Thursday, February 28, 2008

Commonplace books

"Cobbled together by literate peoples, commonplace books served as repositories for whatever someone thought fit to record: medical recipes, jokes, verse, prayers, mathematical tables, aphorisms, and especially passages from letters, poems, or books. Ben Johnson kept one; so did John Milton, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, one might think that most writers would have fashioned such handy compendia, yet Shakespeare's has never been found."

-Artur Krystal, "Too True," Harper's Magazine, February 2008

Small wonder blogging suits me.

For years I diligently updated my commonplace books, carefully taping into place images and passages clipped from magazine articles or transcribing those found in books.

Blogs might be considered the contemporary equivalent to the commonplace book, but where the books are tools of edification, blogs are essentially ego-driven affairs. Still, since I started posting to HH, my commonplace books have been neglected. Maybe I'm just an egotist.

Friday, February 22, 2008

"His knowledge is fragmentary, his righteousness is illusory, his motives are tainted, but, aware of the precariousness of human striving, he must strive nevertheless."
-Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Remind anyone of the studio? Hmmmm?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sean McCarthy at Fredericks & Freiser

Sean McCarthy
Ink and graphite on paper
8 1/2 x 7 inches

Fredericks & Freiser: Sean McCarthy is quoted at length in the press release for his current solo show, "I Think of Demons." He states,
" a participant in the contemporary art world, I hear a whole lot of approving discussion of 'conceptualization' but scant mention of 'imagination.' I can't think of any attempt to develop a morphology of demons, or to unpack their individual meaning with any specificity. So I like the idea of presenting demons in a portrait format, giving them the same kind of individual attention one might give to human subjects."

Offhand, I can think of one popular attempt to "develop a morphology of demons," but the fiends included in the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual are not limited to demons we know on a first-name basis, nor are they proper portraits. McCarthy's desire to represent his demonic roll call in a traditional format is a good way.

Sean McCarthy
Ink and graphite on paper
8 1/2 x 7 inches

McCarthy's craft is impeccable - what's with all the young artists from Texas drawing so well? - and, for the "Demons" project, he opts for a light, airy handling. This immateriality is appropriate - demons are manifestations of the unconscious, after all - but, in a few cases, the choice renders the demon impotent. Yet the same ethereal treatment animates the strongest portraits, "Amon," "Andrealphus," "Flehman Response," and "Uvall" among them.

McCarthy's successes make the whole affair worthwhile, and I look forward to seeing what his remarkable ability and Boschian sensibility next produce.

Photo credits: Sean McCarthy images courtesy Fredericks & Freiser, New York

Friday, February 15, 2008

Christy Rupp at Frederieke Taylor

Christy Rupp
"Carolina Parakeet, last seen in the wild, 1913"
Mixed media and fast food poultry bones
6 x 6 x 6 inches

Frederieke Taylor: Sometimes I appreciate a solo exhibition not because it succeeds wholly, but because the artist's intent is admirable. Christy Rupp's current outing at Frederieke Taylor, "Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans (From the Brink of Extinction to the Supermarket)," is one such case.

The sculptures that comprise the exhibition's centerpiece and provide the title - skeletons of extinct bird species, including a dodo, moa and great auk, fabricated primarily from fast food chicken bones - are gimmicky in their one-liner cleverness. The life-size reconstructions are striking enough, and certainly well-crafted, but devoid of nuance. They are incisive totems to extinction and would make for vivid additions to a natural history display chronicling our species' impact on other animals, but edification, in an art gallery, is a weakness; lacking ambiguity, the sculptures are merely "neat" here.

Christy Rupp
"Zero Balance - Frog made from credit cards"
Mixed media and cut credit cards
10 x 10 x 3 inches

Although so much contemporary art is didactic in effect, few viewers have the stomach for second-hand instruction. We look at art principally to feel and discover, not to reconfirm or debate. Yet I can not reject Rupp's exhibition, which also includes an uneven series of collages and five wall-mounted, mixed media sculptures.

Rupp is engaged with activism, and has been for almost forty years. Even her statement is coded for our sloganeered age: "putting the stain back in sustainability since the 1970s." She aims to "make people confront their anxiety and create dialogue," and this is a worthy goal. The works may not resonate individually, but Rupp's engagament with this important subject matter is appreciable, and I would be pleased to see her sculptures and collages pictured in Orion or Harper's, alongside relevant essays.

The question remains, though: how does an artist of Rupp's ilk address the gallery context? I'm afraid there is no easy answer. Her work may be best delivered (and absorbed) in conjunction with the ideas that compel her; I see nothing wrong with that approach. I do wish, however, that there were more outlets for such alliance.

Christy Rupp
"Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Arkansas, believed extinct but in dispute"
Mixed media and fast food poultry bones
14 x 8 x 11 inches

Photo credit: images ripped from Rupp's website

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

On the Internets

Occasionally, a friend or family member will express consternation about my blogging. "But everything you write is archived and publicly available. Doesn't that frighten you?" Sure, I've written some things on HH that are embarrassing three years later, but only because of their relatively poor quality, and most of what I contribute to other, more legitimate publications is archived online, too. Such is the Internet.

And the good generally outweighs the bad.

For example, in July of 2005 I asked readers if they could identify a species of mushroom and a species of parasite I photographed while visiting friends on Long Island. Yesterday, in February of 2008, I was emailed the positive IDs...and the post is at last complete.

