Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

A collection of art news from around the globe over the past few years:

1. In 2008, Paul McCarthy’s “Complex Shit”, a giant inflatable dog turd, broke free, destroyed some power lines, and then crashed into a children’s home in Switzerland.

2. In January of 2009, a tattoo artist found a way to tattoo the white part of your eyes. State senators in Oklahoma have already pre-emptively banned the practice.

3. Since I’m writing about eyeballs, artist Xiang Chen paints by holding the brush with his eyeball.

4. In July of 2007, a woman was arrested for kissing a Cy Twombly painting that was worth about $2 million.

The 3x2m (9x6-foot) painting by US artist Cy Twombly is valued at more than $2m (£970,000).

5. In fashion news in 2008, a Swedish clothing company started making two-piece bikinis for girls as young as 2 months old.

6. In 2008, a horse named Cholla entered one of her paintings into a juried exhibition for a galley in Venice and was accepted without the judges knowing she was a horse. Cholla will have her work exhibited at Gallery Giudecca 795 in Venice, Italy in May of this year.

Cholla painting

But for me, the weirdest thing I have heard about this year is that Salander-O’Reilly Galleries was using art as the central commodity in their $88 million Ponzi scheme. Apparently, people like John McEnroe would give Lawrence Salander money to buy art for them and then immediately re-sell it at a higher price. While I realize that art is a commodity that functions in the capital market like most other commodities, art just does not seem like the best choice of commodity to use for a Ponzi scheme. The main reason why it does not seem like the best choice is that art is not a very liquid asset and Ponzi schemes usually thrive on short-term profits that usually need a fast turnaround. Also, most of the pieces of artwork he was using in his Ponzi scheme were unique pieces of physical art, but he was able to sell the same paintings to multiple people. I honestly had no idea that people bought and sold art so quickly that it was possible for the art dealer to actually sell the same painting to two people and neither of them know about it! Apparently, Salander also regularly sold artwork that did not belong to him. I assumed that when someone bought a piece of art at some point they would actually take possession of the art, put it somewhere and look at it. But obviously I’m wrong because none of his clients seemed to catch on even after he would “sell” them a painting for a few million dollars and then “sell” the same painting to someone else and then never deliver the painting to either person. As an artist, this use of art as a Ponzi scheme commodity is truly fascinating and clearly highlights how much weirder the world of art is than I could have ever expected.

Gorky’s “Pirate I” which Salander allegedly sold to multiple people.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

When I travel, one of my favorite things to do is to visit smaller, less well-known museums. The reason why I love to visit smaller museums is that I can really enjoy visiting them without any expectations. When I visit MOMA or the Guggenheim, the work had better be good. In fact, the quality of work had better be fantastic if they are going to claim that they are two of the high water marks of exhibiting art in the world. With regional museums, I have absolutely no expectations and that is actually quite freeing. Most regional institutions don’t claim to exhibit the best quality work in the world because they usually exist to support a small community and sometimes they try to positively display local collections or artists. A great example of this is the DeCordova Museum whose mission statement even says that they focus primarily on the art of the New England region. This is not to say that the DeCordova doesn’t show world-class art, but when I visit the DeCordova, I expect them to take more risks and exhibit regional artists whose work may not be as well known outside of New England. By taking on more risk and showing less well known artists, the DeCordova is free to present work that is not as resolved, but that is the best part of the Museum. Regional institutions are able to highlight interesting and valuable work without worrying if they are showing the best quality work in the world because they serve a different function.

Here are a few of my favorite smaller or more regional museums in the Northeast that all show great work and take high risks by showing regional work:

The DeCordova
The Portland Museum of Art
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
The Phillips Collection
Currier Museum of Art
Peabody Essex Museum
The Newark Museum

While I love to visit regional museums that are dedicated to the history or art of a small community, my favorite thing to visit is a museum that is dedicated to exhibiting one niche item. For example, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is a huge museum that is dedicated to exhibiting shoes and even has a monthly Podcast about shoes from the assistant curator! The Center for Puppetry Arts, The Computer History Museum and the National Cowboy Museum are all really amazing museums that have active scholarly research while simultaneously seeking to preserve and display important elements of our culture. These are all serious museums, not roadside attractions that are definitely worth visiting and again, the best part is that you can visit them with no expectations because they are museums that are not even trying to compete with the quality of work being shown at large international art museums.

I also love visiting museums that have unusual collections. The Currier Museum in Manchester New Hampshire is a fantastic museum that shows some of the best in contemporary and modern art for a local audience, but they also house the Henry Melville Fuller Paperweight Collection with over 330 glass paperweights. I went to the Currier to see their latest show, the Vergobbi collection, but the fact that they also house a huge paperweight collection proved almost as fascinating as the Modernist collection on display. However, if you live near Boston, then one of the best and most unique museums in the world is housed in Dedham, just outside of the men’s room of the Dedham Community Theatre.

I love the Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) because it is exactly what it advertises to be. It does not say that it is competing with MOMA for exhibiting the finest quality work in the world, but the exact opposite. One of the things MOBA has done that MOMA has not is allowed all viewers to see their collection for free. So, if you go, you can’t be that disappointed because it cost you nothing! The MOBA is a great place to visit because it can be viewed so many ways. For me, I think that the existence of the Museum raises fundamental questions about art and museology. It seems to me that unlike most other institutions, MOBA does not to re-enforce previously and arbitrarily created notions of good and bad art, but it challenges the binary itself. What does it mean when a museum validates a piece of art as good or bad? What does it mean when a museum fulfils its mission statement, but that mission statement exists outside of a hierarchy that people are used to? Also, the work on display directly indicts the viewer. Who am I to say if a piece is good or bad? What gives me the right to blatantly laugh at someone else’s work? Why do I feel entitled to judge? I love the museum because while I’m there I am very aware of my own aesthetic prejudices as well as those around me.

