Monday, December 16, 2013

Walter Swennen Retrospective At The Wiels, Brussels

Forget everything you might have read about Luc Tuymans or Michaël Borremans, the greatest living Belgian painter today is someone you've likely never heard of, Walter Swennen. I say.
Unlike the two painters mentioned above, he's actually fun and looking at his career retrospectively, innovative as well  rather than wallowing in the nostalgia of dated figurative painting, beholden to the market, making works only ignorant wealthy people would want hanging over the sofa, whatever they're boring. Because his work is so obviously humorous I guess it's the reason he might not be taken as seriously as his Belgian brethren, which is the fate awaiting any artist using humor in their work. If your work isn't depressing and purporting to deal with heavy subject matter, whether it's contemporary politics or the Holocaust, it's going to be passed over in favor of, oh, I don't know, gray figurative paintings of dead people or something. Or straightforward documentary videos of anything political, or propaganda posters or cardboard placards telling you how you should think, so it spares you the energy of having to do it for yourself. God, the art world is so boring and predictable sometimes.

Anyway, Swennen has two things going against him to be taken seriously as an artist in the pages of glossy international art magazines; one being that he's a painter and the other that his work is hilarious. Because we're contrarians here at FBC!, we've decided that he is in fact one of the two greatest living contemporary Belgian artists, the other being Ria Pacquée. There might be others, but I haven't been here long enough to list more. Oh yes, there is one! I like Hans Op De Beek's work very much.

Until a couple of months ago I had never heard about Swennen myself, and then friends mentioned there was an opening at the Wiels, would I care to come with them? Sure, why the hell not.
 In case you don't know, the Wiels is the most interesting non-profit art center in Brussels,  a Kunsthalle-style space housed in a former brewery (they still have huge copper vats on the ground floor) built in the best pre-war Brutalist Deco style ever - a Belgian specialty. They do proto-fascist Deco architecture here like you wouldn't believe! One day I'll post pictures of city halls and churches in Brussels and you will understand.
Anyway, the Wiels is the most interesting art place here because as of now THERE ISN'T A NATIONAL MODERN & CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM IN BRUSSELS WHATSOEVER, which means local collectors, the famed Belgian collectors of lore, have no real place to donate or sell their collections to, so they either open small foundations/vanity-museums, or they sell their collections to MoMA and here goes the best Belgian and non-Belgian art abroad.
It's a national tragedy if you ask me, but since Belgians pride themselves on bickering between French speakers and Dutch speakers (they also have German-speakers here but so far I haven't noticed any bickering from them) rather than develop a sense of national identity, all their best art shit goes abroad. I'm mentioning it here because I think Swennen's paintings should be snatched by US museums stats, as they're priced relatively low compared to whatever comes out of Brooklyn or LES art galleries these days.
In any other Western countries nowadays, they open modern and contemporary art museums as if there is no tomorrow, and here, they closed the only one they had. Which sucks for artists and audience alike, because there is a big audience here for contemporary culture, if you look at the music festivals, bookstores and art movie theaters. The absence of a contemporary/modern art museum is mind-bloggling, and non-collecting spaces can't fill that gap.

So to the Wiels I went, happy to meet up with my friends and get drunk with Belgian people (another thing they're really great at here), but a bit uneasy at witnessing how overwhelmingly white the Belgian art world is. Belgium has a really big immigrant population, but it hasn't translated yet into the population you see in attendance at openings and during exhibitions. I'm not even talking about featured artists - generally speaking, Europe is still 99,99% white and 95% male as far as featured artists go. At any Belgian art institution you might frequent, the likelihood you will see non-white people is restricted to talking to the the museum/security guards. This is true of other European countries, not just Belgium, but after living in Los Angeles for ten years, re-acclimating to such a racial and social make-up is a bit shocking.

To go back to the Wiels, it's a tall, narrow building and you have to take up an elevator to go see the show at upstair levels. Not knowing anything about Swennen I had no preconception about whatever I was going to see, and I was enchanted when I went up and discovered such great paintings. My first thought was, "if Kippenberger had been doing only paintings and been Belgian, he would have been Walter Swennen!". Like Kippenberger, Swennen creates paintings that at first glance may look like they've been haphazardly made, but that a careful inspection reveals to be  incredibly well thought out. If you look closely you can see underlying layers there to bring some effects to the surface, and a very balanced sense of composition. One note about the exhibition: it's non-chronological, a pet peeve of mine usually when it comes to retrospectives, but in this case it doesn't prevent anyone from enjoying the show. But you won't learn much about whether there are different series or projects within the body of work, and there's generally not much available about specific paintings, as well as a remarkable absence of art historical references that could make you understand how he doesn't come out of a vacuum.
Additionally the educational components at the Wiels are rather low-key, so if you opt not to take a tour  and can't afford the catalog, you're totally on your own to discover Swennen.  There are labels at the entrance of each rooms detailing the painting titles from left to right but nothing under each painting itself, which is why none of the images I'm posting have any legend. I found that part a bit confusing.

I've mentioned Kippenberger  because there is a distinctive element in Swennen's work that recalls a certain type of 1980s and 1990s painting, like this one above that could evoke Albert Oehlen, for example. And like these two painters, you could also trace back Swennen's use of humor and borrowing of comics and cartoons tropes to pioneer painter Sigmar Polke. And like Polke and Kippenberger, the use of what seems at first glance conspicuously goofily-made, carelessly painted images is just a device to get at the essence of painting as a medium. As such, the device also brings us back to Belgian master René Magritte, whose 1948 Période Vache was doing just that, as a way to aggressively punch the stomachs of the calcified Surrealist French intelligentsia that was still the master of the quaint little art universe the next country over, in Paris. Where the doxa of the then art-world was calling for properly made paintings harking back to pre-war domination, Magritte sent some absurd paintings meant to challenge the state quo. They did it so well that up until the early 1990s and an exhibition in Marseille, the Vache paintings weren't very well-known, so challenging they were to the accepted wisdom about the Belgian master and the massive merchandising his paintings unfortunately originated (umbrellas, mugs, cookie tins…)
Swennen takes over where Magritte stopped (he went back to his best-selling bowler hats and oversized apples and cloudy skies after that) but gets a step further by integrating whatever happens in painting in the next few decades (Guston is mentioned in the booklet, for example).

There were a couple of large vitrines and pinboards at the show featuring drawings, notes and xeroxes by the artist which I understand are there to show Swennen's thought process, with various puns in both Dutch and French (and sometimes English) but also series of words and quotations one senses the artist kept as material or source ideas for his paintings.
The Belglish* booklet (there's a catalog but I was too broke to get it) makes a big deal of what are quintessential Belgian linguistic issues: Swennen was born in a Flemish family but educated in French, which was relatively common in Belgium until recently and generally makes all the tensions between language speakers very complicated (you can be of any ethnic descent and have grown up in the other languages, and for people having parents on both side of the linguistic divide it's never clear-cut). Therefore one is told that the subtext of the show is to look at painting as "translation", which, uh, OK, maybe, but if one comes to Swennen as a total ignoramus like I am, it doesn't really show. Or, er, "translate".
 I felt that component of the booklet was what I call a "Belgo-Belgian" preoccupation, something that I'm sure makes sense to people who have lived in Belgium all their lives, but isn't obvious to a newcomer. For example, I don't speak Dutch but thanks to French, English and German I've been able to understand some of the puns or jokes displayed in the artworks. And I understand the puns are starting points as the conspicuous subject matter of some of the pictures but they don't seem at all necessary for their reception by a passive audience. For example, if these paintings were to be exhibited in Spain or in the United States or in China, the puns, jokes and wordplay wouldn't be understood by most anybody there, yet the paintings (and drawings and couple of sculptures) would still be interesting (I hope) for someone outside of Belgian culture. Because as I said, if the puns or language are the conspicuous starting point, the real subject matter for each work is painting itself as a medium. Or so it seems to me (I'm sure Clement Greenberg would have a heart attack reading this, but he's already dead anyway).

