Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Curator Responds

Binnie Fry, curator of the "Not the Knitting You Know" Sculptural Knitting and Crochet exhibition at Eleven Eleven Sculpture Space responds to the issues raised by my earlier posting.


I noticed your June 17th mention of the controversy concerning Ming-Yi Sung’s work in the "Not the Knitting You Know" show and the "before" and "after" photos. Several other people have asked for the original images, and Ming or I have made them available. We have also provided a link to your website on the one we have developed for this show, which you can access at http://eleveneleven.50webs.com.

I continue to believe in the concept of the show, and in Ming’s work in particular, as it embodies the two aspects of the exhibition I was after: use of knitting or crochet as contemporary sculpture, and as a vehicle for intellectual or artistic expression, or, as your reader says, for "content."

I was asked by the management to remove Ming’s pieces, because they were deemed inappropriate by the building tenant. The position of the tenant was that, unlike a museum or commercial art gallery, to which visitors go voluntarily, in this gallery which is in the public lobby of their building, their clients have no choice in viewing art that they may not want to see. That is true and a difficult position to argue.

I am pleased to say that both the management and the tenant agreed to work with me in finding a solution which allowed Ming’s key works to stay in the exhibition without damaging her. Are they sanitized? Yes. Are they doctored? Yes. What changed is that the explicit androgynous content of Ming’s work, which is central to her personal mythology, is no longer visible, at least at the show. Yet I do believe that serious viewers will suspect what happened and appreciate the work separately from the issue of censorship. It is Ming’s particularly wonderful sense of humor that is behind her putting the ball with the eye, or as you call it, the "cod-piece," on the genitals of the figure you show, looking directly, but quietly, back at any critical viewer.

It was an unfortunate incident, but one which might have occurred in other galleries which are in public spaces. From my perspective, we were able to keep the entire show, which includes fourteen other artists and 44 pieces, intact, and we could not have done that, once the complaint was lodged, without the willingness of the tenant to revisit its position and agree to a solution that would accommodate all parties.

Best regards,

Binnie Fry
Eleven Eleven Scultpure Space

Bailey on Kirkland

"A Human Lesson Learned Some from Silent Studies in Organic Minimalism"

By James W. Bailey

FULL DISCLOSURE: I consider myself a friend and associate of artist and art blogger J.T. Kirkland and frequently post my thoughts, opinions, reviews, screams, and rants about the joy, bliss, and highs--as well as the crimes, sins, and lows -- of the art world on his blog, Thinking About Art. I also serve on the Board of Directors for the League of Reston Artists (LRA). The LRA is currently presenting Kirkland’s "Studies in Organic Minimalism" through our host venue, the University of Phoenix Northern Virginia Campus, in Reston, Virginia. This exhibition closes June 25.
The next time you find yourself running around your local Home Depot pretending to be a weekend home improvement warrior version of Bob Vila, pay close attention and you may notice in front of you at the check-out line a young white male artist sporting a baseball cap carrying wood, varnish, and drill bits. You’ll recognize him by his educated Kentucky accent when he insists that you not stand too close to him and touch his supplies, especially the wood! But that artist, J.T. Kirkland, is not buying products to build a home owners association-approved deck, or interior cabinets or bookshelves--no way, man, he’s building some very serious art.

At its basic structural level (that is, minimalist, but more about that later), Kirkland’s work consists of this: He buys planks of wood (maple and poplar seem to be preferred,) cuts them into equal length segments with a table saw, arranges the segments according to his preference for the flow of the grain and then drills a tightly scripted pattern of holes in the individual segments. The segments are then lightly sanded. Some of the drilled pieces are offered as singular works of art; other works consist of multiple segments that function together. Some of the completed works of art are varnished; others aren’t. As they are all intended for wall display, a hanging mechanism is placed on the backs and voila, an original work of fine art made out of wood!

But, is this really fine art, you may cynically ask? Well, the debate that leads to that answer is where it really gets interesting. You don’t have to be a French-speaking postmodern art scholar to know that the number one major problem in the world of high art is the use of words and their agreed upon or commonly understood definitions. If an "outsider" artist, for example -- that is, a "naive" or "unschooled" artist -- were creating similar pieces as Kirkland’s, this work might be easily and actively embraced as original works of "outsider" art with little pretentious debate about their higher meaning by the "outsider" art market.

