Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

“…a natural raconteur…”—Barnaby Martin

In my recent SAMLA presentation about blogs functioning as extended artist statements, I briefly discussed renowned Chinese artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei, who used to blog up to eight hours a day. Leading up to the conference, I wanted to bone up on the details of his baffling detention, so I picked up Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Faber and Faber, Inc., 2013). It reiterates the basics reported by the media, namely that the government had kept a close eye on his activism, brought him in for questioning without revealing charges to the public, and released him 81 days later, citing tax fraud as the motivation. The book goes much deeper, showing that Weiwei is no stranger to controversy and that his interest in democracy and artistic freedom is well founded. For example, it describes the Stars group of which Weiwei was part. After their show of paintings outside the national gallery was declared illegal, Weiwei decided to move to New York in the early eighties, which he described as ‘another world’ (p. 161).

“Come and visit and we can talk about everything,” Weiwei said a few days after his release in July 2011 to Barnaby Martin, the journalist who wrote Hanging Man. Since Weiwei begrudgingly took an oath saying he wouldn’t talk to the media, this offer is really something. A British ex-pat who has been based in China for many years, Martin brings the perspective of an outsider, but one who also knows the culture intimately. The local colour (example: “pancakes filled with chopped lettuce and meat of unknown provenance” served from a bicycle with a hotplate attached—p. 151) may make you want to visit China…that is, if you aren’t worried about being stopped at the airport, being told your travel plans “may damage the state security” (p. 81) and being taken to a shabby hotel and later a military compound in a van, while hooded and struggling to breathe.

The book weaves in and out of the author’s face-time with the artist. It’s not actually until page 70 that Martin gets to his chat with Weiwei after his release. He is skilled at building anticipation, delaying the coverage of their union by giving a detailed account of how he hoped to approach the interview and recounting earlier interviews he had had with the artist. Martin describes Weiwei as “a natural raconteur with a colourful turn of phrase” (p. 78). This quality and his excellent memory are maximized in the interview.

You might say that Weiwei came by his situation honestly: early on in his incarceration, he was told he was being charged with subversion of the State, the same crime as his father, Ai Qing, one of the most famous Chinese poets, whose works were practically required reading for the Chinese Communist Party before he fell out of favour with Mao Zedong. Martin observes that the lives of Weiwei and Qing are “intertwined with the great people and events of modern Chinese history” (p. 12), and that perspective informs the structure of the book. The exposition of Chinese history in Hanging Man happens in fits and spurts, not necessarily in order. Surprisingly, the result is not disorienting; if anything, it maintains the reader’s interest, and prevents the urge to simply skip past a section on background. Historical content from the last century includes the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the 4 May movement of 1919; the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the Chinese civil war (1927-50); the anti-intellectualist purge of 1958 that coincided with the Great Leap Forward; the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1965; the failed assassination attempt of Mao Zedong in 1971; the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989; and the Falung Gong demonstration of 1999. Events such as a the latter (where a silent protest led to individuals being abducted en masse and allegedly murdered, forced into hard labour, or institutionalized) read as harbingers, making Weiwei’s experience less baffling, though no less disturbing.

Martin does an equally good job of distilling complex political situations for the non-specialized reader (like the virtually non-legal status of the Chinese Communist Party) as he does deconstructing the meaning of Weiwei’s conceptual art pieces that encompass photography, sculpture, installation, architecture, and social media. This process subtly parallels Weiwei explaining modern art and democracy to his prison guards, with whom he developed a curious bond. It brings to mind yesterday’s news coverage following Nelson Mandela’s death, in which his prison warden-turned-friend recounted sneaking Mandela’s baby grandaughter past security cameras so he could meet her. Martin is intrigued by this relationship, arguing that Weiwei may be exhibiting Stockholme syndrome or that the guards received orders to treat him well, knowing the whole world was watching (since some of Weiwei’s colleagues have not come out unscathed as he did). Martin also acknowledges the sympathy that an author can develop from spending time with someone who has experienced injustice, and describes the conversations as emotionally exhausting. For the most part, he seems to have retained the burden, producing a measured account of Weiwei’s experience with the police.

Hanging Man is recommended for a general audience as well as academics with an interest in art, criminal justice, or Asian studies.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement

“What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.”—Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s, Los Angeles

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia, called Making Feminist Meanings Across Worlds: Print, Digital, and Networked Feminisms and Women’s Studies. The following is a shortened version of my paper, “The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement.”

Renowned art critic Jerry Saltz says, “You may think your work is about daffodils; I think it’s about scrambled eggs” (1). As a feminist artist, I don’t want to risk this type of misinterpretation, so I rely on language to supplement my art practice. Many artists feel that a one-page artist statement will suffice to explain their work, but to play it safe, I’ve written Artist In Transit, an 85,000-word blog.

Karen Evans writes that in the mid-90s, theorists were generally hopeful about the digital age. They perceived it as a place where traditional communities could be “superseded by open, democratic placeless cyberspaces in which equalities of wealth, class, gender and ethnicity had no purpose” (2). A few years later, blogs appeared, and took on this challenge.

In May 2009, the same month I started my blog, the power of social media to spur social activism was underscored when a blog by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was censored, removing three years’ worth of posts critiquing the government. He was later held in police custody for 81 days, arguably related to his activism. Going back to 2009, feminist art blogging was uneven: that year, Mira Schor lamented that the contributors lacked commitment, professionalism, and accountability (3). My goal was to be an exception, especially because I intended the blog to be a tool for tenure consideration as an academic art librarian. In my presentation, I spoke not from the perspective of a librarian but from the perspective of a feminist artist, touching on the capacity for blogs to promote art and art criticism, to spur new art ideas, and to encourage networking within the real and virtual art world. “An artist’s statement….gives you validation [and] visibility,” (4) and I feel that blogs can function in a similar way.

Before exploring these topics, I started with the basics: What is a blog? What is an artist statement? Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s Director in Los Angeles, writes, “‘What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.” (5) Perhaps an easier definition to start with, then, is that of the artist statement. Definitions of the term ‘artist statement’ are plentiful and varied, but I particularly like this one by curator and art historian G. James Daichendt: “Usually a testimony of the interests, background and goals of the artist, this document explains, justifies, or contextualizes the work of the artist…The best artist statements prepare viewers to enter and engage the work.” (6) When I started my blog, I set out to capture elements that studio professor Deborah A. Rockman associates with artist statements, namely the sources of art ideas, ranging from favourite artists to influential books and articles (7).

Artist statements resemble blogs in several ways, making for a reasonable comparison: art critic Edward Sozanski notes that artist statements reveal the psychology and personality of the artist (8) and curator Lydia Yee feels that artist statements are “an opportunity to tell a story” (9). The story I planned to tell with my blog was how my art ideas developed. Initially, to borrow the phrasing that came out of a study at Rutgers University, I was more of a ‘meformer’ than an ‘informer’ (10). As the scope of the blog broadened to include art criticism of shows relating to my own work, it became something of a feminist soapbox.

The challenge in writing about gallery shows is that as artist Kate Britton says, “social media and networked culture has rendered everyone a critic” (11). Experts waver on whether a blog is a legitimate venue for art criticism and artistic expression. However, the two artists mentioned earlier are indicative of the credibility of blogs: in 2010, Mira Schor received a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant to develop a blog for a year about her art as a counterpart to her latest book, and in 2011, Ai Weiwei's translated posts were released as a book and endorsed by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and by the directors of the Tate Modern (Chris Dercon) and Yale University Art Gallery (Jock Reynolds). My hope is that if I can write well-considered, thorough reviews, people will give my studio work a chance. Although personally, I find that blogging distracts me from creating art, I do believe there’s merit in the strategy undertaken by senior artist Denise Green; long before the 2.0 era, she began writing about art to establish credibility in an art world divided by gender (12).

