art writing

On Edo Rosenblith's "Let Me Help You Make a Mural" (2018)

 

In 2013 I published a book of Edo Rosenblith’s drawings called Pink. The book debuted alongside a solo exhibition of the same title at fort gondo compound for the arts, for which I wrote this statement:

Pink is a chronicle of a daily art practice written in graphic form. Comprised of several hundred sketchbook drawings created over the past two years, as well as a series of gouache paintings and photogravure prints, the exhibit charts the construction of a personal cosmology by the simplest and most immediate of art-making tools: drawing. A fascination with ugliness, the grotesque and dark social satire informs these pieces, whose focus recurrently turns to the human face: wide-eyed, warped and awash in viscous tears. This compulsive point of study suggests a psychologically deep tradition – from the totemic mo’ai of Easter Island and the eviscerating gaze of portraits by fellow Missourian James Edward Deeds (a.k.a. the “Electric Pencil”), to painterly influences such as Philip Guston and Dana Schutz. Throughout Rosenblith’s work, the color pink prevails – not as the precious, saccharine hue as it’s now popularly known, but as a color turned sour and raw, vulnerable and nauseously unsettling. It’s Sienese red perverted for a modern-day Renaissance, through which the observable world is translated by the unhindered id-driven mind.

Reading this now – in 2018, on the occasion of the completion of Rosenblith’s new, immersive mural here at COCA – I feel as though it all still holds true. The primacy of drawing, yes. The construction of a personal cosmology, yes. The fascination with the grotesque as a vehicle for social satire, yes. The obsessive prevalence of eyes, yes. Philip Guston, always. And the unhindered translation of a kind of “id” or interior monologue, yes. 

But no pink. We are now in a black-and-white world. And here is where things have become more complicated in the intervening years.  

It does not seem coincidental that Rosenblith’s first large-scale black-and-white murals emerged the same year black teenager Mike Brown was shot by white police officer Darren Wilson in nearby Ferguson, spurring city-wide then ultimately international protests and the formation of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Whether consciously or not, this galvanizing moment for St. Louis and our nation at large seemed to desaturate and essentialize Rosenblith’s palette to a sobering, tonal scale. That that revolt was swiftly followed by the revelation of a radical right-wing faction in the American populous that would gain startling prominence on the political stage implicitly solidified the artist’s formal choice as the definitive mode of the times. The ensuing immigrant crisis in tandem with escalating violence between Israel (where Rosenblith has dual citizenship) and Palestine all coalesced to form a cultural climate in critical need of immediate redressing, particularly by politically conscious artists. 

Murals have historically been a public genre of art-making wielded either propagandistically or anarchically according to prevailing institutional powers. A showcase for graphic rendering – i.e. drawing, at heart – murals stitch together community-sourced anecdotes to tell long-form narratives reflective of a given peoples’ collective vision of themselves. Call them social selfies. Rosenblith – a long-dedicated student of comics, graphic novels, print-making and zines – is a natural fit for the medium, which also favors process-based craft. Therefore, it seems inevitable that the compulsive draftsman and practiced daily chronicler would turn to this form as a means of navigating the recent onslaught of socio-political ruptures and rectifying the nefarious mischaracterizations some of these ruptures produced. 

I’d also add that murals are close kin to books of both the verbal and visual kind. Since publishing Pink, Rosenblith has turned to fine art book-making as frequently as he has mural-painting. Both forms imply a kind of “readership,” even when the content is drawn that aligns them less as interiorized expressive media than fundamentally dependent on collaboration with a reader or public. We are meant to open and page-through Rosenblith’s The Tower or What Dorothea Did – two book projects that were also collaborative and rendered in black-and-white – in the same way that we peruse a wall or physical space filled with his imagery. 

As the title attests, Let Me Help You Make a Mural makes its intentions abundantly clear. Rosenblith is here asking if he can help us unravel the last four years of world-altering events in a shared picture of personal and political phantasmagoria. Essentially democratic in spirit, the hyper-dense composition of this installation-scaled piece eradicates any hierarchical pretenses. Everything’s rendered on an equal, two-dimensional plane and in the same two tones. While one can discern certain moral allegories – the sin of ignorance, the crime of dehumanization, the tragedy of violence – the message isn’t sanctimonious. Rather, Rosenblith feverishly annotates this work with so many anxieties, confessions, micro-plots, mundane notes, random observations and unedited contributions by willing passers-by that high-mindedness about any writ-large topic is quickly jettisoned. All raised defenses are subdued at the door by an leveling spirit of revelry in human flaw. 

This mural – with its wounded hands covered in band-aids on which other band-aids are drawn – is like a large ensemble theatrical production. You have Picasso’s minotaur wrestling Géricault’s great shark while demons from 16th century Mexican murals trouble the fabled “Mexican Wall” and cosmic snakes bedevil the devils. Tony Kushner’s era-defining Angels in America comes to mind along with its subtitle: “a gay fantasia of national themes.” Both the mural and the play are haunted by the ghosts of our political past and have deep penchants for magical realism, end-times dread and a near-final dissolution into deus ex-machina that’s ultimately elided. Rosenblith is neither the kind of narrator who sums up the story’s meaning at its end nor burns it down impulsively. Rather, like Kushner, he’s a Talmudic commentator, footnoting the plot with vulnerable asides and gently leading it away from chaos toward a cathartic chorus of self-confessions – perhaps around a cleansing angel. 

Rosenblith’s work shares much in common with many AIDS-era artist-activists whose artifacts also straddled a conscious debt to “high art” that was translated through populist styles as a way to activate public engagement. Rosenblith’s murals, in my mind, fall in the tradition of someone like Keith Haring, whose own cosmology and graphic public works acted as visionary beacons for a minority community beset by illness, rising conservatism and state-sanctioned brutality. Haring’s political conditions – and Tony Kushner’s – are (unfortunately) not dissimilar from ours; they, too, were attempting to make sense of the apocalyptic intimations of a hate-stoked plague affecting not only the public sphere but their very bedrooms. 

And this point marks the key shift in Rosenblith’s work: while Pink was an attempt to piece together the artist’s profound personal losses and ruptures to his private world, his recent murals are an attempt to piece together the social story within which his own story lives. Symptomatic of trauma is a kind of fragmentation of memory, where specific and often mundane details become repetitively and thereby primarily associated with the impacting experience rather than the full “cinematic” perspective. This break-down in narrative structure is often therapeutically treated by having the person restore their account – piece it back together as a complete story.  So, here in Rosenblith’s mural we’re quite literally invited to paint the larger picture, potentially color it by number – incidentally, all therapeutic activities. And like Kushner’s version of Virgil – Prior Walter – Edo wants to guide you through the moral dilemmas of our moment, see if he can help you make sense of them, even if he’s a little addled himself. Because maybe if he can help you, you can help him. 

