Primary Research: Sean Cairns, Linnea Glatt, and James Sullivan. Curated by Chelsea Pierce

Primary Reaserch

For the last 6 months I’ve been working towards my first solo curatorial project. Across from the DMA where I work full time is a high rise building called Saint Paul Place with the 19th floor unoccupied. After proposing the idea of an art exhibition to the building management and investors, I began studio visits to select the artists for the show. Months later, I had three Dallas-based artists on board – Sean Cairns, Linnea Glatt, and James Sullivan – each of which brought a unique component to the exhibition in the form of painting, site-specific installation, and sculpture. The space is unconventional being meant for offices. The floor has 360 degree windows with interior walls around the central vestibule and an overall square footage of close to 14,000 square feet. While daunting, the architecture and size of the space proved to be an interesting challenge and I’m so proud to present some images and information for what I think turned out to be a beautiful show. Our opening event was November 5th and had over 80 people attend. Sean and I also managed to produce an artist book on the occasion – which turned out to be a wonderful guide to his esoteric paintings.

Primary Reaserch

The title Primary Research originates from the act of collecting one’s own data. In this exploratory model, observation forms the foundation of gathering information. Applying this concept, the artists have each presented their own investigations: Sean Cairns delves into a conceptual mode of painting; Linnea Glatt debuts two site specific installations that are mindful of the unique architectural features of the unoccupied 19th floor; and James Sullivan’s sculptural assemblages serve as visual field notes through his explorations in participation and materiality.

In his first public viewing in Dallas, Sean Cairns presents a series of work titled ‘Mud Paintings’ demonstrating a method of painting derived from a notion of translation. Examining different areas of earthen surface, Cairns reduces the imitative image to series of gestures and marks, deconstructing his source imagery to a choreographed arrangement of ciphers. Process-based and materially driven, the paintings stand alone as objects, but in his own mind follow a narrative path of his own myth making.

Primary Reaserch

Linnea Glatt’s site-specific installations reveal a focus on the passage of time, expressing this phenomenon through a visual meditation on seriality. Glatt’s repeated visits and careful consideration of the space’s architecture, results in a striking intervention inspired by different ways of seeing. On the east side of the building, custom-fabricated mirrored panels cover a succession of windows that cast the gaze back into the space. Through circular cutouts, we experience the double vision effect of viewing the outside world while simultaneously seeing our reflections and the artwork surrounding. On the west side of the building, Glatt adhered fabric with a cellulose adhesive in graduated measures. The shadows cast by the shapes of both installations form an ephemeral element, caught only in ideal sunlight.

Centered on tactile experiences, James Sullivan explores phenomenological relationships between people and objects. Constructing sculptures from an assortment of materials, both organic and man-made, he creates tableaus of his findings ranging from found rocks, welded iron, 3-D printed objects, and detritus. Sullivan invites a discovery of the objects through touch, whereby his original organization of the objects evolves as people pick up and move things, generating a constant flux based on the visitors’ interactions.

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For specific object information view the exhibition checklist: primary-research-checklist

I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity given by Quadrant Investment Properties and Saint Paul Place.

 

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Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots at the Dallas Museum of Art

It isn’t everyday that you get the opportunity to work on a major Jackson Pollock exhibition. Since coming on to work as curatorial assistant at the Dallas Museum of Art in June 2014, I began assisting our senior curator Gavin Delahunty with a major undertaking: a survey show of a little known period paintings in Pollock’s career from 1951-1953 known as the ‘black paintings’. Within this body of work, Pollock reduced his palette exclusively to black on unprimed canvas. Unlike his classic ‘drip’ paintings from 1947-1950, lyrical and colorful skeins applied in rhythmic motion, the black paintings deviate from the abstract compositions, revealing overt figuration. Critics were stumped by this aesthetic tangent and largely ignored these works. In bringing together 30 black paintings (the largest ever assembled in an exhibition); works on paper from the same period; and rare sculptures, Jackson Pollock: Blind Spots aims to expand our field of vision of Pollock’s career, illuminating these lessor known works and drawing attention to the ever-experimental nature of Pollock’s practice.

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Lounging on a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona day bed in front of Number 7, 1951 before the press preview

The exhibition opened in November 2015 and is closing in a few weeks in late March. I want to give homage to this show that the DMA team worked so tirelessly to accomplish by sharing some insight into the research and development of the project. There has only been two major Pollock exhibitions previously, one in 1967 and another in 1998. Ours is the third major Pollock show, displaying over 70 works. Why so few, you may ask? It is exceedingly difficult to secure the loans of Pollock’s works. As much as their notoriously high value is a factor, Pollock’s classic paintings are also quite fragile. The layering of industrial enamel paints makes the surfaces quite brittle and vulnerable for loss. Museum conservators have generally ruled out travel for their institution’s paintings, and private collectors are just as stringent in maintaining the well being of their beloved works. Compiling our checklist often required multiple appeals emphasizing the new scholarship of the exhibition and the rarity of such a project. With conservation such a major concern, our chief conservator Mark Leonard was incredibly influential in the overall success of the show, his new research on Pollock’s black paintings aiding in the confirmation of numerous key loans. What Mark had discovered is that the black paintings were much more stable than the classic period works. Pollock’s method of applying black enamel paint directly onto the unprimed canvas actually rendered the pigment to be absorbed into the substrate. The paint is both within and on the surface of the cotton canvas. Without the heavy layering as in the earlier works, the black paintings are actually quite durable. Mark was able to share his insights in a public talk with James L. Coddington. The Agnes Gund Chief Conservator at MoMA, that was incredibly fascinating.

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Cathedral, 1947 and Number 2, 1950 with Black and White Painting II in next room

We did manage to assemble a few of Pollock’s classic period paintings. The intention was to stage an introductory room with the works that people are most familiar with to illustrate the radical change in direction that Pollock took in the black paintings. Highlights within the intro room are Harvard Art Museum’s Number 2, 1950 and the DMA’s own Cathedral, 1947.

The next two rooms show Pollock’s experiments with black. A few works that appear almost as tests (Silver Square and Black and White Painting I, both c. 1950) demonstrate Pollock’s earliest dribbling of black, charting his progression to the first final composition in black Number 7, 1951. Within this room is also a carved basalt head that Pollock had done in the early 1930s. The head carved from black stone sits well within the context of the black paintings where heads seem to emerge in numerous compositions, notably Black and White Number 15, 1951.

In the subsequent room works include Number 5 ‘Elegant Lady’ 1951 and an untitled terracotta sculpture painted black which captures the essence of the medusa head within Elegant Lady. A work on paper from 1947, dedicated to Betty Parson’s (Pollock’s gallerist) in 1950 appears alongside and charts some of Pollock’s pervasive pictorial language that threads throughout the black paintings. The 1950 dedication appears as a signpost to his gallerist to the direction that he would take in the 1951 works.

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Number 19, 1951; Number 14, 1951; Echo: Number 25, 1951

A following room displays Pollock’s first and only execution of the screen-printing medium executed in 1951, following Pollock’s 5th solo show at Betty Parson’s gallery which had debuted the black paintings. It is important to note that Pollock’s previous show near the end of 1950 presented some of his best-known works: Lavender Mist: Number 1; Autumn Rhythm: Number 30; One: Number 31. Whether it was the eclipse of the previous show, the unsettling reemergence of figuration (which modernist critics such as Clement Greenberg rejected), or the reduction of his palette to only black, the 1951 show proved to be critically and commercially unsuccessful. Feeling anxious about his finances, Pollock created a suite of screen prints of 7 black paintings with his brother Sanford McCoy, in the hopes of these being more saleable than the paintings.

