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Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Remembering Awe: Millicent Young

 Sculptor Millicent Young’s elegant minimalism is both paean to nature and compelling aesthetic statement that pays homage to both the ancient and contemporary. With materials that share an austere, clean, organic sensibility, Young limns a personal oeuvre that demands the viewer to slow down and pay attention.

“Most all my work is simultaneously personal and profoundly connected to the world, to our living history of atrocities and vanishing habitats and species collapse and meltings and so on, and it’s also joined with the inexplicable beauty that binds us.”

A combination of accident and intuition goes into the selection of materials Young gravitates toward and uses. Ordinary, non-precious, they share an intrinsic beauty, mystery, and even paradoxical quality. She is drawn to them both for these attributes and also for their capacity to transcend them to become something much greater.

For instance, horsehair gathers light and moves. And it has this associative aspect; it’s not quite us; it’s not quite the other. We have hair too, but horsehair is not our hair. It’s from a living being, but it’s dead. And it has a memory in its DNA. “It ends up being a material that draws you in, but it’s also elusive. I like that. I like that it is both beautiful, and for some people a little creepy, even if it’s thinking: but where did this hair come from? So it’s beautiful, but not entirely easy.”

Young began using horsehair quite serendipitously when in need of a strand-like substance for a sculpture, she happened to catch sight of a hank of horsehair on a hook in her studio, a commemorative relic of an animal who had died. That day, sunlight was hitting the hair and Young was transfixed by its luminosity. It’s one of those things one doesn’t normally notice, but horsehair possesses a peculiar incandescence that makes the strands almost seem lit from within.

Composed of 1,500 strands of white horsehair Luminous Room is a bewitching rectangle of light. Standing in front of it, one feels hushed and humbled by the simple and yet utterly sacred beauty on display. The shape and substance evoke an enclosed room, but its luminosity suggests the absence of physicality and the quite opposite meaning of “room” as endless space. This conundrum is a key element of the piece.

Each strand is made by drawing out a long piece of thread and tying slipknots periodically along it into which tiny bundles of horsehair—5 or 8—are placed. The slipknot is pulled tight and a drop of glue is added to secure the strand in place. Then, each template strand of several bundles is hung individually, one by one onto cables. It’s a very laborious and meditative process to make and install.

Young groups thicker bundles towards the center of Luminous Room, which creates the effect of a shaft of light from which emanates a glowing halo made up of the surrounding hair. These central clusters of hair are also longer, pooling on the floor beneath the piece.

Made from brown horsehair, which is less incandescent than white, Murmuration III draws attention to the other physical traits of horsehair: its coarseness, its waviness, its ombré tonalities. The distinctly wing-like shape of the sculpture adds an exhilarating flourish and also references the starlings of the whirling, aerodynamic display from which the piece takes its title.

Working with plaster and teabags filled with wood ash and pigment Young produces what is perhaps her most enigmatic and emotionally charged work. “Plaster has a real materiality to it, it has a wet and dry cycle and a real sense of flow. I love the intimacy of the surface and how it records every nuance of the cast tea bags in an indelible way. That was important to me because violence is that way—how it marks us, marks the earth, marked me.”

Young submerges the teabags at various levels in wet plaster. She then excavates them once the plaster has dried. She became obsessed with this process, painstakingly removing the contents and peeling out the paper casing. “The whole thing was like excavating a body. The associations are just intense, peeling the tea bag is like peeling away the skin.” On some, she backfills the excavated part with plaster and then squirts it down so the pigments run. At the very end, she adds delicate line drawings of wings above the wound-like depressions. These wisps of graphite have an immateriality that stands in such contrast to the solid presence of the plaster, they catch you unaware. "The wings arrived at the very last, very suddenly and without being re-worked, and I knew that I wanted them in the faintest pencil and just one line." Even to her their meaning is cryptic, but they seem to imply a redemption of sorts.

With Ghost IV, Young turns the plaster panel around to expose the convex impressions of the teabags. Just as the concave shapes suggest a variety of associations, these evoke graves, gestational bulges, pods. Suspense and anticipation hover over this work. What is beneath the surface and is it about to burst forth?

