Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Art and Politics Now Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis is PUBLISHED

This was the big week. Seventy people at the launch at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. The book is now available from Midmarch Arts Press, 300 Riverside Drive, New York City. 1 212 865 5509. This will be my last post at this address. Please buy from my loyal independent publisher!! It is not on Amazon!! A stamp and an envelope is not too much to manage.
 Today, I am moving my blog to
You will see my homepage and the blog link. My blogs will also be posting to my Facebook as well.
See you there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Contemporary Native Artists

Lara Evans, art historian and artist, as well as Evergreen State College professor, has published with other authors a new book called Art in Our Lives, Native Women Artists in Dialog. She has also curated a wonderful art exhibition It's Complicated - Art About Home.
The two together give us new perspectives on contemporary native art.  It is really exciting to have voices of a new generation. In the book, there are actually several generations, but the discussion  is based on a novel format, a seminar among the artists.
The essays are overviews of various themes, Art as Healing, Art as Struggle by Gloria J. Emerson, Gender Women and Art Making by Sherry Farrell Racette, Space Memory, Landscape Women in Native Art History by Elysia Poon, and  Crossing the Boundaries of Home and Art. by Lara Evans. The dialogue among these artist and others as the basis for the book. It is both personal and historical, spanning generations, and practices.

 It is a wonderful addition to writing on Contemporary Native American Women Artists. The essay by Sherry Farrell Racette was particularly provocative in its references to the history of tribal gender roles. I was a little surprised though that unmentioned was what I understood as a fact ( perhaps it is not) that settlers declared they had to deal with a male chief in negotiations with tribes that had been matriarchal, and that caused a major shift in the gender power relations in many tribes. Also, in the Northeast, it was the rights of Native women that inspired the suffragette movement to demand more rights for white women.

But certainly, gender roles vary from tribe to tribe and era to era. Also the value associated to various activities have been arbitrarily assigned perhaps by outsiders. Why is it necessarily less significant to cure and cook fish than to catch them? Why is bead work or basketry less significant than sand painting?

The fact is clearly stated that for these women, they had to move outside expectations and norms in order to be artists. And it is evident that their work is incredibly varied, intriguing, and complex, based on the magnificent color illustrations in the book (according to American Indian magazine, the pubication of the National Museum of the American Indian, the museum provided significant funding).

The work at the top of the post  is from the art exhibition. It is by Maria Hupfield, Flap Flap Flap 2004 plaster and paper mache. Hupfield is addressing ecological crisis with her dead birds, but their are so beautifully laid out on the floor of the gallery that it is possible to almost forget the actual subject. That edge of aesthetics and politics is crucial to this entire exhibition.

The artists are addressing intersections of native world views and mainstream. For example in one piece by Merritt Johnson, the animals are patching the Sky Dome, They are giving up their lives in order to keep the world going, A bear stands on top of a ladder offering  his skin. We on the other hand just go on with our same bad habits. In another work by Johnson, an  injured Turkey is protecting the sky. In a third she makes a reference to the BP oil spill

One of the themes of the art exhibition and the book is the changing relationship to the land for contemporary Native artists. But in spite of that the urban/reservation split is not absolute in any of these artists. They all move back and forth, between different realities, as does their art. That is the reason for the title of the exhibition "It's complicated, Art About Home.
Perhaps the most compelling work in the exhibiton was by Kimowan Metchewais.
Goodwill 118 Edmonton, it is an innocuous image of the place where people drop off furniture for Good Will, but as Lara explained it, many native peoeple furnish their homes from this drop off. In addtion, this detailed and extraordinarly beautiful painting was done by an artist who lost the use of one whole side of his body.There are other works, videos, youtubes of Phoenix Arizona ( other peoples' idea of home), a creation myth, a stunning pair of photographs by Sarah Sense.with an overlay of woven photographic imagery based on traditional weaving from the Chitimacha tribe who have a long tradition of basketry.
There are podcasts about the exhibition at this site.
Each of these artists both in the book and in the exhibition was previously unknown to me. How enriching to have this opportunity to expand my knowledge. Be sure to buy the book!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Alison Saar

