Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Encouraging Literacy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit



“Books belong to everyone.” ~ Debora Grace

On January 23, MOCAD hosted its latest Art as Social Force panel. The moderator, Detroit-based Kim Kozlowski, provided an overview of her goal to make the city the global capital of Little Free Libraries (LFLs). She was joined by five area artists whose LFLs are on display in the MOCAD’s Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead in Little Library Originals: A Collision of Art, Literacy and Community from January 15 to April 24. The panellists were Barbara Barefield, Kelly O’Hara, Ndubisi Okoye, Eno Laget, and Debora Grace. Also included in the exhibition are Loretta Bradfield, Mary Fortuna, Jesse Kassel, Rashaun Rucker, John Sauve, Mitchell Schorr, Pam Shapiro, and Fatima Sow. Each artist’s contribution is unique, but the freestanding micro libraries tend to be painted in cheerful colours that invite readers to take a book/leave a book.

After installing an LFL in front of her own home, Kozlowski found that it sparked conversations among passersby—not just about reading, but about their lives. Inspired by the degree of interaction, she established Detroit Little Libraries, sought crowdfunding on her birthday, enlisted the help of local artists, and arranged for stewards to oversee basic maintenance. 150 LFLs were placed in various locations around the city—outside faith-based organizations, health care centres, and schools (ranging from elementary to college), to name a few. Areas with limited access to reading materials continue to be a high priority as more LFLs are installed. Ideally, the current amount will double before long.

Impressively, the city’s first LFL was made using reclaimed materials from local abandoned houses. Detroit is now experiencing “a lot of hope,” in Kozlowski’s opinion, making this a suitable time for the project. “It’s a very joyful thing to be involved in,” Kozlowski says.

There are challenges, like volunteers bowing out, exposure to the elements, vandalism, and book supplies running out because people encounter LFLs spontaneously or they lack the means to leave a book. At the same time, the success stories clearly outweigh the challenges. The mayor, the city, and countless citizens are supporters of the project.

Barbara Barefield is no stranger to the rejuvenating potential of the arts, having brought a musical series to Palmer Woods with her partner. Although she hadn’t painted in quite a while, she applied her graphic design skills in promoting musical performances to her LFL. Her intention was to capture the magic of reading that she experienced as a child. She believes reading is how we foster language, creativity, and thinking.

Kelly O’Hara is working on a graphic novel, so the integration of image and text has been on her mind for some time. In keeping with her style, she painted a silhouetted cityscape against a golden sky on her LFL (pictured in the foreground of the image above), with uplifting images like a child seemingly leaping over rooftops with superhero-like power. She noted that the project was a great way to give back to the community. "I said yes in a heartbeat," she said.

Art director Ndubisi Okoye is similarly excited to be involved. “I was all for it," he said, particularly in light of the city’s low literacy rate. “As a society, we need to be supportive of literacy,” he advised. His early work in graffiti laid the foundation for his amazing energetic lines on the glass door of his LFL (shown above), which brings Keith Haring to mind. In the centre of the dizzying patterning is the grounded message, “keep dreaming,” a mantra from his personal life.

Eno Laget, referring to the city’s challenges, said, “We all know something’s wrong.” He shared that 47% of adults are functionally illiterate*. He hopes that LFLs can represent the “beginning of conversations to break down barriers.” When asked to participate, the street artist said, “I was all about it.” He pointed out that there is an extensive history of Detroit artists using found objects, which lends itself to the LFL project. In his case, he painted on a donated newspaper box, making for a coincidental tie-in to his background in the publishing industry.

Debora Grace said she “couldn't think of a better way to...build Detroit back up” than creating a LFL. She read frequently to her children, and when she was a child, her mother joked that she ate books because she read voraciously. Reading is “like swallowing universes,” she says. People need to “learn to get cozy with books,” she believes, because they carve out a path for the future. To reinforce this connection, on her LFL, she depicted W.E.B. Dubois, the first African American PhD graduate from Harvard (incidentally, I love that Harvard College Library highlights facts like this). Grace believes that reading is a “major game-changer,” demonstrated by the fact that sources of inspiration like songs, films and religious texts all start with the written word. “Books belong to everyone,” she insists. Given her pursuit of education as a vocation, she is bound to inspire many a reader.

If you can’t make it to the exhibition, check out Kozlowski’s tour on YouTube.

*To learn more about literacy in Detroit, please see “Nearly Half of Detroit’s Adults are Functionally Illiterate, Report Finds,” Huffington Post, 5 July 2011.

