Saturday, July 15, 2006

Christenberry at SAAM

The other evening, Thursday the 13th to be precise, the Smithsonian, American Art Museum had a little shindig to celebrate its opening and the dual Christenberry exhibition (the folk art collection he curated and a retrospective of his own work: Passing Time).

I’ve gotten to know Christenberry a little through my work experience at Hemphill Fine Arts the past year and one of the many great things to come out of that acquaintanceship is a redefinition of two words within our lexicon: verbose and loquacious. At a speaking engagement in 2005, George Hemphill introduced Bill Christenberry as a loquacious Southern Gentleman. I had grown up thinking the word meant long winded in a sense where one loves to hear himself talk, whereas verbose just meant wordy. After Bill spoke that morning in mid-May he stepped in the offices of Hemphill and I said, “Bill, I don’t think your loquacious. Verbose maybe, but not Loquacious.” It was an off-hand compliment I thought he’d appreciate. However, being an older gentleman, he’s a little hard of hearing and the wit of the comment was lost.

Bill is a story-teller. There is a story behind every cabin he photographs, behind every dirt road he travels and behind every sign he picks up – some of those he freely admitted were stolen, though he thought “appropriated from their intended origin” had a better charm to their acquisition. And with that twist of vernacular I thought it best to redefine my previous notions of verbose and loquacious. Hemphill was on the money when he called Bill loquacious, because within that previous comment Bill Christenberry placed an eloquent touch on how he came to use the signs within his art work – an eloquence that was drawn out like the hot summer days he came to know in his Southern upbringing.

As a note, verbose I still think to mean wordy, only now I think of it as wordy without the eloquence. A problem my father and I tend to have when speaking freely and unable to edit, as within written texts (though admittedly, I may be a bit verbose in these epistles).

The two shows had a common theme through them – the care of the human hand in the act of visual expression. Through his curatorial work, Bill pulled from the permanent collection of SAAM some remarkably charming works of folk art that not only echoed the found nature of objects Bill had come to know through his own work, but also that sense of story, time, and place that is so evident through all of Bill Christenberry’s work. What tales may be told in a rifle that is bronzed and turned into a weather vane, or in a toy carved after Watergate with an elephant and a donkey on either side of a see saw. Wit and charm.

With rare exception, what the work in the Folk Art section of the museum does not possess is the building methodology of a man’s career with art. Throughout the last few decades Bill Christenberry has returned to locations in the South to photograph lots of land as their buildings age, become abandoned, overgrown and at times demolished and vacant. They exist like people, each with its own history. “Do you know the difference between a juke joint and a honkey tonk?” Bill asked me one afternoon as I visited his studio to collect some work and we go to talking about a Bar-Bah-Que shack in one of his building portrait pieces. Being from Iowa these were words I had heard, but never in any context. A juke joint sounded like a place where one might encounter a juke box. “That’s a good guess,” he suggested. “I’ll give you a clue,” he politely continued, “ a honkey tonk is where the honkeys went.”

Stories like that exist within each article exhibited in Passing Time. They compose the identity and curiosities of Bill Christenberry. They compose the identity of the South. However, knowing the volume of work Bill has produced throughout his career, like the identity of the South, this exhibition is but the tip of something much larger.

So the Renwick has a Wood

With the Renwick’s recent exhibition of Grant Wood I have had to tolerate people informing me they have seen the work once they learn I am from Iowa. But I refuse not to look bored if asked if I have seen it too. I won’t. It’s not because I don’t like Wood.

Hard to escape that damned “American Gothic” growing up. The Des Moines Art Museum and Art Institute of Chicago have a joint ownership of the piece, or at least some sort of loan agreement that allows the piece to travel between the two museums for periods of lengthy exhibit. The former Davenport Art Museum, the only fine arts museum in my home town, had a loan agreement with the two museums that captured the piece on it’s 310 mile journey for a three or four month display every five years. For the cost of a couple clams any person in the area could stop in, say hello to the farmer, compliment him on his lovely daughter, and be on his or her way.

Now, when people tell me how ironic the piece is, I tend to disagree. The irony is that this is the celebrated icon of regional American art, and about the best-known piece of Wood’s when so many other pieces he crafted in his short career were fare superior in complexity and wonder and capture the region of the vast American Midwest with better accuracy and articulation.

