Blogs Untitled (Blog) Bartholomew Ryan

Bartholomew Ryan is assistant curator in the visual arts department of the Walker Art Center

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Natascha Sadr Haghighian

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Natascha Sar Haghighian de paso courtesty the artist andJohann König Gallery, Berlin.

Natascha Sar Haghighian, de paso, 2011. Photo: courtesy the artist and Johann König Gallery, Berlin.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the second installment of this 10-part journey.

V. I Can’t Work Like This

In 2004 Natascha Sadr Haghighian created bioswop.net, a website for the free exchange of résumés and biographies. She described the project as arising from a gut reaction the first time she was asked to send a CV for inclusion in a catalogue. The CV acts as a legitimizing filter, conferring status within an art-world economy. For Haghighian, it simplifies, distorts, and excludes the complexity of contemporary practice, the means with which artists make their decisions, the range of collaborations, and the networks they develop. It also has a tendency to situate artists in terms of points of origin, nation- ality, ethnicity, etc., which is all very well if you can play a part in what that might mean, but in an art world and institutional culture obsessed with proving its global credentials, artists can often be instrumentalized for their points of difference along lines of geography and ethnicity, rather than mediated for their work in which these factors may or may not play a strong role. In a 2007 interview with curator Max Andrews, Haghighian describes the origins of bioswop.net. It’s worth quoting at length:

The idea for exchanging artist’s biographies which bioswop is based on originated from my multiple attempts to play with the conventional formats of art catalogues. If you want to study the mechanisms of representation, catalogues are a good thing to start with. Actually there is almost nothing about an art catalogue that I don’t find funny. More than anything else it shows that there is a great doubt about the value and necessity of art in general but also about every single artwork. So its foremost purpose seems to be validation and valuation. First it usually starts with a text by a specialist who is appointed by the art world to validate meaning and quality. Then it continues with presenting the artwork mostly in an iconic, fetishist, absolute fashion in order to make it impassible. Lastly it ends with the artist’s biography which localizes the imagery that one just saw in places of appointed significance. It proves the artist’s acknowledgement by the art world and helps evaluating his or her importance and relevance. In my eyes this format is the result of sheer paranoia and lack of confidence. But more importantly it is mostly just not interesting…. So starting the website bioswop.net first of all had practical motivations. As it is tiresome and time consuming to come up with new bios all the time I wanted to have a place where I could just go and click on something. But secondly I thought that it might be an interesting practice to share with more people. Maybe it would become a new movement. People exchanging, borrowing bios just like anything else that you get tired of.1

Haghighian’s desire to study the “mechanisms of representation” is also a desire to evade them, or at least to disjoint the easy flow of prescribed information, the ready formats with which the institution of art ascribes and maintains value, and the ideological currents, albeit shifting, that underpin this. At this point the artist is still generally introduced by way of bios constructed or shared from bioswop.net. However, in an art world conditioned by strategic placement and positioning, the gesture itself can become shorthand leading to and identifying the particular strategies of the artist. Her calling card as it were: something that situates her within the discourse, a gesture absorbed like most others into the ongoing building of cultural capital.

Yet, as Haghighian points out in her contribution to this publication (page 4), even in the years since 2004, the artist CV has become an increasingly archaic tool, with less and less utility in light of the expansion of the World Wide Web and its associated social networking and search capabilities. Now an artist, dealer, critic, curator, or the rare art historian who might attempt such a thing is much more likely to simply Google an artist’s name than to request or even search for an online résumé. There they will find a much more satisfyingly colorful portrait of their object of study by way of Facebook pictures, artist statements, interviews, YouTube records of lectures, scrappy reviews, or in-depth features.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian  Solo Show, 2008  sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer.  Format variable

Natascha Sadr Haghighian Solo Show, 2008 sound installation, mixed media, publication, in collaboration with Uwe Schwarzer. Format variable.

In her text, Haghighian describes her surprise when a friend e-mails her a link to the website ArtFacts.Net, which collects data on artists and posts it online, creating a basic metric of success based on institutional affiliations, and ranking the artists accordingly for the elucidation of bottom-line cautious collectors. Despite the fact that the algorithms and data-collecting bots deployed by the website have miscategorized her biography based on data that she herself inserted into circulation, she is disturbed by the website’s assumption that it has the right to undermine her own artistic project, and also to present her within such a narrow metric. Yet, despite an initial attempt to have the information removed, Haghighian comes to the conclusion that to fight the cloud is as futile as Don Quixote tilting at the windmill. Instead, she embarks on a meditation about the shifting sands of identification within a world where the body and the subject are becoming ever more imbricated within that cloud. She takes up the call of Hito Steyerl and others to identify with the object, rather than the subject, exploring the possibilities for a renewed form of agency within this approach, one that acknowledges the power of market forces to manipulate how we are formed and subjugated as subjects, by way of commodities that act as portals to this or that lifestyle and construction of one’s sense of self.2

She thus identifies with the object of the graph, which on ArtFacts indicates her rising and falling fortunes as an artist since 2006. She converses with it, animating it through her address, so that ultimately it is decoupled from its narrow function and can be seen, at least provisionally, as an entity participating in a conversation. In a sense, what happens with this approach is that she subjectivizes the object (an interesting reversal on the objectification of the subject). The reader becomes aware of the curve as something with agency, and then can meditate on its enslavement by ArtFacts, see the structures that contain it, and embargo its freedom. After all, perhaps it is just as unhappy with the situation as Haghighian? Perhaps it would rather redefine the metrics of its own rise and fall along more intuitive lines in dialogue with the artist. Rather than go down in the months where the artist does not exhibit, why not go down when she has a cold? Or conversely, rather than go up because of an exhibition at the Walker, why not go up when she is reading a pleasant romance novel on a breezy afternoon in Berlin? She and the curve enter into a complicity that, even if only provisionally, sidesteps the narrow intentions of its owners and consumers, emancipating it through a kind of perspectival displacement.

Haghighian further problematizes and explores these questions in her text, so I will dispense with my summary here. What’s important to hold onto is the contextual and shifting means with which the artist engages the world and her place within it, whether through videos, online projects, texts, installations, or designed events. Haghighian is known for her site-specific projects, or investigations of the format with which she is invited to participate, often highly collaborative engagements with other writers, makers, and thinkers whose ideas influence her and whom she in turn influences. It’s a shifting practice, certainly associated with the history of Institutional Critique for the way in which it can subvert, upturn, and point out the workings and inherent ideologies of institutional processes. In my first conversation with the artist, she mentioned that her New Year’s resolution might be to stop being reactive in relation to a prospective project, to be able to accept the terms and then proactively pursue her own interests within it (as many artists do). Yet often she feels like that very pursuit is inevitably closed down by the way in which the invitation demands her participation with it: that the structures of inclusion or exclusion are such that she has no choice but to deal with them first. Nevertheless, rather than adopt arch positions that situate her in the role of heroic and enlightened outsider, she, like every artist in this show to greater or lesser degrees, navigates her involvement with a sense of the complicity with power dynamics that is inevitably associated with participation within an art industry, or any industry for that matter.

For example, when invited by her gallerist in Berlin, Johann König, to contribute a work for an art fair, she ultimately agreed (it remains the only work she has produced for this purpose), and after a month of being in a bad mood submitted the piece, an installation constructed out of nails hammered to a wall in such a way that the negative space spelled out the declaration “I can’t work like this …”(PLATE 35).3 The piece had a conceptual richness, deploying the same material of construction that is used to mount art fair displays, an economy of means that also draws attention to the most proletarian signals of labor itself (hammer and nails). It is perhaps unsurprising, given the universality of the sentiment and the clarity of the final piece as an “object” (i.e., collectible item), that this work might be termed Haghighian’s most successful to date (following the metrics of success that ArtFacts would enjoy). That is: it is featured on the gallery website as the introductory work to her oeuvre, and was snapped up by collections, including that of the Guggenheim Museum.