On the other side of the fickle art map, if a highly respected wood craftsman, wood carver, or wood turner were the design architect for such pieces, there might be a raging debate stimulated among craft fanatics and high art scribes about whether or not these works really rise to the level of serious craft (or God forbid art!), especially since the word "craft" itself has become so controversial among those who have a vested interest in protecting the word "art" from the word "craft," as well as among those who are heavily invested in protecting the good and reputable name of craft -- a controversy that, if anything, has only been exacerbated by the American Craft Museum having changed its name sometime ago to the Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design.

That brilliant move, rather than furthering an ecumenical consciousness among the cathedral priests of high art and their lowly itinerant counterparts sloughing it out on the weekend county fair craft circuit, merely contributed to a continued pour of gasoline on the endless fiery debate over craft versus art.

But in Kirkland’s case, he mockingly throws a Sears-purchased Craftsman monkey wrench into the matter by actively asking (polemically insisting actually) that his work be appreciated by its viewers by the high art definition of minimalism. From his artist statement Kirkland asserts that "Art isn’t about answering questions; it’s about asking the most thought-provoking questions possible."

Fair enough. And although there are definitely a lot questions one could ask if one wanted to about that statement, we want go there right now because I’m the one writing this and it is some answers that I’m really after. He continues and preaches that "Beauty, a secondary goal, is a result that I gladly welcome, but only if it contributes to a deeper interaction between the artist and the viewer."

Obviously there’s a logical problem with that statement because once an artist puts his work in the public arena, the public may not care to interact with artist.

Indeed, an art collector may not give a fig about dialoging with the artist beyond signing their check for the purchase of their favorite piece and saying thank you. They may desire, and actually prefer, a one-on-one communication with what they perceive to be the exquisite beauty of the work itself in the privacy of their living room as it hangs above the mantel of their fireplace.

But interestingly, and not surprisingly, the fractured emotional insecurities inherent in much of minimalism find a secure port of therapeutic entry in Kirkland’s continued words about his art: "Successful art is created when I’ve challenged viewers to think about issues, but they aren’t necessarily aware that such provocation has occurred. For far too long, artists have taken it upon themselves to solve the world’s problems through the creation of objects. Finally, the time has come to ask the viewer for a little assistance. The old adage must be true that two heads are better than one. There are but a small fraction of people in this world who are artists, and it is time that the artist received some help. The trick, however, is to figure out how best to get viewers to assist. That is my challenge."

And a major tricky challenge that is indeed!

It has always been the challenge of minimalism to enforce its understanding on its audience by cajoled intellectual assent to a declared higher purpose and meaning--that is, to trick the viewer by words into believing that up is down and down is around and that everything thing is round and rounder (thus minimalism’s natural affinity for holes). What this usually means is that the artist suggests to the typical viewer (whose inner ear balance, by diagnosis of the artist, is often out of whack) that there is great depth involved in their work and that one must accept this proposition in order to really understand what the work truly means, so as to allow the artist to properly adjust the viewer’s gyroscope. If one accepts this proposition, then one is enlightened and hopefully begins to walk straight; if one rejects the notion, then one is an idiot and continues to stumble around. It’s the easiest version of a straw man argument that can be designed in the world of high art. Minimalism establishes itself as being a deep mystery that only the most intellectual can really grasp. When a viewer finally wraps their mind around it, they’re said to "get it." But, if a viewer is inclined to play along with the artist’s ruse and if after being subjected to an intense artist/viewer mind-melding hypnosis session that viewer continues to literally or figuratively find themselves on the "outside" of all this inside knowledge, then they’re declared to simply be beyond "getting it" and they’re easily dismissed by the art establishment’s intelligentsia as being hopeless.

But the con with minimalism is this: it all too often painfully comes down to 'getting it" with the words of the artist, their supportive curator, and acknowledging critics, as opposed to getting it at any level with what the artist’s work may actually have to communicate by itself (with a fuller description of the pain being that you have to wade through a lot of word muck in a big swamp of minimalist art theory to enjoy those rare gems, or perfect tricks, in minimalism --works of art that speak with greater clarity and depth than the artist or their agent provocateurs).

