Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Monday, October 5, 2009
(published in November 2006 in Artweek)
Moved to the West Coast
Packed up their things
The winters are gray
Now so are the dreams
They tried to make it all right
-Sleater-Kinney from Wilderness
In The Song of the Dodo David Quammen explains that species that evolve on islands tend to gigantism or dwarfism– hence such species as the dodo or the giant tortoise. Unlike the mainland where a surfeit of competition and predators force species to evolve to more efficient sizes, islands lack predators and competition within a niche. On an island a bird can become large because it can maximize its caloric energy from lack of competition and becomes flightless because of its large size and lack of a need for escape. Which is why the dodos were so easy to kill. An island is a microenvironment. Quammen used another term when describing the dispersal of species from the mainland: relaxing to equilibrium. This is when a new species is introduced on an island and it either causes the extinction of the existing species, or evolves into the ecological niche of one that has gone extinct. There are no additional niches, no upsetting of the balance, the island relaxes back to ecological equilibrium. The ecology of a regional art scene is like an island. Separated from the mainland, regional art scenes create their own versions of the dodo and giant tortoise. And like the ecology of an island, it depends on the mainland for fresh genetic material to occasionally drift onto the island, upset it for a short time and then relax into equilibrium. For the art world, where is the mainland, the place that has the competition and the predators? That would be of course, New York, L.A., London and Berlin. To mix metaphors for just a moment, regional art is seen as a perpetual AAA team whose biggest stars are still dwarfs to the big leagues. The dodo visiting New York City would be just another country rube waiting to be had.
I live in Portland, Oregon. Like many western mid-sized cities, Portland is an island. It is part of a cultural archipelago that stretches from Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle to Olympia and then to Portland. There are some smaller outer islands like Eugene and Ashland, but otherwise farms, suburbs and mountains surround the archipelago. The inevitable conversation for a regional art scene like the one in the Pacific Northwest is “how can we convince everyone out there on the mainland that we are worth paying attention to?” The problem is exacerbated in the Northwest by the fact that the archipelago is only thinly connected. Each city tends to keep to itself. For an artist or critic working in a province, the arguments of the boosters–what can we do for our city– becomes an incessant buzz. Artists working in the cultural mainland have only to think of making their work and getting it into the right niche. The city just is. The answer to not having a strong infrastructure of collectors, institutions and media is to bring it to the island. Events like Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA festival, which brings international dance and performance art to Portland for a ten day festival and The Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, organized by Stuart Horodner, the former visual arts curator for PICA and now curator at The Contemporary in Atlanta and Laurel Gitlen of Small A Projects create a buzz and momentum akin to the traveling circus. The performance festival and the hotel art fair provide a city like Portland the opportunity to travel without having to leave town. Aside from the economic incentives for presenters, galleries, performers and nearby businesses, these kinds of events allow the provincial artists to see what’s happening on the mainland. It allows the off islanders to meet the natives and consider moving to a place where the lifestyle is so relaxed and the culture so amenable.
At the Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, Horodner moderated the keynote panel that included Joanna Marsh from the Wadsworth Atheneum, Susan Hapgood director of the Independent Curators International, Michael Darling from the Seattle Art Museum and Jeffrey Grove from High Museum in Atlanta. The discussion inevitably turned to the problems facing regional art. The perennial tension for roving curators and regional art institutions is the balance between the known quantity of national and international artists paired with lesser known regional ones. The mission of many regional art institutions is to educate and validate their constituents. Is an art show a success if only the regional audience flocks to it, or like the proverbial lone tree, is it immaterial without some national reviews or publication to give the work longevity? If in fact the history of art is a long unwieldy conversation about discreet objects and actions, does the regional disappear in the face of the mainstream?
Another function the hotel art fair provides is access. Local artists not only get to see what is happening across the country in galleries, they get to rub elbows with and meet the gallerists and artists from other cities. Likewise, the visitors get to see the work of local artists in their natural habitat. It is an open exchange. A collector could pick up a Marcel Dzama without ever leaving home. On the opening night party Steve Malkmus and the Jicks played. Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney played drums. This may have been the perfect expression of the state of regional art. Music is probably Portland’s biggest export. Michael Brophy, Portland’s quintessential regional artist did the cover on Sleater-Kinney’s last album. The album, The Woods, is everything that is positive about art that is both regional and national.
