Whose Velvet Rope?


Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Vadim Skyvood, Digital Print



Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Joe Lee, Archival pigment print, matte

I was recently invited to a friend’s art opening, the SVA MPS Graduate Fashion Photography Exhibition for the class of 2015. It is being held at Milk Gallery from January 21st through the end of the month and Jimmy Moffat (the department co-chair) has curated the photographs of select graduate students. Pulling from the cream of the crop of a highly competitive fine arts program, it is a truly impressive collection of fashion photographs. The graduates play off of familiar tropes of the grotesque juxtaposed with the beautiful; bright, primary colors; a uniting of the human element with objects, breaking down the boundary between the born and the man-made, the living and the inanimate; and engaging in the familiar object worship that is a large part of the fashion industry. But, don’t let that last sentence lead you to believe that I found the works hollow or cliché. On the contrary, I enjoyed the show and saw a surprising amount of art historical reference throughout the works. Many photographs reminded me of big names in both fashion and fine art photography’s history: Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Nan Goldin to name a few. Beyond that, the use of color and unexpected objects reminded me of Pop Art, Street Art, and the brightly colored minimalism of Ellsworth Kelly, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Rothko. The history of art has not failed to affect modern day photography, a statement that should sound obvious since SVA is the School of Visual Arts and teaches fine art mediums alongside and separate from photography. However, what I couldn’t help thinking of, and the reason why I made such an obvious statement, is that many people do not consider fashion photography to be art and most museums and galleries neither show nor collect fashion photography per se, unless it is specifically related to a fashion exhibition or the artist has created “fine art” photography alongside his/her fashion spreads (and is really famous in his/her own right). At times it almost feels like the art world authorities (museum professionals, gallerists, specialists, and so-called connoisseurs [a questionable title for another time and another entry]) are shunning fashion photography and deny it entrance into the sacred halls of the art historical canon. A very vague but apparent line is drawn and denies access of the commercial, capitalist driven fashion world; a velvet rope, if you will, that separates fine art from fashion.

Why is this? As I already said, all of the photographs that I saw on display were gorgeous and created by talented individuals. They reference the history of high fashion photography as well as art history and its relevant movements. The exhibition was well curated, in a large, professionally lit space, very much the white-cube aesthetic of modern-day art galleries. Each photographer’s work was distinct and showed both the common ties between the selections (fashion, objects, models, etc.) and the vast range of differences (focus, color, medium, angle, lighting, etc.). Movement within the space, a common concern of mine, flowed with ease despite the packed house. It looked like a gallery opening, felt like a gallery opening, had wine like a gallery opening, but it drew a very different crowd than the typical Thursday gallery night in Chelsea (where most of NYC’s contemporary art galleries are located…also, fun fact, they almost always have openings on Thursday nights with the inevitable cheap wine).


Exhibition photograph, taken by author

So, I ask again, why was this a fashion photography show and not a fine art photography show, or simply a photography show? It would be easy enough to mount the cultural high horse of museums and art historians (not all, but many – think the stereotypical snooty gallery girl who makes you feel stupid for even looking at a piece of modern art) and say that fashion photography is not on the same cultural level as fine art photography. It is commissioned, it is made to sell, it focuses on things instead of ideas. It even reifies the models that are the passive, sexualized subjects (or should I say objects since the subject is often the fashion?) of most magazine spreads. Their often blank eyes and uniformity of body type, alongside their use as tools to sell clothing, accessories, shoes, etc. make them into objects more so than people. It also must be said that many fashion spreads work off of technical and stylistic clichés, leading to their tendency to look the same.


Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Patrick Rafanan, C-Print mounted on Sintra

Fashion photography, one might say, furthers the capitalistic process of reification that makes people into consumers and breeds want. Fine art photography, on the other hand, is supposed to elevate humanity; show the beauty in the everyday and in the grotesque, capture a moment in nature or our busy lives that reveals something deeper, something amorphous and intangible. But who’s to say that a talented and well thought out fashion photograph cannot do the same? Who lowers it to vulgar marketing and removes the art historical discourse that is apparent in so many photographs created by such great photographers as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz? Further, fine art is just as driven by capitalism, commissions, and objects as fashion photography. Go to any auction or gallery and you will see collectors drop ridiculous sums of money on paintings, sculptures, drawings, etc. Museums may appear to be hallowed cultural institutions that conserve and oversee the great masterpieces in their collections and further the public’s education, but work in any museum office and you will quickly realize it is just as driven by money as any other corporation.

So, you could say (and maybe I am) that this velvet rope is meant to make the fine art world appear rarified. By denying fashion’s merging with fine art (only allowing it to attach itself – separate by equal? – and be included in museums – like the annual Met Gala – but not actually termed “fine art”), art institutions perpetuate their culturally and thus morally superior reputation. By allowing something so clearly driven by consumerism to be part of art’s “us” category, they would be revealing their own very real link to consumerism and capitalism that cultural institutions try so hard to hide behind their pristine façades.

Interestingly enough, it took years for photography as a medium to be considered fine art. For about the first hundred or so years of photography’s invention and innovation, it was used scientifically and as entertainment. It became a favored medium of observation in science (with the scientist’s eternal hope of being objective), it was used for portraits, picture-books, travel images, in fairs and traveling shows….basically as either the height of scientific objectivity or the consummate spectacle of spectatorship in the industrial era. It wasn’t really until the mid-twentieth century that pictures by photographers like Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, etc. were fought for and finally accepted as a fine art form. The conservative argument was that photography required no actual skill (obviously untrue); there was a widely held belief that you could just point and shoot (perpetuated today with instagram “photographers” and filters, #nofilter, right?). The talent to produce a truly well organized, lit, and developed picture that was also interesting and carried depth was not recognized for a long time. Then, once it was, color photographs were considered vulgar and only black and white pictures were “art.” The point I am trying to make is that the definition of what is and is not art is relative, changeable, and must adapt to ever-evolving technology and taste. Fashion photography is on that interesting cusp and the inclusion of fashion photographers like Ed Steichen, Richard Avedon, and Annie Leibovitz into museum collections shows that it is coming closer to joining the ranks of canonical fine art. This, in my opinion, is all to the good since I saw some interesting works at this exhibition and witnessed a group with creativity and drive to not only produce beautiful pictures of people and things, but also objects that reflect the humanity of those creating them as well as those viewing them and maybe even those consuming what they are commissioned to sell.


Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Chen Wen Lin, When Time Passes, Aluminum UV print, 23.6 x 23.6 in.


Exhibition photograph, taken by author: Various works by Michael Ray Ortiz, Archival inkjet print


Exhibition photograph, courtesy of author: Various works by Jae Eun Seok, Archival pigment print, matte


Exhibition photograph, courtesy of author: Vijchika Udomsrianan, Seymour, 2015, Archival pigment prints, matte, 28 x 20 in.


SVA MPS Graduate Fashion Photography Exhibition: Class of 2015

Wednesday January 20th – Sunday January 31st, 2016


Milk Gallery

450 W 15th Street

New York, NY 10011


Graffiti on My Mind, Part 1


Reykjavik, Iceland, 2015, image taken by author

When I think of graffiti a lot of different things come to mind. As a New Yorker, I think of the gratuitous tagging that lines the subway tunnels and concrete walls of the less affluent neighborhoods. I also think of 5Pointz, a towering graffiti covered building in Long Island City that, about a year ago, was torn down to make way for luxury high rises (talk about gentrification). Then, I think of the LES, where I have been working for the past two months, and the surprises of transient and colorful art that are emblazoned across façades and hidden around corners. Banksy, a famous and as-of-yet unidentified artist/vandal (although his notoriety and the recent art market sales of his work, not to mention the measures taken in certain neighborhoods like Shoreditch in London to protect his work, definitively push him over to artist) is another addition as is his film “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