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Number 24, 1951; cover of Betty Parsons 1951 exhibition catalogue

The anecdotal relationship of the screen prints to 1951 show, set the stage for Blind Spot’s re-staging of many of the works from that show in a gallery room very near to the size of Betty Parson’s space. Within this room are masterworks such as MoMA’s Echo: Number 25, 1951; Tate’s Number 14, 1951; and Number 24, 1951 (classified missing in the catalogue raisonné, but found during the course of research for the exhibition). Number 24 is a small canvas depicting a bifurcated head, one of Pollock’s favored motifs, and was the cover of the 1951 catalogue. The design of the space is reminiscent to a 1950s gallery. Unlike the white cube spaces in Chelsea that we are now familiar with, galleries like Betty Parsons were more domestic-sized spaces, often with carpeting or traditional trim. The large canvases on the relatively smaller walls really recreate the initial experience of encountering Jackson Pollock. The works envelop the viewer. Top it off with two Le Corbusier chairs and you have the ultimate 1950s experience—we’re just missing the ashtray.

Succeeding this room is a works on paper gallery. While Pollock was executing the 1951 works he was also experimenting with a variety of papers, mostly Japanese mulberry, but sometimes Strathmore and Howell’s handmade papers. Often working with stacks of mulberry, Pollock would drip inks on the top sheet and allow bleed through to the pages below. He would then return to various pages and re-work the compositions. This process-based practice resulted in several series of sister works, which are truly fascinating to see several reunited in the exhibition. I feel these works on paper reveal a blurred boundary between Pollock’s painting and drawing practice. In his own words, Pollock described the 1951 paintings as such:

I’ve had a period of drawing on canvas in black – with some of my early images coming thru -think the non-objectivists will find them disturbing – and the kids who think it simple to splash a ‘Pollock’ out.

I feel like this quote encapsulates much of Pollock’s feelings about his practice during this time. The latter part acknowledges his awareness of people who derided his ‘action painting’ technique as merely physical and unskilled. Of course, anybody who has viewed the footage of Pollock painting can recognize he had mastered the application of paint without the pressure of his hand, controlling the dynamics of the liquid’s movement through space: “No chaos, dammit,” he once had said. Indeed, every movement was choreographed; every color was carefully selected and layered on his canvases. The same can be said for Pollock’s black paintings, now with the reduction of only black, Pollock’s dexterity was put to the test. There was no place for his gestures to hide in layers of paint; what was applied was to remain seen. Couple this with the figuration appearing and I would argue that the black paintings actually demonstrate Pollock at the height of his prowess as a painter. Returning to the beginning of his quote, Pollock refers to the black paintings as ‘drawing on canvas.’ I think there are three reasons why he would characterize this body of work as such: 1) The use of only black was conventionally reserved for drawing. The graphic quality of black against white substrate expresses the most basic notion of drawing. 2) The large areas of exposed canvas differentiate this body of work from the most painting, where we usually see the majority of a canvas covered in pigment. The vast areas of visible substrate evoke what one would see looking at a drawing on paper. 3) The emergence of the figure is representative of drawing for Pollock. In this era when abstraction was the predominant aesthetic, figuration was more commonly seen in notebooks and sketchpads and not on canvas. Moreover, Pollock’s interest in psychotherapy and automatism would often inspire Pollock to draw from his unconscious—the result would be the materialization of the figure.

For these reasons, the 1951 paintings and drawings share a mutable relationship in Pollock’s practice and demonstrate his experimentation across mediums that reveal a pensive approach to art making. Blind Spots, I would hope, addresses how thoughtful and intentional Pollock was as an artist. These are not the works of a madman haphazardly flinging paint, as many viewers might perceive.

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Convergence: Number 10, 1952 and Untitled, 1956

In 1952, Pollock continued working in black but gradually bringing back primary colors. After the 1951 show, Pollock left Betty Parsons for Sidney Janis Gallery where he would debut his ’52 works. Highlights from 1952 include Number 3, 1952; Number 5, 1952 and Convergence: Number 10, 1952. A black painting for over 6 weeks, Pollock later added primary color to Number 10, 1952, resulting in what scholars have in the past described as the meat and bones of a Jackson Pollock painting, black being the skeletal layer with color added as the flesh.

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1952 room with Number 3; Number 6; Number 5 and Portrait and a Dream

The show ends with another DMA work, Portrait and a Dream from 1953. The last of the black paintings, Portrait and a Dream is arguably Pollock’s last great artistic statement. His output after this period was drastically reduced, creating only a few paintings in 1954 and 1955. In 1956, Pollock returned to sculpture with the encouragement of fellow artist Tony Smith. In one weekend Pollock created nearly a dozen pit-casted plaster sculpture with wire armature. The works resemble an archaeological find, but sit well alongside the paintings as they express the linearity of Pollock’s painting in three-dimensional form. Pollock destroyed all but two of the sculptures from 1956, except for two that appear in the exhibition.

Sadly, battling with alcoholism and depression, in 1956 Pollock died at the age of 44 in a car accident. The 1956 sculptures were the last works Pollock would create, and the potential of the black paintings into other artistic endeavors would remain unexplored. Blind Spots endeavors to recreate the last years of Pollock’s life and inspire viewers to look critically at an under appreciated body of work that has fallen between the cracks in the scholarship of Pollock’s career. I hope some readers may get a chance to view it before it closes March 20th as it’s unlikely these works will ever be in the same rooms together for many, many years.

 

Press links:

Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight

Art News, Phyllis Tuchman

CBS News Sunday Morning

Dallas Morning News, Rick Brettell

Dallas Observer, Lauren Smart

e-flux

 

 

 

 

 

An open letter to Amal Clooney née Alamuddin on Restitution

Dear Mrs. Clooney,
With the deepest respect for your concern regarding the Parthenon marbles, I write you to share my perspective on restitution and offer humble advice for your endeavors.

The viper’s nest that is the subject of restitution is a complex and multifaceted problem for museums, nations, and individuals such as scholars and museum professionals. With regards to the Parthenon marbles, coined the Elgin marbles by the British Lord and diplomat who removed them from Greece, their plunder and destruction extend farther back than their removal to England in 1811 and sale to the British Museum in 1816.
In 1018, under Byzantine rule, the Parthenon was used as a Christian church. By 1458, the Turks ruled Greece and with the addition of a minaret, the Parthenon became a mosque. In 1687, as a result of the Venetian wars, the building used to house explosives was damaged when a stray rocket ignited the stores, irreparably damaging the building. What this history shows is the Parthenon’s utility to a multiple of cultural groups and nations since antiquity.

There are various reasons restitutionists and retentionists employ in their arguments for retention and restitution of the Parthenon Marbles.

Retentionists:
1. Stewardship and care—Lord Elgin acted in the spirit of preservation ‘saving’ the marbles from Ottoman destruction and placing them in the safety of the British Museum.
2. The notion of global patrimony—the marbles and Acropolis as a whole is representative of Western culture and civilization, thus belonging to a greater global patrimony.

Restitutionists:
1. Contesting ownership—the marbles were illegally removed from Greece, while under the dominion of the Ottoman Empire, thus consent was not given by the Greeks for their removal.
2. Cultural patrimony—the idea that certain objects/beliefs reflect a cultural community as a whole and are vital in maintaining their cultural practices.

In the spring of 2011 I wrote a paper entitled ‘The Elgin Marbles: A Resolvable Conflict’. This paper was seemingly naively titled as such because I was submitting it to the Thomas W. Adams award for ‘Solving a conflict in a Mediterranean country’. I was recommended by a professor to market this paper as such for the award committee and with luck, did receive the award for my paper.

My paper supported the restitution of the Parthenon marbles based on my anthropological background through my coursework as an undergraduate. The crux of my argument was grounded in a modern anthropological approach to archaeology, specifically the important of preserving context for archaeological sites. Thus, the return of the marbles to their home in Greece would somehow advance our understanding of them, shifting their current display as ‘works of art’ to their true use as decorative materials. These sentiments came from previous travels in 2010, first to London in the spring where I saw the marbles in the British Museum, where I confess, felt angry and resentful towards their display as an arrogant presentation of an empire’s plunder—with the inclusion of all the archaeological objects around me—namely some choice Egyptian artifacts which remain in contentious restitution debates as well. In the autumn of 2010 I traveled to Athens, walked that meditative trail to the Acropolis and took in the wondrous monuments, now mere skeletons of their original structures. The Acropolis today exudes the same romantic sentiments as Caspar David Friedrich’s painting of a ruined cathedral alone in a forest clearing. These two visits were important in shaping my opinion of restitution, and with my archaeological context argument—I didn’t want the Acropolis to be forgotten like Friedrich’s lonely cathedral. I felt I had helped contribute to an important cause.