The more I have viewed an endless stream of contemporary minimalism by noncanonized artists over the years as presented in world of fine art through the white cube space -- as well as through a plethora of alternative venues, including every type space you can imagine with the exception of a missile silo -- the more I have become convinced that much of its intellectual pretensions is supported by the words printed on a piece of paper called the artist’s statement.

Indeed, it seems as though the artist statement is essential to the "meaning" and "understanding" of contemporary minimalist art. The dirty secret in the art world is that without a clever artist statement, most minimalist art cleverly, at best, rises to the level of design.

Of course, most contemporary minimalist artists would probably strongly and vociferously object and ask us to examine their works with an open mind toward its content devoid higher meaning and purpose as positioned and manipulated by their words.

From the historical perspective, others will disagree: One of the leading champions of the modernist art of the previous decades, art critic Clement Greenberg, regarded minimalism as a little more than "novelty" art. For Greenberg, the "aesthetic surprise" a viewer experiences when contemplating "true" works of art (Greenberg’s definition being paintings by Raphael or Jackson Pollock) is poignant and transcendental, unlike the novelty item that provokes little more than a "superfluous" momentary surprise.

What’s Greenberg definition of a "true" work of art?

Well, most likely a handmade expression of the artist's feelings and thoughts. For Greenberg, minimalist art, with its deliberate (some might suggest anal-retentive) production of emotionally devoid artworks like Donald Judd’s factory-produced products was in fact closer to furniture than to art, and should be viewed as nothing more than "good design."

Others at the time joined in on rising lamentation that minimalist art was missing something very basic: feelings.

In a review of the 1966 exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum (which included work by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Robert Morris) art critic Hilton Kramer noted that the visitors to the minimalist exhibition were "rarely moved" by the work.

Beyond its lack of emotion, an indictment approaching that of outright fraud was issued by modernist critic, Michael Fried in his essay, Art and Objecthood 1967, wherein he alleged that a clear disparity exists between the minimalists' claims about their work and the actual experience of the viewer in looking at it. Fried saw minimalism as modernism gone amuck because, by referring only to itself, minimalism attempts to undermine the distinction between art and non-art and seeks to do so through a conspiratorial manipulation of perception by invented language espoused by the artist and their promoters.

Of course, when the critical jig was up on minimalism, the big name minimalist artists didn’t just go gently into the night and take their hits lying down. Quite the contrary -- they went to war.

Back in the day, Sol LeWitt would quickly pull his pen out of his holster and fire off an angry letter or two complaining about how his work was being misunderstood or misinterpreted that this or that critic.

Of course, I’m not breaking any new ground here with this discussion about minimalism – and that’s because there’s really very little new ground to break over an identified art movement that’s now more than 40 years old and has been subjected to endless psychiatric analysis.

But baby boomers and their intellectually insecure therapy obsessed offspring love nostalgia, so it’s inevitable that cool words and cool art things from back in the day that become easily branded in the consumer’s mind never really seem to go away.

And like so many other innovative cutting-edge art advances that occur in a democratic corporate capitalistic society, what was once a shocking and radical art thing soon becomes absorbed by astute corporate enterprises and re-presented, re-contextualized and re-examined for a more sedated and medicated pedestrian audience.

You can verify this truth the next time you’re in McDonald’s inhaling a Big Mac: simply take a close look at the abstract expressionist and/or minimalist works of art hanging on the walls leading to the restrooms and you’ll quickly notice you’re the only one giving these masterful creations a second glance. And that’s because, despite the implied thoughts of some art historians, the modern and postmodern art revolution was indeed televised in all its gory glory and everybody in America, especially the anti-high art masses, got saturated with too much of the self-serving self-referential message.

The more things change, the more they remain the same and it’s certainly easy to understand why some contemporary minimalist artists today, especially at this historic point in the game, might also become extremely hostile in defensive of their work. It’s also easy to understand why these same artists frequently undertake to compose online friendly bullet proof self-serving legal-defense-brief-style artist statements to facilitate their confrontational assault weapon arguments toward influencing a public perception and understanding of what their work means --all in the vain efforts to hopefully neutralize the dreaded design appellation by the more skeptical critics out there in the non-online real art world; that is, old school curators, aging print media art critics, and ancient ivory tower art historians.

Artist J.T. Kirkland’s exhibition, "Studies in Organic Minimalism," on view at the University of Phoenix Northern Virginia Campus in Reston, Virginia, doesn’t raise any new questions about this minimalist circular debate, but it does (whether he intended it or not) provide a rare and refreshingly creative attempt at an answer that is beautifully designed on a human scale.

