Monday, January 25, 2010

Pondering a Few Studios of the South

Guest Blogger:
Lisa Stone
Roger Brown Study Collection Curator

For a long time I’ve been rooted in the notion that much inspiring work is inseparable from the sphere of home and life, made by artists for whom home = studio, where the boundaries between home, life, and art are irrelevant if not nonexistent. To put it another way, some of the most compelling creative work I’ve encountered orbits centrifugally around the maker’s home place / home life; the mainframe art world is not the gravitational center, nor is the work directed to that world, that audience.

I didn’t arrive at this by being disenchanted with the main frame/mainstream. I’m engaged by art that originates from many places including that one, but I continue to have the richest experiences in the places where creative people make work that’s more life specific than site specific, at in the 70s sense of the phrase.

Having spent the last 25+ years seeking out and visiting artists’ environments I’ve become just a little jaded, occasionally feeling that I’ve seen, or at least know about the exceptional examples. Jaded is exactly what I don’t want to be, so I’ve had the great good fortune––somewhat out of the blue––to encounter surprising sites at almost every turn, throughout the last year and the beginning of this one.

I just returned from a kind of pilgrimage to southern California, where reinventions of the studio erupt naturally and unexpectedly, as if from the fault line itself.  Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, the miracle-incarnate––for what they are and how they endure––are looking better than ever, and the world looks better from and through them. The Towers’ radiating influence stretches from its early (post-Rodia) history, as a beacon of hope during the 1965 Watts riots. Noah Purifoy and others established the Watts Towers Art Center as a response to the conditions that caused the riots (all of which profoundly directed his creative life, but more on this in a moment). 40+ years later, the Watts House Project is an inspired, contemporary endeavor under the direction of artist and organizer Edgar Arceneaux. In case my original point was momentarily lost, the Watts Towers complex grew out of Rodia’s home and garden––literally––at 1765 South 107th Street, Los Angeles, between about 1921 and 1954, as an ingenious and original expression of organizing space, architecturally and sculpturally, texturally and colorfully, symbolically and tangibly, operatically and soulfully. It means many things to many people, and was one of the agents that forced the 20th century to reconsider the no-longer-workable definitions of architecture and sculpture as mutually independent. It triggers an archetypal awareness of ground and sky. (I couldn’t do the Towers justice with any number of words, so please take my sincere advice and visit the site as soon as humanly possible, if you haven’t already.)

The pilgrimage went beautifully off track, and from the Watts Towers we were directed to “The 10th Wonder of the World”, at 1145 West 62nd Street, a modest neighborhood not too far from the Towers. The world keeps churning out its wonders, and the makers of this one––Lew and Diane Harris––confidently believe theirs to be in the top 10.

You figure there’s a house in there somewhere because it’s on a street lined with bungalows in a neighborhood filled with houses, in a city, etc. But then you’re not quite sure. It takes a few minutes to recognize the peak of the 2nd story gable—the only clue that there is indeed a house in there––since the space where the yard would be is so completely and densely occupied with stuff––big stuff and tons of it––stacked high, robustly arranged, and unified boldly with black, white, and red. Using leverage (the explanation for how they moved colossal sections of iron pipe and other industrial materials to their project), Lew and Diane created a composition of vertical upright cylinders, some topped with spinning industrial fans. There are airy open-work globe forms and curious melted amorphous objects. The whole arrangement is bordered along the sidewalk by a line of clear acrylic fence posts, a delicate touch. Memorials to Michael Jackson abound in Los Angeles, and the single narrative element here is a standing portrait (likely a memorial) to Jackson, incised in a jumbo piece of clear acrylic.

Lew described the process of finding industrial materials––specifically the large steel cylinders––and the metamorphosis that occurs when horizontal cast offs are moved to the new context of their yard and positioned upright. He mentioned the experiential power of color and verticality. He hinted at the purpose of their work: to give objects identity and meaning.

It’s easy to miss the narrow, winding path that leads from the sidewalk to the house. It’s flanked by tall walls of stuff––paper, rags, you name it, stacked so densely that it’s not clear if it’s actually navigable. No telling what’s in there, or even if the artists go into the house. The street side of the sidewalk seems to be the primary studio/living space, with sheltered seating, storage areas, and a packed-to-the-gills truck that may also be a living space. We found the artists there, and it appears that they spend much of their time there, working, and hosting the occasional wonder seeker.

