Sunday, June 21, 2009

Joseph Smolinski: Ground Control at Swarm Gallery

Swarm Gallery's recent show of drawings, animation and sculpture by Joseph Smolinski was an impassioned comment on the state of our environment. In Smolinski's surrealist drawings, animals strike back against the human technologies that have infiltrated their landscape. The works are funny, yet politically charged. The care with which they are rendered lends added weight to the artist's commentary.

Joseph Smolinski. Spinning Tree for Spent Oil, 2008.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a utopian series of images, wind turbines generate power on land and in the open sea. To better adapt them to their surroundings, Smolinski proposes that the turbines be camouflaged as rudimentary trees. There are several color pencil drawings of the tree turbines, as well as a motorized prototype with sharp outlines. Perched atop oil derricks, the trees smoothly capture ocean winds. Meanwhile, in another group of drawings in graphite, creatures such as a sloth and a lion are actively reclaiming their terrain from a tangled throng of wires. Tombstones in a graveyard mark the passing of outdated clean technologies such as electric cars and wind turbines, replaced in Smolinski's vision with the more advanced tree turbine.

Joseph Smolinski. Disconnected - Three-Toed Sloth, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

In a side gallery, Smolinski presents sculptural installation, drawing and video works about Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a major land art work on the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Basing his project on a report about the efforts to preserve this artwork and prevent oil drilling near its site, Smolinski visualizes the worst-case effects. The animation shows an oil derrick exploding and flooding the Jetty. The drawing depicts an oil tanker, sunk off the Jetty's edge. The installation of salt-encrusted rocks from the lake, soaking in oil, operates as a Smithson-esque non-site, a marker of place superimposed upon the white cube of the gallery.

Joseph Smolinski. RIP Jetty, 2009.
Courtesy of Swarm Gallery, Oakland.

Smolinski's visualizations of the Jetty are artfully rendered, and his concerns about the work's preservation are legitimate. However, there have long been large-scale industrial mining operations to recover oil, salt, and various chemicals from the Great Salt Lake, which is rich in minerals and fossil fuels. These operations, and a disused oil jetty from an earlier excavation period, predate Smithson's 1970 artwork. The lake itself is in constant flux, having first risen so that the Jetty was underwater for more than a decade, and more recently shrunk so that the work is entirely landlocked.

This is not to disagree with Smolinski's (and the Dia Foundation's) belief that the Jetty site should be preserved as a cultural landmark rather than subjected to fallout from drilling. I would simply like to have seen what Smolinski's commentary would look like if his argument were to take a more nuanced view of the discussion about the Jetty, its location and its future. The Spiral Jetty itself is a marker of the multiple uses and histories of the Great Salt Lake, one which references geology and human activity alike. Perhaps by allowing more space for humans within his vision, Smolinski might also push his work further toward visualizing an attainable balance rather than a comforting, but fundamentally inaccessible, utopia.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bay Area Gallerists in San Francisco Magazine

This month's San Francisco Magazine has a gorgeous cover story on young SF gallerists including some good friends and former classmates of mine. I am delighted to see these talented entrepreneurs get some press (and confess to a twinge of jealousy at the super-glam photo spreads featuring Jessica Silverman and Joyce Grimm).

Despite its deserving and photogenic subjects, I thought the story lacked depth or insight. The lead asks, "Can a handful of renegade gallerists get the art world to notice SF?" I would argue that 1) this question gets asked every 5 years, 2) each time a group of young entrepreneurs is trotted out as evidence that SF is finally getting its act together and supporting local talent financially, and 3) by the next time the question gets asked, 5 years later, half or more of the spaces covered on the last go-round have had to close or move away to stay afloat. For every Ratio3, there is a Lisa Dent Gallery (closed despite having broken national talents including Hank Willis Thomas and Ala Ebtekar) and a Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery (moved to greener pastures in Los Angeles).

That's not to begrudge anyone his or her success. Ratio3's Chris Perez has worked very hard to promote his artists nationally and to maintain his relationships beyond the Bay Area. All of the gallerists profiled are unquestionably talented, and all have the drive to make it. So do a lot of gallerists not profiled here: Eleanor Harwood, Kimberly Johansson, Kent Baer and Eli Ridgway, and Svea Lin Vezzone, to name just a few.

The article does discuss Bay Area collectors' notorious lack of awareness of the great art being made and shown in their own backyard. This has historically been the thorn in the side of all great galleries here, including longer-established spaces like Catharine Clark Gallery and Frey Norris, who show the same level of innovative, international talent as the galleries profiled by SF Magazine. Rather than propose solutions, the article glosses over this reality, essentially claiming that until the new crop of gallerists turned up, there was really nothing interesting happening here.

