Saturday, January 29, 2011

Review: Hide/Seek, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

I should preface this by saying that a close friend of mine, Ted Kerr, had just studied with artist AA Bronson, who since December 16 has put out an ongoing request to have his work, "Felix, June 5, 1994" removed from the exhibition, Hide/Seek: Desire and Difference in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C.  I first heard about the censorship through Ted, and I may not have gone to this exhibition otherwise, or paid much attention to the dialogue around the show, as unfortunately, censorship in art has become a white noise in media. 

Untitled still from the film "Silence = Death" (1990)
History repeats itself through yet another questionable censorship from the moral right, and being curious to see how David Wojnarowciz's now prolific "A Fire In My Belly" would have fit in and/or stood out from an exhibition on desire and difference in 20th century America, Ted, his boyfriend Zach, and I went to Washington D.C. to see Hide/Seek.

A few days have passed since I viewed the exhibition, and while my feelings and thoughts of confusion, anger, disappointment, and sadness have fluctuated quite vastly, I return to this first point of Wojnarowciz's work within the context of the exhibition, and I remain perplexed as to how "A Fire In My Belly" was included in this show in the first place.

For anyone who has seen the video, "A Fire In My Belly" is a tormented visceral visual hell that screams from a human core about love and loss. The work was created shortly after the death of Peter Hujar, Wojnarowciz's mentor and lover, who died from AIDS-related complications in an era where entire communities of men were decimated from AIDS while the government and media refused to address the disease. To describe the work as poignant would be too simple, as the collage video complicated feelings of anger and lost with desire and spirit that touches beyond any strands of affect. The work is also not a portrait of any one person or any one thing, and in a twisted outcome, the work only makes sense on the outside of Hide/Seek.

The show as a whole has its moments of strength, and curators David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz do an impresario job in tying the works together through the unsaid theme of queer desire. The show calls itself an exploration on the fluidity of sexuality, and how art reflects society's changing attitudes towards desire and romantic attachments. Not once do the words "gay" or "queer" appear, and so it is difficult to fault the show for something they never mentioned. That said, it is quite arguable that the show begins by way of self-censorship, staying proverbially in the exhibition closet, and choosing to present a normal, safe, and regulated perspective on celebrity gays and queers in and around the art world.

One only needs to look at the inclusion of which Robert Mapplethorpe works were selected and the answer is clear: this show is celebrating star status first and foremost.  The artists included are important figures to the art world, and to the cultural milieu of American literature, but the show is quite reductive in how these lives intersect and spawned some of the most prolific works of the 20th century. The repetitive inclusion of New York School Poet Frank O'Hara was palpably heart warming, and often about longing, but his poems were rarely, if ever, about sexual desire. Obvious exclusions included William Burroughs who wrote more about sex and drugs and orifices then anyone, and who as a figure in the world Katz and Ward explore, is far more central than O'Hara as someone who links many of the ex-pats and carries forward themes of sex and death.

There are also glaring issues with the skewered perspective on the show towards a gay male gaze from a past era, who marginalizes female desire into masculine poses and literally corners individuals like Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein into portraits that simplify the complexities of narrative and language through an imposed lens of sexual difference. Walking through the show, the portraits came off more as a tabloid dishing on "who's gay and who's not", including some speculative guessing on Georgia O'Keefe and a conservative glossing over of cultural critic Susan Sontag's longtime relationship with famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, who took endless photographs of her lover, by displaying a Sontag portrait by Peter Hujar next to a less than desirable fashion portrait of lesbian-icon Ellen DeGeneres by Leibovitz.

David Wojnarowicz, Portrait by Peter Hujar, 1981

The greatest surprise in the exhibition is the prominence of David Wojnarowicz who somehow still looms large in the exhibition. Excluded is his video, but Wojnarowicz still appears three times in the show through two works as well as Hujar's portrait subject. Within Hide/Seek, Wojnarowicz is clearly reinforced as somebody important to gay identity and art during the AIDS crisis, and yet, he can be censored within the same exhibition.