To learn more about Little Free Libraries, please see my Artist in Transit post from November, 2012 (http://artistintransit.blogspot.ca/2011/12/big-thumbs-up-for-little-free-library.html) or the Little Free Library website.

Images of O’Hara and Okoye’s LFLs are from http://detroitlittlelibraries.org/art-literacy-community/

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Taryn Simon: Resisting Simplicity and Exposing Complicity



“the ultimate disruptor” — Jill Birch, Canadian Art


The final presentation by the final speaker in the forensics-themed Canadian Art Encounters: International Artists Series took place on December 11 at Innis College, University of Toronto. Initially—as my campus’ post-strike return-to-class schedule was being negotiated—it looked like catching Taryn Simon’s sold out talk would mean taking an overnight bus from my alma mater to my current institution to get back in time to deliver a lecture. Even though that didn’t transpire, the effort would have been worthwhile and apropos, to hear from an artist whose work resists simplicity. Each series typically takes Simon four years to prepare and produce, resulting in piles and filing cabinets of paperwork, such as records of correspondence stemming from extensive negotiations with stakeholders. “It’s not fun,” she said flat out, when asked a leading question about enjoying the archiving impulse.

Though thought of as a photographer, Simon sees her work as anchored in photography, text, design, video and most recently, performance. The range of the New York-based artist’s collaborators/subjects are as impressive as the international scope of her exhibition record at age 40: she partnered with the late programmer Aaron Schwartz in creating imageatlas.org to explore the “idea of a universal visual language” that reveals how concepts present in different countries; she has photographed Pussy Riot members, Masha Alekhina and Nadya Tolokonnikova, for Vogue; she has taken portraits of Indian men who are very much alive but who have been declared dead to change the outcome of land inheritance; she has photographed Americans who were wrongfully convicted, usually by misidentification, in poignant settings like the place of arrest or the alibi location; and she has documented art and confiscated goods at the CIA and US Customs at JFK Airport, respectively. It’s no wonder Jill Birch, CEO and publisher of Canadian Art introduced Simon as “the ultimate disruptor.” As Salman Rushdie writes in relation to Simon, “one of the arts of great photography is to get yourself into the place” where “dangers—physical, intellectual, even moral—may await.”(1) The occasional impenetrable barrier underscores how amazing it is to have broken through so many other barriers. Simon shared that she was unable to convince Disney to allow her to photograph “all the ugly innards of the city” like holding cells and garbage being transported through tunnels. She admits that the rejection letter from them is better that any photo she could have taken, since it became fodder for her art.

Simon gave an overview of work featured in the new survey text, Rear Views, A Star-forming Nebula, and the Office of Foreign Propaganda (2015, Tate Publishing). She also spoke about an additional series, Paperwork, and the Will of Capital: An Account of Flora as Witness, which was shown in the 2015 Venice Biennale. The series is an example of her research process embracing tangents and her semiotics background coming to bear. Her starting point was researching George Sinclair, a horticulturalist interested in the survival of grasses. Then she ruminated on Egyptian burial practices; the present day flower industry of the Netherlands—the “Amazon of flowers,” where any flower is available anytime; and Dutch ‘impossible bouquets’ painted in the 17th Century over several months as each flower came into season. From there, she began looking at flower arrangements in the foreground of “nationalistic bombastic” photographs documenting the signing of contracts by the likes of President Ronald Reagan. She had the arrangements analyzed by professionals and recreated them, shooting them against the same background colour(s) as in the original scene. Simon describes the arrangements in her images as castrated, as “silent observers.” Also included are reproduced texts from the agreements as well as botanical pressings in a “race against time” to see if they will outlive the photographs. She observes that by revisiting contracts from the past, it’s possible to see initiatives that didn’t take hold, and conversely, to see roots of trends that remain strong today.

Simon observes that she is drawn to problems that don’t have a solution or an answer, to “something that keeps circling on itself” where there’s an “inarticulated noise…that moves in many directions.” While reflecting on all that she has exposed, from racial profiling to the smuggling of the date rape drug GBL to the dangers of nuclear waste to the cultural pressure for hymenoplasty to the inbreeding of animals to the systematic poisoning of animals to gallery censorship, I began feeling bewildered by society, and John Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” started going through my head. Here’s to attempting to “impose order on the bloody chaos of history,” as Rachel Donadio wrote of Simon earlier this year in the New York Times (2), to being a “valuable counterforce” as articulated by Birch, and to striving for a better world next year—if we want it.

