December 31, 2008

The "Obscure Aartist"

Before 2008 ends, in anticipatory celebration of an anniversary, I want to publish a paper I wrote in 1979 . “Aart and Obscurism: First Arguments” outlines a view of art and art making informed by conceptual art and seeking to advance its tenets. Of necessity, this theory of art was sub-cultural and germinated outside of the established “art world.” My personal position in the established art world at the time was that of “outsider,” and that perception obviously colored the tone of my paper, which moves from accusatory statements about commercial galleries to an exposition of my theory concerning a mode of art practice I called “aart.” My terminology reflects artwork made “outside the realm of the prevalent system” without “artistic validation” provided by the dealer-collector-museum hegemony.

As contestable rhetoric, the paper is still a fair read, and re-reading it thirty years later, I am struck by a couple of revelations, one of which is that not all that much has changed in the accepted marketing practices of art and artists. The dealer-collector-museum hegemony is fully in place, and art historical authentication methods still stubbornly ignore originality until it is “validated” by significant curatorial practice.

My firm commitment to supporting “the unknown work of obscure ‘aartists’” continued in 1980 with my alternative art space in Los Angeles. Yet the “prevalent system” of commercial galleries has survived the encroachment of alternative, co-operative galleries and artists’ collectives. Globalization and the international art fairs have only magnified the problem of aesthetics tainted by commodification.

In posting this paper here, its first major publication, I am renewing my belief that art, as presently constructed and maintained by the art world, is in dire need of reassessment and reformation. As stated below, a consideration of artistic “value” is currently clouded by commerciality as it ought to be measured by the concepts. Our visual art world is becoming a crowded and distracting mess – it is time for a re-affirmation of “visual principles,” time for originality and social consciousness.

Two final notes: I transcribed the original paper exactly as it was first written in 1979 – I did not edit or make any revisions. This will undoubtedly surprise regular readers of this blog who are by now familiar with my usual and frequent footnotes. And, finally, expect to hear more about “Aart and Obscurism” in the coming year as we begin recognition of its 30th anniversary.

“Aart and Obscurism: First Arguments”
Through several years of reading mistaken and ill-formed criticism of art and observing artists reducing their creative intentions to mere apologetic attempts of success within the present cultural system I have become increasingly suspicious of these artists and critics and with the prevalent system for artistic validation. The crude and banal criticisms affect a survival mentality among those artists determined to compete in the “art world,” and yet the validation promised by the current system lacks meaning in arenas controlled by corrupt and aesthetically prejudiced dealers, collectors, critics and directors.

The present system dulls the sense of uniqueness possessed by each artist as they struggle for acceptance within a defeating system, producing a state of obvious detriment to their creativity. One of the many purposes of art ought to be the exchange of ideas and emotions within a supportive and beneficial framework that is nourished by the cultural system, and yet the reduction of art to investment for profit and artists to pawns in a financial strategy serves only to subvert this purpose. To assume artists can continue in their creative and social functions under such conditions that deny their aesthetic rights is an absurd conclusion.

These arguments form the necessary means by which the creation of an alternative system of aesthetic validation can be proposed. This alternative system, having no “values” under the present system, will be in direct contrast with art as presently known, therefore the new system will be called “aart,” defined as containing aesthetic characteristics not recognized or acceptable under the prevalent system.

Under the present system, work is that exhibited within the cultural spheres of influence is supposed valid and recognized as art. Such simplicity has very little to do with a real consideration of definition. Art is not defined by what is acceptable or saleable by this fallacious system. Art should exist independently of all corrupt spheres of influence and ought to remain free from control by any one system. Artwork termed as valid under such conditions is questionable.

Under the prevalent system, artists seek outlets through which their work can be exposed to an audience of receptive and aesthetically aware individuals such as critics, historians, collectors and fellow artists. This outlet usually is a privately owned gallery and this avenue of exposure is the one most often taken by artists and the one most upheld as the direction associated with genuine artistic concerns and issues.

The cultural relevance of these privately owned galleries as aesthetic arbiters is seldom questioned by the artists who compete within the present system. The assured success of the gallery owner rests on his ability to sell artwork to coterie of collectors and exposure through the gallery means possible sales to the artist. Unfortunately exposure is misinterpreted as artistic validation also.

These dealers or gallery owners seek work that appears respectable under the contemporary theories espoused by influential critics and through this inter-locking set of conditions and connections a network is formed for the assimilation and eventual success of the initiate artists.

The dealers attempt to demonstrate their worth as significantly important artistic outlets by pointing out known artists that have succeeded within the prevailing system but every artist that has managed to profit by that system symbolizes at least a hundred others that have not. This renders the dealers and their galleries as dubious in their practices and most debatable in terms of importance.

The dealers will further expound on the quality of their artists, stating that the success of some over others resides entirely on aesthetic merit, artistic accomplishment and determination. With some exception, most aspiring artists possess these traits, but how one presupposes any artistic worth or aesthetic validation under the ambiguous considerations outlined above is not clear.

A final deciding factor of an artist’s worth by the present system seems to rely upon a previously verified “status” as evidenced in the critical theories of certain writers. Various aesthetic styles, deemed as tenable positions by these influential critics, provide the artist with “cultural safety” in terms of a historical validity through which the artist can now join the ranks of aesthetic verification. These critical theories, formed no doubt through a logical thought process, are worthy of note but are not an absolute guarantee of validation and definitely cannot exclude other artists who, for no reason other than obscurity, remain outside of the prevalent system.

To remain free of the corruption that is rampant within the present system, “aartists” will function outside of that system. To retain aesthetic value and integrity, “aartists” will remain obscure to the prevalent system of supposed validation. The new theory of “aart” that promotes the unknown work of obscure “aartists” takes as its main assumption the relative obscurity of the “aartists” and will encourage and preserve that obscurity. This theory of aesthetics that supports all forms of creativity not recognized by the present cultural methods will be called “Obscurism.”

To work outside of the existing system will be attacked as “anti-creative” and “anti-social” by the proponents of the prevalent system but in actuality the “obscure aartist” will be protecting his “aart” from corruptions imposed by commercialism and deceptions promoted by false validation. The “obscure artist” will preserve his creativity as well as a new definition of cultural relevance within the social framework. To remain “obscure” is to remain pure in intention and direction.

At this point we must ask if aesthetic validation is necessary and by what criteria an “aartist” is determined a valid practitioner of “aart.” The necessity of aesthetic validation is only important in the context of individual interpretation by the “aartist” of his own worth. Any significant criteria for aesthetic validation in that situation have to concern a subjective analysis of the “aartwork” by the “aartist” alone.

A true subjective analysis of one’s work is not possible in the sense that an examination of the work would have to be influenced from exterior references such as contemporary art history. The formative and creative development of each “aartist” cannot exclude outside sources but these influences should not be the only causative factors of validation. A working blend of a subjective perspective with an objective overview in relation to proven aesthetic principles will be the approach toward determination of “aart” and validation of “aartists” as practitioners.

Given the situation that original visual principles have been demonstrated in the past, we can predict with a certain degree of logic that new visual laws will be revealed in the present. With an awareness of these principles that have been proven, an “aartist” can use the aesthetic information to offer new theses to the visual knowledge if the principles are original. If one has no original visual ideas then the exposure of work is meaningless.

In terms of realizing an idea, work becomes real or assumes a substance that is tangible for demonstrative purposes, to illustrate an aesthetic principle. The “aartwork” then functions as an example of that aesthetic idea. It is important to expose the idea for public scrutiny only if the visual thesis that is presented is a new one, otherwise the work is exhibited futilely as mere extraneous matter. The exposure of the “aartwork” is necessary in that an “aartwork,” by definition, always demonstrates an original aesthetic principle that enhances the proven knowledge.

Conceptual art was characterized by a stress of idea over object, in other words the essence of a concept was given priority over form. The form that a work assumed became less important as the concepts became the main issue. The relevance of the conceptual art is now based on the fact that the ideas of “aart” aesthetics are elevated to new plateaus of knowledge. No longer enough to make objects of “beauty,” “aartists” must now support the form with the essential content of an idea concerning the various assumptions of each discipline.

Conceptual theory has moved us consciously toward “aart” via the emphasis of ideas. The present state of affairs yields an anxious importance to the proximity of relevant “aart” goals. The main aspect of “obscurism” and “aart” is to return the aesthetic emphasis to the issues and real visual concerns, and to affect nothing less than a resurrection of purpose in all things aesthetic and creative.

© Copyright 1979 / 2008 by Mark Cameron Boyd.

Image: MCB, circa 1979, in Los Angeles; photographer unknown.
© Copyright 2008.

December 18, 2008

Billboard Art

Administrator's Note: Whenever one of my students submits a final paper as outstanding as this one, I wish others could read it. Happily, this blog also functions as a forum for introducing “guest” essays by promising writers. Patricia Correa is a Corcoran College senior majoring in Fine Art. Her exhaustively researched essay on the use of billboards as an artistic mode of address reveals many of the ideas that began with conceptual art have been extended by contemporary artists. We discover that “billboarding,” as tactic or theory, is immersed in semiotics, temporality, intervention and socio-political activism. I found Patricia's essay to be particularly informative and insightful, so it is a pleasure to share it with you here.

