Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Trip West


Growing downtown Seattle, Washington (with American crow)

The first thing I noticed about Seattle was the crows. The region has not yet been ravaged by West Nile virus, and the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) population remains robust. The birds flapped heavily over Interstate 5 as Michael, Jocelyn and I headed north from Sea-Tac Airport. A lover of all things Corvidae, I interpreted the birds' greeting as a good omen.

Approaching Seattle on Interstate 5

The red gods also granted me exceptional weather. The morning that I arrived in Washington, the low ceiling characteristic of Seattle's seven-month wet season dissipated. Even Mount Ranier, 54 miles southeast of the city, was visible from downtown. Clear skies, sunshine and mild temperatures are not uncommon during the summer months, but they are rare in early April, and the balmy conditions were the subject of much happy conversation among Seattlites.

View of downtown Seattle and Mt. Ranier

Another oft-raised topic was the supposedly passive-aggressive disposition of the Emerald City's residents. I don't doubt that it exists - few stereotypes are baseless - but either I happened upon a rare breed of Seattlite or the rumors of poor behavior are greatly exaggerated.

In fact, I found very little about Seattle unfavorable. The only notable drawback is a relative one; Metro Transit, Seattle's public transportation network, leaves much to be desired. (I've been spoiled by New York's first-rate transit options.) Seattle's bus routes are comprehensive enough, so the principal grievance regarding Metro Transit service is one of infrequency. Bus stops are visited at 30-minute intervals, on average, and a missed bus can mean a missed appointment. On the other hand, it's hard not to love the city's proposed streetcar system, especially since the completed, functioning section is called the South Lake Union Trolley, or S.L.U.T.. ("Ride the SLUT" t-shirts are a popular novelty item.)

S.L.U.T. line in foreground, with (little used) Seattle monorail behind

Generally, Seattle strikes me as a terrific place to live, and it now ranks at the top of my post-NYC shortlist. Not surprisingly, the viability of the local art community is an important criterion for any city on that ballot. Though I've heard some negative things Seattle's art scene - it isn't New York or Los Angeles, after all - I was generally impressed by what I saw. Gallery hopping during the First Thursday Art Walk, I visited several decent shows but, more importantly, observed ample (and good-natured) enthusiasm, a variety of work and a number of familiar names. The galleries that Michael, Jocelyn and I visited were all within easy walking distance of one another, and several were housed in Seattle's more interesting (because older) buildings, located in Pioneer Square. (The dominant architectural modes in the neighborhood are Victorian and Romanesque Revival, a result of the latter's popularity in the late 19th-century; the city was rebuilt following 1889's Great Seattle Fire.)

Pioneer Square, Seattle

The city itself, like the Sea-Tac Airport, suffers no shortage of public art. I saw more such work during my three days in Seattle proper than I've noticed in almost a decade of NYC living. Mind you, I'm not usually excited by public sculpture. Most of it is insipid, but the "right" setting allows some works to thrive. It was a treat to see Richard Serra's "Wake" at the Olympic Sculpture Park, with the Space Needle rising to the east, Mount Ranier to the south, and Puget Sound behind me, to the west. (By contrast, Claes Oldenburg's "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X" looked as ridiculous in this context as his works do anywhere else.)

Serra's "Wake," at the Olympic Sculpture Park

(An art blogging aside: I finally met artist Amy Ross, after having corresponded with her for months and having a 3-person show, "Animus Botanica" - Amy, Boyce Cummings and myself - slated for this coming September, at Denise Bibro Gallery. She was participating in a 2-person show, "Animal Spell," with Justin Gibbens, at Punch Gallery. I'm happy to report that her collages and paintings looked fantastic.)

Photo credits: Seattle crow, PDX503; Interstate 5, Hungry Hyaena; Skyline with Ranier, Bill Rose; S.L.U.T., Brian Bundridge; Pioneer Square, Vincos; "Wake," Cascadeguy

(More pictures of my trip can be found here. Also, although none of the photographer's work was included in this post, Seattle Daily Photo is an excellent resource for terrific photos of the city. Finally, a thank you to the photographers who I've ripped from for this post. More posts about the trip will follow.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Two Percent

I don't usually spotlight other sites on HH, but "The Two Percent," an online gallery guide shortlist, is intriguing.

In combination with a more comprehensive art listing service - my personal favorite is ArtCal - "The Two Percent" could be of use to those of us already familiar with the Chelsea crawl, and it will certainly be helpful to uninitiated gallery goers.

Check out the YouTube clip on the homepage for an explanation of the site.

Ashley Bickerton at Lehmann Maupin

Ashley Bickerton
"Hula Girl: One Eye"
Oil and digital print on canvas in carved wood, coconut, mother of pearl and coin inlaid artist frame
80 x 72 x 2 inches

Writers of gallery press releases are in the business of pitching product. Scratch the veneer of profundity, and you'll reveal an investment prospectus. That's no secret, and there's no shame in the game. But, more often than not, a press release is padded with pretentious nonsense. Does so much patronizing bullshit actually help sell the artwork? It seems to me that, because a cigar is, as Freud infamously (and supposedly) put it, just a cigar, some exhibitions would be well-served by good-humored candor. (*)

Lehmann Maupin's release for Ashley Bickerton's show of recent, large-scale paintings describes the artist's work as a critical examination of "the art object as commodity." Further, it insists that Bickerton's pictures present a "dystopic, end-times vision." In fact, the works are less critique than wry celebration of art as commodity and, if Bickerton paints the end-times, the hedonist in each of us has a lot to look forward to.

His paintings, a sometimes awkward marriage of acrylic or oil paint to digital print, are boldly colored and unabashedly kitschy. In them, scantily clad or naked (except for lei garlands) women strike seductive poses and cavort with a big-toothed blue man, the artist's surrogate, at tropical bars and on beaches. Each work is set into a unique, inlaid and painted wood frame. The effect is theatrical, and, in its way, very successful.

Ashley Bickerton
"Blue Bar"
Acrylic and digital print on canvas in carved wood, coconut, mother of pearl and coin inlaid artist frame
72 x 86 x 2 inches

The work's equatorial revelry and acidic color elicit obvious comparisons to the paintings of Paul Gauguin. Both artists elected to flee the art world mainstream: Gauguin from Paris to Tahiti in 1891; Bickerton from New York to Bali in 1993. The Maupin release states that where Gauguin "was searching for something intangible in the human spirit," Bickerton depicts a "fin-de-siecle malady." This distinction is incomplete. Gauguin chose his primitive reverie over the pressures of western cosmopolitanism, to be sure, but he also left behind a wife, children and myriad financial obligations, sailing for a place where he could less often be told that he was wrong. The "something intangible" Gauguin sought may be less romantic than we art lovers would like to have it; he was an irresponsible escapist in search of a warm place to stroke his ego.

Bickerton, the child of peripatetic parents, is a creature distinct from Gauguin. Before moving to California and then New York, he called many different countries home. His move to Bali, therefore, seems less an episode of irresponsible flight than, well, more of the same. Furthermore, while Gauguin is known to have railed against colonial doings, Bickerton's work is a veritable carnival of the colonial. The blue men in his paintings are meant to be his stand-in, but they are also expatriate wanderers or run-of-the-mill tourists, in either case individuals arriving in paradise on the coattails of colonialism. One senses some disapproval on Bickerton's part, but these new works also suggests that colonialism is, like the paintings themselves, so bad that it's sometimes good. So why not throw a jamboree?

Since at least the mid-1990s, Bickerton has reveled in his role as an art world shock jock and, in much the same way that I kinda love Howard Stern, I kinda love Ashley Bickerton. But these great, ugly-ass paintings are not, as the press release claims, critical examinations that address the artist's "concerns as a painter." I think Bickerton is just taking a piss. At least, I hope so. He isn't bemoaning excess and escapism ("existential wreckage," in the release); he is laughing at it, and with it.

(*) Of course, artists are at fault, too. Most of us need to take ourselves a little less seriously. If you find this difficult, a quick refresher course in the history of art, and the artist's - gasp! - artisanal role in it, will help. If that's not enough, check out astrophysics. Whew.

Ashley Bickerton
"The Preparation with Green Sky"
Oil and digital print on canvas in carved wood, coconut, mother of pearl and coin inlaid artist frame
72 x 86 x 2 inches

Photo credits: Because I'm rushed, images were ripped from various sites: "Hula Girl," artnet.com; "Blue Bar," Painter NYC; "The Preparation...," j-No's Flickr photostream

Thursday, April 17, 2008



I haven't written much of anything since returning to NYC. I'm still playing catch up. Leave your home for almost two weeks and the modern world wags a scolding finger, making monkish solitude and gainful unemployment look that much more attractive.

Posts are in the works, however. Regular readers can expect at least two essays on my recent trip west (and, yes, more pictures), as well as several arty posts. I saw a few good shows before I flew to Seattle, and I feel compelled to comment on some of them, if only briefly.

In the studio, I'm experimenting with handmade papers produced at Dieu Donne Papermill. I was nominated by artist A.J. Bocchino, a former resident at the mill's studio, to be included in the second installment of "Opportunity As Community." I hope to successfully incorporate weaving and sewing into my "O.A.C." project, as well as drawing in a variety of media, including ink, watercolor and conte.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

And back again.

Ruby Beach at sunset; Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Despite American Airlines' recent woes, I returned only four hours late (to the wrong airport, but I can't be too picky) from my trip to Seattle, Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and San Francisco.

Hoh Rainforest; Olympic Peninsula, Washington

It was a fantastic ten days, and the time spent there renewed my deep affection for the landscape, flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest. In the coming week (or, unfortunately, weeks), expect further rambling about the trip, as well as more photographs. (Or, if you want pictures now, you can check out the Flickr photo set here.)

Generally, though, posting will continue to be sporadic; more group shows cropped up while I was traveling...and that means even more work must be made. It's a good kinda pressure.

Point Reyes; Marin County, California

I hope that all the regular readers have been well, and a heartfelt thanks to those of you that treated me so right on the left coast, especially those of you with floors and beds for me. The trip wouldn't have been possible without you.

Photo credit: all pictures, Hungry Hyaena, 2008