Archive for the ‘Moral Calculus’ Category

Premium Squalor

August 17, 2009

“At this point, all that stands in the way of universal health care in America are the greed of the medical-industrial complex, the lies of the right-wing propaganda machine, and the gullibility of voters who believe those lies.”

-Paul Krugman

From Harper’s Index, September 2009:

Percentage change since 2002 in average premiums paid to large U.S. health-insurance companies: +87

Percentage change in the profits of the top ten insurance companies: +428

Chances that an American bankrupted by medical bills has health insurance: 7 in 10

Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

April 29, 2009

38942224My recent visit to LACMA was filled with highs and lows. Let’s start with the good stuff:

Franz West: To Build a House You Start with the Roof didactic wall text: It’s a good sign, and indicative of curatorial wit and perceptiveness here, that I laughed out loud a number of times when reading the curators’ descriptions accompanying wall labels. One example elucidated West’s intention that an art object be used while “doodling or relieving oneself;” another work, a painting with a hook is contextualized with text that blithely implores “Please feel free to try on the cap.” The labels were not lacking for contextual or serious information, but it was also with leavened by a humor simpatico to the work it described. Bravo.

Focus installations from the collection: Tucked into odd corners of the permanent collections, these mini-exhibitions were little windows into the curatorial mind: pet projects that just plain work. In photography there is a humble installation juxtaposing the 1970s magazine-based works of Robert Heineken with Elad Lassry’s contemporary photographs, often based on imagery from that era. Simply titled Photographic Conversations No. 7: Found, it speaks for itself, and how.

beall3Deep in the Art of the Americas building is a revelatory gallery featuring a selection of posters by graphic designer Lester Beall. Basically Constructivism meets the Heartland, it is fascinating to see how avant-garde aesthetics get filtered over into posters for the Rural Electrification Administration. The colors are bold and brash, with dynamic, simple lines activating the rather banal imagery. For more info check out Unframed’s post on the subject.

Now for the bad news. This was my first visit to the Broad Contemporary Art Museum. When it first opened in February 2008 I remember the Guerrilla Girls making a stink about the severe lack of diversity in Broad’s collection and the inaugural installation of the BCAM. At the time, 30 artists were included in the installation, of which 97% were white and 83% were male. The Guerillas engaged in a delightful tête-à-tête with Joanne Heyler, director and chief curator of the Broad Collection. No wonder their archives ended up at the Getty.

Fifteen months later, things are even worse. The few women represented in that installation were primarily located on the second floor, subsequently displaced by the exhibition Art of Two Germanys. Gone were the Jenny Holzer’s and Cindy Sherman’s. What is now on view is the usual white, boys’ club, names sung by Louise Lawler’s trained birds: Baldessari, Warhol, Ruscha, Cy Twombly, Beuys (at least some of them are gay) plus Johns, Serra, Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, etc. But unless this was some Sturtevant retrospective masquerading as the Broad Collection, it is nothing short of offensive that this was the best LACMA could pull out. To add insult to injury, much of the art looked impotent in the cavernous space. The curatorial politics of such a presentation are laughable.

Aptly, the one work I noticed at BCAM by a female artist was Barbara Kruger’s special commission lining the central elevators, titled, Cassandra-like, Shafted.

Collecting Atrocities

March 26, 2009

octoberOver at Modern Art Notes Tyler Green has an interesting discussion with MoMA Chief Curator of Photography Peter Galassi regarding how the Abu Ghraib photographs might fit into MoMA’s collection. Galassi and Green each raise interesting points about what physical representation such a thing might occupy (magazine? JPEG?). Green asks if the hypothetical MoMA acquisition might function as part of a “specific national process.” Galassi doesn’t think so:

But what I think is interesting about it is that it represents a new stage of vernacular photography because it was both the ease of making these digital pictures and then especially the ease of sending them around is what made Abu Ghraib blow up. And so in that sense, if Lynndie England had just had that picture in her locker, no one would have ever seen it.

While MoMA has significant holdings of vernacular photography and works that primarily function as documents (the Eddie Adams photograph), it is interesting to consider the criteria for works that enter their collection in contrast to other institutions. In a recent interview at PhotoWing, Malcolm Daniel explains the Met’s perspective:

Other curators have a different perspective than we have here. Our mission is here on the bulletin board: To collect, preserve, study, exhibit, and stimulate appreciation for and advance knowledge of works of art that collectively represent the broadest spectrum of human achievement at the highest level of quality, all at the service of the public and in accordance with the highest professional standards. There it is. That’s our perspective…

In New York, for instance, there are a number of institutions actively collecting and exhibiting photographs. But I think when you go to The Met, the Modern, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, ICP, for each of us, there’s a kind of institutional personality and there’s a perspective of individual curators. It’s a different experience at these different places.

Given Daniel’s comments, it’s hard to imagine the Abu Ghraib photos ever ending up at the Met. MAN’s discussion of Abu Ghraib is worth noting in relation to a controversial acquisition that did take place: the archive of photographs S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine joining MoMA. The photographer, Nhem Ein, was hired by Pol Pot’s regime to document every person admitted to an extermination camp as part of the Cambodian genocide. The photographs subsequently came to the attention of the art world when they were exhibited at the 1997 Recontres de la photographiques d’Arles. Eventually a set of the photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. In his essay “Art in the Face of Radical Evil,” available for free on October’s website, Thierry de Duve grapples with what it means for art theory when artifacts such as the S21 images enter the aesthetic space of the museum and acquire the label “art.” He rightly brings Avedon’s formally similar portraits into the discussion, and finally concludes,

Calling the photos by the name of art, baptizing them, in the second person—“You are art”—is just one way, the clumsiest, certainly, of making sure that the people in the photos are restored to their humanity; and this, not their so-called art status, is of course what matters. To speak of shouldering the role of the artist that Nhem Ein could not assume is another way of saying the same. There is nothing honorific to the name artist in this sense. If anything, it testifies to the impossibility of claiming to speak on behalf of all of us without speaking for the evil part of humankind as well as for the peaceful and civilized.