Billboards are defined broadly as any large outdoor printed (or projected) sign. Artists’ Billboards have been a key medium or vehicle to explore and express the ideas and strategies behind the most important art movements over the last fifty years: conceptualism and dematerialization, temporality, appropriation and authorship issues, socio-political critique, institutional critique, direct political engagement (defending the voices of minorities like women, gays, blacks, different ethnicities, etc.), postmodern concerns about the difference between reality and representation, among many others.

Not all Billboards are “Artists’ Billboards,” even if they have been created by artists. Without entering into the deep dark waters of the definition of art, for the purposes of this essay I will simplify matters and say that the difference between the two lies in the intention behind their use. Billboards are most commonly used for advertisement, political propaganda or pure decoration by the corporate industry or by governmental and political organizations. Although the effect and intention behind Artists’ Billboards may contain some of the latter categories, as Laura Steward says, these find “ ‘cracks’ in the monolith of these corporate or institutional cultures …in which to insert dissent. Often disguising themselves in the trappings of advertising, (Artists’ Billboards) are Trojan Horses, slipping into the built environment almost unnoticed, then springing their messages on us.”(1) By filling in the space expected to be reserved for advertising, the artist “infiltrates” the public space in an unexpected way, triggering a different kind of thought stream in the viewer than an Ad would, and generating a different kind of dialogue between the billboard and the viewer, regardless of its content. Peggy Diggs writes: “Billboard art often instigates a process, a questioning, or an argument about an issue or value that often goes unquestioned or unresolved in the public mind.”(2)

Artists’ Billboards can take the form of roadside billboards, bus or subway billboards (or posters), bus stop shelter posters, etc. Some artists use parts of advertisement billboards to build paintings, collages or other art objects; that is the case, for example, of some of the followers of the art movement “Nouveau Réalisme” that flourished in France in the 1960s and 1970s, who literally “ripped off” public advertisements as a way of protesting against the “reality of commercialism” and reused them to create another “reality.” We will not consider these artworks Artists’ Billboards unless they are located outdoors in a public space as billboards, i.e., they are recreated as billboards again. Artists’ Billboards may contain only text, only images, or a combination of both. They can be made in a variety of mediums (painting, drawing, printing, projection) with digital printing and projecting technologies gaining predominance in the field. New technologies, particularly advances in fiber optics, have lead to new forms of expression (in both advertising and billboard art). Some are starting to resemble TV screens, with changing images, and new lighting technologies can even turn a whole building into a billboard (some examples of this were observed in Washington D.C. as part of “Fotoweek”). Barbara Kruger’s project “Plenty” (2008), for example, appeared on digital screens that stream advertisements on a constant loop.(3)

By their very nature, Artists’ Billboards are ephemeral and usually destroyed when taken down. In this respect they belong to the category of artistic expressions where the materiality of the art object is of lesser or no importance compared to the idea, concept, message or effect given to the viewer. In cases where billboards are repeated and placed in innumerable locations, a kind of “re-materialization” occurs, as happened with Victor Burgin’s “Possession” described below.(4)

Apart from the duration of the billboard display, its location is key to determine viewing time. On the road, for example, the billboard is usually seen from a moving vehicle, so the experience for the viewer is different than that for stationary viewers, which become captive audiences for a while. The effect on the viewer also varies depending on whether there is visual competition (say, many other ad billboards in a busy urban environment) or not (for example, in a lonely road in the country side). In a bus, it is the image and not viewer that moves. Given this temporality, the billboard must capture the viewer’s attention, sometimes in the time frame of a passing glance. For that reason, Artists’ Billboards (same as ad billboards) have the characteristic of using reductive text and/or images to express expansive ideas. Therefore, the idea is prioritized over the process or object. This short time-frame to perceive the message also makes Billboard art suitable for questioning art’s dependence on notions like authorial origins and institutional placement. Public Art Theorist Patricia Phillips wrote: “The temporary art work… requires a comprehension of value based on ideas and content rather than on lasting forms, a flexibility of procedures for making and placing art, and a more inventive and attentive critical process.”(5)

Some artists target audiences consciously and choose locations accordingly, others don’t. The meaning of the piece can change dramatically depending upon location. Alfredo Jaar’s Billboard, “A Logo for America” (1987), for example, was displayed in Times Square, NYC with no notorious public reaction, while it generated a great deal of controversy in Miami, given the local tensions between Hispanics and Anglo populations. Similarly, different time historic contexts can have different effects or generate different readings of the same message.(6)

The “themes” developed by billboard artists vary considerably, and are basically the same themes that characterize art since the 1960s, mainly the issues explored by the Pop Art movement, conceptualists and neo-conceptualists and postmodernists after the1980s; the majority of billboards made by artists address social issues. Given the fact that, as said before, “Billboards occupy a space defined by –and therefore as— advertising”(7) they have become a fertile field for artists to explore the ways in which public space is constructed in relation to commercialism.

Since their appearance at the beginning of the last century, billboards have had detractors and champions. Court rulings have said they are “inartistic and unsightly” (1911), dismissed them as “visual pollution” (1975) and as late as 1981, the US Supreme Court concluded that billboards “by their very nature, wherever located and however constructed, can be an esthetic harm.”(8) It is interesting to note that there is billboard legislation and regulation based on aesthetic grounds. Mostly following the clean and “pristine” aesthetic of Modernism in architecture and design, many complained about the chaotic growth of commercial buildings and advertising, which has been defined as “visual contamination.” In contrast, others like architect Robert Venturi, in a typical “postmodern” spirit, after visiting Las Vegas for the first time, argued for complexity and contradiction, ambiguity, multiple readings, the ironic convention, embracing the main street aesthetic; as Harriet Senie writes in “Learning from Las Vegas: The forgotten symbolism of Architectural Form,” he has a section entitled “Billboards are almost right.”(9) Since these rulings have naturally hurt corporate interests, billboards have become a platform for testing conflicting notions of “the common good.”

Against this backdrop, a large group of artists, in the same fashion as the French “Situationists” and the “Nouveau Réalistes” mentioned earlier, have critiqued the way capitalism has evolved in an age of mass media reproduction, and in particular the way public space has been controlled and structured to “facilitate the passive consumption of advertising and other imagery by a mass audience…undermining the burgeoning culture industry soon to be celebrated by certain Pop Artists.”(10) Following the ideas of Guy Debord and other French intellectuals, these artists have denounced the myths of social freedom and satisfaction promoted by advertising and entertainment, which create only “spectacles” which people perceive as reality, living the illusion of sharing values, the meaning of life, etc. Though this critique was particularly forceful in the 1970s, it still continues to vibrate. Barbara Kruger’s project, “Plenty” (2008), is a good example. Her “dynamic billboard” reflects on the narcissism and excess of consumption, with images of consumer desirables such as sun glasses and cell phones, alternating with the words “PLENTY SHOULD BE ENOUGH.”(11)

Also concerned with the cumulative effects of the invasion of commercial images, many artists have developed the issue using the strategies of Pop Art, that is to say, using the same language and images of advertising. Venturing into the site of advertising, they call the viewer to decode the messages and challenge the pre-coded assumptions associated with them. Like Andy Warhol, they do it in a subtle way, open to different interpretations. Some postmodern artists have, consciously or unconsciously, embraced commercialism and, not without a great deal of irony, have used the advertisement site to “sell” themselves or their work.

One artist that has been criticized for his “flirtation” with capital is Jeff Koons, who, in the words of David Hopkins, has turned “the advocacy of kitsch into a crusade ... claimed to unburden the middle class of conditioned hypocrisies of taste.” In 1989, a billboard poster of his (“Made in Heaven”) appeared advertising an exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and at the same time, advertising a film of the artist with a sexually passionate image of him and his new wife, the porn-actress and artist “La Cicciolina.” According to David Hopkins, he most “probably was scurrilously testing such boundaries as public/private and aesthetic legitimacy/erotic pleasure” by exploring the conundrums of moral issues.(12)

In the late 1970s, Victor Burgin, based on Roland Barthes’s idea that meaning is not innate in things, but “constructed,” explored how images are repositories of social information, easing himself from the “Conceptualist embargo” on using visual imagery in artwork.(13) His billboard titled “Possession” (1976), a mock advertisement produced in edition of 500 and fly-posted in Newcastle upon Thyne, Great Britain, wanted to show how the longing for “possession” on which advertising plays assumes incompatible economic and gender relations. He juxtaposed a photograph of a couple seeming to possess one another with the phrase, “What does possession mean to you? 7% of our population own 84% of our wealth.”

