Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In Memorium: Terry Kirk

As a professor I often reflect on the people who inspired me enough to want to become a professor. Obviously, most of those people were professors. I aspire to live up to the qualities of the great professors I had, and I hope never to fall prey to the shortcomings of the professors I loathed. It should come as no surprise that I have kept in contact with most of the professors that have inspired me for the better; they have become part of that group of people that I call friends.

On Sunday, Oct. 18, I learned that one of my friends was gone. The death of a friend is never an easy thing to accept, and it becomes harder still to learn that a friend took his own life.

Terry Rossi Kirk was professor to approximately 500 students a year in Rome, lecturing on the art and architecture of Modern Italy (1600 - present, give or take). Since Rome is a living textbook, lecture classes were not restricted to slide presentations in darkened rooms, they consisted of walking tours throughout the streets of the Eternal City. What made Terry's lectures stand apart was not just the enthusiasm and interest he possessed for his subjects, it came from his ability to perform his lectures.

During the first semester I had Terry for a professor, studying painting in my final semester as an undergraduate at Iowa State University, Terry lectured on the piazza as public theater, comparing most works of Classical and Modern architecture to the stage, scenography, the proscenium arch, and the billowing curtain. The analogy even carried into sculpture of the period, most notably the operatic work of Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa in the Cornaro Chapel of Santa Maria della Vittoria, where onlookers from balconies peer down to see the arrow of the angel plunged into the entrails of the meditating saint. However, instead of simply lecturing about it, Terry went a further step, performing the plunging arrow, discussing - in an enunciated whisper that could be understood by the pope, several miles away in Vatican City - the sexual connotations of the ecstasy, and the penetration of the angels "arrow" into her body. He then moaned, in accordance with the expression on her face. It was not a moan of pain, the moan a mother might make in the midst of labor. It was an orgasm. In a church. In Rome. And students were not the only people in attendance.

We then went for coffee.

Terry bought a painting from me after the completion of that semester. Had it not been for that acquisition, I might have remained one of the hundreds of students he has in a semester. It was a triptych, measuring a total 100cm x 50cm, with the middle measuring 50x50. Considering its size I was a little dumbfounded that he picked it up on his bike with a spool of twine.

Two years later I was getting ready to return to Italy, to a 2 year MFA program through American University in Washington, DC. Prior to applying for the program there was one name on the list of faculty that stood out to me: Terry Kirk. He taught my graduate art history course, and I sat in on an undergraduate architecture of Rome course, from time to time.

I left Italy after a year to finish my degree in DC, and Terry and I kept in touch, bumping into each other at College Art Association conferences. The last time I saw him was in February in Los Angeles, and he suggested I tell whoever I was interviewing with that, if hired, if they wanted to set up a semester long program, he would help me help them; I should be teaching in Rome, after all.

On the afternoon of Oct 18 I learned that Terry's body was found on Saturday in his car on the outskirts of Rome with his wrists slit. He had been missing since Wednesday. While I believed the news, I did not accept it. Terry had e-mailed less than a week earlier, proud to have been mentioned in an article by Susan Spero, writing for the LA Times about her time in Italy and the importance of Fascist architecture.

There was no news on Google searches. Eventually I looked at Terry's page on Facebook. There the reality of his death hit home. Four people I did not know had written their farewells to Terry.

It is interesting that Facebook has given me a better outlet to grieve over his death. On Terry's wall, a small community of people have gathered to say goodbye, to pay respects, to share stories, and to mourn. It is cathartic not only to contribute to that space, but to read the contributions of others, no matter how brief. I doubt Mark Zuckerberg ever thought this might be a use for his social networking creation, and I fear that, if after a certain period of inactivity, Facebook consumes his dormant site; in a way, Terry is still alive on Facebook, and it is the community of friends he made during his membership that continue to post stories and pictures. In a virtual space we gather together to celebrate a life.

Admittedly, I did not know Terry that well. To be in his presence for a semester, to be the student of his lectures, to listen to his enthusiasm and his flamboyant performances, was to know half of the truth. Privately he might be quite and demure, less likely to be on the stage, and more likely to be focused and concentrated on the conversation at hand. As e-mails have passed back and forth between friends and colleagues who knew him, I've been told he suffered from depression and was bipolar. He masked it well and I suspect only those who were closest to him personally and professionally knew of this. I was not a member of that fraternity, nor had I any reason to be.

The first step toward suicide is not simply wanting to die – though that motivation certainly helps – it is having a plan to carry out the mortal act. According to a news story in Il Tempo, wherein a young American was found dead outside Rome, he was found with keys and papers in his pocket. His final act was not impulsive. I wonder how long the plan had been ruminating in his mind. I'm told, a few days before he died, there was a party at his flat. I am wondering now if Terry intended that as his farewell party, and all the guests were oblivious. I also wonder if the final e-mail I received was another goodbye. Better to go out on high notes. Though sad, there is a certain poetry with that.