Mounted on handsome oxidized steel slabs that conjure a watery backdrop, there is refinement and restraint in how the plaster pieces are presented. This rarefied and considered approach to fabrication and presentation is characteristic of Young’s approach.

Young says of the plaster pieces: "This is the most intimately cathartic work I have ever done; I realized what I was working with was my own experience of violence that was done to me and was still inhabiting me. But at the same time, the work is connected with all that's going on in the world."

Young brings a sculptor’s sense of materiality to her two-dimensional work. She uses washi paper, which has a particular translucence and is known for its ready absorption. The ink doesn’t sit on the surface but stains the paper. In Slow Violence Young’s extravagant blooms of ink resemble blossoms or vapor. They appear both benign and also rather nefarious with hints of red pigment suggesting vestiges of the violence of the title. The title provides another conundrum that gives us pause. It seems almost oxymoronic—doesn’t violence happen in quick, explosive bursts? Here, “slow” adds an insidious note, implying a history of violence, happening over a period of time.

An Unfinished Story, another washi paper and ink work, takes the form of a traditional Japanese scroll with drips and daubs of ink forming a graceful line of contained energy. Young’s aesthetic is so aligned with the Japanese, it’s not surprising she would incorporate the scroll form, but she also uses it expressively, arranging the rolled up sections of the paper to screen, and thus draw attention to, passages tinged with red—Young’s surrogate for violence.

"These works became a conversation about movement. The density of the ink the expansion and contraction of the paper, etc. And you only get one chance. For every one like this, there are 20 others that didn't work."

Moving through all of Young's work is the concept of the kōan, a Buddhist teaching tool that takes the form of a nonsensical question intended to help focus the mind by leading it to a place where patterned constructs fall apart. The kōan is there to stop you, causing you to observe and consider natural, everyday phenomena that we tend to overlook. The beauty, the magic and sacredness, it’s all right there, if you only harken and look.

“My hope for my work is that it brings us to a place where we remember awe. I would never want to say that my work inspires awe; that’s not who I am. Awe is out there, but we forget about it. One of the things awe does is it silences us. It shares this with the kōan; after the kōan, it’s silent. In the Buddhist tradition, silence is necessary to become awake.” It is then, in this heightened state of awareness that awe returns and we can truly see and appreciate the sublime.

Check out my conversation with Millicent Young in Keenan Parry's film. Dancer: Anna Zekan:  

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Gwenessa Lam Explores Memory and Perception

Canadian visual artist Gwenessa Lam explores what triggers memory and the nature of perception and how disaster images are made and disseminated. She was working on a series that dealt with Syria and the Arab Spring, but she wanted to do something that is closer to home. Quite literally. “House fires are something everyone is exposed to no matter where you live. There’s always some fire. They’re often neglected in relation to larger issues, like a terrorist bombing, but if it happens to you, or someone you know, the effects can be as devastating. They’re both ubiquitous and yet highly personal events. Among other things, they make you think about what constitutes home and what happens when it’s taken away—how very much more significant it becomes.”

Lam works in oil and her technique is laborious: she slowly building up her image through successive layers of glazes that must be applied when the surface is wet. This means she has a limited window of time when she can work. Being on a residency for an extended period without interruption is vital to her process. “When I’m at home, things get in the way so I have to reactivate the medium again because I’ve left it too long.” Lam uses an extended medium that allows her about 24 hours, nevertheless, after two hours, the surface gets tacky and she has to reactivate it. “If I keep it wet, I can keep it going.”

Lam works from photographs, altering the images to create a negative version of the original in order to disrupt the way we look at normalized images. “I manipulate the photograph through filters and Photoshop, it’s still black and white, but I invert it and amplify things. For me, this is important in two ways. This particular fire is a night scene so normally it would all be black, but when you invert it, the black areas become white and the white becomes black. Initially, I was more interested in the fire as being light and hot. If you ever see a night fire, it draws you in—but I wanted to see what would happen if you reversed it. Normally, light is seen as life-giving; think of all the mythologies of fire, it’s the source of heat and energy and how we cook, but then in a different context, like a house fire, it’s very destructive. When you make it black it’s almost a psychological flip in one’s mind. So in some ways the blackness—it still could be like smoke so it’s ephemeral, but to me, the blackness is a psychological internal solidification that happens by making that choice to make it black.” The inversion is not only optically interesting, but it creates confusion. Is it fire or is it smoke? It’s hard to tell and if it’s both where one begins and the other ends. The smoke is an effect of the fire, but maybe it’s going out, or maybe it’s just beginning? There’s uncertainty. At what point of the emergency are we at?

