Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in. - Alan Alda
Politics is Personal, the third exhibition at Stonescape, offers an expansive definition of politics; one that embraces issues of gender, alienation, cultural mores, sexuality, freedom of thought, violence, war and, inevitably, political power.
All of the works in the exhibition are from the collection of Norman and Norah Stone. As such, they naturally reflect matters of personal interest and concern to the collectors. In an interview Norman once said, “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them, but they exist and should not be shirked.”
That notwithstanding the Stones’ aim has never been to collect “political art.” When Norah and Norman Stone respond to a work’s political content they consider it along with other values, such as originality of expression, the treatment of formal issues, and the art’s overall symbolic importance.
Indeed, it is these art-related values that make so many of the works in the Stones’ collection outstanding and noteworthy. Nevertheless, the artworks drawn from their collection for this thematic exhibition place political issues, writ broadly, front and center.
Politics is Personal is not meant to pronounce a particular way of thinking or to proselytize, indeed that is foreign to the Stones’ disposition. It is meant however, in this time of intense political turmoil, to offer up ideas and political perspectives for the viewer’s consideration: to allow the viewer to reflect and wonder; to agree and disagree; to be affected, or not.
Also in the way of brief introduction, the exhibition includes work by several artists already in the canon of Western Art, and several younger practitioners well on their way to taking a place there too. In no case is there a claim that such achievement rests on the artist’s political viewpoint, but that is not to deny the pertinence of the political issues raised.
Nauman was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, though his formative years as an artist were spent in California. In the mid-1960s he attended the University of California, Davis, (just down the road from Stonescape) where he studied under William T. Wiley and Robert Arneson, and worked as an assistant to Wayne Thiebaud. Since 1979 he has lived on a ranch in New Mexico, with his wife, the artist Susan Rothenberg. Though geographically removed from the art world, Nauman has remained one of the most influential artists of his time.
Nauman works in a broad range of media, neon being important among them. Run from Fear, Fun from Rear is emblematic of Nauman’s “linguistic gamesmanship,” and his way of using wit and humor to make a serious statement ever more resonant. He regularly draws on what is around him, something as seemingly banal as his studio space or a found sign, to instigate his work. “Run from fear” is a phrase he came across that was spray-painted on a Pasadena bridge, known locally as “Suicide Bridge.”
Throughout his brilliant and widely admired career, Nauman has continually explored subjects viewed as socially and politically problematic, even repugnant – swearing, mean jokes, torture, surveillance, apartheid, masturbation, hanging, shitting and, in the end, mortality.
Nauman’s work compels the viewer to confront the realities of the world around us, and the rules that govern human conduct. He takes the position that beyond beauty art has a social function – information is more important than form – and he pursues that agenda unremittingly.
As Kathy Halbreich, Associate Director of MoMA has said, Nauman goes about “constructing the armature for a body politic from the politics and poetry of the body.”
Beuys’s life and career as an artist is the stuff of legend. Though actually wounded in action several times in World War II and held for a time in a British POW camp, the story of his Luftwaffe plane being shot down and him being rescued by Tartars, who saved his life by covering his wrecked body in animal fat and felt, is in all likelihood apocryphal.
After the war Beuys attended and later taught at the famed Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. During this time he said, “I realized the part the artist can play in indicating the traumas of a time and initiating a healing process.” As a teacher he dropped the entry requirements to his class and urged his students to revolt – positions that eventually led to his dismissal from the Academy.
Beuys saw his vitrines, of which Plateau Central is exemplary, as vehicles or custodians of meaning. The objects and materials he incorporated in them were meant to avoid “artiness,” and to offer a connection to everyday life. To Beuys they were metaphoric activators meant to raise the consciousness of humans as spiritual beings.
Performance was central to Beuys’s praxis, and his blackboards – also seen by him as carriers of information – were an important part of his approach to teaching. After a lecture/performance the blackboards, of which 13 November 1971 is typical, were left behind as independent works of art.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beuys’s commitment to political reform increased. He was involved in the founding of several activist groups, including the German Student Party, whose platform included worldwide disarmament and educational reform, and The Organization for Direct Democracy by Referendum, which proposed increased power for individual citizens (an electoral approach familiar to California voters, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse).
Much has already been written about Rirkrit Tiravanija’s association with the art practice “Relational Aesthetics,” a term coined by the theorist Nicolas Bourriaud. To very briefly encapsulate the movement, Relational art, which came to prominence in the mid-1990s, creates a social context or environment where the viewer is brought into the work of art as a participant. The artwork then becomes a site for discussion and exchange whereby the viewer / participant becomes a generator of meaning.