This essay was written for an informal catalogue for Edo Rosenblith's solo project Let Me Help You Make a Mural, which was on view June 9 - August 26, 2018 at COCA, St. Louis. 

Ann Hamilton's "(signal)" (2015)

 

Communication is a series of intelligible exchanged gestures — movements, sounds, tactile and visible textures. In distilling our urge to transmit meaning to its most elemental parts, Ann Hamilton’s (signal) (2010-2015) isolates words and gestures as as our most basic means of getting a point across. Composed of [six] offset printed newsprint pads — [two] featuring images of different moments within a single wave of a hand and the other [eight] being segments of a concordance that combines excerpts from John Keats’ 1819 poem-fragment "This living hand, now warm and capable“ and Charles Darwin’s 1872 book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” — (signal) seeks that point at which familiar and unfamiliar expression converges. As the work is constructed to be freely engaged — each page of text and image may be torn away and taken at will — the notion of direct contact between the artist and viewer/interlocutor is rendered fully tangible. Whether the viewer’s desire to possess a part of the piece comes from their wish to read and comprehend it more specifically, or from a more unutterable appeal to simply touch it and live more intimately with its material presence, a communicative connection has been made.

Unlike an index, which itemizes a text by significant subject matter, the earlier form of the concordance is an alphabetical log of a work’s principal words along with the sentences in which they appear. In Hamilton’s concordances, the system of alphabetization is replaced by select words running like spines down the center of the page; in addition to charting the frequency and context of their usage, Hamilton claims these spines as yet another space for signification. In (signal) the central column quotes the last line and phrase of Keats’ single-sentence poem, “I hold it toward you,” which then serves to catalogue instances in Darwin’s book where these words are used. By overlapping these two works — disparate in form but kindred in their conceptual meditations — a network of intersections occur: between the poetic and the pragmatic, the lyric and the prosaic, the knowable and the unknowable. 

While Darwin was seeking a meaningful explanation for our elusive emotional life, Keats was capturing the emotional aspect of our quest for meaning. The figure of the hand serves both writers as anchors to the physicality of human experience, and as a symbol of our simplest sense-making tool. Similarly, Hamilton uses the waving hand — a gesture that spans a greater distance than the reach of our voice — to summon the viewer and literally signal to them that her work is to be grasped. Styled as a newspaper — another form of data collection and broad information transmission that’s commonly still delivered by hand — (signal) nonetheless draws on myriad connotations at once, making it much more like poetry than news. Regardless of whether one traces the work to the more scholarly concordance or popular news source, Hamilton holds out a signal in want of taking.

This piece was commissioned by Island Press to accompany Ann Hamilton's limited-edition print. 

The One Thing That Can Save America (2016)

 

I live in the Midwest but this is not an essay about experience or the self. It’s an essay about the other. In arts discourse the Midwest is an other, a margin between coastal centers.

It’s a simple idea: write an essay discussing the Midwest’s marginal place in American arts discourse and align our otherness with a failure of the democratic system or a betrayal of the art world’s responsibility to engage with otherness, wherever found.

But the Midwest is neither bridge, nor crossroads. If we call it the heartland or flyover country, we do so with an inflated sense of self or a note of self-hate and this essay is not about the self. But what if our middling marks a banality so radical that it upsets the limits of radicality. What if the Midwest is radical in its banality? It is un-extreme in every other sense and thereby both unmarketable and without a market. It may court its avant-gardes, but the Midwest is too full of the demos to be centered into its own avant-something.

While it’s tempting to mount a defense of the Midwest’s otherness in opposition to the extraordinary wealth of the art market at this moment and how that art world constitutes its own 1% and every year widens the cultural income gap; and while it’s tempting to lament the vanishing artistic middle class, even as almost everyone imagines themselves as some degree of middle-class, and to draw a parallel with the disenfranchised working poor: what’s happening here isn’t about economics, it’s about a vanishing voice. A middling voice. A quieter voice. It's about the absence of discursive outlets to a wide swath of the country where art-makers are falling silent as the result of repeatedly being silenced. To be a part of a discourse is to be part of a community, but to believe that the market elects our representatives would mean countenancing the fallacious link between democratic progress and free-market economics.

Gertrude Stein said in a 1926 lecture: “For a long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everyone accepts.… In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling.” And so Four Saints in Three Acts became a smash success on Broadway and Ulysses was published by Random House. Perhaps postmodernism had its beginning here, in the popular institution of the avant-garde.

At its most base, mine is an irritable us-versus-them idea about the Midwest’s marginality, as dictated by the Art World cartographers of New York and Los Angeles. The subject is not new, and if it’s the privilege of the Coasts to not think too much about us, having been a Midwesterner by birth and currently based in the Midwest, I’ve been privy to a raging chorus of home-grown complaints about metropolitan prejudices and lack of local representation. These complaints, for better or worse, issue from assumptions about fair representation, the expectation that the arts are a place where those without voices can otherwise find one. This assumption undoubtedly contributes to Midwest artists’ out-of-place-ness in the cosmopolitanism of the art world and their tendency to confine themselves to regionalisms on one hand and on the other to find themselves as members of swing-states and red-states, cast in the position of political privilege and scorn. In other words, the Midwestern artist’s voice, a gnat in the ear of the culturally elite, is transformed into the booming voice that sways elections. So quiet banality becomes the coercive norm to be resisted in the name of intellectual and aesthetic refinement.

Any attempt to reverse these assumptions and uncouple, or even recuperate, the middleness of the Midwest from its marginality seems bound to founder in scholarship. Reviewing the body of literature devoted to the role of the Midwest in the art world is depressing. Much of it emerged in the 70s. New York was rising to its current towering status, consolidating its critical capital in what remain the art journals of record. Here, the Chicago-based New Art Examiner took on the project of consolidating an art critical voice in the Midwest and devoted many substantive essays to the topic – if, even, the whole publication effort itself could be construed as a collective case in point. Current New Yorker art critic, Peter Schjeldahl published an essay optimistically titled “Chicagoization” in the NAE in 1985 where he confesses his turnaround and retreats to the coast:

I got excited by the possibility that at last, after some muddled attempts in the past, I would find something useful to say on a bedeviled subject: the center and the margin, centrality and provincialism, mainstream and periphery, the whole psychology of geography in contemporary art.

