17 December 2008

“L’artista è la controfigura per il filosofo”

(“The artist is the stuntman for the philosopher”–G. Baruchello)

The issue of what is happening when we look at an artwork, and how to talk about the dynamic between the making of an artwork, the artwork itself, and viewing, is something I have thought about a great deal and will write about. In deciding how to begin I realized that, at least on this topic, a little background on why this matters to my work, in more than a philosophical sense, might be useful.

Several years ago I went through a pretty thorough evaluation of where I was with painting. The examination was triggered by some moving events during the prior year. I had become interested in visual art and begun painting because art seemed to me a boundless vessel for working with the widest variety of human interests—a thing that could accept whatever one put into it and that one could never exhaust. I had, however, begun to feel that the events and concerns that were of highest import to me were alien to the paintings I was doing, which was not acceptable. Pushing paint around aimlessly, without deeper impetus or aim, did not interest me.

As a result I decided to halt painting, perhaps completely, while I looked into how, or whether, painting could do what I asked of it. If art, or painting, was not fulfilling the obligation that I had for it, if I was not fulfilling my obligation to it, it was better to leave it behind and search elsewhere for that fulfillment. It wasn’t clear to me where I would end up—as an activist, in a day job of some sort, law school, in a monastery, back in the studio—but I was content to leave it open for as long as it took to arrive at an organic decision. While sanguine, I was not going to return to the studio unless I was able to find a way to make the work and activity relevant to the things I cared about most. I found that my identity as an artist was not important to me, and told Amy at the time that the only thing I wasn’t ready to give up was breathing.

It took about three months, and the intervention of a transformative retrospective of Cy Twombly’s work on paper, to resolve, and of course it did so in an unforeseen way. Soon after seeing the exhibition the subliminal started oozing up from between the cracks. I found myself scribbling on scraps of paper, doodling over my notes. Externally, the more I considered it, the more the whole question looked twofold. On one side was a problem of the language we use to describe what happens when we make and look at art. Words like “expression,” “content,” “meaning” and even “medium” conjured, explicitly or implicitly, some kind of transfer of information, for which I could find no justification in the dynamic between artist/artwork/viewer, and which is completely outside of the way we understand art in our moment, for good reasons. On the other side was the presumption of any correlation between what the artist does and what the viewer takes away. If one dispensed with that, lots of problems went with it, though others appeared.

What finally presented itself was an equilibrium between impossibility and new possibility. The above points indicated that what I had been seeking could not be done. On the other side of the balance, however, these seemingly negative conclusions had opened up a lot of new space. If there were contradictions embedded in going back to work, these contradictions seemed capable of bearing some unfamiliar fruit.


1) Article on David Hammons in Alexandria. I will never forget a walk through Harlem he took us on years ago, at the behest of Stanley Whitney. Among other things that day, he helped me pay attention to the artifacts and interactions of public spaces with the same devotion I was giving to visual phenomena. You’ll find the same acuity and precision in this article.

2) Judit Reigl at Janos Gat. Some very tough paintings from the 1960s. Sort of like the love child of Umberto Boccioni and Clyfford Still, if you can imagine anything that irascible not self-destructing on impact.

3) Dona Nelson’s painting at Thomas Erben. A complex, though-provoking and lovely painting. She uses the back of the canvas in a resolved and innovative way that opens into notions of duality. Very daring. Dona always has one foot on a banana peel and the other on a skateboard. (As of posting, the Thomas Erben website is not updated, but the exhibition runs through 1 February.)

10 December 2008

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 2

I’d like to focus on some recurring qualities in Dorsky’s films that keep the mind engaged and in play in ways that are similar to Robert Irwin’s work. The examples come from four of the more recent films: Variations, The Visitation, Threnody and Song and Solitude.

One way the films lure us in is simply visual lushness. He loves pattern and textiles, and often highlights them. One section particularly, from Variations, is a whole sequence on men’s sport coats—plaids, stripes, etc—seen close enough that they pattern the frame and interact with each other. He also finds surprising and compelling images in everyday things, such as a doorbell or even a cigarette butt. Some images recur. He loves hands, for instance, and photographs them with reverence. It could be a man’s hands at a diner table, or a woman’s hand arranging jewelry in a shop window. He lingers over them, and gives us time to see really how amazing they are.

At times, though, we cannot understand or contextualize the image, at least not for a while. This disorientation also engages us, and maintains our participation in the film. He uses a lot of “all-over” shots, shots where the entire frame is occupied by a consistent or repetitive image, such as leaves, sand or, as mentioned, pattern. Other shots have surprising endings: a frame full of broad, vertical, unreadable forms, the shot tilts up slowly, until, after several seconds, we see…shower curtain rings. Dislocations like this have the impact of awakening our context-seeking faculties while frustrating our ability to lock in on the image and move on, go elsewhere mentally. We are presented with something we can’t recognize or categorize. We immediately seek references to place it—location, size, scale, time of day, anything—but these landmarks are not provided. Another penchant he has is for reflected images, which by their nature defy quick comprehension. He shoots into store windows and auto glass, often creating multiple reflections and layers. The depth of these images is remarkable, as complex and layered as I have ever seen in film. Given the frequency of this motif, it would be worthwhile to do a deeper examination of them.

There is more to say on Dorsky, particularly about the participatory nature of his films, his editing, and how this lines up with certain ideas about content, but too much for the space I allot myself today, so I’d like to substitute this wonderful, and perhaps tangentially related story, from Peter Greenaway’s documentary on John Cage. As this is from memory, please pardon transcription errors. In the film, Cage is recounting a conversation he had after a performance with an audience member. Soon after the performance had begun, the audience member became furious with it, stormed out of the hall and drove home in a rage. As he pulled into his garage, he thought, no, this is wrong, so he drove back to the hall and ran inside, but the performance was over, so he finds Cage backstage and tells him all this and says: “Oh, I am so sorry, because now it’s all over and I have missed everything.” “No, no!," Cage says, "That’s OK, that was all part of it!”

