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Road Songs: Southern California

We arrived in Santa Barbara late in the evening, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eagerness to bask in the sunlight. The night air was chilly for Southern California, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a sweater as we sat outside. We’d left the Midwest in a flurry of suitcases, cold […]

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Santa Barbara by night. Photo by the author.

We arrived in Santa Barbara late in the evening, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eagerness to bask in the sunlight. The night air was chilly for Southern California, but I couldn’t bring myself to put on a sweater as we sat outside. We’d left the Midwest in a flurry of suitcases, cold wind and heavy coats. Santa Barbara smelled nice, like wet rocks, moss, and asphalt. We drove past the ocean when we came in. The sun may as well have been setting.

My boyfriend and I were both wearing free bracelets we got at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska. They read: SKATE A MILLION MILES.

Jean jacket from the National Roller Skating Museum. Photo by the author.

Jean jacket from the National Museum of Roller Skating. Photo by the author.

This strikes me as at once absurd and inspiring. Roller skating’s popularity is surely on the wane, but the sport retains its retro feel (and fashion, short-shorts mixed with figure skating costumes). It is undoubtedly good for your health. The National Museum of Roller Skating is unique – there’s no other museum with that particular focus. It’s like a super-charged magnet for strange and lovely artifacts of the sport sitting at the center of the country, drawing to itself the nation’s stray cowboy boots with wheels and photos of roller skating bears.

Rollerblading was popularized in Southern California in the eighties. Now that my partner and I are here, on site, the silly mantra on our bracelet seems like a challenge to take the eccentric path — a dare to be extreme, and slightly odd, in one’s interests. Why just meander a million miles, when you could glide along instead with flair?

In that sense, driving across the country feels a lot like skating a million miles.

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Recording studio. Photo by the author.

In California, we recorded some music in a studio hidden among warehouses, which also felt absurd and inspiring, like a perfectly apt juxtaposition of creative expression and utility. We walked through a plain numbered door into an expansive space covered with tie-dyed tapestries, blinking Christmas lights, and a painted portrait of Willie Nelson. Odd tchotchkes littered the surfaces; shiny drum sets and twelve-string guitars stretched out before us, tempting as baubles in a storefront window.  At different points in the recording process, we could smell sage burning. Between takes, Amie by Pure Prairie League played softly on the record player.

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Recording studio. Photo by the author.

When we finished recording, we ended up in Los Angeles for several days. The Hammer Museum, nestled in a neighborhood right by the freeway, smelled like Christmas: the lobby was filled with a gingerbread house large enough to house a family of bears. We walked up a few levels and, as soon as I saw a pair of ping-pong tables, I recognized the handiwork of Southern California art collective, Machine Project. I knew the collective’s collaborators, Pop Soda, had recently visited the Midwest, warming the hearts of Minnesotans with Feel the Churn! Despite the welcome warmth of Los Angeles’ sunshine in that open plaza, seeing their work I felt a pang of homesickness for Minneapolis. I could so easily imagine the artists churning milk in the Walker’s Medtronic Gallery, a dreamy spandex-filled vision of butter-making aerobics.

Exercise fads kept coming up in conversation. I heard that Richard Simmons’ Los Angeles studio, Slimmons, was only blocks away from a friend’s home. The chance to see him in all of his short-shorts glory was almost enough to convince us to extend our stay a few days. Now: left, two, three, four. Great!

Highway 1. Photo by the author.

Highway 1. Photo by the author.

But common sense prevailed. And as we drove along the coast of California, we spotted zebras and elephant seals right off of Highway 1. They were as if across the street from each other. Zebras were grazing on the east side of the highway, some of the last remnants of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s menagerie of exotic animals. The elephant seals in Piedras Blancas were slumped like slimy rocks on the beach just opposite, producing low, reverberating honking sounds and desperately flapping themselves with sand to stay cool. Male elephant seals are enormous; they grow and grow their whole lives, a span of about 14 years, at which point they simply cannot eat enough any longer to sustain their five thousand-pound mass. After giving birth to a lifetime’s worth of pups, female elephant seals swim down to Mexico to join something like an elephant seal retirement community. The elderly creatures hang out in Piedras Blancas, before they go their separate ways, migrating solo — the males to Alaska, the females down to Mexico.

In their own way, they end up skating a million miles.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

Monitoring: It Is What It Is!