It was impossible for me to approach Kirkland’s work without the drudgery of the artist statement. I’m very familiar with his work, philosophy and intent; indeed, he has openly shared with the public the intimacies of his journey toward this exhibition on his art blog, Thinking About Art, as well as through interviews about his work and philosophy on other art blogs.

In fact, he may have shared too much. There is, after all, something to be said for the quiet preservation of mystery about one’s aesthetic intentions, especially with minimalism.

I was, however, extremely curious to see how others outside the loop of the niche confines of the art blog community might respond. A couple of weeks ago I went by the venue and asked five randomly selected people who were at the university that day for one reason or another to join me in a minimalist conversation about this exhibition. None were familiar with Kirkland, his work or his art blog. I gave each person a copy of his artist statement for "Studies in Organic Minimalism" and asked them to read it. I also gave each person a copy of Kirkland’s title/price list and asked them, independent of each other’s knowledge about the others participation in this experiment, to walk through the exhibit and examine each piece in the show.

I then asked a singular question to all after they had read the artist statement and reviewed the title/price list and the works of art: "When you view this body of work, what is the first thing that comes to you mind?"

A 27-year-old white female office manager – "It’s pretty, sort of, but kind of cold in a way too. I like the idea of the holes in the wood. I think I get his thing about depth. But these pieces really look to me like they’re unfinished or not completed. I don’t know, really. Honestly, I don’t really understand his point if you want the truth."

A 35-year-old white male data base developer – "It’s why I’m not into modern art. Anybody can do stuff like this. I don’t see the talent in this. It’s just plain dumb to me. It’s seems like a lot of wasted time to do something that has no use or appeal. And the prices are ridiculous. Who’s going to pay that for this?"

A 28-year-old white female legal secretary – "I can’t exactly say I like this man’s work, but it does seem interesting. His statement does explain his work, I think, but I can’t say that it influences me to like it. But I know what my husband would think – 'It’s stupid. What does it take to drill holes in a piece of wood?' When I walked down the hallway and looked at these, they all start to look alike to me. Nothing really grabs me about this stuff. None of these are screaming out at me ‘Take me home!’ That’s what I look for in the little bit of art that I’ve bought.”

A 43-year-old African-American male business consultant – "I guess people can call anything art. I guess I must be in the wrong business."

A 38-year-old white male accountant – "I think they’re kind of cool and like them. But I damn sure wouldn’t pay the prices for it. If I wanted to have something like this hanging in my house, I could easily make them myself. I’ll give the guy credit for thinking this up though. I’m not an artist, or really know anything about art, but that’s the way I understand it works in art. The dude who thinks it up first makes the money. That’s the way it is in business, so why not art? Don’t you think?"

And what did I think? It was impossible to tell that man the truth at that moment because, unfortunately, I had the benefit/burden while standing there in front of him of listening to him speak about the work combined with the reverberation inside my head of the artist statement and interviews about the work combined with the mass of minimalism theory and history stimulating too many neurotransmitters to shoot across my synapses -- and the weight of all that oppressive information was confining my appreciation at a certain level because it was simply too much to think about.

So, what did I think? I didn’t. I refused. I politely declined to answer the gentleman and thanked him for participating in the experiment.

When I finished my conversations, I went down stairs, walked outside the building, walked around the building, walked around the building again, went back in and upstairs and tried walking back through the exhibit with as clear a mind as possible. During that down time I tried to intellectually divorce myself from every preconceived notion about minimalism that has been jammed into my brain cells from too much exposure to the work and its written history, theory and criticism.

And what I discovered as I re-walked through the exhibit by myself was that I began to enjoy these simple pieces in a very simple way -- that is, I found a naturalistic pleasure in examining the subtle colors of the wood, the play of the grain, the patterns of the holes, the depth of the holes and the rhythmic dance between the holes and the grain. By themselves, apart from excesses of art pretensions, these pieces compel, if you’re receptive and can be left alone to hear it, a naturalistic interaction, a dialogue if you will, between the wood, the grain, the holes and the mind.

