Monday, November 23, 2009

Studio Practice in the Museum

Guest Blogger:
Jacqueline Terrassa
Assistant Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Copying has been on my mind after a trip to London last week. The cast rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the interpretive galleries of the Turner Wing at the Tate Britain reminded me how, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, drawing from the masters and especially from the objects of antiquity was a cornerstone in an artist’s training and practice. Copying was the way to learn from the past, a form of visual and intellectual research and a means to feed one’s artistic ideas and methods.

As an art student traveling through Europe twenty years ago, I too carried a sketchbook with me and spent hours looking at art, drawing what I saw. Drawing (copying) in the then pre-digital age was cheaper than developing multiple rolls of film. It was also a better way to graphically record what I was seeing, to make sense of how certain artworks functioned visually. While copying from the masters may no longer be the norm, drawing from artworks was alive and well in London last week. School-kids carried sketchbooks and drew what they saw, the walls of the café at the National Gallery featured Frank Auerbach drawings after famous paintings in the museum, and young artists sat on the floor of the Tate Modern sketching.  

Are these old fashioned ways of looking at and making art? Hard to say. What interests me about the traditional practice of copying is that it relates to several larger questions that I grapple with as an educator at the MCA: How is it that artists use museums now? In what ways do they use museums for research? And how can museums, and especially contemporary art museums, best feed an artist’s studio practice?

A practice is a form of focused energy, an attitude, a commitment to a set of inquiries, a discipline. A practice is a way of learning and doing that is sustained over time. A studio practice has become a way of naming the kind of activity that is necessary in order to make art, an activity that may not be fully productive at every step, that may be partly private and at times social, whether it is carried out by an individual or a group. This activity may happen in a studio or elsewhere or both. Its results are a series of things and actions that come to be seen as works of art, as well as a larger number of bits and pieces gathered and of failures and false starts. The point is that, for part of the time, at least, studio practice is not about producing a final product for exhibition, but instead involves research, tinkering, and exploration. 

This is where the museum enters the picture. My involvement in Studio Chicago and the MCA’s upcoming exhibition “Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out ” is making me reflect on what we call “studio practice” and in how this work extends beyond the physical limits of an actual studio into other spaces, especially museums. 

Artists are an important audience for many art museums. They produce what these places present. If art museums, and especially contemporary art museums, don’t engage living artists as audience members and as partners in thinking and doing, we are doing something wrong. 

But the relationship between studio practice and the museum matters in two other, more fundamental ways. First, artists take part in a dialogue with the past, both recent and historic, looking at what others have made. As places that present art and cultural artifacts for a public, museums have long served as catalysts for the creation of art. In this way, museums are part of the art making infrastructure--the system of resources, spaces, people, and conditions that constitutes a generative environment for new ideas and new art. Second, as art museums try to adapt and remain relevant to culture, we are now increasingly seeing aspects of current studio practice make their way into both the public and back-of-the house activities of museums, expanding how the viewing public sees art. 

A final tidbit from my London trip. On Friday, my husband Anthony and I met with an artist friend at the National Gallery. Our friend wondered if the National Gallery had any Caspar David Friedrich paintings (they have one, not on view). Recently he’s been reading about Friedrich and has become interested in how those broody male figures with their backs to us in some of Friedrich’s paintings function empathetically as stand-ins for the viewer while simultaneously preventing us from ever “entering” the picture. I was fascinated by our friend’s interest in studying these paintings; after all, he makes text-based paintings and there is little on the surface that would visually link his work and Friedrich’s. At a conceptual level, however, the connection made sense. He wanted to better understand how another artist had conditioned our own looking within the work itself. I left thinking that how an artwork functions, how it engages us as viewers, is perhaps the key aspect guiding how artists look at art in museums today. And later I thought of John Neff’s piece for the exhibition “Production Site”, which alludes  to aesthetics and specific works from art history to recast these very questions of reception, desire and mediation.

How is it that artists use museums now as extensions of their studio practice? I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this.

Jacqueline Terrassa is Assistant Director of Public Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. She is interested in the intersections between art, people and institutions and has worked as a museum educator and art administrator at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Smart Museum of Art, and the Hyde Park Art Center. She received an MFA from the University of Chicago.

Cast room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London;  Wall text in the interpretive room of the Turner Wing, Tate Britain;  John Neff 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Studio as Medium

Guest Blogger:
Michelle Grabner
Artist and Writer

How and why does the studio matter to art and artists today?

The studio doesn’t matter. Hard work and steadfastness to art and art making does. Most often, but not exclusively, the studio is the space of this work.

When approached by Mary Jane Jacob in March 2008 about ideas for projects that the Department of Exhibitions and Events at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago might consider undertaking, I pitched the idea of the studio. Exhausted by the fact that contemporary art discourse was focused primarily on inventory and consumption I simply wished to turn the lens away from the art bubble and its marketing tools to that of the studio, the space of artists and artmaking. With Mary Jane’s leadership and curatorial acuity: voila, The Studio Reader, Picturing the Studio, The Summer Studio and more. The studio is a medium. However, the studio can also be a subject.

The split between studio as medium and studio as subject became powerfully clear when working on crafting and editing The Studio Reader with Mary Jane Jacob and co-curating the exhibition Picturing the Studio with art historian Annika Marie. Both of these research projects shed very little light on the reality of my own studio. When I work in my studio I don’t think of Daniel Buren’s “first frame.” I don’t consider the longstanding tradition of the romantic studio or mediate on post-studio analysis. Nor do I ponder Bruce Nauman’s wry quote “If I was an artist and I was in the studio then, whatever I was doing in the studio must be art.” I just work. In the studio I think about abstraction. I think about values and achieving the conditions of quality in idea and artmaking.

However when evaluating the studio as a mode of discourse I write in the introduction to The Studio Reader: “In a contemporary examination of the studio and its potential, perhaps equally germane to post-studio and postmodern theory, and its intrinsic tie to a modernist studio tradition, is Michael de Certeau’s analysis of “spaces” and “places.” He defines a place as a distinct location in which the elements constituting it are “beside” one another, abidingly stable, because of the rules and laws that govern “proper” place. A space on the other hand, “exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables.” De Certeau employs a simple analogy for space in which it is “like a word when it is spoken, that is when it is caught in the ambiguities of an actualization, transformed into a term dependent upon different conventions, situated as the act of a present (or of a time), and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts.”

De Certeau and John Dewey’s theory of attention were helpful in my examination of the studio as subject. However, and more importantly, as a working artist my studio is simply an appropriate medium in which to deliberating on the potential of abstraction.

Michelle Grabner is an artist and writer. She is a professor and chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Along with her husband Brad Killam, she runs The Suburban and The Poorfarm; exhibition spaces in Oak Park, IL and Waupaca County, WI. In March 2010 she will have solo exhibitions at Leo Koenig Gallery, NYC and Minus Space, NYC. An interview about her work and activities with art critic Saul Ostrow will be published in Art in America early next year.

Untitled, 2008, 40x40", silverpoint and gesso on paper, Courtesy of Shane Campbell Gallery, Chicago; Artist's studio

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Introductory thoughts on the studio

Guest blogger:
Philip von Zweck

“If I was an artist and I was in the studio then, whatever I was doing in the studio must be art.”
- Bruce Nauman

I imagine this is where all books and exhibitions based around ‘the studio’ are going to start, so perhaps this blog project should start there too.  I keep Nauman’s statement in mind because of the total freedom it grants the artist while still keeping a separation between art and life. Being an artist doesn’t make everything art, and the studio is not a magical zone which transforms anything into an art object - it’s more of a combination. I think he is referring to the studio as a physical space, but for me and for many others it is not a place; it is a focus, a type of engagement. For example, a lot of Nauman’s work is not complete when it leaves his studio. Fabrication and installation are crucial aspects, places where significant decisions must be made. So in those instances the foundry, neon shop, or the exhibition site become folded – temporarily – into his larger working space because a studio isn’t merely a room or a building. It is an extension of the artist’s thought, physical reach, and process.

For years my studio practice was predominantly separated from the fabrication of work; by the time it came time for the work to be made it could be done by almost anyone with knowledge specific to the material/process and capable of following instructions. My studio wasn’t a physical space; if anything it was a lap top containing notes, plans, proposals, research, and so on. This allowed me to work on projects wherever I was. The work was fully realized at a relatively late stage, when it was made or produced sometimes by myself, and sometimes by others. I think this type of studio practice is somewhat similar to that of an architect or an orchestral composer but also has close correlation to contemporary business practices.

Recently I made a show of paintings. With that project I set out to restructure my practice, to remove that separation between conceiving/planning and fabrication. I wanted to make decisions while making the work. Not to know - in some instances – what the painting would look like until it was done, until somehow it felt resolved.  It was a tremendously rewarding project; it involved a different kind of pleasure, or play, bringing physicality back into making work. Like going skateboarding instead of playing chess.

Since I haven’t had a studio space for five years, the work for that show was made in my apartment. The separation between working and not working - that having a separate studio space was required -  once seemed to me to be a problem, but now seems to me to be an asset. I view going to the studio as a way to demarcate production time. The studio as a physical location works to reinforce the mental condition of the studio by bracketing the world, to limit external distractions from the mode of production and by limiting the compulsion to work from times when one is not in the studio. Granted this is an oversimplification, but I’ve exceeded my space for this post, suffice to say, I have developed a case of studio envy.

Philip von Zweck was born in Florida and raised in Louisiana; he moved to Chicago on his 18th birthday.  He has been a vegetarian for 20 years and producer of the weekly radio program Something Else on WLUW for 14. In September, he had his first solo painting show at three-walls.