If you missed Simon’s presentation, check out her TED Talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/taryn_simon_photographs_secret_sites?language=en.

(1) Rushdie, Salman. Foreward, An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar, 2008, Steidl, http://tarynsimon.com/essays-videos/docs/An%20American%20Index%20of%20the%20Hidden%20and%20Unfamiliar_Salman%20Rushdie.pdf, 1(qtd.)-4.
(2) Donadio, Rachel. “In Taryn Simon’s Paris Show, a Look at How a Hidden Hand Organizes Reality.” The New York Times, 18 March 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/arts/design/in-taryn-simons-paris-show-a-look-at-how-a-hidden-hand-organizes-reality.html?_r=0

Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon



“…there is equality in Victorine’s sexual intimacy with Manet…”


In preparation for a conference presentation, I’ve been thinking about Édouard Manet’s painting, Olympia a lot, in the context of researching a recent appropriation of it (Margaret Sutherland’s Emperor Haute Couture from 2011, featuring former Prime Minister Stephen Harper nude). And, in my studio practice, I’ve been contemplating how trying it is to pose convincingly for erotic art, even when it’s purposefully ironic. Thus, I was keen to read Paris Red (2015, W. M. Norton & Company) by Maureen Gibbon, which is a fictional exploration of the development of Manet’s infamous painting. The author took inspiration from academic sources and has captured—if briefly—important details of this turning point in modern art, such as the proliferation of erotic photographs; the controversy of realism in painting; and Manet’s belief (stemming from his training) that art should reflect its time rather than rehash the past.

In the introductory chapter, the reader is introduced to the narrator and protagonist, 17-year-old Victorine Meurent (aka. Trine); her roommate, Denise (aka. Nise); and an exotic stranger they meet on the street who wines and dines them. The stranger turns out to be Manet, then 30 years old (he is never actually referred to by either his first or last name, and oddly, it is the book jacket that confirms his identity). We learn immediately that Victorine is artistic and fearless, an obvious match for the avant-garde painter. She has the self-absorption characteristic of adolescents, evident in this chapter through her mentioning seven times to the reader her green boots, which were given to her by a prostitute. The entire book is written from Victorine’s point of view. As a result, the only break from the patterns of adolescent thought and speech is dialogue spoken by Manet and occasionally, his coterie, a photographer whose studio they visit, her parents, and her boss (before she quits her job). Parallel sentences and sentence fragments are frequent and seem melodramatic; for example, she muses, “Only then does he give me back my hand. So I can use my knife and fork. So I can use my hand to eat” (p. 56).

The first ninety or so pages centre around Victorine and Denise trying to decide whether or not they will have a ménage à trois with Manet; even so, the transformation of the relationship into a twosome feels like a fait accompli from the get-go. Ultimately, Victorine trades her roommate, who had been like a sister to her, in for a lover who rents her a place of her own. She also gives up her trade as a silver burnisher to become his model. Although Manet dominates her world, she is never at his mercy. She exercises agency in modeling for an artist friend of his, Alfred Stevens. Also, there is equality in Victorine’s sexual intimacy with Manet demonstrated by, for example, the absence of jealousy and by their shared participation in her birth control. This equality is echoed by their professional interactions in the studio, where he welcomes her opinion and offers to buy her her own supplies when he realizes she’s been using his discarded tubes of watercolour paint. Naturally, there are liaisons that blur the lines between sexual and professional; for instance, he sketches her face while positioned between her legs, and she caresses herself to get the position of her hand just right in Olympia. Unfortunately, before being witness to their erotic egalitarianism, the reader must plod through passages like their initial lovemaking, in which he tips her breasts like bottles, tugs, sucks, and comments, “I like how they feel in my mouth” (p. 93). If this section were longer, it might be a contender for the bad sex in fiction award (yes, this is a real thing in the literary world).

This book is heavy on fantasy, and I don’t mean that in an erotic way. Doubt has been cast on earlier assumptions that Manet and Meurent were more than colleagues. For example, as V R Main observes, Stevens was her lover (in Paris Red, they only share a close-mouthed kiss) but Manet probably wasn’t, given that his life was cut short by syphilis while she lived to be elderly, suggesting that she did not contract the then incurable disease (1).

