Tag Archives: Sculpture

Los Angeles Studio Visits

Some Say Ice

Dai Toyofuku, Glacier, 2012

Dai Toyofuku, Glacier, 2012

What can one artist do, in one day, to save the planet?

For Dai Toyofuku’s performance piece Glacier, which took place at the Eagle Rock Recreation Center during the height of the summer heat wave, the artist temporarily turned himself and his car into “glaciers”—structures draped with tarps that were then painted white. Over the course of the five hour performance/experiment, Toyofuku stayed inside his “human glacier,” and carefully recorded the temperatures inside the human glacier, the car glacierist, a control car and outside. At the peak of the day it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit cooler inside the human glacier than outside, and 30 degrees cooler in the car glacier than the control car.

For five hours, Dai Toyofuku successfully contributed to the cooling of the earth. It was an absurd yet earnest act.

The absurdity was inspired by the very real claim of Nobel Prize winning physicist Stephen Chu that painting roofs white and manufacturing “cooler” colored cars could dramatically reduce global warming. Within this context, Toyofuku’s gesture becomes a way to raise awareness, make scientific theory approachable and render the specter of climate change less abstract and overwhelming.

The execution of the glaciers was quick and dirty, more a child’s sketch of a glacier (a big white triangle) than something scientifically or visually accurate. Placing these homemade glaciers in the Southern California landscape, Dai drew attention to their foreignness. Though they hold a strong role in our cultural story, glaciers remain unreal, almost mythological, to most people–especially on a hot summer day. However, we have to be able to hold multiple landscapes in our minds simultaneously, imagining the totality of our planet and the long term consequences of seemingly harmless choices, if we are going to start really digesting what climate change does and could mean.

This cognitive collapse of space and experience also happens in the Parts (un)known collage works of Sara Schnadt. She created these collages for an installation and performance work that tracked her personal travel history through found images, but now Schnadt is beginning to explore the collages as works in their own right.

One that caught my eye, and acts as a nice visual accompaniment to Dai’s performance, is a juxtaposition of a glacial landscape with what looks to be a piece of farm equipment, obscured by a tarp, sitting in a hot dry landscape.  My focus is magnetically drawn to the single tentative point of contact—the impossible space which connects hot with cold, the untouchable arctic and some obscure, unreachable past.

This flattening of the world is not a new concept, but Schnadt’s personal approach creates compelling fictive spaces from the fragments of experience.  I am a fellow nomad–someone who’s friends and family are regularly stretched over the globe and who’s working life happens in the intangible data-space between L.A. and Cameroon–so this bittersweet work hits home.

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

A particularly haunting collage in the series connects together Berlin, Inverness, Afghanistan and Jerusalem. The way the spaces transition into each other is artfully done–the experience of viewing recedes into mist just as memory allows places and experiences to blend and soften. There are very specific and painful histories lying just below the surface, but these snapshots and postcards see the world through a tourist’s idealized and apolitical lens, speaking not to specific places but to the melding of longing and familiarity that permeates the experience of ex-pats and wanderers.

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Parts (un)known, Sara Schnadt, 2012

Though with very different agendas, these two artists are addressing the ways we conceptualize and understand our relationship to the globe in its entirety. I want to be optimistic and claim that as we become more familiar with far away lands and people, we become more empathetic and have a larger sense of responsibility. But on the converse, the more information we have, the more overwhelming and hopeless things seem to feel. It is at the nexus of global responsibility, frustrated activism and instant gratification that Toyofuku’s performance makes sense.

So, just what can one person do, in one day, to have a positive impact on the planet?

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.

Los Angeles

Are you in the loop?

Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, Googy (Courtesy of Charlie James Gallery), 2012. Photo by Kohl King.

Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, Googy (Courtesy of Charlie James Gallery), 2012. Photo by Kohl King.

I’m not usually one for superlatives, but the first incarnation of The Loop Show, which took place at the Beacon Arts Building last fall, was one of the most exciting group shows I saw in 2011. Carefully thought out, the show not only had a strong conceptual through line, but also addressed the particularities of the space—women dressed in curator China Adams’ Trash Garments guided viewers up and down the stairs; a large collage of cigarette packets by Robert Larson reflected the stained concrete of the warehouse space; an undulating installation by Anne Heironymous flowed seamlessly into the warehouse architecture —and brought together a group of artists with unique and divergent aesthetics.