One of the works on paper in the long vitrine pictures above

This was in the long vitrine pictured above

Rather I feel that the reference to "translation" was meant as some sort of device rather than an ontological necessity to explain the reluctance of the discourse around painting that tends to seep in most European critical writing. You see, if painting is just some sort of "translation" of a thought or a concept rather than just a plain old medium, it becomes legit for conceptual/political art critic mavens  and not some sort of hedonistic commodity destined to hang inside nouveau riche mansions in Florida or Orange County. It's a translation so it's uneasy and awkward (and, uh, I guess it means something is lost along the way, too?). It's a bit sad, this  very European unease about painting, but it's another debate entirely. Or else I'll end up writing a 30,000 words post and I'd rather not do that. I am tired. I have been waiting for the plumber since 8 AM for like, the 5th time in a row. Like Santa, I think he doesn't exist.

One of my regrets about the exhibition, and it's an a posteriori regret, is that the booklet mentions that Swennen had a past career as a beat poet and also someone who took part in "happenings" in his youth, and later on was a conceptual artist, to only take up painting in the 1980s. I wish there were works to be seen about his previous career, or just documentation.  It's unclear if the absence is due to a curatorial choice (maybe from the artist himself) or if this previous work hasn't survived through the years.

Of course, when one thinks "Belgian person who used to be a poet and then became a visual artist late in life", Broodthaers comes to mind immediately but as this isn't mentioned anywhere in that specific conjunction in the booklet (he's mentioned for a very early work though but the parallel isn't made clear), maybe outside of  the use of humor the similarities stop here.  Here's a painting above that let us know what we should do with too much "this is only what I know of Belgian art so I'm going to use it over and over".

Because the educational aspect of the show and the installation are so  bare-bones, one is left hanging with many questions. What did prompt Swennen to take up painting in the 1980s, did it have anything to do with the "Pictures" generation in NYC, or the resurgence of (truly atrocious) neo-expressionist painting in Germany? Because what he does is obviously totally removed from both, and closer to Kippenberger and Polke in intent if not in execution. Or has the decision to take up painting mostly to do with the local art scene at the time? Painting hasn't been so popular over the last decades in Europe outside of that early 1980s period, and so for Swennen to take it up in a country that was then mostly known for post-conceptual art is interesting.

When visiting the show one got a sense that Swennen really enjoys himself when working, sometimes giving tautological titles to paintings or rather, literally descriptive titles: you have a depiction of circles titled "circles", another rather abstract painting was called "red mass" I think, and so forth. There is also a joyous experimentation going on with unconventional supports or materials, with stretcher bars one guesses to be totally DIYed out of whatever was on hand,  paintings running around curved pieces of metal, or xeroxes of drawings remade over. You cannot guess from the crappy image I took above, but this painting has a really lovely enamel-like finish.

I've been told  people who don't like the work say they feel it isn't so great because "it's made so haphazardly like the guy doesn't give a fuck", but that is only an outward impression because as simple as that painting above is, its composition is perfect. It wouldn't be if there wasn't that small horizontal line on the frame and the other vertical one seemingly dripping out of the red rectangle, but these two details as well as the blue layers peeking from under the gray background reveal an attention to detail and perfect balance.

Elsewhere, Swennen makes fun of conventional ideas of paintings as objects, the ones that lie outside of the so-called art world, inside dentist waiting rooms, petty-bourgeois parlors, amateur societies' yearly exhibitions, second-hand stores, and far-right politicians' minds. A sinking ship mocks the convention of nautical paintings while coming with its mandatory brass  lamp over it, with its cord displayed prominently below - the lamp is a signifier of old-fashioned bourgeois decorating values, where it is meant to signal the viewer that whatever is displayed beneath is important stuff indeed.

In many occasions Swennen reuses old pasty curlicued frames and repaints over them, or uses chalkboard-like paint to create the illusion of a blackboard where we'd expect some teaching device but instead are confronted with a seemingly childish drawing of a ghost figure, palette in hand, leaving a medieval castle. I guess it's the childish aspect of many of the works that puts people off whereas yours truly finds it enchanting, but then one ponders if a child would think about depicting a dog (or a wolf?) throwing out something that looks like a bomb while a scribbled inscription on top reads "Hosana" (yes, there's an "n" missing). If you have a child like this, please donate me one of their paintings. Thanks.

Elsewhere, you find colored dots in suspension on a white background, which could read as a parody of Hirst's famed and totally perfect, painted-by-assistants dot paintings, or just something Swennen was trying his hand at. When wandering in the exhibition you find that there isn't a question of whether Swennen paints abstract or figurative paintings because he does both, and there isn't such a sharp definition as far as  both genres are concerned. Somewhere in the booklet it says something like "chance plays a major role in Swennen's practice" in the sense that he uses a lot of random ideas and visual data as starting points (explained as stuff that lays in piles in his studio, whether it's books, magazine images, old paintings found at thrift stores, etc.) or as "continuing devices" if I understand whatever is written in that &^%#*  Belglish booklet, that is, when he's stuck in the middle of painting something some random image might give him inspiration to go in another direction to finish the work.  My understanding of what they wrote and which I find hilarious is that, if he doesn't come across something  that will spur his imagination, the work is abandoned/finish as "an abstract painting". If this isn't what they meant in that booklet, blame their English translator, or whoever wrote the initial text, but in any case I find my explanation super poetic, so there you go.

This was my favorite painting in the show. It's *this close* to being a truly bad thrift store painting yet Swennen pulls it off as something really interesting, which I attribute to the thin  blue layer on top of the background, which contradicts the somewhat fatty inexpert brushstrokes of the fire.

And this was the bulletin-board and the vitrine in a corner of the exhibition, where some drawings are pinned with xeroxes mirroring other drawings and xeroxes. When you see these you understand that beneath the humor and the language jokes and the apparent uncaring concern for "what a proper serious art painting is supposed to look like" lays a very curious and experimental mind engaged in the business of making effing good work. It seems effortless and easy but its just very attractive. It's not telling you to sell the car, sell the house, sell the kids, but to engage with the painting on its own terms, which are not the ones we're told correspond to some conventions of "good" painting without falling into the trap of pretending to be "so bad it's good".
With this, I'm going to wish you some happy holidays, dear readers. FBC! will be back in the new year.

* The educational material at the Wiels is available in Dutch, French and English. The English booklet which I picked up with the intent of freely plagiarizing it if needed is in fact written in "Belglish", that is, Belgian English (not International Art English - it's better than that but still clumsy). It's understandable to English speakers if you apply yourself to it, but it's rather laborious and it looks like it's been written by a non-native English speaker. Or maybe the translator didn't manage to make it flow? In any case, it seems like different persons have written it, with some paragraphs truly informative and relatively well-written, and others totally mysterious. Some of the references mentioned in the booklet are totally unintelligible  if you're not Belgian, unfortunately.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Music I've Liked This Year In No Particular Ranking Or Order

If you're interested in music you will have noticed (ahem) that most music  publications are very busy compiling and letting out their lists of the "10, 50, 100… best albums of the year". I always found the ranking of albums in music weird. Even worse many music reviews  grade albums with 1 to 5 stars or from 1 to 10 (one US online publication is notorious for awarding grades like 3.73 out of 10 for albums. How ridiculous can it be?). Sometimes the written review doesn't square up with the final grading so you're left to wonder why a largely positive account of a record ends up grading it with 4.781 out of 10.