Natascha Sadr Haghighian's I can't work like this

Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s I can’t work like this, 2007

To give another example of Haghighian’s way of working, she was on her way to the Sharjah Biennial and met Uwe Schwarzer of mixedmedia Berlin, a company that helps with the manufacturing and development of artworks.4 She befriended Schwarzer and visited his Berlin factory, scene to the production of countless artists’ works in different styles bound for various art fairs, biennials, and gallery exhibitions. While Haghighian rarely works with assistants, she doesn’t dismiss anything that fails to arise from the artist’s hand. Nevertheless, she was curious about Schwarzer’s dis- avowal of his own contribution (or that of his staffs) to the authorship of the works, his claims to be following the personal style of a given artist to the letter, despite the obvious occasions where he would need to intuit or interpret what such a personal style might mean. She wished to look into these questions further, but Schwarzer was understandably reluctant to have her document the inner workings of the company, given the discretion with which he must often proceed. Haghighian and Schwarzer devised a foil with which they could continue their investigations, namely the fictitious artist Robbie Williams, whose debut exhibition would be composed of works produced by mixedmedia Berlin. They settled on the name because, as Haghighian relates, people would generally be satisfied not to ask too many questions so long as she clarified “the artist, not the singer.” She expanded:

The name also carries the connotations of the glamour and tragedy of a solo career. And that is an important aspect of the Solo Show project. It is about the construction of the “solo” artist, whose name floats above the Tate Modern in big bold letters. But actually he relies on a huge team of people, specialists, technicians, architects, assistants, engineers, management staff, etc. At best, their names will be listed in the imprint of the catalogue. But the public is fed the intact image of a singular individual whose extraordinary talents or whatever have enabled his works to float so boldly above the Tate Modern. There is a discrepancy, a distortion of the actual relationships in the art scene that is increasingly veering towards a mega-event culture. So we needed an icon to engage in iconoclasm. And “Robbie” took the job.5

Robbie did a really good job; his exhibition Solo Show opened at MAMbo in Bologna in 2008.6 The white cube exhibition had two entrances; in one was a series of five sculptures that took show-jumping fences as their inspiration—they were made in a number of styles with a host of materials that acted virtually as quotations of contemporary sculpture. For example, one was composed entirely of televisions, another of fabric folds, and a third of a birdhouse platform with ensconced dragstyle wigs. A Frieze review at the time described it as “looking like weird hybrid mockups for artists such as John Armleder, Monica Bonivinvi, and Liam Gillick.” 7 The mixed-media installation certainly mined the history of postmodern sculpture, from contemporary pop culture–inspired assemblage works to media-based installations and feminist craft-based reclamations. The gallery included the title of the show and Robbie’s name. In the next gallery, a series of elegant speakers were hung in the round with a looped surround sound of a horse galloping and jumping. Here a vinyl text listed the names, without hierarchy, of some fifty individuals who had contributed to the project, including Haghighian and Schwarzer.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the reviews of the exhibition concentrated on the structural conceit of its instantiation rather than the material and conceptual properties of the exhibition itself. What would it have meant to review it on face value, to tease out the relationship between the horse and the sculptures, the delicate and perceptive play of the materials, the deliberate vulnerability displayed by the artist(s) in making such an over-determined relationship between the objects and the jump- ing horse? Is the horse the figure of the artist, on show for the pleasure of its owners who move from vernissage to vernissage following the upward and downward curve of its motion, waiting for the next horse to take its place? Is the horse a stand- in for the career of Robbie Williams? (The singer, not the artist.)

Perhaps it is obvious that we are not trained to consider the decisions of a collective as deserving of such consideration (the group of individuals who authored this collaborative work). At the same time, there is a sensibility to the project that belies any idea of a one-liner. Why not collectivize under a name and produce for a market? Is it because you are doomed to simply imitate the production of a more singular voice? Or isn’t it true that without the parameters of imitation of this particular structure, the collective might be capable of something far more radical?

 

1Max Andrews, Uovo Magazine 12 (2007): 156–173. See also Johann König Gallery website.

2Hito Steyerl,“A Thing Like You and Me,” e-flux journal 15 (April 2010),.

3For more on this work and the artist’s oeuvre in general, see the excellent artist talk she gave, “when night falls in the forest of static choices,” at the Guggenheim, organized by associate curator Katherine Brinson: “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Conversations with Contemporary Artists at the Guggenheim,” YouTube video, artist talk presented as part of the Conversations with Contemporary Artists series at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, on January 21, 2012, posted by “Guggenheim Museum,” March 12, 2012, accessed June 10, 2013.

4The artist discussed the project in some depth in Raimer Stange, “Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Nobody Does Anything on Their Own,” Mousse Magazine 15 (October/November 2008): 72. See also Johann König Gallery website.

5Ibid

6The exhibition Solo Show, curated by Andrea Viliani, was on view at Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna (MAMbo) from September 7 to November 2, 2008.

7“Natascha Sadr Haghighian: Institutional critique and collective author- ship; money, fruit and Robbie Williams,” Frieze 119 (November–December 2008), accessed June 10, 2013.

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Liam Gillick

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Installation view.  Liam Gillick, The state/commune itself becomes a super state/commune. Natasha  Sadr De Paso in foreground. Photography by Gene Pithman

Installation view. Liam Gillick, The state/commune itself becomes a super state/commune. Natascha
Sadr’s De Paso in foreground. Photo: Gene Pittman

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fifth installment of this 10-part journey.

IV. On a Dark Day in a Dark Building

At key moments in his 30-year career, Liam Gillick, an artist who is rarely talked about in relation to biography, has turned to his own identity as a person with Irish roots growing up in England during the 1970s to help explain his particular abstract approach to language and art-making. Intimately invested in the legacy of modernism, Gillick makes sculptures, text-based works, and publications that owe much to the programmatic failure of its Utopian promise to design a more egalitarian society. One of the preeminent representatives of a discursive turn in art, Gillick is often grouped with a number of artists associated with what has become known as Relational Aesthetics of the 1990s. In a famous defense of this moment in art, Gillick situated his mercurial approach and that of his immediate peers (Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Philippe Parreno) as being influenced by hybrid cultural backgrounds (Irish, Thai, Columbian, Algerian) that refused to take a didactic position in relation to society, adding, “This is a group whose complex and divided family histories have taught them to become skeptical shape-shifters in relation to the dominant culture in order to retain, rather than merely represent, the notion of a critical position.” 1

Gillick’s career has been situated along lines that privilege a determined opacity against a universalizing transparency, a philosophy that takes place on the level of language, form, and content, and represents an ethics of practice that is deeply articulated across his many texts, projects, exhibitions, collaborations, and public lectures. It should be said at the outset that for Gillick the idea that form and content would unite into a cohesive unity of intentions (what he refers to as the “singularity problem”) is deeply suspect, and one of the features that marks his art-making is a determination that these strands should exist as parallel tracks, informing each other, certainly, but never meant to cohere in a single work.2 His practice is complex, and for many frustrating, in its refusal to decide upon a definitive site in which the “art” exists; rather, he insists on multiple points of engagement.

A graduate of Goldsmiths College London in the late 1980s, Gillick was grouped for a time with the artists who became synonymous with the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the 1990s, and indeed was featured in the Walker Art Center’s celebrated 1995 exhibition Brilliant! New Art from London, which was the first international presentation of that now canonical group.3 Yet from the beginning, Gillick felt uncomfortable with both the rhetoric of the “movement” and the conceptual premise of much of the art that arose from it. For this, he partially blamed the pedagogical structure of Goldsmiths, which encouraged an individualism that for Gillick was anathema to his way of working.