At first, Lam’s palette looks like monochrome black and white, but almost immediately you see a distinct pink cast to the painting. This adds a lovely soft aura that’s startling, eliciting, on the one hand, an emotional response akin to a kind of dreamy nostalgia, and on the other, bafflement at how weirdly at odds it is to the catastrophic image depicted. This effect is only enhanced by the refined delicacy of Lam’s approach. She depicts the hard edges and nebulous shapes with perfect veracity and an overall restraint. The end result is a painting that is mysterious, and as ineffably beautiful as it is haunting.

Lam uses the pink as a reference to the type of source image she’s painting from. “I’m conveying that the print itself has an aberration—it’s not color corrected—sometimes you’ll have a cheap printer which will have a pink tone. I like to include those little hiccups as part of the palette to create an image that has a distant imprint of its source, like a patina. It looks like its black and white, but you’re not quite sure, and the effect will remind you of something. That’s part of the interest I have in perception in terms of recognizing the image, locating the source, but also in the way we experience it through the color. So one ongoing investigation in the work has been this interest in lightness and darkness, but also the idea of the imprint of an experience. A manifestation of this is the shadow and in in this case, it’s the idea of what survives after a disaster. Even the idea of the smoke and the fire as a type of ephemeral shadow as well.”

The inverted image also achieves a kind of solarization effect. It’s as if she’s captured the scene lit fleetingly by a great flash of light that has crystalized the moment of disaster.

For her subject matter, Lam tries to find actual houses because she wants to reference actual events, but it’s actually very hard to find them. By the time a news crew arrives at the scene, the house is usually too far-gone. Of the images she has found, Lam has had to sift through to make sure they weren’t intentionally set by the fire department for training purposes. But these also interest her. “Trying to understand which are real and which aren’t has led me down a rabbit hole thinking about the reliability of these images. What is the source imagery? How is it disseminated?”

She was able to verify this one as an actual house fire that occurred in Wainfleet, Ontario. But she has been tracking another one for the past year and has found no clear provenance. “It’s so strange because it’s such a popular image; it’s been re-appropriated so many times that its context has been emptied out. I figured out it’s on a meme generator website and in the last three months, the number of images, or websites that have been re-appropriating it are multiplying. Before I arrived, a couple of weeks ago, it was up to 700. People are using these images like clip art for things like home insurance websites, but also some of them are accompanying online blogs or narratives that have nothing to do with the specific house, or even a fire. I’ve found it on amateur news blogs that are reporting on a real fire, just not this one. If you read the news story closely, it won’t actually ever say this is the image of the fire. But to look at it superficially, you would think it was. That made me really think about the truth-value in the things that we see. We’re always looking at things online or even in the newspaper and thinking it’s suspect, but it became much more clear. And the fact people are doing it so boldly is so interesting.”

There’s a serendipity that comes into play Lam’s process. For instance, the two figures on the bottom left of the painting were a discovery, made when she inverted the image. She didn’t see them in the original because of the darkness. Their proximity and seeming disinterest in the conflagration going on beside them is peculiar. At first Lam suspected that maybe the fire was intentionally set. But she has verified that it is real and they are firemen whose aspect and position are somewhat distorted. Between them is another unlikely vignette, what appears to be a horse or cow calmly grazing. Because it was a poor quality image to begin with, it could have been just a weird formation, but to Lam, this ambiguous blur registered as a pastoral scene and she wanted to depict it as she saw it, shaped by what she personally projected onto the image.

