Monday, April 30, 2007

Childhood landscapes #16

it ain't easy being queer...

So imagine being a queer muslim. CA Conrad interviews Ashraf Osman about the recent Facebook fiasco.

Meanwhile, the fabulous polygamous lesbian, Aunty Maiduguri, married four women and then had to flee the country's harsh Sharia laws...

P.S. Thanks for the facebook invitations all, but I'm not biting.

au contraire

On the other hand, what happens when all of those lenses turn outward?

Max Hirshfield, One shot

I came across Max Hirshfield's One Shot project in the amazing Eyemazing magazine. He does one-shot street photography with willing participants who face the camera--I love this idea, the endless array of people, their shapes, sizes, patterns of clothes, contrasting with backgrounds. One gets a sense of the grand staginess of our daily world, the carnivalesque and the midway of the city street, the shopping bags, the stripes and plastics, and the willingness of passersby to be in on the game. Hishfield's images include the the rough seams of wall meeting sidewalk, blouse meeting skirt, hairline meeting brows, etc...fabulous. These remind me of the street photographers of the 1950s, which I'm very keen on collecting if anyone comes across them. What I'm most envious of however, is Hirshfield's ability to meet so many people, and to have that exchange with each.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Candida Hofer

Still thinking about the landscapes of Elger Esser, contrasting them to Edward Burtynsky, which is probably not fair. But thinking of how photographers deal with space--and why a photograph may be the appropriate mode of capturing space in our uncontainable present, or perhaps (and here I'm thinking of Rachel Whiteread among others) more accurately, our uncontainable absence...
I am haunted by "Architecture of Absence," the Candida Höfer exhibit I saw last year at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia. The large format images resonate with human potential--their emptiness speaking somehow to that potential. There is no nostalgia, no sorrow, but rather a revelation of intention, of expectation. Entrance ways, libraries, museums, theaters--all reverberating with human presence, despite the absence of human form. As if the hands that created the forms, and placed the forms, and picked up and put down the forms, were hovering there. And perhaps it is scale: the grand canvas, the sheer number of objects she is able to include. The images become a kind of cabinet of curiosity. Then there is light, the way Hofer courts it as it falls through space.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

narcissism is all the rage, remix

"We do not lack communication. On the contrary we have too much of it. We lack creation We lack resistance to the present." Deleuze/Guattari, What is Philosophy?

Nothing is new in photography. Well, not the mirror image, and really, how can you beat yourself for a subject? You're everywhere you go, you're evasive, mysterious, yet endlessly willing, endlessly fascinating, a constant storm of expression and desire, moving through the city like a great wind. Photography, Susan Sontag pointed out in her essay "Plato's Cave," has become a right of passage, a "social rite, a defense against anxiety, a tool of power." This pre-digital essay responds to the already ubiquitous camera, now even more so, and surely soon to grafted onto the human body. She points out that the family album has become an essential document, and in fact what is missing is often more noticeable than what is not. We need evidence of participation, or presence, and idea that has taken us to ridiculous extremes--sending photographs of each other over dinner at the same table, for example.

But what Sontag didn't anticipate was the extent to which these technological advances in photography would turn our gaze back onto ourselves. Not only can we google ourselves endlessly, luxuriating on our own cyber-markings, we can now photograph ourselves doing it and publish that instantly. What are the implications of all this self-portraiture? A self absorption that comes with the territory, is inflated by our technology, not necessarily by choice. The new Macs, for example, with their built in cams make explicit the idea of our laptops mirroring us. It takes little effort to chronicle our every mood because everywhere we look there we are.

Is this a "resistance to the present?" I can't see that. Technology, and I'm not sure that it's inherently so, but technology seems to take away so much agency. I am aware of this every time I try to make an independent decision with my software, for example. Posting on forums and threads relating to the software affirms my worst nightmare: software designers are control freaks: what we the end-user is left with are carefully selected choices. "The thinking has been done for you," they boast, as if this should make one cheer.

