What I Saw at Portland First Friday, February Edition

1) Dorothy Schwartz at the Maine Jewish Museum, which I mentioned in my last post. A printmaker who studied under Leonard Baskin at Smith College (my alma mater), Deedee, as she’s known to most, uses a variety of printmaking techniques but is known best for her woodcuts. Though mostly work made since 2000, the show included a print and its woodblock from her college days, distinctly displaying the influence of her mentor. The most prominent series reused the same set of 4 smaller and 3 larger woodblocks, recombined in different iterations. The artist told us these were blown up details from a Baskin print (his last woodcut, I believe), and that she produced them for a memorial show just after his death. This is not to say this is exclusively what her work is. She uses a variety of other, sometimes experimental/multimedia/collage techniques. Another series I liked were prints that paid homage to self-portraits by historic women artists.

Deedee Schwartz










2) At the Rose Contemporary, “This Flat Earth,” a series of drawings and prints by both Maine and Madrid artists – the exhibition showed there before it showed here. Some pieces were charming, clever, and well made. Others looked a little dinky – especially as they weren’t framed.

3) At the Maine College of Art (MECA), several student installations. Of note was a little group show called The Other Side of Shade, “an interpretation and reflection of the issues of race, oppression, and power in America.” The work in this show had some interest, but it seemed like it could have been conceptually stronger. There has been much art and art theory made on this topic in the last 30 years; it’s as if the artists hadn’t really studied that history, as if they were the first to treat the topic. For example, one installation using painted Mammy figurines recalled Fred Wilson, but was not as conceptually rigorous. Had they looked to their precedents, the work could have been better developed and more thought-provoking.

4) At June Fiztpatrick, some MECA staff art – nice, but not much of note. My favorite was an artist who incorporated nails and ball bearings into small panels using layers of encaustic as an ethereal binder.

5) At Space Gallery, two things:

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 1.29.11 PM

A) Mike Kolster: itiswhatitis. Mike is a photo professor at Bowdoin and a close colleague; he’s been kind enough to host me for two studio visits, including one demonstrating his process. He uses a 19th-century wet-plate process called ambrotype, which produces a glass plate negative that, when put against a black background, reveals the positive image. In summers he turns his camera to landscape, but his winter work is more conceptual. This show consisted of two series interspersed with each other: one, images of plastic ribbon superimposed on each other; the other, colloquial sayings whose words have been broken up to make them appear abstract at first:
The phrases themselves are more sophisticated equivalents of er’s, um’s, and like’s–space fillers that don’t really mean anything at all. With the ribbons- the yellow things that come wrapped around boxes of paper – both seem to be examples of everyday detritus, the leftovers that sprinkle, and ultimately make up, our entire lives.

B) The best idea for an art fundraiser I’ve ever seen, and one I’d ultimately like to reuse if I had the chance:


Watching the artists at work, and comparing it to what they’d already produced, was great fun. I was of course also excited about the prospect of taking home an original piece of art for such a price; but money is a funny thing. Even though it was so cheap and there were things I liked, I couldn’t bring myself to part with the dough (I’m not that flush, you see) for anything I wasn’t completely in love with. Oh well.

6) At the Meg Perry Center for Peace and Justice, “Sensory Circus,” focusing on art that you could touch, hear, smell and taste, in addition to see. Cool idea; the works themselves were a bit sloppily executed. The small room was packed, which made maneuvering and experiencing the art difficult. In addition, it wasn’t really my scene. To be blunt about it, the place was full of hippies.


Quick Review 1: MetaMaus; or Meta MetaMaus

There are several reviews I had meant to write months ago and never did. Of course, the bulk of what I wanted to say is largely lost now, but that means my posts can be short and sweet! Which means quick to write, which means I can actually get myself to write them!

Here’s the first: MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman.

The book is essentially a long interview of Spiegelman, exploring the process, research and preparation (it’s extensively illustrated with preparatory drawings and other materials) that went into his classic and groundbreaking graphic novel(s – it’s in two parts), Maus.