The pilgrimage continued about 125 miles east to the high desert near Joshua Tree, to the Noah Purifoy site. (There are various names for it which I don’t mention as I’m not certain what the artist called it.) Purifoy (1917 – 2004) moved to the desert from Los Angeles in the mid 1980s and spent the next 20+ years building immeasurably poetic structures and objects throughout his 7 ½ acre open air desert studio. Purifoy worked with cast off things as well––a challenge, in that nearby Joshua Tree recycles just about everything. Knowing this fact gives his inventory of materials the distinct sense of rescue and transformation. (I guarantee that you will not find more beguiling sculptures made of cafeteria trays if you search the world over.) The constructions are at once an entire site and a collection of many individual tableaux and one can wander for hours through them, beholding the total of it, as meanings multiply and compound at each setting. Most of the constructions are larger-than-life (taller than us), tenuously held to ground by guy wires. The wind is high and the elements move, shake, and sing under the blasting sun and sky.

Purifoy was engaged in the L.A. art scene for years, and Kienholz associations pop up regularly, as both artists shared a knack for squeezing the life out of previously used materials and giving them new form.  Purifoy built an homage to Frank Gehry, and other tableaux may honor other artists. Purifoy’s trailer and surrounding garden are somewhere near the center of the site, and at some point Ed Ruscha built Purifoy a ranch house across the road, perhaps so he could get of the studio now and then.

Being there, the flash of sun glints kaleidoscopically around metal and wood, old clothes and tires, and the wind never ceases. The world closes in on this one place for the moment and you could be a Tibetan monk high in the Himalayas, flags flapping, meditating on a prayer wheel. The experience of wandering the site is exhilarating and a bit haunting. The tableaux are instantly fulfilling––they trigger pleasure and deep thought––and the opportunity to wander through acres of them is a true gift.

Lisa Stone is curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches in SAIC’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism. Primary work concerns the documentation, preservation, and interpretation of artists’ environments. Personal work concerns a garden/ruin in Spring Lake, WI.

Images from top to bottom
“65 Aluminum Trays”
Detail, Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, Los Angeles, CA
Overview, 10th Wonder of the World, Los Angeles, CA

Path to the house, 10th Wonder of the World

Lew and Diane Harris, h Wonder of the World

Monday, January 18, 2010

Out The Door and On The Move

Guest Blogger:
Karsten Lund
Curator and Writer

Years after the arrival of so-called post-studio practices, we've returned for another look at the fixed, grounded environment of artist's studio. I'm interested in trying to align changing perceptions of the studio and the rise of other models of art-making with broader cultural shifts and technological developments. A number of contributors to Studio Chicago have referred to the myth of the heroic artist working in isolation — within that narrative framework the studio is a refuge apart from the world. It's these ideas of disconnection and immobility that I'd like to explore and push against.

Reading between the lines in most analyses of the studio's fate, you'll find that a lot of non- or post-studio art practices rely on a growing mobility, the rising prevalence of travel. Travel gradually became commonplace for artists and the everyman alike. Furthermore, I'd venture that the other side of the coin is the ever-evolving media-technology that brings the big world to us.

It seems safe to say that over the last century, innovations in transportation and telecommunication technologies have led to substantial changes in our culture and even altered our individual ways of experiencing the world. As far back as the late-19th century, with the introduction of the telegraph and railroads, there was talk about how these inventions spelled "the annihilation of space and time." That sounds hyperbolic now, but it signaled the start of something: distances gradually contracting and long durations compressing into the instantaneous. By the 1950s, air travel and television had taken hold, which led Martin Heidegger to observe that a sense of "distancelessness" was encroaching on people's lives.

One could argue that in the decades after that these shifts toward greater mobility and media exposure inevitably affected the kind of artwork being made. Site-specific work, for instance, became bounded to particular places, and artists went off to make Land Art in distant locations. You have to travel to the site or else learn about it through documentation, published descriptions, mediated forms. With new technologies, the wider world starts creep into the home and office more and more; people head to the airport and out along the highways; artists leave the studio. 

Linking these developments together seems like less of a stretch when you note how these questions of mobility feed into more recent art practices, practices that now epitomize a post-studio era. But first, consider the last decade or so: the internet dramatically changes how we relate to each other (across distances); air travel is now totally ubiquitous; statistics show people relocate from one city to another with much greater frequency than a couple generations ago; buzz moves faster and further than ever before. As everyone adjust to new heights of mobility and mediation, so do artists.

