Having already been familiar with Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards and Mythic Being I wanted to see what else I could learn about her art. As I searched the web, I thought about a fellow undergraduate student who shared my freshman year art history class. I knew he was a fellow photo student, but our paths rarely crossed since we each worked in different gang dark rooms. I had been sitting outside taking a break from lab work when he handed a card to me and sat down nearby when usually he’d pass by and never speak. He was a unique person who liked to eat ice cream with a big spoon from a gallon-sized container. The container of ice cream would last him about three days worth of snacking during work breaks. I flipped over the card to read it:

Dear Friend,

I am gay.

My father refused to eat at the same table with me after I came out to my family.  That was 7 years ago. I am now 22. I ask you, my friend, to understand that being gay is not a disease. If you share food with me you will not get AIDS; you will not become gay. What I hope could happen if you were to eat with me is that you question your own perceptions about sexuality in relation to mine, and find that I am not guilty of any wrongdoing. I deserve to be loved and respected just like you.

I don’t expect you to share food with me, but I do keep an extra spoon in my pocket.

I hope I have not made you uncomfortable, but I really like you and want to be friends.

Instantly, I wondered if he thought I felt some kind of judgment toward him, but realized he was taking a tack in his own way from Adrian Piper whom we had studied earlier that week. I was so touched in the moment that I didn’t know how to respond except with a smile and to get back to my work. Soon enough, my new friend and I shared ice cream from his gallon container. As our coursework put us in closer daily proximity to one another, we shared wonderful meals and coffee chats throughout our years at NMSU. Whether or not I would have taken his extra spoon to eat food with him is not the point of sharing my memory, rather I was impressed by how many years later an artist’s work can offer up an answer to someone who suffered from lack of understanding and acceptance.

While looking at and reading about Piper’s work (and revisiting Wojnarowicz’s works), I found myself thinking that I am a boring white person. Sometimes when I have struggled for direction in my own work, I have had thoughts like, “I haven’t suffered enough”, “I am not displaced”, “My internal wrestling is not legitimate by comparison to that of others”. I have asked myself, “Who will care about my personal history in my art?” “What in this world, where there have been and will continue to be real fights, is important about my identity?” And now I wonder how I have changed, learned, and who I am today.

Often when I view and/or read about outstanding, thought provoking, and sometimes heart wrenching art created as commentary, observations, explanations, clarifications, etc. on life experiences by persons with different ethnicities than mine, different sexual orientations than mine, who have been traumatically dislocated, who have been personally wrenched by war, or who have suffered lifelong loss of self as acknowledged, as valid and valuable, I find myself feeling alienated from inside much of the art world. Please understand that I feel deep compassion and empathy, but I realize I am oh-so-privileged as most boring white people are. I have asked myself why have I felt a sense of estrangement. There are no clear answers to myself except I lean toward a greater desire than I experience, the implications of which are challenging to put a finger on. Perhaps, I am one of those people who are self-implicated by wishing that to be a boring white artist shouldn’t have to be so hard in its own right. Oh hypocrite, am I!

After reading Wojnarowicz’s horrifying account in Post Cards from America: X -Rays from Hell about what his friend (and he) experienced with the deaths of their friends and lovers, and what their own bodies were experiencing, to be the boring white person that I am is not so bad. In trying to make sense of my easier existence I discovered that Michael Stipe (lead singer of R.E.I.) read the essay out loud at Artists Space as a combined effort with the organization in support of the Andy Warhol Foundation who had demanded that The Smithsonian immediately restore Wojnarowicz censored work as part of the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.[1]  Stipe claimed: “I decided to read this piece by David  Wojnarowicz to illuminate and contextualize the frame of mind that prevailed during the very difficult end of the 1980’s; a political regime and administration that refused to recognize the AIDs crisis, a hostile and frightened public, and a community desperate to be heard, cared for, acknowledged. The piece resonates as strongly now as then, and the question is how much of this has changed or improved over the past 21 years.” To me, Stipes’ last statement is where the lingering truth lies. And now, a couple of years after hearing Jonathan Katz speak here in Las Cruces about some of the Hide/Seek works and all of the politics surrounding the exhibition, it hits home even greater than it did in my harried undergraduate existence then. You can see a video of Katz talking about the importance of the exhibition here:

I found and read excerpts from Piper’s excellent writings about xenophobia and the indexical present. Her works Catalysis (1970), Mythic Being (1970s), and I Embody Everything You Most Hate and Fear (1970) have been described by Carol Stakenas (executive director, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) and Marina Zurkow (multi-media artist, Professor at Tisch School of the Arts) as “the first examples of ‘the indexical present,’ a highly effective (yet commonly criticized as confrontational) technique that Piper uses to situate the work in the immediate present and create a direct relationship to the viewer by the use of words like ‘I,’ ‘You,’ ‘Here,’ and ‘This,’ instead of ‘We,’ ‘There,’ etc. By placing the viewer in the same time frame as the object being observed, the role of the artist as a mediator between the viewer and the subject of the work is diminished, as is the ability of the viewer to place barriers in the way of an honest consideration of the subject presented.”[2]

I knew a person who said he was a self-xenophobe.  I still have no idea what that could mean except perhaps self-hate (No. I hope not!). Self-preservation? To me, all of the artworks we learned about this past week point fingers. The works imply, overtly and subversively, a predominance of great ignorance that has prevailed, and sadly still does, in our collective human existence. I view these artworks as signifiers meant to teach us lessons through their messages that do in fact implicate us in myriad ways and from that which is signified through them, it is our responsibility to find and preserve commonality even in the perceived weakest link between us. If these works want anything as time has moved forward from their beginnings, they ask us to act as witness, to carry forward—to burn into our collective memory why they were created and why they exist in critical discourse. To me, this offers a kind of self-centering against the occasional self-deprecating thoughts of being a boring white person, for in reality there is a place for everyone’s art that is valuable in thought as explored first as reductive through the individual and then as collective bridge to all experience.

[2] http://www.o-matic.com/public_art/piper.html

Reading List

  • Thelma Golden. “What’s White…?”. 1993 Biennial Exhibition (Whitney Biennial). Elisabeth Sussman, et al. New York: Whitney Museum of Art with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1993. Pp. 26-35. Print.
  • Adrian Piper. “Ideology, Confrontation, and Political Self-Arewness”. (1981) Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Eds. 1996. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 787-791. Print.
  • Christopher Reed. “Queer and Beyond”. Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas. 2011. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 229-280. Print.
  • David Wojnarowicz. “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell”. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, Eds. 1996. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Pp. 373-376. Print.

      One really wonderful thing about being an artist is to influence and be influenced. Eve Hesse and Sol LeWitt did just this not only in their works, but also in support toward one another as friends. I have often read about how LeWitt influenced Hesse’s work, but rarely about how she was influential to his before her death after which he created, Wall Drawing #46 (1970), as a tribute to her life and work. From this perspective along with the knowledge that uniquely for both artists, process and materiality were vital aspects of their works and between them as friends it makes perfect sense that their art was displayed together in the 2011 exhibition, “Eve Hesse and Sol LeWitt”, at Craig F. Starr Gallery in New York.

The exhibition curator, Veronica Roberts, wrote in the show catalogue an essay that begins: “In 1970, Eve Hesse died at the age of 34. When Sol received word of her death, he was in Paris preparing a show that would open a few days later. In that short time he made a brand new work dedicated to Eva. It was the first time in his entire career that he made ‘not straight lines.’  Everything before that—whether Yaffa-block-like sculptures of ‘incomplete cubes’ or his ‘wall drawings’ with their ordered lines you could stencil notebook paper off of—was never anything but straight.” [1]  As stated by Valerie Hellstein, Hesse belonged to the camp of artists whose works emerge from both process and materiality “as intricately bound together, the one informing the other.”  While looking at images of some of the pieces on display during the LeWit-Hesse exhibit, it is easy to see that this was true for LeWitt too (perhaps less so about materiality), and that many of their works can easily be defined, to me, as creating an important meeting point of dialogue.  One “dialogue” among numerous examples of influences like the fact that they both sometimes worked with circle, rectangle, and square modules, can be found between Hesse’s Accession V (1968) and LeWitt’s 3x3x3 (1965).  Some works were inscribed with dedications to one another, such as Eva Hesse’s Untitled piece (below top) that is inscribed on the back side, “For Sol—Eva Hesse 1966” and LeWitt’s Drawing Series 1/3241/A&B inscribed on the lower left “For Eva November 6, 1968”.