Nonetheless even my social network friends are now posting their own lists of the best 10 albums of the year. I've been asked a couple of times what mine would be. Er, I don't know?
I'd be at a loss to do that because for one thing I don't listen to as much music as most of my friends do, and there are genres I really don't know much about (dance, electronica, metal…) or that I loathe (French hip-hop, contemporary commercial R'n'B, dubstep…).
Secondly, due to very low finances I haven't bought many records this year. I did go to a few gigs including King Krule who was amazing on stage, very charismatic, but I'm still not convinced by the record, and Savages whose record reminded me of Siouxie & The Banshees circa 1978, and if I want to listen to that, I'd rather go to the original. Also, they're OK on stage, but not the phenomenon I was lead to expect.
So, instead of writing down  a best of whatever happened in music in 2013 according to my own uninformed opinion, I'm just going to list in no particular order the music I really enjoyed this year, and that includes some bands I know only via their bandcamp and I'm not even sure their music came out this year.  So all mistakes and errors below are mine. I've linked all bands/records to a website that isn't Amazon where you can purchase their music/listen to it. There are a couple of iTunes on there, but as usual, go shop at an independent record store near you if there's one. They usually can order whatever you need and have it within 2 or 3 days. And you can browse their bins and buy more cool stuff.

A) John Luther Adams, Inuksuit
B) Primal Scream, More Light
C) Parquet Courts, Light Up Gold
D) Willis Earl Beal, Nobody Knows
E) Wire, Change Becomes Us
F) Hookworms, Pearl Mystic
G) Houses, A Quiet Darkness
H) Puppet Rebellion, Chemical Friends (it's an EP)
I) Sauna Youth, Dreamlands
J) David Bowie, The Next Day
K) Wooden Shjips, Back To Land,
L) Fidlar, Fidlar
M) Thee Oh Sees, Floating Coffin
N) Males, Run Run Run
O) Killwave, Killwave.

Now there were plenty of commercial records that made a splash this year, and also non-commercial ones that left me cold. In no particular order, Yeezus which I think is so crappy (trying to be ambitious, ends up being pretentious without much to hold on to, and the lyrics are in most part beyond terrible. For someone whose creds are the "genius (ahem) hip-hop artist with intellectual leanings" it's not such a good testimony to his talent. And I generally like Kanye West), The Knife's Shaking The Habitual (ditto. They try way too hard, it ends up being contrived and unnecessary),  the new Daft Punk who I think have become this century's equivalent of Lake, Emerson and Palmer (don't try this at home),  the new Janelle Monae whom my Brits music contacts seem to be super proud of (very well made bouncy pop. Too manufactured for yours truly and the production is way too clean, but then you can say that of 99,99% of music being commercially released in this century). And despite all my best efforts because most of my friends love Bill Callahan, I can't seem to get into his new record.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Liz Magor At Le Triangle France In Marseilles

Liz Magor, Double Cabinet (blue), 2001, Polymerised gypsum, cans of beers 23,5 x 68,58 x 43,18 cm, Private collection, Vancouver, Installation view No Fear, No Shame, No Confusion, by Triangle France © Photo : Aurélien Mole 

The following post is a verbatim reprint of the press release for Liz Magor's current exhibition in Marseilles. I haven't seen the exhibition at all but I can only applaud when an institution and a French one to boot shows a woman artist whose work isn't well-known in Europe. The show also features three other artists whom I'm skipping here in order to keep the post short, but if you go to the website you will have a more complete idea (and a longer press release).  
As a side note, I was somewhat mentally prepared for a very male, very white art world when I moved back to Europe, but between being prepared and experiencing it… the lack of diversity here is staggering. Kudos to Triangle France for having a program that strives to be more inclusive.

So here's the press release, and if you find yourself near Marseilles, go visit the show.

Triangle France is pleased to announce the first European solo exhibition by Canadian artist Liz Magor. Gathering a rigorous selection of her works from the past 20 years as well as new works, No Fear, No Shame, No Confusion is an unprecedented presentation of Liz Magor’s work in Europe since her participation in documenta 8 in Kassel (1987). This solo exhibition opens towards a specific reading of her work through a dialogue with artists sharing a similar sensibility, interests, or processes. Three artists were commissioned new works and invited to present their practice in dialogue with hers: Jean-Marie Appriou, Laure Prouvost and Andrea Büttner, whose woodcut from 2006: No Fear, No Shame, No Confusion gives the exhibition its title.
Since the mid-1970s, Liz Magor has contributed a vast body of work across sculpture and photography exploring with measure and subtlety the layers of information shaping what is apparent in objects and people, how they reveal themselves, claim to be, or pretend. From her early ‘machines’that automatically processed mundane materials and produced sculptural forms, to her photographic series documenting historical reenactment groups in the early 1990s, she has sought to reveal how meaning can be concealed and generated, released and reproduced. Often referencing domestic environments, as well as exploiting
the belief that nature is the ideal or authentic refuge, Liz Magor questions the desire and sometimes compulsion for emotional and physical comfort, and the fragility of the human body and identity. The works gathered in this exhibition, some of which have been created especially for the occasion, are shown together for the first time and constitute a precise selection of sculptures from the past twenty years. Amongst them, her famous One Bedroom Apartment (1996), her ambiguous cast objects from the past decade, and her latest works on textile using found blankets, which through alterations, she has bestowed with attributes releasing parts of their history and temperament. Re-using, duplicating and transforming objects coming from a daily life that is already done consuming them, Liz Magor addresses their status and inconsistency, and reveals their anxiety.

Liz Magor, Camping2013, Wool, polymerized gypsum, silver specks, wood, metal 172,72 x 73,66 x 17,78 cm, Artist's collection and Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, Installation view No Fear, No Shame, No Confusion, by Triangle France, © Photo : Aurélien Mole 

Liz Magor
Born in 1948 in Canada, lives and works in Vancouver, Canada.

Liz Magor (b. 1948, Canada) lives and works in Vancouver, Canada. Practicing for over 40 years, Magor has had numerous solo exhibitions including The Mouth and other storage facilities, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle; Simon Fraser University Gallery, Vancouver (2008); The Power Plant (2003); Deep Woods, Art Gallery of York University, Toronto (2000); stores, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver (2000); Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (1987); Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (1986); Production/ Reproduction, Vancouver Art Gallery (1980); The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, BC (1977). A selection of group exhibitions include Zoo, Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal (2012); Baja to Vancouver, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle; Wattis Institute, San Francisco; Vancouver Art Gallery; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (2003); Elusive Paradise, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (2001); Notion of Conflict: A Selection of Contemporary Canadian Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1995); More than one Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1992); Places with a Past: Site Specific Art in Charleston, Spoleto Festival, Charleston, South Carolina (1991); Meeting Place: Robert Gober, Liz Magor, Juan Muñoz, Nickle Arts Museum, Calgary; Vancouver Art Gallery (1990); Camera Lucida, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff (1989). Magor exhibited at documenta 8 , Kassel, Germany (1987); and represented Canada at the Venice Biennale (1984). Numerous monographs have been published on her work from the late 1970s to the present.
She recently had a solo exhibition “I is being This”, at Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver (2012) and her work was included in the 2013 California-Pacific Triennial curated by Dan Cameron. 

Liz Magor, Tweed (neck), 2008, Polymerized gypsum, bottle, alcohol, 35,56 x 40,64 x 10,79 cm, Artist's collection and Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, Installation view No Fear, No Shame, No Confusion, by Triangle France © Photo : Aurélien Mole 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sparks-tastic: Twenty-One Nights With Sparks In London, A Book By Tosh Berman

In 2008, the Los Angeles band Sparks did a marathon 21 nights in London, playing each one of their records in its integrality in chronological order, riffing on the trend of bands or musicians playing their often most famous records entirely (a trend I love because you get to rediscover albums and songs).  Sparks is a band made out of two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael, and assorted studio and tour musicians.
Like the Rolling Stones, it's been around almost forever (slightly less longer than the Stones) and has never split up. Unlike the Stones, they keep on issuing very good albums, such as the recent Lil' Beethoven or The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

 If you've been following FBC! for a while, you know that we do indeed like this band very much, but what you don't know it that yours truly has been converted to the cult of Sparks by the fabulous Tosh Berman, former book buyer at Booksoup in Los Angeles, and current publisher of TamTam Books, specialized in international but also very francophile books by or on such luminaries as Boris Vian, Serge Gainsbourg, or crime boss Jacques Mesrine.
I have met Tosh only once in my life, but we have a virtual friendship on some social networks, where he posts truly inspirational links that exhale coolness, dandyism, elegance, intelligence and great taste. After several years of being acquainted with his posts, I tend to see him as the resident genius of Facebook and Goodreads, in the same sense that the Ancient Romans had resident geniuses to protect their house. A benevolent, protective presence, here to guide you through the maze of great music and literature. Tosh is also the son of the late artist Wallace Berman, and is married to the artist Lun*na Menoh, and so his life revolves around books, music, and art… and many other things!

