Rineke Dijkstra

Part four of my trip to SFMoMA. Yes, I went to see Bradford and collect my prize, but I’m still mainly a photography guy so I was most looking forward to seeing Rineke Dijkstra. It’s a good exhibition. Not sure how I feel (in a like/dislike way) about the actual art. But I did react strongly to it—which is saying something.

The concepts behind the photos are interesting and fascinating—people in personal transition: teenagers, new mothers, soldiers, migrants, etc. The photos though—despite their size—need to be seen as groups and require explanatory text for the relevant context.* While each image invites scrutiny of its individual details, those details only matter when compared to its companion images. Catching similar postures between teenagers. Seeing how a refugee ages. Noting the differences that a vaginal birth leaves on a new mother’s body when compared to a caesarian. Finding the mosquito on the forehead of one of the bullwrestlers. But as individual images? None of them really caught me and they all give me more an impression of the photographer rather than the subject.

*Context would be the theme of the day

Which is an impression I was aware of in this exhibition more than in any other exhibition of portraits I’ve seen.* I constantly found myself conscious of the photographer and wondering about the interaction which occurred during the portrait or video session—especially the video sessions.

*including multiple Avedon exhibitions.

The video works are engrossing as they teeter on the edge between being voyeuristic or complicit. They are ostensibly just a single teenager on-camera reacting or dancing to the music being played. There is much more going on though and it’s fascinating to watch the transformation from awkward teenager in front of the camera to a fully-committed dancer. Watching, while I can sense how it takes a bit to get into the music, I can also see other interactions going on in the studio and I can’t help but wonder what is being said off-the-record to coax a better reaction or performance out of the teen. There’s also something bit sketchy about watching the exercise.

The photos kind of feel the same way. There’s something vaguely intrusive about them which made me wonder how the portrait shoot itself went, how she asked for permission, how the sitters felt about the whole thing, and whether they like how they’re being displayed worldwide as art.

At the same time, there is something deeply true about Dijkstra’s work. We’ve all been teenagers and should remember how awkward everything is then. And how most of us hated posing for photos at the time. We’ve also all had traumatic experiences and know that recording our physical state at that time reflects a very different personality than we usually present.

Looking at Dijkstra’s work, I found myself looking away from them as much as I looked at them. These aren’t easy things to look at since they’re very raw. The photos may not be empathetic, but the directness of them cuts through a lot of crap to present us things we recognize and empathize with. No cheap tricks here and the consistency of her approach to each sitter* works well when seeing everything as a group. No one is intended to be embarrassed and the fact that the collected works point back at the photographer herself** takes some of the burden off the subject.

*Each photo in the exhibition is remarkably similar in technique and style.

**That the exhibition begins with a self portrait—and that it ends at the same self portrait since you exit where you entered—is a brilliant bit of curation.

As I said before, I’m not sure I like them. And I’m not sure I’m supposed to. But I’m glad I went.

Mark Bradford

As I mentioned in my prize-unboxing post, part of the reason I went to SFMoMA was to see the Mark Bradford exhibition. I didn’t really know what to expect since it’s impossible to really understand this work until you see it. But it was supposed to be good. And it was. Huge collages with lots of texture which both invite and reward inspection at a number of viewing distances.

I wish I could touch them.

Bradford’s work definitely falls into the category of artwork which is compelling enough on its own that it doesn’t need a lot of explanatory text. Information on media and method is nice to learn but the concepts are also simple enough that I can see Bradford-like art projects* being a great activity to do with kids.

*Using Elmers glue, found paper, and twine.

It’s also interesting to see this exhibition so soon after seeing Walker Evans. Evans has a number of photos of advertising posters which are layered upon years of accumulated advertising. As new images are added and as things age and weather, the textures and unexpected combinations of images which develop present found art to someone with Evans’s eye. Bradford takes this concept a step further by provoking the textures and combinations intentionally through layering printed material on top of printed material and then sanding away portions to reveal the layers.

