Category Archives: review

Christopher Williams

MoMA_Williams

The third big exhibition at MoMA was the Christopher Williams show. This one was a mixed bag in terms of how I responded to it. On one hand, it was a bit of a fuck you to the audience since a lot of it felt like an in-joke that most people won’t get.* At the same time for me it felt like an exhibition which worked really well with Gober. Many of the photos were a little bit surreal or odd. And the whole show played with converting non-art objects to art objects.

*Not the biggest fuck you I’ve received in a Museum exhibition. That honor is still held by Santiago Sierra who, while I get what he was doing, still produced an exhibition that blew off anyone who attended it in favor of the statement that he was making.

In Williams’s case, he’s playing with the concepts behind stock and “professional” photography—bringing photographic muzak into the museum by suggesting alternate readings of the image and revealing some of the artifice in how it was produced. The alternate readings are obscure and stretched and, to my mind, not even that important. I’ve worked in printing, production, and design long enough to understand how everyone includes in-jokes in the process—the more obscure the joke the better so as no one else will notice. That we know he’s winking or enjoying a self-satisfied giggle here is enough for me even though I can totally understand how other people would be upset by this.

Revealing the artifice behind the stock photos is more interesting to me anyway. That so many of them feel a little off makes us question our expectations and points out how much of this photographic language we’ve absorbed even though this kind of photography is universally unmemorable.* Getting into and figuring out why they feel off though is almost impossible. They’re not off in a bad or incompetent way, they’re just somehow less commercial than we expect even while looking completely professional. Some of this is definitely because they’re in a museum rather than a magazine ad. But a lot of it is based on our collective snap judgements against a standard of professionalism that we can’t even articulate.

*It’s interesting to compare Williams to what people are currently calling Hipster Photography. Hipster photography appears to ape the unmemorable product consumption images only without being about the product. Williams makes the product more explicit but tweaks the delivery so it isn’t as unmemorable.

This isn’t “that’s not art” kind of art because it’s giant or made from expensive materials or being trangressive and saying “yes this is art.” Instead Williams directly triggers our “that’s not art” reflex only to have us immediately realize that we may jumped to that conclusion too quickly. I love this kind of category blurring.

I also love all his photos which intentionally include production elements in the frame. I’m a backstager by heart who tends to sympathize with all the unseen stuff that goes into making anything. It’s very easy to forget or be ignorant about all that process so any artist who tweaks the ideas of what belongs offstage* is okay by me.

*For example, Baz Luhrmann’s stage direction.

Matisse Cutouts

MoMA_Matisse

The big exhibition at MoMA was the Matisse show. Unlike Gober, Matisse was packed full of people who like his artwork—and who were visiting the museum to indulge in how much they liked it. It is indeed superficially easy to like: Bright colors. Fun shapes. A famous name. Some iconic pieces.

I liked it too, but the main appeal to me was that it was, in many ways, an exhibition of process documents instead of final products. Many of the pieces on display were actually about designing for a different medium. Maquettes for murals,* printed books,** ceramics,*** and stained glass. Cutouts eventually realized as silkscreens. Even the pieces which remained as cutouts went through multiple iterations before ending up in their final arrangements.

*The Barnes Mural

**Jazz

***La Gerbe

The exhibition does a great job at showing how the cutouts evolved and interacted with each other as Matisse worked on them. There are photos showing different arrangements and the displays go out of their way to emphasize the pinholes and other ways that the pieces were held together and rearranged. This is distinct from other process documents where multiple iterations are created and can be preserved. The fluidity of composition in the cutouts is fascinating to see and think about and there’s something wonderfully tactile and evocative with cut shapes stuck on a surface where we can see the possibilities of playing with everything.

Which made it especially interesting to see how despite the ephemeral nature of the cut outs, they were all also presented as being finished and final. The maquettes might be final proofs but they’re not the final piece. Some of the cutouts were indeed intended to be final pieces but many of them were living on Matisse’s walls and there’s a huge difference between being in the state Matisse’s death left them in and having it be finished complete works of art.* I can appreciate them as being finished enough, but declaring them as complete—and seeing people view them as complete—got me thinking some more about how we conceive of art and the role that presentation plays in how we react.

