Quelle est la couleur de mes rêves?

 

Jarman Blue

Derek Jarman Blue 1993; 35mm film transferred to digital file, colour and sound; Duration: 75 mins; Image Courtesy of the Tate Museum

I feel like, lately, my life has been permeated by strange moments dominated by color. First, when I moved back to NYC in November I ended up working at a bar called Mr. Purple. I had thought (hoped, really) that this was a Reservoir Dogs reference, but I just got blank stares when I mentioned that to anyone of any rank during training (a disturbing sign, really, of the quality of people I was going to be working under). But, in actuality, it was in reference to a man (partially based in reality, partially made up) who had lived in the LES from the 60s until his death and dressed all in purple, hence, Mr. Purple. He was a major figure on the art scene and the LES NY activist scene, he was one of the first people to start urban gardening, and would appear to have been an all-around awesome hippie kind of guy….Mr. Purple, the bar, was not. It was all about gentrification and money and the “scene” and to be frank wasn’t even particularly successful in those endeavors. A disappointment really, but it helped me pay my bills when I came back, which is necessary and important (because, you know, eating).

Then, the other day as I was trolloping around Facebook I came across a video about The Green Lady. She would appear to be a sweet older woman living in Brooklyn who dresses only in green, eccentric outfits. Her hair is green, her nails are green, her makeup in green, etc. It’s just another example of movement in the odd color direction…another obsession of art historians since color plays a major role in art. You have color theory, marketing theories on what colors sell the best (blue, if you’re interested), the emotional aspects of color usage, etc. I, personally, am partial to red and green in paintings (see Clifford Still, the Fauvists, Rothko, etc).

So, as I was walking through the Anri Sala: Answer Me exhibition at the New Museum (which I highly recommend seeing) that features videos and installations by the artist on several large and separated screens throughout the museum, I was brought back to the last video installation that I truly liked, which focuses on color. I first saw it in London as I was walking through the Tate Modern. I was exploring the exhibitions for the first time since I had just moved to London (and had never been before). I knew I would return to look at things again later so I was taking more of a survey of the space and displays than truly viewing the art. However, I walked by a darkened room that had people standing around the edges of the entranceway and decided to walk in. I was met by a deep blue glow. At first, the room appeared to be nothing more than blank space with a large, glowing blue square on the far wall, but as my eyes adjusted I noticed there was a bench along the wall filled with people and, fascinated, I took a seat. Let me begin with the color. This blue was almost cerulean and vaguely reminiscent of the blue that your TV screen becomes right before you plug in a movie (I think this is more in regards to the time of the VCR as opposed to DVDs, although it may still happen on some TVs with DVDs….though this is beside the point). For me, it was reminiscent of the deep, impenetrable shade of blue that the ocean is when you dive in far away from land. As you float suspended in the open water, you are surrounded by this color and it is thick and visceral. You can touch it, it is all you can see, it is supporting you. When you are fully immersed underwater, it is disconcerting; it’s hard to tell which way is up and which way is down, everything looks the same, it is endless, and then, of course, there is the inevitable realization that sharks live there and there could be one near you…this video was a bit like that (minus the sharks). As I sat and watched it, the color pulled me in, I felt surrounded by it, engulfed even, and it felt physical and real. It took up my entire field of vision and it, alone, was enough.

However, there is more to the video than the color. There were also voices speaking, telling stories, memories, moments. This was my introduction to Derek Jarman’s Blue. Click here for the video on youtube. Here is a link to the text that is spoken throughout the film. The color is based both on Yves Klein’s created color “International Klein Blue” and the color blue that overtook Jarman’s sight as he was dying of AIDS. The video itself is haunting, absorbing, and inclusive, although a viewer wouldn’t know about Yves Klein or Jarman’s AIDS just by watching it. Hopefully, it would inspire the viewer to do a little light research and, between that and active viewings, one could come to understand Jarman’s state of mind as his body decayed and finally succumbed to AIDS and AIDS-related complications. Even without knowing the particulars, though, it is difficult to not be moved by the video, either into a reverie, calmness, or a hypnotic or meditative state.

