Friday, December 22, 2006

Uptown; Strong Showings and Holiday Tunes

The holiday blitz is upon us.

As I make my way home, "Jingle Bell Rock" is broadcast from elevated lamp post speakers on Queens' Steinway Street, and crowds of consumers bump along the sidewalk, somnolent. I notice a group of about ten African-American teenagers approaching noisily and all clad in red. They repeat a high-pitched taunt of, "Crip....criiiiiiiiiip." Are they Bloods?, I wonder. I don't see any blue outfits in the immediate area, but the youths suddenly break into a run, pushing me aside to assault a small group of Crips not far behind me. One Crip, a blue sash hanging from his belt, is lifted above another boy's shoulders and slammed onto the sidewalk. He's then kicked and punched in the head repeatedly. I stand ten yards away and watch, hating myself for doing so. Several teenage girls run away, giggling, apparently enjoying the violent outburst. The fight spills into the street, stopping traffic as fists and obscenities fly. I notice that most of the fighters are smiling, and I recall that it's a release to beat someone. I felt the same thing when I was their age, although I usually cried when I fought, even when I was the victor. Before long, I tire of the fight and move on, melancholy. "Jingle Bell Rock" has ended. Now it's "Rudolph."

A block later a bumping car rolls by, marrying "White Christmas" to "SexyBack." Here's to the holiday season, friends! Ho-Ho-Hooah.

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Catherine Chalmers
"Safari" (video still)
7 min., 4 sec. video

International Center of Photography: I had not visited the ICP museum before. The space is handsome and welcoming, allowing for pleasant art viewing. Despite my indifference to much of the work included in "Ecotopia,", two artists do stand out.

Allessandra Sanguinetti - whose solo show at Yossi Milo Gallery I wrote about in October - includes six photographs in "Ecotopia," two of which I had not previously seen. Sanguinetti's imagery is evocative and her visual acuity impressive. Her colorful and visceral pictures eclipse the bleak landscapes that comprise the bulk of the exhibition. I respect (and appreciate), for example, Wang Qingsong's dramatic images of accelerating social and environmental change in China and Robert Adams' black-and-white photographs of felled tree piles, but Sanguinetti's prints give me pause. They are profound.

Catherine Chalmers
"Safari" (video still)
7 min., 4 sec. video

My esteem for Sanguinetti's photography aside, Catherine Chalmers' video, "Safari," steals the show. (View a brief sample here.) I first saw her work in Harper's Magazine several years ago. The included photographs were part of her series, "Food Chain," featuring a tomato, caterpillars, a praying mantis, and a frog. The caterpillars feed on the tomato, the praying mantis on the caterpillars, and, finally, the frog on the mantis. Many artists I know dismissed "Food Chain" as uninspired. They felt that it belonged in the pages of a natural history magazine, but didn't deserve to be featured in Harper's, much less an established NYC gallery. More curiously, some people found the work manipulative, even sadistic; Chalmers introduced the caterpillars to the mantis, and the mantis to the frog, knowing full well what the end result would be. Whatever the criticisms, I was intrigued by the series and I've since appreciated Chalmers' work featuring genetically engineered mice and her favorite subject, the American cockroach (Periplaneta americana).

"Safari," however, represents a major leap forward for the artist. Her cast of characters has expanded and the memorable moments are many. The documented scenarios and images, like those of Chalmers' still photography, are orchestrated - even the set of "Safari" is crafted and controlled by the artist - but they are no less stunning and exciting for it. A pile of red efts - the neonate stage of the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens viridescens) - rests atop bright green moss; a pair of rhinoceros beetles engage in gladiatorial combat; a praying mantis eats away the eyes of a still-living housefly (Musca domestica).(1) The film's color is saturated - startling reds, blues and greens abound - and the detail is breath-taking. Chalmers makes excellent directorial choices, too; during the beetle battle, the camera pulls in and moves low, giving viewers a sense of the creatures' power.

