Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Unique Unica Zürn at The Drawing Center

by Drew Martin

Unica Zürn's drawings look like once festive henna tattoos that were abandoned by the young flesh of maidens' hands and have spent the last thirty years living off the streets of New York, fighting over damp, blue bread scraps with seasoned sewer rats. Her drawings, in the subdued, grey-blue setting of The Drawing Center on an all but abandoned stretch of Wooster Street, bring to mind the recently publicized Cadillac Man, the former New York homeless veteran who has settled down and written a tell-all memoir.

Zürn's line creatures have definitely evolved to survive a harsh world. They are scaly and spiked with thorny skin and fiery plumage. They have an edgy sexual charge, which shows the intense, reckless passion and the disturbing, inescapable abuse of a delicate but complicated lover.

The multiple, flounder-fish eyes on her drawings squeamishly bring to mind the fate of Argus but these inheritors are a far cry from the proud peacock. It is hard to always tell the function of the eyes. Sometimes they seem like the defensive eye patterns that moths and butterflies have on their wings to discourage birds from eating them: which raises the question of who she is setting up the guise for. Perhaps it is simply man, with his hawkish, distrustful gaze. It is only when you are looking at these decoy eyes that you then see the real ones, peering out at you from an unsuspecting part of the form, with the slight, bothered glance of an unthreatened octopus.

Sometimes her beings do look like deep-sea creatures, pressed and dried between book pages. In a dehydrated state it is impossible to determine their original form but one can image something puffy and gelatinous. They also seem very sure of themselves and at home, inhabiting the sheets of paper the way weeds spread flatly to dominate a barren concrete surface. The creatures' patterns appear at times to be scarification and other times like internal, faceted chambers; processing and filtering their environment.

If the drawings were on small, motley scraps of paper, her style would seem manic, but most of these creations are consistently large and executed on quality, over-sized sheets so the detailing seems more decorative than compulsive. Although most of the drawings were made in an institute and Zürn, in the end, threw herself off a balcony to complete her life, the body of work presented at The Drawing Center is too formal and informed to be branded as l'art brut. This is the work of a very creative, educated and engineered mind tipped over by an unbalanced life. It is not simply the manifestation of a deranged person.

The yonic scribbles, hooked beaks, lactating teats, forked tongues, feathery masks look like string craft that was stuffed in a drawer for years and then removed as tangled knots. Gnarled, overgrown, overwrought faces and twisted serpents, wrinkly turkey heads and road-kill phoenixes are gathered in layered, visual tales. The centipedestrians, multi-headed/multi-limbed sirens have their own ancient untold mythology, stored in frenzied lines.

The most interesting drawings have dense, loaded forms and freed, loose, wandering crisp lines. They are contained and territorial incarnations of horror vacui that defend themselves from the nothingness of the blank page and her fragile, personal world but they also send out feelers for the remote possibility of finding a like mate.

The most curious drawing is of two ram-like animals that seem like they belong more on the pages of Le Petit Prince than in this Dark Spring show. They owe their existence to a few questionable lines. Their look tells us they know they have been spared the cramped handwork: a preemptive shearing. They are like Kieslowski's mute observer in the Decalogue, who bears innocent but painful witness to the emotional and tragic lives and deaths that pass before him. They also have a worried look, like they might be next in line for something: an artistic sacrifice.

As Zürn's drawings distance themselves from her writing, her work assumes a much more graphic ability and a contrasted black and white clarity. But then she softens, introduces colors again and replaces interconnected lines with corpuscular forms. In the very last of her drawings her fantasy is freed up. In one of her final drawings, if not the very last one, she draws an ancient temple scene. There is a sense that she has arrived finally at a destination of myths and legend. If there is a redeeming, enlightened progress of the drawings, compared to her tragic end, it is with this anchored architectural element that ends her pilgrimage.

