Two and ‘fro

Like anything else, very good or great exhibitions are far and few between.  Like everything else, you have to sift through the crap for the jewels.  So to have two jewels in Houston concurrently is rather nice.  Usually the must-sees are staggered throughout any given year.  Unfortunately, one of the must-miss shows is also on view at the same time and same place as one of these jewels.  In hierarchical order of quality, here they be:

1.  Superb – Every Sound You Can Imagine at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
2.  Great – American Civil War Field Notes: Sketches From Cairo to Columbia at O’Kane Gallery, University of Houston Downtown
3.  God-awful – Cinema Remixed & Reloaded: Black Women Artists and the Moving Image since 1970 at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Avoid like the plague the video show at CAM. I tried to but couldn’t. Or didn’t. Should’ve. 

In the upstairs gallery [1] the bottom rail on top but that’s a mistake. I was on my way out of the show in the downstairs gallery [2] and was about to leave and then out of some guilty sense of obligation I went ahead and took a peep (which is the correct term for describing how to view this show.  More on that in a minute…). When any show’s subtitle contains stuff like "works by black artists" or "gay artists" or "blind artists" or "anything but just plain artists" you know you’re in trouble.  Why on earth does this show have the criterion that all the participants are black women? What a completely stupid loser idea. As far as I’m concerned, anyone who would align themselves like this or agree to have their work in a show with a subtitle like this is either really desperate or really awful or really stupid or some combination of the three.  Don’t believe me? How about this for a title/show idea? – "Swish or Sweet:  Gay Artists of New York in the Early ’60′s." The dumbass curator for that limp-lame idea would include Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, etc. See what I mean? Pretty goddamn stupid, no? And do you think any of those guys would allow their work in such a show with such a title with such a criterion? You’d goddamn better believe they sure as shit would not. Curators who do dumb shit like this deserve a good swift kick in the ass and a hearty, "Wake the fuck up, Silver!"[3]  Check out the image that was selected to advertise this show: 

If that image doesn’t scream, "Can’t miss this!" I don’t know what does.

And if this weren’t bad enough, much of the show is designed like a peep show. Viewers may go from black room to black room (I kid you not) to peep in voyeuristically at various offerings. If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll arrive at Kara Walker’s room at the exact moment of the shadow puppet simulated cumshot (Milk? Gesso?). At least her stuff looks like it belongs in this format.   Almost all the videos are yawners too. Adrian Piper is quickly rocketing up on my list of all time crummy loser artists. Philosopher my ass.

I just can’t stand to write another word about this show.  It gives me the creeps in so many ways. 

My advice would be to close your eyes and ears and have one of the museum guards take you by the hand and guide you to the downstairs show Every Sound You Can Imagine.  It’s a lousy title but with the stuff that’s here, who cares?  This one could be classified as one of the must-see shows in Houston of the last few years.  The reason for this is that it contains some of the all time great pieces.  Not just music score pieces, all time great pieces of any form.  For me, seeing the score for Fontana Mix or 4’33" (the famous so-called "silence piece") is like viewing the Declaration of Independence.  I get chills.  For chrissake, 4’33" is one of the greatest pieces of all time.  Top five, hands down, no argument.  So many of the ideas behind late twentieth century art would never have happened without this piece.  (Okay, so they may have eventually happened, but it would have taken about 50 years longer to get there.)  Why there’s not a crowd of admirers lining up like they do in front of the fake Mona Lisa in the Louvre to see this show is baffling to me. 

Problematically, these two pieces, Fontana Mix and 4’33", are grouped carelessly along with almost two dozen other works along the back (west) wall of the space.  It’s a horrible installation and does nothing to indicate their importance.  And there’s one big title card for these and all the other works in this arrangement.  So for the viewer, you have to walk back and forth to confirm the details.  4’33" deserves its own wall and to be seen in its entirety, not as it’s displayed here.

It’s rare to say that every piece in a show deserves careful and patient consideration, but every work in this show deserves careful and patient consideration.  Every one.  And many of the pieces deserve entire essays or books devoted only to themselves.  In lieu of that, I offer some notables, along with brief notes, below:

Herbert Brun – I have a fondness for early experimental computer music works and as such it was a real treat for me to see a score, or in this case, a selection of the score of mutatis mutandis which I first saw reprinted in Computer Music Journal years ago. Fortran algorithims dance in my head.

