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ArtVoices Magazine
February 2010
Translucent Archival Impulses (on the artwork of Sungmi Lee)

We all have daily rituals: brushing our teeth, putting on shoes, washing dishes. Some rituals we don’t think about twice, they are so much a part of our everyday lives that we accept them as symbols of social normality. Others are unique, stemming from personal emotions, thoughts, and situations. These personalized rituals are driven by an internal psychology and contribute to making each day different. The work of Brooklyn-based artist Sungmi Lee finds a space between repetitive daily rituals and those that are personally inspired.

Taking the ritual of collecting to the level of sleuthy detective work, Lee collects traces of left behind objects in her day-to-day travels. For six years now, Lee has collected shards of tempered glass on the street. She first started in Baltimore, where she received her MFA degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and then continued in her new Brooklyn neighborhood. By picking up these broken fragments of glass left behind by acts of violence, Lee is not only recycling objects that would otherwise be trash, but also calling attention to a similarity in two cities she calls home. In both Baltimore and Brooklyn the acts of violence may be different in nature, but the traces of their existence are the same.

For the installation Melting It, Melting Me (2008-2009), Lee uses the fragments of found glass and constructs them into a large stalactite-like sculpture that hangs from the ceiling to confront the viewer. The title refers to her process in creating the piece. The tedious gesture of using each shard of glass, bit by bit, to form a larger shape, becomes a type of personal therapy. The repetition allows her to gain an inner peace and melt away anxieties. When juxtaposed with the acts of violence that provided Lee with her materials, the piece becomes a duality of opposites. It merges healing with aggression into a singular entity and becomes a stark representation of everyday realities, as we all have felt both love and pain.

Other collections of found objects include dead tree branches she collected for a month. She then used the branches through a period of a year to create a life-size tree mold out of clear cellophane tape. Titled Re-Birth (2005-2006), this installation gives a weighty natural object an unexpected dimension of airiness. Using clear pushpins to surround the trunk adds to the effect by creating a translucent “soil.” Lee is drawn to the way translucent objects naturally interact with their environments and in their ability to blend into a space, hovering between visibility and invisibility.

The title of this translucent tree, Re-Birth, also refers to one of the most literal themes in Lee’s work: to find beauty in discarded objects so that they are given a new life. For Lee, incorporating aspects of real life is essential because it is a means to create a personal visual diary. Since each object is found in a different location and under varying circumstances, memories and emotions accumulate as she adds to her collection. It may have been cold out one day, a lingering smell may have filled the air on another, and on another, she may have been particularly giddy. All these factors are then channeled into her very tedious practice, so that her pieces have both a conceptual, process-orientated meaning and a tangible final product.

Is it a performance, drawing, sculpture or installation? Is it all or neither? Categories are seemingly futile in Lee’s work. However, it is the performative process that adds the most intriguing dimension.

White Air (2006-2008), an ongoing series in which Lee takes a photograph through her studio window every day, is a piece where the performative rises to the forefront. The photographs, all taken from the same spot and during the same time of day, document a cloud of white steam that is emitted from a rooftop chimney that her studio window overlooks. This series of photographs isolates something that is ever changing and ephemeral by giving it a recorded pattern. Although the white steam might be different with each passing day, the act of photographing it remains the same and becomes an archival impulse that Lee must perform. When displayed, with each image side by side, the physical performance becomes equal to the end product as a photographic series.

In this way, White Air differs from works like Melting It, Melting Me and Re-Birth. The latter pieces, though physically translucent, are both large objects. They allow scale to outweigh process and distract from the performative history of collecting the glass shards and tree limbs. The final sculptural products act as weighty bookends to what was once an infinite bookshelf—they put an end to the archival narrative. There is an air of the unknown in Lee’s ritualistic collection process however. She has no control over how the white steam will look, or when and in what contexts she may come across her materials on the street. It is these unpredictable in-betweens, undocumented moments in which she has no control over, that provide conceptual translucencies in her work and give it room to breathe.

This notion of documentation and the “final product,” whether necessary or not, remains a topic of continual debate for both performance-based artists and collective memory archivists alike. It is like imagining the moment that Chris Burden is shot in the arm in his infamous 1971 performance Shoot, versus seeing grainy photographic documentation of the aftermath. That decisive, but unpredictable moment, when the bullet hits his arm, can only exist as a conceptual thought in the viewer’s mind, but is the most vital. The photographs become a postscript, but are necessary for posterity.

Usually, solutions to the “final product” question create a conundrum of paradoxes. Take 1960s conceptual art for instance. Artists such as Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner tried to go against the grain of massively produced “final products” by creating ephemerally based works that did not need to exist in a tangible form. Barry sent radio waves through a room, released inert gases into the dessert, and closed a gallery, while the 3rd point in Weiner’s 1969 Statement of Intent reads that, “the piece need not be built.” Although pushing for intangibility, both Barry and Weiner photographically documented their ephemeral and “unseen” pieces. Albeit mainly images of empty rooms and gravel fields, the documentation is there for us to refer to 40 years later. Thus, complete translucency may never actually exist in the art world. Actions can never just be.