The great tragedy of Hide/Seek is that the show has reduced and categorized a spectrum of individuals with limitless hearts and minds into the polite rigidity of "sexual difference". Over and over again, works within the show howled with such pangs of alienation and loneliness that went unaddressed under the rubric of unrequited desire.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Interview with Brian Jungen, Art Gallery of Alberta*

Known for his deconstruction and reassemblage of mass produced consumer goods such as Nike Air Jordans and plastic lawn chairs into critiques on museum-ready artifacts, Vancouver-based Brian Jungen has been internationally heralded for his work, and was the first living artist to receive an exhibition at The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
Taking a short break during an intensive three-week installation at the AGA for three of his past major works, Carapace (2009), Shapeshifter (2000) and Cetology (2002), Jungen sat down for a chat about his old works, new works, the weather, and some insights about contemporary Canadian art.

Image credit: Brian Jungen's plastic-chair Cetology /  Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

AMY FUNG: It's a pretty big year for you. First, congrats on the Gershon Iskowitz prize.

BRIAN JUNGEN: Thank you.

AF: I was curious about how you feel about having a retrospective in the same year you have this commission to do new works?

BJ: Well, I don't really like the term retrospective because it seems that's what happens after someone dies. I tend to think of it as a survey of older work, or a showing of older works in a new context.

AF: Will the new works be a continuation of this style?

BJ: No, the show at the AGO will be a whole new direction and a whole new body of work that I recently just started and showed in Vancouver last month at Catriona Jeffries. A lot of the new work is using found or unconventional materials, but very different from this kind of store-bought, mass-produced material. They are materials I think you would be familiar with through the landscape of rural Canada, like car body parts, animal skins, and things like that.

AF: Does your sense of place and home seep into your work?

BJ: It's becoming more important in my new work, this sense that I'm from Northern Canada. I've lived in Vancouver for about 15 years now, and though I really like the arts community in Vancouver, I find myself returning to Northern BC a lot, especially in the last few years. Maybe it's because I'm approaching middle age, and want to make connections to the place I grew up. I don't know if it's that, I just like the environment and the folks up there. I generally like the climate, believe it or not. There's hot summers, cold winters, probably just like Edmonton, but it's sunny and it's a proper winter. In Vancouver you don't really get a winter, you get a cold monsoon, and it's a different type of cold. I really miss winters like this. I've been here for the last two weeks, and folks in Edmonton have been saying how unusually cold and how much snow it's been this year, but I totally like it!

AF: Well I'm glad somebody likes it.

BJ: I guess I get to leave, but place is becoming more important in my work, I'm doing less site-specific work and building everything on-site, which I've been doing for the last several years.

AF: You're also showing in Close Encounters, the largest exhibition ever organized in the world on contemporary Indigenous art, happening in Winnipeg right now. Can you speak about that?

BJ: Sure, what I really like in Canada is that there is no division. You can be a contemporary artist and making work on Aboriginal issues and identity, but you're still a contemporary artist, whereas in the States, there's a huge division. That became really apparent to me when I did this project at The Smithsonian last year, Strange Comforts. It made me realize how much more wide open the Canadian contemporary art field is. Like with Close Encounters, I think it's amazing. If that show was curated in another country, it would be generally ignored by the contemporary art press, but not in Canada, which is great. It's very inclusive that way.

AF: Let's talk about the works in this show.

BJ: We have two of the whale skeletons, Shapeshifter and Cetology, both on loan, and Carapace, which I initially made in France two years ago. I was working in this old chateau that was converted into a contemporary art space and it had been surrounded by idyllic farm land, except the last few years it was all being converted into suburbs, just like what you would see in Calgary, Edmonton, Fort St John. In these suburbs I kept seeing these new garbage bins that just became a symbol for the sign of the times and a symbol of unbridled housing excess that I decided to use the bins as source material. I also thought it would be a nice pairing of this idea of this waste of garbage bins with the structure of a tortoise, which is a symbol of the Earth in many cultures, and is a house and home.

