Sunday, June 28, 2009

Freak Show

Galerie Califia in Horazdovice, Czech Republic is an artist-run, non–commercial space, showing both international and regional art. From August 21st to October 31st, the gallery will be presenting Freak Show, an exhibit curated by Tony Ozuna. The title plays off of the theme as artists as freaks in the eyes of villagers.

The artists are from Czech, Holland and the United States: Josef Bolf, Veronika Bromova, Marie Hladikova, Doro Krol, (me) Drew Martin, Jolana Rucharova, Clint Takeda and Lenka Vitkova.

I designed the poster, which includes drawings for each artist but not specifically of anyone in particular. Half of the drawings were drawn when I lived in Usti nad Labem and Prague in the Czech Republic in the mid 1990's.

I will be showing a homeless self portrait sculpture. Following, are pictures and a writing about the project. The difference will be a change of clothes and instead of the crochet covering there will be a blanket I made, which is covered in my drawings. I want this piece to read more now as a collection of drawings than as a sculpture:

A Homeless Self Portrait

by Drew Martin

Several years ago I created the Museum of Peripheral Art (MoPA) to give direction to my artwork and to open projects to collaboration and community engagement. MoPA is not a museum building or even a gallery; It is a concept and, in its greatest realization, a network of public art projects, both subtle and serendipitous. The museum’s very first project which is still maintained today is a communal art wall on a busy street corner of my property. Neighbors and passersby arrange and add to its eclectic collection of objects.

MoPA’s most recent project is a self-portrait /homeless man sculpture, displayed on the streets of different towns and cities in America. It is about riches-to-rags reality and the anxious self-defenses (physical and emotional) against utter failure.

The sculpture is a study of the human form, simultaneously realistic and abstract. There are, for example, believable legs, which make the sculpture human-looking but it is also an amorphous mound of cloth. The Dying Gaul and reclining Buddha references are lost on the pathetic heap. Influences are found here but the homeless man sculpture is less realistic than Duane Hanson, less dramatic than Edward Kienholz, less rigid than George Segal and less graphic than Kiki Smith.

Viewing the homeless man sculpture plays on our levels of politesse: to witness but not stare. There is an initial shock but the stillness is serene and one sees past the taboo of homelessness. The sculpture suggests "Let sleeping dogs lie" (not so much to avoid provocation, but to allow temporary peace to endure: in this dream state the realities of the outside world don’t exist).

The sculpture can be viewed at on another level: commenting on this kind of street art...without a home: gallery or museum. The sculpture is more accurately a homeless sculpture. People who indifferently pass this object as either a desperate human or an art project share the same apathy. By being interested in the object (human or sculpture) one realizes that our interest in art is not as superficial as it is often suggested: that it is really an interest in humanity. Apathy, can also have a deeper meaning. When people walk by MoPA projects and no longer stare, it means that this art has become part of their environment and, in turn, they become part of the project. This is central to the homeless man sculpture. There is a statement in the work but there is as much a statement in the reaction to the work.

This sculpture is about the rock-bottom core of having nothing else to lose. This is true of viewing and understanding the work and of the creative process in general. We are all impoverished on many levels: perhaps it is in love, faith or even one’s sense of potential and we let that part of us lie on the ground like the homeless man.

Homeless people are simply considered living trash. The church gives us a charitable perspective but long gone is the ancient Greek perspective, which was relayed to us best by Homer: that the poor man may indeed be a god, perhaps even Zeus, fooling us and therefore we must always pay respect. This is very different than the church’s notion that God might be judging us on by our actions. The pragmatic mind does not entertain the Greek thoughts and so humanity and art, which go hand in hand, are lost together. In the jacket pocket of the sculpture is a copy of Homer’s Odyssey.

Before the work began I decided not to turn this project into performance art (by including a real body) in order to reinforce this link of humanity and an art object. Francis Bacon said that art is just a game to distract man and that the most challenging aspect for the artist was to deepen the game in order to return the onlooker to life more violently. The homeless man sculpture does this through realism. The first time I displayed the homeless man sculpture in front of my house, an old lady who was driving by called the police.

The sculpture is by default a self portrait. The proportions are from my body and the clothing and accessories are my own including a hat I made. Such an article goes beyond the notion of found objects because there is much personal labor invested in the components. The throw on the sculpture was crocheted my great grandmother. It is a beautiful antique quickly disintegrating. On the throw is random stitching, which were attempts by me as a young man, when this object was trusted to me for safe-keeping, to maintain it. The most interesting part of the sculpture for me are the shoes. The shoes are at least a decade old and were once very expensive dress shoes. On the feet of the statue they are sadly in disrepair. Their patina came from the miles I walked through New York City streets.

The fact that the homeless man is a sculpture and not a painting or photograph is important because, in this case, the sculpture assumes an element of time. If it were a painting or a photograph one could not check it’s vital signs or feel it’s material. Here there is a play on words because this kind of artwork, like many other MoPA projects are tactile and accessible for direct encounter. I call this kind of work "touchables" which is appropriate for an "untouchable."

