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EMPIRE OF THE SUN

By Christopher Sperandio

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A solitary heliostat made of wood, metal, circuits, and mirrors confronts visitors to the Emergency Room. A homemade machine for tracking the X, Y and Z coordinates of the Sun, its parts were cut on a CNC machine. CNC stands for Computer Numerical Control, and is a machine that uses X, Y and Z coordinates in order to cut material — in this case, wood. While this heliostat is the object standing in the gallery, the artwork itself is intended as the transitory experience of viewing the light it reflects.

Heliostats are machines constructed to reflect sunlight onto a stationary point, tracking the apparent movement of the sun as it crosses the sky. Ancient Egyptians used mirrors to bounce sunlight indoors. Archimedes was said to have set a Roman fleet on fire by focusing mirrors on the attacking ships. Today, the principal use for heliostats is in farming solar-thermal energy, where mirrors with servos and digital brains and eyes aim sunlight at a boiler producing steam to drive a turbine.

4This heliostat is the work of of Logan Sebastian Beck, and is a project originally intended as a public artwork. In his original proposal, Beck states: “The project will use an array of heliostats (“sun trackers”) to project images created by sunlight into available shadow space. The project attempts to activate “dead” urban space such as the underside of freeway underpasses and other shaded concrete structures.”

Such a maneuver is heavily indebted to the pioneering work of the Light and Space artists, a group of artists based in California. Artists like Robert Irwin employed 1960s engineering and aerospace technology in the development of works bordering on the phenomenological. In thinking about Beck’s efforts, another artist, oddly, comes to mind. Tom Sachs, master of the homebrew, with an emphasis on branding, has clearly had some influence on Beck’s thinking, even if it’s not formally obvious. Beck’s branded web site for the project (adescriptionofthesun.com) is a rolling catalogue of project updates, research materials and reflections (pardon the pun) on light as an artists’ material. Here, as with Sachs, the research and the studio, along with the objects created, become part of a Gesamtkunstwerk.

A working photographer, it’s not a coincidence that Beck has made a work incorporating light. In his day job, Beck’s expertise is that of using lenses to capture fleeting moments for a range of clients. There is a perverse logic, then, that his studio work is based around unique events based in perception and time – experiences that cannot be easily distilled with a camera. The work can only be experienced directly.

1The caveat to this exhibition is that Beck has never built anything quite this complex and exacting before. There is the distinct chance that this machine won’t function quite the way it’s supposed to. To Beck’s generation of “makers,” however, failure is a transitory state, or maybe simply a node amongst other nodes. The research and construction of things is a process, sometimes without end. The network of those with a similar passion is a living thing, whether it’s heliostats, or some other device. Each stage of completion, or near completion, is a success, whether or not the device involved actually works. Of course, with the A Description of the Sun, and its incremental movement across a day, only the most ardent viewer would notice if the machine is operating to spec. However, to focus on the machine is to miss the work itself, an ever-changing halo of light. It’s an experience that is untranslatable, and that’s really the point. You’ll have had to be there.

Christopher Sperandio
Assistant Professor
Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts
Rice University

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Eye Candy À Gogo at the Texas Contemporary Art Fair

Nobody wanted to define “contemporaneity” during set-up for the fourth annual Texas Contemporary Art Fair at the George R. Brown Convention Center—it was hard enough trying to get people to pronounce the word. And maybe that makes sense. How can anyone define “now,” it’s so expansive.

Fair director Max Fishko says the fair is open to artists engaging in “the current dialog,” but you won’t see any performance, video, digital, or large-scale installation art (or even much photography), so it’s more fair to say that what you’ll find there are salable objects, mostly two dimensional (but some sculpture), made relatively recently. The fair, produced by Art Market Productions, features 55 galleries (mostly from Texas, but including a few from New York, LA, and San Francisco, and one from London) and offers Houstonians a chance to take in a wide swath of what’s selling in the commercial art world.

This is going to be an image-heavy post that is meant to whet your appetite for the eye candy, not an exhaustive guide. Here is my first slideshow.