Because of the Zen-like nature of Lee’s work, her practice being a personal meditation and healing process, the notion of just being, sans over-documentation or the final product, becomes a natural counterpart. This idea of living in the moment, just experiencing a gesture, emotion or smell, is perhaps the only ritual that is necessary for both the viewer and Lee herself.

Urbanite: For Baltimore's Curious

May 2008
Critic's Picks / On Your Mark
“Notes on Monumentality” at the Baltimore Museum of Art
“Baltimore Ink: Patterns on Bodies” at the Baltimore Museum of Art

“I am interested in monuments as a kind of urban decoration,” says Mark Alice Durant, guest curator for the Baltimore Museum of Art’s experimental rotating exhibition space, Front Room. Durant’s exhibition, “Notes on Monumentality,” features the work of twenty-two artists spanning various media and time periods, two-thirds of which were plucked directly from the vaults of the BMA’s permanent collection. “It was a great opportunity to present works trans-historically,” says Durant, “so we can see how attitudes towards the monumental shift and change depending on the culture’s attitude towards its history.”

Baltimore artist Deirtra Thompson’s video Monument features grainy black-and-white footage of cheerleaders. Only one minute in length and playing on a loop, the video shows members of the squad lifted into the air over and over again in an endless choreographed routine that becomes, as Durant puts it, “everything that a monument is not—ephemeral, flickering, and insubstantial.” Thompson’s video from 2006 is juxtaposed with more historical and literal odes to the monument, as in Philip Galle’s fanciful 16th century engravings of ancient statuary. On view until May 25, “Notes on Monumentality” re-contextualizes notions of the monument, a nice complement to the nickname John Quincy Adams bestowed upon Baltimore—“the Monumental City.”

If you’re looking for an edgier urban decoration, don’t miss the BMA’s special event “Baltimore Ink: Patterns on Bodies,” presented in conjunction with the last installment of “Meditations on African Art: Pattern.” “We wanted to tie the historical perspective of patterning on the body with one that was contemporary,” says BMA deputy director of education Anne Manning, who helped organize the Baltimore Ink event. On the evening of May 31, tattoo artists, authors, and the editor of Skin & Ink magazine will lead a discussion on tattoo culture, culminating in a runway show and after-party that will be sure to shed new light on the role of body adornment and pattern in contemporary society.


Urbanite: For Baltimore's Curious

March 2008
Critic's Picks / Bright Ideas
Double-Take: The Poetics of Illusion and Light at the Contemporary Museum

With subtle tweaks of light, cleverly selected hues, and simple gestures, the three artists featured in Double-Take: The Poetics of Illusion and Light toy with the viewer’s perception. Curated by the Contemporary Museum’s executive director, Irene Hofmann, the exhibition explores how slight visual shifts can create multilayered experiences.

A spinning wire sphere hanging from the ceiling confronts the viewer upon entering the exhibition. Made by Alexandra A. Grant, the wire comprising the large sculpture, Nimbus II, is meticulously twisted and shaped into words from Nimbus, a hypertext poem by Michael Joyce. Lit with theater lights, the sculpted words are projected as shadows that flicker against the walls.

Mary Temple also plays with shadows. At first glance, a section of the museum appears to be bathed in late-afternoon sunlight streaming through a plant-filled window. It takes a few moments to realize that there is no window—this is Temple’s piece Southwest Corner, Northeast Light. The shadows are actually painted on the wall, yet a sense of calmness pervades, as if the viewer could soak up the tromp l’oeil sunlight.

The work of Baltimore-based artist Bernhard Hildebrandt reconfigures art history concepts. In his film Un-erased de Kooning Drawing, sections of a de Kooning drawing that Robert Rauschenberg famously erased in 1953 are digitally restored. In his Untitled works, a white or black enamel painting is displayed next to a photograph of the same painting, creating a tautological reference to 1960s conceptual art. By juxtaposing representation with reality, Hildebrant asks the viewer to contemplate perception as it relates to genuine and fabricated experience—a theme that emerges from this innovative exhibit as a whole

Locus Issue 4
March 2008


Language Never Stops

"Painting [stops] at [the] edge [of the canvas.]  When you are dealing with language, there is no edge that the picture drops over or drops off.  You are dealing with something completely infinite.  Language, because it is the most non-objective thing we have ever developed in this world, never stops."  — Lawrence Weiner

            A neon blue sign that reads, "THIS IS NOT KOSUTH," hangs at the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, MD in the exhibit, Double-Take: The Poetics of Illusion and Light.  This Untitled piece by artist Bernhard Hildebrandt was made in 2007, but references 1965 — a time when art was undergoing a transformation from the materiality of minimalism to the symbolism of conceptual art.  Hildebrandt's piece, made of capitalized blue neon letters, mimics a piece by Joseph Kosuth from 1965, made using similar blue neon letters.  Part of the conceptual art movement of the mid 60s, Kosuth believed language was the only neutral medium that would enable him to present "true" ideas in his artwork, stating that art's existence as a tautology was the only way it could remain aloof from philosophical, subjective, and aesthetic presumptions.   One of Kosuth's most well known pieces that resulted from his statements was a neon blue sign that reads, "FIVE WORDS IN BLUE NEON." 

            As I was in a dark corner of the Contemporary Museum thinking about Kosuth and straining my neck to look-up at the Hildebrandt piece, which was hung close to the ceiling, I realized the actual experience existed in the act of contorting my head to gaze up rather than seeing the physical art object itself.  Since one usually assumes artwork will be hung at eye-level, the mounting of the piece was the most unexpected aspect and created the most genuine experience.  All the other information pertaining to the finished piece could have been conveyed through a photograph or text description, therefore canceling the possibility for an unforeseen experience.  Thus, Hildebrandt's piece, especially the installation choice, plays with the dynamic between the description of an art object and the experience of an art object.  It brings notions of actuality and representation to a new light, asking us whether language can replace the experience of art completely.  This question has been asked repeatedly by conceptual artists seeking vernacular means to replace physical art objects and continues to change with the progression of culture and language.

            The dichotomy between language and experience can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp, arguably the grandfather of conceptual art, who "gave art its own identity."   In 1919, Duchamp drew a mustache on a reproduction print of the Mona Lisa and wrote L.H.O.O.Q. at the bottom, a French pun that translates colloquially as "she has a hot ass."  Incorporating appropriation, humor, and language as pun, Duchamp quickly and cleverly "defaced" one of the most iconic paintings in the history of art.  Consequently, with a simple act of rebellion, Duchamp obliterated traditional artistic values and paved the way for the reexamination of art as it relates to concepts and language — establishing a new way to experience as well as think about art.  Using the building blocks that Duchamp established and spawning from the debates between literalism and illusionism in painting and sculpture (from the exhibition Shape and Structure: 1965 at Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York) , the conceptual artists in the 60s such as Kosuth, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Lawrence Weiner, and Ian Wilson used language to question the entire nature of art .  Focusing away from the delineations of painting and sculpture, art was no longer defined by material objects and the original artistic touch, but by language, ideas, and appropriation — concepts that are still pervasive in the contemporary art world today. 

            There are many more levels to language and the perception of language than is outlined by the theories initiated by the conceptual artists in the 60s.  Language is ever-changing, shifting along with art, politics, and culture.  Additionally, language is not only shaped by text and spoken word, but by signs, calls, gestures and facial and bodily expressions, many of which developed as the first forms of language and are retained still.   The conceptual artists examined language's ability to transcend time and space to replace a physical object, focusing mainly on concepts pertaining to the progression of art and art history alone.  They only questioned the function and nature of art, which started to be too narrow of an approach, as the development of new technologies and socio-political issues started to expand the scope of art in the 1970s.  In 1971 when art historian Linda Nochlin published a groundbreaking essay that asked, 'Why have there been no great women artists?' she opened the door for investigations into institutional, educational, and economic factors in both the arts and society at large, especially for women artists.   Two artists, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, both started to incorporate text into their works to critique advertising and popular culture, extending their work beyond the gallery walls and into the city street.  In the mid-70s, Holzer started using emerging new technologies to create electronic LED signs and xenon projections to present her Truisms series.  Using language alone, these signs and projections had the authoritative tone of public-service announcements, but they offered provocatively ambiguous and contradictory sentiments.   Kruger's text-based collage pieces appropriate the style of iconographic mass media advertising and billboards.  Through these pieces, Kruger is able to critique gender stereotypes and the male gaze, juxtaposing text with high contrast images to tap into elements of language that are exposed through signs, gestures, and expressions instead of pure written or spoken words.  Holzer and Kruger examine language's ability to serve as a universal connector — embracing the evolution of language in conjunction with technology and its role in social commentary.

            It is hard to imagine how a few tribal and local Germanic dialects spoken by a hundred fifty thousand people grew into the English language spoken and understood by about one and a half billion people today.  Early words came from those who worked the land, spending everyday performing the same tasks and therefore being able to notice the minutiae of nature.  As a result, workers named what they saw so they could describe what they observed to their fellow workers and future generations.
In a sense, the use of language in art developed in a similar manner, as a means to simplify and explain an experience.  The question is, can language replace an experience completely and can language then go on to create genuine experiences apart form physical ones?  Especially in the arts, which is almost entirely rooted in the visual and aesthetic experience of visual objects?  In reality, even if Kosuth argued for ideas over objects, he still ended up creating aesthetically pleasing objects to be displayed in a pristine white gallery setting.  His neon signs are sleek and his tautological investigations are printed large and displayed next to the actual objects he is describing.  Thus, it is the very nature of art, no matter how much questioning goes into it, to gravitate towards the creation of a final product, even if a basic vernacular description of said object would be just as moving. 