Flash-forward a year to 2012 when I began my Masters coursework in Museum Studies at New York University. I came in guns firing over restitution, encouraged by a tremendously talented and accomplished professor who held not only her JD, but also a PhD in Classics. I was also fortunate to be inspired by my cohort, one student who I became fast friends with her held her Masters in Archaeology, specializing in Near Eastern archaeology. With new environments and new influences, it is obvious my field of vision was expanded. So when I took my Museums and the Law class, I started to see a chink in my restitutionist argument.

I must confess that my opinion has changed since my 2011 paper, though I have not abandoned the notion of restitution. Here is why: the restitution of antiquities is an impossible mess of politics and resentments that precede you and me by centuries.

Conquest and plunder has existed for centuries, not unsurprisingly around the same time the concept of the ‘museum’ was birthed. How museums came to be is a question that requires immense insight into human nature and social behavior. Elaine Heumann Gurian explains that collecting or hoarding is a natural human impulse perhaps a “maladaptive extension of the human need to accumulate things in order to survive”. Whether this is true or false, the statement supports the evidence that humans have been collecting food, tools, objects, and trinkets and more for thousands of years in the desire to live more contentedly. Certainly, status can be represented and enforced by the power of one’s resources. Because of this, collecting draws on power politics to elevate status of individuals or nations. Naturally, conquest and colonialism have had active roles in museum history.

The ancient empires of Greece and Rome capitalized on collecting caches of art, artifacts and goods from their expanding territories. As Edward Alexander explains in Museums in Motion, the word ‘museum’ from denoted a temple dedicated to the Muses, goddesses that resigned over drama, music, love, poetry, oratory, history, dance and astronomy. Because temples were built for gods and maintained by priests, these museums did not welcome a public audience. However, there were public exhibitions in the ancient world, collections valued by their community “for their aesthetic, historic, religious [and] magical importance”. Thus, collecting has always had the duality of public and private use since ancient times. While objects were revered and often kept from the public, access to such collections have slowly expanded to broader audiences over time. In ancient Egypt, the museum and library of Alexandria welcomed scholars and scientists to research the scrolls, artifacts and botanical and zoological specimen within the collection. What ancient museology practices demonstrate are how collecting has been used by conquering empires to not only indicate status and but also maintain status.

While we think we live in a globalize world today, the ancients too were industrious traders, movers and shakers, and plunder was transported as any other good. This was part of the times. Even in modern times, when the United States invaded Iraq, the national museum in Baghdad was plundered by people of that very nation. You know well enough Hitler’s agenda for art plunder as means to propagate a notion of Western culture from your husband’s blockbuster film…I do not condone these activities, but alas they are a symptom of empires and nation building.

But let’s take a step back to the Parthenon marbles, removed from Greece in the early 19th century. Ancient Greece was by no means a homogenous population of Greeks. Quite the contrary, ancient Athens was comprised of a multitude of ethnic groups. The Parthenon marbles belonged to Athens, which means the people in Athens—the entire complexity of ethnic populations that created, worshipped at, and maintained these structures. But we must recognize that the modern nation of Greece bares little resemblance to the ancient city-state of Athens. Modern Greeks do not worship a pantheon of gods. Modern Greeks do not actively utilize their ancient structures for religious practices. Even the 19th century Greeks at the time of Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles did not practice the same religious beliefs at the ancient Athenians. Even the cultural patrimony case runs thin as modern Greeks, like their ancient ancestors are not a homogenous population—what ethnic/cultural group do these ruins belong to? The same problem could be presented to Turkey and Egypt, also active in their restitution cases that their modern populations bare little to their ancient counterparts and are as ethnically diverse now as they were then.

You are a human rights lawyer. My question is how does the retention of the Parthenon trigger a violation of human rights?
Article 9 from The European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, cites the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
If the Parthenon marbles are not to be actively used by modern Greeks for religion practices and for expressing modern Greek culture, then how is the denial of these objects’ return to Greece constitute a violation of human rights?
In short, the Parthenon marbles do not belong to modern Greeks. They belonged to the ancient Athenians, and now through their global notoriety, belong to the world and are symbolic of Western culture as a whole. They now belong to the whole of humanity.

I fear that your involvement in these matters can cloud these facts, given your undeniable celebrity. They could potentially complicate relationships between museums internationally. Tensions are already high. Turkey has threatened to suspend foreign archaeological permits until they receive the objects they are asking for. What is the end goal? To see objects go back at the risk of advancing the archaeological record and condoning healthy working relationships and international collaboration? There is certainly enough loot to go around.
Now museums could do a lot more to help current matters. On a previous blog post I decried museums’ support of looting and the black market of antiquities through their careless purchases of objects with no provenance. These rules must be obeyed without question. While plunder was acceptable to ancient civilization, it is not today and museums should not propagate those mentalities. We hold a higher standard today, but, is it fair to hold Lord Elgin and his actions to our modern standards? This apparent anachronism in social standards is the reason why restitution of antiquities is troublesome. The issue should not be neglected, but I merely offer my opinions as a museum professional and one that cares about maintaining relationships and collaboration.

If I may, I would like to turn your attention to a cause worthy of your human rights agenda. The repatriation of indigenous cultural materials—specifically sacred objects and human remains. There is precedence for cases like these and your status can greatly illuminate the concerns of disenfranchised indigenous peoples worldwide.
Paris auction house, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, recently sparked international media interest with its sale of Native American masks. In close resemblance to cases pertaining to the international restitution of antiquities, the Hopi tribe claimed that many of the seventy items for sale were sacred objects of cultural importance to the tribe and asked the auction house to delay the sale. The director of the house, Gilles Néret-Minet, was not amenable to their request. However with support from the United States Embassy in Paris, a Parisian municipal judge agreed to a hearing. To the tribe’s disappointment, the judge ruled in favor of the auction house and allowed the sale to continue. All but five of the Hopi masks were sold, totaling $1.2 million dollars. Throughout the week of this heated cultural debate, the United States government remained silent, offering no support to the Hopi. What was the government’s stance on this issue and why was there no attempt to intervene in this sale to protect its citizens’ cultural property?

What this poignant story exemplifies is the disparity between the United States’ commitment to policies protecting the patrimony of foreign countries and the country’s efforts to protect the patrimony of the Native communities within its borders. In terms of Nazi-era and antiquities restitution, the United States has been an active participant in establishing legislation and international treaties to aid in foreign restitution efforts. Nevertheless, despite the government’s enactment of Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, this domestic effort falls short of the standard set by foreign countries in protecting their patrimony.

Unlike the modern nation of Turkey, which has hosted a multitude of ancient and modern cultures within its geographical borders, a single indigenous group like the Hopi have retained many of the same customs, beliefs and practices today as they did during the time of their colonialism. Because many indigenous cultures have not altered their traditional beliefs or practices (even while adopting aspects of modern society), the claim for human remains and objects is supported by such arguments of sovereignty, self-determination and human rights.

So what is it about indigenous restitution that triggers concerns for human rights? The use of sacred or ceremonial objects and the treatment of ancestral human remains are fundamental to many indigenous peoples’ religion and beliefs, and are considered by NAGPRA. Honor Keeler explains it best, stating:
Where an artifact is of significant importance to the culture or the religious beliefs of an indigenous people then arguably the continued retention of such an artifact by a museum could amount to a denial of such peoples’ right to maintain their culture or to manifest their religion, thus engaging Articles 8 and 9 of the Convention.”

