Category "From The Field"

The San Francisco Fall Season: Binh Danh and Ai Weiwei at Haines Gallery

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Artists communicate with symbols. We use them to construct a visual language that can, at its best, transcend the need for verbal translation. As viewers, therefore, we expect to look at a photograph and evaluate the subject as itself, and as a set of ideas we believe it to represent.

In the Chinese Northern Song Dynasty, just after the turn of the first Millennium, huge cliff mountains were rendered, on screen paintings, to represent god. The power of the Universe. Fan Kuan’s “Travelers Among Rivers and Streams” is one of the best examples of this tradition. (Almost 7 ft tall.) Imposing.

This symbol set, plucked from the tradition of perhaps the world’s oldest culture, was at the front of my brain as I walked around Binh Danh’s exhibition of daguerreotypes at Haines Gallery in San Francisco. The photographs were made in Yosemite, that “Most Famous California Landmark,” shot in 2012. Old school new school make sense, in a dematerialized world.

We all know this particular set of rock cliffs, as the place has been shot to death. (Which doomed the show in my companion Kevin’s opinion.) These image/objects, though, shimmered silverly against the gray walls. Blue skies were evident in several, but not all of the pictures. The ghostly, non-realistic way of depicting the mountains brought me straight through time back to those aforementioned, thousand year old screen paintings. Excellent.

Stepping through the Danh exhibition, into the rear of the gallery, I confronted a low, dense, wide pyramid of sunflower seeds, by Ai Weiwei. Quiet. Heavy. Powerful. Beautiful. Zen.

I knew of the project, from which this installation was a small part. Reputedly, the artist commissioned 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds to be made and hand painted in the factories of China. That’s a big enough number to suitably represent 1.3 Billion Chinese people, all individuals, but having to adhere to the same operating code to avoid the gulag.

It also celebrates China. The current manufacturing base has lifted tens or hundreds of millions of citizens out of abject poverty, engendered by an overwhelming collective work ethic. The entirety of the sunflower seed installation was shown at the Tate Modern in 2011. (And they subsequently purchased 8 million of them.)

Here, I faced 500 lbs of the mini-sculptures. A quarter ton. (Or so I was told. Try to to count or weigh them, and security will be on you faster than my jaw dropped when I saw Clint Eastwood kill Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” So Postmodern I still have a headache.) That’s one of the pleasurable absurdities of work like this. We trust, but implicitly know the arithmetic could be off. Who would know?

In this gallery, fortunately, the version on display was worth Mr. Ai’s considerable hype. Massively beautiful, the perfect art stand-in for the experience of sitting beside a tree next to a cliff, listening to a waterfall behind you. (And I should know.)

The San Francisco Fall Season: A Series

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I used to have a friend named Adam. He’s kind of a dick, so we no longer speak. Such a shame. Despite, or perhaps because of his cranky narcissism, he had a huge impact upon the course of my life.

We met when I was 20, and were roommates in Albuquerque for a year. I followed him to UNM, where I studied photography, and to Pratt, where I got my MFA. (No, I’m not a stalker. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.)

Adam’s last great contribution to my education came during a visit to Brooklyn, back in 2000. Along with some friends, we were smoking cigarettes outside a historic pizza joint in Dumbo, and the guys were busting my balls. (That all-time NYC über-skill.) Jessie and I were living in San Francisco at the time, and very happy.

“San Francisco?” Adam yelled. “San Francisco’s not a city. New York is a city. It’s like living in Rome at the height of the Empire. San Francisco? It’s not a city, JB. It’s a country club. A f-cking country club.”

“Screw you, dude,” I drawled. (Proud of my Now-West-Coast-Style chillness.) “It is too a city. I live there. I should know.”

“No. You’re wrong,” he said. “It’s a country club. You’ll see.”

Prophetic words. Jessie and I moved to Brooklyn soon after. New York bitch-slapped us upside the head so swiftly, ferociously, and consistently that I wince even now. They were, fortunately, the most helpful, life-affirming, educational bitch-slaps I’ve received before or since. (Belatedly, I thank you, New York. It’s easy to see why you inspire genius on a daily basis.)

San Francisco, while clearly a city, elicits derogatory daggers from NYC-based writers all the time. Seriously, could they use the word “earnest” more often, while describing the famous San Francisco niceness? (Or chillness. Groundedness. Down-to-Earthness. Take your pick.)

What’s the secret? San Franciscans know they’re living in the prettiest city in the world. Yes, Amsterdam, Rome, London, Paris; are all exquisite. (And no, I haven’t been to Istanbul.) But SF has the architecture to match; thousands and thousands of Victorian and Edwardian gems.

No, the difference is the Nature. The peninsula boasts miles of extraordinary beaches along the Pacific Ocean, with rocky cliffs that overlook the Golden Gate Bridge. There are the views of Alcatraz in the middle of the bay, with sailboats glinting, and the golden/green landscape of Marin County and Oakland looming behind the shining Bay Bridge. (Gold in summer, green in winter.) Plus, the absurdist giant hills, crawling with cable cars, and the Eucalyptus-laden mini-mountains in the city’s heart. It might as well be a fantasy camp for Outward-bound junkies.

Always somewhere on the boom and bust continuum, boom-times are back in 2012. Twitter, LinkedIn,, all have major presences downtown now. Oracle was hosting a 50,000 person geek-fest-convention while I was there too. (Why didn’t Larry Ellison just rent the city, like he bought that Hawaiian Island?)

The Mission still has a Latino population, and Chinatown and the Outer neighborhoods contain a sizable Chinese contingent, but I was shocked at how white and wealthy the downtown section of the city had become. Safe and clean are attributes that draw a certain demographic.

The Bay Area also has access to a bottomless vat of cash-money that practically rivals the Chinese government for liquidity. (Apple and Google are just up the road.) The lifestyle is the big draw. Living in such a beautiful place, where it never snows, is good for your brain chemistry. As is the obvious access to healthy, locally-grown produce, the amazing restaurants and cafes, wine country across the red bridge, and all those nice, chilled out, progressive people as your neighbors.

Open-mindedness blossoms. So much tolerance is addictive. And many folks stay forever, given rent controls, another side-affect of progressive politics. Not surprisingly, co-operative spirit prevails in a place like this.

When I got to town in early October, I found an excited, successful, productive, collaborative, energized photography community. (Whether people were based in the City, or elsewhere around the Bay.) Everyone I spoke to seemed to be connected to one another and supportive of each other’s success. Artists, gallerists, curators, and publishers were working together in different combinations and permutations. (At Gallery Carte Blanche, in the Mission, there was even a mashup exhibition of books from the Indie Photobook Library and framed prints shown together.)

My local contacts, whom I’d met at Review Santa Fe, were so generous with their time. Pointing me in the direction of places to see photos. Sharing the principles that have engendered their success. Inspiring me to break my karaoke cherry. (Yes, I serenaded someone, by request, with Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.” Does video evidence exist? I don’t know. Would I be ashamed? I suppose we’ll find out.)

The photographers I spoke with, Kevin, Pacarrik, McNair and Sarah were all involved in different critiquing groups. Each was also shooting multiple personal projects at once. They were affiliated with similar publishers, (Owl and Tiger, Daylight) and either worked, printed or hung around Rayko, the gallery/everything space just up the street from SFMOMA, under a highway overpass. When I visited Rayko, Lydia Panas’ “The Mark of Abel” was on view, looking gorgeous, and Kevin’s show, “Los Restos de la Revolucion,” was due to open the following week.

Ann Jastrab, the gallery director, gave me the guided tour. Rayko offers full, wraparound services for every possible photographer’s need. (No, I’m not exaggerating.) I saw a shooting studio with lights, gang and private black & white darkrooms, a color processor and darkroom facility, plus a full digital setup with computers, a rental Imacon, a drum scanner, and large format printers.

In addition, they have the aforementioned gallery, a full slate of classes, a glass case selling used cameras, a working vintage 1940’s photo booth, and an artist residency program too. Amazing. It’s like Rayko decided that the 21st Century Hustle was here to stay, and built a business model to satisfy its cravings.

Believe it or not, I told Rob that this San Francisco Series would be more condensed than normal. Not the Introduction, apparently. Henceforth, I’ll do a few specific exhibition reviews, as I saw so many stellar shows. (And one klunker I might just write about.)

Before I go, though, I’d like to deliver a message to my San Francisco peeps, meant with love. It is so gratifying to see your scene thriving. Especially as it’s obviously built upon mutual respect and communal positivity. Kudos.

It can be a challenge, when you’re all connected, to always share your truest thoughts in a critique. When people need to stay on good terms, in order to succeed, there can be a disincentive to probe and offend, which is often necessary to reach that next level of creative excellence. So stay vigilant while you stay classy, San Francisco. It’s a small concern, relative to all the things you seem to have figured out at the moment.

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

It’s both easy, and impossible to get lost in the Met. Easy, because the building is both rambling and enormous; impossible, because you’re never really lost. There’s always something fascinating to look at, and the off-the-beaten path stuff is often the best. (I once found a little room, recreated as Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Haven’t seen it since.)

That said, after we left the Islamic galleries, we traipsed across the entire Museum to forage for food. Fifteen minutes later, standing in a line, waiting to pay a lot of money for not-very-interesting-sounding grub, we had a change of heart. Back, through the halls we trudged, back the way we came, back to the second floor to see some photographs. (As promised.)

The first photo exhibition, culled from the permanent collection, was called “Spies in the House of Art.” The series of images and videos was meant to offer inside access to the inner workings of the exhibition industry. The show was replete with big names, like Francesca Woodman, Candida Hofer, Louise Lawler, Thomas Struth, Diane Arbus, and Sophie Calle. Impressive lineup.

Alas, it was mostly boring. Some of the images were really good, to be sure, but ultimately, I was convinced that what happens in the front of the house is much preferred to the offices and vaults. There’s a reason they keep that stuff hidden: it’s not that interesting.

Up the hall we walked, towards another photo-only exhibit: “Naked Before The Camera.” Did that grab my attention? You bet it did. Finally, a show worthy of my snark and curiosity. I’ve been on a bit lately, in the book reviews, about the incessant use of boobs to sell photo books. Yes, they’re nice to look at. But when inserted by men, as so often happens, the repetitive pattern tends to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Exploitation needs a better reason, IMHO.

This exhibit was probably the most provocative I’ve seen at the Met. The two rooms of photographs, almost all Black and White, were engaging. Swarms of photo heroes and heroines were on display. There was a run by Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, and Diane Arbus that got my attention. Some brilliant images by Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Man Ray and Brassai that were all vibrating on the wall, packed with latent energy.

Lots of amazing photographs. True. And enough variation in style and history to make one look harder at the human shape. But that was not what left me shaking my head.

Iván and I stood before a photograph by an artist of whom neither of us had heard: Jim Jager. The photo was called “Sharkey, 1980.” Within the rectangle stood an African-American man, against a studio backdrop, naked, holding a long wooden staff in one hand. His manhood was large, befitting the stereotypes we’ve all heard before. The implied reference was Africa, though the wall text insisted the image was made in Chicago, one among many.

Apparently, the photographer made soft-core porn images on a regular basis. They were not deemed “Art” at the time, any more than the series of harlot photos by the now famous EJ Bellocq. They were just meant to get people off.

The photograph was shockingly racist. So racist that Ivan and I kept looking at each other, then the back to the photo, then to each other, raising eyebrows and blowing air slowly through our mouths. Wow. So. Very. Racist.

I turned to my friend, “Should this be here?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I don’t know.”

“Is the picture really that racist, or are we racist for assuming it’s racist?”

“I don’t know.”

“I mean, if it was a white guy, or if the penis wasn’t so huge, would we be offended?”

“I don’t know. I’m really not sure,” replied the massively opinionated, incredibly intelligent man to my right. “I just don’t know.”

I still don’t know. The layers of meaning, the depth of the references to Slavery and all things unholy, were inescapable. Should that be on the wall, among the masters of photography? Should an institution shy away from such provocations? Should it be censored, in a world in which lynching photos are hung, and vestiges of death and destruction? (Yes, no, no.) But still, I was terribly uncomfortable.

The rest of the show was tamer, until I headed for the door. There was an image of some naked Zulu girls from 1892-93. Pure trappings of colonialism. “Hey, look a the naked savages. They’re someone’s property now, so you don’t have to feel shameful.”

Together with the earlier image, they re-enforced a slimy feeling within me, one that was surprisingly lacking when I looked at all those breasts, penises, and vaginas. That was easy. Racism is hard. By including the sub-theme in the exhibit, however, the curators took a brave stand. Racism is a part of humanity, they decreed/implied, and it’s best to look at it directly. Too often, it’s left for the shadows.

One more mention, before I move on. The final image, or at least the last I noticed, was by Nadar. It was a full-on hermaphrodite photograph. The genetalia were front and center, the rest of the body faded into a shallow depth of field. The year: 1860. The effect: timeless. I shuddered, and then walked out the door. Like I said, this show ought to be controversial. If it’s still up, go see for yourself.

From there, we hiked back across Central Park, as I promised Iván some great pizza on Amsterdam Avenue. We waited out the rain, hoped the temperature would drop, watched some of a Euro Cup match, and munched on great food. (Ceasar’s Palace Pizza, Amsterdam between 83rd and 84th St.) It was a short walk to the subway from there, and we were downtown bound, to hit up a few shows in Chelsea.

Henceforth, I won’t do it that way again. The Uptown museums are about history, risk-taking and brilliance. Visions from the past, and visions that confound our expectations of the present. Clearly, not all the work on the wall is brilliant. Not possible. But the ambitions are always grand. Dream big, and you might make it.

In Chelsea, though, it’s a marketplace. Nothing more, nothing less. Yes, the salesmen are dignified, though they won’t pay you any mind. They’re worried about the big fish that drop mad cash via email. Fair enough.

I don’t begrudge them anything, despite some of my past criticism. Capitalism marches on, and the businesses are there to sell Art. If they didn’t have to be open to the public, perhaps the doors would lock forever. But they do. And we go.

There’s often, if not always, great work to be seen. But it’s lost in the noise of mediocrity. My brain morphed from idealistic and humanistic to jaded and angry, and all it took was a train ride South. So much work was so seemingly tied to who knows who, or who’s profile is big enough to demand a solo show. Or at least that’s how I felt in the moment. Like I said, jaded.

In fairness, it was Summer, which we all know is not the time to see the showstopper exhibitions. And, having spent the better part of an hour sweating in Central Park, I didn’t have enough time to hit up 20 or 30 galleries, which would have increased my chances of seeing something transcendent. Alas.

As it was, we met my friend Jaime at Matthew Marks, to see the new Thomas Demand exhibit. Arriving early, we checked into a few spaces right there on 22nd St, and both were shaking our heads as we opened the door to the cavernous space. (One of several that Marks has in the neighborhood. He’s one of a handful of “Super-dealers” that drive the scene.)

I’ll say straight out, Mr. Demand is one of my favorite artists. I’ve long been enamored of his super-intricate, hand-made, illusionistic creations. They look “real” but are not. What is “real” anyway? Is paper real? Surely it is. But when people think they’re seeing a composite desk, or a ceramic bathtub, then paper and cardboard are relegated to “fake.”

There were three photographs on the wall, and a video in the larger back room. (They reconfigure the space for each show, I believe.) As much as I love the artist, I’d say the show was workmanlike, at best. When there are only three images to behold, they best be brilliant.

The money shot was called “Control Room.” It depicted what looked like the bridge of some Space Ship, or the nerve center of a Government bunker, deep underground. Hidden under Colorado Springs, no doubt.

The panels of the ceiling hung down, however, and there were no humans to be seen. It was empty. Haunted. One could not escape the feeling that the image was meant to represent a dim view of the future, when we were gone, but our organized infrastructure remained. Empty, yes, but don’t forget the organized part. (The artist is German, after all.)

The other two images were far less dramatic. One, a storeroom filled with art, the other, a room service cart in a generic hotel room. Often, there are stories associated with Mr. Demand’s scenes, stories not accessible by the title or image. The background floats along by word of mouth. Which is to say, if there were reasons for these photos, they escaped me.

Jaime was entranced with the lighting techniques in the food cart photo. He deconstructed the way the light enhanced certain shapes, and softened others. It was not something I would have noticed. Another great reminder how subjective was our venture, judging and deciding. One man’s love of implied narrative is another man’s fascination with light.

Speaking of implied narrative, as there was no image-history at our fingertips, I guessed, “Maybe it was one of Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard’s last meals? Before he was put down for his failure to protect the big boss?” Quickly, Jaime retorted, “No, they don’t eat pork.” I looked again, and there, among the fake paper food, was a piece of fake proscuitto. Well seen, Jaime.

The video returned to the Space Ship theme, as a room swayed above, on the screen. The commissary of some lost Enterprise, sloshing back and forth, back and forth. All the furniture would slide one way across the room, and then back again. Jaime noted that nothing was ever damaged, though. Odd, yes, cool, sure, but I wondered if it pushed the artist’s ideas any further along?

And that was why I ultimately left disappointed. Mr. Demand has been making work in this style for a very, very long time. Will he shift? Will it end? I don’t know. Should he? Can an artist mine the same territory, over and over and over again, and never get bored? Will the work improve forever, or get stale, like that hunk of ciabatta you forgot about, that guards the back of your refrigerator?

Of course, I don’t know. When I shot my current project in my studio, I knew some would say it looked a lot like “The Value of a Dollar,” as they share the same locale. But I wanted to build on my ideas, and thought it was silly to change my studio around just because some would have me do so. A table is a table, after all.

But, never would I ever shoot only that way, forever. It would not cross my mind, to never, ever change. Yes, making a new way in the world can be scary, and failure is more than possible. So I suppose that means that, in my opinion, it’s time for Mr. Demand to move on. Freshen things up.

Will he? Who knows? I can tell you one thing though. If he does, it won’t be because of anything I’ve said. When we make Art, we’re ultimately our own boss. If we choose to slave to the market, so be it. He can laugh all the way to his secret bank account in the Caymans. Who am I to criticize?

New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Wait a second,” I said. “I know that building.”

“Yes, it does look familiar,” Iván replied.

“Right. From Central Park West.”

“Central Park West?” His eyebrows shot up, quickly. “Ah, I see.”

The humidity clung to our damp shirts, formerly respectable. Our moods tumbled. Quickly. We just realized we’d gotten lost in Central Park, and had walked South for fifteen minutes, rather than East. Which meant thirty more minutes of schlepping in the heat over rocks and towers and ponds and asphalt.

I suppose it was understandable. We hadn’t seen each other in four years. We were excited. Gregarious. Gesticulating.
And we’d chosen to walk from the bus stop on 86th St, rather than take the bus that awaited. (A mistake I ought never have made. You always take the air-conditioned route in Sweat Season.)

I was raring to chat, because I’d seen something shocking, yet ordinary the night before, and couldn’t wait to hear what Iván thought about it. My uncle had showed me some videos on the computer. A distant relative’s girlfriend, a self-styled vocalist, had made a series of singing videos.

I admit, she’s very attractive, in a conventional way. Using her webcam, in low-cut underwear, she’d sway as she sang, staring right into the camera in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was really bad at singing. (And not the good kind of bad.) Off key, pitchy, call it what you will. I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. For real. All the while, I felt very bad about myself. Ashamed.

In one song, I can’t remember which, she even similated sex, hopping up and down on an imaginary lover. My first thought was, this has to be a joke, right? But my Uncle swore no. Second thought: poor thing. She has no idea.

It was all just so…personal. Stuff like that should be for your friends. No cameras. Just messing around while you’re hanging out. Having a laugh. It’s not meant for strangers. How have we all gotten so mixed up about reality?

The whole thing just seemed so perfectly symbolic of these difficult-to-quantify times. There she was, using the web to overshare, horribly, all the while thinking it was the ticket to stardom. Not ironically. (Too bad. That might have caught on. Though I suppose nobody remembers William Hung.)

We hear that the unemployment numbers for Generation Y, (or the Millenials,) are off the charts. 50% higher the the national average. And how many of these 20-somethings have moved back in with their parents? An astonishing amount, by any reasonable measure. To top it off, these kids now owe so much money for their student loans, that they’ll be working it off until they’re 50. But there are no jobs to work off the debt. It’s criminal.

They think that Flickr or Youtube or Twitter or Instagram will make them wealthy and famous, so they can continue to live in the lifestyle to which their parents have made them accustomed. (Formerly known as the American Dream.) Which is to say, this is likely to be the first generation of Americans who have a “lesser” lifestyle than the one before. (Or did Generation X beat them to that distinction, as my wife pointed out?) Furthermore, is that such a bad thing? The concept of infinite wealth is seriously outmoded.

And that’s where I left off, when I realized we were going the wrong way.

It took forever to traverse the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but eventually we succeeded. After swiping the plastic in the lobby, (you can pay what you choose,) we darted to the bathroom, where I had to use three paper towels to get the sweat off, and then still dunked my whole head in the sink. Classy. (Sir, we’ll have to ask you to leave now.)

Thank goodness we had to use the bathroom. Had we not, I’d never have seen the oldest painted portraits I’ve encountered. They were encaustic, wax on limewood, from Egypt. Mummy portraits, from 130-150AD. Men peaked out under coal ringlets of hair, with big haunting eyes, and razor cut cheekbones. Wow. So Old. So beautiful. (As we photographers know, it’s always about the expression in the eyes.)

Iván and I were there for a reason, though: to visit the newly redone Islamic Galleries. I’d read that they were brilliant, (Peter Schjeldahl claimed himself a different person upon departure,) and wanted to see for myself.

Tucked through the Mesopotamian wing, we walked in, thinking at the outset that it lacked bombast. No book store, no lady offering you headsets. And so far in the back. But nothing in this Museum is ordinary, so my expectations were high. (Alas, I was not. Work is work.)

It’s built like one long, rectangular loop. We entered to the right, which I’d recommend, but only if you want to have the experience thusly. There were many beautiful objects to be seen, carved wood and sculpted clay jumping out, and color as well. Beautiful blues.

I was drawn, immediately, to a wine glass. So ordinary a concept. Here, it was a 1200 year old, blue-green piece of glory from Syria or Iraq. I had a daydream. I was a bearded, black-haired merchant. It was warm out. I munched dates, and slurped cool wine from this beautiful, blue-green waterglass. Sounds nice.

We continued through, and of course I had my favorites. But soon I found myself saying, “What’s with the hype? It’s nice and all, but not worth dying over.” Then, not 10 seconds later, we walked into a room to our right, the Koç Gallery. Boom.

The ceiling was wood, sculpted and dominant. I wrote in my notes that it was “somewhat indescribable.” (And yet I try.) Spanish, from the 16th Century. (They don’t scrimp at the Met.) Under its eye, the walls were covered with huge carpets. 20, 30 feet high. One seemed to be 40 feet for sure.