Todd Balthazor is a satirical, often anthropomorphic illustrator, fine artist, muralist and children’s art instructor from St.Paul, MN, with a BFA in illustration from the College of Visual Arts (CVA).  He has done artist residencies at Jackson Elementary and the St. Paul University Club, and his work has been displayed in venues both locally and abroad, […]

Monitoring

Todd Balthazor is a satirical, often anthropomorphic illustrator, fine artist, muralist and children’s art instructor from St.Paul, MN, with a BFA in illustration from the College of Visual Arts (CVA).  He has done artist residencies at Jackson Elementary and the St. Paul University Club, and his work has been displayed in venues both locally and abroad, including: illustrations in the Altered Esthetics Gallery (Minneapolis), the Walker Art Center blog, and multiple Red Leaf Press publications (St. Paul); visual narratives at the Adugyama Art Exhibition (Ghana, Africa) and the Save the Children Nepal Project (Nepal, India); and murals at an orphanage in Jaurez, Mexico.  Samples of his work can be found at toddbalthazor.com and toddbalthazor.blogspot.com.

Balthazor also works as a guard at the Walker Art Center, and draws on his experiences behind the scenes at the museum in his biweekly comic strip for mnartists.org, It Is What It Is!

Chemistry is David Bowie

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing […]

Nari Ward, Den, 1999

Nari Ward, Den, wood, chain-link fence, metal pole, tacks, rug, wooden furniture legs. 1999

You know how when you’re really into something, you want to tell the world about it? Like that weird old Finnish movie, or that accidental ice cream topping, or that song that makes you want to kick trashcans out of pure lust? That’s how I feel about chemistry. For every person who’s walking around not knowing how great it is, an injustice has been done. And if you can’t imagine why I would possibly get all panty-tossy for chemistry, well then I especially want to talk to you.

This sudden need to evangelize doesn’t come from my spending more time in the lab with test tubes and goggles and Dmitri Mendeleev hair (I wish). It’s nothing so obvious, which is exactly what I’m on about. Rather, I spend my days studying how humans think about science, and my nights (and weekends and dreams) trying to figure out how to get humans to think about science – and it’s not easy. Chemicals don’t shoot their rabid husbands or go around in deer-hunting caps calling people “phonies”.

Or do they? 

I know, I sound like that jam band friend, like, “Just give me nine minutes to play you this track, it’ll be so worth it.” But that’s not my style. Three minutes, that’s my style. Better yet, three posts — give me three blog posts.

Post #1: Chemistry Did it First

Remember when you were young and you didn’t know better, and you heard David Bowie for the first time, and you were like, “This guy sounds like every other rockstar out there, I know where this is going.” But the reason you thought that? That familiar thing you hear in his songs? He did it first. That thing you think you’ve heard a million times already, he invented that. Or, if you’re old enough that you remember the beginning of David Bowie, you may notice that a lot of what he did he stole from Gospel. And a lot of Gospel came from West Africa, and, as Stevie Wonder once said to me, “We all come from Africa, don’t we?”

What I’m saying is chemistry is the mother-loving Fertile Crescent of science. Keep that in mind, because in a second you’re going to tune out when we get into the bit about atoms, and I don’t want that to happen. I want you here with me.

You’ve got the elements, right? The Elements, like on the chart in school. They’re sometimes called “chemical elements,” because that’s exactly what they are:  Each element is a chemical. The elements can combine to make even more chemicals, but alone, each is a chemical. So you know what that means, right? Everything is chemicals. You, me, VHS tapes, Steve Harvey, those aforementioned ice cream toppings – all chemicals. And those chemicals are made up of combinations of atoms, every atom being one of those elements*-  you being made of these elements.

Because there is no atom for You.

 The most basic part of You that can still be recognized as You, that’s your DNA (unless you’ve got identical siblings or clones running around out there that you haven’t told me about, and that would be weird. I thought we were friends). And your DNA? Also chemicals––four, to be specific (plus a slightly different one for RNA). Only when you grab a bunch of atoms from that periodic table, as though from some omnipotent menu, and get those chemical elements to “cooperate”, to join forces and become chemical compounds, and then, as chemical compounds to pair up to complete your DNA – only then do we find something that is You. Full of the you-ness that Michael Crichton could theoretically suck out of an amber-encased mosquito and clone into a park of Yous.

And the same way that atoms turn into to compounds that turn into your DNA? So it is with everything on Earth. Wait, no:  so it is with everything in the observable universe. When they do their thing, when elemental chemicals combine to become some chemical compound or another, that’s a chemical reaction. And when those compounds change from one chemical to another, that’s a chemical reaction, too. That’s how anything, everything happens, ever – from the Big Bang to Beatlemania to the transfer of this information between neurons in your brain right now: it boils down to chemical reactions, one after another, the same atoms rearranging and rearranging (except, kind of, for the ones we’ve chosen to explode from time to time, but that’s a story for another day), on and on forever, amen.

How can you not love that shit?

Let’s listen to it one more time.

*That’s why we call them “elements”, of course:  They are as basic as it gets. Like how earth, wind, fire and water are elements, only, you know, real. Because even Earth, Wind, and Fire are made up of chemicals, atoms of various types (including a whole lotta funk, whatever the chemical equation for that is**).

