07 August 2013

Not Great Men (Modern Primitives vs. Killer Clowns Edition)

No sooner do I mention Thomas Houseago than NYT artcritic Ken Johnson publishes a review on an exhibition by/of same. The result is an all-too-common sight of watching American art-crit collapsing under the weight of all the extraneous baggage it’s saddled itself with these past 3 decades. Johnson’s "masculinity" framing narrative falling flat on its face, mainly because it comes across as a sneeringly disingenuous evocation of a '90s-style identity politics angle; which seems sneakily (and sarcastically) self-serving in this instance, what, given the public flogging that same critic recently received over some remarks he made about some other recent exhibitions. About the only thing he raises that might have much to do with anything significant is when he bemoans the retromantic nature of Houseago’s work and methods. But even that runs into trouble:
"Mr. Houseago’s eccentric enthusiasms are muffled by his reverence for traditions old and Modernist and by his Postmodernist play with generic formal and stylistic conventions. His art is too much about art and not enough about his inner life. It’s too impersonal."
But in a way, it’s kind of interesting to read, if only to watch the forces at play. A lot of points made, some of them arbitrary or poorly qualified, others contradictory, so in the end everything just sort of cancels each other out, leaving the reader with almost nothing to take away from having read it.

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Was curious to read the article in the latest New Yorker about the relationship between Alabama “outsider” artist Thornton Dial and his collector, patron and advocate Bill Arnett. Found it disappointing, can’t recommend it. Bears the common hallmarks of a lot of recent journalism (the type that’s become increasingly common in the NYer itself the past few years): Lopsided in its focus, raising questions that go insufficiently answered, with the writer (or editor) unable to figure out which story they’d like to tell, and in the end hedging it bets by defaulting to a baseline cynicism. The thing's also in need of some decent photos of Dial's work.

If there’s a story or central theme here, its about the disconnect between criterial narratives. Arnett’s passion and advocacy for “folk” art (particularly Dial’s), and the ceaseless frustrations he’s run into trying to get institutions take what he considers due attention. Of course, most of the institutions in question subscribe to a different, competing account of historical evolution – a telos in which artists like Dial don’t figure. (After all, why are they labeled “outsider” artists in the first place?)

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In which “Lamentable” squares off with “Seriously Deficient”: Geeta Dayal chimes in on Blake Gopnik’s write-up of the current Soundings exhibition at MoMA. Not sure what the point might be in taking Gopnik to task, since he’s easily one of the more lightweight art critics around these days. Add to that he’s out of his comfort zone here, taking on a topic that falls outside his usual purview. Which is to be expected, one supposes, given that sound art has long (at best) a far off-road pursuit on these shores. But, yes – sound art festivals are much more common in Europe, have been since the 1990s, resulting in the occasional exhibition at a major cultural institution. The U.S. was slow to take notice, but belatedly gave it a passing acknowledgement with PS1’s Bed of Sound affair back at the turn of the millennium (which, as I recalled, received fairly lukewarm reviews among specialists and novices alike). Of course, that was 13 years ago, at a time that was something of a zeitgeist for such stuff – the explosion of laptop fuckery, and sound-twisting software programs like AudioMulch and whatnot. Two years later, most of it had all been shoved back to the periphery, again.

Noted that Gopnik checked in to reply early in the comments thread. Doubling back to view it again, I see a number of people have since responded to Gopnik (including Jon Abbey of the Erstwhile Records label).

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Back in 1981 when David Hammons used Richard Serra’s T.W.U. to make his own artistic commentary, he effectively anticipated the debate about public art vs. public space that would erupt around Serra’s Tilted Arc in the years that followed. Greg.org tells the story.

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I never found clowns unsettling, I just remember from the earliest age thinking they were wack. But here’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie in the latest Smithsonian, writing about coulraophobia -- the fear of clowns.

Which remimds me of this thing. The Art Institute of Chicago has in their collection Bruce Nauman’s video installation, Clown Torture. About 5 years ago, a Chicago arts & culture publication rounded up three off-duty clowns and took to them to the museum, to view the piece and record their responses. One of the participants observed:
"'It’s all self-inflicted,' Williams says of the tortured clowns. 'I can understand that most people can repeat themselves and put themselves in compromising positions. I think that’s common to the human condition. But this makes me sad. I don’t relate to the clown. It’s sad that he’s doing that to himself. This exhibit as a whole makes me sad because this is what scares people. It makes it hard for me.'"
The original piece has, it appears, long since been taken offline; the above quote comes via Bad at Sports.

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