AF: Can you tell me about the construction of these works?

BJ: I keep working with material until I feel some sort of resolution with it, that a way of working with the materials has been realized. So with Carapace, instead of making a new one three different times, I decided to use the same materials three different ways over three different times. After the first time in France, I saw a completely different way of constructing it that would be a lot more dynamic, so I made it a second time last year at the Smithsonian, and when Catherine [Crowston] invited me here I proposed making it a third and final time. This will be the final configuration of the materials.

AF: What do you think viewers can expect from this, who generally will not have seen the first two configurations?

BJ: Because the piece is quite large, there's usually an immediate response. People want to go inside it, and they have this very strong physical reaction to it. People want to touch it and climb it—which you can't do—but the last two times, people sometimes saw it just as the materials and so they don't see it as art works. They think they can be interactive with it, which they can't, so now I'm actually cutting up the materials enough that you can't really recognize at first what it's made out of it.

AF: How many bins are you actually using?

BJ: I don't know. We usually deal directly with the manufacturers, but we basically take what we can get. Same with the chairs. When I was making those, I was just driving around to all the Canadian Tires, buying them up and clearing them out. If I need more, it's something so plentiful that you can just go out and get more. I bought some new bins here in Edmonton. There are certain things that are global products that you can basically get anywhere.

AF: And that really is the impetus of your work, how everything has been globalized, including art.

BJ: Yeah, there's a discourse about that. Art has taken on a much stronger profile in the last 10-plus years with museums wanting a much bigger presence in cities, to become a tourist attraction, like this place, the AGO, the Bilbao Guggenheim, that's how it's changed a lot, I think. Not sure if it makes art more accessible to the general public, but it has made a certain type of style or international strategy around art institutions.

*First published in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winnipeg Round Up, Sculptural Vocabularies and Close Encounters, January 19 - 22, 2010

More will be said on both Sculptural Vocabularies and Close Encounters: The Next 500 years, but I wanted to acknowledge the span of the past few days.

First, Sculptural Vocabularies was a collaborative symposium organized by The Winnipeg Art Gallery along with Mentoring Art for Women Artists and coordinated by the WAG's Adult Education Coordinator, Anna Wiebe. As a first of its kind initiative in Canada to focus specifically on women in sculpture on an international scale, it brought out over 100 delegates from across the country, despite so much going on with shows opening at Platform, Urban Shaman, Maison Des Artistes, and Gallery 1C03, much of which was parallel programming for Close Encounters, and of course, the bone crushing conditions of minus forty Celsius conditions that some would call invigorating, while others would not.

Image credit: Aganetha Dyck, Checkers and Bees, from exhibition The MMasked Ball, 2009

The programming for the conference was mostly even, with a questionable opening keynote by Catherine Widgery, who did not show much of her public art works. Widgery received one of Winnipeg's largest public art commissions ($365,000) in 1999 for her "River Arch", which I have never noticed though have passed on more than one occasion, and suffice to say when pointed out directly, fails to engage me as a work of art or design. Widgery's personal artistic practice was far more interesting, and that was one reoccurring theme: the divide of a personal artistic practice and the compromising profession of working in public art. Other themes included a focus on process and temporality, as well as interdisciplinary approaches to the field of sculpture.
The last day of Sculptural Vocabularies overlapped with the opening day of Close Encounters: The Next 500 years, a city wide international exhibition on Indigenous art that again, is a first of its kind. The panelists on Saturday were the strongest lineup including the morning panel featuring Mary Anne Barkhouse, Faye Heavyshield, and Nadia Myre moderated by Candice Hopkins, and the afternoon one on one conversation between Lee-Ann Martin and Rebecca Belmore. I describe this line up as the strongest as the work is inherently more political. While I was dismayed by the lack of men present for the first two and a half days of the conference, the greatest disparity was still not through gender, but through race relations, as a question, or rather, a rude request from the a woman in the attendance calling on Heavyshield to speak aloud the Blackfoot language was embarrassing and infuriating all at once.

