My favorite class in undergrad was a Northern Renaissance art class. It was taught by Dr. Scott Montgomery. Scott had long grey hair and wore Birkenstocks, which he would kick off to the side of the podium before class started each day. For the rest of the class he would alternately jump, glide, shout and whisper in front of the class in his bare feet. He was deeply in love with Northern painting. He knew it inside and out, and because of his enthusiasm, his populist approach to teaching and his sheer entertainment value, he awakened in me a similar love. I wish I could say that the CORE 2008 Artists in Residence Exhibition at the Glassell School of Art was a little more like Scott Montgomery and a little less like Floyd Patterson, the pastor of my parents’ Pentecostal church. Most of the artists in this year’s show find themselves situated behind a pulpit and instead of communicating with us, they seem to be teaching us. Teaching is fine, if you’re Scott Montgomery. Unfortunately, when I left the show, I felt a lot like I did when I was ten years old and had just spent three hours of a beautiful Arizona Sunday morning in the Flagstaff Tabernacle listening to Floyd Patterson.
The most successful piece in the show is Lauren Kelley‘s stop-motion animation video, Get the Bones For ’88 Jones Because She Also Eats Meat. Projected large in a darkened room in a traditional cinema style, Kelley’s video, set in Los Angeles, tells the story of a timid woman named Hazel with two cats who meets a hot guy who turns out to be a giant asshole. The animation is achieved using Barbie-like dolls of black men and women, photographing them, moving them and photographing them again Ray Harryhausen-style. Stop-motion worked for special-effects guru Harryhausen in films like Jason and the Argonauts and it works for Kelley here.
But the real success in Kelley’s video lies in her attention to detail and the fact that she seems to speak from experiences we can all connect with. Hazel is a librarian who meets a player in a black, fur-collared jacket (his likeness to a vulture is not accidental). He spies her installing an exhibition of Charlie Parker memorabilia in the library, lays a little “Bird” knowledge on her and through some smooth talking and easy manipulation gets her in bed. The off-kilter juxtaposition of a smooth-talking “producer,” supposedly deeply involved in the recording industry, meeting Hazel in the library seems both funny and true. I can only imagine what the Los Angeles County Public Library looks like in the middle of the day. Kelley’s success at achieving facial expressions (Hazel often peers skeptically over the frames of her horned-rim glasses) with completely immovable plastic faces and her commitment to an extremely labor-intensive process to achieve an ultimately simple and human story makes her video interesting, complex and accessible.
The most interesting storytelling device that Kelley uses in the film is to begin the story at the end, showing the player getting tired of Hazel and blowing her off at the start of the film. Hazel calls and calls and gets nothing but put-offs. The next day at the library she spies her man hitting on Jackie, the new girl. The player, whose name I think was Eddie but couldn’t really catch through the fuzzy speakers, has a vulture (literally) alter- ego, the head of which, I am convinced, is Tommy Davidson. I already thought the figure of the player looked like a carrion bird but the vulture, while funny, seemed too literal; the reference was more interesting when it was ambiguous. Kelley’s cinematic video hits almost all the right marks telling a small, sad and honest story that entertains us while revealing a wealth of cultural detail.
If Kelley’s video resonated with me and seemed warmly honest, Sergio Torres-Torres’ large drawings on paper of poodles discussing simplistic political theories of revolution left me freezing cold. Torres-Torres’ drawings depict two poodles, drawn in a half-assed Raymond Pettibonstyle having conversations via speech bubbles. The speech bubbles contain phrases like, “How does a revolutionary moment look?” and “A lot of people think it looks like the 60s.” Superimposed over the poodles in loosely-stenciled text are messages (presumably from the artist or God or whoever) such as, “These characters will not perform an act of revolt and you, dear reader, may be left wishing to see revolution represented here.” Well, fuck me.
I like to think that most “readers” and “viewers” can’t stand being addressed as “dear reader/viewer.” All of the drawings (and Torres-Torres is very well represented) are some variation of this model with the poodles bantering idealistically about the nature of revolution and the stenciled voice of the artist scolding the viewer for even bothering to think that she might find the seeds of political revolution in something as trivial as a work of art. Most of the people I know have never really believed that art was a vehicle through which political change finds itself affected. I imagine a revolutionary moment probably looks a lot like the chaotic mess at the Heights Square Dance Center where I caucused on March 4. Torres-Torres tells us over and over again what isn’t possible without ever bothering to offer us an idea about what might be possible.