Their romantic involvement, if unlikely in real life, is essential to building momentum in the story because it effectively functions as foreplay for the creation of Olympia. 65 per cent of the book passes before they begin work on it. The painting is described but not named outright, much like the character of Manet. Also like him, its identity is only known conclusively through the book jacket. For the purposes of the story, the name of the artwork is not as important as the identity of the model in the foreground. Victorine recognizes herself on the canvas. She sees that Manet has painted her with dignity, yet he avoided sanitizing her. In realizing that fact, she realizes her own potential.

(1) Main, V R. “The Naked Truth.” The Guardian. 3 Oct., 2008. http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/oct/03/women.manet

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Laurie Simmons at the Jewish Museum



“...young women assume dolls’ attributes in social media selfies and vie for celebrity status.”


Sarah Thornton, “Canada’s hippest academic” (1) stated in her talk at the ROM last fall that artists’ freedoms intensified with Duchamp’s urinal sculpture, Fountain (1917). In its wake, “contemporary art made belief a central concern”—belief that an object is art because the artist says so, and that the artist has the authority to say so. Thornton elaborated that maintaining that authority is not easy, and branding is key.

Laurie Simmons, about whom Thornton writes in the book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts (Norton & Company, 2014), has always addressed belief in one way or another. She has been photographing constructed realities, such as dollhouse interiors, throughout her career. Recently, her attention has turned to life-size Japanese sex dolls, cosplay, and Doll Girls. In the latter subculture, which is the focus of How We See, her current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, young women assume dolls’ attributes in social media selfies and vie for celebrity status.

The way I see it is that belief in the artist’s skill is paramount. The viewer must believe that what is presented in the gallery has greater cultural worth than image search results on the Internet for ‘Doll Girls.’ Otherwise, why pay admission? Pristinely printed 70 x 48” images that tower over the viewer and command attention in an ornate room certainly fit the bill.

Simmons’ head and shoulder portraits feature models with eyes drawn on their lids. Eyelashes are drawn above, and in one work, they are even affixed. With the lids closed, the upper lashes thicken and accentuate the lower lashes. As a security guard mentioned when I struck up a brief conversation, many people do not immediately notice this trickery. In fact, when I was there, one visitor was most concerned with comparing a model to Miley Cyrus. Only in person is it evident that the texture of the eyelids mimics canvas as much as it looks like skin. On occasion, there is evidence of the artist’s hand (2) on the lid, such as a slight angle interrupting the smooth curve of the iris, acting as a clue to this intervention. I like that she has also lined the models’ lips, which I have always found to be a bizarre strategy. Arguably, it calls the larger world of cosmetics into question, rather than just the Doll Girls subculture.

Simmons’ interest in beautification is longstanding. Thornton writes that as a child, she had memorized the names of lipstick and nail polish colours. Perhaps it’s because I have Thornton on my mind, but Simmons’ work strikes me as something of a sociological survey, in that judgment seems to be withheld in the depiction of the Doll Girls. This may be because Simmons doesn’t consider herself to be an ardent feminist (for more on this, see my post on this blog from October 2010 about her artist talk at the International Center of Photography). I’m aware that I’m projecting my own feminist values when I see elements of the women’s white clothing (3), such as the word ‘no’ on the collar, as signs of protest.

In the arc of art history, rationally, the portraits shouldn’t feel disturbing. A connection could be made to ancient white marble statues that appeared to have blank eyes, but which we now know were painted in polychrome. In Western painting, there is a long tradition of women not meeting the viewer’s objectifying gaze. Early daguerreotypes featured subjects with their eyes closed because of the dreadfully long exposure time needed. And then came the surrealists, who were fascinated by the act of sleeping and capturing it in images. All the same, Simmons six portraits read as disturbing. Maybe it’s that their vacant stares make they feel like robots. Maybe it’s that they have warm backgrounds in colours reminiscent of lava lamps, underscoring a sense of artificiality. Maybe it’s that Simmons, who I think of as giving life to the inanimate, has stolen some of the figures’ humanity and their dignity seems not to have suffered.

How We See made headlines when fellow Pictures Generation colleague Richard Prince nabbed one of Simmons’ images from her popular Instagram account, printed it and exhibited it as his own (as is his way). This brings us back to Duchamp’s urinal. Given that the original was lost, is Alfred Stieglitz’s documentation or the replica any less believable as Fountain than the original?

The exhibition end date has been extended to August 16.

(1) Webb, Ann. Introduction to presentation by Sarah Thornton, “33 Artists in 3 Acts.” Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON. 20 Oct. 2014.