When I found Maus on my parents’ bookshelf as a teenager, it was a complete revelation for me. It was my first novel-length and novel-style comic book (as it was in the culture at large), and that experience eventually led me to such other masterpieces as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

Reading MetaMaus was a bit like reading the memoir of an actor from a show I like, an occasional guilty pleasure I’ll admit to (books by Anthony Rapp of Rent, Nancy Cartwright of The Simpsons, and of course Tina Fey’s Bossypants). Spiegelman’s revisiting is certainly more substantive and less fluffy–more of a meditation on the creative process than a collection of humorous anecdotes. Nonetheless, I compare them because in both cases, what I’m really yearning for is the actual thing, not a thing about the thing. Sure, I gain some amusing behind-the-scenes info about the thing, but reading about the thing is not as stirring as actually experiencing the thing.

I cannot recapture what it was like to read Maus for the first time, and so instead I read this Meta work. It was interesting enough at times, and the many preparatory drawings are quite fascinating, but it’s still not the same thing as the original; it’s just a proxy.

The Critic

In a recent post, I celebrated the fact that the illustrious Queen Bee art critic of the New York Times, Roberta Smith, had written a review, and generally pretty positive one, of the exhibition “William Wegman: Hello Nature” at my new home museum, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (I myself reviewed it before I officially started there). For the sake of fairness, I should also write about a not-so-positive review, by Sebastian Smee, the chief art critic of the Boston Globe.

First of all, you can’t read the whole thing online unless you register and pay a weekly fee (99 cents for the first 4 weeks, $3.99 after that). Even the Times allows you 10 free articles a month, down from 20 (though I’m lucky enough to use my parents’ subscription, and take the luxury of unlimited access to articles for granted). So, I’m sticking it to the man by posting the whole thing for my readers here.

And, of course I’m going to feel defensive about a negative review. It’s not that I don’t see Smee’s point–it’s not completely unlike my own evaulation. Except that, what I take for Wegman’s refreshing lightheartedness, “his refusal to take himself or his art too seriously,” as Roberta Smith put it, Smee takes as an overly cynical irony, a too easily cute exploitation of dogs in costumes, of Maine outdoorsiness; he calls it “pathetic.”

I do believe a critic’s job is to weigh the negatives and the positives of whatever they are viewing, and that’s what I try to do in my reviews for this blog. I also think, based on the handful of reviews I’ve read by him, that Smee perhaps tries too hard sometimes to find and emphasize the negative, which can be a way to feel smart and superior. Certainly he’s not the only critic to do this, as Mel Brooks knows:

“Whistler, how’s your mother?”

says Manet to Whistler, in one of the funniest lines of Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art, by Christopher Moore. Whistler responds, “She’s an arrangement in gray and black…” using the actual title of Whistler’s Mother, supposedly before he actually paints the painting. A little in-joke for American art enthusiasts.

Whistler’s Mother, or An Arrangement in Gray and Black

I had read one book by Christopher Moore before, called The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror (which is apparently going to be a movie; if it’s a quarter as funny as the book, it’ll be worth seeing.) Perhaps apart from David Sedaris, it was the most I’ve ever laughed out loud while reading a book. Here’s one scene, the rise of the zombies, that I found particularly memorable in its wry absurdity:

“Suddenly we are all gluttons, are we? Well, I have always enjoyed Danish Modern furniture for its functional yet elegant design, so once we have consumed the brains of these revelers, I feel compelled to seek out one of these furniture boutiques I have heard so much about from newlyweds in the chapel. First we feast, then IKEA.”

“IKEA,” chanted the dead. “First we feast, then IKEA. First we feast, then IKEA.”

… No one knows why, but second only to eating the brains of the living, the dead love affordable prefab furniture.

I gather this is generally Moore’s M.O., comic mysteries with a supernatural twist, but never really felt like shelling out bucks for other books of his, until I heard he’d published one about art, about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists in particular, and more generally about the power of the color blue (my favorite). BOOM! On my Amazon wishlist. BOOM! Got it for a graduation present (thanks cousins Nina, Yash and Luca!).

I will start by saying that this was not as laugh-out loud funny as The Stupidest Angel, but I enjoyed it just the same. The enjoyment was similar to my enjoyment of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: it’s not a masterpiece, but as an art person, I get a kick out of seeing these artists turned into characters, regardless of how accurate or inaccurate. (Adrian Brody as Salvador Dalí was an absolute riot!)