Because he works with the materials of his community, he ends up creating collages which draw upon and comment on his experiences. I’m not sure I agree with the way that he’s presented as a black artist since his work isn’t as overtly black as say Kara Walker’s, Chris Ofili’s,* or Fred Wilson’s is. While he references black themes in his titles, I get a much more Los Angeles ghetto vibe from him in a way which makes his art speak for any non-white lower-class group in the West Coast.

*Yes, I know that Chris Ofili isn’t American. There’s a reason I said “black” instead of “African American.”

Heck, his art is pretty Los Angeles just in general. LA is a weird weird place were anyone and everyone can reinvent themselves. There is history there. But it’s papered over with fake history* which has taken on a life of its own to the point where the fake history is legitimately historical too. This rewriting of history is embedded in the geography of the street grid and highway right of ways as neighborhoods are redeveloped/destroyed.**

*Olvera Street.

**Chavez Ravine and South Central.

That much of Bradford’s work references the city grid only confirms my sense of his work as belonging to LA. To be fair, he is able to reference other places—I really liked his Katrina/New Orleans piece in particular. But to drive through LA is to see fragments of past versions of the city peeking through the latest veneer—mini Ruwedels glimpsed from a Gohlke point of view, maybe at 70mph if you’re lucky, but more likely through the frustration of stop-and-go traffic.

I don’t know whether LA is gigantic Bradford collage or if Bradford’s collages just happen to encapsulate my sense of what Los Angeles is. But his work has me wanting to read City of Quartz now.

Interactive Museum

The Descriptive Acts exhibition was an unexpected bonus from my most-recent trip to SFMoMA. It was probably the highlight of my trip. I love it whenever art museums manage to not only engage their visitors but pull them through the fourth wall. Usually, it’s only people like me who watch fellow museumgoers as part of the museum experience who see other visitors as part of the exhibition. When museums show artworks which force this interaction onto visitors, my delight in the experience increases exponentially.

I can’t really think of too many other art exhibitions which are like this. Architecture* is close but a very different kind of interaction. Big art exhibitions such as Biennale often have some of these but it’s hard to give them the attention the deserve there. The only one which comes to mind right now is Erwin Wurm’s One-minute sculptures and I saw those a decade ago.**

*And artists such as Richard Serra or Olafur Eliasson which may be best appreciated architecturally.

**Those also didn’t force interaction, they just encouraged it. All the adults just looked and read until a little girl dragged her mom on to the dais. Maurice Chevalier would be proud.

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Erwin Wurm: One-minute Sculptures. MoMA Queens, 2002

Descriptive Acts directly involves the visitors in an interaction whether they like it or not. As soon as you enter you’re part of the experience—though you may not be fully aware of this. There is a writer in the room describer what she sees and anyone in there is a potential target.*  That the writer is in the room makes it work. It would creepy if the author were invisible. Instead there’s a subtle dance of watching each other, and everyone else, which occurs. Some people try to avoid the author. Others want attention. Others are totally oblivious.

*SFMoMA’s blog has a more in-depth description of the experience.

I watched the writer and the room. She was having fun with the student groups which visited. My favorite moment though was a visitor with a fancy camera* taking photos of the artwork oblivious to the fact that his movements were being described and that he was part of the artwork now himself.** Most people do not interact with the writer. I did.

*Some flavor of Canon with pro-grip and gigantic white L lens.

**How do I know he was oblivious? He was behaving in the “photograph everything, then move to the next item” fashion which too many tourists exhibit now. Pix or it didn’t happen indeed…

I also can’t help but think about how the identity of the writer is hugely important to the piece. I don’t know if it’s the same woman. That the one I saw was young and attractive diffuses a lot of potential pitfalls with the exhibition. She was also wearing regular clothes. If she were dressed as security or in some sort of costume it would completely change things. Same if she were male. Or threatening. Or older. Or a child. Or writing in a non-english language.