Through his enthusiasm for Sparks I started listening to them (I knew some of their songs, including their duet with Les Rita Mitsouko), then went to see them live* twice and had a blast each time. I don't remember if I was acquainted with Tosh when Sparks did their London marathon concerts, but I wasn't surprised when he announced he was writing a book about the experience, because Tosh is the ultimate Sparks fan. He kindly sent me Sparks-Tastic: Twenty-One Nights With Sparks In London after it came out and I fully intended to review it earlier, but some massive writing endeavor of another kind kept me from doing it. I'm finally getting around to it.

The book is curiously existential but in a sort of floating, detached way that is difficult to explain, because it is laden with personal anecdotes that would contradict the impression of detachment one gets from reading it. It starts with Tosh, in Los Angeles, being apprised of the news that Sparks are going to play all their albums live in London, and anguished about he financial impossibility to go there and attend. From then on, quite a few things happen but we're never really told of how they do happen.  Like miracles. Did Tosh go into enormous debt to afford the trip and the stay? Was the experience of seeing Sparks 21 nights in a row playing their entire discography a transformative experience? Did he connect with other Sparks fans?

Unlike many books written by fans, Sparks-Tastic is neither the exact memoir of an obsession nor a meticulous retracing of the long career of the writer's idols. Thankfully. I've been fascinated by the whole fans phenomenon for a few years now and I'm usually disappointed by books written by fans** (including biographies) I've read, such as books on John Cale, The Fall or Scott Walker, because they usually lack deep insight into the reason for the writer's obsession, and as far as being informative they tend to lack intellectual rigor - I guess being trained as a historian pretty much ruined Pop writing for me.

This is not the case here, and in that regard the book is highly unusual. For starters, it isn't a book about Sparks. There are some autobiographical components to it  but aside from the very poignant passages about how the death of the author's father they don't really delve deep into the psyche of the author.  Except that the link between Wallace Berman's death and Tosh Berman's obsession for a band that offers him an alternative, imaginary life better than the real one is made abundantly clear and is obvious to the writer himself. Usually fans don't willingly show self-awareness for their love of this or that band, especially when it solely focuses on one band member or a solo act, but even when they obsess about the band as whole (let's remember that Sparks is relatively unusual as it is made of two brothers). Here Berman clearly connect the dots between his need for an alternative musical life reflecting his inner turmoil, and the premature loss of his father.
In that regard the book isn't so much about Sparks themselves, as I said - there is surprisingly very little about the band and their music in it, given the fact that each concert has a chapter devoted to it -  nor about Berman as a person, but it's a document about someone's dreamed life of idealized places (London, Paris), characters (some pages are devoted to Charlie Chaplin) and books. We learn almost nothing about Berman himself save for his love for his wife and family, his devotion to the alternate history of vernacular and pop culture, and the fact that he's crazy enough to go on this big adventure of going away to Europe for more than a month when he can ill-afford it, and comes back with a book.

We're apprised of the writer's daily routine during these days in London, a routine that exemplifies the loneliness of the stranger in a foreign country, able to get by but not to truly communicate with other people. It's a bit reminiscent of Teju Cole's Open City when the narrator finds himself in Brussels on an insane quest to locate his grandmother but spends his days cooped in, giving up on the pretext for the trip to stay locked inside his own alternate world. There are small points of friction with the others but no real exchange. Here Berman goes around in London, but aside from the brief time he spends staying with friends, he doesn't go out of his way to meet people or explore new places. He's on a mission to attend the concerts, and nothing will distract him from it.
Each concert has a chapter devoted to it with a brief introduction to the record being played and Berman's opinion of the album in question, but it doesn't devolve in long discussions about the merits of this or that song or the personnel involved. Sometimes production is mentioned - there is nothing that define more an era of music than the style of production - in relation to the year/location it evokes for the author. There are mentions of the walks Berman takes on his way to the concert venue, flâneur or dérive-style, if you will, and personal anecdotes about his life in Los Angeles when that particular album was released.
Occasionally he describes the other concertgoers, whose age decrease as the gigs go on and the band plays more recent albums, spotting some people who like him come regularly, but he never engages with them, and they never engage with him. It seems that Sparks' audience is entirely made up of loners, at least its London audience.

From this description you could think the book is boring when it isn't at all. It's fascinating for this floating quality of detached narration, when the narrator pretty much describe his own life in all its poignancy, a life that looks alternatively beautiful and terribly sad. It's the life of an aesthete who has built his entire existence around things of beauty, eccentricity and intelligence, confronted to the boredom of daily life; but whose imperative to construct his own alternate reality is triggered by an irreparable early loss that hovers on every page of the book. As such Sparks-Tastic is a curious literary object that like all interesting things is difficult to define. It's a testimony to a very personal way one can decide to counteract the harshness of contemporary society by living in an idealized world of one own's choosing, where interior feelings find a match in a specific type of music and in this particular case, a set of smart, ironic yet  deep lyrics about loneliness, inadequacy, and the impossibility to fit in when confronted to oppressive normalized standards of living.

The book is available at your corner independent bookstore where they can order it for you if they run out, so buy it there rather than on Amazon (where I linked above for convenience sake, but Jeff Bezos doesn't need your money).

*If you live in Los Angeles and they play in town, book your tickets early because they're always sold out.
** Strangely, books written by fans seem to be by male writers. Whereas many truly crazy obsessive (stalker) fans tend to be female. The sexual politics of fandom however appear to be both obvious and complicated, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, and I've never really read anything great about music fans themselves. I'd be interested if someone has good reads to recommend on the subject.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Most Hypocritical Position (Mine) On Free Admissions To Museums

Marcel Broodthaers, Museum, Enfants Non Admis, 1968-1969, MoMA (full credits here)

It seems every single essay or article worthy of publication these days - that is, the publications that pay something - has to be a first person essay. I always found the genre unwieldy myself, if only because I don't know how opinions unsupported by facts can make a valid argument, and also because, uh, I don't give a damn that through your great-aunt Millie you discovered a lifelong love of knitting that lead you to become a rebellious yarn-bomber. I don't have any problems with yarn-bombing, I just don't see the point.
Now, you're going to tell me, what is FBC! but a succession of first-person essays? Touché, dear reader, but FBC! doesn't pay itself and given the few readers we have, I don't see that the first person essays here have any broad appeal. Or else I'd already have been hired as a hack at some fancy website.     Just to say that, generally speaking, and there are some exceptions, I tend to be bored by first-person essays because I don't see how someone's else personal experience can automatically translate in something universal. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't, but I see the genre as fluff as opposed to serious journalism. For the record, I think maybe 95% of FBC! is fluff, so I'm not looking down on fluff, I'm just puzzled that more and more of the "content" we consume on the internet is made-up of personal essays.

Today's one comes from a series of recent discussions about free admissions to museums in the United States, with a couple of museums like the Hammer in LA announcing they'd offer year-round, free admission to their audience. Art critics and art cognoscenti applaud with all their hands and feet, stomping on the ground to demand that every institution in the US does this too, in the name of making art available to the masses. Not so fast, says my friend Mario on his excellent blog, don't compare apples and oranges and sardines, because it's complicated.
As for me, I have a somewhat convoluted opinion on the subject, mostly based on autobiographical  experiences and empirical facts.
So, here I come with some first-person essay to try laying it around. Initially, I was going to title it "The Day My Grandpa Wore His Best Hat To The Museum", but I don't see why I should drag my late grandpa into this story, except to say that he was a working-class man who liked art and went to visit a museum with me exactly twice in his life. For the record, he loved Brancusi, and he quit school at 13, so fuck you anti-Modern art wankers who think it's only reserved to an elite. It's not.