*It’s worth mentioning an exhibition on sketches I saw at Princeton here for some additional thoughts about process documents and unfinished pieces in the museum.

It’s an exhibition of Matisse Cutouts, not an exhibition of maquettes for Matisse Prints or Matisse Ceramics. So cutout as final form is the expectation going in.

And that’s fine too. Many of the pieces are a joy to look at and the form itself is fun. Squiggles where you can see both parts and try and match up the original paper pieces across multiple compositions. Vaguely botanical shapes that remind me of Hawaiian quilts. Some remarkably effortless and graceful forms such as the parakeet which show how much a single confident line can convey.*

*And other equally effortful forms, especially his human figures, which show that this medium is a lot harder than it looks.

There is so much here which I want to show my sons as basic art education. How to explore colors and positive and negative spaces. Being able to move compositions around before committing to their placement. The willingness to just try a line or shape and see what happens with it. The fact that this is just cut pieces of colored paper means it’s simple and cheap to try.

Robert Gober

MoMA_Gober

The first show we saw at our MoMA trip was Robert Gober. I’ve always liked him because he kind of freaks me out. I still remember seeing one of his solo shows 14 years ago. It’s interesting to go through and compare my memories with everything he’s done since then.

Most of what I remember are his wax creations—feet and candles and torsos—and the sinks and drains. Those are still as surreal as I remember them being. He’s gone beyond surreal objects though into surreal spaces. It’s not enough to see things that are the stuff of bad or weird dreams,* Gober transforms the galleries into spaces where the scale everything throws off your point of view. Things are too big or far away or high and everything feels like you’re looking at it from the wrong angle.

*Or at the very least those have-to-go-pee dreams you have right before getting up in the morning.

What I found myself liking more though were the ways he transformed ephemera into a different kind of printed medium.  The way the printed pieces go from being one-off (thermal paper or hand-written notes) to mass-producible (engraving or letterpress) rather than the other way around is especially interesting to me. I’m used to seeing things end up in the museum via the opposite process where something mass-produced is recreated by hand.

As a print nerd, I really enjoy Gober’s detailed printing instructions since they indicate to me how much craft goes into mass-producing anything. These aren’t just cheap scans and inkjets, these are engravings printed on nice paper and they only look cheap and disposable until you look closely and see how nice the paper and printing are. I wish I could handle these.

The Gober exhibition is also one which is fun to watch everyone else in the galleries. It’s so weird that the way people react is totally part of the experience. His work can’t be dismissed as non-art but it also isn’t something that most people like. They don’t know how to react and instead have to accept and deal with what they’re seeing rather than defaulting to easy emotions.

I love watching this kind of confusion. Still, there were not enough people laughing for my taste.

MoMA

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So I finally made it into New York. It only took me a year. Just a day trip with my sister so we figured we’d hit MoMA and FIT. The last time I visited MoMA was when it was in Queens in 2002 while the new building was being built. I only got to see the highlights of the collection then. I enjoyed being able to wander through more of it now.

There’s no need for me to write about the full collection since it’s pretty much a primer of what you should see and know when it comes to Modern Art. Seeing the iconic pieces in the flesh is always fun. As is getting the additional depth around each highlight. However, discovering other pieces which aren’t on the must-see list is what makes a museum visit especially enjoyable.*

*For this trip it was Lygia Pape who caught my eye.

Unfortunately, there’s no real equivalent to this kind of setup with the photography galleries. The photography gallery was smallish and seemed to be a rotating exhibit space. No sense that there’s a set of definitive highlights which should always be on display. It was also distinct from the main attractions in the museum where you have to sort of go out of your way to see the photos. Still, from what they had on display, I really loved seeing a Seydou Keïta print. And it was great to see this Metzker up close.

It was also very interesting to compare things to the way Princeton organizes stuff. We’d been to the Princeton museum the previous day and this time Yayoi Kusama was displayed as a “Showa-era” painter in the basement with the “ancient” Japanese art. Visit MoMA and she’s listed on the map as one of the seven examples of artists from 1940s–1980.* Similarly, MoMA included Maria Martinez as one of the artists in the Designing Modern Women exhibition rather than how Princeton displays her work in the Ancient Americas room.