I still cannot comprehend his suicide. In truth, with grief subsiding, I'm angry about it. And, I'm left with no choice but to forgive his decision.

Friday, October 23, 2009

To Paraphrase Wednesday Night

Over the past few months, thanks in part to the gift of a generous benefactor willing to pass down used/read back issues of recently published art magazines that she might otherwise throw out, I have been enjoying Dave Hickey's random essays in Art in America. So, it was with great surprise, Wednesday, that I learned he was speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum later that evening.

Sometimes news like this escapes me, and I can't help but get pissed about my own laziness, ignorance, apathy, or some combination of the three.

With my wife's permission, I attended, proceeding to SAAM immediately following my 4+ hour class at GW, book bag in tow, the contents of which were approximately 30 lbs of books, mostly on the subjects of Flash and ActionScript3. Since I teach Wednesday afternoons, dinner usually consists of whatever I threw in the crock pot that morning, so Gretchen was taken care of. And, as luck would have it, the coffee and cake a scarfed down at 4:00, just after my marathon 3.5 hour lecture on animation, held me until I got home at 9:00.

Hickey was introduced as a man with a singularly American voice. I disagree. Though his subjects are generally American, as with other critics of American culture (I'm thinking of the Australian, Robert Hughes) Hickey's strength comes from a perspective that is keenly not from America. After all, he is from the Republic of Texas, which allows him the ability to circumnavigate the apologetic bull shit and ass-kissing in his writing. Basically a Molly Ivins for the art world.

The subject of the talk was The Evils of Creationism: Art History According to Darwin. I don't recall either Creationism or Darwin being specifically mentioned.

While he began by linking today's art market to the art market developed in the Renaissance, the point of his argument – which basically ranted against having a federal Department of the Arts – was how an evil called "stupid money" upsets the whole apple cart.

"If blood money gets blood on your hands, and dirty money makes everything it touches dirty, what does stupid money do to the intellect of those who receive it?"

Hickey noted how, in the past 40 years, a lot of money has been thrown into the art with good intentions, but it has been distributed by committees who give the money to the wrong artists. They don't give it to the genius who might show up drunk - if at all. They give it to the person that is likable, sober, and makes okay work. MFA programs are no better because, as he put it, "I have never seen a bad artist go through an MFA program and come out the other side a good artist." What happens is that bad artist might come out the other side a better-educated bad artist.

The issue with stupid money is akin to an article, forward to me from a friend, regarding child sports titled, "Stop the Little League Arms Race." The economist Charles Wheelan basically argues that if everyone placed their kids in accelerated athletics programs the net result would be a waste of time, money and quality family time - not to mention a lot of surgeries to correct limbs prematurely mangled by stress fractures - and that the really talented kids would still rise above the fray because money cannot buy talent.

The same can be said for art.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not So Experimental Media Series

Last week I was able to attend the final screening of the WPAs Experimental Media series.

As is the nature with juried shows, the juror looks for quality work and for the work to fit together in a program. What Kelly Gordan assembled for the one-hour program flowed together quite well.

A critical assessment of the individual pieces are not necessary. It would be safe to say that there were some great works, some good works, and a few stinkers that ranged from annoying to stupid. There was also room for a couple pieces that worked in the context of this screening - or within the context of any juried screening - but might not function as stand-alone pieces.

What does remain is a critical assessment of the title of the exhibition. Nothing in that program seemed experimental, and the very nature of the call for entry limited the potential for real experimental media. I had the same opinion a few years back when I saw Paul Roth's curatorial selections.

Some might state that, "by its very nature, video and sound are experimental." And, of course, I can agree that, generally, the work of the artist, as individual, is to experiment with a medium. But that doesn't mean he is establishing a new foundation, or pushing the height of the plateau. He may simply redefine his personal aesthetic and conceptual boundaries for what passes as art.

The whole title for the Experimental Media series is off.

First, Experimentation:
The notion of experimentation evokes the mad scientist. Think Nikola Tesla. Or Doc Brown (Back to the Future). When it comes to video, I can't say for certain that it has all been done before. However, what was on display last week evoked early cinema, montage, Godard, Hollis Frampton, the telenovella, and even Triumph (from Conan O'Brien, though I was actually reminded of MTV Italy's Pets). Not all possible influences have been listed above, and from the list, not all would be direct influences. Some would wallow in the shallow depths of bad analogy. But, none of the aforementioned examples are malapropos.

As for sound, I heard hints of Cage and Paik. Anytime I hear someone play the inside of a piano, I think of Cage.

Next, Media.
The call for entry was limited to video and sound. Media, however, has a much broader boundary which typically encompasses most things electrical, digital, interactive, performative, mechanical, engineered, and otherwise weird. Granted, that broad assessment would allow a spin painting displayed vertically and placed on a rotating whirly -gig to be considered Media Art, provided it was plugged in. So much of media art today seems to rely on the computer and bits of information from the Internet. Yet, no Internet art was available for digestion.

With the call for entry limited to sound and video, the call for entries went one step further by limiting the work to a single projection. Aspiring video wall artists need not apply.

I will accept that opening the boundaries to be more inclusive creates the challenge to find a suitable venue to show all of it. So, when it comes to retitling the series, I'll be willing to meet the judge and jury half way.

Kelly Gordon's comment on this series, and her selection process, was to look for work that feels fresh. She had the daunting task to review approximately 575 works for the series, nearly doubling her annual intake of video and cinema. And some of this work did look fresh. But, that doesn't mean it was experimental.

Perhaps the better title for the series would be Fresh Media. Compilations can be wrapped in butcher's paper.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fart on the Ave

Two weekends ago my family ambled down a street in Del Ray with friends in an effort to enjoy Alexandria, VA's Art on the Avenue. The next time I go I should chat up the vendors selling "paintings"* and start asking them "how do you do that."

Actually, I know the answer. The better question is, "why in the hell are you doing that?"

The "that" in question is the wretched process of taking a photograph, applying a filter to it in Photoshop, printing the result on canvas, and stretching the canvas. Granted, a fool and their money are soon parted, and in the case of those who would sell or buy, there are two fools involved (because my guess is the vendor goes home with a lot of unsold canvases).

The thing is, a bad vacation photo does not get better when Photoshop's "stained glass" filter is applied to it. Nor does it get better when printed with archival Epson inks on canvas paper. Nor does it get better when the canvas is stretched around a few pieces of pine.

There was a lot of "art" of this sort floating about The Ave. It impressed me no more two weeks ago than it did seven years ago when I found myself sitting in a doctor's office in New York City (whereupon after learning I was an artist the doctor responded, "I do a little art," and then pointed to the photo with inverted colors on the wall behind him). And, it reminded me of two lessons I teach beginning students in my digital art classes.

1. Stay away from the filters. It's not that the filters in Photoshop are bad. At times they are great, but if used selectively. When it comes to using the tool properly, the filters menu should simply be deactivated until later in the semester (or for a later course) so the user gains a better understanding for how to use the tools. The tools do the work. The filters act like a drug. I think anyone who has ever smoked pot knows that the pot doesn't make the problems of the world go away – war an famine still exist – it simply makes the problems of the world seem more tollerable for a very short period of time.

2. Stay away from Live Trace. This is a tool in Illustrator that will break down a photograph into a series of vector shapes, sometimes tens of thousands of vector shapes, and make the photograph look like a drawing... sort of. Again, Live Trace has its place. But, for beginners it becomes a knee-jerk stylistic choce and avoids learning how to do things like draw with the pen tool or use a gradient mesh.

Of course, this is all the vendors did to photos of beaches and mountains. And each "painting" looked as bad as the next.

In the process of chatting these people up, I would hope to gain how well these people are doing when it comes to selling a bad non-painting "painting." Sure, everyone needs a hobby, but those tents are expensive and printing on canvas isn't exactly cheap. So, how does it all shake out for this, ahem, artist? Do they break even in a given year? What is their business model?

I am also curious who the buyers are. You most likely wouldn't find the Kogods or the Cafritzes buying; you won't find the Barlows buying either; and you probably won't find any artist who is regularly showing at area commercial, non-profit, and alternative galleries buying work there. So, who is the competition? Is it Ikea and Target?

Of the great things that could be found at Art on the Avenue, all of them could be re-defined as "craft" or "artisan". I do not mean that in the pejorative, either. The last time I sat at a potters wheel, in 1995, I managed to throw a good bowl, but I wouldn't make a living from doing it, no matter how funky the glaze looked after a raku firing. There is skill to this craft, much like drawing, and it {is/can be} an art, and it is an art that I cannot confidently attempt to master. Besides, I have a feeling most of the ceramics, wood turned objects, scarves, and such were being sold for utilitarian purposes... much like the hand crafted olive oil soap. Unless, of course, the soap sellers intended for their soaps to sit on a pedestal.

*there are a few vendors selling legitimately painted paintings (notice, no quote) at art on the ave. the above critique does not apply to them.