It wasn’t up and running yet when I went in for my preview, but the Blaffer Gallery’s Book Machine promises to be the highlight of the fair. For that matter, FotoFest had not yet set up, either, and their Discoveries of the Meeting Place exhibit sounds like it might be pretty cool.

Mariette Pathy Allen, Malu at her parents’ house, Cienfuegos, 2013. From the series Transcuba. Used without permission.

Mariette Pathy Allen, Malu at her parents’ house, Cienfuegos, 2013. From the series Transcuba. Used without permission.

Madeleine Dietz’s piece at Gallery Sonja Roesch caused me to pause and think about weight and material and earth.

Wandkonsole by Madeleine Dietz at Gallery Sonja Roesch

Wandkonsole by Madeleine Dietz at Gallery Sonja Roesch

If I had to pick one favorite artist from the whole fair, I’d pick Nikki Rosato, represented by New Orleans’s Jonathan Ferrara Gallery. Only a few of these are showing in Houston this weekend, but here is a more exhaustive slideshow.

Not even Jenn Gardner and Jordan Dupuis of DiverseWorks wanted to take a stab at defining “contemporaneity.” The three of us agreed that “modernity” had previously been defined in terms similar to contemporary attempts at defining “contemporaneity,” but “modern” refers to a specific historical period which is now past, but then again it’s possible for a piece that is stylistically modern to be contemporary…All of which begs the question, is “post-contemporary” a possibility?

Here, watch this Swedish kid rap, southern-style, in Japan, then go look at some art.

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Unseen Sounds w/ special guests Empty Audience

My main gripe with Michael Abramowitz’s current show at Cardoza Fine Art is that it leaves me wanting more. Each painting could be a series, and I want to see Abramowitz exhaust the possibilities of his language of symbols, to tease out all the meanings.

Abramowitz creates a textured depth that pulls viewers into the composition, into spaces between the fields of color–layers of tissue paper and pigment–where tribal prints depicting animals and abstract forms swim with words and prisms, mouths and hands and demons, icons and pictograms–all beneath a waxy sheen.

One thing you’ll notice is that his hand is decisive, his lines are solid and unwavering, and his palette is all over the place.

A few might be too busy.

Hurt Breathe

Hurt Breathe

Abscent Chat

Abscent Chat

“The Future is silent till we get there” does the opposite of the above–here Abramowitz isolates some of his gross, background moves–primary color drips from saturated brushes with a rag and some cassette tape pieces buried beneath.

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The Future is silent till we get there

I have been hearing the legend of Michael Abramowitz for a few years now. That, as the press release claims, his “work lies loosely between Chopin and Andy Kaufmann.” I don’t really know much about Chopin, so I’m not qualified to judge that statement, but the best paintings in this show give me a lot to look at, and I feel like I could look at a lot more in the same vein.

Gallerist Pablo Cardoza with Michael Abramowitz's Flippin through the pages of voice messages

Gallerist Pablo Cardoza with Michael Abramowitz’s Flippin through the pages of voice messages

Unseen Sounds w/ special guests Empty Audience, new works by Michael Abramowitz, is on view at Cardoza Fine Art through August 21.

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What is Weft When the Tension Weaves the Warp?

Another word for a story is a “yarn.”  She spins a good yarn, you might say of Eudora Welty’s narrator in “Why I Live at the P.O.“.  Similarly, crafting a longer narrative such as a novel or a film is often likened to weaving, in that a the storyteller takes many story lines (threads) and avoids tangling them in knots while weaving a rich tapestry and using the denouement to “tie up all the loose ends.”

El Paso based artist Adrian Esparza has done the reverse of this–literally.  Esparza takes Mexican serape blankets and unravels them in a deconstructive act of self discovery, then arranges the thread on gallery walls in op-art “self portraits” that blast open the minuscule air pockets which (ironically) make for a blanket’s warmth into dazzling geometric patterns.

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Esparza’s work is on view at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft through May 11.

You can find links to more of his work here and here, and he discusses some of his ideas in the video below.

Two Birds Perched on a Fence

Says the first:

The response we make when she “believe” a work of the imagination is that of saying: “This is the way things are. I have always known it without being fully aware that I knew it. Now, in the presence of this play or novel or poem (or picture or piece of music) I know that I know.”