03 December 2008

Some thoughts on Irwin's "Whose Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3"

As I mentioned in the prior post, something I found noteworthy in viewing Dorsky’s films was the heightening of the sense of perception, awareness and attentiveness, and how that persisted beyond the darkness of the theater. It put me in mind of what occurred during and after seeing Robert Irwin’s Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue3 at Pace in New York on a nasty February day in 2007.

The complex visual qualities of that work were manifold and have been well documented elsewhere (here and here, for example). One quality that was less analyzed was one’s attention to others in the gallery, and how the viewing was actually better and more engaging when there were other people in the room.

It began as one registered the range of behaviors of other visitors, a commonplace for looking at art in public. A fellow in a windbreaker, still shivering from the chill and shock of the almost horizontal winter rain, eyes adjusting, not yet able to focus on that which he came to see, ambled idly around the perimeter, just beginning to size up the thing that will either provoke a sophisticated sensory experience or a brisk withdrawal, the pointless drenching to be recounted to colleagues in exasperated tones later over a restorative bourbon, perhaps. Conversations, as a pair orbits the gallery together and compares observations. A blithely executed 180 degree spin and exit.

Then, as one stared down (or up) into the highly reflective rectangles, the specters of the other viewers entered the tinted fields and became part of the artwork; their movements enlivened the static world of the mirroring panels. Despite being just across from you, the illusions of these persons was magnetic enough to draw you into a compelling counter-reality. They strolled through glassy chambers that appeared to be more than 20 feet below the level of the floor, while their perfectly audible comments seemed incommensurate with the visual distortion.

Disjunctions such as this sharpened one’s attention. The other viewers’ presence added an extra dimension to the--already dense--experience of the work, a dimension unavailable to a lone viewer. They spurred and expanded one’s own perceptual and interpretive apprehension as they pursued their own. This dynamic in an artwork is rare if not unique.

The enhanced attentiveness that occurred with Red, Yellow and Blue3 was duplicated while watching Dorsky’s films. I recall how disappointed I felt if my mind wandered, how I felt that I was cheating myself, partly for not being in the now, and partly for missing a spectacular shot. The acuity cultivated in the experience of these artworks carries over into the street, onto the bus and into other activities and thoughts.

Well, so what?

Well, from an artistic point of view works like this operate as a kind of gift, one that brings us back to ourselves, into the moment and not elsewhere, abjuring monophonic message, and turning the art experience over to us. This is not common. It is a result, self-consciously in Irwin’s case, at least, of focusing on keeping the viewer participating and active. This initiative begins to take apart the notion of “content” in art. This is a notion that can cause a lot of confusion, even in cases where its possibility may be explicitly repudiated.

From a personal point of view, these works tacitly ask questions about how one conducts one’s life, both in the macro and micro view, which always carries the possibility of inciting pretty lively meditation and dialogue.

26 November 2008

The films of Nathaniel Dorsky 1

The first thing, and perhaps only thing, one needs to know about Nathaniel Dorsky’s films is that they are ravishing. I had the pleasure of seeing them this summer for the first time, thanks to the generous agency of Charles Silver at MOMA. I only recently found out about Dorsky via this wonderful article by P. Adams Sitney in Artforum last winter. Amy saw it first and passed it over to me saying “you might be interested in this,” which I think she knew would be a gross understatement. This summer, I was able to see eight of his films over two afternoon sessions, four of them several times. They need to be seen more than once, and like any worthwhile work of art the films continue to give, change and challenge with repeated examination.

The second thing to know about his films is that they are silent. This is disorienting at first, but unlike other aspects of his films that continue to disorient, one ceases to note the silence after a short period. The silence leaves more mental space for the visual, and for the processing of questions, many syntactical, that arise during the viewing, but more on that later.

The third thing worth knowing is that the films are projected at 18 frames per second. It is an extremely fine difference, unrelated to object motion within the frame, but my sense is that this speed combines with the silence to create an atmosphere of measured majesty, subtly reifying the activities of persons, nature and machines, in concord with other aspects of Dorsky’s films that make us aware of our perceiving state by challenging our apprehension. More on this later as well.

One of the first challenges the films present is to ask us to see the world in a manner that takes us out of our quotidian myopia. To see through Dorsky’s lens is to see the incalculable visual richness that surrounds us, a richness we seldom have either the time or inclination to explore. One of the most memorable shots (from Song and Solitude, 2006) is a close up of a simple metal pull-chain from an overhead lamp. As it twists gently back and forth, the glare off the tiny globes of the chain blink on and off like a row of marquee lights. The shot lasts just a few seconds. The unpromising banality of the subject in combination with the pyrotechnic effect of the string of lights produce a disjunction that renders risible the frequent paucity of our perceptive world. (Another shot, from Variations, 1998, that of a plastic bag lolling in circles in the breeze, was surely the model for the similar, most memorable shot in American Beauty.)

This visual generosity would be reward enough in a film, but of course there are broader ramifications. What one does with this awareness is important—how the viewer participates and changes. A primary tenet of Robert Irwin’s work is the idea of the artist making the viewer aware of their own perception. This awareness carries over beyond the viewing experience, and can change not just the way we see but the way we think. I’ll continue with this later, and follow up on some other things begun, but at the start I’m deliberately limiting the length of posts, in recognition of readers’ internet proclivities and my own preference to build this project slowly.