Upon entering the exhibition, I watched "Safari" twice through. Later, on my way out of the museum, I stopped for a third viewing. It's that good.

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Jane South
"Untitled (Tracing Parameters)"
Hand-cut and folded paper, ink acrylic, graphite and balsa wood
108 x 144 x 20 inches
(detail photo by James Wagner)

Whitney Museum at Altria: The Whitney at Altria is another arty spot I hadn't visited before. It's certainly not as warm and welcoming as the ICP museum, but I like seeing art exhibited in public places (especially when it's not run-of-the-mill public art fare: here or here, for example). The gallery section of the Altria location is typical - quiet, white cube - but three of the artists participating in "Burgeoning Geometries: Constructed Abstractions" installed work in the lobby of the building, just outside the gallery entrance. I visited the show around 1 PM; nearly twenty people sat in and around the works, eating, chatting, playing chess, or pecking at laptops.

I was most interested in works by Jane South, Tara Donovan, and Phoebe Washburn. South uses meticulously crafted paper and balsa to construct visually articulate Frank Stella sculptures. Where Stella's wall works and assemblages assault the eyes and good taste - I'm a fan of brightly colored work, but c'mon, man, don't just throw a bunch of material together - South rewards the patient viewer with subtle, uncommon composition and tried-and-true color combinations. I admire work that makes me step forward and back, diving in for an examination of craft and technique, then pulling out to admire the "big picture." "(Tracing Parameters)" had me dancing.

Tara Donovan
"Untitled (Pins)"
Size #17 straight pins
40 x 40 x 40 inches
(photo by James Wagner)

Tara Donovan's "(Pins)" is more powerful than her much celebrated "(Plastic Cups)," shown earlier this year at Pace Wildenstein. Where that sprawling sculpture was merely clever (and coyly appealing), "(Pins)" attains the realm of mystical physics. The sculpture grants viewers a sense of universal weight; the actions of the ether are glimpsed. In fact, Donovan's pins more effectively limn the intangible and the ethereal than do Rachel Whiteread's resin sculptures(2). Furthermore, whereas Whiteread's work merely delineates matter from the flip-side, Donovan also draws our attention to the forces acting in the ether: electricity and magnetism, in particular. I wonder, though, if "(Pins)" would resonate as powerfully in a collector's home as it does in the sterile gallery, a context that lends itself to contemplation of the unseen.

Phoebe Washburn
"Minor In-House Brain Storm"
Mixed media
Dimensions variable
(interior detail photo by James Wagner)

Phoebe Washburn's "Minor In-House Brain Storm" is the most exciting of her sculptural installations to date, even if it is not her strongest. Color and formal whimsy are central to most of Washburn's creations, but "Brain Storm" pays less attention to those ingredients. Where past installations, such as 2004's "Nothing's Cutie," have included elements of the unexpected (although one vantage point suggests one structure, a few more steps reveal something altogether different) and curious relationship play between top and bottom, "Minor In-House Brain Storm" is the first of Washburn's works to distinguish between an interior and exterior. Viewers are unable to see the inside of the work unless they peer through one of several portals. The interior of the scrapwood bowl houses a string of heat lamps and two dark pools, both of which support aquatic vegetation and snails (of indeterminate species).

Washburn's inclusion of plant and animal life marks an interesting turn in her development. I've admired her work for years, but this installation provided me with the first "Eureka!" reaction. Washburn's aesthetic and process lend themselves to collaboration with Nature and time. I hope that "Minor In-House Brain Storm" is a taste of what's to come.

Note: Read James Wagner's post on "Burgeoning Geometries: Constructed Abstractions" here.

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Beth Cavener Stichter
Stoneware, cat whiskers
11 x 10 x 5 inches

Garth Clark Gallery: I've visited Beth Cavener Stichter's website many times. Until this month, however, I'd had no opportunity to see her ceramic sculptures in person. The work included in "A Modest Proposal," Stichter's first solo effort here in New York, meets my expectations.

