Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art

Clocking in at nearly 900 pages of dense text plus index, Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by artist and researcher Samuel Bianchini and curator and critic Erik Verhagen, is a door-stopper of a book. Its ambition is equal to its mass—it proposes to rewrite postwar Western art history in order to trace the emergence of a heretofore unrecognized organizing principle of art that serves as the book's title. Works that merit the designation "practicable" subvert the "do not touch" mentality of art as a sacred object of veneration; instead they are those in which, as contemporary parlance would have it, the user experience is central. And as that term suggests, many of the more recent works of the practicable use digital technology and feature mediated interactivity, but that is not a necessary condition of their being. Indeed, a number of the works discussed in the book are decidedly low-tech even as they embody conceptual foundations that are forward-looking.

The book is both a historical survey and a theoretical treatise. It starts with a genealogy of the practicable dating back into the 1950s and in particular the influence that the development of cybernetics has had on its emergence. It highlights key artists and movements and then brings broader humanities and social science perspectives to bear. Other sections focus on performativity and methods of exhibiting the practicable. The book ends with several case studies and interviews with artists, curators, and critics, the most memorable for me being the last one, with the incisive critic of relational aesthetics, Claire Bishop. The entries are mostly short, allowing for a plethora of voices to enter the conversation and explore the practicable in all its multiplicity.

The first-mover of part I, "From Cybernetics Onward," is not Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, but English author, inventor, and educational theorist Gordon Pask, whose side interest in musical theater provided the venue, in works such as the 1968 Colloquy of Mobiles, to test the way various information systems and human beings could interact in conversations and adapt to one another. The sections on art movements and artists contain a welcome internationalist cast, including the Brazilian Concretists and Neo-Concretists, the French Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visual (GRAV), and Polish artist and architect Piotr Kowalski. The usual suspects are there as well, including Robert Rauschenberg, whose collaboration with artists and engineers in the Experiments with Art and Technology (EAT) organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s opened the door to emergent practices of intermedia of various sorts, and Yoko Ono, whose 1964 Cut Piece—in which the artist sat motionless while members of the audience cut away pieces of her clothing—became a feminist symbol of gender-encoded passivity and vulnerability and its potential for violation, made manifest a decade later by Marina Abramovic in a performance that took place in a Naples gallery where a mostly male audience, using various implements, subjected her to intimate groping and physical injuries that drew blood on her denuded body.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964 (Excerpt of a1965 recreation).

A key concept running through the book is "dispositif," a French word that the editors note has no easy English translation. It is often rendered as "apparatus" or "device," giving it a somewhat mechanical connotation, leaving open the possibility for missing the more active, constructive notions of its alternate definitions as a plan of action, a legislative pronouncement, or a legal provision in a contract. The term entered the contemporary critical lexicon via Michel Foucault, who began ruminating on it later in his career, before his untimely death from AIDS at age 50 in 1984. Foucault was interested in three things that thinking through the concept of the dispositif might reveal: to identify systems of various elements such as bodies of knowledge, social, cultural, and political institutions, physical structures, scientific theorems, philosophical and moral precepts, etc., and their interrelationships; the specific connections within and disjunctures between various elements that might constitute ways of understanding, both explicitly and implicitly, or what in Foucauldian terms would be understood as regimes of truth; and the power, both positive and negative (which for Foucault is always the ultimate question), that these operative nexuses might have at key historical moments.

Leaving it untranslated, the editors propose a usage of dispositif, as it relates to contemporary art, as "arrangements...that organize...operating capacities or...the way the conditions of a real or potential process are arranged." Works of art surveyed in this book—those which the various contributors understand as practicable—manifest, engage, and sometimes contest dispositifs in that they establish conditions, the effects of which are not always predetermined, that create situations that are not only aesthetic, but oftentimes social and political as well, and which typically work in collaboration with a public. Practicable art works are conditional; they are not only experimental but can be experimented with.

As the editors note in the introduction, practicable approaches to art start to appear in Western culture at roughly the same time as theories of participatory democracy. What is not noted (although Bishop does hint at it) is that both coincide with the ascendance of neoliberalism in which self-reliance becomes not an aspiration but a mandate. (That connection is the subject of another book, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization by Jasper Bernes, which I will be reviewing soon.) From that perspective, participation, and the practicable art that embraces it, may not constitute a model for a new form of revolutionary liberte, egalite, fraternite (liberty, equality, fraternity), but augurs a new dispositif, what can be termed, following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, a new spirit of capitalism, in which we are set loose to rely on one another not because we desire it but because there is no alternative.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

I received a copy of the catalog to the DIA exhibition "Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts" to review for PopMatters. (To read it, click here.) I am posting the text of the review below for archival purposes. The exhibition runs until April 23.

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As has often been noted, photography is the original and quintessential medium of modernist visual expression. The insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed removes any the trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting, and it provides an immediacy, and thus some would say an authenticity, to the captured image as a representation of reality. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a "representation" is always already at once removed from the "real.") Having been born in the early 1800s as a product of the Industrial Revolution, photography co-evolved with modernity, becoming increasingly technologically advanced and mobile, much like modern society itself.

The introduction of pervasive artificial illumination in modern cities in the West, along with advances in photosensitive emulsions and substrates, camera mechanics, and flash lighting, enabled the photographic documentation of nighttime urban scenes to emerge as a specific genre within the medium in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Detroit Institute of Arts co-chief curator Nancy Watson Barr draws on the museum's vast collection of photographs to survey nighttime photography as it has been practiced in Detroit in recent decades. The book, Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, is the fourth in a series of publications on different aspects of Detroit photography and like the others it accompanies an exhibition of the same title on now view at the museum until April 23.

Because Barr has original source material of pretty much the entire history of photography at her disposal, she does more than just present a collection of images of the nocturnal Motor City, she puts them into context of the broader practice of the genre as it was pioneered in the two major sites of nighttime urban photography, Paris and New York City. Both are represented by icons of photographic history—Brassai, Alfred Steiglitz, Andre Kertesz, Bernice Abbott, and Weegee to name a few—and accompanied by essays from University of Michigan Professor of English Sara Blair and Parisian-born Detroit-based poet and critic Chris Tysh.

Paris, as both Walter Benjamin and David Harvey would have it, was the capital of modernity in the nineteenth century. Chris Tysh, in her essay on nocturnal images of the City of Light, associates the practice of nighttime photography (literally "light writing") to the early illumination of Paris's boulevards with gaslights and the city's broader significance as the seat of Enlightenment, the philosophical fountainhead of modernity and ultimately the avant-garde. The photography of Paris at night, Tysh observes, is significant by virtue of "the very objects it chooses to render visible, but also
through the viewing subject who captures the act of seeing." The Paris of the night is the purview of the demimonde and the flaneur, the aristocratic idler and detached observer of modern life first sketched out in the mid-nineteenth century by doomed French poet Charles Baudelaire. Opening new ways of seeing beyond what is readily apparent, photography, particularly as revealed in nighttime images of Paris, illuminates, as it were, what Benjamin famously terms the "optical unconscious."

If Paris is the Athens of modernity, then New York City is its Rome. Sara Blair in her essay portrays nighttime photography in New York as a means of understanding the modern metropolis as "by turns exhilarating, threatening, and overwhelming." On the one hand was the highbrow meditations on the formal qualities of light undertaken by Alfred Stieglitz and his associates of the New York Camera Club and the Photo-Succession. On the other hand was the representation of the teeming masses undertaken by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who used newly available portable flashes and cameras to literally shed light on how other half lives. Representations of the city in all of its nakedness became the foundation for urban photographers like Weegee and Lisette Model, who scratched beneath the glossy surface of the city to uncover the grit of urban life as it was lived and often died at street level. (To return again to Benjamin, it was these images of modernity, stripped of their sacred aura through the process of mechanical reproduction and their broad distribution through modern media, that would enable the masses to apprehend themselves as a class in, of, and for itself, giving art the power to galvanize political consciousness, a promise that, alas, has gone unfilled, replaced by distraction under the society of the spectacle.)

The transition from the historical context to the experience in Detroit is provided by Robert Frank, who spent time photographing the city in 1955 for his groundbreaking 1958 book, The Americans. (More than 60 of his Detroit photographs, the majority of which never made into the book, were exhibited at the DIA in the 2010 exhibition "Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs 1955," the first of the aforementioned shows Barr has curated on photographic representations of the city.) One image shows what was at the time Detroit City Hall; dedicated on the Fourth of July 1871, it was demolished in 1961 and its rubble used to create a pier for recreational boaters in nearby Lake St. Clair. The other was actually taken 40 miles outside the city at a farmer's strawberry stand.

The photographers of nocturnal Detroit build upon the legacy of their forebears, in some cases quoting famous photographs in their representations of the city. Joe DeBoer's 2015 photo of Campus Martius in downtown Detroit is shot from a high angle, referring directly to Bernice Abbott's famous 1932 image of New York at night. Brassai's 1934 panorama of the Paris skyline shot from the top of Notre Dame cathedral, with a gargoyle in the foreground, is a direct antecedent to DeBoer's 2014 image of the central business district titled Gothic Detroit.

Scott Hocking's images of the city, shot with low horizon lines and wide angles, register the desolation of the city's postindustrial landscape while avoiding the nostalgic romanticism that permeates the disreputable photographic genre known as "ruin porn," which has attracted so many, mostly outsiders, in recent years who have visited the city to sample the sublime pleasures of late-modern capitalism's remnants of creative destruction. Especially compelling is Hocking's 2012 Jefferson at Dearborn, an image of a lone storefront illuminated by a single street light and surrounded by emptiness, made more palpable with the recognition of Jefferson Avenue as one of the five main arteries that originate in the city center and radiate out into the suburbs and beyond.

Photographs of an older vintage document the city's music scene, which before and after Motown has been a mainstay of Detroit nightlife. Perhaps the most famous image is Leni Sinclair's 1968 shot of the MC5 performing at the Grande Ballroom, from the session that became the inside jacket of the band's legendary Kick Out the Jams album, originally issued in gatefold format. Other images by Sue Rinski capture equally iconic personages, such as former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and his wife Patti performing in 1980 at the New Miami Bar (now known as the Old Miami and a hangout for Vietnam War vets), Iggy Pop, again in 1980, at Bookie's Club 870 (the same year I saw Gang of Four there, an event I credit with my subsequent partial loss of hearing as I have aged), and Destroy All Monsters in 1978 at the Red Carpet Lounge, featuring an upskirt shot of chanteuse Niagara, after co-founder bandmates Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw decamped to LA to become world-famous art stars and guitarist Ron Asheton of the Stooges and drummer Michael Davis of the MC5 joined up after the breakups of their respective groups.

The photos of Russ Marshall document Detroit's jazz scene, many of whose local luminaries remain woefully under recognized. One of Marshall's images is of a 1981 performance at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the world's oldest continuously operating jazz club, featuring local pianist Claude Black backing up ex-Detroiter baritone sax man Pepper Adams.  (I saw that gig, though on another night, on a date with the woman who is now my wife.)

A more upbeat note is sounded by photographers Dave Jordano and Jenny Risher (both alumni of the College for Creative Studies where—full disclosure—I currently serve as Undergraduate Dean, as are Scott Hocking and Robert Kangas, also in the show, as well as Barr herself for that matter). After some three decades as a highly successful commercial photographer based in Chicago, Jordano returned to his undergraduate thesis project of photodocumentation, a number of examples of which have been published in the award-winning book, Detroit Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books, 2015). Neighborhood Fireworks on the Fourth of July, Goldengate Street, Detroit from 2014 shows a group of friends on a somewhat dilapidated front porch watching the streaming rockets of a fireworks barrage in full force in the foreground. Risher, who relocated back to the city after many years in New York as a fashion and advertising photographer, is represented by a series of portraits of Detroit hip-hop artists, including Awesome Dre and the Hardcore Committee, Guilty Simpson, Hex Murda, and J Dilla collaborator Phat Kat. In the work of both Jordano and Risher, the gritty determination of the denizens of the D to abide against all odds shines through.

Detroit After Dark adds another chapter to the nuanced portrait of the city Nancy Barr has been constructing via the photographic record. She has done the city and the genre of night photography a serious solid.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism by Paul Youngquist

One of my favorite moments of personal cognitive dissonance goes back to my time at Michigan State in the mid-1970s when at brunch at IHOP one Sunday morning I looked over to see John Gilmore, June Tyson, and Marshall Allen seated a couple of tables over from me. They were dressed in what might be termed astronaut duty fatigues as they worked on breakfast. Gilmore was the trio's fashion plate in a skull cap resembling a model of subatomic particles circling the nucleus of his cranium. The night before, this troupe, along with the other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, paraded around The Stables bar in full intergalactic regalia, transporting the audience into deep space, with Ra himself embracing everybody individually, exhorting them with: "Anyone can give up their life, a bird or tree; give up your death for me." I was an art student then, making paintings that referenced celestial phenomena, a white wannabe Afrofuturist, avant la lettre.

I don't know if he was inspired by a similar experience, but University of Colorado-Boulder English Professor Paul Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra's creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America's postwar social imaginary. Simply put, Sun Ra's nearly eight-decade sojourn on planet Earth was a model of self-determination and emancipation through the sheer transformative power of relentless creativity.

Sun Ra's outlandish public persona and stage performances, and seemingly esoteric output in music, poetry, and film, might suggest the profile of a serious eccentric. Instead, Youngquist shows Ra as a highly focused autodidact from his earliest days in the Deep South to his final years in Philadelphia before having to return to his familial home in Birmingham, Alabama, after suffering from the prolonged complications of a stroke. His lifestyle and his multifaceted art were a deeply considered response to the repressiveness of a segregated America.

The narrative of A Polar Solar World is basically chronological, but it is organized around key concepts that explain the sources of Ra's aesthetic philosophy and demonstrate the range of his influence. Youngquist wisely doesn't try to replay or substantially revise the story told by John F. Szwed in his definitive biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Rather, he leverages those details to serve as the foundation for higher flights of critical analysis and cultural observation. What he does do is expand upon and significantly deepen the basic thesis of Graham Lock's book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton. 

Youngquist provides specifics to flesh out Lock's take that Sun Ra represents the opposing pole from Ellington within the dialectic of the Emancipation Narrative in African American cultural history, between separatism on the one hand and assimilationism on the other. The latter, which is the earlier current, dates back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement and takes up the millenarianism of Christianity to claim African Americans' rightful place among God's children. The former charts a path for black liberation that is separate but equal, as it were. Ideologically, it marks the difference between, among others, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Lock, Youngquist understands Ra's interest in Egyptology—a re-visioning of a glorious Nubian past—in separatist's terms, harkening back to a utopian ideal prior to the birth of Christianity, which even in its emancipatory aspect is still the religion of the white Master. (Szwed observes that Ra, born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, came to believe in later years that he may have been distantly related to another Poole, first name Elijah, who changed his surname to Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam.) Youngquist adds to both Lock and Szwed in his discussion of Ra's involvement in the early 1950s with the secret society of black activists on Chicago's South Side named after Thmei, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice.

In addition to Egyptology, the black intellectuals of Thmei investigated a range of esoterica, from ancient numerology to theosophy to occult religion in search of hidden wisdom that would counter the abject condition of African Americans under the dominance of white society. The members of Thmei Research published broadsides and leaflets to spread their ideas of black self-determination and took their place alongside other black activists in the public square of Washington Park on the South Side in order to foment change, if not materially in the present then at least in mindset for the future. This chapter, as with the rest of the book, draws heavily on the Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra now housed in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago. This vast trove of primary source documents and ephemera once owned by Ra's longtime business partner, who died in 1999, only became available to researchers several years after both Szwed and Lock published their books.

Youngquist, of course, spends considerable time dissecting the music of Sun Ra and its inspiration not only in black separatism but postwar American popular culture more broadly. The 1950s when Ra first began recording with the Intergalactic Arkestra was the time of the Space Race and its vision, on the positive side, of an American manifest destiny of a new cosmic variety. It was the time of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and its suburban expression of cosmopolitanism on Earth termed "exotica," named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title. These passages of the book are not only insightful on Ra's aesthetic but constitute an astute mapping of America's social imaginary during the period.

There is also Ra's influence on several generations of musicians in jazz, obviously, but rock, R&B, hip-hop, and electronica as well. That progeny ranges from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock to the MC5, NRBQ, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Clinton to the DJs of Detroit Techno and Chicago House and even to Lady Gaga. Ra was an early adopter of the electric piano, the Moog Synthesizer, and other electronic keyboards. He was also a pioneer of incorporating non-Western musical instruments and compositional forms, particularly of Africa, into American music.

An area where Youngquist makes an important contribution is in bringing Ra's writing, and in particular his poetry, to occupy a more prominent place in his body of work. Published mostly in obscure DIY formats and appearing here and there on record jackets, Ra's writing articulates his beliefs as a conscientious objector to the world as it is and sets out a vision for a world as it might be, freed from exploitation in all its forms. It is the storyline, essentially, for which the music is the soundtrack, brought to life first and foremost in performance. The significance of Ra's poetry was recognized initially by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who published it in important Black Arts Movement anthologies such as Black Umbra (1967-1968), Black Fire (1968), and The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). A comparative literature scholar, Youngquist is at his best drawing connections between one of his areas of expertise, Romanticism, and close readings of Ra's literary production in order to tease out the aspirational aspects of Ra's Afrofuturism (which he invented in music, at least, decades before Mark Dery coined the term in 1993) and its tropes as the fount of his 60-year output in various media.

The are a couple of misses worth noting. One is more curious than anything else. Youngquist does an excellent job of contemporaneously situating Ra's early forays into outer space music with the spate of science fiction films that began to appear in the postwar era. But, he fails to draw a similar connection with the obvious influence of the sights and sounds of Hollywood epic spectacles set in whole or in part in Egypt, such as The Egyptian (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1963), whose depictions of Pharaohs also influenced the stage persona of another musician who has acknowledged inspiration in part from Sun Ra, namely, Iggy Pop.

The other is quite surprising in this otherwise exhaustively researched book: jazz musician Ravi Coltrane is Alice Coltrane's son not her grandson. That makes him the son of tenor saxophone colossus John Coltrane, as well, a fact that seems pretty important to get wrong or not think to verify.

Another slightly sour note is struck by Yougquist's reference to Ra as a "confirmed bachelor," an anachronistic euphemism for homosexual, in discussing the hiring of the Arkestra's first female member, vocalist June Tyson, who joined the band in 1968 and performed with the ensemble until her death from cancer in 1992 at age 56. There are a number of writers and musicians who afffirm Ra's apparent gay sexual orientation, even if he wasn't quite "out" about it, as a reason for his diffidence at assigning women permanent spots in the Arkestra's line up over the years. There doesn't seem to be a need to be obscure about it.

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to travel the spaceways with nonegenarian Marshall Allen at the helm. With a Pure Solar World, Paul Youngquist provides additional fuel to help boost the spaceship along in its exploration of the sonic cosmos, an all-important mission with America in retrograde under Donald Trump.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

The decline of American manufacturing and what to do about it has been a key topic in the current election cycle. The demise of the nation's industrial plant, and its implications for manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Akron, and Pittsburgh, has often been seen as inevitable, a result of blind market forces under globalization. While the broad economic forces at work were and continue to be undeniably daunting, how local municipalities responded to the turbulence was not a foregone conclusion. Wayne State University historian Tracy Neumann tells a more nuanced story about the decisions made by governments, businesses, and communities in Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America.

Accounts of the postindustrial turn generally start with the late 1960s/early 1970s. (See, for example, The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation by Michel Aglietta, and The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi, also Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.) In the case of Detroit, historian Thomas Sugrue has shown that the process actually began sooner, right after the Second World War with the movement of automobile manufacturing out of the central city into the suburbs, the southern United States, then Mexico, and ultimately overseas. Neumann tells a similar story about Pittsburgh and its core economic driver, the steel industry, whose transformation began in the 1950s and was in a sense a harbinger of postindustrialism for the rest of what came to be known as the Rust Belt. Neumann traces that history back into the 1950s and then surveys the period from the 1970s to 1990s, when the most active and apparent transformations took place. She sets her analysis alongside another case study from north of the border in the Canadian milltown of Hamilton, Ontario.

Both cities had to deal with the rapid decline of their core industries, along with the impact of that decline on the urban environment as a whole, including population loss, a diminishing tax base, and an increasingly frayed social fabric. Decision makers in government and business embraced the vision of a postindustrial economic environment starting as early as the 1950s, decades before the term was popularized by Daniel Bell, and actively sought to move their metropolises to a more service- and consumer-oriented model. The changes they implemented altered the urban landscape physically, economically, socially, and politically.

These changes were facilitated by financial incentives for business development and a focus on corporate command center, culture, and entertainment functions, effectively sidelining the needs of the working class and others in the lower economic strata that had been the cities' historic residents and who had shared in their economic, social, and political benefits, however meagerly for some. The broader trend was to reinforce all aspects of inequality and accelerate the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and Canada. While new job opportunities were created in the rise of the postindustrial economy in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, a great many other workers and local citizens were relegated to navigating on their own the risks of the gig economy and other realities of the life of the precariat.

Although many of the practices and outcomes in Pittsburgh and Hamilton were the same, there were differences. Importantly, city officials in Pittsburgh were much more successful in developing partnerships with corporate leaders to promote urban revitalization than those in Hamilton, where business was more resistant. (In truth, it was the business sector that was actually the more proactive force in Pittsburgh whereas Hamilton's corporate sector relied more on local government to take the lead.) Pittsburgh also enjoyed more financial support from state and federal government than Hamilton received from the Province of Ontario or the national capital in Ottawa.

Both cities had their share of protests over the impending transformation of their localities, primarily from union members and community groups. Those in Pittsburgh were better organized, more effective, and sustained than those in Hamilton. However, neither cohort could stop the remaking of their respective urban landscapes in the end.

Remaking the Rust Belt is assiduously researched, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports, as well as the archives and papers of individuals and organizations in the US and Canada directly involved with setting the agendas and making decisions that led to the transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton from centers of industrial production to centers for service and consumer recreation. Neumann originally wanted to be a journalist, and her reporting is a model for what is too often missing these days in the mainstream media. Where Sugrue's 1996 study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, lays out factors—racial discrimination in jobs and housing, along with capital flight—that hastened the precipitous fall of another Rust Belt icon, Neumann shows how the powers that were back in the day responded to remake two former industrial cities into what we know today.

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There is an excellent interview with Tracy Neumann conducted by the Toynbee Prize Foundation Global History Forum that is worth checking out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Art of Detroit in the Abstract

Detroit artist Rick Vian was asked to curate a show at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Detroit Abstraction." The show is on view until December 8.

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Jim Chatelain, And the Cries Behind the Door, 2015. (Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Janice Charach Gallery.)
In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies two legacies that have come down from the Enlightenment: scientific positivism and expressive individualism. The first, Taylor notes, deals with the universal—objectivity, rationality, and what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The second deals with the particular—subjectivity, intuition, and generally embedded in a specific time and place.

In Western art, the division can be traced back to the Renaissance, to Leonardo di Vinci on the one hand, who thought of art as a branch of science, and Michelangelo Buonarroti on the other, who thought of art first and foremost as a means of artistic expression. Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in his 1915 The Principles of Art History traces the fault line in the distinction between linear and painterly, what he terms the “absolute” clarity of pictorial representation in the Renaissance and the “relative” clarity of the Baroque.

Tracing the lineage further in both the representational and abstract in Western art, one can continue to parse out the distinction, between, to name just a few examples, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, De Stijl and Surrealism.

Since the days of the Cass Corridor, Detroit art has traditionally been placed on the side of expressive individualism, arguably a response to the failure of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, and the mass-industrial technocracy that oversaw it, to continue delivering the goods to the city and its residents. (As Taylor notes, the emergence of Romanticism in the mid-eighteenth century, and its championing of expressive individualism, is the obverse dialectic to the positivism of radical Enlightenment and its embodiment in the First Industrial Revolution.) That spirit is certainly there in the work of certain artists of the Cass Corridor generation such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Bradley Jones, Brenda Goodman, and Nancy Mitchnick. And indeed, the term “urban expressionism” was evoked at the time in the major statement of that period, the Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977.” But also at work at the same time were artists, such as Georg Ettl, Aris Koutrolis, Shelden Iden, David Barr, and Stanley Dolega, who could just as easily be placed on the other side of the line.

This exhibition of 41 artists demonstrates the diversity of approaches to abstract art in Detroit, from some of the earlier artists of the Cass Corridor generation to several emerging in the present day.
Curtis Rhodes, Copan/Yaddo Eccentric Flint, n.d. (Charcoal, oil bar, watercolor, colored chalk.)
True to form, the painters are generally, in a word, painterly, from Cass Corridor-generation artists Brenda Goodman, Jim Chatelain, and Allie McGhee to inheritors of that tradition, Gilda Snowden, Anita Bates, Curtis Rhodes, Nancy Thayer, et. al.
Lois Teicher, Endless, 2016. (Aluminum.)
The sculptors go against the traditional expressionist grain—Ray Katz, John Piet, Douglas Semivan, and Lois Teicher, for example—embracing the Constructivist impulse, a function of the industrial materials and processes with which they work. (Though the same is not true for Cass Corridor original Robert Sestok, who takes industrial castoffs and fashions them into a range of expressive forms.) However, even in this instance it can be argued that the use of an industrial aesthetic is not to accept its conditions completely, but to subvert them by directing their techniques to non-utilitarian ends.

The sculpture of Todd Erickson, whose bronze castings of bent and twisted tree branches are tours-de-force of foundry art, might seem out of place in this exhibition. Yet they make the point that all art is essentially abstraction, even in its most representational forms, as a signifier of a thing and not the thing itself. (An artwork is, of course, at the same its own reality as a thing in and of itself.)
Todd Erickson, Hold Free River, 2013. (Cast bronze.)
Besides painting and sculpture, “Detroit Abstraction” presents work by artists working in other media, such as ceramics, fiber, and assemblage, further demonstrating the diversity of work being created in the abstract vein in Detroit.

In all, this survey of recent work is evidence that the practice of abstract art in Detroit continues to be alive and well.

The Art of Rick Vian in Retrospect

Detroit artist Rick Vian was invited to mount a retrospective show of his work at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Rick Vian: Keeping a Wet Edge." The show is on view until December 8.

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Among the famous quotes of influential artist and teacher Hans Hofmann is: “I bring the landscape home with me.” Nature is the origin of art, Hofmann maintains, as articulated in the connection between the world-as-experienced and its expression in even the most abstract forms of line, shape, and color. The phenomenology of perception—the embodied process of seeing, its translation from retina through the brain to the hand, and from there onto canvas—is the foundation of Rick Vian’s evolution as artist.

Perception, as the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty notes, is an interactive process. As much as the mind is a receptor of visual phenomena, it is at the same time the organizer of it. Through his observations over the four-plus decades of his career as an artist, Vian has discerned patterns—in particular as he notes in his personal statement—of “networks that underlie and organize perception, and are inherent in the structure of the world we perceive.”

Rick Vian, The Vastness, 1977. Oil on canvas (All images courtesy of the artist.)
This is evident from the very beginning in works of the 1970s, such as those of the “Ellipses” and “Grid Projections” series and more obviously in the “Grid Landscapes.” In each case, the grid, rooted as it were in Vian’s observation of the growth and intertwining of tree limbs, provides an underlying structure from which patterns, shapes, and colors emerge, keyed to source inspiration in water, sky, and fauna.

How structures derived from nature find their way into the built environment can be seen in the series of abstract works completed in 1990s, many inspired by Vian’s experience as a commercial painter in industrial facilities. Spectator Sox (1999) uses colors derived from industrial code conventions for signifying things such as danger, safety hazards, and boundary demarcations, conventions that in many cases have been derived from the study of human psychology.

Spectactor Sox, 1999.
Vian has noted that he has embraced abstraction to allow for freedom of expression but that it needs to be grounded in visual reality. As part of maintaining that connection over the past twenty years, Vian has executed a number of highly representational paintings of the natural environs of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These paintings are highly finished and accomplished works of art in and of themselves that also serve as phenomenological investigations into nature that inform the more abstract works especially of the last decade. (It should also be noted that however “realistic” the representational paintings seem to be, they are in fact constructions with the sky observed on one day often appearing in a painting of a tree observed on another.)
Gigantess, 2004.
In these mature paintings of the 2000s, Vian most fully realizes Hofmann’s aesthetic notion of nature embodied in the artist’s very being. “The Gitche Gumee” series inspired by the sublime force of Lake Superior and landscape-derived paintings such as the magisterial Poplar Trees in Fall (2013) and Sky in the Water II (2015) are tours-de-force of the painter’s art.

Through a lifetime of observation, reflection, and response, Rick Vian has given us new ways of seeing and understanding the world. 

Poplar Trees in Fall, 2013.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

Jeff Goldfarb, editor of The New School for Social Research's online journal  Public Seminar, asked me to do a post on Bob Dylan receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I could think of better people around The New School to do this, for example, computer whiz/philosopher Michael Quirk or my MA thesis advisor Jim Miller, who was an original contributor to Rolling Stone magazine and the former pop critic for Newsweek. But I did have a meeting get cancelled on Thursday afternoon, so I was able to bat something out. Below is the text of the post with a couple of edits now that the deadline has passed:
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I can’t say that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. I may have been born just a little too late to have been caught up in the folk craze, though I do remember singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” along with “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer” during chorus in elementary school. I get his significance as a cultural producer and have my share of Dylan, of course. Some of it is on vinyl, some on CD, covering all periods from the early “protest” stuff to the mid- and late-1960s electric period and onto more recent back-to-the-roots material with Love and Theft being a particular favorite. (There are also those I should have but don't, like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.) I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, to get the news of Robert Allen Zimmerman receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

I personally have been rooting for Thomas Pynchon to get the nod, though somehow I don’t think he would be begrudge The Bard, as he’s often been called, for acing him out. For one thing there’s the fact that Pynchon was friends with Richard Farina who hung with Dylan in the early days, married the sister of his one-time squeeze Joan Baez, and was one of the four figures profiled in David Hajdu's bestseller Positively 4th Street. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Farina who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, the same year Dylan survived his. (Read Pynchon's appreciation of Farina here.) For another there is the fact that Pynchon no doubt would acknowledge Dylan's significance, not only to the 1960s counterculture whose failed utopia he has lamented in novels from Gravity's Rainbow on down, but to the world at large.

Dylan legitimized being hip, more so than the Beats who came before him or the Beatles who came after. By the time I entered undergraduate school in the 1970s, English professors talked in terms of Dylan's "poetry" whereas other pop icons had to settle for mere "lyrics." Indeed, Dylan's best songs dig deeply into America's social imaginary (the love) and refashion it for contemporary mass-market consumption on a global scale (the theft).

As with any major prize, there has been no dearth of controversy since the announcement broke. There's the matter of personal taste (again for me Pynchon; for others Phillip Roth, and so on.). But for readers of Public Seminar, more significant conversations are bound up with notions of culture, especially in terms of "Culture" with a capital "C." And the reactions in that regard were immediate, pro and con, typically along the lines of cultural hierarchies that continue to be resilient even in these days of supposed cultural omnivorism.

I'm on the side of the omnivores, understanding culture in the most pluralistic sense. Clifford Geertz once defined culture as "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Bob Dylan is a storyteller par excellence. And that's at the root of literature from the epics of the ancient rhapsodes (from the Greek meaning literally "to sew songs together") to their postmodern inheritor Dimitri Lyacos.

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Update October 17, 2016: Public Seminar did run a piece by Michael Quirk. It's a good one on the the flap over Dylan's Nobel as a form of "category anxiety." There's another one by Zachary Sunderman, also good.

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Update June 9, 2017: Dylan recorded his Nobel Lecture and sent it to the Nobel Foundation, which published it on the internet. In the months since the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I have thought a lot about Dylan, listening to the music and watching the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. Any ambivalence in my original post for Public Seminar has been eliminated. Watch it below.