Monday, October 8, 2012

Tatsuya Nakatani & Vanessa Skantze at DUNCE.

              It’s been a while since I had the urge to vomit. To turn my insides out, and start messing around with my own entrails. Yet such was the case last Monday at DUNCE, during Tatsuya Nakatani and Vanessa Skantze’s jarring performance.
            Donning a coat of rags consisting of torn scraps of fabric, Skantze teetered through the audience in a seizure-induced stride, until reaching the stage. Proceeding to twitch and convulse, she eventually collapsed, just barely clinging to her paralysis. Abandoned, slivers of percussion eventually stirred her, as Nakatani unfurled his artillery of noisemakers. Emerging slowly, twine-like dreadlocks cast cobweb shadows onto the wall.
            Meanwhile Nakatani unleashed a cacophony of noises evoking nails-on-a-chalkboard, and the opening of the heavens. Laboring on other instruments, he sawed cymbals with violin bows, dragged fingernails along drums, pounded gongs, and delicately tapped temple bells and chimes with chopsticks.
           Skantze’s personae, dredged up from the depths of a primordial soup, thrashed and seized, while teetering on the brink of a cataclysmic abyss. Her pale skin encrusted with paste, was lizard-like and brought to mind the Marat de Sade’s excruciating suffering. Here was a woman who’d lost it all, survived the apocalypse and was clinging to the faintest glimmers of existence, while writhing about in her own chthon.  And when her life-force surged, she sputtered and slashed, gasping for air, as sinews of flesh peeled from her acrid body and shards of mantle swung wildly about.
           Skantze equaled any number of femmes fatales – from the Classical medusa to the medieval witch. Above all Kiki Smith’s iconic ‘Tale” came to mind. Just thirty minutes of this harrowing spectacle left the audience utterly depleted and traumatized to their core.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Tip of the Iceberg. Video Art at UMOCA.

        Not since the construction of City Creek Center has there been such a racket on West Temple. Eight videos in UMOCA’s summer exhibition Cantastoria are creating quite a ruckus in the usually hushed galleries, as a cacophony of chanting, giggling and clicking converges in the subterranean galleries. For those accustomed to more traditional media, video can be bewildering, if not outright alienating. This, I suspect, has something to do with the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt.” As the preeminent mode of communication for most folks, the video stream looms so large in the American psyche, that anything other than the status quo is often unwelcome. Luckily, the works in Cantastoria tread gently. They don’t project agitprop onto building facades (see Krzysztof Wodiczko), or onto tormented little effigies (Tony Oursler). We are not required to deconstruct the baroque gesticulations of Bill Viola, or the primal chants of Bruce Nauman. No, the works on view at UMOCA are enough to get our feet wet, but not crack our brains. In fact, most works employ a static, documentary-style shot that projects an ‘invisible window’ onto the world, much like TV. Unlike TV, there is no staging, and editing is kept to a minimum.

Indeed, most of the videos in Cantastoria are married to the performance they document, rather than the specificities of the medium. “Exercise” by Lucia Nimcova (2007) showcases senior citizens in Slovakia who re-enact daily exercise routines that were introduced as a national health program by the State. As such, the works present a concept of the body that is inscribed by political ideology, while offering a window into communist life. No attempt is made to idealize the protagonists’ bodies, their shapes contrast those of American sport icons. Nor do they exercise in high-tech studios or gyms, but in modest homes, offices and churches. A train conductor does arm lifts from a baggage rail, a woman does sit-ups on her couch, housewives in headscarves and smocks touch their toes. Clearly the act of revisiting these movements triggers happy memories. As they giggle and chuckle, their pleasure is contagious (to the viewer) and forms an instant connection which transcends our demonized view of communism. This stands in sharp contrast to the highly regimented nature of our own form of exercise, and presents new connections between the body and freedom, health and happiness.