The blog is a way to motivate myself to keep on top of what’s happening farther afield, but it’s also a way to let outsiders know what’s happening in North Bay’s small but vibrant arts community. I described some of the unanticipated connections I’ve made locally as a result of the blog. These experiences demonstrate the importance of keeping the ‘meformer’ impulse in check, and demonstrate what Hrag Vartanian, editor of the arts blogazine, Hyperallergic, says: “The online world is as much about giving back as it is getting. And if you think you’re going to put something out there because you want it back immediately, then you are not going to get it back. But if you help people online…you’re going to get it back tenfold” (13).


(1) Qtd. by Wojak, Angie and Miller, Stacy. Starting Your Career as an Artist. New York: Allworth Press, 2011, 18. Print.
(2) Evans, Karen. “Re-thinking Community in the Digital Age?” Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Eds. Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 79-89, 82. Print.
(3) Schor, Mira, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
(4) Wojak and Miller, 131.
(5) Neil, Jonathan T.D. “Can I get a Witness?” Art Review, Oct. 2011, 139. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(6) Daichendt, G. James. Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research. Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., 2012, chapter 4. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(7) Rockman, Deborah A. The Art of Teaching Art: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Foundations of Drawing-based Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 131. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(8) Qtd. by Grant, Daniel. The Business of Being an Artist. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth Press, 2000. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(9) Nieves, Marysol, ed. Taking Aim! 1st ed. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011. Print.
(10) Naaman, Mor, Boase, Jeffrey and Lai, Chih-Hui. “Is it really about me? Message content in social awareness streams.” CSCW ‘10. February 2010: 189-192. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(11) Britton, Kate. “Social Media in Contemporary Art.” Das Platforms Emerging & Contemporary Art, 21, 2011. Web. Aug. 17, 2013.
(12) Green, Denise. Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
(13) Nieves, 229.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Anita Steckel at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

“Not one to mince words…”

This week, Exposure: Anita Steckel’s Fight Against Censorship opened at the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center within the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC). En route to a conference in Atlanta, I made a four-hour detour to visit this archival exhibition. Steckel (1930-2012) was a Second Wave feminist artist and educator. Her personal papers were donated to the NMWA, and excerpts are on display until May 9, 2014.

Steckel was an easy target for censorship, because of the directness and brazenness of her work. Consider the collaged piece from 1971 in the exhibition: a colour reproduction of the American $1 bill, it had ‘Legal Gender’ handwritten along the top and Washington’s face enclosed in the shaft of a sketched penis. Equally ‘to the point’ is a photograph with an altered New York skyline (click here for a similar image). Skyscrapers are extended by Steckel’s hand, their rooftops converted into phallic heads (each unique, not unlike the approach of her colleague, Hannah Wilke, to vulvic imagery). The writers of the TV show, How I Met Your Mother* would be pleased, as architect Hans Hollein—who also made a phallic architectural sketch—must have been.

At Steckel’s 1972 exhibition at Rockland Community College, “one of the less controversial works,” as The Journal News put it, was a Statue of Liberty postcard, on exhibit now at NMWA, containing a hand-drawn female symbol emerging form the fiery torch. The paper included an image of said work, but not the more contentious images featuring male and female genitalia. Legislator John Koman wanted to shut it down for its pornographic nature, but after a closed meeting of trustees and pushback from students, the artist was victorious. In an unsurprising move based on the show’s title, The Sexual Politics of Feminist Art, Steckel used the experience as a springboard for forming the Fight Censorship Group. Its members included Wilke, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and others. In its ten years of activity, they did things like pressure curators not to follow Koman’s lead, and petitioned major New York museums to open Adult Galleries, where the fig leaf could be ripped off. Like the Guerilla Girls, they were angry about the disproportionate number of female nudes to male nudes in museums, appealing to the male gaze. Steckel writes in a statement for the FCG, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums—It should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.” Not one to mince words, she wrote that artists must operate in absolute freedom from censorship, to protect the right to produce works like “the open-legged whores of Toulouse-Lautrec.” She writes of the “white-gloved hypocrisy—which pretends we [women] don’t even know what is meant by a ‘dirty joke.’ Don’t know—hell—we’re the entire subject matter of all those ‘jokes’ we’re not supposed to know the meaning of.”

Her 2006 journal indicates that her dedication to the cause never wavered. She wrote, “Don’t turn lemonade into a lemon” and “Risk Everything/ Be a Warrior.” Although she did not receive critical acclaim in her formative years as an artist, in 2006 she was mentioned in the catalogue for the high-profile exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, even though she wasn’t included in the show itself. The NWMA wall text notes that this catalogue essay revived interest in her work. Indeed, in 2007, the New York Times described her as having been overlooked for too long (1). The wall text also credits the Fight Censorship Group with having created a more accepting atmosphere for women artists’ provocative works.” To Steckel et al., I say thank-you.

*in which the character Ted gets his big architectural break by pitching an alternative to a design that looks like a penis with its pink colour, apex, and bulbous forms at the base.


(1) March 2007. Museum and gallery listings.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Duane Linklater at Nipissing University

“There’s something about small towns in the north…”

Unpresupposing in light of winning the prestigious Sobey Award last month, Duane Linklater thanked the audience at his artist talk yesterday for coming out to campus first thing in the morning and said he hoped they wouldn’t mind if he shared some slides. He also expressed interest in “taking the air out” of the art historical trope of artist-as-hero. “I find it problematic, the idea of an artist having a special gift.”

The importance of the $50,000 prize was underscored when the North Bay artist revealed that he initially wanted to expand a work he showed at nearby White Water Gallery in 2011 to include four more components, but because he was working with pricey neon signs, its realization was delayed until this year. Tautology features five differently coloured birds, each appropriated from a painting by Anishnabe artist Norval Morrisseau selected by former Governor General Michaelle Jean for display in Rideau Hall, “where the Governor General does Governor General types of things.” By shifting the context, Linklater observed that “something funny and slippery happens.” Unconventional collaborations (with, for example, a deceased artist) and new contexts in the exploration of Aboriginality characterize his multi-media work.

An Omaskêko Cree, Linklater says, “The moment that politicized me, as a teenager” was the Oka crisis of 1990. On his bedroom wall, he hung a picture of masked warrior, Richard Nicholas, standing on top of a squad car during the standoff over contested land. From that point on, he began independent research and took a Bachelor of Arts in Native studies. He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts. Linklater says, “Art can…help you…it can…offer a reckoning or a process through tragedies [like Oka].” So often, tragedy offers up stories of hope and this one is particularly gripping: Linklater played a wax cylinder recording for the audience of Santu Toney, a half-Beothuck woman in her mid-seventies from Newfoundland who met an anthropologist in New England, rousing disbelief in the link to the extinct Beothuck tribe. Linklater provided cellist Peggy Lee with sheet music of Toney’s song transcribed by an ethnomusicologist, to be perfomed at his exhibition at Or Gallery (Vancouver). The show also included email correspondence with Joanna Malinowska, a Polish artist whose representations of Aboriginal concerns and Aboriginal artwork in the Whitney Biennial and in her practice in general were politically suspect, in Linklater’s view (the two artists had agreed that any of the text was fair game for future exhibition). “Collaboration brings so many things….It’s always going to change….You don’t know what…the outcomes will be [which is what’s]…super-exciting about art.” When he approaches collaborations, whether moose hunting with artist Brian Jungen, or working with a Bard College groundskeeper to plant 12 blueberry gardens for his MFA thesis, “It (the treaty concept)’s always floating around me.”

Linklater commented that it felt different presenting on his work in the city where he lives. Besides getting ready in the comfort of his own home, he alluded to the resonance of an image of his installation of raspberry bushes in a Chelsea, NY gallery when discussed in North Bay, where wild raspberries grow on his property. He also recounted walking into Ontario Northland and asking for information about the history of their logo, which he ultimately painted on the wall of Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto as a tribute to the now-cancelled train that acted as a vital connection between northern communities and southern Ontario. Without an appointment, he was able to meet for 45 minutes with a marketing representative, get a binder of photocopies the following day, and receive a “really friendly” letter. He noted that if he had walked into a train station in a larger city in Canada, he would probably have waited six months for that kind of progress. “There’s something about small towns in the north that allows you to do things like that,” he said. (This anecdote really captures the essence of North Bay; the day I moved back to the city, I ran four errands and every sales clerk or service person I encountered smiled and initiated a conversation with me. It’s a city where I’ve been offered a ride when carrying too many groceries and had a homeless person hold an umbrella over my head while I’ve rummaged for change.)