Moreover, I Googled the name of the fellow who contacted me with those two IDs and turned up the fascinating insect pictured above, a species of lantern fly (Pterodictya reticularis). I'd never heard of lantern flies, and the description of this insect is as curious as the photograph. Check it out here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bjorn Schulke at bitforms

Bjorn Schulke
"Luftgitarre #3"
Fiberglass, aluminum, wood, circuits, automotive paint, solar cells, motors, sensors
Approx. 50 x 35 x 12 inches

A friend recently observed that bitforms, a gallery dedicated to exhibiting work produced at the confluence of art and technology, doesn't get much critical due. In an art world preoccupied with "new media," such a venue should act as a critical lightning rod, but the "new media" most curators and editors have in mind is limited to unpolished video and digitally manipulated photography.

Somewhat cynically, I believe bitforms is overlooked because the art world remains leery of competent craft; the engineer-artist hybrids that bitforms promotes are nothing if not master craftsmen. Bjorn Schulke's current show of "absurd machines" is an excellent case in point.

The five machine-sculptures included in "uberschall" - the title translates as "supersonic" - all incorporate sound and react to the proximity and movement of the viewer. The three satellite-like works suspended from the gallery ceiling are elegant descendants of Alexander Calder's mobiles. Each references a different instrument: a banjo, violin and contrabass. Schulke smartly dubs the satellites Luftgitarres ("air guitars"). Motion detectors, photo-voltaic panels, propellers and antennae extend from each satellite-instrument's core and, depending on the viewer's location and distance, a mechanized rod occasionally plucks a steel wire on the face. The single, sounded note reverberates in the small gallery and, because the note is produced by so refined and esoteric an object, the tone seems downright otherworldly. The Luftgitarres' easy movement heightens this effect; when the silent propellers crank into gear, the satellite-instruments slowly rotate, each as lovely as it is disconcerting.

Bjorn Schulke
"Aerophon #2"
Fiberglass, aluminum, plywood, plastic, steel, wire, paint
63 x 47 x 39 inches

Schulke includes two other machine-sculptures: "Supersonic," a wall-mounted fish-zeppelin that emits an impressive range of low-frequency sounds, and "Aerophone #2," a telescope-bagpipe. These contrivances are even more mysterious than the Luftgitarres, rivaling Jean Tingueley's eccentric creations. "Supersonic" is particularly cryptic. It does not move - though, like the other works, it responds to the movement and proximity of the viewer - but rests on wheels, suggestively. The sounds it produces, a cross between whale song and digital chatter, mirror its form. (It can be seen and listened to on the artist's website. Click here.)

Admiring Schulke's pointless inventions, I think of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's 1977 Voyager 1 disc (or golden record). As I wrote previously, I believe that disc to be "the culmination of modern art," "a gesture of hopeful optimism and naive hubris." Schulke's machine-sculptures can not equal that achievement in profoundity, nor are they intended to, but they are complementary...and remarkably beautiful works of art.

Bjorn Schulke
"Luftgitarre #1" (front/back details)
Fiberglass, aluminum, wood, circuits, automotive paint, solar cells, motors, sensors
Approx. 66 x 62 x 30 inches

Photo credits: Schulke images ripped from bitforms website

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Thank you, Matthew Ronay.

Matthew Ronay
Walnut, clear pine, plastic, sawdust, cotton, steel, string and paint
40 x 56 x 48 inches

Some of the works included in the New Museum's survey of contemporary sculptural assemblage, "Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century," are strong - Isa Genzken's "Elephant" and Rachel Harrison's "Huffy Howler" come to mind - but viewers familiar with the tide of twentieth century art will recognize "Unmonumental" for what it is: Dada gone sour. These sculptures wink at, but also shrug off viewers.

Whereas Marcel Duchamp's "The Large Glass," an enigmatic celebration of complexity and absurdity, could be decoded and speculated on, the sculptures in "Unmonumental" are unenthusiastic Frankensteins. The materials that these contemporary artists use - plastic tubing, mylar, artificial flowers, designer hand bags, publicity photos - are emblems of an unhinged material culture; the sculptures, like their components, are confused or, as Jerry Saltz put it, "schizophrenic."

Isa Genzken
Mixed media assemblage

More distressingly, even as they work their aesthetic alchemy, turning consumer castoffs into certified high art, Genzken and Harrison (and their New Museum counterparts) wag a finger at Utopian dreaming. If "Unmonumental" has a unified message, it is that we, like our art, are only the insignificant sum of our belongings. "The Large Glass," by contrast, is a plea for the priority of curiosity and striving.

Matthew Ronay
's second solo exhibition with Andrea Rosen is a happy answer to "Unmonumental." The press release states that the sculptor's work "stresses the primacy of the handmade object." Indeed, Ronay has used mostly traditional materials to evoke complex, abstract associations that, though borne of contemporary concerns, would have resonated a century ago.

His sculptures reflect our globalized, consumer culture, but also allude to universal narratives and symbols, providing a context for our shared schizophrenia and a welcome touch of sentimentality. Above all, they are humane works, grounded in essential (and existential) optimism.

Matthew Ronay
"Mist Haze Fog Mist"
Steel, walnut, clear pine, birch, canvas, string and paint
43 1/2 x 73 x 48 inches

Photo credit: images ripped from Andrea Rosen website

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Beholder: Version 2.0

I joined the stable of The Beholder, a San Francisco based gallery "devoted to showing and promoting emerging and mid-career contemporary artists," in 2006. The director's mission "is to use the reach of the Internet to attract a wider audience for artists, and to encourage new collectors to become involved with owning and enjoying original art."

There is strong, inexpensive work available on the site; I encourage young collectors to take a peek. Now is a good time, as the website was just updated.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Party Faithful

"If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."
-Thomas Jefferson
A registered independent, I can't vote in New York State's closed primary today.

What sort of sense does this make in a democracy?