In Sacré Bleu, Toulouse-Lautrec is one of two main characters, along with his friend, a fictional baker/painter named Lucien Lessard, who plays the straight man to Toulouse-Lautrec’s clowning, wisecracking and debauchery. As mentioned above, Manet and Whistler make brief appearances, as do Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Gauguin, the van Gogh brothers, Seurat, Morisot, Michelangelo, and many more.

SPOILER ALERT! If you want to know nothing about the plot going into the book, stop reading here. The premise is that there’s a mysterious Colorman selling a powerful ultramarine blue, which in combination with a female spirit that inhabits the artists’ muses and inspires them both sexually and artistically, results in shifts in time and place, as well as sudden and tragic deaths.

Another great line from the book:

“You said Gauguin was a self-important tosser,” said Lucien.

“I did?”

“Many times.”

“Well I meant theorist.”

Moore concludes with an afterword titled, “So Now You’ve Ruined Art,” in which he distinguishes fact from fiction in his book. More is based in truth than you might think, and though the dialogue of course comes across as anachronistically contemporary, he did try to base artists’ personalities on first- and second-hand accounts. On Degas’ absence from the book, he says:

…considering him as a potential character, it seemed as if he was a miserable, unlikable guy, and I didn’t want to have to portray that. So he doesn’t get a part in my book. See, if you hadn’t been a jerk, you’d have had a speaking part, Degas, but no.

He concludes with a mediation on the commercialism of Impressionism:

There is a tendency, I’ve found, among academics and art enthusiasts, to dismiss the Impressionists, with their fields of flowers and their pink-cheeked girls, as insignificant, pablum for the masses, and once you’re seen your thousandth tote bag sporting Monet’s lilies, it’s understandable. Among museums, the Impressionists, represent a cash cow, because any show that features them will pack the museum for weeks, even months, wile it runs, and so they are often regarded with a restrained resentment, if not for the painters, for the masses who come to see their work. Out of the context of their own time, the Impressionists just seem to be producing “pretty pictures.” Yet, Impressionism represented a quantum leap in painting and ultimately art in general.

Well said. As arguably the first, or at least one of the first, dominoes along the chain of modernism, I’d have to agree.

I would recommend Sacré Bleu as a great vacation read for anyone, particularly art historians who might want to read about art, sort of, without having to digest anything too heavy.

Reading List: On Curating

There’s been a long list of books about art, curating, and museum theory that I have been meaning to and know I should read (the should often being emphasized by my boss, my professors, or my own sense of inadequacy/laziness). Thanks to the generosity of family members and the wonders of the Amazon wishlist, I have gradually been acquiring them, but that certainly does not mean I’ve been reading them.

That is until I graduated, when I decided that I now would have the time and energy, and need the intellectual stimulation. (This was after my first post-grad freedom reading, Hunger Games, was out of the way.) It says something about my reading habits and ambitions that the first book I chose to read, On Curating, was the shortest, capping out at just over 100 pages.

It says something else about my reading skills, motivation, and habits that it took me several weeks to finish this modest volume, partially because of distraction by other fluffy reading (Game of Thrones, and, I’m woman enough to admit, Fifty Shades of Grey, which is just so badly written I can’t stand it sometimes). However, it is evident that the purpose of this blog is succeeding, in that it motivated me to finish the book (which once I sat down to do took almost no time at all) so that I could write about it.

A few points I’d like to share:

1) A lovely quote by Carolee Thea, the author/editor/interlocutor, that really sums up for me what it is that curators do (emphasis mine):

We could say they are translators, movers or creators whose material is the work of others–but in any case, the role of mediator is inescapable. While the art critic embodies the generalized gaze of the public [not sure I agree with that, but that’s a discussion for another day], the curator inversely translates the artist’s work by providing a context to enable the public’s understanding.

2) The interview with RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of PERFORMA, a performance biennial in New York, in which she discusses the ever interesting (to me, at least) and sometimes controversial topic of performance artists recreating their own performances, despite the fact that the original work may have been purposely ephemeral in order to evade the art market and art institutions. Marina Abramovic is of course the cited and most prominent example.