The Maker is the Message

by Drew Martin

In Marshall McLuhan's 1964 groundbreaking book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, he chants "The Medium Is The Message." This means the medium (film, television, photography, book, graphic novel, magazine...) is fused to the message and influences how the message is perceived which, McLuhan suggests, has a profound effect on the receiver of information. This proposition ignores the most important factor in the loaded message: the choice of medium in the mind of its manipulator.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that success is attained through a web of situational advantages and an amassing of time with the tools of one's craft, whether that is one's voice, hockey stick or a computer. When a child picks up a trumpet, camera or tennis racket, there is an inherent set of physical rules and psychological possibilities in each choice. From the very first interaction, the user and the utensil are married and influence each other: until death do they part.

A young photographer, for example, needs to learn not only about how to see things a certain way but also how to control a device, which in turn controls the environment: light, perspective, depth, color and contrast. The photographer, from a very early age, learns to manipulate visual images and understands what she sees is very different than what she captures and how and what she presents in a gallery, newspaper, magazine or website. There is, however, another element that becomes very important and is one that we often overlook. A photographer, in most cases, cannot operate as a shut-in, locked in her room, as might a writer or painter because photography is not an entirely cerebral experience. The very nature of a photographer is that of the hunter and or gatherer. She needs to roam and this movement affects the work in more ways than we can imagine because in the far flung travels there will either be a search for the exotic, or the complete opposite, a sentimental reflection.

So while the message of photography may be affected by the devices and media of photography, the content is also saturated with the maker's psychology and philosophy. It is not enough to approach a book, photograph, movie, cartoon, sculpture or a blog (for that matter) with McLuhan prompting us to consider the medium. We must look into the eyes of the maker and see what he or she is imposing on the content and the medium. This personality and vision is, after all, what we are most interested in when we look at a Picasso, a Gauguin or a Newton.

I inserted a picture here I found on the Internet. I chose it because the familiarity and intimacy of the subject matter overrides everything else. When we see the orangutans we do not think that we are in Borneo or Sumatra, or even a zoo in Germany. We, like the photographer, simply see a wheelbarrow full of eight baby orangutans and how cute they are and how they remind us of our own children or cute children we know, or perhaps even of our own youth.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Byproducts of Art: An Interview with Luis Camnitzer

by Drew Martin

This interview was originally conducted for Umelec magazine. The editors introduced the work with this write up: Drew Martin interviews the esteemed yet still perplexingly marginalized artist, essayist and curator, Luis Camnitzer. Martin’s interview is an experiment in form and concept; a perfect approach for introducing this Uruguayan-American dean of conceptual art (who just happened to be born in Germany

Luis Camnitzer is a conceptual artist who was born in Germany (Lubeck, 1937), immigrated to Uruguay in 1939 and has lived in the United States since 1964. He is a Professor Emeritus of Art at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury. He was the curator of the Viewing Program, The Drawing Center, New York, 1999 - 2006 and is the pedagogical curator for the Bienal de Mercosur, Porto Alegre, 2007. Camnitzer was graduated in sculpture from Escuela de Bellas Artes, Universidad de la República, Uruguay, where he also studied architecture and then pursued sculpture and printmaking at the Academy of Munich. Camnitzer has received a number of fellowships including two Guggenheim fellowships and even more awards and honors. Camnitzer's work is part of the collections of the major museums throughout the Americas, Europe and the Middle East. His has also written many articles about the arts and is author of several books: New Art of Cuba, University of Texas Press, 1994/2004; Arte y Enseñanza: La ética del poder, Casa de América, Madrid, 2000, Didactics of Liberation: Conceptualist Art in Latin America, University of Texas Press, 2007.

The following interview was conducted with Camnitzer through several emails in December of 2006.

Typically an interview with an artist is either about the person or that person's work. I would like to start off by asking you about this kind of discussion we encounter in an interview. What is an art review, an essay on art or even a conversation about art? Is it a byproduct of the work, an extension of the work, a continuation of a dialogue an artist starts with us, the future and destiny of a piece or is it the ultimate goal/reward of the work?