We sat. And stared. And, as much as we both like to talk, we were quiet. It felt like five minutes. Who’s to say?

There were other treasures, yes, but this was the room to see. We passed some Chinese-Style porcelain plates, blue on white. Lovely. But not from China. They were Persian, from the 16th Century.

That’s when it hit me. Globalization is not new. Idea transmission, global commerce, interconnectedness, these are not new happenings, and their attendant problems not new either. Empires rise and Fall, but power endures. Our predilection to violence remains, as does our desire to trade things we have too much of for things we crave. Or, as Iván put it, “What we call Globalization is really when Globalization was completed. Nothing left to Globalize anymore.”

And looking at the Art, one could never believe the Iranians as savage as our Talking Heads might have us believe. Not slightly. They laugh at Chumps like Saddam Hussein and George W. (Though nobody messed with Saddam as badly as the South Park guys. Beyond twisted.)

And that’s why I go to museums. And why I love to write about it afterwards. (Remembering memories make the memories stronger, I recently read.) I go, because I never know what new thoughts I’ll have, what colors I’ll see, what gods will be there to worship. I go, because I want to improve as an artist, and the only way to get better is to see new things, made by better artists than I am.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, in which I go look at some actual photographs.

London Art Visit – Part 2

by Jonathan Blaustein

Where were we? Right. London. I loved it. How’s that for succinct? Now you don’t have to read any further. (Just kidding.) It’s a fantastic city, one of the great spots on Earth. And of course, England and the United States have a “special relationship”, (as if I could make such a thing up) so there was lots to talk about.

My good friend Hugo, the deviser of the Art tour we began yesterday, moved from New York to London in 2007. He endured the Bush years, but missed all of Obama’s term. So he was incredulous when I told him that nobody talks about George W. Bush anymore. (From omnipotent to irrelevant in 4 short years.) Can you imagine? In Hugo’s mind, all that passion about W. was locked in time, and delivering the news of his obsolescence brought calcified shock to Hugo’s eyes. But I digress.

We left off on Friday, after visits to the British Museum and National Gallery of Art. My brain was tired, but we soldiered on. Our tea spot of the day was a cafe and bakery on the top floor of the Comme des Garçon store near Saville Row. The green tea and bacon-egg-tart were equally smashing. Our waitress was American, and dropped the word “bangin'” on us as if it drew gasps of pleasure from a more typically British crowd.

Then, on to some galleries up the street, right next to that famous fashion spot for bespoke suits. The first, Hauser & Wirth, had two separate galleries. One was lacking, and the other had some super-large, super-subtle paintings by the Dutch artist Michael Raedecker. They were panels, striated in pale pink, gray-silver, and green: Houses on a hill, chandeliers, and window curtains the symbolic motifs. Nice houses. Serene. Like on a hilltop outside LA. Easy living. (Sounds nice.)

The paintings were really, really beautiful. In the gallery, with its huge ceilings, white walls, concrete floors, insanely large square footage, nice ladies behind the counter…Pretty special.

Around the corner and up a short elevator ride, we went to see a Sarah Lucas exhibit at Sadie Coles. The woman working there, again friendly, was wearing this wicked Victorian-collar-meets-well fitting-short-dress, in black. It was seemingly on trend, as one of the ladies at MACK wore something similar that morning, in blue. (Not that we’re here to talk about fashion.)

The show was insane for three reasons. One, there was a video by the artist’s boyfriend (of course), in which he was playing with himself dramatically, while wearing fake boobs. And homeboy was selling it. It was so offensive it was hard to look away, so I didn’t. I watched for a solid two minutes, and make of that what you will.

Two, the artist, Sarah Lucas, had a piece in another room of a raw chicken hanging off of a hanger with cooked eggs. (The chicken has to be changed when it starts to smell.) Three, was a large-mural photograph, printed right on the wall, of a giant T-shirt, with just the middle of the nipples worn out on each side. I asked if it was editioned, and I was told yes. Ed. of 5. “Made to measure.” And I’m not making that up. That’s exactly what she said. Right next to Saville Row.

That night, I had dinner with a motley crew of global photographers at a Turkish restaurant in North London. We set the whole thing up in an online Facebook chat, if you can believe it, and I walked from Hugo’s place down the road. En route, I saw a road called Ennis, and some clever bloke had painted on a P at the front. Then, he claimed his credit: “Cletus wuz ‘ere, ’12.” Nicely done, Cletus. Nicely done.

Sitting down at Petek, ravenous, I started scarfing olives until I could catch my breath. And with whom was I to dine? Ben was British, Hin an Australian of Chinese descent, Dana from Romania, Liz another Brit, and Maja from Sweden. They all loved living in London, were working on totally disparate projects, (Romanian youth identity, Occupy St. Pauls, following the entirety of the Rio Grande River…), and seemed fulfilled in their careers. Wait, that’s so boring. No controversy? Sorry, not that night.

Saturday took us to the Burough Market, near the London Bridge tube stop, where we shopped for some of the most fantastic products I’ve seen. There was a dinner planned for that night, and we wandered the stands looking for inspiration. We ended up going the Italian route, as these were things that don’t exist in New Mexico. Mozzarella di Bufala, Grana Fiorentina, bresaola, rocket (arugula), fragrant lemon, tortolloni di cingale (wild boar,) and fresh garlic shoots to top it off. Our dessert of hazelnut, chocolate and coconut gelato was purchased the night before. Like I said, Hugo doesn’t mess around.

Art wise, we went to the Hayward Gallery, another public space, right up the way. (Though we did scarf down a Syrian Schwarma at the outdoor food market just below the entrance. Delicious.) This gallery does cost money to enter, and it’s a part of the massive, partly-Brutalist Southbank Centre on the edge of the Thames. Very beautiful spot. (Have I said that already? Are you sensing a theme?)

Two British artists, like Sarah Lucas a part of the famed YBAs, were paired together, Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley. Each, on its own, would have been a brilliant experience. Together, they were good enough that I deemed myself (incorrectly) done viewing Art for the rest of the trip.

We went into the Deller exhibit first, as it was on the ground floor. Both men work in multiple media, including a fair dash of photography, and utilize humor, wit and pathos. Straight off, we entered a room filled with Music posters and random photos, cramped and not exactly special. Next, a fake bathroom with a real toilet, as an installation, with people queued up to enter. OK, now we’re getting somewhere. Next, a huge wall mural, painted in dark gray, that said I Heart Melancholy. But the heart was an emoticon. Which I don’t know how to type properly.

Then, a photo print on mirrored stainless steel, a hanging video of dancing weirdos, a functioning restaurant in the middle of the gallery space, a couple of super-well-done photo series, a newspaper and reading lounge, an exhibit of professional wrestling capes, a whole section called “My Failures,” where he shows projects that never happened, and finally, miraculously, a 3D video, in a dark room filled with strangers, of 10 million bats emerging from a cave in Texas. Try reading that sentence again ten times, and you might understand how I felt coming out of the bat cave. I normally get headaches from 3D glasses, and this was no exception. But it was worth it.

I soldiered upstairs to see David Shrigley’s exhibition, from whence my memories are more fuzzy. Mr. Shrigley’s work was even funnier and odder, or perhaps just equally so. The first thing you see is a melted foam fisherman in hip boots. No, sorry, before that was of course the headless fabric ostrich. Then, a photo of a red sign on green grass that said “Imagine this green red.” A grocery list on an actual tombstone. A series of line drawings, animated, as black on white music videos. And, of course, a stuffed Jack Russell terrier in a vitrine holding a picket sign that said “I’m dead.” Just one more? On a wall pedestal, a 1 ft tall brass bell, next to it a sign saying “Not to be rung again until Jesus returns.”

That was one dense paragraph. And I didn’t even cover 1/4 of the show. You get the point. Clever stuff. Witty, smart, creative, and powerful in person too. Together, this was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, alongside “September 11”, which was a Bizarro version. (Tragic/Comic)

Spent, I said I was done. I told Hugo, “No more. No more. Have mercy.” Even one more espresso/lemon tart pit-stop, and a walk along the Thames, didn’t clear my head enough. (Sample surreality: a three-piece Gypsy jam band, an African guy playing the saxaphone, and an Afghan man selling fake peacock feathers: all within 90 seconds on the Thames.) But then we found ourselves, mere steps from the tube stop, standing right outside the beautiful, Gothic, Southwark Chapel.

I. Could. Not. Help. Myself. So we went in.

Huge, vaulted ceilings, dark and imposing, it was irresistible. We slowly walked towards the crucifix ahead, and it glimmered. What? We got closer, and it was clearly metal. Just as I spied a route to get us closer, the deepest, darkest, scariest-sounding,two-story-high organ began to play, directly above my head. So, so, so frightening. Hugo said, “Remember, these were the guys who invented Halloween.”

I shook off the sound, and walked around that corner and up to the statue. A metal screaming Jesus, pierced by countless spears. That’s right, screaming. “Die Harder,” by David Mach of the Royal Academy. Recent, contemporary Art, displayed in a Gothic Cathedral. Not a merciful god, this.

Next, the very next minute, no lie, with the organ thumping in the background, and the scary Jesus sculpture shimmering behind me, Hugo tapped me on the shoulder, and there, a cat padded down the hall towards us. Then he skulked by, and disappeared. (This is not a work of fiction.) Have you had enough?

That night was a beautiful dinner party for my birthday, so the next day required a late start. (Especially as it featured the only real rain I saw all trip.) Hugo’s loft has got a partly glass roof, so we squirmed off much of the ensuing hangover by drinking crazy-special tea from China, and watching the gray clouds move across the sky. I said, “No more art. I can’t do it. Please, don’t make me.”

Eventually hunger, if nothing else, drove us across London, in the Porsche, in the rain. On to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of the other Crown Jewels of London. (Really, it was straight to the coffee shop.) We sat in the Victoria Room, which was suitably decorated, and ate currant scones with jam and clotted cream. We drank Lapsang Souchong tea, which is smoked. I’d heard of it before, but did not believe such things existed in actual realty. (Ever the economist, I assumed it was like a widget, a fictional product that doesn’t exist.)

What did I see, that you’d want to know about, that you could even possibly remember, after reading both of these articles? How about a golden kimono made of cannibal spider silk? One million spiders, to be exact. Or a stone tiger urinal from 6th Century China? Or, crazier still, a plaster replica of Trajan’s column from Rome, to scale, at 38 meters high and 3.8 meters wide. For you Americans, that’s 125 feet tall. (Imagine the roof on this place.)

Then, cruel twist of fate, the last gallery we visited housed the permanent photography collection. (The second to last show was the Cecil Beaton portraits of the Queen, which is not free, and totally, I repeat, totally, worth skipping.) As for the final act, let’s just list the names, shall we? Amazing examples all: Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Muybridge, EJ Bellocq, Atget, Stieglitz, Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray, Walker Evans, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Harry Callahan, Diane Arbus, Frank, Friedlander, Ed Rushca, and El Lissitzky. Just. One. Room.

At that point, the Museum was about to close, so they chased us out. Hugo and I stopped for sea urchin at a secret-sushi spot, and then drove home, exhausted. I caught a plane the next morning.

What else is there to say? London is fantastic. You should go there. That is all.

London Art Visit – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

I first met Hugo in graduate school. Day one, I believe. It took me a few months to discern that he was well born. The type that neither brags nor name drops. From London originally, he was raised in Upper Manhattan, and attended the right sort of schools. (We used to laugh at the visual of a little 5 year old in short pants, tossing his British accent amidst the swarms of rabid New Yorkers.)

We stayed close in school, taking the same photography classes, and graduated together. Other than the random visit to the Soho House, lounging in the roof-top pool, high above the Meatpacking District, he acted no differently than any other graduate student. When I moved back to Taos, he came and visited twice, tearing up the slopes with his Swiss-style-skiing. (All hips. Pretty to look at, but you wouldn’t really want to take it into bumpy trees.)

And then, nothing. Our relationship devolved into monthly two sentence emails, as he made it plain that the next visit was on me. He moved back to London, the economy fell apart, and the chances of me scrounging up the cash for an Intercontinental plane ticket were only slightly larger than Rick Santorum becoming President.

Relationships, like plants, need water. Email, Facebook, Twitter, they all work for basic relationship maintenance, but friends need to see each other from time to time. Or things die. So when I finally got to visit London last month (to report on the Art scene for our faithful APE readers,) I had an extra-special-double-secret reason to go.

Emerging from the plane, my first time in the UK, I thought it no different from any other jetway. It calmed my nerves after the long trip. As soon as I set foot in passport control, it was clear that I wasn’t in America anymore. The line snaked along under purple lighting and exposed silver duct-work, and my fellow travelers hailed, rather obviously, from Afghanistan, Mongolia & Southeast Asia. I waited my turn, passed through the booth, and was off.

As a resident of America’s car culture, there are few things as pleasurable as emerging from a foreign airport and hopping on a train in the basement. The type that whisks (or crawls) you into the heart of town, for little cost. (As opposed to the $35 taxi ride I recently took on the way back to Houston Hobby.) Luckily, Hugo lived just a few blocks off the Picadilly Line, the very same train I grabbed at Heathrow.

Just over an hour later, I knocked at Hugo’s door, in the shadow of the gorgeous Emirates Stadium in North London. (Yes, I follow Arsenal. Predictable, no?) Hugo answered the call, dressed impeccably in the kind of gentleman’s pajamas that only make sense in certain circumstances. (Very sharp, but I don’t think I could pull them off on the farm.) He said, “Great to see you again, Old Chap.” Game on.

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes before I had a perfect Lavazza espresso in my hands, chased by some beautiful Italian mineral water. I barely exaggerate when I say that for the next 96 hours, while awake, there was always some brain-chemistry-enhancing-substance in my hands: coffee, tea, water, wine, gin, champagne, or a hand-rolled cigarette. I normally don’t smoke, but to properly battle jet-lag, that mashup of adrenaline, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and H20 works very well. (Until the crash, of course. But you don’t want to hear about that.)

Why all the fuss about Hugo, and his regal understanding of hospitality? Because I was there to see Art, and he was my guide. For the first time since I wandered the streets of Rome, trailing my freshly-taught younger brother, I let someone else do the planning. Hugo knows me very well, and understands my taste in Art, among other things. So I allowed him to pick our spots, as well as the order in which we saw them. Perhaps he was an over-qualified tour guide, but you are the beneficiaries, so I thought a bit of backstory was appropriate.

All this was on a Thursday morning. The tour started that afternoon, after we visited with a curator friend of his. She was lovely, but I’ll respect everyone’s privacy for once, and not drop her name. (I didn’t know she was important at the time anyway.) The three of us hopped into Hugo’s 1983 black Porsche, replete with whale-tail and silly cherry-colored-checkered seats. It was a flashback to the 80’s, yes, but served like a better version of an ironic mustache. So cheesy it was cool. So nerdish it was smooth.

We ate lunch in the East End, apparently trendy, and then hit a few galleries so that I could earn my keep. We saw 150 year old paper negatives at Daniel Blau, which only served to highlight the importance of talent and vision. Several pieces, by Gustave de Beaucorps, jumped off the wall, and the rest didn’t. Even the power of age didn’t lift a pedestrian image above its merit. Though I did feel that in a digital age, it was far more difficult to connect to the passage of time. As everything can now be faked, it sometimes disempowers the real thing.

Another highlight was Yayoi Kusama at Victoria Miro. Countless huge paintings hung on the wall, the Pop palette mixed up with an interesting, Eastern-tinged symbol set. Hard to believe so much work was available to view, as the artist was having a concurrent show at Tate Modern. (Which I then felt less of a need to see.) We also went to a public gallery called Parasol Unit, where there were some terrific Richard Long pieces on the wall. White China clay hand prints on black paper, marching from one corner of the composition to another. Beautiful and elegant. (Like London?)

Whipping through the streets, shortly thereafter, Hugo pulled to the side of the road by a tube station, and ejected me out with little notice. I was already trending late for my aforementioned meeting with Aron Mörel, and there was no time to waste. I was tardy, in the end, but only because I couldn’t sort which direction was which back on street level. And my fellow pedestrians were no help at all. (Not surprisingly, the only times I felt lost and out of place in this brilliant city were when I was alone, and trying to find my way.)

When it happened Friday morning, not 300 yards from the MACK headquarters, I got a great piece of advice from a local. Staring helplessly at a map, certain that Denmark St was practically within reach, I asked a nice man which way was North. That was all the help I needed to orient myself. He laughed. “There’s no such thing as North, South, East and West in London,” he said. “My wife’s American, so I can see why you’d make that mistake. She was the same.” Then he directed me the wrong way. (By accident, of course.)

It wasn’t until that afternoon, deep into Hugo’s perfect Friday Art tour, that I understood what the gent meant. We ambled from one plaza to another, or one alleyway, or one narrow lane. Here in Taos, I can see for 100 miles, no lie. But in London, “Here” was never more than a couple hundred yards in any direction. We’d not yet made it to the Thames, so every turn we took just landed us back into a serpentine block of beautiful buildings, not so different than the last. It made mid-town New York’s grid look positively German. What it lacked in perspective, though, it more than made up for in charm. (Seriously, though. How do they keep London so clean?)

The first stop on our tour was the British Museum, to see the King’s Gallery. I haven’t googled it to fact-check, but Hugo said it was the world’s first public Art museum. And by public, I mean free. None of the public museum and galleries in town charge a fee, unless you’re seeing a special exhibition. We sauntered in, without even a bag check, and the place was teeming with people. Think about it. In NYC, at $25 a ticket, a family of four has to shell out $100 to experience the best art. And that’s per museum. Here: Free. Brilliant.

The King’s Gallery looked like a huge library in a castle somewhere in the country, with an open second story covered with books. There was far too much to see to take it all in, so as a viewer, one gravitates to whatever pulls you. Like shopping in the Mega-mart. You might not need any laundry detergent, but of course you have to have some pickles. I was delighted there, and all trip for that matter, to see things I’d never seen before.

What did I love? Some greenish-patina colored Centurion helmets. Amazing. I guessed Roman, and was not too far off. They were Etruscan, so I was 500 years too late. There were also some glazed relief tiles from Buckinghamshire, made in the 13th or 14th Century. A crucifixion piece looked like a mashup of Tim Burton and Monty Python, gruesome and yet witty. And, of course, very old.

I saw 13th Century French enamel cups that looked like Hobbit houses from the Shire, or Trullo homes from Basilicata. The colors, blue yellow red and gold seduced me, all these years later. (Which was a theme of the day, ancient color alive and vibrant. Makes me rethink the idea of archival pigment inks.) Then, an Ice-Age-Hand-Axe found inside a Roman elephant in 43 AD. Yes, you read that right. It’s since been dated to 400,000 years ago. (I suppose it’s better not to ask how it was found inside an elephant. Perhaps Donald Trump Jr. was responsible.)

Next, a colossal foot, on a pedestal, from Ancient Greece. It reeked of totemic power, like it was crushing down on your throat. Then, a gravestone, in Arabic, from 1032 AD. (Rest in peace, Ali, son of Ahmad.) On to Persian glazed tiles, a Marble Dog Vishnu from Rajasthan, and the most beautiful Chinese porcelain Bodhisattvas I’ve ever seen. Yes, this was all in one gallery in one museum. And, to be clear, I only saw 5% of what was on display in the King’s Gallery. So much human genius, so little time.

Out we went, into another gallery, and I found myself facing icons from the Aztec Empire. Back on familiar terrain, or so I thought, we walked up to a double-headed turquoise snake sculpture, with sharp, dangerous teeth. (Real? Maybe.) Named Nahautl, it was as powerful and scary an object as I’ve seen. I could almost smell the blood in the air, singed as the hearts burned in vats on top of the temples.

On through the Americas, we ended up back where I began. Bending down, I saw a beautiful piece of pottery, from Diego Romero. (Born 1969.) It was from the Cochiti Pueblo, in-between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Can you believe it? I couldn’t, so I yelled out “Big Ups to Cochiti Pueblo,” and then exclaimed that I might be the only person in London at the time who knew exactly where it was. (Big dam, little lake.) Was I ridiculous? I don’t know, as my fellow museum-goers were too polite to mock me.

Back into the street, we needed a coffee. (Remember, always have some narcotic substance in your bloodstream at all times.) Write this one down. 1.5 blocks from the entrance to the British Museum, there’s a great little spot called the Camera Cafe. Lenses, cameras, espresso, and Chicken Chow Mein, all in one spot. The man making coffee even gave us a free cookie, as we’d only bought one for the two of us, and he thought we’d made a mistake. A must for visiting photographers and Londoners alike.

On to the National Gallery of Art, also free. Hugo led us straight to the Florentine Renaissance paintings, to see Paolo Uccello, in particular, with whom I wasn’t familiar. A huge piece, “The Battle of San Romano,” was a revelation of color and early perspective, which was still working itself out. As such, the background battlers, in the upper corner, looked like something out of a contemporary video game: rendered to keep the eye moving along, but far from the important bits. Uccello also had a dragon painting, from 1470, which made me feel like I was really in England. (Despite its Florentine origins.) It was beautiful, and tame compared to what I saw next. (After some brilliant Fra Angelico pieces, that is.)

We headed for the Dutch galleries, as I always love to see some new Rembrandts when possible. They were there, but less special than what I’ve seen before. So, as I spun, unimpressed, I was shocked by what I faced. Cornelius van Haarlem, in 1588, painted an image of a dragon eating some dude’s face. Mid-chew. Grotesque, gory, and gifted, it stopped me cold.

I looked until I couldn’t look anymore. How have I never seen such a thing before? Nearby, El Greco’s “Christ driving the Traders from the Temple,” stood up to it, though, and wiped the face blood from my RAM.

Yes, it’s time to compare our brains to a computer. We only have so much buffer space, before things don’t stick. They just push each out of the way, and hope to be good enough, or lucky enough, to write to the hard drive of our deep consciousness. That’s why I’m typing this article a full month after I arrived home.

Travel, and art, make our brain work so hard that it’s impossible to know what’s important in the moment. I can’t even remember what most of the buildings looked like, as each new nook of the city pushed out my memory of the one before. So on that note, having already dropped 2300 words on your head, let’s pause for a respite. This London tale will be continued tomorrow.

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 2

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

There’s nothing quite so sad as a bunch of fancy coffee addicts, also hungry, twitching down the highway 80 miles for a fix. But when your alternative is the gas station in Van Horn, Texas, you do what you must. That being said, the drive towards salvation was most definitely precarious. First, it was David complaining that there’s no room for Credence on a Texas road trip. (“Have You Ever Seen the Rain”) Sacrilege.

Then, I made the (apparently) equally egregious mistake of calling dibs on some photographic subject matter I found, thereby guaranteeing that my buddies would come out, shutters blazing. (It was a forlorn piece of a frozen Santa suit by the side of the road, across from a pecan farm.) According to my friends, there’s no such thing as dibs on a photo safari. My mistake.