In One Place After Another, Miwon Kwon observes that vanguard, site-specific art practices began to center on the movement of the artist, who becomes a nomad on a circuit of biennials and site-oriented commissions. Related ideas even poke through in curator/writer Nicolas Bourriaud's repeated attempts to describe the main currents of contemporary art. In 2002 he made the case for an art of postproduction that "seems to respond to the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age" — and in this work, he writes, "precariousness is at the center of a formal universe in which nothing is durable, everything is movement." 

If the studio is back, are we collectively searching for stability in the face of precariousness? Are we dying for firmer footing, a chance to stand still? 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, renewed interest in the studio arrives on the heels of an economic collapse. Predominant models, in everyday life as in art, start to seem questionable. A year ago we saw gas prices rise precipitously; the cost of flights ballooned; people began taking "staycations." If America had come to take an easy mobility for granted, this was a wake-up call of sorts. Next, as the bottom fell out of the bucket, pundits even began to wonder if we were witnessing Global Capitalism's death rattle.

From one standpoint, a post-studio approach to art production might appear to be the ticket to a low-cost art practice — No rent! Less objects!— but the rising tide of well-traveled, well-known itinerant artists requires a steady flow of money. Racking up a million frequent flyer miles doesn't come cheap. And site-based commissions themselves can be highly involved, or large and spectacular. 

So, is the perceived return to studio-based practice a retreat? Back to the bunker? Or might it be a refusal of some of the very terms that have come to shape our lives — i.e. real-time media technology and an itch to stay moving? I think back now to the poster that Robyn O'Neil made for The Believer (if I'm remembering correctly), which I saw during her exhibition at Tony Wight this fall. On one side of the poster she humorously and attentively describes her studio practice, and one of the items is emphatically NO INTERNET.

Better yet, can a studio-based practice be the path to a new form of criticality, one that doesn't turn away from these evolving cultural conditions but rather explores their implications from a deliberately steady position? (After all, most of us still only travel occasionally, though we might be on the internet all the time.) 

Tentatively, two Chicago artists come to mind: Curtis Mann and Heather Mekkelson. Mann acquires peoples' snapshots from embattled places like Iraq and Lebanon, sourced via the web, and he reworks them using bleach and varnish. The resulting images suggest a strange new world, yet they also isolate elements from the original locations, amplifying the traces of real-life conflicts. Mekkelson also works from second-hand photographs, specifically pictures depicting the aftermath of natural disasters; based on these images she carefully reproduces the wreckage by hand using new materials from your local Home Depot. Both artists deal with the struggle to meaningfully engage with far away events and places that nonetheless feel accessible online or in photos. In both cases, it seems vital to the work that the artist is primarily operating in a studio setting: i.e. at a distance, with a degree of detachment, and yet responding to their sources in a physical manner — as if trying to feel it all out in a more tangible way. Last week's devastating earthquake in Haiti, and the constant news coverage in its wake, seem to underline the relevance of these ambivalent inquiries all over again.

Or is it possible that revitalized interest in the fixed setting of the studio is just another point along a certain trajectory, a predictable outcome? Media theorist Paul Virilio, with his usual dire outlook, wrote in Open Sky, "We are seeing a reversal in trends: where motorization of transport and information once caused a general mobilization of populations, swept up in the exodus of work and then of leisure, instantaneous transmission tools cause the reverse: a growing inertia; television and especially remote control action no longer require people to be mobile, but merely to be mobile on the spot."

As we return attention to the studio now, perhaps we ought to think about it slightly differently then. Maybe today's studio isn't an isolation chamber cut off from the world, as the cliché goes; the conventional workspace of the studio is yet another staging ground that aims outwards, another node in a networked world. In any case, it's a place, like many others, where we have to contend with the ripples of technology, and also with trends we tend to take for granted, whether mobilization or potential inertia. I'll be the first to admit that this line of thinking begs for a longer essay and a more thorough argument than I can provide now, but the speculative signposts I've planted here at least point to another avenue for discussion.

Karsten Lund  is an independent curator and writer, and the Deputy Editor of Flavorpill Chicago. In 2009 he organized exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Columbia College Chicago) and Swimming Pool Project Space. He holds an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York.

