It has been just a little over a year since I last went to the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, aka The Hurston. The museum rarely offers any literature about the exhibitions, their web page has not been updated since 2012, and they could use better gallery lighting, but they do not charge any admission fee, it is all by donation. The museum is a small and humble establishment that only has two exhibitions yearly. Located in Eatonville, a small town just north of Orlando, the museum brings current dialogs from our culture better than the Orlando Museum of Art. The town is embedded with American history, such as the first incorporated African American settlement community in the United States and the writer, Zora Neal Hurston. Towns with this type of reputation tend to capitalize on it history, but this does not deter this little museum from educating and taking risks in showing art that is current versus what is visually beautiful.
The current show at the Hurston is an exhibition titled “Taking Aim,” which features three bodies of work by Bayete Ross Smith (http://www.bayeterosssmith.com/ ). We take aim with thoughts or words, using racial profiling or racial slurs, and/or stereotyping to determine the identity of a person. The show left me thinking about how we label and judge things. Let’s be frank here, we all do this. We cannot be called a bad person because of our thoughts; it is our actions that determine if we are good or bad. When I get angry with some random driver who made me miss the light because they were too busy texting, which will cause me to be late, I want to shout at them for being an idiot, but then I think about my initial reaction and think it is stupid to get angry. Also, we are all judgmental; it’s a form of defense. For example we judge potential love interests based on past bad experiences to avoid making the same mistakes and having our hearts broken. We all label things; it is how we understand ourselves better and where we stand in society. For example, someone is a wedding photographer because they only take s pictures of weddings. I am a photographer, but I do not shoot wedding pictures; therefore I not a wedding photographer. These are all minor examples, but you get the idea.
Bayete Ross Smith’s work brings to the surface the action of judging and labeling. One body of work, which shares the same name as the exhibition, “Taking Aim,” is made up of practice sheets of shooting targets that are used in gun ranges, but instead of only having the silhouette of a male human form he printed various black and white portraits on them. The majority of the target/portraits are non-Caucasian males and females, dressed in a variety of ways, including a picture of the artist in a suit and tie. All these portraits were taken to a gun range and used for actual target practice, so all of them had bullet holes except for one, that of a small black child. As children we viewed the world with innocence, what happens to us as we entered adulthood? We judge and believe all Blacks are uneducated with no family values, or all Hispanics are illegal immigrants with no family values, or all Muslims are terrorists and have no family values. It also made me think that we as a culture are molding this child’s future by imposing our values indirectly on each other and deem what is acceptable and not acceptable. These portraits work in a simple but powerful manner.
Another thought that came out of “ Taking Aim“ was gun violence in the USA, which leads me to his second body of work titled “Gatling (America),” a series of portraits of various races and gender, but in color. In each portrait the individual is holding their favorite gun. When you normally think of guns you think of police, military, hunters, or criminals, not a person who could be your neighbor or a teacher, or the use of recreational gun use versus violent gun use. They are very well crafted portraits, but upon reading the artist statement I came to find out that an important part in this body of work was omitted. Each portrait is supposed to be accompanied by a questionnaire that was filled out by the person in the portrait, giving us an insight as to why they have guns in their lives, their experiences and relations to guns, and what they do for a living, informing the viewer with a better understanding of gun culture in the USA. For reasons unknown, these questionnaires were not included in the exhibition.
The last body of work “Passing,” is where Bayete took a standard ID portrait of a young man and applied that photo to different passports from around the world to make you question his ethnicity, nationality, and race. Is he Brazilian, British, Cuban, Colombian, Dutch, Ethiopian, French, Israeli, South African, Sudanese, or a U.S. Citizen? Is he White, Black, Mixed, Hispanic, Caucasian, or Middle Eastern? It is hard to tell, but all of these passports have the ability to be true or false as to the identity of the person. Again the question of why we need to label things arises. Do we have the ability to live in a culture similar to what is portrayed in Star Trek, the universal qualities of equality, liberty, justice, peace, and cooperation? Or the world described in the song “Maybe There’s a World” by Yusuf Islam, where he states, “ I have dreamt of an open world, borderless and wide, where the people move from place to place, and nobody’s taking sides.”
Even though Bayete Ross Smith work is not shown in a pristine gallery in Orlando, or the correct way it was intend to be seen (missing the documents that accompany the portraits in “Gatling”), or my belief that “Passing” could be stronger if it was presented as actual passports, or even at least present each passport in their own individual frame instead of doubling up the passports in one frame. The bottom line is that his artwork still has the power to question things, which I believe is the foundation of good art; to motivate, think, change, inspire, or open our minds and shake things up in the boxed environments that constantly surround and shape our views.
This exhibition will be on view at the Hurston until July 28, 2015.