– Thornton Wilder, preface to 3 Plays

Says the second:

A high truth, indeed, fairly, finely, and skillfully wrought out, brightening at every step and crowning the final development of a work of fiction may add artistic glory, but is never any truer and seldom any more evident, at the last page than at the first.

- Nathaniel Hawthorne, preface to The House of the Seven Gables

A third and fourth bird alight:

PR: Do you think poetry has any future?
AMMONS: It has as much future as past—very little.
PR: Could you elaborate on that?
AMMONS: Poetry is everlasting. It is not going away. But it has never occupied a sizable portion of the world’s business and probably never will.

- A. R. Ammons, Paris Review interview

Inspiration 2 (Jerry Falwell)
Airbrush on canvas
11: x 9"
Courtesy of Art Palace Gallery

New Day — Tony Day’s “Believe What You Want” at Art Palace

Inspiration 2 (Jerry Falwell) Airbrush on canvas 11: x 9" Courtesy of Art Palace Gallery

Inspiration 2 (Jerry Falwell)
Airbrush on canvas
11: x 9″
Courtesy of Art Palace Gallery

Beliefs are like warts; you just have them.

This quote is one of the few things I recall from Western Philosophy class in college.  My professor was debunking Pascal’s Wager, the mathematician’s famous proof for why it’s in our best interest to believe in god.  The proof posits four possible outcomes based on two sets of two possibilities:  either god exists or s/he does not, and either you believe or you do not.  Those possible outcomes are best rendered in a simple chart like this:

Pascal

To Pascal, if an individual 1) chooses to believe and god exists, they just won the jackpot.  Woohoo!  If they 2) choose to believe and god does not exist, well, it’s no big loss because church bake sales are still pretty cool and tithes are tax-deductible.  Now, if  the individual chooses 3) a life of pleasurable sin and god does not exist, well, good for them, but is it really worth the gamble if that same individual chooses 4) NOT to believe and finds out upon death that god DOES indeed exist?  Not to Pascal — that sinful pleasure is not worth the possible tradeoff of eternal damnation.

But, as my professor stated so eloquently, belief is not a choice.  We don’t choose our beliefs, “we just have them, like warts.”  So, given humans’ inability to choose to believe, what Pascal prescribes is more like acting like you believe, which would be dishonest and therefore immoral and readily apparent to an all-knowing god.  Therefore, “my advice to you,” via the housekeeper Sabina in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, “is not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.”

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“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change.”  Chris Mooney begins his Mother Jones article, “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science” with a quote from psychologist Leon Festinger.  “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”

Mooney’s article, on what has come to be known as “confirmation bias,” argues that humans are not rational creatures so much as we are rationalizing creatures.  “We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”

I mention this because Anthony Day has served up a new series of airbrush portraits of what he calls “American Progressives,” and the words “progressive” and “progress” necessarily conjure up the Enlightenment, its privileging Reason (with a capital “R”) on a pedestal, its elevation of science as the only valid method of knowing (with an attendant minimizing of emotion, intuition, and other “irrational” states, including love, faith, and altruism).  Enlightenment thinkers inspired this country’s Founding Fathers–their ideas are written into our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution–and continue to inform the mythology of the United States–Manifest Destiny, “American Exceptionalism” and the “Shining City on a Hill,” etc etc etc.

A Houston native who has spent a great deal of his life in Massachusetts (particularly Boston and Plymouth), Day has long been interested in the ideals and mythologies of the US, dating back to the Colonial Era and continuing through the present day.  So, exploring the idea of “Freedom of Thought,” Day presents of series of 10 portraits of historical figures who stood up for their beliefs (against the odds, more often than not).

But it’s the colors that first draw the viewer in.  Day’s color choices are bold and unorthodox.  B.B. Warfield, Professor of Theology at Princeton Seminary, looks like some wretched pauper from a cartoon adaptation of Dickens.  Jerry Falwell jumps out at the viewer, gesticulating like a rap mc.  Betrand Russell, with his wide collar, resembles a playboy grasping a strippers’ pole, and Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy appears like a ghostly presence coalescing in the misty airbrush medium.  “Miami Vice” is how I describe the color scheme for Day’s portrait of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Nation of Islam founder Wallace Fard Muhammad strikes me as a villain out of a Fat Albert cartoon, and the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, strikes this viewer a bit like Dracula.