Images top to bottom
Robyn O'Neil,Masses and masses rove a darkened pool; never is there laughter on this ship of fools, 2007, Courtesy of the artist
Curtis Mann, loudspeaker (Beirut), 2007, Courtesy of the artist
Heather Mekkelson, told them to look after the younger ones, 2008, installation shot: ThreeWallsSOLO, Chicago, Courtesy of the artist

Monday, January 11, 2010

Remembering the Studio

Guest Blogger:
Mathew Paul Jinks

When I was 8 years old I had the greatest studio of all. A big room in the middle floor of an old Victorian house. It was across the hallway from my parent’s room, ans was a space for junk to be stored and for me to hide away in. It was a messy room, full of everyone’s throw away things, and a big draughtsman’s desk my father had rescued from an unknown source. Big tea chests lay scattered around brimming with stuff. Tea chests were good for moving things in and my father had brought many of them home from the shipping docks where he worked. On one occasion when running for the phone (the old type that brrrringed and brrrrringed) I slashed open my inside leg on the rusty tin corner of a said tea chest, I was wearing shorts for school and I still have the scar to this day.

My father brought home many office type things including rolls of fax paper or dot matrix paper that I would use to draw on. Long panoramas of fictional landscapes were created on thin rolls of paper that stretched on an on until my imagination ran dry. I had a fascination with primal elements. I would start fires in the garden to see how things burned and I would create slow dripping waterfalls in the ‘studio’ fascinated by the action of displacement and siphoning with gravity. My father had ‘gifted’ me a steam engine, but it was really for him. it came with a set of tools for sharpening and cutting and polishing, but I just loved to watch the steam turn into energy from a simple flame.

When I was studying photography in Glasgow many years later, I briefly had a studio in an old prison cell in the East end, and then later at The Glasgow School of Art the studios for the photo students were housed in the old psych ward of a hospital. My studio was shared with another student named Giles and it was once used as a slop room for cleaning and bedpan changing. Various parts of this building were haunted. Windows are important in the spaces I use. This slop room studio had a big window that looked across a street which was a very steep hill. At lunch time you would see runners training wearing back packs up and down the hill past the window before then returning to work.

My first studio had big Victorian sash windows that had hooks to lift the windows open, just big enough to fit two fingers under.

Though I would frequently romanticize the notion and call them studios the spaces I have used have been far more useful when treated as a home away from home, or indeed when they have been located in my home they become full of artifacts and objects that feed and nourish my eyes and hands. I relish the placement and orchestrate the movements of things around the room.

I briefly had a space in the Feather lofts building in Chicago, with fantastic views of the train tracks and downtown. The windows were wonderful, but a wholly unproductive space in the end, the hallways always smelt of Nag Champa, it had to go.

My UIC Grad school studio was very blank and wrought with the expectation of production. They were big private studios with lots of light with little to no character and a vengeful AC system. When I am forced to make a space for myself things never work out, when a space develops naturally it of course feels right. I would be happier in a garden shed as a tinkerer and a thinker than in a grand production space of lofty ideals.

My current space is at home, half living space half ‘stuff space’, surrounded by remnants of research and projects, all feeding off each other and breeding more ideas; this is the studio that works best for me. My work is no longer centered around a unique productive experience, the fickle nature of my research requires me to keep ‘stations’ and work benches ready. This ready-ness or ‘on duty’ state gives me a comfort to explore other potentials. I recently read the book Remainder by Tom McCarthy in which the central character loses his memory only to rediscover it through a production of intricate re-enactments of his fragmented memory flashes. He orchestrates these ‘scenes’ to be acted and staffed 24 hours a day constantly in a state of theatre. Much like the Kaufman film Synecdoche.

Knowing these scenes are being re-run somewhere gives him the security to explore other potential meanings in his memories. Occasionally he returns to the sites to witness the accumulation and detritus of the process. This he records and annotates in a vain attempt at a creation of a research practice based upon fictionalized memory traces. This is how my studio functions.

"My work performs culture and collects memory.  My installations, videos and performances appropriate  and de-regulate social and historical constructs: self,  nation, history. I use image and language as formal  stand-ins for the latent territories that underlie these  constructs and the thresholds that link them".

Mathew completed his undergraduate studies at The Glasgow School of Art in Scotland U.K, in 2005.  He then moved to the U.S and completed his MFA as a University Fellow at the University of Illinois
at Chicago in 2008. Mathew has exhibited both in the U.K and the U.S. and is currently exhibiting at Gallery 400, Chicago, for it's At The Edge Series, show entitled “On Sundrun”.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Producing Production Site: Revisiting and Revisualizing the Artist’s Studio

Guest Blogger:
Dominic Molon

Curator, MCA Chicago

How can one assess the significance of the studio today, not only what it means for artists and the production of their work but also how it is perceived and understood in the larger culture? As an increasing number of artists elect to work beyond the conventional confines this space—eschewing the maintenance of a space dedicated specifically to creating art—how are these current reconsiderations reflected or represented in recent work that takes the studio as its subject? How does the studio currently function simultaneously as a site for the quantifiably physical construction of material objects, for more intangible activities like research, experimentation, and conceptualization, and for the perpetuation of myths about the lives of artists and the nature of art making itself?   While an exhibition devoted to the theme of the studio in contemporary art could attempt the broadest understanding of how it exists today—from macro-manifestations á la the Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami mini-factory models, to its transcendence by artists who have come to define a so-called “post-studio” sensibility—perhaps the most viable approach is to focus more specifically on how artists are extending a centuries-old tradition of representing the space within the work of art itself. 

