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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. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gibson + Recoder: Articulating the Material Substance of Light

Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder (Gibson + Recoder) have been collaborating since 2000, producing numerous expanded cinema installations and performances that go beyond the category of moving image to incorporate the visual, mechanical and conceptual qualities of film projection.

“The art of projection is an area we’ve been working in for 15 years creating ways of articulating the material substance of light,” says Recoder. “In the same way a sculptor might work with a material they chisel away at, we find ways of carving, subtracting and adding light.”

Gibson + Recoder produce both performance and installation work. When performing, they are sometimes in front of an audience, while at other times they are in the projection booth each operating a projector. They will work in tandem with traditional film, experimental film and sometimes no film, just light. They come equipped with glass, colored filters and a humidifier that produces vapor. As the projector rolls, they each interact with the projected light creating a cinematic progression of light and color that is accompanied by sound produced by a collaborator.

While they were in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), Gibson + Recoder set up a number of camera obscura situations in two large studios. The pieces on view during VCCA’s Open Studios were beautiful, fragile and mysterious. In these works, Gibson + Recoder are co-opting a naturally occurring scientific phenomenon, but they’re doing it in such an interesting way, making us think about light—its fragility and power and also about perception itself. Yes, we are looking at reality, but because of the nature of optics, it’s upside down. The light/image is further altered depending on aperture size and where it’s directed. Gibson + Recoder use wrinkled and torn paper and supermarket plastic bags blown about by electric fans to add texture and movement. These various techniques transform the image into something blurred and fleeting, quite separate from the outside world it’s capturing. It’s as if we’re looking at it from a remove of distance or time.

Not all the camera obscura pieces featured recognizable images. One piece used filters so the image was abstracted and the work became more a study of colored light and shadow. Another used a revolving glass vase as a lens to bend and warp the light creating dynamic projected reflections. “We’re moving away from the obvious camera obscura ‘how’s it done’ mechanical thing,” says Recoder. “People tend to get hung up on trying to figure out what it is. We want to put layers in front of that so people can experience it first and then ask that question.”

People also tend to associate the camera obscura with photography. “The camera obscura has been hijacked by photography through the use of the pinhole camera,” says Gibson. “We see the camera obscura as micro-cinema, or more precisely, live cinema projection.” When you think about it, this is exactly right because the light that the camera obscura captures recreates an exact image of the living, breathing, moving world.

The camera obscura is a form of found art, since it records what is already there. It’s also low tech–you only need a darkened room and a small opening for light–and ancient, Aristotle makes note of the phenomenon.

I like the way that Gibson + Recoder take something antiquated and overlooked like the camera obscura or film technology with all its interesting retro looking artifacts and somehow made it cutting edge. They’ve done it by taking a completely different approach, highlighting the means (the equipment, the methodology) rather than the end (a precise recreation of the world outside/the moving image) creating thought provoking and beautiful work.

Gibson + Recoder are based in New York and have exhibited and performed internationally at the Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, Mad. Sq. Art, Performa, Light Industry, The Kitchen, Anthology Film Archives, Microscope Gallery, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hallwalls, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, REDCAT, Ballroom Marfa, Robischon Gallery, Sundance Film Festival, CATE, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, Sagamore, Toronto International Film Festival, Images Festival, BFI London Film Festival, Tate Modern, Barbican Art Gallery, ICA, Dundee Contemporary Arts, Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Viennale, Austrian Film Museum, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, HMKV, RIXC, 25FPS, Courtisane, M HKA, STUK, BOZAR, TENT, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Reina Sofia, La Casa Encendida, CCCB, Museu do Chiado, Serralves Foundation, Solar Galeria de Arte Cinemática, Careof/Viafarini DOCVA, Atelier Impopulaire, Morra Foundation, Nam June Paik Art Center, Yokohama Museum of Art, and the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Gibson + Recoder both have individual works in the permanent collection at the Whitney Museum of American Art that will be on included in the inaugural exhibition at its new location, America is Hard to See (May 1- September 27, 2015).

In 2010 Gibson + Recoder were awarded a commission by Madison Square Park Conservancy in New York to create a public art piece that was exhibited in Spring 2013. Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation was subsequently exhibited the following fall at Brooklyn Bridge Park.


Friday, April 24, 2015

David Farrar's Ephemeral Moments of Beauty and Comedy

“Ephemeral moments of beauty and comedy influence and guide my practice,” says artist David Farrar. “Lines of light cast through a venetian blind, a toilet roll dancing uninhibitedly in the gentle breeze of an extraction fan, the strong shadow cast from a streetlight illuminating a wooden pallet on the street. I repackage these moments as ethereal worlds isolated from the imperfections and noise of reality so that more people might appreciate the beauty of everyday occurrences.”