** Submissions for “Chemical Equation of Funk” are welcome.

Shortlisted: Po-mo for the 1% and the Art of Selling Out

The contemporary art world saw an alarming share of celebrity interlopers the past year. In a must-read conversation with critic Ed Halter, Lauren Cornell of the New Museum attributed it to the expanded art market, one that “lured celebrity interest into its VIP echelons; rappers are reflecting on the canon; pop singers self-identify as individual […]

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Shia LaBeouf ‏@thecampaignbook Jan 10
#stopcreating pic.twitter.com/G1F3G9EITH

The contemporary art world saw an alarming share of celebrity interlopers the past year. In a must-read conversation with critic Ed Halter, Lauren Cornell of the New Museum attributed it to the expanded art market, one that “lured celebrity interest into its VIP echelons; rappers are reflecting on the canon; pop singers self-identify as individual avant-garde movements.”

Now, we all know Jay-Z wants a billion Jeff Koons balloons. Art collecting-as-sport for the rich and famous has only reached greater heights with each economic bubble that burst. It is  “…the most esteemed form of shopping in our culture today,” notes Rhoda Lieberman in the 24th issue of The Baffler. (For a short history of how the 1% commandeered the global art market, read “The 99 Percent and the Value of Art,” Visual Culture Blog.)

But conspicuous consumption does not account for all the recent instances of A-list high art dabbling. After all, 2013 was the year that ended with a Shia LeBeouf. I’ll be damned if that isn’t a readymade term for the public relations death-by-Twitter-bagged-as-online-performance art-piece disaster that it is: Shia LeBeouf (SLBF) offered a skywriting “apology” to Daniel Clowes, the zenith of his justifications for plagiarizing Clowes’ Justin M. Damiano with the short film, HowardCantour.com. SLBF admitted to the copy but claimed that failing to credit Clowes shouldn’t really matter because, you know, nothing is really original and Marcel Duchamp and stuff. (So it’s like fan fiction? Yes – and also plagiarism. Right.) A misguided interpretation ill applied to be sure, but more important is that a celebrity this daft even tried to play this card. It speaks to just how secondhand post-modern thought has become. By way of (as it happens, also plagiarized) apologies, SLBF is getting “meta” as validation for his backhanded fan fiction of an artist whose forte is steeped in modernist precepts.

It almost feels too obvious at this point to mention Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP a caricature of modernism declared to be an “#epicfail” across the board. But still, Gaga successfully attached herself to Marina Abramoviç, herself a transgressor queen – albeit one who, all too eager to oblige such as Gaga, may herself go down in history as the last of what we now know as a “sell-out”. For as mainstream culture veers toward an ad man’s understanding of avant-garde, “selling out” is emerging as a medium in itself. Yet Abramoviç’s use is more like what Ed Halter, in the aforementioned article, calls Pop Art in reverse: “using ‘art’ as content and spreading it through contemporary forms of mass media” — i.e. traditional methods of marketing pop culture to the mass public. Perhaps Abramoviç confessed as much in The Artist Is Present, the documentary film about her show at the MoMA that, through image shares and Tumblrs galore, ushered her name into ordinary dinner table conversations:

Performance has never been a regular form of art – it’s been “alternative” since I was born. I want it to be a real form of art before I die. Excuse me, I’m 63 – I don’t want to be alternative anymore.

Safe to say, Abramoviç succeeded in that goal. Whether the distinction is generational or just part of a trajectory we are now accustomed to (an artist can only become a sell-out, and not the other way around), contrary to all this are young artists of the net-art world, such as Ryder Ripps and Brad Troemel, who incorporate and embrace branded culture as simply given, like nature. “In an online milieu where everyone markets themselves, net artists have made selling out its own medium” — so reads the pull-quote in Whitney Mallett’s “Personal Ads”The New Inquiry.

In fact, the teens interviewed for Frontline’s documentary, “Generation Like,” don’t even know what the notion of “selling out” means. When asked, they offered literal definitions for what it might refer to – like, a sold-out show, or a store running out of something. For them, crowd-sourced visual currency and content generated by corporations are more like raw materials. There is no “us versus them” distinction. At the same time, inadvertent performative acts by celebrities are fulfilling the terms we’ve historically called for to substantiate art. Jerry Saltz essentially introduced memes to the canon when he said:

Probably only an art-worlder like me could assign deeper meaning to something as simple and silly as Tebowing. But, to us, anytime people repeat a stance or a little dance, alone or together, we see that it can mean something. Imagistic and unspoken language is our thing.

I’d like to take this opportunity to nominate Riccing for special consideration. You don’t get more conceptually sound than selfies of skinny celebrities in empty refrigerators.  

