Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book twelve: The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti.

The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese by Michael Paterniti wants to be a better story than it is. The book is the story of a very particular, hand-crafted cheese created in Guzman, Spain. There's a cave dug into a hill on the edge of town, outfitted with an old door.  Inside, villagers told their best stories and secrets. I wish the stories and secrets of this cheese had been more engaging.

In 2000, the author found himself in this room with Ambrosio Molinos, a Spanish cheese maker who used a family recipe to create Paramo de Guzman, a cheese that is highly-prized the world over.  Ambrosio doesn't last long as a cheese craftsperson.  For a variety of reasons, he gives up his craft, alienates many of his friends and family, and even contributes to the demise of the famed cheese.

This book was written over more than a decade and I think that hindered the focus of the story.  Well that and the fact that the book doesn't end as dramatically as the story would suggest.  It fact it's a bit of a fizzle.  But that's not the reason I didn't much enjoy the book.  Paterniti spends much of the book whining about how hard it is to be a writer.  He prattles on about missing deadline after deadline. He bemoans the fact that he can't seem to pull together a workable draft.  All of that just gets in the way of the more interesting story and characters.

And then there are the footnotes. I'm seldom a fan of footnotes particularly when they don't seem necessary.  And while some of the notes in The Telling Room were interesting, even fun, the vast majority were distractions.

Nonetheless, The Telling Room did make me wish I could travel to Spain for tasting of Paramo de Guzman.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Book eleven: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

The New York art scene, earth/land art and the artists who make it, and my home, the state of Utah all reside high on my list of favorite things. Throw in the fact that I lived in Italy for a couple of years and it's no surprise that I liked Rachel Kushner's latest novel, The Flamethrowers. I might not have realized how much I liked the book because I might not have read it if it weren't for a couple of facts: This is a book about artists and art, my literary theme for 2014; and it appeared on just about every 2013 top ten list that I respect.

The novel tells the story of Reno, a female artist living in the 1970s who has a penchant for speed. An early work finds her filming herself as she races a Moto Valera, an Italian motorbike at breakneck speeds across the Utah Salt Flats. Things don’t go well. But as Reno notes, “I felt [art] had to involve risk, some genuine risk.”

The motorbike is a gift from her older boyfriend, the wealthy Italian, Sandro Valera.  His wealth comes from his family who makes premium tires and motorbikes back in Italy.  Sandro lives in New York and doesn't like his family history so he’s initially disappointed when Reno wants to go to Italy. You can see why Sandro takes issue with his family.  His father Valera has made most of his money by exploiting the Brazilian workers who produced the rubber for the company’s tires.

Ultimately Reno joins the cause of radical protestors that overtook Italy in the seventies. Her affair with Sandro falls apart, and she becomes somewhat disillusioned with life.  In the end she returns to New York.

Reno is a fascinating, darkly funny, and tragic character. Kushner writes her with richness and with a feminist idealism that is just insecure enough to raise questions about women in society that seem right for the time and yet relevant today. In fact, there's a lot in the novel that resonates for both the historical needs of the 70s and today.  With issues of income inequality, worker protests, or the extravagances of the rich, Kushner boldly confronts her readers with an incendiary series of events.  Events that had me thinking about the world as it stands today.

There are long passages in the mid part of this book that are dizzying, and not necessarily in a good way.  Although they may be there to give the book a more realistic sense of the 1970s. But with its sparkling prose, complex characters, and sweeping story, The Flamethrowers is well worth the read.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A celebration of the careful craftsperson.

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial wasn't the only thing I saw during my recent visit to the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD).  There was also a show called Re:Collection curated by "chief curator emeritus", (that's a job title I wouldn't mind having) David Revere McFadden. The exhibit represented McFadden's personal memories from his sixteen years as head of collections and exhibitions at the museum.  What I found interesting about the show is that it frequently felt like items in this show could have been included in the Makers show because of the virtuosity of their construction.  In fact, for my review of the show I want to focus on four stunningly well-crafted objects that dazzle for their technique. And yet they never let technique overpower their emotional punch.

Piper Shepard's Lace Meander looks like crocheted or knotted lace.  But in reality, it is all hand cut gessoed muslin. There are no repeated patterns in the entire work which took the artist one year to complete. It's lovely.

Piper Shepard, Lace Meander (2006, muslin, gesso, graphite, aluminum)
Detail: Piper Shepard, Lace Meander (2006, muslin, gesso, graphite, aluminum)

Stefan Dam's collection of glass jelly fish are mesmerizing. Their ability to fool the eye is uncanny, creating watery specimens that feel like they belong in an aquarium, except for the fact that they are frozen in time surrounded by silent bubbles.
Stefan Dam, Marine Group (2008, glass; hot worked)