While it was painfully easy for me to discount the nonsense that Torres-Torres presented, William Cordova’s work was much more difficult to come to terms with. Cordova works with found objects that for him bear cultural significance, which he then reconfigures into minimalist sculptures and drawings. The most telling example of his work in the show is a found-object sculpture titled, Untitled (oradores, oradores, oradores). Oradore means, according to Webster’s Spanish-English Dictionary, “speaker or orator.” The work is a stack of “vintage newspapers dated 12/4/69.” Atop the stack of papers are “4 Peruvian gourds.” The newspapers are bound together and are high enough that we are unable to make out any imagery on the cover or content in the pages.
My experience of this piece in the gallery was very different from my experience after I got home and used the Internet to decipher some of the content of the work. In the gallery, the artist who immediately sprang to mind when looking at Cordova’s stack was Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Like Gonzalez-Torres, Cordova creates minimalist sculptures from culturally-loaded, ephemeral objects. Unlike Gonzales-Torres, who took his personal cultural corner of the world and turned it into a meditation on more or less universal subjects like death and love, Cordova, in this piece, gives us only a few scraps of cryptic information. Where Gonzalez-Torres convincingly wove his life into the minimalist object, allowing it to stand for more than just itself, Cordova’s appropriation of minimalism seems half-hearted and opportunistic. If Gonzalez-Torres seemed to love minimalism like a child, wanting a better life for it, Cordova seems to view it solely as the art of dead white males.
Because I’m writing this review, and only because of that, when I got home I researched the clues Cordova provided in the list of materials in his title card. I gathered from Wikipedia (a prime example of the revolution at work) that 12/4/69 was the date that Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panthers were murdered in their sleep by the FBI and the Chicago police. Following up on the clue that the gourds in the piece were Peruvian, I Googled Peru. I learned that, like a lot of other formerly colonial countries, it has been consistently in upheaval, upended by revolt after revolt for decades. The parallel themes of Peruvian revolt and Black Power insurgency become clear but remain only as compelling as a History Channel documentary, because Cordova’s object itself is selfish and mute. I remember when I first discovered Gerhard Richter’s series of paintings titled October 18, 1977 about the members of the Baader-Meinhof group, I was so blown away by them as objects, as paintings, that the first thing I did was figure out what they were about. Nothing in Cordova’s objects compels me to delve more deeply into their meaning; I remain unmoved by the work because it desires not to communicate with me but to orate at me.
If Cordova likes to make his audience work for their supper, Andres Janacua just wants you to work and work and go to bed hungry. Janacua is represented most prominently by a video projection set on the floor with yet another fuzzy Glassell speaker. The video, titled a,e,i,o,u, and sometimes y depicts a middle-aged man and a woman alone together in a room. They begin to have a discussion, gradually becoming more and more agitated with one another. The camera jumps erratically, zooming in for extreme close-ups of the actors’ clothes, hands, etc. At one point the woman hands the man a letter that seems to make things much worse. At certain points throughout the video, the actors are deliberately muted and at other times they speak in what I first thought was German, then decided was French (all the while confused because the speaker sucked so badly) but ultimately came to believe was a manipulated, indecipherable language.
I watched it three times and found it exponentially less interesting with each viewing. I finally decided that Janacua had removed all the vowels from the actors’ voices and that was just a wild assumption based on my confusion and the title of the piece. Vernon Fisher, another of my teachers in undergrad, once told me that if you make a piece with lights on it, you are competing with every other thing in the world that has lights on it. You’re suddenly in direct competition with the Eiffel Tower, fireflies and the 4th of July. Whenever I see a video in a gallery I remember this, and that video is instantly in competition with Carl Theodor Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock and Werner Herzog. The gallery videos almost always fail miserably.
To the right of the video installation, a wrinkled piece of aluminum foil was tacked to the wall with barely discernable letters embossed in the center. I stared at the foil for ten minutes trying to make out the words. I made out the first one, “social,” but couldn’t decipher the other line. I asked one of the guards if he could read it.