The Columnest: Life Seen Through Others’ Lenses

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. […]

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad, Minneapolis, MN, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Carp and Crawdad: Minneapolis, MN, 2014. All photos courtesy of the artist.

I got a new phone the other day. Immediately I downloaded all the social media apps. I had fantasies of five-minute daily projects which would make me relaxed, creative, and popular: a daily tweet from my reading, a daily couplet with a well-chosen weather pic, a daily anagram of the top New York Times headline. My fantasies foundered rapidly, but not before I took a few photos (something I rarely do) and uploaded one to Instagram. (What is Instagram, anyway? What’s with these streams of images? What do they tell us?)

I suppose the appeal of photos taken by ordinary people is that we can look through each other’s eyes. You live on the Isle of Skye, I live in North Carolina; you’re a professional ballerina or a hobby farmer or a stunt pilot, while I am a yoga teacher or a mother of three or a chocolatier; you’re black and I’m white, or you’re seventeen and I’m seventy. In short, you’re not ordinary, and neither am I.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Nahom and Cat: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

But this inherent diversity is undercut by the uniformity of our cameras and by their built-in filters (edge blur, vintage — and what’s this 1977 one do?), and by another filter: our shared sense of what makes for a good photo now. Conditions of weather and light, food in erotic soft focus, animals, babies; people seen from a lover’s angle; scenery framed so it seems already inside.

Like the rest of the wired world, photographer and poet Jeffrey Skemp is posting photos. His, though, go up on his blog in a brief series, remain available for ten days or so, and then disappear. Think of it as a show in an alley, the photos leaning casually against unfinished brick; his presentation has the same casual and fleeting quality.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter's Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Winter’s Hammock: Johns Coulee, WI, 2014.

I can’t pretend to objectivity here. I know Jeffrey; in fact, he took the author photo for my last book. And even if I could, what can I say about photographs? I’m no expert on their technique. All I can tell you is that these images look real and deliberate. Skemp photographs, in his first series, in a few locales (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Addis Ababa), and, though he sometimes gets “lucky” (a perfect reflection, a graceful shadow), more often, he tracks his subject with the patience and sincerity of a portraitist. He looks directly at whatever he’s interested in, and usually it looks back. When Skemp can’t get at what he wants to photograph—when he spies a moose head stuck to the wall in a museum basement, with vitrines and cabinets blocking his path to it—that frustrated communication becomes part of the image. Lovely, many of these images are, but the women he photographs are people before they are beautiful. The animals are beings. The “scenes” are alive too; the inanimate material objects and the immaterial artifacts of vision—an elegantly tall light pole or the reflection of a trash can in glass, the plastic bag creasing, pleating, puckering—have souls.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Jeffrey Skemp, Hanna: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2014.

Skemp puts me in mind of a puzzle I’ve been reading about lately, the puzzle of Leibniz’s monad, which is an atom or a person or a thing, whatever can be singular, and which is the only reality, yet which only reflects the passing unrealities (whatever they are). Never mind — it’s complex and I don’t understand it. What I do understand is that this idea upturns our sense of what is real and what is autonomous, and Skemp’s photos do that, too. They redistribute life.

Now I’m thinking again about that 1977 filter. Oh, the old days of photographs! Remember the slide projector? Two or three weeks after a family vacation, we’d set up the screen, turn out the lights, and revisit our trip in pictures that were surprising because we had never seen them before—and by that piece of obviousness, I mean that we lived our trip in the usual four dimensions, through human eyes, and these were flat, still images. Moreover, these images seemed to come from the vantage of an additional traveler, from an eye that had seen the mountain as smaller than we all remembered, or had gazed on the waterfall until it blurred to a white fuzz, or had caught my mother looking absolutely beautiful and completely unlike herself (and she was beautiful—but none of us had ever seen that particular expression cross her face). That other traveler’s trace is as eerie, now that I think back on it, as any “angel” outlined in a cloud or a spray of light.

Last week, I wandered around the bend of a trail in a local park, and there, not a hundred feet from the parking lot, was a family cemetery. Two stones identified “Father and Mother” and “Sister,” the last buried in 1929; a half-dozen or so broken and blank stones stood for the broken and blank relations below. I stood a moment in my quandary: how to pay attention to these sudden long-dead. Then I snapped a picture—to share it with you, I suppose, once I figure out the right filter.

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Photo: Lightsey Darst

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

Road Songs: Dannebrog, Nebraska

Past fields, strip malls, and rotting pumpkins, we fought white-knuckled against the wind to arrive in Dannebrog, Nebraska on a Thursday. Founded in the nineteenth century by Danish farmers who lovingly named the village after the Danish flag, this is a place with personal resonance. Some of those frontier Nebraska Danes were my great-great grandparents, […]

A photograph of Dannebrog's orchestra leader

A photograph of Dannebrog’s orchestra leader from K’s Korner in Dannebrog, Nebraska.

