Thursday, February 10, 2005
Yet Another Art Review -- from this week's Terminal City

"Little Thoughts Gone Astray"
by Christopher Brayshaw

Rodney Graham: A Little Thought
Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby
To May 8

Who is there that does not love a tree?
I planted one, I planted three.
Two for you and one for me.

-- Rodney Graham, Theme From the Phonokinetoscope

Rodney Graham's video loop, A Reverie Interrupted by The Police, begins with a convict, played by Graham, being led on stage by a uniformed policeman. Graham's job, at least for the loop's eight minute duration, is to sit at a piano and play, despite his hands being cuffed together. So play he does, sometimes fluidly, other times jaggedly or minimally, and, on occasion, angrily or resignedly, repeatedly opening and slamming the case shut to create some impromptu John Cage-style percussion. All the while, Graham keeps casting hilariously surreptitious looks back over his shoulder at his guard, looks that simultaneously announce, I'm fucked, and, Maybe if I just keep on going….

In actual fact, not much happens. The cop stands stolidly, chewing his moustache, outwardly unmoved by Graham's performance, escorting him off screen at the eight-minute mark, then back on again as the video loops. The piece's lush lighting and expressionistic camera angles invoke the basic conventions of narrative suspense, only to collapse them. Will Graham pull a gun out of the piano case? Will an anvil fall, beaning the cop on the head? After the second or third loop, you realise Graham's musical performance—flawed, halting, repetitive, made under desperately unhappy circumstances by an "artist" whose mind is obviously elsewhere—is the piece's real point, a brief burst of creativity worked out under tense and soul-trying circumstances. The video is alternately unsettling and touching, premised as it is on the notion that circumstances are awful, and unlikely to improve any time soon.

In a funny way, A Reverie lays out as clear a case for Rodney Graham's artistic importance as anything else in his career, which has largely been predicated on doing one thing after another, shifting subjects and media with every new project. Thus the film and video loops, costumes, and altered books, the faked art-historical works, paintings and drawings, the appropriated and rewritten texts, "lighting events," bookmarks and book sculptures, CDs and music videos and performances. Looking back at this variety, it's hard to dismiss the idea that these formal changes are attempts to avoid falling into a fixed way of doing things, or of acquiring a "signature style."

Like A Reverie's musical performance, Graham's career has high points (the book works; the photographs; most of the films and videos) and lows (the paintings and mixed-media drawings; the editioned objects based on the more complex films and videos), but what strikes you most, looking over the assortment of objects collected on the VAG's second and third floors, is the conceptual consistency of Graham's artistic inquiries, and the immediate pleasure his works provide.

Used with regard to contemporary art, pleasure is a funny word. Older art—a Manet bouquet, say, or a 16th century Dutch still life—pleases even as it instructs; the works' conceptual and sensuous qualities form an emulsion that cannot be easily separated into its constituent parts. Much contemporary art, on the other hand, desperately seeks to please its institutional patrons, critics, or potential purchasers. The conceptual and formal austerity of works by socially engaged artists like Michael Asher, Joseph Kosuth, or Art & Language is, in a sense, a reaction against a climate in which contemporary art is wholly integrated with fashion, entertainment, and consumer culture (Witness Takashi Murakami's designs for Louis Vuitton, or the co-option of Gillian Wearing's Signs That Say What You Want Them to Say into countless advertising campaigns).

So when I say that Graham's work pleases me, I mean that its humor, wide-ranging sources, and quirky formal qualities compel me to spend time with it, and that time, in turn, opens up space to reflect on things—my own behavior, say, or my relationship to nature—which the late capitalist culture I live in would prefer me to ignore.

These speculations, in turn, don't easily assimilate to any preexisting ideology; they're speculative, almost free-form, and perhaps this explains why Graham is unique in the long-term hold that his work has exerted over my imagination. There are individual works of art that move me far more than any work of Graham's—Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof paintings, say, or Vija Celmins' night skies, or Jeff Wall's Volunteer—but when pressed by friends or critics to name an exemplary contemporary artist, I almost always name Graham. He has undoubtedly inspired many local artists—Tim Lee comes to mind; so too, in a more sophisticated and tangential way, do Althea Thaugerber and Neil Wedman—but I can't imagine adopting him as a "model of practice," as I could Cindy Sherman, or Andreas Gursky, or the Bechers. There are just too many things going on at once in Graham's work. Imitating him would be like trying to catch a school of bright and skittish fish with a single pole.

