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.