Cindy Sherman’s first ever public art project, part of “Women in the City,” a project launched early in 2008 in LA, deploys four of the artist’s “Untitled Film Stills” from the late 1970s to 1980, blown up into billboards (see image above). As Julia Bryan-Wilson writes, in this scale and location, the artist’s appropriation of the cinematic is more evident, bringing her iconic images back to their origin: Los Angeles, the capital of the entertainment industry. Seen alongside promotions for TV shows and recent film releases, at billboard scale, they become movie posters with no movie to promote. This project also explores the codes under images and how identity is constructed by society and projected by constructed images of the self (following Lacan’s ideas). In Julia Bryan-Wilson's words: these billboards also “interrogate the notion that sheer exposure begets fame (Angelyne, who began to advertise herself in 1984 like a celebrity, became one!) … Proximity between Sherman’s art and the culture she references sheds fresh light on the potent strangeness of her imagery.”(14)

In quite a different vein, another billboard project that deals with the idea that images reflect and construct reality and memory is documentary photographer Susan Meiselas’ project “Reframing History: Nicaragua, 2004.” In 1978, just as the political situation in Nicaragua was about to explode, Susan Meiselas arrived and travelled around the country documenting the escalating civil war. Her images became virtually the only visual historical record of the Sandinista revolution. In July, 2004, she returned to Nicaragua with 19 mural-sized images of her 1978 photographs and installed billboards in the exact locations where the photographs were taken. She says her project is about creating sites for collective memory.

During the late 1970s and 1980s, a post-pop generation of artists and critics were worried less about the stigma of commerce than other growing ills of society. They directly addressed public issues, spaces and audiences to create awareness or protest against issues like the Vietnam War, Feminism, Civil Rights, the environment, etc. In a time when the ideas of the so-called “Institutional Critique” were starting to gain force and overtly political art was “neutralized” by museum settings, billboards became a perfect alternative for these artists to express themselves. Moreover, public sculpture was increasingly being criticized for not addressing public interests. It was the time to move art out of the gallery and into the street, and this applied to non-political artists as well.

In a democracy, theoretically there is room for public discourse, but more often than not the Public is not a contestant, maybe due to a feeling of impotence regarding being able to make a difference.(15) With so much public space dominated by the media, corporate culture and advertising, an effective billboard became one of the few possible public sites from which to dissent. In this way, “the temporary public art enters the fray of democracy.”(16) A good example of artists’ billboards used to protest and effect change, in this case defending the rights of women artists, is the Guerrilla Girls’ “Met. Museum.” A collective piece that was never produced when it was conceived in 1988 – because the billboard company thought the shape of the fan held by the woman wearing a guerrilla mask was too “phallic” – that was revived as such by Mass MOCA in 1999. During the 1980s, as part of a second generation feminism wave, the Guerrilla Girls’ billboards and posters revealing the damning statistics of prevalent museum and gallery sexist and racist practices were very effective at attracting public attention and creating consciousness about the numbers.

Another example, also a collective, is the work of Gran Fury, formed in the 1980s, dealing with the tragedy of AIDS and other social illnesses (sexual abuse, health care inequity, etc.). Douglas Crimp said “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.” This theme was extensively explored in the decade, as was gay rights. Barbara Kruger’s “Fear and Hate,” which appeared in different locations in Portland, Oregon in 1992 after the narrow defeat of the statewide anti-gay ballot initiative is yet another example. It directly addressed the issues of prejudice and discrimination that were predominant with the phrase “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Kruger has made more than 20 artists’ billboards, recapitulating Burgin’s parody of advertisements, juxtaposed text and photographic images, echoing 1920s and 1930s political photomontages and typographics (from Heartfield and Rodchenko). “Her texts highjacked an authoritarian voice but leveled accusations at nameless adversaries from the viewpoint of the oppressed.”(17) Some think she also fell prey to merging art and commerce when, for example, her work appeared on the cover of ARTnews magazine.

Instead of using pointed messages or protest slogans, other artists produced more subtle, allusive images to send their messages. An example is “Bed,” a 1992 billboard of artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a ghostly black and white image of a “warm and inviting” bed, which is tribute to his lover who died from AIDS. The “sign” was open-ended enough for viewers to map their own interpretations onto it. A member of Gran Fury, Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a prolific billboard maker and many of his works attacked AIDS issues in a much more direct style than with “Bed,” using mainly text. “Bed” was displayed in 24 locations in Manhattan.

If images don’t help to create memory or awareness, some artists have tried using only words. Alfredo Jaar’s billboard posters “RWANDA” (see ART21, PBS series), scattered around the streets and squares of Malmo, Sweden reduced the rhetoric of advertising to a cry of grief. The billboards contained the word “Rwanda” repeated several times. According to the artist, “The posters were a raw gesture, produced out of frustration and anger. If all of the images of slaughter and piled corpses, and all of the reportage did so little, perhaps a simple sign, in the form of an insistent cry, would get their attention.”(18) He later recognized in an interview that the project was a failure to create attention and that the gap between reality and representation is impossible to fill.

Mike Mills, from 2007 to early 2008, installed a series of three successive billboards above the Undefeated sneaker store in Los Angeles, in a hip neighborhood inhabited mainly by Caucasians with a substantial Orthodox Jewish population. The first one featured a single phrase in white Helvetica against a pink background (a “hip” design connoting tastes of a certain economic and demographic group): “THE COPS ARE INSIDE US.” As Bryan-Wilson says, this statement “in a city with notorious history of police violence, triggers thoughts about repressive governmental tactics, generates curiosity about which is the assumed audience, internalization and reproduction of power (recalling Foucault).” But given the aforementioned characteristics of the neighborhood where it was located, it is interesting to observe that after three weeks of the sign being put up, someone wrote on top: “They Ain’t inside me.” The Billboard ended up touching upon issues of racism and fear of incursion of “otherness.”(19)

Jenny Holzer’s billboards, posters and projections develop texts to confront the viewer with the status quo, transforming the street into a canvas or notebook of ideas, political or philosophical. Like Jaar, Joseph Kosuth and others, she uses language both as content and image. In “Untitled (Outer Space)” (1984), for example, she suggests that only through imagination can one survive, but that it is a form of escapism.

Les Levine, who has been doing artists’ billboards since the 1960s, focuses on finding a relationship between image and text that is usually vague and general so that the viewer can find the internal logic in the sign. In billboards like “Take” , which is part of a series with similar characteristics, he takes a directive verb (“take” or “forget”) and a corresponding image (a very reductive one), and lets the viewer make whatever associations come to his mind, creating evocative, nuanced works of art.

With a less “transcendental” tone, artists like Kay Rosen play with letters and the way they construct words, using modern fonts and vibrant colors, sometimes with no apparent political or philosophical message, like in “HI”(1997), or making incursions into semiotics or politics like in “_IS_ _ ING” (2007) or in picture postcards, “BU_ _ ; SH_ _” (2004).

Last but not least, according to the curators of the Billboard Retrospective exhibit at Mass MOCA(20), Joseph Kosuth’s “Class 4. Matter 1. Matter in general,” was the first artists’ billboard in the United States and is perhaps the one that retains its radical quality better than any other artists’ billboard. Installed in the New Mexico desert, it lists apparently random elements of matter such as “Universe,” “Chemicals,” “Resins,” it strikes out for its simplicity and lack of visual interest and doesn’t make any overt political statement; just a list. In 1969, Kosuth wrote that his choice of ephemeral public media grew from a desire to stress the immateriality of the work and to severe any connection with painting.”(21)

As a way of wrap up, we can say that Billboard Art can be as rich, varied, complex and open to many intentions as postmodern art is. To develop all the ideas of postmodernity, billboard artists have used strategies such as 1) Attacking existing advertisement billboards directly with graffiti; 2) Appropriating known ads only to change their meaning and 3) Creating structures that look and function like advertisements but aren’t, using text only, images only or a combination of both. Usurping the space of advertisement, Artists’ Billboards have become a well-fitted vehicle for artists to comment on the major ills they perceive are characteristic of our society, some of which stem or are related to advertising itself. They have the advantage of being able to address large audiences, taking art to the streets and out of the museums and galleries, under the principle that art is more about transmitting ideas and triggering thoughts in viewers than about producing archival objects to be admired esthetically in closed “semi-sacred” spaces. As technology and society evolves, there is still plenty of space for this relatively new art medium to evolve both formally and thematically. It would not surprise me if in a couple of years we would be able to see some text or image projected on a full moon, with the corresponding positive and negative effects and reactions coming from different parts of society.

Image: Untitled Film Still (2008); billboard erected in Los Angeles; © Copyright by Cindy Sherman.