There isn't anything extraordinary or even distinguished about Stichter's subject matter; she presents us with animals cowering, lounging, squirming, fucking, scowling. Like so many young artists, myself included, Stichter freights her animal subjects with human emotion. A few years ago, her sculptures depicted zoomorphized humans, bird-headed warriors and boar women. A fan of most things fantastic and mythic, I appreciate that work, but Stichter's current sculpture is more sophisticated, both technically and conceptually, providing viewers with a more complex, nuanced read. More importantly, the work excels at evoking empathy.

Beth Cavener Stichter
"A Necessary Delusion"
7 x 12 x 7 inches

In "A Necessary Delusion," a rather tired looking male rabbit mounts a healthy female. Desperation is worn on his face and suggested in his unforgiving grip; she seems annoyed or resigned, maybe even disinterested. That's one read, at least. The male might also be in the throes of orgasm, his claws pulling at the flesh of his mate, his back sharply arched in those final, involuntary thrusts. He's doing what he must, as is she. What some call desperation others attribute to the vice grip of the biological imperative, nothing more.

But what of "Remember Me," a work featuring a young rabbit hung uncomfortably on a brass hook, perhaps forgotten, or awaiting slaughter? Hanging on the hook, the animal is abstracted from its nature, vulnerable; the form screams for protection. Contemplating it, I feel contrite, as though I am responsible for the plight of this pathetic creature.

Beth Cavener Stichter
"Remember Me"
Stoneware, antique brass hook
11 x 10 x 5 inches

Stichter's sculptures are strong because she is confident enough to tiptoe in cliche. As Wallace Stegner writes in his novel, "All The Little Live Things," "it's only the literary, hot for novelty, who fear cliche, and I am no longer of that tribe," his point being that, unfashionable though they may be, cliches are usually more evocative than so much "original" content. Stichter's menagerie is familiar because it is family. We know these animals (and their foibles) because we know ourselves. Until we stop scratching the itch, then, the honest animals (rare among the self-styled avant garde) will continue to respond to work of this ilk. I look forward to following Stichter's work.

(1) Excepting the newt/eft, I'm uncertain of the particular species featured by Chalmers. If you can identify any or all, please let me know.

(2) With the exception of Whiteread's stunning public work, "Water Tower," one of the most beautiful and optimistic public works I've seen.

Photo credits: "Safari" stills from ICP website; all "Burgeoning Geometries" images courtesy James Wagner; Stichter images ripped from the artist's website (hopefully with her blessing)

Friday, December 15, 2006

"Mad Cow" Opening at NURTUREart

Christopher Reiger
"the banks of solitude"
Watercolor, gouache, marker, and sumi ink on Arches paper
27 x 22 inches

Two of my recent paintings are included in a terrific group show that opens tonight at NURTUREart's new space in Brooklyn. Details follow.


Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

(l) Artist: Kate Clark, (r) Photo: Lily McCullough

NURTUREart Non-Profit brings its unique collaborative approach to supporting emerging artists and curators to a stunning new home in East Williamsburg’s hotbed of grassroots creative activity. MAD COW, Absurdity and Anxiety in Contemporary Culture is the inaugural exhibition at NURTUREart Gallery’s new space at 910 Grand Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. See below for directions.

Exhibition Run: December 15, 2006 – February 4, 2007
Opening Reception: Friday, December 15, 8 – 10 p.m.

Featured artists are: Kate Clark, Purdy Eaton, Valerie Lamontagne, Katherine McDowell, Justin Pollmann, Christopher Reiger, Corinna Schnitt, Deborah Simon and Jason Sleurs.

Truth being stranger than fiction, the outbreak and ensuing panic of a deadly madness epidemic spread by farm animals provides an apt theater of the absurd metaphor for our times. MAD COW, Absurdity and Anxiety in Contemporary Culture is guest-curated by Joelle Jensen, as part of the NURTUREart Emerging Curators’ Program. The artists in this exhibition, working in a variety of media, juxtapose animal and human nature to address psychological and social issues. These juxtapositions reveal contemporary fears and desires through articulation of the irrational. Each artist examines both the wild and the tame aspects of human experience, confronting the viewer with the duality that may be found in each of us.