Blood Sweat and Tears, 2005 wood, copper, bronze, paint and tar  

Lunarseas: Sea of Serenity, 2007 copper, tin and wood

 York:Terra Incognita, 2010 cast bronze

This is the work of Alison Saar in the exhibition Bound for Glory at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. The main commission was to create a statue of York, the African American slave that accompanied William Clark on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Saar's sculpture is a permanent installation on the campus. Here is the main work and the back. Little is known about York. So the artist had to piece together ideas, but we know that a dry stream was named for him. His back as a map of scars with the dry stream marked is full of poignency. York is set in the midst of a group of granite rocks, each with a bronze tablet that inscribes the few words in the Expedition journals that refer to him.

York faithfully served Captain Clark, but he was not rewarded with his freedom. Clark was arrogant and selfish. In the statue York is holding a rifle, which he used to catch game during the expedition, but when they got home it was taken away from him.
This tragic story of inequality and abuse of priviledge is given dignity by Saar's sculpture.

The work in the exhibition was extraordinay. An excellent catalog with an essay by Linda Tesner (doesn't seem to be available to buy, they gave it out free at the gallery and would probably send you one if you asked) provides helpful insights into the art works, but these works are so strong and poignent that we cannot help but be overwhelmed by Saar's work. I think she is acheiving a whole new level of intensity in these sculptures.

There was one odd comment made by Tesner with reference to Travelin'Light, a bronze life size man in a suit hanging upside down. To me he was obviously being lynched, but Tesner said, he was "a little down on his luck." I read this three times to see if I had missed something!
But the rest of the book was very insightful. Lunarseas, Sea of Serenity (above) is  "speaks to introspection about how things come to mind in a quiet way, but also suggest thjat within the removed quietude of serenity one might verge on insanity ..." Blood/Sweat/Tears at the top of the blog is self explanatory. There were many other really strong works as well.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Imaging Others Cultural Intersections in the Colonial Period

Look at this wonderful image! It is a detail of a print by the Japanese artist, Yoshitora in 1860 looking at an American couple who are visiting Japan, probably in order to trade. The artist is carefully depicting their clothes. He has done a wonderful job of observing  details and added his own subtle touch, like the woman in the foreground pointing, a very un Japanese gesture.

This is part of a a group of ukioy-e prints, called Yokohama-e because they are all based on observation of foreigners in Yokohama by Japanese artists. The work is from the collection of Professor Lenore Metrick-Chen, art history professor at Drake University. It is part of a fascinating exhibition that she has organized with Dr. John Monroe, a history professor at Iowa State University.
"Imaging Others, Cultural Intersections in the Colonial Period" is  at the Anderson Gallery, Drake University,
It includes art work from Africa, China, and Japan, as well as photographs made in the U.S. in the late nineteenth century of "others".

The very first piece in the gallery was an African sculpture of a person with a painted white face and anglo features. It set the tone for  the surprises of the exhibition, that criss cross cultural influences to the point where all clear distinctions of gender, place, style, and power, are called into question as we look at the work.

Some of the images are familiar subjects, like Chinese railroad workers in America, and the Columbian Exposition of 1892. But then we see two men who were posing in an African display relaxing as they are not being African symbols, but just taking a break and relaxing, and of course they are just regular people.

The works span from 19c to the present. Two of my favorites were the carvings of African Missionaries, who were incredible stiff and straight looking, not a sensuous curve to be seen anywhere.

It is a stark contrast to this figure of Mami Wata, a fabulous carving based on a religion of the late nineteenth century in the collection of John Monroe, history professor at Iowa State University. The image started from a German lithograph of a circus snake charmer and was transformed into a powerful religious figure in Nigeria who went in for exotic foreign accouterments.Mami Wata worship has spread all over Africa and the African diaspora..

In the US we always look out, and assume we are the dominating culture of the world, that what we have to offer is superior and desirable to everyone else. . But in fact what we send out is alien, perhaps unwanted, and corrosive. But the cultures that we visit ourselves on send back our intrusions through cultural acts that transform our ideas with  irony, humor, and a sense of our foibles that we ourselves do not recognize..

