Friday, June 12, 2009

"A Fragile Memory" at Providence library

From my review of "A Fragile Memory" at the Providence Public Library's Special Collections Hall:
There is a golden formula in photography: photo plus time equals increasing allure. Old books and poetry, old television and movies can turn stilted, tedious. But photos seem to grow ever more compelling with age, even if the shots were boring when they were first made. It's something about the magnetism of the data frozen in the photographic moment — the clothes and architecture, the hair and cars. Even if you don't know the people or place in the photo, it draws you in. It's a glimpse into the past, a jolt of nostalgia, a tantalizing mystery.

This holds true in "A Fragile Memory," a magical — though at times frustrating — selection of 39 photos newly printed from an archive of 1000 glass plate negatives dating as far back as 1876 in the Providence Public Library's special collections. The photos, on view with some of the original negatives in the library's Special Collections Hall, were printed at AS220's community darkrooms by exhibition organizer Agata Michalowska, darkroom manager Scott Lapham, and other members of the darkroom gang. The past documented here is somewhat familiar and yet strange, an exotic land a century away.
Read the rest here.

Also while you're at it, check out "Notes for Bibliophiles," a blog by Providence Public Library special collections librarian Richard Ring.

"A Fragile Memory," Providence Public Library's Special Collections Hall, 150 Empire Street, third floor, Providence, June 1 to 27, 2009.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

“The Deceptive Narrative” at AIB

“The Deceptive Narrative,” an Art Institute of Boston show looking at three illustrationy artists, is a must-see for Andrew Brandou’s terrific, charismatic painting chops. The Californian’s acrylic on wood renderings look like super cute Golden Books reimagined by Gary Baseman.

I wasn’t sure how to decipher a catchy scene of a bear dumping a bag of paper over the side of a boat as monkeys smile down from a tree above. But texts in a couple of the paintings clued me in to Brandou’s subject: Jim Jones’s San Francisco cult which moved to Guyana and committed mass suicide, killing more than 900 people, in 1978.

In Brandou’s paintings, Jones becomes a leisure-suited lion with aviator sunglasses. In one, a rabbit embraces a sad fox as the lion seemingly tells of burning hands reaching out of a hellish red river and giant floating skulls (which are manifest behind him). Brandou’s titles are long and written in dialect. The full title of the piece is actually, “Jim’s River: Slow Fire Ah Boil Hard Cow-Heel.”

In “Healer,” a cat and rabbit nervously watch as the lion seems to pull the heart out of an ill rabbit’s chest. In “Runaways,” The mass suicide becomes a row of bunnies in the rain running away from a giant tarantula in a bloody pavilion.

One of my pet peeves is art that riffs on famous murders. It tends to be sensational and shallow and as a result feels exploitive. In an artist statement, Brandou says he doesn’t have any direct connection to what happened, besides hearing about it on the news as a kid. His idea seems to be what a child would make of the crimes, how a child might imagine its unfathomable awfulness. He almost pulls off this loaded subject, but not quite – it comes across as a blithe riff on a great horror.

The two other artists in the show are Naoe Suzuki of Boston and Christine Murphy of New York. Suzuki’s 2006 to 2008 series “Splendor of Amazing Boys, Girls and Animals,” rendered in mineral pigment and gouache on paper, depicts little children in demented circusy scenes involving strange appliances, bears, rabbits, lions and elephants. Her pictures feel pinched, trying too hard to be surreal. So she’s not able to pull off the campiness, dark wit or creepiness to make this sort of stuff sing.

Christine Murphy of New York offers bizarre cut-paper scenes in her 2008 to 2009 series “Sometimes You Get the Bear and Sometimes the Bear Gets You.” One features a vortex in the sky, a pink Blackhawk chopper, and hands reaching up from bushes. Another shows bear-people, some with trees sprouting from their backs, puking blood. Murphy obviously puts in a lot of effort, but her allegories don’t add up and her sour colors are a turn off.

“The Deceptive Narrative,” Art Institute of Boston Gallery at University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, May 7 to June 13, 2009.