Which brings up the second point of this exhibition. Context matters—whether it’s the identity of the observer in the gallery or the information provided with the pieces themselves. All the pieces in the exhibition have extra information which is all intended to reframe and change the art on display. Sometimes it’s personal information about the subjects of the photos, other times it’s a narration for a movie. But in all cases, seeing the image is not enough, you have to pay attention to you your understanding changes as you learn additional information. As a context advocate, I find it fantastic to see this kind of thing in a museum.

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Your mission, should you choose to accept.

And yes, to everyone who feels like art which comments on the viewers is somehow an infringement on privacy? Think again. The museum is not a library. If you go, there will always be people like me will consider you part of the experience.

Plus, like sitting on the aisle or in the front row of a play, there’s always the potential that the museum will implicate you without your knowledge. SFMoMA is also running a series of games to play in the galleries. Some of those games also encourage interaction while others involve unsuspecting museum goers.

Everyone in a museum is on display at some level. To think otherwise is to underestimate art.

Monuments of Printing II

My trip to Stanford to see Walker Evans was also timed so that I could catch the second part of the Monuments of Printing exhibition at Green Library. The first part was very good. It was more of an exhibition of the evolution of type and printing rather than design and I enjoyed it from a technology point of view. Part two picked up the final bit of type design but quickly got into the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Which is the portion I was really interested in. The older books are interesting—if not beautiful—to look at but they also all contain flaws since they’re still finding their way through the technology. While Stanford calls it the Book Arts Revival, this exhibition shows that it’s really a distillation of everything good from historic book design.

In the same way that I found myself wanting to handle the books on display in the Art of the Book Exhibition, I would love to leaf through the Kelmscott Chaucer or the Doves Bible. We don’t make books like that anymore and these books cry out to be both read and treasured. It’s fantastic to be able to see them in person and really see the craft which went into them. It’s also clear that these books are meant to be more than just for reading. These are books* as devotional objects.

*And by extension, their contents.

Which is a point of view that I’m okay with. It’s obvious in the exhibition is that there is a threshold of importance which must be reached for a text to be considered worthy of publication—Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, and Milton are featured a lot. The books I covet from the Folio Society are all classics like these too.

This makes sense considering how expensive traditional publishing has been. It’ll be interesting to see what happens as publishing dies and books stop being commodities.

Walker Evans

Last weekend I made it out to the Cantor Center in order to see their Walker Evans exhibition. It’s very good—to the point where it also almost feels like a history exhibition rather than an art exhibition. So much of his work is tied up into the greater context of American History that it’s possible to come out of the exhibition just thinking about the time period his photos come from.

What I find interesting is that I don’t get any real sense of empathy in his photographs of people. The photos are flattering in their formality* but they also come across as somewhat intrusive and confrontational. This results in an interesting comparison between his photos in America and his photos abroad where, for once, there isn’t much difference.** I get the sense that even in his travels, he was always a bit of an outsider.

*Reminding me actually of Avedon’s work—specifically his American West.

**Unlike what I see so often where an American photographer travels abroad and takes photos of the 3rd-world natives as if they were specimens to be cataloged.

Evans’s keen formal eye though makes his architecture photographs very interesting. And his series of re-croppings from older negatives shows how he would re-envision a scene and formalize it over and over again.

I can’t help but wonder if the sense of intrusiveness is what prompted his subway photos. Shooting with a hidden camera obviously makes things a lot more unguarded though it doesn’t really address the intrusiveness issue. That the photos work is a testament to the respect with which he treats his subjects—even if they’re unaware.

A lot of people would use a hidden camera* to take photos of people in a way which would mock them. Evans avoids this trap and presents his subjects with a certain dignity. I’m reminded of the way I peoplewatch while riding public transportation—avoid the weirdos and don’t gawk at embarrassing things, instead just watch what’s in front of me and avoid eye contact with everyone else as they do the same.