This is degenerative art, especially when compared to the bronzes of ancient Greece and Roman marbles. Poor materials and a pathetic human representation may not be the best way to promote ourselves as advanced beings and the pedestrian takes offense to things that he or she does not find beautiful but it is this lack of perfection and humbleness that strikes a chord.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Deconstruction on the West Side Highway

by Drew Martin

When we look at great, massive sculptures by artists like Michelangelo, Serra and Kapoor, we not only feel the heaviness of their mass but also a weight of impossibility in ever executing such work by ourselves. The very idea is intimidating and the material resources, cost and physical labor involved make our heads spin.

We can deconstruct buildings and bridges in our minds and contemplate their architectural units but sculpture is typically holistic, seamless in thought and total in completion. Its singularity seduces us into thinking it is a one-man show.

It is hard for Americans, including me, to embrace the idea that big art requires teams of people, quarries, steelworks, factories and machines. We are more comfortable with lone, eccentric, misunderstood artists who produce unrefined work that sells for a lot of money because it gives us hope that we can be recognized and famous (or at least appreciated) without much effort for a few scribbles or a unique concept.

We somehow confuse amassing technical knowledge and reproducible skills as an intrusion of our creative flow but when we consider an artist, like the filmmaker Roman Polanski, his genius was only enhanced by and expressed with his thorough knowledge of lenses, lighting and music: a result of rigorous film schools in Poland. Most of our art schools teach concept over technique, which leaves us brainy and proud of our ideas but also a bit like the professional yet incompetent husband who cannot change the sink faucet washers for his family at home.

Ironically, the United States is stuck in a Main Street mythological world that, despite its urban and industrialized reality, celebrates a dumbed-down suburbia, especially through garage culture with affection for garage sale economics and garage band culture. Just as colonial Jamestown and Plymouth override thousands of years of Middle Eastern culture, Chinese empires and European kingdoms with simple, woodsy tales of pilgrims and pioneers, the suburban garage is, for us, the source of nascent industries. We love to trace a successful company like Apple back to its garage roots because we find it purer than anything that might have come initially out of a corporate think tank.

In the absence of ministries, guilds, creative competition for bids, robust industries and busy factories we have become a nation of potentially good ideas and junk artists. When someone in the art-world makes an effort to recreate a more evolved system, we find a Jeff Koons, whose intentions are distrusted. It should not be his job to have to explain to the public that this was how the artist workshops in the past operated, albeit with a greater sense of aesthetics.

When it is too difficult to tell the work of an MFA graduate apart from that of a primitive outside artist then I feel like we are aiming too low and expecting too little. A thought that personally haunts me concerning art, careers and even family relationships is the idea that no one ever achieves his or her potential. Rising to the highest expectation of oneself is really just a matter of finding the right environment to grow into and to overcome all the obstacles that keep us back: a parent's reprimand, a spouse's jealousy, a lack of money and worse of all our own resignation and fear of rejection. These are street-level problems but there is often a philosophical and atmospheric choke on people, which Alexis de Tocqueville captures so well as early as 1835 in his Democracy in America:

"the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities. Not that, in democracies, the arts are incapable, in case of need, of producing wonders. This may occasionally be the case, if customers appear who are ready to pay for time and trouble. In this rivalry of every kind of industry, in the midst of immense competition and these countless experiments, some excellent workmen are found, who reach the utmost limits of their craft. But they have rarely an opportunity of showing what they can do; they are scrupulously sparing of their powers; they remain in a state of accomplished mediocrity, which judges itself, and, though well able to shoot beyond the mark before it, aims only at what it hits. In aristocracies, on the contrary, workmen always do all they can; and when they stop, it is because they have reached the limit of their art."

Considering this topic I would like to redirect this writing to contemplate a series of ephemeral sculptures, which appear (and disappear) on the eastern banks of the Hudson River along the West Side Highway, below Manhattanville and above the piers and promenades. The materials are elemental: driftwood, twine and sometimes stones, and are local, found within only a few feet of the final pieces and are preferred over the array of trash littering the sites. Sometimes the driftwood and twine are crafted into recognizable forms, like a deer that once stood, looking out towards the mainland/New Jersey.

In most pieces, the driftwood and twine become abstractions, simply plays of suspension, but very different than an engineered Calder mobile. These works evoke "early man" captivated by his own curiosity. The selection of materials and placement along the river creates a series best seen by bicycle while riding along the bike path, between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. It is refreshing to see such a series: not created for a museum or gallery show or portfolio and one that speaks of time, space and movement. The ever changing
weather and lighting on the works drastically changes the sculptures' appearance. Wet with rain, the wood is dull and heavy like lead. On a dry, summer day the wood glows like bleached whale bones.

Though these works are entirely three dimensional and sculptural, the best angle to see them is looking north, with the George Washington Bridge a few miles upstream. With this engineering wonder in the distance the driftwood and twine become not only studies of suspension but the first suspensions. This is a series of sculptures that is sincere and elemental but there is also something bittersweet in the very limits of the work and I have to ask myself if my appreciation of them is really just a naivete, which inspired Jean Jacques Rousseau and infuriated Frederich Nietzsche.