Eventually, we made it to Marfa. Out came the Iphones, desperate for a recommendation. Of course, this not being the most meticulously planned trip, most of the restaurants in town were closed. Seems Marfa’s business class has figured out that their jet-set-clientele all leave town sometimes, together, off to better weather, so in response, the shops in town just close, without warning, whenever they like. Seems fair.

But enough about that. We found a nice little cafe run by a sweet Swiss woman, and collapsed into our seats. (She also sold small batch, $14 chocolate bars. Telling detail.) Yes, the coffee was good. Yes, the fruit smoothie made me feel better. Yes, I did feel pangs of guilt for having become so dreadfully bougie at some point in the last ten years.

The four of us choked down the last few bites of our identical baguette sandwiches, as we had a 10 am appointment at the Chinati Foundation for a tour of the facilities. Perhaps this might be the right moment to explain what a “Chinati Foundation” is, and why it was important enough for us to drive straight into the mouth of hell to see it. (For those of you who know the backstory, feel free to skip down a paragraph.)

Without me reciting details like a well-informed, unpaid docent, (Thanks, Mike Bianco) I’ll cut to the chase. At some point in his youth, the soon-to-be-famous Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd passed through Marfa. There was a small military base there, just some barracks really, and he was smitten. Later, the base would be used as a lightly guarded holding facility for German Officer POW’s captured in WWII. Still later, Judd would return, buy up most of the town, and begin installing his work as he saw fit. Then, institutional money came in to support his vision. (Hence the Judd and Chinati Foundations.) Finally, as you might expect, hordes of moneyed followers descended, thereby making Marfa, officially, the strangest place I’ve been in the United States. (Take that, Scottsdale.)

So now you’re caught up. I suppose it’s also worth mentioning that I heard the Director of the Chinati Foundation speak in Reno last Fall, and he said there would be a special exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s new photo sculptures on display. I figured that seeing what an acclaimed photo master had cooked up in his lab was enough of a reason to schedule the trip. After all, we all love ourselves some Sugimoto, don’t we?

We arrived a few minutes late, as it was difficult to find the place through the barrage of broken down little shotgun houses. I can’t stress enough how “rustic” are the outskirts of this little town. When you know how many billions of dollars are driving down the street at any given moment, it’s just impossible to connect those two realities. In fact, now that I’m home and have thought about it a bit, perhaps our nightmare of a visit to Van Horn was a blessing. It enabled the four of us to stay grounded, remembering vividly how the other half lives. It’s hard to get freaked out by a few art world snobs when you’ve still got the stench of human desperation in your nostrils.

Ah, the Art you say? How is it possible that I’ve made it this deep into my ramblings without discussing it yet? Shameful. The work on display at the CF was world class. We began our tour in a hangar building, where some Judd furniture was on display. Rows of concrete on the floor were interspersed with rows of perfectly raked gravel. Without thinking, I started walking on the gravel, messing it up with each step, and then turned to watch everyone else walking gingerly on the concrete lines. (Does that tell you everything you need to know about me?) Watching the light forms falling through the windows on the concrete, listening to the creaks of the old building, it was a terrific twenty minutes.

From there, we walked on, past a Richard Long spiral sculpture of volcanic rock from Iceland. The artificial nature of said nature was not super-powerful, set against the tall grass and waving trees of the sunny South Texas morning. On we walked, and soon enough we’d reached one of two humungous hangar-type-buildings. Together, they housed one of Judd’s most famous works: 100 aluminum cubes, each mostly identical but slightly different than the others. The buildings were brick, with still more concrete and glass. (None of the tour allowed photography, unfortunately, but I did sneak one image later on.)

At first, I was surprisingly disappointed. I was expecting to feel exalted, like the best Museum experiences, where you can feel your cells re-arranging in real time. When our emotions are engaged, along with our minds, the best viewing experiences fill us with an almost spiritual joy at encountering the best that humanity can muster. That didn’t happen here. Instead, I found myself pressing my face against the window, looking out at the rectangular concrete sculptures in the golden Winter grass. Yes, I felt like the kid trapped in detention, staring at all his friends having fun outside at recess. So strange.

Then, I accepted that this was not an installation that spoke to my soul, but perhaps it might seriously engage my mind. Whenever I hear people describe Art as having left them cold, it bugs me a bit. As much as I love warmth, there’s definitely a place in the world for it’s opposite. Cold ought not to be, automatically, a pejorative term.

But it’s an appropriate term here. Cold, clinical, precise, mechanical, repetitive, exact, mathematic. Rows and rows of shiny boxes, standing at attention. Ever so similar, just slightly different. Almost like soldiers. Or more specifically, German Soldiers. In World War II. Gleaming officers, stepping out of gleaming Panzer tanks, the finest German engineering could produce. Yes, that’s when the lightbulb went off. It all made sense.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll never know if this is what Judd was thinking. But those POW’s used to be in these hangars, and now they’ve been replaced by the sculptures. Not only that, but they even kept some painted instructions on the wall, in German, that said “Better to use your head than lose your head.” So lets not assume it’s that big of a stretch. Once that idea popped into my head, my appreciation for the work flowered. Call me crazy, if you like, but when I mentioned my theory to the guys, they all nodded and agreed that it made sense.

From there, we hit one more installation, which was my favorite of the day. Created by the Russian Artist, Ilya Kabakov, one of the barracks had been transformed into a faux, abandoned, Russian primary school. Yes, it was a bit precious, (you had to avoid stepping on some of the perfectly arranged dirt) but the vibe and attention to detail were astonishing. It felt so real, with little odds and ends everywhere, here a school book, there a photograph, here a chemistry beaker, there a set of boxing gloves. My most enjoyable impression, again requiring a bit of imagination, was that we were actually in a parallel Universe, one in which the Soviets had won the cold war back in the 50’s. They colonized the US, and then abandoned the more useless parts, like this stretch of nowhere Texas.

We soon headed back to town for lunch, and a visit to a warehouse that featured John Chamberlin sculptures. (Fantastic.) As we were leaving, I couldn’t resist the urge to scribble “JB wuz here, bitches” on the side of a beige-colored power box. I’ve never done graffiti before, yet the compulsion was overwhelming. I think I’m sharing it here, not to present myself as a rapscallion, but rather to point out that among a certain class or caste, (here, Art world snobs) the crush of formality can create a counter-reaction. You think I’m an outsider? Here, I’ll show you. I’ll leave a mark on your special art place. So there.

As I said, the Chamberlin car sculptures were amazing, and a must if you do make your way to Marfa. After lunch, we returned for the second part of the tour. The Dan Flavin light sculptures were cool, but seemed out of place outside of Manhattan. One barracks had remnants of Art made by soldiers past, and was pretty cool. Finally, brain-dead, we begged off the tour and snuck into the Sugimoto installation. (We joined a private tour, at $300 a pop, given by the COO, who was terrifically nice and gracious.)

As much as I like Sugimoto’s work, these things were not worth driving 600 miles to see. Two rooms had two rows of 12 sculptures, each identical to the naked eye. Basically, they’re pyramids of optical glass, with a photo embedded in the orb part of the sculpture. Each image is strikingly similar, one of Sugimoto’s ocean horizon photos, printed on film, to be see-through. Carefully examining one, I loved the way the light and image itself changed depending on where I stood, or moved my head. Two inches to the left, and the image would disappear. Clever, and Zen to be sure. But we all seemed to question why there were some many, as 24 didn’t really improve upon on one, or perhaps two or three.

Finally, we went into town to find some beer, and grab a quick look at Marfa Ballroom, a famous local gallery. When I try to talk about how much this version of the art world revolves around money, power, and private planes, it’s helpful to share this anecdote. I noticed the sign with the staff list, and noted one of the founder’s names. Later that night, at dinner, someone mentioned that said person had just inherited a half a billion dollars. It was said casually. That is all.

In fairness to Marfa Ballroom, they did have some pretty cool work on display in the group exhibition “AutoBody”. Two cars sat outside, locked in a super-slow motion crash that had been pre-ordained. The photographer/artist Liz Cohen was showing a car sculpture that she’d created, which was awesome, and some photographs, which were not. (You decide: In the photos, she was dressed up as a Latina pin-up girl, like you’d see in Lowrider magazine. They were so dry, it was not an engaging spoof. But given her physical attributes, it’s certain that the work will sell. Craven or brilliant?) The gallery was also showing a four channel video installation, “North of South West of East,” by Meredith Danluck, which was so good that all four of us sat and watched for 5 or 10 minutes.

We drove back to the Chinati Foundation, one more time, for a late afternoon stroll out into the prairie, to see the army of concrete sculptures that I’d been ogling all day. Once again, my quest for the transcendent fell short, mostly because I was talking to my friends the whole time. But, if you’re a fan of Minimalism, this work is tough to top. Exquisitely beautiful, seemingly permanent, they mesh so well with the blue sky and the yellow ground. They’re grouped into mini-installations, in a line a Kilometer long. So it’s experiential. You walk, you think, you avoid the snake-holes. Magnificent. Perfect, really. And then you think, how long will these things last? 500 years? A thousand? Regardless, they’ll be here, watching over a slice of Texas, when we’re all gone.

The boys and I had dinner, went to bed, and left the next morning. The drive North was fun, as work, (at least my work,) was done. We passed back through Van Horn, which was much less scary in the light of day, but still as depressing. At a quick pee stop, at the Wendys/Truck Stop/Only-Store-In-Town, we were completely surprised. Walking in, the place was overrun by teenagers. Dozens and dozens. Barely room to move. One student stood out, a flamingly gay little blonde kid, wearing a Swiss-style ski hat on the top of his head. It was so obvious, he was so out there, that my heart broke a little.

The four of us shook our heads, amazed at how hard life must be for the boy, stuck in a backwater like Van Horn, surrounded by a sea of desert and homophobia. And in that moment, I remembered why I love road trips so much. You get out of your life, you reconnect with the enormity of this country, and you never, truly never, know what you’ll see next.

Roadtrip to Marfa – Part 1

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Much later in the day, David and I stopped off at a tiny little rest stop off I-25, just South of Socorro. A brown sign, made for tourists, announced we were on the famed Camino Real, also known as the Jornada del Muerto. The journey of death. Finally, it all made sense.

I knew it would be a dangerous day hours earlier. Descending out of Taos and into the canyon, where the highway hugs the Rio Grande for twenty miles or so, I pulled out to pass a line of cars. It’s something I do all the time. As I finally got a clear look down the hill, a horse-trailer was backing up traffic ten cars ahead. I tried to merge back, but there was nowhere to go. (In the exact spot where a family died a few years ago.)

Desperately, I jammed the gas and barely wedged myself in just beyond the nose of a semi-truck hauling pressurized chemicals. Releasing a pent up breath, seconds later, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see the truck swerving, barely keeping it together. Not 30 minutes into my trip, and I almost ignited a firestorm of misery. Classy.

Twenty minutes later, traffic came to a stand still. Lights were flashing, sirens screaming. Not good. As I inched along, off to my right, another semi-truck had launched off the road into the rocks along the river. Hard to see how the driver could have survived. Never seen that before. Bad omen.

From there, I herky-jerked my way down past Santa Fe. Cops were everywhere, brainless drivers the norm. It was so odd, so disconcerting, that I mentioned it to the Native American woman behind the counter as I paid for my breakfast burrito at the Casino/Gas Station/Rest Stop just north of Albuquerque. (Casino Hollywood on the San Felipe Reservation, BTW.) She nodded, implacably, and said, “Yeah, one of those days. You never can tell.”

So by the time the brown sign reminded me that the Camino Real is not for the faint of heart, I was practically relieved. At least I wasn’t imagining things. One needs to keep one’s wits when heading down to the borderlands, a world populated with smugglers, junkies, truckers and dropouts. (Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s not that different from where I live.)

Why a road trip? Well, that’s an easy answer. David and I were headed South to Las Cruces, where we intended to meet up with our friends Ken and Scott. After a pit stop of a studio visit with photographer David Taylor, (the king of La Frontera) we ditched one car, piled into Ken’s Prius, and continued on towards Marfa, Texas, Art Mecca. So there’s the why. I rallied a few buddies to take a big Texas road trip, to go see some great art and write about it for you, the APE audience. Nobody died, nobody even got hurt, so in the end, it was worth it. But drama-free? Not likely.

My three friends are all photographers, and also accomplished in other aspects of the field. (An editor/publisher, a professor, & and a museum executive.) Each of us drowns daily in a sea of email, commitments, and plans. So for once, we relished the opportunity to wing it. No hotels were booked. No Yelp reviews were solicited. No idea where we were going to spend the night. Romantic? Not exactly.

When you’re 21, you don’t mind sleeping anywhere. Road Trips are just an excuse to drink way too much Mountain Dew (which lacks any other purpose), smoke too much weed, and take pictures of absolutely everything. Think about it. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, every single fence-post seems profound. “Look man, it’s a cactus, just oozing cactus-ness. Just one more shot, OK?”

On this trip, however, I was the youngest at 37. Creaky backs and coffee-snobbery are the norm in this demo, and the idea of just stopping “wherever” for the night doesn’t work as well as it did a decade or two ago. (Though Ken did bring along some coffee-crack in a creamer cup called Stok. Look into it…)

David Taylor, desert expert, mentioned there was a town a ways North of Marfa called Van Horn. He assured us there was nothing else around for miles, so we default set that as a destination for the night. Hopped up on shitty burgers and vitamin water, the four of us drove. And drove. Mountains in the reflected moonlight are a sight to behold, but very difficult to photograph from a moving car. So they’ll exist in my memory only. (Close your eyes, and maybe you can imagine it. Charcoal gray, texture, jagged lines pushing up from the ground, no other light around.)

By the time we got to Van Horn, it was almost 11 at night. (Damn you, time change.) The decent-looking motels were the first into town, and surprise, were all booked. So there we were, sitting in the the car at a gas station, doors opened for fresh air, and that’s when the Iphones came out. Seriously? If you don’t want to TripAdvisor that crap three weeks ahead of time, what’s the point of doing it near midnight, thirty yards from the nearest hotel? We pounded the pavement for a bit, checking in at the certainly haunted Hotel El Capitan, before finally settling on a Days Inn adjacent to the off-ramp. I was confident, which was a mistake.

In these long articles, I try to keep it breezy, keep it funny, and keep moving along. But we’re what, ten paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten to the Art yet? It’s not like this is the New Yorker, and I’m aware that you don’t have unlimited time to stare at your screen. This time, though, I have to slow down. We’ll get to the art, and the insane mashup of billionares slumming with South Texas poor folk. We’ll get there. But what my friends and I witnessed that night, in Van Horn, is worth conjuring for a couple more minutes.

We walked into the Days Inn lobby, David and I, ready to book a room. Immediately to our right, recumbent on a sofa with a TV behind it, we saw a young woman. At first glance, she looked 25, and attractive. Dark hair, nice figure. As she swooped around us to the front counter, though, we got a better look. Not a day over 20, and more likely less than that.

She would have been beautiful, and probably was until a few years before. But now? With the discoloration under her eyes, she was like a cancer-ridden raccoon, and the expression peering out was dead. Not defiant dead, like the junkies in a Mikhailov photograph, but dead in a soul-sucking, depressive way that makes you touch your wallet and lock the car door. Meth, most likely, though I suppose it could have been crack. Whatever the culprit, this girl was gone.

She handed over the key cards, and ushered us on our way. I wanted to cry. We got to the rooms, and David rushed right to the bed to see just how crappy this place was. He found…blood stains on the bed. For real. That’s the kind of detail that a better writer than I would make up, but there it was. Real blood. Perfect. As my room’s door was broken, we had to re-engage our meth-head princess, which was one more encounter than I ever wanted in my life. Her reaction, if you can believe it, was to throw the new bedding at a co-worker, and scream, “Blood stains? I don’t get paid enough for that shit.” She stormed off, never to be seen again.

Her colleague, a nice enough guy, was from India, and rocked a thick accent. At that point, you reach the “I’ll believe anything phase,” so I only grinned. Scott, who’d been to India a few times in the last couple of years, was fascinated, and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. I was shocked that he was shocked. It is America after all.

We drove around the town a bit, stopping here and there to take photographs. Once we returned to the motel, we stalked around the parking lot like quivering hunters, never straying out of eyesight of each other. Lest you think we were scaredy-cats, I’ll state that between the four of us, we’ve traveled the world, and lived in many a metropolitan city. This place was just that disturbing. Why?

Because we’d entered that part of America not often seen by Coastal Elites, or fancy-boy artists such as ourselves. The kind of place where, behind each Motel door, someone’s shooting up. Someone else is getting smacked around. And door number three has 32 Mexicans huddled together, chained, while their minder watches “Dancing With the Stars.” Tomorrow, they’ll climb back in the van for the trip to Chicago, or Raleigh, if they’re lucky.

We woke, the next morning, very glad to see the daylight. (And the Prius, for that matter. At least we had four walls to protect us, but the Prius was a sitting duck.) I surmised that there was probably not a plate of vegetables in the entire town, and my comrades concurred. So we piled back into our little Japanese rolling box, found the highway, and drove South to Marfa, where fancy coffee and fresh fruit, doubtless, awaited us.

The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Time is like an apathetic teenager. We see it as linear, because it’s easier for our brains that way. But many of us know it’s relative. That information does us little good, though, when we’re late to work, and Grandma in the car in front of us is savoring every last second. At twenty miles an hour.

The only thing to match the monotony of the march of time is the certainty of change. The second law of thermodynamics and all. We like to think we stay the same, remain true to ourselves, but it’s just an illusion, no more real than a flogborgibbit. Change is the normal state of things, far more natural than a charge of flip-flopping, but the very epithet tells you all you need to know about most people’s view of the inevitable.

I’ve come to accept and even relish change, myself. I enjoy the opportunity to work on my faults, to modify my behavior, whether it be evolution or revolution. I’ve had it both ways, massive epiphanies that alter my soul in a day, or a slow, daily slide into sloth and misery. (Freshman year at Duke, it took only months for a skinny, mostly well-adjusted goody-goody to metamorphose into a fat, drunken ball of insecurities who…well, we’ll save that one for another time.)

Change is a function of time, and time is the bedrock of our chosen medium, photography. Light is the more popular sibling, as time is far more challenging to manipulate. It’s difficult for photography to match video when it comes to processing duration, but difficult, as we’ve often seen, does not mean impossible.

It’s probably not surprising that I’d bloviate on this subject, what with the end of the year upon us. I’m either the most philosophical blogger in the world, or it’s biggest jackass, and I suppose we’ll each have our own opinion on the subject. But I have seen a lot of photographs this year, and written about most of what I’ve seen. New York, twice, LA, Washington DC; not a bad lineup. Ironically, for two years running, I haven’t been able to shoehorn some of my favorite work into an article. Despite the thousands of words, there just wasn’t room in the narrative thread for great photographs, by the same photographer, in both 2010 and 2011: Rineke Dijkstra.

So here at APE, we’ll now christen a new feature, “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Rolls off the tongue nicely. Here we go.

Last year, it was at the Met, in a fantastic curated show that included a copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip.” Somehow, I ended up writing only about John Baldessari, and Ms. Dijkstra’s incredible series about a young refugee girl got left on the cutting room floor.

This year, I saw her work at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), on a sunny summer San Diego sojourn. (I was always a sucker for alliteration in school. Easy way to score points with the teacher.) Back in July, I snuck down from my beach abode in North County to visit an exhibition of the Bank of America permanent collection, curated by MOPA’s Executive Director, Debra Klochko. (And in case you were wondering, B of A did not cover the admission cost, thereby missing out on a relatively inexpensive way to burnish their horrible public image.)

On a very big wall, right behind the admission desk, was a seven image photo series, installed sequentially, by the aforementioned famous Dutch artist. Each featured a handsome young Frenchman named Olivier Silva, who was about to embark on a stint in the French Foreign Legion. (Insert random French joke here.) The framed prints, all largish, were exhibited in a temporal sequence that transpired between 2000-3, during Mr. Silva’s military service.

In the first image, we see a skinny, innocent looking 17 year old, (give or take) with a full head of hair. Unquestionably, his eyes say, “Oh shit. I’m not so sure about this.” In the next, from the same day in 2000, he’s just had his head shaved, and has got the camo outfit on. His look says, “True, I’m not sure about this, but I suppose I’ll give it a shot.”

Number 3 is from a few months later, still in France. Now he’s got the face paint, is rocking the shaved head thing, and he’s trying to be tough. Definitely seems sad. And on to the next. Here, Olivier is in pristine dress, but still looks like he misses his Maman. By now, his face has filled out a bit. Same month, about to ship out.

The fifth photograph, almost a year and a half later, and now we’re in Corsica. (Chasing Mafiosi?) Homeboy is wearing the most ridiculous Foreign Legion cap, like something out of a Peter Sellers movie. Squinting into the sun, his shoulders are fuller, and he has the vibe that he could have killed someone by now, but probably hasn’t. The burgundy epaulettes are just too much. Finally, a bit of humor.

Next to last, and the guy looks like an action hero. You start to wonder, did Ms. Dijkstra know it all along, that the skinny kid had the movie star looks right beneath the surface? It’s the first time you think about her, as the first five were so natural, and the expressions so believable. By the way, he’s in Djibouti. (Between Ethiopia and Eritrea, two countries that don’t like each other very much.) And that last bit of farm-boy is still there. Barely.

For the last photo, Olivier Silva is looking directly into the camera, his drab marine colored T-shirt offering more about his character than his dead, militarized eyes. Inscrutable. He’s been thoroughly socialized through the system, they’ve made a good soldier out of the boy. Ready to kill, if necessary. It’s July of 2003, three years after the process began.

And then it’s over. And you begin to think, those expressions, the clues I read to deduce Silva’s character, they’re something the photographer has created. They’re a window into a linear, stop-motion jaunt into some random guy’s history, sure. It happened. But the series toys with the notion of the document, and with my immediate faith that what I was seeing was real, beyond the interpersonal connection between the young Frenchman and the artist, Ms. Dijkstra. Tremendous stuff.

I didn’t end up writing about it this Summer, because I skipped San Diego for the bustle of the Megalopolis up the coast. So there you have it. “The Best Photographs I saw in 2011 that I Haven’t Already written about yet.” Happy New Year.

Remembering at MOMA PS1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I awoke to the bleating ring of the landline, ruining a perfectly good dream. Lacking coordination, I smacked at the phone, glancing at the clock as I pulled the handset to my ear. It was 6:30 in the morning, Pacific Standard Time. Too early for good news. On the other end of the line, my mother started yelling at me. She was crazed, like a fanatic speaking in tongues. “We’re under attack. We’re under attack. The towers are gone. The towers are gone.”

“Mom,” I replied, “calm the fuck down. I can’t understand what you’re saying. There are no aliens. We’re not under attack. And it’s really not funny.”