*Heck, any camera.

The photos I like best are his signage photos—whether it’s his old depression era photos, his 1970s polaroid shots,* or the numerous other signs which exist in the background of many of his prints.** Maybe it’s because I’m a type junkie. But there’s something to the layered crafts and the way that the message changes as signs age, are layered together,*** or have pieces cropped off. I can admire the lettering, signmaking, and photography all together as each component is graphically considered but someone different yet all the pieces come together in the final image.

*These polaroid shots are 40 years ahead of their time and are what kids with instagram are attempting to achieve now.

**I so craved a Coke after looking at this exhibition

***Speaking of which. Would his Broadway print (above) even count as a photograph today?

One last thought/rant. A number of Fortune Magazine spreads are displayed since they contain all the color photography that Evans published. No prints. The wall text says that this is because Evans didn’t print anything while he was alive and so the published magazines represent the only true prints he did. This is a shame and makes no sense to me.

  1.  The color photographs are on Kodachrome. Which means that we’re pretty certain what they’re supposed to look like.
  2. The published portfolios already tell us which images he selected for publication.
  3. Printing from the slides (if available) will look way better than faded CMYK offset printing at 133LPI on yellowing paper.
  4. Who says that the photographer has to be the editor? It’s not a problem for Vivian Maier or NASA.

Also at the Cantor

There is a selection of Weston photographs hidden in the Early-modern Europe Gallery. This is also worth seeing. It’s a couple dozen prints roughly organized by texture. Which means that nudes are next to peppers. As they should be.

I’m familiar with Weston’s work more by osmosis than through any conscious study. I suspect that many photographers are the same. Some artists you lean by name and associate with specific things. Others have influence which just creeps into you. Weston is one of those sneaky ones who I’ve absorbed without realizing it. So it’s good to be reminded of this and to consciously see his work.

Richard Misrach: Oakland-Berkeley Fire Aftermath, 1991

My grandmother’s house is at the base of the Oakland hills.* We drove through the hills to get there for holidays and visits and there’s always something very comforting about that area as a result. It’s not where I grew up, but there’s a similar comfort in knowing and seeing where my father grew up.**

*Even though someone else has lived there for over a decade, it will always be my grandmother’s house.

**I have similar feelings about Kane‘ohe even though I visited there far less frequently.

I still remember the fire in 1991—both in terms of watching the news and then driving through the neighborhood soon after for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Watching the fire was scary and worrisome. Even though we knew she was okay, we were watching to see if our roots survived. While the house and immediate neighborhood did (being surrounded by the Claremont Country Club), we still had no idea what the greater area would look like until we drove through it later.

We didn’t drive through the area so soon after as Richard Misrach did but his photos of the aftermath still ring familiar to me. It’s easy to dismiss photos of devastation and disaster as ruin porn but when those photos become personal, it’s quite a bit different. That Misrach sat on these for 20 years before publishing shows that he understands the difference too. He’s thought through what these photos are for—they aren’t voyeuristic photos intended for people to gawk, they’re personal and intended for people to remember.

That they’re being displayed first in Oakland and Berkeley sort of forgives the one major fault of the exhibition. There are no pre-fire or post-reconstruction photographs available so we have to rely on our own memories or commit to driving up Broadway after the museum visit. But by being displayed first to locals, it’s likely that there will always be someone in the exhibition who can make it personal.

There is a memory wall which does alleviate some of this, but I still found myself directly comparing this exhibition to Gohlke’s work with either the aftermath of the Wichita Falls tornado or the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Gohlke is great about demonstrating a lot more of the cause and effect both in single frames as well as multiple frames from the same location over the years. The most I get a sense for this in the Misrach exhibition is the noticeable motion blur in a number of the frames—the wind which fed the firestorm was still whipping through the area.