Dick Higgins – Symphony #186 from his Thousand Symphonies wherein Dick blasted a stack of sheet music with a machine gun is a quintessential Fluxus tour de force indictment of organized music.  Killer.

Alison Knowles – Dick Higgins’ partner in crime is represented by a lovely print/score of onion skin stains.  Another poetic example of Fluxus’ expansive and embracing approach to music.

Steve Reich/Philip Glass – I throw these two in together because the show does and because no matter how much they may fight it, they’re joined at the hip.  Steve Reich, by far the more experimental and talented of the two, is represented by a page from Desert Music, Glass by Einstein on the BeachDesert Music is not Reich’s best, not by a long shot, but it’s fun to see his obsessive notations curiously and quaintly done by hand.  Glass’s relatively gigantic John Hancock on this title page leaves no doubt as to whom the composer is.  Must be a Zen thing.

La Monte Young – This guy is certainly one of the most brilliant and most overlooked artists, proportionately speaking, of the late 20th century.  Several seminal "Composition" scores are presented from his book An Anthology of Chance Operations (edited with Jackson MacLow).  I’m not sure who exactly invented the simple form of typed words on a small white note card as the standard Fluxus musical notation form (perhaps George Brecht?).  Regardless, these pieces are as conceptually grand as they are physically humble.  Included are #10 (for Bob Morris) which instructs "Draw a line and follow it"[4]; #7 which reads "To be held for a long time" is a score for two musical notes, B and F#; and #2 (for David Tudor) instructs "Open the keyboard cover without making, from the operation, any sound that is audible to you. Try as many times as you like. The piece is over either when you succeed or when you decide to stop trying. It is not necessary to explain to the audience simply do what you do and, when the piece is over, indicate it in the customary way."  Sound familiar?  There’s more and they are all succinct and brilliant.  I would love to have been a fly on Young’s wall in the fall of 1960.

Christian Marclay – Christian’s work is one of the few disappointments for me in this show. Lately he’s taken a tumble in my eyes.  He’s mapped out his conceptual territory so that everyone knows he’s the "sound guy" in same way that Andres Serrano is the "body fluids guy"[5] and as such his work comes off as more of a schtick than as a philosophy.

James Tenney – Oops.  He ain’t here.  Oversight!

If this show shows anything it’s that music ain’t what it used to be and it has changed rather rapidly.  One has to wonder what use a musical score is any more.  Given that virtually any sound may be generated by computer, composers may compose, organize, record and distribute their compositions right on their laptop.  So there’s no need to leave instructions for anyone else when you can control the process from beginning to end.  Musical notation, in its traditional form, is a dying, if not dead, art.  Most of the works here confirm that.  But pieces like those of La Monte Young point to a potential future of new ways to consider music.  Who will pick up this baton?

My only complaint with this show is that many of the works are displayed in incomplete form, that is, as a selection of their entirety.  For me that’s like covering up Pollock’s Number One except the bottom right hand square foot and expecting you to imagine the rest of it.  It’s a bad disservice.  But, having said that, I’d rather see one page of the U.S. Constitution than none at all.

Which is a nice way to segue into the Civil War drawing show at O’Kane.  I’m a sucker for drawings but this show is particularly refreshing.  Most of the drawings were done without any pretense of art and were done simply as visual records either for publication (as in Harper’s Weekly) or as accompaniments to letters home.  Done in a time when there was still no such thing as photo journalism, published illustrations like those of Alexander Simplot were the only visuals many people ever saw of the war.

Technically speaking, the works in this show vary greatly but there are reasons. Simplot’s illustrations (the correct term) have a hatched line quality in order to more easily translate to the etching plates of Harper’s. Joshua Newbold’s sketches have that bad art student hen-scratching flattened look that reveals an unconfident eye and hand. But taken as they were made – not as art – they have a charming naïve folk art feel to them. Confederates dragging guns up Kenesaw by Alfred R. Waud shows the necessity of immediacy. It’s not like his subject’s were posing and you can tell his hand couldn’t quite keep up with what he was seeing. My favorite work in the show is Two Portraits of Officers and Two Scenes: Raising the Stars and Stripes Over the Courthouse at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and the Steamers on the River (How’s that for a title?) by an unknown artist.  I love the test sketches of the two heads floating in the upper left hand corner. The practice strokes are left for all to see.