The conference ended on a high note, with a candid and personal conversation between Martin and Belmore, who in a t-shirt, jeans, and fluorescent sneakers, who couldn't remember a single date, still stole the show by simply being  an artist wholly immersed in a process that can only be described as electrifying.

Image credit: Marja Helander, Mount Annivaara Utsjoki, 2002 , c-print,  117x93cm
The rest of the afternoon was spent revisiting main sites for Close Encounters which included Plug In, The Hydro Building, and 109 Pacific Avenue, formerly the Costume Museum of Canada. As the first exhibition in the world to bring together contemporary Indigenous artists from around the world including Canada, U.S., New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and Finland, Close Encounters is certainly being described as important. Featuring over 30 works, with about 10% of that being newly commissioned works, the exhibition's curatorial strategy is to radically shift the encounter narrative of Indigenous art that often looks to the past and instead, consider future possibilities that will address new themes and issues. If opening night was any indication, certainly dialogues were provoked from those whose excitement and fervor over the contemporary boundaries bubbled and brewed, to those who questioned why so much of the work has already been seen, accusations of nepotism, and the classically provocative contention of being Indigenous enough.

Curated by the powerhouse team of Lee-Ann Martin, Steve Loft, Hopkins, and Jenny Western, the exhibition seems quite aware of all of these issues, though I am sure this will be argued, and really, it is that passion in the discussions to come that is the most exciting element of this star-studded exhibition. 

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Prairie Artsters: Southern Differences*

Last week, I trekked down to Calgary for a few days of art openings, performances, studio visits and gallery visits. While Alberta's other major city is geographically close to Edmonton, we all know the two cities couldn't be further apart in identity. This spills over into the arts scene, from its roster of commercials to artist-run centres and, most notably, in the foundation of The Alberta College of Art and Design.

One thing I'll say off the bat is that Calgary artists are just better at self-mythologizing. And while the brain drain hits Calgary just as hard as Edmonton, if not harder, its base is replenished by the art college, and its growing roster of successful alumni.

A breakdown of the visit started on Thursday, when I arrived at ACAD for the PopSex! opening at Illingworth Kerr Gallery. Organized and funded by the University of Calgary, PopSex! brought together artists from Calgary and Berlin to respond to the remnants of Magnus Hirschfield's Institute for Sexual Science.

As an international exhibition with an adjoining academic conference, it was welcoming to see faculty and alumni alike come together in this exhibition, including Wednesday Lupypciw, Keith Murray, Anthea Black, Heather Stump and Mireille Perron, along with other notable Calgary-based artists such as David Folk and RICHard SMOLinski.

The next evening was spent hopping from one artist-run centre to the other for an evening of talks and openings. First up was The New Gallery, where Clive Robertson was in town to talk about Then and Then Again, his exhibition on the history of artist-run culture in Canada. As someone who spent a considerable amount of time in Calgary in the '70s and who co-founded Centerfold magazine in Calgary, now known as FUSE Magazine, Robertson is also supposedly the man who coined the phrase, "artist-run culture." The show was archival at best, but the interesting part was the crowd, which included a mixture of faces new and old who are all willing to still participate.

One significant difference, or lack, that I've brought up before in relation to Edmonton and Calgary is the southern privilege of generating critical writing for each exhibition. Each gallery produces a critical text for each publication, no bigger than an event invite, commissioning and supporting a roster of guest writers. This is by no means unusual practice across this country, but when comparing a city that participates and creates dialogue and a city that doesn't within the same province, the differences are like night and day.

Next up was TRUCK Gallery, where Ontario-based artist Roula Partheniou was paired up with local artist Hyang Cho for a mediation on permutations and combinations. In the opinion of a fellow attendee and myself, the local artist outshined the visitor.