Many of Graham's early works are "supplements" to preexisting texts or artworks that undercut their sources' authority, often in a hilariously direct way. In the book sculpture Dr. No, the Ian Fleming novel of the same name is displayed along with an extra, stainless steel page etched with a text by Graham "in the manner of" Fleming, which extends a scene in which James Bond lies in bed with a poisonous centipede into an endless loop wherein the centipede scurries over Bond's body again and again and again. Another book sculpture, Casino Royale, conceals a Fleming first edition within a metal housing that looks remarkably like a Donald Judd sculpture, converting the austere beauty of its Judd source into something altogether more craft-oriented, more furniture than sculpture.

Halcion Sleep, Graham's first performance featuring himself, grew out of a dissatisfaction with his appropriations of preexisting things. "Conceptual art opened up possibilities where I could work, collaborating with other people, having things made, supervising the production rather than making it myself. And for a while it was really liberating to work that way. Now I feel it's the end of a cycle for me," Graham told a Chicago Tribune interviewer in 1995

Halcion Sleep is a video document of a performance in which a drugged Graham, clad in an attractive set of striped pajamas, is driven from a budget suburban motel to his south Granville home. This silent, formally austere 26- minute piece is alternately comforting and deeply sad, evoking the nostalgic feeling of traveling in the back of your parents' car as a child, and, simultaneously, the hard-to-shake sense that the performance actually documents a one-way drive that will conclude in Graham's death.

Other highlights? The acid-drenched pop backing up The Phonokinetoscope's trippy ride through Berlin's Tiergarten. Loudhailer's sly nod at Stan Douglas' split-screen, out-of-synch extravaganzas. Aberdeen, a slide piece whose simplicity of execution is totally out of scale with its visual and musical complexity, proof that Graham's talent does not solely depend on expensive technology. And, finally, the Rodney Graham Band. Graham, Dave Carswell, and John Collins tore the roof off the Cambrian Hall last week, transforming Graham's wistfully orchestrated ‘60s tunes into a raucous, hour and a half set of buzzing power-pop. Graham looked a little startled and surprised by all the applause, but it was simply as sustained and generous as his own work.


Bernd and Hilla Becher, Water Towers (1980) Posted by Hello
Jeanne Siegel and Sherrie Levine in conversation:

"JS: Some of the serial paintings referred to games and gameboards such as checkers and backgammon, where repetition is identified both with optionality and the potentiality of play on the one hand and the impersonality of mass production on the other. You seem to have an ongoing and deeper involvement with games and play.

SL: For me, it's often more useful to think of artmaking as play rather than work. Fantasies of aggression and control have an interesting place there, I think that's one of the reasons that I've been so attracted to games as subject matter. Artists say we are working, because it's more adult and we want to get paid. But I often feel as if I'm playing.

JS: Play is essentially about socialization. It's a means to harness and control the expression of aggression.

SL: I can explore fantasies of control and transgression that I don't live out in my daily life. I'm in total control over my art production in a way that I can't control anything else. That makes the activity very seductive."


Ando Hiroshige's 36 Views of Mount Fuji (1858)

Robert Linsley's 100 Views of Mount Baker (excerpts)

Ando Hiroshige's 36 Views of Mount Fuji (1852)

Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji (excerpts)
Posted by Hello
Just finished: Stephen Shore, Uncommon Places: The Complete Works (Aperture).

Over a hundred pictures, most dating from 1973-6, taken with a Deardorff 8x10 view camera, on a succession of drives across the U.S. and (occasional) forays into Canada. These photographs have long been among my favorites, and having had a few days now to study them and Shore's own comments on them, I want to try to summarize why they've exerted such a long-term hold on me.

Nostalgia. The pictures accurately depict a landscape I rececognize from my book-buying trips to the western states. Any good used bookstore is inevitably located along a street like Vancouver's Kingsway -- the old highway or "business route" into or out of town, now bypassed by a more direct route. Hence strips like Portland's Barbur Boulevard, Seattle's Aurora Avenue, or Las Vegas' Hawethorne Boulevard. Decrepit motel, chain restaurant, "Oriental health enhancement centre," Goodwill, used car lot, pancake house, paperback exchange, Mexican restaurant, & etc.