He ended with refreshing advice to the many young artists in the crowd. At the risk of misrepresentation through paraphrasing, his advice is:
*There is no set plan to become an artist, and everything you do—even the unenjoyable things—helps you develop as an artist.
*Don’t get caught up in the pressure to make work or feel like you have to have a studio. Do what you really want to do, and envision your practice in a more holistic way. (For instance, Linklater sees discussions as a major part of his work).
*Don’t get caught up in definitions. Is a film about collaborative moose hunting really art? Is working with a groundskeeper really collaboration? Does it matter?
*Be flexible when dealing with authority figures.
*Be true to your principles. If you’re offered a show and there’s something unethical about it, it’s not worth pursuing.
*Opportunity is always there. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Brass in Pocket at Booklyn Artists Alliance

“…feminist art is not an easy concept to digest for the majority of people.”—Maura Reilly

On the week-end, I visited Booklyn Artists Alliance in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in part to see if the copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves I donated earlier this year to Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden's Book Swap… had been swapped. It hadn’t.

I wish I could say that I loved the current exhibition, Brass in Pocket (September 13-October 27) because it combines art, feminism, bibliophilia, and self-publishing (it culminates in the production of a zine including external submissions). Alas, when I passed back under the funky archway of books in Booklyn’s office space, I left as perplexed as when I arrived by the online curatorial statement.

Seven female artists are included in the show but in the website’s list of exhibiting artists and in the curatorial statement, the roster is said to include not seven but six artists (Susan Fang, Liz Linden, Lynnette Miranda, Caroline Paquita, Catherine Stack, and Tamara Waite-Satibanez, all of whom are New York-based). As a fellow Canadian, I find the exclusion of Toronto-based Jen Kennedy concerning.

Curators Aimee Lusty and Kate Wadkins explain that their original intention was to showcase feminist artists (defined as artists who encounter sexism in their personal and professional lives, regardless of whether they create feminist work). In studio visits, unspecified feminist themes surfaced, but Lusty and Wadkins decided to emphasize transcendence of subject matter, experimentation within various media, and draftsmanship (ahem) instead, seeing feminist art as a narrow focus. The statement ends by aligning the spirit of the show with that of Book Swap… in saying that at the heart of Brass in Pocket is the viewer’s ability to engage with feminism on his or her own terms.

The fact that the artists face gender-based discrimination at home and work doesn’t make them feminists; it makes them women. Doing something about it would make them feminists. Based on their online presence, only three of the seven artists self-identify as feminists. If the others do indeed consider themselves to be feminists, it would be ideal for the artists to articulate it. In a world where role models like Susan Sarandon avoid the ‘f word,’ more allies are needed. (Kudos to artist Suzanne Lacy for addressing this issue head-on in her collaborative performance in Prospect Heights on Saturday). Laying bare the evolution of the curatorial approach, as Lusty and Wadkins have, has the unfortunate effect of casting the show as feminist lite at best and as a rejection of feminist art at worst. They may have been better off releasing a statement that addressed formalism but not feminism at all.

My knee-jerk reaction was likely exacerbated by the book I happened to be reading the day I learned of the show. In the opening chapter of Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Angela Dimitrakaki notes that on a global scale, women have less brass in pocket* than in the past, in addition to being sexual commodities, so it’s critical to maintain the connection to politics in feminist art history—a discipline that is market-driven through tourism-generating biennials and tuition-funded academia. Regrettably, at least according to Dimitrakaki’s line of reasoning, Brass in Pocket has no apparent politics. Its curation invokes a powerful concept but stops there. Because, as Maura Reilly says, “feminist art is not an easy concept to digest for the majority of people” (p. 35), what feminist intentions the curators had may become lost when people engage with the show on their own terms, without even wall labels to help them along.

*British slang for money; a reference to The Pretenders’ song, Brass in Pocket.


Connie Butler, Amelia Jones, and Maura Reilly (in dialogue). “Feminist Curating and the ‘Return’ of Feminist Art”. In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, Ed. Amelia Jones. Routledge, 2010, pp. 31-44.

Angela Dimitrakaki, “Gendering the Multitude: Feminist Politics, Globalization and Art History”. In Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Eds. Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Rowe. Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 15-25.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Feminists en masse at Prospect Heights

"...organized by...Suzanne Lacy..."

On Saturday, October 19, 300+ people gathered on the stoops of brownstone homes in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights to talk about feminism from a personal perspective. And that number didn’t even include the guests.

In Between the Door and the Street, participants organized by Los Angeles-based artist Suzanne Lacy chatted amongst themselves about topics like the pressure to be macho, judgments about women’s clothing choices, sexual harassment, and platonic friendships between men and women. The audience looked on, moving at their own pace to overhear the next group of their choice. True to the contemporary definition of feminism, the participants were female, male, LGBTQ, and from various cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

Arriving half an hour into the performance, I was delighted to see that so many people had come out that they had to wait to enter closed off Park Place. Once inside, adults hugged acquaintances they bumped into and children played, making it feel like a street party. The downside was the amount of noise. There was a policy of no cellphone conversations and it’s a shame there wasn’t a policy of no conversations of any kind among the audience because it was impossible to hear the majority of conversations over the din. At best, the performed conversations would have been in competition anyway because of the proximity of the stoops to one another. Hopefully, the documentation will enhance access to the conversations.

Sometimes when an art performance ends, it can be awkward for the theatrical experience to become reconciled with reality. In Between the Door and the Street, though, it was great to see the participants dispersing through the neighbourhood and entering the subway, with their bright yellow scarves marking them as consciousness-raising feminists.

The audience waiting to enter Park Place for Suzanne Lacy’s Between the Door and the Street.

Volunteers chatting about feminist topics on the brownstone stoops.

Blogger Heather Saunders taking notes about overheard comments, such as a young girl asking, “Why are there men?”

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Books that Shaped Art History

“…a terrific read.”

Collection development is in full swing at this time of year for academic libraries. I decided to order The Books that Shaped Art History (2013, Thames and Hudson) to help fill in any gaps in our collection. Sixteen acclaimed titles are critiqued by academics and curators in this publication edited by Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard. The books were written in English, French, and German, and all are now available in English; the corresponding essays are exclusively in English. Substantiating the selection is the fact that the sixteen authors are repeated throughout many of the essays; for example, Nikolaus Pevsner studied under Heinrich Wölfflin, whose approach to formalism influenced Kenneth Clark, who wrote Bernard Berenson’s obituary, and so on.

“A roadmap of sorts for reading art history” (p. 7), the entries are chronologically organized, from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century. Thus, the reader gets a sense of how art history has evolved—for example, moving from judgments about formal qualities, like Roger Fry praising Cézanne’s use of colour, to the tentative experimentation with and then the full embrace of a social history of art, to the extent that value judgments like Fry’s all but disappeared.

The groundbreaking 16 titles are:

Emile Mâle’s L’art religieux du XIII siècle en France: Etude sur l’iconographie du Moyen Age et sur ses sources d’inspiration, 1898; reviewed by Alexandra Gajewski—Written during a time when Medieval cathedrals were on the chopping block, this systematic exploration of these places of worship commented on multiple arts (sculpture, stained glass, and architecture) and found the perfection of form to be an “encyclopaedic account of Medieval Christian knowledge” (p. 21).

Bernard Berenson’s The Drawings of the Florentine Painters Classified, Criticized and Studied as Documents in the History and Appreciation of Tuscan Art, with a Copious Catalogue Raisonné, 1903; reviewed by Carmen C. Bambach—Based on research from original drawings (which were then undervalued and improperly catalogued, making this an impressive feat), this multi-volume publication introduced a focus on connoisseurship and the comparison of works of art to substantiate attribution, a process that had been sloppy until that point in time.