Past fields, strip malls, and rotting pumpkins, we fought white-knuckled against the wind to arrive in Dannebrog, Nebraska on a Thursday. Founded in the nineteenth century by Danish farmers who lovingly named the village after the Danish flag, this is a place with personal resonance. Some of those frontier Nebraska Danes were my great-great grandparents, the Ericksens. My great-grandmother departed from her village with a carpetbag to become a maid in San Francisco. Just as Marie Ericksen left the familiar, Danish-speaking, environs of the Midwest for the big city as a teenager, I left California at age 17 for Minnesota.

I’ve long felt I should visit, but I never really thought that I’d actually make it here to Nebraska.

Photo of the Danish flag, in Langeland, by higgledy-piggledy. Courtesy of flickr.

Photo of the Danish flag, in Langeland, by higgledy-piggledy on Flickr.

Built by homesteaders willing to brave the elements and the dangers of quiet isolation, Dannebrog has held steady at a population of about 300 folks since 1871. Fewer and fewer people are around to throw the annual Danish summer parade, Grundlovsfest; everyone has to work these days, most in larger, nearby cities.

The winds were howling through town when we arrived, rolling empty garbage bins across the streets. K’s Korner downtown, a purple and blue establishment, drew first our eyes and then our feet. The space is filled with early photographs of the Danish Brotherhood and Sisterhood, unfortunate creek floods, farmers putting together homes and raising enormous families, piles of snow, and lonely prairies.

The author in the town center of Dannebrog, holding kolaches from the Danish Baker's.

The author in the town center of Dannebrog, holding kolaches from The Danish Baker. Photo by James Jannicelli.

We were told by K’s shopkeep and namesake that she gets a couple of people like us every year, intrigued by a whisper of a Danish settlement in the middle of the country, eager to look up long-lost ancestors from the old country. She brought out two binders of newspaper clippings and photographs from times past. After perusing these remnants, learning of local lunatics and antiquated laws, we were then pointed towards The Danish Baker at the end of the street and encouraged to have him sing us a song.

When asked, the bakery proprietor was indeed willing to serenade us – he played two original tunes on a guitar he keeps near at hand, stowed behind the counter. The first was a confessional song, tender and written for his wife of 36 years. When he finished, we thanked him and introduced ourselves as fellow musicians, a traveling band of sorts, and ended up reciprocating his hospitality by playing him some songs of our own. We had three captive audience members, bakery regulars who’d come for the unlimited coffees while eagerly awaiting Thursday’s pizza night. They requested some Everly Brothers, but we settled on Peter, Paul and Mary. Our host told us about a time the Danish Baker sold 206 pies in one night on a Thursday evening several summers ago —  enough to feed the whole town and then some.

Hat from the Danish Baker of Dannebrog, Nebraska.

Hat from the Danish Baker of Dannebrog, Nebraska. Photo by author.

Small town pride is thriving in this Danish town. “I’m too old for those big cities,” one man told me. The baker relayed to us the story of a Harry Chapin song: a musically inclined launderer sings beautifully in his shop every day­, then leaves for the big city to sing on the stage, only to have his dream ruined. He returns to his shop never to sing again. It sounds to us like a cautionary tale about cashing in on one’s dreams only to reap sadness, the profound risk of reaching for the moon only to fall among the stars.

We left Dannebrog against the wind and with no time to visit the town’s cemetery, likely filled with long-forgotten family.

Dannebrog Street

Dannebrog Street. Photo by author.

Driving back to the freeway, we passed through Cairo, Nebraska (pronounced Care-o), one small town over from Dannebrog. We found out later, this is where my boyfriend’s Greek grandfather grew up farming sugar beets. We heard that, every summer, as a young man he attended the Danish parade in Dannebrog.

I’m not sure what it means, but that feels like some sort of full circle.

California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson.

Known Unknowns and Steffani Jemison’s Stroke

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question […]

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Steffani Jemison, Stroke. Slide courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Let’s consider both ends in the spectrum of possible exhibition designs. One day, you walk into a gallery and the wall texts include quotations from the artist, the curator, as well as scholars and poets responding to the work. These texts offer details and explain the nuances of the art in anticipation of any question that might arise. On another afternoon, you walk into a different gallery where you notice no texts or accompanying information for the work on view. Even the artist is unnamed; the gallery and the exhibition are both called Untitled. The entire experience is undefined and open to interpretation.

Engaging with each of these extremes, Steffani Jemison’s current exhibition, Stroke, at The Bindery Projects in St. Paul teeters back and forth between the devoid and the didactic. Recently split into two rooms, the Bindery Projects now offers artists the opportunity to exhibit separate, complementary experiences. On one side of Stroke are ten sheets of acetate hung at various heights, some of them spilling onto the floor. Starting with two linear, coarse brushstrokes on acetate, Jemison imprints the strokes onto paper, scans the image to manipulate the original marks, and then prints the new paired composition onto fresh acetate. The placement of the sheets feels hurried, the marks random — but of course they are not. This is a thoughtful presentation of disjunction and cohesion: the coupled marks mutate from one to another with uniform novelty, while the sheets themselves bind the walls to the ground.

Jemison exhibits her work’s process, not its foundation. Indeed, Stroke interrogates the very meaning of ‘foundation.’ Rather than giving precedence to the origin, Jemison uses her sources, here brushstrokes on acetate, as tools for their own manipulation. Gallery co-founder Nate Young regards these sheets as Jemison’s “formal investigations of a mark. She locates, and moves past.”

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view of Stroke at the Bindery Projects. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the gallery

For the other gallery room Jemison has installed a set of projectors that alternately display a series of hand-made 35mm slides on which she has printed marks similar to those in the other room, as well as segments of sentences pulled from unattributed works of street fiction. To alleviate the typically severe transitions between images projected in sequence, Jemison has included a third machine, a “dissolve unit” that blends the slides with moments of darkness. As a result, the time between slides, in effect, becomes another image to take in, drawing us both to the adjacent pieces and to the sequence as a whole. Jemison accentuates this equity of attention by deliberately omitting specific references to her source-material. The darkness between the slides reminds me of what I’m not allowed to know.

Installation view. Photo: Nathaniel Young

Installation view. Photo: Nate Young, courtesy of the Bindery Projects

Jemison has a second show, currently on view at Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), which is both a complement and a foil to her work at the Bindery Projects. Her roving library at JXTA, Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet, embraces and makes transparent its own history through a rigorously annotated collection of periodicals emerging from the Black diaspora prior to 1950.

In combination, both exhibitions force us, as viewers, to examine the impulse to ascribe value based on such contextual information, and to consider with fresh eyes its (ir)relevance to the process of understanding a work of art.

In a recent interview for this article, Jemison explained that she uses “minimal materials to make the questions more explicit.” In fact, she has little interest in answers, instead using her body of work to question “how we characterize the artist’s production of knowledge.”

In Stroke, like a magician refusing to reveal her secrets Jemison has made her unique knowledge of the works’ origin stories at once central and irrelevant by announcing its inaccessibility to the viewer. With the slide-presentation, for example, Jemison does not claim the words as her own, but she has taken them. She knows the titles of the books, their authors and surrounding stories; the work becomes her vessel for privileged, unmoored information. We are not allowed to know where Stroke came from, or where it’s going, but we always know exactly where it is.

Exhibition information:

Stroke is on view at the Bindery Projects until this Friday, January 31. For gallery hours and details about the show, please visit their website.

Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet also closes this Friday. Visit’s JXTA’s website for information about their new studios and educational programming.

Nathan Young – no relation to the Bindery Projects’ cofounder Nate Young –  is currently working on his M.A. at the University of Chicago, exploring the significance of Nástio Mosquito’s recent video-installations, which you can see at the Walker Art Center’s exhibition 9 Artists, open through Valentine’s Day.

The Columnest: Uncomfortable in the Best of All Possible Worlds

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004? It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put […]

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Adam Simpson, This Must Be the Best of All Possible Worlds. Exhibited at Circus Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Wait a minute: Did I, a few weeks ago, really compare experiencing postmodern art to drowning in the Asian tsunami of 2004?

It’s a sickening thought—which I have been twisting in for days. But did I? Not as such: I put the two together under the heading of being “swept away”—and I meant to put the one very far from the other, to say that “swept away” might mean one thing to the American intellectual and quite another to someone with first-hand experience of such a sweeping. However, I have to admit that is still a comparison, a metaphor, and it brings out the perennial question: Can we really understand anything beyond our own experience?

I have just looked up the casualties from the tsunami and, no, I have to think 230,000 dead is beyond most imagining, loss on a scale incomprehensible to any but god. But that’s not the point either, exactly. Any one victim or survivor perceived only a piece of that. I want to say yes—because that is what this whole project of language is about, after all. We speak to each other, knowing that heart and home and loss are all relative, and yet feeling that we can be together in those words.

And yet, this assumption that we do speak to each other—you know that’s not completely true. Across some divides people don’t talk, or talk only in a partial way, without expectation of understanding. This has been brought home to me recently by the kerfuffle around Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen’s use of black bodies, by comments from outspoken women of color on my Facebook feed, and by the conversation surrounding #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen: There are moments when I should not try to envelope another person’s experience in my own, when I should not imagine I can understand. There are moments to be uncomfortable, and moments to be silent.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

Copper engraving of the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

The other week, when I said I felt I was riding a raveling edge, I meant that I’m aware of my wonderful luck in comparison to most of the human animals who have ever lived—aware, and maybe afraid. I think of all the people who have been completely unaware of that edge until they fell off it. I think of Lisbon: on October 31, 1755, one of the largest and most splendid cities in Europe, and the next day almost completely destroyed by an earthquake, a tenth to a fifth of its population dead.

