Curator's Note: The One Series was a sequence of 28, one work, solo exhibitions. We hosted small, salon-style gatherings every evening of the 28 days. Spending a couple of hours with one work per night among an interested audience was an extraordinary experience. In a sense this process reminded me how to look at artwork, or at least how I want to look at it. I want to take some time with a work, refrain from judgement, open to being changed by it. -Emily Farranto
Spiderwebs are beautiful. They are especially
arresting when abandoned and covered in dew. Like rainbows, almost everyone agrees they are beautiful. But unlike rainbows, spiderwebs serve a function; they are traps. I suppose what makes spiderwebs so
visually enticing is the complexity of the pattern and the fine-lined translucence
of the material. They can also be admired for their brilliant engineering and yet they are temporary.
You could immediately
identify this installtion as three large spiderwebs, but the material was unclear
without closer inspection. Glass beads were strung on some fine, but irregular
translucent material that was in fact made of plastic wrap spun on a drop
spindle. Viewer after viewer asked, How
long did this take? I don’t believe that this work necessarily took more time to make
than a lot of other artworks and yet it seemed to solicit this question again and again. Like
spiderwebs in nature, these webs seemed to represent time itself and labor. But
unlike natural webs these served no function. Because of this they seem
emblematic of the labor of art.
Why would someone create
this? Why do we make art? This piece brings to mind questions about the
practice and function of art, but it seemed to invite more associative
readings than formal. The conversation drifted more naturally to biology than
to other artists. I asked the artist, because it wasn’t easily identifiable to
me, about precedent works. She
mentioned a sculpture by Eva Hesse titled Right After at the Milwaukee Museum of art. I also found common ground in the
work of Berndnaut Smilde, especially the cloud forms. Nature, but not.
After the reception, and
after we had revisited the space with a small group of people and talked for a
while about the piece, I drove by the gallery. We had not cleaned up the
glasses or wine bottles or put away the chairs. It was night and the lights inside were low. It was at this moment that the piece seemed fully realized to me––the two endeavors, creative and natural overlapping with us like in nature. Spider webs do look
like some sort of measure of time, the radial strands like the hands of a
clock. They represent time and what it has abandoned. I parked the car and
looked in the window at this peculiar scene in the half-light: the circle of empty chairs, the debris, the drooping webs sparking overhead. I thought of the
circular, lilting melody of the title, about passing an afternoon discussing
art, these strange and pretty things we do before we’re gone.
This was a statue of a
horse. But then it wasn’t exactly a horse. Or this horse was a little off. This
whole piece was a little off. It was fantastic.
I cannot figure out why this
piece was so satisfying. So I looked for images of bronze sculptures of horses.
First of all this was not bronze; it was stainless steel. The base was spelt
maple, a wonderful detail. Second, this work didn’t really look like the
sculptures that came up in my image search. Its legs were stumpy. Its body
looked more like a dog, some kind of pointer. There were balls but the penis
seemed to be missing or extremely retracted. His anus was exaggerated. His lips
were slightly human and curled like Billy Idol’s signature snarl. Its jaw line
was exaggerated and in fact his face resembled testicles and a penis (see for
I am falling into straight description, I know. But every detail of
this work delivered something. I don’t know what any of it meant. But it was
funny and strange and I haven’t seen a work like it before.
There was an article by
Jordan Kantor in the November 2004 issue of ARTFORUM called “The Tuymans
Effect”. It named “…distinctively crude rendering, his chalky palette and limited
chromatic range, his use of photographic and filmic sources and cropping techniques…” as some characteristics of the artist’s work and
subsequently the work of some of his admirers.
I can see the influences in
this the piece titled Daisies Never Tell. I see Tuymans of course and Marlene Dumas. In the installation
approach I recognize Karen Kilimnick and Elizabeth Peyton. There is nothing
wrong with building a vocabulary based on the work of established
professionals. But I also believe that in every artist is the capacity for
unique solutions and a voice that can be attributed to none other than the
A writer and friend I admire
very much once said, regarding influence—and I’m definitely paraphrasing here––to copy the writer you admire, to follow him to the edge of the pier and then push him in.
An artist I met only once
but had a wonderful conversation with had moved from Istambul to New York. She
said something like, as an artist you must leave your family. Then, she
clarified that you did not have to become estranged. You just needed to get far
enough to escape their expectations and limitations.
So I am thinking about
parentage, not biologically but creatively. There were moments in this piece I
started to see the distinctive voice of the artist. There were those odd and
interesting canvases with rope pictograms. There was a small sort of
aqua-colored portrait. Clearly the artist can paint. Then there were several canvases that were difficult to
invest myself in because I felt that the artist was not truly invested in them. This artist, I guessed, is more sincere, more complex,
and more unique in her perspective than some of the paintings indicate.