“Oh, Jonathan, it’s so horrible. We’re under attack by terrorists. They flew airplanes into the twin towers, and they’re not there anymore. They’re just gone. The Pentagon too,” She finished. “Turn on the television. You’ll see.” So I did.

I would have been there, like so many people reading this, but I almost chopped my thumb off while opening a can of tomatoes. (Lots of blood.) The incident, or accident, occurred just after I was accepted into Pratt, in early 2001. The recovery was such that I deferred a year, planning to move to New York in July of 2002 instead. So if not for the jagged edge of a Muir Glen tomato can, I would have been living in Brooklyn during the tragedy. But I wasn’t. My girlfriend and I were living in San Francisco instead, 3000 miles away, and only heard about the thing after the fact. Kind of the opposite of having been there.

It’s ten years later, and if there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people like round numbers. (This from the dollar guy.) The memorial services are done. The names of the victims were read. Candles were lit; Tears absorbed into shoulders and hair. And of course, the anniversary exhibitions are up on the wall. It so happened that I was in New York in the end of October, and had the chance to see the September 11 show at MoMAPS1 in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river.

I might have neglected to mention that the particular New Jersey suburb in which I was raised was just a few miles down the road from Atlantic Highlands, the tallest point on the East Coast (At a meager 300 feet or so.) We had hills in my town as well, and were close enough to the bay to see the Twin Towers presiding over the city across the water.

My family rarely went into New York, it being the dicey late 70’s and early 80’s, and I was a bit of a wimp about the whole thing, truth be told. But those towers… I saw them at least three times a week. Two big, phallic, shiny symbols of the wealth and power of Wall Street, New York City, and by extension, the United States. They dominated. And now they’re not there.

The skyline has seemed imbalanced to me ever since, the midtown skyscrapers taunting Wall Street, perhaps enticing a Napoleon complex that begat the Great Recession. And, really, what has changed? We take our shoes off at the airport. We color code our fear like stripes on a lollipop. Fanatical loonies tried to blow up airplanes with bombs in their shoes, underpants, and even a printer cartridge. But so far we’ve been lucky.

We have a bi-racial President now. That’s big news. And geeks run much of the known world. (Seriously. Mark Zuckerberg gets laid on a regular basis. Enough said.) We went to war, twice, and are thoroughly in hock to the Chinese. All because we had to have those two wars, and some tax breaks to boot. Not a lot of value out of those purchases, if you ask me.

Now it’s nearly 2012, and so we might ask, with all the 9/11 hullaballoo, “Why an art show?” Why go to the trouble to collect items from around the world, paint the walls, pack and unpack the shipping boxes, spend a fortune on Fedex, re-write press releases until your carpal tunnel gives you a migraine, just to invite some people in once the lights are on, to look at some photographs, videos, paintings, sculptures, and drawings?

Why indeed? I suppose, as I describe the work I saw that day, the answer will become evident. One would hope.

Lets’ be honest: these articles always seem to run long. I’m aware of that. Perhaps I have a hard time expressing myself in few words. Who knows? In case you don’t feel like reading to the end, let me break it down succinctly. If you live anywhere near New York, you ought to go see this show. How’s that for brevity? Just go. Swipe your Metrocard, drop the $10 at the front entrance, and go inside.

The exhibition begins on the second floor of the former school building, and the wall card announces that almost none of the work was made in response to the September 11 attacks. Much of it was even made before the event. I was curious, and a tad dubious, to tell the truth. If the work was decontextualized, then clearly the curator’s POV would dominate the show. The entire exhibition would be one giant installation by Peter Eleey, the curator in charge. Pretty ambitious.

Normally, in these reviews, this would be the point where I meticulously detail each and every thing I saw. But I don’t want to do that. It seems forced, as I sit here at my kitchen table, 2000 miles and six weeks removed from the actual experience. There was a surreal poetry and magic to my time in the September 11 exhibition, and I’d rather try to recreate a fragment of it. I can conjure the best of that day in my mind, easily, so let’s start there.

One of the first pieces to slam me in the belly was a pair of framed, 4 foot square bulletin boards affixed to the wall, replete with pin holes, staples and paper scraps. (“Nothing prevents anything,” -07-09, by Harold Mendez.) Each sat on the wall on opposite sides of an entry way, like lions guarding the gate. Bulletin boards? If I saw them in a gallery in Chelsea, I’d probably giggle, and shake my head at how far people will go to be the first to call something art. But here, in this context, they felt empty, vacant, purposeless, forgotten, as if they were hanging in an Elementary School during Summer session. I thought about the kids who started that Summer, in 2001, with Dads and Moms, and then, shortly after Labor Day, they were gone.

Normally, we see work like this in quiet. People in galleries and museums are more silent than a tennis audience. Here, though, in this very room, there was music piped in. A grand, emotional, film score, by the great John Williams. (Yeah, the guy who did Star Wars.) A wall card explained that the music was the theme from the forgettable Mel Gibson crap-fest, “The Patriot.” (Which was apparently then appropriated by Barrack Obama during his 2008 victory speech.) So. Ironic. That. My. Head. Almost. Exploded. All the same, the emotional music definitely made the viewing experience more poignant.

What else? In the middle of the room, there was a nearly 20 foot long sculpture on the floor, made of ash. Long and narrow, the material was configured into the undulating form of a lunar-scape, with faux mountains and valleys seen from above. Astonishing. It looked a little like a 3D, gray-scale version of one of Motherwell’s Spanish Elegy Paintings. But it gets better. A look at the wall text explained that the ash sculpture, by Roger Hiorns, “Untitled 2008,” was actually an atomized passenger aircraft engine. Ash, the dominant symbol of that horrible day, here literally made out of a plane engine. That’s about as good as it gets.

Except that it was just a part of a larger whole, the gestalt of the entire gallery. The ash led the viewer, like a psychedelic arrow, straight up to a George Segal sculpture called “Woman on a Park Bench.” A lady sits, eternally, white patina over bronze, on a black bench. Waiting. The sculpture has been placed before a vaulted archway, and is backlit, like a knave in a Gothic Cathedral. It’s not hard to see her as a symbol of a grieving widow, immobilized by sorrow. Forever.

And in case you weren’t paying perfect attention, all of the above is simply one gallery in a much larger exhibition. I can’t think of a more touching tribute, and yet it was the work of the curator, as much as the aggregate artists. If you don’t believe me, just look up George Segal on Wikipedia. He died in 2000.

I enjoyed seeing a painting by Maureen Gallace, a drawing by Mark Lombardi, and a photograph by Thomas Demand. All good, for sure. But the next great thing was a worn, black suitcase on the floor, sitting in the corner of another gallery. It reminded me of the room of shoes at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Israel. Those little, human details that bring Geo-Political horror down to the human level. Seeing the suitcase, we can imagine it belonging to some random guy who never made it back to Penn Station with his claim ticket. Or sitting on a sidewalk somewhere, after having been blown out an open window.

It was a piece of found sculpture by Lara Favaretto. The object was part of an ongoing, obtuse project where she buys one suitcase a year at a flea market, locks it, and then never opens it. Just the sort of boring conceptual project that gets far too much attention, but in this context, it was brilliant.

Diane Arbus, perennially popular, was represented on the wall with “Blowing Newspaper at a Crossroads, NYC, 1956.” The photo was dark, fuzzy, abstracted and a bit menacing. One I’d not seen before. Here, it spoke of the itinerant trash roaming the empty streets in the aftermath, hours after everyone still standing had gone home.

In a similar vein, a room otherwise full of black and white images and objects contained a dash of color, courtesy of William Eggleston: “Untitled (Glass in Airplane, 1965-74). A single plastic cup of Coke sits on a lowered tray table, backlit by gleaming light streaming in through the window. Anywhere else, it reminds of a stained glass window. Pretty. Contextualized, it puts you in the first person position of someone sitting on one of the planes, quaking at the thought of the crazy dudes holding box-cutters in the cockpit. What a horrible fucking way to die.

Elsewhere in that gallery, the walls were covered by a collection of B&W photos by John Pilson, from the series “Interregna” from 1998-2000. Mr. Pilson apparently worked for an investment bank in Lower Manhattan, across the street from the WTC, and made documents of the office experience in the late evening and early morning hours when no one was around. They were literal, and well-made, but in the show, one thought immediately of the empty offices, abandoned while people streamed screaming down the stairwells in the moments after impact.

To finish it off, a white pedestal sits in the middle of the room, with a glass vitrine on top. Inside, “Snapshots from Baghdad,” from 2007, by Roman Ondak: A matte black disposable camera with undeveloped, exposed film. All black, it looked a bit like a gun, just another way to shoot. Undeveloped, it spoke of unfulfilled potential. Baghdad, it reminded of the War rounded up like a posse in the victims’ names. And that was not the only Iraq reference in the house.

From there, I wandered upstairs, towards an abandoned looking section of the Museum. I ran across a man, coming in the opposite direction, who snickered, “It’s nothing but empty rooms. You might like it more than some of the art.” Classy. I pushed on anyway, and found that he was right. Empty rooms only. Early stage installation in progress. The galleries were the same as the ones below, but they lacked the life, the light, and the energy of a finished exhibition. A small moment, I gained even more appreciation for how much work it takes to make the trains run on time.

From there, I descended a few flights of stairs into the basement. As this was once a functioning school, the basement contains the innards of the structure. It’s cold, and feels like the opposite of every gleaming Art Museum you’ve ever visited. It also contains, for now, one of the single most powerful art installations I’ve ever experienced. No. Exaggeration. Necessary.

The boiler room is where it’s at. Down a few short rickety stairs, you enter the physical-plant-nerve-center of the former public school. It’s dirty, cold, and cave-like. Creepy doesn’t quite do it justice. In the far corner, I saw some speakers, a chain hanging from the ceiling, and a place to sit down. So I did.

The speakers were blasting some random, ambient sounds; unfamiliar and disturbing. I sat there, waiting, thinking, and then all of a sudden, I saw the flash of a shadow. My neck swiveled, and my liver almost imploded. No lie. Frightening. But I stayed. A minute or so later, there was a clanking, crashing sound, and another shadow flash. Bang. The hanging chain started to sway, so I knew that I hadn’t imagined it. Slowly, I realized that I was sitting in a simulacrum of a dungeon. Abu Ghraib? Some nameless CIA black-site hole-in-the-ground in Afghanistan? Does it matter?

The experience was real, and confusing. Then, I looked up at the ceiling and saw skylights onto the street level. The room sits below the sidewalk, and whenever a Queens resident or visiting passerby walked over me, I heard the crash. When they walked only near the skylight, shadow no sound. Are. You. Kidding. Me.

After a few minutes of simulated torture, I walked back up the stairs, and looked for the wall text explaining the music. (If you could call it that.) Stephen Vitiello, the artist, once had a studio given to him through a residency program. In the World Trade Center. 91st Floor. He recorded the sound of the building swaying in the wind during Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

I’m running out of exclamations here to describe my overtaxed brain, upon reading that information. The swaying, creaking, buildings, no longer in existence, providing the backdrop for a simulated torture chamber, representing a major war that was launched because the buildings were destroyed by terrorists from another country. Well played, Peter Eleey. Well played.

After that, emotionally drained, I spent the better part of a half an hour trying to get permission to take the one photo I’m including here. They’re beyond strict about prohibiting photography, so you really will have to go see this for yourself. Then I walked through the freezing Queens rain, and dropped down underground again to grab the subway. The train’s recording, with each stop, reminded me that it was a World Trade Center-bound E train. As if I could forget.

Why Isn’t Art Used To Change The World?

- - Art, From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein talks with Jörg Colberg of the blog Conscientious about using art to change the world.

Jonathan Blaustein: I wrote a long article recently about my trip to Reno, and you pulled from it a particular question and posted it on Conscientious. I thought it might be interesting to turn that back on you and start there. I have the question right here on my little note sheet.

Jörg Colberg: It doesn’t look like a fake note sheet like Jon Stewart’s, though.

JB: No, it’s real. I even have magazines here (waving them in front of the webcam.) We’re going to get into all the good stuff. Let’s start with that question, and hopefully it won’t seem ridiculous that I’m quoting myself right now.

“I’m wondering why I didn’t hear more [at the A+E conference in Reno] about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people without dumbing down the art in the process?”

I’m assuming the question must have been intriguing to you, because you quoted it. So what were your first thoughts on that, as a starting point?

JC: There are a lot of hooks in that quote.

JB: Sure. We can start with any little part of it. Maybe I can give a little back story. You responded to a Google+ post that I did on the Reno article, and then you and I started going back and forth briefly, before we decided to flesh it out further in this interview.

JC: I don’t know whether I have the real answer. I have my own personal answer, and that’s biased in all kinds of ways.

JB: Of course. I’ll stipulate to all of your biases, and you can stipulate to mine. How about we start there.

JC: All right. I think the first thing is, a lot of the talking that’s going on online is about artists using their skill sets for social media and promotion. That’s the first thing. There is very little talk (or maybe I’m just missing all that talk) about what you’re talking about. You know, how artists can use a variety of skill sets to expand the reach of their work. Expanding the reach of their work doesn’t seem to get beyond making sure that more people see it to potentially buy a book or buy a print. I could be mistaken, but that’s something that I’ve been rather critical of, more and more. Social media is really just about blanket promotion, because, in theory, it could be about exactly what you’re talking about. Reaching more people, and talking about the work, and what’s behind the work, and how what is behind the work has connections to all these other things that go on in non-artists’ lives.

JB: You went right to social media, and of course social media was the impetus for this talk. Perhaps the rampant self-promotion we’re seeing on the web is finally wearing people out. You agree, I agree. But the exact same infrastructure, the social media infrastructure, just brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The tool itself has already proven it’s power to do the impossible, or at least what people consider impossible.

JC: Yes and no. I think it’s disputed what the real power of social media is and how it contributed to the Arab Spring. But that aside, it’s a little like quoting the lottery winner. These are outlier events. I don’t deny that they’re true, but I think that using outlier events to prove a point is always a bit risky. Even if we stay with the Arab Spring, what brought down those regimes or what made people go to the street is not social media. It’s the willingness of those people to go out of the house and demand change.

JB: Of course.

JC: Social media alone are useless, unless… it’s the same with photography. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking this a little bit right now, but it’s this question, “Can photography change the world?” I don’t think it can, unless we learn our lessons from what it shows us, unless we decide do to something about it.

JB: That’s why I wanted to have this discussion. I’m talking about social media as an infrastructure. As an architecture that can be used, because all it is is a fancy term for the perfect information dissemination vehicle. Free, (sometimes) ubiquitous, let’s call it perfect, or certainly the best the world has ever seen. That’s where I think it starts to get interesting, when we talk about Art. You said, “Can photography change the world?”, and my article was basically written about an event where a bunch of artists were conceding that they could. And that they needed to, because Climate Change was such a dramatically horrific issue for humankind and animal kind.

I come from a background and an age where I’m trying to get over my cynicism about that idea. I feel like, coming up with Post-Modern theory in art school, there was an indoctrination against the idea that art could, or even ought to, aspire to create change. So leaving aside the bigger question of whether it can, we’re living in an age where most people don’t think they ought to try. It’s like a limited set of expectations of what our chosen calling can offer to the world. That’s where I want to start. That’s what the rallying cry was, though we’re probably not at that level where I can even call it a rallying cry. The question really is, “Why aren’t people even considering that it’s worth an attempt?”

JC: You know, I honestly don’t know. I think people make their decisions based on their personal beliefs and comfort levels. I have this idea that there’s this talk about the creative class. You’ve heard that term, right?

JB: Sure.

JC: I always thought that another name for the creative class would be the complacent class. It’s really rude, in a way, but I think it’s true. We’re so complacent about what we do. We want to change the world, and then we don’t want to do much about it. We think, “Well, if just click on ‘Like’ on Facebook for that cause, that’s going to make a big difference.” I suppose it makes a little bit of a difference, but you know, there are no consequences.

There are people who are really going out to change the world. I’m thinking of Pete Brook, who was just visiting here with his “Prison Photography on the Road.” He’s literally taking his blog to the road, staying with all these people and talking to them. He got started on Kickstarter, asking people for money, and a lot of artists donated prints so that he could give something back.

I think you can do something. Why people don’t do more? I don’t know. The situation is, I think, quite overwhelming. Every day, there is some other disaster. Some other drama going on. I guess there’s a sense of hopelessness. Of course, nobody can change all of the disasters and all the dramas, so I think you just have to pick one. But I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know why there is not more happening.

JB: To be clear, I don’t ever expect you to speak for anyone beyond yourself. In my belief as an artist, I find that ideas are often in the air. Oftentimes, you find that different people, in different parts of the world, are working on something similar without any connection. It’s our job, I think, to reach into the Zeitgeist and try to pull out these little nuggets of contemporary culture and then transform them, synthesize them.

In this week’s Newsweek, there’s an interview with Thomas Campbell, the Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (By Blake Gopnik) In the headline, it mentions expanding the audience and not dumbing it down. And in the New Yorker, there was another article about the Met, because they’re rolling out the new Islamic Galleries. It discussed how the Met devised a really fancy lighting installation at the edge of the gallery to entice people inside. I was surprised that this idea was reflected back at the highest institutional level, because, in a sense, we’re talking about artists on the street and the power structure as well. Clearly, the idea is out there.

We both could speculate as to why people aren’t necessarily ambitious or political in their content, oftentimes, but I would say that the bigger idea that we can talk about is, how we even consider going about enlarging the tent? What can we do to try to increase it’s power? At least here in the United States. What are you seeing, as far as artists’ attempts to reach across the divide?

JC: The problem in the US is pretty unfortunate, because the arts are pretty marginalized. I grew up in Germany, I lived there for 30 years. I don’t want to pretend that it’s the artistic paradise, because it certainly isn’t. But Art is talked about more often than here. There’s Art education in schools. All the way up to high school, I had to take classes in Art and Music. That was just something that I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. Just like German and English and Mathematics, you’d have a class on Art. I actually learned how to knit in school. That’s completely useless for me, as far as I’m concerned, but I learned it anyway.

JB: Knitting was useless for you, and Algebra was useless for me. We’re even.

JC: Art here has a different connotation. The high falutin’ people with their crazy ideas that are very different from the common man or regular folks. You have that in Germany too, but I know that a lot of people go to art galleries or to museums in Germany that would never go here. I know a lot of people are really interested in Art, and what’s going on here. I go to a diner every Saturday for breakfast, because I like to hang out at the counter. I talk a lot with people, and they are actually interested in what’s going on. The discourse about Art is just messed up. Funding for Art doesn’t exist, or is very minor. And that’s sort of at the very basic level.

One way to really make a difference, and I know it sounds naive, would be to send a letter to your Congressman saying “Why are we not funding the arts more?” Because there are jobs in the arts, obviously, but also because there is something that Art has to offer everybody. That’s the first aspect. The second aspect is maybe related. Art has such a weird standing. A lot of people don’t really like to talk about themselves as artists that change the world. It sort of has a bad feeling to it, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe the people who went to art school know there’s all this Post-Modern bullshit, so I can’t do that. I don’t think that every artist should try to change the world. It’s completely up to them. But I think every artist should really think about this. Do I want to change the world, or what do I want to do? What do I want my Art to do?

JB: I agree with you, but I don’t want this to just be, “Well no, I agree with you.” “But no, I agree with you.”

JC: That would be boring, right?

JB: Exactly. We have to get the controversy in here somewhere, or I won’t sell newspapers. Oh wait, that’s right, I’m not actually trying to sell newspapers. What I’m very curious about right now is…you’re presenting Art in a different context and a different culture, Germany. I think most art-literate folks are going to know that it’s the case. In Europe, there’s more cultural support for the arts. In the US, we acknowledge that the arts are marginalized, and that there is a heavy emphasis on Class and Status and Power within the Art world.

JC: Right.

JB: It’s a separate question to say “How do we go about changing that?”

JC: Really, that’s what it comes down to. I just watched this documentary by Robert Hughes, the art critic, called “The Mona Lisa Curse.” I don’t know whether you’ve seen it.

JB: No.

JC: You can find a version with Spanish subtitles on Youtube. He was talking about how the art world has changed, has become incredibly commercialized. And how that is affecting the way Art is being done and talked about. I think we can, as artists, (and I’m calling myself an artist), we can take that back. It’s just that easy, but of course it’s not really easy. It’s just like Pete. He went on the road, and he’s doing it. There’s nothing, in principal, that can stop us from doing that. Creating something where we interact with people, and just disseminate what we do, and talk about it more. Bringing it to people who might be interested.

JB: I suppose we’re doing it right now. Or at least, the first step. But Art has always been used in service of power and in service of information dissemination. Look at the way it was used by the Catholic Church, or by the Mayan Ruling Class. At this point, I think we could say that at it’s highest levels, maybe it’s been hijacked in service of Capitalism. You said Commercialism, but in service of the Market.

JC: It doesn’t have to be that way.

JB: Referring back to that Newsweek article, it said that the Met had something like 5.8 million viewers last year. Now, it’s probably more than this, but let’s say that 1/3 of those viewers are tourists to New York coming in on the cheap dollar. So let’s say 4 million Americans. That’s not much more than 1% of the US population right there.

JC: That should tell us something, right? The Met is kind of a special example, because it’s the artificial environment that is New York City. I read that there was some talk about where do the 1% live, and there are several zip codes in New York where many of the top 1% of the wealthiest people live.The people that go to the Met, a lot of them are actually well off, as are many people who go on vacation to New York.

I think we should be looking at museums in places like Pittsburgh, or Cleveland. Places that are more regular, or behaving more like the average American city. Let’s see how museums are faring there? Whether people go to shows? Then we should think about what we can do to bring Art to people. I think museums are great, galleries are great, but of course they are environments that are kind of artificial. I think they can be intimidating. They’re certainly making every effort to be intimidating.

JB: I agree. I don’t think that point gets made enough. American’s really don’t like to talk about Class, I have found.

JC: No.

JB: So let’s sit on that idea. Museums in Pittsburgh, or Kansas City. Or, like I speculated in that article about Reno, outside of museums entirely. Listen, I’m a huge fan of Art Museums. I was brought up in suburban New Jersey. It was Bruce Springsteen country. Unpretentious. Blue collar, or at least a Blue Collar Mentality, where you do your work and you keep it real. I was just back in New York, and I’m going to write some articles about it, but I saw this fantastic show at PS1. (Article to come…) I was in New Jersey, talking about it with some relatives of mine.

I thought they’d be interested in the exhibition, as they had some personal connections to the subject matter. I brought up the show, and I talked about PS1 and Long Island City, and they said, “How come we’ve never heard of it?” Actually, what they said was “How come no one has ever heard of this place?” Of course, I said, some people have heard of it. You have to kind of be inside the club, or in the know, to hear about these things. As I was saying that, it just seemed so absurd.