            One could argue that performance art, especially the kind rooted in ephemeral happenings, is able to circumvent the creation of art objects in a traditional sense.  But, as soon as a photograph is taken to document a performance, the original experience is lost and forever frozen in time by the photograph, which then becomes the object that results from the performance.  Contemporary performance artist Tino Sehgal, who does not create any objects and whose artwork only exists in the moment of its realization, stages situations toying with the institutionalized contexts of museums and galleries.  There are no photographs documenting his staged performances and he writes no text about them, one must simply go and experience them at whichever venue he is showing at.  Sehgal's staged performances address experience from the other angle, one that eliminates the use of language and objects altogether.  On the flipside of Sehgal is conceptual artist Ian Wilson, who, in 1968 decided to use oral communication as his only form of art, therefore freeing art from a specific object and fixed location.  If one conducted a conversation with Wilson, they would be experiencing a piece of art by him.  Although Wilson took the idea of conceptual art a step further than his counterpart, Kosuth, he was still labeling his oral communications as objects.  Sehgal and Wilson both eliminate the physical art object and construct experiences either with the absence of language or language alone.  However, because both artists work can only exist within the context of art and the dialogue that goes along with art, the experiences they create become heightened spectacles rather than purely genuine ones.

            The closest thing that comes to replacing objects and experiences with language alone exists in the form of oral history.  Although oral history uses language to preserve experience rather than replace it completely, it is still able to create a genuine experience with only spoken words.  Traditionally used to preserve personal experiences from the past, namely those of war veterans, Native Americans, and revolutionaries, if examined further, the use of oral history could be the key to establishing a complete blueprint of the development of society and culture.  When someone has an informal conversation with you about their past personal experiences, there is no way to go back to the time and place they are speaking about and have the same exact experience.  Therefore, the image of the experience that is created in your mind from their story becomes translated into your own personal interpretation and experience.  For art, experiencing it relies on time and space, physically traveling to the exhibition venue and participating in the act of looking.  In the case of Hildebrandt's piece at the Contemporary Museum, the genuine experience of surprise when seeing the piece unexpectedly mounted close to the ceiling instead of at eye level cannot be conveyed through description alone.  However, unlike a fleeting experience, language can provide a solid historical and conceptual understanding of the piece that persists even beyond the duration of the exhibition.  As Weiner states, "language…never stops," it is quickly malleable and adapts to the ever-shifting cultural landscape and can be passed from generation to generation — unlike physical objects, which remain suspended in time and materiality, forever displaying the same neon blue words.

Alexander Alberro, "Art Without Space," in ed. Lawrence Weiner (London: Phaidon, 1998), 98, reprinted in Jarrett Gregory, "Whitney Museum of American Art, Lawrence Weiner: AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE," (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2007).

Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings, 1966 - 1990.  (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991).

James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties.  (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

Melvin Bragg, The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language.  (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2003).

Eleanor Heartney, Postmodernism.  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Art and the Feminist Revolution
September 21 - December 16, 2007
National Museum of Women in the Arts

The shrill sound of a baby crying pierced my senses as I entered the WACK! exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  At first, I thought it was a sound piece, strategically placed to serve as a backdrop for works such as Susan Miller's 10 Months, where she documents the size of her growing belly with abstract photos - making it look as if her belly is a nondescript mound of flesh.  Then, rounding the corner, I noticed a mom pushing a baby stroller, leaning forward in an attempt to comfort her crying child.  Suddenly, it all became too obvious.  I felt too "young" for this exhibit.  Too young to experience pieces in the exhibition for their genuine, raw message.  Because, as with the real LIVE baby crying, I immediately derived pre-conceived stereotypes on what to expect.  Of course there would be a sound piece of a baby crying next to pictures of a pregnant woman, right? 

            The true feminist sprit of the 1970s has been lost to the complicity of youth culture: muddled away by an age of teenage girls taking innocently seductive photographs of themselves in front of their bathroom mirrors, to be posted on their blog, Myspace, and Facebook profiles.  I'm guessing the majority of these girls do not know of Adrian Piper's Concrete Infinity Documentation Piece from 1970 (which is in the exhibit), where the artist photographs herself in front of her mirror every morning while recording every detail of her day with no embellishments.  After all, wasn't Piper, who was still in college, serving as the genuine precursor to what many young girls are doing today? --except there was no Internet culture in the 1970s.  There must be a direct linear progression from Piper to the likes of Corey Kennedy, the outspoken 18-year old who became a model and Internet celebrity through her blog without her parent's knowledge.

            With all lamentations aside, WACK! is a highly comprehensive and straightforward overview of feminist art spanning the United States and Europe.  Originally organized by Cornelia Butler for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, WACK! will travel to P.S.1 MOMA later this year after leaving the National Museum of Women in the Arts.  WACK! is the largest exhibit the NMWA has hosted in the past 25 years, and arguably features the most controversial subject matter the museum has ever hosted.  It is kind of a strange dynamic to walk up two flights of pristine marble steps, pass by the NMWA café serving daintily dressed grandmas having their afternoon tea, to be greeted by images of naked women with bondage contraptions, posing with dildos, plastering chewing gum-shaped vaginas on their bodies.  One immediately wonders if the NMWA is the right match for the more radically reactionary feminist pieces, considering the fact that the counterpart exhibit currently on view is "American Indian Pottery from the Collection." 