That quote of Ruscha comes to mind, and I’ll butcher it here. “There are parts in the middle of America that are every bit as surreal as Paris.”

Few from Iowa would ever claim Wood as “ironic.” I grew up in a time of Farm Aid, when various rock and country musicians would gather in some field and raise money for farm relief. During my childhood there were stories about farmers blowing their brains out because their generations-old family farm was facing foreclosure. In college, farmers were slaughtering large swaths of livestock because the bottom dropped out of the hog market and it was cheaper to kill them and let them rot than to try and butcher them and sell them at market. Then there are the droughts that claim hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soy, and sorghum and the emergency aid requested by the state and national government.

Perhaps the irony comes from what else was being produced around the same time. Hopper was creating a lonely Eastern seaboard. Lawrence and Davis were making jagged forms of Manhattan urban life. Pollock was throwing paint. DeKooning was butchering women. Rockwell was illustrating the ideals of the American dream. Wood, and Hopper for that matter, can be looked upon as ironic sandwiched in the middle. Their form of representation was not idillic – though who educated in the arts looks at Rockwell as anything but what he claimed himself to be: an illustrator? Their use of paint was neither abstract nor expressionist. If anything is ironic, it was the choice to paint what he painted, and in the way he painted it. But that can only happen through the lens of art history.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

I Wish This Was A Joke

While fully respecting the creation of this statue and finding it quite clever, though kitch, it is my sincere wish that the religious right would fully relaize the implications of the first part of the first amendment of our nation's Constitution.

Amendment I: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Declaration of Independence was written to remove the colonials from the tax structure and ecumenism of England. There were those who wanted to be Catholics, Lutherans, Puritains, Quakers, Calvinists, Menonites, etcetera. While I cannot speak for their personal views towards Jews or Muslims, or even an awareness of the Far Eastern religions, I'm willing to wager that having been prohibited for so long to worship as they pleased the authors of the Declaration may have seen some value in allowing citizens of the United States of America to practice religion as they saw fit.

The writing in the First Amendment far outweighs any document that might state "in the year of our lord," the significance of A.D. (now replaced by C.E. in the history books). The use of that phrase moreover reflects the religion of the authors of those documents written rather than the religion of the country, even if they were governmental documents. This is the narrow vision of mankind (a word forged before the women's sufrage movement).

Therefore, it is likely that a document such as the Treaty of Tripoli, written under Washington and signed under Adams in 1797, more appropriately reflects the atmopsphere of the United States, less than twenty years after the Declaration was signed. The treaty is notable for Article 11, which states, ""As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen..."

The website hosting this statue declares that Jesus will liberate us from things like disease and poverty. And there is nothing wrong with putting faith in Jesus Christ. My uncle Paul once did it after suffering a multiple fracture of his leg. While his prayers to Jesus may have had some part in allowing the bones to settle in appropriate allignment - an allignment the doctor's thought impossible because the bones were so badly shattered aftger his fall down a trap door, ironically in a church - my uncle Paul was certainly wise enough to allow the doctor's to apply a cast to further the aid of medicine upon his wounded limb and not dumb enough to attempt to limp out of there on his desimated drumstick.

The statue, erected by World Overcomers Ministries is certain to raise some eyebrows over the next few days and weeks. It might even stand as a monument for the 2006 and potentially 2008 elections, raising the constituent cries supporting Brownback and Westmoreland. Until it becomes a relic of arcane American monumentality my overarching hope is that the large majority of the populous recognizes the value and meaning of the first amendment, and that the message of Christ is more important than his statements of diety.

Note: Mussulmen was how they refered to Muslims when the treaty of Tripoli was authored.

Monday, July 03, 2006

America on the Brink

Yesterday I assumed the role of John 3:16 for the US Department of Art and technology for the ongoing series America on the Brink: A Season In Hell. We traveled to Lynchburg, VA to witness the 50th anniversary of Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church and the accompanying festivities at Liberty University.

Our documentation began at Rubs, a biker bar in town, where we were able to interview Pastor Steve Diaz of Iron Horse Ministries about his mission to build a bridge between bikers and Christians, bringing bikers who accept jesus Christ into their hearts closer to the church, and bringin Christians closer to their fait by being able to accept bikers.