A couple of years ago people outside the art world were surprised to find out that some one had paid 4.3 million for an Andreas Gursky photograph titled Rhine 2 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhein_II ). People who know of Gursky’s work know and understand the beauty of this image. People who only understand and view photography for its visual aesthetic beauty only criticized the photograph’s value, but fail to grasp what justified its value and importance as a photograph. With the popularity of iPhones and cameras being consumer friendly many people believe the camera creates the image the photographer’s only job is to click the shutter at the decisive moment. Also the main exposure for artists’ work is the web, if we need a visual on a piece of art work we GOOGLE it. What many of us forget is the web does not give a good representation of the actual artwork, it flattens into to a two dimensional image, and being viewed on a computer monitor the color reproduction is nothing close to the original. I also realize a photograph is two dimensional but a computer it does not represent the art correctly, so photos need to be viewed in person much like a Mark Rothko painting. While studying art history I often viewed Rothko’s work in books or slides, then on a trip to L.A. I viewed a show of his paintings and from that moment I fully understood their importance in the art world.
Getting back to photography several months ago Peter Liv’s photograph titled Phantom managed to break Gursky’s record by more than two million dollars (http://www.forbes.com/sites/rachelhennessey/2014/12/12/peter-lik-phantom-worlds-most-expensive-photograph-arizona-antelope-canyon/ ). This time the art world is in uproar not because the photograph is not visually beautiful but because an unknown in the art world had created the photograph. Peter Liv is a successful photographer in his own right, who creates beautiful images but the art establishment i.e. Museums, curators, critics, and collectors have not recognize his work in the frame of contemporary art. Liv’s work holds true to the movement of the modernist such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Henri-Cartier Bresson, the work speaks for itself.
Why is it hard for the art world to accept this photo as part of the dialogue in modern art? Is beauty not relevant anymore in art? Beauty does not suffice and a lot of people who are not knowledgeable do not understand that the concept of art has evolved beyond just visual beauty and mastery of the camera. This is why this photograph has become controversial, especially in the context of the art world, because the purchase by one collector at a price tag of 6.4 million dollars is questioning the validity of “what is art” at this moment. In much the same way that the painter Thomas Kinkade, self proclaimed the Painter of Light, caused uproar in the art world. Thomas Kinkade was the most successful selling commercial artist of our time, he created paintings that many people loved and made millions from the same image but offered as reproductions in various sizes and options to be printed on paper or canvas. Again it was only one entity that made the establishment question, “what is art?” much that same way of Marcel Duchamp did with his ready-made “Fountain.”
Another issue that is raised by the significant purchase of “Phantom” is the stigma of ignorance is often portrayed in collectors who know nothing about art and only see it as a commodity. Whoever this collector is has taken a big chance on purchasing a piece of paper that may not yield his return on such an investment on a unknown artist in the art world, but the irony is artwork by famous artists are being sold at exuberant prices that leave people wondering if these prices are justified. Even Gerhard Richter, one of the most famous living painters questions the amount his paintings are being auction at (http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/06/amount-of-money-that-art-sells-for-is-shocking-says-painter-gerhard-richter ). For those who don’t understand how the art world works, the majority of artwork that is auction off at the price it was sold does not necessarily go to the artist unless you are California artist, but this is another story, and they still only get a percentage. An auction is the reselling of an artist work usually owned by someone other than the artist. The artist makes his money from the initial sale of the artwork when it was first created. Getting back to my thought, What ever your stance is on this issue we still go back to that question, “What is art?” and AT WHAT PRICE?
Sorry for the delay since my last post. I have become an adjunct teacher and find that it is taking time away from my art making or anything related to it.
I went to the Cornell Fine Art Museum several weekends ago and was very impressed by their latest exhibition. Out of all the museums in Central Florida they have maintained their degree of excellence, putting on exhibitions to educate the public about contemporary art, and it’s free.
They have curated a part of the Alfonse Collection of Art dealing with the aspect of narrative, which leaves the viewer enough room to construct their own conclusion while addressing modern issues plaguing our current society, including warfare, racism, and climate change. This show is not a “feel good” exhibition. Don’t get me wrong, there is beautiful art on display, but it makes us aware of things we are ignoring that need to be dealt with eventually; it makes you leave with a conscience regarding issues that need to be addressed not only by citizens of the United States of America, but as citizen of this universe and our survival as a human race.
The title of the show is Fractured Narratives showing the works of Dawoud Bey, Omer Fast, Eric Gottesman, Jenny Holzer, Alfredo Jarr, Amar Kanwar, William Kentridge, An-My Le, Maya Lin, Goshka Macuga, Israel Moreno, Rivane Neusenschwander, Trevor Paglen, and Martha Rosler.