It actually depends for whom and where it is written. The prevalent school of reviewing in the U.S. is based on description with the intent of facilitating consumption. But I would say that yes, it should be an extension of the art work and a feedback. I tend to write only when I want to figure something out the work is leading me towards. In that sense I don't feel particularly proprietary about what I write. I feel that, in certain ways, the actual author is the artist. In this form of writing, the ideas that may come up never would have occurred to me on my own and I become more something like a medium. Another part is the analysis of the problem(s) the artist may be trying to solve, and there a reviewer may come up with critiques about the rigor of the formulation, or the appropriateness of the solutions. In this case there is an act of evaluation that is only valid when it is not influenced by personal taste. Ultimately a text about art is only interesting if the art discussed becomes a generator of ideas that transcend the work and lead to more systemic discussions or perceptions. All of which puts a good text in the realms of good art. Then it may be rewarding, but never a reward.

Can you give me an example from your own collection of work where the anticipation of how the work would be discussed influenced how you went about creating it?

I would say that at some point that is always the case. I believe that art is a form of manipulation and communication, therefore I always keep in mind what I want to achieve and how to achieve it. This is particularly important when political issues are touched on. But even when I do purely speculative work, ultimately I have to package it (that is, deal with the aesthetics) in a way that it engages the viewer (engagement is not necessarily connected with endearment).

Regarding the art review and your own work. Would you rather have someone encounter your work without any prior knowledge of it and possibly not understand your intentions and the message of the piece or would you rather someone see your work after he or she has read a review and is 'prepared' for it?

I don't have a preference. But I do have assumptions: I always assume that I am an anonymous creator that has to get the point across without any help. So, I assume an absence of reviews, as well as an ignorance of previous work, which makes self-quoting a meaningless activity.

I may be a bit redundant by dwelling on this idea of mediation but I think it is important in this context, on the pages of a magazine. This is a magazine. It is not a museum, gallery or a public space. Even if a photograph is placed here at the exact scale of the original it probably won't be the same quality and it will be on one side of a page, to be flipped through, perhaps missed. Is there something you have done which belongs right here?


Why did you include these images in particular?

I like both pieces and they are not dependent on seeing the originals.

Every artist, writer and musician distills his or her experiences into the medium he or she knows best. Are there topics you try explore where you find that visual/conceptual art is perhaps not the best approach: that maybe the subject is best handled through literature or music alone?

I think that is the case only because we are educated in a disciplinarian way. I mean this in the sense of fragmentation of knowledge, although the authoritarian interpretation is true as well. I don't consider that when I write, curate or facilitate learning or learn with others (I don't like the word "teaching") I am doing anything different. It is all about identifying my ignorance and trying to transcend it, about sharing my ignorance and helping others to transcend it. The medium should help in this and its choice is determined by this need, not by what I happen to have learned in school.

I recently read a statement made by Claes Oldenburg:
"Becoming certain about a subject is a process over a period in time, beginning with hints from various sources and ending in a kind of monomania, in which the subject, by supreme coincidence, means everything - an inventory of nature in all its states, including opposites."(1)
If you can identify with this, is it a kind of blindness, a Holy Grail of art or Borges' Aleph under every staircase?

The statement is a little vague because I don't know what "subject" is supposed to mean here. In any case, I do believe in the Aleph as a model. Like in the negative of a hologram, each fragment contains all the information of the whole, and ultimately it is an issue of literacy to be able to decode the whole from this fragment. That is why I believe that art is not just about information transmitted, but about the empowerment of decoding and generating that information. It is both research and sharing the researching. I think many artists try to create an Aleph. I just want to help discover them.

In 'The Shock of the New' Robert Hughes wrote:
"It is hard to think of any work of art of which one can say, this saved the life of one Jew, one Vietnamese, one Cambodian. Specific books, perhaps; but as far as one can tell, no paintings or sculptures. The difference between us and the artists of the 1920's is that they thought such a work of art could be made. Perhaps it was a certain naivete that made them think so. But it is certainly our loss that we cannot." (2)
Hughes is sentimental. Is sentimentality the best we can do or is there a reason to be optimistic for some greater power in art?

I don't particularly like that statement, it seems a little naive in itself. Nobody ever believed that anyway. What was believed was that art could improve the world in more general terms. What got lost was the notion and the assumption of the responsibility that comes with it, that art is a shaper of culture. Art now is one more means of production of consumer objects and we are in a world that would force Einstein to think certain things only if he finds a publisher that can secure a minimum of sales of any book about those things. If we were dealing with the shaping of culture we would differentiate between different ethical impacts of our art, be concerned with art as a tool that helps to make sense of things and to keep our sanity, and see it as a process that leads to freedom and empowerment. If that would be the case, we would be saving many more lives than a single Jew, Vietnamese or Cambodian (just to respect Hughes' listing).