Since Tiravanija’s earliest group exhibitions, there has always been an element of social interaction – from the cooking and sharing of food to the more recent silk-screening of phrases such as “Less Oil More Courage” or “Fear Eats the Soul“ onto t-shirts. For the opening of “Politics is Personal,” Tiravanija will be making t-shirts that read “Police the Police” that will be given away and will also become a sculptural element within the installation.
police the police takes as its point of departure the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Green which was presented in August 2010 at 100 Tonson Gallery in Bangkok, Thailand. police the police, the work in this show, developed over the course of a few weeks with local student artists arriving each day to draw on the art cave’s walls, covering new ground or obscuring existing images. This process will continue beyond the opening so that in time, the figures may be completely illegible. The images themselves were selected for their relation to the history of the San Francisco / Bay area, which has a rich tradition of political engagement.
The concept was borne out of an ongoing series of work that Tiravanija calls his “Demonstration” drawings, based upon photographs of demonstrations culled from the International Herald Tribune. Tiravanija distributes the newspaper photographs to Thai artists who then make hand-drawn reproductions in the format of small works on paper. The “Demonstration” drawings, as well as the images in police the police, are not entirely about the political events themselves (Tiravanija does not take an explicit political stance), rather Tiravanija is interested in the dialogue that the images engender and, perhaps most importantly, that his act of commissioning work provides some level of economic structure for the local artistic community.
As with Nauman and Beuys, Sigmar Polke is considered one of the most influential and innovative artists of his time.
Polke was born in East Germany in 1941 and died in 2010. At the age of twelve he and his family escaped to West Berlin, and that experience and the economic circumstances of the time had a major influence on the content of his early work. He went on to study at the Düsseldorf Academy, where he came under Joseph Beuys’s influence, notably Beuys’s persona as a Shaman and an artist who resists stylistic categories.
Though Polke’s early work was largely about ordinary, banal objects of desire (plastic wash basins, food containers, martini glasses, elaborate hairdos, palm trees) it differed from the American Pop artists in that it reflected the impoverished and aspirant conditions of post-war German society.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, Polke combined disparate images in his work, “movements of the mind” helped along by drug-induced mental states. As John Caldwell wrote for his major retrospective at San Francisco MOMA, “The artist has succeeded in creating a precise visual analogue of drugged consciousness, just as he did for the consumer goods that fixated much of the 1950s and early 1960s.”
Reagan I – 3, Das Problem Europa, Sargdeckel [Reagan 1-3, The Problem of Europe, Coffin Lid] is a five-part work taken from a newspaper image of U.S. President Ronald Reagan holding a drawing that he had made of himself. Polke repeatedly photocopied the image until it gradually dissolves.
Polke’s painting is in reaction to Reagan’s August 1981 announcement that the neutron bomb was going into production, a decision that caused dismay and outrage across Europe. The third panel’s red ground more than hints at a vision of nuclear destruction, while the fourth incorporates the myth of the Rape of Europa.
Later in his career, Polke broke new ground by using non-art, mutable materials and chemical substances to “paint” his canvases, earning him the sobriquet of “alchemical artist,” and the admiration of the art world.
Ryan Gander’s work is characterized by conceptual rigor, a blending of fact and fiction, dry humor and, as with the work chosen for this exhibition, allusive, beguiling titles. His practice includes videos, photographs, installations, lectures, posters, performances, sculptures, audio works and books.
Employing seemingly disparate objects, actions and texts, the London-based artist attempts to put the art world, with its codes and language, into perspective through cultural and historical references, as well as characters and stories of his own invention.
The objects he uses are charged with meaning, often exaggerated or “bent” to induce a feeling of uncertainty in the viewer.
Here we have a piled high tower of the ubiquitous IKEA “Lack” end tables, with the colors of a Mondrian painting from the 1920s – an “imaginative support for the weight of modernism” (Annet Gelink Gallery). It may be that Gander’s title is a reference to the biblical story of Sampson who, by pushing on two pillars, brings down the temple of the Philistines – a term commonly used to describe the uncultured or the lowbrow.
Perhaps it can be said that Gander presents a precarious structure, one that fits the politically and economically shaky time in which we live. As Robert Dingle has written, “If art has the possibility to reform dominant narratives, are we then able to forge new relations and retell an alternative history of art. It makes little difference in knowing Churchill’s famous quote that history is always written by the victory’s [sic], as history is always rewritten by Ryan Gander.”
Piotr Uklanski was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1968 and attended the Academy of Fine Arts there. He came to the U.S. to study photography at Cooper Union in New York City, and has since split his time between the two countries. His work seems to have one foot in the culture of his birth country and the other in his adopted country.
Since emerging on the New York art scene in the mid-1990s Uklanski has produced a diverse body of work, including photography, performance, collage, film and sculptural installations. He gained early attention with his functional work, called Dance Floor, which was installed in Passerby, a bar in front of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise – to the delight of reveling guests. The work, which is made up of colored glass tiles lit from below, combines the legacy of Minimalism with notions of entertainment.