(2) The makeup artists are Landy Dean and James Kaliardos. Simmons, Laurie. “Laurie Simmons,” Artforum. 11 Mar. 2015 http://artforum.com/words/id=50603

(3) The designer is Rachel Antonoff. Hering, Deirdre. “The Lifeless Eyes of Laurie Simmons’s Human Dolls,” Hyperallergic. 22 July 2015 http://hyperallergic.com/224074/the-lifeless-eyes-of-laurie-simmonss-human-dolls/

Friday, July 24, 2015

Queer artists breaking the silence: Foley Gallery & Hamilton Artists Inc.



“Being queer...is like a tornado...” ~ Alize Zorlutuna


The week that the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal nationwide, I visited Sage Sohier’s At Home With Themselves in Foley Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York, which features same-sex couples in 1980s America. I cannot imagine a more fitting week to have seen this exhibition of photographs. These domestic scenes that were once verboten and that once read as symbols of hope now strike me as symbols of victory—in particular, Sohier’s portrait of newlyweds Cindy and Barb cutting a wedding carrot cake in a kitchen. Most are more mundane, showing daily activities like cooking and bathing. Today, domestic scenes of gay life are increasingly part of public consciousness, evident in advertising and television. However, as the gallery’s press release notes, when the American artist began the series, she was unable to find a publisher to print a catalogue. The catalogue was published just last year, by Spotted Books. I’m pleased to say that an autographed copy is now part of the collection at the library where I work.



A week and a half before I was in New York, I attended a panel discussion at Hamilton Artists Inc. back in Canada called Queering the Gaze: Subverting the Heteronorm. Part of Pride Hamilton, it was moderated by Ian Jarvis and the speakers were Sophie Hackett, JJ Levine, and Alize Zorlutuna. Myriad connections between Sohier’s show and Queering the Gaze became apparent.

Hackett is the Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. She observed that before the Stonewall riots, photographs with queer subject matter are scarce. Afterwards, though, there was an explosion, a proliferation—as seen with artists like Sohier and Jake Peters, who was HIV positive when he traveled around the world taking photos of subjects like ACTUP protests. Hackett commented that queer images have been under-addressed in curating. “There is a lot to wrangle,” she says. For instance, not all queer visual culture is progressive. She showed a Weegee photo taken in 1939 called Transvestite/ The Gay Deceiver, next to which the artist had written (seemingly with judgment), ‘Boy’ on a print. A strong visual record of queer life is important, she explained, because exposure and acceptance are interconnected. She noted that photography has been used historically to “shake up categories of gender identification.” It continues to do so through contemporary artists like Levine and Zorlutuna, she said, whose work cleaves and exposes “the range of other possibilities” to the gender binary.

Sohier’s subjects are queer couples who were her friends, or friends of friends, or willing participants contacted through newspaper ads. She was motivated subconsciously to photograph them because her father was closeted, in spite of having had male partners. Montreal-based Levine, like Sohier, photographs queer friends in domestic settings and has been working on the series for the past 10 years. “Making images has been a huge part of my identity,” the trans queer artist stated. Both artists have on occasion photographed the same subjects a second time, which raises the issue of time passing. Sohier has identified a sense of tentativeness in some of her images because of the widely perceived need for discretion in the 80s, between risking losing one’s job and being discriminated against in the height of the AIDS epidemic. If Sohier’s subjects are arguably tense, Levine’s are relaxed, and not the least bit closeted. If truth is masked in his portraits of individuals and couples, it’s only in the domestic settings themselves; they are “completely transformed” by Levine, who has gone as far as rearranging an entire home while the couple—who gave carte blanche—stepped out. The effect is portraits rich with atmosphere.

Zorlutuna, a Toronto artist, has also worked with domesticity in a sense. Intrigued by the sexual connotations of Turkish carpets, she described them as evocative of “giant vagina[s] on the dining room floor.” Using touch as “a strategy,” she interacts with the carpet as if masturbating in the film, Stroke (which can be viewed here.). Equally memorable is her use of beaver pelts in the same fashion, in Luminous Bodies (2014). “I don’t deny that it’s funny,” she said, but these works are more about “making strange” the object. She clarified that she makes allusions to sex but her work isn’t “actually about sex.” Similarly, Levine stated that when nudity is included in his work, it’s usually at the request of the subject and is used to talk about queer identity, not sex.