I also, as a Bay Area native who expects to be wiped out via earthquakes, couldn’t help but appreciate how fire takes all of the house except the portion which earthquakes take first. Wood rides out earthquakes pretty well, stone and brick chimneys don’t. And yes, I know that the chief danger during an earthquake is still fire.

Two photos which struck me most. The car at the edge of the world. There’s always something striking about what remains in a landscape when everything else is taken away. In this case, you can also see how precariously those houses must have actually been on the hillside and you can see how the view must have looked before we began building there. There’s also a much closer shot of just the burned-out car showing how everything flammable has been consumed. I prefer this shot with the context but the two together* work well.

*And really, how often do you see two shots of the same subject taken at the same time presented together?

The melted tricycle. This one gets to me on many levels. It’s probably the most ruin-porn of the photos. But then the subject matter is also the most emotional. We’re always going to react strongly to a kid’s toy. It also reminds me of William Eggleston’s tricycle and the idea that these kind of photos can be art.* Plus this photo is one of the few which still maintains any sense of color. Everything else is neutral. It’s all been burned or covered in ash and soot. But the tricycle still pops.

*That it’s also the cover of the exhibition catalog suggests that I’m not the only one to make this connection.

Francesca Woodman

Sometimes the most interesting art exhibitions are the ones where I don’t have an immediate reaction to the work on display. Beyond the obvious “do I like it?” and “do I agree that this is art?” questions, I keep an open mind when I visit museums. I spent most of my time in SFMoMA’s Francesca Woodman show observing my reactions and trying to decide what I thought. And why I was thinking it.

At the same time, this made the show inherently worth seeing.

Woodman’s work is not boring. Much of it is actually very interesting. What has kept me thinking though is how unfinished and raw so much of it is. In many ways, it reminds me of the Vivian Maier story and the question of editing. While Woodman did edit her work as art while she was alive, most of what was on display in the exhibition was not based on her edits. Instead, SFMoMA presented a completionist retrospective of specimens rather than curation.

Now, there is a lot of editing going on in terms of processing and printing the negatives left behind after her suicide. It’s not clear yet (at least to me) what the critical purpose of that editing is and how it’s being used to serve her work. This may be a case where a more-critical third party proves capable of making a better edit.

Even given the vague feel I got from the curation, there is a lot of artistic vision which comes through. Especially in her earlier, college-based work. I found myself preferring what, for most artists, is considered juvenilia and thinking about how her work should be required viewing for all the teen girls on social media taking fatuous self portraits and soliciting easy “your so pretty” comments* from both peers and sketchy older men.** There are better ways to take self portraits. And you can use the camera for more than cheap self-esteem building.

*That typo is intentional. In case it wasn’t obvious enough.

**I did overhear a few sketchy older men in the exhibition at SFMoMA too. No one spelled out the math but a lot of Woodman’s early nudes are from when she was right around 18 years old. They aren’t erotic, nor are they meant to be, which only made those kinds of comments even more inappropriate and ignorant.

Besides the sense that Woodman was growing up and coming to grips with her own maturity, her college photos showed a fantastic awareness of the kind of thing missing from the ruin porn discussion. Where most people just see the wonderful light and texture of a run-down location, Woodman was able to evoke a sense of the mystery and former human usage of the place through her blurred self portraits. She adds the human element back into the composition.

Her work away from Rhode Island is not as focused and feels unfinished—which it probably is. Lots of experiments. Some very interesting frames which suggest new courses of exploration. Others which evoke past work. But all together, it’s all potential.

Which is why I’ll be digesting this exhibition for a long time.

Richard Serra Drawing

Before experiencing the Richard Serra Drawing exhibition at SFMoMA, it’s important to remember his perspective on why he sculpts to begin with. In the same way that his sculptures are best experienced as architecture, many of his drawings are intended to similarly transform existing rectilinear gallery spaces.