A very well known letter written in 1965 by LeWitt to Hesse circulates the Web as whole and in parts, as well as in a wide range of artistic and commercial appropriations. A photocopy of the original letter can be viewed as an addendum to one of Art21’s blogs.[2] Over the years I have come across his letter as re-articulated through the “voices” of artists of many genres, and always through an inspirational lens regarding struggle, encouragement, and individuality. In one particularly fascinating 21st century articulation in MOCATV’s Lyric Video series is a collaborative work produced by Aaron Rose (Beautiful Losers, director) with director, animator Thomas McMahon and the band, Rancid.[3]  I mention this because it is one example of how former artworks, Sol LeWitt’s in particular, influence artist’s process and materiality decades later.  It is interesting to note here that in LeWitt’s letter of encouragement to Hesse, he wrote lists of words like “…struggling, grasping, confusing…”… and “tumbling, scumbling, scrambling…” that might easily be thought of as a kind of mirroring of her use of the Mel Bochner’s gift of a thesaurus to aid her in finding words that could best drive her works, fit their content, and contextualize her work’s titles, as explained in the reading below by Briony Fer.[4] These are sung in the video by punk rock singer, Tim Armstrong, along with visuals taken from Sol LeWitt’s motifs.

This dialogue between friend artists and later varying artistic articulations of something as simple as a letter speaks to how, from a movement or era, art is still generatively carried through, albeit drastically changed, over time. Veronica Roberts has a new book, Converging Lines: Eva Hesse and Sol LeWitt, due to be released in 2014. The book will also contain essays by Lucy Lippard and Kirsten Swenson, It should be every bit as informative as Fer’s book, and I can’t help but wonder if it was written as an answer to a call.

[1] Amy Whitaker. “The Friends and Family Plan: Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse”. May 17, 2011. Art21 Blog. http://blog.art21.org/2011/05/17/the-friends-and-family-plan-sol-lewitt-and-eva-hesse/. Web.

[2] PDF of photocopy of Sol Le Witt’s letter to Eva Hesse: http://blog.art21.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/sol-eva-letter.pdf. Web.

[3] MOCATV. “Learn to Say F**k You”. April 23, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h2bC-3o9h4I. Web.

[4] Briony Fer. The Infinite Line: Remaking Art After Modernism. New Haven, CT. Yale: University Press. 2004.

Reading List:

  • Briony Fer.”Studio”. The Infinite Line: Remaking Art After Modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2004. Pp. 117-143. Print.
  • Leo Steinberg. “Contemporary Art and the Plight of its Public”, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth Century Art. 1972. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp. 3-16. Print.

      Gagates was the name applied to Jet in ancient times, as stated in Chapter 34 in The Natural History of Gems or Decorative Stones, written by Charles William KIng in 1847. The gemstone was named after the no longer existing town of Gages in the city of Lycia. Gagates have been known to history since the times of Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age.  The descriptive word, gagates, is thought to have originated from the Lycian language, an ancient precursor to Greek that we know ultimately became the foundation for our English alphabet.

It is a light, porous, and brittle stone that is black in color and described by King as closely resembling wood in appearance.  He stated that, conversely, oil quenches it while water ignites it. An odd statement that may or may not be true, but adds to  conversation  about how written and spoken language along with their associative meanings  transform throughout time. So, too, does visual language. The known roots of each of these kinds of languages, written, spoken, and visual, remains inside our vast and growing branches of knowledge and are undoubtedly interconnected in the experiences of most human beings.