Nowadays, it’s hard to shock people because everything is out there easily accessible, easily seen. Maybe because a house fire has a quotidian quality—we are all at risk—it resonates so deeply with us. It’s interesting that Lam achieves a reaction of fear, or at least foreboding, in the viewer using such quiet means. She is trying to understand what one’s engagement with the images is. “We all are exposed to disturbing events whether they be personal or external and how to respond to them. I’m trying to work through a romanticization or a dwelling in things. There’s enough atrocity and disaster around us. How do we work through all that and arrive at something generative. The reality is that those events and that feeling will always be there; it’s an experience that we have to acknowledge.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

Aaron McIntosh's Strange Baby Blankets

A self-described "nerdy Appalachain queer guy" visual artists Aaron McIntosh 
comes from a long line of quilters. Aaron is justifiably proud of this family legacy, which he has appropriated and used in a decidedly contemporary way.

"My family didn't really go to art museums or anything like that so in a lot of ways this was the creative outlet I saw most as a child." In his work Aaron explores the intersections between material culture, family tradition, identity-shaping, sexuality and desire in a range of works including quilts, collage, drawing, domestic textiles, furniture and sculpture.

Growing up in the mountains of East Tennessee, Aaron picked up quilting, “almost like osmosis.” “Quilting resonates with me because of my family connection,” he says. “I think of my practice as being always grounded in quilt making, so whether it’s unit based piecework, or accumulation of materials, or even some of the things that surround quilting, like hoarding materials—I grew up around all of that. It’s important to me to both pay homage to the people who came before and didn’t have the luxury or privilege to study art, and also bring their traditions into the 21st century.”

Aaron is interested in how desire gets mediated through things and what it is to learn about one’s desire, sexuality and romantic inclinations through the printed word and visuals. He takes these and translates them into his quilt and drawing studies. “Sometimes it’s very present, something lifted directly from those sources and then turned into a quilt or the figure is maybe removed and so you’re left with a background, or a silhouette, or a negative space that indicates the figure. I’m interested in that movement from physical, corporeal desire and also material desire. There’s always a reverence for the materiality of the thing and patterns.”

Reinterpreted in brightly hued calico, the overtness of the figures’ eroticism isn’t all that evident, but it hovers over the work. Aaron likens these quilts to “strange baby blankets”. For him they play the role of transitional object as described by psychoanalist Donald Woods Winnicott who posited that young children use objects (teddy bears, blankies) to separate the "me" from the "not-me". "I'm interested in making transitional objects that aren’t rooted in childhood, but rooted in adult sexuality and eroticism,” he says. “In my own life, this means transitioning out of certain ways of being romantically, sexually, into new ways of being. I’m taking what those transitional objects represent together with some hybrid of the child’s blankie into this new space of sexual exploration.”

There’s an aspect of comfort that’s intrinsic to transitional objects. In pairing this traditional, familial technique with gay erotica, Aaron has found a way of uniting these two essential sides of his character. Establishing a strong bond between them is the very definition of comfort.

Aaron hangs the quilts draped on a hook on the wall like rags, as opposed to stretched out. “You’re going to be denied the image,” he says. But the viewer will be invited to take them off the wall and hold them, to have a physical experience with them and be able to spread them out so they can see them.

In addition to fabric, Aaron works with printed materials and erotica, piecing them together and doing drawings over them. He’s done large room sized installations referencing the newspaper-covered walls of his grandmother’s house as well as small-scale drawings. Pieced together and featuring drawn stitches his drawings are symbolic quilts. “They provide a new way of thinking about transitional objects that is very personal to me.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Helène Aylon

Acclaimed multimedia artist Helène Aylon’s recent residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts marked a homecoming of sorts; Helène was last there 22 years ago working on a series of paintings. “When I got home after the residency in 1993,” Helène says. “I never looked at them again. They were in cartons hidden away, and now I’ve come back with them. I am seeing how I was in those days, these panels, these garlands, are remembered from a long time ago, but they’re also elegiac: things gone by. I’m making an arc of my life at the end of my life. I’ve come full circle with the process art, and it’s happening at VCCA.” 