The third stop of the night was the main draw where everyone ended up: The Directors' Show at Stride Gallery. In its 25th year, the gallery invited all its past executive directors to create something for this commemorative group show. Like a healthy artist-run gallery, the small-but-mighty space has featured over a dozen directors, almost all women, at its helm in the last quarter century.

The show stood as a snapshot of a growing family, with the exhibition text written by longtime board directors and Calgary mainstays Chris Cran and John Will. The Directors' Show proves how rewarding it is to have a melange of personalities and skills and visions within any organization's history.

First visits were also made to Pith Gallery and Studios and The Haight Gallery, small independent spaces that will bring the next wave of artist-run culture in Calgary.

*First appeared in Vue Weekly

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

REVIEW: Dick Averns' War Art Now, Military Museums, Sept 2010 - Jan 31, 2011, By Special Guest Correspondent Eric Heitmann

Image credit: War Art Now, installation detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Growing up in Chile, "war art" is an oxymoron to me. The military and the arts are so far apart in the political spectrum it is outstanding to find myself in the presence of a joint effort between armed forces and artists.

When I walked through the Calgary based Military Museums I realized my predisposition to look at the exhibits as propaganda of a sort. The Museums’ use of video and sound recordings, period music playing in the background, the staging military history with mannequins can all be applicable to the category of "living history", a practice done to maximize profit from heritage--and in this case--to generate a profit of popularity and validation via commemoration.

It is through a wall of skepticism I entered the Founders’ Gallery at the Military Museums in Southwest Calgary where Dick Averns’ WAR ART NOW is currently showing and it becomes hard to separate content from commemorative intentions. The gallery’s mandate, in a war art context, has the dual ambition of being a space for historical and contemporary art, two very different languages of display where the former presents a number of ‘artifacts’ appealing to curiosity or nostalgia like natural history museums do, and the latter composes the show in order to generate dialogue between the work and the present context of the art world and contemporary life in general. Separately, each is a very valid form of display and useful to establish the military’s worth when looking at it objectively, but the problem is, they are trying to convey two very different messages at the same time.

The messages start mixing into the function War Art has had since the early 1900’s in Canada, one that consists of and archiving military history through art. More to the point, we first encounter the exhibit of the Afghan War Rugs borrowed from the Nickle Arts Museum, where the way the exhibition is displayed follows the tropes of an artifact collection rather than that of a contemporary art gallery and thoughts of the peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan set into the viewers’ minds before one comes face to face with Averns’ work when the artist never went to Afghanistan. It could be argued the curatorial blurb written for the show never mentions Afghanistan as a destination, yet I find the exhibition gives you plenty of time as a viewer to think of afghan armed encounters. Especially if you already know at least half of WAR ART NOW comes from his participation in Sinai with the CAFPCAP program (Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program) which was historically founded with the Canadian War Art collection, it seems to be a safe bet when set in the general context of the venue.

Image credit: Dick Averns, Liberty Avenue (MFO North Camp, Sinai), 2009
Archival Digital Print on Aircraft Grade Aluminum
24 x 36 x .5 inches flush mounted
on aluminum 

Courtesy of the artist.

Except that Averns’ work reaches far beyond the question of heritage and commemoration as so much war art has been attributed to Canadians. He has critically questioned the whole concept of war art and the relation it holds with a public regarding the creation of a particular, directed memory. The entire oeuvre moves in and out of a particular subversive sense of humor - especially with his photographs - pointing out the absurd and the ironies that emerge from a context of war. In the far back the video installation of Ambivalence Boulevard is set with the art trading card installation What is the closest you have been to terrorism? next to it. Both these pieces are of extreme ambiguity towards the Museums’ summarized narration, one of them regarding his feelings of ambivalence towards the city and its institutions (including the military) and the other for its constant change and subjectivity in the interpretation of terrorism by a visiting public.