Lots of us would beg to differ, even as we celebrate this latest crop of art entrepreneurs.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University to Close

Arts advocates are stunned and saddened by the recent decision taken by Brandeis University's Board of Trustees to close its renowned Rose Art Museum and deaccession the collection of important modern and contemporary artworks. The university argues that, with both tuition revenues and its endowment hard hit by the current economic downturn, the museum is being sacrificed in order to preserve more important programs. They claim that "the museum decision will not alter the university’s commitment to the arts and the teaching of the arts." It is difficult to see how this could possibly be the case.

In Brandeis' own words, "The Rose Art Museum [...] houses what is widely recognized as the finest collection of modern and contemporary art in New England." A raft of contradictory statements have been made in the press by Brandeis President Yehuda Reinharz, so that it's not clear whether Brandeis plans to deaccession and auction the entirety of the Rose's collection or only some works. Either way, the institution will be closed and what might remain of its collection will no longer be made available to the public in whose trust the university is held.

Deaccessioning museum collections is a controversial practice in the best of times. Works held for public benefit, at institutions mandated to serve that interest, are subject to specific conditions of their care and ownership. This is especially the case for artworks that have been donated to a museum, because the donor has expressly given his or her gift in the interest of supporting public access to the works. Deaccessions are always problematic for these reasons - but for a university to turn to its museum collection for ready cash in an economic crisis is reaching a new low. The precedent this action sets is abysmal, and indicates just how little regard Brandeis' trustees have for the university's arts program.

It is an unfortunate reminder of how little value the curators, collectors and patrons, who have supported and nurtured the Rose Art Museum and so many others, are afforded in our society. When arts are among the hardest hit sectors of our economy in these troubled times, curators among the first cut when arts institutions fall on difficult circumstances, and venerable arts institutions closed to address short-term budget gaps, we art lovers should be ashamed and angered by this course of events.

Excellent coverage of the Rose Art Museum decision can be found here:
Art Fag City
Modern Art Notes
Artworld Salon

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coosje van Bruggen (June 6, 1942 - January 10, 2009)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of my mentor and onetime employer Coosje van Bruggen. A tremendous artist, writer, curator and thinker, Coosje taught me valuable lessons about the realities of the art world. Her toughness and integrity were unmatched. She will be greatly missed.

Bob Carey/Los Angeles Times

Coosje was already a powerful force when she met Claes Oldenburg, her husband and collaborator for 31 years. She was an assistant curator at the Stedelijk Museum during a fascinating period when the boundaries between art and life were being shattered in every imaginable way. Her partnership with Claes changed the work from monument to something else - not anti-monumental, as she abhorred mediocrity and was always sure of her place in the pantheon of history - but a softer kind of monument, commemorating the wonders of reality in a living place.

Coosje taught me many lessons, some gentle and some painful. She helped me understand what it means to be a professional artist, and ultimately through her guidance I came to realize I would not be one. She showed me the way to my own creative voice, which I found to be a collaborative and scholarly one rather than that of an individual struggling to create in an oversaturated world. Sometimes her insights stung, as when she told me I would be a great teacher "but don't teach art." (I've since come to disagree with that assessment, but I understand why she said it when she did.)

Coosje also showed me what feminism was all about. She came from a generation that had been made to fight for everything they had, challenged in their professional and personal aspirations alike. As a mother and wife, she found her unmistakable intellect uncharitably dismissed by the chattering classes who surrounded well-known figures like her husband. She demanded respect on her own terms, writing monographs on Frank Gehry, Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari and Hanne Darboven - an artist whose meticulous, logical practice always seemed to me a kind of visualization of Coosje's thought processes. Claes had his own such visualization:

Cross Section of a Toothbrush with Paste, in a Cup, on a Sink:
Portrait of Coosje's Thinking
, 1983
Haus Esters, Krefeld, Germany
Photo by Attilio Maranzano

"I am a lioness when it comes to my children," she once told me. Always impatient with the ignorant and small-minded, I only ever saw her rage when something was troubling one of her two kids. As I contemplate my own future as a curator and a mother, I always think back to Coosje and how she somehow navigated the work/life minefield, first as a divorced mother of two young children, and later as an equal partner in a work and family relationship that outsiders could simply not understand.

Coosje was always a little bit frail. She said it was because she'd been born during the war, and her physician father had inoculated her with makeshift vaccinations that left her immune system weakened. Perhaps that's a metaphor for how her physical delicacy complemented her mental toughness. I always pictured a tiny baby with eyes of cast iron, stoically bearing the bomb blasts and the needle alike.

Certainly she was a study in oppositions - tiny, with dark hair and intense eyes, but with an infectious laugh that Claes loved to provoke with incessant teasing. Another thing she taught me was what true love looks like (as did my parents) - two older people, together for many years, who find something extraordinary and compelling to talk about every day.

I only wish I could have seen her one more time before she left this world.

"Coosje van Bruggen, Sculptor, Dies at 66." New York Times, February 13, 2009.