These paintings feature fragile leaves, pods and blades of grass strewn across a field of what looks like eddying vapor or liquid. Helène used brewed coffee as her medium; its faint aroma still hovers over the canvases. 

Born into an ultra orthodox Jewish family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York, Helène married a Talmudic scholar/rabbi at the age of 18. Widowed at 30 with two young children and armed with an arts degree from Brooklyn College, Helène underwent a remarkable transformation that would find her living in Berkeley in the 1970s, teaching at San Francisco State and forging a prominent art career. 

Helène, who is 84, is one of the foremost artists of the eco-feminist art movement, which links feminism and nature. She is to receive a Lifetime Achievement and President’s Art & Activism Award from the Women’s Caucus for Art at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. on February 4, 2016 (her 85th birthday). Two days later, she will be screening her Bridge of Knots video (with sound by Meredith Monk) and will also be participating in a panel at American University in Washington during the College Art Association conference.

Her series Paintings That Change, produced between 1974 and 1977, featured linseed oil “formations” on paper. The natural quality of the oil and the organic shapes it formed appealed to Helène as did the chance and change involved. It was the perfect match for an artist whose own life had been marked by seismic shifts. 

In 1978, Helène began work on a series called The Breakings, pouring linseed oil in a puddle on a surface, allowing a skin to form on top of the oil and then tilting the works up from the floor. The wet oil would press against the outer skin, causing it to break. “I would wait months for a skin to form—very much like a gestation. The formations looked like tree trunks and torsos—it was all mixed together: a women’s body and the body of the land. Eventually, I would announce that I was going to make a Breaking and invite people to witness it. It was like a birthing: the sac that held the oil would inevitably break and the oil would gush out like an amniotic sac bursting. It was orgasmic too. It was about a release. It is indicative of the visceral, birthing body, as opposed to the Playboy body that dominates our culture. ”“I would say to the “midwives": ‘whatever is contained must be released. You are going to initiate a Breaking, and I am going to receive it.’ So, I was going to accept it no matter what. Whatever happens. I was not in charge in a sense. It was a different kind of an attitude; I never wanted to make my mark particularly in the art. I wanted it to tell me something, rather than me telling it something. I wanted to learn something deeper from the art. Because I felt abstract art after Rothko did his great work, I felt it was arbitrary. It didn’t matter if you put yellow in the corner, or purple in the corner. So I wanted something natural to happen to inform it.” The Breakings were shown and performed at 112 Workshop (now White Columns), and documented for the Whitney’s American Century exhibition in 2000. 

In 1980, Helène heard Australian physician, author, and anti-nuclear advocate Helen Caldicott speak: “She said wherever you are in your life, try to imagine doing something for disarmament. Suddenly, I just felt: Goodbye studio, I’m going to do something.” 

Helène closed her studio and converted a used U-Haul truck into an Earth Ambulance. She drove the ambulance to 12 Military S.A.C. (Strategic Air Command) sites across the country and eventually the United Nations in New York during the Second Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament on June 12, 1982, to “rescue” the earth. She collected pillowcases from women who had written their dreams and nightmares about nuclear war on them, filling them with earth. She selected pillowcases because they’re sacks and so reference the S.A.C. sites. Pillowcases are also very intimate items that we use at our most vulnerable, and Helène wanted to play upon the image of fleeing refugees, their possessions carried in a pillowcase. Later on Helène took the pillowcases and knotting them together into long ropes of linen, she hung them across various  museum façades. The Bridge of Knots, as the piece was called, was installed at the Knoxville Museum of Art (1993) Berkeley Art Museum (1995) and American University Museum (2006). Earth Ambulance was shown at Creative Time at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage in 1992. 

In 1985, to mark the 40th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Helène went to Japan. She made two large “sacs”, representing the two cities. She asked students to put some kind of substance from the earth inside them, and they filled them with seeds, grain, pods and bamboo. The sacs were launched onto rivers where they floated towards Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the bombing, Helène’s video two sacs en route (i.e. to Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was projected on the Sony Jumbotron in Times Square Helène was particularly pleased that the screen looked directly down on the U.S. Armed Forces recruitment kiosk. 

In the 1990s, Helène turned her attention to God with The G-d Project, which spanned two decades and is comprised of nine parts. “I decided I was going to liberate God from the patriarchal misogyny and brutality imposed by man projected onto G-d. With The Liberation of G-d, I planned to go through every single page of the Old Testament, cover it respectfully with transparent parchment and then highlight in pink marker all the parts that revealed this. It was a very big thing; it took six years. Called The Book that Will not Close on account of all the inserted protective parchment, it was shown at The Jewish Museum in New York where it received both hate mail and love letters.”  Helène wrote G-d using a dash, in a nod to her orthodox background where she was taught never to use the name of God in vain. Helène’s dashes are always written in a subversive, pro-female hot pink inserting a female presence in the name of God.  

Helène’s photographic series, Wrestlers documents her going out into the landscape to search for the echoes of foremothers that have disappeared: “I never heard about them. When I imagine Eden, I imagine a female space where foremothers are named and regarded with the awe of the sacred land they resembled. I knew these foremothers had wrestled to be heard.” In the photographs, mirror image figures of Helène are dwarfed by the imposing and sensual landscape that evokes the female form. “This sounds very grandiose, but after looking for the foremothers, I decided, hey, you know what, I’m going to be a future foremother." I thought of this when I was very sick—in a coma for 20 days—when I woke I was so very grateful that I had survived I decided to go to the land in gratitude and perhaps to get some answers—so once a year I do what I call a Turning. I turn to the right, I turn to the left, I don’t come to any conclusion. I don’t have any answers.”

Subsequent work became much more personal. Two years ago in Israel, Helène showed pieces that used her own history to highlight the many restrictions placed on women by the Jewish orthodox faith. Included in the show was Helène’s marriage contract and a 24’ long menstrual cycle chart to be used to determine “clean days”. “It’s unreal,” she says. “But I lived it.”

Helène exhibited her early process paintings: Paintings that Change at the legendary Betty Parsons gallery in the 1970s. Helène shared a close bond with the dealer and on October 25,, Helène will be on the panel: Betty Parsons and her Artists at the Samuel Dorskey Museum at SUNY New Paltz.  

Helène’s piece, Written Behind my Back, will be included in the 2015 Jerusalem Biennale opening onSeptember 25. She is hoping All Rise will be in the 2017 Biennale. As Helène describes it, The G-d Project consists of nine “houses” without women. The last house is the courthouse, the subject of All Rise. The ultra orthodox do not permit women to be judges in the religious court in Israel. “I wanted to really do something tangible. We have women cantors and we have women rabbis, but we do not have women judges in the religious courts in Israel. Women who want to get divorced are kept under the thumb of their husbands who are often in cahoots with the judges. The women are agunot—in Hebrew that means the ”chained ones.”

The All Rise piece consists of three judge’s chairs, courtroom flags that are pink pillowcases. Under the chairs are the fringes from the prayer shawls worn by men. “That’s a little bit naughty,” she says with a chuckle. “But I had to do it.” 

Helène’s memoir takes its title from The Breakings series: Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist. Published by The Feminist Press in 2012, the memoir recounts her breaking away from her past and the nostalgia she still has for it. 

Balancing aesthetics with ethics, Helène embraces both the sensuousness of the natural world and the cerebral world of ideas in her work. Her rigorous religious upbringing armed her with the language and knowledge to take on something as formidable as the Five Books of Moses, and her evolution from complacent rabbi’s wife into a woman attuned to her primal place in the grand scheme of things, adds an aura of profound legitimacy to her perspective.  

“The ‘70s was about the body, the ‘80s the earth and the ‘90s, God,” says Helène even as she allows as how she continues to work on everything all at once: “I couldn’t just do one thing. It was annoying to people in the art world because they wanted a signature piece. My work focuses on the issues of the day. And the thing is, the issues never go away. I can’t just leave them alone; I have to keep dealing with them.”

Helène?s work is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Jewish Museum. Helène Has received grants from the NEA,  the Pollack–Krasner Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She is the subject of a new documentary film by Kelly Spivey funded by the New York Council for the Arts and the NEA. http://www.heleneaylon.com/