Heinrich Wölfflin’s Kunstgeschichtliche Grundbegriffe: Das Problem der Stilentwicklung in der neuen Kunst, 1915; reviewed by David Summers—Fascinated that four artists painted the same landscape differently in sync, Wölfflin used cultural-historical generalizations to explain artistic output: temperament, school, nationality, and race (which had interesting implications in light of the book being published during World War I).

Roger Fry’s Cézanne: A Study of His Development, 1927; reviewed by Richard Verdi—Back when Cézanne was only remembered by a handful of people in his hometown, Fry cast him as a modern master by deconstructing in clear language the process of abstraction his painting subjects underwent and introducing a style of art criticism that encouraged readers to scrutinize the elements and principles of design.

Nikolaus Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement from William Morris to Walter Gropius, 1936; reviewed by Colin Amery—In this “‘gospel’ of modernism” (p. 68) that lauded Gropius and Morris for their socialist tendencies and their avoidance of ‘art for art’s sake,’ Pevsner legitimized the movement by establishing its forefathers (and, ipso facto, its provenance).

Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s Matisse: His Art and His Public, 1951; reviewed by John Elderfield—Based on extensive primary research and published at the end of Matisse’s life, this monograph was so big, so thorough, and so validating that even Picasso (on whom Barr had written his Harvard thesis) was annoyed.

Erwin Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, 1953; reviewed by Susie Nash—Panofsky made up for his poor memory (read: inaccurately described works due to time lapsed) with wit and writing finesse, in his exploration of the disguised symbolism in richly detailed Netherlandish painting.

Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study of Ideal Art, 1956; reviewed by John-Paul Stonard— In addition to defining nudes as a genre, this book held mass appeal for the public (which is unsurprising since the act of writing it—of capturing the eroticism and sexual appeal of nudes—caused the author to tremble).

E.H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation, 1960; reviewed by Christopher S. Wood—In his socio-cultural examination of the purpose of art, Gombrich tried to tap into the mindsets of artists before the rise of modernism and consider how they reconciled ideas for images with visual rhetoric and expectations of patrons and other audience members.

Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 1961; reviewed by Boris Groys—In defending the avant-garde, Greenberg envisioned a polarity of high and low art rather than historical and post-modern art, pitching it as brilliantly self-referential in analyzing artmaking tradition and suited to audiences with a thirst for knowledge more so than aestheticism.

Francis Haskell’s Patrons and Painters: A Study in the Relations Between Italian Art and Society in the Age of the Baroque, 1963; reviewed by Louise Rice—Haskell brought patronage out from the sidelines of art history, by conducting extensive archival research and bringing to life a host of characters whose unique situations were allowed to be seen as just that, rather than imposing patterns unnecessarily (thus serving as an alternative to ideologically-driven Marxism).

Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style, 1972; reviewed by Paul Hills—Baxandall’s sensitivity to language (for example, how classical Latin and vernacular Italian phrasing affect our perception of art) extended to his ability to engage a popular audience with a style that feels like “being taken on a quest rather than presented with a cut-and-dried body of facts, let alone a theory” (p. 154).

T.J. Clark’s Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, 1973; reviewed by Alastair Wright—In this meticulously researched book, the neo-Marxist author presents Courbet as purposefully ambivalent towards the underdog, resulting in powerfully subversive paintings that confuse the audience and shake up their beliefs.

Svetlana Alpers’ The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century, 1983; reviewed by Mariët Westermann—In contrasting (and ultimately defending) characteristically pleasant and detailed Dutch painting against its narrative Italian counterpart, Alpers called for a return to seeing it as descriptive and as a practical craft befitting of a map-making and telescope-inventing culture that valued exactitude.

Rosalind Krauss’ The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985; reviewed by Anna Lovatt—Unafraid to adjust her methodology, terminology, and philosophical position in a continual reassessment of art history, Krauss ushered in a new era with this anthology by applying structuralist and post-structuralist theory to postmodern art and moving past the preoccupation with media and historical context of works of art.

Hans Belting’s Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst, 1990; reviewed by Jeffrey Hamburger—Responsible for making the terms ‘cult’ and ‘Medieval’ interchangeable to some, Belting described the movement of the sanctified image from east to west, ushering in pictorial development in Western art and causing such a substantial shift that he thought of the two periods as ‘before’ and ‘after’ the work of art.

This book had me as soon as I saw its sewn-in ribbon bookmark, but it’s also a terrific read. There are some juicy stories: for example, we learn that Berenson’s nemesis, a museum director, may have been behind a six-year delay in publishing his book because of image permissions, and that Krauss had it out with a museum director in print over the terms ‘original’ and ‘reproduction’ in relation to a Rodin show.

The Books that Shaped Art History is a valuable academic resource. It contains brief biographies and publication histories for the 16 authors as well as an index. Black and white images are included of each author and each book, including front covers and page spreads. It is highly recommended for librarians involved in acquisitions; art history students of any level who need to write annotated bibliographies; incoming graduate students; and professors selecting readings for undergraduate or graduate students.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Spring and Arnaud at Doc North

“…film as catharsis…”

Spring and Arnaud (2013) was screened at Nipissing University last night as part of Doc North. It’s a film about waiting for the other shoe to drop. In this documentary directed by Katherine Knight and Marcia Connolly, Canadian artists Spring Hurlbut and Arnaud Maggs take stock of life five years into Maggs’ diagnosis with cancer.

The underlying focus may be impending death, but luscious cinematography balances it by capturing the preciousness of life. We see sunlight bathing ceramic jugs in the heritage home they own in France and fog rolling through densely treed hills. We see Maggs carry a picnic basket to a flea market, play harmonica while Hurlbut dances, and read Emily Dickinson to her in bed. We also see them at work, making new series, rifling through their archives, and embracing so tightly in a gallery that Maggs’ arm flails. Evidence of the artists’ lifestyle, critical success, and happy marriage prompts the audience to believe Maggs when he says, “It’s [life has] been a great time, I’d say, for both of us.”

Hurlbut knew of Maggs’ work before she made his personal acquaintance. Based on its austerity and toughness, she confesses she thought, “I never want to meet this guy.” Nonetheless, she was charmed when they crossed paths at a birthday party. Hurlbut tried to call the whole thing off on the second date. Although the film doesn’t specify, perhaps it was because of age: Hurlbut was 35 and Maggs was 60. Maggs recalls having to rectify the situation quickly; he suggested a good-bye kiss. Tugging lightly at the tablecloth with his fingers and giggling, he says, “I put everything I ever learned into that kiss.” Hurlbut adds, “It was like good-bye, hello!” By the end of the third date, they were engaged.

Hurlbut and Maggs’ mutual support is the backbone of their relationship but it’s not flogged in the film. He says of her, “She blows my mind” and she says of him, “When he’s landed one of his ideas, he’s quite unstoppable.” There is a risk that the film could come off as pretentious, for as Hurlbut says, they are both fixated on “me, me, me, me.” What saves the film from self-importance is a scene involving a misunderstanding, because it leads to explanation. Hurlbut tells Maggs that she wouldn’t be interested in him if he weren’t a notable artist. He initially interprets her comment as tongue-in-cheek, which compels her to explain that she must be with someone she can respect who is driven by the need to communicate an idea, to have rich conversations, and to be engaged—as she is, so much so that reflecting on times when the engagement wanes causes her to sigh heavily. Maggs agrees that he couldn’t be in a relationship with a bad artist and reveals that he can’t separate his feelings for her as an artist and his feelings for her as a partner.