Zorlutuna explained that her focus is on the queer “experiences of silence.” “We are constantly negotiating how to speak about ourselves,” she said. An example of speaking out is Zorlutuna’s ongoing durational performance, Crawl. Reminiscent of Sohier’s struggle to find a publisher, Zorlutuna crawls backwards up the stairs of cultural institutions internationally, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a response to the barriers she feels. She pondered aloud when she would get her own blockbuster exhibition at the AGO, acknowledging that at least there is a woman represented there right now (Emily Carr, about whom I blogged in my most recent post). With her work, Zorlutuna explained that she is interested in what queerness feels like, not what it looks like. It feels like “being just slightly off-kilter.” She elaborated that in some ways queer people fit in the world and in others, they don’t, as if they are at an oblique angle. Her geometric tattoo on her upper arm is a constant reminder of this state. Being queer, she said, is like a tornado in terms of the unsteadiness and disorientation.

Caitlin Jenner’s recent transition from male to female was mentioned several times during the panel. With Caitlin, Zorlutuna said, the LGBTQ conversation is gaining traction. It struck me that the widespread publicity of her story creates an entry point for the public to engage with Sohier’s only photograph of a single individual in the show. The portrait in question, shown above, is of Shadow, taken in 2002, featuring a man who leans forward in a deck chair with his hands clasped together, his eyes twinkling and his lips hinting at a smile. His posture and expression exude a feeling of comfort in his own skin, the open door in the background seeming symbolic. It stands in contrast to a portrait of Shadow as a woman from 1987. She is in studded leather with her breasts exposed and she seems disconnected from her lover because of their lack of eye contact.

Clearly, the public consciousness hasn’t fully embraced queer sexuality and gender bending, though, as evidenced by the egging of Levine’s work outside of Hamilton Artists Inc. He characterized it as an inevitable act of public expression rather than an inexcusable act of vandalism. He stated that this behaviour likely stems from “gender discomfort.” He often witnesses speculation by cisgender audiences about the gender of his subjects, which is practically an “auto-impulse.” The assessment is often incorrect, putting the viewer at an oblique angle.

Sage Sohier’s At Home With Themselves closes on Sunday at Foley Gallery and JJ Levine’s Queering the Gaze runs until September 27 at Hamilton Artists Inc.

Images:

l. to r.: Zorlutuna, Levine and Hackett, courtesy of Hamilton Artists Inc.

Sage Sohier, Shadow, San Francisco, 2002, archival pigment print, courtesy of Foley Gallery.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Tangling with Emily Carr



image: Emily Carr, Indian War Canoes (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on Cardboard, 65 x 95.5 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes, courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario


“…a timely discussion…”


It’s summer and I have accrued a blogging backlog. I like to think that Emily Carr (1871-1945), about whom I’m writing today, would appreciate why this post is delayed. I’ve been camping (read: communing with nature), walking the grounds of the Woodstock music festival (read: embracing bohemia), exploring the Pollock-Krasner studio, and dropping off art in Brooklyn.

On June 6, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a panel discussion, Emily Carr: A Gathering. Sarah Milroy, curator of the associated exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, was the moderator, and the speakers were filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal; writers Susan Crean and Susan Musgrave; and visual artists Silke Otto-Knapp, Jessica Stockholder, and Corrine Hunt.

Milroy began with what she called a “confessional exposé,” sharing how growing up in British Columbia informed her appreciation of the iconic artist. For instance, there were highly anticipated annual visits to a huge Arbutus tree on Savoy Island, which was consistently as big as she remembered. That a tree could captivate children is unsurprising, given Stockholder’s description of trees as metaphors, with their stillness, interconnectedness, and long life spans.

There’s something tantalizing about BC. Crean suggested that Ontarians have to learn the colour green in their first encounter with the province. Baichwal, meanwhile, recalled taking Edward Burtynsky—the subject of her documentary with Nick de Pencier, Watermark (2013)—to BC to see “a real watershed.” He was inspired to make his first purely landscape photograph during that visit. Like Milroy, Baichwal commented on the scale of nature in BC. Being raised in Victoria made her feel “totally insignificant and irrelevant,” a sensation that she relished. Tourist areas were flooded with trite landscape watercolours, which Carr might have dismissed as ‘curios’ (1). Even as a moody teen, Baichwal knew that Carr’s work was different. She “nailed it” in an “entirely unique” manner, translating the landscape without being decorative—without being clichéd, as Stockholder articulated it. Otto-Knapp assessed Carr’s work with fresh eyes, having grown up landlocked in Germany and being somewhat new to spending time in Canada from her base in Los Angeles. She described Carr’s work as more revealing of the artist’s hand than the nature she depicted. Perhaps this explains the visceral reaction to her work, which was expressed by Musgrave. She wasn’t simply documenting the landscape; she was emoting through powerfully gestural works. Her oeuvre reflects Baichwal’s take on documentaries: it’s possible to convey not objective truth but truth in the sense of “a real engagement with context.”