One of the most emotionally powerful pieces in the show is Terese Agnew's Portrait of a Textile Worker which is a large, quilt-like image that is made from tens of thousands of re-purposed and transformed labels from designer clothing. The labels recreate a dramatic black and white photo supplied to the artist by the National Labor Committee. It shows an anonymous textile worker in a factory in Bangladesh. The artist commented, "The larger purpose of the work is to make the unseen or hidden visible--to make it possible to connect the seams in our clothes with an image of one face, an identity."
Terese Agnew, Portrait of a Textile Worker (2005, clothing labels, thread, and fabric backing)

Detail: Terese Agnew, Portrait of a Textile Worker (2005, clothing labels, thread, and fabric backing)

Even more surprising than Agnew's tag portrait is Todd Pavlisko's portrait of Richard Pryor. Pavlisko works in a wide variety of mediums that bridge two- and three-dimensionality. For this portrait he repurposed tens of thousands of plastic retail tag connectors.  The wall label quoted the artist, "I wanted to make an empowering portrait of Pryor that conceptually speaks about consumption. The retail tag underscores this gesture and forces my audience to 'consume' Richard Pryor. They also allow me to play with CMYK mapping, color theory, and printing processes used by marketing companies . . . to sell an image - another gesture of consuming."

Todd Pavlisko, Untitled, Richard Pryor (2011, retail tag fasteners, canvas)
Thanks Mr. McFadden for presenting a jaw-dropping show.

Instagrams from this museum visit:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Art-world trend watch: Could this be the end of the wall labels?

Program from NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial
Let me start by saying that one of the things I like most about museums is the thoroughness of curators when it comes to labeling the art on view.  Commercial galleries frequently don’t label works by leading artists.  Instead, you have to ask for “The Book.”  Even a fearless art fan like myself is sometimes too intimidated by some of the more lofty galleries.  Plus, as someone who likes to take pictures of the art I see and write about it later, snapping a quick picture of the wall label means you have valuable information that can be used when posting photos later on.

So imagine my concern when I arrived at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) to see NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial and there were no wall labels! Instead we were given “programs,” as if the museum’s jealously of all those Broadway Playbills had just become too much to take. I still would have preferred wall labels, but I was willing to try out this new idea of a museum program.  Unfortunately the diagrams in said program were quite confusing and some of the listings were obviously blatantly wrong.  It made for a fairly confusing experience.

A confusing diagram from the MAD program.
One woman with a classic New York accent was so flummoxed she confronted the gallery attendant and pleaded for help.  The gallery attendant was startlingly clueless.  After loudly complaining to her friend, she approached me saying, “You seem to know what you’re doing.”  I showed her how the diagrams worked and helped her figure out where she was in the exhibit and after thanking me, she wandered off, stepped up on a low platform holding a bass drum turned into art and began tapping on it. This got the gallery attendant’s attention, who scrambled to remind the woman not to touch the art.

I left MAD not particularly concerned about this development.  But just a few days later I wandered into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and headed for the exhibit Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963 – 2010.  And guess what? No wall labels! Instead there were pedestals filled with “programs.”

Program fro MoMA
Both the MAD and MoMA programs shared some similarities: printed with black ink only on cheap, newsprint-like paper; approximately the same size, similar to a Parade magazine; filled with diagrams of all the galleries with numbers that corresponded to the art listings.  Where they differed is in user-friendliness.  The MoMA program was much clearer and easier to follow.

If all this isn’t alarming enough, just a few days ago, I was making my daily review of stories on Bloun Artinfo and came across this story.  In it, Scott Indrisek talks about attending the press day for MoMA’s upcoming Christopher Williams show, The Production Line of Happiness.  According to Indrisek, “. . . for some critics in attendance, the truly hot-button issue seemed to be the exhibition’s lack of wall labels.”  At this point, one can only wonder if this rampant use of “programs” at museums might somehow signal the end of the wall label.

A charming detail from the MoMA program.
Now I’ll admit that for the Sigmar Polke exhibit, not having wall labels made for a more visually appealing experience.  Polke’s work is experimental and varies widely in style and mediums.  Eliminating the wall cards helped simplify a somewhat  chaotic affair. And while I couldn’t snap pictures of wall labels at either of the shows, I did walk away with a complete list of every work in each show. Plus the program included more information than you might get on wall labels. That was nice when I was writing about the exhibits later. 

But don’t think I’m supporting this new trend. I like my wall labels.  And so I beseech art fans everywhere, join the cause.  “Wall Labels for the People!”

Friday, July 25, 2014

The maker movement goes to the museum.

With the rise of more affordable and personalized production technologies like 3D printers, “maker” culture has come into its own.  “maker” culture has embraced technology to allow tinkerers the country over to create new things that surprise, delight, and frequently solve some formidable challenges.  But it isn’t just about the new technologies.  Many “makers” are using new tools to do surprising things with more traditional crafts traditions.

That cultural momentum is one of the reasons I was intrigued by the current biennial at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD). Titled NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial, the exhibition attempts to examine “cultures of making in urban communities.” The show features more than 100 participants and “celebrates the artisans, artists, designers, and other makers who live and work throughout the five boroughs of New York City.” And while many of the items featured in the show demonstrate innovative uses of technology, others reflect innovative ways to use more traditional mediums.