Hurlbut knew from a young age that she would be an artist, while Maggs made the transition unexpectedly at age 47. She tends towards sculpture and he to photography. Although their styles are distinctive, there is overlap in their approaches. Both love history and collecting, and both have embraced mortality as a theme on more than one occasion. For example, in Notification xiii (1996), Maggs, who deals with systems of identification, photographed 192 envelopes from French flea markets announcing a person’s death. Traditionally, this mourning stationery contained an x-mark in wax along the edges of the envelope. “It’s like crossing out the person,” he remarks. To see the series installed (as I have) is to be engulfed by grief. In a series of self-portraits taken at age 85 as “a record of my [his] existence,” he holds one of these lettres de deuil with a sad expression, dressed as the deathly pale French mime, Pierrot. Hurlbut also has a penchant for amassing antiques. In Le Jardin de Sommeil (1998) she installed 140 empty cradles and bassinets, which are strikingly empty. An even more direct statement about loss is Deuil (2005-06). These photographs document ashes from cremated human remains that the artist has arranged into constellation-like patterns. Fascinated by “what remains after death,” she began these unconventional portraits with her father’s ashes, and then used the ashes of other individuals. Ultimately, they became a way for her to cope in advance with her role of widow. She says initially she wasn’t clear about whether the series could even be considered art, which also cancels out any pretensiousness in Spring and Arnaud. Just as the photographic series developed out of necessity, the audience is able to see the film as catharsis, and not just as a tribute to their artistic legacies.

When Maggs met the artist Joseph Beuys, Maggs described himself as having all the time in the world. The film, in capturing the vivaciousness of the octogenarian, almost makes it feel that way. Two months after his retrospective exhibition ended at the National Gallery of Canada, Maggs died on November 17 of last year. He was 86.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

David Carlin at Alex Dufresne Gallery

“The work then becomes a living entity…”

North Bay artist David Carlin is at once serious and silly: when we toured his mixed media exhibition, INTRANSIT, at the Alex Dufresne Gallery in Callander, Ontario, like a seasoned self-promoter, he made sure to mention his exhibition, Caged, in Englehart at the Englehart and Area Historical Museum with Lionel Venne. “My work is in two museums,” he said in a serious tone. He followed the comment with, “I must be getting fossilized,” and his giggle turned into a snort.

After a celebratory pasta dinner with much giggling, I strove to get David back into serious mode with the following questions.

H-You work in painting, printmaking, ceramics, video, collage, and probably some media I have overlooked. Do you have a favourite?

D-Not really...all the media are becoming integral factors in my work, although presently, I am enjoying video, which I find to be a medium consistent with my tendency to layer in non-video works. In recent years, I have developed a schedule of working on rough ideas for video, cutting blocks, and proof printing in Havana. Then in May when I return to Canada, I print and work on ceramic sculptures. In June, I begin the integration of the prints, sculptures, and painting into mixed media works. I also begin the final video pieces at that time.

H-Your opening is the first I’ve attended with Aboriginal drumming and smudging. When we initially spoke about that choice, you said that there is spirituality before you make something. Do you see yourself as something of a facilitator of images that already exist and are just waiting to materialize, or did you mean something else by the comment?

D-The ceremony is a blessing and a way to give thanks for life...for creation. It is an important act. I think the seeds of my images grow from my life experiences. In the multitude of physical actions used in creating a work, a multitude of associations are being made. The work then becomes a living entity, one which is always changing and prompting its creator into developing its life form.

H-This is a follow-up question: when you looked at the piece,
Mothman Transformation, you said, “The more I look at it, the more I wonder if it could be a self-portrait," as if the genesis of the image were somehow out of your hands. Is curiosity a critical component in your assessment of your own work?

D- Yes...sometimes...actually, oftentimes...I ask, “What is this?
  It may be months or years before the work speaks to me of its meaning.

Q-On occasion, you've referred to your works as ‘things’ and said, “I’m just a maker of images.” Is this democratization of art-making the result of years of working as an art teacher?

D-I think that “ART” and “ARTIST” in the eyes of many, if not most, are elevated terms that set them above others...but most people, in some way, are creators, are thinkers. I am a creator of images and a thinker. Most of my images pose questions not only to the viewer but to me as well. (I have included some commentaries about me...visionary...etc.)

Although I taught “art,” I strove to make people think, to ask questions, and to evaluate.  A couple of years ago, I received a small wooden sculpture and a card from a former student. The card said, “To a great teacher who challenged us to think outside the box.” This was an important gift for me. The sculpture hangs on a wall in my studio alongside the card as a constant reminder to me...our artists, scientists, engineers, gardeners, mechanics, politicians with vision all have to think outside the least sometimes!

H-You revealed that as a child, you enjoyed looking at clouds when you were bed-ridden while recovering from several operations and that even now, you look for images and associations in nature. Do you feel an affinity with Frida Kahlo? Do you feel an affinity with any other artists in particular and how so?

A-I did enjoy looking at clouds and also at knots in the knotty pine boards in the house that my father built. It was probably the birthing of my “surrealness.” I have an affinity for many artists from Paul Nash to Siqueiros.  Paul Nash was a poet, Siqueiros a revolutionary. My tastes are quite eclectic. I have an affinity for Frida Kahlo's pain.

H-My favourite work in the show is
An Interesting Conversation before the Emperor of the Sun (pictured above). You reworked this piece at the eleventh hour, after a brash comment from your wife. It’s an interesting anecdote, because she's also demonstrated great support for your work. Do you care to comment on how the dynamic of your relationship impacts your work overall?

D-This is a large work done in a small space. When I put it up at the gallery, I went, “Aaaarrrgh!” It was not working, and Judith [Carlin’s wife] implied that it was not a conversation but bullshit and we had a good laugh. I repainted it on the wall! We joke around a lot. I will say things like, “Judith, inspection time” or, “What do you think?” I value Judith’s opinion and sometimes I even listen! Hahaha.

H-You split your time between Canada and Cuba. How do the technical challenges impact your creative process?

D-I love my studio in Canada because it allows me to make ALL the components of my work. Facilities are limited for me in Cuba. I work on printmaking in the Taller Grafico de Guanabo in Havana with Norberto Marrero and Janette Brossard. While in Cuba, I also concentrate on video where I have a small green room for video production.

H-How do reactions to your work differ between Canada and Cuba, especially in light of the fact that the emperor (and arguably by extension, totalitarianism) is a recurring motif in your work?

D-My work has always had underlying and sometimes blatant social commentaries. So does much of Cuban art. The reactions are not much different.

H-Next on your plate is
Entrevistas, an installation that includes painting, video, and sculpture for the exhibition Reel Northern 2 at White Water Gallery in North Bay. What’s next after that?

D-Rest! I intend to work on oil paintings in conjunction with printmaking, video, and drawing.

INTRANSIT closes August 24.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bedtime Stories for Halifax Wildlife: D’Arcy Wilson at Point Pleasant Park

“…a powerful message.”

"To crack a nut is truly no feat, so no one would ever dare to collect an audience in order to entertain it with nut-cracking. But does do that and succeeds in entertaining the public, then it cannot be a matter of simple nut-cracking."--Franz Kafka

After driving two eleven-hour days to Halifax to celebrate our wedding anniversary, my husband and I were in dire need of a long walk. It was fortuitous, then, that we spotted a poster for D’Arcy Wilson’s performance art hike through Point Pleasant Park on our first night there, July 31.

Wilson is an interdisciplinary Halifax-based artist and Point Pleasant Park artist in residence who is concerned with the lack of connection between humans and animals. In Bedtime Stories: Tucking in the Wildlife of Point Pleasant Park, she led a small group of adults to various locations in the wooded park, where she read children’s stories aloud to the wildlife at nightfall. In doing so, she tapped into a long line of artists like Joseph Beuys and Richard Long. At the same time, Wilson tapped into the 21st century trend of relational aesthetics, the non-object-based experience of art where community is key. A quotation from the recent book, Spheres of Action: Art and Politics (Tate Publishing) comes to mind. Maurizio Lazzarato, in describing Kafka's character, Josephine, singing and piping for the mice people, says, "Josephine does not measure herself up to the list of artist traditions, but she plugs into the outside, into what happens. She makes art as much with small events as she does with large ones".

Wilson’s first destination was a pond surrounded by vacant picnic tables; at that hour, aside from a few dog walkers, we had the place to ourselves. We sprawled on the grass and she kneeled down, perched in such a way that her voice was directed at the water and not the void above it. She began reading Arnold Lobel’s tale of Frog and Toad and the missing button with enunciation befitting a children’s librarian or primary school teacher. Ribbits sounded throughout and conveniently, after her final goodnight wishes.