The exhibition I have organized at the MCA and set to open in early February, Production Site: The Artist’s Studio Inside-Out, places an emphasis on the “studio as subject” to prompt greater consideration of what the space has come to mean and what else it might possibly signify, than how it is (or isn’t) being used by artists today.   The 13 artists in the exhibition—Nikhil Chopra, Justin Cooper, Tacita Dean, Fischli/Weiss, Ryan Gander, Rodney Graham, William Kentridge, Kerry James Marshall, Bruce Nauman, John Neff, Amanda Ross-Ho, Deb Sokolow, and Andrea Zittel, all hail from different parts of the globe and work across various media yet share a compulsion to represent the studio (or incorporate its dynamics) in multiple or large-scale works.

The artists in Production Site, like the exhibition’s curator, are equally conscious of and affected by the relentlessly expansive development and diversification of both mass culture and the art world.  These changes have arrived courtesy of advances in communication technologies and the proliferation of venues for the presentation and creation of visual art in the form of a growing number of commercial galleries, alternative and artist-run spaces, and residency programs.

The work in the exhibition demonstrates a rigorous understanding of how the studio has functioned and been represented throughout the history of art, and also how it has come to live in the popular imagination through mass media representations.  It’s probable that my own initial impressions of the studio—or at least the most enduring ones—were created through the roughly successive experiences of seeing Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”  contribution to the 1989 film New York Stories and reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of Jackson Pollock (published, coincidentally enough, that same year.)  Both reaffirmed the now-cliché identity of the studio as the solitary space of the heroic (typically male) artist-genius who summons inspiration and unleashes it with wild abandon through the wanton application of paint to canvas.  While these respective cinematic and literary sensationalizations of the artist’s studio have been mitigated by an understanding of the space more consistent with its more mundane realities, it’s not unrealistic to assume that the general public’s conception of the studio and of the artist has been produced and constructed by such depictions in art, literature, and especially popular culture.  The work in the exhibition reflects artists’ absorption of these representations and their subsequently self-aware reimagination and reconsideration of the space.

Production Site joins a growing number of exhibitions, books, and other scholarly and practical initiatives in critically exploring what the studio means now and how it’s symbolic and functional roles have changed since the Renaissance.  One suspects that the urgency with which the studio has come back to the fore as a subject of serious scrutiny and consideration reflects a backlash against a market-driven atmosphere emphasizing consumption, prompting instead a more insistent move towards a celebration of the various aspects of production.   Perhaps the traditional idea of the studio is being given one last hurrah of examination and attention, before more spatially-ambivalent or presentation-site-specific approaches to process become the norm.  Regardless of the larger context (though one disregards the larger context at their peril), Production Site ultimately intends to afford the public access to both the realities and fictions of the studio to encourage a more accurate, nuanced, and complex appreciation of the significance of this space.

Dominic Molon  is Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, where he has curated the major thematic exhibition “Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967” (2007), as well as solo exhibitions of Liam Gillick (2009), Wolfgang Tillmans (2006), Gillian Wearing (2002), and Sharon Lockhart (2001).  Molon has contributed to numerous publications including Art ReviewWhiteWalls, Vitamin D: New Perspectives on DrawingArt on Paper; Contemporary Magazine;Trans; and Tate: the Art Magazine as well as exhibition catalogues for Karen Kilimnik, Elmgreen/Dragset, and Muntean/Rosenblum.  He has also presented numerous lectures and moderated panels internationally.

Images, top to bottom:

Tacita Dean, Section Cinema (Homage to Marcel Broodthaers), 2002. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York

Ryan Gander, Felix provides a stage – Eleven sketches on which I was about to draw, 2008. © Ryan Gander, courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
Ryan Gander, A sheet of paper on which I was about to draw, as it slipped from my table and fell to the floor, 2008. Photo by Jerry Hardman-Jones. Coutesy of the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York