Friday, March 21, 2008

Dumb Pondering

I don't pay attention to NCAA basketball. Or sports much, for that matter (it's been 14 years since the '94 MLB strike, so I should stop blaming it). And I don't have a TV.

I noticed that American University and George Mason University were in one bracket (are they called brackets?) of the Road to the Final Four, and that Georgetown University and University Maryland Baltimore County are in a different bracket. I thought, "well that's odd... I drive past Georgetown on my commute between American University and George Mason University. Why aren't they in the same bracket?"

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Four Letter Words

One of the previously mentioned "upcoming projects," from a few posts back, is entitled Four Letter Words. The project is a bit more intelligent than it sounds, but before venturing in depth with content I have to post a few rules regarding the project. Rule No. 1 is don't talk about fight club. Rule No. 2...

That stated, of the 3900 words I pulled from a Scrabble word list, I have been sorting through them with a 1994 copy of the Merriam Webster Dictionary (MWD) - one of those cheap pocket garden variety that every would-be-student gets for high school graduation, or prior to matriculation. Needless to say, not all 3900 words accepted by Scrabble were accepted by the MWD (and fewer still accepted by the genius that is Microsoft Office); it is not a massive volume. It is also not up-to-date and does not include such hip new words, like w00t. (w00t is typed with zeros and I am ashamed that Google spell check isn't giving it the red line.)

Dictionaries can be rather frightening objects. I've seen some as thick as a toddler is tall, and that was usually just the first volume of a three book series. But, those ridiculous monstrosities typically engage the etymology and evolution of a word. They require a spotter to lift onto a sturdy oak table that is buttressed. And while particular rules regarding my project began eliminating some of the words typically found as associates in the dictionary (plurals, past tense, etc), some of the words I came across I had to raise an eye-brow.

"Cwms" is a word. I kid you not. It is Welsh for "valley" and pronounced cooms (as in Sean Puffy). It's also drunk-typing for "cwms."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

...and now a word from James Agee

A while back Bill Christenberry told me to read Now Let Us Praise Famous Men. Bit by bit I get through it, struggling to find the time to complete it in a succession of sittings. I wanted to share this stretch on page 126 (of my copy, anyway):

...the work is done by half-skilled, half-paid men under no need to do well... and this is what comes of it: Most naive, most massive symmetry and simpleness. Enough lines, enough off-true, that this symmetry is strongly, yet most subtly sprained against its centers, into something more powerful than either full symmetry or deliberate breaking and balancing of 'monotonies' can ever hope to be. A look of being most earnestly hand-made, as a child's drawing, a thing created out of need, love, patience, and strained skill in the innocence of a race. Nowhere one ounce or inch spent with ornament, not one trace of relief or of disguise: a matchless monotony, and in it a matchless variety, and this again throughout restrained, held rigid...
A part of me thinks he looks upon that "powerful" nature as beautiful and poetic. Another part of me thinks he looks upon that "powerful" nature as desperate and hopeless. Not to miss the point of Agee's text, but I always find it interesting to be able to walk away with art lessons from unexpected places and at unexpected moments.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Nay Sayin' - Kehinde Wiley

During a conversation Thursday with Mark Cameron Boyd, he mentioned that Kehinde Wiley has his paintings made in China. The statement stopped me dead in my tracks and I felt like Steve Martin in The Jerk when he learned he was adopted.

After seeing Recognize at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a bland tribute to hip-hop culture (if you call a tribute bad graffiti and photos of rappers with microphones to their mouths a tribute), it was easy to walk away from it mesmerized by the saccharine colors and fluorescence of Wiley's work. As an artist mired in the drivel of Post Post Post Post Post Modernist critique, it becomes easy to prattle off the questions related to the form of portrait painting and the history associated with it, as well as ponder his brilliance with words like recontextualize, appropriate, and juxtapose. These were things I pondered with my wife over dinner the night after seeing the show. She looked at me a little bored and said, "you are thinking way too much into this."

Wiley's work is painted in China by Chinese laborers and artisans. Scour a Google search of "Kehinde Wiley China." Some critics will call it his studio. One called it an atelier, which is the fancy word for studio. I think it is safe to label it what it is: manufacturing. And, apparently, Wiley intends to open "ateliers" in several other emerging markets to outsource the manufacturing of "his" paintings. (This is in step with some current Chinese business practices - China is doing this now with several products because the cost for Chinese labor is not as cheap as it used to be.)