This exhibition is entirely refreshing, and its catalog, written in collaboration with students' questions about colonialism,  is a great format: .
Near the end,  Dr. John Monroe comments :
 "If we just reject racist images from the past without trying to work out what social, imaginative or cultural functions they were supposed to serve - which involves placing them in a broader context- we end up with less of an understanding of how and why racism emerges. It's never something that pops up in isolation: it always exists as part of a complicated web of attitudes and assumptions that need to be untangled. That of course goes for the present as well as the past."

Monday, November 29, 2010

Amazing Birds

This is a trumpeter swan flying. They make an amazing sound, which is why they are called trumpeters. The white spots on the ground are more swans.They do an intricate social ritual arching their necks that was fascinating. We saw hundreds of them in the Skagit Valley. As well as hundreds of snow geese and thirty other birds including Kingfisher, Blue Heron, Bald Eagles, Red Tail Hawks,  Bohemian Wax Wing - but now I am getting technical. I know nothing about birds. I was with two experts who identified what I called little brown birds. But I was good on the big white birds!
And the thrill of seeing so many birds is wonderful. IT awakens all of your senses to spend a day gazing at the sky, listening for bird sounds, an extraordinary symphony of sound that we blot out of our lives. Trumpeter swans migrate to Washingston State from Alaska, the snow geese come from Rangel Island where they have covered the island and eaten everything in sight. In the 1930s they were endangered. Which goes to show we can save the earth if we decide to.  

. As we crossed route 20 hundreds of cars were headed to the mall. If only they would stop and wonder if they really need anything from there, get out and look at the birds and listen to their songs, they would have a free day of joy!

Take a look at Maya Lin's project What is Missing? for a sobering look at the escalating species and habitat loss we are causing. As she has said, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction in the history of the earth, and the only one caused by a single species, humans.

And pursuit of fossil  fuels is only getting more and more ferocious in its destruction of the earth. The precious Boreal forests in Canada for example, are being destroyed in the pursuit of tar sands. Rising Tide North America are a group of activists fighting this project, but the general public has no clue.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Inscape: Art in a former Immigration Detention Facility

Inscape was an installation of art in a former immigration facility where people were detained until 2003 when a new and much bigger facility opened in Tacoma. Detention is a private industry that is making big bucks. Perhaps you heard the National Public Radio expose that the new Arizona Immigration Law was written by operators of private detention centers and passed word for word, along with corporate and political backing from some major heavyweights.

The artists were attempting to transform the energy in the building. We could all still feel the unhappiness and fear that lurked in these rooms. The building is available for artists studios, and quite a few artists are already working there.

The building was first built during the Alaska Gold Rush as an "assay" office, and the top floor remained that, a place to weigh gold and to establish its value. On that floor of the facility one of the works made a direct reference to that function. Megan Trayner had a piece on the floor with a gold leaf surface.

Other artists on this floor included Romson Bustillo whose characteristic abstract patterns with symbolic meanings and intentionally undecipherable titles ( to remind us of how it feels to not undersand a language) filled one end.

Nic Meisel's serendipitous installation, with its threatening sounds was off in another side room. I saw these pieces as it was getting dark, and the sense of ominousness in Nic's was definately present, in spite of his cheerful presence not too far away.

Some of the work was really inspired by the space and a radical departure for the artist, as seemed to be the case in the work of Katy Krantz ( judging by the art in her studio) who created a wonderful graffitti piece at the front entrance, based on simulating the actual graffitti in the small excersize space upstairs. Detainees from countries all over the world had written their countries on the wall in black tar from the roof. See piece at  top of entry for Katy's artwork based on this graffitti..

The Chinese Men's dormitory inspired an evocative piece by Helen Gamble. The hanging cot beds suggested both the fragility of existence and over crowding. The races were segregated here, and a high percentage of the inmates were Chinese.

Jen Mills Landscape of Memory, a room full of seats made of salt, suggested instability.