The thought that kept popping in my head is how as a country we have changed our mentality to overlook certain actions for the price of security either from terrorism or more recently from a deadly disease. The world has changed since 9/11 and this show reminds us how. I will be starting off with the strongest piece in the show, which is a video titled 5000 Feet is the Best, by the artist Omar Fast. I have never heard of this artist. The video is thirty minutes long, high quality by Hollywood standards in production and filmmaking. There is an interviewer asking the question “what is the difference between you and someone who sits in the plane?” The man he is asking this question turns out to be a veteran drone pilot. He gets agitated about answering this question; he suffers from headaches, and then changes the subject by telling a story. The story he is telling is then depicted in the video while the man narrates the scene, once the story is told we are back in the room again, the man excuses himself for a break, goes outside for a little bit, then comes back in and the scenario plays out almost identical like the first time but the story he tells the interviewer is different, this happens several times overall. The conversation and experiences about being a drone pilot, the stories being told, the metaphors, and in particular a story that replaces a typical scenario that can occur in a high-risk conflict area in the Middle East, where a Middle Eastern family is trying to go on a weekend family outing, but is replaced by an American family, in an American landscape, relating it to our lives, the suffering of innocent people caught up in all these conflicts.
Martha Rosler’s photomontages also deal with the same issues, where she juxtaposes advertisement imagery with imagery of war. The title of this series is House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home, New Series. The combining of images makes you compare, war and daily life, consumerism and ignorance. This simple act using images that are readably available in publications to denote what is wrong with act of war and the reasons behind it leaving the viewer wondering what is normal in this world.
Jenny Holzer’s piece is very simple, a painting titled water-board. It’s a nice surprise since she mostly works with LED lights. The painting simulates an official government transcript, but on a larger scale, 55 X 44 inches, that was released to the public that has been censored by the government blocking out sensitive material, because it deals with water boarding. At first glance from far away it emulates a minimalistic painting with its blocks of black on white background, but upon seeing the words, you start to try and fill in the parts that have been hidden from us; reasoning why the government used this torture technic. Is it to protect us from the truth and to what lengths the government goes to give us security or to protect their interests. What justifies torture?
The next three artworks that got my attention were photographs. I tend to favor the medium of photography when it comes to art. The ability for the photograph to be realistic, but at the same time anti-realistic has always fascinated me, maybe because in reality there are two sides to every story, eventually we decide what side to believe in.
Trevor Paglen’s presents a beautiful image of pastel hues with almost minimalist sunset or sunrise colors, depending on how you want to interpret it. But upon viewing the title, Untitled (Reaper Drone) and paying more attention to a small detail at the bottom right hand corner the reality of its reference shatters the beauty of it, making you wonder how something so beautiful can reference the ugliness of surveillance.
An-My Le’s work references war reenactments and Timothy O’Sullivan’s Civil War imagery. I have heard of military training that emulate the terrain to prepare a soldier for combat, which she captured in one of her images, taken during a desert training for recon, but what surprised me was her other photograph of a Vietnam War reenactment. I have heard of Civil War reenactments but not of the Vietnam War, a war that America wants to forget. From what I learned people who participate take this very seriously, down to every detail of the battle, to keep it genuine. Looking at both images it becomes hard to tell between the fantasy and the real.
The last set of photographs deal with the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the killing of the 6 children in Birmingham, Alabama. Just like An-My Le’s images reflect history, Daewoud Bey does the same. In the show there are two diptychs titled The Birmingham Project: Janice Kemp and Triniti Williams and The Birmingham Project: Fred Stewart and Tyler Collins. In the massacre 4 girls were bombed in a church and 2 boys were murdered that same day. In Bey’s images he selected children as stand-ins to represent the age the children were killed and he then selected adults who are the age the children would be now, had they lived. Using a church and a museum as a backdrop for their significance to the history of the Civil Right Movement, he took the portraits of these people in almost the same posture as if they were mimicking themselves as a young version against an old version of themselves. Viewing these images made me sympathize with the innocence lost, and think, had they lived, what their potential could have been to society. The reasoning of racism and hatred has no validity when compared to a loss of human’s life.
Art has changed over the centuries, from simple story telling cave drawings, to sculptures representing deities, to religious interpretations, to burst of vivid colors of an artist interpretation, to questioning what is art, to now. Art nowadays is not a thing of beauty that hangs on a wall. Art now makes us think, question, reflect, etc. By the time you leave this exhibition you question how does humanity keep on functioning, and still be able to make sense of it all.