During this time he also began a body of work called the Joy of Photography – pictures of sunsets, city lights, moonlit skies, flowers, etc. – which audaciously look like nothing more than stock photographs of prosaic subjects, but like much of Uklanski’s work are intended to break down social and artistic hierarchies.
The Nazis, 41 C-prints, are taken from film stills and poster images culled from American and European post-war cinema. Famous actors, dressed in Nazi military regalia, are easy to identify and viewers regularly find themselves engaged with the appeal of the actors’ visages in the face of something truly horrific.
The work may be read, with some amusement, as perhaps the photographic equivalent of Mel Brooks’s film, Springtime for Hitler. But, perhaps, there is something darker going on here; “the deep, continuing allure of Fascist aesthetics as the ultimate form of fetishized power,” as the writer Kate Bush put it.
But don’t expect an answer from the artist. In an interview with Maurizio Cattelan, Uklanski said, “I don’t invest meaning into the work, that’s the viewer’s job.”
When in 1967 two newly-enrolled graduate students at London’s St. Martins School of Art, Gilbert Proesch, from the Dolomites, Italy and George Passmore, from Plymouth, England, met, it would have been impossible to predict that they would forever work together as one artist, Gilbert & George, and go on to become iconic figures the world over.
They gained initial fame when they performed The Singing Sculpture, which saw them on a small table wearing identical gray worsted, 3-button suits, faces and hands covered in bronze make-up, one holding a cane the other a glove, singing hour after hour the same English music hall song, “Underneath the Arches.”
Ever since then they have mesmerized the art world, their life a performance – they dress the same in bespoke suits, walk around London in unison, share a manner, eat together every night in the same restaurant, complete each others sentences, and are mutually “astonished” by what unfolds in the world around them. Their credo is, famously, “Art for all.”
In their work, mainly multi-part photographic grids, they attempt to break social taboos by irreverently making public that which is typically private. They are engaged in a form of protest against social ills, established norms, and the elitism of the art world.
Most frequently, they themselves are pictured in their work, which otherwise might also depict public drunkenness, bodily fluids, street graffiti, skinheads, street signs, sex ads, nudity, city life, religious icons, members of minority groups, architecture, the downtrodden, trees, plants and other symbolic images.
Shitted represents the first of their scatological works. They later produced the New Shit Pictures, and the Naked Shit series. This imagery is controversial, challenging, maybe shocking. But, then, Gilbert & George seem to be asking (or saying), why should that be so?
In their “Art for all” statement, Gilbert & George say, “We want the most accessible modern form with which to produce the most modern speaking visual pictures of our time. The art material must be subservient to the meaning and purpose of the picture. Our reason for making pictures is to change people and not to congratulate them on being how they are.
It is often said that Robert Gober’s art, most essentially his sculptures and sculptural installations, somehow merge the legacies of Surrealism, Minimalism and Duchampian Conceptualism. True enough, but there is deeper meaning to it all.
Gober’s handsomely handcrafted, representational work is mostly related to domestic, well-known objects, such as sinks, doors, playpens, cereal boxes, bags of cat litter and rat poison, chairs, beds, sink drains and urinals, as well as human body parts. His objects are at once accessible and mysterious; common and disquieting; familiar and strange.
He tenaciously, sometimes humorously, strips away our “delusions of normalcy” to present a more troubling reality; one fraught with issues having to do with childhood memory, sexuality, gay identity, racial injustice, mortality, spiritual emptiness, familial dysfunction and political consciousness.
In a Bomb magazine interview Gober said, “I think when you’re raised a Catholic – at least in the way that I was, which was very strict Catholicism – that when you make a choice to reject how you were brought up, the rest of your life becomes a redefinition.” He continues, “For the most part, the objects that I choose are almost all emblems of transition; they’re objects that you complete with your body, and they’re objects that, in one way or another, transform you. Like the sink, from dirty to clean; the beds, from conscious to unconscious, rational thought to dreaming…”
Pair of Urinals may at first look like manufactured objects, but they are altered in form, non-functional, carefully crafted by the artist in plaster over a wire frame and covered with enamel paint. They are, as Gober put it, “psychological furniture,” hinting at male sexuality, conveying something dark, dirty, discordant.
The second of the two works by Gober, Untitled, also is not what it first seems to be – a Saks Fifth Avenue bridal ad. The artist has manipulated a photo to include his own face, wearing a wig and wedding dress. Of course, as a gay man living in the U.S., marriage is an institution denied to Gober – at least in most states. As the work was made in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic, perhaps it also suggests the wedding vow: “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.”