Liam Gillick Del Charro 1994. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York; Private Collection installation view.

Liam Gillick Del Charro 1994. Courtesy the artist and Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York; Private Collection installation view.

This disdain for what Gillick has related as a near-Thatcherite individualism among the YBAs was born from the artist having been deeply influenced by the labor movements of the 1970s, and the fact that he came of age in the 1980s under the systematic destruction of labor by the Thatcher government. For the artist, this failure and ideological defeat played itself out most tragically in the built world with the political determination that a planned society was no longer sustainable or practical—that all that was left was speculation: a neoliberal embrace of the forces of the market and privatization rather than an ambition to work communally toward a more equal society. For those familiar with Gillick’s sculptural objects, design aesthetic, and graphic sensibility this may be hard to fathom, in part because of the obvious sleekness of production, high design values, and structural abstraction, all characteristics that many have come to associate with a corporate design culture. But Gillick stresses the roots of his aesthetic in an applied modernism that actually sought to give everyone access to this level of infrastructure: where architects, engineers, city planners, and politicians believed in an egalitarian public sphere.4 He has often stated that he is more interested in the work of Anni Albers than Joseph Albers; in other words, he is more invested in the applications of modernism in the lived world as a compromised applied negotiation of contexts than in any notion of purity in relation to the creation of form.

In 2008 it was announced that Gillick had been selected to represent Germany at the 53rd Venice Biennale to take place the following year. Nominated by German curator Nicolaus Schafhausen, then director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, the selection was met with some surprise and controversy, particularly from conservative elements in the German national media.5 His selection also received a positive reception and was seen as an example of Germany’s mature and receptive cosmopolitanism. Gillick had exhibited regularly in that country since the 1990s, and had a strong reception and context there, at least among an influential cadre of critics, collectors, and institutions. Meanwhile, Berlin had developed into a celebrated international art center, home to a range of contemporary artists who flocked there for low rents and an international and diverse milieu.

While many see the national pavilion structure of Venice as outmoded in an era of globalization, the tradition has been (un)surprisingly resilient. The core of national representation in Venice is found in the Giardini, inhabited by some 30 national pavilions, most built at a time when Europe’s colonial nations were competing for prestige. The German Pavilion, originally erected in 1909, was “refurbished” in 1938 by German architect Ernst Haiger to better represent Nazi aesthetics, becoming an icon of Fascist architecture with the addition of monumental and austere pillars and the word GERMANIA engraved on its facade. Naturally, in the postwar years artists have felt compelled to contend with this troubled legacy. Perhaps the most famous response was by Germany-born, American-based artist Hans Haacke, who in 1993 simply tore up the marble flooring in the central room of the pavilion, leaving the fragments for viewers to navigate.

This episode in Gillick’s prolific career is a useful point of concentration for this text, because the artist undoubtedly faced a moment of reckoning, what he himself has referred to as “a test,” where the limits of his contextual, shifting, and adaptable practice came up against that resolutely over-determined slab that is National Socialism. 6 In a key interview with critic Saul Ostrow in the lead-up to the biennale, one gets a sense of Gillick’s working method. His is a process of interrogation of context and mediation, a field of expectations that he is both responding to and creating for himself. The essential problem as he sees it is that the context here can’t be ignored; to do so would be too irresponsible. And yet, if he as an artist needs to intercede in the fabric of the building as a historically burdened site, then surely he also needs to interrupt his own comfort zone, to shift his practice in some way as a necessary consequence? Furthermore, is the very choice of Gillick as a non-German national—the first artist to represent a full national pavilion without having a passport from that country—meant as a symbol of Germany’s progress? Is he in a sense the figure who renders symbolically the maturity of German culture in relationship to its history of identitarianism? If he proceeds as normal, does he sanction this reading and become his own form of amnesia? And so he explores a range of possibilities, some of which move toward a “grand gesture” that normally would be anathema to him. For example, on a visit to the site he realizes that Haacke’s famous destruction of the pavilion floor encompassed the center of the building, not the anterior spaces. He debates calling Haacke and inviting him to finish the job. In another idea, he considers “turning off the building” by showing video, literally making the walls disappear into a black box. Still another approach—riffing off a joke Gillick would often tell about there being no toilets in Fascist buildings— was to install some basic amenities in the pavilion.7

The text by Gillick reprinted in this publication is a key component of the artist’s effort to contend with the challenge of the invitation. Asked by Schafhausen in typical contemporary art style to build a discursive armature around the exhibition, his response was to compose what has become perhaps his most concrete statement about his own work. Titled Berlin Statement, it was delivered at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin in March 2009, some months in advance of the biennale. For Gillick, there was obviously a sense of responsibility, a desire to buttress his selection with a certain kind of contextualizing gesture. And yet that gesture also became a way for the artist to protect his process, in a sense to liberate him- self from the burden of the symbolic move, the big idea that the pavilion seemed to call for. A deeply thought-out exposition of artistic principals, it marked an important milestone in Gillick’s distinctive, discursive approach to art practice. One of the more nuanced defenses of the poststructuralist stance of endlessly deferred subjectivity and meaning, the piece brushed the glitter off Gillick’s dandified lapels, and focused retroactively on a practice whose deeply articulated ethics were of- ten suspected, but rarely so carefully confirmed.

Having itemized a fascinating mise en abyme of potential responses to the problem of exhibiting in the German pavilion, Gillick closes his interview with Ostrow (made a few months before the exhibition), relating how the composition of the text allowed him to finally divest himself of the search for the grand gesture; to once again privilege production over consumption, an ethos that he has always placed at the heart of his art-making:

But the question really is how do you find a working method or a working, productive context within which ideas can be produced? And that’s really the key. It doesn’t help you to know whether you’ll arrive and there’ll be no building, or there are great toilets, or a large number of rather mute, corrupted formalist artworks. I became truly free—in fact I’m not stressed at all—when I realized the problem wasn’t what to do, because if I’d asked myself over the years, what should I do, I probably wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done done a different kind of art.8

Liam Gillick's Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht (How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks) 2009. Installation view in the German Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 53, Internazionale d'Art, Venice, 2009. Photo courtesty the artist.

Liam Gillick’s Wie würden Sie sich verhalten? Eine Küchenkatze spricht (How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks) 2009. Installation view in the German Pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia 53, Internazionale d’Art, Venice, 2009. Photo courtesty the artist.

Gillick traveled to Venice with a team of fabricators from Berlin, and worked on-site for a number of months. A viewer visiting the pavilion on the opening day of the biennial would have entered through a colorful plastic strip curtain at the entrance into a large, white-walled pavilion structure. Running through the main space and passing into the anterior galleries was a long row of modular kitchen cabinetry, surfaces, shelving, closets, all cut from an unvarnished pine. On top of one of the cabinets sat an anima- tronic cat, a roll of paper in its jaw, who tells a story (with Gillick’s voice) about a talking cat who is visited by two children. The story is told in the future anterior (which will have been the best tense ever, by the way), framed as something that “will have happened,” someday. The children, we learn, are nervous and shy, the cat “will have been mildly depressed, suffering from ennui and even bored by its role as the only talking cat in the whole world.” 9 The mood of the story is not unlike one of Oscar Wilde’s children’s fables, which pack both a romantic punch and a great deal of tragedy, yet Gillick’s recorded story doesn’t resolve itself, but loops back to begin again:

The cat will know that school starts in five minutes and the children will definitely be late. But today of all days, it won’t care. It won’t mind if the children miss out on their lessons or their playtime. It won’t care if they miss lunch or free time in the library. All it will care about is that someone is here on a dark day in a dark building. It will sniff. The breath of the children will be close. It will have learnt that humans know that cat’s steal their breath. The cat will know that this is nonsense. It is buildings like this that steal people’s breath. Anyway. What’s wrong with borrowing some child’s breath for a while? All cats know that it smells sweet and is full of intelligence and goodness and fun.