The world as text. You apprehend photographs made with a view camera very slowly. It is the camera's nature to render every detail in its field of vision with complete legibility, and the photographs consequently include more information than anyone, including the photographer, can process at once. Commercial signage and graphic design is incorporated into these pictures as a kind of three-dimensional collage (e.g., Shore's "Sunset," or "Sidney Lust's Drive-In Theatre," whose texts appear flush with the picture plane, a la Ed Ruscha's paintings).

Architecture as symbolic form. Best illustrated by the Little Rock pictures, in which buildings of different decades and uses rub shoulders. Shore's photographing them doesn't alter them in any way, but his framing of them compels me to study them more closely, thereby noting their internal differences.

The world's beauty. Clouds reflecting off the hoods in a Sault Ste. Marie parking lot. The swoop of a concrete road divider in Texas, a wedge-shaped chunk of space as effective, in its way, as a Gordon Matta-Clark "slice." Ginger Shore's terrifically alert eyes. Tangles of electrical wires and rooftops, all blue skies and roiling clouds above. "John F. Kennedy said: 'Art is Truth'" (double echoes: Eggleston (framing) and Evans ("Art School")).

Why the 8x10? It makes the photographer step back, and, in doing so, notice more things. The subject of the composition is not singular, but a plethora of objects, some of which, by definition, will escape the photographer's attention. Thus the "aesthetic surplus," or pictorial content that exceeds the photographer's initial intention. 35mm, by contrast, involves the photographer's physical proximity to a subject (Eggleston, again). When I get my point-and-shoot Pentax contact sheets back from London Drugs, I find them full of failed images, whose subjects (mountains; mushrooms; signs) are too small, because I haven't gotten close enough to them. By contrast, the "successful pictures" are uncomfortable to make, because to shy me, they feel as if I've had to thrust the camera, a la Garry Winogrand, in my proverbial subject's face.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Off to make a landscape photograph.

Lower Mainland Road Atlas, 3 rolls of ASA 100 film, Translink February 2005 bus pass, Pentax point-and-shoot, patience.

(No mention here of that one-line-putdown maestro who, late last week, opined from his ivory tower that the worst thing about asking a critic for an artwork was that you might actually get it. Yes, you might).

Mountain Equipment Co-Op Snowshoes -- coming soon to feet near you.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Ronald Johnson, recommended yesterday by Hotel Point:

"The weather -
the criticism
- and the years.

in flowers.

in snow and ice."

To an estate call on Langley's Zero Avenue. A little wood stove-heated cabin packed with mystery pocket books (5000+).

Back home along Zero Avenue. Up over a hill, sunlit hills, bare trees, frost still on the ground.

Koma Kulshan's high white slopes.

The Nicomekl River valley.

Mount Robie Reid, brought forward in space by the cold.

Monday, February 07, 2005
Yet Another Art Review -- from this week's Terminal City

Weird Science
by Christopher Brayshaw
Aurel Schmidt
Kenny Roux
Antisocial Gallery,
2425 Main St
To February 15

Though Antisocial skate shop is one of my closest neighbours, I hardly ever go in, and when I do it's always surprising to see how large the gallery at the back of the shop really is. Two galleries, actually: one a kind of dimly-lit transitional space behind the offices with a rumbling, ceiling-mounted furnace, scuffed dark walls, and boxes and skateboard decks piled in the corner; the other the "proper" gallery, always chilly, with its bumpy concrete floor, white walls, and small, high windows.

I mention these things only because they are largely invisible or missing at other galleries in town. The CAG, the Or, and the VAG's big highwall galleries are variations on a white cube that cocoons anything exhibited within it in an air of luxurious silence and quasi-religious mystery, an atmosphere purchased from the Canada Council, provincial government, and assorted private donors. Antisocial's gallery, so far as I can tell, is entirely funded by the skateboard business up front, and the sounds of commerce that do leak back into the galleries above the whoosh of the furnace—the music on the sound system; the hum of conversation; the phone; the cash register, the click of skateboard wheels on the floor—underscore how precarious spaces like this really are, run on little or no money and the goodwill of staff, volunteers, and landlords. Some would say this close contact with commerce compromises the works shown there. I disagree. I think that Main Street exhibition spaces like Antisocial, Xeno, and Eugene Choo lay out the economic forces sustaining them far more transparently than your typical commercial or public gallery, and I admire the Antisocial staff both for their quixotic bravery (no business exhibiting contemporary art in Vancouver is getting rich) and ideological transparency.

