Archive for January, 2012

Dakar, Sénégal. Condition Report: Symposium on building art institutions in Africa

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

One of the reasons I went to Dakar was to follow the “Symposium on building art institutions in Africa”, organized by Koyo Kouoh, the founder of Raw Material Company. Established in Dakar since 2008, Raw Material Company is “a center for art, knowledge and society.” With the self-confident claim that “The art scene in Africa is growing mainly on impetus of independent initiatives,” the symposium brought together some of Africa’s most important independent art spaces and initiatives as well as a series of exemplary projects from other continents. I learned a great deal about how the colonial past continues to provoke questions and polemics (while countries like China are buying up Africa’s agricultural land). It also became clear that a young generation of African curators, intellectuals, and artists are willing to change things and to build up meaningful projects while the ruling class and the politicians in power are envious, passive, or are attached to old concepts and privileges. Within the range of initiatives, I felt particularly drawn to artist-run projects like:

Maxo Vanka Murals

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

When you look out past the railroad tracks across the Allegheny River (just down the block from the artist’s apartment in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville) you see Millvale, Pennsylvania. One Saturday this fall I ventured over to this small hamlet of a town, wandering past worn industrial buildings, a few newly-sprouted community gardens, rowhouses—likely the homes of former steel workers—and old churches. On the walk I met a young man from town on his way to one such church: St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Parish. He was about to give a tour of the church’s murals and asked if I wanted to come along. I had heard about an artist of the WPA era whose murals had recently been preserved, but hadn’t realized they were in the neighborhood. The church was cold and dark upon entry. A few others gathered in the lobby for the tour. Over the next hour-and-a-half I relaxed into a pew, craning my neck upward in delight as the young man and his fellow tour guide, a retired history teacher, talked to us about the Croatian American artist I had heard of only in passing: Maxo Vanka.

For some time in 1937 and then again in 1941, after Vanka naturalized as a U.S. citizen, the artist painted over 22 murals in tempera on site in St. Nicholas, a congregation home to ten percent of the U.S. Croatian immigrant population at the time. Themes of war and the rising labor movement dominate Vanka’s powerful scenes. The dress and ceremony of mourning women, I was told, was an Old World Croatian tradition. The faces of Vanka’s women had a sobering Byzantine look and feel to them with wide eyes full of sadness. Two of the most memorable murals for me include Injustice, depicted as a frightening woman wearing a long black gown and gas mask, holding scales unequaled by greed, a bloody sword resting on her shoulder. Another was The Capitalist, a Mr. Burns-style industrialist in top hat smoking a long cigarette, almost chucking to himself while reading the stock report as he is served a gluttonous feast.

Interestingly, Vanka was not religious. His accomplishment in Millvale speaks to an era of hard labor and sorrow that today we appreciate not as religious fervor, but rather, simple human history. For the curious, plan a visit on the weekend and call ahead for tour times, or get your hands on filmmaker Kenneth Love’s recently premiered documentary: Maxo Vanka’s Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church.

Cathy Wilkes

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

I was introduced to Cathy Wilkes’s work by Yasmil Raymond when I was working at the Walker Art Center. Wilkes was a linchpin of Raymond’s exhibition Abstract Resistance. She and I talked about the show at length, and while I was always compelled by the images of Cathy’s work, something seemed to be missing for me. …Turned out that the missing element was actually seeing the work in person. (Imagine!) Her installation in Abstract Resistance was raw, visceral, delicate, psychologically complex, and beautiful in a way that was quiet, peaceful, and dark. The Sunday following the opening, Cathy gave a talk at Midway Contemporary Art. It remains the most moving, most interesting artist talk I’ve ever heard. Hearing Cathy talk about her work is as affecting as seeing it.

When Lynn Zelevansky and I took a trip to London in the spring of 2010, I went up to Glasgow by train (a BEAUTIFUL train ride) to meet with Cathy. It was a great studio visit, which gave me a lot of insight… most memorable was the altered bathtub that Cathy had up on cinderblocks that she uses to scrub the surfaces of her paintings… the paint and cleaning liquids empty through the drain into a bucket, full of dark and mysterious residue. When Cathy came to Pittsburgh after a trip to Aspen a few months later, in the middle of the winter, we looked at the Forum gallery together, deciding on a mix of recent paintings and a new installation. Most of the work she made for the show which opened here in November was actually made right in the gallery. I watched as steel frames turned into ghostly men, and saw Cathy and her assistant Darren apply what looked like hundreds of layers of papier-mâché to get the figures’ skin densities and colors just right. We had to have an attendant in the gallery after hours and on weekends as they worked. I volunteered, and am so happy I did, because I saw the work come into being, and take on meaning and force in real time, in front of my eyes.

Check out the booklet we published for the show, and read my essay, along with Cathy Wilkes’s artist statement.

Robert Breer’s Lesser-known “Floats”

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

It occurs to me that most of my posts thus far have related to something or other that has been unearthed in the process of digging around in old files. Either I love archives or just intersect with them a lot in the course of my working life… In any case, it figures that when I read Art Forum‘s recent “Passages” piece on artist-filmmaker (and 2004 Carnegie International artist), Robert Breer, who died last summer, I immediately thought of something I found in the Film Section file cabinets a while back. So here’s a tribute to Breer, nerdy archival style…

Most people talk about the domed kinetic sculptures (slow moving, self-propelled objects that the artist called “floats”) that Breer built for the Pepsi Cola Pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan.  And rightly so: the Pavilion was a crowning achievement for Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). People who lived in Pittsburgh during the mid-1970s, however, might best remember Breer for the three floats he made for the 1974 Three Rivers Arts Festival– a mechanized crumpled plastic mass, pyramid, and stacked box “ziggurat” that crept slowly around a plaza near Gateway Center. So slowly in fact, that their movement was nearly imperceptible, until the viewer turned around to find the arrangement had changed.

I grew up in Pittsburgh but hadn’t been born yet, so it was (exciting!) news to me when I discovered the documentation in the artist’s Film Section file. There was apparently a concurrent gallery exhibition of some of Breer’s smaller kinetic works, but I haven’t been able to find out where that took place. Some photos to share anyway, pending more research.

Please comment if you know something more about this project, or if you know who the photographer was…

Dakar, Sénégal

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I arrived at Dakar airport around 2 a.m. on Monday, January 9, and was welcomed by hundreds of taxi drivers ready to drive me to town. Although I knew how much I should pay (or shouldn’t pay), I was very glad to see Antoine holding up my name and bringing me to Magic Land, the amusement park where my hotel was, situated just next door to the Supreme Court of Senegal. All this was a perfect start to immersing myself into Dakar. Next to Magic Land was a small bay where, at night, informal BBQs offered fish and salad. The following day, on that same beach, I discovered and visited local artist Cissé’s house and sculpture park made out of garbage. His built environment may be the world of an outcast, but it includes poetry and a good dose of contempt towards the empty discourses of officials and politicians. Cissé had realized his public art without being asked, and to me it looked more appealing than the other sculptures lined up at the seaside… (well, there was some surreal quality there too—see below).