The best way to think of a lot of the drawings are as two-dimensional sections* of his sculptures mounted on the gallery walls. You get the same sense of mass and space when standing nearby his drawings as you do when standing inside one of his sculptures.** Don’t just look at them from the door to the gallery. Get up close, smell the paint stick, observe the texture, and feel the way they change the experience of being inside the room.

*In a mathematic conic-section way of thinking.

**Previous posts from my visits to Sequence at the Cantor Center in Stanford: Visit 1, a sunny day.Visit 2, a rainy day.

Then get yourself to Stanford (or anywhere else a Serra sculpture is available to walk through) and see the results in three dimensions. His sculptures never seem to be displayed with the same type of information which accompanied his drawings.

In many ways the sculptures don’t need it as they stand on their own power. In other ways, they’re much poorer without it since people have a tendency to make them about observing the steel rather than experiencing the space. So it’s nice to have the extra information in mind.

The other drawings reminded me a lot of Il Lee’s work* in that they involved using a simple tool** to build lines on lines upon lines to create a large mass of color and texture. I liked these drawings but they weren’t as powerful to me as the ones which evoked his sculpture.

*Which made me a huge fan of the San José Museum of Art.

**Paint sticks for Serra, Ballpoint pens for Lee.

Also worth seeing, the room of notebooks which show sketches of works (realized or not) and give a sense for how a giant steel sculpture is conceived.

Less and More

As a design major, it was practically mandatory that I see the exhibition of Dieter Rams’s work at SFMoMA.* It is indeed brilliant and it does a wonderful job of showing how the complexity of a product can be distilled down to the core essentials of its functionality. It also provides a fantastic exercise as a design refresher course for anyone inclined to be a designer—or a design critic.

*Side question. At what point does one stop purchasing books which fit in with the core curriculum of one’s undergraduate study? Or does one’s continued interest in the subject matter confirm the correct choice of major?

Design exhibitions are always tricky since museums specialize in objects which cannot be touched and to truly appreciate product design, you have to use the product. A design exhibition cannot be just about the products as things to be admired and looked at. While you can’t try sitting in a Dieter Rams chair or put objects on the bookshelves, the exhibition does a very good job at communicating his philosophy of design and explaining how it has been applied to all the products.

That Rams is so clear and obvious in his design makes a lot of the “how is this used” question disappear. And while some of the pieces do look sort of dated, they’re not that bad. His design legacy, between Apple’s current product line and even some of the way IKEA’s modular systems work, is pretty clear. The most-dated part of his designs is the actual technology—bringing up the question I was trying to figure out the entire time I was in the exhibition.

In another 35 years, how will these designs be displayed?

Right now, most of the people looking at the exhibition still know about things like records, radios, and reel-to-reel cassettes. Explaining the functionality of the devices isn’t needed in part because we know (or remember) what they’re used for. After another decade, the clarity of the design will still be there but the genius won’t be as obvious. Something can look simple because it’s been refined to look simple or it can look simple because it’s been dumbed down and handicapped. The less we know about the functionality of the product, the less we can distinguish between the two.

There’s also the fact that all the Braun designs exist from a time period before remote controls and graphical user interfaces. We interact with our products very differently today and while the design fundamentals are still valid, placing them into context will become increasingly difficult.

None of this takes away from the brilliance of the designs and the importance of his design methodology. His ten principles of design will remain both relevant and applicable. If anything they’re even more important for computer design. Physical controls are expensive so minimizing them has a quantifiable benefit. Graphical controls are cheap and easy to implement—making them much more prone to feature creep and the mistaken conclusion that “more and more” is better than “less and more.”

Sequence revisted

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Photos from when I visited the Cantor Center back in November. A rainy day which made revisiting Sequence worthwhile. Very different light on a much lower-contrast day. The wet ground provides a reflective surface for some additional interest and also reveals places inside the sculpture where the rain could not reach.

I was able to explore with other people this time. Besides the added interest when photographing the structure, it adds to the sense of discovery as you come across (and then lose them) doing the exploration.

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