1. Steward Heon, Laura. “Putting the Show on the Road”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, p. 9.
2. Diggs, Peggy. “Causing Conversations, Taking Positions”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, p. 33.
3. Bryan–Wilson, Julia, “Signs and Symbols (On Billboard Projects in Los Angeles)”, Art Forum, October, 2008.
4. Hopkins, David. After Modern Art 1945-2000, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 179-183.
5. Phillips, Patricia C. “Temporality and Public Art”, Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context and Controversy, Harriet F. Senie and Sally Webster, eds.), New York, 1992, pp. 298-299. [Citation from Laura Steward Heon, p. 10.]
6. Senie, Harriet. “Disturbances in the Field of Mammon: Towards a History of Artists’ Billboards”, Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, pp. 14-31.
7. Ibid., pp. 14-31.
8. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
9. Op. cit., p. 19.
10. Op. cit., p.163. [David Hopkins has a nice summary of this movement.]
11. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
12. Op. cit., p. 224.
13. Ibid., p. 180-183.
14. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
15. Op. cit., 14-31.
16. Op. cit., pp. 32-35. [Quote from Peggy Diggs.]
17. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
18. Quote reproduced in Steward Heon, Laura, Peggy Diggs and Lisa Dorin, eds. “Billboard Retrospective” in Billboard Art on the Road, Mass MoCA Publications-MIT Press, 1999, pp. 48-66. [See also: Jaar, Alfredo, A Logo for America.]
19. Bryan-Wilson, 2008.
20. Op. cit., pp. 48-66.
21. Ibid., p. 61. [Editor's note: For more on Kosuth's billboards, see The Harvard Crimson.]

December 9, 2008

Another Evil Twin

Adminstrator’s Note: A reader of this site recently commented on a piece I wrote earlier this year (“Nice post”) and there was a link attached to a site called “AutoRewrite.” For a fee, this site provides a service whereby one can basically “disguise” an essay through a re-write (use of synonyms, rearranged syntax, alternate grammatical structure) to produce a “new” essay. Obviously, such sites fill a need, however suspect. As an investigative inquiry, I submitted an old essay to the service and have posted the result here, verbatim, as I received it – apologies please for the grammatical errors, misspellings, etc. [Curious changes were made, for instance, “curator” was changed to “conservative”.] I encourage you to “check” their re-write with my original (use the link below) and I welcome your comments.

Obviously, bloggers create in the vaporous Ethernet and have no idea where our words might end up. One can only hope that the small protections of rights such as Creative Commons will deter unscrupulous individuals from plagiarizing or stealing our intellectual property. However, this new wrinkle gives one pause – if anyone can simply copy a post, run it through a filter and generate “new” writing, what does this mean for the future? I will ponder this over the long winter break and may have to reconsider how to proceed with this blog.


A few weeks ago a young conservative asked my opinion on how to determine a work of art worthy of purchase. Although the context of our conversation in question reported the collection of art, I realized this week after re-reading Suzi Gablik? S? Pluralism: the tyranny of freedom? an omnipresent subjectivity that pervades both the collection and exhibition of art. My personal response to your question about the nature of the art collection is undoubtedly influenced by my own judgments of taste. However, this thought was caused by the Gablik test, you must make art (and the collection of art) adhere to any narrative art history?

A narrative of progressive art is of particular interest to Modernism. One can trace a solid theoretical and the story line, assuming that the Post-Impressionism Impressionism, from Suprematism to abstract expressionism. However, it is right around 1956 that the modernist narrative seems to grind to a halt as Pop Art interruptions of the grand narrative of art as a progressive development of the individual artist? S? The free expression. (1)

Impersonation of staff and exultations additions to the free expression with the wholesale? Loans? appropriated media images, Pop Art used the media reproductions of mass culture as a reference point and significant for social and cultural conditions. As an art movement or style, Pop could easily be cast as? Postmodern? as its approach to the content has less to do with the artist? s individual need to express the legitimate and more to do with the movement of the image. Later, this was enthusiastically supported by Guy Debord? S ideas of the image as a spectacle, replacing the? Authentic? social life of people with? social relationship [s] among people, mediated by images. (2)

It may be pure conjecture, but an alternative and simultaneously postmodern narrative could be traced from Pop Art via the photo-text works from the 1970s to full-bloom of Appropriations for the 1980s. We could also include? Post-sculpture? and? simulationist? artists like Jorge Pardo, Franz West, Haim Steinbach and RM Fisher, who either transform various commodities in the new items? exposure value? or create your own objects that intentionally blur the distinction between art and design.

If we return to the central issue? art must enforce the description of art history? We can see that other art historical narratives are thus running simultaneously. Assuming that matter, how do you do then is to determine what credibility description, value and authenticity?

If we refer to the Gablik testing, we can see that in 1984 there was a problem with postmodernism? S eclecticism and its ownership of the art historical models. She criticizes postmodernism? S ability to assimilate? All forms of style and genre? and is presented as postmodernism? tolerant of pluralism and conflicting values. (3) However, these precepts of postmodernism, and as a postmodernist art historical narrative, could also be seen as successes and strengths, rather than failures and weaknesses.

For example, one of the ideas of post-structural linguistics is the suspicion that the binary. Clear distinction between opposites, that is, true and false, were questioned through explorations into the meaning of the language. This aversion to the binary helped establish the tolerance of diversity and? Conflicting values? in language, and also to the empowerment of postmodern artists. Which would help explain the postmodernism? S as the eclectic? Trend in architecture and decorative arts to mix different historical styles with modern elements with the aim to combine the virtues of many styles, or to increase the content allusive. (4)

The current situation in the visual arts to suggest that a plurality of visual styles is not only rampant but encouraged by today? S art market. Figurative art, abstraction, realism, conceptualism, minimalism, new media, installation and video are equally valued, exhibited and collected. The socio-economic triumvirate of institutional critique-gallery-collector positions of artists in various styles for multiple validations regardless of conflict theorists of art.

Gablik suggests that pluralism has potential: In many ways, abandoning ideology in favor of a pluralistic situation appears to offer a colossal and unprecedented opportunities for all kinds of artistic expression, it seems, in addition to being a news release exclusion and intolerance of the avant-garde imperative of constant innovation. (5) Therefore, the modernist tropes of exclusivity and elitism would be eliminated in the pluralistic world? overoptioned? styles. However, she argues that this still? They threaten our art with the stamp of meaninglessness. (6)

Critics of postmodernist theory, a position he often with the use of double standard that represents the question of meaning as a belief in? Meaninglessness. By contrast, the definition of the meaning of being postmodern? Infinitely deferred? has the fullness of the latter possibility, with a multiplicity of meanings the opening of all systems of representation (including artwork) to infinity meanings.

Our proposal postmodernist alternative to a modernist (call it the 'Evil Twin? Narrative) could reveal Gablik? S reluctance to recognize the importance of conceptual art when he says:? Almost all art today is the product of the energy released from directly or social obligation. (7) Gablik forget that the original conceptual art of the 1970s a fully committed social? value in use? for his art. Kosuth, Lewitt, Weiner and others refused to continue making precious objects as commodities, rather than choosing to imbue art with its definition, the idea and language. In fact, the relationship of art to language (and the world of commodity production) are contrary to the spirit of the modernist ideology. As Avant-GARDIAN topics, these foreshadow conceptual art, and yet they have become our postmodern tropes.


1. Coincidentally, Jackson Pollock and James Dean killed in car crashes that year (September 55 August? 56) and Charlie Parker heroin overdose six months earlier (March 55).

2. Debord, Guy. ? Society of the spectacle?, Black and Red, 1967, 7.

3. Gablik, Suzi. Modernism has failed?, New York, 1984, 73.


5. Op. Cit., 75.

6. Op. Cit., 75.

7. Op. Cit., 74.

November 25, 2008

Making A Piece About Making A Piece

It is clear that there are associative procedural similarities between curatorial practice and studio practice. Both actions involve, or theoretically ought to involve, an appreciation of the relevance of art history (past and current) and the “skilled” manipulation of material/image/context to manifest representations and/or experiences that have aesthetic and/or intellectual resonance in contemporary society. The essentially “positivist” hope is that such endeavors advance society culturally through “progress” and that one can “learn” from the trial and error of history.

This might be as hopelessly romantic as it is naïve. If we can learn anything from or about history, it is that “History is not a text, not a narrative, master or otherwise, but that, as an absent cause, it is inaccessible to us except in the textual form, and that our approach to it and to the Real itself necessarily passes through its prior textualization, its narrativization in the political unconscious.”(1) Humanity’s past can be viewed in many ways – politically, economically, culturally - and “interpretations” can advance agendas based on the pretense of “progress.”

Art could certainly use a little definitive “progress” but can one advance art by learning from art history? Or art theory? As an unofficial “assignment,” Nicolas Donnelly proposed this challenge to a fellow student:

“Using any contemporary topics or issues that you have a firm holistic understanding of, generate a sculpture based on the visual iconography of these ideas. What do these ideas look like in time and space, and why have they been represented like that throughout history and in popular culture …”(2)

Nic’s challenge is worth addressing because it not only evinces the energetic discursivity of today’s artists but it also hints at an unspoken desire for a methodology of art making. Whether possible or not, such an approach to the “what” and the “why” of art initiates questions about the motivation behind the making, and such thinking rightly needs to be done beforehand. Furthermore, artists that understand the necessity of grasping art’s “contemporary topics or issues” are better prepared to seek the “validation” that history promises through this elusive “progress.”