MAD COW is a NURTUREart Emerging Curators’ Program collaboration. Learn more about the Emerging Curators’ Program at

Save The Date:
Artists Panel Discussion on Sunday, January 28, 2007 at 4 p.m.
moderated by curator Joelle Jensen

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Whiteness of the Whale

"Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?...And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
In a post entitled, "The Expanding Ethical Embrace" (March 2005), I expressed skepticism regarding Peter Joost's argument that humanity will adopt a moral code that grants other mammals, birds, reptiles, and even, eventually, bacteria, the same natural rights that we now reserve for ourselves (supposedly irrespective of race, sex, sexuality, or religion). I did not doubt the plausibility of Joost's prediction, but rather his assertion that this ethical evolution portended only happy returns. I wondered, if humans were to transcend the cruel machinations of biological determinism, wouldn't we, in effect, be killing ourselves with kindness? In Joost's neo-Eden, the human population would explode; the increased resource demands would inevitably lead to collapse (that is, if we didn't first find it in our reptilian spines to loathe "the other" as passionately as we have for time immemorial). Attractive though Joost's notion was, I remained ambivalent about the prospect.

Joost's prediction was recently called to mind when, reading Grist, an online environmental news journal, I stumbled upon a provocatively titled Gristmill thread initiated by Jason Scorse.  Many challenging questions are advanced in the dialogue generated by Scorse's "So, environmentalists support whaling?" Notable among them are:
- Is an environmentalist morally obligated to support animal rights?

- Are regulated, luxury hunts that fund conservation projects ethically or morally defensible?

- Are free enterprise and sustainable development mutually exclusive?

- Should the conservation and preservation camps be distinct from one another, promoting different agendas, or should they work together toward a compromised, common goal?
Scorse's answers to the above questions are 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Yes,' and 'Yes/No,' respectively. Yet any approximation of a complete answer to these questions requires some degree of ambiguity, and even contradiction.  Normally I find contradiction and ambivalence agreeable, because they edge closer to objective "truth" than any ideology might; in matters of environmental policy, however, the grey areas trouble me. Apparently, they trouble Scorse, too, as he jettisons nuance in favor of ideological certainty. Prompted to choose between ideology and reasonable pragmatism, I'm tempted to follow Scorse up the moral high road; the ideological path appears straight and true. But while moral certitude, the black hat/white hat conception of life and thought, is the path favored by activists and fundamentalists, I am made uncomfortable by it, particularly when it informs legislation.

Reasonable pragmatism, the preferred approach of post-Enlightenment thought, has its own problems, however. As Benjamin Franklin wrote of his vegetarian experiment(1), "so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do." Franklin's observation at once celebrates and skewers reason, revealing it to be a wholly relative enterprise. This chink in reason's armor is worrisome.

So what will it be? Are the complications and sacrifices of reasoned compromise better or more effective than ideology? Or do we have clearly defined "good guys" and "bad guys"?

Craig Nelson's recent biography of Thomas Paine serves as my subway reading these days, and I find the following observation relevant.
"Beginning with Franklin and Washington, every successful American leader would balance the pragmatic with the Utopian.  Where Franklin the master politician would be almost entirely pragmatic, Paine would be too fervidly Utopian in ways that would not just damage him financially, but imperil him physically... Paine would...always be too ardent with his religion of the lights, a Savonarola of reason and liberty, and as inept a political operator as any fervid Christian saint...The success or failure of any leader in U.S. history can be judged through his of her successes or failures at reaching the pragmatic Utopian paradox that remains at the heart of the American experiment."
Nelson's words ring true.  "The pragmatic Utopian paradox" is not uniquely American, but it is central to the American experience.  For confirmation, we need look no further than the glut of contemporary, progressive American politicians striving to develop a decidedly centrist track record, even as they contradict themselves (and their conscience) in doing so.  By contrast, it's easy to discard compromise and contradiction if you are a committed revolutionary, an individual willing to die for your cause, or a monkish loner operating in an intellectual/philosophical vacuum, as did Theodore Kaczynski.  Outside the D.C. beltway, ideologues are a dime a dozen, but exceptionally gifted ideological rhetoricians like Paine or King, Jr. make a sociopolitical impact only rarely.