*I couldn’t help noting that the seven listed artists for both 1880s–1940s and 1940s–1980 consisted of six white men and one non-white woman (Frida Kahlo for the earlier galleries, Kusama for the later galleries).

I enjoyed the rest of the Designing Modern Women exhibition too. The design world is typically male-dominated so it’s good to call out women’s accomplishments in the field as well as hanging a hat on how many of these women had to fight for acceptance or whose acceptance—or at least their foot on the door—only arrived because of their partnership with a man.

It’s also important to recognize the areas in design—such as textiles—where women were often pushed as legitimate media in their own right. “Women’s work” still tends to be ignored or minimized as a legitimate pursuit unless a man decides to go into it.* So to take these fields and hold them up as being worth looking at and studying, period, is great to see.

*Seriously, look at who our celebrity chefs and fashion designers are. Yes there are women in there, but they’re outnumbered by men. 

The video game exhibit is also on the design floor and pulled me in because I would recognize the sounds of PacMan anywhere. I like the display in that it allows people to actually play the games while still looking like a museum exhibition instead of an arcade. This allows for the performance aspect of video games to also be part of the exhibition. It’s also especially nice to see kids playing games that are decades older than they are.

There were a ton of special exhibitions at MoMA. Most of those will get their own write ups so that this post doesn’t ramble too much. The only one I’ll mention here is the Toulouse-Lautrec room since I don’t really have much to say about it. As a printing nerd, I always enjoy seeing prints in museums and really looking at the craft involved. With regard to Toulouse-Lautrec, I love how he treats clothing so often as a void—either of color of or paper—just showing the details in the faces and hands of his lithographs.

Italian Drawings

Vittore Carpaccio. Two Standing Women, One in Mamluk Dress

A brief review of Princeton’s 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings exhibition which I saw last February.  I didn’t initially plan on writing about this but I’ve ended up thinking about it more than I expected to.

This was an exhibition about craft and process rather than the final productions. Most of the items on display are either plans for sculptures and paintings or sketches and studies of things being observed. In both cases, these drawings are the first step which takes us from observing and thinking to making and understanding. These drawings are what make all the other arts possible.

They’re wonderful. Besides the linework and technical skill, there is so much gesture and life in these since they are sketches rather than renderings. I’m also a total sucker for drawings using both dark and white pigments on medium-tone paper. Looking at these makes me want to start drawing again.

I ended up thinking about this exhibition more than I expected because I started wondering when these drawings became considered art in their own right. I’ve seen other exhibitions about process but none with pieces as old as these. My understanding from the wall text is that these were collected by specific people even at the time—suggesting that most people would have seen these as process documents only.

This is something I’ve wondered off and on about for a while whenever I see “unfinished” work in museums—especially now since we’ve thoroughly absorbed both the concepts of ruin value and wabi-sabi into a lot of modern art. Things don’t have to be finished perfectly to be complete. Nor do they have to be preserved intact in order to stay complete. And while neither of these is a modern idea, the concepts do seem to have made it into museums relatively recently compared to the age of some of these pieces.

Before Rodin, how were fragments and unfinished pieces like Michelangelo’s Slaves presented? Were they just examples of the artist’s working practice and a way for us to learn how things were made? Or have they always been viewable as complete pieces, finished in their own way.

I’m not enough of an academic to be able to answer this. But whenever I see exhibitions like this where process documents are being displayed as art in their own right, I’ll keep looking and reading and trying to get a better understanding of how it works and when we started seeing them as something more than just a step in the design of something else.

New Oakland Museum pt2

My trip to the Oakland Museum also allowed me to check out the new Gallery of Natural Sciences.* Unlike with the California Academy of Sciences, while I visited the Oakland Museum a lot as a kid, I do not really remember the old galleries here. Looking through the new galleries though I can see that there must have been a lot of dioramas and taxidermy animals. The new galleries use and repurpose a lot of the old material into displays that are often nothing like the static dioramas.