“The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow, 2009documents a series of vignettes performed by the “man of 10000 sound effects,” Michael Winslow. Armed with only a microphone, headphones and his superhuman mouth, we watch as Winslow stretches and contorts his mandible to mimic the sounds of typewriter machines built between 1895 and 1983. The result is comparable to the a capella acrobatics of Bobby McFerrin. Yet Winslow essentially automates himself, transforming himself into a robot of sorts. This reading is tempered by the artist’s own foibles, as he spits, sputters and gasps through the performance.

While Winslow works his way through the typewriter models, the sentence he ‘types’ remains unchanged : “The History of the Typewriter Recited by Michael Winslow, 2009. Because the sentence doesn’t change, the audience is able to decipher unique sounds that distinguish each model. The results range from the choppy slam of keys on a rubber roller, to the sleeker muffles of ‘noiseless’ electronic machines. As such, the work is not only a paean to the more mechanistic side of twentieth century business life (predating the sleek screens of today), but pays tribute to a buried dimension of the office that must have characterized modern working life. The work’s circuitousness presents a conundrum; the object under consideration is conspicuously absent, yet is beautifully resurrected in the intersection of text and sound.

A solo-exhibition of Christian Jankowski’s “Casting Jesus” (2011) documents a real-life casting call hosted by papal officiates in the Roman Vatican. Not since the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) have a group of men gathered to discuss the image of Christ with such ... devotion.  Critiquing various actors who’ve answered ‘the call’ to portray Him, we witness the reenactment of iconic New Testament moments in the story of Christ. Barefoot and bearded, the contenders feign piety and pathos not from any inherent religiosity, but to appease the selection committee and land a job. Such a transparent window into the machinations of the Vatican leaves even this Jew wondering : is nothing sacred?  The results are definitely camp. (Or, in Utah parlance, ‘inappropriate.’) Unfortunately, we all know the outcome. For, despite the candidates’ efforts, Christianity is like a game show : there can be only one that rises to the top.

As the reaction of committee members shifts from applause to disapproval, the subjective nature of their comments becomes evident; they are no more experts in the life of Christ than we are. In this way, another reality starts to dawn. Jesus is no more the embodiment of the Truth than a cultural construction carefully gerrymandered by religious leaders. For devotees of the moral majority, to say nothing of the Holy See and Pontificate, this conclusion is nothing short of scandalous. As such, UMOCA should be congratulated for bringing us such potentially contentious work. And yes, cracking our brains just a little.

Unlike the above works, which document performances by artists or the public, Omer Fast’s CNN Concatenated (2002) intervenes with the video stream to form a collage of sorts. Specifically, second-long frames from a CNN broadcast, each the length of a single word, are isolated and then reassembled to form whole, lengthy sentences. Initially appearing incoherent, the words stutter along while the journalist, background and NYSE ticker leap from frame to frame. While these elements remain in flux, various phrases in the dialogue start to surface and repeat themselves until we eventually see the forest through the trees, and whole sentences emerge. Harking back to conspiracy theories claiming a hidden, subliminal message, this secret dialogue is at times confessional and soul-searching. Like the Truisms of Jenny Holzer, it asks pejorative questions, yet is infused with Freudian psychobabble, as if the speaker and viewer might be in couple’s counseling. “How did we get to this point? Where did we go wrong?” and “You’re so cynical. Is it your anxiety making you do this? That’s so typical of your generation.” However self-critical the statements are, the speaker’s search for answers is undermined by the segmented editing. And is incongruous for a national broadcast. Such tactics undermine the authority of the CNN broadcast that, as an arbiter of world events, has become a kind of Big Brother. No surprise that the artist is from Israel, a place heavily inscribed by media narratives.

The works on view until Sept.22 at UMOCA offer an excellent introduction to the wonderful world of video art. But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Looking further afield, half a century of production has yielded a voluminous body of work that plays a vital role in the life of art, worldwide. Since Salt Lake City offers no independent, artist-run production studio, and the subject is sidelined as ‘new media’ in most Utah art departments, UMOCA has an educational imperative to raise the bar : Cantastoria is a step in the right direction.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Triffids Land at Leonardo! Philip Beesley's 'Hylozoic Veil.'