Not surprisingly, many environmental activists are ideologues, Jason Scorse included.  To be fair, Scorse, a professor of environmental economics at the Monterey Institute, is not so much making a stump speech as he is asking a provocative question. From his "So, environmentalists support whaling?" post:
"I have tried to make what is essentially a straightforward case that environmentalism at its core is about respecting life and that separating this from our behavior towards individual living beings doesn't make much sense. Since many environmentalists reject this notion and insist that environmentalism only includes preserving biodiversity and promoting resource sustainability, this suggests that one of the defining elements of environmentalism no longer holds: an opposition to whaling...So are those who argue for the minimalist view of environmentalism willing to go on record in support of whaling and the killing of other advanced mammals?"
Money can do a lot in the way of protecting individual species and imperiled ecosystems.  Regulated hunting operations and animal farms, worldwide, generate substantial revenue, a healthy percentage of which is used to fund conservation measures.  For example, a buyer pays a tiger rancher (yes, they exist) an impressive sum - $40,000, say, sometimes much more - to obtain tiger parts for use in traditional Chinese medicines.  A substantial percentage of that price is then used for habitat preservation, conservation education, and tiger breeding programs.  It's a simple ethical equation; one animal's death results in improved species survival rates in the long-term (assuming that the habitat can be protected from the trespasses of our burgeoning human population). My short answer to Scorse's question, then, is 'Yes.' The more complete and complicated answer, though, leads down a rabbit hole of uncertainty.

To begin with, I find Scorse's moral framework - do unto your neighboring species as you would have done unto yourself - fundamentally agreeable. I'm troubled by the scalae naturae and other moral or physiological hierarchies. Because human life is, in my estimation, no more or less valuable than that of an earthworm (and, lest you mistake that statement for hyperbole, my inner ideologue assures you otherwise), the farming and killing of a tiger, no matter the result, is immoral. So, too, is the farming and killing for food of any animal species. In a truly enlightened world, then, we would witness a continued shift toward vegetarianism, sustainable consumption, and the extension of natural rights to other species. But the rate at which such values are adopted is of critical importance, and I feel Scorse is not at all pragmatic in his consideration of the real-world application of his moral imperative.  I fretted about this in the earlier post:
"From a strictly pragmatic perspective, morality is a denial of our existential [and by this I meant all species, not just human] sameness; like all other species, our principal drive is one of survival and propagation. Even our human urge to classify, as seen in the periodic table, clothing labels, and taxonomy, is a violent instinct, evolved to make us better able to ward off 'the other' and to flourish as hunter-gatherers, a lifestyle no longer suitable for our global, industrial species. [Therefore], it could be argued that [the] extension of human rights to all races, cultures, and creeds was but one more victory in our campaign to deny human nature.

But an inclusive, caring society, even if inconsistent, results in a population explosion and exaggerated life expectancies. Moreover, as our species’ requirements are increased, so are our demands on the environment. By embracing one another, we in fact make it more difficult for future generations to survive. When even more populations (in this case, other species) enter our moral and ethical peripheral vision, we will find ourselves facing a very interesting philosophical and pragmatic dilemma. Are we overloading of the circuitry?"
It seems clear that we would be "overloading of the circuitry," but there is a more immediate concern, one that does not bode well for Joost's expanding ethics: we have proven incompetent in our attempts to achieve parity among humans.