It will take a deep surreptitious suck of the children’s breath and as they reel and swoon, glide and dream, it will begin to tell them a true story about the wisdom of a kitchen cat. …10

Titled How are you going to behave? A kitchen cat speaks, the exhibition was covered widely in the press. For many foes of Gillick’s way of working, both old and new, the profile of the event afforded them a perfectly scaled target with which to finally pin that Scarlet Pimpernel. For example, Adrian Searle in The Guardian called it a “strained performance,” saying that Gillick’s work was always, “a heavy-handed mix of the decorative, the intellectually arch and the overdetermined.” 11 Writing in Texte zur Kunst, on the other hand, Tom McDonough celebrated Gillick’s surprise decision to move away from his more “familiar forms and colors” and also to avoid addressing the building through some grandiose move, finding a critical dimension for the project within the critical context of the talking cat.12

Gillick’s kitchen was inspired by the 1926 Frankfurt Kitchen of Austrian designer and anti-Nazi activist Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, a major work of applied modernism that democratized access to a kitchen designed as an efficient and ergonomically aware environment. It also riffed off of Gillick’s own post-studio practice—the artist spent many hours in the run-up to the exhibition sitting in his kitchen in New York smoking, being bothered by his son’s cat. He remembers asking himself, “Who gets to speak? And who has the authority to do so?” Ultimately, of course, it is him in this context, but he can only bring himself to do so through the filter of the cat. In a sense, what Gillick did was bring together the domestic, the subjective, and the social: elements that militate against the building’s grandiose ideological structure. With the kitchen, Gillick enters the mid-space location typical of his work: an interstitial conduit through different moments of the day—at once the most vital part of a home while also being the least formal. Germany in the 1920s saw a battle between two visions of the utility of standardization within design, one (associated with the Marxist-leaning Bauhaus) dedicated to social inclusion and equality through making good design universally accessible, the other dedicated to militarism and a nostalgic re-creation of past tropes of German aesthetics (Fascism). In a sense, Gillick was using German history itself as a model to contend with the legacy of the building, resurfacing a contestatory vision within the culture that had opposed Fascism at the very point of its rise.

Virtually libertarian in its worldview, meanwhile, the cat does not do well with training, and has a scant opinion of anyone who would have it step in line. Less interested in charismatic speeches than some chow and a good nap, the cat has an integrity all its own and is surely less than susceptible to Fascist indoctrination (certainly less so than the dog). In the story the cat steals the children’s breath, but only enough to make them woozy, to make them receptive to his tale and open to the mesmeric task of representation. The building, meanwhile, has the real power: it can rip the oxygen from their lungs. In Gillick’s oeuvre, there is a constant quest to test the limits of a deluded and distracted engagement with the world, using art as a device to skirt the obvious, to privilege the gaps that in themselves are the elusive foundations of all determined structures. It’s a complicated position, and one that continues to resonate in the work of an artist who is surely one of the more influential, and strangely complicit, of our time.13

 

1Liam Gillick, “Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,’” October 110 (Fall 2004): 106. In an interview with critic Saul Ostrow, referred to a number of times in this text, Gillick further qualified the relationship of biographical background to his working practice, “I don’t think every artist has to deal with their biography, but I come from a background of strong identification with Irish Republican politics, which is full of subterfuge, misleading statements. It’s not imbedded in my way of seeing things, but when I’m told that the correct way to be a politically conscious artist is to have transparency throughout everything you do, I’m not sure that I think that every politically conscious activity is surrounded and best served by transparency. So while I have moments of clear positions, they’re often muddled by this distrust of transparency, distrust that the good artist and the good political artist is always a transparent artist, who will always reveal sources, desires and needs.” “Venice Preview: Liam Gillick Practical Considerations: An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” Art in America (June/July 2009): 130–136.

2LiamGillickconversationnotes, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, New York (March 2009).

3“Brilliant!” New Art from London,a 1995 touring exhibition curated by Richard Flood and organized by the Walker Art Center, featured twenty-two young British artists and was the first major institutional show to cover the emerging tendencies of British art of the time.

4For more on the relation of Gillick’s work to design culture, see Mark Owens, “Liam Gillick on Repeat,” Dot Dot Dot 11 (April 2006): 79–85.

5For an interesting take on the recep- tion and exhibition more generally, see Tom McDonough, “Liam’s (not) Home,” Texte zur Kunst 75 (2009)

6Ostrow, “An Interview by Saul Ostrow,” 130–136.

7Ibid.

8Ibid., 136.

9Liam Gillick, One Long Walk… Two Short Piers…, Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Bonn) (Cologne: Snoeck, 2010), 32.

10Ibid.,33.

11 Adrian Searle, “Bodies, babble and blood,” The Guardian, Monday 8 June 2009, last accessed, July 30, 2013:

12 McDonough,“Liam’s(not)Home,”147.

13 It is interesting, a few years after the fact, to go back and read an interview with Gillick in which he discusses the aftermath of the exhibition: “I wanted to do something new; I wanted to push something that’s quite hard. You suffer a little bit when you do that, even if you know in the back of your mind it’s the right thing to do. I left the pavilion on the day of the opening with the clearheadedness that you get sometimes after a breakup or after something’s gone wrong, or after you’ve just witnessed an accident: It’s not elation or satisfaction, it’s the feeling that you know that this is the only thing you could do, but it’s not going to achieve a certain satisfaction.” Louisa Buck, “There’s a Perversity in My Method,” The Art Newspaper 229 (November 2011): 54

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Bjarne Melgaard

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Exhibition view of Bjarne Melgaard's The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin, 2013, archival pigment prints on aluminum 8 1/ 2 × 12 3/4 in. (21.6 × 32.4 cm) each of 212, Photography by Johannes Worsøe Berg

Exhibition view of Bjarne Melgaard’s The awakening and consumption of Heidi Fleiss as she talks to a brioche named Austin, 2013, archival pigment prints on aluminum, each of 212, Photography by Johannes Worsøe Berg

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the fourth installment of this 10-part journey.

 

III. He Wants to See You Again, and Just Be Two Fags Who Kill

Since his emergence in the mid-1990s, Bjarne Melgaard (Norwegian, born 1967 in Australia; lives and works in New York) has situated his entire career as a mode of subjective excess, a dedication to an expressionistic self-realization through art, a belief that art presents a total freedom unbounded from imperatives to “correct” expression. He attempts to represent reality as it is rather than as we pretend it to be, de-sublimating the netherworld of human experience. Citing influences ranging from Edward Munch to New York–based writer Kathy Acker, Melgaard also performs a kind of fictional self-biography. His life experiences, desires, and thoughts permeate his work in such a way that the viewer walking through one of his installations or reading his writing experiences a state akin to an aghast voyeurism: where does this person end and the fiction and projection begin? (more…)

9 Artists Bartholomew Ryan on Nástio Mosquito

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

Still from Nástio Mosquito's Nástia’s Manifesto, 2008.

Still from Nástio Mosquito’s Nástia’s Manifesto, 2008.

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the third installment of this 10-part journey.

