Tag Archives: Painting

Los Angeles

Tête à Tête: A Visual Conversation About Feminism

Installation shot of Tête à Tête

Installation shot of Tête à Tête, showing Marisa Williamson’s Quilt and Carmen Argote’s Mascara

During September, RAID projects in Los Angeles hosted Tête à Tête, an exhibition that re-examined the 1969 feminist assertion that “the personal is political.” The show of work by all female-identified artists ranged from video to painting, and included two series of performances.

The Critical Feminist Theory seminar I took in college was carefully organized to diffuse power and encourage conversation—we met in a sitting room rather than a classroom, discussion was led by a different individual each week, and we discussed the curriculum collectively at the beginning of the semester to ensure inclusion. Artist Michelle Carla Handel’s curation of Tête à Tête worked in a similarly decentered mode as she invited a broad selection of artists and gave each the leeway to include the work that she found most appropriate to the subject matter. It was thus not so much one woman’s vision of contemporary feminism as a loosely orchestrated conversation—a dinner party with Handel as the host.

The show created a space in which female artists raised a spectrum of concerns related to, but not bounded by, their femaleness. It provided a snapshot of a group of women’s concerns, interests and experiences inviting the viewer to draw connections. Among the many threads of conversation were sex, power, control of the body, communication, motherhood, and re-examining history.

Danielle McCullough, Anthropometries Series, 2013, Cyanotypes on archival watercolor paper

Danielle McCullough, Anthropometries Series, 2013, Cyanotypes on archival watercolor paper

One of the quieter and more enigmatic pieces were Danielle McCullough’s small cyanotypes that depicted average measurements of the human body according to the American government. The government uses these figures to establish safety regulations and provide ergonomic standards, but taken out of context the diagrams remind the viewer of a capitalist’s society’s need to control and police the body, and the high value of conformity.   One of the pieces in the show (not pictured here) depicted the average distance from fist to crotch, slyly suggesting the regulation of not just bodies, but sexual practices.

Gala Porras-Kim, an artist whose elegant conceptual work often involves language, chose to exhibit a drawing executed by the daughter of her partner. By presenting this piece, Porras-Kim generously and bravely revealed not only an element of her personal life, but her own trepidation and learning process in a semi-maternal role—admitting to doubts and ambivalence that it is still culturally inappropriate for women to voice. Also on the theme of motherhood, artist Jay Erker provided free childcare during the show’s opening reception, practically addressing the continued lack of support provided to working mothers.

Rachel Hecker, Marina, Business Card, 2006, Acrylic on canvas

Rachel Hecker, Marina, Business Card, 2006, Acrylic on canvas

Rachel Hecker’s  painting of her enlarged business card tells the story of the interaction between herself and the woman she eventually hired to clean her house. In the biographical information provided in the gallery, Hecker elaborated on how the woman, the wife of a man she had hired to do work in her attic, came to solicit employment:

We spoke for a while and I explained that I did not need help, but that we should keep in touch. I handed her my business card, and asked her for her contact info. She took a pen out of her purse, began writing her info on my card, then handed it back to me — effectively turning my card into hers.

Hecker’s piece subtly points out the complex social, economic, and political issues that are woven into our domestic space–the reliance of our economy on immigrant and under the table labor; the reliance of many working women on other women to clean their houses;  the personal branding and status manufacturing captured in a business card–and the shifting layers of power within which we operate–it is, after all, Marina who controls this interchange, not her future employer. That this whole story is captured within a small scrap of paper serves to enhance the sense that these complexities are often overlooked.

I regret that I did not see any of the performances, which included Marissa Williamson’s performance as Sally Hemings –Thomas Jefferson’s biracial slave and mistress of thirty years, Kim Ye & Veronique D’entremont ‘s question and answer podcast, and Molly Shea’s bra burning as a cave woman.

Susan Mogul, Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a…, 2013, Color digital print

Susan Mogul, Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a…, 2013, Color digital print

Bridging the gap between the contemporary look at feminism and the seventies feminism that provided Handel’s jumping off point, was Susan Mogul’s  Novella Excerpts: Confessions of a… This piece humorously responds to the increased interest in Mogul’s work thanks to Pacific Standard Time (PST) but cleverly points out the different cultural attitude to nudity and the perceived inappropriateness of a middle aged woman performing nude, as well as the persistent cultural attitude that feminism and feminist art are in the past. The exhibition also included a photograph of Mogul’s guerilla PST poster. This poster pointed to the gender imbalance of the Getty’s advertising campaign that used contemporary male media icons to draw attention to older male art stars. This piece also nudged at what made Tête à Tête unique and important: despite progress, gender disparity persists in the art world.

