27 July 2013

How Soon is Now?

Okay, so about a year ago I was invited to contribute to the hit-parader edition above. And it looks like the thing is now due to arrive on shelves on this side of the Atlantic. It's a heavy, honking image-driven affair, fairly light on text. I was sent a list of about 110+ artist, told to choose twenty, and would eventually be assigned ten. I ended up writing 11, but two of them went astray due to various editorial complications.*

My contributions ended up being nine short essays on the artists Elmgreen & Dragset, Mark Grotjahn, Subodh Gupta, Charline von Heyl, Thomas Houseago, Ernesto Neto, David Noonan, Janaina Tschäpe, and Christopher Wool. A fair number of painters in that lot, given that the book as a whole is light on traditional media, because I'm aesthetically retardaire that way. As assignments go, it presented a number of new experiences for me. Multiple editors with varied preferences, dealing with a publishing entity where the common language is one other than one's own, trying to keep things fairly simple because – it being a trilingual edition – translators were going to be involved at some point. But the only real challenge was the format, having to keep thing compact and fairly simple. (Because, let's face it: if you regularly read this blog, you know how longwinded I can be.)

One odd thing about the whole process was how – in the course of doing research – I found myself reevaluating some of the artists I was dealing with. In a couple of instances (no names, please) it involved artists that I very much liked. But the more I scrutinized their work and thought it through in different critical contexts, I felt my interest in their work diminishing by degrees – the nagging sense that the artistic issues and concerns that drove the work were somewhat limited or slight.

But there were cases where the opposite was the case, where I was researching artists with whom I'd previously been only vaguely or passingly familiar; and in the course of delving into it further, I gained a stronger or more extensive appreciation of their work. One of these was the Scandinavian duo Elmgreen and Dragset, who made a big international splash some years ago with their "Prada Marfa" piece. Much of what I appreciate about their work is the social ideas and concerns that inform many of their projects – their darkly-humored riffs on the cultural obsessive with celebrity, on socio-economic marginalization and exclusion in these neoliberal times, and their series of "Powerless Structures" – installations that present the viewer with a variety of frustrated, anomic architectural situations.

Another was British expat Thomas Houseago, particularly the rough-hewn, precarious monstrosities of his large figural works. It's brutish and thoroughly un-ironic stuff...

In the course of together info on Houseago, a came across this long video clip, of him giving a presentation and discussion of his work at the New School a few year back. There are a lot of things he talks about that I could immediately identify with. One being the whole matter of grow up in a provincial setting (Leeds, in his case), somewhat removed from cultural stimuli, where your first brush with anything "avant-garde" occurring when you're exposed to something like hearing "I Am the Walrus" at an impressionable age. Or of being visually amazed by Darth Vader or Boba Fett as a pre-teen, and only some years later having a flash of recognition when first encountering the work of Jacob Epstein.

There's also a number of amusing moments in which Houseago talks about the intentionally traditional and retrograde character of his work. At another point in the presentation he talks of first entering art school in Amsterdam, initially having a go at being a performance artist. His decision to switch to sculpture was an unlikely one, he admits, since most sculpture at the time "looked like Iza Genzken's work," which didn't appeal him at all. Which, he argues, begs the question of artistic fashion and how things age beyond their immediate context. "For instance," he says, "Say you're talking to someone from the future and they asked you to explain what performance art was all about. What would you tell them? 'Well, it was kind of like film – except it was shitty.'"

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*  One of these had to do with Banksy. Text written, images selected, but late in the game there were (I gather) headaches with obtaining permissions for image reproduction. Enough so that the publisher decided it was more trouble than it was worth, and decided to axe the piece. (Can't say I was surprised at it turning out that way, since from the start I thought it was a bit chancey trying to include him in this sort of a book.)

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