Having said that, let me “progress” further with my critique and commentary: my chief quibble concerns the nature of Nic’s usage of the term visual iconography and its putative relationship to the “contemporary topics or issues.” First, I suggest that the term itself is redundant, as iconography is always illustrative of something, thus is already visual. This is more than a niggling matter about word choice, however, because the preferable term, representation, would help clarify the challenge. Representation was already there in verb form: “What do these ideas look like in time and space, and why have they been represented like that …”

This unconscious avoidance of “the real challenge” is revealing of the scope of the question: how do we represent intangible issues like identity, context and authenticity? As Nic’s articulation of the “parameters” of this challenge explains:

“You could think of this as the process of validating or invalidating what you’re fundamentally interested in and how you [sub]-consciously determine aesthetic value. In other words I’ve asked you to filter the endless and uncontrollable stream of arbitrary information and ideas that we encounter everyday, then redirect those concepts into a calculated scientific system. The ‘result’s’(sic) of which effectively will determine the subject matter of all your future artworks and ideas …”

This statement unveils a hope that these “results” will yield a determinacy of art making, a formula for “future artworks,” and this again raises the question of “progress.”

We can propose that humankind has progressed from the caves, that our technological modernity is better than ancient darkness and cave-dwelling. Culturally, we have made a generalized progression from tribes to communities, from anarchy to government. In visual art, we have mobilized the image, advancing from frescoes to easel painting to digital representations to YouTube.

Progress? I shall not digress through variant arguments based on aesthetic preference or qualitative judgments about “progress” in representation. However, it must be noted that the critical hierarchy that was in place in 1960 has stunningly evaporated. It would not be presumptuous to say that representation has rapidly seceded from a proper criticality, a criticality related to a reductive, conceptual and relational aesthetics.

My final comment has to do with Nic’s “background research” which explores “sensemaking” and “situation awareness.” Generally informed by Gray Klein’s views, Nic writes:

“In brief, sensemaking is viewed more as ‘a motivated, continuous effort to understand connections (which can be among people, places, and events) in order to anticipate their trajectories and act effectively’(3) rather than the state of knowledge underlying situation awareness … (the author) points out that sensemaking is backward focused, forming reasons for past events, while situation awareness is typically forward looking, projecting what is likely to happen in order to inform effective decision processes.”

“Sensemaking” reminds me of causality, cause and effect, as “forming reasons for past events” evokes the quasi-scientific method of causality: my foot hurts (effect) because there is a pebble in my shoe (cause). Apparently, “situation awareness” uses similar empiricist methodologies, based on past events, to predict future events. This differs considerably from simple, yet effective, causality and is in actuality a speculative method to “inform effective decision processes.” Thus, it lacks validation as the basis for a “calculated scientific system.”

Notwithstanding the obstinance of my critique, I appreciate the motivation of the quest for authentic “formulas” for art making based on narrative trajectories. History is the true obstacle. In proposing self-reflexive awareness of intentionality, this quest is based on the optimistic idea that art can be made that might provide a teleological advancement. As described under Nic’s “objective,” his challenge was in “making a piece about making a piece,” and it is this meta-activity that resonates authentically.


1. Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, New York, 1981, 35.

2. This and all subsequent quotes are from an unpublished paper by Nicolas Donnelly.

3. Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. “Making sense of sensemaking I: alternative perspectives,” in IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 2006, 70-73.

November 19, 2008

On Pedestals

One of my students alerted me to Christopher Knight’s LA Times piece on an exhibit by sculptor Jason Meadows. Meadows invited some fellow sculptors to show work and he made pedestals for the resultant sculptures. As a “meditation on the pedestal in the age of late Conceptual art,” Knight’s essay touches on Constantin Brancusi and the pedestal controversy.

Knight, as ever thoughtful and gently provocative, asks a few questions that indicate our contemporary anxiety about “sculpture in the expanded field” and whether we need to worry about pedestals. Rhetorical or not, I came up with some answers to these questions and want to share them. Christopher Knight’s questions are followed by my “answers” in italics:

Question No. 1: Is a pedestal made by a sculptor the base for a work of art, or is it another sculpture?
Neither: it's a comment on the pedestal as art theory. As theory, it assumes we are aware of art history and plays off of our recognition of the advancement of Modernist sculpture. Like other ‘critiques’ of art posing as art, it has the advantage of being ‘hip’ through historicization.

Question No. 2: Is a sculpture placed atop another sculptor’s pedestal one work of art or two – or maybe even three?
If the sculptors were aware of Jason's final format, then it's collaborative work. The ultimate test, as always, will be decided at “the register” – will collectors purchase Jason’s piece or the work that sits atop it, or both?

Question No. 3: Does a pedestal lend meaning to the sculpture that sits on it? Or does the pedestal draw its meaning from the sculpture on top? Or does it go both ways – or neither?
If it is collaboration then the pedestals provide “meaning” to both the pedestal itself and the sculpture that sits on top through the evidenced criticality. By representing the contemporary sculptures within a pre-Modernist critique, the entire sculptural unit is both parodying Modernism and art theory. And the true way a pedestal will “draw its meaning from the sculpture on top” is through its “consumption” or function as base: to paraphrase Marx, a pedestal becomes really a pedestal only by supporting a sculpture.(1)

Question No. 4: What would Constantin Brancusi, who raised the pedestal issue in the first place, have to say?

Image: Chocolate Gnaw (1992); 600 lbs. of chocolate on marble pedestal; © Copyright by Janine Antoni.

1. “A dress becomes really a dress only by being worn.” From A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, (S. Ryazanskaya, trans.), New York, 1970, 195-196.

November 13, 2008

Mitch Mitchell

Mitch Mitchell died yesterday. He was the original drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the three albums they made together in the 1960s. He was 61.

I was “taught” how to play drums by Mitch – I listened to his every flam and rim-shot under my headphones as a teenager. Trying to keep up with Mitch on songs like “Manic Depression” or “Cross-town Traffic” was nearly impossible. But I eventually was able to mimic his style of explosive percussion that served me well in many R’n’R outfits.

You can hear Max Roach’s influence in Mitch’s playing. He was quite the anomaly in rock as he was basically a jazz player who learned to adapt to those towering Marshalls that Jimi favored. Mitch was also one of the first drummers to work with double kick drums.

With Mitch’s passing, all of the original Experience players are now gone.

November 1, 2008

Report on the Infinite

Roman Opalka’s artistic practice is either an undertaking of resolute heroism or an obsession bordering on insanity. Since 1965, Opalka has been inscribing a progression of numbers on canvas. The canvas size is always the same (196 x 135 cm), as is the brush (size 0) and the pigment (white acrylic). There is anecdotal evidence suggesting that the idea came to Opalka while waiting for his wife in a café. If true, this story attests to the fact that the most “successful” ideas are “ludicrously simple” or, at the very least, simply “inevitable.”(1)

I want to discuss Opalka’s work from three theoretical vantages, two of which have to my knowledge not been previously suggested as ways to interpret his project. The one theory universally addressed is the idea that Opalka’s counting represents his comprehension of his mortality, that this is his way of “marking” his time on earth. I would add to this that his work ought to then be considered as truly time-based. This term has become an accepted and generic catch-all for video, aural or performative work but we must clearly understand the relevance of it in relation to Opalka; after all, his work is more fully “based” in time than most simple narrative-form video.

Which allows me to introduce the first of my “new” takes on Opalka: I believe his work reflects a post-narrative approach that dismantles our apprehension of a work of art as a “story” that can be “read.” Similar to the way Stan Douglas’s “Overture” disrupts a viewer’s sense of narrative structure through repetition of its audio and visual components, an Opalka painting disrupts one’s apprehension of it as a “work.” Opalka’s paintings are “details” of the larger “story” from the artist’s entire oeuvre, his life’s project.(2) It is a “work” we cannot fully “read” and the knowledge that he is still at work on his project negates the (modernist) interpretation of his practice as manifesting “wholeness” within the object.

Moreover, Opalka is as much “performance artist” as painter. His project is clearly performative as he counts “time,” recording (since 1968) himself counting numbers as he paints them.(3) Exactly why his work is not discussed as “performance” remains to be articulated but probably reflects the prejudicial attitudes of critics who cry that “painting is dead” every few years; if Opalka merely filmed himself counting he would probably have become the darling of “time-based” art. His inscribed numerals record his performance in a way that film never could - the finality of his passage through time is a “play” that is memorialized in each “detail.”

Opalka has referred to his project as “a conceptual report with the infinite.”(4) It is truly a conceptual art “work” and categorically disproves the oft-bandied theory that conceptualism has “dematerialized” the “work” of art. Currently continuing, this particular “work” of art is possibly as close as one person has come in “reporting” on humankind’s connection and access to the Infinite.


1. “Some ideas are logical in conception and illogical perceptually. The ideas need not be complex. Most ideas that are successful are ludicrously simple. Successful ideas generally have the appearance of simplicity because they seem inevitable.” from Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, originally published in Artforum, June 1967.