The photographer and videographer both had a privileged viewpoint, because they were able to move around and position themselves opposite the artist, who always read with her back to the audience. Documenting performance art is necessary in terms of enriching art historical research, enhancing artists’ grant applications, etc., but for the participants—the ones who, in Wilson’s words, made a big commitment by coming out—there is a trade-off. The documentation will surely convey tranquility, not capture tranquility tempered by the distraction of documentation.

Since adults are no more accustomed to being the audience for bedtime stories than animals, some of the distraction is our own doing. One individual, for instance, was spotted checking a cell phone. Folks, please power down in the face of nature and culture! I don’t mean to suggest I was a perfect audience member. When Wilson pulled out a megaphone for one of the stories, I stifled a giggle. Rather than blaming the performance for my waning attention, I chose to dig deeper and question whether I might have lost my sense of wonder. How would the child version of me react in my place? Rapt, undoubtedly. And that is a powerful message.

Wilson, in contrast, was not short on wonder. She delivered the stories in her shoulderbag in a cheerful tone and was exuberant as she guided us from site to site. With her hair swept up in a bun, it was easy to see her expressions in profile as she marvelled at her surroundings. At one point, she gestured to the sunset and whispered, “So pretty!” As night fell, she took to reading by a headlamp, and the pages assumed a magical glow.

When the performance was over, a group of complete strangers made their way through the dark forest. Personally, I spent most of that stretch feeling grateful that I had never watched The Blair Witch Project. Finally, we arrived to the parking lot, and said goodbyes in hushed tones. Seconds later, five motorcycles careened through the street, making excessive noise. The fact that I bristled is an indication that I was indeed charmed.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Art Girls Are Easy

“...suitably tame for a young adult audience…”

I’m not the biggest fan of flying. Compared to the alternatives, it’s expensive and bad for the environment. Plus, it seems to defy all laws of physics (even though I never took physics). On my first flight ever, in high school, I read a scary novel and discovered the merits of distraction through literature. I was taken back to my teen years earlier this week on a flight to Regina, with a tale of budding artists at summer camp.

Thrown off by the title, Art Girls Are Easy (2013, Poppy) and the fire engine red lips on the cover, I accidentally pre-ordered a young adult novel from Amazon. Alas, I suppose I will donate it to the library at the high school where my husband works. As it turned out, light reading was the perfect prelude to two days of reflecting on how recent changes to copyright law affect academic institutions. Another upshot of reading below my level is that even though I waited until boarding to crack open the Julie Klausner novel, I got through the conclusion at the baggage claim.

When I say ‘conclusion,’ I should really say ‘improbable conclusion’: the prospect of a 15-year-old breaking into the New York art world is as hard to buy into as the concept of flight. The characterization of protagonist Indy Hamlisch as a prodigy seems far-fetched because she has the whole package. Advanced technical skill seems plausible, but the conceptual sophistication of her projects (like her pre-pubescent appropriation of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chair prints using patio furniture and Christmas lights) does not. While her peers are into Dolce and Gabbana, Indy idolizes artist duo Gilbert and George. Granted, she is introspective as a result of her mother dying when Indy was six years old, and she has been exposed to performance art through her performance artist stepmother, but still! I will concede that it’s better to set the bar too high than too low for aspiring artists reading the novel. It’s also exciting that Indy recognizes she is talented and is disinterested in masking it to fit in socially.

Although the novel is endorsed by comedian Amy Poehler, I never found myself laughing out loud at my reading material like my seatmate. A friend from my Art History Masters who now hails from the library world, she observed that my book looked racy. In actuality, it is suitably tame for a young adult audience. The only x-rated content is a theatrical performance about a prostitute, with Hamlisch’s BFF in the lead role. Kalusner may open the novel with Hamlisch thinking about sex, but she doesn’t go further than kissing. A flawed character, she makes out twice while drunk: with a boy from another camp she doesn’t even like, and with a much older camp instructor she really likes. In a jealous rage over said instructor, she cuts herself intentionally, and takes the studio blowtorch to his painting for revenge.

What Indy discovers after her pyromaniac stint is that personal expression and creativity trump romance (or at least ill-advised romance). This theme is interwoven with the female equivalent of—pardon the vulgarity—‘bros before hoes,’ which gives the novel a surprising feminist twist.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Out of Print at Modern Fuel

"I knew that I wanted to touch upon...instances where Kingston was directly mentioned (such as an article addressing the burning of General Idea’s Miss 1984 Pavillion)."--Kevin Rodgers

 I was delighted to make good time between Toronto and Kingston earlier in the month to attend a series of presentations at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre about the exhibition, A Vital Force: The Canadian Group of Painters (for which I copy edited the catalogue). Arriving early meant I got to visit Modern Fuel, which has an interesting exhibition of art publications on display until June 15. Artistic Director, Kevin Rodgers, is interviewed below.

H- As a former art librarian, I was delighted to see gems like the Dennis Tourbin catalogue in Out of Print. How did you curate the selection of materials on display?

K- I should provide a bit of background first. In December 2012, I started my position as Artistic Director at Modern Fuel. At the time I noticed the collection of print material (magazines, artists’ books, etc.) that were casually placed on a row of shelves in the offices. As someone who has an interest in print material, I was curious to see what was actually there (at that point, there were no records that I knew of that indicated what the contents were). This row of shelving was officially called the Nan Yeomans Resource Centre, and it was a recent initiative of the gallery.

Over the next few months, I began going through the contents. Some items I was familiar with, and others were completely new to me, such as the Dennis Tourbin books.  I could tell after a few hours of going through the material that there were some rare and quite wonderful artists books and items, and I wanted to exhibit them. I wanted people to know what we had on hand.

The selection of works was rather organic: I knew that I wanted to touch upon the political publications of the late 1970s and early 1980s (Red Herring, Incite), some conceptual practices (N.E. Thing Company) and instances where Kingston was directly mentioned (such as an article addressing the burning of General Idea’s Miss 1984 Pavillion). These were the starting points.

H- When did Modern Fuel begin collecting catalogues and books for the Nan Yeomans Resource Library?

K- The Nan Yeomans Resource Library was created in 2006. It was the name given to the collection of material that had been accruing in the offices--either by subscription, sought out by former board members and staff, or donated. The material dates back to 1977, the founding of the KAAI (Kingston Artists Association Inc.).

H- The postal system has really networked Canadian artist-run centres over the years and ARCs continue to have an impressive catalogue exchange system. Is that how the majority of items in your collection were amassed?

K- There are numerous items that were acquired through the catalogue exchange system. I would say many of the items from the 1990s were acquired this way, although I’d be speculating on how the majority of items were amassed. Part of the pleasure of looking through this stuff was thinking about how it came to be here, and there are many that remain mysterious.

H-Some of the items on display are showing their age. Was the value of the material discovered or agreed upon only recently?

K- I don’t think the contents of the Library had really been gone through for some time. My understanding is that there was an awareness of the value to some of the material, and acknowledgement of this by transforming the collection into a Resource Library.  However, many items were poorly stored and one of my initiatives is to get this material properly catalogued, preserved, and displayed.

H- Did you find any interesting inscriptions while going through the materials?

K- There were not a lot of inscriptions that I found, surprisingly. Some signatures, some dates. Even those are few and far between. Mind you, I am slowly working my way through the collection, so I am sure there are still some to be discovered.

H- How would you say the role of an ARC library differs from that of a larger institution? The reason I ask is that you have displayed the catalogue for Joyce Wieland’s (landmark) show at the National Gallery, who would have preserved the catalogue already in a climate controlled facility and promoted access by cataloguing it.

K- This is a very interesting question, and I’m not sure I have a satisfying answer. I would like our Library to be a resource, but also a place to see print works displayed in conjunction with the exhibitions. So for each exhibition, selections would be brought out from the collection to complement the artwork, to provide another angle for meaning and to activate histories. This is one way that perhaps it differs from the collection as archive, removed from context so to speak.