 

II. Our Interdependency Is Not about Love, It’s about Function

The core of artist Nástio Mosquito’s (born 1981 in Angola; lives and works in Luanda) work is an intense commitment to the open-ended potential of language, arrived at through deliberate strategies of reinvention. At stake is a rejection of transparency, of the linear way in which meaning is conferred through politely digestible approaches. Mosquito makes music, performances, objects, and videos, often under a range of monikers such as Saco, Nasty-O, Cucumber Slice, and Zura, Zurara. He has performed and exhibited at various places in Angola, Europe, and elsewhere. Several years ago I came across the artist’s manifesto online (well, the manifesto of Nástia, an alter ego and the feminine form of Nástio in Portuguese). Titled Hypocritical, ironic and do not give a fuck it features seventeen instructions for the good life, delivered in rhythmical succession by the artist in a rich, put-on Russian accent. His face is framed in close-up with a projected screen behind him showing dissociated outtakes, past performances, etc. His pearls of wisdom are also delivered visually, Karaoke-style, line by line in loud, graphic tabloid headlines. The instructions are counterintuitive, crude, and elucidatory, mining various clichés and stolen pastiches. They are a mix of clownish nonchalance, perception, and arrogance. (more…)

9 Artists: Bartholomew Ryan on Hito Steyerl

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

AFuckingDidactic_11 (2)

Still from Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational.Mov File, 2012

9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. Here is the second installment of this 10-part journey.
 

I. Happy Pixels Hop Off into Low-Resolution, Gif Loop!

One of the fascinating things about the work of Hito Steyerl (born 1966 in Germany; lives and works in Berlin) is its restlessness. Since the 1990s she has become one of the leading voices among artists who play with the conventional formats of the documentary genre, borrowing from its reputation for objectivity while acknowledging its ongoing history as a means of propaganda and indoctrination. Yet her mode of engagement with these questions has evolved as rapidly as the dematerialized digital world itself, ebbing and flowing with new breakthroughs in pixelated resolution, escalating social media engagements, the ever-shifting and evolving world of Internet memes, YouTube virility, 3-D animation, and digital printing capabilities. Not so much an early adopter as an eager adapter, her work has an eerie sense of timeliness, of being able to read the tea leaves of historical materialism within the present. (more…)

9 Artists: Essay Introduction

For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the […]

ex2013_9artists_ins_051
9_artists_bug 125For 10 weeks, Walker assistant curator Bartholomew Ryan will share “chapters” from his extended keynote essay on the themes and work in 9 Artists, an international, multigenerational group exhibition examining the changing role of the artist in contemporary culture. 9 Artists premiered at the Walker in late 2013 and early 2014, before traveling to the MIT List Center for Visual Arts, where it’ll be on view from May 9 to July 13, 2014. We begin this 10-part journey with the essay’s introduction.

 

If You Are Willing:
The Army of the Individuals

Many of today’s contemporary artists have nomadic, dematerialized, and adaptable practices—traveling from biennial to residency to gallery exhibition. Often based in cities far from their place of birth, they inhabit hyphenated geographies that speak to their embeddedness in the contemporary global spirit. Leveraging funding from the public and private sectors, they build consensual transnational networks of colleagues,collaborators, and supporters. They could be said to be ideal representatives of one of the blandest discourses of globalization: the cosmopolitan agent who is well traveled, urbane, tolerant, and a sophisticated interpreter of cultural difference. While the eight artists in this exhibition share many motifs from the above sketch, they also proceed with a deep understanding that in spite of increased proximity and the smoothing narratives of neoliberalism, material forces continue to determine access and marginalization. They witness firsthand the entrenched nationalisms, the unequal distribution of wealth, the myriad exploitations, exclusions, and stereotypes that continue to condition our world. They see defined identities as a means of freedom and organization, but also as a mode of containment and control. Rather than function as new masters of the universe (the aforementioned global citizen), they are implicated, compromised, and self-aware. Some are adept manipulators, entrepreneurial spirits who cohabit with the market while attempting to maintain critical and ambivalent positions in relation to the worst excesses of the free-market culture. It goes without saying that they might be parents, divorcées, lovers, alcoholics, difficult, brilliant, witty, selfish, driven, or whatever you are having yourself. At the Frieze Art Fair they deliver talks on “refusal”; for e-flux journal they pen essays on “occupation.” Endlessly caught up in the necessity for contemporary self-positioning, they nevertheless pursue political-aesthetic approaches that are dedicated to exploring this complexity. Using their own backgrounds and identities as material, frequently in antagonistic or subversive ways, they operate with an understanding of their own complicity within geopolitical dynamics, seeking to use that awareness as a means to arrive at a more realistic representation of the foundations of the present. (more…)

A Table of Curious Elements: Jay Heikes on Filthy Minds

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes discusses his contribution to the show with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan. As he’s traveled from studio to studio, Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes has carried a wall of […]

Jay Heikes, We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), installed in Painter Painter. Photo: Gene Pittman

Jay Heikes, We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), installed in Painter Painter. Photo: Gene Pittman

va_2012_painterpainter_bug_alpha[1]In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes discusses his contribution to the show with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan.

As he’s traveled from studio to studio, Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes has carried a wall of tools composed of electric drills, hammers, and saws that he uses in making his work. Always interested in transformation, he began to think about how the tools we use determine the things we make, or more abstractly tie us into certain ways of thinking. Asking himself whether changing the tools could also change the work, Heikes began to invent new implements constructed out of the detritus of the studio: found materials with peculiar provenance, pigments, dyes, fabrics, or negative throwaway forms from previous works. In making We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), his work in Painter Painter, he was inspired by the history of the avant-garde, and specifically the manifesto as a mode of address, and looked to groups such as the Suprematists, Futurists, or even the Shakers, who used new language to create new realities.

As Heikes assembled his constructed “tools” on a studio wall, he began to think of them as a form of painting. While painters–including Gerhard Richter and Jack Whitten — have long created tools as a means to bypass previous ways of working and arrive at a different kind of mark-making or application, here Heikes’ instruments themselves become the marks — they delineate the paintings’ borders and are the motifs of composition. A number of elements seem poised to be used in some elaborate way, evolving in more recent works toward a greater level of formal abstraction. As the project develops, the usefulness of a tool is situated in its openness to possibility within painting, in its ability to be free of bounded real-world utility. Ultimately, it seems as if Heikes may be shaping a proposition about abstraction as something necessary, to be used and valued as much as anything else.

Jay Heikes with The "ear" in Jay Heikes' We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Jay Heikes with the “sea ball” in We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Bartholomew Ryan: Almost everything in We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds seems to involve ready-made materials that you have cut, grafted, painted, dyed, and generally manipulated into something that seems simple and somehow inevitable: Like, “Of course that thing should exist (even though it hasn’t heretofore).” One exception is the little furry ball that hangs near the top right. You called it a sea ball, but what is it? Where did you get it?  Did you do anything to it? Is it still alive?

Jay Heikes: I’m not sure what it is exactly. I found it by the sea in the coastal village of Acciaroli in the south of Italy. The beach was littered with them, and they were just so perfect in their natural state. I had been thinking for a long time of something that is non-narrative and decided that nature is the one thing that doesn’t tell a story, that we put a narrative on to it by living within it. But then I realized how off that conclusion was, because it was casting itself in fossils and petrified wood and sculpting things like “sea balls.” At times, it feels like a clown nose or a mole, which satisfies my desire for the work to be both creepy and beautiful, although within the larger composition I think it becomes another tool wrapped up in the romantic fate of the readymade. It was there in front of me and made me jealous, in using the tides of the Mediterranean to make a sculpture of dead and dried plant matter.

Ryan: Let’s move from the clown nose to the wax ear in the exhibition. Ears, of course, are about listening. Are you interested in listening? In a certain kind of receptivity?

Heikes: The “basics” are something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I get sucked into these structuralist texts from the 1960s with titles like Alchemy: Ancient and Modern or Asbestos: The Silk of the Mineral Kingdom and find myself understanding the cosmos in a much more personal way. When a text tells me that gold is related to perfection and leads to sin, I immediately get seduced by the passing on of elemental investigations from the old world and try to understand if we are still engaged in the same kind of listening or associative behavior. Are we listening to the materials? At times, I don’t think we are. There’s a hopeless divorce from the knowledge of where things actually come from, how they are mined and then presented to us as objects or products.