Walking through Tête à Tête was like witnessing the kind of conversation I might have with a group of my friends—intimate, using self-deprecating humor to mask complex emotions, seeking advice on an uncomfortable situation, admitting our failings and anxieties, sharing hair care advice.  Plenty of work by women would not fit this description and even the work within this show would not function quite the same in another context–but the whole point of this show was to look at that shared space and see if it still felt relevant. Answer: it does. Possibly uncomfortably so.

New York On Viewing

Freelancers & Farm Animals

Lydia by Hope Gangloff

Lydia by Hope Gangloff by Hope Gangloff

I have not posted here for almost two months. This has not been for a lack of art viewing, but perhaps the opposite: the sheer volume of visual information I ingested in New York temporarily overwhelmed my mind’s receptors. I was exposed to a whole mess of contemplative puzzles that are still milling around my brain, waiting to be carefully extracted and examined. So while my analytic brain is recovering, I want to joyously wallow in the sensory pleasure of some pretty and brooding paintings.

That is not to say that Hope Gangloff‘s paintings are unintelligent–they are eloquent and articulate portraits of not just the individuals they portray but of a particular slice of life in the northeast that is furnished with outdoor showers and Adirondack chairs, and populated by freelancers and farm animals–but unlike much contemporary art, they require no further narrative or explanation. The pleasure in these paintings is immediate and unfolding.

Study of Olga Alexandrovskaya by Hope Gangloff

Study of Olga Alexandrovskaya by Hope Gangloff

Hope’s paintings are a little too hip–her subjects are beautiful thirty-somethings, living in rustic Americana, surrounded by delicate patterns and vintage clothing–but I don’t begrudge them that. The paint sings and pulses on her canvases. She creates whole individuals, teasing out their quirks and their inner life, noticing the little details that make a moment or a person specific.

According to the New York Times article, Why Music Makes Our Brain Sing, when listening to music our brain anticipates chords and climaxes based on our previous musical experiences. This sense of anticipation adds to the pleasure of listening, and our brain rewards us further for recognizing patterns and making accurate predictions. Is a similar mechanism at play when we view paintings…Is the brain rewarding us for successfully building a cohesive image out of a field of abstracts dabs? Is our mind so in love with patterns that the mere presence of a well painted stripped skirt sets off reward systems? I imagine that there must be an evolutionary advantage to being able to look at a human and hypothesize on their interior state of being, but why the hypnotic pleasure of staring at blue and pink snow?

I will research the neuroscience of  visual pleasure another day. For now, I just want to enjoy it.

May-December Romance

May-December Romance by Hope Gangloff


New York

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, Give Me Something I Need

Robin Tewes in her studio.

Robin Tewes in her studio.

“You don’t choose art; you do it because you have to,” declares Robin Tewes, repeating the advice she gives her art students. Whenever I hear that sentiment I get nervous; could I have done something else or would all roads have led to the studio? In Robin’s case the answer seems clear; the paintings in her studio (which include a portrait of well-known performance artist Carollee Schneeman), the works from other established artists hanging throughout her apartment, and the gorilla mask tucked onto a shelf, demonstrate her long time commitment to New York and the art community here. And to her habit of saying exactly what she thinks.

two tewes

(L) Another Tasteful Discussion of Contemporary War
(R) Solitary Confinement

Robin paints in a flat, representational style that is reminiscent of Magritte. In an older work, Pink on Pink, a pink bedroom that is empty except for a woman’s handbag on the bed, Robin scratched text into the paint which included pronouncements by Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich (who made a series of white on white paintings) interspersed with the more mundane concerns of every day life.  The painting suggests that abstraction based upon revolutionary theory is all very well and everything, but what about the real world of sex, money, and embarrassing personal problems?