Siege situations like those of Vicksburg, St. Petersburg or Atlanta probably generated more drawings simply because soldiers and "special artists" had more time on their hands but that’s just my assumption.  I like the neutral tone of the paper of some of the drawings allowing white highlights in an "old master-ish" way.  Given that these drawings were done on the fly, in transit and carried along with whatever basic provisions were obligatory for their creators, they are all necessarily small which fits well with the tiny O’Kane Gallery and heightens their sense of preciousness.  The lights are too dim, however, which makes careful, detailed study difficult.  No doubt the lenders (most probably the Library of Congress) dictated these conditions but there exists protective glass these days that would allow more illumination.  And lord knows more precious and fragile documents than these are given more light. 

What I like about the music score show and the Civil War drawing show is that the works are modestly scaled which proves once again that small size does not necessarily equal small concepts or emotions.  Also, what links these two shows is that the art works are entry pieces.  That is, they are portals to bigger things.  In the case of the scores, they are not the art works, the music, but directions or pathways to the music.  For these the performance is the thing.  As for the Civil War drawings, they too are windows, tiny glimpses, into what they illustrate – the monumental heroic catastrophe of the Civil War.  For these, war is the thing.

For both of these shows, the idea is the thing.  Rich ideas make for rich art which makes for rich shows.  Go see these.

———————————————

Useful links for this blawg:

http://www.ubu.com/ (anything here. But more specifically the following):
Fluxus music
http://www.ubu.com/sound/flux_tellus.html

Fontana Mix
http://www.johncage.info/workscage/fontana.html
http://www.answers.com/topic/fontana-mix-for-4-channel-tape-or-indeterminate-means

4’33"
http://solomonsmusic.net/4min33se.htm
performance by the London Symphony Orchestra (how grandly funny!) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUJagb7hL0E
performance by the original performer, David Tudor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HypmW4Yd7SY

Dick Higgins
from the horse’s mouth http://www.sculpture.org/documents/scmag97/higgin/sm-higgn.shtml

 

 

1. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the upstairs gallery, not the Brown Foundation Gallery, just like Intercontinental Airport to me will never be Bush.  Why the fuck do we have to name everything?  Why mark everything like a dog marks its territory?  How about Minute Maid Gallery instead?
2. Ibid. except insert downstairs and Zilkha Gallery as appropriate.
 
3. With apologies to Clayton Moore.
 
4. Hello, Richard Long.
 
5. Serrano’s latest offering – "Shit" – recently at Yvonne Lambert in New York, could be summarized by its own title.

See Peter Williams’ first blog, Hoo Doo Doo Doo

also by Peter Williams

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12 responses to “Two and ‘fro”

  1. One can grant very little credence to any criticism that posits in the very first paragraph that the reviewer did not even enter the exhibition with an open mind. Just to answer your question about who would want to see this show, I would like to emphatically answer, “I would and so would many other people.” Based on the promotional image, I’d be lining up to see any museum-quality show with Elizabeth Axtman’s work, let alone Piper, Pindell, Walker, Kelley, and the other talented artists. In fact, your repulsion to the thematic curatorial idea of this show illustrates perfectly the NEED for these kinds of shows. Inasmuch as Black Women have been represented often in mainstream media but have received very little attention for their own actions, any exhibition that recognizes their agency and critical investigation of Hollywood is welcomed by this artist.

    I wish I were back in Houston for a day to see this show, but fortunately we have had several opportunities recently in Chicago to see some of these artists. First in Hamza Walker’s excellent exhibition at the Renaissance Society, “Black Is, Black Ain’t”, and then in the Hyde Park Art Center’s “Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor”. I hope Houston’s art community will bypass this review, go to the museum with an open mind, and come to their own conclusions after honestly experiencing the work.

    -J. Thomas Pallas

  2. Mr. Williams, after reading your blog post, I guess you’re saying that our “RED HOT: Asian Art Today…” show at the MFAH shouldn’t have had “Asian” in the title. No reference to the “A”-word countries the artists hailed from. We did call it “RED” instead of “YELLOW HOT”. That would’ve been tacky… While were at it, let’s remove “Houston” from the museum name. You’re right: Why do we have to name everything? Maybe you could change your name to an unpronounceable symbol.