This “convention” Keeler refers to is the European Convention on Human Rights of 1950, of which Article 9 cites the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It is these key human rights that support the argument for indigenous restitution and have paved the way for the current domestic legislation on repatriation within the United States and other countries.

In spring 2013 at NYU I wrote a paper on a theoretical framework for the international repatriation of indigenous cultural materials and human remains. The support of this agenda could greatly improve not only relationships between indigenous peoples and museum professionals and international governments, but I firmly believe that collaboration on an international scale could greatly contribute to the current state of scholarship. Contrary to public perception, repatriation under NAGPRA did not result in the emptying of museums’ collections. Rather, the outcome of such legislation promoted a resurgence of research into museums’ ethnological collections, collaborations between Native communities and museums to create exhibitions and public programing, Native interpretations of objects, and the formation of numerous tribally operated museums, community and cultural centers. Of all these benefits from this legislation, NAGPRA was very much a declaration of the U.S. government’s attempt to decolonize their federally funded museums and move forward in support of a post-colonial agenda with regards to the autonomy of Native Americans concerning their cultural property as well as recognition of their human rights as defined by the Convention.

I believe these same goals can be accomplished on an international scale and your assistance could get serious results. There are living people today being denied their cultural patrimony and they need your help. To be blunt—the long dead ancient Greeks could not care less. The living global indigenous population does.

Sincerely,
Chelsea Pierce

Curatorial Intensive: Considering Publics and Contexts

Since January I have been working for Independent Curators International (ICI) administrating the Curatorial Intensive program held in New York, March 16-25. The Intensive is designed to workshop an exhibition or program idea through the course of seminars led by prominent curators in the field, site visits to museums and galleries, and one-on-one advisement sessions leading up to a refined proposal that is presented at a public symposium. So in the last months, the ICI programming team led by María del Carmen Carrión has been hard at work to prepare for the arrival of our thirteen participants, both local and international.

It was such a treat for me to be able to attend the program, but even more wonderful meeting the participants and speakers that came to the program. We had a packed 10-day program, kicking off with a busy first day:

Matthew Higgs, Director and Chief Curator of White Columns came to speak about his curatorial practice beginning in the UK as a fanzine creator in his teens. Inspired by Fluxus, the original do-it-yourself proponents in artistic practice, Higgs created his own self-published, In Print 93. Higgs said that it was the opportunity with work with artists in a self-historical dimension that drew him to the project.

“It is not the scale of the organization, it is the scale of the idea.” — Matthew Higgs

Perhaps it is the attraction to text and archival practices that influenced Higgs’ approach to his position as Director of White Columns. He said in beginning his appointment at the “experimental, artist-focused site” that was established in 1970, his primary objective was to create an environment for the artist. Secondly, he wished his programming to be accumulative and successive, much like a publication. In his own words, White Columns and many other artist-oriented spaces operate in “the vast space between art market and museum.”

Throughout his enlightening three-hour seminar, Higgs described important past projects done by him or his colleagues, with particular shout-out to Lynda Morris, whom Higgs expressed the “most important curatorial figure in Britain.”

Clive Hodgson at White Columns

Clive Hodgson at White Columns

Higgs’ first project at White Columns called Trade (2005) was intended to introduce himself as Director/Curator and create a ‘mission statement’ for White Columns. The exhibition displayed work from 20 artists that had been traded for other work. In bringing together the trades, viewers were able to discern how artists valued their own work compared to others, charting a sort of economy that exists outside of the art market. His Words Fail Me (2007-2008) exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit of language-based art spoke to the uncertainty and elasticity of language.

Though most inspiring was hearing Higgs talk about his collaboration with Creative Growth, an art center based in Oakland, CA that “serves adult artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities, providing a professional studio environment for artistic development, gallery exhibition and representation and a social atmosphere among peers.”[1]

Through his relationship with Creative Growth founders, Florence and Elias Katz, Higgs’ experience with the organization “formed everything [he] knew about art…that art may be useful and important.” Rousing his interest in self-taught ‘outsider’ art, the organization proved that artistic production as art therapy was a meaningful cause. Creative Growth has supported many artists with disabilities throughout the years, including Judith Scott whose work Higgs has organized an upcoming retrospective in partnership with the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in November 2015.

Following Higgs was another British curator, Mark Beasley, who spoke about his project Road Show with Grizedale Arts, bringing together music and art in a touring festival. Beasley spoke about past collaborations such as Frozen Tears II (2005), an object-oriented text that Beasley wrote for and The Prop Makers (2006) a group exhibition co-directed with artist Russell Oxley. Beasley spoke on his work with Creative Time such as Six Actions for NYC (2007), Hey Hey Glossolalia: Exhibiting the Voice (2008), and This World and Nearer Ones (2009) an outdoor show on Governors Island that commissioned 21 artists to create site-specific works.

Beasley’s passion for music and art was evident in his presentation of past performance productions for Performa, notably his curation of Performa 11 (2013).

But the day was not finished yet—after our enlightening seminars the group headed over to the Swiss Institute, to see Heidi Bucher’s exhibition and partake in cocktail hour with Director Simon Castets.

Heidi Bucher at Swiss Institute

Heidi Bucher at Swiss Institute

The next day we convened in ICI’s Hub for Deborah Cullen’s talk. Former curator at El Museo del Barrio, Cullen spoke about important projects while at El Museo: Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis (2009), Retro/Active: The Work of Rafael Ferrer (2010), and Caribbean: Art at the Crossroads of the World (2012). The group was also fortunate to hear her speak about her curatorial approach to two very interesting print-focused art fairs: Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan (2012) and the The Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts (2013). Cullen named her trienal in San Juan El Panal / The Hive in reflection of the printmaking collectives that were highlighted in the show.

In the Ljubljana Biennial, Cullen named the project Interruption as the focus of the show was to create a timeline of printmaking in history with the pronounced ‘interruption’ of the digital age.

Cullen concluded with her thoughts on her rather new appointment as Director and Curator of the Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery at Columbia University—specifically the new building project to house the new gallery. Throughout Cullen’s talk it was evident of her passion for publications as well as her devotion to education within the institution. Her work with various educational formats and strategies to expand education for arts exhibitions and programming were very informative and inspiring.

Sarah Hromack, Director of Digital Media at the Whitney Museum of American Art came on our third day to talk about digital publics and the impetus for museums to utilize social media. One problem Hromack addressed were museums’ view of the digital as merely operational: a communication and marketing channel but not programmatic. Because of the organizational divide between communications and curatorial departments, the user experience of museum technology does not mirror the experience in the galleries. After speaking to the history and trends in art + digital technology such as Rhizome (est. 1995) and its archive for ‘net art,’ ‘Game-ification’—digital formats to build public engagement such as the smart phone app, Tate Trumps—our session concluded with the notion that “technology can bridge the divide” in welcoming new audiences to museums.

After Sarah Hromack’s seminar we had site visits to see work from Clive Hodgson, Magdalena Suarez Frimkess, Robert Kitchen, Karin Gulbran, and Joe Fyfe at White Columns as well as Simon Evans at James Cohan Gallery. Both galleries had outstanding exhibitions: Pottery by Magdalena Suarez Frimkess in dialogue with Karin Gulbran’s own ceramics; beautiful abstract paintings of Hodgson in contrast to Simon Evans’ text-based ‘landscapes.’

Dia Art Foundation’s curator Yasmil Raymond joined us the following day with a personal and quite entertaining account of the production of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument (2013) at Forest Houses in the Bronx. Coming from an Assistant Curator position at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Raymond joined the Dia staff in 2009. Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument was the fourth and final outdoor project in a series that memorializes to the artist’s favorite philosophers.