I again encountered Jarman and Blue several months later during a class for my art history program at UCL (still in London). This class was (not surprisingly) about color and its concerns in art history. We watched the video, read the text, and discussed Jarman, Klein, color choices, and the political, emotional, and theoretical consequences and concerns of such a work. Color is a difficult subject to discuss. At first, it seems too broad to be covered in one class, then it seems too simple. However, it is unique in that while several colors have agreed upon symbolic meaning, there is still a great difference between different peoples’ perception of color. Not only that, but when a work relies on one single color and really forces us to focus on one pared down aspect of visual art (and, really, visual experience), it garners such a huge range of reactions that it is surprising more people haven’t focused on it. People’s reactions range from the purely emotional to the bored to the critical to the abstract and theoretical, and disagreements abound since it is so inherently subjective. Beyond that, people perceive color differently on a mechanical level (some people are color blind) as well as an emotional level (how many times have I argued with someone over whether this one dress I own is pink or red?). It is fascinating that something can appear both incredibly simple and incredibly broad and how those things can lead to such a complicated set of reactions and choices. Not to mention the scientific explanations concerning color, both with light (waves and particles and spectrums) and with manmade color (paints, crayons, pencils, etc). Even further, some artists have chosen to ignore color completely. You see many paintings, drawings, and prints created en grisaille (which means in greyscale, or in black and white). Then, there is photography and the choice to print images in color or black and white and the technological achievements that allowed photos to be printed in color in the first place. There are so many ways to talk about color though, from the simplistic to the deeply philosophical, that I could never hope to cover them all. However, I really set down to write about Jarman’s film in this entry, so I’ll get myself back on track.

During class, I also realized that I had encountered Jarman and Blue two years prior while interning at the Whitney Museum in NY. My curator had asked me to re-organize his personal archive when there was nothing else to do. He had files on all of the artists that he had encountered, exhibited, collected, and was interested in. Derek Jarman had his own file, not surprising since my curator had lived through the AIDS epidemic in NY and lost many friends and colleagues to the disease. He even put on an exhibition while I was there called I, You, We that focused on the AIDS epidemic and how art dealt with it: emotionally, aesthetically, and politically. Every time I encounter this video I realize that it has greater depth and history (for me as well as for itself) than it would initially appear to. I always seem to encounter it and yet it often slips to the back of my mind only to re-emerge and surprise me at a later point in time. It has come to the point where it is familiar, almost like going into a personal space in my mind that holds memories and feelings, and has become comfortable because of that. This video almost perfectly fits my personal definition for a great work of art. As I watch, I feel like the artist is revealing a part of himself to me, I think it is interesting visually and aurally, it is absorbing, and it lingers…perhaps not at the forefront of my mind, but every time I encounter it anew I remember when I saw it before, what I learned, and how my perception has changed. It also references the history of art and the socio-political occurrences of the time in which it was created. If you ever have the opportunity to see it installed and exhibited properly, you should jump at the chance.

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Museum Gift Shops: Well if you’re going in that direction anyway…

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

I really wanted to title this entry “Exit Through the Gift Shop” which would, consequently, also be the preferred title of my PhD Thesis (if I were getting a PhD), except Banksy already used it for a movie. Basically, I’m obsessed with museum gift shops: the art books, the surreal sales atmosphere, the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, reproductions, jewelry, etc. There’s a little bit of everything in a good museum gift shop and they are often so conveniently (and in an obvious marketing strategy) located at the end of special exhibitions or near the museum exit. Of course, not all museum gift shops are great, some only have art books and logo merchandise, others only have weirdly camp objects, some are clearly directed towards children or the elderly. However, despite my obsession – or perhaps the reason behind it – museum gift shops are also a bit disturbing to me: definitively capitalistic and surreally kitsch in their miniaturization, reproduction, and dissemination of fine art imagery. For example, how many times have you seen Van Gogh’s Starry Night reproduced on a coffee mug, mouse pad, puzzle, or really anything you could imagine a reproduction being printed on? There is also, of course, the print reproductions that are offered at varying levels of size, quality, and thus, cost…these are not as kitsch – they aren’t cutesy, hip, collectible, or vastly different from the original – but they do go against two of the major components of a work of art (namely a singular work of art like a painting) which are “authenticity” and intentionality.