           Just when you thought Salt Lake was a nice, quiet town, a sculptural installation at The Leonardo will make you think again. Dangling over the foyer like Olympic Tower’s demonic sister, Hylozoic Veil by Philip Beesley creates a dramatic addition to the museum and more generally, to sculpture in Salt Lake. It also joins an international coterie of triffids threatening world invasion.
            Unlike the protagonists of John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, Hylozoic Veil is more subdued, preferring to attach itself to the bowels of the building, rather than traipsing around the city. Extending vertically and horizontally from inside The Leoardo’s roof, a motley crew of materials include plastic fronds, electric lights, vials and suspension wires. Eight diagrams displayed on the top floor explain that these are really “breathing pores, swallowing actuators, filter cluster drones, and silicon tongue extensions.” Within this circuitry, a ‘liquid system’ purporting to share properties of living organisms is housed in a network of alembics and ampules. The purpose of these in relation to the rest of the sculpture is unclear, and functions as a gratuitous (though beautifully antiquated) chemistry set.
            This behemoth of gadgetry is linked by a ‘dense array of microprocessors, sensors and actuator systems’ which lead to a master control board that activates Hylozoic Veil’s  responsiveness. Manifesting as twitches, ripples, contractions and light bursts, such manoeuvers are prompted by the presence of a visitor. In this way, the work alludes to the riddle of whether a sound is made in the woods, if nobody is there to hear it. "When you walk through this environment," Beesley explains, "there are arrays of space sensors all the way through which track your movement and know where you are. And they start breathing and rippling all through the environment and it has a kind of a presence which is nearly alive." Some have likened this to a ‘giant lung, breathing in and out around visitors.’ How cool this would be if it actually worked. Hylozoic Veil was positively dormant during my visit, despite the many kisses I blew. It left me feeling nostalgic for the truly mobile work of Alexander Calder.

            At the heart of many Science Fiction fantasies lies the desire to replicate life, or at the very least, to isolate its essence. Movement has long been the philosopher’s stone of this pursuit, as witnessed by a long line of dolls, automata and robots dating back to the Renaissance. (In fact, it really dates back to the Golem who, activated by divine intervention, became Adam). As roaming houseplants with a ferocious appetite for the British public, triffids belong in this camp too.
            Beyond this mechanistic approach, artists conceived other criteria upon which to pin their hopes. For years, mimesis was the holy grail of the art world, and fueled by devices such as chiaroscuro and perspective, contributed to the appearance of Life. In this spirit, Zeuxis hoped to paint grapes so convincing, even the birds would be fooled. A substrate of this paradigm ventures beyond the looking glass, into the more emotive side of identity. Pygmalion desired a sculpture he could love; Frankenstein a bride, the Tin Man a heart. Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, as did Leo Lionni’s wind-up-mouse. Blade Runner’s sultry replicant Rachel clung to her false memories, in the hopes that she too might be human.
            Here, Hylozoic Veil is in good company. It wants desperately to live, as evinced in the media statements generated by both Beesley and The Leonardo. Moreover, the artist’s website states that his environments pursue a “distributed emotional consciousness.” However hopeful – and Orwellian – as this sounds, this collection of disparate systems remains inert and impotent. 

            Hyperbole aside, Beesley’s work has many other worthwhile attributes including a surfeit of references that are enchanting as they are delightful. Basic geometric shapes such as bell curves, tetrahedrons, ellipses and chevrons abound. Among them, human morphologies such as tongues, limb joints, spine vertebrae and eyelashes are evoked. Woven together with exposed wires and circuit boards, this cyborg amalgam harbors three distinct landscapes. The system cascades down the museum atrium with a kind of buoyancy, as if floating in water. This brings to mind forests of seaweed or fluorescent jellyfish blooms suspended in the darker recesses of the ocean, like the underwater paintings of Alfred Kubin. With tendrils so crystalline and frozen, we could just as easily be peering into the lair of an evil Snow Queen. Here, it may be useful to know that the artist is a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo, and possibly referencing the formidable Canadian winter. Set against a pitch-black background, we are also reminded of remote astronomical clusters, nebulae and galaxies glimpsed at by the Hubble Space Telescope. Perhaps Hylozoic Veil depicts a rogue centaurian system, the outer reaches of the Klingon empire, or a fragment of our own Milky Way? Such references are sufficient to keep me transfixed : gazing and wondering.
            Wondering.... IS this a triffid? Should we take cover? To date, hylozoic replicants have set foot in Venice, Montreal and New Orleans. Triffids tend to lie dormant for long periods of time, preferring to hide in museums and masquerade as contemporary art. Has Beesley truly imbued his work with Life? Does Salt Lake have a triffid problem? Only time will tell. Not until Hylozoic Veil breaks free from the shackles of The Leonardo, slithers up to Temple Square to embrace the golden statue of Moroni, will we know for sure.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Not Home. Photographs by David Baddley, Reviewed.