I imagined that the
creative parents of this artist say, Wilhelm Sasnal and Kaye
Donachie (sharing Luc Tuymans as a recent ancestor), were present in the gallery. I wanted to approach them
politely, thank them for all they have done and, on behalf of the artist, show
them to the end of the pier.
requires my participation often suffers from an uncooperative audience.
didn’t ask a lot. The statement instructed me to use the paper fortune teller
toy. Chose a letter: N-O-L or A. Choose a number. Lift a flap to find a word or
“impression." I found the word “ETOUFFEE”. What does the impression
make you think of or remind you of? The instruction sheet asked. Record your
story/recollection in the diary provided. I wrote a page in the diary saying something to the
effect that Ignatius (a nearby restaurant) had good etouffee and that they were
on the verge of getting their liquor license for four years.
that suffered from my resistance was the final instruction to discuss this with
others in the gallery. I didn’t want to talk about etouffee. I did not want to talk about
Mardi Gras, or Hurricane Katrina either. In New Orleans there are plenty of
opportunities to talk about our city. I wanted to talk about art. I tried to
talk about this artrwork but it was difficult—maybe because of my own poor
Biology is amazing. And sometimes a little icky. This piece, a sequence of four loaf-like ceramic forms, brought to mind ocean life, plants, or mushrooms. They also recalled the body, microscopic views of tumors or cells.
They walked the line between alluring and repulsive. At first I favored the two that were asymmetrical, finding them more interesting. The symmetry, glazing and the decorative layout on the others were, I thought, too neutralizing of that tension between attraction and repulsion. I concluded too quickly that this contrast was the point. The ones that were ickier were more difficult, and difficult was more interesting. Then, my eye, without my permission, started straying to the ones I had decided were inferior.
Does the level of difficulty determine the worth of an artwork? Is it better if it is more difficult, slower to be liked? Slower to be liked by whom? Is something decorative more easily dismissed by contemporary art viewers? By me maybe. But in this case the decorative element might have been the more subversive. Why do we value subversion? I was falling into a rabbit hole with this work.
I guess that when I look at a work I want to be attracted. I want that attraction drawn out. I want to be interested, intellectually. I want that interest drawn out. I want artwork to question me and question itself and the established order of aesthetics. But as soon I lay this all down I want to be proven wrong.
This piece was a pinhole
photograph printed digitally on Arches.
In minimal language it suggested a shoreline, a couple of subtle waves,
a jetty. I was drawn to the waves, the way they were paused. The photograph was
nostalgic, romantic, and personal. I wanted to be close to it, enter it. But it
was framed in painted wood and cardboard and Plexiglas so that there were more
presentation elements than pictorial. The framing kept me on the gallery side
of the glass.
Other viewers and I
discussed the process of converting a pinhole photograph to a digital print and
framing it. Someone presented this possibility: a pinhole photograph is the
unique result of using a handmade camera with a little hole and no lens. The
artist has taken a pinhole photograph, then cropped or cleaned it up, printed
it digitally, and then matted and framed it. Maybe the artist was visibly
abandoning the most basic analog process for digitalization and then further
burying it in presentation. I don’t know–– I don’t think this work is asking to
be read as conceptual.
Another point on the subject
of presentation was brought up by different artist: We have to protect and
preserve our work, especially when it is being shipped and installed. Thus the
But I am left with what I
see. This photograph has much in common in the artist’s work as I know it: nostalgic,
quiet, utilizing a kind of pictorial reduction. I don’t think this piece is
asking for a lot of dissection. It simply offers a moment, a tone, a view to
experience. I just wished for more access to it.
A fish, a fossil, a bubble or pearl. Lagniappe: a little
something extra, a little something for free. Lithography is a process of oil
I saw a story of a marine catastrophe. I saw oily fingerprints. I saw an oyster’s pearl in the mouth of a mutated fish. Or I
might have seen a moment of evolution, a fish learning to fly, a pearl of
wisdom. A little something extra. Or––
This was a wonderfully complex image, full of marks both readable
and abstract. They were varied but in accord. I appreciated the quiet of this piece, its resistance to
definition. I have thought many times recently that the unique gift of visual
arts is the potential to create silence or to encourage stillness in the
viewer. I don’t feel like talking much about it, which is maybe another gift of
this piece. (If you only see it only online you will miss a lot.)