*The Oakland Museum has been updating its galleries over the past few years. The other new galleries opened  in late 2010 at which point the Natural Sciences one closed for these renovations.

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There are birds all over the gallery—both flying overhead and perched on things—in ways that bring museumgoers into the exhibit. There are still some free-standing glassed-off displays but because most of the exhibits are more immersive, those are the exceptions and can highlight specific things now.

The galleries go on a tour of California, visiting 7 key regions,* and highlighting the ecology of each area and why they’re important, distinct, and how we’ve used them. The bird and animal displays are especially notable in how they’re wildlife which is local to those areas yet is completely different than anything I ever see at zoos. I don’t know why the only place I can expect to see local wildlife is in Natural History museums** where the wildlife is dead, stuffed, and posed. Zoos almost never have pens of local animals where you can learn about animals that you might be lucky enough to see in the wild.

*Well, 6 plus Oakland. Which I’m fine with since seeing the natural history of where the museum is—and the home of who’s most likely to visit—is in many ways the most interesting part for me. I loved seeing how many oaks really used to be there and looking at all the ways that waterways have been diverted into underground culverts as the city developed.

**Well, also kid-centric junior museums which also function as wildlife centers.

I’d love to see zoos take this approach and had a section devoted to the local wildlife and ecosystems. I’d love as a local to be able to bring my kids to the zoo and and really teach them about the animals they might see in the wild. And I’d love as a tourist to be able to actually learn about an area through visiting a zoo. Right now, it’s the science museums and aquariums which do a better job at teaching me about where I am. And that makes me sad.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.

—My review of Inspiration Points

The land use, land management thread also continues through the whole natural sciences wing. Every display mentions how we’ve used a place, how we rely on it for some resource, and what our impact has been on the plant and animal life there. The displays also get into discussions about what we should do with places in the future as our resource needs change or as the existing resource becomes stressed or as the ownership of the place changes hands.

And the ownership question is especially interesting. Tejon Ranch and Sutter Buttes in particular have fascinating displays about the ownership issue and the points of view of Indians, private owners, and State Parks—and how public ownership may not always considered the best course of action by people who you’d think of as being anti-private ownership. Public ownership often means public access, which is not always the best thing for preservation.

Other highlights

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One, more old-style display needs to be mentioned since it was my favorite thing in the whole museum. The egg drawers are awesome. The display is just a file cabinet full of boxes of eggs, each box containing a clutch of eggs from a specific bird. But opening each drawer and comparing everything—sizes, colors, shapes, number—is not only great fun to see all the varieties but is also an exercise in thinking about species vulnerability, location on the food chain, nesting habits, etc.

It’s a shame that this collection hasn’t been digitized since this kind of typology is just fascinating to look through. It’s not just the sheer variety of options, it’s that, while we’re familiar with eggs as a concept, we never actually see them in the wild unless something’s gone horribly wrong.

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Speaking of horribly wrong. When we get out into the ocean habitat, they have this display of an albatross from Midway island. Which is awful but also looks somewhat staged. I had to pull up Chris Jordan’s work to show that things are actually worse than this looks.

I found myself wondering which came first, Jordan’s photos or this display,* and if it’s this display, if perhaps that’s why Jordan’s photos seemed oddly familiar to me when I first encountered them.

*Well, not this display but the the albatross specimen.

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I also took a quick walk through the California History Gallery. Not enough to comment on it in general but just to see it again and check out anything that I didn’t remember seeing before. I like the gallery but have never had the time to really give it a good looking over. In this visit though I did see the technology “garage” for the first time. It’s part of an exhibit on how California has influenced the current world and is more of an exhibit on what is currently trendy* than being actual history.

*e.g. Burning Man

In the technology garage, while there were lots of computer artifacts* what caught my eye was the interaction board which asked how our lives have changed because of computer technology. As expected, there were a lot of positive comments. I found myself enjoying the negative ones. And the ones which buy into analog fetishism,

*Worth looking at but nothing like visiting the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.

The idea that computer technology is antisocial always amuses me. One of the amazing things I’m seeing with my kids is how they’re able to videoconference with their family members. We live in New Jersey, everyone else is in California, but we can talk and see each other daily, if need be. This is normal to my kids. I think it’s life-changing to my parents who, without the videoconference, wouldn’t be able to see and interact with their grandchildren for months at a time. It’s so much easier to interact and talk to people now that it amazes me how people have become so blasé about it.

Similarly, analog fetishism is one of those things that comes up in photography* all the time. I get it. Old technology** is cool. Mechanical technology which doesn’t succumb to bit rot is especially cool. But we’ve been talking about the digital vs analog thing for decades now and have gotten to the point were old digital technology has become outdated to the point where still using it is a bit of a statement as well.*** This is going to happen more and more. It’s not a magical analog/digital thing as much as a technology evolution thing. After a while, old technology goes from being merely outdated to something that reminds us how the world used to be.****

*And music and movies.

**Sufficiently old.

***I’m thinking of things like CD collections and classic NES games.

****For example, Jim Golden’s Relics of Technology. It also may be worth reading my thoughts upon viewing Dieter Rams’s 1970s design work.

With specific regard to cameras, I’m curious which digital cameras will become the retro-fetish cameras. We hit the point a year and a half ago where digital cameras were coming out that had been optimized toward specific kinds of shooting. I don’t think people will be nostalgic for VGA images. But for things like the GoPro once other kinds of wearable cameras hit the market? Maybe.

Inspiration Points

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

Ted Orland, One-and-a-Half Domes, Yosemite

I’ve never liked how photography is in its own distinct wing. I don’t even like considering it distinct from “the other arts” and much prefer seeing it in conversation with painting, sculpture, etc. This isn’t an “equal status” thing but instead recognizes how photography is a tool for communication. Fixating on what is or isn’t photography misses the greater point that these images exist and interbreed with other images, photographic or non.

My post here introducing Hairy Beast

My last museum trip of the summer was to the Oakland Museum. This was partly to get my Fenton’s fix but I was also interested in the Inspiration Points exhibition since it promised to mix photography, painting, and drawing in the galleries. One of my continuing interests with photography is how it can get out of the photography wing and be exhibited alongside, and in conversation with, other artworks. This doesn’t happen often* so I like to keep an eye out for those cases where it does and go see the show with an eye for how the show itself guides the conversation.

*Why I was so excited by SFMOMA’s Flesh and Metal. And the Jay DeFeo exhibition before that.

The Oakland museum show is a little bit of a mixed bag here. It breaks the concept of California Landscape Art into distinct views and themes, some of which end up being heavily biased toward specific media. So no conversations in those room although there is food for thought about why some themes may be tougher for certain media to handle.

Since each theme ends up being somewhat distinct in character, it makes sense to go through the themes. First, the themes which resulted in galleries which were mixed media.

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Anne W. Brigman, The Heart of the Storm

Mystic

While being mixed between paintings and photography, a lot of the works in this gallery were heavily biased toward pictorialism—or the paintings that those photos were trying to evoke. This isn’t a complaint as it’s quite nice to see those two concepts mixed together so we can actually see how they inform each other.

At the same time, it feels like a somewhat limited take on what mysticism can mean as it biases more toward early-20th-century concepts of myths and the “unspoiled” land in the west rather than looking at the different ways people have developed the landscape for spiritual reasons over the past century.

Exploitation

This theme is of course the flip side of the mystic landscapes. How California is full of natural resources for us to use or conquer is the real state mythology. Documenting the land as we impose out will on it is something everyone—from artists to corporations*— does here. In this case, the method of documentation doesn’t really matter. I don’t get the sense that these works are in conversation although it is interesting to see how commercial both photography and painting can go in terms of serving corporate needs.

*Sigh.

What’s more interesting is how all these works can be read in multiple ways now. Many of the exploitation artworks originally glorify the men or companies which were taming nature. While this reading is still valid, that they’re now displayed under the heading “Exploitation” means we’re looking at them differently. What was originally optimistic is instead something we’re supposed to reflect on and think about how to change—both our actions with the landscape and our readings of corporate propaganda—moving forward.