             Every now and then, the ‘Decline of the American Empire’ rears its ugly head. Whether nationally or regionally, a wide range of experts discuss and generally agree that, at the very least ‘the times, they are a-changing.’ Yet how this phenomenon impacts our daily lives here in Utah remains unclear. What are the symptoms? Where are they to be found? And is it possible to address this phenomenon artistically?
            These questions come to the fore in twenty unframed color photographs by David Baddley, on show at the downtown Salt Lake library. Measuring approximately two by three feet, the prints are pinned directly to the wall with thumbtacks. Baddley’s compositions are asymetrical and oscillate between genuine haphazardness and staged wrecklessness. The subjects too are arbitrary, banale and benign. Depicted are close-ups and vistas that scream of nothing in particular.
            Subjects such as abandonment and alienation are dear to artists’ hearts; there is a vast body of work devoted to this subject. The paintings of Edvard Munch or Edward Hopper come to mind. And while some may resent the connection of this subject with the State of Utah, on another level Not Home offers a welcome reprieve from the Land of Positive Thinking. And yet, there are flies in the ointment.

            Never, not ever do we encounter another human being. Baddley’s images are consistently void of people, though traces can be found in residual minutia, such as a peeling picture frame or an overpolished barstool. In La Casita, Springville a tobacco-stained wall intersects with a stucco ceiling. In Arshe’s Cafe, Beaver a fragment of neon tubing stares out into a nocturnal abyss. To whom do these objects beckon? To a crowd that never arrives, but opts to keep driving to the next exit? Such works ask whether there is anything quite as lonely as small town Utah? The answer of course, is yes. This kind of bewilderment is universal, and found anywhere from the cornfields of Andrew Wyeth to the beaches of Eric Fischl. If that is indeed so, what then is there to be gleaned from these particular works? That the American dream failed here too? Somehow, I suspect this is not new to American photography.
            If Baddley’s interiors are gloomy, you should see his landscapes. Though not landscapes in the traditional sense, they depict the wilds of Utah, out there where the genre no longer exists.  In these works, nature is the main subject, though always contaminated by something industrially manufactured. Storms rage and recover against a silhouette of mountains in Rest Area, I-80, Utah 2011, yet are pierced by one solitary lampost whose bulb glows faintly. Water Tank, Layton, Utah 2010 depicts a spectacular sunset at dusk, with shards of peach light forming what Friedrich might have called the Sublime. Lurking in the foreground is a water tank sporting the hopeful logo ‘Surf ‘n’ Swim.’
            While we encounter the sheer desolation of these places, Baddley’s work does not portray antagonistic relations between man and nature, but co-existence in quiet lamentation. Therein, one can’t help noticing the violation, as if a strip mall had been photoshopped into an Alfred Bierstadt painting. Apple Tree, Susanville, California 2011 shows an apple tree bursting with fruit. Its branches incongruously harbour some kind of lighting contraption, replete with rows of fluorescent bulbs. The gravel of a highway shoulder is depicted in Kiefer-like focus, yet is punctuated by three black-and-yellow warning signs alerting drivers to a sharp turn. While we are aware of these infringements, I can’t help thinking that these scenes hover on the brink of sentimentality. As if we might next discover a headless doll, or a lost shoe. Other works depict small-scale facilities of unknown origin or occupancy. Here, metal siding is king and urban planning has gone the way of the dodo. Once pregnant with purpose, these buildings now lie defunct and lifeless, like the water towers of Bernd and Hilla Becher. As signs of a declining America, they too are over-familiar, and approach the world of the clich√©. Once again, I fear Baddley will turn his lens to an untended baseball diamond, or a derelict post office.