Instead of my late grandpa, I'm going to drag in this story a bunch of unwilling people who never gave a fuck about art from birth onward, and likely will never give a fuck about it before they die, to demonstrate that free admission to a museum won't make people develop an interest in art if it's not there, though no fault of their own, because they've never been showed that art existed. There are some people to blame in this story, but not the putative audience or the well-meaning museum staff. Especially not them.

So, here I come with my autobiographical experience. I come from a family who's not especially interested in culture per se, but who values education as a tool for social mobility. My grandparents on one side were poor (construction workers), on the other they were modest civil servants (court typists), but my parents did climb the social ladder to become comfortably middle-class. The class issue is important, because to satisfy some bourgeois yearnings, my siblings and I were forcibly enrolled in cultural and sports activities we had zero interest in (I can only do passable air guitar with a tennis racket, and don't ask me to play the piano), but one of them changed my life forever.
The one lucky thing that happened was that I was also sent to afternoon and evening classes for children at the local fine arts school, no doubt with the idea I might end up turning out inoffensive watercolors, but *that* changed everything. I never made it as an artist even after ten years of intensive classes,  but truth be told it never occurred  to me I could actually be one. Instead I set up to become a museum curator and an art historian later in life. These seemed like they were legit jobs people had, and as such they were comprehensible to me. That failed too, but it's another story altogether.

Through these art classes I discovered the world of museums, modern, contemporary and otherwise, and I also was told that as an under-18 I was guaranteed free entry in pretty much all of French public museums. Adults had free admission every Sunday of the year, and children every day.
 So I used that privilege freely and to museums I went, but not that much often because I was a child and obviously I couldn't travel wherever and whenever I pleased. There were only two museums in my hometown (a traditional fine arts museum with only a C+ collection and next to no contemporary art in it, and a folk art/historical museum) and my family didn't travel that much inside of France to places that had art museums. We did visit museums when we traveled elsewhere in Europe but as my mother had zero interest in modern art, we mainly stuck to the classics, which bore me to death back then.

I also quickly realized that outside of the fine arts school NOBODY shared my interest in museums and the stuff inside of them. My classmates at school weren't interested in anything I was into, unsurprisingly, but so were my school teachers. The people responsible for educating the children of the French Republic, I soon discovered, were barely educated themselves outside of the mandatory school curriculum. If it wasn't "in the program", it had no legitimate reason to exist. I'm sure you can see where this text is heading now, but if you don't stick with me for a few thousands words more.
 In French middle school you have or used to have a mandatory 1-hour art class per week, which isn't called "art class" but "drawing class",  a designation that  harks back to the 19th century when French children were taught technical drawing as an early preparation for engineering work.
Our teacher was kind of cool but he never, ever took our class to visit the local fine arts museum.
Ditto all the other teachers.
I've never, ever gone on a school field trip to any fine arts museum or any museum for that matter from K-12, despite museum entrance being free for all children and for the accompanying teachers. Despite my hometown boasting two museums, both a very short walk away from the middle-school I attended.

There was simply no interest whatsoever from the people in charge of passing on education to us. School books never had any pages devoted to art, except for my 8th grade history textbook.
It  had a 2-page spread about art  (and only two pages) that showed one Courbet painting and Duchamp's Nude Descending A Staircase, both images bearing the legend "this painting caused a scandal when it was first shown in public", but absolutely no mention of why there was a scandal or what the scandal was all about. They seemed pretty tame to me, these two pictures, so I was really puzzled, but when I asked my history teacher about these scandals I was met with a blank stare. He simply didn't know. He was a good history teacher, but we never actually tackled this 2-page spread during the school year. If you want to know, all the other images on these two pages were used as mere illustrations for historical facts, such as a Géricault painting pertaining to Napoléon, and a Gromaire one about WWI.

This painting created a scandal when it was first exhibited. Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending A Staircase (Number 2),  1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art. Image lifted from Wikipedia.

In French classes we often had to write  essays on  weird broad general questions such as "May the poet be political?", "Is comedy always funny?", "Should realism prevail in literature?" and more often than not,  a quote of some kind we had to elaborate on, but not too freely lest we show unacceptable ideas of our own. Students were supposed to, hhhm, "discuss ideas" but truly they had to show they had read whatever 19th century shit we were always mandatorily reading (according to the French Ministry of Education, it seems that French culture started and ended in the 19th Century) and demonstrate we could write a 3-part essay according to the same immutable outline (thesis - antithesis -synthesis) vaguely lifted out of dialectical principles.
You were supposed to "discuss ideas" with the help of "precise examples" and as an eager, naive teen I always thought I could sneak in a couple of art examples, only to be met with question marks next to my mentions of Kandinsky or Mondrian at best  - at worse, the teacher would have crossed out all mentions of art with vengeful red strokes. Fuck you, high school French teacher who almost disgusted me from reading, may Godzilla shove your beloved Flaubert down your ass and leave it there.
As you see, there was absolutely no interest in visual arts whatsoever from the teaching corps during my formative school years in the French public education system.

 As for the students, for most of them the question didn't even make sense. I went to school with some very poor children, for whom there was a certain mental barrier making it impossible to conceive the idea of a museum where they could go to.
It's not even that  they had an ingrained belief they didn't belong there (like my grandmother did, who always explained her shyness vis-à-vis cultural outings by saying "oh but we're just poor working-class people"), they just didn't know there was such a thing as art and that it was housed inside museums. Because no one ever told them it existed, and there was no mention of it on mainstream television programs, ever.
The same children, at least many of them, had in effect never set foot downtown, which was a mere 5 minutes walk from our school and maybe 15 from our neighborhood, if you walked down straight on the main street where the city bus would take us to downtown, too, if we wanted.
Downtown was where you had stores (duh!) but also where the fine arts museum which was free for all under-18 was located. You had a few cafés that let underage teens linger for hours around one single espresso (bye-bye, Les Caves Thorel, you were ghastly and you will be missed), some largely pedestrian areas where you could loiter like only teenagers like to loiter, and not much else.
Our town was only 10 km  away from the sea, and the beach was accessible by bus, and there was even a local path along the canal that was safe to bike on or even walk on if hiking was your thing.
Yet many if most of the kids I was in middle-school with had never seen the sea, and I am not certain that they ever ventured there in adulthood afterwards.
So if you wanted to go window-shopping you could walk 5 minutes away and it was free and accessible, and if you wanted to walk to the beach on a beautiful day it was a good hour walk away and it was free and accessible if you were young and healthy, and if you wanted to go to the museum it was no more than 7 minutes away and accessible and free everyday if you were under 18, or every Sunday if you were over 18.

 Yet almost nobody in my school ever availed themselves of these possibilities. Of these free and accessible possibilities.

Possibly nobody wanted to walk an hour to get to the sea or go to the museum or go window-shopping downtown for lack of a parental authorization, yet the same kids I knew were left free to play and roam around outside until midnight on schooldays and until God knows when on weekends. They had almost no parental supervision, which translated into a lot of personal freedom to go as they pleased yet they had no access to culture or real education; beyond the one at school that shortly skimmed them off from the regular educational path that us, children of the well-to-do white people, were allowed to stay on, never mind if our grades weren't in actuality substantially better than theirs*.
We'd move on from middle school to high school and they'd be carted off, aged 13 or 15, to vocational schools where they'd train on obsolete equipment for jobs that had disappeared already. They were the underprivileged youths for whom free museum admissions are designed and yet there was this invisible social and mental fence that made it impossible to avail themselves of free and accessible outings, cultural or not.