Over the last few decades, arguably no artist has produced as many culturally iconic works of art as Jeff Koons. Several of his widely recognized pieces, such as Large Vase of Flowers, Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series, Spalding NBA Tip-Off) (both sculptures) and Balloon Dog (a painting) are part of the Stones’ collection, though not shown in this exhibition.
Extending the Duchampian tradition of the ready-made, Koons regularly uses everyday, often kitschy objects (children’s toys, balloon animals and flowers, vacuum cleaners, Jim Beam liquor containers, a topiary terrier puppy) to derive his obsessively crafted sculptures and paintings.
His work reflects on issues of sexuality, morality, mythology, power and the seductiveness of advertising, and is rich with references, albeit sometimes obscure, to artists he admires.
The Koons work chosen for this exhibition, Dr. Dunkenstein, though not as well known as other of his works, is indicative of the artist’s positive attitude toward social aspiration and belief in advertising’s power.
Dr. Dunkenstein comes from a Nike poster of Darrell Griffith, a former basketball star who was known for his aerial exploits. Koons said, “I looked at the athletes in these (Nike) posters as representing the artists of the moment, and the idea that we were using art for social mobility the way other ethnic groups have used sports.”
Koons’s early years as a Wall Street commodities broker, combined with his artistic ambitions and financial success have led some to conclude, mistakenly it must be said, that his work is “cynical” and “crass.” It would be more accurate to take the artist at his word: “Art to me is a humanitarian act, and I believe that there is a responsibility that art should somehow be able to affect mankind, to make the world a better place.”
Catherine Opie is a documentary photographer, but as with the best of the type she has the ability to bring to light the humanity in her subject matter, whether shooting portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still lives or lifestyle images.
In the 1990s, she made classically composed studio portraits of friends from California’s gay, lesbian and transgendered community, particularly those in the leather and S&M fringe. The pictures were made at the height of the culture wars in America (which are still being fought today), when the assertion of sexual identity was part of the political battle.
Bo is a self-portrait (with fake mustache added for effect). For this and other portrait works from that time, Opie cites Hans Holbein as the inspiration for the saturated, single-hued backgrounds and stylized formality, meant to convey dignity to people who were not ordinarily accorded such. She says, “I use all of the classical tropes of art. They allow people to enter the work, and look at something they might not otherwise look at.”
Opie typically works in series, such as “Houses,” straightforward, tightly cropped shots of homes in Beverly Hills and Bel Air, California, where closed doors, locked gates and surveillance cameras speak volumes about who is welcome and who is not. For “Domestics” she traveled across America to photograph lesbian couples and families in their homes, her own version of the “road trip,” documentary approach undertaken previously by the likes of Robert Frank and Steven Shore. Her serial works also include “Ice Houses,” “Surfers,” “Freeways,” and “In and Around Home.”
In “Mini-malls” and “American Cities,” Opie focused on marginal, humble neighborhoods and incidental structures (nail salons, pizza joints, barbershops and food markets), rather than on landmark buildings and monuments. She pictured the places owned by Mexican, Armenian, Korean, Thai and Chinese immigrants all trying to gain place in their adopted country, in the American dream.
Cady Noland was active in the international art scene in the 1980s and early 1990s, but since then she has withdrawn, deeply troubled by the world around her, and by the commercialization of the art world. Nevertheless, her unique body of work continues to inspire younger artists and challenge American social and political values like none other.
Noland came of age in the wake of the Vietnam War, JFK’s murder, student protests and the Watergate scandal. Her art incisively focuses on what she sees as America’s failed promise – the lost dream of freedom, justice, safety and prosperity for all.
In her post-Minimalist practice, Noland has used recognizable, industrially produced objects (shopping carts, the American flag, beer cans, wheelchairs, handcuffs, car parts) along with poignant, anti-heroic images (Patty Hearst, Lee Harvey Oswald, Vincent Foster, Charles Manson, the trashed backyard of Sharon Tate’s residence) to create a social archeology that lays bare a troubled, often violent culture.
She has said, “Violence has always been around. The seeming randomness of it now actually indicates the lack of political organization representing different interests. ‘Inalienable rights’ become something so inane that they break down into men believing that they have the right to be superior to women … so if a woman won’t dare them any more they have a right to murder them. It’s called the peace in the feud. In this fashion, hostility and envy are vented without threatening the structure of society” (from an interview with Michèle Cone).
The cowboy, as represented in Psychedelic Cowhand, provides an iconic symbol of the American craving for individuality and freedom. As nostalgic as the cowboy image may be, the notion embodied is very much a part of today’s political rhetoric –a longing for a simpler time. “In the context of Noland’s work, the cowboy can express an identity crisis or disillusionment about American history, pop culture and violence” (from the introduction to Rotating Views #2 at the Astrup Fearnley Collection).