            Compositionally, Baddley’s works employ several time-honoured devices. Geometric elements are contrasted with scribly, looser ones. The shadows of a tree are projected onto a wall, mismatched tires pile up at an abandoned garage. As well, many subjects are cropped such that only fragments exist – like SNL’s ‘guy who just wandered in.’ A framed poster of a western couple is bisected at mid-waist. A corner of a billboard invades a cerulean sky. A blue column is amputated at the knee. Such devices betray a fondness for abbreviation which heightens a sense of disjunction. The viewer is left wondering what lies beyond? Or do they? Maybe they don’t wonder, but just move on. Because such fragments already constitute the currency of their lives.
            The issue of vacuity and desperation in the darker recesses of the American imagination has repercussions for us all. Yet Baddley has rendered this subject in a visual language that is already common currency. This further trivializes his subject, and leaves us wondering whether the works signify anything beyond their own banality? In this way, Baddley’s works do not offer an aesthetics of decline, they are symptomatic of it.

David Baddley’s Not Home is on view at the Downtown Library until June 15th,  2012.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Not with a Whimper but a Bang! The 2012 Faculty Show.

           If an art exhibition is any indication of the state of things, then much can be learned from the UMFA Faculty Show. TS Elliot once predicted that decline would be signalled ‘not with a bang but a whimper.’ Certainly there are works in this show that speak to that sentiment.  Overly moralizing, programmatic or simply unresolved, some employ such a comprehensive symbology they are impossible to decipher.
            Yet most of the works on view display a higher caliber of work, and do so not with a whimper but a bang! Kristina Lenzi’s performance Expel did just that. Donning a blindfold, the artist laboriously scraped a line of museum tape from the floor, rolling it up into a wad of black rubber, which became a black balloon. Lenzi has a knack for using simple, playful props in zen-like ways, and this was no exception. The more she blew, the more distracted I became by the crowd, schmoozing loudly and noshing on their crudit√©s. Lenzi’s action however drew them in, as they became ensnared by the battle between her lungs and the balloon’s elasticity.
            I have often wondered how to overcome the grandiose space of the UMFA’s Great Hall. Hang one of Claes Oldenburg’s Shuttlecocks over the balcony? Fill the room with Alexander Calder mobiles? Lenzi met this challenge head on, and not spatially but audibly. Swollen beyond capacity, the balloon blast released and shot through the Great Hall like no other. The Faculty Show had opened : not with a whimper, but a !Bang! 