So I love smaller or regional institutions because they exist outside of the hierarchy of larger institutions. Places like MOMA and the Tate should be competing against each other for larger global relevancy, but other museums are equally important and frequently, they can bring issues to the table that larger institutions can’t. The real key to enjoying smaller institutions is to remember that not everything should be compared using the same criteria. If smaller institutions are evaluated for their own merits, then they can be really enjoyed for what they are: regional and unique.

Do you know of a good regional or unique museum?
Then please add it in the comment section so that I can go visit too!

The inside of the Peabody Essex Museum

My favorite piece from the Museum of Bad Art
Lucy In the Field With Flowers
Oil on canvas by Unknown
24" x 30"
Acquired from trash in Boston

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Amy Freeman @ Gallery Stokes

Amy Freeman

Gallery Stokes

"Wide Awake"

Interview by Steve Aishman

Sunday, March 01, 2009

A Report from the Phantom Zone

"In a creative argument both parties are more interested in finding the truth or solving the problem than in being right. "
Michael A. Gilbert

In philosophy, an argument is a claim that is backed by reason and should be sharply contrasted against a fight. A fight is a struggle for dominance and actually has more to do with power/ego relationships while an argument is concerned more with the creative development of ideas. When entering into a dialog, some people confuse an argument with a fight because it may seem logical that you can force people to believe your ideas by establishing dominance over them. Hence, we can see how bullies develop the notion that you can win an argument by transforming it into a fight and then attempting to crush the other person’s ego. The strange thing is that if you ask someone who frequently instigates fights why they do it, they will reply that they don’t and that they are in fact intelligently arguing.

It’s like bullies don’t know that they are bullies.

So, here are some signs that you are actually more interested in fighting than developing a creative argument:
1. If you make personal insults, then you are not presenting an argument, you are picking a fight.
2. If you attack the way someone presents their argument rather than presenting your own reasoning, then you are picking a fight.
3. If you are simply stating or re-stating a claim without providing your own reasoning, then you are fighting.
4. If you are attacking a side issue rather than presenting reasoning about a central claim, then you are not participating in the argument.
5. If you present circular arguments, then you are not arguing.
6. If you are more concerned with the labels or semantics that someone is using rather then the reasoning they are using, then you are not participating in the argument.
7. If you constantly try to change the subject to something you want to talk about, then you are not participating in the argument.
8. If you constantly try to argue from popularity (e.g. Everyone steals office pens. or Everyone bribes customs officials. or Everyone smokes marijuana., etc.), then you are not presenting reasons, you are presenting rationalizations.

A Good Argument:
1. Shows what position a person holds.
2. Allows others to present their point of view.
3. Helps arguers reach and understand new views and reasons for those views.
4. Does not stomp on people.

With that said, I am interested in this column becoming a place of creative argument. So I’ll present a claim and then my reasoning behind the claim:

Jonathan Field’s latest exhibition at “Trois Gallery” in Atlanta deals with the intersection of entropy, politics and the tradition of history painting. The tradition of history painting seems to have disappeared since the advent of newer technologies that have been designed to capture history as it happens. It made some historical sense in 1840 for Delacroix to paint “Crusaders Entering Constantinople” because there was no visual record of the event, but why paint the capture Baghdad when we have photos and videos? Field’s work encapsulates this question both visually and conceptually through the notion of Maxwell’s demon.

Maxwell’s demon is a thought experiment that asks if it is possible to violate the Second Law of thermodynamics (an expression of the universal law of increasing entropy where entropy can be thought of as a measure of microscopic disorder). In the thought experiment, Maxwell proposes the existence of a demon that can follow the course of every molecule in a system and release just the ones he wants, there by violating the Second Law by decreasing the entropy of a system.

While this may sound like esoteric physics, it actually explains why we can’t predict the future. As time increases, the universe will always become more disordered. If the arrow of time was symmetrical, you could predict the future by looking at the past, but the Second Law implies that time is asymmetrical with respect to the amount of order in an isolated system. The only way to violate this is if you have a demon with enough information so that he can control where all of the particles in a system go …

Enter Jonathan Field (our demon of the moment). Jonathan has taken thousands of pins and recreated scenes from the New York Times as well as the favorite paintings of George Bush and Obama. As a visual artist, Field has used the pins so they begin to look like molecules and of course, he is the demon ordering them into a pattern. The patterns, by definition, are not random, but are reflections of the energy of our time. In this case, the political energy.

Because our world is now inundated with people capturing events as they occur, the question arises as to what will be remembered from our time. What is the role of a historian when everything is constantly being recorded, but with no conscious order? The historian is no longer the recorder, holding on to events for future generations. The historian has become the editor, selecting from the chaotic pool of recorded data to form a clear picture.

The historian has become Maxwell’s demon, desperately trying to create order out of disorder, but knowing full well that it is a loosing battle.
And so, Field has resurrected the concept of the history painter. Why should we continue to paint historical events rather than relying on the history recording technology that is now at our disposal? For the same reason that we should continue to write history rather than just allow all of the news reports of our time to represent the cumulative history of our time. It allows history to be more than just data; it becomes knowledge. Field has re-invented history painting so that is relevant for our time. Field places himself in the position of Maxwell’s demon that self-consciously produces images about the flow of information from the present into history. He is an artist, he is an historian and his work questions the role of the artist and the historian all at the same time.

But that’s just my argument about the work, here’s a video of him talking about the work and if you get a chance, go see the work in person:

Jonathan Field, "Maxwell's Demon [ind 011003]", steel pins and rubber on board, 45"x32", 2004

Eugène Delacroix. The Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople. 1840. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France