This is a disreputable subject for a number of reasons, among them that it tends to spark a discourse remarkably gross. In this discourse, if it can be called that, raw feelings confront insulated ones – defensiveness confronts snobbery – and everybody gets either mad or maddening. It is a subject that, as a lover of art, I would like to see simply go away. What could be more vulgar than the confusion of geographical rooting interests with art production?

Then Schjeldahl reveals the universalism in the blindspot of cosmopolitan’s self-regard, falling back on the complimentary notions of transcendent artistic greatness through the sweetness and light of an Arnoldian disinterestedness as opposed to the mewling virtue of regionalism. 

Conscious, sophisticated art of all times has a profound independence from places, and the places that host it show the peculiar dissociation, the gregarious impersonality that we call “cosmopolitan.” When we look at the sites of great artistic movements, at least within the Western tradition, I think we see that they have a certain negative virtue, not a team spirit but a disinterested though passionate curiosity. I get tired of talk about the possibility of art in this or that place, feeling that the only question that matters, as Harold Rosenberg suggested, is of whether art is possible at all.

He goes on to say that “place-patriotism” is more alive and well than ever, and that he himself is even charmed by the “primitive attraction to the mystique of place.” As such, his own argument, he says, is ultimately “ambushed from within.” He knows he should be bound to a higher-order aesthetic, but he finds himself enthralled by some quaint but treacherous local attraction.

The essay is as vexing as it is arresting, and as such may serve as a good metaphor for this perhaps lamentable attempt to re-address this embattled subject, including the reference to inner ambush. We could consider the way in which American art culture ambushes its own center and how, in assorted inventive ways, the center (the Midwest) ambushes itself. I also feel, personally, a self-ambushing, aligning myself to a cosmopolitan center-that-is-not-the-center over and above some or another depthless regionalism. Rather than listen for the vanishing voices who take it for granted that they are making art just like everyone else, I sense that pull toward that “negative virtue” and the terribly cynical idea of America as art’s apocalypse.

Indeed, cosmopolitanism is a mindset unrooted to place. To cultivate it anywhere is perhaps the critic’s most important job – rather than fleeing to those places where it’s flourishing. Past arguments aside, my point is to bring this debate to the current moment and relate how we approach arts in the Midwest to how we assess what counts as democratic.

We’re seeing a moment where the art world is mirroring American culture in the most problematic of ways: like the imminent presidential election, populated by astronomical campaign budgets and presidential hopefuls whose financial profiles eliminate anyone without deep pockets. We have an art market dominated by bloated sales, whose market prices validate the qualitative worth of the art works. As is, these systems of privilege require the maintenance of margins. Yes, the avant-garde was always necessarily attached to its “umbilical chord of gold” – as Clement Greenberg memorably quipped – but it is all the more so in this late state of capitalism, where art is not only a marker of sophistication (as it’s always been) but an investment opportunity. Today’s art market is more akin to the world of finance than patronage which, we should remember, rested on pride of place.

So would a democratic avant-garde mean reinvesting in marginalized communities and reorienting art-making to the broadening of discourse and access and away from sales, fame, and power?

Maybe any avant-garde needs to believe in a failed democracy in order to seed, or maybe the fact that democracy entails a commitment to equality – not just liberty – means that democracy will necessarily fail to provide a model for the arts where not all art is equal. Like the market needs competition, art needs antagonism to flourish. But whether or not the broad-appeal to Midwest banality can radicalize a common populace left out of the art-world mainstream, or whether it’s in the nature of the popular mainstream to reject even its own otherness, it’s our duty to dwell in that impossible decision. To act as though one might win back a wayward populace, without allowing each new failure to call us dishearteningly into another’s elitism.

This was the exhibition essay for the group show The One Thing That Can Save America at Paragraph Gallery & Project Space, Kansas City, MO, March 24 - April 30, 2016. The exhibition included work by Charlotte Street Foundation's Studio Residency Program artists from that year. Both the essay and exhibition's title is borrowed from John Ashbery's eponymous poem, which  was originally published by Viking Press in 1975 in his bellwether collection Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.

 

Lisa Bulawsky's "Prosthetic Memories" (2011)

 

“The spirit is a bone,” Hegel’s swift and confounding conflation of the ineffable and the finite, serves as an apt metaphor for Lisa Bulawksy’s exploration of public history and personal narrative in her series Prosthetic Memory. A series of works on paper that culls imagery from extensive interviews conducted with a group of older Americans, Prosthetic Memory -- which borrows its title from Alison Landsberg’s 2004 book -- takes the textures of daily recollections and grafts them upon writ-large moments in American history, assembling dreamlike vignettes in which national-level crises and the most pedestrian errands interweave with equal salience. Chosen for the length and depth of their lived experience, the subjects Bulawsky interviewed were asked to reflect on four specific and culturally defining events spanning the 20th century: World War II, the Kennedy assassination, the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, and September 11. While the main body of work integrates significant details from these recollections, the centerpiece of the series -- a suite of four monoprints -- negotiates Bulawksy’s own relationship to these events. The synthesis of observed and imagined, mediated and direct is the point of focus, challenging the conventional system of value ascribed to momentous shared occurrences, too often portrayed with a glossy, reductive remove. Here, a cross-country car trip taken then interrupted by news of Kennedy’s death takes on fresh, indelible significance; the gas station is envisioned, as are the car’s leather seats and large chrome wheel. While the news was relayed second-hand, that moment produced a lived and intimate effect on a life, just as it would, in this more recent moment, for Bulawsky listening to the story recalled. In moving over and over these events, a re-writing occurs, if even a kind of trench-digging: new imprints (read: prints) are made that associate, say, a duck and a patch of road with the nation’s first terrorist attack; a pile of laced leather shoes with the strife of the Second World War. Finer images, here, collect like reclaimed cast-offs from a refuse pile -- their aggregate yielding a more humanized portrait of a time and culture. Like Hegel’s unlikely equivalency, that diffuse and so often imagined thing, American culture, finds its bone in the immemorial strands of living thrust to the back of the deep storage shelf -- Wonder Bread, a clothing iron, the color yellow, all those most valuable oddities that admit everyone’s stake in the whole, human plot.

This was a commissioned catalogue essay for the published iteration of Bulawsky's project.