With the new revelation, the idea becomes much more interesting: outsourcing the labor of a painting. It isn't new. Warhol, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Thomas Kinkade all do/did it. Three of the four are found in museums across the globe, with Kinkade found mostly in shopping malls. But, would any self-respecting artist really want to be lumped into that category? I suppose if work is selling for five, six, seven and eight figures, the integrity of the label "artist" can be bought out for "entrepreneur." It is an interesting business plan, for sure, and possibly outweighs the b.s. about the 'appropriation from multiple cultures juxtaposed with the borrowed works of Western history to create a portrait painting that both follows and questions the craft of portraiture.' (yawn.)

I think the critics might also be excited because he is young, possibly hip, and Black. Draw what parallels you will to Basquiat, but Wiley won't O.D. However, the market might O.D. from Wiley's paintings as it did with the flood of Basquiat forgeries that filled the market shortly following Basquiat's death. That begs an interesting point: if Basquiat's works are devalued because they are discovered forgeries, what happens to the work of a painter that hardly paints his own work? Whatever. As Chuck D once wrote, "Don't believe the hype."

If there is anything to Recognize, it's that Kehinde Wiley can't "keep it real." But, he's more a pawn than a player - his celebrity is the act of a market, fueled by curators and critics, to pull Chinese rayon over our eyes. And, it's only fitting. Everything else we own is made in China. The backbone of our credit card economy is made in China. So, why not also our art. After all, when it comes to a knowledge of art history and art appreciation, we in the United States are a dim sum.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

WPA Auction 2008 - Katzen

Note: I didn't apply to be in it, I'm not bidding, I'm not attending, and I'm not covering the attendance/process.

The hall outside the Katzen Museum, in the Katzen Arts Center at American University, is lined with many framed works (and a couple sculptures, too) all prepared for auction to help support the Washington Project for the Arts (WPA).

When Alice Denney first started the WPA in the mid 1970's, like most things Alice was involved with throughout her tenure as DC Art Provocateur, the WPA began with a whim and a prayer, a shoestring budget, and the hope that artists would rally behind the idea to make the thing thrive. And thrive it did. But part of what made it thrive was the novel idea that she would show virtually unknown (or at least unrepresented) artists and keep the price of the work affordable for anyone to collect. Right now it feels (and looks) like the WPA has strayed off course a bit.

Why the quip? Some of the work at auction for the WPA is of established artists and outside the price range of young collectors. This is important to note. Granted, as was heard on Kojo Nnamdi's show recently, most people don't know how or where to begin collecting, get sticker shock, and would rather pay $200 to frame a lousy print of a Post Impressionist that they know than they wold to buy a real work of art for $700, or $1000, or $3000. But, since so many of us live in homes furnished by Ikea, maybe it is only appropriate that the crappy work on the wall match the crappy furniture. But I digress.

Lenny Campello (one of Kojo's guests on that show) has been writing bits on his blog lately about "art collection," and in some of those instances it is really about art investment. To paraphrase, "buy this person's work now before it's too late!" Should that be the motivation?

With that it is necessary to distinguish between collectors and investors.

Collectors are people who buy work based on a personal connection with the work. It isn't motivated by the prospect of investment. It is motivated by the jaw-dropping awe of inspiration and epiphany; by the upturned mouth at a clever execution or proposition; by the ah-hah!; by the integrity of the object or concept or both.

Investors look for names. They get on a list for the next Jasper Johns. The namesake of the building hosting this year's WPA event was an investor - he collected blue-chip-name art investments: work that inspires at best a sigh - but at least it is a Picasso!

Buying art work should be like that silly saying: dance like no one is watching, sing like no one is listening. It doesn't matter what your friends think of the work - you are the one who lives with it in the end. People probably laughed at Castelli's clients in 1958 for buying the pieces of trash glued together that Leo Castelli was passing off as art. At one point in time Bob Rauschenberg was a nobody. The people who bought Rauschenberg's combines out of Castelli's bathtub for a couple hundred clams had the last laugh.

Hey! Artists create work, but it doesn't always mean they want to live with it for eternity. I'd happily trade some pieces for a bagel* if I knew the person "purchasing" the piece was passionate about it and felt a connection to it. Studio spaces need to remain studio spaces, and not become storage spaces (like Raoul Middleman's).

*bagels must be toasted with lox. bagels may vary.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Frozen in Grand Central

This is more interesting than riding on the subway without pants day... or whatever that was a couple months back.