able to explain to anyone who asks that “Ma seule étoile est morte, et mon luth constellé porte le soleil noir de la Mélancolie” (My only star is dead, and my starry lute bears the black sun of melancholy).
Ms. Smith’s article has made the already tenuous tenure of artists in academia even more tenuous. Her call for artists to go forth without credentials is naïve at best and seems to assume that graduate programs fail to teach artists survival skills or encourage them to develop emotionally vivid works.
I concur with Ms. Smith that the Ph.D. in art is a bad idea in the United States, where an M.F.A. entails 60 hours of graduate credit. No one says an education is cheap.
To imply, however, that this is money ill spent is to endanger the job of every artist with a university appointment. That Ms. Smith thinks a band of renegade conceptual artists will do a better job of teaching young artists than university professors do is insulting. It’s also like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, as it comes at a time when many colleges are already cutting art faculty.
Although I could be considered a casualty--I'd love to do more teaching-- this reminds me of the lawmaker I saw on television news some years ago, talking about how municipal water supplies should not be improved because it would threaten the bottled water industry (looks as if he got his way).
It's a sure sign that a discipline has become too academically entrenched when its practitioners are threatened by anyone they have not themselves ordained as “expert” or “professional.”
And especially incongruous in a field where the job is to ask questions, not answer them.
Thursday night a bunch of us ran around like madmen in the rain to as many Chelsea openings as we could squeeze into the two-hour window. I wanted my socks knocked off but alas, they were not. (No doubt 21st century art will look very different from 20th century art, but no one seems to have figured it out yet.)
William Blake at the Morgan Library
Friday, however, Roberto had the brilliant idea of spending the day, also rainy, at the Morgan Library where William Blake’s World: A New Heaven is Begun had just opened (runs through January 3rd). The exhibition is gorgeous, with wall text even I approve of: Blake’s poems and descriptions of his images. Fortunately there were few enough visitors that I could quietly speak the poems to myself, which is how I most enjoy poetry and its cadence. There were also illuminated medieval manuscripts from the collection, where the text follows the back story of a prayer book that was cut up and pieces sold, only to be discovered later and re-inserted into the original. Without Roberto’s prodding I would’ve skipped the show of acquisitions since 2004, small gems from various eras chosen with a discerning curatorial eye (or, no doubt “eyes” – the curators aren’t credited). Contemporary highlights were Mary Frank’s owl, a black presence with spread wings that hovers across the top of an otherwise blank white paper, a Jim Dine drawing of wrenches from 2000 that’s absolutely beautiful (I haven’t lost my mind, it really is), a sweet little James Siena and a small, stunning Stephen Antonakos painting of an interrupted red circle on a bright blue background—none of which I can post because, here again, photographs were prohibited, and there was no press material at the front desk (they said it was “too soon” for the Blake) nor anyone available to talk to.
We had a posh lunch in the paneled and high-ceilinged dining room (under the self-important gaze of Mr. Morgan’s portrait) where I enjoyed a tower of perfectly pan-seared rainbow trout, Nick had the Apre Fronte ravioli (whatever that is), and Roberto feasted delicately on the lunch special that was inspired by the medieval manuscript exhibition: tiny roasted legs of quail with a watercress and red grape salad and an aperitif of iced mead, which tasted of honey and flowers.
I love it when artists do stuff just for the sake of doing it, and I’m actually happier crammed into a scruffy walk-up loft with 100 people drinking warm beer than in Mr. Morgan’s rarified dining room. So Friday night, still in the rain, I negotiated the long desolate streets of Long Island City to attend one of Matt Freedman’s projects, “Twin Twin III, Artists Edition” on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Matt, an old friend, has a rumpled disarming manner and genuinely seems to think he doesn’t know anybody or do anything when, in fact, he knows everyone and is always working on a gazillion quirky projects, none of which—like the “Iron Artist” event he arranged at PS 1 in 2006—ever promises the remotest possibility of remuneration. Another friend, who he doesn’t know, described Matt as “a Williamsburg fixture” which I thought sounded too static. Matt suggested “dynamic presence” or “moving target” but said anything was fine as long as it wasn’t “local artist.”
The idea behind “Twin Twin” came from being so bombarded with images by the media after September 11th that anything that was long, narrow, rectangular and there were two of began to bear a creepy resemblance to the World Trade Center buildings. Previous shows consisted of a collection of everyday objects and pieces he’d modeled, but for this third iteration it seemed natural to Matt, whose projects are often contingent on the contributions of others, to open it up to 50 or so artist friends (my contribution was a pair of found champagne glasses gilded with “2001”). The result, as it was installed in Kate Teale's Big & Small/Casual Gallery (up for only three days), was a hodge-podge, darkly funny and unnerving.
Matt in a photograph from the 2006 Pierogi edition:
And Kate’s niece, Rose, at the opening, inadvertently surrounded by many “twin towers.”
Photo by David Henderson
Afterward we went to have barbecue at a nearby bar where the cook alternately doled out dollar bills to make change and arranged spare ribs ($10) on paper plates without removing his latex gloves, and I had to protect my portion from the big dog that was under the table. The ribs were delicious.
Saturday evening it was not raining (much), and I was back in the Berkshires for the opening of a group show, “The Great Impression,” at Geoffrey Young’s gallery in Great Barrington. Geoff is a writer, poet, publisher (poetry and art criticism, including anthologies by Jerry Saltz and Peter Schjeldahl), and onetime professor who has operated out of this small, second floor space for as long as I’ve been coming to the Berkshires. Open Thursday through Saturday five and a half months a year, it’s a real gallery, in the sense that Geoff actually does sell work, but it’s usually small and affordable, often unframed, tacked up on the wall. Also Geoff can be haphazard about his mailing list (if you get dropped off it, don’t take it personally) and updating his Web site (it’s current now, but last month when I was in one of his shows, a friend called and said, “The opening is Sunday, not Friday, and you’re not in it” to which I suggested she check the date—2008). But while Geoff is happy to do business, it’s not really the point—which is, as far as I can tell, to have a good time and stimulate intellectual foment in these bucolic parts. And that he does very well. He’s a master at mixing things up—well-known artists, such as Jim Shaw and James Siena, known and not-so-known area artists, and discoveries from New York and elsewhere. Where and how Geoff finds artists seems to be his secret, but his eye is sure, and with every show there’s at least one happy surprise. He opens his rambling art-filled Victorian home to the out-of-towners and everyone gathers there after dinner to play ping-pong and talk about art in a way that never seems to happen in the city.
For dinner we went downstairs on Railroad Street to Allium, a restaurant that doesn’t quite live up to its pretentions—or price—but the company made up for it. And I have to admit the maple pot de crème was amazing.
From the show: