View of “Allison Smith: Set Dressing,” 2014–15. Photo: Michael Tropea.
In “Set Dressing,” Allison Smith’s first solo exhibition in Chicago, the Oakland-based artist shows photographs taken at living-history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, where quotidian stories of American settlement and handicraft are daily reenacted and displayed. Smith’s art subtly revises America’s nationalist creation myths through interventionist tactics such as appropriation and humor. “Set Dressing” is on view until January 31, 2015, at the Arts Club of Chicago.
I WAS RAISED in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and was always aware of a strong patriotic aesthetic in my surroundings. My father worked for the CIA, which was terrifying for me as a child. I didn’t understand what his life was like or who he even was. As a family, we attended Civil War reenactments and country fairs where people performed history. Our home decor was 1970s-style colonial revival. Moreover, my ancestors had had cotton plantations—I know the names of some of the slaves they owned. I see my upbringing as having been a historical reenactment in the everyday. All of this, combined with my own queerness and coming out at an early age, produced a lot of anxiety and shame—inner battles, if you will. Through my work, I spy on the past; I’m both curious and critical. At the same time, I accept that I am a product of it.
I think I have been attracted to working with reenactors because there is a strong sense that they would have a radically different perspective from my own, or that I wouldn’t be welcome in their world. Still, there are moments of redemption and reconciliation when I realize what a wide spectrum of people engage in that culture, whether for personal or political reasons. I have worked with war reenactors as well as people who practice early American trades. Often I find that even as they don’t consider themselves artists, they have a similarly deep investment in what they’re doing. Interesting questions always come from these interactions—for instance, questions of how categories and economies of art and craft are understood. There is a frame in the show (Mirror, 2014) that was made outside Boston at the Old Schwamb Mill, the oldest continuously operating mill site in the country. It’s been making circular and oval frames for 150 years. This one was hand-turned by a man named David Graf on an original nineteenth-century lathe. My ethical framework is to give as much credit as I can to the people I work with, and to sometimes downplay my authorship, even though I identify strongly as a maker. I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades and, decidedly, master of none, preferring to give light to the moments of conversation between things.
Some of the photographs in the show were taken at Colonial Williamsburg, which has a main street with blacksmiths and basket weavers, tailors, potters, and so on. Hand Dyed Wool, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, 2014, builds on a photograph I took in a weaving studio where I found a rainbow spectrum of wool hanging to dry. The image is mirrored, printed on linen, and sewn into a protest banner, so what appears is a yonic image in the center. It’s a familiar feminist gesture, but I think it also suggests the erotic possibilities and the fetishism of reenactment culture in general. Another piece, Pockets, Lowell, Massachusetts, 2014, suggests the lesbionic potential of pockets that colonial-era women wore under their dresses, before their clothing had those utilitarian features built in.
View of “Sari Carel: Semaphore Island,” 2014. Haifa Museum of Art, Israel. Photo: Lena Gomon.
Sari Carel is a New York–based artist whose work utilizes a variety of media to explore a connection between extinct species and early audiovisual technologies. Her latest solo exhibition–featuring the multimedia installation Semaphore Island, which she discusses below–will be on view at the Haifa Museum of Art in Israel from November 8, 2014 through March 7, 2015.
SEMAPHORE ISLAND is a mixed-media installation based on sound recordings of wild birds—such as the Guam flycatcher from Guam and the Kaua’i ‘O’o from Hawaii—that are extinct or nearly extinct. The series was recorded through a phonautograph, a very early and little-known machine that turns sound into image by generating drawn vibrations. I found the only one in the world that works and used it to create a series of prints and drawings based on the recordings. Prints made on glass will be exhibited on top of other sculptures of shelves. To me, they look like modern ruins. There’s also a sound track to this exhibition that I made with composer Ryan Brown, which compiles the birdcalls with found sounds and other audio. Driving this work is my interest in modernist vocabulary as it resonates with environmental collapse and my desire to discover how sound and image could talk to each other.
The phonautograph captured my imagination since it relates to two disparate interests I have: documenting something extinct in the form of sound and the relationship between sound and image. I was enamored with the phonautograph because its demise is intrinsically connected to the fact that it is somewhere between sound and image. They’re so similar, I like to think of them as placed on a loose continuum. Though this machine was pushed to the margins of history very quickly and became obsolete, it represents a paradigm shift in thinking about sound reproduction, which is essentially very modern. Instead of replicating the way we make sound—windpipe, mouth, lungs—people now tried to replicate the technique of hearing. You yell through this machine, the sound goes through an eardrum-like diaphragm, and the device's bristles vibrate against soot-covered paper, etching lines that are then fixed with alcohol. In a way, the phonautograph releases the sound of a drawing onto a piece of paper. The inventor of this technology, Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville, thought it was a great method for teaching the deaf to speak. He was spot-on in terms of the principle of transduction and how the ear works, but he couldn’t predict what would be really interesting about sound reproduction, which is the ability to play it back.
I am also interested in field recordings and sound biomes, how they reflect environmental health. But I am not interested in making political art about it. I don’t need to tell anyone climate change is terrible—we all know it. What I want to do is make this reality more present to a viewer, without losing an aesthetic experience.
Iñaki Bonillas, Archivo J.R. Plaza, 2014, 35-mm slide, 1 x 1 1/2".
Mexican artist Iñaki Bonillas explores photography’s conceptual underpinnings. He speaks here about Words and Photos, a Web-based project commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation that digitizes the artist’s family photo archive. Bonillas’s latest exhibition, “La Idea Del Norte” (The Idea of North), is on view at ProjecteSD in Barcelona until November 19, 2014.
IN 2003, I inherited a photographic archive made up of 3,800 images that belonged to my maternal grandfather, J. R. Plaza. My grandfather was not a professional photographer, but he took photography quite seriously because he was fascinated by American cinema. When he married my grandmother, they both decided to share their respective family albums, at which point my grandfather started to paste the photographs onto black pages inside black leather notebooks, sometimes labeling the backs of them with his feelings about that photo. In the photos themselves, one sees my grandfather's family moving from Spain to Cuba and then Mexico and my grandmother’s family moving from Spain to France and then Mexico. There are family portraits and vacations, self-portraits, candid moments, weddings, honeymoons, newborns—the usual clichés. I also appear in a few. Until the day he died, my grandfather did not stop amassing these photos and arranging them into these notebooks. From printed images to slides, from black-and-white to color, one can basically track the entire evolution of photography in the archive, and this has been my main artistic concern for the last ten years.
This archive has become a sort of double of the world. When I was commissioned by Dia to create a Web project to digitize this archive, I found it enticing since the Internet is already a duplicate of the world. Because the frame was already a game of mirrors, I thought it could be profound to make another double by using words.
In a way, one cannot avoid creating some kind of narrative with this photographic material. Initially, I had invited poets, writers, and the Dia staff to collaborate on the indexing of the project—tagging words that came to mind when one of them saw an image. In one photograph, for example, a woman is crying; the impulse might have been to tag a word that describes her abandonment, but that’s maybe incorrect. That person may have been crying not out of sadness but out of joy. A plurality of meanings exist and could be derived from one’s own personal archive of words, memory, or unique family history that is different from mine.
In others, a word as obvious as narcissism for a self-portrait may not have been initially tagged. My grandfather appears as a vain man in many of these photos; he thought of himself as a Hollywood actor and took on the persona of John Wayne as a cowboy with a gun in many. But no one on the project indexed “narcissism” for these photos. That word does exist on the website, though, because at least one user searched for it. All absent but sought-for tags are automatically added to a list at the bottom of the screen. More and more, I see these words and wonder why the person chose them. What are they seeing that I’m not? Sometimes the thing that you have in front of your eyes is impossible for you to see. That’s the most extraordinary result of this project: our limitations. As Borges used to say, one can never finish describing an image for there is a whole ocean of words.
The German painter Magnus Plessen, known for historically trenchant figurative paintings with rigid, lateral brushwork, has spent more than a decade thinking about a book of photographs—the pacifist Ernst Friedrich’s War Against War (1924), which depicts mutilated survivors of World War I with biting frankness rather than patriotic valor. The book serves as the starting point for Plessen’s exhibition “1914,” curated by Katy Siegel, which is on view at the Rose Art Museum until December 21, 2014. It evokes the centenary of the Great War not only through the artist’s coarsened and disjunctive paintings but also through early facial prosthetics, plaster life masks of wounded soldiers, and photographs of casualties lent from the Smithsonian in Washington and the Imperial War Museum in London.
WAR AGAINST WAR was the first published work to show the devastating destruction of automatic weapons on the human body. The loss of one’s face was the most severe of all battlefield injuries, as it meant a loss of identity. The photos were so horrible that I could hardly look at them. I never thought that I could add anything to this material, as it speaks for itself. But I could also never forget the portraits of soldiers looking at you, their faces blown apart by grenades.
My work was very analytical for a long time, focusing on the material and the imaginary properties of images. By setting up rules that were unpractical in the context of a painting, I tried to materialize inner images in a nonillusionistic way. Once I had set these rules I followed them. For instance: only allowing myself to make straight brush marks, or trying to paint the underside of the brushstroke, or substituting my own brushstroke through masking tape to standardize the width of my brush mark. I took measurements with masking tape, like a tailor, from my wife Sarah's body when she was pregnant with our first son Hugo; then I applied these measurements onto the canvas. This led to awkward figures, as three-dimensional volume was placed directly on the pictorial plane without the mediation of perspective.
I read an interesting article on quantum theory recently. It pointed out that quantum theory makes it necessary to say goodbye to thinking that there is some external reality which human science can explore, like a territory. The article went on to quote from an obituary of Niels Bohr: “It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” This is also true for history. In his fantastic book The Sleepwalkers (2012), Christopher Clark succeeds in describing the events that led to World War I from multiple viewpoints, which makes you understand how complex the political systems of the time were, and how challenging it was for the protagonists to act and react in this system of different nations in a global economy. (Clark points out that it took until the 1980s to bring international relations back to the level of 1914.) They certainly didn’t think that their decisions would lead inevitably to war. This breaking with inevitableness which so many historians have ascribed to the outbreak of World War I feels so much closer to an understanding of the time before 1914.
This made me think of the death of painting, and my own rigidity as a painter. I sometimes think that I fought to occupy a niche in art history—a corner that had been overlooked by others. There are, however, only a very few things that a painter can find when aiming for something undiscovered or completely new. What I find restraining about this concept is that you have to locate this undiscoveredness in a space, which is by definition limited. I feel it is necessary to embrace life as a contradictory complexity, rather than to exclude multiple viewpoints for the sake of a single art-historical perspective.
View of “R. H. Quaytman: O Tópico, Chapter 27,” 2014.
R. H. Quaytman’s chapter-based works draw upon geometry and grammar to examine how paintings can function structurally. O Tópico, Chapter 27, her latest installation, is on view at Gladstone Gallery in New York until December 20, 2014, before it permanently moves to a pavilion—which, like the architecture in the show, is designed by Solveig Fernlund—at the contemporary art museum and botanical garden Inhotim in Minas Gerais, Brazil.
AS THE CHAPTERS progress and the paintings accumulate, I am compelled to locate the direction they might lead. What are they adding up to—or, to put it bluntly, what is the “book” about? Until now, the content of the chapters has been historically and contextually based in Europe and the US. In accepting Inhotim’s invitation in 2012 to produce a permanent installation, I had to reexamine my own authority in relation to the site and the audience. Even though I believe that my work would not be possible without the advances and insights of peripheral modernisms that came out of Poland and Brazil (Kobro, Strzeminski, Clark, bo Bardi, Lispector, Oiticica, Artigas), I also felt acutely aware in Brazil of my role as an outsider. To address this site, as I have with previous chapters, seemed somehow illegitimate and false. In the position of foreigner/tourist/guest, how could I authorize the paintings with any hope of resonance there and also have them make sense with the work that preceded it?
I made two research trips to Brazil and just looked, listened, and read. I became overwhelmed by the vigor of Brazil’s nature and realized that maybe the only way to begin to think about this group of paintings would be through the idea of matter itself: matter as in earth, the thing itself, the subject. That’s how I settled on the title O Tópico, which means “matter” or “subject” in Portuguese. Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Triste Tropique was important to these paintings, and I felt my title echoed that.
I began by gessoing in black and yellow hues a full set of eight panels in the pattern of a Fibonacci spiral. The sizes of my panels are based on the golden section—they all use the ratio 1:1.618—and they nest. For Brazil, I decided to paint the pattern of the spiral generated from this ratio as the base for nearly all of the paintings. The pavilion is also based on this well-known shape that’s found everywhere in nature. It turned out that this “ground” had a spinning or spiraling effect that I could not have predicted. When hung on the walls of the pavilion, which have been designed with the same proportion, the paintings seem to spiral and point outward into the landscape of the botanical garden. Since one of my main concerns has always been to find a way out of the monocular pull of the single painting and into a hieroglyphic or lateral legibility and movement, this was a great discovery for me.
I also ended up trying two new media—encaustic and polyurethane—which in turn forced me to paint in ways that I have avoided most of my life, namely gestural abstraction. In fact, I made the first painting by pouring a puddle of polyurethane onto the floor and then nailing the dried form it created to one of the black and yellow gessoed square panels. It looked like a pile of shit, basically, but as I looked at it on the wall of my studio I began to see a frightening Janus head. This is how I found my subject—in the pouring, the painting, the making. But this is perhaps too complicated to get into in this short space. The point is that the making was the route that enabled me to begin to feel more authorized.
Musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips first collaborated with the Andy Warhol Museum in 2008 for 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests. Now, from November 6 to 8, 2014, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Wareham and Phillips continue this work and partnership with the Warhol Museum for the performance “Exposed: Songs for Unseen Warhol Films.” Alongside other celebrated musicians, they have created scores for fifteen as-yet unscreened Warhol films from the 1960s. Here, Warhol Museum director Eric Shiner and Wareham talk about the event.
THIS PERFORMANCE comprises fifteen short Warhol films that have recently been digitized by MPC/Technicolor and have not yet been publicly screened. They are fascinating in different ways—some are touching, at least one is erotic, another is erotic but also very funny. We were amazed to see a home movie of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on the Factory sofa, drinking beer and clowning around with Superstars Taylor Mead and Gerard Malanga.
A major impetus for developing the project around the Warhol Museum’s twentieth anniversary was the timing and synchronicity of both the recent access to these unseen films through the Warhol film digitization project and discussions that began about two years ago among Ben Harrison, Geralyn Huxley, Greg Pierce—curators at the Warhol Museum—Joe Melillo, executive producer at BAM, and Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, regarding a new performance/film commission and collaboration. As a follow-up to 13 Most Wanted, which has toured internationally the last five years, we knew there was an appetite for Warhol film in a performance mode and we knew there was much more to explore.
Many of Warhol’s silent films seem to be intentioned for multiple presentation contexts. Not only were they shown at his studio, the Factory, and as short subjects in avant-garde screenings, but also the Screen Tests, for example, were a primary visual component of Warhol’s multimedia happenings Andy Warhol Uptight, in 1966, and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, in 1967. These shows, featuring live performances by the Velvet Underground and Nico, provide a precedent and historic basis for this film/performance initiative at BAM. As early Warhol films, these unseen works differ from Warhol’s more conceptual and stylized series in that some of them are more aligned with experimental home movies or “actualities” that portray some of Warhol’s iconic friends. They have a more “human” and relatable quality than later work.
In addition to Dean, there will be four other main performers: Tom Verlaine of Television; Martin Rev, who pioneered synthesizer music with Suicide in the ’70s; Eleanor Friedberger, formerly of the Fiery Furnaces; and Bradford Cox, who makes strange and beautiful music as Atlas Sound and in Deerhunter. Each performer is scoring three films. We also have a backing band of Britta Phillips on bass, Jason Quever from Papercuts on guitar and keys, and Noah Hecht on drums. We love recording with vintage equipment, but we don’t always want to travel with it. Britta’s Fender Mustang bass might be the only instrument onstage that dates to 1965—and it has the original strings, too.
This is a film-scoring gig, but it has to be approached as a live show also. The main note you take from Warhol is to just pick up an instrument and make music; you might not be trained as a filmmaker, but you can make a film. And you may not be trained as a musician, but you can start a band. Warhol is an important figure in the history of rock ’n’ roll, primarily on account of his involvement with the Velvet Underground, and it’s hard to imagine rock history in the ’70s and beyond without that particular collaboration. You can make the case that Warhol is a father to the punk movement, too. He took commonplace “low” objects and turned them into art, and that’s at least part of what punk was about.