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

Josh Azzarella: Untitled #24 (Green gloves)

This comes back to the question of the archive and it’s role in the aesthetic sphere. Galassi makes it clear that MoMA is not an archive in the historical, rather than aesthetic, sense. But artists certainly make use of such archives as sources for their works. Josh Azzarella’s work is worthy of consideration in this regard, particularly addressing Green’s interest in a national processing of the legacy of the images. Azzarella’s intervention involves the erasure of the prisoners from the photographs. Their tortured, shamed bodies become conspicuous by their absence; the work functions in a strange way between formal analysis (seemingly inappropriate negative space) and mass media familiarity (our recognition and subsequent differentiation of the images). Azzarella’s Brechtian estrangement of the image allows us to see their horror once again.

Further reading:

William Vollman: Seeing Eye to Eye (Bookforum)

The Melancholy of Robert Frank

March 5, 2009
Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955

Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955

Tucked into a corner of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition, Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, is a remarkable photograph not included in the final edit of that iconic book. The image, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955, shows a tightly cropped detail of a roadside visitor center or gas station. Visually dense, one immediately registers three images within the photograph, like windows incised in the picture plane. Bundles of postcards are arranged in a column at the center of the frame and held in place by a wire rack. Perhaps it is because of the bleached registers of the Southwest afternoon light, but the surrounding details are negligible, focusing the greatest clarity on the postcards.

The scene is familiar to anyone who has piled into the family vehicle (seen here in the background) and set off across the American highway. The car’s wheels turn off the highway, crackling through the gravel and dust along the shoulder, and pull around into the fueling station. Sticky bodies peel off the seat covers and get out for a stretch, tendons flexing and chins raised to catch any available breeze. Perhaps one walks inside to find a Coke or ice cream bar, or walks around the back of the small building, really just a large shack, to find a toilet. If this way station is anywhere near those constellations of the American road trip—national parks, casinos, roller coasters, in-laws—then there will surely be those selfsame postcard racks, totems to the vernacular picturesque. So we buy postcards, polite missives to those left at home or cheap souvenirs to be filed away in closets or cornered in scrapbooks.

The Robert Frank photograph in question was taken on the road trip that provided the source material for The Americans. Funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, Frank piled his wife Mary and their young children Pablo and Andrea into the car like so many other pater familias, and wove their way clockwise around the continental United States. Like other photographs taken on this trip, Hoover Dam, Nevada, 1955 visually arranges information in a way that leads to an often disturbing revelation. Reading the postcards top to bottom, the images move from the Grand Canyon to Hoover Dam to a mushroom cloud. With deft economy these quotations suggest pristine landscape, nature harnessed by man, and finally nature destroyed. It’s an stunning indictment of human progress and a portrait of a world gone wrong.

And stunned I was. My jaw dropped seeing this image for the first time a few weeks ago. It fell even lower when I read the inscription on the print, which is on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery. In Frank’s hand it says, “For Pablo—Remembering the trip to California 1956 – Hoover Dam Nev.”* This photograph encapsulates the personal, familial nature of the trip, and the way a picture’s content can be read through the photographer’s biography. Pablo suffered from schizophrenia and died in a hospital in 1994. Much of Frank’s later work, especially in films like Home Improvement, confronts the psychological trauma of dealing with Pablo’s mental illness and the death of his daughter Andrea in a 1974 plane crash. I remember reading somewhere the dialogue from one of these films in which Robert admonishes Pablo for always seeing the worst in world, for his insistence on darkness and depression. Why then would he have chosen this photograph to give to Pablo? I imagine that in this gift the father acknowledges the demons of the son, and recognizes them as his own.

*It is interesting to note that Yale and the National Gallery date the photograph as 1955, while Frank’s inscription says 1956.

Exhibition schedule: National Gallery of Art, January 18–April 26, 2009; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, May 16–August 23, 2009; Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 22–December 27, 2009

Japanese Whiskey Consumption is Down

February 22, 2009

santori_perrinpostIn order to give this post some relevance to the art world, I’ll mention that the dominant “rhetorical” flourish in Chelsea right now would have to be a gallows humor.

There’s an interesting article from the Grey Lady about the culture effects of the 1990s economic downturn in Japan (and by obvious extension, what could happen in the United States today). Here’s the lede:

As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.

But my favorite part:

Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak.

To someone who was about three years old when Tokyoites reached the apex of whiskey consumption, this mostly recalls Bill Murray’s half-hearted attempts as Santori spokesman in Lost in Translation. (By contrast my whiskey consumption is up by 950% since the 80s, with no decline in sight – I’m thinking of releasing bonds.) Japanese businessmen may have cut out their favorite vices cold turkey, but somehow I don’t think that will be the case here…

When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson from Japan

Moral Calculus

February 22, 2009

“Tis better to have made out with a Spaniard
than to not have made out with a Spaniard.”

—My brother, Peter, after several bottles of wine.