Having been rejuvenated and inspired by the first installment, I was truly excited to hear that the show was being re-staged, on a smaller scale, in Chinatown. The Small Loop Show features works by a selection of the same artists, but where the last show highlighted excess and had a freewheeling sense of possibility—the art pieces seemed as if they could actively climb the walls, consume the furniture and possess the whole space—this show addresses material waste in a more personal and introspective manner.

The Small Loop Show, Installation View. Photo by Kohl King

The Small Loop Show, Installation View. Photo by Kohl King

Before visiting the show I had dinner with a friend who is a recent transplant to LA. She summarized her initial impression of Angelino art as “rigorous decorative,” and I can’t think of a better starting place to describe this show. Like last time, the pieces were carefully chosen and create a satisfying flow of material, form, texture and color, allowing the eye to easily move between pieces and make immediate visual comparisons. Though all the pieces use recycled materials (hence the loop of the title) their approaches and internal logic vary widely. From the simple gesture of William Ransom’s wooden sculptures, to Nuttaphol Ma‘s subtly politicized spool, and the large friendly creature created by Elizabeth Higgins O’Connor, the show weaves effortlessly between playful and serious, elegant and goofy.

Neither my eye, nor my mind could settle for too long on any specific piece, but this is the nature of a group show; it is not about the individual pieces, but about building a conversation and, in this case, making critical and cultural space for hand crafted, carefully conceptualized, small foot-print work. Unlike the work from the New Museum’s influential Unmonumental Show, the work does not look like piles of junk, even on first glance, and transcends its “recycled materials” premise. These are beautiful  objects that just happen to be “ sustainable.”

Stephen McCabe, Long Horn Beetle, 2012 and Soft Wing Flower Beetle, 2012. Photo by Kohl King

Stephen McCabe, Long Horn Beetle, 2012 and Soft Wing Flower Beetle, 2012. Photo by Kohl King

The Loop Show does not for a second feel like a lecture or even a call to action—unless you count joyfully pondering as an action–but it surreptitiously criticizes the art world’s excesses. Adams has been working with found materials and confronting our culture’s materialism head on for a number of years. Was it a coincidence that this show opened the same weekend as the Art Platform Los Angeles art fair? Whether purposeful or not, viewing the two events on the same day certainly created a juxtaposition between the mostly slick and commercially viable work of the fair, and the pieces in this exhibition.  It is an irony of the art world that though many artists make do with less in the way of material goods, we actively create more stuff for other people to consume and may admire artwork that adds toxins to the air and junk to the landfills. I choose my toothbrush, shampoo, milk, and t-shirts based on how and where they are made–so why not ask that my art be eco-friendly also?

The artists that are in The Loop, casually capture this contemporary trend, and knowingly suggest that, far from being a limiting responsibility, using recycled materials is a creative opportunity and a possible pathway towards rigorously decorative work that is also socially relevant.

The Small Loop Show
The Fellows of Contemporary Arts
970 North Broadway Suite 208 . Los Angeles CA 90012
29 Sep 2012 – 24 Nov 2012.
Call (213) 808 1008 to inquire for gallery hours.

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 Short & Sweet

I’ll Shout What You Have Done

"Philomela" (2012) by Jacob Yanes. Cardboard, wood putty, asphalt primer, acrylic eyes and pleated wool (68 x 27 x 16 inches) and cotton jacquard-woven tapestry (80 x 54 inches)

As told in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Philomela was a Greek princess who was raped by her brother-in-law Tereus. Rather than slink away and suffer silently, Philomela screamed that she would shed her shame, and shout to the world what Tereus had done. Horrified by this thought, he cut out her tongue, imprisoned her and raped her again for good measure. Not to be so easily silenced, Philomela managed to communicate her story by weaving a tapestry which she sent to her sister (and Tereus’ wife) Procne.  Revenge — in the form of infanticide– ensues, and the story ends with all three adults being turned into birds by the Gods.