In the course of the Gristmill conversation, Scorse writes, "Thank goodness...humans aren't treated with the same level of abstract notions about 'sustainability' that you advocate that we subject every other living thing to."  Oh, but how we are! One need look no further than the morass of muddled litigation generated by today's vitriolic debates over abortion, civil rights, or assisted suicide to comprehend just how reluctant we are to treat fellow humans with the respect we reserve for ourselves and for our loved ones. As I wrote in March 2005, "one can barely imagine the ensuing cacophony when considering similar issues for sharks, birds, and turtles."

Ever since Homo sapiens adopted an agrarian lifestyle, we've been a top-down animal, a pyramid ladder of the very few haves and the countless have-nots.  I'm not altogether opposed to the felling of this pyramid in the name of populism and moral ideology (although, let's not kid ourselves punkers, anarchy ain't Utopia), but when similar tinkering and protest is extended to Nature, an entity of which we, as a species and complex-compound social beast, are but an insignificant part, we're not only risking collapse on a Mayan or Roman scale.  We're also gambling with the fate of the human species at large and, importantly, that of the many hundreds of thousands of species inextricably attached to us.  Those who herald the imminent expansion of our ethical embrace would do well to think on this.

The natural algebra can not evolve apace with our ethical code. Believing this to be true, I suppose I'm something of a determinist. I don't doubt that Earth's carrying capacity will increase as we adopt more sustainable lifestyles, but such a change occurs in geologic time, not generational or historic time. E.O. Wilson, the celebrated Harvard entomologist, makes a similar, if distinct case in his landmark book, On Human Nature.
"Can the cultural evolution of higher ethical values gain a direction and momentum of its own and completely replace genetic evolution? I think not. The genes hold culture on a leash. The leash is very long, but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool. The brain is a product of evolution. Human behavior - like the deepest capacities for emotional response which drive and guide it - is the circuitous technique by which human genetic material has been and will be kept intact. Morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function."
I'm inclined to a point. But what hand really holds the leash? Wilson assigns control to genes, our evolutionary chaperones. Genetics is indeed powerful, but the brain is as much a product of cultural evolution as it is physiological evolution. Therefore, I believe nurture can outpace nature at the societal level. In other words, genes have less control over moral and ethical evolution than Wilson would have us accept. In fact, it is the "eco," the greater whole - the Everything and the No-thing, from which we are inseparable - that grasps the leash. I trend toward the mystical here, but the skeptical scientists in the room can call this leashing by holistic natural law (as opposed to Wilson's evolutionary imperative).

Despite my attraction to the moralistic, and my belief that our ethical purview will inevitably expand, I must conclude that is necessary to distinguish between long-term aspiration and present policy. The American Civil Rights Movement may be portrayed as a historical artifact in high school text books, but racial prejudice and bigotry are no more history than is the Cold War. Our aims are ahead of our practice, and we should take care not to neglect incomplete cultural "mutations." Today being the anniversary of his death, take another listen to John Lennon's "Imagine." The words and images of artists are vital. Without them, our shared cultural imagination (or our memes) would be starved, but we shouldn't ride the moral high horse if it means we won't reach our destination. This is the critical distinction between morality and ethics.

Progress - if loosely defined as our stumbling effort toward the betterment of humanity and the world we belong to - is best served by pragmatic rationalism and a conservative code of ethics. As my father stressed to me from a young age, good economics - literally translated, "management of the household" - begins with good ecology - "study of the household." A promising future awaits humanity if we are imaginative enough to forge our ethics from the moral, the aesthetic, the ecological, and the pragmatic.

Turning to Bill Cronon's writing, as I so often do, and did when considering these ideas before:
"The choice we face is not to leave no marks – that is impossible – but rather to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave."
So to Jason Scorse, and all ideologues: my heart is with you, but things simply aren't so clear as might like them to be.

Image credits: Ahab illustration by Sam Weber; ethics diagrams from Peter Joost's March 2005 New York Historical Society lecture; timeline diagram by Hungry Hyaena

(1) Franklin abandoned the diet eventually, as the smell of cooked seafoods, particularly fish, proved too much for his dietary resolve. No problem, though, as he was able to use reason to account for why fish were a viable exception!