Like much of Richard Prince’s work, Untitled Publicity (Brooke Shields) reflects on what is real and what is not, and on the influence of the mediated image on societal value systems. However, Untitled Publicity was chosen for this exhibition more for its (and Prince’s) connection to the “politics” of art.
The work’s central image is of a pre-pubescent Brooke Shields, heavily made-up, oiled-up, and nude. Prince appropriated the image from a 1975 photo by Gary Gross, taken with Shields’s mother’s consent and intended for use in a Playboy publication called Sugar ‘n Spice.
Prince re-produced and enlarged Gross’s photo in 1983 to make an historically key work titled “Spiritual America,” issued in an edition of ten. True to form, Prince also appropriated the title for this work, using Alfred Stieglitz’s very same title for a 1923 photograph of a gelded horse. Untitled Publicity, the work on view in this exhibition is unique, and includes the Shields’s image with Prince’s typewritten text and (presumably) hand-written notes, displayed on a white plinth.
As it turned out, Gross sued Prince over the use of his photo of Shields, claiming copyright infringement, and Prince was reportedly compelled to settle out of court. But the controversial story did not end there.
In 2009 the Tate Modern was scheduled to open an exhibition called “Pop Life,” but was forced by obscenity complaints from Scotland Yard to not open until Prince’s nude photograph of Brooke Shields was pulled from the show, and the catalogue containing the image was withdrawn from sale.
In 2011 Prince and the issue of originality were again in the courts. A U.S. judge ruled in favor of photographer Patrick Cariou’s copyright complaint filed in 2008 against Prince’s use of Cariou’s images of Jamaican Rastafarians. Ultimately, the judge ordered the defendants (Prince and his gallerist, Larry Gagosian), to “deliver up for impounding” all infringing copies of the photographs as represented in Prince’s series of paintings called Canal Zone. It was reported that Gagosian had sold eight of these paintings and had exchanged seven others, all for a considerable sum.
On the occasion of Prince’s 30-year survey show at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007, Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times about the artist’s work and practice. She said, “Frequent targets include the art world, straight American males and middle-class virtue, complacency and taste. His work disturbs, amuses and the splinters in the mind. It unsettles assumptions about art, originality and value, class and sexual difference and creativity.”
[Michael Carneal; Victor Cordova, Jr.; Barry Loukatis; T.J. Solomon, Jr.; Joseph “Colt” Todd; Seth Trickey; Charles Andrew Williams; and Luke Woodham]
The work of New York-based artist Robert Buck (he made this name change from Beck a few years ago) deftly weaves his personal history and attendant childhood issues (innocence, memory, familial expectation) with contemporary culture’s attraction to guns and violence, the inundation of mass media imagery and the persistence of outdated representations of our social fabric.
Thirteen Shooters, a portfolio of 13 images, eight of which are seen here, was originally produced by Buck for “Crossing the Line,” a 2001 exhibition at the Queens Museum, whose collection contains artifacts from the two World’s Fairs held in New York in 1939 and 1964.
Responding to the museum’s collection, Buck’s series took as its point of departure Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men, featuring the mug shots of wanted criminals, which had been installed on the exterior of the 1964 New York State Pavilion and ultimately painted over due to its potentially offensive subject matter. Parenthetically, the title of Warhol’s work was, itself, a sly sexual pun, a reference to the film The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys that he shot earlier that year.
The subjects of Buck’s work are teenage “shooters,” boys who were bullied, antisocial, or who felt otherwise marginalized, and enacted their revenge on family members and schoolmates. The rash of violent incidents, perhaps the most notorious being the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, challenged our idealized and naïve notions of the innocence of childhood.
Buck appropriated the photographs, representing various points in the criminal narrative (from sweet yearbook pictures to the moment of arrest and the mug shot), from mass media sources, the name of the perpetrator having been eclipsed by that of the photographer, newspaper or image archive. Ultimately, the photographs from Thirteen Shooters are not entirely about the violent acts of youth. Rather, Buck’s series examines the role of the media in framing the narrative and constructing a new reality, relegating the teens to stock character roles.
Monica Bonvicini is an Italian multi-media artist who adopts the language of Modernism and Minimalism (the latter artistic movement often associated with masculinity) in order to explore issues of power and gender as they relate to architecture and our routine constructed environment – what she calls the “social, political, and economic implications of architecture.”
Since the late 1990s, Bonvicini’s practice has examined desire and the construction of sexual identity and gender roles in contemporary culture. By way of an example, These Days Only a Few Men Know What Work Really Means (1999) is a billboard-style piece that Bonvicini produced for ArtBasel, the annual art fair in Switzerland. Over seven panels, well-muscled, hard hat-wearing men strike poses familiar to the sphere of gay pornography. Green circles, graphic elements with images of Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves (both members of the New York Five, a group of architects whose work was rooted in Modernist principles), strategically cover the genitalia, but in the end, they manage to conceal very little. Here, Bonvicini mines the history of gay imagery and fantasy, ultimately making plain our constructed notion of masculinity.