Abstract Art #1

Abstract Art #1

In Abstract Painting I, Robin makes light of the serious, male-dominated tradition of Abstract Expressionism and its offspring. “I grew up admiring those guys, but now…I want some content. The form is just a bucket for me to pour my ideas into.” She looks at a painting of a graffiti covered wall and a trash can “or the waste paper basket in which I can throw my crumpled up pieces of thoughts.” Those thoughts meander between sharp critiques of New York and art world society, to the more personal experiences of relationships, motherhood, and loss. Like a seasoned New Yorker, the paintings have a tough, slick, and well put together exterior, which belie the neurosis and struggles contained within. At their most successful, the paintings manage to be direct, witty, and tenderly revealing.

combined moms


In recent years she has incorporated glitter, neon and iridescent paints into the compositions. “It is playful, for the joy of it; the opposite of what Malevich would ever approve of!” This attitude is particularly clear in a recent series that mourns the passing of Robin’s mother. The paintings aren’t without sadness, but they also let loose and celebrate her mother’s life, as she gradually fades into a world of bright and fragmented abstraction; a world that is aggressively flat and hard to absorb.

(L) I Want to be a Housewife, I Want to be a Widow. (R) Tell me Something I Don't Know, Give me Something I Need.

(L) I Want to be a Housewife, I Want to be a Widow.
(R) Tell me Something I Don’t Know, Give me Something I Don’t Have.

What makes Robin’s paintings particularly strong is her use of text that is both slyly observant and painfully honest. The picture of the waste paper basket is at first glance, merely empty and melancholy, but slowly the text reveals itself.  The graffiti reads: “All I want is my equal and then some. I want an adult unconditional love.”  Into the garden wall the artist has scratched: “Tell me something I don’t know, Give me something I don’t have,”  a demand that could be made of a partner or of a work of art. It really doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but Robin’s work suggests that those desires are very often disappointed.

Los Angeles

We Were Here

The first time I remember imbuing a rock with personal meaning, I was twelve or thirteen. The stone was grey-pink and diamond shaped and came from beside a stile in the Lake District. It was picked up and handed unceremoniously to me by the boy I was hiking with. Though an almost invisible gesture–and one that thoroughly confused me at the time–six months later we built up the courage to hold hands. As often happens, life got in the way of that romance, but I think I still have the rock somewhere.

Behind the adverts commanding heterosexual men to formalize their feelings with sparkly stones that are really labor intensive (and probably morally problematic) to procure, I think there is a long held instinct to give another person a little piece of the Earth. That rock is a reminder that we were here, together, for one tiny chip out of eternity.


Carmine Iannoccone's GravitySurfer Number 1. Found rock, paper and paint.

Carmine Iannoccone’s GravitySurfer Number 1. Found rock, paper and paint.

During the summer, a giant rock rolled into LA and took up its post at LACMA. Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is intended to last for 30,000 years, standing to remind the post-apocalyptic residents of Southern California (which could one day be an island–just read the zine) of the larger forces, the expanse of art history, human mortality, and Michael Heizer’s genius.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, a much smaller rock arrived at a bookstore in LA’s Atwater village, in a gallery about twice the size of a shoe box.

Showbox LA exhibitions are small in scale, and last only a matter of hours. The organizers, artists Sophia Allison and Paul W. Evans, have created a venue which provides an alternative space and unique audience, but demands that artists address scale–not by making a miniature of what they would normally do, but thinking specifically about what they can accomplish in a table top setting. As no one can be inside the gallery itself, the crowd clusters around the edges and is forced into close proximity with each other and the artist. The exhibitions are almost performance pieces the artist is so much a part of the experience.


For I am the Gravity Surfer artist Carmine Iannaccone exhibited a rock and a portrait of that rock, separated by an abstract undulation of paper and paint. The  first person stance of the title lets you know right away that this show is intimate in its intentions. The objects in the exhibition used the microscope of Carmine’s process–scale shifts, layer building and careful observation–to draw the viewer’s attention to the forces of physics and geology.


I am The Gravity Surfer, a one day installation organized by Shoebox LA

Carmine’s portrait of the rock does what any good portrait does—renders that individual unique and reminds us to look more carefully at the real thing when we see it. Carmine clearly spent hours observing the original and lovingly paint-sculpting a representation—a fresh view of something so ubiquitous that I normally forget to notice it. Like a shell picked off the beach, it is transformed into a particular and given momentary meaning.

The accompanying Accordion Fold zine meticulously renders the data and design of the universe personal and intriguing; the earth moves, experience accumulates and trees tell tales. What does that mean? I encourage you to email Carmine at iannacco@usc.edu with your mailing address for a free copy, and all will become clear.


Heizer’s big rock struck me as out of sync with the contemporary moment: though aesthetically appealing and thrilling for little kids (I watched a four-year-old girl run back and forth exclaiming “it’s just so big!”), the moment for machismo monuments came and went long before 2008’s financial collapse or 2012’s record high temperatures. I don’t think that I am alone in appreciating small scale art which gets me into conversation with my neighbors and asks me to think of myself as a surfer–someone momentarily riding the larger forces, completely present and listening, for just one small swell out of eternity.

The next Shoebox LA installation takes place on Saturday, December 15, from 4-7pm at Half Off Clothing Store in Los Feliz. I hope to see you there.

On Making Studio Visits

Scheherazade is Leaving the Building

Alex C Moore, Scheherazade, 2012

Alex C Moore, Scheherazade, 2012

I have been working on the same painting for all of 2012.

For some artists a slow birthing period is standard, but I usually move rapidly through canvases. The large amount of empty space in my paintings, though it had a concrete reason to begin with, is probably a symptom of my devolving attention span nuzzling up against my desires for silence and speed.

I named the painting Scheherazade before it was complete, which should have alerted me to the fact that it would drag on for a thousand and one painful days. Considered in a certain light, this unfinished/finished painting might be my most successful piece to date: it feels unresolved, yet it somehow holds together; I have only a tentative idea of why I made it but it continues to intrigue me. Like Scheherazade herself, it tantalizingly keeps my attention, without letting me kill it and move on.

In another light it is just plain confused.

But I can’t completely blame Scheherazade. During the 9 months that I have spent not painting this painting, life has gotten in the way and painting has felt less important. A couple of days into the piece, I received an email that my grandfather was sick. A week later he died and I headed to England for his funeral. That was February.

Two months later, I became a U.S. citizen. Rather than joining my fellow Americans in joyful plastic flag waving, I not-so-quietly sobbed through the ceremony. Most people looked somewhere between thrilled and bored.  I probably looked like I did at Grandpa’s funeral. After the ceremony, my fellow Americans swarmed out into the sun, to be greeted by proud family members with flowers in their arms. Feeling ungrateful and alone, I biked home.

In June I managed to come into the studio and worked on this piece for a number of hours. But what happened in July, August and September? In July I visited New York and talked a lot about both portraiture and painting, but returned to L.A. and didn’t do much of either. In August a lovely muse of mine posed patiently for photographs meant to inform a new piece, but I can’t quite get excited about editing them. In September….nothing much.

Pinned to my studio wall during my long absence was a piece of paper with two typed quotes:

Dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.–Lorrie Moore, Dance in America

Art is a method of opening up areas of feeling…A picture should be a recreation of an event rather than an illustration of an object.–Francis Bacon

At a time when some people would have found refuge in the studio, I am avoiding it. I am aware that if art making is my “job”, I should just be showing up every day and making it happen. But as much as artists like to emphasize that our job is very serious and real, I am going to publicly admit that it isn’t the same as showing up at the office. Art practices come in all shapes and sizes, varying from the traditional solitary figure in the messy attic  to the “post-studio” network of collaborators, with an array of hybrids in between. My focus has tended towards painting alone, with occasional forays into collaboration. Most of my paintings are personal and they are at their best when they are honest.

Maybe I’ve just had enough of honest alone time.

Scheharazade is a confused painting. If one thing is certain, it is that I am confused. So the painting that looks like a nice young lady doing yoga got stuck in a tumble drier and then hung from the ceiling, is probably the most honest painting I could make right now.

Perhaps I will stride my way back into an active relationship with my paint brushes, but I’m also ok if I don’t–if it turns out that other methods and mediums are a better way to get at the world beyond my own boundaries and feed my curiosity. Either way, this painting needs to get out of my studio, so i’m sending her off into cyberspace.

Hopefully  that will open up the space I need for something new to happen.

New York

Woman! Painting! Woman!

The Tearing, 2012 by Ella Kruglayanskaya

I spent much of the six hour bus ride (a Sunday evening in the summer is the worst time to drive into New York) from Boston to Manhattan scanning Time Out, creating my plan of attack for art viewing. At a friend’s suggestion I had already booked tickets to see Rineke Dijkstra and Paul Graham in conversation, so I knew I was going to dedicate an afternoon to Dijkstra’s show at the Guggenheim beforehand.  To balance this out, I decided to explore a solo show by a young, emerging artist–a painter with a bright and playful palette.