I watched this video for
total of about an hour or an hour and a half. But I am looking at it again
online. So I am writing this in the present tense.
A series of American vistas
framed by grey and blue nylon. Like Bernd and Hilla Becher you see the
variation because of what stays the same. What stays the same is the opening of
the tent, a sort of rounded square shape, irregular on one side where the door
flap is neatly tied. There are also two small rectangular windows in the two
top corners. After a few times through the almost seven minute loop you begin
to watch the landscape change through these subservient frames. Many of the
views are impressive. National
Parks of the West maybe. The vistas
are so sublime and the tent so…sporty. These two visual elements are share the
frame but are never reconciled exactly. I am reminded of the Gore-Tex-clad
portraits of Karel Funk, the natural and synthetic butting up against each
The first several locations
are likely camping spots: flat, dry, high ground. Then, the tent hovers just
above a flowing river; we know this is a departure from the reality of camping.
The tone is not quite serious, or not quite taking itself seriously. A sign
reads “NO camping beyond this point”
then the tent faces a chain link fence that guards a drop off (No camping
beyond this point). A dog looks into the tent. There is a man with a metal
detector on the beach. These shots are somehow funny.
When the tent begins to drag
backward we know for sure we have departed from any likely camping scenario. This
becomes more than a sequence of views from a pitched tent. It is implausible
(you don’t usually move a tent more than a few feet this way) It also resembles
the view of a person being held under the arms and dragged. It’s a helpless or
wounded posture. Or it’s the point of view of an inanimate object.
At one point the tent
swivels abruptly, correcting the view from one framed tree to two. At this
moment the opening of the tent most resembles the viewfinder of a video camera
on a tripod. Does the video address camping or making art? Are they
related? Are they parallel? Is it
making an analogy? The camper sets up the tent, chooses the direction it faces
conscious of the light, the view. The artist sets up the lens with some of the
same criteria. But the element of dragging the view proposes a puzzle I cant
quite complete. Which is probably good.
And Restless. What is the
restlessness named in the title? Do people camp out of restlessness? I don’t
think so, even if they change locations frequently. Maybe this is the
restlessness that propels a person who enjoys both camping and recording but is
unable to settle in and enjoy either process. Or maybe, and most interestingly, restlessness is not a
driving force but a dragging force that moves it all impatiently in the
opposite direction of the ideal view.
In the center of this
painting there was a pink shed, or hut, as it was referred to in the
title. However, my eyes did not
rest long on this title passage of the painting.
I looked at the sky because
it was subtle and gorgeous and occupied slightly more than half the picture
plane. I looked at the dark mound of earth because of its strange shape,
contrasting tone, and its position in the foreground. The few trees articulated
with improbably dark singular brush strokes called my attention to them,
especially those creating a net-like pattern on the left edge. Then, a small,
red rectangular shape in the lower right corner, repeatedly drew my attention
to its incongruity. And I wanted to look into the vague and strangely lit
distance because I always seek this point in landscape paintings.
My gaze did not rest on the
hut. In fact, it seemed to bump into the hut on its way to other passages of
the painting. The hut actually seemed to block passage beyond it. I found myself
wondering about the focal point or focal points. And I found myself thinking about Wallace
Steven’s Anecdote of a Jar.
I placed a jar in
And round it was, upon a
It made the slovenly
Surround that hill.
The gaze wouldn't linger on the jar with the complex wilderness around. Mine wouldn't rest on the hut.
The sky, the distance and the hut are described without the slightly frantic texture of the rest of the painting. And its strange that a scene so still should also be so agitated, as if the viewer/painter cannot stop focusing on individual blades of grass or branches or leaves against the notion of a singular focus.
One more thing I wanted to think about was the format. This landscape painting was not horizontal (the format most common to the genre), and it was not quite square (Klimt painted square landscapes but I cannot thing of many others); it was vertical by one inch. I had no idea what to make of this but I think that it contributed to the slightly uneasy experience of looking at the painting for an hour. At first I thought I knew what I was looking at but I became less and less sure.
Incidentally, the painting arrived nearly an hour into the two hours it was scheduled to be on view. It was rushed to the gallery, unpacked, hung, lit, and adjusted in front of its audience. It was something to see this small painting become the focal point, making the gallery surround it.
I was looking at this drawing a while when someone said the word “fizzy” regarding the multitude of tiny circles concentrated on the drawing’s right side. That’s right, I thought, it’s sonic. This drawing is like sound. But how was it achieving this effect? Though it was non-representational, my first association after seeing a digital reproduction was The Blue Angels, the US Navy’s flying acrobatic team. If you have ever heard jets training overhead, you know the noise. I imagined a jet’s roar from falling jet-like forms on the left and a kind of popping from the hundreds of circles. Then I remembered the title. Ah yes...