He then talked about the United States as a Christian nation, and unifying the United States under Christ.

At the rally, Thunder on the Mountain, at the Liberty University stadium, we watched the bikers circle the track, showing off their steally pride, rubber side down. they revved their engines and smiled with pride and the love of Christ. Before they took to the field I heard one of the choir members of teh Thomas Road Baptist Church remark with fear that the reserved seats she wanted to sit next to were reserved for the bikers. "I don't want to tangle with them. They scare me. Maybe if enough of us sit in their reserved seats they won't feel welcome to sit here."

We wandered the grounds scattered with signs supporting George Allen and voting 4 marriage between one man and one woman.

The field alongside the newly erected 1,000,000 square foot church had an *awe*some display of flags waving in the wind, one for each fallen soldier in Iraq, and resting in the morning shadow of a flag typically flown above a pancake house.

A separate interview with a casual bystander yielded the remark about the return to a Christian nation "as our founding fathers intended."

What does that mean?
If the US were to become a Christian Nation, does that mean all citizens have to accept Christ as their personal savior? Does it mean that all citizens must acknowledge the trinity? What happens to those who do not?

The evangelists express concern for those who will be "left behind." But how will the evangelists persuade those who do not believe? Will the non-believers be shunned? Turned away? Will they be persecuted for their lack of belief and prohibited from jobs, education, health care, or property? What are the consequences? And should all confess belief, what truth and value is there in forced attrition?

Based on the reaction of the woman afraid of Christian bikers, what will the dress code be? Will we be prohibited from long hair, torn jeans, t-shirts and dirty faces tanned by the sun, stained by the wind rushing by at 65, the crunch of asphalt, or the splat of a junebug?

Saturday, July 01, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

When I’ve been told that An Inconvenient Truth is a slide show presentation on environmental data… well, it’s only part true. An Inconvenient Truth is about a man on a mission. It is a mission far greater than becoming president. It is a mission to save the world.

An Inconvenient Truth is the documentary of a man giving a presentation on the results of data collected by environmental scientists over the last fifty years. The results are supported with some very convincing photographic documentation of recent natural disasters; arctic ice shelf collapses; and the dramatic recession and glaciers snow cap mountains as well as the disappearance of rivers and lakes. The film also explores the motivation of the man who gives the presentation

The man giving the presentation is Al Gore. So, it is natural that this film will also carry some political weight and bias. But the moment that is interjected into the connotative analysis of the film the point is missed.

First, let us call this film a documentary because of the time invested in learning the narrator’s motivation for learning about and lecturing on this issue. Though it is told from a first person perspective and does not investigate another point of view there isn’t another one to investigate when the film involves the following four points. I am Al Gore. I have lectured on global warming since the 1970s. Here is why I lecture on this issue around the world. Here are the facts I have gathered along the way.

Second, what can be assumed is that it will be labeled a piece of docuganda by pundits on the right. Docuganda is defined as propaganda disguised as documentary because the film intends to influence rather than inform. The softer term is advocacy documentary. If the audience member chooses not to see this film as the abbreviated chronicle of a man’s motivation to give this lecture, then it can easily be seen as advocacy documentary because it is first person, because it only presents one point of view, and because the information is succinctly distilled for cogent comprehension.

But, so what? What is he advocating? Here is an abbreviated list, which are paraphrased from the closing credits. Higher fuel emission standards. Cleaner energy policies. Using energy saving appliances. Recycling. Using alternative transportation like public transportation, walking or bicycling. Demanding green and renewable energy options. Writing your congressman to support greener technologies.

Are these bad things to be advocating? No. Does it mean some conscious decisions need to be made on many individual levels? Yes. Will these decisions be convenient? Perhaps you missed that clever title assigned to the film.

Why else will it get labeled docuganda? Because of some of the gentle stabs Gore takes at the current administration on their environmental policies. Additionally, calling it docuganda, attempts to discredit the message for fear that any potential popularity from the film and media attention of the film may generate a Gore ’08 Campaign. And this misses the point of the film. Gore has globe-trotted for the last five years lecturing on how our current dependence on fossil fuel is a direct cause in global warming. Five years. It’s worth a listen.


there is some information to support Gore's claim in the film that ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland are shrinking at drastic rates.