The paintings in Ella Kruglayankaya’s show at Gavin Brown Enterprise are not great, but they are richly painted and savvy to our particular moment. The show is made up of, as the title suggests, paintings of women painting women (and the occasional man), playing with the old artistic archetype of the creation who comes to life and confront’s her creator–often aggressively or with disdain. In an amusing but unnerving reversal of Magritte’s Rape, many of the women have faces painted onto their voluptuous bodies, further disorienting the question of subject and drawing attention to their “lovely lady lumps”. These body-faces often express emotions, while the women themselves are painted with blank patterns where their faces should be: ego, body and image joust for attention and power.

A similar series to these was shown in the windows of Barney’s New York last year. As Kruglayanskaya noted in an interview for Barney’s website, she “didn’t have to change much” for them to function as window displays: the paintings are fairly graphic, commercial and eye-catching. Put into the department store environment they are ever so slightly subversive because of the curvaceousness of the women, and because they place themselves into the tepid and not particularly eye-opening form of feminist critique that suggests that women participate in our own objectification. But for the most part, like any painting put into that environment, they become props for consumption.

In the calm reverence of the gallery setting, the pieces gain gravitas, and their confusion and distrust of the painting medium and it’s historical depiction of women makes perfect sense. These pieces aren’t moving the conversation forward, but they are an entertaining and colorful reminder of just where we are.

Los Angeles

The Origin of the Universe

Mickalene Thomas, Origin of the Universe 2, 2012, Rhinestones, acrylic, oil, and enamel on wood panel, 60 x 48 inches, Collection of the Hudgins Family, New York, NY, Courtesy of the Artist, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects © Mickalene Thomas, Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Photo: Christopher Burke Studio

We are all of us self-inaccessible and can, for example, touch parts of one another in ways that we could not even dream of touching our own bodies.

–David Foster Wallace, Backbone

Currently on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art is Mickalene Thomas’s show Origin of the Universe.  The most talked about piece, and the namesake of the show, is Thomas’s appropriation of Gustave Courbet’s LOrigin du Monde—an explicit cropped composition focused on a woman’s spread thighs and vagina. Thomas used herself as the model for the image, pushing her identity as a black gay woman up against the history of Western oil painting. I like the piece from an intellectual stand point, but found it less confrontational or personal than I expected. It was Origin 2 (shown above) that  grabbed my attention.

In a traditional self-portrait an artist is generally painting their face from a photo or a mirror. It is an image that they have seen probably everyday for their entire life. They are intimately aware of its flaws and gestures, and of the emotions hidden behind. In creating a portrait of someone else, the artist uses their own self as a reference, and the resulting painting is a result of the artist’s subjective view of the sitter, inevitably refracted through the lens of their own image and ideas of self-hood. But with a portrait aimed between the legs the rules of engagement are slightly different. Most women don’t spend much of their life looking at their own genitals. Partially this is because as a culture, we are incredibly uncomfortable with the vagina, as demonstrated by the recent ridiculousness over Senator Lisa Brown’s use of the word when discussing an abortion bill. But also, it is not that practical to investigate. We can be intimately familiar with the body of someone else in a way that we simply can’t  know ourselves, and as a gay woman I suspect that this holds particularly true for Thomas and her vagina. Whether the model for Origin 2 is Thomas’s lover (as the security guard informed me) or a friend, the case remains that she paints (and bedazzles) this woman with bold tenderness and sensual fascination, making a more personal feeling piece than the work that is explicitly a self-portrait. Maybe it is the distance from her own vulnerability or maybe it was the choice to move away from Courbet’s original composition, either way it allowed her to relax and reveal herself.

Thomas also quoted Le Sommeil, Courbet’s image of two sleeping women. In Thomas’s version, Sleep : Deux Femmes Noires, the two women unselfconsciously embrace in a forested landscape that also pays homage to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbeanother problematic though beautiful painting, in which the woman is inexplicably naked while her male companions are fully clothed. Where in the 19th century white women were presented as submissive sensual objects and black women were simply invisible, Thomas presents a vision of two suggestively post-coital black women, celebrated and displayed but not pandering to any particular outside viewer or standards of beauty. This was the strongest piece of the show, bringing together the fractured vibrant landscapes, confident portraits and unabashed sexuality of the various other pieces. I could stand in awe of it for hours.