I have a personal fascination with graffiti-art, though, an interest that causes me to stop and take pictures of the pictures painted on walls. This past year, having been lucky enough to travel across Europe for several weeks during and after my MA program in London, I was able to witness graffiti across countries and was impressed to see the difference in the unasked for public art to be found on the walls of many cities. Despite language barriers, tourist traps, and globalization, each city and each country had it’s own unique graffiti and the visual nature of it all made it understandable and enjoyable to me, the (relatively) ignorant American tourist happily eating my way through cities, taking pictures and enjoying a rest from my responsibilities. New York City’s graffiti will probably always be my favorite. The range, the history, the hidden locations and the ever-changing nature of it due to the constant repainting of building façades and inevitable repainting of more graffiti. London also had a very impressive graffiti scene, particularly in Shoreditch. The murals are more in depth, figurative, perhaps innately artistic, but for me it lost its subversive character because it has become an accepted part of the neighborhood. The walls are repainted often, for sure, but the few remaining Banksy pieces are covered in Plexiglass for protection and it has become part of the tourist network.

Out of the other cities I visited, Berlin, Paris, Venice, and Florence all had excellent graffiti, often hidden and reflective of the history and culture of those particular areas. Berlin’s graffiti centered around the city itself, its rebuilding after the wars, and did not shy away from the wall which itself is covered in a history of graffiti, archaeological in its stratigraphy.

Paris’ graffiti was experimental and suggestive.


Miss.Tic, Paris, France, 2015, image taken by author

Venice was filled with angels and satirical caricatures of tourists, referencing both the history of Catholicism in Italy as well as the obvious and sad fact that Venice is now more a playground for tourists and honeymooners than actual Venetians.

Florence was weird and artistic, with the same artists producing series across the city with the same characters slightly altered. Fitting for a historically artistic city that houses the Uffizi, one of the greatest fine art collections in Italy, if not the world.

As an art historian, though, graffiti does not interest me on a purely aesthetic level but also on a philosophical level. It has a fascinating history in the art world where it was elevated from vandalism to an art form around the 1980s. Artists like Keith Haring, Jean Michel Basquiat, and Martin Wong among many others were embraced for the art that they created and displayed for all to see as posters and graffiti, on the streets and in the subway, and museum worthy paintings that referenced graffiti and its particular, unstudied style. Graffiti became popular and cool and it remains so to this day. Clothing, accessories, restaurants, and bars center themselves around its aesthetic and collectors buy graffiti inspired paintings and prints, even pieces of graffitied walls, to add to their collections. I, however, am drawn to it in large part due to its inherent transience. Graffiti is not commissioned, it is not asked for, it is (in many cities) illegal, and its practitioners are not (traditionally) trained artists. The canvas that graffiti artists work on, the sides of buildings, walls, sidewalks, etc. are all urban spaces that are visually public but privately owned. The owners can (and often do) choose to paint over the art, sell their buildings, or tear them down to rebuild. The artwork created is not meant to be kept, conserved, and curated but is instead a visual shout, heard by the few who choose to stop and look, conserved by those who decide to take a picture, and curated by social media (instagram, facebook, twitter, pinterest, etc.). The same streets that I walk down every day are forever changing and this reflects the ever-changing nature of the city and its people. All cities change from day to day; the people living, working, visiting, and spending money change every day and every year. A city is a belief and an idea and it is perpetuated by the people who choose to believe in it. Thusly, a city itself is changeable and transient.