In other works such as Never Again (2005), The Fetishism of Commodity (2002) and the Caged Tool series, of which hammer drill is one example, Bonvicini uses leather, chains, concrete and metal, alluding to the men who are responsible for our constructed environment as well as questioning commonly accepted sexual / gender roles. States Bonvicini, “Since the nineties, I have been interested in the construction of sexual identity through architecture. All these works are specifically about how architecture is involved in a process of construction behind its walls or because of its walls.”
Caged Tool #1 (hammer drill) is the object of desire both as a toy for the stereotypical male pursuits of building as well as being a leather-wrapped fetish item. The tool is displayed on a Minimalist concrete plinth surrounded by a wire cage, highlighting its nature as an art object while referencing the macho culture of the Minimalist artists and the construction industry.
Matias Faldbakken, a young Norwegian, is both artist and author (having penned the critically acclaimed Scandinavian Misanthropy trilogy under the pseudonym Abo Rasul) whose practice is often reductively described as tapping into the vein of disillusionment, aligning with vandalism and the underground as a critique of bourgeois culture.
But Faldbakken’s work is more complicated. He uses the vocabulary of disaffected youth (spray paint on tiled walls, a speeding motorcycle, or the sexual rush of a foot on a gas pedal), de-fanging it at the same time, thus allowing for a tenuous equilibrium between the extreme and the normative.
It is this strategy that Faldbakken employs in Untitled (Pedal Pumping), a video that he created with Lars Brekke, uniting foot fetishes with the sexual fantasy of the helpless woman. Pedal Pumping was uploaded to the shared video website, YouTube where it received over 10,000 views in a short span of time, proof that in today’s technology and media-saturated culture, those actions that at one time resided on the margins of society have now entered popular culture and are more widely accepted (a recent YouTube search offered over 5,000 pedal pumping videos).
Faldbakken has stated that his “approach to such phenomena is based on doubt as to what the underground could actually be. It is hard to know what kind of activity would be truly marginal, what would be below zero, or where things are really situated. I think a lot of my work, in fact, normalizes the transactions that are already taking place between different fields.”
In Cultural Department, Faldbakken, using condiment bottles to spray paint, recreates the occupation and ultimate vandalism of the Palestinian Cultural Department offices by a group of Israeli soldiers. However, Faldbakken neutralizes the act of vandalism; the resulting installation looks less like the malicious destruction of enemy property than a tasteful Abstract Expressionist painting.
Walid Raad is a Lebanese-born artist who lives and works in Beirut, Lebanon and New York. Raad teaches at the Cooper Union School of Art and is the 2011 recipient of the Hasselblad Award presented annually to a pioneer in the field of photography.
In 1999, Raad founded the fictional Atlas Group, the objective of which was to document the history of modern-day Lebanon, most prominently the years of the Lebanese Civil Wars (1975 – 1991). The archive established includes the notebooks, photographs and films of Dr. Fakhouri, Souheil Bachar, Walid Raad, Operator #17, and unnamed individuals (some of whom are, in fact, imaginary).
The three works installed at Stonescape, as well as the one generously on loan from the artist, are all part of Raad’s Scratching on things I could disavow project, which operates separately from the Atlas Group, and focuses on contemporary Beirut from the years 1992 to 2005. The project grew out of Raad’s fascination with the rapid advancement of the visual arts and its attendant systems in the Arab world and its relationship to economic growth in the region, encouraging further artistic innovation.
The project begins with Section 139: The Atlas Group (1989-2004) and Raad’s discovery of miniature versions of the works that comprise the group’s archive. Index XXVI: Artists (Tahan) appears as a white text and lists historic Lebanese artists, their names having been communicated to Raad by artists from the future. The spelling of one name in particular, that of Johnny Tahan, has been corrected in red. Appendix XVIII: Plates 24-151 includes the colors, lines and shapes from Lebanese art that were disrupted by the years of civil war and took refuge in the plates on view – as Raad describes it, hibernating “not in but around artworks.”
Given the merging of fact and fiction (as well as the healthy suspension of disbelief that is required), there is both a literary and a theatrical quality to Raad’s practice. His work makes clear that history is not a series of inert facts on a page, rather it is remarkably open to experience and interpretation.
The German duo, Andree Korpys and Markus Löffler, who work under the name Korpys / Löffler, are known for their video works which use journalistic methods in order to examine and expose the ways in which media imagery is instrumental in formulating our perception of reality, with particular emphasis on political power structures or codes. As a strategy, they approach their subjects obliquely, choosing to focus on the mundane, or the seemingly inconsequential, leaving open their position while suggesting an alternative to prescribed visual narratives.