A worrying trend, as I've pointed out here before. What are we witnessing here? Is this part of a bid for agency? To see ourselves in control of the technology that increasingly shapes our lives. Is the world expanding or shrinking? And what of our minds? And what of our sense of self? Are we being trained for a virtual existence? As David Levis Strauss points out, "it's not that we mistake photographs for reality; it's that we prefer them to reality."

Furthermore, what is the relationship between the increasing citizen preoccupation and reliance on technology and the domination of market forces? How can one be concerned with dailiness when one is so busy staring in technology's mirror? Democracy, corporation, propaganda...and self-absorption. Have we yet come out of the cave, or are we still being distracted by reflections cast on the wall by the very flames that purport to warm and guide us?

Lyle Rexer muses on the spectral nature of such preoccupations in Art on Paper.

Genius, c'est moi

The art of blurbing.

Sante D'Orazio at Stellan Holm, Mona Kuhn at Cowles

Well, above we have the clothed "good" girl images, I won't include the "bad," or wait, has that whole binary changed? No? Phew. Katlick School, at Stellan Holm, sets out to explore that most original and daring of territories--the Catholic schoolgirl. Shocking, no? There she is in her little plaid skirt, posing for you under cherry blossoms, looking like a peach you might slide your thumb into...Oh, my! Now she has her finger by her mouth. I guess he's doing something significant here, or at least Gawker thinks so. Whatever.

Sante D'Orazio began his career with Italian Vogue in 1981, and has gone on to photograph for fashion and entertainment industries. Unlike this regurgitated imagery the celebrity photos are a whole other matter. See for yourself.

Mona Kuhn, on the other hand, does something a little new with the nude figure. While at the gallery high school students gaggled about, assessing lighting, figures, flesh, not without a little tittering, but only a little. Kuhn's work creates a mood, and the mood is quite the opposite of Mr. D'Orazio's work. Their is texture here, linen folds contrast with skin--all very lovely skin yes, and in various states of focus. In fact there are photos that range completely out of focus, holding the line of representation.

In "Refractions" (2006) a woman holds a glass of water at her hip, a bit incongruous, not perfect, in fact there is tension in the wrist and thumb, the hip looks slightly uncomfortable, and behind the figure men both robed, and nude, in focus enough to see the direction of their gaze. Much more mysterious and fresh, suggesting a narrative that is not based on an overly-anticipated, overly sexualized school girl.

Even the more pedestrian, "Balthazar" (2004), with the fetishistic J. Crew like male figure gazing out of the frame, we are intrigued by the composition, the wonderful light on the figure of the woman on a yellow sofa, and the second girl, again, another kind of American icon of beauty, but made slight strange by the posture, and the lack of focus.

This is the second show of Kuhn's that I've had the pleasure of seeing at Cowles, and it wasn't until this recent show that I realized what she was doing: tipping the gaze, refracting the figure, decentralizing tired modes of representing the female body. Refreshing, yet familiar, and in fact, quite soothing. Nothing earth shattering here, but certainly nothing as tired as the D'Orazio.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Walter De Maria at Gagosian

Yes, I mean that Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, Walter De Maria. Growing up with a father who liked to machine things, I feel warmly toward a room filled with 42 solid stainless steel polygonal rods (each rod 3.5 inches in diameter and 1 meter long). Far more beautiful than anything my father could have manufactured, and shown in a space cleaner than any working man could feel very comfortable, De Maria's "13, 14, 15 Meter Rows" (1985), nonetheless feels strangely utilitarian. Of course it isn't. And that isn't the point.

Walking in to the Gagosian is always a pleasure--whether one is confronted with the swelling minimalist masses of a Richard Serra, or the Gulliver sized pharmaceuticals of Damien Hirst, there is something opulent about the high ceilings and the shiny concrete floor--the industrial past polished to futuristic perfection. It is a space built to appreciate work--sculpture--and sculpture that is, well, in De Maria's case certainly, an homage to craft and space as much as to the material itself. Such precision, such perfection--such material! Here the steel seems to have come into its own, to fulfill its promise. We forget how transformed the 20th century was by its appearance, and perhaps that is because we have not made enough of it in our daily lives, certainly not for its beauty.

