On Looking

In my day-to-day job, I find myself thinking a lot about how others see art. I spend time in the galleries with visitors; at my desk formulating programs that will connect with people and ask them to engage in new ways; or working on accessibility initiatives to consider those who we are not reaching effectively. I am often reminded of the importance of art viewing as not only a comfort, but a challenge, a wonder, or – sometimes – even a chore. At this particular moment, with many individuals home-bound during the COVID19 global pandemic, the experience of art viewing has been on my mind even more. What does it mean to connect to an artwork? I have been thinking about how I will recognize my privilege of getting to be with the art – how will I experience it, when I am allowed to next?

Throughout my time interning and working at museums, I have had the repeated pleasure of witnessing the processing of looking in those around me. As a student educator at the Smith Museum of Art, I designed and led tours for K-12 school groups. On a regular basis, I was awe-struck by the students. On some days they were so wiggly we used our bodies as a kind of tuning-fork – trying to match the artwork by stretching out our arms or legs. On other days the children seemed to access deep wisdom: I will never forget the experience of a 4th grade class debating the landscape status of an Ed Ruscha print. The eyes of a child, it seems, have not yet been clouded, they are not yet worried to be wrong. 

My grandfather has Alzheimer’s. His mind works in other mysterious ways. Across the country institutions are hosting programs for individuals with the disease, hoping that the art will tap into some deeper brain frequency, and allow participants to find comfort. There are foggy days and moments of clarity. It seems that each time I go back home to visit he is another step removed. I think of a Carrie Yamaoka work that was once on view at ICA called “crawl/ stretch 2”: a sheet of black reflective vinyl covered in resin, that looked like raindrops on a window at night time.

What does it mean to experience art without all of your senses – to watch a video without being able to hear the artist’s voice, or to touch a material without being able to see the full object? Rather than thinking of this as some incomplete experience, can it be resituated as a different kind of interaction? I think so – like closing your eyes during a meditation. 

I am a proponent of a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), which uses open-ended questions to foster collaborative conversation, and encourages participants to come to their own personalized interpretations of art objects. This epistemology creates space for unique backgrounds and experiences to build meaning individually and jointly, rather than asking for tombstone information (artist’s name, object title, year, intent) to be the foregrounded experience. I believe that this makes people feel welcome in front of an object, to be part of the work, rather than a passive onlooker. I wonder, though, about the value of not just slow looking, but also re-looking. What would those 4th graders say about the Ruscha on another visit on another day or in another decade?

I have the pleasure of looking at works over and over, using my Monday eyes or my Friday eyes, or revisiting a show in September or in December. I have the privilege of reassessing. Each time I visit an object I get to re-learn that process of looking, by responding with my new experiences, and being guided by what the object asks of me on any given day. Today, where does it want you to look first? What if you are the height of a 4th grader? What if you can’t hear the voice? Like each new visit to my grandfather, I approach the artwork with my memory of it, and have to build from there – what did I mistake last time? Why does it look so inarticulate today? What might I see that I missed before?

I have been thinking about my duty to look and look more closely, then return to look again. On same days, it feels like a game, on others an uphill climb to give an object my full attention. Now, sitting on my couch, working from home, unable to meet the public and try to experience alongside them, I face a new challenge of learning to look, and realize that the key is not the looking – the intense stare at an object – but the seeing, the presence of the artwork, the experience of being in a space with it. I look forward to the return, to re-learning my looking, as soon as I can. 

Bewilderment, Unprepared: “Born, Never Asked”

As you ascend the stairs of Metro Pictures, the tangerine walls reflect on the glossy white gallery floors and bounce into your eyes. At the top of the stairs, an odd image of a green hairy monster embracing (or restraining) and fingering an orange woman welcomes you to the exhibition. The image makes you do a double take – what is happening here? – and sets the tone for the show.

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In Thy Tender Care, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 21 by 29 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

Violence. At first there is whimsy – playful, cartoon-like watercolor and ink images in pastel tones; flowing lines that at a glance seem fitting of a children’s book.

Whimsy. On closer inspection the forms are grotesque and the cheerful lines are violent: hands and mouths on unsatisfied erections, distorted animals and women, twisted familial and romantic relationships, blood smear-splatters as in afterbirth or menstruation or pain.