Now defunct local bar that was tolerant of teenagers lingering for hours over a single espresso and where the Frenchy misspent her youth. Uncredited picture lifted from here.

Was there any particular outreach toward these kids and their parents from the local museum part? As far as I can tell, there wasn't that I can remember now, but in hindsight it is hard to fault the museum when the place where the kids spent the most time, school, had absolutely zero interest in trying to drag us there at least once in our lives even though, I repeat, it was FREE for everybody involved. Unlike the lone day trip we took once to the Mont St. Michel, which required renting a bus and therefore our families to pay some money for us to go on that trip, all but guaranteeing that the poor kids from the housing projects across form my house would be left out (and left out they were).

This is a very classist story, as you can see, which also doubles as a racist and xenophobic one because many of the kids in the projects were of arab or of gypsy descent; yet the majority of the poorest of the poor were white children whose parents used to be day laborers from the country who had migrated to the city looking for work. They shortly had found themselves massively unemployed when the local blast furnace, truck factory and small appliances factory had all closed their doors within the same decade. These were the French equivalent of US "white trash", if you will, people with no perspective of ever changing their lives in a positive way, being looked down in the same condescending way as "white trash" people are in the US.
Maybe some of their children might have liked to look at art, but they were denied the knowledge that art even existed when they went to school. They simply were never told of the existence of the free museum no more than a 7 minutes walk away. During the "Drawing class" we merely participated in handicrafts, and were never showed any real art reproductions that I can remember of.**

As for myself I had that semi-underground art life, going to the local art school were we'd be taken to museums and would go on day trips to Paris see the Pompidou and the Louvre (cost, 10 francs, about $1.50 now), and discovering art anyway I could, freely borrowing from the the art school library which proudly boasted at the time a collection of about 2,000 books. When my parents took us on vacation I would try to go visit art museums where, more often than not, entrance was free for under-18.
Of course a lot of my formative years were spent looking at a lot of crap, bad derivative AbEx French art from the 1950s, terrible academic works from the 19th century, conflating art with illustration with graphic design and comics, and generally going through a really haphazard way of gathering knowledge: I had no understanding of art history as something chronological and geographical, and there wasn't much in term of documentation to lay my hands on in these pre-internet day. You couldn't even regularly find a national newspaper in my hometown then, let alone an art magazine. This has fortunately changed, but it was rather bleak at the time.  As I grew older I became interested in music as well and thanks to it I expanded my horizons when musicians mentioned their interest in, I don't know, Viennese decadent painters, Russian Constructivists or Fluxus and Dada.

I soon reached adulthood and went away to college to study art history. As I reached the dreaded age of 18 that should have barred me from year-round free access to museums, the French Ministry of Culture made the "free admission for everybody every Sunday" disappear and with a magical influx of canny PR reduced it to ONLY THE FIRST SUNDAY OF EVERY MONTH. But advertised for it, so the French people whose taxpayers money fully funds their national museums were made to believe it was an incredible progress, because most of them never knew in the fist place they used to have 52 free days a year instead of the now measly 12 ones.
 I should have been bitter, and I was on behalf of all art-inclined French citizens, but individually it didn't change anything for me because as an art history student at the Louvre, I was awarded the magic card that allowed me unlimited access to French museums. And boy, did I take advantage of it.
 Later on, as I worked in various art-related positions, I almost always got some sort of pass to get in for free at most museums, and when I didn't, I often knew someone working inside the place who would let me in. As a result, I have had the privilege of almost never paying at a museum pretty much my whole life until very recently.
I can attest it changes the way you look at art a lot when you don't have to pay dearly just to get in. It requires far less advance planning, and whether you can spend only 30 minutes or an entire day inside a museum changes everything when you know you can get in pretty much whenever. Another advantage of getting free admission is that more often than not, you don't have to wait in line to get in, which is not negligible when visiting popular tourist museums such as MoMA, the Pompidou or the Louvre. But what it truly means is binge-looking at artworks, which makes you build a fantastic visual memory, and of course can only deepen your understanding of art.

World-famous French museum that used to be free for everybody every Sunday of the month and free for children under 18 year-round when I was a child. Image lifted from wikipedia.

This lifelong experience should make me an apologist and a militant advocate for unlimited free admission to everybody at all museums.
And in theory I would want it that way, yes.
There's no reason people should be denied the same access I've had to art, especially if they have a craving for it and live in poverty.
But after two decades of working at museums and talking with colleagues, I am not so sure anymore.

For one thing, as I've pointed out above, even when it's free, the population that should logically be the target of this policy almost never takes advantage of it, for lack of what I'd call intellectual access (Bourdieu had written eloquently about the issue pretty much all his life, so I'll refer you to his books). What you get are the same people who would come anyway, except they come more often. There is an increase of regular visitors as well, the ones who are not art cognoscenti and who tend to come mostly if there's access to a blockbuster exhibition and who bring their entire families, but it's hard to say if really deprived people come (because museums rarely have the means to do statistical surveys of their audience).
Some museums try like crazy to have a generous outreach policy and invite deprived populations to visit, but museums can only be the equivalent of the band-aid on an amputated limb when schools and the mainstream medias don't have a systemic, generous and sophisticated approach to art.

It has become rather trendy in American art circles over the last couple of years to ask for free access to museums for all, at least to permanent collections the way they do it in the UK. The rationale goes that it would make art more accessible (never mind most American museums always have at least one day or portion of a day a week where admission is free) and also that entrance fees account for a very low portion of a museum budget. But US museums, unlike European museums, are not government-supported and can usually ill-afford to open for free.
The Hammer Museum just announced that it would soon be offering year-round free admissions to everyone, which is fabulous but possible only because of the generosity of a big donor.
Because even when the ticket fees only account for about 6% of your overall budget, if you get rid of them you have to find these 6% elsewhere, and typically donors or government authorities don't give a shit about your money woes if they don't meet their political or narcissist agenda, so your roof is going to be leaking for a while and letting humidity get into your storage space for a few years until you manage to convince someone to act. Meanwhile, you artworks will be irremediably damaged.
Or, you won't be able to pay your security guards overtime, so your free admission everyday means that in effect, you are going to have to close the museum  at 5 PM in addition to having to close it two full days a week, making sure that nobody but schoolchildren on a day trip (you know, the ones my schools never organized when I was a child), passing tourists or retirees are going to be able to visit your museum. And so your overall attendance numbers are going to drop, making it hard to convince whoever has their hands on the purse' strings to untie them for expanding the collection or organizing ambitious exhibitions and therefore expand your audience, etc, etc.

A random picture I took  a few years back of a Robert Gober sculpture, just to make a break in that big block of text.

Another dirty secret, and something I can only say is based on empirical evidence (my own experience as well as things colleagues from other museums told me) is that at every museum, when there is a free admission day, it is the day when we observe BIG spikes in vandalism.
Vandalism can be inadvertent as well as voluntary, from someone backing out into an artwork while trying to avoid a rowdy group of people gesticulating wildly around another one, to somebody taking their ballpoint pen (these things should be banned forever from the surface of Earth) and deciding to deface your one and only Matisse in the collection, the one that would sell for a gazillion dollars should it be unloaded on the open market, and ruin it forever. Vandalism can be your kid eating some piece of chocolate candy and wiping their face and hands on a 17th century tapestry, or some moronic teenager trying to unscrew a vitrine from its base (which is why we glue the screws, ha). It often manifests itself in people trying to steal something small and being unsuccessful, irreparably damaging for all eternity a lovely little Renaissance portrait, for example.
Even though every museum has "do not touch artifacts" signs everywhere, for some reason all Hell breaks loose on free admission day, and visitors who would normally never been caught dead shitting in public on their host's carpet when invited to dinner at new acquaintances' do just that once inside a museum.
I mean, seriously, change a diaper inside a gallery and leave the dirty diaper on a sculpture?
A friend of mine was seriously envisioning a museum policy where you'd fine people up to $200 if caught touching artworks AND they'd be banned for life from the premises. I have to say I love the idea, though I'm pretty sure it's unenforceable. Pretty much every museum person I relayed the idea to found it fabulous, so maybe it might come near you in a not so distant future.