Pictured from top to bottom: Andrew Brandou “Cudjoe: WHEN YUH DEH IN BAD LUCK WET PAPER SELF AH CUT YUH,” “Runaways: EVERY BUSH A MAN NIGHT TIME,” “Healer: THE LOOKS AH DE PUDDING IS NOT DE TASTE,” “Jim’s River: SLOW FIRE AH BOIL HARD COW-HEEL,” and “Masks: NAH EVERY BIG HEAD GET SENSE”; Naoe Suzuki “Splendor of Amazing Boys, Girls, and Animals #3” and “Splendor of Amazing Boys, Girls, and Animals #2”; and Christine Murphy installation shot, “Here I Am” and “He Does Only What He Sees.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Saco Museum seeks input on local art biennial

The Saco Museum in Maine is seeking ideas for its new biennial exhibition of local art. So it’s holding a public brainstorming meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 22 at the museum, 371 Main St., Saco.

Commemorate the “Clark Rockefeller” trial

With this lousy ceramic bathroom tile by a Florida artist. Only $19.99 on eBay.

The seller explains: “In celebration of the capture of one of the most diabolical and evil minds of all time, Clark Rockefeller, Edison Clay Co. located in Fort Myers, FL, is releasing a very limited edition set of tiles which commemorate the end of his evil legacy. Each tile is hand-pressed and numbered and comes with a certificate of authenticity. … The tiles can be used for a variety of purposes such as being framed, used as decorative wall tile, or for any number of other uses; mural, etc. This would be an ideal gift for a friend or for family.”

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

MCC artist grants announced

The Massachusetts Cultural Council has named the winners of its 2009 artists fellowships. Fellows each receive $10,000. Finalists get $1,000 each.

Crafts fellows:
Janet Echelman
Christopher S. Gustin
Robbie Heidinger
Tricia Lachowiec Harding
Elizabeth Whyte Schulze
Crafts finalists:
Michael Banner and Maureen Banner
Andela Cunningham
Heather White van Stolk
Joe Wood

Film and video fellows:
Claire Andrade-Watkins
Alla Kovgan
Rebecca Meyers
Abraham Ravett
Jonathan Schwartz
Film and video finalists:
Lisa Olivieri
Christian Pierce and Steffen Pierce
Jeff Daniel Silva
Robert Todd

Photography fellows:
Eric Gottesman
Heyward Hart
Eirik Johnson
Robert Lewis
Camilo Ramirez
Vaughn Sills
Joshua Winer
Photography finalists:
David Prifti
Irina Rozovsky

Sculpture and installation fellows:
Alicia Casilio, Kelley Casilio, Sarah Casilio and Cary Wolinsky
Janet Echelman (she was named a fellow in two categories, but only gets one grant)
Christopher Frost
Niho Kozuru
Greg Mencoff
Nathalie Miebach
Amy Podmore
Patricia Shannon
Rachel Perry Welty
Sculpture and installation finalists:
Sarah Braman
Matthew Rich

Rose installs new outdoor sculpture

RISD grads Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch are presenting their new installation “The Aboutthing (in the air)” at Brandeis’s Rose Art Museum, staff there announced yesterday. It is apparently installed in the sculpture garden to the left of the museum’s entrance. I think this is what the dictionary defines as a last hurrah.

The announcement explains that “’The Aboutthing (in the air)’ is a multi-part installation featuring a plastic swimming pool loaded with rubber-made body parts, plastic containers, a totemic structure fashioned from plastic containers, bags, pillows and a “viewing platform” featuring a decaying couch on a wooden pedestal. The work is inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or Plastic Island, an area of the North Pacific in which plastic and other debris are trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre. … According to the artists’ wishes it is intended to remain in place until it disintegrates, which will likely take several months.”

Monday, June 08, 2009

New England Lowbrow?

A correction to yesterday's Globe article

In the 1990s, Boston and Providence were hotbeds of a mutant blend of comics, pop and fine art that became known as Lowbrow art, but The Boston Globe’s article yesterday demonstrates again how the Boston art scene missed it – and missed it so completely that articles like this continue to be published in total ignorance of what happened.

“Lowbrow” as a title conjures up a certain West Coast brand of this stuff – which tends to be laid back, slacker, mid-century Modern and hot rod cool. But Lowbrow is actually a national phenomenon – really international (see all the pop cute art coming out of Japan). The style is varied, a bastard child of comics, illustration, animation, street art, B movies, video games and vernacular pop design (like hot rods). It sprouted in Seattle (fostered by the alternative comics publisher Fantagraphics Books), Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, LA, San Francisco … and New England.

The reason California tends to get the credit is that Robert Williams and friends there were smart enough to start a magazine, Juxtapoz, to celebrate and promote this stuff. And San Francisco, LA and the like were savvy enough to launch galleries selling this stuff and helping satisfy an international craving.