Ju Pong Lin combined video and an ironing board with an installation of shirts that documented the many different ways that Asians had been expelled from cities in the Northwest.

Gail Howard's infirmary of shredded sheets draped over beds captured the idea of illness within prison, not much care, just enough to keep people alive.

Christian French made a floor game that suggested the labyrinthine bureaucracy and games of chance that people had to navigate in order to get out.

But perhaps most impressive of all was Ladan Yalzadeh's tour of the facility which gave us a complete history and guide to the various rooms and their functions. She had come from Iran in 1986 and been processed through these rooms.

Her personal experience was mild compared to what people experience today, when there is mostly only one way out, deportation, but she clearly described the experience of standing in line day after day, the cramped and crowded rooms, and the atmosphere of oppression and anxiety.
For another artist addressing detention in these very same rooms see my post on Eroyn Franklyn

Monday, November 15, 2010

Picasso at the Seattle Art Museum

The Acrobat, 1930 Courtesy Musee National de Picasso, Paris
Finally, I have some time to post a comment on this extraordinary exhibition of Picasso's art work  "Masterpieces from the Musee National Picasso, Paris, October 8, 2010 - January 17, 2011 at the Seattle Art Museum.

For all of us in the United States who have seen the same works from the Museum of Modern Art over and over, everywhere, this exhibition is delightful. Although some of the works are definately benchmarks, like La Celestina and the Death of Casagemas, others are completely unknown, like the self portrait with pentimenti for Les Demoiselles D'Avignon and the chunky wooden sculpture from the same time frame.

In fact Picasso's sculpture is way underemphasized in most discussions. It is consistently original and intriguing. In this show among works in recycled metal, wood, bronze, and paper is the original Bulls Head made from Picasso's bicycle seat and handlebars. You can look at the leather bicycle seat and think about Picasso sitting on it. In this exhibition there is also the Man with Sheep, 1943 and the Nanny Goat 1950.

So why am I so excited about the exhibition, I, the post colonial, feminist, political activist, art critic? Because it is intimate. We can feel Picasso thinking as we look at these works, the sketches for Guernica, the photographs of Guernica in progress by Dora Maar, the photographs from early years in Paris or during the war, murky, shadowy black and white.

But it is also dramatic : the juxtaposition of the wonderful bronze sculptures inspired by Marie Therese in the late 1920s and the paintings of that same period, one of my favorite eras of Picasso's work, installed beautifully in the gallery by Anne Baldessari, curator of the Musee Picasso in Paris

I have chosen only the image of the acrobat from 1930 for this posting, as it is such a brilliant drawing/painting. I see Picasso chasing Matisse in this outline, but never can he accede to the pursuit of the idea of an art work as a  "comfortable armchair" that Matisse worked so hard to achieve. Picasso always struggled, resisted, absorbed, and reworked. The impossibly contorted acrobat is, as in all of Picasso's work, Picasso himself, of course, and the contortions of his art. It is in the room that introduces his pass through Surrealism.

John Berger's Success and Failure of Picasso (1965) is still worth re- reading after all these years.
He suggests that Picasso ultimately sought the primitive instead of the civilized.
He also suggests the biggest failure was Picasso's last works, when he did over elaborate re workings of old master paintings like Velazquez, over elaborate but empty.
Picasso, according to Berger, had a "failure of revolutionary nerve . . . To sustain such nerve one must be convinced that there will be another kind of success: a success which will operate in a field connecting for the first time ever, the most complex imaginative constructions of the human mind and the liberation of all those peoples of the world who until now have been forced to be simple, and of whom Picasso has always wished to be the representative." ( 206)
On the subject of "How Political was Picasso?" John Richardson has an excellent article in the New York Review of Books last week. Richardson knew Picasso over many years, and he watched all the acrobatics from both near and far.