  3. That Adrian Piper piece hit a little too close to home?

    It is ridiculous to issue a blanket dismissal of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or whatever as curatorial factors. The CAMH show is not some grouping of completely unrelated works whose only common denominator is the race of their maker. The videos by black women address issues related to being black and female. Shockingly, white guys don’t tend to make art about being black and female…

  4. I do. I’m a militant black feminist.

  5. Your eloquence in describing your feelings about the show and the artists featured moves me. You successfully illustrate why shows like “Cinema Remixed and Reloaded” are needed in the all white male references you provide in your talk of creating an exhibition that only features gay Artists of New York in the Early 60’s. Female artists and artists of color were (and to a degree still are) shut out of many discourses relating to contemporary art and you perpetuated this.
    Based on your review rant, it is obvious that you closed your eyes and ears once you saw the advertisement for the show. It thrills me that in your blind blunder along the first floor gallery (perhaps you got lost while were searching for the little boy’s room) Adrian Piper’s voice propelled you enough to pry your hands off your eyes and identify her work. Could it be that you felt that she was talking to you?

  6. Well, I guess I saw all this coming from a mile away. I knew what to expect from this show but saw it anyway. I knew what comments to expect from my little essay, but wrote it anyway.

    I suppose according to most of you commentators, I have no experience or knowledge or capability of understanding anything about what it is to be black or a black woman. Those are pretty big assumptions being thrown around. Apparently, my criticisms of this show are exactly those that one would expect from a “white guy.” And if I were, so what? I suppose my comparison of the premise of this show to a ridiculous hypothetical show about gay men of the early sixties makes me straight too.

    I’m sure nothing that I say in the following few paragraphs will do anything to sway any minds and I’m not sure I care. But just the same, here goes…

    The point I wish to make is that some themes for some shows that some curators make are flawed. Some are badly flawed. This is one. To select and group work for any reason other than one in which quality is the main criterion is a problem. Some may argue that this show still does this. I would argue against that because of what is right in front of my eyes. Bad work with political, social, philosophical agendas, no matter how worthy those agendas may be, is still bad work, just as a pig with lipstick on it is still a pig. This show offers no surprises. I had a pretty good idea of what I’d encounter before viewing this show, and unfortunately, almost all of my assumptions were correct. If you’re not offering anything new, then what’s the point?

    The image selected to advertise this show – that by Elizabeth Axtman – is just bad advertising. If the intent of advertising is to sell a product, this fails badly. I could have selected at least a dozen other images from works from this show that are more interesting and would do a better job of perhaps getting the public to see this show. This choice is horrible. And if those who organized this show can’t make better visual decisions than this, does it not suggest that perhaps other decisions could be just as awful? I challenge anyone who says almost any image by Kara Walker would not be more interesting than this one. Those who can’t see this have bright futures as museum curators.

  7. For jpallas – At least I saw the show.

    For kelly – Your statement that this show is about “videos by black women [that] address issues related to being black and female” reiterates my point. The problem is that virtually all the works are about what it means to be a black woman and nothing else. And because the works were selected with that as the primary criterion, rather than being selected because they’re really good video art, the show is bad. And that’s it.

    Regarding Adrian Piper –I’m not surprised or enlightened or offended by her work. I wish I was. At least it would be interesting. The only offensive aspect about her work is that it’s so bad and it’s presented as if it were important. It’s not. And this “installation” doesn’t help. It’s not good video art. Period.

    Kara Walker, on the other hand, is not dull. Generally speaking, her work is funny, witty, clever, biting, paradoxical, layered, rich and important. And because of the specificity of the form and look of her work, it actually goes beyond just “addressing issues related to being black and female” and in my view should be added to the pantheon of great political art. Am I absolved now? I did not happen to say this in my blog. Gee whiz, I’m so sorry. For me, including her in this show is an attempt to justify and elevate the work of other weaker artists in this show.

    For Fake Peter Marzio – Allow me to quote Joe Biden: “Are you joking? Is this a joke?”

    This show is lazy, trite and reflects sloppy thinking. I can point at the sky all day long and say, “See how blue it is?” And if you still insist it’s green then there’s not much I can do about that except to say, “Have fun seeing bad shows.” I have better things to do.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful comments on the rest of the essay.