New York…I fell in love with it for it’s changeability and it is no longer the city that I moved to three years ago. It changes and it grows, not always for the better in the eyes of its people, but most definitely with inevitably. This is also the very reason that New York makes me sad: prices go up, the rent is too damn high, favorite restaurants and bars close, neighborhoods gentrify and grow, and right now it is really really cold. I mourned the loss of 5Pointz and every time a beautiful or interesting piece of graffiti is painted over it pains me because I was trained to work in a museum atmosphere. There, nothing changes and everything is conserved. But, graffiti art, like the city it lives in, must change in order to continue to thrive. The canvas is constantly whited out in order to be covered by more thoughts, more visual shouts, more beliefs, and conservation is nothing more than stagnation. Posters are plastered across the paintings and other people tag or otherwise mar the surface of graffitied images. That is one of the many reasons that I am interested in graffiti art, it does not mourn the loss and transience, but instead revels in it. It accepts the nature of the city that is its inspiration, its sounding board, its canvas and moves forward, fluid and malleable as we all must be.


Borondo, Naples, Italy, 2015, image taken by author


New York, 2013, image taken by author

Jim Shaw: The End is Here. A Last Minute Review.


I would like to start this review by stating that I have never seen a show at the New Museum that I really loved, although there have been a few that I liked (this being one). This is not to say that the New Museum doesn’t show great artists (because they do) or that they employ subpar curators (which they don’t). To be honest, I believe that I do not like the shows at the New Museum because of the space. The building, a towering concrete mass in the LES, is not well designed for museum exhibitions. This is an issue that happens with a lot of museums, especially when they are designed by well-known architects who are less interested in making a building for a purpose than a monument to their fame. The Guggenheim is a good example of this and is really only well suited to site-specific shows like the 2013 James Turrell exhibition. The New Museum is not terribly designed, for example it has no windows on all exhibition floors except the ground floor. Any person who has worked in a museum will tell you that windows are a terrible pain since most works (photographs, drawings, paintings, etc) are light sensitive and so any floor with windows either needs to be specially fitted to cover the light source or be specifically curated to fit a narrow array of art mediums. The exhibition rooms, too, have lovely tall ceilings that can be used to display very tall works (like the fourth floor of the Shaw show) or to suspend works from the ceiling (like many of E.V. Day’s sculptures). However, despite these positive factors, every time I see a large exhibition that takes up several floors at the New Museum I never experience a good flow. Instead, each floor feels like a separate exhibition linked by a tenuous thread. To travel between them one must either get back in the elevator or take the stairwell, which feels hidden, functional, and not really part of the museum. Every time I leave one floor and descend to the next I feel like I have left the exhibition and must re-enter it and there are no measures taken against this. In fact, this feeling is often magnified by the exhibitions on each floor being quite different. With Jim Shaw, this is both a positive and a negative. On the one hand, it demonstrates the range of his oeuvre and skill as an artist, on the other, it makes the show appear disjointed and, to be frank, too long.

I should, however, move on to the show and away from my snobbery concerning the museum (which has a fascinating history that is well worth looking into). I hadn’t heard of Jim Shaw before this retrospective and the exhibition page reveals that this is, in fact, the first major retrospective of the artist’s work in New York. Shaw, born in Michigan, moved to Los Angeles to pursue his MFA at Cal Arts in the late 70s where he lives and works to this day. His work is similar to a lot of art produced by Californian artists during that time, referencing cartoons, popular cultural media, war imagery, and using interesting new materials and methods. Reminiscent of Paul McCarthy (who had a wonderful and stunningly vulgar exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in 2013) but with his own unique style and focus, Shaw’s exhibition makes me painfully aware of how undereducated I am on Californian artists and the unique movements that have come out of the West Coast in the past fifty years. My focus has been limited to New York, London, Paris, and Berlin but many of the West Coast artists I have had the privilege to encounter through exhibitions and archives have impressed me. Artists are often a product of the time and place they live in and California, with the Silicon Valley tech boom and Hollywood, has led to some very interesting artists. As the New Museum writes: “Shaw mines his imagery from the cultural refuse of the twentieth century, using comic books, record covers, conspiracy magazines, and obscure religious iconography to produce a portrait of the nation’s subconscious…Shaw’s work is inspired by his childhood in suburban Michigan, his adopted home of Los Angeles where he has lived for over thirty years, and the dark and sprawling underbelly of America as a whole.” Dark indeed but filled with humor, cloyingly familiar images, and jumping between juvenile innocence and ironic pornography, Shaw has clearly had a long and fruitful career filled with many different forms of inspiration and interest.


Jim Shaw: The End is Here, exhibition image courtesy of the author

Let us begin at the top, the fourth floor where Labyrinth: I Dreamt I was Taller than Jonathan Borofsky (2009) takes up the entire room. It is filled with references to mythology, cartoons, theater, movies, and art history. Against one wall is a large, unstretched, painted canvas referencing Picasso’s Guernica (1937), Dali, and Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Hidden throughout the display further is Daumier’s caricature Les Poires (1831), an image of Icarus falling from the sky (also used as a logo for Led Zeppelin), Casper (the friendly ghost), and a not so subtle amount of bombing and war imagery. All of the images are in line with the long and lustrous history of cartoonish caricature dating at least as far back as La Caricature, a 19th Century Parisian journal. Further, the images are monumentally painted on canvas backdrops for sets and wooden façades with only the front painted. Like entering a set on stage, the viewer can walk around, behind, and between the towering images, revealing their created nature but also their reference to movies and plays. All in all, this was my favorite room and made the entire exhibition worth the trip. The canvas bases are creamy and the colors are faded giving the pictures a dated appearance, like they came from the golden age of Hollywood and cartoons. The lines, though, remain strong and clear, showing that the relevance of the images holds true whether they from the 1940s, 1980s, or today.

The next two floors were quite similar to me, interesting, but not aligned with my personal interests nearly as much as the fourth. I will be the first to tell you that there is such a thing as good art and bad art. I will also tell you that I do not like all art and that my personal preferences do not make art good or bad. There are plenty of pieces that I would deem good and then say that I do not like. I do not really like the art on the third and second floors but I do think that most of it is good. This art continues to explore mythological themes, art history (specifically outsider art), religion and belief, science versus religion. These floors are more crowded and utilize more traditional paintings, posters, and vitrines though in non-traditional ways. For example, the paintings on floor three are busily hung on the wall, crowded in what I would term “Victorian Hanging” but what many might recognize as mimicking how family portraits are hung in homes. There is an evolution in the images from portraits to nudes, to surrealistic scenes, and finally borderline pornography. Another room has contrasting images and propaganda both religious and scientific. The religiously inspired pieces hang on the walls and from the ceiling, above the viewers’ heads much like religious art has been hung in churches for centuries: out of reach, untouchable, literally (as well as figuratively) above the viewer. The scientifically inspired works are placed in vitrines: clean, on eye level if not below, untouchable but accessible. The banners that I have deemed religious are hand-lettered and painted while the “scientific” portion is printed, another dig at the contrasting aesthetic of the two. Placed together, though, one is forced to question how different the two realms really are. How different are the practices of the extremists in either?

Vic Hanging

Jim Shaw: The End is Here, exhibition image courtesy of the author

Regardless of how I feel about the New Museum and the vast body of work of Jim Shaw, despite the fact that I left the show feeling more tired than anything, I did find the exhibition as a whole intriguing. Looking back on my pictures and notes, I agree with a lot of what Jim Shaw made me see and feel, I think that his work still has a lot to say, and I know that his imagery is familiar enough to capture the imagination of many viewers, even as far away from LA as NY. Hopefully, that intrigue and imagination will inspire curiosity and make viewers think, not just about what they saw but what it implies and what it makes them feel. That, more than space and more than preference, is the most important aspect of any art exhibition. Jim Shaw: The End is Here will be at the New Museum through January 10th, 2016.

sevendeadly sins

Jim Shaw, Seven Deadly Sins (2013), acrylic on muslin triptych, image courtesy of the author