When used from an art historical, academic perspective, “authenticity” typically refers to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” hence the scare quotes. This essay discusses the uniqueness inherent to a traditional work of art where only one object is produced. This is the case in painting, tapestries, antiques, antique furniture, and many sculptures. However, around the time that Benjamin was living and thinking and angst-ing, about a lot of stuff (I love him, he’s brilliant, but he has “Twilight” level angst going on sometimes), photography was becoming a big thing and was being used in unique ways by artists, like Man Ray. Benjamin began to question the authenticity of works of art that are created by a medium that is inherently reproducible: photographs, prints, sculptures created by a mold, etc. When you see these today, they are usually offered in editions and the cost is closely related to the number of editions available, the quality of said editions (for example, print quality tends to go downhill as more are made; the woodblock or plate starts to degrade, so earlier editions are more expensive and often preferable), and if the edition was created posthumously or during the artist’s lifetime by the artist. It’s still an issue both in the market and academically. On the market, singular works are priced higher and often considered more valuable by those who don’t specifically seek out prints and photographs. Academically, you still see art historians citing Benjamin, writing about authenticity and “aura,” and this particular essay is assigned at some point in almost every degree program for the history of art. The shove of the piece is that unique works have an “aura” based on their life. Since it is a singular work, the object in question has a life-like experience from its creation in the artist’s studio, to its viewing, through its various owners (private, public, etc.), and in whatever else it has experienced. Further, each person who views it brings their own perspectives, opinions, and experiences to the work. Every article written on it and exhibition it is included in (which of course brings it into contact with other works of art) adds to its “aura.” It soaks these experiences up like a sponge and carries them around; this is part of the reason why most articles and museums will include a provenance (or history of ownership and exhibition). Benjamin questioned whether an inherently reproducible work of art could have an aura since there is no one piece but instead several nearly identical pieces that go on through different lives. He then began to question the relevance of auras and authenticity in the modern age (keep in mind Benjamin lived through the two world wars in Germany and emigrated to France and Spain, so he was greatly influenced by the world’s first industrialized war and the social and cultural take-over of technology). Benjamin was never decidedly saying whether or not any of this was good or bad, that kind of final (almost biblical) judgement wasn’t his jive. Instead he seemed to be laying out what he saw, discussing it and its effects, and pondering on the changes occurring and what they could mean for the future of art, culture, and human society.

This is one of the things that fascinates me about the museum gift shop. Museums are defined as institutions that house and protect art and provide a space for the general public to view and be educated about art, history, and human culture. A statement along these lines can be found in almost any museum’s mission statement and is also what the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) uses as the starting point for many of their rules and regulations concerning the museums that are members of the AAM. The more global International Council of Museums (ICOM) also uses similar language. However, museums are often put in a bind when the question of funding comes up. The collection itself is seen as nearly sacred and it is frowned upon to sell works from the collection unless (and this is in infrequent cases) the sale goes directly into purchasing new artworks that will “improve” the collection. But, most museums don’t make enough money off of entry fees, sales, grants, and endowments alone. Trustees play a large part in this, their deep pockets are often called upon to finance shows, purchase works, and allow for renovations. Still, museums are always looking for new ways to bring money in since they are not inexpensive institutions to run. This is where the gift shop comes in. Sales on everything from prints to houseware to books to toys are made and bear the name of whatever illustrious institution is peddling them for a heinous mark-up. What confuses me, though, is also what really pulls me in. While museums are not allowed to use their collections as a financial buoy, they do have free reign to use reproductions of the works they own (with a few exceptions). Here, they go crazy and plaster images taken from the masterpieces of their collection all over everything and sell them as souvenirs, collectibles, and generally unnecessary but highly desirable commodities (I could go way deep into Marx, Simmel, and Lukacs here, but I’ll spare you).

Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff, not only because it bears the image of my favorite works of art, but also because these objects are interesting things unto themselves. What does it mean for the original artwork that it is being miniaturized, kitschitized, and reproduced ad infinitum for mass consumption by the masses who have probably never even read a book about said work or the artist who created it? What does this mean for the artist’s creative intentions; what would Van Gogh say (the man who cut off an ear in a fit of passion…or epilepsy [depending on who you’re asking])? Then, with smart phones and selfies and social media, the images are further reproduced and disseminated on individuals’ accounts. How many people have seen the selfies taken by Beyoncé and Jay Z at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa? This 21st C image has become iconic just like the image that they were pictured in front of; this is the definition of meta! But what does this mean for the art? Does it demean it, cause it lose meaning, bastardize it? Do endless reproduction (which often, like in the game of telephone, lead to a distortion of information) take away from the original work of art or does it just add to the artwork’s life and aura? Personally, I think only time can tell on that front, but for now I think it’s good that mass culture is taking an interest in art, even if it’s only through celebrities. Art is meant to speak, be seen, make change, and educate. The artist’s intentions, further, can never be kept once the work leaves the studio. People will see what they want and think what they think, taking their own experiences and perceptions to the object and projecting them all over it. It is a visual medium, so spreading its picture can only add to it (be it good or bad – didn’t someone once say that all press is good press, anyway?).

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Neue Galerie gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

Beyond this though, and the part that begins to disturb me much more than the reproduction and commoditization, is the inevitable kitschitization. “Kitsch” is one of those weird words that no one seems to have a solid definition of. It’s originally German and made its way into daily English usage like so many other foreign words, picking up both slang and academic meaning. My favorite definition of kitsch, however, comes from Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”: “kitsch in the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.” So, this endless repetition, miniaturization, and “purification” of art through a selection of what is “appropriate” or desirable for mass consumption – its kitschitization through the museum gift shop by making it everyday, collectible, and safe – is really a lie. The reproducers and the consumers pretend to revere the art image, and this desire to take it home in a functional or collectible format for everyday use or gifting vies with the belief that art lovers would actually want their art in such a format. In reality, if we view kitsch in Kundera’s terms, as the denial of shit and the baseness of humanity, then this kitschitization of great art is the destruction and denial of said art. Great art is itself an individual, grossly private, uncensored, human, personal excrement of the mind, soul, and body. By kitschitizing these masterpieces, we water them down and remove the inherently base human desire to share the self (no matter how grotesque or perverted) and instead make each individual work a mass-produced commodity that is a degraded version of its original intention. When Munch’s The Scream – a poignant work of angst, emotion, and anxiety (nothing if not a silent scream of a depraved state of higher intelligence) – is reduced to being reproduced onto t-shirts, coffee mugs, mouse pads, what-have-you, what becomes of it? It is no longer a meaningful demand for attention or productive thought but just another image watered down by repetition and simplification. Because, at this point, it is truly removed from the human being that created it.