A personal connection with Carr was a common thread in the discussion. Milroy, for example, said, “Every time you tangle with Carr…you end up a slightly changed person.” Some of the speakers have historical connections with Carr and others feel an affinity with her to the extent that she has inspired new work. Carr reportedly painted at Musgrave’s first home near Sidney, which contains a 190-foot Douglas-fir tree cutting through the house. She admitted that she feels haunted by Carr in Haida Gwaii, where she lives now. In 1972, she wrote a poem about Carr, A House of One’s Own, which begins with, “I guess it’s in my blood/ to want to be like Emily Carr.” Hunt, who is of First Nations Komoyue and Tlingit heritage, has always had Carr in the background because her grandfather met and corresponded with the artist. Crean, like Carr, spent extended periods of time visiting First Nations people to inform The Laughing One (HarperFlamingoCanada, 2001), which was an attempt “to understand what she [Carr] actually knew.” Using Carr’s exchange of letters with a Salish basket maker and close friend named Sophie Frank, Crean and Shirley Bear did a performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery entitled Dear Sophie, Dear Emily (1996), a contemporary dialogue about art, appropriation and friendship in which they assumed their identities. Life came to imitate art: Crean began receiving letters addressed to Emily Carr, and she decided it was time for a break. Stockholder can be linked to Carr through a shared appreciation for First Nations art; in her installations, she has ruminated on the use of the oval in totem iconography. She was raised in Vancouver, where Carr’s work “was always around me…It was really everywhere.” Otto-Knapp made a watercolour portrait of Carr in Otto-Knapp’s current exhibition at the AGO, Land Lies in Water. As a watercolour painter, she said she relates to Carr’s assertive and economical choices about colour.

It was a timely discussion, with A Gathering occurring less than a week after the release of the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the Canadian residential school system following six years of interviews with First Nations people. Milroy reflected on the “fraught endeavour” of including native aritsts’ work with a single artist from settler society who depicted native culture with fervour. Milroy didn’t want Carr’s work to overshadow the First Nations art, but she wanted to create a “colonial sensibility” and to encourage people to contemplate ancestry. Clearly it is important to avoid the trappings of shows like the 1927 exhibition that brought Carr overdue recognition, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, at the National Gallery of Canada. It combined confiscated First Nations works with modernist works, at a time when the government was trying to strategically obliterate their communities while also celebrating them. Hunt addressed this tension reminiscent of the Orientalist impulse in art. She said that when she was young there were always outsiders visiting Alert Bay, where she was raised, ranging from anthropologists to artists like Carr. As the residential school system mentality took hold, “Indian agents” appeared on the lookout for cultural expression and they were forced to be discreet. Potlatches were made illegal. She noted that a scene like in the painting shown here would have gone away for a period of time, but it is coming back. A case in point is the film Hunt made for an exhibition about living culture featuring school children in Alert Bay.

Culture can be suppressed, but it can also be taken away literally, like having totem poles relocated. This is the problem, Musgrave says, of something being recognized as art. Hunt said, “You can take away a piece of wood but you can’t take away what it represents.” Carr was determined to document a culture she thought was disappearing, but as Crean stressed, that hardly makes her an unproblematic heroine; for more on this discussion, click here. In the context of discussing repatriation, Hunt emphasized that it’s important to have soft hearts and recognize that people don’t set out to hurt one another. Milroy’s anecdote was complementary; she recalled a group of young Canadian First Nations people encountering a totem pole in Cambridge from their immediate culture that they had never seen before, and instead of being furious, they described it as a “miraculous encounter.”

The situation for First Nations people in Carr’s lifetime seems all too familiar today. One area where change is more obvious is the status of women. In Carr’s day, women were seen as having a delicate constitution unsuited to landscape painting. Milroy explained that Carr was both praised and abused for being “willing to go outside by herself.” This was a time when unhappiness in female patients was written off as hysteria, as was the case with Carr on a trip to Europe. Otto-Knapp described her travelling without support or connections as incredible and uncommon at that time. Milroy lamented that people have been stumped by Carr’s independence and how to categorize her in terms of relationship status. “She’s loved for her defiance of gender norms,” she said. Milroy confessed that she fought the impulse to ask how Carr’s work could become more relatable or more easily understood through “air traffic control of her vagina.” Touché!