When asked to explain the grouping of these figures, and that under the banner of “Progressives,” Day says:

These paintings are an effort to deal in ideas of values and beliefs, the inherent conflict that arises when discussing and adopting values and beliefs…[and] the inherent competition in the variety of beliefs, with the differences in people’s beliefs being a large impediment to shared purpose and progress.

Some of the context for this thinking is my recent induction into fatherhood and the call to think about how to raise a person from birth, my wife’s desire to baptize our child, a life long interest in spirituality (with no religion, no current real realization, depth, or revelation).  Also, I have an ongoing interest in how communities work for change, and a general desire to help do positive work, and sadness about limits that presents.

So, I press him on his statement that “people explain their actions through their beliefs,” referring back to the Mother Jones article (linked to above). I ask which comes first: the action or the belief?  In other words, do people explain their actions through their beliefs, or do they believe on the one hand and act on the other hand, then rationalize their actions, accordingly?

Sometimes actions are justified by belief and sometimes actions are inspired by belief. Beliefs are a lens that everything is seen through, no matter how you come by them. It is also extremely interesting how the [Mother Jones] article cites Dan Kahan’s research [on “the cultural cognition of scientific consensus”] which identifies leanings in individuals’ personalities as “individualists vs communitarians” and “hierarchical vs egalitarian.” Apparently we are predisposed to one outlook or another. Take that and add a world view or belief system on top of that seems like there is little room for discussion with people…

This does not preclude rational capability, but definitely tints all information…[A]ctions for beliefs are infallible to the believer, it would seem. There are amazing number of examples of actions made according beliefs that are horrible: genocide, slavery, oppression, cfc, lead, mercury (to put sience and culture in the same box for a second). In fact, this is my ultimate problem with belief systems, that they reach a point of interpretation that creates a line where those on the outside become victims. But believing in something is inescapable. Take your pick rational or rationalizing, kind of a heavy beauty in this problem.

The ironic thing, for me, is that when I asked Day to list some of his influences, the first names he mentioned were William Blake and Francisco de Goya: Blake, the Romantic poet/illustrator and Goya, the Gothic (Dark Romantic) painter/printmaker.  Why is that ironic?  Well, both the Romantic and the Gothic movements in art and literature were reactions to the limits of The Enlightenment (Progressive thinking) prevailing at that time (and since).  If the Enlightenment privileges that which is Rational, then Romanticism shines a light on the sublime – those things which are so large, so beyond our capability to understand, that they inspire awe or terror or some combination of the two.

The Gothic (Dark Romanticism) is similar, but might be characterized as looking more inward, into psychology, for the irrational (dark) proclivities in humans’ hearts and minds.  What happens when humans sleep, sleepwalk, dream, hear strange noises in the night, or fly off the handle in a violent, murderous rage — when they enter the realm where the rules of logic and Reason no longer apply? Or what happens when Reason (in the guise of Science) gets too big for its britches?  This is the space that the Gothic imagination explores.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is my favorite example of Gothic literature.  Though modern adaptations have shifted the focus, in Shelley’s novel, the scientist, Dr. Frankenstein, is the real monster/villain.  Dr. Frankenstein is so clouded by hubris that he defies god’s laws to reanimate a corpse (Whyt? Because he can, that’s why!), but his experiment goes out of control and wreaks havoc on the countryside.

Compare Frankenstein’s monster to nuclear weapons, nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, subsidized corn and other monocultures, the Great Pacific garbage patch, climate change, and the myriad human illnesses borne of post-Industrial extraction, production, manufacturing, and distribution of materials and goods.  Then think of those whose unshakeable faith in science and technology assures them that science and technology will solve problems created by science and technology.  Is it rational?  Or is it just another example of blind faith dressed up in a lab coat and safety goggles?