“No true success, and no true failure when it comes to art” — Yasmil Raymond

Talking about the Gramsci Monument, Raymond explained how the first challenge was getting her staff on board, as “skepticism is the biggest challenge in the institution.” Once her team understood the project, Hirschhorn had to find the right place for his monument. Raymond related how Hirschhorn has his own vocabulary developed for his practice and that he refers to his public art/site installations as ‘presence and production.’ Finding the right place to execute his presence and production, Raymond and Hirschhorn had to get city approval from the New York City Housing Authority to produce their installation. After the monument was constructed, Raymond recounted her experiences working every day at the Gramsci Monument as an ambassador, and the different interactions she had with the varied visitors to the monument.

Getting out of the ICI Hub, we spent Friday afternoon at the Whitney Biennial. The last biennial to be held in the Marcel Breuer building before the move downtown, the Biennial lived up to its expectation. We heard from one of the three curators of the Biennial, Stuart Comer on his curatorial approach to his floor. A few of Comer’s main points were aspects of art other than viewing—the synesthesia affect—drawing on touch and vision and the sensory experience. He also mentioned thinking about the art market and global trends and addressing how the focus has shifted towards the Pacific Rim. Comer also was thinking about the digital and compressing language, action, and image into art and the influence of semiotexts. This is a terrible oversimplification of the curator’s thoughtful methodology that was communicated to the group—but undoubtedly, Comer approached his selection with deliberate themes in mind that require the viewer, or art critic, to take pause and look beyond the surface for meaning. I would not miss Julie Ault’s Afterlife: a constellation (2014), and there is a great video and audio guide of the artist’s perspective on the Whitney’s website.

On Saturday we took a site visit to Dia:Beacon on the Hudson River. There in the old box printed factory of Nabisco, beautiful modernist and contemporary works are housed. It is definitely worth the peaceful train ride there and back.

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Richard Serra at Dia:Beacon

To hear from an artist’s perspective, we had Jill Magid come to speak with us about her recent projects involving the archive of Luis Barragán, prominent Mexican Modernist architect. Building on her past projects that are executed within the boundary of the law, Magid operates to expose the greater systems of power at play. One of my favorite projects of hers is Evidence Locker, in which “she developed a close relationship with Citywatch (Merseyside Police and Liverpool City Council)”[2] via surveillance systems in Liverpool, UK.

In the last seminar, we had Franklin Sirmans of LACMA come to talk about his past and upcoming projects. Sirmans discussed NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith (2008) at his former institution, the Menil Collection. I personally enjoyed hearing about this exhibition as Sirmans included one of my favorite contemporary First Nation artists, Brian Jungen. Bringing together works inspired by religion and spirituality, the exhibition brought Jimmie Durham, William Cordova, Amalia Mesa-Baines, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and Terry Adkins among others in a powerful dialogue on spirituality in the Americas. Sirmans then talked about his current exhibition on view at LACMA: Fútbol: The Beautiful Game (2014), an exhibition that will welcome the World Cup in Brazil in June, exploring the sport and its strong ties to nationalism. Lastly, we were made privy to Sirmans’ preliminary thoughts as Artistic Director of Prospect.3 in New Orleans (opening October 2014).

We concluded our Curatorial Intensive program with a public symposium for our participants to present their exhibition and program proposals. Everyone had really creative ideas that can be read about at ICI’s website. Personally, this was an amazing opportunity for me and I truly enjoyed meeting our participants and despite the long hours and hard work, I feel so fortunate to have been apart of it.

To see photos from the program check out ICI’s Facebook album!

 

[1] About, Creative Growth: http://creativegrowth.org/about/ (Accessed 31 March 2014).

[2] Evidence Locker – Jill Magid: http://www.jillmagid.net/EvidenceLocker.php (Accessed 31 March 2014).

The Drawing Center: Showcasing smart exhibitions since 1977

The two new exhibitions at The Drawing Center will be up for a limited time—to be followed by some exciting performances and the debut of the 2014-2016 artists selected for Open Sessions, The Drawing Center’s new platform for artists. And since I have been a curatorial intern at The Drawing Center since September, it is about time that I wrote about my experience at this small, non-profit arts space.

The Drawing Center was established in 1977 by Martha Beck (1938-2014), who was formerly an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art. Beck felt that drawing was under appreciated in the art world and established the small SoHo exhibition space to showcase the medium and the work of emerging artists. During her time as executive director, Beck organized blockbuster exhibitions, debuting developing artists as well as Old Master drawings. As The Drawing Center is not a collecting institution, their exhibitions rely on successful collaboration with other art organizations. Beck’s time at The Drawing Center established the institution’s legacy, which has garnered collaborations with reputable institutions worldwide.

During my tenure at The Drawing Center, a handful of thoughtful exhibitions have been executed. My first project was working on the Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches exhibition, which received praise from the literary and art community alike. Numerous professors and students of literature, poetry, and writing were attracted to the exhibition, which presented Dickinson’s penciled poems on tiny paper fragments (courtesy of the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College) and Swiss writer Robert Walser’s tiny ‘microscripts’ (courtesy of the Robert Walser-Zentrum, Bern) written in his own special German shorthand which for years was undecipherable. Both authors’ handwriting pervaded a sense of their personalities that was reflected in the simultaneous exhibition, Drawing Time,Reading Time.

Gallery shot, Drawing Time, Reading Time

Prior to the textual shows, The Drawing Center exhibited Irish-born artist, Sean Scully’s geometric tape-drawings from a short period of time when he worked in New York and native New York artist, Alexis Rockman’s studies and production watercolors for the Fox 21st Century film, The Life of Pi. Director Ang Lee approached Rockman to create visuals to aid the graphic department and CG artists for the movie. Alongside Rockman’s studies, the artist’s copy of the movie’s script with notes and drawings in the margins demonstrated his reading of the film’s scenes. The two shows had quite a contrasting aesthetic, which is the case for the current exhibitions on until February 28th.

To begin the 2014 run of shows, The Drawing Center’s executive director, Brett Littman, collaborated with super chef Ferran Adrià of the notable elBulli restaurant outside of Barcelona, Spain. Ferran Adrià: Notes on Creativity, “emphasizes the role of drawing in Adrià’s quest to understand creativity. His complex body of work positions the medium as both a philosophical tool—used to organize and convey knowledge, meaning, and signification-—as well as a physical object—used to synthesize over twenty years of innovation in the kitchen.”[1] During the staff walkthrough of the exhibitions before opening night, Littman explained how Adrià’s sketches are meant to convey the creative process of the chef. The exhibition consists of more than just plate sketches, but diagrams and studies that investigate the history of cooking, innovation of techniques, and documentation of ingredients. In the Lab space downstairs, two films are played, a documentary into Adrià’s participation in documenta 12 and a newly produced film by The Drawing Center that compiles the 1,846 different plates the chef created at elBulli.

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Ferran Adrià’s history of cooking

In the Drawing Room, the small exhibition space at the back of the Main Gallery, is Deborah Grant’s exhibition, Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!! Similar to Notes on Creativity, Grant’s work displayed in the exhibition reflects a devotion to one’s own artistic practice, carrying on her Random Select series based on fictional encounters between two historic figures to create an artistic mash-up that studies overlaps between the two subjects. The Drawing Center is presenting Grant’s series that investigates the fictitious encounter between Mary A. Bell (1869-1954), an African American artist and Henri Matisse (1869-1954), modernist painter. In the imaginary meeting, Bell is approached by Matisse in a dream who teaches her how to ‘paint with scissors’[2]. Bell wakes up to find she is in Boston State Hospital, where the artist died in 1954 from heart failure. Grant’s major four-panel piece reflects the actual scene of Bell’s room, exploring overlaps in religious imagery and modernist motifs. Curator Claire Gilman explains Grant’s mash-up in The Drawing Papers catalogue:

“Recognizing Matisse’s ubiquitous palm form atop planters decorated with Christian and Jewish motifs, or his dancer become the Angel Gabriel in a Byzantine-influenced scene from God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours, one may begin to understand the way in which these diverse and indeed opposing artistic styles come together. Considering Matisse’s abstracted forms alongside Bell’s folk motifs alongside iconography from centuries of religious art and culture demonstrates how all of these images are products of their own kinds of faith—faiths that are subject to revision over time.”[3]

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Crowning the Lion and the Lamb, Deborah Grant

Grant’s method reflects a dedication to her practice, where she compiles drawing and collage, meticulously creating her own cuneiform-like script in her four-panel piece , to fill negative space around her irregular composition. Culling biographical memories and incorporating Bell’s own artistic style, Grant mediates her relationship to her subject’s and their faiths. A markedly different aesthetic from Ferran Adrià’s, the two exhibitions showcase the fruits of thoughtful investigation into artistic and creative processes. Both close on February 28th, so see them now before it’s too late!