            The exhibition is loosely organized around themes, such as Silence and Noise/Speaking in Public, Auto-Photo, Feminine Sensibility, Goddess and the Body, Art History, Abstraction, and Collage and Assemblage.  The two floors are filled with installations, videos, photographs, paintings, documentary bits and pieces, and pretty much every medium in between.  The "everything in between" would be fit to describe the actual scroll that Carolee Schneeman pulls out of her vagina in 1975 for her Interior Scroll piece.  This infamous scroll is visibly worn and stained, encased in a clear Plexiglas container mounted on the wall at eye level, it provides a visceral viewing experience.

            The theme of craft is translated well through various site-specific installation pieces.  Faith Wilding's Crocheted Environment is a spider web of crocheted nets - engulfing the viewer in a meticulous world that calls to mind the stereotyped image of a Nineteenth Century women staying home to knit or sew.  Senga Nengudi uses flesh-colored pantyhose filled with sand to create strangely crafty, yet decorative installations.  By installing her pieces in corners, a more contained environment is created, emphasizing the awkward stretching capabilities of the pantyhose and the scrotum-like lumps that sag to the floor from where the hose is filled with sand.  Baltimore artist Maren Hassinger (currently Director of the Rinehart School of Graduate Sculpture at MICA) makes a cameo appearance in the piece, featured in documentary photographs using Nengudi's stretched pantyhose as a site for an interactive dance performance.  Weaving and contorting her body with the taught pantyhose, Hassinger's dance creates a new dynamic between an inanimate object and physiological body parts.  Craft that is exalted to enormous proportions is evident in Abakan Red, Magdalena Abakanovicz's large sculpture.  Suspended from the ceiling in a small room, the close quarters force the viewer to stand mere inches away from the piece, smelling the musty threads and seeing each individual fiber spun together.  Heart-shaped with a slit in the middle and daunting in size, Abakan Red seems to perpetuate the bravado of large objects being created by Abakanovicz's male counterparts in the mid to late 60s.  With this piece she re-shapes masculine Minimalistic sculpture, engendering it with emotion.

            Contrasting with the more philosophical craft-based pieces are socially driven performances, placing feminist artwork in a public political context.  Photographs of Mierle Landerman Ulceles' public performance, Washing/Tracks/Maintenance: Outside piece originally performed on July 22, 1973, take social critique out into the world.  By cleaning the steps of a Connecticut museum with used diapers, Ulceles not only replaces the work of the museum's blue-collar workers, she also makes a direct comment on domestic gender roles.  She was able to use a simple task to create politically driven commentary on the social constructs of work ethic.  Documented through typed and written personal reflections, Lee Lozano's "total personal and public revolution" piece from 1971 chronicles her life-altering decision to stop making art and interacting with women.  To this day, she continues to abstain from interacting with women.  Influenced by Conceptual Art of the mid 60s and its politically orientated critique on the commodification of art after the Pop Art explosion, the piece was originally conceived as a means to launch her career further by emphasizing how men made all the decisions in the art world.  Lozano's simple rule that she has stuck with for life is not only a socially constructed test of endurance, it also taps into pre-conceived political dynamics of power.  Another piece by Monica Mayer publicizes oral history and culture.  She passed out 800 slips of paper to women in Mexico City and asked them to write down what they disliked about living in the area.  To display the comments, she hung them on clothesline so that the women of Mexico City could interact indirectly with their neighbors.  A simple community survey like Mayer's brings together the voices of multiple women to emphasize the power of a collective voice.

            All in all, WACK! provides a historically driven overview of artwork from the 70s feminist movement.  The abundance of video and photographs reveal that the feminist revolution was thoroughly documented.  Perhaps over-documentation is not the correct direction for an exhibition that holds such potential for extreme political punch however.  Messages are lost within the hours of video and multiple images displaying the same piece.  The viewer has to do a lot of work to find pieces that resonate with unfettered energy. 

            As I was about to leave, a group of 20 teenage girls speedily roamed through the exhibit.  By an elevator, I observed a group of them watching the Ana Mendieta video Untitled (Body Tracks), where she dips her arms in blood and propels her body against a wall to smear it.  Amidst the "EWWW" and "GROSS" remarks coming from the girls, they were captivated, staring at the large screen playing the video.  It is probably safe to assume that the shock value of blood and gore is one of the few things that still has the ability to hold the attention of a youth that is bombarded with images, ideas and information. 