During President George W. Bush’s state visit to Berlin in 2002, Korpys / Löffler acquired a press pass and documented the event in The Nuclear Football. Perhaps most striking, initially, is that throughout the video, the routine details of the visit are whispered with an eerie cadence, as though sharing sensitive information, creating drama where there is none.
In contrast to the standardized imagery and its presentation in highly edited clips on the evening news, the video meticulously follows the ritualized aspects of the visit, from Bush disembarking from the plane, the security measures, and as well, paying heed to the leather briefcase nicknamed the “Nuclear Football.”
The title of the video derives from that nickname. The briefcase allows the U.S. Commander in Chief the capability to initiate nuclear warfare when away from the Oval Office. Each U.S. president designates a military aide to handle the briefcase that must accompany him at all times. The protocol was first introduced during the Kennedy administration after the Cuban Missile crisis and since then has continued in successive presidencies. In general, the aides generate very little attention despite the potentially catastrophic nature of the object with which they are entrusted.
William E. Jones, a Los Angeles-based artist, was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Österreichisches Filmmuseum in Vienna. Drawing on sources such as archival photographs, found film (educational, documentary and staged) and pornography, Jones explores in his films and movies (as he describes his digitally based work) the role this type of media plays in the creation of a visual history, including the suppression of queer culture.
Punctured is a reformatted version of Jones’s 2009 work, Killed, both of which result from Jones’s search through the Library of Congress in an attempt to uncover evidence of homosexuality in its Depression-era photographic archive. Instead, Jones discovered a number of images taken by photographers, ranging from the celebrated (Walker Evans and Ben Shahn) to the lesser known, that had been rejected, or “killed,” by the head of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), Roy Stryker, who, until 1939, destroyed the works by punching holes in the negatives.
It is the holes themselves, first taking up the screen, then rapidly receding so that the image in its entirety can finally be seen, that define Punctured and momentarily obscure the photographs that comprise it. The photographs only begin to register properly after a few loops.
One might be hard pressed to identify even a hint of homosexuality in the archival images so we can only conjecture as to Stryker’s rationale for having “killed” a photograph – from poor composition or a blurred image to a photographer not adhering to the prepared script. Regardless of intent, Stryker’s destruction of the negatives was a unilateral form of censorship advancing his own aesthetic values and, potentially, political agenda.
Beyond issues related to the representation of gay culture or one individual’s ability to construct his/her vision of American culture, Jones sees as significant the decline of socially-committed documentary photography given the current economic plight of the nation. In the essay “Puncture Wounds,” Jones voices this concern and writes, “We don’t even know we’re in a depression, because no one has given us an image of it…”
Christoph Büchel is a Swiss artist who works in a variety of media, but is most recognized for his large-scale installations and conceptual works that function as critiques of art establishments and political systems. Büchel borrows from a variety of media sources and makes use of found objects in order to construct sites that force the viewer to confront these institutions.
An Oval Office Tour with President George W. Bush is taken from a video that Büchel discovered on the White House’s website. The original video was created as a substitution for tours of the White House, which had been suspended in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, there is no direct reference to the terrible events in President Bush’s amiable though slightly awkward, and at times, repetitive description of the furniture, decorative objects and artwork in the Oval Office.
Büchel left An Oval Office Tour essentially unaltered, with no discernable trace of the artist’s hand. As a result, the tone feels unintentionally ironic – from Bush’s description of the president’s role as a uniter to his identification of wartime figures, President Eisenhower and Sir Winston Churchill, as his personal heroes.
In perhaps the most remarkable moment, the President describes the circular rug, designed by First Lady Laura Bush for the Oval Office, as making the room “an open and optimistic place.” Further, he describes the significance of the eagle’s head, oriented towards the talon clutching the olive branch, as indicative of America’s desire to embrace peace rather than war. As though complicit with the tongue-in-cheek nature of Büchel’s video, a smirking Bush quips, “Of course, it’s always important to make sure that we’ve got enough arrows in the talon to keep the peace.”
Widely regarded as one of the most influential photographers of his generation, Clark uses photography and film to explore the fringe of adolescent culture. In so doing, he bears witness to social truths that most of us find deeply troubling and difficult to countenance.
Clark first made his mark and established a cult-following with the publication of Tulsa, 1971, a limited edition artist book made up of raw, unflinching black and white images of teenagers shooting drugs, having sex and posing nonchalantly with guns.
About Tulsa, Clark said, “I knew in some way I was photographing things that were not supposed to be photographed. Forbidden things. It just happened to be things I was doing myself as an 18-year old. In a way, it’s a record of my secret teenage life.”
Over the forty-plus years since the publication of Tulsa, Clark has produced a full, compelling body of work, including other books (Teenage Lust, Larry Clark 1992, punk Picasso), individual photographic prints, videos and films (Kids, Another Day in Paradise, Bully, Ken Park).