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God’s Voice in the Midnight Hours, Deborah Grant


[2] Claire Gilman, Deborah Grant: Christ You Know it Ain’t Easy!!. The Drawing Papers 111, pg. 8.

[3] Ibid., 9.

Ohara Koson from a private collection

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Wow, I am blown away that I have over 1,000 followers for my blog! Thank you so much for your support. In my appreciation, this post is dedicated to my readership—an exclusive peek in highlights of a private collection I worked on this summer.

 

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The private collectors—who wish to remain anonymous—have a varied collection, yet their passion lies in Japanese woodcut prints made by Ohara Koson, owning around 500 prints from the artist. I never studied Japanese art prior to this cataloguing job, but can appreciate the training of my eye to observe minute differences between print editions and constant attention to signatures and seals to refine my connoisseurship of Koson’s work.

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Ohara Koson (1877-1945) was a well-known print maker in the shin-hanga or ‘new prints’ movement. This collaborative process was rooted in early Japanese printmaking tradition beginning in the Edo period (17th century) and revitalized in the early 20th century. Harkening back to the collaborative or hanmoto system, used in the popular ukiyo-e prints of the Edo and Meiji, the labor behind the mass production of such prints was distributed amongst the artist, the carver, the printer, and the publisher.

Koson practiced under three different names: Koson, Shōson, and Hoson. Each period was typically in collaboration with a specific publisher. Koson’s early work under this name was predominantly published by Daikokuya and Kokkeidō. From what I have perceived, it seems most publishers did not sign the work. However, Kokkeidō uses this seal:

Kokkeido seal, bottom

Kokkeido seal, bottom

Under the name Shōson, the artist collaborated with the famous publisher, Watanabe Shōzaburō and with Kawaguchi as Hoson. Through each transformation, I noticed the artist also varied his signature seal.

Koson's seals, sourced from hanga.com

Koson’s seals, sourced from hanga.com

In addition to variations in his seal, Koson also shifted his style within each name change. All of his works are characteristic of the kacho-e or birds and flowers subject matter. However, works published as Koson have more muted color, influenced by the palette of traditional Japanese landscapes. His later works employ the use of bright color, possibly inspired by the contemporaneous French Fauves. The evenness of color and its gradients are most impressive to me, as the work exudes a painterly look that I cannot believe came from a mass-produced woodcut workshop.

The process is as such: First, a drawing is made on paper then glued to a wood block, which is cut away based on the design of the drawing. The block is inked, and the paper is pressed onto the block. This occurs multiple times as the block is inked in different locations and colors to create depths and tones to the finished work. It is crucial that the paper is placed in the same same location, so crop lines are made the paper for guidance. In Koson’s practice, he often executed paintings on silk to accompany his prints. See this series below:

Print, drawing and silk painting

Print, drawing and silk painting

Paper came in varied sizes, but in this collection, the work was mostly chūban (medium, 10×7.5 inches) or ōban (large, 23×13 inches). The works below are all ōban. See if you can tell the difference between Koson, Shōson, and Hoson. Enjoy!

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The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk

Welcome to the world of haute couture!

“In every man there is a feminine side, in every woman, a strong side.”

IMG_2342This fall the Brooklyn Museum is the New York stop on the touring fashion exhibition featuring the stylish creations of Jean Paul Gaultier, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and their curator, Thierry-Maxime Loriot. In an elaborately dramatic presentation, the Museum presents biographical insight into the designer’s career and chronicles his prêt-à-porter and haute couture fashions from the 1970s to the present. The exhibition relies on multimedia, utilizing sketches, photographs and videos to recount Gaultier’s ascension in the fashion world and famous collaborations with various celebrities such as Madonna and Kylie Minogue.

“Except for the medieval codpiece and the bra, garments have never had gender.”

IMG_2353Gaultier’s aesthetic approach to fashion calls to question the hyper-gendering of clothing, drawing from an androgynous perspective to demonstrate masculine and feminine qualities in both men’s and women’s wear. Keeping with his play on gender, the exhibition presents asexual menswear containing the artist’s endorsed man-skirts. Gaultier fetishizes the female form with his conically breasted bustiers made iconic by Madonna in her Blond Ambition World Tour, but also shown being worn by men. The exhibition also displays a fabulous collection representative of Gaultier’s cross-cultural interests, inspiring Punk fashions as well as Asian and African adorations.

What is striking about the exhibition is the movement and interactivity involved between the viewer and the models. Digitized faces are projected on custom mannequins in tandem with pre-recorded voices, thereby enabling the models to wink, blink and sing at you. The experience was eerie at first, but as the exhibition continues becomes more marvelous through the unique characterization of different mannequins depending on what fashions each was modeling. Also innovative was the movement in different displays, for instance, one display was comprised of a dozen mannequins anchored to a revolving track that simulated models walking up and down a runway. In the ‘boudoir’ area of the show, the dress forms modeling Gaultier’s bustiers rotate 360°, allowing the viewer to get a front and back view of the garments.

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The visual presentation of the show is level with the ingenuity of Gaultier’s clothing. For each major text panel, custom neon lighting forms the heading. Light and dark contrast in lighting illuminate the attire and imitate a runway setting. On many of the object labels, the hours used to construct each piece is included to give a sense of the tremendous labor behind each outfit. Didactics explain the denotation of prêt-à-porter or ready-to-wear clothing and haute couture pieces. For example, a text panel explains how the term haute couture is protected by law (much like the Denominazione di origine controllata in Italy for food and wine products that regulate what can be labeled certain names such as ‘Chianti’ or ‘Asiago’ depending on their origin). In France, the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture stipulates what can be defined as haute couture, following certain rules such as determining whether or not the garment was made-to-order. In the United States, the meaning of haute couture has been used as synonymously with ready-to-wear, which is certainly not the case in Paris’ high fashion world.

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The special exhibition will be on until February 23, 2014. See it while you can—it is worth the $15 ticket.

Two Important Exhibitions

Today I viewed two exhibitions that have drastically enhanced my appreciation for contemporary art. At the New Museum, a fantastic exhibition of Chris Burden’s work; at MoMA PS1, a gigantic retrospective of Mike Kelley—my first time visiting both museums.

Let’s start with Chris Burden’s exhibition Extreme Measures. The theme of the exhibition is summarized by the curators:

“Spanning a forty-year career and moving across mediums, ‘Extreme Measures’ presents a selection of Burden’s work focused on weights and measures, boundaries and constraints, where physical and moral limits are called into question.”[1]

The New Museum is located in SoHo, which was one of the reasons I wanted to check it out—SoHo was the nexus of the downtown art movement in New York, and as the Drawing Center shares this history, I have been trying to become more acquainted with SoHo art institutions. Chris Burden started out as a performance artists in the early 70s, doing daring stunts such has having himself shot in the arm among other risky behaviors which led critics to coin him as the ‘Evel Knievel of art.’ The exhibition includes video and still shots of several of his early performance pieces. This era in Burden’s art reflects his artistic training and background, and demonstrates his process of refining the meaning of his art. Burden became active in his art during the age of Minimalism, on the precipice of total reduction of form to Conceptualism. Schooled at Pomona College under Minimalist artists such as Mowry Baden, his performance pieces are rooted in his interpretation of Minimalism. The artist’s own words explain his meaning best:

“I never saw the performance work as moving away from Minimalism—I saw it as a way of honing in on what Minimalism was and of posing the question, ‘What is sculpture?’ Sculpture is three-dimensional, and you have to walk around it to see it—that’s the main thing that distinguishes it from two-dimensional work. That led to the question of whether sculpture is the object produced by activity, or is it the activity itself? I decided sculpture was the activity, so in a sense I was becoming more Minimal in eliminating the object.”[2]

In the mid-80s, Burden moved away from performance art and began sculptural works. Contrary to the Minimalist aesthetic, Burden’s sculptural work includes weighty and elaborately wrought industrial pieces, inspired by his interest in engineering and architecture. Burden’s The Big Wheel (1979) and Medusa’s Head (1990, not on view) exemplify this interest in the mechanical.