Recreation and Tourism

It’s interesting that Recreation and Tourism is a distinct theme outside of exploitation. Not all of the exploitation of California’s resources is through using them up. Recreation and tourism is just as important a part of land management and just as important an industry to the state. Big trees. Big water. Big mountains. These are the landscapes which sell the California image as tourist destination for seeing and taking in and exploring nature.

These are also the landscapes that photographers and painters tend to consume and emulate the most. Where the exploitation artworks are clear what industry they’re depicting, many of the recreation ones end up pointing the finger back at the viewer and the artist and make me think about the fine line between how our desire to see and use these places both allows for their preservation as open space and risks degrading them through overuse.

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

Beth Van Hoesen, Point Richmond

East Bay

There’s also a gallery dedicated to East Bay landscapes. This is nice to see because it’s local—both the views and the artists—and while the exhibition is about California, it’s also always nice to see items of specific local interest included too. There are a lot of stereotypical nice landscapes on the East Bay but I prefer seeing the depictions of things we typically don’t think of as being picturesque.

Locals have a tendency to undervalue what’s interesting about where they live even while being triggered with intense senses of home from things that non-locals won’t ever understand. It’s those local-specific details which I enjoy seeing the most.

Now, on to the themes which were heavily biased in favor of a specific medium.

Pastoral

This section was all paintings* and pretty much all a nostalgic** view of California as an agricultural paradise. Not really a style of painting I like though it is interesting that there weren’t any photographs present. It’s not like photography can’t do the nostalgia thing.***

*Except for one Edward Weston photo. Oddly enough.

**Making the Weston inclusion even odder.

***Off the top of my head I’m thinking Pirkle Jones would be a good fit here. Or possibly Ken Light.

Between how we also react to old photos as inherently historic and nostalgic documents and how so much of the current trends in photography have been centered around faking and mimicking nostalgia as a reaction to the ubiquity of images and our loss of our lazy-man’s editor, there’s plenty of opportunity for photographs here.

All that said, I think there’s an element of nostalgia which requires things to be kind of made up. Photography, while not real, trades on reality in a way that paintings do not. Looking at nostalgic paintings comes with the understanding that things don’t actually look like that in real life. Looking at photos, especially landscape photos, still comes from a place where we expect the photo to be real.

Yes we should know better here.

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Joe Deal, Front Lawn (Watering) Phillips Ranch, California

Urban vs. wild

Meanwhile this theme was all photos, many of which were New Topographics type work. And while this made some sense to me since one of photography’s specialties is highlighting incongruent elements such as this urban vs wild theme, it’s not like people stopped painting or drawing the California suburbs.

And the urban vs. wild theme is in many ways about “California style” developments* which are meant to bring the outside in or incorporate controlled wilderness in the midst of suburbia. This isn’t an exclusive to photography thing at all.**

*Something that I wasn’t fully aware of until I moved East and saw homes listed as “California style” which look nothing like anything I’ve seen in California but instead feature more open floor plans and bigger windows and try to seem like they’re closer to nature.

**A lot of Hockney paintings (one of his joiners was in this gallery) seem to fit here. As does a lot of Bechtle.

Still, as with the nostalgia images, the difference in how we approach paintings compared to photos I think is a major reason why this gallery is photo-biased. The fact that the photos are “real” makes the incongruity more believable here.

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Robert Dawson, Private Property, Lake Tahoe, California

Dystopia

This was also all photos. Which, didn’t surprise me at all. The dystopia photos, more than anything else here, are treated as evidence of landscapes taken to illogical extremes. You could create images like these in paintings but something about finding these in the wild makes the point better.* These photos are often wry and funny just as often as they’re sad. They’re also the images I liked the most in the exhibition.

*Sandow Birk’s drawings are pretty dystopian but even when referencing specific things, they’re pretty clearly made up.

Many of the dystopian photos revolve around land use and the weird juxtapositions between private and public. Looking through the rest of the galleries in this show, it’s clear how this idea is a constant issue in all the different themes and as such is really the dominant concept in the California landscape.

So many of the images here are about what we’re doing to the landscape. And who in particular is doing it. It’s up to us to see these images and ask the questions about whether we’re doing the right things or if the right people are doing them, and if not, what the right things are and who the right people should be.