Artexte in Montreal is an amazing facility for collecting artists' books and material, and I appreciate the type of exhibitions that they put on in relation to their collection.  Modern Fuel has a completely different mandate, and much less material in our library. What we will do is still something to be seen, but the spirit of Artexte is one that I’d like to keep in mind.

H- Agreed: Artexte is a wonderful model. My first impression of their space was admiration of their journal collection. Speaking of journals, can you tell me about Matriart? I had no idea that Canada used to have a feminist art journal!

A- Matriart was a publication out of the Women’s Art Resource Centre in Toronto, and lasted for eight years.  We have about six issues, including the first one launched in 1990. Each issue was organized around particular thematics, such as Empowerment and Marginalization, or Women in Prison. It is a journal that I was unfamiliar with prior to finding it in our collection, and one that I’m also interested in looking more into.

H- Are there any plans for the Nan Yeomans Resource Library that you’d like to reveal?

K- While I’ve mentioned a few ideas throughout my answers so far, the main change will be when Modern Fuel moves to our new location at the Tett Centre in the summer of 2014. In that new space, we will have a proper display area for the material, and visitors will be able to access the collection easier. We are also reinstating subscriptions, and reconnecting with galleries for print exchanges. I certainly think there is a resurgence of artists interested in producing books and multiples, and I’d like to see our Library be a place (again) where this type of work is encountered and supported.

H- Best of luck with your move, and thanks for your time, Kevin!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London

“Jemima Stehli undressed and redressed in front of male members of the art world…”

As a librarian, I must admit that it’s difficult to be unbiased about a book that (1) thanks multiple librarians in its acknowledgements and (2) in its introduction, highlights the importance of converting private knowledge into public information (via artist interviews). But here goes…

In Renegotiating the Body: Feminist Art in 1970s London (I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), Kathy Battista strives to redress the dearth of feminist art scholarship in Britain by younger academics.

As Linda Nochlin urged in her well-known article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), Battista doesn’t just cite examples of talented artists like Mary Kelly. She looks at the conditions that discouraged or encouraged their professional success.

Battista is clear that her account is not meant to be encyclopedic. Her introductions of artists are fairly extensive, and once the reader is familiar with the artist’s oeuvre, she weaves them in and out of the book, bringing them back into the discussion just when you assume that is the last you will read of them. Since it would be unnatural to suggest that each artist only relates to one of the myriad themes she explores, it allows the reader to appreciate the web of connections as the artists resurface.

As for the title, Renegotiating the Body, Battista notes that prior to the second wave of feminism, “[t]he only female presence within the public space of the museum was the female model, often nude” (p. 18). Since British artists were considered outcasts, they found alternative spaces to public museums to show their work (Bobby Baker, for instance, used a mobile home). With painting having reached something of an impasse with Jackson Pollock, female artists used unconventional materials in their work. The most available to them was their own bodies. The body was not so much a theme as a vehicle to address more complex ideas in performances. Some artists chose to keep their clothes on (Rose Finn-Kelcey recalls the unstated question about when she would take her clothes off) while others addressed the female-as-muse trope head on (Carolee Schneeman dressed and undressed repeatedly while giving an art history lecture).

The issues in London’s 1970s feminist art scene mirror those elsewhere. For instance, one artist says that wearing makeup was considered a cardinal sin. I recall that it was also a bone of contention among America’s feminist artists (Hannah Wilke was pro; Judy Chicago was con). Through archival research and personal interviews, Battista uncovers many examples of relatively unknown works that reveal an international web of influence. For instance, there was a British reinterpretation of Womanhouse (a Californian student installation spearheaded by Judy Chicago) organized by Kate Walker with such memorable images as a woman in bridal attire half submerged in a heap of garbage.

Given Battista’s position as Director of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, it’s unsurprising that she demonstrates how recent British art was influenced by the 1970s, whether consciously or unconsciously. For example, Jemima Stehli undressed and redressed in front of male members of the art world and displayed photographs of them photographing her, which relates to Carolee Schneeman’s unforgettable art history lecture. Another example is Tracey Emin’s My Bed, which harks back to Judy Clark’s display of tissues from 28 days of sex with her partner in Semen in Boxes. My, how times have changed: Clark was delighted to be offered a solo exhibition the night she unveiled this work yet Emin’s piece sold to Saatchi for £150,000. One of the factors Battista attributes to more women being in the limelight is increased male support, like megastar Damien Hirst promoting Sarah Lucas. Gentlemen readers, please take note.

The book contains a bibliography, notes, and an index. Images are in black and white, but it would be helpful to see them in colour, especially with works featuring blood, fecal matter, etc. since their shock value is lessened in this state. Also consider the loss of impact in Jemima Stehli’s Strip Series. When one of her male subjects wrote about the shoot in The Guardian*, he noted the bright red wall and his professional black suit. Here, we lose access to those details.

*Adrian Searle, “Why Do I Feel Naked?”, The Guardian, July 15, 2000,

Sunday, March 31, 2013

From the Feminist Lending Library: Becoming Judy Chicago

“…an art critic...told her that she would have to choose between being an artist and being a woman.”

I first encountered Jen Kennedy and Liz Lindens book swap... in a private tour for Bibliography Week attendees of the Center for Book Arts exhibition, Brother Can You Spare a Stack? (January 18-March 30). I made a note to self to bring an item to put into circulation the next time I was in Manhattan. Since the intention of the book swap is to facilitate community-based knowledge production in the face of university and library privatization (1), the most appropriate book in my collection seemed to be a 1976 reprint of Our Bodies, Ourselves. In this landmark publication by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, women shared intimate details of their reproductive health and sexuality, forming an incredible resource in the pre-Internet era.

In exchange for donating Our Bodies, Ourselves, I picked up a biography of the artist Judy Chicago by Gail Levin since I enjoyed her biography of Lee Krasner. Becoming Judy Chicago (Harmony Books, 2007) may sound like a familiar title since a book called Becoming Georgia O’Keefe was published recently. Back to the books in the FL, coincidentally, Our Bodies, Ourselves is mentioned twice in Becoming Judy Chicago: once as a book on Chicago’s reading list for students, and again in a quotation accusing Chicago of never moving past the Our Bodies, Ourselves era with her subject matter of vulvas, birth, and other ‘female subjects’.

The biography I took home to Canada is actually a publisher’s proof, which is interesting from an editorial standpoint (for instance, the photos the text references are absent). As much as Levin might cringe at the thought of an uncorrected proof falling into hands for which it was never intended, she’d probably also dig the serendipitous visual effect shown in this photo (see left). She opens the book with several paragraphs describing the cover photo, in which the artist is posed as a boxer in the same ring where Muhammad Ali trained, mocking the machismo of the art world. This publicity stunt marked both a change in gallery representation and her name (from her married surname to a nod to her hometown that doubled as a divestment of “male social dominance” [2]). The orange ‘give a book, take a book’ stamp of the Feminist Library on the inside front cover frames her face and when the light shines through, it looks a bit like a halo and a bit like her face has been reproduced on a coin. Either way, Chicago’s greatness is implied. It’s fitting, considering that Levin champions Chicago, for example, in calling her a pioneer of Minimalism and in defending her collaboration, The Holocaust Project: From Darkness into Light.

Personally, I struggled with Chicago’s self-importance in her first autobiography and never made it to her second one. Levin points out that bristling against her chutzpah is both common and unfair, and is rooted in the genius label seeming mismatched with a woman. Indeed, an art critic Chicago dated once told her that she would have to choose between being an artist and being a woman. Fortunately, Levin balances Chicago’s fearlessness and pride articulated in her personal letters and diaries—which are quoted extensively—with a measured tone. She delves deeply into her past, but not at the sake of credibility: it was impressive to read that Levin interviewed a female lover of the otherwise straight artist and that she, like the two lovers, agreed to protect Chicago’s identity. She does, however, fill in a number of gaps from Chicago’s autobiographical writings, providing names where Chicago did not.