The show is up until August 19th, when it will move to the Brooklyn Museum.

Studio Visits

Gold Leafing the Dream: Studio Visits with Claire Baker & Carmen Argote

claire composite

Stepping inside an artist’s studio, like going to a really well-curated retrospective, is an opportunity to get inside an artist’s head and connect the dots between their various finished pieces. I love the process of asking a few starting questions, and then listening as the artist gradually leads you through the paths of his or her interior landscape. Sometimes, if I get lucky and ask about the right piece in the right way, I find myself talking to someone who is sharing not only the quirky or obsessive thoughts that drive their art making, but also revealing some of their most heartfelt convictions and emotions.

There are critics who claim not to care what the artist says about their own work, but I disagree with this stance. It’s not that I think talking to the artist is necessary to have an experience with a piece–presumably the necessary ideas are present within the artwork itself—but a conversation with the artist can expand my own understanding so that I am no longer interpreting a piece from within the limits of my own experience. Through this process I can learn something new—about the world, about myself—rather than simply having my existing opinions reflected back to me. I was lucky enough to have two such elucidating studio visits recently with artists Claire Baker and Carmen Argote.

Claire Baker, There Is No Such Thing As Purity, 2011

Claire Baker, There Is No Such Thing As Purity, 2011

Certainly I would have appreciated Claire Baker’s paintings had I stumbled upon them in a gallery, but getting a glimpse into the evolution of her approach and the waterfall of cascading debris that she uses for sketches, helped me see them with more clarity and depth. Last year Baker spent some time in China, and the calligraphic influence is clear in her work. In classical Chinese paintings, the way the clouds intersect with a mountain can make the mountain look weightless. This desire to shift the perception of scale and mass is clear in the quality of line and motion in Baker’s paintings.  At one point in our conversation she raised the question: “What would it mean to learn to jump over your own shadow?” The idea of acknowledging and navigating your personal darkness, made a lot of sense when standing in front of Baker’s moments of tightly controlled chaos.

While Baker’s studio was focused around a single body of work, Carmen Argote’s was bursting with projects in various stages of development and completion.  Among the menagerie of materials and approaches, a through-line of interests emerged: the relationship between physical structures and the emotional residues that haunt their periphery; ways to make tangible forces visible; a deep fascination with recent history grounded in an attraction to contemporary materials and detritus.

Crouched in the back corner, behind a small army of intriguing Giovanni Anselmo inspired sculptures and an array of experiments with chicken wire and magnets, stood a half-way erected canopy–the kind seen at every swap meet, flea market and craft fare in LA–that Argote had completely gold leafed. It looked a little bit like a prop for a Sci-Fi B movie (a giant mechanical insect or flimsy alien aircraft) or a flouncy 80s prom dress caught on a fence.

Carmen Argote's 10'x10', 2012

Carmen Argote’s 10’x10′, 2012

The canopy is a modern equivalent of sticking your flag in the ground—a way to stake your claim at a piece of economic territory. Like the elusive golden ring that the kids jump for in Catcher in the Rye, the golden canopy in its semi-impotent state hovers between hope and defeat, the American dream and the American economic disaster. It seems a particularly fitting metaphor for the emerging artist’s life: a constant cycle of elation and deflation, professional hope and monetary struggle. The gold sparkle is seductive, and it is not until you get up really close that you notice the gold leaf flaking off. But at that point your face is bathed in a  warm golden light, far too pleasant to be abandoned.

Argote’s next project will explore the history of Selig zoo, an amusement park/zoo, founded with movie industry money, that never quite found its identity. I look forward to seeing how Argote uses this relatively unknown, but quintessentially L.A., slice of history to re-frame our present.

Los Angeles

Nature and Free Animals

In Nature and Free Animals, English poet Stevie Smith (1902-1971) imagines God berating her for the domestication of dogs, for teaching them “the sicknesses of your mind and the sicknesses of your body.”  She responds petulantly that “it’s all very well to talk like this” and to complain about the way humans treat animals, but reminds God that he created humans and if he doesn’t like the way we act then he only has himself to blame. The poem ends: “What with Nature and Free Animals on the one side/And you on the other,/I hardly know I’m alive.”

Smith’s poem weaves together her anger at the subjugation of animals and her own struggle to find meaning as a human. Though not explicitly stated, I interpret her long struggle with God (he occurs frequently throughout her oeuvre) as a tool for discussing her struggles with patriarchy. In Nature and Free Animals she expresses her paralysis as a woman: not completely free, as she imagines wild animals to be, yet also denied the full agency of a man. Her disgust at the weak servility of dogs is a thinly veiled expression of her feelings towards the role of a wife in the early 20th century.

But Smith is nothing if not ambivalent, and she doesn’t let herself or others of her gender off the hook. By shifting the identity of the speaker in the middle of the poem, the accusation is directed first at the reader, then at herself, then at “God.” No one, even the animals, is blameless and the unequal distribution of power causes unease and dissatisfaction for all parties.

This poem came to mind as I was trying to make sense of the recent works of artists Erin Payne and Amber Hawk Swanson. Though quite different in tone and intention–Payne’s surrogates provide tentative comfort, while Swanson’s is an unnerving reminder of abuse–both artists have created animal surrogates to tackle the messy web of relationships in which they find themselves.

Western Burrowing Owl

Western Burrowing Owl

For the collaborative endeavor In a Landscape where Nothing Officially Exists, a performance/installation that took place at this year’s CAA in Los Angeles, Erin Payne created ragdoll versions of five Californian species that are facing extinction, and then painted portraits of the dolls. The puppets were inspired by the surrogate puppets used to feed the California Condor chicks that are raised in captivity. Simultaneously quiet memorials and loosely rendered playthings, the paintings straddle the childish fantasy of connection with nature and the rational adult, human-centric perspective.

We have a strong imaginative and instinctive attraction to nature and Payne’s pieces capture the primitive desire to connect, understand and represent our natural surroundings.  Dai Toyofuku, one of the artists who organized In a Landscape, suggested that ever since the cave paintings of Chauvet we have been attempting to understand what it means to be human and our own role in the ecosystem by depicting animals. He believes that a deeper engagement with other species as equals would lead to a richer understanding of our own humanity. In creating portraits of the dolls, (what could be more representative of our individualistic, human centered perspective than a portrait?) Payne draws attention to our inability to see animals outside of our own human paradigm and the gaping cultural gap that exists between us and other species.

Yosemite Toad

Yosemite Toad

The Yosemite Toad feels like a familiar storybook character laid out ready for dissection or accidentally suffocated by a curious child (yes, I did that and clearly I still feel guilty), reminding the viewer that our desire to interact with nature often causes more harm than good. Even our attempts at sustainable living can end up making matters worse.

Playing with the flattened perspective of childhood (a world in which dodos and flamingos and talking mice are equally real) Payne brings us forward in time to the point where more familiar creatures (owls, frogs, song birds) start to exist only as fantasies. When our lives are already so removed from nature, does it really make a difference whether these species exist or not?

Tilikum, in progress.

Tilikum, in progress.

Where Payne focuses on the psychology of human responsibility in specific relationship to animals, Amber Hawk Swanson’s Amber Doll->Tilikum transformation highlights the aggressive potential of the oppressed and the destructiveness of captivity in both human-animal and human-human relationships. Over the course of ten days Swanson dismantled the RealDoll Amber (a sex doll made in her likeness, to whom she was married) and resurrected her as a human scale version of  Tilikum, a bull orca whale held in captivity at Sea World. Tilikum is a year younger than Swanson and has been in captivity for almost his entire life. During that time he has killed three people.

Through To Have and To Hold and To Violate: Amber and Doll, Swanson explored issues of agency, power and culpability, witnessing and allowing her Doll self/partner to be violated by strangers. In transforming that same doll into Tilikum, she suggestively ties together the narrative of an aggressive animal in captivity and her own treatment of Amber Doll. Two of the human’s that Tilikum has killed have been his trainers, people with whom he has worked for many years.  In both those instances he did so during performances, implicating the audience in his attacks: if no one paid to see those shows, Tilikum wouldn’t be in captivity and wouldn’t be acting out. The human scale and homemade quality of Swanson’s Tilikum further emphasize our readiness to consume Tilikum and our inability to see him on his own terms.

Seeing the flotsam and jetsam of a human reconstructed as a slightly cartoonish, DIY killer whale is both humorous and disturbing. The fake breasts flopping at the end of the whale’s tail scream of artifice and objectification, tying the physical damage inflicted upon Tilikum by the limitations of his captive existence to the psychological damage of women in a misogynist society.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

Artist Amber Hawk Swanson with her sculpture of the killer whale Tilikum.