From this gruesome story, artist Jacob Yanes teases out the themes of power, violation and communication. Installed in the upstairs gallery of Steve Turner Contemporary, the striking figure of Philomela stands in front of a tapestry that weaves together Ovid’s text with slave narratives and Yanes’ own words.

The sculpture is smooth, shiny and slick, her eyes staring with an intriguing mix of innocence and removal. Like Yanes’ Soldier, 2010 there is an undercurrent of socially inappropriate eroticism. Is she removing her clothes, numbly participating, or pulling them back on? There is nothing disheveled about her appearance, yet she has already woven the damning tapestry, suggesting that we are coming upon her after her imprisonment. So why the suggestive unbuttoning? To show us her scars? Because, having been abused by Tereus she now mistakes her own vulnerability for love?

As noted in the LA Times review, the blackness of the sculpture smartly inverts the classical Greek tradition.  It also further connects the piece with the slave narratives that intertwine beautifully with Philomela’s story on the tapestry. Her silencing and abuse become tools for thinking about a wealth of abuses, and art (both visual and verbal) becomes a coded method of voicing abuse in a hostile environment.

Alone in the small room with Philomela, I felt uneasy. With her disconcertingly large eyes blazing out of the intense darkness, I thought of a bird emerging from an oil slick. As I tried to combine my thoughts and feeling into a cohesive experience, I didn’t know where I was in relationship to her: fellow victim, potential perpetrator or silent witness?

The piece is on display at Steve Turner until May 26th.


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.

Los Angeles

Someone to Fight Against

On Monday, I stood in front of The Two Fridas for the first time. As with many well-known and frequently reproduced images, it did not occur to me that I had never actually seen this painting in person, until I was standing in front of the canvas. It’s a rare and exhilarating sensation to be seeing something very familiar, but totally new. You can feel yourself wake up.

The Two Fridas, 1939, Oil on canvas, 67" x 67", Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City

The two Fridas are very matter of fact, addressing their pain and exposure with clinical clarity. The drama in the image –blood, gore, storm brewing, love broken– is balanced by Frida’s calmness, and by the sheer weight of her double presence. Rather than a person divided against herself, Frida’s depiction of her two selves (German and Mexican) serves to give her strength and solidity. This is a smart painting that plays with traditional wedding images, relationships and sexuality, but what I am consistently drawn to, is the slump of her blue belly. She’s a fellow human, present in all her awkward, fleshy glory.

Clumsy, 29" x 42" x 42", thread on stained tablecloth, 2007

The blood dripping onto Frida’s embroidered skirt, reminded me of a piece of Nava Lubeski’s that I saw at the Museum of Art and Design in 2007. Nava had spilled wine on a table cloth and then delicately stitched around the edge of each spill, transforming the results of her clumsiness, into something assertive and intriguing. Frida performed a similar process of transformation in her paintings, turning her traumas into powerful and unapologetic declarations of self-hood. What the Lubeski piece makes particularly clear, is the difference in time lines; a careless mistake happens in seconds, but the painstaking process of repair enfolds slowly. Many artists, myself  included, actively cultivate mistakes and obstacles in the art making process, so as to have something to fight against. It is funny that we don’t embrace the same attitude towards our lives outside of the studio.

A couple of days before seeing the Kahlo at LACMA, I visited the studio of Michelle Carla Handel and was confronted by Trouble Feeling My Feelings, a soft sculpture that sits somewhere between bondage  equipment and throw pillows. The title aptly describes my initial reaction to the piece.

Trouble Feeling My Feelings, vinyl, fabric and fiberfill, 76" x 36" x 36", 2011

This sculpture squirms awkwardly on the floor, while simultaneously trying to pull it’s self together and sit up straight. It might be inviting you to lie down, it might be waiting to spring into attack. It’s a little silly, but by sheer fact of its size, and the care that went into making it, you know you have to take it seriously.

I walked away from the piece still not sure what my feelings were, and I think that might be its success. Trouble embodies the process of negotiation and identification that takes place between intertwined individuals, and between the conflicting elements within a single person. Like Frida’s painting, it tells the story of marriage and divorce, of having someone to both fight against and swim towards, and then of being left alone, with only your other self.