Perhaps I’m thinking of Lisbon because I often, writing these columns, feel like a twenty-first century feminist Pangloss, sending you off with a chirpy utterance about how everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds—and Lisbon is the scene for part of Voltaire’s wicked satire. Now, in tenth grade European history, we found Pangloss’s optimism as ridiculous as it was meant to be, set amid disaster and cruelty, rape, torture, disease, and summary execution. But we were not so aware of our own optimism, the optimism of our culture.

I have been thinking, lately, about closure, what we recognize as closure, and thinking about how a satisfactory ending is likely culturally bound. What is a well-educated white woman’s sense of closure? I skimmed a book of poetry the other day, noting how every poem ended with a solemn line, a Saxon word, a quiet image. And I felt sick of it all. If I know the ending already, how can the poem be anything new? A vase of flowers—or anything, really—in a cracked window, lit by twilight? Forget it! You know this small town like the back of your hand. Short fiction is as bad. If the story ends with Jamey leaving in her beat-up Subaru or pick-up, whether or not she waves on her way out (a difference the writer sweated over), just stop. You’ve been here before. And in the personal essay—this form, in short—you can expect all the disparate threads to turn out to be part of some grand design.

Where, then, can we go? Gentle reader, I don’t know.

Lightsey Darst writes, dances, writes about dance and other arts, and teaches. Her books are Find the Girl and the new collection, DANCE (both Coffee House Press). Her poetic work appears in Typo, Spork, and Diagram. Her criticism is online at mnartists.org, The Huffington Post, and Bookslut.

It’s Time for a Monster Drawing Rally (Again)

Midway Contemporary Art’s Monster Drawing Rally, the popular annual fundraiser/community event/spectacle is back for a sixth year.  This year the event returns to the Grain Belt Bottling House on Saturday, January 18th  from 6-8.  The Monster Drawing Rally gives local artists the opportunity to support the programming at Midway Contemporary Art while simultaneously gaining exposure within the community. The artists work in […]

MDR6-1

Midway Contemporary Art’s Monster Drawing Rally, the popular annual fundraiser/community event/spectacle is back for a sixth year.  This year the event returns to the Grain Belt Bottling House on Saturday, January 18th  from 6-8.  The Monster Drawing Rally gives local artists the opportunity to support the programming at Midway Contemporary Art while simultaneously gaining exposure within the community. The artists work in  three one-hour rounds beginning at 6pm, 7pm and 8pm. Each of the completed drawings is available for sale as soon as it hits the wall (first come/ first serve) for a flat price of $35.  The casual atmosphere lets visitors watch the art making process while keeping a close eye on the walls filled with finished drawings available for purchase. Even if you are not in the market for art, its still an unique opportunity to interact and watch local artists at work. And as always, admission is free.

By now most of you know the format, but for any first-time Monster Drawing Rally attendees here are some tips to make your evening a success.

1. There are three one-hour rounds with approximately 30 or so local artists drawing for each shift.

2. This is a rare opportunity to watch and interact with an artist as they are working. I have personally participated as an artist ever year of the event, I can say it is an interesting experience from the other side of the table as well. No hiding your miscues with an attentive audience and there is a wonderful satisfaction is a meeting someone that has excitedly purchased one of your drawings.

3. All the work is a flat fee of $35. However, drawings may not be purchased, claimed, or snatched prior to hitting the wall. Conflicts or ties for purchasing a work will be resolved by drawing cards. Fighting, hoarding, hovering, or any other bad collector behavior will be sternly frowned upon.

4. At $35 you WILL find something you want to buy.

5. When you purchase the piece you will also get the contact information for the artist. If you don’t get a chance to meet them or talk to them at the event…contact them and let them know you bought their work. Artist love to meet people who  invested in their work….we really do.

6. This is one of the most community driven and art centered fundraisers in the city and one of the most popular.  This is also an event the rewards people that show up early and stay throughout…so plan accordingly.