  8. Though Peter Williams may be implying the problematics surrounding identity politics, the bitterness and narrow views in his delivery cloud what could have been an interesting discussion. Since Peter Williams uses gay artists as an analogy, let us turn, then, to queer theory. Queer theory opens the possibility of complementing race and queerness. In its “definitional indeterminacy” queer theory reflects the indeterminacy of stable racial identity; nevertheless, one loose definition is that “queer locates and exploits the incoherencies” (All quotes from Annamarie Jagose’s “Queer Theory: An Introduction”, New York: New York University Press, 1996) What these artists communicate is not what does it mean to be black and female but rather the slippages of stable racial identities. The artists demonstrate that identities do not have their own stable definition separate and distinct from the other, much as queer reveals inconsistencies in gender, sex, and desire. For example, in many of the pieces, the artist use blackface. What does it mean for a black woman to use blackface? How are you viewing the bodies? By asking these questions, the artists suggest that importance of showing the slippages of “allegedly stable relations”. (One calls to mind Adrian Piper’s piece…). Furthermore, many artists point out the ways that black females have been portrayed. For example, Elizabeth Axtman’s “American Classics” points to the flawed representations of multiracial people; by highlighting the representations, the artists also highlight the fact that identity is not monolithic.

    Furthermore, Howardena Pindell’s piece suggests in her switching from a black and white woman (think of the practice of “passing”), the ability to transition from one identity to another suggests the slippages of stable racial definitions. According to Jagose, “‘identity’ is not a demonstrably empirical category but the product of processes of identification”. These artists highlight the process of identification whether through movie representations (Axtman), witnessing and passing (Pindell) or the use of black face. Moreover, the title of the show, “Cinema Remixed

  9. As important as examining identity, the exhibition also demonstrates the power of video. Video cameras were introduced in the 1960s which made accessible art that could be done quickly and relative to other mediums, cheaply. Art could move to the streets. This exhibition puts together the exciting possibilities of the medium in the hands of people who have been, and in many cases still are, disenfranchised in both society and the art world. Art no longer has to be exclusive.

    Lastly, in condemning this show, Peter Williams, whether intentional or not, implies self censorship by suggesting that this show should never have been put together. Self censorship is a difficult topic and raises dangerous possibilities such as the refusal to discuss important questions. One recalls the self censorship by the Boston Symphony for “The Death of Klinghoffer” by John Adams. But without being to harsh, perhaps Williams will find a better way to communicate his thoughts besides using such words as “ass” and “shit” and move away from John Cage (as this is the second time he has enthusiastically praised Cage in a blog entry, the first being on the show Neo Hoo Doo.)

  10. My apologies, as this seemed to have been cut out after “Moreover, the title of the show, “Cinema Remixed

  11. Again, some technical difficulties.

    I disagree, then, with Peter Williams’ allegation that this show is only about being black and female. The exhibition demonstrates the slippages of stable racial identities through the vehicle of the artists asking what does it mean to be black and female and how does identity get represented. It is the queerness of race.

  12. Less than ¼ of my latest greatest was devoted to the disastrous video show at CAM and yet everyone only commented on that. Did anyone see the other shows? Is there anyone who really believes the black women artist video show was better? Really? Compare and contrast.

    To all of you who still get the heebie-jeebies when anyone dares to criticize a show like this, to you I say, “Grow up.”

    To DrakeElliot – Christ almighty, I haven’t read such absolute shit in quite a while. No sense in beating around the bush or being dainty about it. No one who has any brains could possibly be impressed with you pompous, pretentious blather. Why don’t you try writing for Art Lies? You’d fit right in. Allow me to pick on just your last paragraph. It’s fine and fair to disagree with me (if one makes sense) but you say that the show is “not only being about black and female.” Well, it’s in the goddamn title so I suspect it just might be. That and the fact that everyone in the show is a black female and virtually every work is about what it means to be black and female (yawn). Then, in your very next gobbledygook sentence you state, stupifyingly so, that the show is indeed “what it means to be black and female.” This is doublespeak taken to new and glorious heights. But you then go on to top even your own illogical self when, in your grand finale you say this show is about “the queerness of race.” What the goddamn fuck does that mean?! Are you kidding? My god.

    “Someone’s laughing, lord, kumbaya…”

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