I’m getting away from the question, though. Am I interested in listening? I would say that I want to absorb, which includes listening. As for a receptivity, I look to a time when the limits of knowledge were more naive and up for grabs. When mystical thought and the charlatan were still very persuasive. We live in a time when Science is winning, but people have historically done unexpected things against better judgment. It was not that long ago when people were playing with a handful of mercury like it was a curious toy. You could say that through these mistakes we’ve built a better, safer world, and I would agree, but my fear is that when the earth has had enough of our tinkering we will be left in a state of complete elemental amnesia. Maybe amnesia is the wrong word because the knowledge was never there in the first place. Maybe this is all ether hiding a “back to the basics” objective on my part, but what I’m realizing is that I don’t know what the basics are myself, so I’m trying to create a set of tools that will in turn find their own undecided function.

To be more direct about the object itself, the “ear” is made from those little Laughing Cow cheeses, which are covered in a combination of paraffin and micro-crystalline wax. The dirt and shavings pressed into the wax are from my studio floor, and I inserted these map tack heads to look like a trail of piercings running up the side of the ear. It made me think of the severed ear of Vincent van Gogh and the gesture of being out of bounds or doing something crazy — the moment when you cross a line and physically enter the realm of hallucination. A hallucination that, with van Gogh, could have easily been brought on by the paints he was using, so again an elemental cloud is present.

The "ear" in Jay Heikes' We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

The “ear” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Ryan: The painter going crazy in his elemental cloud. When I visited your studio recently, you were breaking out in hives, and we suspected it was a reaction to one of the many odd materials you were using or perhaps mold from a work that was caught in a gallery basement during Hurricane Sandy. In a short text I recently wrote on your work, I considered the alchemical nature of your practice, this kind of magical thinking that allows you to play with all kinds of elements and formulas, to arrive at specialized materials that you use in many of your works. Let’s talk about the piece you call the wand, at the top left of the composition: a wooden rounded pole with a strand of copper wire at one end. I do like to think of you with a wand, although the notion is faintly embarrassing, because magic is not exactly associated with rigorously critical thinking in contemporary art. But I think one of the things I’ve always liked about your work is that it is prepared to lay itself bare in some way, to take the plunge into the possibility of a simplistic and reductive read from a public, while also entering terrain that feels very fertile. This is something that attracts me to a lot of artists working today. A re-embrace of the unknown, which some could say is a retrograde step in that it privileges the metaphysical over the material nature of existence, allows for a kind of mythologization of art. I think there is something quite authentically engaged within the way you work, like a sense that you really are searching for possibilities. Another way to look at the tools is to see them as iconographic for different possibilities, from science to magic, from the domestic to the industrial, from the deeply subjective to the objective. This might account for the way in which many people who are engaged in language, writers and poets, etc., seem to really be affected by this piece, or fascinated by it; because they see it as constructing a language or a system of thought. Do you see the wand as an indicator of one in a range of possible approaches to something? Or are you really dedicated to magic?

Heikes: I can only dream of the day when my work gives people hives. That would be true magic. Like figuring out how to trigger a build-up of histamines without a transfer of fluids or allergens, just a painting or sculpture that creates hives. For a moment, I thought about filling a gallery space with the sulphurlike scent that’s added to natural gas known as tert-Butylthiol to simulate a gas leak. There’s nothing like the instant thought of possibly exploding to put everyone on edge. In the end, I decided against it. It’s silly to talk about some of these ideas, but it gets to the heart of what I think about in the studio and with the wand specifically. I started making work in a performative way about 10 years ago, using existential theater and the work of Jean-Paul Sartre as inspiration for the compulsion that art has in its desire to reject stasis. Sartre talked about spilled treacle, an uncrystalized syrup made during the refining of sugar, as a metaphor for life and the viscosity of all things. It’s a substance that is both liquid and solid and denies our basic understandings of material properties. When I’m in that breakthrough moment making something, I think about treacle and try to let the materials be magical to see if an essence reveals itself, even though a lot of my work could melt away in a rainstorm.

The "wand" in Jay Heikes'

The “wand” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

But magic is ultimately funny and I approach it with suspicion, just as any religion or belief system makes me question the presence of invisibility. So with the wand, I’m playing with the irony of using copper in a wand that is not connected to anything so it wouldn’t conduct electricity. But I’m not concerned with it conducting electricity per se, just that there is a leap from what could physically conduct. As if a magician was holding the thing that could actually move energy without knowing it. It’s a recurring problem for me in addressing things as varied as cosmological background radiation to reincarnation. Do I always have to search for unexplored possibilities or can I just present a kind of deadpan futility that acts as satire? Maybe I’m just an existentialist in denial.

Ryan: Let’s talk about the snaking form to the top right of the work. I bring it up because I know you began designing these tools with use as an actual possibility, and this is one of the few that was used in the construction of another work. It was used in one of your paintings from last year that was constructed through layering paper and dried ink, creating an almost stonelike surface, which you then monoprinted with the texture of animal hides. In the painting Filthy Minds (2012), there are these hatchings that go up the side that come from using the snake to apply the print. So you have these virtually primitivist paintings that are also composed through these new, distinctly handmade tools. You gave an earlier group of that series titles from various caves around the world, such as Ear of Dionysus (2011), which came into the Walker’s collection last year. The titles conjure some faintly ridiculous, near pompous classical sensibility, but the works aren’t totally ironic. Are these tools meant for use in terms of an applied nature? Or have they become useful for the way in which they help as formal motifs that contribute to the composition of the work on the wall through how they are arranged?

Detail of We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

The “snaking” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

Heikes: I used the snaking on a painting at a moment when I thought I was moving toward using the tools in a performative Gerhard Richter kind of way. In this case, I used it as a stamp, inking it and then applying pressure to the face of a painting that I quickly titled Filthy Minds, which differed from all of the paintings that I had titled after existing caves up to that point. It was an important precursor to what became We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds, which is included in Painter Painter, and became the symbol of what I didn’t want the tools to become. There was a feeling that they shouldn’t play a bit part, that they should be the focus, so by making the painting I realized I had used them in a way that I had hoped to resist. Afterwards, I concluded that the stamp was the content instead of the mark it had made because my focus from the beginning was how to challenge the structure of language at its most primitive starting point. When I was making the tools, I thought about cave people sitting around sculpting because it was the only available language. I guess grunting and gesturing too, but in the end I saw the painting as a mistake that helped me get to the wall of tools. As for the formal aspects of the snaking, I saw it as a form that could anchor the composition. So yes, the tool had become a motif and held within in it a kind of crooked beauty, but it also reminded me of a jester’s leggings, which is maybe an aside from years of thinking about the role of the artist.

Jay Heikes, _Filthy Minds_, 20XX. Photo: Jason Wyche

Jay Heikes, Filthy Minds (2012). Photo: Jason Wyche

I guess it’s funny now that I’m making less interesting tools that are leading to more interesting drawings, so the thing I had resisted and the process that the painting hinted at has reversed itself completely. The new drawings feel like musical scores for minor planets, renegotiating how sheet music could look for something so abstract, that of a lifeless floating rock full of possibilities. They’re spacey and psychedelic and owe a lot to David Reed, John Cage, and the Japanese avant-garde of the 1960s. But I haven’t abandoned the tools completely, they’re just becoming less tool-like and more autonomous as wall sculptures that seem more direct and symbolic, like a dirty palette instead of a table of curious elements.