He put his glasses on the tip of his nose tilted his head back, looked at it for awhile and finally, embarrassed, said, “no, maybe the artist knows what it says. A guy like me, I don’t know.” Undeterred, I asked the incredibly nice lady with the dreads who works the desk at the Glassell if she knew what the piece of aluminum foil read.
“No honey, I haven’t looked at it. That one’s too tall for me, too high up on the wall.” I asked her over to the piece anyway and after she put her glasses on the tip of her nose, tilted her head back and stared at it for a while, she said “social seduction.”
What a manipulative, snotty little piece of art. Placed just a little too high on the wall, the text virtually unreadable, Janacua puts his viewer through a series of humiliations all of which cumulates with text that basically says “you’ve been punk’d!” Jamacua had in me the ideal viewer; I made a lot of effort to understand his piece where most viewers would have walked quickly by and all I really came away with was the trite admonition that seductive social projects like Jon Bon Jovi, American Idol, and fascism may look shiny but they’re really as cheap as a piece of aluminum foil. Indeed, but I would have much rather spent the fifteen minutes I devoted to Janacua’s piece of foil listening to Livin’ on a Prayer on repeat.
Kara Hearn’s video Things That Are Sometimes True. 12 People Try To Make Themselves Cry presents an altogether different and entirely more interesting problem than Janacua’s film. In her video, Hearn has asked twelve different people to sit in front of her camera and take as long as they need to make themselves cry. Last year, the graphic designer, artist and video director Mike Mills directed a video for the band Blonde Redhead for the song The Dress from their new album 23, in which about half a dozen people sit alone facing the camera and over the course of the song’s three minutes or so make themselves cry.
Sherrie Levine aside, Hearn’s video made me a little squirmy in its remarkable similarity to the Mills video. I know, I know, it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. Anyway. The real problem I had was one of questioning the artist’s moral responsibility (I can’t believe I just wrote “moral responsibility”). Real crying is such a powerful, private act that I couldn’t help but feel angry with Hearn for exploiting it. I found myself sad when certain people fell apart in front of the camera and self-satisfied when others couldn’t cry. It felt as if those who couldn’t cry were defeating Hearn’s project, exposing it as some kind of ploy, their dry eyes telling the viewer, “I’m not going to cry for this, it’s not worth it.” Those who did cry I felt did so in spite of Hearn, going to a place where she didn’t have a right to film.
I didn’t watch all twelve people, but if Hearn herself is one of the participants I think I would feel a little differently about the project. In a piece like this, I think that for the artist to own it she should be subject to the same scrutiny, ridicule or pity that the rest of the players are. Because the participants are all willing, they naturally bear responsibility for their roles, but it doesn’t make the exploitative nature of the premise any more palatable. This is a tough call because I spend a lot of my time exposing my own personal life in my drawings and that often includes my friends and family. So far I’ve justified it by believing that I am always there with them, just as exposed as they are.
Growing up in a restrictive religious environment can make people acutely aware of when someone is talking down to them or telling them what they should or shouldn’t do, should or shouldn’t know. It was pretty early on when I figured out that Floyd Patterson was bullshitting his congregation from behind his pulpit. And it was also early on that I realized that my parents were there in that church every Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, and Wednesday night because they truly believed in their God. As devout Pentecostals, they were willing to sift through Floyd Patterson’s nonsense (and they knew some of it was nonsense) to get to that one piece of truth or inspiration or doctrine that might get them through the week and safely back into church that next Sunday morning. Going to art exhibitions once a month isn’t much different and so I keep coming back, believing that I’ll find something special that will get me to the next month.
Michael Bise is an artist and writer living in Houston.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs by Michael Bise.
also by Michael Bise
- Why Social-Practice Art Drives Me Nuts: Pablo Helguera at DiverseWorks - October 10th, 2016
- Picasso The Line at the Menil Collection - October 3rd, 2016
- An Activist Writer Gets Gentrification Wrong - September 18th, 2016
- Susie Rosmarin at The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston - September 5th, 2016
- Amy Blakemore at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston - August 29th, 2016