In his practice which incorporates printmaking, woodwork, sculpture and installation, Farrar makes use of humble materials and objects, subtly altering them in unexpected and, indeed, quite dysfunctional ways. In a hallway of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA) in Amherst, Virginia where Farrar was recently in residence, he changed the EXIT sign to read EXALT, cleverly maintaining the font and utilitarian position, high on the wall, so it takes awhile to notice it. When you do, it’s hard not to smile. “I enjoy installing these pieces in ways that could be overlooked at first glance, and seeing the viewer’s moment of realization,” he says.

Farrar was drawn to the Exit sign as an oddity. In the UK, where he’s from, exits are marked with the symbol of the running man. It’s in keeping with his practice of working with what’s around him. Whether he does this using things like soil or tree bark as media, or in the creation of, often loaded, facsimiles of objects, sometimes reproducing them in miniature, other times they’re perfect, though functionless, replicas.

While commonplace for Americans, heating vents are also unfamiliar objects for Farrar (central heating is rare in the UK). His introduction to them occurred at the Artist House residency program, St. Mary's College, Maryland where he was prior to VCCA. Puzzled that the paper models he left on his desk at night would be scattered on the floor when he woke, he soon realized the culprit was the forced air that came on while he slept.

David’s interested in the relationship between form and function,“ particularly the point at which an object loses its functionality,” he says. “For instance, the same object found on the street functions in a wholly different manner than when it is in a dining room. Broken and discarded objects are imbued with a sense of pathos that stems from their loss of functionality and dislocation from their original environment. I reinterpret these objects within an artistic framework, raising them up as art objects by giving them new forms and functions. In this transformation, I often physically break down these objects to their raw materials in order to reconstruct them using traditional methods such as printmaking and woodwork. I see this process as a form of preservation: if these objects were left to break down naturally they would be lost forever. So, instead, I give them a new lease on life and purpose.”

Taking the scavenged furniture, Farrar photographs it, then breaks it down, burning the wood. Reducing the resulting charcoal to a fine ash, he uses this together with the original photograph to make a screen-printed image. It’s a wonderful rift on form and function that only gets better when you take into account silk screen terminology: you “burn” the image onto a screen using a thin layer of UV sensitive paint and a strong UV light. This, of course, references the burning of the original object; the residue or palimpsest often left behind after cleaning off a screen is called a “ghost image", which relates in some way as the image is a ghost of the no longer extant chair.

Lack of functionality also plays into his true-to-life 2-D templates of a glue stick and pair of scissors. The trick with these is you need actual glue and scissors to create their 3-D versions from the templates.

Shipping pallets figure largely in Farrar’s work. “I like their form, the fact that they are these very functional objects with this one purpose and they haven’t been superseded by something high tech.” He’s worked with large ones before, but there is something so appealing about his miniature versions. Some he paints, others he covers in material: velvet to exalt the mundane pallet and fake grass, which suggests that nature is reclaiming the pallet, but then again, it’s artificial grass. “I make scale models out of cardboard and balsa wood so they retain their formal quality but lose their functionality; after all a balsa wood pallet is about as much use as a chocolate teapot. These works also act as visual puns that reference, and perhaps make slight fun of, the overly serious monochrome canvases of minimalism: a monochrome palette for a monochrome pallet.”  

Farrar also makes miniature versions of the quite beautiful skeletal “houses” that are sometimes used in historic settlements to give visitors the idea of the structure of a building. “I noticed these striking forms on the landscape when I first arrived to St. Mary’s and was intrigued to learn that they are known as “ghost houses”, which is an apt description as they are wooden skeletons built on the footprint of the past and left to degrade naturally over time.”

Paper plate lithography is an experimental technique that exploits the chemical reaction between gum arabic and Xerox toner. Toner resists the gum arabic and paper absorbs it. When you put oil-based ink down, the toner attracts while the paper resists. For these lithographs, Farrar used ink he made with Mt. San Angelo soil. The process doesn’t require a lot of equipment. Basically, all you need is a Xerox machine. It’s transient, you can only use each plate once, and the image breaks down fairly easily so there’s a painterly quality that corresponds nicely to the clarity of the Xerox.

Farrar likes taking humdrum things and presenting them as art citing the Arte Povera movement as a major influence. Much of his work is either very fragile or not archival. “I like the delicate nature of things, they’re fleeting objects that only exist for a limited time. I don’t want to be perceived as too serious,” he says. “I like the fact people pick up on the humor in the work.”

One can marvel at his inventiveness and the labor involved in creating some of these pieces. It takes real passion, not to mention self-confidence to scan an entire roll of paper towels and then digitally print a version of it, but as Farrar says, “This is the work I want to do; I maintain truth to the original idea. I persevere.”

On his return to the UK, Farrar who is from Oxford, will continue to live and work in Glasgow returning to his post as a printing technician at the Glasgow School of Art where he studied. He will also be exhibiting work made during these residencies (St. Mary's College, Maryland and VCCA) in Glasgow Open House Festival, (Glasgow) and Hidden Door Festival, (Edinburgh).