Chicago has had a very full life. She was raised in a secular Jewish household watched by the FBI for her parents’ communist politics. On her father’s deathbed—when she was 13—he explained why he was a communist, which contributed to her own social justice advocacy over the years, encompassing the civil rights movement and feminism. She began taking art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago at age five and although she dropped out of UCLA briefly to join the New York art scene, she still received her Masters of Art at age 24, at which point her work had already been covered by Artforum. (Even with the aid of dextroamphetamine, the timing is remarkable.) But she was just getting started: Chicago formed the first feminist studio program at an academic institution (at Fresno State College and later the California Institute of the Arts, where she organized Womanhouse, a student installation that captured the nation’s attention). Eventually, she took time off as an instructor to focus on the monumental collaborative installation, The Dinner Party, which finally has a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. She has been married to three artists—widowed by the first when she was 24; divorced from the second after ten years of marriage; and happily married to the third since 1985. She reinvested all of her finances in her art, waiting until she was in her fifties to purchase a home (a former railroad workers’ hotel that she and her husband renovated along with professionals).

The book breezes through the later years, making it feel like Levin's coverage of Chicago's life needs to be divided between two volumes, like her own take on her life. All in all, though, it’s a good read.

(2) Qtd. on p. 2


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Rare & Raw at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

“...exciting intersections dealing with queer representation.” – Steph Rogerson

The College Art Association conference was worth every second of the twenty hours it took me to reach Manhattan by bus and train. One of the events I attended was a curatorial tour of the annual CAA Queer Caucus for Art exhibition. Rare & Raw at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Soho (the first and only dedicated LGBT art museum in the world) features work by Tom of Finland, G.B. Jones, William E. Jones, Will Munro, Kent Monkman, Nina Levitt and Tara Mateik. Once curators Steph Rogerson, Kelly McCray, and I returned to Canada, we chatted about the exhibition.

H - Since you’re both Toronto-based, have you ever co-curated with one another before?

K - Steph and I have been working together on projects since the 2006 XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto. The initial curatorial project developed for the AIDS conference was called In Tents City. Images from local, national and international artists were projected onto carport tents for a month-long period. We re-mounted this exhibition at the Theatre Centre a year later.

Other projects included the InterAccess Electronic Media Centre in Toronto. It was a film screening called Rare & Raw.  The title of the Leslie Lohman exhibition was derived from this particular event.  We selected queer films from the early 1900’s to the 1970’s that were projected to a Toronto audience both inside the gallery space and to street level audiences through linen-covered windows.

H - Can you comment on your choice of title?

K - Rare & Raw fits perfectly with our intention to feature what we consider to be rare works of iconic artists and ephemera from archives exhibited in an accessible raw state and contextualized alongside or through the eyes of contemporary artists.

S - We wanted a title with a visceral feeling, like something you could taste or touch.

H - Do you think the exhibition functions differently in a museum with a mandate to support LGBTQ artists and issues than it might in a more generic venue?

K - Yes. For example, when the Rare & Raw exhibition ran into New York Art World politics, the Leslie Lohman museum staff supported the exhibition and needs of the curators above and beyond the call of duty.

S - I agree. The specific mandate of LLM allows us as curators to explore LGBTQ themes without fear of censorship or concern about “offensive” content. 

H - I read in Art Journal that the Queer Caucus for Art used to be called the Gay and Lesbian Caucus. The earlier version of its name was in keeping with the times if you consider that, say, the first book of its kind was called Gay Art: A Historical Collection. As the field has become more inclusive, encompassing bisexual, trans, and intersex individuals, do you find it challenging as curators to give adequate representation while balancing other (aesthetic, thematic, etc.) concerns?

K - I feel fortunate to be working with Steph in that the two of us are able to agree on a balance of the aesthetic outcome with the necessary representation of varying sectors of communities. We have a strong trust in one another and our varied experiences that allows for a rich outcome.

S - Queer communities are continually evolving and part of being queer means being open to change. Inclusivity is part of queer discourse and its politics. There is engaging work being produced by queers around the world – case in point the brilliant Kent Monkman. Kelly and I are a great team and process ideas, images, meaning, and feeling about work with great candour. We are committed to creating exciting intersections dealing with queer representation.

H - Steph mentioned that the exhibition is dedicated to the late Will Munro, “the guy who made nighttime so much fun.” What do you think he would have made of the show?

K - I think Will would have set up one of his music/performance nights where all would be invited to dance beneath the glow of his mirrors. 

S - Will would have shit his pants with joy. His work looks beautiful and paired with William E. Jones’s Tearoom, both works speak to each other and create an elevated experience.

H - Were there any difficulties getting the Canadian works across the border?

K - We used a very reliable local shipper who is quite experienced with customs and cross border “situations”. I also ensured that the artwork from Canada was well packaged/wrapped/crated to make it more difficult to take issue with the pieces.

H - Zoe Leonard’s The Fae Richards Photo Archive, 1993-1996 was removed from the exhibition at the request of its owner early on in the exhibition. I’m reminded of the Robert Mapplethorpe court case where only a fraction of the offending photos were discussed, prompting one director to note, “Pictures speak to each other; they become part of a totality” (1). Back to the Leonard series, did you get a sense of viewers’ response to it before it was taken down?

K - Hard to say; the opening was packed, but we did get indications from people later that they felt fortunate to have been able to see the work and were quite appreciative of the curatorial efforts to exhibit elements of the Fae Richards Photo Archive.

S - People were very excited about The Fae Richards Photo Archive. Some had seen it years ago and for others it was new. The Fae Richards Photo Archive was an important component to the show. Its removal is a slap in the face to the other artists in the show, us as curators and LLM, the only institution of its kind in North America. The removal of this piece was based on conflicting demands that the museum and we bent over backwards to appease. The work was removed for reasons of capital and commerce, although that was never directly stated. We were “New York-ed” by powerful art people. What’s so painful about it is that Zoe Leonard has built her career on the back of queer politics as a member of Act Up & Fierce Pussy. I have admired her work for decades. Pulling The Fae Richards Photo Archive out of a queer show, in a queer venue, curated by politicized and passionate queers makes me angry, but even deeper than that is a profound sadness. Zoe Leonard broke my heart.

H - Archives are referenced a lot these days in art. This was true of the panel discussion at Leslie + Lohman that followed your tour, where Nina Levitt spoke about responding intuitively to archival images and Ken Moffat spoke about desiring the archive. Do you think the archive as an institution or concept has a unique resonance with queer artists?

K - I believe there is a growing awakening that is happening throughout, where many communities are beginning to realize the significance of the past and attempting to reclaim/re-contextualize history for present and future generations.

S - The archive is a valuable topic right now. From exhibitions, such as Lost and Found: Queerying the Archive curated by Jane Rowley and Louise Wolthers, to authors such as Ann Cvetkovich and Heather Love, to massive creative outreach in queer archives, such as The One Institute & Archives in LA, the attention on queer pedagogy, queer memory and feeling is at a fascinating point that has the potential to raise awareness about the past in order to possibly have greater understandings of the future.

H - Has “queer subversion” become a redundant collocation?

K - Yes – it is now queer to be “un - queer”.

S - I hope not! Because we have civil liberties in Canada, it’s easy to forget the rest of the world, gay bashing and abuses of power. Subverting, questioning and challenging the status quo continues to be important, specifically with issues of capital and commerce. Queers have become embedded in the corporate ladder, globalization and the race for economic power in ways that need, even demand, fresh discourse.

K - To clarify, what I am saying is that the “new normal” is beginning to incorporate a queering of the “normal”. The dominant culture is no longer dominant in Western society – even though there is still much pressure to accept that it still is.  It isn’t.

The exhibition closes March 31.

(1)            Qtd. In Kaufman, Ben L. “Mapplethorpe Issue before Court,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 21, 1990. The Cincinnati jury acquitted the Contemporary Arts Center director, Dennis Barrie, of obscenity charges related to the 1989 exhibition of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Kelly McCray is founder of and co-founder of Steph Rogerson is a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University.