I was very excited to have witnessed this past weekend, the inaugural show of the Florida Prize in Contemporary Art at the Orlando Museum of Art. It is the first time such an award and show has been executed in Central Florida and it has long been overdue. In the past the Orlando Museum of Art has been somewhat conservative but has been progressing slowly to bring a current exhibition of what is happening currently in the contemporary art world. Giving visitors a visual experience that there is more beyond abstraction, tropical sunsets, palm trees, nudes, and low-brow art. We have longed moved away from art movements of Impression, Pop Art, and Surrealism and it is nice to finally see a show that is refreshing, which is rare for viewers in Central Florida to experience unless you frequent museums in South Florida or Art Basel in South Beach. The artists that gave my senses the most impact both visually and mentally, and which I will be writing about in this post were: Sarah Max Beck, Vanessa Diaz, Ezra Johnson, Jillian Mayer, and Agustina Woodgate.
Sarah Max Beck is a sculptor. I heard her speak a couple of months ago about her process and how she got to this point as an artist making tapestries using plastic bags. It was a very personal story of how she was a caregiver and she did not know what she was doing with her life at that moment, so she started weaving plastic bags that were used to deliver newspapers, bargain newsletters, and such. Viewing these large quilts you see how colorful and beautiful plastic bags can be but at the same time upon closer inspection the smell, and the texture of the plastic makes it feel abrasive and uncomfortable unlike a normal quilt. Thoughts of large amounts of waste and longevity start to creep into my mind. Her work makes me think of El Anatsui, who also made fabric like tapestries using scrap metal which is found in large quantities in his country. Sarah’s quilts references our waste culture.
Vanessa Diaz is another artist that I had the opportunity to see prior to this exhibition, and I must say the venue where her artwork is displayed plays a big part on how I experienced her work. Her work are site specific installations, and the ones I responded to the most at the Orlando Museum of Art were; Here Enticement is Not Always Difficult, Upon Which Everything Rests, and Where Traps Can Be Set at One’s Good Pleasure. She takes objects and gives them a new form or function giving you a different perspective on an everyday object, for example Where Traps Can Be Set at One’s Good Pleasure is made up bedposts she found, which she then seamlessly joined two top ends to make them into one long piece, giving them a look of big bulky javelins piled on the floor forming a bonfire before it is lit. I found this piece funny and at the same time very real making a comment on what happens in relationships in the bedroom. Here Enticement is Not Always Difficult, and Upon Which Everything Rests made me think of missing parts of a history unknown to me, sadness, new type of furniture design, and viewing objects differently than what they have been intended for.
Ezra Johnson’s paintings I found very refreshing using very lose brush strokes, collaging pieces from magazines and other sources, and using dark colors. Reclining Nude I found both sexy and vulgar at the same time. Reclining Nude and Coffee Table Group had a mix of influences such as; graffiti, Henri Matisse, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It has been four years since I have witnessed a passionate use of brush strokes so determined in emitting genuine emotions. He also had paintings he used to create a stop motion video animation titled Stranded in a House, which heavily references William Kentridge. The video is under three minutes long but the desperation of the main character going in and out every room in the video trying to find a way out this house starts to set in.
Jillian Meyer’s work spoke to me the most, because she made me think about how technology is around us on an everyday basis, and sometimes goes undetected because, we are getting accustomed to it, or we do not question it. She uses video, installation, photography and humor to make us aware of the real world and virtual world. Simulacrums of catchy 80’s pop-tune videos (Mega Mega Upload), home shopping network, DIY’s Youtube videos, online portraits, and the sky, she makes the viewers question our interaction with the virtual world. In a small skit from her video titled PostModem, she uses satire of the home shopping network where you can purchase in just only three easy payments of $399.99 your own personal vortex where you can never feel the loss of someone close to you because you can place them in there eternally and at the same time get rid of unwanted items easily, such as a tamagotchi. Thinking about it don’t we all live in our own constructed vortex already? In her installation Cloud Swing, the viewer is welcomed to sit on a swing set, but the sky is just a projection with our shadows breaking the visual plane as we swing back and forth. Her artwork makes the viewer question the virtual versus reality, the analog versus the digital and the big roles they play in our lives.
Agustina Woodgate was this year’s recipient of Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. I can understand why since they are very beautiful pieces. Seven Seas, Milky Way, and Peacock are all made from the skin of stuffed toy animals, which references oriental rugs. Seven Seas and Milky Way start to morph into visual maps of some sort, which play well with her other two pieces; Simplified Maps and Beginning Maps, where she took world maps that hang in almost every world history class in schools, then she sanded them down erasing all the words, borders, or any information and leaving only the hues that represented the country. In these two bodies of work she creates her own maps that have no boundaries that have been defined by society or will ever be.
Overall this exhibition is a delight in the Orlando area, and must see for people to become informed about the world of contemporary art, and the Florida artists that help create them.