While the 21st street gallery is apparently lit up with lighting designed to play with the materiality of the sculpture "A Computer Which Will Solve Every Problem in the
World /3-12 Polygonthe" (1984), the 24th street gallery (one of my favorite Chelsea stops), relies on natural light, and therefore changes given the time of day, and quality of light. When the above picture was taken it was a cloudy day, for example. De Maria clearly loves to take elements out of nature, restructure and replace them--then watch them interact. Having only viewed one half of the show I feel unable to make any final comments other than it is a sharp reminder of minimalism's ability to make a moment reverberate like a long, deep note.

One wonders what a poem would be like given such treatment. (Is there a way to create 42 such sterling lines? How would these lines be presented?) New Mexico poet Carol Moldaw did publish a book that responds directly to, and in fact shares the title of De Maria's project, and it does in some way, replicate the structure. Not in as strict a compositional sense as one might expect (and one can also imagine syllabic constraints that would mirror the machine like quality of the rods, the precision of spacial orientation) but there is a field-like shape to the poems, and they loop back thematically and visually, along with the installation.

Space. To take up that much space, and have it seem so natural. What must that feel like for an artist?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Andreas Hofer at Metro Pictures

Usually I prefer to write about artists that have either moved, or inspired me, but that can't happen all the time. Andreas Hofer's recent show at Metro Pictures, for example, did not inspire. Munich born Hofer's New York debut consisted of largely dark and as the press release describes it, "haunting and hallucinogenic." The only haunting aspect to this work was been there done that, and probably in a high school art class. Atilla Lukacs work from the early 90s was more interrogatory than this. Perhaps it's that "skillfull" moving "between mediums," that speaks. The title painting, "Only Gods could survive" (2006) which depicts what looks like a Tarzan figure facing a mountainous past, or future, reminds me a little of William Blake. That the nominal artist signs his name "Andy Hope," is charming, but all in all this show failed to inspire simply because it all seemed so familiar.

Solar farms??

I would like to be excited about recent news in both the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star, of integrating solar power into the Ontario energy system. Would like to, however I can't imagine a worse way of doing so than losing more precious green space for the project. It's a good idea in theory, but one major benefit of solar power is that it can be used by individuals, that it doesn’t need a massive grid, that it can be installed on rooftops, that it can be installed over existing concrete spaces to turn a negative (concrete retaining heat) into a positive (clean energy generation).

Am I alone in thinking that it is counterproductive to lose valuable land to a project such as this? We have an opportunity to decentralize power systems. Will we not take advantage of that? I hope environmental organizations are ready for the drive of innovation to come in the next few years. Wouldn't it be shame to follow years of bad decisions with yet more bad, or ill-informed choices?? I want to make sure the good news is really good news.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Elger Esser

Photo from Sonnabend
Sonnabend Gallery never disappoints. In the madness of the week the large, soft, land and seascapes offered a momentary calm. Elger Esser, a German born photographer, looks at natural landscapes in France--sea and land. Something about the French landscape seems to tempt people toward soft focus. Reminiscent of those 1980ish photographs by David Hamilton of soft focus French nymphs frolicking, the photos nonetheless give one a sense of perspective and hope...God knows what's in that water, but my subterranean fears remained submerged for a few seconds while contemplating the surface and scope.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Jeff Wall at Moma (still in progress)

Photo by Bob, "Storyteller looking at Storyteller," The Met, NY 2005
I've written about Jeff Wall before--a brief mention of his show at the Tate Modern last year, among others. After seeing Wall's most recent show at MoMA in New York last week I realized that while I've been posting these text-less childhood landscapes since I pulled the plug on my daily blogging, I missed writing and thinking about art. I also remembered that this blog really started out as a way for me to record and respond to the abundance of art I was experiencing in Chelsea, NY, Vancouver, and Toronto over the past decade--not necessarily, or only, about poetry or the poetry world. So, it's fitting then, that I come back to the blog now with one of my favorite artists, one whose landscapes inextricably overlap with my own sense of landscape, so much so that I don't know where my memory ends and his work begins...whether I see Vancouver through his eyes, or see him through my sense of Vancouver.