The medium appeared to be ballpoint pen and marker on what looked like Bristol board. I wanted to see the surface of this drawing, which was behind glass. Even more, I wanted to see the drawing without the black frame. White maybe? I imagine that without the frame the effect of falling and floating and the impression of sound and movement, would be more effective.
How to hang a drawing. This is always a problem to solve. Every solution presents a condition that becomes part of the work. In this case the use of non-precious media and the visual imposition on the drawing by the frame would argue for the drawing to be hung directly on the wall. I am harping on this only because after thirty minutes in front of the drawing the piece became more and more optically effective, seemed to expand. Seemed to make noise. It had a huge wall onto which its interesting afterimage could be projected. Part of the afterimage was that rectangle holding it back, holding in the sound that wanted to reverberate.
can provide an excellent vocabulary for addressing the strain of our physical
existence.The passages of this painting I enjoyed looking at the most were those
where I sensed a struggle between the artist, the paint, and the subject. There were intersections where the
strain of the subject (hunched over, working with out-dated technology, looking
away from the task he is engaged in) and the strain of the painter
(articulating an arm, a hand) met and these were, for me, the most engaging
passages in the work. Paintings, especially portraits, remind us that we live
in the flesh.
The piece was
comprised of nine black and white hand-painted American flags on which the artist
has embroidered passages of the behavior management manual for prisoners at
The aspect of this work that I wanted most to dwell on was the
stitched lettering. The labor of this task was the heart of the artist’s vigil
for these prisoners. This gesture must have become tedious to pursue. But she did. We can
see that time passed and the artist approached the task in different states of
mind; sometimes the stitching is tight and the lettering small, other times the
letters are more crudely and loosely rendered.
I have a hard time
with overtly political art. Politics is something I want to engage in with
reason. The history of
political art is rife with propaganda and not always for the good guys. I go to
the visual arts for something else. I want ambiguity. I want tenderness. I want
a language that disrupts clarity. Some artists, like Francis Alÿs, manage to
apply small human gestures to huge political situations. I do not really want to engage the flags (that tired, and loaded symbol) and the fact that the passages are selected from the manual, well, this editing suggested to me—against what I believe to be true––that taken as a whole and taken in context, the manual is not so bad.
For me, the power in this piece is in the small, human gesture of the stitching. This act alone is quiet, unique, sustained. It is human and effective. A woman sewing (or
writing, like Akhmatova) for a man (or in this case men) in political prison is an old but always poignant story. I also think of the line from Allan Ginsberg’s
Howl, which is repeated several times: “I am with you in Rockland.” I believe the artist is saying this: in all of the humiliations and absurdities and institutionalized discomforts, I am with you.
To look, to
see, to glimpse, to glance, to notice, to observe. The experience of sight is
remarkable. This of course is an understatement. It has to be because it is a
statement and how could language relate the experience of one of the senses?
painting, smaller than a sheet of typing paper, held my attention for two
hours. My eyes never grew tired of looking at it because it continued to yield
a changing optical experience. The background would push forward then seem to
recede. I say background yet his is an abstract painting. Until its not. There
is the suggestion of space here, there is distance, more distant distance.
There is a horizon. There is the impression of a centered form. There is
a form in front of this one though it seems to be moving. A wave, maybe?
I see a
boat, a ship. And then, I can’t not see this form as a ship, this painting as
nautical. But it continues to change. There is a push and movement of
atmosphere. There is the light from the farthest distance pushing through to
the surface of the painting. There is almost the impression of wave-like
motion. How can this be as there is not a recognizable form in the painting?
When I saw
paintings by John Constable in London I was overtaken by their strangeness. It
was not the just image but the way the surface of the painting seem to change
as I looked at it, change in the corner of my eye as I looked away. This almost
created the sensation of the drastic weather that the painting portrayed. Or
Corot, the way the trees in his paintings always seem to be moving. The light
patches of paint on the surfaces of these paintings feel like sunlight passing through leaves
on a windy day. Or Turner whose land and seascapes more abstract than
representational. They seem to manufacture light.
painting uses an abstract vocabulary to render (as I see it) light, space,
movement, and atmosphere. This painting gives me the easy satisfaction of
looking at a landscape painting and the uneasiness of not knowing what I see.
I must also
mention the wonderful, irregular, edges of this painting. You have to see them.
They render this painting an object as well as an image. There is not an inch
of this painting that is not disorienting and wonderful. I have written this in
the present tense because the two hour exhibition of this painting is over but
I can’t stop looking at it..