Dianna Molzan: Voguing its Structure

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Dianna Molzan presents a visual diary of the making of her painting Untitled (2010-2013).   Dianna Molzan lives and works in Los Angeles. She received a BFA from the School […]

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Dianna Molzan presents a visual diary of the making of her painting Untitled (2010-2013).

 

Dianna Molzan lives and works in Los Angeles. She received a BFA from the School of the Art Institute, Chicago, 2001 and an MFA from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2009. Recent exhibitions include Grand Tourist, ICA Boston, 2012; Bologna Meissen, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2011; Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles; Vilma Gold, London; and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Painting as Score: Sarah Crowner on Format

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. In this edition, New York–based artist Sarah Crowner discusses the spreads in her recent artist book, Format, published by Primary Information. Primary Information is a nonprofit run by James Hoff and […]

Sarah Crowner in her studio, September 2012. Video still by Eric Crosby

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. In this edition, New York–based artist Sarah Crowner discusses the spreads in her recent artist book, Format, published by Primary Information.

Primary Information is a nonprofit run by James Hoff and Miriam Katzeff. Its mission has been to reprint and make available books that aren’t accessible to a wide audience today. Kids today might now know about Avalanche magazine or the Great Bear Pamphlets or Lee Lozano’s sketches because of Primary Information’s efforts. They’ve just started working with contemporary artists as well. Their mission is to get the books out to the public as cheaply as possible, so the cost is quite low—they’re not fancy monographs.

They invited me to do a project about a year ago, and we’ve been working on it since then. What’s really great is to be able to synthesize your ideas into a book format. It’s helped me think about painting. It’s become reference material, in a way. I like the idea that if anyone is interested in my painting, I can hand them this book and they might understand without me rambling on for hours about it. This explains in visual terms, rather than words, what my practice is about.

One of the things I am interested in is how painting can engage the body. I have a highly physical way of creating paintings. The way I make paintings involves a lot of stretching, a lot of muscle, a lot of “body”–cutting, taking apart, dealing with the material. I think of painting as a collection of mediums, which might be oil paint, and also linen and canvas and different kinds of cloths. The way I construct something is to make a collection of materials that engage each other physically rather than making an image that is flat.

The title of the book is Format. It’s about the format of the book itself, but also form and formalism. A lot of the way these pages are laid out is thinking about repeating forms from everyday life, and forms from painting’s history. Building the forms together, and making a narrative with shapes.

For the last few years, I’ve kept a studio wall where I collect references and source material. Everything from a scraps of particular colors that I found in a fabric store, pages from art magazines, posters, or a postcard someone sent me from home that is really weird and has interesting visual elements. Maybe a Xeroxed copy of a drawing I’ve kept in my wallet for months.

I wanted to dive into these source materials with the cover, so the photograph on the right is of layers and layers of these sources glued together or stacked on top of each other. I found this picture of a work by Swiss artist Verena Loewensberg from the 1940s. She was part of the Concrete Art movement with Max Bill among others. It’s basically a composition that’s made out of circles, layered circles. It’s a really pure abstract work, but to me it has a great sense of humor, as if they’re thought bubbles.

I reversed the image and placed it on the back of the book. I’m interested in a book as an art form and what book-objects can do to images. I like to think about gutters, leaves, and bleeds, and the physicality of an art book.

Last March, while I was in Sweden, I was introduced to the work of the painter Sigrid Hjertén (1885–1948). She is quite well-known there. Sigrid was also a mother, and one painting I love is a picture of herself in her studio with her family distracting her. As a mother who has a three-year-old always distracting me, I felt a personal connection here. You can’t help but let your life come into your art. I did some research at the MoMA library and found some great books on her, and I made some copies. I don’t read Swedish, but I love the image. I also found a photograph from a Guy de Cointet performance in the 1970s with this woman. I don’t know whether she’s putting up, taking down, or caressing this painting. It looks to me like she’s installing it. Not quite.

I played with spot varnishing elements on some of the pages, such as the pink squares here. The printer sort of paints a gloss varnish on top of the page after it’s been printed. This way I can liven up this black-and-white fuzzy image a little. I did it several times within the book in other instances where you have this glossy painted object sitting on top of something that’s very historical. It’s a way of inserting myself into this already digested historical content.

Somebody sent me this postcard on the right of a Liubov Popova painting that became a part of a collage in my sketchbook. Sometimes these collages happen by chance. Sometimes they’re half chance, half composed. At the time, I wondered what would happen if we got these artists together and we all had a party? What would the conversation be with Popova and Guy de Cointet, and Hjertén and her husband, Isaac? I like the narrative it implies.

The images are of Sonia Delaunay’s clothing designs and a detail of an Yves Klein painting. The artists obviously have very different ways of approaching painting and the body. Yves Klein’s paintings were really beautiful, but he used a woman’s naked body like a paintbrush, like a tool. You think of Delaunay, the way she was thinking about painting and the body, in a different way. She turned her paintings into patterns that people could wear. She painted an automobile at one point. She did these stage designs, too. She was bringing abstraction into everyday life. Asking, “Can abstraction be a tool? Can it have a use? Can if have a function?” She was really doing that. It makes you think about painting in functional terms rather than pure fine art terms.

She’s always interested me for those reasons. The same way that Sophie Taeuber-Arp interests me, and a lot of the early avant-garde artists. Truly bringing art into life, with a kind of humor. This contrasts with the distanced spirituality of Klein’s paintings. They’re not even his gestures. It’s the woman’s body print but he’s calling it his own. She has to be naked. That’s like the first thing, right? I don’t know. It’s ridiculous. But at the same time they’re beautiful paintings.

This woman’s wearing an Hélio Oiticica Parangolé. It’s this human body interacting with fabric and color and making a geometric form, moving in the real world. I wanted to see what would happen if I reversed it. Some of my paintings also have this symmetry. I was narrowing in on this orange geometric form that she’s creating. Because it’s a reproduction, no longer an object, it’s just flat: it’s a picture of something. Reversing that, you then see what happens when you place the two parts together. I also love this guy in the middle. He’s sticking his arm out. The spread very intentionally has his arm creeping out. That’s something that could only happen in a book because the way you hold a book has this dimensionality, this curve, so he appears to be falling in. He’s looking really relaxed about falling into the gutter!

This is one of the paintings that I’ve loved for a long time—Picasso’s La femme-fleur (1946). I love how it’s a portrait of a woman reduced to geometric forms: lines, circles, and wedge-type shapes, but then it’s also a plant. The Picasso is very Picasso, but then there is this Leni Riefenstahl photographic still with the woman balancing on top of the painting. It was another object on my studio wall. You see how the stem is extending into this pole-type thing? She’s an acrobat or she’s a line that’s engaging with this painting, which is already a painting of a woman. There are two representations of women, and they’re both stuck onto a little drawing of mine behind.

On the left is an Alexander Calder acoustic ceiling in Caracas from 1952. These wedge shapes are reminiscent of the leaf shapes in the Picasso painting, so there’s a nice rhythm there. Also, she seems like she’s flying through air and there’s this great space in the amphitheater photograph, so it’s as if she’s soaring through that space. It’s a circular thing that’s happening. That gestural line connecting the Picasso and the Riefenstahl is a watercolor line from a drawing that I had covered up, which look like beans or lips.

I love this picture, the Vasarely painting on the left, with a fashion model from the ’50s sporting a new look with her tiny waist. I was thinking, “Is the painting the whole thing, the experience of this red coat in front of these black and white forms?” I’ve had this fascination with Vasarely for such a long time. Vasarely was considered the first Op artist before Bridget Riley, and in his early period he made some really interesting paintings that were very proto-Op. Before he got all psychedelic, he made these great hard-edged geometric paintings that began to trick the eye, but were not explicitly giving you a headache or making you dizzy. It was this great moment in the early ’50s. The first paintings that I made, which were made with a sewing machine and paint, were appropriated or borrowed from Vasarely’s compositions. And since then, I’m always Googling “Vasarely1953” or “1952” to see what I can find.