The result of this type of assholish behavior ends up costing lots of money to a museum that never has enough to begin with (do you have an idea how much regular museum staff make?) but also wastes everybody's time, from the security guards to the conservators to the preparators to the curators. And if we're talking about a temporary exhibition with works on loans, it guarantees that if it is a loaned artwork that has been damaged the lender will never again accept to lend the institution anything in the future. So, if free admission days bring in more vandalism and more damages, I'm not sure it's worth making the policy year-round, but truth be told we'd need to see statistics from museums that have switched from 1 or 2 free days a week (or a month, like French museums) to year-round to see what the consequences are on the budgeting, the vandalism, and if it shows a marked spike in attendance or not.

All museums are different of course, so something that can work relatively smoothly at a big institution would be a catastrophic policy at a small one. I've recently read something about a small local European museum where the total yearly budget for the institution (including salaries, utility bills, building maintenance) is only one third of the current LACMA's director's annual salary.
This museum used to have a free admission day only one day in the middle of the week, but had been recently forced to move it to Sunday per its government  mandatory policy, resulting in a very problematic deficit for its overall budget. The situation resulted in a spat between the museum's director and their Minister of Culture;  it is unclear as of now what will happens but it looks like the director is going to lose their job while no additional money will be provided by the government to patch up the budget. Hardly an ideal situation.

Now from a museum's point of view, the question of free admission days could be solved ideally if there was free money growing from trees that could make sure there are enough security guards in the galleries so the artworks are safe; and if there were some magical pheromones you could spray on visitors in the lobby so they'd be on their best behavior once inside the galleries.
In the meantime, they have to make do with whatever their current local financial and administrative conditions are, which more often than not are downright shitty. Offering some sort of privileged membership that gets you in without waiting in lines and makes sure you can get, say, the equivalent of 6 yearly visits for the price of 4 is a sort of median resolution but it's not really effective to draw in the most underprivileged people, who usually can barely afford the public transportation fares to go to work, so for them a yearly membership is unattainable.

An old picture of my cat looking awesome just because.

But aside from these really thorny situations, I am not sure that a year-round free admission to museums would make them more accessible to everybody. You see, what it does is privilege people like me (admittedly I'm broke, but not exactly deprived) and pretty much every art amateur who already has an attraction, an interest and a connection to art, in effect mostly middle-class people who would someway or other visit museums anyway, maybe just a little less often but that's all.  Now if we have to pay to get inside museums, ideally it should be around the price of a movie ticket maybe, or even far less (something symbolic, around or under $5?)  but far less than sports tickets or amusement parks entrance fees - which is a bit ironic because many people who pay for these without grumbling or even thinking would protest at the idea of spending around $10 to get inside a museum.
But what I'm getting at is that the idea of a year-round free admission policy at all museums is rather hypocritical in the sense that the people it would benefit the most is us, the art world wankers who get all worked up on Jerry Saltz's FB page (that is, you, personally I'm not that much into his writings), we the art cognoscenti who want to have our cake and eat it.
There's this commonly held belief in the so-called art world that we are the primary audience of museums, when in effect the larger mass of people are generally tourists coming into town, and sometimes local residents who come for a blockbuster exhibition. This is not to say that art people don't come, but proportionally they are a smaller audience, if dedicated, and they're not the audience that needs education and guidance, even though most curators have them in mind when they design an exhibition. So, wanting free admission to museums is a bit self-serving for the art world when pretending it is necessary to attract an underprivileged audience.

 The underprivileged audience certainly should have an easy and comfortable access to the museum, but in order for them to even know they can come visit for free and be treated like valued guests, not as some sort of barely-tolerated charity case necessary for everybody to keep a good conscience; the educational work has to be done elsewhere first, and that is at school. AND in the mainstream media, and when I say the mainstream media I don't mean the lone professional critics at the NYT and the LAT who cater to us, but something a bit simpler.
I don't know where people get their information these days (still the TV? only on the internet? The Sunday Parade supplement that comes with local papers?) but as long as the only mainstream discourse about art in the media is reduced to "these stolen artworks worth millions" and "this auction result record", and "multimillion-dollars artwork damaged by vandals",  it's unlikely people whose only notion of visual art is linked to an unimaginable monetary value can ever feel any meaningful connection to it.
I don't have any easy solution to this issue, at an age when most public school systems are eradicating their arts and music programs, when the teachers have to train their students to pass tests and exams rather than teach them the love of learning, and when many of the school children themselves come to school on an empty stomach.
I am not even certain I have a point to make, except that most museums nowadays can ill-afford a year-round free admission policy, that such a policy, should it exist, would mostly benefit the middle-class and not the deprived population it aims to serve, and that maybe this deprived population has more urgent needs that should be addressed as well if we want to make them discover the wonders of art. They're the ones who've been having to bear the brunt of the recession we're still in, the ones whose very daily survival is constantly threatened by benefits cuts (not only in the US, but in the UK as well where there's currently a hateful class war being waged against the poor by their own government).  It's difficult to appreciate even the greatest art on an empty stomach. It's impossible to access it when you don't know it exist.

*One of my friends from another school was kicked out of the regular pathway to high school and sent to vocational school instead but for one just-below-the-passing-grade-C in physics and chemistry, despite good grades everywhere else, better than mine actually. His crime was to be the half-arab bastard child of an illiterate cleaning lady who didn't know she could appeal the school decision on his behalf. Wherever you are, Dominique G. I hope you thrive and are happy.
**Post-car accident my memory can be rather murky, I do not recall any instance of seeing any slide or image of art during that class, just to be given some sort of exercises to complete, but maybe I'm totally off base. The teacher was cool and I liked that class, but I don't recall it being anything art historical or designed to develop some sort of art appreciation.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mike Kelley Retrospective At MoMA PS1 - From Our Foreign Correspondent Grant Wahlquist

FBC! is overjoyed to host our foreign correspondent Grant Wahlquist today, reviewing the Mike Kelley retrospective currently held at  MoMA PS1 in NYC. The exhibition originated at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam last year and had a greatly reduced iteration at the Pompidou Center this summer, and will have a final stop at MOCA in Los Angeles in March 2014. All images and text ©Grant Wahlquist, 2013.

A long-time acolyte of FBC, I was intrigued by this blog's coverage of the Mike Kelley retrospective in its two European incarnations.  As a former curatorial assistant and sometime critic, the idea of chronicling how a show mutates as it encounters diverse cultural and institutional contexts struck me as a productive exercise.  Unfortunately, the great FBC herself is unable to make it to New York to see the next iteration that recently opened at PS1, so you'll have to put up with me as I attempt to continue this delightful blog's continuing coverage of the retrospective.

First, the PS1 show is massive.  Billed as "the largest exhibition of the artist's work to-date," the exhibition includes well over 200 works from the beginning of Kelley's career to the very end, and the entirety of PS1 is given over to the show.  I'm pretty familiar with Kelley's work (although not nearly as much as FBC herself!), and was continually surprised by work I hadn't seen before.  