Take the luscious terrariums of Paula Hayes.  (A while back Hayes had an even more dramatic installation at MoMA.) Here she returns to her undulating forms that are erotic and brimming with life. 

Paula Hayes, three iterations of Giant Terrarium
(2008 - 09, hand-blown glass and custom plantings)

Anyone who's visited my home knows that I'm an avid collector of souvenir buildings. I've got a veritable global cityscape.  So I was very interested in Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym’s exploration of the souvenir.  Here they gathered together their series of experimental souvenirs.  Three series were represented, Eighteen Buildings from Buildings of Disaster, (1998 – 2010, bonded metal), Altars of Utopia (2014, mixed media), and Eighteen Buildings from Missing Monuments (1997 – 99, composite bronze.)

I’m intrigued by the concept behind these buildings which include, “miniature versions of famous structures that have been destroyed, visionary architecture projects that have not yet been built, mementos of famous places where tragic events occurred, and a new series that manifests unfulfilled architectural utopian dreams.”  In fact, I;m considering ordering the most recent souvenir in their Buildings of Disasters Redux, Osama Bin Laden House, Obbottabad, Pakistan, May 2, 2011 (2014, bonded metal).

Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym, Eighteen Buildings
(from Buildings of Disaster and Missing Monuments)  and Altars of Utopia
Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym, Eighteen Buildings
(from Buildings of Disaster and Missing Monuments)  and Altars of Utopia

Dan Funderburgh and Flavor Paper brought a sense of subversive humor to the show with Vigilant Floral (2011, mylar wallpaper). The wallpaper felt particularly timely considering recent reports of surveillance raging out of control.  Here surveillance cameras are intertwined with more traditional floral wallpaper patterns, as if big brother is hoping to soften his image.

Flavor Paper and Dan Funderburgh, Vigilant Floral (2011, mylar wallpaper)

Flavor Paper and Dan Funderburgh, Vigilant Floral (2011, mylar wallpaper)

One whole gallery in the show was dedicated to Stepin One 2 by Rafael de Cardenas and Architecture at Large. They created a club-like space that was something of a mashup between a fern bar and a rave.   Complete with clubby beats, the room was designed as an homage “to the evolution of the spirit and aesthetic of New York City nightlife into present day dance culture.”

Rafael de Cardenas/Architecture at Larget, Stepin One 2 (2014, laminated MDF, pointed MDF, reflective Mylar, acrylic, artificial succulents, artificial monstera delicioso, artificial moss, carpet, and LED lights)

Rafael de Cardenas/Architecture at Larget, Stepin One 2 (2014, laminated MDF, pointed MDF, reflective Mylar, acrylic, artificial succulents, artificial monstera delicioso, artificial moss, carpet, and LED lights)

Neon makers were represented by Let There Be Neon, a New York City business obviously working in neon.  I was particularly fond of this 3D neon chair, although many more examples were included in the show.  I don’t know what it is about neon, but it always delights.

Let There Be Neon, 3D Chair (ca. 1977, Neon)

From the more technical end of the spectrum was The Depthkit presented by someone or something called Specular.  This is open-source software and hardware that allows you to augment video with 3D data.  Here, you could interact with the system which cast lacy, sci-fi infused images onto the wall.  The images were a little wonky at times. I have a feeling this is just the beginning of where interactive 3D video will take us in the future.

Specular, The DepthKit (2014, camera, mount, sensor, and software)

Not being a brass player, I was not aware of Brasslab and that it is one of America’s leading repair shops for brass instruments. For the MAD show Chuck McAlexander took a cheap trumpet and using his expertise transformed it into an instrument of high quality.

Chuck McAlexander/The Brasslab, Custom-Altered Trumpet (2014, brass)

If you like owls (and who doesn’t), you’ll enjoy a trio of objects created by a trio of practitioners.  Owls’ Ear Trap is a set of three speakers that are designed to use everyday objects in innovative ways.  It was created by artist/composer Sergei Tcherepnin, pianist Aki Takahashi, and artist Ei Arakawa.

Ei Arakawa x Sergei Tcherepnin x Aki Takahashi, Owls' Ear Trap (2013, vintage clocks, copper, injet print)

Ei Arakawa x Sergei Tcherepnin x Aki Takahashi, Owls' Ear Trap (2013, vintage clocks, copper, injet print)

Ei Arakawa x Sergei Tcherepnin x Aki Takahashi, Owls' Ear Trap (2013, vintage clocks, copper, injet print)

NYC Makers: The MAD Biennial features many other artists and craftspeople from set/costume designers to people who create custom cases for the transportation of the world’s most expensive art.  While I enjoyed this show, it wasn’t as impressive as some of the other exhibits I’ve experience at MAD.  The collection of items was sometimes too random and strange.  And the presentation often felt sloppy, with objects resting on what appeared to be plinths hastily draped with fabric. Even the guide was confusing. That said, I love the concept behind the exhibit and I hope MAD continues to celebrate makers.

Instagram from this visit: