Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Flash Suppression: Getting Ready for a Gun Show

Last September Maura Judkis at broke the news that I was planning to do a gun store for my next project (so was Cory Oberndorfer... my ambitions alone do not garner media attention, but two = trend (sorta... anyway)). Currently I am preparing material for the exhibition, which is slated for exhibit at the Washington Project for the Arts on August 12.

The last several months I have been collecting data, and one of the goals is to make several Flash animations illustrating where violent crime (with a gun) occurs within Washington, DC. Needless to say I am learning a lot about the program Flash.

Top 3:
1 - Flash has a limit of 16,000 frames; it will not publish anything over that quantity. My project looks at 5 years of violence in DC (Jan 1, 2006 - Dec. 31, 2010), and I had dedicated 10 frames per day, at 30 frames a second, which resulted in over 18,000 frames (for a total running time of just over 10 minutes). Fortunately I was not far along in my construction, and I needed to rebuild. Shaving 2 frames off of each day dropped the total below 15,000 frames. Score!

2 - Sometimes text does not animate very well. At least, it might not when exported to a Quick Time Movie. In an early test, all of my text disappeared. This would include counters for date and crime, which comprises an abundant amount of content in these videos. I attempted to break apart the text, and that appears to have done the trick.

3 - Exporting to Quick Time Movie is ridiculously slow! I have yet to search for a solution to that problem, but needless to say, it is quite aggravating. A video that is less than 9 seconds in length takes several minutes to export to QTM. Imagine how long that export rate will take when the full 10(ish) minute video is completed! I could tour Italy for a week!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Wesselmann Review Overdue

The back story is as follows.

April 16 I went to see the Tom Wesselmann drawing exhibition at the Kreeger Museum, took part of that weekend to write a review of it for City Paper, and then went back to the business of being an art professor the following week. The following weekend, the Washington Post surprised readers with Jessica Dawson's (I think) final exhibition review (she had announced her departure from WP weeks earlier, and to the best of my knowledge everyone thought she was done).

I submitted my write-up that weekend (April 23/24), and my editor suggested I re-work the review the following week (around April 28) to address some of Dawson's comments. Instead I tabled the review to write a couple other pieces, prepare and grade final projects and exams, pack and move, finish a commission before I lost my painting studio, and a few other odds and ends.

Then it was July, and I thought that "I better finish the Wesselmann review." So, I finished it up and submitted it. My editor liked it, but wondered how he could justify publishing to the blog a review for an exhibition that opened in April. So, the review is below. Enjoy.


Placing an exhibition of Tom Wesselmann's drawings in the Kreeger Museum seems as logical as placing a smart phone with touch screen in a museum dedicated to the rotary phone. Wesselmann's "Pop Art" is out of place in the same building that houses a collection of late 19th Century and early 20th Century European masterpieces. Or, is it? Jessica Dawson's review of the show on April 22 asked one major question, "how Pop was he, really?" Though she lets us decide for ourselves, she did note that, "Wesselmann owed more to Matisse than to the 1960s avant-garde." (Note: Roy Lichtenstein was also fascinated by Matisse.) In the context of the exhibition on display, the relationship between Wesselmann and the 19th Century European Avant Garde is probably closer than we might consider, and Wesselmann is revealed as the artist of still life and nudes that he had always been.

How did Wesselmann become a Pop Artist? Better still, how did many of the artists we identify as "Pop" become Pop Artists? In 1962 and 63, when exhibitions of new, often American art (mostly painting), were organized in LA, New York, and DC, curators and organizers summarized what they saw with descriptive titles like "New Painting of Common Objects" (Pasadena Museum of Art), "New Realists" (Sidney Janis Gallery), "Six Painters and the Object" (Guggenheim Museum), and "The Popular Image" (Washington Gallery of Modern Art). All were significant exhibitions that included some artists we continually label as Pop Artists: George Segal, Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Watts, Jim Dine, and Jim Rosenquist, to name a few. However, like Wesselmann, Segal, Thiebaud, and Watts showed a greater commitment to interests other than Pop: genre, still life, and Fluxus (respectively). Jim Dine could also be considered to have a greater interest in still life than to Pop, and would probably find a better fit in the quasi-category of Neo-Dada with Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns (artists who were also included in the seminal shows of Pop, who also hated the label of Pop, and probably also hate the label Neo-Dada). Even Jim Rosenquist in his recent autobiography fights the label of Pop artist. As Donald Judd noted early in 1963 the "various artists are too diverse to be given one label..."

Unfortunately, one label stuck, and that label was Pop Art. Alan Solomon also recognized the limitations of the so-called movement's title, and in his essay "The New Art," (first published as the catalog essay for "The Popular Image" at The Washington Gallery of Modern Art), "Like all vital new movements in the modern period… it has quickly been assigned a pejorative title – or string of titles, in this case … emphasizing the wrong attributes of the style." Wesselmann gets lumped into Pop Art because, amongst other things, he wasn't bashful about collaging elements from billboards into a composition that reflected what should be a contemporary still life: a hoagie, a pack of Pall Malls, and a can of Budweiser. So to look at Wesselmann at the Kreeger, it is necessary to remove that rubbish Pop Art label and heap it into Lawrence Alloway's dustbin, where it belongs.

"Drawing," at the Kreeger, contextualizes Wesselmann in the great tradition of reinventing Classical art traditions. In the late 1950s, when Wesselmann was studying at the Cooper Union, art students throughout the country were being trained to become the new generation of Abstract Expressionists, and it became essential for many of those artists to abandon that training in favor for something different. At the same time, it was essential not to return to old methodologies of painting. But returning to old subjects was permissible, and for Wesselmann the great challenge in his mind was to make a drawing or painting of the nude female form that was just as beautiful as the nude female he was drawing or painting. Often his subject was a model named Claire, a woman he eventually married.

Every reclined female Wesselmann painted is reminiscent of Manet's "Olympia," which in turn reference's Titian's "Venus." Neither Titian nor Manet is remotely Pop, but referencing either establishes Wesselmann's interest with art history. His relationship with art history is further cemented in several of the works on display. "Great American Nude #20" quotes Van Gogh's "Sunflowers." A study of "Judy Trying on Clothes" is reminiscent of Degas' drawings of women preparing for the bath. Matisse is also a reoccurring name in many of Wesselmann's titles.

What the exhibition does as a whole is deny Wesselmann as a painter. He seldom challenges the medium in the way that Sisley, Chagal, or Mondrian challenged painting, - works by artists you can view in the Kreeger's permanent collection, upstairs. Wesselmann's use of painting is often flat, and seems only in the service of applying color to an otherwise exquisite drawing. Color in service of the drawing is best illustrated in his later cut steel pieces like Hillside Farm, Callicoon Center, 1990, and Still Life with Fuji Chrysanthemums (double layer) 1985/92.

Drawing Version of Bedroom Painting
Drawing Version of Bedroom Painting

With these cut steel pieces we truly get a sense of what Wesselmann was attempting with his work: challenging the limitations of drawing. As Richard Serra demonstrated with lead, unless molten and fluid, you can't draw with steel. So the challenge of these later works is to maintain the sensitivity and grace of fluid line in an otherwise inflexible medium. Throughout the progression of the exhibition we see how Wesselmann challenged the notions of drawing, by denying their flat surfaces with works like Drawing Version of Bedroom Painting #24 (1973), or Drawing Maquette for Still Life #59 (1972), both of which take a series of flat drawings and stack them into sculptural compositions.

All of the work on display stresses Wesselmann's unmistakably traditional interests, as Dawson points out, but it hardly seems to be an albatross. The only Pop in the show is one of expectation: Wesselmann's label as a Pop Artist, despite how the show was promoted, is a bubble that bursts. His practice gave a breath of new life to Classical themes of still life and the nude, and it pushed the boundaries of two-dimensional surfaces. Through Wesselmann we can actually learn something about art and its history, as opposed to some mimeographed day-glow portrait of Marilyn Monroe, which teaches us more about marketing.