Kirkland has posted some alarming concerns on his blog about his obsessive fears of having people touch his work. That’s a shame because these pieces at their most elemental level demand to be touched. They demand to be touched as much as a beautiful tree compels its touch on a walk of solitude through the forest, as much as the moss on a rock in that forest begs to be touched by the hand of a human being.

Pulling myself back from too much information allowed for a brief, silent and thoughtful communication with the work that is exceedingly difficult to hear through the cacophony of a long train of minimalist artist statements and pretentious minimalist theory and boring supportive minimalist history that precedes this body of work. It’s also very difficult to hear the singular voice of the work through the injunctions, commands and reprimands of the artist. Perhaps this aggressive attitude is an intentional minimalist trick on the part of Kirkland – the artist says one thing loudly while the work says something else quietly and the viewer is supposed to think about all of it and figure something out about what it all means. If so, it is an exceedingly difficult distraction and demands a great deal of patience to enjoy the payoff – the payoff being the simple meditative voice of contemplative poetry being whispered by the art hanging on the wall.

But to be fair to Kirkland, as well as to all the other acolytes of minimalism, when it comes to a Dan Flavin florescent light exhibited in the National Gallery of Art, or a vintage rusted neon restaurant sign sadly hanging from the side of an abandoned building in a lonely and forgotten beat area of New Orleans, I’ll easily take the rusted neon sign in a heartbeat any day – but I’m like that because, the truth be known, I’m really a film noir type person at heart.

With Kirkland’s work, I’ll gladly take the wood and grain and holes and what those three things are trying to say to me over the artist statement, the artist’s words, as well as all the marshaled pretensions toward minimalism – I’ll also bravely take my chances of being caught by the artist and arrested by building security for rubbing my hands along and all over his creations. The real work of art in "Studies in Organic Minimalism" is what these uniquely subtle, yet expressively beautiful works of art look like to the human eye and feel like to the human touch. They are works for the blind – literally, figuratively, intellectually. One doesn’t need a nature guru to tell one that being blind to too much information helps to appreciate the relationship between man and nature. Kirkland’s works are speaking that message very clearly in a very quiet manner - but it does require a unique form of silence, a silence that minimalism will never offer you, to hear it. The work is emanating a spiritual form of communication that one usually experiences in a moment by oneself in a Buddhist state of mind within a place that is withdrawn from all distractions. If you’re willing close your eyes that are being blinded by the glare from Dan Flavin’s lights and step outside of the sycophant-packed First American Church of White Male Minimalism with its howling theorist preacher strutting about on top of a pile of Donald Judd box constructions wailing away over the PA system, you may hear a voice you’ve never heard before through this work.

There’s no deep art mystery to me about why some people long to touch these works. In future efforts, perhaps Kirkland will ask-- hopefully he will happily insist -- that his more appreciative audience does so in a joyful celebration between his art and its viewers. The artist has asked his viewers for some help. My advice is that the artist needs to understand that some of us are only human and that like innocent children we like to touch things, especially when we’re told not to do so; and, besides, there are some truly passionate pieces in "Studies in Organic Minimalism" that are quietly and sincerely reaching out to touch some of us as well. It doesn’t take an artist or artist statement or art theory or an art critic to tell us that touching is the most basic interaction among human beings and between human beings and the world that surrounds them. Touching art may be a crime, but God forbid we ever make it a sin.

James W. Bailey
Experimental Photographer
Force Majeure Studios

City Arts Projects

Deadline: June 22, 2005 at 7 pm.

The City Arts Projects program expands the quality and diversity of arts activities throughout the city, supports local artists, and makes arts experiences accessible to District residents.

City Arts Projects expose the arts to the broader community or to persons traditionally underserved or separate from the mainstream due to geographic location, economic constraints, or disability.

Eligible projects include, but are not limited to, festivals, concerts, visual arts exhibitions, and literary readings.

Workshops: The Commission hosts a series of workshops to assist all individuals and organizations in preparing their applications. Workshops are held in several different facilities in Washington, DC. No prior reservations are required to attend workshops.

City Arts Projects workshops will be held:
Tuesday, May 26, 2005, DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Noon - 1:30 pm.
Thursday, June 9, 2005, DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities, Noon - 1:30 pm.

For more information or to receive an application in the mail, please call (202) 724-5613 or visit this website.

If you want one of these grants and have no idea what to do or how to do it, or are too lazy to take one of the workshops email me.