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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/

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Elegance, Wit and Gravitas Inform Heidi Kumao's Work

In 2011 Visual artist Heidi Kumao broke her back while sledding. During the slow convalescence, Kumao spent many hours lying on her sofa staring up at the ceiling. She describes it as like being “Underwater looking up at a layer of ice.“

Her film, Swallowed Whole, which was featured in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, Black Maria Film Festival, Tricky Women International Animation Film Festival, the Atlanta Film Festival and just won Best Experimental Film at the 13th Annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto is a wonderfully evocative portrayal of this personal calamity.

Kumao employs striking images and interesting techniques in her filmmaking. For instance, at one point, she makes the film frames thwack down like the lenses in an ophthalmologist’s phoropter to emulate the crashing down to the ground of her airborne sled.

She uses stacks of books, cookies and lifesavers to recreate the impact and shattering of vertebrae, and later on, melted ice cubes. These ordinary items are amusing and very effective stand-ins, adding a breath of fresh air to this grave and beautiful film.

The final shot—taken in the Arctic Circle—features Kumao standing on an ice floe, a lone, fragile figure in this inhospitable and awe-inspiring landscape. It’s a humbling and haunting image.

Egress, inspired by Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, is another compelling film by Kumao. It’s actually a gallery installation as it includes a blank book-shaped stack positioned to one side. Images are projected on the books so they appear as if bound in gold tooled Moroccan leather and subsequently, the Iranian flag effectively signaling the change from valued literature to government approved tomes. In the film, chador-clad women circle around the stack, like moths to a flame. Indeed, the billowing of the chador’s material becomes the fluttering of butterfly/wings. A giant hand, holding a pin hovers and then stabs a butterfly woman pinning her to the wall. But there is a hopeful ending as a woman struggles up a tower to fly a kite, the giant hand returns with giant scissors. They aim for the kite string but somehow manage to cut the dreary smog laden background, which swings open like a squeaky door to reveal a beautiful cerulean sky. It’s a gem of a film: poetic, moving and profound

In her studio Kumao is working with the film snippets she makes and keeps on her computer. To help organize the clips, she sketches images on index cards, which makes it easy to arrange in the order she wants. One wall of her studio was covered with an arrangement of these cards. While they were really just a guide, they provided a striking collage of her personal language of hieroglyphics.

Kumao was also working on two mechanical sculptures that emulate the movement of a little girl’s legs and feet. One set of “legs” stamped its foot, the other seemed to belong to a child lying on the floor pushing its legs back and forth in the throes of a tantrum. The “legs “ were plain metal struts, what made the anthropomorphizing so effective was the addition of vintage mary janes, which also added a whiff of creepiness. 

Kumao’s work showcases her easy and consummate command of her media. It has elegance and gravitas and also these moments of sly humor that add a refreshing lightness to the work.  heidikumao.net

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Mary Laube and Paul Schuette's Warp Whistle Project Sound Paintings

Visual artist Mary Laube and composer Paul Schuette met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in February 2013 on what was each their first residency. After returning home, they kept in touch making collaborative work remotely and getting together when they could for a few days at a time. 

They refer to their work together as the Warp WhistleProject. Laube and Schuette scheduled recent VCCA residencies at the same time with the intention of exclusively focusing on a project.

The two “sound paintings” they created are visually stunning featuring colorful geometric minimalism paired with lively digital chirps, pitch glides, whooshes and what sounds like some poor sod falling down a well. It’s alien and futuristic and whimsical all at once.

Laube executed the artwork directly onto the wall with the mechanical elements incorporated into the pieces. In one, wire provides a spiral that counterbalances the colored triangles, in the other, straight lines radiate from a 3-D pyramid to the brightly hued round speakers. The pyramids cleverly conceal circuit boards, which generated the sounds. 

Laube and Schuette made a concerted effort to incorporate the electronic elements into the pieces and so obliterate the separation between sight and sound. “It was a very intuitive process,” says Laube. "Schuette started placing speakers on one wall and I started placing triangles on the other. We then worked back and forth between the two pieces to see how the electronic materials could fit into the visual compositions." 

The sound did not come until after the speakers and visual elements were placed—a digital reaction to the visual information. Schuette used a swoopier more glissandi language with the spiral piece and almost pointillist sounds to match the more angular work. He wrote a computer program that is constantly generating new combinations of sound. “The pieces were not composed to ‘talk’ to each other”, says Schuette, “But when you spend a lot of time with them, you feel like they are talking to each other.”

This was the first time Laube and Schuette had worked side by side from the beginning to the end of a project. “In the final analysis, it was a tremendous experience and the collaboration seems to have cemented itself,” says Schuette. “We're both really excited about the future of the work.“

The Warp Whistle Project’s most recent series of work was part of the Emerging Artists show at the Phyllis Weston Gallery in Cincinnati. STEIM a music technology research center based in Amsterdam is interested in Schuette’s four-channel violin pick-up and hopes to make improvements to the design and potentially bring the device to the open market.

Laube received the Illinois National Women in the Arts Award in 2009 and a Project Grant from the Iowa Arts Council, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2014.