Given Progressives’ underlying faith in the inevitable march of history toward a shared “progress” guided by Reason, I found Day’s choice of Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” as one of his favorites artworks particularly rich. On the one hand, Day consciously champions Reason and Progress, but his tastes tend toward the very critics of those ideals.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), from The Caprices (Los Caprichos), plate 43 Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (El sueño de la razon produce monstruos), from The Caprices (Los Caprichos)
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

Anthony Day does not necessarily believe that if humans are given more and “better” information they will necessarily make “better” decisions.  We have a glut of information about climate change, for example, but that information has yet to influence policy in any significant way.  As a father, however, he must necessarily hope, and so, via his whimsical palette, he invites his viewer to look at these American dreamers. (And viewers may feel free to confirm or deny, based on their own predispositions and proclivities.)

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Art Critic Dave Hickey Calls It Quits (Again) with Pirates and Farmers

timthumb.phpI have a review of Dave Hickey’s latest book up at The Texas Observer.  Check it out.

It was [George] Washington’s one simple desire to be seen relinquishing power, that he might be the first American to be seen stepping down from office. He was ultimately seen doing so, and the world is better for it.”

—Dave Hickey, “American Cool,” Pirates and Farmers, (emphasis in the original)

 

 

A LOAF OF BREAD, A CONTAINER OF MILK & A SHOT OF POWER

2014 Mural - The People's Plate - Otabenga Jones & Associates (1)

Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center.

I have a new piece up over at Arts+Culture Texas about the new Otabenga Jones & Associates mural at the Lanwdale Art Center.  Check it out.

By Emory Douglas, former Minister of Culture of the Black Panther party.

2014 Mural - The People's Plate - Otabenga Jones & Associates (85)

Courtesy of Lawndale Art Center.

I have to thank Devon Britt-Darby of Arts+Culture Texas and Reliable Narratives for the “Shot of Power” in the title.  (I was quite satisfied with the stick of butter, but who knew? Who knew???)

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You Don’t Win Friends With Salad ?

THIS IS THE STATE OF THE ART WORLD TODAY

PREFACE: I accidentally stumbled upon a panel discussion featuring (among others) rock star celebrity curator Hans Ulrich Obrist at the 2013 Venice Biennale. I would not find out until later that Ulrich is a big deal and I should cower in fear and intimidation in his presence, but that’s a different story. Anyway, at one point, someone asked Ulrich about the future of art and Ulrich answered with a quote from architect Rem Koolhaas who has said, “The future is the countryside,” and then Ulrich went on to talk about the trend of artists moving to the country to start organic farms.

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THE MEAT OF THE MATTER: I went to an artist town hall last night. It was maybe meant more for “entry level” (?) visual artists than people who write about art, so I spent my brief time there snickering with a colleague in the back row peanut gallery. (FWIW, I hope that the town hall was useful to the people it was meant for, and I’m glad that it happened.)

So, for me, the best part was the salad I scored from local artist Alex Thu. Alex put in some time earlier that very day harvesting various and assorted greens at the Last Organic Outpost local urban farm. We whispered our hellos in the back row.

“You want salad?” Alex asked. “I got mustard, I got spinach, I got kale, I got collards…”

I was sold. I was hungry and I am on a health kick and the window to grow local greens is closing fast.

“You got any mixed,” I asked, “with a little bit of everything?”

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I got the mixed bag, too.”

I turned to my colleague, a very health-conscious, buff and ripped man, and said, “You want in on some of this salad, man?”

He had to ask, “Are you guys talking about actual salad or is this some kind of code?” then later explained to me that in the film The Boys in the Band, “having a salad” is code for, well, green stuff that might be consumed out of a bowl.

(In my slang, “salad” is slang for a MIX of green stuff, different varieties of “greens” mixed up together, if you will.)

I had not ever seen or even heard of The Boys in the Band prior to that, but today he sent me a clip and I can’t wait to watch it, can’t wait!

So, Homer and Bart might not have been as right as they thought — maybe you can indeed win not just friends but even art world accolades with salad, and if you toss their salad while you’re at it, well…

Anyway, remember back when “salad” meant something nefarious and possibly dangerous? It’s no wonder Dave Hickey quit the art world.