When you enter the first floor, you are greeted by a short introductory wall label and Entry Way (Genealogical Chart), 1995, a Kelley-ized version of the signs you often see when you enter a small town notifying you of the existence of a Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, etc.  In the next gallery to the immediate right, PS1 has installed Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-99, MoMA's spiffy new Kelley acquisition.  Though an impressive work, it would have been better installed later in the exhibition, after viewers were acclimated to the history of Kelley's use of stuffed animals.  This brings me to my first issue with the show: it's not installed chronologically.  Though portions of the show group works in loose chronological conjunction, or by project, the show does not track Kelley's career from beginning to end.  Instead, a museum guide notes that the exhibition "is organized to underscore the recursive nature of Kelley's work.  Kelley returned time and again to certain underlying themes ..."  This is true as far as it goes, but wouldn't that point better be made if the work was viewed from beginning to end, so viewers could see the progression and mutation of ideas and themes from one body of work to the next?  Instead, I worry that viewers less familiar with Kelley's work will come away from the exhibition without understanding how Kelley's practice grew and evolved.  Often, Kelley initially addressed a particular topic, theme, or medium in a compact but powerful form, and later expanded or multiplied that format to draw out its full potential, working a strategy over and over until he had exhausted its possibilities.  This is one of the aspects of Kelley's practice that, in my mind, marks him as a genius (a word I don't throw around often).  However, instead of showing it to be the logical extension of a particular trajectory in Kelley's practice, skipping to Deodorized Central Mass leads to reduced appreciation of its significance and meaning.  This problem persists throughout the exhibition.

Another example of this problem is a series of galleries dedicated to Kelley's Kandor works on the other side of the first floor.  This series of galleries could be a show in itself (hint, hint to some small but ambitious university gallery), providing excellent examples of this body of work.  Unfortunately, I worry that the significance of this work is not fully understood by either general audience members or the critical press, as it is introduced without much context and instead appears as a series whiz-bang-gee-whiz objects.  Take, for example, Holland Cotter's review in the New York Times: "[The Kandors] date from after the time Kelley signed on with the Gagosian Gallery in 1995.  He was now a star with a big budget, and the work suddenly looks expensive, machine-tooled, overproduced.  The Kandors have the luxury-line gloss of Jeff Koons junk art.  What saves them is that they have Kelley's history behind them."

First, I patently disagree that the Kandors are overproduced.  Rather, I see this body of work as some of the most formal and elegant of Kelley's career, simple but filled with pathos and psychological complexity.  But Cotter is right that, unmoored from the history of Kelley's career, they do appear anomalous and I understand why their power was lost on him given the lack of context.  As Kelley began the series in 1999 and returned to it repeatedly, again, a chronological organization would have benefitted viewers immensely.  (Question: does any retrospective benefit from being installed other than chronologically?)

The first floor also contains two small galleries devoted to video (collaborative works and Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #1), and a small room adjacent to Deodorized Central Mass containing Mechanical Toy Guts, 1991/2012, one of Kelley's last works.  Locating that work next to Deodorized Central Mass shows Kelley's continued engagement with stuffed animals as medium, but the juxtaposition (stuffed animals in one room, guts in the other) is too cute curatorially for my taste.  In another gallery, Kelley's "Felt Banners" share a space with A Continuous Screening of Bob Clark's Film Porky's (1981), the Soundtrack of Which Has Been Replaced with morton Subotnick's Electronic Composition The Wild Bull (1968), and Presented in the Secret Sub-Basement of the Gymnasium Locker Room (Office Cubicles), 2002.  An amalgam of items and ideas left from Educational Complex, 1995, the piece is an excellent example of how Kelley revisited and transformed bits of previous work into new and exciting works.  However, I wonder if the space could have been better used by Sublevel, 1998, especially since the exhibition catalogue contains an excellent essay by George Baker about that work, and it's nowhere to be found in the show.  

Last but not least, one of the first floor hallways is festooned with more banners, this time in fabric and also used in a performance at one point (photographs of which are hung adjacent).  This brings me to one of the interesting but also problematic aspects of the show: the presentation of Kelley's work, which frequently treats issues of institutions, particularly educational ones, in a former school.  At first, I found the sight of Kelley's banners and other educational themed works at PS1 exciting, but eventually, I tired of it - when something is already so present in the work, the additional "neat" factor felt a bit too much.  That said, PS1 gave more space to the show than any other New York institution likely would have, and they refrained from milking this connection for the rest of the show.

There were some fantastic works installed in PS1's basement.  First, some sound works (The Peristaltic Airways, 1986, and Yummy Puffy Mommy Yoni, 2008), were located in out of the way stairwells, an installation strategy that used PS1's particular history and peculiarities to the work's advantage.  PS1 also installed From my Institution to Yours, 1987, a fantastic example of Kelley's continued engagement with and commitment to labor and workers.  The piece contains two parts: a large, room sized installation featuring the emblem of a clenched fist and slogans encouraging the viewer to storm the gates of the institution, and a battering ram located in front of the museum's offices.  The two are connected by a ribbon.  Putting aside the irony of a guard telling me I could not even attempt to navigate around the battering ram (much less pick it up and do some damage), I found the piece very compelling, and it is one I'd never seen before.  Last but not least, the basement cinema space was hosting screenings of a number of video works, including one I'd never seen before and really enjoyed (unfortunately I did not grab the title, but it was ceramic objects acting out a play in rhymed verse).

The museum's second floor is largely devoted to Kelley's works from the 80s and 90s, as well as a large gallery containing an excellent installation of a number of works from Day is Done.  The works on view include works from (this is not an exhaustive list): Educational Complex, 1995; Half a Man, 1987-93; Empathy Displacement, 1990; Incorrect Sexual Models, Sack Drawings, and Lump Drawings, 1987; Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile, 1985-86; Reversals, Recyclings, Completions, 2002; Monkey Island, 1982-83; The Sublime, 1984; Half a Man, 1995; Blind Country, 1989; Endless Morphing Flow of Common Decorative Motifs (Jewelry Case), 2002; Hermaphrodite Drawings, 1987; Kelley's works from Documenta IX and associated schematic drawings; Two and Three Dimensions, 1994; Lumpenprole and Agitprop, 1991; and Horizontal Tracking Shots of a Cross Section of Trauma Rooms, 2009.  Each gallery generally lumped work together by project or performance (i.e. an entire room for Plato's Cave), and wall labels helpfully noted not only when the work was first exhibited/performed, but who the collaborators were and where it was shown.  However, the work was still not really chronologically displayed, and there may have been too much of it.  I adore Kelley's work, but even I felt a bit exhausted by the end of this floor, and also worried that I was not able to give all of the work the attention it truly deserved because of that exhaustion.  I commonly heard others at the museum saying, "Wow, this guy was really prolific," "Wow, this is a lot of work."  I worry that a viewer less invested in or familiar with the work would have felt a bit lost, and might have benefited from a slightly more focused presentation.  

The museum's third floor is devoted to Kelley's earliest works as well as some work from the 2000s.  Works from the following are on view (again, not an exhaustive list): Black Out, 2001; The Banana Man, 1983; Garbage Drawings, 1988; Early Performance Objects, 1977-79; Birdhouses and Missing Time,1978-79; Personality Crisis, 1982; Pay for Your Pleasure, 1988; Memory Wares, 2000-10; Abuse Report, 1995/2007; The Secret, 2001; and Rose Hobart II, 2006.  The drawings, objects, and videos of Kelley's performances form the 1970s and 1980s are amplified by images of pages from his notebooks that describe the evolution of each project.  Again, I really wish these works had been placed at the beginning of the exhibition, as they offer an interesting window into Kelley's process.  In general, I found the photographic works form Black Out especially good.

If you get the impression reading this post that, by the end of it, I am a bit too exhausted to go into much detail, you are correct.  Unfortunately, that was also how I felt by the end of the show - amazed, sated, happy, thrilled to see so much good work, but also a bit worn out and guilty, as there was so much work to see.  Again, I am thrilled that PS1 mounted such a large, complete show (with a few exceptions - why no Craft Morphology Flow Chart?), but there were some minor works that could have been excised to tighten the presentation - and mind you, I'd prefer a minor Kelley to a major work by most other artists.  I will definitely need to go back and spend more time with the work, perhaps on January 5th, when the museum is hosting a listening party for Kelley's music, or on December 15th, when Rachel Harrison, William Pope L, and Joe Scanlan will have a panel discussion.  And hey, maybe I'll complete FBC's coverage and see the work again when it travels to Los Angeles!