On Justin Matherly (2013)

 

History necessarily requires props to reassert itself, lost as it is to the experience of anonymous agents in the continuum of real-time. Chronicles, tapestries, crumbling monuments, photojournalism: we try our best to get it all down. Justin Matherly's cropped and disfigured classical figures, wrought from low-grade industrial materials and balanced on human ambulatory aids, personify our handicapped memory and tendency to paint in heroic strokes -- especially when the details have long-since shaken loose. Zip ties the colors of the Pan-African flag, the reconstituted remains of a Turkish temple-tomb, an obscure passage from Nietzsche: perhaps these details were never for you to understand. Matherly's sculptures are monuments to lost details, necessary mis-readings of ambiguous evidence. Consider the sources: a black-and-white photograph of the Laocoon from the Vatican's collection; grainy documentation of the archeological site of Mount Nemrud; a popular expression in Jamaican dancehall music. Were these objects, places and phrases ever, in any single instance, easily accessible? Consider the magician-ship of translation: a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional sculpture guides the creation of a three-dimensional replication of the never-witnessed and age-obscured original. The languages in use are fundamentally incompatible: flat to topological, Eastern to Western, marble to treegator and concrete. All of which is to say that incomprehensibility is no barrier to desire -- we may never know what we want let alone want to know. Limbless and faceless, gesturing indistinctly, Matherly's pieces communicate the promiscuousness of narrative and the lushness of gaps. What is missing is filled in, and preferably so -- by new materials, fresh historic feats of more graspable proportions. This time around, shaking hands with the gods may be hollow and left-handed. One's soul, in this incarnation, weighs 1200 pounds. And restrictions of form -- human or otherwise -- simply tighten the aperture for surveillance.

This capsule was written for but ultimately  unpublished by Secret Behavior magazine, Spring 2013.

On Carrie Levy's "Domestic Stages" (2013)

 

Carrie Levy

 

"It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked," wrote Susan Sontag in her small 2003 volume Regarding the Pain of Others.  Carrie Levy's photographic series Domestic Stages, created a year after Sontag's book, plays on the viewer's knowledge of just that: our desultory desire to witness pain as well as nakedness, and how we imagine ourselves understanding the symbology of both. Capturing friends and acquaintances in their home-settings, stripped of clothing and expressive eye contact or facial expression, Levy's large-scale photographs leave the viewer with little more than their intuitive capacity. And what do we intuit? We sense that these are everyday figures, marked by age and un-primped physicality; we know that their environments are modestly furnished nearly to the point of vacancy. And their assorted bodily contortions are something else we hurriedly read: these are not figures at ease, or captured at moments of particular confidence; they are twisted, hunched, lurching or heavily piled. The series' title gives us an additional cue: this is both a theatrical realm and a glimpse into time's progressive human ravages -- the stages we set for our intimately lived lives, as well as the stages we move through as we mature. That these spartan home-spaces are devoid of marks of living -- cups and saucers, keepsakes, decoration -- and focus more on paint-saturated walls, un-patterned window curtains and dull-worn couches -- make them more akin to backdrops, dramatic sets. That is, they engender authenticity and pantomime equally -- and beg that we consider the two as less opposed than we may assume. St. Sebastian nude, twisted, and riddled with arrows: this we know. Wrinkled flesh, unvarnished floors, the averted glance: we know this, too. To what extent, then, the script is already written -- and our moment of catharsis timed -- disrupts these illusions of consensus, and agitate the expectations of even the most experienced voyeur.

This capsule was published in Secret Behavior magazine, 2013.

The Grave's A Fine and Private Place: on Aurel Schmidt's "Voodoo Dolls" (2011)

 

The unwritten history of failure might include a section devoted to our many ways of staving failure off. Not the striving toward any actual pursuit, but the marginal, anxious froth that hovers around the notion of the productive. Acedia, melancholia, Weltschmertz, the black dog, the noonday demon -- the dizzy ritual of non-work -- of what we do when we say “all day I have done nothing,” having thought all the while of what we should have done. There is the true source of restless creation -- that home-brewed occult of ceremonial idleness.

Subsections of this history could be labeled: debasement; self-abuse; cooking; smoking; what to do at midnight; the pleasure of photographs; manic deep cleaning; there are a lot of interesting things in this drawer; catching up with a childhood friend; unexpected high; much feared low; how's the weather; this looks okay to me, let's eat it; what happened to the groceries. In the rumpled sheet between should and should not dwell things that are good and things that are bad, things that devour themselves continually in a reproductive cycle of cathartic ennui. Base and beautiful, the straightforward revolt of taking pen away from paper and just letting it lie on the empty page: this is a necessary pause, breeding unforeseeable monsters.

We look through the glazed layers of a 16th century Dutch still-life to uncover a vase of flowers in full bloom -- swarming with bees, witnessed by a skull. Composed, fantastically vulnerable subjects made of writhing and iconic parts. The limpid butt of a cigarette arcs to form a limb; a cigarette burn bores two wide and unflinching eyes. A quarter-machine yin-yang ring dangles on the rumpled butt of an arm. The fragility of the dolls' beauty, verging on rot, rises as though from the ash heap to confront you with uncomplicated happiness: a placid, Snoopy-dog smile.

The poet Andrew Marvell persists in wooing his ever-desirable mistress with the threat of worms, violating her virginal sanctity in death. So, why, dear, not violate it now, he insists? She is a vegetable muse, yet we demand a live one -- more elusive, world-weary and steeled for loss. We demand charms that protect bedrock hope, born of every day’s onslaught of deleterious detritus. Why not ransack the garbage pail for the discarded keepsake, and restore its shiny, good-as-gold worth? I don’t know; if it looks good, forgive and ecstatically grab hold.

This essay was published in TAR Magazine, Spring 2011.

"Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation" at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (2011)

 

Like failure, fatigue is among the more shadowy of great authorial themes, assuming a sideline position to idées fixes more readily identifiable as writ-bold heroic. In this taught and thoroughly untypical survey of work from the last ten years, the pivotal and persistently elusive Cologne-based artist emerges as a flag-waving proponent of the nuances of exhaustion, even if her flag comes in the form of a limply dangling, over-sized bikini. This may sound misleading; a Spring Break girl-gone-wild von Bonin is not. Rather, this languid two-piece (Untitled (Bikini Loop #01), 2007) hovers over the viewer upon entering the gallery like a fractious political banner, post-rally -- its strings curling at the ends, its mid-section slumped. Glancing across the space, one then encounters a dense labyrinth of outsized objects, positioned to be at once confrontational and covetable: a stuffed lobster slumped on a ersatz-Modernist table base; a massive stuffed cartoon shoe siphoned into what appears to be the top seat of a life-guard’s perch; a pair of bald Dunlop tires behind the bars of a narrow cage; a wall of von Bonin’s signature “textile” paintings positioned on large, gift-box shaped pedestals. For all of its disorienting incongruities of scale, the space is familiar: this place looks like a store, jammed-full with glossy product. And this is where the fatigue sets in: how overwhelmingly over-stocked -- with content, with desire -- the world is, and (huge sigh) to what end.