Wall has been making pictures since the early 70s when, after a brief time in London where he received a research degree in art history at the Courtauld Institute, he returned to Vancouver and began making the light-box mounted transparencies he is best known for (see above). The transparencies are large, painterly reconstructions of famous scenes, with attention to the mundane aspects that signaled contemporary west coast life at the tail end of the resource-based economy. The subtext to the images is neither necessary, nor evident to an untrained eye. There was, and is, clearly more here than meets the eye, a notion that has become increasingly apparent as Wall has become more commanding in his work, expansive, and narrative, always with a great sense of anthropological and social witnessing.

The cinematic quality of Wall’s work has grown as the technology and, perhaps the intertextuality of his inquiries grows. He often describes himself as a cinematographer--evoking a sense of movement. Filmic movement. What's particularly intriguing about this idea with Wall however, is that the way he uses frames is entirely different. Each large canvas is made up of smaller images, meticulously "sewn" together. So the narrative works on the surface of the image, but the frames come together to create a whole image. A completely different idea of "film," "frame," and movement.

Works such as "Dead Troops Talk" (1991–2) and "A Sudden Gust of Wind" (after Hokusai) mimic a photojournalistic style, but they are also strongly reminiscent of 19th century art (seen here courtesy of the NY Times), and offer compelling critiques of disassociative modern living. Like fellow Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, it is partly the scale of the work that is so pleasurable and reassuring. There is simply something absolutely confident about taking up so much space, and to do so with historical depth. In a style that others--Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman--would help make uncomfortably familiar by the late 1990s, Wall's staged portraits, his reconstructions, called into question the assumptions of realism.

When I first discovered Wall's work at The Vancouver Art Gallery in the early 1990's, I was struck by several things--size, light, scale, of course, but also his refusal to omit. This notion of "including everything," is now virtually cliche, but the combination of grandeur, locale and absolute witnessing (the tiny blade of glass, the turquoise bread bag clip), was stunning to me then and now. There is a tenderness to it as much as it seems "mean." The size was daunting too. In fact I remember a fellow photographer I was attending the gallery with suggesting a kind of grandiosity: Photographs should not be that big, nor should they resemble advertisements, the kind one sees in light boxes in malls... But of course Wall was taking back that size, composition, and image from the advertisers who had sanitized and enlarged ourselves in unobtainable ways.

"The Storyteller," with its harsh depiction of Vancouver's Downtown East Side was one of the first images I had seen that didn't "pretty up" the skyline, that seemed in fact, to amplify the devastation as much as it honored the subject and subjects. Such subject matter, if covered at all, was usually done in a kind of voyeuristic way, with expectations of "pity" or "empathy." "The Storyteller," does neither--though as one critic points out Wall's images often "reveal" as much as they "veil." And the "Storyteller," honors this idea of sharing, of narrative, and again, of inclusion. Social documents are often chronicles--as fellow Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes shows us with his collection of images, Heroines, about the drug addicted women of the downtown east side. Though Wall is certainly part of a burgeoning west coast photography scene that includes major figures such as Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, Mandelbrot, Judy Radul, Kelly Wood, Roy Kiyooka, and a vibrant conceptual scene showcasing the likes of Brian Jungen, he is also the leader. Though I should add that his influence is not only felt on the west coast, and that perhaps he has done more than anyone to make Vancouver's mercurial beauty internationally known.