But the beauty of Swanson’s work is that, like Smith, she is not making a simple victim out of Tilikum or herself. If the goal of the Amber Doll project was to have victim and victimizer exist simultaneously, Tilikum is the way for them to merge into one contradictory object. Swanson directly inserts herself back into the frame as both sexual aggressor and sexual object, her stiletto jauntily echoing Tilikum’s tail fin, reminding us of the erotic frisson created by a power imbalance.  Where Smith looked with jealous unease at “wild” animals, Swanson comfortably aligns herself with that wildness.

Los Angeles

Sometimes a car with flashing lights is just a car with flashing lights.

I don’t want to devote too much brain or internet space to art that doesn’t excite, disturb or intrigue me. But I have had a recent bout of disappointments and I need to talk about at least one of them so that my feelings don’t fester.

Cai Guo-Qiang, what happened?

I remember the first day we met. It was 2004 and I had driven from Middletown, Connecticut to Mass MOCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. After two hours in the car, I was hungry for something spectacular.

The first gallery held a collection of paintings from the New Leipzig School; Matthias Weischer and Tim Eitel are the two that I remember most clearly. As a 21-year-old, I drank in every example of painting I could find, eager to explore the potential –and limits– of my new medium, and these calm, reserved works from Germany caught my attention. Weischer’s slightly decrepit interiors and Eitel’s solitary humans impressed me because of their technical precision, sparse compositions and suggestive narratives.

Left: Matthias Weischer, Zweiteilig (Bisected), 2003. Right:Tim Eitel, Boot, 2004.

In the following 8 years I have seen more of both these artists and continue to respect them, though my tastes have changed. But then apparently so have Weischer’s, as he recently exhibited a series of sunny, fragmented garden paintings, similar to Hockney’s current work. Is this a plein-air trend? The thinking painter’s excuse to let loose and use pretty colors? In the case of Weischer, it is refreshing to see established artists go through transitions and take risks: it suggests that they are striving to grow their ideas. I might not like every piece they create, but I respect the process and will wait to see what the work reveals.

But back to Cai.

In 2004 I walked into the main atrium at Mass Moca and WHAM! After the quiet, cool paintings meditating on emptiness, here was the definition of spectacle: cars, flashing lights, precarious motion on a grand scale. I read the piece as a commentary on the seductive pleasure of violence and disaster. Smart and sexy? I had an art crush.

Cai Guo-Qiang, Innopportune, Mass MOCA, 2004.

In an adjacent room, stuffed tigers twirled through the air pierced with arrows, mirroring the cars pierced with light. Upstairs hung a collection of simple circular gunpowder paintings which added weight to my admiration: this was a serious artist, referencing ancient Chinese forms with a contemporary and daring twist. I have since seen his pieces in other museums and though nothing has replaced that first thrill, until last week I had not seen anything to make me reevaluate my initial read of Cai as a contemporary master.

But then last week I went to his exhibition Skyladder at MOCA in Los Angeles. To be fair, the work was housed next to Transmission LA, an exhibition that included a Mercedes Benz bathed in light that flashed to the beat. Macho, excessive and completely impersonal, this “art” (I have a very open definition of art, but even I don’t think it can stretch to a car advertisement and I think it’s an irresponsible choice by a museum to suggest otherwise) represented much of what I dislike, so it didn’t put me in the most receptive or meditative of moods.

Skyladder contained three large gunpowder drawings and a crop circle installation the whole length of the room. The crop circles were nice. The drawings were literal and boring. One dealt with childhood fantasies of space, another the chaotic destructiveness of nature, and the third told the story of humanity’s desire for flight. These could all be compelling starting points, but the images didn’t provide any further insight or fresh discoveries. The desire to defy gravity is fertile ground for discussions of freedom and hubris, but Cai doesn’t take us there. This lack of a “so what” made the gunpowder feel like a gimmick, which in turn threw my whole previous understanding of Cai into question. Had I been seduced by a car with flashing lights and no conceptual backbone? I hope not.

Maybe this installation is a result of over commitment or of working with volunteers to create the piece. Perhaps Cai is burned out and exploring new avenues and he has yet to hit a new rhythm.  I am willing to give this work the benefit of the doubt, but I expect better next time.