I’ve been looking at René Daniëls for a few years. He did this whole series of bow tie paintings around 1986 or 1987. His bow ties are just simple geometric forms: two triangles with a square in the middle, say, or sometimes it’s a triangle and a triangle. But what’s more complex about it is that he thinks of the bow tie as a representation of the exhibition space, so it’s also an architectural drawing of a space. He’s thinking about the placement of paintings in museums or galleries while he’s making the paintings. I like that on the one hand Daniels is making geometric abstraction, but on the other hand there is also something much wider and connected to life or the world.

I paired them together because I was looking at the black and whiteness of both paintings. But then the high-class formality of the bow ties with the model’s evening wear appealed to me also.

I couldn’t find any high-resolution image of the Vasarely on the Internet, so I printed this low-res version out, then I scanned it at 600 dpi, knowing that it would be printed at 300 dpi and hoping that it would not become too pixilated. The only nice paper I could find at that moment happened to have a paint smudge on it. I had one piece of paper left. I stuck it through. So this page is not a photograph anymore; it’s something taken from the Internet, inkjet printed, scanned, rescanned, blown up, it’s taken down, and then you’ve got paint on it. It’s become something new.


This image of the choreographer Eliot Feld and dancer Edmund LaFosse comes from this great book that I found called America Dances. It’s from the ’70s, this period of big hair and bell-bottoms and leg warmers, which I love on a personal level. I was born in the ’70s. I always loved the movie Fame. But then I really love the color palette, those dirty brown monochromes of ’70s New York. I can’t say how it directly relates to my paintings—perhaps in this last body of work, where I’ve been thinking a lot about dance and looking at the aesthetics of modern dance, like Trisha Brown, as well as the circus and acrobats, jugglers, bodies in motion. I love the way he’s leaping out of the gutter and seems to be balancing on this cane. It creates a great composition visually. You’ve got these two acute triangles pointing up toward his hands. Then you’ve got the ball of his Afro, the curve of his rear, and then the backs of these giant thighs. I think it could be a beautiful abstract painting, if you think about it in formal terms. I kept this page dog-eared in my library for a while.

The page to the right of that is another layering from my studio wall. The abstract shapes in black and white in the background come from a theater curtain that I was inspired by from Maria Jarema. Next to that, the great image in red and pink, is a rug advertisement from World of Interiors magazine. I love its palette, and I love the way its forms resonate with Maria’s. These two images become a backdrop, and then on top is something I grabbed from the New York Times with these great silhouettes onstage. The silhouette of the woman with the arm on her hip comes from one of Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks. I carried it around for a long time in my wallet, so it’s pretty rough and tumbled. Basically here are silhouettes of bodies on top of abstract backgrounds, but it’s me thinking aloud again what if abstract painting could be a backdrop, and then suddenly you have LaFosse jumping out of the gutter.


This one is funny. It’s the only time one of my paintings appears in this book and it’s in the context of Greek Vogue. I had an exhibition in Athens a couple of years ago. Somebody bought a painting and placed it in his house. This house was then styled with ridiculous bunnies and kitties, and then the photographer took a picture of this model wearing shoes that match my painting. She was eating a lollipop. It’s the stupidest thing, but I like it. I didn’t know if I should put it in the book, but it’s not really a picture of the painting. I didn’t ever expect it to end up on top of this cat.

So, she’s looking across the gutter at this other page and having a laugh. This one man is juggling these two striped balls and the striped balls are related to the lollipop. I’ve been looking at all these books on acrobats and thinking of these stretching bodies. I love these two women forming a “T.” It’s amazing that the human body can do that.


We’re still with the jugglers and acrobats. This man on the far right is juggling these flying plates that become white discs, and then the white discs fly over to the other page, which features this crazy Alexander Calder wallpaper from 1949. He also wallpapered the ceiling. You have the light sources looking like the plates, so it’s as if the plates are flying over to the next page.

The wallpaper could have been printed on a fabric and then stuck on the wall somehow. It’s really ugly, but I like what he’s trying to do. I’ve always loved Calder because he was always pushing out of painting and sculpture. He did so many different things. He painted airplanes, and he made tapestries and rugs and the circus wire sculptures that we all know, and jewelry. And there didn’t seem to have be a hierarchy among the practices.

With many of these artists that I’ve been mentioning, it’s their open, almost generous way of working that I’m interested in. Sonia Delaunay might have said, “I’m an artist and this is one way that I work.” Thinking about painting as a part of life, what if a painting can be furniture? What if a painting can be something we walk on? Can it surround us everyday? A lot of artists have thought about these ideas throughout time.

This is the “Romy” spread. At the top left, you can see the “thought bubbles” from the same Verena Loewensberg painting that I use on the cover. We were trying to make sense of the cover and I kept cutting it and cutting it and cutting it up, and it wasn’t working formally. The more I cut it, the more the image was ruined, so I stuck it on this page in my sketchbook, which had Romy Schneider already there. My daughter’s also named Romy. I’ve always loved Romy Schneider as an actress. I found this picture of her smoking a cigarette with her shirt off, lying there. It’s like she’s smoking and the bubbles are becoming smoke bubbles, maybe. Or that these could be her thought bubbles. I juxtaposed them with the back of a Sophie Taeuber-Arp art book from Basel in the ’40s.

I like the formal rhythm of history. I kept thinking back to this idea, “What if we all sat down to dinner at a party? What would we say to each other, Sophie, Verena, Romy, and me?” I had these imaginary conversations. It’s another way of humanizing this found material, this very formal abstraction. If you look at the Sophie cover art, this is very formal, reductive. It’s very beautiful, but then there’s also something humorous about it when you place it with these other things. I don’t know why, but I always laugh a little bit when I see Sophie’s piece. It has an innate a sense of humor somehow. She had also made some woodcuts that looked like this drawing. They were made by cutting out the negative shapes from other forms. You can see that one’s a negative and one’s a positive. Then I imagine she shook up the forms in a box frame. This is a chance arrangement of forms, which is nice and maybe why it feels so light and less rigid and composed.

Earlier this year I made a backdrop, a curtain for a performance of a 1983 score called Perfect Lives by the composer Robert Ashley. I used a lot of the same approaches I use in my paintings to make a curtain that would function for this score, which was originally presented with electronic music. But I don’t have any schooling in electronic music, and to me it was important to recognize my own point of view in reinterpreting his score, visually.

And, thinking about the idea of a score, and painting’s history: what if this book, or a painting, is a score and you as a viewer can interpret it any way you want, or you as an artist can interpret it any way you want? You can reverse it. You can flip it. You can cut it up. You can treat artwork as something that can be engaged with, and manipulated, examined, and then physically worked with, rather than something that’s fixed, stuck, and dusty on your bookshelf, but something that we can revitalize. Art history as a score.

Sarah Crowner lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She received a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 and an MA from Hunter College in 2002. Crowner was included in the Whitney Biennial 2010, and has participated in exhibitions at White Columns, New York; Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis; Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit; de Appel, Amsterdam; Culturgest, Lisbon (2010), and DAAD Galerie, Berlin (2008), amongst others. Recently, Crowner designed the scenography for a revival of Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives, which travels to Marfa, Texas and then on to venues in Europe.

All photos by Gene Pittman

Yesterday’s Newspaper: November 7, 2012

Here’s how Dave McKenzie’s ever-changing artwork Yesterday’s Newspaper, part of The Living Years: Art after 1989, looks in the galleries today, the day after a historic election, and here’s how it looked yesterday. Hear McKenzie discuss his work at the Walker on November 8, 2012.

Next