All aspects of Picasso are represented here. We can all decide for ourselves what we think. And of course, all the women who inspired him are prominently included : Fernande,  Eva, Olga, Marie Therese, Dora Maar, Francois Gilot, Jacqueline, and other women who are less famous.
Make up your own mind, but see this show. It is travelling to Virginia and San Francisco from Seattle, and then off to Asia. For an excellent more detailed discussion of the exhibition see Art Dish

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Azar Nafisi in Des Moines Iowa

When I went to visit my grandchildren in Des Moines Iowa, I was excited to discover that Azar Nafisi was speaking, sponsored by Drake University. She has a new book called Things I Have Been Silent About. Azar Nafisi
And of course she is best known for Reading Lolita in Tehran, perhaps one of the best titles for a book in the last ten years. But the subject of her lecture was culture and human rights, and the idea that books can speak across cultures in what she called the "Republic of the Imagination" She spoke of the power of literature to liberate and make connections betwen people. Perfect strangers can share their experiences of a book.
She also spoke about the  imagination in contrast to the idea of smugness and complacency. Villains in books are those who are blind to others. The first target of totalitarian regimes is the imagination.

Curiosity is "insubordination in its purest form" The desire to know, to question yourself, to see ourselves as question marks. Alice running into the rabbit hole is an example of curiosity. At the heart of curiosity is learning about the "other" not thinking that we already know other people.

Of course, as an Iranian, she is well aware of how ignorant people in the U.S. are about Iran and Islam in general. She spoke of how the women of Iran have refused for 30 years to comply with the restrictions of the revolution there.
Freedom means choice, responsibilty, passion, risk,
"How much are we willing to give up in order to regain passion?" She sees a crisis of vision, to be self righteous is a sign of weakness.
It was a really inspiring presentation.

Can visual art play this same role in communication across cultures? I believe so, in spite of being so embedded in capitalism. In fact, it is a perfect example of imagination as subversive to the system. A New York Times article about artists being sent abroad by the State Department in a new grant program being administered by the Bronx Museum of Art quoted Michael Krenn, author of Fall Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War,  as saying  that "artists are not easily controlled" !!

Monday, October 18, 2010

New York City Creative Time

I have just returned from the Creative Tme Summit Revolutions in Public Practice. The entire conference is  on line at the Creative Time website. My main impression was that Trevor Paglen and his session on Geographies was one of the most compelling group of presentations in the conference. The second riveting session was led by Laurie Jo Reynolds on governments. These two panels really got to the heart of artists addresssing social issues. Much of the rest of the conference addressed structures of the art world, art schools, food ( well that is a political issue of course, but we are drowned in that subject here in Seattle..). I did miss a few though, and perhaps some fabulous insights. I plan to watch those sessions online. And in the facebook discussion going on now there is still a lot of discussion on the subject of the "art world" and how to change it, which to me is not the point. The point is the rest of the world and how artists can connect to that in their art in order to contribute all their formidable talents to changing the world.
More soon.
I am overwhelmed at the moment with proofing my book. I have been to about six different wonderful events lately that I want to write about including
The incredible Picasso Show at the Seattle Art Museum. Do not miss it.
Coup de Foudre, a performance with music by Paul Miller aka DJSpooky, Corey Baker and Melvin Van Peebles based on Jean Cocteau's 1930 film Blood of a Poet
Nuevo York at the Museo El Barrio
Alison Saar at Lewis and Clark College in Portland
Inscape at the immigration building in Seattle
and much more.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Art and Politics Now goes to publisher

This is the work of Hana' Malallah, an artist from Baghdad who is included in my book. The title of the work is "The Looting of the Museum of Baghdad."

Yes, it is really true. My book is about to come out after all these years. You can read more about it on my website, Art and Politics Now Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis. It has ten chapters on topics ranging from art against globalization, war, terror, censorship, racism, and art in support of immigration, border crossing, and ecology.
I include artists from around the world, but the emphasis is on socially engaged artists in the U.S.
Tomorrow, one of the artists, Cecilia Alvarez, is part of a group exhibition in Seattle.
Trevor Paglen is a keynote speaker at Creative Time, Daniel Heyman has been showing his art at university galleries, and the activists like the Backbone and Yes Men just keep on going.
That is just a tiny sample of the over eighty artists and exhibitions that I discuss. More soon. This is just a teaser.