            Today works in sculpture, photography and paint continue to inspire conversation and reflection. Tom Hoffman’s Autobiography features twelve life-sized portraits hung horizontally and framed tightly to the face. Of varying ages and races, the faces smile faintly or remain neutral. Some are recognizable as members of the faculty, others are unknown. Nestled among them is the back of the artist’s head. This posture suggests his refusal to participate or to play by the rules. It also gives a nod to Gerhard Richter’s iconic 1988 painting ‘Betty.’ We are left to define the painter not by his face, but by the people in his circle. Most remarkable is his verisimilitude, I suspect even van Eyck would approve.
            Hoffman’s realism is contrasted with a number of artists employing more apocalyptic vocabularies. Paintings by Lenka Konopasek explore the moment of impact when industrial equipment is obliterated by disaster, as was the case in the Gulf oil spill. Details of the event are enveloped by dusty debris, mushrooming smoke and violent firestorms, resulting in a confluence of obfuscations. In this way, the work is not unlike works by William Turner, where the horizon is swallowed up by the effects of light. Indeed, glimmers of any natural light are rendered in a sulfuric palette, which in turn is refracted into shards of luminosity.
            The panels of Maureen O’Hare Ure contain a similar ochre sky. Below, surface sludge is depicted with drippy watermarks and washes, fine graphite traces, sanded planes and perhaps even encaustic. The subject matter is an antediluvial world, infused with medieval references. Deluge features ancient sea creatures similar to Jan Brueghel’s Jonah Leaving the Whale. Beast references the medieval manticore. The largest of the works Smoke shows an uninhabited landscape dotted with tiny volcanoes. Fires flare up, rocks sizzle and mud gurgles forming geological layers. So hostile is this environment, we could very well be looking at Tolkien’s Mordor. Yet an abundance of curlicues and arabesques wind their way through the chthon, creating further layers of reality. 
            The work could easily be paired with Van Chu’s photographic landscapes, which are more abstract in their ornamentality. Suggesting drops of ink dissolving into water, or curls of smoke rising into the air, Chu’s works achieve light and shadow effects of an unprecedented nature. In the upper register, atmospheric effects are tempestuous while below, winding clusters of pigment form blots reminiscent of Rorshach tests. The results are lyrical and otherworldly. Certainly landscapes of an infinitesimal scale are evoked, like those of the Bonsai tradition and other miniature worlds.  Yet the ink’s flow is not entirely fluid. Occasionally, tiny dots of an inkjet printer betray the work’s medium, introducing a surprisingly technological (and 2D) element, where irreconcilable worlds collide.
            Five small works by Sylvia Ramachandran Skeen explore a biological frailty associated with the marine world. Dripping with a watery, transluscent blue glaze, the porcelain material mirrors the substance of a shell. Here, we encounter whale mandibles and upturned crab shells encrusted with reptilian skins and bony ridges. Adorned with graduating teeth, detached fins and scales these creations become serving dishes, cages or indeed miniature water vessels for sea-faring folk.  Some evoke the work of HR Geiger, the Swiss artist of Alien fame. Yet with the delicacy of lace, are far more fragile - and whimsical.
            In contrast to these ethereal works, Beth Krensky’s scultpure is heavy and earthbound. Its poignancy leads the viewer to lament the loss of many things : childhood, alchemy, nature, home. A collection of ‘Keys for Houses that are no More displays three rows of keys, all with symbolic emblems in goldleaf. Separated from their domiciles, they lead us to wonder what worlds have been lost, and are now beyond our reach. A dead meadowlark lays atop a ‘Portable Altar.’ Doubling as a gurney, the bird rests inside a gilded tray. While the gurney’s legs have been replaced with branches, they retain their wheels, a poor subsitute for the loss of flight.
            This is the subject of Requiem for Flight, a vitrine containing nine bronze birds. Each is rendered lovingly, adopting unique positions that literally freeze the animal in flight. As such, the birds twist and turn in uncanny contortions, they are caught in a mercurial plasticity, yet weighed down by their burdensome (bronze) substance. Birds are often symbols of our (soaring) souls - think of representations of the Holy Ghost, yet here are wounded and grounded. Nearby, four more lay in ‘Metaphysical Handcart’ and are accompanied by a collection of little bells, which allert us to an irrevocable loss. Begging to be held, nurtured and redeemed, these birds have also been denied the delicacy of their feathers, and are roughly hewn as if molded in playdough.  They lie like relics, helpless in their vitrines, yet I can’t help wondering if they might better reside outside the brick-and-glass museum, on a concrete sidewalk, or a window’s ledge? 
            Jolting us back to the present, Holly K Johnson’s multi-media installation Single Serve Nation : Drive Thru confronts us with the automated world which we all occupy. Two videos are juxtaposed, one projected on the wall, the other on a laptop surrounded by cast disposable containers. The routine repetition of the processing of the masses – in subways and streets – is juxtaposed with the automated handling of chickens, from poultry farm to conveyor belt. Both scenes are busy, and synchronized such that their tempo, however exaggerated, has an almost hypnotic effect.  A soundtrack provides a monotone ticking which both soothes and irritates.

            With few exceptions, the works on view at the UMFA reassure us of an active and vibrant Department of Art at University of Utah. The Faculty Show is on view until May 6th