            But what does this mean for the overall feminist message that was so genuine and empowering in the 70s that existed beyond the initial shock value of blood, vagina paintings, and bodily fluids?  Has it been suppressed to mere nostalgia for today's youth - not being able to say they were personally there to experience the revolution in the 70s and thus only being able to rely on historical dates and facts to contextualize the movement?  For someone who is stuck between, too old to be only impressed by blood and gore, and too young to have genuinely experienced a raw-emotionally driven social movement, I would have to say YES to the above.  Yes, the genuine idea of protest culture, feminist revolution and empowerment is sadly gone, replaced by apathy and a move towards internal reflection.  Thus, it is not enough to rely on history and over-documentation alone to present an exhibition on feminism, especially if it is meant to reclaim the notion of feminism in the context of contemporary culture.  Publishing the WACK! catalog with Martha Rosler's Body Beautiful, Beautry Knows No Paint: Hot House, or Harem, 1966-77, on the cover is the most immediate example of this problematic presentation.  The original intent of the piece, a collage of nude women clipped from advertisements and Playboy magazine, was a means to protest that the only way women seemed to be placed in the media was as sexualized objects.  Placed in a contemporary context and used to advertise the WACK! catalog, the notion of "The Other" seems to be perpetuated once again to highlight the gaze of men and women alike viewing the WACK! exhibit.  Is Rosler's collage used because the editors know that sex has always and will always sell or are they using the piece in an ironic sense, pointing out the fact that history has in a sense stayed the same, since ads today still portray women as sexualized objects?  Furthermore, are the editors assuming all viewers will be educated enough to look past the initial "sex sells" reaction to see Rosler's piece for the progressive message it conveyed in the 70s?  These are all issues that extend beyond the cover of the WACK! catalog and into the entire context of the exhibition.  Perhaps the best solution is to draw connections between the past and present.  If the Adrian Piper piece were interactive, displayed next to a computer where visitors could print out pages from their personal blogs to be put on display, a younger generation might begin to see how history keeps repeating itself and how there could be another shift from apathy to action.  And that message alone, if anything else, should be pervasively obvious in an exhibition like WACK!.


Urbanite: for Baltimore's Curious
Recommended ART
August 2007

Featured in the Black Box Theater at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden are three short videos featuring psychedelic mash-ups by New York-based artist Takeshi Murata. Cone Eater calls to mind rainbow-colored video games—if they morphed into a pixilated screen saver from hell. Monster Movie features a Chewbacca-like yeti, whose image transforms into fluid color—as if Murata used a digitized paintbrush to mix pixels directly on the screen. Lastly, in Untitled (Pink Dot), a mini Sylvester Stallone from Rambo points his machine gun at a pulsating neon pink dot, causing it to disintegrate into a liquid blur. Showing that even technology can lend itself to expressive art forms, Murata’s intricate videos will draw in the viewer with their hypnotizing swirls.

Locus Issue 3
June 2007


Rebecca Nagle
Body Connections

            In the Baltimore Museum of Art's 2005 exhibition, Work Ethic, Austrian artist Erwin Wurm contributed a set of objects with accompanying instructions such as, "press your body against 6 oranges to secure then to the wall."  I remember trying this "One Minute Sculpture" and being contorted for a moment against the wall of the museum with plastic oranges against my chest, stomach, arms, and thighs.  Like Wurm, MICA student, Rebecca Nagle uses objects to push the boundaries of personal comfort zones to directly engage her viewers in an unspoken, awkward relationship.  The catch, she accomplishes this without any physical interaction between audience and object.

            With "Face to Stomach," part of Nagle's "Body Connections" series, she creates a plaster mold that represents the negative space between an individual's stomach and another individual's face.  Intended only to serve as a "how-to guide," Nagle includes a diagram with each of her pieces to show viewers how each plaster object can be used to fulfill its role as an unexpected connector between two figures.  The diagram shows a figure standing up straight with the rectangular-shaped mold strapped to their belly.  The standing figure faces another figure, who is on their knees, and shown with their face pressed against the mold.  Compared to the standing figure, the figure on their knees is in an uncomfortable, almost sexually submissive pose, with only a small object separating their face from another person's belly and pelvic region.  This pose that is suggested for two figures, when executed, physically becomes a temporary sculpture.  However, the process in which these two individuals go about to achieve the temporary sculpture calls to mind a deeper psychological game.  Nagle purposefully has one figure assume a passive position, the kneeling figure, and the other figure assume a more natural and dominant position.  If these diagrams were carried out, a relationship built upon hierarchical tension would develop between two strangers or two close friends, as each decides who kneels and who stands. 

            In actuality, Nagle's plaster pieces are too bulky and heavy for individuals to use to perform her "call to actions."  On their own, without the explanation of a diagram, the pieces resemble unidentifiable portions of a larger form or body.  Seemingly cut from a mannequin, these eerie, slightly off-white sculptures are incomplete puzzle pieces in need of another abstracted form to become a whole.  The whole, in this case, is the implied negative space created by each plaster form, set in the shape of a stomach, face, thigh, back, or head.  Consequently, the only way one of Nagle's "Body Connections" pieces can be complete is in the imagination of the viewer.  By showing the viewer a fictional diagram and then requiring them to hypothetically act out the pieces in their minds, an invisible anxiety quickly builds between the viewer and the object.  As the viewer starts to picture oneself carrying out the diagramed pose, he or she begins to form an unexpected relationship -- empathizing with an inanimate object.

            Nagle's "Body Connections" series has an un-assumed power over the viewer, enticing thoughts on temporary sculptures, ephemeral moments, unforeseen interactions and relationships, and holding the potential to connect two individuals in an awkward, symbiotic moment entirely within their own minds.  Perhaps Wurm could have included a "do not touch" sign with his installation.

Maryland Art Place
21st Annual Critic's Residency Program
May 2007

Repetition is Not a Sign of Stupidity

            Women artists have a history of using repetition in their work to investigate the outcome of combining tedious gestures with an obsessive array of materials.  For example, Anne Hamilton's performances incorporate repetitive mark-making, Janine Antoni ritualistically licks and gnaws at slabs of chocolate, and photographer Sandy Skoglund creates fanatically detailed environments by gluing snack food to her subjects.  These artists, along with their younger contemporary counterparts, create intricate sculptures and paintings that directly address feminist history, personal identity, and cultural backgrounds to examine the conditions and expectations evident in society.

            A recurring gesture can be as simple as twisting a piece of newspaper over and over again.  For Maren Hassinger, this twisting motion is a predominant part of her installation works and is innately a part of her life as well.  After giving birth, she became aware of twisted formations such as the bends in her umbilical chord and began associating her simple twisting gestures with that of a maternal figure worrying about her child.  The twisting of newspapers thus became foremost a rhythmic gesture that could calm her when she was distraught.  Another reason behind her focus on repeated knotting is her racial background.  The hair of an African American woman is historically shown braided, dread-locked, or wrapped as a means of control.  Keeping one's hair tame and regimented harkens back to Hassinger's limited childhood, when she was not allowed to dance or truly express herself as she is now able to through her art.  The act of hair braiding is mimicked when Hassinger twists countless newspaper shreds.  Her large newspaper installations confront race and class status as it relates to stereotyped images of women's hair.  Twisting newspaper repetitively is also a means for Hassinger to use a subtle gesture to transform literal written culture, in this case the New York Times, into an ephemeral, poetic form.

            Unlike Hassinger, who focuses on gesture in her artwork, Maria Karametou concentrates on making sculptures that incorporate repeated synthetic objects - bobby pins and hair.  By creating these obsessive sculptures, Karametou is referring directly to her Greek background, where flawless images of gods and goddesses populate historic beauty ideals.  Her bobby pin pieces align multiple rows of pins, all in the same color, to form a large grid, evocative of textiles created in the Byzantine era.  Karametou deals exclusively with Caucasian hair accessories -- using only brunette colored pins and hair.  This is a means to mirror media's portrayal of Westernized beauty as the predominant social and cultural influence.  These material objects that only enhance beauty, bring up the ever-shifting image women have with their bodies as it relates to the pre-conceived Westernized model.  Every bobby pin she tediously glues down and every strand of hair she carefully places becomes a ritualistic metaphor for every woman who repeatedly brushes or pins her hair on a daily basis.  Thus, not only does her use of hair materials relate to beauty rituals that are passed down from older generations and the media, she is also using her repeated materials as a means to reveal a very controlled and idealized vision of beauty, one that is evident in many constructs of society. 

             Mary Walker and Breon Gilleran both have a background in sculpting with solid 3D materials, but incorporate textiles as supplementary materials into their work.  Walker applies paint to wallpaper and upholstery, then stamps the wet paint onto her canvases.  She combines these stamped layers of paint with grids, flower stencils, block letters, and squares, forming final compositions that resemble rich textural fabrics inspired by nature.  Gilleran embroiders silk thread on linen in the shape of shadows from her steel sculptures.  The final pieces resemble handkerchiefs, infused with a delicate DNA-helix-like pattern.  Both women turn to small repeated gestures, Walker stamping and Gilleran stitching, because of its accessibility.  The daily-ness of handling textiles and embroidery needles relates to a historical image of women performing household tasks.  Instead of falling prey to feminine stereotypes however, Walker uses repeated stamping to infuse her paintings with patterns that mimic the natural environment while Gilleran's repeated stitching projects are another medium for documenting the organic shadows of her sculptures.  Thus, although Walker and Gilleran both retain ritualistic domestic qualities while working with textiles, they both consider the slow process of stamping and embroidering a calming alternative to arranging heavy building materials and forging steel rods.

            All four artists have different approaches to how repetition is used in their work, but the unifying point in all their pieces lies in the consideration of social commentary and personal identities, especially in connection to contemporary female experience.  Hassinger repeats the gesture of twisting a strip of newspaper, alluding to the natural world and her maternal anxieties.  Karamatou repeatedly uses bobby pins and fake hair strands to create labor intensive sculptures commenting on stereotypical notions of beauty.  Walker and Gilleran turn to working with textiles as a peaceful transition from handling 3D objects.  By starting out small and using simple, repeated gestures, Hassinger, Karamatou, Walker and Gilleran are able to twist, glue, stamp, and stitch objects in a way that examines cultural significance on a larger scale.

Urbanite: for Baltimore's Curious
Recommended ART
March 2007

Paper dolls are generally known as fun caricatures with trendy clothes. But for Arabella Grayson, they are an important source of history. From Aunt Jemima to Beyoncé, more than one hundred black paper dolls from her collection are now on display at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in the exhibit Two Hundred Years of Black Paper Dolls: The Collection of Arabella Grayson. Dolls from the late 1800s depict black men in tribal clothing and “untamable” black women with crazy hair, dark skin, and brightly painted lips. Early-twentieth- century mammies stand by in unchangeable servant’s clothes, ready to help white girl dolls change into several outfits. Paper doll publishers began to issue dolls of influential black figures in the 1960s and again in the 1980s. But even today there are flukes that remind us of our not-so-distant past: The only black American Girl paper doll is a former slave. The snapshots provided by Grayson’s collection chronicle social and cultural shifts, revealing that although some progress has been made, stereotypes are still alive and well, sometimes held in place by an innocent set of dotted lines.