The Big Wheel, 1979

The sheer magnitude and ingenuity behind the works is impressive, but aside from the heavy aesthetic, Burden’s work also carries heavy meaning, exploring difficult subjects over the years through social and political critique and awareness of our highly militarized society. His military interest is exemplified by his installation All the Submarines of the United States of America (1987) includes 625 cardboard submarines representing each actual submarine commissioned by the U.S. military from the late 1890’s to the late 1980’s, with their corresponding names listed on the wall:

“Burden’s work can be seen as either a reassuring statement about U.S. naval superiority or a questioning of the need for such an extensive, yet mostly submerged and invisible, arsenal.”[3]

All the Submarines of the United States of America, 1987

Aside from the submarines’ interpretation, the visual aesthetic was especially compelling. Suspended mid air from clear nylon tethers, the submarines resembled a school of fish. Moving around the piece, the school seemed to swim, changing form based on your vantage point. For me, this was a fantastic exhibition to acquaint me with contemporary art. The New Museum did well to curate selected works based on a more cohesive theme, which engaged the viewer and inspired more research.

Now let’s discuss Mike Kelley. Before I viewed the exhibition, I was able to view a performance piece of dancers wearing costumes designed by Kelley. They rocked out to heavy metal with choreographed moves, which recalled primitive ritual with a hint of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. What can I say—you just had to be there to get it. The performance was very cool and as a former dancer, I enjoyed seeing the dancers movements and how well Kelley’s costuming enhanced their dance.

Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites, 1991-1999

This exhibition was comprised of an enormous selection of his work. I was instantly overwhelmed. Kelley themes explore repressed memories and childhood recollections: it was very Freudian. His harsh aesthetic was harder for me to appreciate, despite the meaning being present. His best known work, Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991-1999) comprised of suspended planet-like spheres formed from stuffed animals was the first thing I viewed. I definitely enjoyed this work, and the text label helped me to contextualize his motivation: to unmask the paradoxical representation of children as sterilized, non-sexed beings to what they actually are, dirty and often highly sexualized. Carrying with the Freudian theme, I viewed Naked Majas (Bettelheims’ Genital) (2008-2009), a multi-panel installation depicting frogs as well as nude transgendered women with obscured genitalia, eliciting the notion of penis envy. The text for this piece detailed the significance of the frogs as a metaphor from the Princess and the Frog story: The princess must kiss the frog, which she first finds repugnant, later to find that what once was disgusting is actually a pleasingly handsome man. The metaphor extends to how children perceive the genitalia of opposite sex: in childhood we are curious but disgusted by the opposite sex, which changes after we reach adulthood, where we discover that genitalia is actually quite pleasureful. Overt sexual themes are found in the majority of Kelley’s work and provided continuity to the artist’s message.

Naked Majas (Bettelheims’ Genital), 2008-2009

These two exhibitions from L.A. based artists have initiated further inquiry for me into contemporary art. I definitely recommend attending!

Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish American Home, 1492-1898

IMG_2285For the last nine months interning in the European art department at the Brooklyn Museum, I have been researching for the upcoming exhibition Behind Closed Doors.

Upon its recent opening, there have been positive reviews for the show, and I am very proud to have been involved in this fantastic exhibition. I have definitely learned an abundance of information from my curatorial research. I’d like to share some of this information as well as curatorial perspectives that went into the exhibition, highlighting certain themes that the Museum wished to convey and some spectacular objects.

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Behind Closed Doors has debuted just in time for Spanish Heritage Month which runs from September 15-October 15. In many ways, this show was designed to speak to a Hispanic audience. The setting of the home is unique for a Spanish colonial exhibition. The intimate setting contextualizes the objects on display and allows viewers to see the objects for their utility and not just for their grandeur. The casual setting adds to the narrative of the show, without the overwhelming sensation of a period room. Throughout the exhibition, the didactics (with equally prominent English and Spanish) identify which room the viewer is in, and provides contextualized information to the historic use and occupants of each room. Within each room there is an expanded floor plan of a real Spanish colonial house, which the curatorial department used to inspire the narrative and layout of the exhibition. Upon entering each room, its location is highlighted on the floor plan. The floor plan is taken from the Casa del Conde de San Bartolomé de Xala, a real Spanish colonial home in Mexico City. Opposite of the entrance to the exhibition is an image of the actual façade of the Casa del Conde de San Bartolomé de Xala. While the original floor plan has numerous rooms, the exhibition has highlighted the salon del dosel or Baldachin room, the Sala or Grand reception room, the cuadro or sala de Estrado, the Alcoba, the Asistencia, and the Oratorio. Throughout the exhibition, counterpoints to the contemporaneous British Empire are made to contrast the differences in society and dress.

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Entering the exhibition, the viewer is first taken into the Baldachin room. For the Colonial elite, this room was the initial room visitors saw and demonstrated the family’s wealth and allegiance to the Spanish crown. Usually, there was a throne displayed that would signal fidelity to the king in the event he visited (however, no Spanish king ever set foot in the New World). Also displayed would be family portraits and heraldry. The coat of arms displayed in the Behind Closed Doors baldachin room was painted around 1815 to commemorate the marriage of two important families, the husband’s family Gomez de Cervantes, and the wife’s lineage, which were the powerful Conde de Santiago (Count of Santiago). This marriage was a very special union for the Cervantes family, who were already quite powerful, but became more so at the acquisition of the Conde de Santiago title.

These signifiers of wealth and lineage introduce an important theme of the exhibition that is expanded upon as the viewer moves room to room. The colonial elite such as Creoles (Spaniards born in the New World), peninsular Spaniards, and indigenous elite inherited the strict social order of Baroque Spain. In Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries, social order was based upon strict limpieza de sangre or purity of blood. As counter-Reformation Spain attempted to resist Jewish (converso) and Moorish (morosco) expansion and homogenize the Empire under the blanket of Catholicism, these strict blood purities demonstrate the obsession with race, which was translated to the New World.

In many ways the colonial New World was even more rigorous in its racial social order, as the site of a blending of European, African, Caribbean and indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the abundance of wealth found in the New World was available to diverse members of the social strata (both European and indigenous). Therefore, the need for a strict social order based on lineage and race was adopted, as wealth alone was often a blurry signifier. This social order was called casta or caste. It is this social system reflected in genre casta paintings that originated racial descriptors such as mestizo and mulatto.The Brooklyn Museum’s sole casta painting in the collection is exhibited in the Asistencia, following the traditional formula of two parents with their child. Written above are their racial descriptors, ‘De Español y India sale Mestizo,’ or ‘From Spanish and Indian comes Mestizo.’ This painting is one of hundreds that follow this format and illustrate the obsession with race that plagued the New World.

As previously mentioned, indigenous elite had some power within the colonial New World. The ancestors of the Inca and Maya often had bolstered status. Behind Closed Doors has displayed the most complete set of portraits of fourteen Incan kings found in a museum collection. These portraits would have been displayed in the homes of the indigenous elite as testament to their royal ancestry and impose their status within the complicated social order.

The largest space in the exhibition is the Sala, which was a grand reception room that would have overlooked the street below. Dividing this space from the Sala de Estrado, is a large biombo enconchado. Influenced in design from the Asian folding screen, the biombo has two scenes painted on each side, taken from Dutch prints. The shell inlay or enconchado over the painting is indicative of an early Mexican painting style.