Antisocial's current show pairs Aurel Schmidt's paintings and drawings with an installation by Kenny Roux. The tone of Schmidt's show is set by an enormous black-on-white picture of an explosion: part black hole, part Big Bang, part star isolated against the white field of a radiotelescope's display screen. This arresting, jagged image, which looks much like Jay DeFeo's Rose redrawn by Raymond Pettibon, is the best work in her exhibition, and none of Schmidt's other pieces come close to matching it in terms of sheer graphic impact. The rest of her contributions consist of a series of biologically-derived gestural motifs: painted "molds"; "spores"; "cells"; protozoa; chemical reactions, subatomic particles busily tunneling away inside space-time. Her drawings and paintings are aggregations of these standard units–blobby molds, big, fat earthworm-shapes built up out of graphite crosshatching–lumped together on top of each other, spilling willy-nilly across the surface of a piece of paper or a wooden panel. There are also a few watercolor drawings of jagged symmetrical forms–crystals? Big Bang residue? –that are noteworthy because of their presencelessness; they are barely there, like whispers punctuating the more cluttered works' brassy exuberance.

I like Schmidt's drawings' largely restrained color, and the quieter, more airy works, in which passages of unpainted paper or flat white acrylic "negative space" define a few well-chosen forms. It's harder to draw distinctions between the more heavily collaged drawings, other than to note that they seem to lose force the more built-up they become. The best consist of just graphite, and maybe one or two other colors—white, plus some green watercolor, the color of swamp murk, of pond scum, or seashore ooze. These drawings feel tenuous, but in exactly the right way—they carry abstraction's long history in every gesture.

In the 1980s DC comic Swamp Thing, written by British wonderkind Alan Moore, a bunch of chemicals and scientist Alec Holland go into a swamp. Out comes the Swamp Thing, a botanical group-mind trying to pretend it's a man. Schmidt's paintings seem to me to aggressively rework the Swamp Thing narrative, with abstract expressionism playing the role of Alec Holland, and postmodernism's "notorious lightning" playing the role of the chemicals liberating Holland's consciousness even as it burns his body away. Or, to put it differently: late Greenbergian criticism's requirement that abstraction purge itself of all connections to the world was not well-received by painters, who, ever since, have been trying to sneak little pieces of the world back inside abstraction, as if folding fillings into handmade ravioli. Schmidt's biomorphic abstraction is another step in this multi-decade attempt to reconcile abstraction with representational painting, and a successful one at that.

Ken Roux's light projection is subtler than Schmidt's paintings and drawings; so subtle, in fact, that I missed it on the way in, despite the fact that it was deliberately pointed out to me. But I took a good look on my way back out, and could hardly leave for looking. A huge bulky black shape hangs from the ceiling of the transitional gallery: an agglomeration of cardboard boxes, painted black and held together with duct tape. Grilles have been cut into the cardboard, allowing light from bulbs concealed inside to leak out and strike the gallery wall, where they form a series of patterns: a curiously doubled comet shape; a crystal spray; a series of short horizontal lines resembling a diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light, being free, has hardly the same provenance as more traditional art materials like bronze, or oil paint, or rag paper. This makes it easy to miss Roux's work at first, or to mistake his projections for stray drifts of sunlight leaking in through the room's high windows. But once you trace the light back to its source in the huge projecting box overhead, you realize the work’s subtlety and originality. I have never seen anything quite like Roux's installation before, and I admire it both for its serene beauty and severe economy of means.

Sunday, February 06, 2005
XAMPP -- free plug-and-play Windows-compatable development stack comprising Apache Server, PHP, MySQL, and tons of handy utilities. I'm using it to build a simple database of the overstock paperbacks, but it could be easily adapted to other uses. Find the excellent article that originally got me to the download here.

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