As an aside, it had been that gagates,  or Jet, was thought to provide six remedies to mankind due to its strong sulphuric odor and burning properties:

  • the fumes emitted from it were said to keep away serpents
  • it was described as being instrumental in keeping away hysterical affections
  • it was used to detect tendencies toward epilepsy
  • it was used to test virginity
  • once boiled it was used to cure toothaches
  • when combined with wax it was known to aid people with scrofula, a form of tuberculosis

Personally, I have only ever known Jet as a material used to make the buttons for mourning clothing that was predominantly worn by women during the Victorian Era.  While in Boston, I found a collection of Jet, Jet with horn, and Jet with glass buttons in an antique store. Each one had been carefully wired to a brittle and fading paper-covered board.  What struck me at the time was how no two buttons were alike.  I pondered how they came together in that one small space.  Had someone collected them from early generations of family member’s shredded silk dresses (over time Victorian silk fell apart leaving only hardware and decorative elements behind) or had they been purchased by a collector of grief relics.  That no buttons were alike and that they must have adorned just as many dresses as they were in quantity represents to me the possibility of many, many deaths and years of sadness. Or at the least, they represented how women tolerated social conventions of the time.  So much is lost in the memory of objects.  The entire lifetime of a human being is gone if nothing has been written to fuel our curiosity or to feed our awareness.  Just as interesting is my understanding that Jet buttons worn on widow’s dresses were not associated with any of the aforementioned “cures” of the 1800s, that I am aware of.

I view this collection of Jet buttons as an amalgamation of language that has changed over time, and a resurfacing of meaning based upon my singular knowledge about them  as a form of personal identity. Not only can the buttons be perceived to represent one person’s collection of beautiful grief objects, they can be thought to represent the experiences of possibly 66 human beings who lost a loved one.

And to add to the perplexity of it all,  the entirety of my antique store find was covered with a hair net.

      Many of my fellow students and two of our visiting artists have encouraged me to continue to explore some of my personal iconography, to see how I can push the boundaries of their meanings within my personal lexicon. Artists have long considered hair to be an essence of being, an identifier, a self-portrait, of sorts. Here, sewing with hair is a performative act meant as a ballad to the women of my family, and one that works similarly to how memory is recalled time and time again. The pricking of fabric with the needle, the looping of hair, and the practiced hand’s motions at craft are never the same, yet somehow familiar each time the actions are carried out. Eventually, the pinch pleated line of hair becomes entangled into itself…much like a life experienced.

One professor described the video as “…a stitched scar line, stitching shut a wound that cannot be seen, disturbing a decorative space with a displaced hair, and refusing to reveal or sum up the full image, scene, or narrative.” At first, I refused the singular notions of “scar”, “wound”, “displacement”.  However in fact, these descriptors are true for everyone to one degree or another.  And now, after giving the whole of the summation deeper thought, I relish my professor’s wisdom and ability to reflect through the lenses of broad viewpoints about the affect of our visual subject matter.  The best of my experiences with my professors over the years have at times been akin to a surprising pinprick of knowledge!  My ears are ever turned in those good directions.

      Interested in memory and affect theory, I decided to explore the notions of covering and uncovering, forgetting and recollecting. I am most interested in what Brian Massumi calls “the charge of affect”. He describes an emotion as a partial expression of affect that draws on a limited selection of memories, and that only activates certain reflexes or tendencies. All the rest is still there, but as potential. The charge of effect most often occurs somewhere in-between the banal and the cathartic. A self-assigned very tall order. I am working to learn how to see and create inside of and about this ‘space’ in my existence. In this video sketch, I explored these notions with a spontaneous site installation I had created for our Installation class.

“I provide a context for the work that’s shown, through thematic structures, through formal structures, etc.”

__ Paul Couillard, Artist and Curator

      After reading many interviews with curators describing how they approach producing an exhibition and hearing one curator speak about the act of curating, I began to question how much of the curator’s own voice is reflected in an exhibition especially in the context of displaying the works of multiple artists. Aside from institutional mandates and the artists being consulted about context (perhaps), it seems that a curator has a considerable amount of control concerning the overall point of view in which artworks are displayed. As we all know context is vital when more than one part is brought together in the creation of a whole, not to mention the content of each piece in an exhibition. In curatorial practice context and content are important considerations throughout every step of generating an art exhibition. Practice and discipline come into play in order for a curator to withhold his or her personal voice or to add it as another, oftentimes unknown to the public, element of an exhibition. But are they always successful?

“Define your own identity. Don’t confuse your desire to be on everybody’s mind with the desire of what moves you deep down.”

__Jean-Christophe Ammann, Author, Art Historian, and Curator, “Some Suggestions for Beginning Curators”, Words of Wisdom: A Vade Mecum on Contemporary Art.