Oliver Herring

Public Performance on Hirshhorn Plaza

Saturday, April 29, 2006
Noon to 7:00 pm

"I'm always surprised that there's no real anarchy - only staged anarchy," says Oliver Herring about all the TASK performances he has conducted.  He is surprised that none of the performers walk-out or break the rules when there is obviously no one there to stop them or tell them otherwise.  Well, one can say the same about Kindergarten.  In Kindergarten, all that is asked is to make multi-colored scribbles on an endless supply of paper, build popsicle stick log cabins, and learn how to share in a nurturing environment.  If for whatever reason, one chose not to do these activities, the teacher cannot force them to.  With TASK, Herring cannot force his performers to do anything either and merely observes their progression, whether sitting idly or screaming on top of a ladder, all the performers stay for the entire duration of the performance, no matter how pointless, it becomes Kindergarten all over again.             

At the start of the performance, the "stage," loosely defined by brown butcher paper taped to the ground, is littered with transportable everyday objects: wooden blocks, cardboard, Styrofoam, toilet paper, bubble wrap, tape, Velcro, construction paper, index cards, pencils, etc.  Participants in the performance are also asked to contribute items that they have purchased themselves, to mix things up a bit.  These items include bubble gum, glitter, yards of multi-colored felt and fabric, and a mirror.  Each of the 60 performers, randomly chosen from over 600 online applicants, is then given one task written by Herring to start the performance.  After they complete the task given to them, they are to write a task of their own to contribute to the task pool, which is then distributed randomly amongst the performers.  Tasks continue to be written by the performers while the audience can also submit tasks by typing them into a computer on site.             

After 4 hours of the performance, the entire ordeal seems to reach an apathetic lull.  Two performers sit in fold-out chairs and have a conversation, several sit at the "arts & crafts" tables near the museum entrance and eat snacks, while several stand dormant in a row.  It turns out that finally, a politically ironic task, "make a suspicious package and hand it to one of the security guards with a concerned face," has made its round amongst the other harmless tasks.  The suspicious package was made and handed to an unassuming security guard who proceeded to contact the Smithsonian park police, which resulted in Herring running out of his VIP lounge to waive them off and explain his art piece.  Ten minutes later, after the package is inspected to the satisfaction of the park police, all performers resume their tasks again.  Clearly, after this poke at authority, the performers begin to censor themselves and return to "creating a conga line and dancing around the fountain," or "playing hide and seek with the audience."           

Aside from the many outrageous and silly tasks that were written, the ones that were construction based proved to be the most interesting to watch.  Amongst the many performers that were flinging themselves into a pile of bubble wrap or banging slabs of wood on the ground, there were a few who stayed in one spot constructing temporary sculptures.  One man taped together crumpled butcher paper, creating a giant amorphous sculpture, another created a monument for George W. Bush with towels and a basketball, which he then watered using a watering can and water from the Hirshhorn fountain.  A few people sat quietly at tables doodling on construction paper and a few meticulously constructed the finishing details on their cardboard forts.  Perhaps it was merely the shy, reclusive volunteers separating themselves from the boisterous ones, but at least it was comforting to see that more than a few volunteers choose not to treat the event as a showy, look-at-me affair.           

Overall, TASK was successful in bringing together 60 volunteers for a performance of staged randomness and presented the Hirshhorn in a new light to the downtown DC tourist.  However, the execution and resulting product for the public to witness fell short.  First, in the organization of the event.  Too many staff members from the Hirshhorn were on hand to ask the audience to step away from the brown butcher paper lining the fountain, supposed to act as "the stage."  A performance tagged to have an undefined progression cannot have a defined line between participant and viewer, especially when an audience member could easily pretend to be a performer and vice versa.  Secondly, the pool of participants did not represent enough ethnic or cultural diversity.  On the informational brochure listing the occupations of the performers, all are listed as students or white collar professionals, and all but 3 are Caucasian.  No wonder Herring never worries about anarchy or any sort of rebellion for that matter, he put together a group of middle class Americans able and more than willing to sign away 7 hours of their Saturday toward a performance art piece.  Lastly, the logistics of the performance, there were piles and piles of supplies left over that could have all been donated to an inner city elementary school or homeless shelter, but instead, were trashed after the performance ended.            

In the end, TASK became the safest way the Hirshhorn could present something progressive, with a possible politically charged undertone.  It drew a large crowd and garnered attention to the museum in general, but was no more than an elaborately staged event about building nothing into something.  Herring may have opened minds about the expectations for a high profile performance art piece and toyed with the idea of creating an unusual template for rebellion, but one thing he failed to address was the distinct line that was drawn between the performers, the audience, and, most of all, the artist.  There remained a distinct hierarchy, the artist as director and overseer, the performers as his props, and the audience, tricked into witnessing a creative disaster zone.  At least in Kindergarten, one is gaining important socialization skills by learning from their own mistakes.  It's hard to say the same for TASK