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Altogether, the biombo is representative of the Spanish Empire as a whole, an expanse as far as Asia in the Philippines, to northern Europe in Flanders, to the New World. On the side facing the Sala is a bloody battle from the Ottoman War, a political scene reflective of the use of the room, which would have been where powerful men planned their commercial and political endeavors. On the opposite side, a courtly hunting scene faces the Sala de Estrado, suitable for the occupants of the Sala which would have been female. Within the Sala, the women of the house would sit with their female guests around a low table on floor pillows on an elevated platform, (this casual lounging was influenced by the Moors) smoking, sewing and praying to their devotionals. Occasionally close family friends who were male were allowed in the Estrado, though the space was typically reserved for family. Access within certain rooms of the house demonstrates how strict social hierarchies existed within the home as well as in society. Two other rooms reflect more intimate spaces: the alcoba and oratorio. The alcoba, or bedroom, is modestly decorated, as bedrooms would have been in the period. The oratorio is a chapel used for private devotion.

While many Spaniards came to the New World and remained permanently, the more popular option was to get in, get rich and get out. Thus, many Spaniards came to the New World, amassed their wealth and returned to Spain, bringing with them trinkets and treasures to commemorate their time in the Americas. Francisco Oller’s landscape of a sugar plantation in Puerto Rico, Hacienda La Fortuna—which is located in the Asistencia—was a commission by such a person who, after making his wealth in Puerto Rico, returned to Spain, but not before having Oller paint several scenes from his Caribbean life to take back with him to Barcelona. [Supporters of the Brooklyn Museum will see more of Oller when an exhibition opens on him and his impressionist contemporaries next year]. The Asistencia is a family sitting room, located within the heart of the home. One such example of a British colonial counterpoint is placed in this room: a beautiful mahogany chair with a red velvet back. In contrast to this elegant seat is a Spanish colonial design inspired by the indigenous butaca lounging chair. These two objects illuminate differences in taste and lifestyle between the two empires.

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Clearly, Behind Closed Doors focuses on the elite, who at one time owned the objects represented in the show. This was not done so intentionally. Unfortunately, the historical record does not offer enough objects and information to represent the middle and lower classes. The curatorial staff has supplied biographical material throughout the exhibition on artists and people of mixed race, though to contextualize their lives in such a way would be impossible on this scale. However, more background regarding the humble artisans who created such luxury objects for conspicuous consumption could be offered. For instance, the beautifully carved and gilded fleuron (chandelier medallion) hanging in the oratorio is attributed to Francisco José Cardozo, who was born of mixed race in Caracas to a cabinet maker.

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Active from 1768-1818, Cardozo, like his father, was also a cabinet maker and spent his early career building and repairing furniture. He was later commissioned by the Cathedral and other churches to create altarpieces such as in the Santo Sepulcro of Caracas.

In fact, aside from the market for luxury goods consumed by the nobility, the church was responsible for a multitude of building projects and works. Beginning with the first Franciscan missionaries who trained their indigenous subjects in the art of painting, the church was responsible for flourishing workshops of indigenous and mixed-raced craftsmen, creating works for their churches and monasteries. Yet the guild system was just as complicated in the New World as in Baroque Spain. Often restricted from Spanish art guilds due to their race, indigenous and mixed-raced artisans began to form their own companies outside of the guild system. This is the case in 1688 when indigenous artists parted from the Spanish guild to create their own workshop, forming the Cuzco school. The religious paintings within the Sala are all from Cuzco indigenous workshops. Unfortunately, no individual biographies remain of the talented artists who created these works and established such a school of style that is still widely regarded to this day.

IMG_2303 I encourage all to visit Behind Closed Doors and experience a glimpse into this fascinating time in history. Also, in addition to my research contributions to the exhibition, the Curatorial, Education and Public Programming departments have planned a roundtable discussion regarding topics discussed in this post. The event will host international Colonial scholars from Latin and South America on November 16! To find out more go here.

The exhibition will also go on tour:

The Meaning of Materials

Varying across time and culture, materials used in the fabrication of prestige objects convey to the viewer important values regarding the denotation of wealth and status and reflect the consumer’s relationship to such resources. In the three different objects below, which can be found on display or online at the Brooklyn Museum, I will compare how select materials used in each piece reflect the time, place, and culture of their original consumers.

Brooklyn Museum: 78.129.18

This Fabergé vase from around 1900 is known as the Madame Balletta Vase, named for prima ballerina Elizabeta Balletta of the Mikhailovsky Theater. Balletta was given this illustrious object by Grand Duke Aleksei Alexandrovich, who in keeping with the royal tradition of gift giving to Russia’s international stars, promoted the widespread consumption of local luxury items. A gift of such esteem reflects the high standing of both the donor and the recipient. The object’s shapely topaz body crowned on its filigreed gold base speaks to Russian craftsmanship inspired by the art nouveau at the turn of the century. More important than its aesthetic qualities, this vase contextualizes an era of strong Russian nationalism through the government’s attempt to industrialize a national art form. At the time, various art schools devoted to diverse subjects were emerging and often partook in competitions, some of which were sponsored by the Fabergé firm.[1] The desire to distinguish Russian arts from their western European competitors is exemplified in this fine object and attests to the era’s bourgeoning industrial arts.

Brooklyn Museum: 34.838

In Maso di Banco’s triptych, Madonna with Saints and Christ Blessing (c. 1336), the consumption of lapis lazuli—a semi-precious stone imported from the mountains of Afghanistan—articulates the temporal value of the stone to the patrons that commissioned these opulent devotionals. In the early Renaissance, lapis lazuli was the element responsible for ultramarine pigments and was worth its weight in gold. Some contracts between artist and patron even dictated certain quantity and quality of the mineral. Such specifics can be found in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s contract with the Prior of the Spedale degli Innocenti at Florence:

E l’azurro abbia a esse oltramarino di pregio di fiorini quatro l’oncia in circa.[2]

And the blue must be ultramarine of the value about four florins the ounce.

 And in Gherardo Starnina’s contract to paint frescoes in San Stegano at Empoli the ultramarine used for Mary’s robes was to be of quality equal to two florins to the ounce, while for the rest of the picture the ultramarine valued at one florin to the ounce sufficed.[3] The specification of the particular ultramarine blue was quite relevant in contracts during the time as a cheaper quality of pigment known as ‘German blue,’ and made merely from carbonate of copper was the alternative.[4] Since ultramarine of the highest quality was valued at 2-4 florins per ounce, the use of this high-grade pigment was reserved for central figures such as the Virgin Mary or Christ, as in the case of the Maso di Banco altarpiece above. The use lapis lazuli as well as silver and gold eventually waned as patrons became more concerned with the individual skill and style of their patronized artists as opposed their materials.

Brooklyn Museum: 61.11

Often, the distance of a material source dictated its worth to its consumers. This pre-Columbian headdress from Andean Peru (1100-1470 C.E.) was made by the Chimu people. It is adorned with the vibrant plumage of tropical birds, imported from the remote Amazon jungle. As a high trade commodity, the object reflects the great status of its wearer, who was perhaps a ruler. Historically, numerous materials were restricted to exclusive use of the elite, propagating their ascribed value and meaning to each culture in contact. It is important to consider an object’s biography to fully understand its significance. In exploring the contextualized value and use of an object, we can further understand our relationship to things manufactured, gifted, commissioned and traded.


[1] G. Smorodinova, ‘Gold and Silverwork in Moscow at the Turn of the Century.’ In The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Art, II, 1989 pp. 30-49

[2] P. Küppers, Die Tafelbilder des Domenico Ghirlandajo (Strasbourg, 1916) pp. 86-7

[3] O. Giglioli, ‘Su alcuni affreschi perduti dello Starnina,’ in Rivista d’Arte, III, 1905, pp. 20

[4] Michael Baxandall, Painting & Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford 1972) pp. 11