7. Its a lot of fun.

Monster Drawing Rally

Here is the full list of participating artists and their websites so you can do some pre-rally scouting.
Brendan Dawson
Mark Fisher
Miles Mendenhall
Melba Price
Bruce Tapola

Drawing rounds begin at 6, 7, and 8pm
Admission is free
Drawings are $35
Cash bar / Potter’s Pasties & Pies Food Truck
All proceeds benefit Midway’s 2014 programming

Sponsored by:

          

                    

mnartists’ Most-Read Blog Posts of 2013 (Spoiler Alert: Cats are Hard to Beat)

This year, here on the blog we beefed up our local arts coverage, but we also worked  to widen the scope of our stories at the same time and include sharp writing on timely national and international cultural conversations as well. To that end, there are a number of new columns around here, lots of linky […]

This year, here on the blog we beefed up our local arts coverage, but we also worked  to widen the scope of our stories at the same time and include sharp writing on timely national and international cultural conversations as well. To that end, there are a number of new columns around here, lots of linky mini-essays and discipline-mixing topical series penned by writers and artists from here and around the country — on art and science, music, dance, books, film, visual art, pop culture memes and fashion. All that, and we’ve got a clever comic strip, too.

I’m gratified to see that our most-read blog posts of 2013 mirror those evolutions and cross-pollinations: your clicks offer welcome evidence that there really is an audience eager for substantive regional arts writing.

So, before we dive into 2014, a list of our most-read blog posts from the year just gone by:

People of the Internet Still Really Like Cats: No question, our coverage of #catvidfest and its related hoo-ha was tops with readers in 2013, dominating our tally of most-read blog posts yet again. Thousands around the world responded, both to nominate and to watch contenders for this year’s Golden Kitty Award. We offered “15 Reasons to Attend a Cat Video Festival” and “10 Questions for #catvidfest Host Julie Klausner“, and readers pounced on the posts  like catnip; they also clicked through in droves to help Koo Koo Kanga Roo select the album art for their cats-themed record.

From Todd Balthazor's strip, "Pollock Theory"

From “Pollock Theory” by Todd Balthazor

Todd Balthazor’s comic for mnartists, It Is What It Is!, really hit its stride this year. His behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum strip has not only hit a sweet spot for our readers, it has earned him national notice as well. He was profiled in both the New York Times and the December 2013 issue of ARTnews magazine for his mnartists blog comic — we couldn’t be prouder.

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

Katharina Fritsch, Gehirn (Brain). Plaster, paint. 1987/1989

Art and Science: Maggie Ryan Sandford’s art and science posts have been as winsome and engaging as they are erudite, and so it does our hearts good to see readers find her. Two of her posts were among our most-read stories:

“Art and the Right Brain Fallacy”

“The Fibonacci Sequence: Life Imitates Math Imitates Art”

Words woldrs woroid, Ute Bertog, 2011.

Ute Bertog, Words woldrs woroid, 2011.

Painters on Painting: Jehra Patrick’s posts on local artists picked up lots of clicks last year, particularly her coverage of painters.

“10 Artists to Watch in 2013”

“5 Artists Expanding the (Painting) Field, from the Midwest”

“Trouble in Paradise: A Conversation with Painter Melissa Loop”

“On ‘Painting in the Present Tense’”: Speaking of painting, artist and professor David Lefkowitz’s post for mnartists’ blog, in response to a particularly lively artist talk for the Walker exhibition, Painter Painter, also made our most-read list.

Mini-Golf, ArtPrize and Eyeo:

“ArtPrize Pitch Night Cheat Sheet” : On the mnartists/Walker collaboration with Grand Rapids’ annual art competition and cultural spectacle, and a local “pitch night” for a contest to encourage more Minnesota artists to participate in ArtPrize.

“Introducing the Artists and Teams of Mini Golf 2013”: Another mnartists/Walker collaboration, Artist-Designed Mini Golf, continued apace with summertime duffers in the Sculpture Garden and blog readers alike.

“5 Takeaways from Eyeo 2013”: Jehra Patrick’s rundown on new media arts and culture trends from last year’s Eyeo new media arts festival.

More from our most-read blog posts of 2013:

The Joffrey Ballet’s recent Rite of Spring: No Riots but Some Head-Scratching“: Camille LeFevre’s review of Northrop Dance’s presentation of the famed Chicago company’s performance of the historic work

Daft Punk: Need More RAM!” Tom Loftus’ charming post in anticipation of the robot duo’s buzzed-about LP from last year, Random Access Memories, and what would prove to be 2013’s official song of the summer, that album’s hit single, “Get Lucky”.

Crispin Glover’s Latest Flick: Are You Really Sure It Is Fine?” At an early June event in Duluth, Kat Mandeville walked out of a screening of Crispin Glover’s latest film, It is Fine! EVERYTHING IS FINE! Outraged as much by the fact of the film’s screening as she was its provocative content, she wrote a letter in response and sent it around to me at mnartists.org. I reprinted her missive, and wrote a bit about the film, her letter, and the critical conversations prompted by both.

From Vice to Africa to Duluth, the Places of Photographer Brad Ogbonna“: A profile of a young St. Paul-to-New York City transplant rediscovering his Nigerian roots in a new project he’s working on with DIESEL + EDUN 

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