So this is where we have to start. Because once I told them what I’d seen, they were ready to get in the car and drive to Queens. What we’re talking about is, if the mechanism of communication is there, which it is, and I think that the quality of work that one could see in the United States, probably across the country, is really high. So we cycle back to enticing or alluring people to open their minds enough to experience a different kind of media. Isn’t that really what we’re talking about?

JC: To an extent. I don’t think people have to be enticed, actually. I think a lot of people are actually more interested in some of the issues we deal with than we think they are. I think the PS1 problem is a good problem. For example, I don’t know where your relatives live, if they have a local newspaper. But that’s the first problem, is if they still have a local newspaper. And if that local newspaper still has an arts writer, then that arts writer might have written about it. It’s likely that there is no local newspaper any longer, and even if there is a local newspaper, then the arts writer is long gone, because there is no money for that. So it’s no surprise that your relatives have never heard of that show because…

JB: They never even heard of the venue.

JC: Is there a local newspaper?

JB: They live in New Jersey. It’s the New York area, so their daily newspapers are the Times and the Post. But it’s not just access to information…

JC: It is access to information. That’s part of it. But we need to create a culture where Art is being talked about on a more regular basis. Not just as a special section that’s called Art. People have to start realizing that what’s in the Art section is not just abstract paintings of things that nobody understands. It’s a lot of stuff that affects our lives. I guess that’s where we start agreeing again.

JB: Right. It keeps coming back to the How? And in a sense, the Why? Of course it’s about access to information, but I think it is very difficult for people to want to talk about that attitude and air of exclusivity that derives it’s power from keeping people out.

JC: So we have to take that away.

JB: Well, we can say “How” all day long, but maybe by saying “How” we’ll get some other people to think about it. It’s interesting that I got to read about the views of the head the Metropolitan Museum of Art talking about these issues in the same week that we are. When you read this stuff, it comes with this defensive slant. Like, “Yes, it’s nice to get the attendance numbers up, but, God forbid, too many people seeing this stuff means it’s less good. Or, it has to be a blockbuster show. If you want people to come, it has to be Tim Burton, you have to show movies. I disagree. When I first encountered the World’s best Art, and I was very fortunate, before the dollar went to shit and the economy went to hell, I was able to travel to Europe, and I lived in New York. A lot of my passion for Art comes from that physical experience of standing in front of something, and having your mentality shift in realtime. I believe, like you, that if more people were introduced to that experience, without changing that experience, people would get it.

JC: It is a big question. You have to start somehow. I don’t have a magic solution. There’s all kinds of things you could imagine. What it comes down to, literally, is bringing art to people. By showing it, by talking about it. There is no reason why interesting Art should always be in big museums in big cities. You can imagine, something that I’ve always talked about but never done it, is to rent a barn from a local farmer and do an art show for two weeks. Just bring in a bunch of artists, and put up a show, with advertising and everything. People have to drive to the countryside to see it. It’s a beautiful drive out here (Western Massachusetts) anyway. You would visit art, and it would be embedded in a community that maybe doesn’t have so much access to that kind of stuff. And then after two weeks, its gone. You don’t have the overhead of keeping up a museum, and you would take art of of it’s context that it’s in right now. This high falutin’ world with a lot of pretense. With a lot of money. With a lot of expectations, and a lot of stuff. I think it’s doable.

Even the web. Just talking about Art, or making multi-media pieces about Art. I think that’s why multi-media can be good, it is because you can bring the experience of Art closer to people. As photographers, we’re lucky, because photography is an ideal medium for the web.

JB: Sure. Photography and the web changed my life. I’m living proof of how well jpegs can work. Yet that was never my goal, nor was it the optimal way for people to experience my work, when things are meant to be big. But I think you hit on it…

JC: That’s the thing. I’m sorry to interrupt you, but people are worried that that’s not the optimal way to experience their work. Of course, I hear that a lot, because I’m a blogger. People say that it doesn’t look so good on the screen. But that’s totally missing the point. If you get curious about photography, or you get curious about photo books because you see me flipping through a photo book in a crappily made video, you might go out and buy that book, right?

JB: Right.

JC: And then, suddenly, you have the book and you start looking. That’s kind of what I think I can do. Show and say let’s look at this, this might be interesting. The viewer still has to make that step: I’m going to go and see that show. Or: I’m going to buy that book. I think putting it out there, and saying this might interest you has got to be the first step. And with photography, there are books. They’re not even that expensive.

JB: Look, I’ve said this in print several times. The experience of knowing that millions of people around the planet were thinking and talking about my work, it was indescribably awesome. Brilliant. But when I know that the pictures, in my head, and on the wall are meant to be seen at 30″x40″. You can’t experience a 30″x40″ print on a white wall through the Internet. It’s not either or, here, between the Internet and the wall. It’s both.

But the idea that I want to sit with, for a minute, was that you talked about this idea of bringing Art out to the people, and I talked about it in my Reno article. Now Kickstarter is there. Maybe we’re really talking around it, but Occupy Wall Street came from a call from the media, right? Adbusters. I’m not, in any way, about to speculate that you and I chatting via Skype can have even a fraction of the impact. However, maybe it’s something as simple as saying, let’s do it. Let’s try to organize a series of ten pop up art exhibitions in interesting places in the United States, and let’s raise the 50 Grand that’s necessary, and let’s publicize the shit out of it. And let’s take Art to the people. And whether “Let’s” is you and me, or people that we know, or people who read this…maybe that is the start. Is to say, “OK. Let’s do it.”

JC: Why not, right?

JB: Well, I live in Northern New Mexico, and you can bet your ass that people would like to see photo installations and projections on the sides of cliffs. I know I would.

JC: I think it’s actually doable. You could certainly reach enough people. We’d have to plan it.

JB: Of course.

JC: You’d literally make these shows for a week or two. Maybe you could tap local arts organizations. They might be happy to help. I don’t know. But I think that something could be done. Yes.

JB: Yes.

JC: And I think that would be a good start. You do this in ten cities? Just imagine. Even five cities.

JB: Or, as you said, rural areas.

JC: It would be so amazing.

JB: Or maybe it’s both. You just never know. I’m not saying we’re going to light the spark. I’m just saying we can’t rule out the possibility. I think we hit on something.

JC: It’s just something that we have to do now.

JB: Do you want to follow up on this? Do you want to put a little elbow grease in? Or should we let other people do it?

JC: In this day and age, especially with something like this, it shouldn’t be something that one or two people are doing. You have to make sure you get 5 or 6 people together.

JB: Right.

JC: So you sort of have a collective.

JB: Let’s get Art out of the temples, and out into the cow pastures and smaller cities.

JC: I think it’s a great idea. It sounds so populist. It is a really good idea.

Susan Worsham Interview

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein: I thought you’d have an interesting take on the way photographers essentially have to have two careers: the getting it out there phase, and the making the work phase. In the last interview i did, Jesse Burke called it the “wheel of self-promotion.” He said “the wheel of self-promotion is always spinning.” I related to that. I know a lot of people relate to that. Right now, I feel like I’m trying as hard as I can to de-emphasize it and remind myself of why I do what I do. Of all the people I’ve talked to in the last few years, you seem to have your head on straight as to why you make work. So I thought maybe we could talk a bit about how you see your motivations as an artist.

Susan Worsham: Well, what you were saying about the “wheel of self-promotion?” I guess, I don’t even think about self-promotion. The contacts that I make are more based on me being me, and the people being them. It’s about natural connections, as opposed to trying to force a connection. My “By the Grace of God” series is about me going out into the world and making connections. Right now, the connections are not about making it, or getting ahead. It’s hard for me to explain.

JB: That’s OK. You said it right away. You don’t consider the “wheel of self-promotion.” You don’t care about it. I feel like of all my friends and colleagues, you’re the only one that when you say it, I believe it. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk about this. I feel like so many photographers, certainly fine art photographers, have gotten distracted by the 24/7, all encompassing noise of the Internet, and the blogosphere, and FB and Twitter. People put so much energy into the other that they lose track of the root causes of why we started making art to begin with. I thought that you might be able to share a little bit of your perspective on that.

SW: It all happened for me in a natural, one thing led to another way. At Review Santa Fe, the reason that I even went was that someone nominated me for the Santa Fe Prize, and I had to look up what that was. When someone nominates you for the Santa Fe Prize, you get to go to the portfolio review. And I’d never really heard of a portfolio review before. Someone that interviewed me recently asked me, “Are you really that naive?”

JB: Ouch.

SW: Yeah, but I wasn’t upset by it. I answered, “Yeah, in this case, with this particular subject, I am naive.” I don’t come from a publishing background, and I didn’t go to school for photography, so I’m not going to know everything that everyone knows. Frankly, none of that really matters to me. It’s the art that matters to me. But the reason that she asked if I was really that naive, to prepare for my first portfolio review, I had to google portfolio reviews to see what people brought. I saw that people were bringing what’s called “clamshell boxes,” so that was the first thing I did. I ordered myself a clamshell box. So I kind of feel like I’m just being me. And my art work is how I connect with the world, and how I get my feelings out. And that’s really mine.

JB: That’s what I wanted to talk about. I gave a lecture yesterday at UNM, in Albuquerque. At the end of class, the professor, Jim Stone, asked what advice I would give the students. I said “Don’t do this because you want to make money or get famous. It’s too hard and too degrading.” The business aspects of what we do, even when things are going well, it always feels like a crapshoot. So if that’s why you want to be a photographer, my advice was clear. “Do something else. If you want to be famous, try to get on television. Make work because you have to, because it’s a part of who you are, and if these things don’t come out as art, they come out as insanity or kicking a dog.” That’s where it comes from for me. I wouldn’t have dealt with 15 years of rejection by choice.

SW: I recently had a younger photographer email me, and say she was in my city and could we meet. So I said sure. I always feel a connection to other photographers, because we share a passion. She said, “You’re all over the place right now. How did you get that?” I said, “Gosh, I’ve been taking photographs for at least 20 years.” It’s not something that just comes all of a sudden. You make work that’s important to you, and at some point, someone is going to see it. I just don’t think about money, when I’m thinking about photography. When I leave my house, and I’m in my car, and the lighting is just amazing, and it’s hitting someone’s back yard, I freak out. I just follow that beautiful light. That’s what inspires me. It’s really simple.

JB: I appreciate you sharing your thoughts on this, because I know it can be tough to talk about.. As photographers, we’re primarily visual communicators. But when you’re out there shooting, do you feel like you’re actively looking for something, or you’re waiting to find something?

SW: One of the things that’s funny is that when I go up to people, and I ask if I can take their photograph, sometimes I explain that I’m doing this series called “By the Grace of God,” and it’s kind of just like this. I’m meeting you right here, this light is beautiful. It’s not like it’s a religious thing. I find myself often having to explain that I’m not a crazy nutbag religious person.

JB: (laughing) Did you say nutbag? Because I want to keep that. You better not make me cut nutbag, because that’s too good.

SW: No, no, no. Nutbag is fine.

JB: Excellent.

SW: Sometimes the title of the series helps. I actually walked into what I thought was an abandoned dilapidated church, right into a small service. I ended up standing up and talking about my project, and even got a few hallelujahs. I’m definitely a talker, but when you put me in front of a group of people I tend to freeze. And it’s funny that the first time I stood up and talked about the work was to a non photography crowd in a church service. I believe in a higher power. I am not someone who goes to church all of the time, or even reads the bible all the time. It’s more of just this feeling inside, when I’m taking photographs. It’s following what’s in my heart. Now that I’m older…… Let me give you an example. I used to be in my car, or even out walking, and see something and say, “ Wow. That’s awesome. I’d love to take a photograph of that.” And I wouldn’t stop. Now it seems like I’m listening to myself more, and I’m stopping and taking the time to follow what just made me really excited. Why extinguish that and keep on driving? Why not go ahead and turn down that road, and then usually when I do, and I take out my camera, and I meet someone, it seems like I was supposed to turn down that road and look at this beautiful thing that happened.

JB: When you say, “Why not stop?” I think it’s a great way to cycle back. I think a lot of people don’t stop because they don’t have the time to stop, or because they’re staring at their Iphone, and they don’t see it to begin with. I’m the last guy to be critical of anyone who tries to navigate the system, because certainly I have. But at the same time, within the last few months, I’ve just been pushing myself again and again to be more patient and to take more time. Through our past conversations, I feel like you’ve inspired me to reconnect to that. So…

SW: I’m going to interrupt and talk about patience for a minute. Gosh, patience? I have a lot of patience.

JB: I know. I feel like most people have a problem with it. I don’t think I’ve gotten my mind around how to be patient until very recently. I’m still learning.

SW: I’m actually still learning too. Sometimes, I have to wait a year. I often photograph one of my oldest neighbors, Margaret Daniel. All my family’s gone, and she’s my oldest neighbor from my childhood street, Bostwick Lane. She still lives at the top of it. I photograph her a lot. I’ll give you a bit of background story on her. I was in her basement, and there were all these boxes. They were labeled by the years. So I went upstairs and said, “Margaret, what are all the boxes in the basement?” And she said, “Well, honey, those are my walnuts.” It turns out that she collects walnuts as they fall from her tree, and labels them by the year they fell. It’s since been a very big part of my work with her. One day she was eating walnuts from her parents’ tree that she had brought with her. I call it a dowry of sorts. One fell, and made a tree. Now, it’s 50 or so years later, and that tree is just huge, taller than any house on Bostwick Lane. But the interesting thing about Margaret, and the funny thing is now I forget what the question was… but patience. That’s what we were getting to.

So I really wanted to photograph Margaret. I call her my Black Walnut Bride. I wanted to get photographs of her walnuts, and I had to wait, I would say two years. I said, “Margaret, tell me when the walnuts are going to come. Tell me when the walnuts are going to come.” And she was like, “Honey, the tree was barren this year. That happens every so often.” And so I didn’t get to photograph them, and I was quite upset about it. Now this year, they are plentiful, and I have had to go and help her collect them every day to where my back hurts after picking them up for hours. And we’ve made a walnut bed in her garden. Another metaphor. The woman is rich with metaphors. And she told me, “Honey, we’re going to make a walnut bed. Collect them and put them over there in the garden.” And so that’s the patience that I’ve had to learn, to wait two years for the walnuts to come. But they’re such a big part of her, and now of me.

You know, waiting is fine. You can go off and take other photographs. I don’t consider a series quite finished yet. A lot of people probably think that my “Some Fox Trail in Virginia” project is finished, but I’m going to go on and photograph Margaret, probably, until she is gone. That would be when that series would end.

JB: I didn’t realize the project was still in progress, but when I went to your website, I saw images from “Some Fox Trails” that I hadn’t seen before. When we talk about patience, I feel like everyone else is going in the other direction. There’s this pressure from the outside world that people feel to come out with the next project. To tie a bow around something. To have the book done. I feel like when we get caught up in that, it takes us away from the things that motivate us to make our best work: the quest for knowledge and the desire to improve. We need to kind move around and sit down into something, and I find that of all the people I know, you seem to understand that on an intuitive level. You’re patient with people. You listen. Certainly, I could be accused of loving to talk. But often I try to remind myself that we learn more, and we find the good stuff when we listen.

SW: Exactly. Getting back to Margaret’s walnut bed, to me, the metaphors that come every time I photograph her, the work is getting stronger, and I’m getting stronger as an artist. Just spending time with her. She’s very old, and I know she’s going to pass. I don’t know how long I have with her. The walnut bed, when I look at it, enables me to deal with death. I use a lot of metaphor in my work, and I’ve begun to see the world in metaphors. So when I go to her yard, and see that mound of earth covered in walnuts, she’s not only my Walnut Bride, but that becomes her Walnut Deathbed. In photographing her, she’s helping me come to terms with death, or deal with death, in kind of a poetic way.

My brother was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. On his first visit home, he took his life. He just wasn’t a person who could live without the use of his legs. Margaret Daniel was the last person to see him alive. She had made him his favorite, which was her homemade bread. When I was photographing her for the very first time, she told me the story of his last day. She brought him his favorite bread, and she took it up the stairs, and she buttered it for him. He kept on saying, “Margaret, can you bring me some more bread?” She said, “Susan, he finished the whole loaf.” Then my mom and Margaret went for a walk. When they came back, he had shot himself, and then died shortly thereafter. So the metaphor of that being his last supper. I don’t know if a lot of people know that’s one of the reasons why I concentrate on Margaret, because she’s the last person to see my brother alive, she’s the last of my family, since my family’s passed. It’s all getting connected for me now.

JB: I know this might sound crazy, but I went through your whole website, and the one photograph that I kept up on my screen to talk about, that I’m looking at right now, is the photograph called “Risen,” the freshly baked loaves of bread on the countertop. Of the 150 pictures on your site, that’s the picture that stuck with me. I had no idea of the backstory, and I had no idea that it was your brother’s last meal.

SW: I’m a little shocked. Not knowing the story behind it. Sometimes I think someone might think that was a boring photograph. But for me it has so much meaning.

JB: But the title…let’s sit here one more second. The title: Risen. We see the loaves of bread. And there’s this glowing light. The title has all those spiritual connotations. So between all that, it felt to me like there was really a lot more there. You have a very sharp lens on your 4×5, but there’s always a sense to me that you have a very insightful eye. To me, there was a story here, and I didn’t know what it was. I’m looking at the photograph right now.

SW: There’s always a lot more there. I’m finding out a lot about myself, through the series, and in turn, when I work on “By the Grace of God,” it allows me to get that close with other people.

JB: Whether you’re shooting in Syracuse, New York, or at home in the South, your stomping grounds, whether people are white or they’re black, time and again, no matter what class people come from, or their background, you manage to find a grace and a dignity and a respect. When I see that, that you’re depicting people with respect, then I make this mental assumption that’s how it works on the street. That you meet people, young or old, and they sense that respect, and it creates a rapport. It’s not like, “Hey, there’s a freak, let’s take their picture, and it will be freaky, and then we’ll sell that picture for $10,000.”

SW: I have a little story. I used to go play pool a lot. I met this older black gentleman. His name was Larry, and he was kind of a pool hustler. Larry would put a quarter down on the side of the table while I was playing, and tell me to aim for the coin. I would get four balls in with one shot. He was a very interesting character, and one day Parliament was playing on the jukebox.

JB: P-Funk? George Clinton?

SW: Yeah, P-Funk. So he asked if I liked that, and I said “Yeah.” He told me that he used to dance for Parliament, and they called him the Rubber Band Man. I believe there is a song about him by another band. Now I always believed Larry. He was someone that actually taught me a lot about patience, and reading people. He worked at Tysons Chicken Farm and everyday after work he would ride his bike up to play pool. And I hung out with him quite a lot. So here is this guy, working at a chicken farm in Virginia who travelled the world with George Clinton. I don’t think he even had a phone, but he told me he still had a closet full of fancy costumes. That’s life. That’s how it works. But none of my friends believed he was the Rubber Band Man. I remember once I was outside, and I was talking to Larry. A drunk guy stumbled up with a bottle in a paper bag. He was like “That’s the Rubber Band Man. Do you know who that is? That’s the Rubber Band Man. How do you get to be talking to the Rubber Band Man?”

And that’s kind of how my life works. I wasn’t taking photos at the time. There are just so many stories, and so many special people out there. Everyone has a story. What I’m coming to terms with now is the patience that you talk about. I can’t take all the pictures that I want to take.

JB: There are a million different people out there making pictures a million different ways, but we can only talk about what we know. Irrespective of the fact that you place all the value on the process and not the business aspect, fortunately the world has come to respect your work. You’ve wona book award from Blurb, you’ve had a slew of exhibitions, including the recent Lishui Photo Festival, you had an artist residency at Light Work in Syracuse, and in 2011 you were chosen as a member of the PDN 30. There seems to be a lot of mystique around that list. I was wondering if you might be able to talk about what impact, if any, it’s had on your career?

SW: I remember me and another person that got the PDN this year talked on the phone, and talked about how we weren’t sure if we were doing everything that we should be doing with that award. I think the year that you’re PDN 30 is the year that you’re supposed to use that. That’s your chance to get appointments with galleries, and do that sort of thing. You know, network more because you have that behind you. We didn’t know if we were actually doing that. Because… I don’t know…I use natural light and an old view camera. So it’s hard for me to start doing commercial work. I guess we were both feeling bad, like, “I haven’t done anything with it, what about you?” This is the time we should be doing it. For a commercial photographer, the Photo District News award is amazing, because you immediately are going to have so many people looking at your work, and maybe giving you jobs because of that. Which is wonderful. I wasn’t at the point to take any of those jobs, because again, I use a view camera and natural light. So it would take quite a while for me to develop and then scan, and give a photo shoot back to someone. I think I got Fraction Magazine because of PDN 30, though I don’t know if that came before.

JB: I wanted to talk a little bit about the South. Out of high school, I went to college at Duke in North Carolina. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I could have spent three and a half years in Durham, North Carolina and learned, essentially, nothing about the South. I probably didn’t leave campus very often. I had hush puppies at least ten times. The sweet tea was good. But I can’t believe I squandered the opportunity. You were just included in an exhibition at the Danville Museum in Virginia as a Southern Photographer. People tend to relate to a lyricism and romanticism and sense of visual literature, when it comes to the South.There is a sense of place that is so deeply rooted in your work. It’s a place that I think a lot of people are fascinated by. Certainly since the Civil War. You probably just see yourself as Susan, but what’s your take on that?

SW: That’s the weird thing. Now, I’m beginning to see it a little. Really, when you say sense of place, a sense of home. Everything I’m doing in my work lends itself for people to say, “Oh, it’s very Southern.” But really it’s just me. Often, when I photograph a backyard that’s dripping with overgrown weeds, with an old rusted swing set, to me I immediately see that and I see it as a graveyard of my childhood. A family that lived in that house and is now gone, the children have all gone off to school. I just recently went to my childhood home, last week in fact, and noticed that the kudzu was completely overgrown. Every time I go back it was just growing more and more because the house is deserted right now. So all of the things that I am using to represent life and death and memory and past. It all happens to just lend itself. I don’t think too much about being a Southern photographer. When I do went to my artist-in-residence at Light Work, I had a few days to take my camera out where I wasn’t working on my computer. Maybe four. And the photographs that I did get, people told me, “Wow. Somehow you made Syracuse look like the South.” To me, it just means that going around with my camera to places that I wanted to photograph are the places that reminded me of home. You know?

JB: And what was it like to be included in your first major museum exhibition at home in Virginia?

SW: I’m having a very Cinderella moment. Earlier, when you talked about the Danville Museum show, when I was at Light Work, Elijah Gowin happened to be coming through just for like two hours. I had told someone that I wanted to get a wedding ring portrait of some of the first Virginia photographers whose work that I saw, and maybe Elijah Gowin also. It was a big coincidence, but I got to know him a bit.