2. Opalka refers to his paintings as “details” and each bears the same title on the reverse: “OPALKA 1965/1-∞ (Infinity)”, although some additionally include the numerical range painted on the front, i.e., “460260-484052.”

3. On July 22, 2004, Le Monde reported that he reached 5,486,028.

4. The work by Roman Opalka.

October 27, 2008

Mining the Vain

In the late 1970’s, artists began to investigate the institutional validation of art by art museums and galleries. The investigational methods used by these artists included appropriation and “site specific” installation that raised questions about both site-specificity itself and the historical imperative of museum practice.(1)

Their body of work followed a trajectory begun by 1960’s interventionists (Daniel Buren) and conceptualists (Mel Bochner, Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke) who initiated an “analysis of the discursive framing devices” and “institutional conventions of exhibition and display.” Sometimes referred to as situational aesthetics, this movement considered the “mode of address” within the sites where the public encountered art in its allocated spaces and how this institutional environment affects one’s perception and experience of art.(2)

Certainly it is always beneficial for solid art museums to acknowledge conceptual art and, although a safe exhibition bet in ’08, the relationship of Californian artists to the first conceptualist wave is amply evidenced in MOCA Geffen’s Index: Conceptualism in California from the Permanent Collection.

The usual suspects are here: Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, Wallace Berman, et al, along with a few lesser-knowns like David Ireland. A bevy of “post-conceptual explorations” suffers from a lack of sufficient context much needed to relate the youngsters’ work to earlier forebears. One revelatory aspect of conceptualism/postconceptualism is this nearly de rigueur need for supplementary material, i.e., wall texts, essays, lectures that substantially aid public access to the work.

Much of Index takes the form of retrospective nostalgia as the various objects, documents and installations are rendered precious and historic in a meticulous and conventional museum display. It is decidedly ironic that these “classic” de-skilled photographs, stains, vain pronouncements and pseudo-critical posturings have now become “relics” apparently in need of re-validation. Thus, these works are returned to us (again) as “art” in the sanctity of an authenticating reliquary where they are “safely absorbed and integrated into the codex of exhibition topics.”(3)

No work in Index could be more tellingly relic-like than Chris Burden’s “re-do” of his 1986 MOCA installation, “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum.” Just as he did twenty-two years ago, Burden dug down through the foundation of the same building in Los Angeles and constructed three sets of wooden stairs that would allow MOCA’s visitors to descend into the pits. Ostensibly to “expose” the museum’s status as the contextual site where “art” resides, Burden’s reliance on the “discursive framing device” of the museum to achieve his work’s “meaning” was fully contingent upon the institution’s blessing. Thus, Burden’s “dig” at MOCA was (and is again) effectively neutralized as institutional critique.

It is worth noting that Burden’s 1986 MOCA dig was installed at the then “Temporary Contemporary,” a site that is now officially permanent as the MOCA Geffen. That knowledge has caused at least one discerning critic to question the veracity of Burden’s installation as either intervention or institutional critique:

“Burden did not intervene in the new museum on Bunker Hill [now called MOCA Grand], but dug into the concrete floor of the existing warehouse. He thus did not expose the foundations of the museum but dug up the floor of the wing in which the museum allows itself to be alternative, where so-called subversive interventions are simply part of the program. It is simply unthinkable that Burden would have touched the genuine museum, or that wing where MOCA profiles itself architecturally and institutionally as a museum. His freedom is the result of a fallacious operation. An architecture that is supposed to be alternative by nature is used by the MOCA Los Angeles as a simulacrum of productivity and freedom, underwritten by a belief that an alternative packaging guarantees an alternative programme.”(4)

So why would Chris dig up MOCA again?

Whether it was ever officially “institutional critique” is still very much in play as current critics are (again) doubting the autonomy of Burden’s Index installation and see it instead as “freed from being part of an authoritative structure and re-cast as liberating, hilarious and contingent.”(5) This contingency cedes much of Burden’s relevance to Index, and possibly to conceptualism as well, inasmuch as his submission to this particular exhibition might be read as an exercise in vanity.

Image: Exposing the Foundation of the Museum (1986/2008); © Copyright by Chris Burden; cell-phone image by MCB at MOCA Geffen.


1. See Louise Lawler’s untitled 1978 installation at Artists Space, New York and Michael Asher’s 1981 contribution to The Museum as Site at Los Angeles County Museum.

2. Buchloh, Benjamin. “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art” in Art After Conceptual Art (A. Alberro, S. Buchmann, eds.), Cambridge, 2006, 37.

3. Ibid., 39.

4. Davidts, Wouter. “Art Factories: Museums of Contemporary Art and the Promise of Artistic Production, from Centre Pompidou to Tate Modern” in Fabrications, Vol. 16, No. 1, June 2006, 31.

5. . . . might be good

October 15, 2008

Chalkboard Talks

I was invited to participate in a "thematic conversation" that the "Floating Lab Collective" has organized as part of the "Close Encounters" exhibition at American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center. The conversation participants also include Kathryn Cornelius, John James Anderson and Welmoed Laanstra, and our topic is "The Intersection of Art and Society".

I must admit I am looking forward to interacting with the tables and chairs specifically constructed for the talks that are "painted in blackboard paint so they can be utilized as a recording surface." The event begins at 1:00 pm - call 202-306-5643 for more information.

October 6, 2008


The text paintings “by” John Baldessari are both Modernist critique and a primer of conceptual art. Executed by a “sign-painter” from Baldessari’s instructions, these works fulfill the basic tenets espoused by Sol Lewitt [“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”(1)] and Lawrence Weiner [“The artist may construct the piece … The piece need not to be built.”(2)] in that they effectively focus our attention on the idea behind the work.

For example, if we consider the physical aspects of Baldessari’s “Exhibiting Paintings”, we can see that it consists of words painted in acrylic on stretched canvas. The work then exists within the realm of painting both through its use of traditional painting materials (paint and canvas) and its address of basic pictorial elements. Thus, Baldessari’s work embodies subtle allusions to Modernism and disjunctive relationships like “figure-ground” that would become standard terminology in 20th Century discourse about painting, causing “modern” painting to be judged inaccessible to many unfamiliar with its jargon.

What could be more accessible then than words? Words incorporate legibility, carry information and involve “active” participation. Baldessari only requires his “viewers” to become “readers.” Herein lies a fundamental yet often overlooked theoretical aspect to these dead-pan paintings because they encompass distinctions between “looking” and “reading.” As Simon Morley points out, Baldessari and Weiner understood that language could “direct viewers towards becoming more than the contemplators of an aesthetic object – the model of reception within the modernist paradigm.”(3)

The reasons for such attempts to transition art’s audience from viewing to reading are obvious enough – to privilege concept over object, to engage the intellect beyond surface aesthetics – yet the “act” of reading is not truly “passive” and the legibility of an image does not inherently “carry” legibility of “meaning,” after all.

In “Exhibiting Paintings”, Baldessari’s “real” concept is hidden beneath its “art” context of art materials and institutional validation (a museum). The irony here is that a work that seems ostensibly transparent in an approach to its “reading” actually requires more language in the form of supplemental materials (critical reviews, art history, lectures) that might help us to comprehend the work’s concept and “meaning.”

Ironic as well is Baldessari’s use of text from a popular “How To” book for artists. Presumably the “expert” knowledge given here is accepted as “fact” yet we can almost imagine Baldessari’s snickers of derision as his “sign-painter” inscribes the words. Mocking these somewhat naïve assumptions about art is par for the course in “modernism” and resurrects (again) the dichotomy between the “high” and “low” arts. But perhaps semiotics is the great equalizer here, as both his contractual laborer and Baldessari are dealing with “signs,” and neither purveyor has exclusivity rights with regard to the “meanings” conveyed through their chosen system of representation – language.

Image: “Exhibiting Paintings” (1967-1968); acrylic on canvas; © Copyright by John Baldessari.


1. Lewitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, Artforum, 5, No. 10, June 1967, 79.

2. Weiner, Lawrence. “Untitled Statement (1970)”, re-printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 839.

3. Morley, Simon. Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, Berkeley, 2003, 142-143.

September 27, 2008

Critical Hierarchy

There exists a hierarchy of critical theory in reference to contemporary art; a paradigm of critique, if you will, that once established on a particular artist and their work marshals further consideration and new analyses on the work.

Comprehension of much contemporary art is distinctly fragile because of the hermeneutics of critique and it becomes particularly difficult when essayists overlook previous critical views. Not to say that a critic cannot ignore these previous critical assessments, but when such nuanced “readings” of an artist are laced throughout the Web it becomes apparent that these views may have been omitted not as result of ignorance but possibly in avoidance of critical hierarchy itself.

Rigorously researched critiques on contemporary artists abound in print and electronic media. Moreover, new interpretive views on an artist run the risk of abrupt dismissal or even worse become immediately obsolete if they exhibit such critical omissions, and this is all very troubling for the contemporary art audience that would suffer from the paucity of information presented.