On the same page of 'The Shock of the New' Hughes also wrote:
"Since 1937, there have been a few admirable works of art that contained political references - ...But the idea that an artist, by making painting or sculpture, could insert images into the stream of public speech and thus change political discourse has gone, probably for good, along with the nineteenth-century ideal of the artist as public man. Mass media took away the political speech of art." (3) He wrote that over twenty years ago. Is that statement still valid or have you and other artists grabbed the reins back?

I think that is true to some extent. The politically correct ads of Benetton during the 80’s and 90’s where a great example of the cooptation of the text. But that only means that we have to deal with the sub-text. Most of political art only informed about political content and used literary analogies. That was only viable in periods in which art was defined by literary content, and in certain ways was no more than a remnant of the nineteenth century. I think we are beyond that even if the media wouldn't have preempted the field. It never mattered much (nor should it) to the world if I am in favor or against a war. My function is not to disseminate my opinion. My function is to help people make their own decisions. As a manipulator, I of course will try to tweak the process so that the decision coincides with my beliefs. But I should do this without hubris or arrogance. It is not about grabbing reins. As soon you grab them, you lost them. It is about subversion.

Also, for my own curiosity...What was/is your involvement with The Drawing Center in SoHo? I recently visited the current show, which you curated: Eleanore Mikus: From Shell to Skin.

I was the Viewing Program curator for over 6 years, in charge of "emerging" artists. Whenever I had a project that I felt strongly about and that was outside my territory, I would propose it and usually be able to do it. Therefore I was able to curate shows by Chago (the cartoonist of the Cuban guerrilla before the success of the Revolution, and a powerful artist afterwards), Peter Minshall (the Trinidadian Carnival choreographer), León Ferrari (the Argentinean forerunner of conceptualism), and now Eleanore Mikus. They are all artists that were un- or under recognized in the U.S., either due to provincialism or, as in Mikus'case, historical unfairness. In certain ways it was about making visible the invisible, which is an artistic proposition. I resigned to my position in The Drawing Center back in March, at the same time and in solidarity with Catherine de Zegher when she departed. At that time we decided to leave the projects the whole team was working on in a shape that would allow the institution to function until new personnel was hired. That was a good thing, since at the time of this writing only my position has been filled again. Meanwhile the other curators have left to other places and their positions have to be filled as well. So, our planning all the shows (except for one) into September of 2007 turned out to be a very good idea. I had proposed the Mikus show three years ago and came back as a guest curator because Eleanore insisted that I be the curator. I will return for a Selections exhibit next September (Non-Declarative art) because it is a theoretical and idiosyncratic exhibition and I should take responsibility for it.

I have been loosely following The Drawing Center's situation at the World Trade Center site and there are many articles online that oversimplify the back and forth between the Center and 'the public.' In a nutshell, there was concern that the Center would show work that might 'denigrate America' and Ms. De Zegher responded that the Center would not be 'censored.' How would you have responded in her place?

I obviously would have reacted exactly the same way Catherine de Zegher reacted, and that is why I handed in a very explanatory resignation the same day she announced her departure. I must say that in certain ways everything was somewhat predictable and the idea of moving to Ground Zero wasn't a particularly bright one to begin with. But then, fortunately, my position in The Drawing Center was a marginal one and I wasn't privy to the political subtleties of the Board. From outside it is clear that the invitation to be at Ground Zero only was viable if it implied an acceptance of critical expressions as being fundamental for cultural richness. Otherwise, accepting the invitation gives the inviting party the right to muffle and censor, or forces self-censorship. I don't know if this discussion ever took place. In any case, there were five artists invoked as objectionable. One was Mark Lombardi, who had committed suicide in 2000 and therefore, though he had exposed the connections between the Bush and Bin Laden families, cannot be blamed for offending sacred grounds. The other four were artists from my program who disagreed with racism and some governmental generalizations and I am proud for them and hope they sharpen their tools even more. In regard to taking advantage of the circumstances, I don't think you can do much in this case. Basically all the parties described themselves fairly accurately and left an array of self-portraits that are or will be considered by others. Ethics and the hope that they will prevail are really all one has left to resist fundamentalism.

(1) [Haskell, Barbara, Claes Oldenburg object Into Monument, Pasadena Art Museum, 1971, p. 87]

(2) (3) [Hughes, Robert, The Shock of the New, Knopf, New York 1981, p. 111]

Synesthetic Interpretations: Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick

by Drew Martin

When we consider the amount of text dedicated to discussing, understanding and explaining the visual arts, it is hard to ignore our reliance on words to aid, enhance, compensate and even substitute our visual experiences. Since ancient Greece, text preempted images, which were, more often than not, allegorical. The images graphically summarized the text in the same manner that today’s press releases and reviews literally define a painting or sculpture. What has evolved in making an image from an original text is a more intimate and informed “collaboration.”

One of the most interesting text-to-image relationships is the treatment of a sculptural motif in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and how it was visually interpreted in Stanley Kubrick's movie version. The "object" is the monolith, which appears four times in the novel and the movie. Clarke's monoliths are multi-media phenomena; they glow and vibrate, send messages out into the solar system and even switch from solid structures (the size of the tallest buildings on Earth) to seemingly endless ‘star gates’ to other universes. They are the monitors, beacons and portals of god-like aliens who have taken an interest in advancing a ‘primitive’ species.

Clarke devotes pages of graphic descriptions to his monoliths, which would seem to be mouth-watering fodder for a director as visually attuned as Kubrick. He was not only a master filmmaker but was especially talented in turning a handful of words into fascinating sets, popping colors and visual narratives. There are chapters of 2001 that are filled with hyper-visual sentences, which Kubrick captures with ease, so it is very surprising to see that he replaces Clarke’s dynamic monoliths with what seem like placeholders, mere props.

Here is part of the last description of the monolith, which alludes to its introduction:

A ghostly, glimmering rectangle had formed in the empty air. It solidified into a crystal tablet, lost its transparency, and became suffused with a pale, milky luminescence. Tantalizing, ill-defined phantoms moved across its surface and in its depths. They coalesced into bars of light and shadow, then formed intermeshing, spoked patterns that began slowly to rotate, in time with the pulsating rhythm that now seemed to fill the whole of space.

Clarke feeds us pages of such details and yet Kubrick is mysteriously reserved in his treatment of the monoliths: they are simply flat black slabs. Instead, Kubrick does what is essentially a synesthetic interpretation. He substitutes Clarke’s descriptions with Gyorgy Ligeti's eerie and shapeless micropolyphonic vocals. The effect is disorienting, making us feel as vulnerable as the ‘slack-jawed’ man-apes being manipulated by a greater force. Kubrick also introduces a visual trick, which, even if it had been described by Clarke, would not have the same impact. Each time a monolith scene is about to end, he aligns it with either other heavenly bodies or architectural design. He uses symmetry, which is entirely visual and immediately significant.

The previous passage continues with the following sentences that give us further understanding of Kubrick’s visual treatment of the monoliths:

It was a spectacle to grasp and hold the attention of any child-or of any man-ape. But, as it had been three million years before, it was only the outward manifestation of forces too subtle to be consciously perceived. It was merely a toy to distract the senses, while the real processing was carried out at far deeper levels of the mind.

Kubrick’s 2001 is a banquet of visual delights. He puts us on space stations, the Moon, in outer space orbiting Jupiter. He is ahead of his time with visual effects and with such command he considers the visual ‘affect’ as something as central as the monolith. If ever a metaphor for sculpture and art, Clarke’s pulsating crystals are not only multi-media wonders but they demonstrate how art is often experienced; entirely and sensationally. But he also knows that this affect is not really at the surface, it is what is happening inside our minds. It is that internal experience through which we evolve. Clarke’s frontiers are of an imagination that can only be hatched from words. He gives us visual experiences directly, without graphic stimuli and Kubrick honors that with a kind of visual silence. Kubrick does not illustrate the original text: He contemplates it, which is better than any explanation or definition.