Not too long after, I got an email from a curator at the Danville Museum in Virginia. He said “Elijah came home at Christmas time, and showed me your work.” Apparently, he really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to be in a show with Emmet Gowin and Elijah, and Jeff Whetstone, all of these photographers whose work that I knew. And it was funny because they were all academics. They all taught at Universities. So when I went to the opening, I was the waitress. So that’s the stuff that is neat in my life. I can be hanging in a museum show, with all of these important photographers, and I’m a waitress.

Susan Worsham is a Richmond, Virginia based artist. She recently exhibited her photographs in the Lishui Photo Festival in China. To see more of her work, visit

Beside The Day-Glo Waters Of The Truckee River

- - From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

In graduate school, I learned a valuable lesson. We never make our best work in our comfort zone. It doesn’t happen. So one of the most beneficial things we can do as artists, I believe, is to step out of what we know from time to time. Challenge ourselves to do things we wouldn’t normally do. Learn and grow whenever possible. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot, but sometimes we have to delve into the unknown to discover a new process, or perspective, or piece of core knowledge.

So with that in mind, I set off from Taos to Reno, Nevada a few weeks ago. (Yes, it was a long trip: 13 hours. Yes, there was a travel delay: 6 hours in Denver. Maybe one day I’ll live near an airport so I can stop complaining.) Why Reno, you ask? Fair question. I got a tip from a trusted advisor about the Art + Environment triennial conference that was being held at the Nevada Museum of Art. Somewhat surprisingly, the institution has come on strong in the last decade, building a concrete and glass modernist temple just down the street from all the neon nonsense. (A bit too far down a dark street for my liking, but thankfully I didn’t get jacked.) The NMA has developed a focus on Environmental Art, including a terrific collection of contemporary photography that is currently on display. (The Altered Landscape exhibition, btw, and all you Bay Area readers ought to consider a road trip.) I’m almost a year in to a new, double-secret project with a strong Environmental focus, so I decided to go to the conference to learn more about what was going on in the Eco-Art scene in 2011.


View west driving north

I knew nobody, and hadn’t heard of most of the speakers, but their bios were insanely impressive. Whitney Biennials, Tate Modern Solo shows, LACMA, MOMAPS1, the National Gallery of Art, MaCarthur Genius grants, that sort of thing. Basically, it was an insider art world shindig, featuring a bunch of really smart people who were far more accomplished than I. Given that I’ve had some success in the last couple of years, and teach photography at UNM-Taos, it seemed like a good time to go back to being a student. Learn from people who knew more than I do. And to get to schmooze with artists who are so successful seemed like a no-brainer.

But stepping out of your comfort zone is a funny thing. It’s kind of like wearing those awkward platform shoes to try to increase your vertical leap. You look like a doofus, you can’t feel it working, your calves burn like hell, but you tell yourself it will be worth it some day. So of course, that’s what happened. I felt like I’d fallen through a wormhole back to college at fratty Duke, ever the outsider, walking in circles trying to catch someone’s eye. Let’s be honest. The art world is famous for it’s ethos of exclusivity, and this was a perfect example. I’d grown accustomed to being able to chat people up easily, work a room, have a few laughs, sort it out. But in Reno of all places, I was a no-name nobody. I sat by myself each day, hour upon hour, listening to the lectures and checking my email. Thankfully, someone had suggested that photographer Blake Gordon, an APE reader, reach out to me the day of the conference, so we met up and had a beer each night. Good dude. Other than that, I was just some random guy, and it was a seriously unpleasant feeling, after having worked so hard to build an audience for my work. I’d watch people check out my name tag, decide I wasn’t worth talking to, and then move on, all without moving their heads or breaking stride. Ouch.

View from the hotel room

Before you tell me to quit whining, let me state right here, unequivocally, that this was one of the most helpful and beneficial feelings I’ve had in a long time. I even chatted with my wife about it in real time, savoring the potential of all that insecurity slithering through my bloodstream. Feeling a range of emotions allows us to increase our capacity for empathy, as artists, as human beings, and I knew that as crappy as I felt in the moment, that it would lead to new veins of creative energy. So that’s why I’m sharing this story. I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me because I was a loser for a few days. Just the opposite, I want to encourage the process in others. We all work so hard to construct our worlds, our networks, our daily schedules, so that we feel like we know what we’re doing. So that we fool ourselves into thinking that we have just the tiniest bit of control in an anarchic world. And sometimes, it’s really important to leave it all behind and remind ourselves how little we really comprehend.

Aside from feeling like a misfit, I did learn a tremendous amount from a ridiculously intelligent group of people. The short version is that I realized that in order to push myself further, I need to raise the ambition level of my projects. Audacious, absurd ideas lead to innovation, and I came home with some crazy new concepts in my back pocket. Collaboration is also huge right now, not surprisingly, as almost everyone who spoke was working in a team-based approach: artists linking up with scientists, environmentalists, and community organizers. Public gardens, soil testing centers, sewage treatment plants, even the Bay Bridge were all discussed as venues for and subjects of contemporary art.

Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that the general consensus was that Global Warming will kill us all. The drastic and irreversible effects of Climate Change were accepted as a given, and most of the projects were therefore discussed within a context of “How Can Art Save the World?” And of course, ever the cynical Gen-X’er, this is what gave me the hardest time. There we sat, a whole basket full of educated white people, well-ensconced in our modernist glass bubble, discussing how to save the world, 1% at a time. We’ve heard quite a bit about the 1% in the last few weeks, but I couldn’t help thinking that given the scope of the problem, why was nobody talking about engaging with the wider world outside the fishbowl? It was just so surreal to be in this air conditioned, insular micro-community in the middle of downtown Reno. New York or Paris might have made it a bit easier to swallow, but Reno? The conference had blocked a suite of rooms at a huge casino on the strip, so my weekend was divided between that museum world, and the overweight, depressing, recycled air universe inhabited by the all-you-can-eat-buffet loving, red-bull-and-vodka drinking citizens of the USA.

View from the altered landscape exhibition

Can you imagine? The seedy, down-scale, brothel-ads-on-the-top-of-taxi-cab type experience outside, elitist, global art-star scene on the inside. And never the two shall meet. Really, haven’t we all had enough of a world where the best art is never meant to be seen by 99% of the world’s population? That was what I felt was lacking through the weekend of high-minded discourse. Thus far, I think it’s fair to say that if artists have had a strategy of engaging the masses, (which I doubt,) then we’d have to declare the project an abject failure. Isn’t it time, I thought, for artists and thinkers to try to embrace new tactics, at the very least, to enlarge the tent? Especially in a room full of people who were dedicated to saving the world?

Chris Jordan, an artist that I greatly admire, was on hand as a part of the photography contingent. (Along with Subhankar Banarjee and the amazing Edward Burtynsky, whom I got to meet as well.) Mr. Jordan spoke repeatedly of his feelings of grief and panic in a world of bloated, incomprehensible over-consumption. He showed photographs, which have since been released, of Elephants with their faces hacked off for ivory, corpses rotting in the middle of a Kenyan game preserve. He also projected photos of the stomachs of dead baby birds on Midway Island, piles of un-digestable, non-biodegradable plastic. He spoke of not knowing how to communicate the depths of his despair in the proper fashion. I’ll be the first to say that as a human being, I was moved by his experience. The world needs courageous men and women to witness atrocity, to witness mindless destruction, to record moments for history, to bring the story back to the rest of us. It’s vital. I get it. But as art, I wonder if images that are so literal, that communicate only misery, can really engage people and motivate action? I’m sure that most of you might disagree with me, and to be clear, I’m not criticizing Mr. Jordan, who I’m sure is a saint of a guy. I’m just wondering why I didn’t hear more about how we, as artists, can use a variety of skill sets and methods to expand the reach of our work, to recruit new viewers, to communicate a message in a manner that will speak to more people, without dumbing down the art in the process. Because if the alternative is that, you know, billions of people die in the resource wars to come, then I think it might be time for us to get off our asses and try something new.

There were a few artists, namely Fritz Haeg, Leo Villareal, and Amy Franceschini who presented projects that don’t reside in galleries or museums. Mr. Haeg is famous for planting public and private gardens as art installations. He also produced an outdoor, nature-based exhibition for the 2008 Whitney Biennial that sat out on Madison Avenue. Ms. Franceschini has done some similar work with garden installations, if you can believe it, and also built a sculpture in Italy that she literally took from town to town, actively engaging the inhabitants of small villages in Abruzzo. Mr. Villareal, a New Mexico native based in NYC, has installed LED light sculptures on the outside of BAM in Brooklyn, MOMAPSI in Queens, at Burning Man, and has a project under consideration for the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. So while there may not have been an particular dialogue on the subject of breaking out of the white cube, several of the presenters, each of whom has succeeded at the highest levels of the art world, planted seeds in my mind about how to push things further.

View from the rooftop party

Finally, it wouldn’t be a travel story to a strange, surreal gambling mini-Mecca if I didn’t share at least one anecdote about the ironic absurdity. One of the reasons I love places like this, if you can avoid getting mugged, is that you get to experience the world as if you’re on mushrooms without having to deal with the horrible taste. So on my last evening, with nothing more than a few beers in my system, I was walking back to the hotel to call it a night. The sky glowed neon pink, the waters of the Truckee river shimmered with day-glo reflections. Then, right in front of me, rolling through an intersection, I saw a tinted-down, chromed-out black Denali, windows down, big dudes hanging out the windows, hip-hop blasting. I clicked the mental shutter. Then, immediately thereafter, I looked up and saw a denim-shirt and jeans wearing, worn-brown-leather boot stomping, big-old cowboy hat having, bushy-mustache sporting, craggly-faced cowboy walk right past me. Click. Then, and I swear I’m not making this up, the very next people to walk by were two 5 foot Asian guys holding a 4 foot pink plastic bong. Click. One, two, three, all in the span of 15 seconds. Thankfully, what happens in Reno stays in Reno, so that’s all I’ll say about that.

View from the strip

I left town on a Sunday morning, with the remnants of a truly awful $15 buffet in my mouth. While I know I’ve said some unpleasant and critical things in this article, I’ll stress here that the A+E Conference was one of the best experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’ve probably made more photographs and had more crazy ideas in the last couple of weeks than in the 6 months prior to the event. My mind has yet to slow down, and, thankfully, my ego has already recovered.

The Dog Days of August – NYC Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited New York City in early August. It took me 15 1/2 hours to get there. You read that correctly. That’s enough time for a New Yorker to have a cup of coffee from the bodega, catch a cab to La Guardia, and have a dinner of dolamdes in Istanbul. Or for a San Franciscan to wake up to a nice latte, BART down to SFO, and graze on sushi in Tokyo. It’s also enough time to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad, and then cook up a small batch of meth afterwards. In other words, I live in the boonies for real. (I’m actually writing this from a horse pasture at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.)

So this will be the story in which I drop in on the world’s biggest media empire, (My apologies, Herr Murdoch), do a 60 Minutes walk & talk style interview with the photo world’s preeminent Kickstarter expert, and finish up with a visit to the world’s most transgressive art exhibit. If that sounds a bit like a 21st Century Jewish guy’s version of an Odyssey, it certainly felt like one to me. It all began with the aforementioned insanely long travel day from Taos to Washington Heights. (My apologies…Hudson Heights.) I started the day listening to the ravens squawk before sunrise, and ended up in my cousin’s apartment above the GW bridge. Guest rooms being a rare commodity in New York, I crashed on a trundle bed below a bunk bed shared by a four year old and his seven year old brother. No, I’m not making that up. (Big ups to Nathan and Noah Burak. Thanks, guys.)

Regardless, I slept well, and woke up on a Tuesday excited to make my first visit to the New York Times. I understand that there’s an inherent name-dropping quality to these articles, and I do hope you don’t think the less of me for it. But there I was, at 11am on a not-so-opressively-hot early August morning, standing under the big gray lady’s corporate logo, wondering how it all came to pass. (Yes, I did take a photo of myself for my parents. Yes, I do know this makes me a huge dork.) I was there to meet with James Estrin, the photojournalist and editor of the Lens Blog. We’d met earlier in the summer in Santa Fe, and after I thanked him profusely for changing my life, we got to talking about our respective educational initiatives. Mr. Estrin, along with Adriana Teresa of Visura Magazine, recently started the Envision Foundation, which sponsors digital photography programs for teen-agers in locations around the world. (China, Haiti, the Bronx, and Mexico City.) Last year, I created a similar program to work with rural youth from the mountain communities of Taos County at the local UNM branch, so we found we had a lot in common. He invited me to partner my program with his, and there you have it.

I traveled back across the country to meet with Mr. Estrin to chat about photography, and get some of the details squared away. As we agreed to meet in the Times building, I was getting a chance to peek behind a very famous curtain. Of course, given that I always seem to manufacture a mishap on these adventures, I got in the wrong elevator. Turns out, in the fancier buildings of today, some elevators only go to certain floors. Who knew? But I sorted it out without any stress, and soon arrived on the 4th floor of the recently built Renzo Piano skyscraper. First impression: it is a beautiful building. Modern, with lots of steel and glass, but there are huge swaths of red everywhere. Mr. Piano is apparently involved in the interior design as well, and insisted upon the crimson invasion. I love it. One would imagine that a contemporary newsroom would contain oceans of gray, so the enforced color was a welcome touch.

It’s funny, but I’ve been a working artist for fifteen years. My career has been a slow-build, with lots of one step forward two steps back phases. But the last year, as many of you know, has had a bit of a wormhole feeling to it, so walking around the Times was totally surreal. I was aware that they weren’t going to kick me out or anything, but I had this sense of being a kid trailing his dad at take your child to work day. I tried to hide it a bit, but also thought that since it was authentic, I might as well go with it. Mr. Estrin kindly showed me around, and I got to meet and thank Kerri MacDonald, who wrote the Lens story that continues to bounce around the world. Everywhere I went, really smart, witty people were crashing into each other in impromptu meetings, discussing photographs and the state of the world. The place was massive, with the third and fourth floors open to each other, and the sound of fingers tapping away madly on Apple keyboards reminded me of an atonal Phillip Glass symphony. A far cry from the roosters and horses and magpies to which I’m accustomed.

Meetings are meetings, so I’ll spare you any further descriptions about what we were talking about. But I did have a one-of-a-kind-photo-geek moment that I’ve got to share. At some point, Mr. Estrin, who had briefly stepped away, came thundering around a corner and motioned for me to follow. As I emerged from his office, I saw a not large man holding court a few feet away. He was unremarkable, save for the fact that he had some shiny, metallic artificial legs. Joao Silva, in the flesh. When I was 12, I met Joe Montana on an airplane on the way to Superbowl XXI. When I was 19, I met Bruce Springsteen outside a waterfront restaurant where I was working at the Jersey Shore. In both cases, I felt like a bashful fanboy, basking in the glow of grandiosity. This was no different. I’m guessing almost all of you already know, but Mr. Silva is the Times journalist who was blown up by a land mine in Afghanistan, and continued to shoot pictures from the ground, whilst his legs were ripped off his body. So the awe I felt was understandable, but of course I had nothing interesting to say to him. Really, what do you say? “Mr. Silva, it’s a pleasure to meet you. You’re an inspiration,” or something like that, right? You try not to gawk at his legs, and fail. You try to be casual about the whole thing, and fail again. It was clear that he did not want to be ogled for his disability, and his matter-of-factness only made him seem tougher. A friend reminded him to sit, as to make it easier on himself, and he ignored the entreaty. One tough dude.

That was the highlight of my Tuesday, obviously, but I did see three albino triplets riding Razr scooters outside Rockefeller Center, so it wasn’t quite the landslide victory you’d imagine. And I finished the day at an Irish Happy hour joint in Midtown where my friend Adria and I wondered aloud if the bartender had earned her boob job back in tips yet. Adria, ever the cynical New Yorker, voted no. (I believe what she actually said was, “With that face, it’s no surprise she went for the boob job,” but I wouldn’t swear to it.)

My Wednesday was spent in Washington, as was previously chronicled, and I awoke on Thursday with a plan to visit the Ryan Trecartin show at MOMAPS1, followed by Boris Mikhailov at MOMA proper. As I lounged around, slowly packing my back for a trip to Jersey later in the day, I got a call from my friend and fellow photographer Manjari Sharma. We’d made plans to get together previously, but as I hadn’t heard from her yet, I assumed she’d gotten too busy. I told her what my plan was, and by the time we’d hung up the phone, we’d agreed to go see the Alexander McQueen show at the Met instead. (It was about to close, and since has.) Ms. Sharma is among the most persuasive, persistent people I’ve come across, which I find amusing and endearing, and of course she brought me around to her way of thinking. There’s a lot to be said, in this world, for not taking no for an answer.

So off I headed, rolling my newly purchased travel bag, for the trip from Hudson Heights to the Upper East Side. A train to a train to a bus, in case you were wondering. As I crossed Fifth Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum in sight, I realized that our plan was likely to change. There must have been a thousand people lined up outside, snaking up and down the block. I’ll say this for New Yorkers, they take “culture” seriously, and I commend them for it. But my day was not playing out according to plan. Does it ever?

Expect the unexpected. It’s the perfect, oxymoronic cliché for New York. Of course it’s impossible to follow the advice, but when I lived in Brooklyn, it was a daily mantra. That, and “It’s always something.” You’re late for a big meeting? Plan on the subway car stopping in a tunnel for no reason. You forgot your umbrella one day, for the first time ever? Well, then, you know a Noreaster is imminent. Have two bucks in your pocket for slice of pizza? Well, of course that’s the day they they raise the price to $2.25. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love New York. It was a bitch for me to live there, but I love the place. I just accept that the city is an entity, like Godzilla, and she’s always in charge.

Back at the Met, I decided that since Manjari texted that she’d be late, I might as well get in line and see what the future would hold. My travel suitcase was new, and just a bit too big to fit in the overhead compartment, but looks a lot like a backpack. So there I was, rolling it two feet at a time, slowly shuffling along with everyone else, starting to get a bit excited to see a show that people were this gaga about. Moving. slowly. moving. slowly. Mind wandering. The sky looks pretty today. Why do those kebab carts always smell great and taste like crap? When’s Manjari going to get here?

After 25 minutes, I was starting to settle in. Getting comfortable with the idea that things would work out. Whammo. An authoritative, blue suit wearing, security guard type guy, who looked like an aristocratic Jason Statham, was walking down the street, towards me, and I happened to notice him. Without breaking stride, he looked at me and said, “We won’t let you in with that suitcase,” and just kept going. That was it. You can’t come in. Too bad. So sad. I was stunned. Where was I supposed to put my bag? They have a coat and bag check, so what’s the problem? My bag was too big, I suppose. I stood there a moment, and then continued to shuffle along with the line. Maybe he was bluffing, I thought. Maybe I can charm my way in.

I was deep in thought, trying to figure out a solution, when someone said, “Hey you, are you trying to cut in line? Where did you come from?” It was loud enough that it shook me from my reverie, and when I looked up, I found that some bald, tight t-shirt wearing dude was talking to me. “Excuse me?” I replied. “Are you trying to cut in line? I didn’t see you here,” he followed. “Listen, jerk,” I said, “I’ve been in this line for 25 minutes. What are you talking about?” “Ok, sorry,” he said. “Don’t take it personal. Calm down.” Just curious, but at any point in human history, has the advice “Calm down,” ever worked? So I started to mutter to myself, and then turned around to give him one more dirty look. “I said, don’t take it personal,” he shouted, and that was enough. It was clear I would not be seeing the Alexander McQueen show on that day.

So I went over to the steps to sit down and wait for Manjari. I started to laugh about the whole expect the unexpected thing, and put my head down to take some notes. Not ninety seconds later, out of nowhere, the sound of a capella, Motown music shocked me out of my thoughts. I looked up, and not five feet in front of me, at eye level, was a five piece band, belting out some great, old school stuff. Right in front of my face. And they weren’t there when I sat down. That’s why I love New York.

Manjari arrived shortly, and it took quite a bit of explaining on my part before she accepted that I would not be getting in to the Met that day. We spoke with several other guards, because as I mentioned, she’s not the type to take no for an answer. One guard even suggested that I take the bag up the street to the Guggenheim, as they might have more lax luggage restrictions. But alas, the Guggenheim is closed on Thursdays. Finally, I convinced Manjari to accompany me to MOMA, where I’d hoped to go anyway, and where we could get some food and catch up before seeing the Boris Mikhailov exhibition.

And that is where I morphed into Steve Kroft, walking and talking my way thirty blocks South, rollerbag in tow, and interviewing Ms. Sharma about her insanely successful Kickstarter project that recently met it’s funding goal. Earlier in the morning, she’d asked me to look at her Kickstarter page, in the hope that we might chat about it. I was blown away. I’ve been preaching to a friend for quite some time about the moment when photographers started to marry their creativity, 5d Mark II cameras, and ubiqutious broadband connections into the proper primordial soup for the birth of easy video. And that time has now come.

Manjari had posted a terrifically slick and approachable promotional video, speaking directly to the Kickstarter audience, explaining what she was trying to achieve as an artist, and why she needed help. You must see it. At the time, she told me it was in the process of going viral, with publicity from CNN, Wired, and NPR. It was easy to understand why. The video includes exposition, footage of Manjari at work in Mumbai, some terrific animation, and even a digital rendering of what her work will look like huge on the wall of a major museum. She discusses her heritage and spirituality candidly, and asks the audience to support her vision of making work. Not to buy the prints once they’re done, as the model has been for so long, but to actually fund the creation of the work beforehand. Of course, grants and fellowships have been around forever too, but this was definitely something new. Kickstarter has funded countless projects by now, but the video was the key difference here. It was just so well done. Ten years ago, I can’t imagine what the budget would have been for a three minute promo piece such as this.

She talked quickly, as we navigated the potholes and construction barriers, and made it clear that she was certain her project would fund. It was still early in the process, but she’d seen a $3000 jump (give or take) in just the previous day or so, as the viral sensation took off. People around the world were spanking their credit cards, through Amazon of course, because they wanted to see what these proposed photographs would look like. (And also for a small reward, depending on the funding level.) Ms. Sharma, who moved to the US for college in Columbus, Ohio, was originally from India. At present, she is trying to recreate important Hindu dieties as large scale photographs based upon live models. The process requires huge crews, and also a hefty travel budget to get back and forth to Mumbai multiple times. So she asked the digi-verse to help her raise $20,000, and I’m happy to report that she succeeded.

As I said before, the video was the key, as was her frank explanation within it. Fortunately, her husband is an illustrator, and another friend did the video editing. So she saved a ton of money on the production that way. I mentioned to her that not everyone would have that luxury, and Manjari pointed out that we all have our own networks and inherent advantages, and we have to work with what we’ve got. So if you don’t know any animators, skip the animation. But the reality is that a 5d Mark II can make as nice a video as anything else out there, and including motion and sound changes the experience of consuming media on the web. (If you don’t belive me, check out the Jörg Colberg video about the death of photography that made the rounds earlier this summer.)