But back to this idea of veil, which in Wall's world is more about tantalizing than obscuring. And by tantalizing I suggest that in his view the most arbitrary settings on the planet can be scenes of great triumph and beauty as much as devastation and bewilderment. In "The Drain," for instance (which I don't recall seeing at MoMA alas), shows us two young girls on a summer day standing on stones in front of a large culvert--where the water is coming from we're not sure and where there innocence is going we're not sure either, but it is certainly going.... But practically speaking, in those days Vancouver still had many open ditches and drains, and this sense of the world's arteries erupting, as sexuality, as the darker shades of life erupt in puberty, seemed somehow emblematic of suburban childhoods in the late 70s and 80s. These images, if nothing else, made the Vancouver Art Gallery show significant for me and I've never forgotten them. Here was a much different representation of west coast life than I was accustomed to seeing in any print or visual media. Take the recent Fred Herzog exhibit at the VAG, which offers spectacular Kodachrome images, historically and culturally important, but predictable in composition and subject matter.

The show at MoMA--which was at the Tate last fall--is fairly comprehensive, with many of my favorite images--"Eviction Struggle," "The Drain," "A Sudden Gust of Wind," "Storyteller," "Mimic," "Milk," two images that have become iconic Wall by now, and "A View From An Apartment." All are online thanks to MoMA, and are accompanied by notes from the artist. Having seen several shows at Marian Goodman over the last year I had already processed the shock of the smaller, abstract images, the composition of barren spaces--a bar of soap, an octopus lying on what seems to be an old cannery washing board. Images such as "The Flooded Grave" (1998-2000) are photomontages, as discussed above, and as such one can see the seams where the image has been collaged to make a whole. This technique, as Wall points out, as largely been about deconstructing images, but here we see it being used to maintain a sense of whole. "Experimental Traditionalism," Wall calls it.

One image I hadn't seen before was "Morning Cleaning: Barcelona," a luscious modernist reverie, reflected somewhat in the face of this woman:

Photo by LH, "Looking at Jeff Wall," MoMA, 2007
A study in lines, both the simple modernist lines of the architecture and furnishings--contrasted by the veined marble, arranged to intensify the patterns, creating almost alien like shapes. It takes a while to see through the window washer's soapy film to catch the sculpture of the naked woman in the courtyard fountain. "He seems to love the sweepers," my friend said, and there is truth in that. "Someone has to mop up the mess of the world." And this is an important point, and one that the west coast photographers seem to have in common--a sense of social responsibility, not a hermetic world (a la Cindy Sherman), or an overly-sexualized world (Gergory Crewdson, Mike Kelley), but always a working world--whether the work sweeping "Volunteer" (1996), "Morning in Barcelona," restoring "Restoration" (1993) or simply "surviving," as we see in "Tran Duv Van" (1998-2003), over and over again, the regal quotidian--and that offers more hope than one might initially feel when encountering Wall's world.
Jeff Wall/Museum of Modern Art
But perhaps the most stunning image for me was also one of Wall's most recent. After “Spring Snow” by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000–05) shown above, is a master class in lighting, and reminds us that the beauty of the light boxes isn't simply technical or gimicky. Beyond the light box, Wall applies light in delicate strokes. The hair, the buttons on the back of the dress, the gold bell (is that a bell?), these are so reminiscent of 19th century realism it's impossible for one--no matter how close you get--not to imagine brush strokes. This is lighting at the most controlled level. "Delicate, narratively suggestive, opulent... " I read somewhere that it takes Wall a year or more on average to do a photograph, so perhaps now we'll see even more work, and of larger proportions. How rare and fabulous it is to see a huge, mid-career show such as this then, and be left with a tingle of excitement about the work to come, and if "Spring Snow" offers a glimpse of new direction, so much the better.

Jeff Wall continues at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, to May 14.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

David Suzuki


David Suzuki, originally uploaded by johnwmacdonald.

Earth Day 2007. Things are not looking so good...despite the recent green issue of Vanity Fair with Leo frolicking with a Polar Bear cub...

If the climate crisis doesn't make the hair on the back of your neck stand up you can't have a soul. The New Economy is going to be about something. Get on board, or get out of the way...