June 15 Edgar Smith Opportunity to Milltown, Milltown to Opportunity
Part of the point and pleasure of this series of exhibitions is
engage in sustained looking. I arrived at this exhibition late, with only 20
minutes or so to see the work. The conversation had also run it’s course and
appeared to be winding down. I asked the person who was deinstalling to email copies
of the statement and two other pages that were included on the wall of the
piece. The piece was complicated. It required an effort of reading and
decoding. When I received the pdf of the statement text could not be enlarged
enough to read without pixilating. In other words, I missed the piece. It was
over. There was no way I could, from looking at the photographs I had taken and
reading the statement (if I could have read the statement) have had anything
but an remote and intellectual experience of the work.
Last night after a long day I sat down with last month’s issue of ARTFORUM. As I flipped through the pages, not really
reading anything, I realized how often we approach artwork peripherally and
intellectually. If you are not in the room with a piece of visual art it cannot
truly reach you. I wanted to write that and see if I believed this statement.
When we look at ARTFORUM, see work online, salivate over gorgeous artist books
or catalogues we are in a way sustained but not nourished. If you are a student
or if you teach, if you don’t live in a location with a profusion of galleries and
museums, you seek art in reproductions because you are hungry for it. But I am
considering this possibility: If we accept, even subconsciously, that looking at ARTFORUM is engaging
in art we miss the real experience of looking at art, which necessarily happens
live and in person and with time.
As long as I am not living there I will miss the museums of New
York. I miss the option of seeing work at David Zwirner each month. I miss
the big exhibitions and the small shows. But I am beginning to think that I
should not try to fill the void with anything other than artwork, real artwork, live and in
When I was teaching at a two different schools in upstate New York I had two distinct student populations. At the university, my students had come from all over but many were from downstate New York including the city. The majority of students at the liberal arts college were from rural areas in upstate New York and if I remember correctly one or two had ever been to New York City. On the morning of September 11, 2001 and the day after I met with both classes in the wake of that day’s infamous events. The reaction of the students at the college was remote compared to the university students who knew the World Trade Center, had a sense of its scale, a sense of location and in some cases, an attachment to it. It was almost as if the students who were familiar with the towers more quickly understood the magnitude of those events. The students who had no prior knowledge of them were equipped only with TV image of the tiny parallel lines issuing a cloud of smoke. Buildings where they belong. Buildings as images removed from their surroundings.
It was interesting to sit in a gallery in New Orleans and look at an image of the Empire State Building. I had seen this painting before the exhibition, I had looked at the title, I know the biography of the artist, and I used to live in New York and not many other cities. When I think of towers I don’t think of Toronto or Cleveland or Tokyo. Therefore, I knew that this was the top of the Empire State Building. Other viewers saw the top of the space needle. One person saw a giant robot finger. In other words, this was an abstract image. The identifiable forms that emerge from an abstract image have everything to do with our perspective.
Speaking of perspective, someone pointed out that the perspective seemed to be directly across from and at the same height as the tower. I knew that the view painted represented the view from the artist’s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel which is much lower. And speaking of perspective, there were artists and writers at the exhbition. After sitting a while in front of the painting, after a discussion about the Empire State Building, the painters began to read the material, the method. The writers began to think more about the point of view, the person who held the point of view, the setting, the story.
As for method, the stretched linen was primed in gesso then covered with cadmium red. The image was drawn, wiped into the paint revealing the stained gesso underneath. There weren’t brushstrokes or a wide palette or a complicated composition to decode. We had an image, possibly abstract until we read the title. The artist was not asking us to engage in a long conversation about method. He was positioning us in front of an icon. The icon as it appeared in his own story,
Speaking of stories we had on hand a copy of the artist’s memoir, Jubilee City: A Memoir at Full Speed. More than a couple of us had read the book and so we could not help but project these stories onto the painting. I had also brought a catalogue of some of the artist’s other work, mostly horses, also painted in monochrome and similarly devoid of background, or to put it another way, inlaid on a background that at times nearly swallows the image.
What does it mean to paint a building without its right angles and straight lines? You take something enormous, iconic, belonging to everyone’s imagination and you trace its image into paint. This renders the icon your own. And what role do the stories and the artist's own visual record play in the reading of the present work? Maybe this building and the horses and the stories rendered a quotidian vocabulary are all part of one story. Individually, there may not be enough vocabulary or artistry or intention to pin down the meaning or motive of this single painting of a building. But seen as part of a whole, we see a life: one person, one perspective telling one set of stories.