Eventually, we made it to the Museum of Modern Art. While Manjari tried to talk her way into getting an artist membership, (successfully, of course,) I found myself hoping that this museum would take in my tired, weary traveler’s bones. As I approached the coat check, my heart sank at a sign outlawing luggage such as mine. But I decided to take Manjari as an inspiration, and see if I could twist some arms. I walked up to the window of a beautiful, young, smiling African-American coatcheck attendant. She looked down at my bag and frowned. Before she could say no, I begged, “Please, help. I have nowhere to stash my bag, and just walked 30 blocks from the Met because they wouldn’t let me in. Please.” With that, she smiled again. “Really,” she said, “they wouldn’t let you in at the Met?” “Really,” I assured her. ” And that was that. She empathized, bent the rules, and I was a happy man.

We had a nice lunch, but I’ll spare you the details. It’s not a food blog, after all, and I am not Tony Bourdain. (Under no circumstances will I ever eat an animal’s testicles. Ever.) But by then, after the Times, DC, and the debacle uptown, I was pretty tired. So rather than get a whole tour of the museum, I decided to save my remaining brain cells for the Boris Mikhailov show, which I was dying to see.

Let’s be clear from the start. This is probably the most transgressive, offensive group of photographs I’ve ever seen. I can imagine, now, how it must have felt the first time people saw some of Mapplethorpe’s more graphic fisting images on the wall. This collection of photographs eviscerates some of the biggest taboos I can imagine, and I loved it. I was neither offended, nor shocked, and that says a lot about the world in which we’re living. But I’ve got to assume that many people have been and will be offended by these pictures, (and whatever I write about them,) so quit reading here if you’re that type of viewer.

The photographs were made in the Ukraine in 1997-8. Just picture it. Boris Yeltsin was still in power, and was probably chugging 3 quarts of vodka a day by then. Vlad Putin was lurking, probably practicing his “I crush your head” move like that guy from Kids in the Hall. All the assets of the Communist empire were being grabbed, groped and auctioned off to the most connected Oligarchs: a tidal wave of Capitalist greed, organized crime type power, and pent up demand for Western baubles. (If you think I’m kidding, look at how Brooklyn’s favorite Oligarch, Mikhail Prokorov made his wealth. From acid wash jeans to investment banking to owning a secret resource mine in Siberia in no time.) That’s the backdrop in which these photographs were made, in a perfectly bleak little former Soviet town in winter. Seriously, do they even have summer in Russia?

As to the images, let me try to describe the premise. (As usual, I didn’t read the wall text until afterwards, but it’s pretty easy to put it together.) Mr. Mikhailov made the acquaintance and earned the trust of a group of quasi-homeless people in a certain locale. He hung around them as they did their thing, got to know their stories, one would imagine, as they navigated the local park, and whatever divey little shelter anyone could afford. And then he messed around with this sorry group of junkies, drop outs, and lunatics, doing his best to create the most ridiculously offensive poses anyone could fathom. I can’t believe he got these people to do this stuff, without offering up some crack or meth, but let’s suppose it never came to that.

The exhibition consisted of 17 photographs, somewhere in the range of 8 feet tall, pinned naked to the wall. Some were shown individually, some in groups of two, and there was one 5 image panel as well. Together, they tell the story of a group of people living in the bleakest, poorest conditions imaginable, all the while some artsy photographer dude poses them like cranked out rag dolls in a dystopian present. Fat old ladies hold up their shirts and pull down their pants, pimples asses here and there, scars abound, and black eyes too, shirts up pants down everywhere, one crazy dude wields an axe, and everywhere are ugly naked body parts that you never thought you’d want to see. And you don’t want to see it, of course. It’s not pleasant. But it is brilliant, at least in this man’s opinion.


What’s that old saying, in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king? Something like that, right? Well along those lines, art made about a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent time, made in a chaotic, miserable, nihilistic violent place cannot be both authentic and soft cuddly beautiful, right? If it’s going to capture the essence of something terrible, it kind of has to sink down into the muck to be relevant, right? Well, if you’ve answered yes to those questions, then go see this show before it closes on September 5th. And you’ll thank me.

If you answered no, but have a strong stomach, you should probably still go see this show. You just might not like it. Is is exploitative? Absolutely. Almost perfectly so. Is it degrading? Hell yes. But how different is it than the milliions of photos of pretty naked Eastern European girls that swim around the cyberweb each day. Not to mention the countless girls from this region that are sold into sexual slavery. And that’s today. These photos were made almost 15 years ago, which in my book makes them prescient.

As I was looking, again, it was easy to see that these photos were not straight documents. The poses were often classical, which does not happen by accident. And the use of color was fantastic. Often in the form of a plastic bag placed just so. Or in the repeating theme of “red eye,” which here brings in color and the reference to the snapshot aesthetic at the same time. Amazing.

Ultimately, what I most appreciated was the gaze of the subjects into the camera. The look that they gave Mikhailov, and by extension, me, the viewer. It was clear, I thought. “What, you want my dignity? Here. Take it. I don’t need it anyway. It’s worthless to me. What, you think you can humiliate me? Impossible. It can’t be done. Because there is a sea of cold infinity at my core, and it’s stronger than your camera, or my purported government, or even the paint thinner that I huffed this morning. Fuck you.”

And that was that. I tried to look at the permanent installation show, but my mind was shot. So I reclaimed my bag from the saint of a girl downstairs, and headed out into the innocent madness of the City. Off to Penn Station, rolling along, and then a train to New Jersey, chugging along, for a nice evening with my nice relatives. Who never, not for a moment, suspected I had such twisted, horrific photographs backstroking through my brain.

Library of Congress Visit

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

I visited Washington, DC earlier this month to drop off a portfolio of my photo project, “The Value of a Dolllar,” at the Library of Congress. They acquired it a couple of months ago, and due to a busy schedule and some production difficulties, (inks dry up like mad in New Mexico’s 10% humidity), I hadn’t gotten the work to them yet. As it happened, by the time I was ready to drop it off with the local Taos fedex guys, I’d already booked a short trip back to NYC for some meetings. I was planning to spend one day at the Jersey Shore with my family, playing mini-golf and ogling the hotties, but I realized that if I shifted things around, I could take the train down to DC to deliver the work in person. Good call.

I hopped on a morning Amtrak from Penn Station in early August, well-caffeinated, and watched the I-95 corridor fly by while I worked on my laptop. Lots of trees, in case you were wondering. It was a breeze of a trip, and all was well until I hopped into a cab in the warm drizzle outside DC’s Union Station. I figured all I had do was say, “Library of Congress, please,” like some character in a John Grisham flick. Maybe the cabbie’s name would be Smitty. Then, the acerbic, stogie-smoking driver, would say, “You got it, Mister. We’ll be there in a jiffy, ” and off we would go. What he said in real life was, “Which building?” I stammered, “Are you joking?,” looked around for the hidden camera, slowly realized he was serious, then fumbled around my bag for anything resembling a specific address. Awesome. Ultimately, we figured it out, but not before I ended up looking like a complete tool.

I made it to the Madison Building in time, barely, and found myself face to face with a metal detector and a sign that said PLACE ALL BELONGINGS IN THE GRAY TUB. Looking around, ever the observant photographer, I saw no grey tubs. When I asked the security guard about it, he laughed at my naiveté, and said, “We don’t have those anymore.” Oh. Right. Because America’s broke. Sure. So I hopped in an elevator to the third floor, and began the long march to the Prints and Photographs division. I’d been hauling the portfolio box, by hand, from Taos to Albuquerque to Houston to Newark to New York to DC, so by that point, I just wanted the freaking thing out of my possession. But this being a public building, and a monumentally huge one at that, the halls just kept going. And going. All that florescent lighting. Makes me sleepy just thinking about it.

Thankfully, I arrived on time, and after the gruff lady at the front desk called back to the office, I was assured they’d take the portfolio off my hands in a few minutes. I was there to meet with Verna Curtis, the curator who led the acquisition team. While waiting, I peeked around a bit, and was surprised to find that it looks and functions kind of like…a library. Big shock, right? For those of you who don’t know, the entire collection is accessible to the public. There are rules, of course, but if followed, anyone can come in and “check out” vintage or contemporary prints from the collection, for research, or the simple pleasure of looking. Unlike a museum, which puts work on the wall for the masses, or tucks it away in the archives forever, this is a totally different viewing experience. Designed to be personal. Kind of refreshing.

Ms. Curtis arrived shortly, and led me back to the Vault. I dropped the box down theatrically, glad it was no longer mine to obsess about. Of course, there was a big bucket of white gloves right there, this being an archive, so I showed her the prints, along with her colleague Carol Johnson. Afterwards, I felt a surge of relief when Ms Curtis wheeled the box away in a pushcart. Forever. Business complete, I turned to a stack of photographs on the table. Ms. Curtis, Ms. Johnson, and another colleague, Beverly Brannan, had chosen a few pieces from the collection they thought I might like to see. Very thoughtful. As we began discussing the prints, and the collection in general, I started to take a bunch of notes, and before I knew it, we were doing an impromptu interview for you, the APE audience. Perhaps they’ll make a real journalist of me yet.

Together, the three curators enlightened me about how the institution works. I was honest, and admitted that despite the honor of now being included in the collection, I was kind of ignorant as to it’s mission and function. It seemed the better course than trying to fake it with in a room full of experts. They graciously explained that the collection began as Thomas Jefferson’s personal library, which was given to Congress in 1802. (Way to go, T-Jeff.) The original building was torched by the British in the War of 1812, and a new building was erected in 1898. (Hence the Jefferson building, right across the street)

So the Library was given to Congress, which is responsible for funding, and it has a mission to serve the members of Congress as well. The ladies explained that their goal, as curators, is to identify pressing political and social issues within American culture, almost like cultural anthropologists, and then to collect artwork that reflects those issues. I’m not sure any other curatorial team has the same mandate. At first, the work represents the Zeitgeist of the present, and then it slowly seeps into history. They said that in the late 80’s/early 90’s, they collected work about AIDS, and then of course 9/11 as well. In order to acquire my project, they first had to agree that food was a subject worthy of attention. Body issues, which they described as relating to obesity, aging, youth, Anorexia and Bulimia, is another issue that is currently the focus of collection.

Ms Curtis explained that beyond the grand topic, they seek work that delivers “subject, content and execution.” They’re interested in photographs that, “are not entirely illustrative and documentary, but have artistic merit as well…where the subject is key to our time.” It was also explained that members of Congress are meant to come by to look at work to help them get a better understanding of particular issues. Which sounds pretty cool in theory. But when I mentioned that to my friend Andreas at lunch, he laughed and conjured the visual of Mitch McConnell taking a break out of his busy day to look at some… Ah-rt. I do love me some, Ah-rt. Especially them velvet Elvises. Well played, Andreas.

Back to the Vault. The curators had brought out three groups of work for me to see. The first, by an artist Robert Coppola, was a series of small-scale injket prints of tobacco farms in Connecticut that were presented in a cigar box. It was a one of a kind object, and had a poetic feel to it. We also looked at a few gorgeous gelatin silver prints by Graciela Iturbide, which were a gift from the Mexican government back in 1998. Iturbe’s prints were striking, in a high-contrast, agressive sort of way. One image, which I’d seen reproduced before, was of an Indigenous woman tearing apart an animal in a market, a knife stuck between her teeth. Another, which I really loved, depicted an Indigenous woman, seen from behind, walking alone through the low mountains of the Sonoran desert, holding a Boom Box. Awesome. Fab Five Freddy would be proud. The entire scene looked like it could have taken place three hundred years ago, save for that one fantastic temporal reference.

The curators also mentioned that they believe it’s important for the Library of Congress to be relevant in the 21st Century. Many people see it as a dusty part of history, I was told, which is not a fair assessment of the living, evolving institution. They pointed out that the LoC was the first major archive to have a Flickr page, and that countless historical images have been tagged by the populace, crowd-sourcing elements of American history. They also have the entire 170,000 FSA archive accessible online, as they started the scanning process 15 years ago. They’re currently working with a new group of photographers and writers, Facing Change, to create a contemporary version of the FSA collection.

We finished up our visit looking at a few newly-acquired prints by Jen Davis, who uses herself as a subject of self-portraiture. I’ll be as careful as a I can with my language here, as Ms. Davis is a larger woman who uses her self-portraiture as a way of looking at the aforementioned “Body Issues.” It would be condescending to call the photographs brave, but clearly we’re not used to seeing self-portraits of people who look like Ms. Davis. If I had a dollar for every 20-something cutie that takes naked pictures of herself, I’d buy lunch for everyone reading this. But of course that’s the point. Since she’s an intelligent and talented artist, Ms. Davis is capable of making images that are delicate and subtle as they plumb a variety of themes related to being big in a world obsessed with unrealistic visions of retouched beauty. (I think everyone can relate. I certainly felt self-conscious on the beach in SoCal last month next to all those bronzed, slab-shouldered surfers with hair like Farrah Fawcett. Yes, I mean the guys…)

In one photo, Ms. Davis is at the beach with some friends, well-covered, sitting on a beach towel with an attractive friend in a bikini. Uncomfortable. In another, she’s in line, her back turned, at a hamburger stand at a State Fair or carnival. Corndog, anyone? Churro? Finally, I saw a print of Ms. Davis, slightly turned away, eating a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream, like a secret, shameful midnight snack. All the prints were about 20×30, and powerful at scale. Anyone who’s read my previous articles knows I can be liberal with criticism, and prone to verbosity, but this work is hard to talk about. And given that the issues themselves are difficult to discuss in a country with an Obesity and Diabetes epidemic, I think Ms. Davis’ work succeeds on both the literal and metaphorical level. Great stuff.

From there, I took my leave, and trundled down the eternally long hallway to the exit. I stopped to give a shout out to the statue of James Madison, (What up, J-Mad? How YOU doin’?) read a few of his inspirational quotes on the wall, and then headed out into the city. I hadn’t been to this part of DC since I was a child, so it was like visiting for the first time. Lots of big white Classical buildings with ornate sculptures on top, and plenty of quotes incised on the structures as well. Some serious early 19th Century power architecture. I can see the thought process. Hey guys, let’s build a bunch of big, expensive buildings like the Greeks and Romans did, and people will know we’re a real country. Kind of like the Chinese are doing today with the Shanghai skyline. Expect now it’s the future, man.

I walked across the Mall, basically a long, narrow park with duck pond, and headed up the street to the National Gallery of Art, where I spent the rest of my day. I’ve gone on record, several times, discussing how much I love the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Hard as it is for me to fathom, the National Gallery is pretty close to it’s equal. And it’s free. That’s right. Free. You walk in, let the dude at the front look into your purse (or manbag), and then he says “Have a nice day.” That’s it. No money changes hands. How cool is that? Better check it out soon, as our broke-as-a-joke status as a nation will probably mean they start charging for this stuff any day now. As to the art, it’s indescribably good. (Yeah, tough adjective from a guy who’s trying to describe things.)

First thing to share: the museum is huge. Two-separate-buildings-with-an-underground-tunnel-in-between kind of huge. It’s the sort of place where you stare at the map for a few minutes, then say “Fuck it” and just wander around. So rather than trying to share my non-linear, Pacman like wanderings, I’ll just give some highlights. And there were many, as the collection of work on display here is truly remarkable. All you East Coast peoples, pay attention. Take a day and go visit. As long as your Amtrak doesn’t break down, which of course mine did on the way home, (more later) it will be an easy day, well worth it.

After spending time with some Rembrandts, because he’s the Man, I wandered into the German Renaissance section. I’ve seen a lot of art in my day, in many of the world’s best museums, but I hadn’t seen this before. The 16th Century portraits of probably-important-in-their-day German people were fantastic. I saw one, “Portrait of a Woman,” by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1522) that looked just like a Hellen Van Meene photo I’d seen at MOPA in San Diego last month. Head slightly turned, with an intense green background and strong shadow contrasting with her shocking red hair, it was so modern. Lifelike too. Accompanied by the equally creatively titled “Portrait of a Man,” it definitely gave me new perspective on the contemporary German portrait style. Many of the paintings I saw from that era, in fact, appeared to be the root of the stone-faced, unemotional, sharp and dry style made famous by Thomas Ruff. (BTW, I recently saw a Thomas Struth portrait of Gerhard Richter, also at MOPA, that was so self-serious I laughed out loud. We want the money, Lebowski.) Looking at portraits by Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein, I noted that if one simply changed out the clothing, the German sitters could be straight out of the 21st C.

Downstairs, I stumbled upon the innocuously titled “Chester Dale” Collection. Wow. I’m excited just reading that. Wait, who? Sarcasm aside, the man knew what he was buying. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better grouping of late 19th Century/Early 20th Century European Painting. Picasso, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, Braque, Renoir, Modigliani, Cézanne, Matisse, Touluse-Lautrec, Corot…and more. A diptych of Monet’s “Rouen Cathedral,” from 1894 was mesmerizing, and ought to be required viewing for every photographer. The manner in which light leads to color, and color to expressionism was laid out like a cheat sheet in a pop-quiz. Obvious but enlightening. Not to mention beautiful.

Picasso, as is often the case, was the standout. I saw two paintings, “The Lovers,” and “Classical Head,” from 1923 and 1922, respectively, that were in an almost-earnest, super classical style that I’d not seen from him before. And “Two Youths,” from 1906, featured two naked boys, around 10 years old, rendered in pale pastel orange hues. It was beautiful and haunting, and made me question some of the things I wrote about Jock Sturges last year. Not that I’m a flip-flopper, heaven forbid, but I did ask myself why it was OK for Picasso to work with such subjects, but not JS.

Soon enough, in another part of the museum, I found myself in a room with a sequence of 19th Century Gilbert Stuart portraits of the First five Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison & Monroe. (Old white men, of course) Basking in their aura of power, I thought: this is their town. I’m just visiting. They lived and breathed, they created this country, and now I’m walking around, enjoying the multi-billion dollar art collection that sprung up in their name. That was one thing I enjoyed about DC, the sense that the history of the US is alive, and that the future has not yet been written. (Perhaps I’m overly optimistic on that one.) Wherever you go, you see frumpy, serious looking people in power ties and pant suits, rushing off to solve one problem or another.

After passing the underground waterfall in the tunnel between the buildings, I found myself in the Modern wing. As you can imagine, my brain was pretty well pickled by then, but I did wander through a thorough and well curated collection of late 20th Century painting and sculpture. (No photos in sight. But the Jasper Johns Target painting and Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist” are dynamite.) I didn’t see a single photograph until the end of my visit, if you can believe it. A Lewis Baltz show had just closed, and there were no photographs mixed in with any of the gallery installations I saw, until I found a tiny room off in a corner that had two Friedlanders and a Robert Cumming. I went from not remembering who Cumming was to being a big fan in a couple of weeks, after seeing his work in LA too. The show was about the alphabet, like the curators were watching too much Sesame Street, but as they were the only photographs I could find, I wasn’t going to be too picky.

Nam June Paik, considered the Godfather of video art, had a video exhibition tucked away in the top floor Tower. Given that so many photographers are now nascent video artists, this is a show to see. One piece, called “Three eggs,” 1975-82, had an old school video camera trained on a white egg, then an old, low-res video monitor of the video feed of the egg in real time, and then a real egg sitting on black velvet inside the same type of monitor that had the glass popped out. Penetrating and quiet, it was the epitome of 20th C Zen. The whole room, which had 30 foot ceilings, also had multiple, manipulated versions of a video feed of a candle, flickering huge. At first I thought it was kind of boring, but as I was leaving, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a real candle, on a stand, with a video camera trained on it. I doubled back, and saw that the set up was the basis of all the images around me. Lots of visual noise, all stemming from the silent, lonely candle, slowly melting away. Genius. I asked the security guard how often they change out the candle, and he said every day. Every day, someone lights a new candle and lets it burn itself down, in front of no one’s eye but the camera. (I also asked the guard his opinion of the piece. “It’s OK for me.”)

From there, I headed out into the DC drizzle and haze, and walked back around the Capitol building to Union Station for an evening train to NYC. Thoroughly exhausted, I lined up at the gate behind some tow-headed doofus from the Huntsman campaign who wouldn’t stop chattering into his Blackberry while finger-dancing on his Ipad. Soon enough, the train departed, and I was on my way North, ready to sign up as Amtrak’s Number 1 Fan. Until the power went dead as we sat in Baltimore’s Downtown train station. Dead as in dead. As in, not working, not planning to work, figure something else out. I happened to notice, on my way South earlier in the day, that the train tracks cut right through the boarded up B-more neighborhoods so grittly depicted in “The Wire.” So close you could touch them. And they look even bleaker in real life, if you can believe it. So I was not particularly happy about being stuck in downtown Baltimore for the night. But these things have a way of working themselves out, and my train companions and soon I bum-rushed the next Acela high speed number. I even got a seat and free Wi-f, and was back in NYC in no time. I saw some great work there too, of course, but that’s another story for a different day.

LA Gallery Visit Part 2: The West Side

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha,” the parking attendant said. “Hasta la diecisiete, a la direcha?,” I repeated. (Turn right at 17th Street.) “Si,” he said. I drove away, contemplating whether I ought to listen to him, or try to find the highway on my own. Given all the times I’ve shanked myself driving around LA, I decided to trust him. Good call. I found I-10 in no time, and was soon cruising West towards Culver City.

Much like Chelsea used to be a dumpy, non-descript neighborhood before the Art world gentrified it, (bringing gobs of money and Frank Gehry frosted glass buildings,) the Culver City arts district popped up in a random concrete block in the last decade, and hung on for dear life. Wedged between Venice and Washington Boulevards, right off the highway offramp, the Culver City corridor mainly consists of one long block on South La Cienega, and a few places that spread off the corners. There must be 20 galleries there by now, and it’s easy to see a lot of art in a short span of time. Normally.

I say normally, because when I visited a few weeks back, most of the neighborhood was closed for installation. Gallery after gallery had makeshift signs in the door, casually letting me know that I was not welcome while they were hanging their new shows. Not uncommon, I understand, but unfortunately, they’d all scheduled the new openings for Saturday July 16th, smack dab in the middle of the impending “Carmageddon.” I’d been warned about it weeks in advance, and actually chose to visit on that very Thursday to avoid the chaos, bloodshed, and misery that “Carmageddon” was supposed to provide. (Hell was predicted to reign down on the West Side while a stretch of the 405 was closed for construction.) So when I saw that the art dealers had collectively chosen that very weekend to re-open to the world? I was not impressed. Like, yeah, you know, we’re having an opening, and yeah, it’s cool if you come, I guess, but we really don’t care, because we don’t sell work to you at the opening anyway.