The hotel fair is also an honest economic exchange. Galleries are there to sell art; collectors are there to buy. This directness is certainly refreshing–it lends an openness and conviviality, like an outdoor bazaar, to the proceedings. The Affair is diverse and approachable. However, if the local art market depended only on this exchange to give a glimpse into the larger art world that glimpse would be wan and thin. Most of what a gallery can bring is portable and there is no sense of installation. The real art is happening back home where the curators and gallerists can actually give the artwork space and consideration. The fair is a great place for introductions, but not necessarily for actually seeing art. It creates energy and excitement. I think the real value of such an event is the enervating affect it should have on artists, curators and collectors who then go off and produce the new work. The Affair functions like a temporary café society in which the participants can have cross-regional conversation to hopefully yield future projects. It is then the responsibility of the artists to continue that practice throughout the year. Competition is essential to survival.
The contemporary art world seems to be moving to a model that mirrors Broadway. A few brand name artists travel to biennials, museum group shows and university lectures. A monoculture ensues. Art world fashionistas travel from Miami to Kassel to New York in an endless global party–the same artists, the same curators, the same collectors all on one big circuit. The obscuring of the local and particular by the brand name creates the side affect of constant cool hunting. The truly local and regional becomes “authentic” because it evolved outside of this circuit. Think Royal Art Lodge way up there in Manitoba or even the painters from Leipzig becoming a global phenomenon. Can the dodo survive the attention? Like ancestral genetic stock, the notion of “the authentic” is necessary to the art world to occasionally reinvigorate itself after overbreeding. I think we are in a moment like that right now. Despite the flowering of collectives and DIY zine groups and relational aesthetics supposedly in opposition to the multi-billion dollar market of the art world, a sense of exhaustion pervades contemporary art. Perhaps the islands are also places that evolve species away from the fray in order to reintroduce them later. This would be a reverse of the normal biological order.
TBA is also part of the festivalism trend. Rather than sustaining an audience for an entire season, TBA does it all in a thrilling and comprehensive ten days. The advantage of this model, like the hotel art fair, is the energy that the festival generates. As an audience member, you begin to compare and contrast and build context for the various pieces. TBA generally has two to three performances a night in venues throughout town, late night cabaret, afternoon panels and satellite visual art exhibitions. Also like the hotel art fair, it is enervating to see so much all at once. This year saw the US premiere of Yubiwa Hotel’s CANDIES Girlish Hardcore, which was reviewed a week later in the New York Times. Portland was never mentioned. In the eyes of the world it premiered in New York. Other highlights included the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and Bebe Miller. What became apparent over the ten day period was that much of the local performance was not up to par with the national performers. It was here that the divide between local and national was most apparent. The work from bigger cities was just tougher and tighter. This is work created with predators and niche competition.
It is worth mentioning here that in the thirties and forties, New York was the province and Europe the mainland. The artists who helped create the New York School toiled in poverty and obscurity similar to regional artists everywhere. The crucial difference is that money was in New York’s cultural soil– manufacturing money, banking money, old money. It took just the right conditions to make it bloom. Unlike writers or even musicians, most artists deal with objects. Even those that work against objects deal with presence. At the very least, the artist is the avatar for the work. Since words and recordings can be transmitted through other media and endlessly duplicated, a writer or musician needs the mainland for distribution, but can very easily work in remote areas. Visual artists depend upon the unwieldy distribution of objects and/or themselves. The art world is a giant network which anyone can access anywhere. To actually participate in that network and be more than an invisible spectator, one has to deal with the validation of the mainland. Even if an artist or group of artists creates their own network and turns their backs on the mainland, if they’re of interest, they will be absorbed. Which, let’s face it, is almost every artist’s goal in the first place.
I think a distinction should be drawn between provincialism and regionalism. Provincialism suggests a conservative narrow-mindedness. A provincial is not only incurious about the larger world, but is somewhat hostile toward it. Regionalism suggests a confident knowledge of the ground beneath. A regional artist may have the idiosyncratic ticks associated with the homeland, but understands the larger trends of the mainstream. Because of the fluidity of the internet, the world should theoretically become the mainland. This is both true and untrue. There is a lot of everything, and yet the content seems to get thinner and thinner. Perhaps like the castaways on Lost, the region is an inescapable construct. A weird, unsettling self-contained world that could only remember the past but can’t contact the present. On the other hand, perhaps these islands of culture should start evolving into something else, because the mainland itself is unraveling, and these may be the last repositories of authenticity. Landmasses are also fluid. One era’s island is the next era’s continent. To avoid the fate of the dodo, the islanders should make sure to preserve the predators.