Such is the case in Professor Jonathan Wallis’s otherwise scholarly essay on the photography of Mariko Mori in the Spring /Summer 2008 issue of Woman’s Art Journal. A former fashion model from one of Japan’s wealthiest families, Mori explored a vivid range of identity issues for women through her carefully wrought photographs staged in urban settings. Often Mori inserted herself digitally into these photographs (created in 1994-’95) creating a new media genre within conceptual photography that I would like to call faux tableaux.

There are rather well-documented previous critiques that view Mori’s feminine “aliens” as an “intensified sexualization of abstracted and alienated consumption.”(1) Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a post-feminist, Marxist treatise of substantial significance to the visual arts, encouraged women to quit trying to erase male “fantasies” but instead take control of men through their libidinous desires and overturn the patriarchal order by taking advantage of their sexuality.

That Prof. Wallis’s ten-page essay fails to even briefly reveal this fact through a footnote is unconscionable. Clearly, he did not miss the evident symbolism in Mori’s images - “...they appear as either cyborgs partially made of machine parts or futuristic aliens with pointy ears.”(2) - but still Prof. Wallis failed to turn up Haraway’s concepts in relation to Mori in his research. Here is a quote from a Mori fan site page devoted to “Cyberfeminism”:

“The office ladies and schoolgirls that appear in Mariko Mori's early work are not ordinary women, that is, they are cybernetic organisms (‘cyborgs’) - a mix between science fiction fantasy and everyday existence. In her influential and ironic work, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1991), Donna Haraway declared that in the twenty-first century, women should begin to take pleasure in mixing the boundaries between the natural and the artificial (Haraway 1991). Women should no longer attempt to change the male fantasy, or indeed eradicate it, instead, they must take control of it and subvert it for their own pleasure.”(3)

And from another excellent essay available on line:

“The first time I saw ‘The Birth of a Star’ [Mori’s 1995 photograph] I thought of Donna Haraway's cyborg as described in her seminal essay ‘A Cyborg Manifesto...”(4)

I can see no obvious reason for Prof. Wallis to have avoided this topic. Mori’s imagery from this body of work bears a definite cybernetic cast as she has herself alluded:

“The women appear to be happy because they're cyborgs, not real women.”(5)

Thus, I propose there are two possible explanations for Prof. Wallis's oversight: he was either completely ignorant of this previous critical interpretation of the mid-1990s Mori photographs or he knew and decided not to address these views in his own critical analysis.

If Prof. Wallis was not aware of previous views on Mori that made a connection between her plastic, teenybopper vamps and Haraway’s sexual empowerment through cybernetics, then the least we can say is the research is flawed. This results in a weakening of the critical impact of this particular text and certainly would reflect poorly on Woman’s Art Journal as a reputable resource for contemporary art study.

On the other hand, if Prof. Wallis specifically ignored these critiques that interpret Mori’s sexualization of “technology as a potential source for pleasure”(6) then his paper represents a possible negation of the critical hierarchy. If a critic wishes to attempt a negation of previous critical theory about an artist’s work then we expect there to be specific counter-theories that address the contradiction or refutation of the previous critical position. Regardless of the scope of one’s hermeneutics, an academic or critical investigation is obligated to search for undiscovered knowledge.

Remarkably, there is yet another grave error in Prof. Wallis’s research in his characterization of earlier feminist art. He talks of 1970s feminist artists’ “celebration of the natural body and its functions, sexual liberation” and implies that “young female artists [today] embrace and celebrate attire, attitudes, and roles condemned by their foremothers.”(7) Would not Hannah Wilke clearly refute Prof. Wallis's thesis, given that Wilke’s performances circa 1979-'85 were mostly nude rituals of eroticism? In fact, Wilke’s presentations of the inherent power of female sexuality went so against the grain of “feminist standards” that Lucy Lippard “condemned” Wilke in 1976 for “confusing her roles as beautiful woman and artist.”(8) Thus, Prof. Wallis should not overlook Wilke’s work as a possible inspiration for young women artists today rather than recycling tired and trite pop culture icons like Madonna and Britney Spears.

Image: Still shot from performance So Help Me Hannah; © copyright 1978-1985 by Hannah Wilke.

1. Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York, 1991, 172.

2. This and all subsequent quotes are from “The Paradox of Mariko Mori’s Women in Post-Bubble Japan: Office Ladies, Schoolgirls and Video-Vixens” published in Woman’s Art Journal, Spring /Summer 2008.

3. Quoted on “Cyberfeminism and Mechanical Sex”.

4. Schreiber, Rachel. “Cyborgs, Avatars, Laa-Laa and Po: Exhibitions of Mariko Mori”, originally published in Afterimage, March /April 1999, 2.

5. Quote from an interview with Dike Blair in Purple Prose, Summer 1995, 98.

6. Schreiber, 13.

7. Wallis, 5.

8. Lippard, Lucy. From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women's Art, New York, 1976, 126. [“Lippard appears to have believed that Wilke’s beauty obscured the issues being raised in her artworks. In other words, Lippard’s argument suggested that only art that did not represent Wilke herself could be considered ‘serious’ art.” - from Julia Skelly’s “Mas(k/t)ectomies: Losing a Breast (and Hair) in Hannah Wilke’s Body Art”, Third Space, Vol. 7, Issue 1, Summer 2007.]

September 18, 2008

Use, Exhibition, Exchange

Plato’s now legendarily odious dismissal of the painter’s “art” as “worthless” issued from his epistemic Grecian conditioning to accept “usefulness” as the mitigating and decisive factor in determining relative “value.” It is clear that a painting of a bed cannot be slept upon and, regardless of the sentiment attached to an aesthetic vision of an “Ideal Form,” it is additionally obvious that a painted “bed” is twice removed from that Ideal Form, i.e., the best bed that money can buy. Which perhaps helps to explain Ikea but that is another post. It is my premise that the migration of “value” through approximately 2000 years of discourse and inquisition about it has allowed a number of cyclical “returns” to both Platonic and Marxist views about the valuable nature of objects for consumption or contemplation.

In 1867, Marx demonstrated “commodity fetishism” as proof that commodity objects were for both use and barter, focusing our comprehension of the relationship of “exchange” to the “usefulness” of an (art) object. From her perspective as a young gallerista, Rebecca Jones enlightens us concerning the impact Marxism and capitalism have had on art and how the “art marketability” of an art object affects the “original intention” of the artist:
“[Marx] discusses the two standards by which a utilitarian product is valued: “use value” and “exchange value”. (Exchange value wins of course). Similarly, any art work is measured against two sets of standards in its existence: artistic intent and salability. When a work of art enters into the realm of the art market, the original intention of the work, against which it was judged in its creation, can become completely irrelevant to the work at that point, while other factors take dominance like status, edition, and its archival quality.”(1)

One of the cornerstones of conceptualist theory relies on Duchamp’s contribution to the discourse about how “things become art by being put into places where one expects to find art, namely museums,” and that this validating “context” of art galleries and museums established a work’s identity as “art” as “entirely a matter of convention.”(2) In doing so, Duchamp tacked a “new value” upon standard-issue urinals, shovels, coat and bottle racks by usurping their intended functions as hardware. His assignation of an “exhibition value” to this use value objects de-contextualized the objects through his avant garde act of dysfunction.

We must also recall that Walter Benjamin was aware of the possible dominance of exhibition value and the implication of its ascendancy:
“By the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental.”(3)

The great Yves Klein marvelously expanded upon Duchampian conceptual logic by demonstrating the possibilities of an “immaterial” transaction to embody both “exchange value” and “exhibition value.” In his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” he specifies that the “transfer” of “ownership” of said “zone” was to authenticate the immaterial “work” as art:
“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed[sic] takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(4)

Double-talk or not, Klein reclaimed his “intention” as an artist within the textual documentation of these transactions, and reaffirmed that both the making and the “ownership” of these “immaterial” works of art were “useful,” much like the earlier use of art within ritual.(5) Because “ownership” of a Klein “Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zone” is both authenticated and negated by the transaction, it yields two insights on art; first, that art need not be “material,” and second, the transaction literalizes the “exchange value.”

The successful postconceptual artist questions the imbued value of “art objects” and explores and defines use, exhibition and exchange values. The intangible nature of value attribution through the cultural validation of an object makes it now impossible to insist that these values are guaranteed within these objects.


1. Jones, Rebecca. ”Contemporary Art vs. the Contemporary Art Market”, May 2007.

2. Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993, Cambridge, 1995, 15.

3. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, Section V.

4. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

5. See Benjamin, Section IV.

September 9, 2008

Things Under Erasure

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to discuss my work with my colleague and friend, Dr. Lisa Lipinski. The subject of our talk was my text-bisection practice and my current Song for Europe installation that is in The Athenaeum. Dr. Lipinski’s skillful preparation of her succinct questions and her collegial support allowed our talk to unfold effortlessly. Our conversation ranged from the difficulty in describing my work (neither “drawing” nor “painting” but uses media of the former and inhabits critical positions of the latter) to how it differs from the work of earlier conceptual artists like Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner.