The show is possessive, primal, impulsive. Romance is reduced to strange intimate encounters, portrayed as if in a dream (or perhaps a nightmare). The delicacy and almost-minimalism of the images remains figurative and graphically narrative, clear but confusing.

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Nothing to Wear to Work 2, 2015. Watercolor on paper mounted to dibond, 29 by 21 inches. Image: Metro Pictures, NYC.

The sex acts – entering and exiting of mingling forms – feel invasive rather than loving as heads are pushed to the side and limbs splay out, and yet there remains a careful curiosity within the images that intrigues and almost endears. Consent seems almost forgotten, and yet none of the molten figures appears to feel out of control – there is a balance in the lustful vulnerability. Born, Never Asked: is this about the result or the act of creation?

Turning from wall to wall, you are unsure how to feel, and you embrace the multiplicity and ambiguity – these orange womb-like walls have you tucked in, surrounded by images that are buoyant at first sight, but leave a heavy pull at the back of your mind as you turn to the next one. Color, line, and order – each of the systems by which humans organize and orient themselves – are all unsettled and re-mixed in an offbeat phantasmagoria.

You look down, and find that your hands have taken on an unfamiliar hue as the walls project themselves onto you.

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Born, Never Asked installation view, 2018. Image courtesy of Metro Pictures, New York.

Camille Henrot, Born, Never Asked, is at Metro Pictures ( 519 W. 24th St., NYC) through June 9, 2018

 

Magnetic Fields

Magnetic FieldsMildred Thompson 1990, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 150” (triptych)

Magnet: something which can repel or attract. An object which enacts a force. Gravity, pull, push. Order. Field: openness, nature, space. Breath.

Magnetic Fields: tension.

The title object for Magnetic Fields, a large painting by Mildred Thomas, is unabashed. Color and energy force viewing. Look! Look at me! I am red and yellow and sunlight and confetti. I am energy trapped in a medium that will never truly dry. I am heat. Attracting. Come closer – feel it? Look into my vortex and see how light looks to its source. This is a brilliant blanket, hung on a wall, wrapping you up.

Color to color. Red becomes purple. A tornado of dashes becomes a performance on canvas. Graffiti has peeled itself off walls and run away. Movement upon movement – brushstrokes meet squiggles meet loops meet drips that would impress Jack the Dripper himself. Despite the chaos and the frothing noise of the painting – the composition threatening to whirl itself into oblivion (attracting, repelling) – there is an undoubtedly elegant element to the work of art.

Whirlwind Dancer, Shinique Smith, 2014-2017, Acrylic, ink, fabric, and collage on canvas over wood panel, 96 x 96 x 3″ (diptych)

This is what it would look like to give a paint bucket to a ballerina in full costume, and let the paint and the tutu and makeup and the hair accessories and all of the love work itself up into a twirl and a launch and a landing, all with haphazard grace. The canvas can always be trusted to lift and catch its partner.

Pointed and pressured toes lead to feet on fire. Then not a fire, but only whispering embers. Near by a canvas sputters and steams. A bucket of water has been thrown on a neon fire. Multicolored sparks ignore gravity, repelling, and escape into the breath of the viewer, attracting. Ash and light and time are suspended as the paint bleeds and blossoms. Here we have the the definitive record of a dying gasp – systematic and explosive all at once. Study it.

Are you attracted or repelled?

YARDGUARD, Brenna Youngblood, 2015, Mixed media on canvas, 72 × 60″

Downstairs, beneath the push and pull and color of Magnetic Fields, Fanny Sanín’s geometric abstractions are so clean and sharp that you could cut yourself on them.

 

“Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction 1960s to Today” is on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC until January 21, 2018.

Color, Light, and Clouds: The Art of Thomas Wilfred

Here light is the artist’s sole medium of expression.

He must mould it by optical means,

almost as a sculpture models clay.

He must add color, and finally motion to his creation. 

Motion, the time dimension, demands that he must

be a choreographer in space. 

~Thomas Wilfred

How do you play light? How do you change noise, which is not-matter, into light, which is not-matter, and come away with an experience, which certainly matters?

In the charcoal grey, cave-like gallery space, ghostly, glowing forms draw you toward them. How can a form without mass have such gravity?

Part lava lamp, part screen saver, part soul trapped in a simple frame – the screens are opuses. This one, Counterpoint in Space, Op. 146 is an eternal smokey vapor trapped in a box. It ‘s like watching a sunrise through a puff of vape smoke: sweet and ghostly and just a little off-putting if you get too close. It is an always-shifting, rose-green, meditative viewing experience.

Throughout the exhibition there is a contrast of weightless, noiseless, changing color-forms, with the heavy wooden boxes that ground them, frame them, and ultimately allow them to exist. Here, a cage is a life source.

Track the light, follow the smoke. This is the world of a busy, multitasking mind – a dream-place built by a conductor of light. This is proof that light can be bent and moved and taught to behave, though it remains unburdened by its task.

At first glance there is stillness, then a gentle, bleeding, lazily drifting spread of brightness.

Wilfred believed that imagination was a concept, and that reality was the physical equipment which made it possible. The artist’s role is to make people believe that what they see on screen is actually a window; that the world of light and color and emotion and form captured in brief is all around us.

It’s all about laying back and finding shapes in the clouds.

 

Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC until January 7, 2018.

Making Connections

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Light string by Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea

Art is about connection. Connecting ideas and stories and people and more art. These connections can happen serendipitously.

For example, at the Whitney Biennial – among all of the clamor over VR violence and questionable portraiture – stood a quiet alcove. Across from the gaping mouth of Anicka Yi’s video room was a classic white box gallery space containing six brightly colored canvases. These paintings by Shara Hughes were vibrant, abstract, and full of life. They made me stop and sit for a moment on a bench in the center of the space. I paused. The next day, I stumbled across another Shara Hughes show at Rachel Uffiner Gallery in the Lower East Side. Engagement, then a second, unexpected opportunity.

Visual art is, of course, associated with the eyes. But it can connect to all of the senses.

Sound was also featured in the Biennial, in various ways. There was the awful sound of skull on concrete in Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence , on the other hand there was the calm voice of the narrator in Anicka Yi’s The Taste Genome. Plus the glorious hum of museum goers, quietly discussing, debating, dissecting.

Taste. Following the Biennial, I went to David Zwirner, where a new Felix Gonzalez-Torres show was up after the recent change in representation. It is undoubtedly the best gallery show I have ever experienced. Experienced – not seen – because I did not simply exist in the space, I participated. I bent down and plucked a sweet, minty candy from the pile of Ross in the corner of the upstairs gallery space. It was hard and real on my tongue. Substance from substance.

And touch. In that same show I walked through a curtain of beads. I heard them click against each other and I felt their weight shift around me and over me as my body disrupted the solid but shifting barrier. There were blue curtains, too. Light and thin and airy, they covered the windows in a long room upstairs. I could imagine them flowing in the breeze if the windows were open. I could imagine the fabric – smooth on my fingers.

My pen was blue, too, that day as I wrote what I saw. I touched it. I felt it.

Smell is tricky. I wasn’t knocked out by Pope L.’s bologna at the Biennial – it was disappointing, in a way. But today I spent all my time among art and people that love it. Young museum professionals, as we connected in museums. Together we looked, and then we smelled through time – experiencing Ancient Rome through six bottles (like Hughes’s six paintings those few weeks ago) containing ghosts – from flowers to fish sauce. Along the way we talked and listened, too.  We touched – with a handshake our connections expanded. All of our senses worked today.

Feeling needs to be distinguished too. It is different from touch. Feeling is the most important sense in connecting with visual art. Maybe feeling is a well-placed bit of dismembered metal on a wall – a Trigger, left by Puppies Puppies as subtly as a landmine. Or maybe it’s those curtains – beads and fabric – blue and blue. Maybe it’s the way color can get wrapped up with a person, so blue becomes love. Maybe it’s taking that moment on that bench in the center of that white room broken by Shara Hughes’s fantasy environments.

Art is about more than eyes. Eyes are a part of a larger body – your larger body. And it is made of so many connections.

 

Shara Hughes “Same Space Different Day” at Rachel Uffiner runs until June 25, 2017.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner runs until July 14, 2017.