Sunday, April 26, 2009

Titus Kaphar at the Seattle Art Museum

Titus Kaphar's exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum is a brilliant response to the mythmaking American art exhibition from Yale, Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Kaphar is literally laying the conqueror to rest as seen in this cut out conquistador who is now removed from his heroic context and lying on the ground. He was part of a performance piece that Kaphar did in Soho, in which he actually included the cutting of the canvas in the performance.

This is called Mother's Solution, it is about passing in the African American Community, passing for white of course. It is deliberately painted in a pseudo untrained style, as thought this bourgeois black family couldn't afford the more slick technique of the top artist. The cut out woman is passing for white. Her space is empty, but next to her is her mother obscured by the shreds of her disappeared daughter, hiding behind a sea of canvas tangling her face.
This work is about tarring and the punishment for blacks who are discovered to be passing.

George George George - the hand you see in the lower left is from the famous George Washington Crossing the Delaware as is the image of George. Titus is calling attention to the fact of that black hand, the hand of George's slave, and he has flipped the image of George into a playing card like double. George Washington played some tricks. He had lots of slaves, and he didn't come out against slavery. But of course all of the founding fathers left this blight on our country's founding for economic reasons.

William Kentridge revisited

I am writing again about South African artist William Kentridge because I have learned a lot more about him from the catalog for the amazing exhibition in San Francisico, which I won't be able to see. This image is from Stereoscope, eighth of nine animated hand drawn films that Kentridge made about Soho and Felix. Soho is a bureaucrat who is buried in the system. Felix is a creative sensual personality who has an affair with his wife. In this frame from the film, you see Soho in 1999, after the end of Apartheid, after the Truth and Reconciliation commission, with his suit crying a sea of blue. The blue water is flowing everywhere, he is dejected. The blue water is cleansing, but his world has disintegrated. He knows he is guilty, he cannot deal with it. His whole world was numbers, control, greed, money, paper pushing. In the final film of the group, Tide Table, Soho is on the beach reading a newspaper, as people go in and out of the water. It seems to be a type of remission.
The work by Kentridge is about the position of the privileged white artist in the midst of a political system the he rejects, but is also part of, with the white bureaucrat who is greedy and rich, and the creative artist as stand ins for aspects of Kentridge himself. Apartheid, a system of detestable oppression, formed him , supported him, and made him a famous artist . He refers to it as a rock that he carries within him.

In the exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, Stereoscope is on exhibit along with Memo, a shorter film that is also about a bureaucrat in the midst of a sea of black ink that eventually takes him over. Other works in the show are filled with classical references, the Three Graces, Melancholia. and of course his famous Procession that encompasses the procession of refugees, of political marches, of protestors, of disenfranchised, of mindless followers, all are part of it. Kentridge, since the end of Apartheid refers to South Africa as a post anti apartheid society.

His interest in Mozart's opera, the Magic Flute, with a dancing rhinocerus in the animated proscenium setting behind the singers, suggests the absurdity and the beauty of the world. Kentridge does not suggest solutions to political problems, he does not advocate, instead he offers simply his own personal confusion and misgivings. He owes a lot to the early Russian avant-garde of utopian art after the Russian Revolution as well as Duchamp and Dada. But he too is dejected, he recognizes that utopias have always failed, ideologies don't work. What is left for us. Perhaps only sitting on a beach reading a newspaper as the inevitable tide of water washes over us.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rita Robillard's beautiful exhibition

Well I decided it was time to get personal. This is Henry and me sitting inside Rita Robillard's installation Lookout/Outlook about fire look outs. Well it isn't really about fire lookouts, its a statement about the environment paired with an homage to a lost friend. You can see the glowing images set in the midst of dark backgrounds in the installation in the background. Those glowing images are sunsets photographed from fire look out towers, where Rita stayed with her then partner Doug in the 1990s. Doug recently died and this exhibition is a type of homage to those special experiences she had with him. The darkness of the ground is both a darkness of the environment, the shining sunsets, the light of love, but also the life and death of her own relationship, as well as the forest itself. There are a lot of layers here. Robillard has created subtle, rich surfaces with experimental types of printmaking on a large scale. The works are technically subtle, but the overall effect envelopes us. Outside this enclosed space were other images that related to the threatened environment.

Rita and I go all the way back to Gramercy Park in New York City, a beaux art park from the 19th century, which is now a precious piece of real estate with most of its old trees gone, as well as its hedges and its charm. When we lived there it was an ordinary park, rather useless for young children to play in, too much gravel and no playground equipment. We made up games in the dirt about cowboys and indians, but were usually chased away.

Rita and I have had long conversations about life in New York City as our lives have intersected in so many places since then ( including the rusitc, rural Pullman Washington.). We are both marked as New Yorkers for life. The edge of nature/culture is sharp for those of us who grew up in New York. We feel its preciousness, its vulnerability acutely because we had so little nature in New York. I remember walking around the park on the sharp iron spikes that protected the park.
Here is a picture of Rita and me in front of a piece about Gramercy Park,

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Art and Activism

This last weekend I went to two amazing fundraisers that both featured art and activism. The first was a collaboration between Chaya, an organization that helps domestic violence victims from South Asia that live in the Seattle area. and Tasveer, a non profit that sponsors South Asian independent film festivals . They presented films, dance, non fiction readings, and an amazing performance piece called Yoni Ki Baat based on the Vagina Monologues from a South Asian perspective. Ten woman told their stories with dignity, drama, and humor, ranging from childhood traumas to adult dating.