As it happened, a few galleriests managed to get their homework done a couple of days early, and were in fact, open for business. I started at Cherry and Martin, which wasn’t there last time I visited. (Like Chinatown, there’s been tremendous turnover in the last few years.) They were showing three artists together, including a few 1970’s black and white prints by the conceptualist Robert Cumming. I remembered his name, and the vague certainty he was important, from the Contemporary Photo history class I took with Tom Barrow back at UNM. FYI, that was one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Prof Tom knew so many of the photographers personally that some lectures took on an almost-boozy, you had to be there vibe that was totally addictive. Like Austin Powers with better teeth. Yeah baby. Everyone was throwing crazy, groovy key parties in the darkroom, Man, huffing fixer and chasing it down with qualudes, Man. Can you dig it? (Of course, none of that is actually true, but ought to convey the feeling of sitting in the audience.)

But I digress. Back to Mr. Cumming. His photographs were terrific, and leapt off the wall. I recall three in particular. The first was a diptych of a the torso of a naked body with a leaf covering the privates, holding a flute. In the second image, all was the same, except the torso was holding hands with a woman. It made me think of those Scholastic Magazine puzzles I used to see at the doctor’s office when I was a kid. The diptych was surreal in a groovy way. Just weird enough to be awesome. Another Cumming photo had different font versions of the letter A, and also managed to strike the right balance of oddity. Finally, they displayed a photograph that was one of the best I saw all day, “Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA”. An image of a backyard alleyway that had been slightly decorated, with a deck chair and lamps posed just so, with a projection of a palm tree at the back of the composition. It was like a crime scene meets a back lot in Burbank meets Jeff Spicoli’s perfect spot to smoke a joint. I think I could have stared at it forever, as it had that parallel universe mood that is almost impossible to achieve.

Robert Cumming Spot with a Nice View, 1973, Orange CA

Kopeikin Gallery, a peripatetic LA institution, moved into one of the best spaces on the block recently. And not only was Mr. Kopeikin’s gallery open, (despite a scheduled Saturday opening,) but the man himself was arranging number pins to coordinate with the press release when I arrived. We ended up striking up a conversation, and he gave me a gracious tour of the place. I was really happy for the LA photography community, because this new gallery is an impressive place to view photos. Three pretty, interconnected rooms that grow in size: small to medium to large. I’m not saying I loved all the work, because I didn’t, but having a super-high-grade exhibition venue in the middle of a humping art scene is a good thing in and of itself.

As to the art, it was a mixed bag. The small gallery had an exhibit of Mr. Kopeikin’s personal collection of vernacular photos that he’s acquired at flea markets over the last ten years. Great. If seven year old kids can make interesting photographs nowadays, I see no reason why anonymous hobbyists fifty years ago couldn’t do the same. And they did. The group was well curated, and had a distinct 1950’s West Coast Americana vibe to it, with burger flippers, convertibles, & cowgirls. Random puffy faced white dudes, trapped in time.

The middle gallery had an exhibit by Kahn & Selesnick. The pictures consisted of digitally manipulated alien type people on Mars. Apparently, the pair had partnered with NASA, and the backdrops were in fact taken by the Mars rover. Interesting detail, but I didn’t care for the photographs. They were kind of cool, I suppose, but felt like a more highbrow version of a Michael Bay movie.

Finally, in the biggest space, there was a two-person show of work from Cuba, featuring Simone Leuck and Jeffrey Millstein, representing interiors and exteriors respectively. Ms. Leuck’s work, which is called “Cuba TV,” featured tight, detail-style images from the interiors of Cuban homes, all with a glowing television somewhere in the frame. Repeating a symbol like that can be tricky, as it can sometimes seem like a crutch, but it worked well here, creating just enough distance from straight up documentary photographs to make the group fresh. The repetition also highlighted the differences, not unlike the Warhol Soup Cans, and brought my attention to the little things that make up someone’s private space in a poor place, like plastic flowers, little dolls, and pictures on the wall. I actually saw the other day in the NY Times that Cubans are only just now being allowed to own their own homes, so all the photos I saw were of people’s attempts to personalize spaces that did not, in fact, belong to them. Strong work, overall.

Mr. Millstein is well-known for his ongoing series of images of airplanes, shot from below, in an identical Becher-style composition. So this exhibition was a departure from what I’d seen from him before, but not from what I’d seen from others. The exterior, large-scale, supersharp images of peeling paint on decrepit architecture were about as cliché as I can imagine. I don’t enjoy writing such things, because I’m actually not an asshole, despite appearances to the contrary. One photograph, which was installed by itself on a separate wall was pretty awesome, and made me wonder why Mr. Millstein hadn’t pushed himself further. It featured a building, with some people on the sidewalk in front. Up on top, there was a billboard with a succession of politicians’ faces. The portraits of the men were illustrated in black and white, and the sign said “Volveran,” which means they will return. (I guess there’s not much surprise in the electoral process.) All but one of the men had these thick, ridiculously awesome, Pancho Villa-style moustaches. It looked like a Looney Tunes mugshot, minus Yosemite Sam. Truly remarkable photograph, which went a long way towards redeeming the show.

My final stop in Culver City was at Western Projects, for a series of hand-drawn, photo-realistic portraits of thug-life-vatos and other hard-looking dudes. The LA-based artist, Patrick Lee, met the men on the street and took their photographs, on which the graphite drawings were based. In a couple of the images, the subjects, neck tats and all, were staring right into the camera, so the viewer could look right back. As most of you know, I’m sure, in real life, you probably wouldn’t want to stare directly into one of these guys eyes. (Unless you’re a fan of getting your ass kicked.) So the drawings functioned in a way that society can’t. They allowed the viewer to contemplate and objectify the subjects, but as the commodification of gang culture and poverty is a billion dollar business these days, the phenomenon becomes a part of the metaphor. And though I’m proud to be a trigger-jockey, these portraits were definitely more engaging as drawings, which I was told take three months to create. The craftsmanship, and I suppose a bit of magic, held me in front of each piece well beyond what I would have offered up to a straight photo. Especially as the faces were surrounded by the naked paper, in lieu of the neutral backdrop one would likely see in a photographic portrait.

Patrick Lee courtesy of Western Project

Done with Culver City, I hopped back on the 10, and drove a few miles West to Bergamot Station, a self-contained arts complex on the outskirts of Santa Monica. (Which is the part of town that you’d probably live in if money was no object. On the beach, postcard pretty, sun shining, that sort of thing.) I would not suggest the art is better here than in New York, because it’s not. But I owe it to you to mention that Bergamot Station is filled with purple flowers and palm trees, cool ocean breezes and eco-friendly hybrid UPS trucks. Very cush.

First stop, Berman Projects, which was technically closed for installation, but happily let me in when I said I was in town to review some shows. Nice people. They were showing a group exhibition curated by the actress Angela Featherstone, who’s one of those people you’ve never heard of, but recognize the headshot on IMDB. The photos tracked the life cycle of Woman, or so I was told, and represented a mixed-bag of quality. Catherine Opie had a cool photo of a laundry room from a married lesbian couple, and Tierney Gearon was showing a few images of naked preggos, including a dynamite photograph of two nude pregnant married ladies kissing, But the outright standout was a photograph by Gillian Laub called “Mom and Dad with Harriet the Wedding Planner, New York, 2008.” Rarely have I seen a photograph that so clearly could stand alone, without any text or the support of a complete project. (Though I’ll admit the title doesn’t hurt.) Somewhere, in the depths of my dreams, I know I’ll have nightmares of Harriet staring down at me, wickedly extracting a tooth, while she whistles “Sympathy for the Devil,” and lets loose with the throaty, smoker’s laugh she no doubt possesses. Ms. Laub, if you’re reading this, kudos.

Gillian Laub

On to Patrick Painter, for a show by Bas Jan Ader, the second artist of the day I remembered hearing about in Tom Barrow’s class. He was a strange, Scandanavian dude who disappeared at sea in 1975. Well, you don’t hear that every day. First observation was that there were probably ten photographs in a huge warehouse space with 20ft ceilings. It was the perfect contrast to the way MOCA had disrespected “The Americans,” and I made it a point to give props to the gallerina as such. The photographs hit the mark, like Robert Cumming, between outright surreality and the subtler, more Japanese, Murakami-style version. Perfectly weird and absurd, like the triptych of the artist holding a hand-saw standing in front of a band-saw, the artist sawing the hand-saw on the band-saw, then the artist holding up the sawed in half hand-saw. His other pieces, seemingly disconnected, like the artist falling from a tree like Yves Klein, and a black hooded guy on a baseball field, were also great. One can only hope he’s secretly living in Fiji, his royalties funneled through a dummy corporation in the Caymans.

Next: Frank Pictures, for my guilty pleasure of the day. Joe Aker, apparently a famous architectural photographer, had shot details of Gaudi and Gehry buildings, and printed the photos directly onto aluminum. My first thought was cheesy, but I stuck around for a few minutes, and slowly began to love these things. Most of the images were in varying and subtle shades of ochre, and they shimmered like holograms. They didn’t mean anything, per se, beyond the architect/artists’ original intent, which normally bugs me. But these things were just so beautiful, that I began to covet. Jonny want photograph. Jonny need photograph. Feed me.

Then: Joachim Brohm’s “Ohio,” at Gallery Luisotti. He’s German, despite the name, and the dry-style proved it. Like many of his colleagues, he was heavily influenced by Stephen Shore, and it showed. These photos were made in Columbus, Ohio, during the early 80’s. Much as I love real innovation, which these images lacked, they were so well-seen and made that I began to love them. It was a day of the random perfect image (Cumming, Laub) and Brohm busted one out too. A car on fire in an alleyway. Muy bien, Señor Brohm. But a few others were incredibly resonant of place and time too, like a view of a silver Gremlin from above, in an alleyway, or a handful of firemen walking into a house in red, super-short 80’s short-shorts. (Yes, I had some too.) Great use of color, great time-warp experience.

Joachim Brohm

Finally, finally, (Yes, it’s long for me too) I ended the day at Peter Fetterman, who was showing some classic, feel good favorites from Elliot Erwitt, and some classic feel-bad favorites from Sebastao Salgado. Rather than risk a Fatwa for criticizing two such-loved legends, I’ll finish up by saying that the work didn’t speak to me. Erwitt’s sweet, playful, romantic, nostalgic sensibility seemed out of time in these stressful, difficult, globalized 21st Century years. But they were made in a different era, when everything was looking up, and of course they’re great. They just didn’t move me. Same with Mr. Salgado’s work, with high-contrast black and white visions of India, Africa, and Antarctica. I wondered whether I was evil for not liking the images, but they seemed a bit too generic, like 3rd World Travel Porn, and that was that. He did have one image, super large, of an Algerian man in the foreground of some immense sand dunes that receded into the distance, and while it didn’t do it for me, I was sure that for the many photo lovers who crave the perfect “shot,” it would have been a perfect 10. El Diez, otra vez.

LA Gallery Visit Part 1: The East Side

by Jonathan Blaustein

It wouldn’t be a story about LA if I didn’t bitch about the traffic, so let’s get it done right now and move along. I was headed up Highway 5 from a vacation getaway in a cute little beach town down the coast. Off hours, no drama, until I hit the LA County line. As soon as I crossed over from Orange County (nicknamed the Orange Curtain, I now know) it was as if I drove into a pile of mud. Stop and go, snarled, miserable, bumper to bumper traffic, all the way into Los Angeles. And of course I had to pee. Badly. Really, there are so few things I hate more than being stuck on the Freeway when I have to go. And then some old-school, straight-out-of-Long Beach Snoop Dogg came on the radio while I was trapped under an overpass. I started to laugh, because sometimes you feel like you’re stuck in Hollywood cliché, and it’s just not worth fighting it.

Regardless, I clamped down as hard as I could and hopped off the 110 in downtown LA for my little tour of the East Side. (The article on the West side will follow shortly.) Let’s be clear, it’s insane to think that one can cover all of LA as a scene, so I didn’t try. I went to see as much as I could, and accepted that much would be left out. That said, I saw a lot.

I started out in Chinatown, which is home to a dozen or so galleries, mixed in among the restaurants, fish stores, and shops selling cheap crap from the Motherland. It sprang up as a home to the contemporary gallery scene a while back, and seems to have held on through the economic chaos. I was last there in 2008, and it was definitely a bleaker place now. Several galleries have gone out of business, and one spot that I’d visited in the past now had some old people playing Mah Jong inside. The homeless quotient was also way up from three years ago, which wasn’t a surprise.

I started out at Sam Lee gallery, on the edge of the neighborhood, right across the street from a highway off-ramp. Sam was showing the work of two different California photographers, mixed up around the room. The first were large scale, razor sharp images by Rebecca Sittler. Whenever possible, I like to look at work without knowing anything about it so I can read the images for all they’ve got. Ms. Sittler’s photographs were of interior scenes, tackily decorated. The first had an eye-catching textural combination of red curtains, trippy carpeting, a wall and a window drape. Another had two beds with a phone in between. There was an image of a heavy, frayed rope on carpet against an angled metal wall, a photo of a roped-off painting with a chair, and also a shiny wood railing in a fancy room.


Taken together, I thought I was looking at the inside of a cruise ship. They were devoid of people, and felt lonely. They spoke of an almost Love Boat, 70’s style- cruise culture, where everybody had suddenly disappeared, like the Rapture. Sure enough, I went to look at the press release, and found that Ms. Sittler’s images were made on the decommissioned RMS Queen Mary that sits in the harbor at Long Beach. (Again with the LBC) It’s impressive that she was able to communicate both the setting and the mood without any text or obvious details. Terrific work. As to why this symbol, and why now? A decommissioned behemoth who’s best days are behind it? A musty style that’s trapped in the past.? A lonely relic of the Cold War heyday? Yeah, I get it.

Adam Thorman’s images, on the other hand, were medium-scale photographs of the California Coast, shot in the detail style, from directly above. Tide pools, moss, rocks, that sort of thing. I’ve spent a lot of time on the Coast in my day, and these looked like spots around Point Lobos, or somewhere south of San Francisco. I often wonder why artists try to capture the essence of Nature, without attempting to communicate scale or sound. Zen has it’s place, but requires a depth of perception that was lacking here. Having seen the real thing, I felt like Mr. Thorman’s photos were far less impressive than the original, and not that interesting.

I walked back to Chung King road, which houses several galleries in a row. They had completely turned over since my last visit, and there were fewer spaces in business as well. I began at Charlie James, which was showing work by Carol Selter, also from California. (Now that I think about it, I’m sure that most of the work I saw that day was local.) Ms. Selter was showing a project, “Animal Stories,” that included photographs, sculpture, and video. Her images contained taxidermy animals that she had returned to nature, then photographed. Birds in particular, and also amphibious creatures trapped in little vitrines.  One image depicted a song bird, held by string up to the mouth of a flower.

Damien Hirst references aside, the photographs were compelling. The videos featured the same squirrels, turtles, and a variety of animals talking to each other, bitching about global warming in funny voices. I enjoyed the absurdity, but it didn’t really improve on the message from the photographs. Definite thumbs up, overall.

Next stop was The Box, for a collaborative exhibition by Sara Conaway and Lisa Williamson. Ms. Conaway’s photos were mixed among painting and sculpture, and had a distinctive, airy LA vibe to them. The images were minimal, color-drained photos of 3d objects like wire, cut paper, styrofoam, and cloth. Very sculptural. One exception was a photo with red cloth against an intense yellow background. It reminded me of a de-contextualized, de-politicized “Piss Christ.” I left thinking that everything would look great on a big wall in a big house owned by a big Hollywood production executive. But I’m not about to criticize them for being beautiful, especially as they didn’t look just like everything else out there.

Pepin Moore, right down the alley (Chung King Road is a pedestrian only affair) had a group show curated by LA art star Soo Kim. The exhibition was titled “US EST,” but that didn’t really inform anything. It was a melange of seemingly disconnected work, with a heavy hand from photoshop, and a definite nod to the natural world. (The Earth and sky in particular.) Hannah Whitaker had two multiple image panels in the show: one contained four phases of the moon (boring), and the other was of a white girl in a blue costume dancing with a red hula hoop. Strange, playful, and awesome. The background was all white, and looked like it was photoshopped, especially as one of the shadows seemed to be coming from the wrong direction.

Mark Wyse, another LA art star, was also included in the show. I’ve seen several of his projects before, (cars, surfers) and have also read some of his writing(dense, Yale-ish). Here, he was showing some photos of rocks, perhaps beach rocks, photographed from directly above (not terribly dissimilar from Adam Thorman’s photos up the street.) The images were dry, and razor sharp, but left me unimpressed. Especially as I supposed they were backed by some theory of other. You get a lot of that in LA… pretty photos that are described as far more than what they really are. Not to backtrack from my linear sensibility, but give you an example, the Conaway/Williamson show of pretty pictures was described in the press release as such:

“Their meanings are implicit (not explicit!), resonant (not dull!), and inspired (not locked down!) …there is an aspiratory and generative sensibility that runs throughout.)”

Oh. Thanks. Now I get it.

From there, I made another classic, LA cliché-type mistake. I decided leave the car in the lot and walk across the 110 to MOCA downtown. It didn’t look that far, and I’ve driven it before in 5 minutes or so, so I figured it would just be a quick little nothing walk. Wrong. Pounding on the pavement in my flipflops, desperate once again to pee, I couldn’t believe how dumb I was to play pedestrian. It took almost a half an hour, all told, and I had to sneak into a conservatory across from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall just to find a bathroom (The secret? Act casually confident, and pretend you know where you’re going. Make no eye contact, under any circumstances).

Problem solved, I walked the last couple of blocks to MOCA. I had seen on FB the previous week that they had an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s entire Campbell Soup Can series, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Andy has had a huge influence on my work, and was unquestionably one of the two or three most important artists of the 20th Century. His impact has been felt across culture, and here was a chance to see his first major painting project, returned to LA where it had debuted (lent by MOMA, fueling the ever-present East Coast/West Coast rivalry).

The ladies at the ticket counter were kind enough to tell me how to get back to Chinatown by bus, but couldn’t suppress smirks at my silly walking endeavor. Advice freshly received, I headed down into the museum. On my way to see the soup cans, I passed through an exhibition of MOCA’s Pop Art collection, and ran into one of Richard Prince’s Marlboro Men photos, “Untitled (Cowboys),” 1980-84. Prince’s work has been much discussed on this blog in 2011, and I was happy to see it again firsthand. The photo was fascinating in that it had some altered texture that looked very much like the noise or rasterized effect we see all the time in digital images that have been pushed too far. To my eye, it looked current, and the blurring texture definitely looked like an alteration of the original (which we probably all now know is a key ingredient in qualifying for Fair Use).

After rounding a couple of corners, I came face to face with the Campbell Soup paintings, installed in a horizontal line, hung in chronological order of when each type of soup had been released by Campbells. Beginning with Tomato soup in 1897, running through the last released in 1962 (the year the project was exhibited in LA).

I’ll share my thoughts as best I can, but clearly this is something to see in person. One of my first observations, as I walked up and down the line, was that the paintings are not, in fact, identical. For all the notoriety that they are 32 paintings of a soup can, they’re not. Warhol was a commercial illustrator before becoming a fine artist, and he did the majority of each painting by hand. So the slight differences, like where he drew the highlight and shadow demarcations on the can lid, became obvious. And a couple of the paintings had a slightly different hue of red from the others. A function of aging or not, it broke the continuity.

I loved the ironic humor. Cheddar Cheese soup (also a sauce), Pepper Pot, (what?), Scotch Broth (a hearty soup), Beef Consommé AND Beef Bouillon, all condensed, of course. Subtle absurdity that grows as you engage the sequence.  I could just see the 1950’s Ad men sitting around drinking cocktails, trying to come up with the next hot product to entice the burgeoning suburban shopper class. The paintings are also cold and a bit alienating. It’s well known that the show was not an immediate success, and the dealer Irving Blum ended up buying the whole set for a song. I can see why. In their mechanical-ness, they really lacked any sense of emotion or viscerality, which would have been a big change from the high drama of the 1950’s Abstract Expressionist emo-fest. But of course, they meshed perfectly with Andy’s blank, emotion-suppressed personal brand. For all the talk about branding nowadays, he clearly got there first (15 minutes, anyone?).

What else? They’re brilliant. Simply brilliant. Has anyone ever really picked a better symbol to speak for so many larger issues? Campbell’s soup. How American is that? Soup was the original peasant food, just add water to whatever else is lying around. It also represents warmth, comfort, and Mom’s home cooking. “Soup is good food,” for god sakes. Then someone figured out how to mechanize the production, canning, and distribution of the thing, and the growth of the American Empire was soon to follow. Soup for everyone, the same everywhere, cheap, with a reassuring label, replete with fleurs-de-lis. Classy. And then, over the years, so many choices were offered. What better way to anticipate the mind-cleansing consumerism of the 21st Century grocery store, or Ebay for that matter?

Mechanization of culture, commodification of home, repetition of ever so slightly different but really the same objects, the mesmerizing combination of white and red (just ask Target how effective it is), the space-agey-ness of the Kennedy era. It’s all there. The paintings obviously look like advertising images, and from a distance resemble photographs. They’re phallic, and were a precursor to the Becher’s water-towers, as well as any other deadpan, ironic type of work we see from the 70’s to today. All together, they tell a story about how American Popular Culture, beginning with Pop Art, became the global monstrosity we see today.

After ten or fifteen minutes, I finally shoved off to see the rest of the museum’s offerings, weaving through a few rooms of painting and sculpture with little that jumped out. Suddenly, I found myself in a not-large room surrounded by 58 of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans,” hung in two horizontal rows. They were crammed together, and I felt like I do when I try to shoe-horn myself into my jeans the week after Thanksgiving. Uncomfortable to the point of claustrophobia. I saw the Frank retrospective in 2009 at SFMOMA, and wrote about it in Fraction Magazine, so I’ll spare you a rehash of how seminal I think the work is. Here, I could not get a sense of the scope or the message. The installation was non-linear, and confusing. Really, it made me want to not look. And they were all framed the same size and way, cream colored mats with black frames. Hard to imagine that I didn’t want to bother looking at some of my favorite art of all time, but there it is.

Right around the corner, I saw ten terrific photographs by Helen Levitt, framed and hung the same way, literally jammed into a corner. Of course, across the hall, each of Mark Rothko’s paintings were given feet upon feet of breathing space. Odd. I’m the last guy to have a complex about photography’s place in the Art World, because I think those battles were fought and won years ago. At MOCA, however, the message of photography’s inferiority was emblazoned on the wall through it’s second-class installation.

So with my panties in a wedge, I climbed back to street level, hopped a Dash B bus, and headed back to find my car in Chinatown. After a couple of stale, nasty pork buns from a Chinese bakery on Broadway, I got some directions to I-10 in Spanish, and headed out to the West Side, hoping the traffic gods would smile kindly on me… they did.