Art – which may be one of the few classifications of objects that is not reified but is almost human – at this point truly becomes an object, becomes reified, through this reproduction that is not only a reproduction, but further, a base change of format and meaning. It loses its touch with humanity (both of the creator and the viewer) that made it great, that made it art. If art is the admittance of everything that is unacceptable to human existence, and kitsch is the denial of that same thing, where does that leave gift shops and the museums (the self-same protectors of cultural heritage) that create, house, and sell them? Basically a pimp whoring out art (though that may be a bit harsh). Nonetheless, I love these gift shops. Surrounded by so much useless shiny shit, I want it all. Like Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” I do not pay for Nastassya nor do I try to have sex with her. I do, however, remain fixated in her presence unable to truly judge what is happening and what it means (but maybe the meaning of this can best be explained by Simmel: “it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand”). Perhaps, though, it is this very dichotomy (the contradiction in both my feelings and my argument) that when paired makes the brilliance of the original shine all the brighter, the intention all the clearer, when placed next to its shallow imitator, its hollow twin, its doppelgänger. The reproduction in this form is all surface. When we buy gift shop collectibles, we don’t want to look deeper for an inner truth but instead look to the surface to see what we can find there; it both withholds and reveals.

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New Museum gift shop, 2016, image taken by author

Graffiti on my Mind, Part 2

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Exhibition photo, image taken by author

One of the fun parts about living in NYC is that there is always something going on. More than that, and lucky for me, there is also always something art-related going on. There is always more art to see and events to participate in, be it a museum show, gallery opening, auction, art fair, or an apparently new wave art salon à la Gertrude Stein (more to follow as I investigate). A month or so ago, I was invited to my friend’s fashion photography opening. Last week I was invited to my friend’s husband’s gallery opening, “An Intro” at  The Urban Foundation (TUF) Gallery. TUF Gallery, run by Marc Casola, is an UES gallery representing graffiti artists and it is geared towards shaking up the prim and typically secondary market UES gallery scene. Given my previously mentioned obsession with graffiti, I attended to both see my friend and see what TUF Gallery was showing. Jonathan Lindsay, the artist, has created gorgeous graffiti inspired canvases that show a range of techniques, influences, and a healthy growth throughout his career. Several works depicted nude bodies; one in particular was of a back-bending figure that I suspect may be a study of his wife (a dancer), titled Over Backwards. Others are gracefully contorted figures, lovers in primary colors. Then, he veers into abstraction with a few Pollock-esque drip paintings and others that almost look like sound waves or vibrations of the paint as it was laid out on the canvas. While his works weren’t carrying dates, I believe his most recent works feature light bulb-shaped skulls and sunglass-clad, earphone wearing monkey heads. These works, reminiscent of the stencil work that has become popular in graffiti art in the past few decades, are set on abstract backgrounds with sharp, angular lines and bright colors that reminded me of dance club atmospheres…a place where many artists, dancers, musicians, and for a long while I, too, work to pay the bills while we pursue our passion.

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Jonathan Lindsay, Held Twice, acrylic on canvas, 37 x 37″, image taken by author

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Jonathan Lindsay, Over Backwards, acrylic and watercolor on canvas, image taken by author

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(Images listed from UR in a clockwise pattern): Jonathan Lindsay, Side View 1, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12″; Jonathan Lindsay, The View, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24″; Jonathan Lindsay, Side View 2, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12″; image taken by author

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Exhibition photo, image taken by author