Originally published in Artweek, April 2009
The bubble is burst. The boomtown shanties are abandoned. The era of globetrotting art superstars and collector feeding frenzies at lavish art fairs feels as distant as Weimar Germany. There is an admirable presidential administration in place that asks us to behave like adults and roll up our sleeves and get to work. No more evil cabal to resent and fight against (and use global corporate profits to fuel the art boom). What is an artist to do? The unease is palpable. But many are also celebrating the open possibilities and the end to bloated, pointless art. Like a growing murmur, craft is emerging as a reinvigorated force. Design, its more successful and hip twin, has enjoyed unparalleled success in the market place and academia in the past decade while craft shrunk in the glare of shiny stainless steel surfaces and square backed modernist objects. Design within reach is even more out of reach than it was before. Now the switch is flipped– everyone is looking down to see that we are not on solid ground, but hanging in air and falling into the ravine below. And so to many craft looks suddenly attractive.
Craft like another field I’ll discuss here– comics– is one of the Northwest’s strongest exports (I could also mention indie music and the culinary arts but that gets too far afield). In Portland the Museum of Contemporary Craft moved from its former WPA built home into a bigger, more visible space downtown. Pacific Northwest College of Art (where I am a faculty member) recently announced a new MFA in applied craft offered jointly with the Oregon College of Art and Craft. PNCA is in the process of partnering with the Craft Museum. While craft is beginning to realize it needn’t be embarrassed to be itself, cartoonists have already felt the glow of legitimization. The Portland metropolitan area is home to some of the top comic artists working right now– from Joe Sacco who creates searing visual journalism in graphic novel form to Craig Thompson whose best selling graphic memoir Blankets is a gateway to serious comic literature for many people to Brian Michael Bendis, the architect of the current Marvel Comics universe. Portland is to comics what New York was to abstract painting in the forties. In fact last year, Mayor Tom Potter officially declared April Comics Month in Portland.
At this point, you might be wondering what the two have to do with each other. What do two disparate fields with virtually no overlap have to do with a deflated art economy? A great deal. Places like Portland, Seattle, Eugene and Vancouver have always served as halfway houses, seedbeds and purgatories for artists. In an earlier column in this magazine, I referred to these cities as islands in a cultural archipelago. Each island has a certain ease of living as well as an anxiety of exile. For those artists hoping to affect the mainland of art history and remain on the island, very special strategies need to be employed. But there is another kind of artist who finds a home in these mid-sized cities. The artist who willfully thumbs his nose at the establishment, or the art school dropout who finds the art world proper to be filled with phonies and of course there are those who never cared either way. These last exiles often take up a potter’s wheel, letterpress, loom or a cartoonist’s pen to work in a medium that appears more honest.
If the art world is in fact full of phonies and artists stopped making work based on “quality” in exchange for a dodgy conceptualism, then the craftsperson or cartoonist will make something great out of humbler fare. There is a sense in the position of some of these craftspeople and cartoonists that they are holding the line against the disintegration of true art for the people. What both camps (the craftsman and the cartoonist, and I use cartoonist to describe anyone working in comics in general from the most mainstream to the most avant-garde) share is a retrograde love of dying mediums, a perception of working in a more honest and ethical medium and a direct relationship to the market. What I mean by this last statement is that unlike the mainstream contemporary art world, in which billions of dollars are spent yearly to support the whole system, but money is seen as a necessary evil, sometimes even a contaminant, these two groups want to sell directly to their audience. Their goal is practical. They want to make a living from their art. They partake in craft fairs and comic cons, and sell in shops and bookstores rather than galleries or museums. The surfeit of cash that filled the art bubble came from the very sources of the recession. Speculative buying, exclusive brand name must-haves and lavish martini fueled cocktail parties defined the art world up to this past year. But anxiety and distrust lurked beneath the surface. Notions of value and the expectations of the market have suddenly evened the playing field. The craft and comic communities already know how to sell you something directly with very little mediation.