You could just as well trace Lowbrow's origins to, say, Chicago, which spawned a whole art movement – variously called Hairy Who and Chicago Imagism – in the 1960s and ‘70s that was inspired by comics, folk art, outsider art, and pop culture. Many of these artists went on to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago, where they created a force field that allowed such art to continue to flourish. The Chicago style and subsequent Lowbrow art can be seen as pop art in which artists explore a cartoony style as a language in and of itself, rather than New York-style pop, which was about quoting (you might call it plagiarizing) stuff directly from pop culture.

But the roots of this style in the U.S. go back even further to Modernist expressionist art – which tended to flourish outside New York. In the early 20th century, the New York art scene – which because of its dominance is taken de facto as the “American” art scene – drew its influence from and focused on French Modernism. In particular, the New York scene moved more and more toward abstraction. Artists in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere drew influence from German Expressionism – which favored an exaggerated moody realism. But because they weren’t following New York’s march toward Frenchy abstraction, this work disappeared from the mainline American art history narrative. (As an aside, this is why you can find lots of French Modernism in New York museums and practically no German Modernism there. To find the German stuff, you have to go to places like Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum or the St. Louis Art Museum.)

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Massachusetts art schools discouraged and frustrated artists who pursued pop, cartoony, illustrationy art – the stuff we now call Lowbrow. Still by the ‘90s, Boston and Providence were becoming nationally influential for artwork that stood at the arty end of comics or the comicy end of fine art, depending on your perspective.

In Boston, these artists clustered around Tom Devlin’s art comics publishing house, Highwater Books, which helped lay the groundwork nationally for a more artistically ambitious, more abstract cartoony style printed in beautifully designed art books. Devlin published folks like Ron Rege Jr. (then) of Cambridge, James Kochalka of Vermont, Megan Kelso (then) of Seattle. Other locals in its orbit were Jordan Crane, Jef Czekaj, Ben Jones of Paper Rad, Dave Gavril, P. Shaw, Dave Kiersh, Dan Moynihan, Craig Bostick and, uh, me. (I’m certainly forgetting someone in these lists of artists – which you might say boosts my argument. I’m sorry for any omissions. Please note people I missed in the comments.) In Boston, Devlin helped organize exhibitions at the Washington Street Art Center in Somerville and Comix Circuses in Cambridge (see puppet-poster above by Brian Chippendale).

The scene has since morphed, with people moving in and out, adding folks like Caleb Neelon, the Miracle 5 (Raul Gonzalez, Dave Ortega, Elaine Bay, Rhonda Ratray, Ken Boutet), Liz Prince, Tim Fish, Joe Keinberger, Derek Aylward.

Devlin also published folks from Providence’s Fort Thunder – Mat Brinkman, Brian Ralph, etc. – and distributed their self-published minicomics. (He tried to publish a book by Brian Chippendale, but never quite got it together so later it was published by New Yorker Dan Nadel’s PictureBox.)

Others associated with Fort Thunder and Rhode Islander fellow travelers included Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg, Jo Dery, Chris Forgues, Erin Rosenthal, Xander Marro, Jungil Hong, Mike Taylor, Pippi Zornoza. Raphael Lyon, William Schaff, Allison Cole. Some of these folks went on to the Whitney Biennial. And so on. In Providence, everyone remembers this.

But Boston art folks missed it. Lowbrow was – is – here, it just wasn’t part of Boston’s official fine art scene. You might say it was a true alternative, underground movement – so underground that the Globe and Boston art scene missed it then, and miss it now.

Coming soon:
As a follow up to this post and to my review of "Book as a Post Modern Medium" at 5 Traverse in Providence, I'll soon post images of some of the art comics produced by the folks mentioned above.

“On and Off the Midway” at CMCA

Here are some photos from “On and Off the Midway” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The exhibit, organized by CMCA curator emeritus Bruce Brown, brings together 25 Maine photographers who have documented folks at Maine state fairs, Old Orchard Beach, an ice fishing festival on Sebago Lake, dog sled races in Fort Kent, and more. What strikes me about the photos here is how they seem so summer.

Pictured from top to bottom: Dee Peppe, “Tickets, Union Fair, Maine,” 1995/2003; Leslie Bowman, “Pie Eating Contest (Lubec),” 2001; Brad Maushart, “Watching You (Fryeburg Fair),” 2005; and Liv Kristin Robinson, “Old Orchard Beach: Summer #1,” 2006.

“On and Off the Midway,” Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Ave., Rockland, Maine, March 21 to June 13, 2009.