The pieces are mostly remnants or registration of performance, installation and appropriation: being war art it is the archival construct of the archival construct. Though the Museums are currently showing a much directed effort to create a particular memory of Canadian war, the actual oxymoron of this war art show is presenting the ambivalence towards military effort. By using performance art and text based art, Averns successfully subverts the record keeping responsibility Canadian war art and the impossibility of such responsibilities.

Bio: Eric Heitmann is a current student at the Albert College of Art + Design majoring in sculpture. Currently he holds a minor in architecture from the Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile. Parts of this review first appeared in an essay for a class taught by Diana Sherlock

Monday, January 10, 2011

Audio Interviews: The Changing of The Guard in defining Artist Run Culture

Last weekend in Calgary, I ended up speaking with Clive Robertson and Matthew Mark Bouree, two instigating artists with similar intentions, but living and working on opposite ends of the spectrum.

Image credit: Clive Robertson
Robertson, who now teaches at Queen's, was back in town for the opening of Then and Then Again, a self-initiated retrospective on artist run culture (1969 - 2006) at The New Gallery. Robertson in his time was a co-founder of Centerfold magazine, which later became FUSE, and is often credited as coining the term "artist-run culture". The exhibition reads more like an archive in and of itself, and focuses heavily on the DIY mentality and its tenuous relationship to public funding.

On the other hand, before I even stepped into town, I was recommended by another instigator, Shelley Ouellet, to meet Matthew Mark Bouree, the founding director of The Haight Gallery, Calgary's newest satellite space located in the NW quadrant. Calgary has been home to several notable DIY spaces, from 809 to Carpet and Toast, to the Haight, which exists out of a refurbished garage. With three shows under its belt, the gallery exists as an artist run space with commercial intentions geared towards supporting emerging contemporary artists.

Artist run culture has undeniably shifted over the past forty years in Canada, and here's to seeing what will occur over the next forty years.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Prairie Artsters: New Year Revelations 2011*

Last year around this time, I wrote a list of things I genuinely wanted to see and feel for this city. From better public art to less disappointment in the festival system, my wish list was not unreasonable, and therefore somewhat manageable to achieve, at least in part.

I also wrote a short list of goals for myself. Scrawled on a paper napkin after a midday New Year's Day brunch, the goals I set for myself included living healthier and applying for more international opportunities. And while the former goal has its fair share of demons to battle, I am pleased to report that in 2011 I will be taking a six-month sabbatical from Canada in the form of a Arts Writing and Curatorial Fellowship in Scotland. (Please note: this column will soon be going on an indefinite hiatus).

Believing in the power of putting your desires out there, here we go again for 2011: another list of things I would genuinely like to see or wish for this city's visual arts community in this coming year. In no particular order of importance:

10) More online exhibitions and art projects.

9) Artists who can give as much as they can take.

8) More arts writing from new voices. In print, online, to accompany exhibitions, to outcry against exhibitions, let's keep the words flowing.

7) For politicians on every level of government to stop hating or fearing the arts. Especially in regards to the politicians with arts and culture in their portfolio.

6) Raising the standards and expectations of our city's university galleries. Now that we have two universities offering BFAs—and intriguingly, both with very different approaches—each institution needs a gallery (or two) to engage with each other, and with the community at large. Gallery space for students will always remain important, but there is nothing in Edmonton to rival or even remotely compare to the programming happening in University-based art galleries across this country.

5) More curators working at the AGA. With the new building and expansion of gallery space, it's time to expand the curatorial responsibilities to address fields like the gallery's historical collection, new and interdisciplinary media and Indigenous arts.

4) Fewer canned shows (see above).

3) For Canadian art to matter more to Canadians and to the rest of the world.

2) A Canadian Biennial. I know, does the world really need another biennial? But for a country as big as Canada, a biennial actually makes sense to bring together the different regions into a single exhibition that focuses on cohesions and tensions across this vast land of ours.

1) Mentorship! Because mentorship exists in combination with succession planning, and if there's anything I would ask for in Edmonton, it's conscious momentum.

*First published on Vue Weekly