Untitled (Kids) is comprised of stills from his debut film, Kids, a frenetic, no holds barred tale of a group of New York City teenage skateboarders “walking the AIDS tightrope.” The film, and the photographs in this exhibition, places the viewer in the prickly position of being compelled to look at things from which it would be easier to turn away.
As International Center of Photography curator, Brian Wallis wrote on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective in 2005, “Clark’s challenging work in photography and film, which addresses such socially relevant topics as teen violence, pornography, masculinity, censorship, and the influence of the media, will, we hope, afford viewers the opportunity to engage in a popular dialogue about these controversial issues. Few other artists have addressed these themes with such candor.”
Taryn Simon is a young, New York-based artist whose photographic projects such as The Innocents (2003), Contraband (2010) and most recently A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, which opened at Tate Modern in May 2011, record instances in which circumstance, rule of law, and politics collide – from examining cases in which death row inmates were wrongly convicted and the role photography played in their convictions, to documenting objects seized in customs or sent into the United States through the mail. Characteristically, her photographs do not immediately open themselves up to viewers despite their deadpan, documentary quality.
Nixon Gift Vault U.S. National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA) College Park, Maryland is part of An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar, a series which sought to document and make visible sites that we are unable to access, as well as those places that we might not have known to exist in the first place. Many of the photographs in this series exhibit a curious disconnect between the ominous nature of the location and their frank depictions. The forthright nature of the image is further underscored by the rather neutral text that accompanies each work.
From Simon’s accompanying text, we learn that post-Watergate the U.S. Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), which requires that all of Nixon’s materials – ranging from the infamous audio recordings to gifts as frivolous as a velvet portrait of the president or a dried-apple head Nixon doll made of plastic – be kept by the National Archives. The room itself could be mistaken for a well-maintained storage facility or filing room in any office across the country, and the well-lit, generic nature of the environment stands in contradistinction to the sordid documents and tapes we might imagine the archive to contain.
As an aside, the selection of this photograph is more personal than is ordinary for the Stones. Norman’s father, W. Clement Stone, a true American story of rags to riches and a proponent of “Positive Mental Attitude”, was a supporter of Nixon and a major contributor to his presidential election campaigns.
Moyra Davey is a Canadian-born, New York-based artist who was recently the subject of single person exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Basel and The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Davey was also a partner at Orchard, a three-year cooperative project in which artists, critics, historians and curators sought to present work by both established and lesser-known artists where historical and conceptual rigor, rather than marketability, were the defining criteria.
So, it is not unexpected, though perhaps ironic (given her Canadian background), that one of Davey’s most iconic bodies of work centers around the notions of value and exchange, using the lowest denomination of United States currency to do so.
Davey’s Copperhead series, of which eight examples are included in this exhibition, is a study of the penny, each photograph recording the obverse side featuring the profile of President Abraham Lincoln. In contrast to the ubiquity of the penny and its perceived inconsequential nature, Davey’s photographs keenly observe the erosion that is specific to each – from a hole that coincidentally resembles a gun shot wound, to gouges, dents and the wearing down of the relief image – as though questioning the viability of capitalistic values.
In aggregate, the 100 photographs that comprise the Copperhead series represent one dollar, far less than the paper on which they were printed, and certainly not representative of their exchange value in the framework of the art market.
Stephen Vitiello is an electronic musician and sound artist, currently living in Richmond, Virginia where he is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. In addition to his performances and sound installations, one of the most recent being the multi-channel A Bell for Every Minute which was installed at the High Line in New York, Vitiello has curated exhibitions and programs for The Kitchen, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon. As well, he has collaborated on a number of music, film, performance and dance projects with artists such as Steve Roden, Nam June Paik and Joan Jonas.
Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd was taped during the artist’s six-months residency on the 91st floor of World Trade Center’s Tower One, and was subsequently included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. As a “sound artist,” Vitiello must have been nonplussed to discover, upon arriving at his temporary studio, that the windows could not be opened and, complicating matters, that they were virtually soundproof. Ultimately, Vitiello employed contact microphones that he taped to the windows, likening the effect to that of a stethoscope that measured and recorded the life of the building and the pulse of the city below. In the audio work, we are able to detect the sound of church bells and sirens as well as a disconcerting cracking as the building sways in the aftermath of a powerful storm.
In light of the Al Qaeda attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and the ultimate collapse of the Twin Towers, Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings is not simply a soundscape of New York City. Rather, it is a marker of time, a poignant reminder of a city that was targeted as a symbol of American capitalist greed, power and influence; or as a beacon of freedom and democratic values, depending upon one’s perspective.
Note: This work is installed in the cottage near the Cady Noland Log Cabin.