(1) Nesbit, James K. “Old Homes and Families.” Victoria Daily Colonist, 29 Nov. 1953, qtd. in Stewart, Jay and Macnair, Peter, “Reconstructing Emily Carr in Alaska.” 2006. Hill, Charles C., Johanne Lamoureux, and Ian M. Thom. Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2006. 12-41. Print.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit



“…a power couple in which they both wore the pants, so to speak.”

Visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts last week-end for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit was enjoyable, save for witnessing a backwater reaction to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). In this painting, Kahlo, then recently divorced from Rivera (whom she later remarried), wears a men’s suit and sports cropped hair, with strands of her long locks hacked off by the scissors she wields. With derision, a woman said, “Transgender” and her male companion scoffed loudly. I made eye contact with the man, who was closer to me, and exaggerated a look of disdain. Kahlo never felt entirely comfortable when she was based in Detroit during the period that Rivera toiled away on a modernist mural in the DIA for 11 months; posthumously, it would seem that she is denied full acceptance as well.

Curated by Mark Rosenthal, the exhibition runs from March 15 to July 12. It contains almost 70 works, primarily from their time in Detroit. Some, like the aforementioned self-portrait, may seem peripheral but they indicate what their Detroit work anticipated. When the Mexican couple arrived in Motor City, Rivera’s reputation preceded him, but Kahlo was relatively unknown, as demonstrated by archival material in the show. Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932-33) attracted as many as 10,000 visitors in a single day to the DIA, not without controversy, due to its socialist subject matter. Kahlo’s work during her time in Detroit is considered uneven, but she gained artistic direction there. If Rivera’s focus was external (i.e., a rumination on society), hers was internal. Over the course of the 11 months, she lost a baby and received word that her mother was dying in Mexico. Pain transformed into paintings that have ultimately captured the hearts of audiences as much as Rivera’s work has.

The accompanying catalogue is an asset, but it’s still worthwhile to see the show. Otherwise, the viewer would be bereft of many details. For example, the texture would be missed in Kahlo’s scarf in her wedding portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera (1931), as would the clotting effect of red paint that mimics blood in A Few Small Nips (1935), a work about domestic homicide.

Preparatory drawings are another highlight. Seeing one for Henry Ford Hospital (1932) beside the final work memorializing Kahlo’s abortion/miscarriage (1), one senses how isolated she felt in the city; the sketch has no background but the painting has the River Rouge Plant—Rivera’s focus for the mural—in the background. Given the difference in scale of Kahlo and Rivera's work (the smallest work by Kahlo is a self-portrait that resembles a cameo, measuring 1 9/16 by 1 3/16 inches), the show really gains momentum when Rivera’s mural cartoons are encountered. Their overwhelming scale can’t be captured in reproductions; you simply have to be in the room with them to feel the pulse of the life-size factory workers and scientists. Amazingly, they were forgotten in storage for decades. The show also contains film clips, such as Diego working on the mural; at the end of that particular clip, a black and white shot of a completed portion morphs into its colour version, reminiscent of the 'freeze frame' technique used by Julie Taymor in the film, Frida (2002), to effectively bring Kahlo’s paintings to life.

My only criticism is that the lighting was dim in some places. As a result, it was difficult to see Kahlo’s collaborative ‘exquisite corpse’ drawings. Kahlo may have insisted she wasn’t a surrealist, but she engaged in their practice of having one person draw part of a picture and fold it almost at the edge so the next person who draws continues without knowing most of the visual information. (Personal aside: It’s also a favourite game of mine to play with my nieces and nephews).

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is a fascinating slice of the artists’ careers and lives. The signage throughout the show emphasized both artists’ experiences in tandem, giving a sense of Rivera and Kahlo as a power couple in which they both wore the pants, so to speak. At the end of the exhibition, the viewer is pointed to Rivera Court, where his mural (shown above) is located, arguably giving him the final word. Then again, since Kahlo’s work had never been shown at the DIA, the mounting of this exhibition (with 26 of her works) is a huge step forward.

(1) Grimberg argues that Kahlo's loss of the baby, previously considered a miscarriage, was induced by Kahlo. Grimberg, Salomon, "The Lost Desire: Frida Kahlo in Detroit", 148. In Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2015, 144-163.