One of my favorite things, though, was a headless mannequin, hanging from a pole with a welded hanger attached through its shoulders. This piece was interactive; Jonathan had picked out the mannequin, welded the hanger, and dressed her in spray painted Nike sneakers and a fanny pack filled with pens and the guests were encouraged to decorate and write on her body. I like this for several reasons. To being with, it is interactive and brings the viewer into the work of art, making him/her a part of the activity of creating as opposed to viewing which all too often feels static. I call this “active viewing” and think it is an important part of modern/contemporary art practice and curation. It was fun and a group activity and everyone seemed happy to participate. I didn’t stick around long enough to see the blank space filled, but within the first hour the mannequin’s breasts, butt, and thighs (we’re all horny adolescents at heart, right?) were covered with hashtags and signatures. This got me thinking about the origins of graffiti and graffiti art: tagging…which I also started thinking has an interesting correlation to the very contemporary, internet/smart-phone/technology-based phenomenon of hash tagging. So, for those of you living under a rock, tagging is when you spray paint your name/alias/simple words onto a surface. It’s a very basic form of graffiti and covers the walls/alleyways/subway platforms of most cities. It is quick, gritty, and difficult to call “art.” It’s more like a pseudo-territorial, visual-linguistic way of saying “I was here.” When I obsess over and write about graffiti art, I am not talking about tagging. But, tagging has an interesting and important history and continuation within graffiti culture and is also very similar to an artist signing a work of art, which is often more than just a name placed on a completed work to demonstrate who created said work. Manet, for example, would often incorporate his signature into the work of art. In The Bar at the Folies-Bergere his name is placed on one of the bottles. Many academics have speculated that through this he could have been symbolically linking the selling and commoditization of his art to capitalistic systems and the product distribution of less personal objects. Then, Oscar Kokoschka had a very interesting signature that remained constant throughout his career, a very child-like scrawl of “OK” often in a garish shade of red. These are choices and choices always mean something. So, tagging is what? It is a beginner’s approach to graffiti, it is a signature, it is a territorial gesture, it is a way of reclaiming the city space for the individual, it is also a way of literally writing over someone else’s work or tag and slighting them in the process. By allowing his visitors to “tag” the mannequin and, in effect, participate in his art making, Jonathan gave them a chance to say, “I was here.” He gave his visitors the opportunity to add a visual, linguistic, and more permanent reminder that they came, they saw, and they participated. It was uniquely related to graffiti and it was smart because not only did people write their names, but many included the hashtag for his show or perhaps his personal statement, #makeartwar, which immediately linked the action to his social media and turned his hashtag into a sticky, self-perpetuating meme that people were now more likely to remember because it was no longer outside of them.

This brings me to hashtags and the inherently linguistic nature of our culture. Hashtags are everywhere; initially used on Twitter, they have been picked up by Instagram and Facebook as well as most blog sites, including WordPress. They take a concept, a name, a group…basically any meme (and I’m using that in the Dawkins sense, not in the internet sense, read “The Selfish Gene” where he coins the term and defines the original idea)…and create a link to its use anywhere else on the site, assuming someone put the # sign in front of it, thus taking part in the hashtag. Much like tagging in graffiti, it links the person using it to a larger phenomenon, brings the individual voice to the wider public sphere, and brings other people to you when they would otherwise just be wandering aimlessly (depending on their technological/internet savviness) in cyberspace. It’s interesting and it is interesting in many different ways, way too many to get into here. But, in the realm of art, I find it particularly interesting because art, something usually considered visual and thing-based (as opposed to linguistic and word-based) is making good use of hashtags. They can bring out ideas and themes in an artwork, connect people to an exhibition, institution, and artist on social sites, and connect all of these things in the linguistic realm that is the Internet and human society in a broader sense. As an art critic/historian/curator, I have always considered it part of my job to “translate” art and make the visual verbal, to a degree. Hash tagging does this quickly and publicly and allows me to use a few key words and hot terms or names to basically force people to read what I’m saying (are you still reading, btw?). Which further, brings me even farther over to a massive obsession of mine (and, in fact, the topic of my MA thesis), which is word art. See Baldessari, Rusha, Andre, among so many others, and maybe I’ll get into that whole thing in another blog post. Graffiti art, too, beyond tagging, also forays into the linguistic. While you see many gorgeous murals – figurative and abstract, surrealistic and realistic – you also see some wonderful pieces that are meant to be read (several of which include hash tags). That is one of the things that really fascinates me about graffiti art; it is not limited to a movement, a “look,” or even a method of production…for me it is more like a medium and a culture. It shouldn’t be differentiated from fine art but seen as yet another facet to be studied, appreciated, and (for the artists trying to eat still) collected.

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Street photo, NYC LES, image taken by author

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Leviticus, 2015, NYC, image taken by author

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Shoreditch, London, 2015, image taken by author