One question that proved fruitful was how I came to this technique of text-bisection. I recounted my discovery of Jacques Derrida’s expansion on Martin Heidegger’s “unique device” for acknowledging a word’s “inaccuracy” by crossing it out.(1) Derrida extends this idea of sous rature - placing the word “under erasure” – to all words. Thus, my text-bisection process is a simple but direct attempt to extend Derrida’s belief to a visual system. Text-bisection literalizes this idea and also incorporates “illegibility” to literalize the “play” of differences in language. I further explained there is both “reading” and “looking” in Song for Europe and the participatory nature of the work conflates both these into an experiential process of the “language” of art.

A small but decidedly interested group of people attended our gallery talk and I have exchanged emails with some audience members in the ensuing two days. One of these emails was from artist and teacher Carol Dupré who posed a “minor” question that introduces a possible continuation of discourse begun earlier and, given the importance and necessity that I attribute to “supplemental materials” on art, I reprint it here for our edification:

“One minor one is the 'erasure' concept that used to be known as 'bracketing,' changing it considerably. In a sense keeping it visual, on the shelf. Has anyone approached that change in usage-imagery?”

I now close this post with my previously emailed reply to Ms. Dupré, re-printed here in its entirety - ampersands and contractions intact - knowing (and expecting) her “follow-up question” that is waiting in the wings and that will perhaps generate further discussion from you gentle and international readers of this site:

“Your thoughts on "bracketing" vs. sous rature brought back fuzzy memories of Heidegger & Husserl. Heidegger said we can't experience the external world apart from our mental constructs of it & that our "pre-reflective" consciousness is a more authentic orientation to the world than our reflective consciousness. Husserl emphasized that "bracketing" was a way to get to Zu den Sachen ("the things themselves")(2) as we post-pone or set aside our "baggage" about the world (our mental constructs of it) to attempt to focus on noumena, or the thing itself.

Is this similar to placing words "under erasure?" I think not, as bracketing requires a total disengagement from the external world whereas sous rature acknowledges the necessity of seeing that word behind the erasure in order to discuss it.”

Song for Europe continues through September 21, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: Signs are not thoughts (English); detail with visitor contributions on 8/20/08; © Copyright 2008.


1. “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.” - Gayatri Spivak in the “Translator’s Preface” to Derrida's Of Grammatology (revised edition), Baltimore, 1998, xiv.

2. Forgive my elimination of selbst from Husserl’s term. More on Husserl and phenomenology at

August 15, 2008

A Song for Europe

It began with a song – A Song for Europe.

At an empty café, a singer recollects a faded love affair, projecting loss in elegiac melody. Remembering “moments lost in wonder that we’ll never find again,” he realizes how his world has become “a shell full of memories.” He has nothing to share with his now forsaken love except “yesterday,” his obsessive reveries doom him to retrace an endless past, trapped in the decadent European settings that now only mimic romance.

More than homage to a passionate lover, these lyrics become for me an allegory of a waning Western culture. The once proud and wondrous Europe is passé, past its prime and out of step with the brave New World. Ideas and methods once cutting edge are now ridiculed as traditional; the grand narratives of Old World history now devalued as “constructed.” No center, its languages suspect, its relics encased in dusty institutional displays, its art defaced and mocked.

So was begun my memoriam to this "old world," an investigation of its past glories and achievements. Related through philosophy and theory, Europe’s disembodied “voices” comprehend that “presence” and “knowledge” are momentary; “absent” as all moments are transitory, however “enchanted.” The past is malleable through text and ideology as all history and “truth” are utterly unknowable. This is a postmodern lament. Fully aware of its fragility, our Western culture is at the mercy of Globalization that takes from the West what it can use and discards the rest on that long forgotten and decaying continent.

Song for Europe at The Athenaeum, Aug. 16-Sept. 21, 2008.
Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. Info: 1-703-548-0035.
UPDATE: Podcast here.

August 8, 2008

Signs that Supplement

“The entirety of philosophy is conceived on the basis of its Greek source. As is well known, this amounts neither to an occidentalism, nor to a historicism. It is simply that the founding concepts of philosophy are primarily Greek, and it would not be possible to philosophize, or to speak philosophically, outside this medium. That Plato, for Husserl, was the founder of a reason and a philosophical task whose telos was still sleeping in the shadows; or that for Heidegger, on the contrary, Plato marks the moment at which the thought of Being forgets itself and is determined as philosophy – this difference is decisive only at the culmination of a common root which is Greek.”(1)

In continuing his analysis, Jacques Derrida does clarify that both Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger developed two differing “archaeologies” yet both responded to Greco-Platonic philosophy by engaging in a “reduction of metaphysics.”(2) Their aim, as is Derrida’s, was a (re)interpretation (we might also call it a deconstruction) of metaphysics that would urge all later philosophical thought to return to the question(s) of “Being.”

If Plato did not fully “awaken” the purpose of metaphysics, if he became dazzled by rhetoric and Socratic dialogues, then perhaps the essence of Being would require redress from minds like Husserl and Heidegger. Yet Derrida insists that this “knowledge” is not “in the world.” Derrida holds that it is only the “possibility of our language” that might grant access, however tenuous, to thought and Being.(3)

The tenuousness of language and of writing in particular was a major task that Derrida launched through his numerous essays, books and lectures. Arguably his most famous lecture (Johns Hopkins in 1966) introduced his controversial critique of structuralism (and launched poststructuralism). In this lecture (not published until 1970, reprinted in Writing and Difference in ‘78), Derrida levels Saussurean structuralism, dismisses Lévi-Strauss’s “floating signifier” and exposes the “moment” that writing became part of the “universal problematic:”

“This was the moment when language invaded the universal problematic, the moment when, in the absence of a center or origin, everything became discourse - provided we can agree on this word - that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences. The absence of the transcendental signified extends the domain and the play of signification infinitely.”(4)

A life-long project undertaken by Derrida in the formidable footprints of Husserl and Heidegger (and Descartes and Kant), poststructuralism (and deconstruction) lead inevitably to broad reassessments in various fields of knowledge, including literary criticism (Barthes), psychoanalysis (Lacan) and the visual arts (Victor Burgin, Joseph Kosuth, Jeff Wall, Dan Graham). Through their analyses and critique, Derrida and these other poststructuralists have cast doubt over the certainty of “knowing” through the fragile structure of language. Moreover, Derrida stressed that writing has always been seen as nothing but a substitute - substitution through metaphor, inscription, narrative - for description, truth and history. Viewed as the weaker cousin to “speech act,” writing lacks the validating “presence” of the subject, conveys chiefly through semiotics, cannot be “trusted” to accurately reflect thought.

As supplement, writing is suspect. To put it bluntly, as Derrida almost never does, writing as supplement is secondary and at the service of something “original.” From Of Grammatology:

“If supplementarity is a necessarily indefinite process, writing is the supplement par excellence since it proposes itself as the supplement of the supplement, sign of a sign, taking the place of a speech already significant.”

It did not take long for visual artists to see that art was analogous to writing, of course. As objects that “communicate,” artworks are enmeshed in semiotics, driven by the system of representation that is “Art.” Thus, it would prove fruitful for scores of experiments, conceptualizations (especially in photography) and discourses about the supplementarity of the artwork as “sign.”

My installation, Song for Europe, seeks to expose the lineage of “Western-European philosophy” through the structure of language. Much more than structural, however, language is at the behest of the “Will” and yet words are fragile. Heidegger had a unique way to mutually agree on this fragility when engaging in philosophical discourse; words like “Being” were crossed out indicating they were “under erasure.” This allowed him to use a word while acknowledging its inaccuracy: “Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since the word is necessary, it remains legible.”(6)

Derrida, of course, extended this to all words. I have extended Derrida's “typographical expression of deconstruction”(7) as my “text bisection” process to incorporate both “inaccuracies” and “illegibility” to literalize the “play” of difference in both words and artworks as signs.

There is both a “reading” and a “looking” in Song for Europe, as I attempt to conflate the two actions into a single experience. Further, I wish to dissolve accepted ideas of narrative, inscription and signification to provide a glimpse of the textual process. This process is participatory through reading, looking, writing, speaking and thinking as I invite The Athenaeum visitors to action through an interpretation of the “language” of art.

Song for Europe opens Aug. 16, 2008 at The Athenaeum. Gallery hours: Thursday-Sunday, 12-4 pm. For information: 1-703-548-0035.

Image: Song for Europe: The sign which supplements (French); detail; © Copyright 2008.


1. Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference, Chicago, 1978, 81.

2. Op. cit.

3. Ibid., 82

4. Ibid., 280.

5. Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, Baltimore, 1976, 281.

6. Spivak, Gayatri. “Translator’s Preface” in Of Grammatology (revised edition), Baltimore, 1998, xiv.

7. Taylor, V. and Winquist, C. Encyclopaedia of Postmodernism, London, 2001, 113.