Goldberg’s words:

The kind of things you were describing, ephemerality and the lack of objects, were the ethos of the 70s. Everyone thought that way, and there was no art market. These things change… Artists like Baldessari or Acconci, for example, who didn’t make objects and weren’t making the money their students were, went back and made drawings of their previous works for which there was no documentation, and could now be sold. Marina is in a conversation regarding re-enactment, conservation and the nature of documentation that is focusing on performance history… It’s a history, and we must think of ways of showing this in a museum context. For Marina, becoming a museum artist was an insistence on the immaterial [emphasis in original] being as pertinent as an Yves Klein painting. Furthermore, rather than denying a piece’s original intent, a restaging positions people to rethink a work done at another time.

My notes:

difficulty of disentangling documentation/recreation as promoting historic significance, vs. nostalgic pastiche, vs. commercialism/institutionalization. acknowledgement that there’s no escaping the market. accepting its evils in order to be part of history.

In rereading Goldberg, I would amend my note regarding the evils of the art market. As she indicates, this was the attitude of the conceptual, performance and Earth artists of the 60s and 70s. We think differently today. Whatever distortions that money exerts on art (and it most certainly does, and often), artists need to make money. And I definitely think that documentation and recreation are legitimate expressions of performance art.* As someone who didn’t live through the 60s and 70s but sometimes wishes she did, I’m certainly glad that’s the case.

(I’m particularly interested in photographs of performances or of the making of artworks that become canonical in and of themselves, such as:


3) As the subtitle indicates, the theme of the book, and of the (contemporary) art world in general these days, is “international.”  Most of the curators interviewed are or have curated big international art events, such as biennials (Venice, Istanbul, etc.) and Documenta. There’s one interesting trio of interviews, starting with Okwui Enwezor, whose Documenta XI was focused on the documentary and therefore was largely political. Charles Esche, activist and curator of the 2005 Istanbul Biennial, follows, accusing Enwezor of being too finger-waggingly political, and insisting that the political moment in art has more to do with the personal, the sensuous, the ambiguous and the unstable. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, then curator of the Torino Triennial and now of Documenta (13), in turn accuses Esche of being too political, too theory-driven  and not as focused on the quality of the work. She says she does not believe in acts of resistance, nor in curatorial experimentation, which is no longer radical.

Anyway, this is all to say that the conversation taking place in the contemporary art world regarding both avant-garde art and avant-garde curatorial practice is taking place at and about these huge, international art events–which causes me to despair, as I lack the means to travel to those locations on a regular basis, if at all. I am not sure this is the part of the art world I really want to be involved in, but I lack the ability to even experience it myself and form an educated opinion. I can read about it until the jet-set art collectors come home, but that is not the same.

It is an interesting phenomenon, though, in that whatever problems these events pose in terms of economic or Western privilege (some see them as a way for the Western art world to colonize the developing world), they also start to level the playing field of a contemporary art world that has previously been Western-centric. In this volume, curators from Central America, Russia, Southeast Asia and China all point out that these events are key for maintaining/promoting a local contemporary art identity while engaging in a global dialogue, a necessity in order to be considered sufficiently cosmopolitan, relevant, and salable to an international audience.

This tactic seems to be working, in that interest in artists from the developing world is skyrocketing, particularly when their art comments on their countries’ violent or untenable political situations. I think this interest is fed by: 1) a feeling that important contemporary art must address, not ignore, the crises our world is facing, and 2) the sense that artists from other parts of the world do have something new to add (in terms of content, form and style), to a Western art world that has grown stale and repetitive. This may our best hope for a new avant-garde.

Which again leaves me despairing of my ability to become involved in that world, for as with international art events (which is where such artists tend to show and start to hit it big), I can’t do much more than read about international artists until they start getting U.S. shows.

4) A fun little tidbit to lighten the mood of this very intellectual post: Thea asks a Russian curator: “Why hold the Biennial in Moscow in the winter? Even Napoleon and Hitler couldn’t make it into Moscow in the winter.” That reminded me of this hilarious nugget of comedy gold (0:55-01:15 in particular):

*Amelia Jones sort of argues this in Body Art/Performing the Subjectthough this is somewhat an oversimplification of her argument; see especially pages 36-37.