The borders between art worlds are porous however. There are just as many artists working within the more provincial fields of craft and comics hoping for a spotlight to shine on them from the Olympus of New York or L.A. as there are artists working in gallery settings that try to sneak in an earnest love of the well-made thing. And the art world has already laid the groundwork for this crossover. In recent years social practice and relational aesthetics (another strong tendency in Portland thanks to the influence of artists like Harrell Fletcher and MK Guth) replace the native social context of craft objects for an amorphous theoretical one. Martin Puryear’s 2007 retrospective at MoMA and Grayson Perry’s 2003 Turner prize demonstrated reconsideration of high craft. Chris Ware and Robert Crumb’s acceptance into the fold of art history as well as Takashi Murakami’s Superflat all demonstrate a serious evaluation of comics as something to value in their own right. The current scene is a very different stance from the bland Pop appropriation of Roy Lichtenstein and Mel Ramos. The main tension between comics and craft purists and art world hardliners is one of value and philosophy. When the former is absorbed into the latter, something fundamental changes in context. Most practitioners of craft or comics value the directness of their respective mediums. Cartoonists and craftspeople are proudly populist despite the very rarified palette it takes to truly enjoy The Frank Book by Jim Woodring or a crusty wood fired pot. They tend to be frankly conservative in the truest sense of the word. Artists who have appropriated “low art” techniques and imagery or risen from the ranks of the provinces lose that connection to the direct and become by default more rarified. In short, the mainstream art world is urbane. It values wit and cleverness, while the craftsmen and cartoonists are townies. They value “common sense” and directness.
In Richard Sennett’s recent book The Craftsman he examines the role of the craftsman in western economic culture. Sennett expands the term beyond makers of traditional crafts to include Linux programmers and hospital workers. In his definition of the craftsman model, the satisfaction of good work is its own reward and the healthy competition and camaraderie of a community of crafts people can make for a much more effective work model. In a discussion of architects and the rampant use of CAD programs he talks about the pitfalls of “disembodied design”– architects who don’t actually know how to build or don’t have a true sense of a site. The brand-name artist who flies from biennial to biennial to plop down a diluted version of his or her signature style, the CEO touted as a “visionary” who has no real material grasp on the workings of the company or the architect who creates purely conceptual buildings that end up serving as unusable follies are all models of disembodied design. We have come to value an idea over physical reality. This kind of visionary thinking could be inspiring and help promote great leaps in culture. The flip side however is a naked emperor. While the going is good, who needs to have the party pooped on by some nay sayers who can’t see that if you dream it up and convince enough people of your Ponzi scheme, it will be true? But now the house of cards has tumbled.
A healthy dose of physical reality is just the medicine we all need. We need those cantankerous makers of actual things to remind us of the simple pleasures. Right? Not so fast. The entrenched distrust of pure idea inherent in the craft and comic worlds brings with it a stultifying tendency to squash nuance. While the very directness that makes them so attractive in the first place could be killed by academic forensics, the inbred tendencies of both worlds foster lazy work. The romance of the Luddite working ethically against a modernist tide is naïve and untrue. A shot of some complex theory enlivens craft and comics. It must be also said that different contexts call for different approaches. Some times a Johnny Ryan fart joke is just that. No need to do anything but enjoy it. It is best to understand the context in which something works best. However, the cellular structure of community in which makers work directly with their audience both in terms of content and the market is a good model for the art world. Rather than think in terms of provinces versus the city, it might be more constructive to think in terms of mutual interconnectedness. What these townies marooned on these islands and cul-de-sacs have to offer is a better model for making a more meaningful visual culture. The correction of the market and the lesson of scenes like those in the Northwest is that a balance could be struck between seemingly disparate goals. Artists are synthesizers of ideas. They work in a field of ideas and make them physically manifest. There is nothing vital about artists in our current consumer culture. A Damien Hirst is really just a signifier like a Patek watch. Artists need to regain their place as purveyors of the physicality of ideas. Ideas and context must exist directly in the economic blood stream. The things artists make must be dirtied with the mud of the market but contain seeds of light– bright metaphors and shining ideas, complexities masquerading as junk.