The second fundraiser was CARA, Communitites against rape and abuse. They also emphasized the intersection of art and activism, with hip hop performers, many of them quite young offering inspiring lyrics about their lives and the street and their losses. The audience was mainly African American, but the keynote speaker, Andrea Smith, was a Native American activist and she said CARA was also organizing around justice for Indian boarding school victims. The boarding schools introduced sexual abuse and drug abuse into native communities. Andrea is the author of INCITE: Women of Color Against VIolence.

The contrast between the two groups was dramatic. The first, Chaya, featured only women performers, many of them elegantly dressed although one was a Tibetan transgender who wore a suit and necktie. But the performances were on a stage with sophisticated projections, sound and music.

The second group was very grass roots. We met in a room that felt like an old defrocked store with wooden floors and big windows. We had a wonderful dinner and everyone was relaxed and chatting. The performers wore various low key clothes like the street related low pants look.

But the biggest difference was for Chaya the focus in the performances was on domestic violence related to specific South Asian cultural practices and prejudices. The dance performance focused on the selling of young girls into the sex trade. The dancer adapted traditional Asian dance to tell the story of one young girl who was sold into sex, but then was able to escape.

At the CARA event the focus was on communities in a more public sense, the problems of instiutitonalized violence, jails, police, and gangs. We have had a lot of gang murders in Seattle lately.

Both of them were reaching out to the community though. And both embraced young people being given a way to express themselves through creative words, music, dance, film. In both cases we saw the power of art to give a means of expression to people.

Both are great groups.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Basia Irland at Evergreen State College

The Nisqually Watershed Active and Proposed Restorations

Basia Irland and the musical group Shooting Stars

This is a carved ice book with elderberry seeds by Basia Ireland

I want to report on the stunning exhibition by Basia Irland at the newly re-opened gallery at The Evergreen State College.

Basia is from New Mexico. She has been the fortunate recipient of a Tom Rye Harville award at The Evergreen State College that has made possible "A Gathering of Waters, The Nisqually River Source to Sound," Basia's special focus is water in its every aspect. The Nisqually Gathering Project has lasted a year and it is not yet finished. There will be a final ceremony when the gathered water is returned to the river. She worked with students, scientists, biologists, children, all sorts of people who live along the Nisqually River in Central Washington State. Each one gathered a little water in a container and wrote in a log book about their experiences of the river, the water, as they gathered it.

I confess I was a little dubious about this project when I first heard about it. I was afraid it was a little too grassroots, literally and figuratively. I was afraid it was a kind of fake ritual based idea. But what really works is that the project is about water, it included scientists and ecologists and park rangers. It created connections with people and water, and educates us about the crucial place that water has in our lives. We see the Nisqually River watershed on a map, not the state highway system!

The Nisqually is particularly appropriate for such an endeavor: it starts at Mt Rainier, travels through various tributaries and a national park, national forest, military reservation, and finally ends in a delta on Puget Sound that is a bird sanctuary. Not very long ago ( 164 years to be exact) this land belonged to the Nisqually Indians. They still havesections of their reservation along the river, although much of it is now controlled by the military base at Fort Lewis. They have fought hard for their fishing rights and they are still fishing for salmon there. I did another blog entry about them. They are also collaborating with whites in restoring the river.

The exhibition documented the gathering of waters, as well as groups of student works from The Evergreen State College who made their own art work, or students in environmental sciences who studied the ecosystems.It included their displays, video made by Basia of the project, and her own art work, which is books made from the materials she gathered along the river such as barnacles and sand.

It also included videos of her ice books. The ice books have been frozen with seeds embedded in them in her freezer, then carved into books. They are placed in the water and they dissolve. The plant seeds are good for natural plant growth on the banks of the river and hopefully will land and germinate.

Basia is a poet and an artist. Perhaps her biggest contradiction is that she has such a strong sense of aesthetics that even when she is representing pathogens like e coli as a reference to water borne illnesses, she makes them beautiful. Her videos and her art work are so carefully crafted aesthetically, that it almost gets in the way of her crucial political engagement. Her gentle personality is also subtle. How can such a lovely person change the world? Only through the power of her concern about the planet. At the opening she thanked everyone and then reminded us all that someone dies every 8 seconds from a preventable water borne illness. She is urgent and intense under her gentle facade.

The opening included a dedication of the gallery by Skykomish elder Delbert and music by the Shooting Stars, a young group of native musicians who write music in response to the sound of water.

What I really enjoyed is that Basia is truly interdisciplinary in her outreach, there were science professors, biologists, a park ranger (photographed here, this is Marne McArdle at the opening from Mt Rainier National Park), and each one had their own story, their own relationship to the work. The students also eagerly recounted their experiences. This is a successful endeavor, when everyone is involved and cares.

At the same time the exhibition is a major presentation of the artists work. She included work from earliers projects. More about that soon.