White Mickey Mouse gloves hover in the stitched plaid ether of von Bonin’s Bubbles (2010), a series of textile paintings, appearing like a serial illustration of the artist-as-magician enacting the slight of hand that renders her work at once compulsively appealing and inscrutable to the point of reticence. Like her body of work as a whole, the series could also serve as an enlarged, soft cartoon of Keats’ notion of negative capability -- that Romantic state of productive irresolution, or “being in uncertainty," that (to Keats) characterized the highest art. Consider her exhibition titles, such as Fatigue Empire, for her comprehensive 2010 survey at the Kunsthaus Bregenz, or Juxtaposition of Nothings from this past Spring at Friedrich Petzel Gallery in New York; they are conundrums of conflicting impulses, suggesting at once relational unity (empire, juxtaposition) and complete dissolution (fatigue, nothing). While bating with seemingly accessible carrots of reference (Mickey as magician; fabric as clothing, comfort and commodity), the pieces ultimately remain slyly out of reach, resisting reductive and finite translation. As a gesture to this very mutability of meaning, hanging from the ceiling on a piece of white rope in the exhibition’s center is a microphone, poised as if to be taken up by anyone who wishes to narrate the show, or “cover it” like a familiar pop song (here, this exhibition’s title is recalled, which was taken from von Bonin’s textile painting Rock Stars (Character Appropriation), 2003, depicting the American 70s pop duo Hall & Oates). Rather than a shaggy dog tale, call this shaggy dog symbolism: work that overtly references pop cultural, art historical and socio-political sources while at the same moment recoiling from them, like a crustacean retreating to its shell. 

Similar to von Bonin’s current traveling exhibition series, Lazy Susan Series, a Rotating Exhibition, in which new pieces are presented at each venue amidst reshuffled selections of existing work, the Kemper’s survey resists the conventional taxonomic presentation model and institutional mandate to define the surveyed artist. German DJ and musician Moritz von Oswold, a collaborator of von Bonin’s since 2010, contributes ambient electronic “loops” (a term that von Bonin borrows in reference to her own practice of re-use and re-presentation) that accompany nearly every work, making a kind of siren song of consumerism that recalls the ubiquitous soundtrack that permeates any contemporary shopping experience. The artist’s hand, here, is consistently evident: audio equipment appears throughout the exhibition, piled on its own packaging or sitting on cinder blocks and construction-grade step-stools, as though just feverishly purchased then abandoned. This equipment invites a participatory dimension into the work while at the same time reaffirming it’s peculiar hermeticism; you may pick up the head phones to listen to von Oswold’s loops, or, they can be left untouched, for the artwork to revel in alone.

In viewing the exhibit’s largest work -- a life-sized stuffed chick, bloated and vomiting on itself as it straddles a massive, glossy rocket (Missy Misdemeanor #02 (The Beige Vomiting Chick, Miss Riley (Loop #02, 2006) MVO’s Voodoo Beat & MVO’s Rocket Blast Beat), 2011) -- the fatigue hits anew and with fresh resonance. Induced by feelings of over-production, excess stimuli or lack thereof, slumped in stupified stasis invoked by entrancing, repetitive beats, the chick is empathetic, resigned to its dull apathy and inability to really do more than, well, just ride the situation out.

Cosima von Bonin: Character Appropriation was on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, May 6 - August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, July 2011.

Brandon Anschultz's "Pacer" at the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis (2012)

 

Sometimes you have to tear a thing down before you can see it anew. St. Louis-based painter Brandon Anschultz has made a dedicated practice out of this occasional truth, dismantling the constituent elements of painting in order to reinvent them for himself and for the beleaguered medium’s sake. His recent solo exhibit, Pacer, may be the most lyrical synthesis of his deconstructive project to date -- engaging expressionist and procedural approaches to abstraction, impulses toward object-making, and vigorous experimentation with materials and substrates. In plotting out only a spare number of carefully selected pieces in the intimate confines of the Front Room space, a vivid conversation emerges, at once expert and frenetic, in which Anschultz’s anti-subject (painting) is eviscerated in the same breath that it’s remade.

A piece of green-tinted tempered glass sits on the gallery floor and leans against a wall; caddy-corner to it, at traditional viewing height, a stretched canvas hangs. The duo, titled Pink/Green (2012), works as one, each sharing a dimly pastel palette of loose, provisional marks that spread like rashes over their high corner regions, each exchanging complementary notes on notions of opacity and transparency. Across from this pair, at the gallery’s far end, a mass of clay-colored paint with thin strands of copper wire protruding from it, lays on the floor; above it, a copper-colored metal rod straddles the gallery’s top corner ledge, a mass of chartreuse paint dangling from its center. This duo, titled Shark/Green Wad (2012), also works in concert but to more tensile ends: one colored mass seems to threaten the other, playing on the drama of gravity or, alternately, the stealthy freedom of untethered things. Peepshow (2012) is the exhibit’s dark center. Appearing singly on the wall opposite the two diptychs, it hangs as would a conventional painting and appears as such, from a distance. Closer inspection reveals a monochrome abstraction inked on a hunk of crudely-trimmed packing foam, saturated with assorted shades of black that vaguely shimmer (foam of this variety has reflective flecks mixed into it) when it catches light. At once glam and somber, the piece anchors the candy-colored works in its midst, drawing out the formal and emotive seriousness of Anschultz’s project while retaining its signature shine.

What hasn’t been dismantled, here? Paintings move from wall to floor; positive and negative distinctions dissolve or conflate; paint appears on transparent substrates or on none at all; substrates fail to perform -- absorbing wholly the material they’re intended to host. The very status of a painting as a two-dimensional window that has little concern for its status as an object let alone an object in contingent space, is effectively disrupted. Rather, both sculptural and curatorial concerns come necessarily into play: where a piece is placed rewrites how it communicates. In Anschultz’s work, correspondence is key, and irresolution poses not a problem but an opportunity for discourse. Like the exhibit’s title itself, which suggests a person moving back and forth in contemplative rumination, the pieces reverberate off themselves, finishing one another’s sentences in rapid contagion.

The exploration of painting’s materiality is not new for Anschultz. In his 2010 exhibit Stick Around for Joy (2010 at Laumeier Sculpture Park, as part of its annual Kranzberg Exhibition Series), a similar concern for the medium’s overlap with sculpture prevailed. Pieces were sculpted out of plaster, which was then painted; one piece consisted entirely of several years’ worth of paintings ground down to wood chips, appearing as a massive pillar (in a clear plastic trash bag). Pieces also engaged the environmental nature of the exhibition space -- which was once a residence -- and rested on window sills or bore vague resemblances to staircases.

It’s Pacer’s spare and understated confidence that raises it to a new level of conviction in this ferocious quest for reinvention. Like the music from which Anschultz often borrows his titles (Pacer is a 1995 album by the Amps; Peepshow is a 1988 album by Siouxsie and the Banshees), there’s a cool anthemic quality to the rhythms at play in his work and their spacial orchestration. And unlike most formalist projects, something personal emerges from this constant challenging of the medium: the work may unfurl in the rawest of ways, but a meticulous art vigilantly directs the process.

Brandon Anschultz's Pacer was on view at the Front Room of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, March 22 - April 22, 2012. This review was published by Art Papers, July 2012.

"Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion" at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art (2012)

 

In palpably physical carved and painted wood assemblages that include both wall-hanging tableaux and free-standing sculptures, artist Adrian Kellard (1959-1991) synthesized an astonishingly disparate array of histories, personal realities and modes of art-making with masterful and fearless dexterity. Working-class, Irish-Italian, gay, and devoutly Catholic, Kellard, whose brief career is reviewed in this intimate and affecting retrospective, presents himself not only as an absolute whole but a powerful inevitability, for whom the deficiencies of identity politics and institutional religion caused little compromise in his exuberant and radically faith-driven craft.

Poised to mark the 20th anniversary of Kellard’s death at age 32 to AIDS-related causes, this exhibit also presented an occasion to revisit a perhaps lost strain of inquiry begun in the heady froth of the Reagan-era art world. Echoing the title of MOCRA founder and curator Fr. Terrence Dempsey’s dissertation, that query examined the “re-emergence of spiritual and religious concerns in American art of the 1980s." It was during Dempsey’s dissertation research -- a project which later became MOCRA itself -- that he first discovered Kellard’s work, which was included in a capacious 1985 group exhibit at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, Precious: An American Cottage Industry of the Eighties, curated by Thomas W. Sokolowski, former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum and then-director of the Grey Art Gallery. Sokolowski, who himself was exploring new approaches to religion in art, put Dempsey in contact with Kellard as well as Kellard’s mentor, pioneering installation and collage artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt -- also a working-class, gay, devout Catholic included in Precious. Arguing for a new sense of overt religiousity in an adamantly secular age, Kellard and Lanigan-Schmidt, along with other artists working in this milieu, pursued an antidote to what was perceived as spiritually bereft, market-driven art as well as 20th Century Modernism’s more oblique and perhaps rarified evocations of the nebulously “sublime”. 

More than two decades later, Kellard, here, not only re-surfaces as a key piece of this significant alternative history -- whose momentum, directly and indirectly, was radically hampered by the AIDS pandemic -- but appears freshly as a remarkable artist in his own right. In Prayer of the Faithful in Ordinary Time (1988), a red-and-white checker-pattern curtain parts to reveal Jesus, haloed in bright yellow and orange beams, praying under the star-riddled light of the full moon. Characteristically integrating the everyday with the otherwise lofty, the moon being gazed upon is in fact a store-bought plastic clock, its hands marking the agitated passing of earthly time. Lovers (1986) engages a similarly hybrid approach; Jesus again appears, now cradling a portrait of the recumbent artist, while a looming Christ-figure, crucified, dangles two construction-grade flood lights from his palms. The central scene is brightly lit, while a populous, night-time city proliferates around them: a finely etched series of high-rises, tenements and neighborhood churches, rendered in the manner of a woodblock printer (as all of Kellard’s imagery is), framing the couple and scaffolding the crucified form. Each row of windows is an intricate pattern piled on top of other patterns, and dimly primary-hued like newspaper-printed comics. Time is always of concern, as a reminder of something fundamentally common and as a critical exigency to heed. In St. Francis screen (1985), the saint is carved in a pose quoted from Giotto’s painting, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds (1297-1299), in the context of a hinged-room divider, the third panel of which is a functioning calendar. Not only were Kellard’s days marked by this piece, his apartment was bisected by it: his art, so closely linked with his faith, was hand-etched in the stuff of daily life and formed a space for him to fit absolutely within.

Kellard’s own brief life went as follows: raised amid a family of nine in a two-bedroom apartment in New Rochelle, Kellard was among the first class to enroll in SUNY Purchase’s fine art program. Though he left the program after only two years, he studied with printmaker and illustrator Antonio Frasconi, who trained him in the art of woodblock printing, a technique which would be incorporated in all of his subsequent work. Similarly, Lanigan-Schmidt, his SUNY Empire State program-appointed mentor, shaped his use of found materials and approach to spiritual and autobiographical content. In his eight-year and compactly meteoric career, Kellard’s work appeared in six solo and more than twenty-five group exhibitions, but has since rarely been shown. So, what is the importance of it now? Irascible, irrepressible and boldly honest, Kellard’s work not only communicates a plain sense of humanity but a brave and uncluttered sense of self. It may be that our current moment is marked by as much conflict with identity and meaning -- spiritual and otherwise -- as its not-so-distant predecessor, making this story as pertinent as ever.

Adrian Kellard: The Learned Art of Compassion was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Religious Art, St. Louis, September 24 - December 11, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, January 2012.

Jessica Stockholder's "Grab grassy this moment your I’s" at Laumeier Sculpture Park (2011)

 

Jessica Stockholder’s maverick galvanization of painting, sculpture and installation by way of Ikea and Home Depot has long been her stock accolade, but she’s overdue as many gold stars for the inventive poetics of her approach and her pioneering role in the current and now popularly anthologized “unmonumental” aesthetic. Grab grassy this moment your I’s, a survey of recent work by Stockholder on view in the Museum Galleries at Laumeier Sculpture Park, redresses these fresh historic gaps by pairing her sculptures with a new suite of mordantly elegant poems by Mary Jo Bang, and reacquainting the viewer with her distinctly expert and earnest art. Stuff, in Stockholder’s work, speaks at once to the basely utilitarian and evanescently abstract, while also creating an associative visual lyricism quixotically limned in the buy-in-bulk market. By paralleling her sculptures with Bang’s poems, which were inspired by but not directly allusive of the pieces on view, a symmetry emerges between the function of disparately assembled objects and the slipperiness of words in verse.

There is no irony, here, when an up-ended yellow-green lamp holds, in the bowl of its palm-leaf shade, its own lit bulbs, a yellow plastic whiffle ball and a yellow dish washing scrubby, in a title-less (not “untitled”) 2006 sculpture. A dangling orange extension cord powers another lamp -- a lavish chintz piece with a pale, faux island as a base and a pale faux palm as its neck; it sits upright, illuminating a white wall on which two white plastic cooler lids hang, both brushed with swatches of teal paint. White paint covers the end table on which the island lamp stands; white paint also coats half of a wooden frame, emptily bracketing the other palm-themed lamp. Motifs repeat -- white and white; teal and teal; yellow scrubby and yellow whiffle ball; two tropical lamps -- but they never function as metaphors. This is Stockholder’s masterfully self-hewn grammar: things are what they are and what they seem -- changing merely in proximity and relation to one another, often in both echoic and contradicting ways.

While the absurdity of island lampshades coupled with cooler tops and whiffle balls certainly smacks of playfulness, these assorted items in their sculptural context lack a sense of acerbic, winking satire or larger, cultural allusion. This is where it becomes clear how Stockholder’s work remains distinct in this new age of assemblage art: while current practitioners, like Rachel Harrison for example, share similar penchants for painterly and sculptural hybridity and consumer-grade materials, their project invests more worth in the included objects’ social status, resulting in a more conceptual project with direct socio-political commentary. In Stockholder’s work, if a commentary exists, it’s diffuse and in regard to the emotional life; indeed, her work is shaped by the culture of big-box stores and heedless consumerism, but a specific, prosaic agenda is absent. As such, Stockholder serves as an importantly intuitive forbear to this current strain of more object-prioritizing, and perhaps more Duchampian and capitalistic, collaged sculpture. 

Once Stockholder’s expressive immediacy is grasped -- where, for instance, a lime green bucket will be jammed with a stuffed-full yellow bag and then loosely draped with partially painted-upon fake fur -- one begins to understand the nature of its trenchant poetry. Bang’s poems draw out this important aspect of Stockholder’s practice, wherein a personal “I” lyrically reports on her state of being. As one of Bang's poems states, “Think of me as a plant stand turned animal. / Something to hold, or be held”. By coupling such words with Stockholder’s sculptural assemblages, their assorted parts begin to speak powerfully of the vicissitudes of interior experience. As the exhibition title suggests, an urgently ecstatic version of “seize the day” is invoked in the work, underscoring the importance of the immediate, as it is so often rooted in our own domestic and private spheres, and here fabulously re-erected as a vivid, abstract stage in Stockholder’s hands. 

Jessica Stockholder's Grab grassy this moment your I’s was on view at Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, Feburary 12 - May 29, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, May 2011.

What's the Use? Eliza Newman-Saul & Wonder Koch at Snowflake Gallery (2011)

 

“It is very hard to be simple enough to be good,” wrote Emerson. For most contemporary Americans of the consumptive, maximalist ethos, this seems anathema to the pursuit of today’s top-selling brand of “good.” Wonder Koch and Eliza Newman-Saul’s two-person exhibition What's the Use? casts a resigned shrug of a vote for mass cultural throwback in a collection of pencil-drawn sinking ships and limp, hand-stitched flags, suggesting in material and sentiment alike that less ought to be more by now, as the situation has already gone to hell. Presenting what they describe as “a study of insufficiencies—both personal and global,” the two artists craft a kind of Romantic letter to a highly disinterested world, using traditional handicraft and drafting tools in practiced post-media fashion to “softly subvert” the reigning idols of bombast and brash confidence, memorializing instead their capacity for error in defeatist archetypes.

Koch’s Red Flags, 2011, combines twigs, chips of wood, the odd coupon, and other sidewalk detritus into minute poles with crumpled flags. The flags themselves come in every variety of red and serendipitously pathetic: a deflated red balloon, a torn-off swath of red gingham table cloth, a mass of indistinct red woven stuff. The small items are jammed into the gallery wall, creating a dim haze of alarm. Surrender, 2011, reassembles torn-out white stripes from American flags to make a frayed white whole stating “you win” in overlaid lower case letters, with an inverted “y.” A medieval banner flag hangs in the gallery window, its block letters proclaiming “It’s Too Late” to the wearied neighborhood beyond, while a bright teal flag in the gallery’s center simply asserts “Problems” in large font, the assertive thrust of the word broken in half by a hyphen.

Between these diaphanous alerts is Newman-Saul’s series of five large-scale pencil drawings, To My Dear Impotent World, 2010. Each piece depicts a massive ship nose-diving into dark waters. The imagery looks vaguely archival, suggesting Titanic-scaled failed ambition. The drawings divert interest from their rendering to a sense of glorified gloom. From a distance, each ship appears photo-realistic. Yet, close inspection reveals an awkwardly generalized approach: tonal shades are colored in with heedless marks, palm and finger smudges left un-erased in the vast white negative spaces. Nothing here is precious, they seem to say, particularly when it’s all a bust. Marking the series’ end, a video of a man scouring the Coney Island beach with a metal detector flickers on the wall, the footage grainy and slowed-down to a pace that feels like an idly rocking boat. An ambient score accompanies the video, alternately resembling the washed-out sound of tides or a more lilting variety of television static. Another emblem of futility, the man’s quest is as likely to yield treasure as someone attempting to purify the ocean with a Britta, while his dogged, if dazed, persistence speaks like a colloquial translation of a Beckettian plot.

Newman-Saul’s practice has little to do with drawing, let alone any other traditional media, as she most frequently uses video and live performance to stage mock-seminars, pantomimed speeches, and other ersatz educational scenarios to relay that least objective variety of knowledge — the personal narrative. Most broadly, it’s an oeuvre dedicated to epistemological inquiry, which makes the return to one of the most fundamental means of crafting an artwork — pencil and paper — a complex choice, particularly when the depiction symbolizes inadequacy. What have I, and what have we, learned?, she asks. The ships, then, tender a polyphonic response, at once a return to fundamentals — beauty, rendering—and a critique of more contemporary promises made by art itself and society at large.

Similarly, Koch’s work has been primarily conceptual—and reliant on video and performance as her default media—with an explicit political agenda tempered by confounded attempts at communication and action. Earlier pieces extend a perhaps infinite performance as a “volunteer member of the cabinet” and include proposals for a re-constituted constitution, in which the current “cumbersome” apparatus of the US government is streamlined into a single, lone executive power; flying buttresses for FEMA trailers, to provide both Gothic beauty and support; and a massive Imperialist Fantasy Flag that reflects US foreign policy goals and includes stars for the 194 nations. In the context of these wry commentaries, Koch’s individual flags here become a distillation of a laundry-list of ideological choices, from their distinct return to the handmade to internalized politics that turn the broader notions of patriotism, stake-claiming, and surrender into daily, personal acts.

It’s the exhibition’s reductive simplicity, then, that produces its poignant cogency. Like the act of returning to pencil, paper, cloth, and needle, it resonates like a frank summons for a return to humanistic fundamentals. Yet, the summons is not writ-large; rather, it’s a postcard, scrawled with unlabored sincerity and as succinct as the one once sent by Newman-Saul's grandfather: “Fire Sweeps Horwell Today, Thursday Dec 9, 1915. Our hotel is gone. Loss is great. What's the Use.”

What's the Use? was on view at Snowflake Gallery, June 18—August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, September 2011.

Anyway Autobiography Is Easy Like It or Not Autobiography Is Easy for Any One And So This Is to Be Everybody’s Autobiography (2011)

 

It is not our eccentricities, pointedly marking our imagined singularity, that make us unique, but how we stake a claim on what is shared and relentlessly sharable. This is what Gertrude Stein coyly asserts in her recurrent account of herself and, consequently, everyone, in her 1937 book Everybody’s Autobiography – her “sequel” to the unexpectedly popular and complexly parroted (and non-autobiographical) account of her lover, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. In both works, as in all of her poetry, the fabric of common life – food, objects, rooms – takes precedence over the altering life event or agonized utterance of an I. And, as food, objects and rooms are iterated in the circuitous and incantatory repetition that characterizes Stein’s writing, we see these familiar things anew, like a phrase made strange if said again and again, regardless of its content. In that repetition, an equilibrium is reached – a plateau on which any person can stand and feel the absolute strangeness of the fabled common lot, as both a figurative state of mind and real place to assume firm footing.

Like Stein, Robert Gober has focused in acute detail on the otherwise unexceptional stuff that populates and quietly dominates our daily lives. Sinks, drains, twin beds, cat litter – the rectangular slab of uncut butter – are recreated in hand-wrought detail, yielding objects that are at once ersatz ready-mades and exquisitely mundane art. Dwelling on a single form for several years, a sink, for example, is made to exist in every possible scale and variety – hanging fixtureless and upright, or angled, dramatically split, or halved and submerged, like a grave marker. In extracting this single, common object from the cacophony of nameless things, its significance swells, evoking its emblematic meaning, magnifying its unsettling formality, and transforming it both into a noun in a new, personal grammar and a fluidly poetic symbol.

That Gober would produce wallpaper, then, is no surprise, as wallpaper itself inhabits the same lowly status as other seemingly banal domestic accents and is, furthermore, characterized by repeated design motifs. The two images in Highway, depicting a two-lane road splitting a forest, create an insistent pattern of snap-shot familiarity much like the encapsulating flash of a vivid memory. Drawn in wavering, child-like lines, the imagery bears all the freight of childhood itself – overwhelmed by the unknowable, awestruck by what may soon come to be known as dull, and glassy-eyed in the face of the eerily portentous. The scene could go anywhere: the Great American Road trip, the tragic Noir get-away, the idyllic or Gothic road to the rural unknown.

Kerry James Marshall’s prints dedicate themselves to similarly common forms, objects and scenes, but as a way of redressing precisely what the dominant tradition has unconscionably excluded. That the history of art proliferates with portraits of persons of both modest and noble status is a kind of truth. Marshall sees the significance of revising this tradition as well as the conception of what is deemed “common” by creating portraits and scenes of black subjects; in doing so, he emphasizes the significant failure of the dominant strain of assumed reason. What has been shared has in fact not been shared in full; it is the very existence of a banality that includes a black identity that, in Marshall’s work, becomes radical.

But to see Marshall’s work as a purely political gesture is to stray from its full complexity and primary import. The experience of his portraits and vignettes speaks to the fundamental qualities of the art historical movements they quote – reflective of beauty, the human form, the tragic and the romantic. Their appeal is, essentially, a transcendent one – not bound by race or history – and in such bears a resemblance to Gober’s practice: they transmogrify the everyday and render traditional practices into ones of startling conceptual rigor.

The art of the everyday has not been a creative strain quickly admitted into institutional acceptance. Lumped into the Civil Rights movement and the flotsam of assorted mid-Century uprisings long preceding and following it, printmaking has been a medium closely associated with the distraught and quotidian, the news-bearing, and social unrest. At its heart is the ability to produce multiples – a quality reflective of Stein’s verse, Gober’s hand-made Americana, and Marshall’s historical reprisals. Multiples, like wallpaper patterns, have the ability to create ubiquity; what was once novel suddenly becomes a new norm. And as Marshall’s work attests, “normal” is never to be dismissed. This additional dimension of these artists’ practices – that is, their use of printmaking – adds a subtle texture to their work, an unspoken comment on their material identities and affinity with alternative histories.

“Cloudiness what is cloudiness, it is a lining, it is a roll, it is a melting.” Cloudiness can even-out an image, make it appear balanced. Breezy and almost glib, the peripheral roads, bundles of newspapers, bags of donuts, and carpeted living rooms unscroll as the backdrops to our grander narratives, all the while moving a strong hand in dictating our even grander perception of base-line experience. Perhaps with a finer trained eye – one schooled on patterns – the subtler marks can be seen in a given face, as if suddenly primed for a portrait, and certain invisibilities can be unmasked as the monstrous, deficient, or sublime truths that they are.

This was the exhibition essay for "Everybody's Autobiography: Robert Gober and Kerry James Marshall," SGC International Curated Exhibition at the Center for Creative Arts, St. Louis, March 17-April 24, 2011. The essay (and exhibition's) title is from Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937, by Gertrude Stein; the quote in last paragraph is from Tender Buttons, 1914, by Gertrude Stein.