In Response to “In a Time of Crisis, Is Art Essential?”

In these “uncertain times”, doing much of anything can seem like an impossible task when burdened with the daunting reality of surviving a global pandemic. Not only are people and their loved ones faced with immediate health threats just by leaving their homes, but many are threatened by a recession marked by high unemployment rates and a further divide in economic inequality, as well as a constant news cycle spouting apocalyptic narratives in regards to the pandemic, climate change, the political landscape, etc. All of these forces combined have undoubtedly taken a toll on many, especially mentally. Since the beginning of quarantine in March until now, six months later, I’ve oftentimes thought of it as almost pointless to partake in things I’ve always held as crucial to my identity and sanity, such as creating, while being inundated with this barrage of crushing messages about the present and future. Myself and possibly many artists, creators, appreciators, etc. have gone through a similar thought process, asking whether or not art is essential when our livelihoods and material reality are at stake. 

Grappling with this same question, M.H. Miller in “In a Time of Crisis, Is Art Essential?” examines the nature of artmaking and how artists are overcoming adversity through creating. In one beautiful summarization, Miller writes “All art is an act of faith — a faith that life itself, with all its tragedies and flaws, can be improved by creating something new and putting it out into the world.” Of course, the author’s response to the question of whether or not art is essential is a resounding yes. I think what Miller is saying is that art is not a luxury or an indulgence tied to prosperous moments in history, but instead an innate need in humans regardless of the material circumstances around them to transcribe their emotions or ideas and to leave something behind when they’re gone. Humans have continued to persist through strife and struggle and have managed to create, whether it be artists on the front lines of WW1 portraying the destruction and reduction of humanity in war, or persecuted queer artists working in underground subcultures.

“Runner Through the Barrage, Bois de Belleau, Château-Thierry Sector; His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone” (1919) by Claggett Wilson

With this said, art offers the alternative and subjective experiences of real people that you cannot find in a history book. Art too serves many more functions besides acting as historical snapshots, and these functions and the need for them transcend negative circumstances such as the current pandemic or times of war, famine, etc. in the past. Art will forever hold a place in human culture, whether it be for more practical needs such as ceramics or decorative tools, to more metaphysical human needs such as connecting with the spiritual through art or coming to grips with one’s lived experiences by using art as a form of therapy. Not only this, but art is inherently a communicative tool used to bridge contact between the artist and the viewer, and in a time where offline human contact has been drastically diminished, art is especially important now in reducing our isolation and connecting one another. This article has helped reinstate my love for art and realize its importance as a human need, not a luxury, and come to the realization that art might just be needed now more than ever.

Final Entry: Talking with Kate Lewis of the MoMA Conservation Lab

For our final meeting of the semester, we met with a super exciting guest being the chief conservator of MoMA, Kate Lewis! Like with many of these meetings I was initially a bit intimidated meeting such a prominent figure in the art world, but Lewis too was very friendly and willing to answer questions and delve into the ins and outs of conservation, much of the field having been a mystery to me before. While I hadn’t known much about conservation, I used to be very interested in working in museum collections though from a more archaeological-based perspective, so it was enlightening to hear about museum-based careers from a fine arts position. 

Lewis began by giving us a virtual tour of sorts through some of the exhibitions and permanent galleries at MoMA. While I’ve visited MoMA two or three times, I still don’t have a very clear mental image of its layout, so it was helpful to help me picture it again not being able to visit in person. She then showed us some of the different conservation studios scattered throughout the building. For some reason I had pictured them to be hidden in the basement or somewhere similarly mysterious, but they were located on above ground levels with beautiful lighting pouring in through the windows. Lewis then guided us through some of the conservation and preservation techniques such as a scanner they sometimes rent to look at the chemical/elemental makeups of pigments on pieces. Though if I am being honest, I am not the most scientifically-minded person so some of this information I didn’t absorb quite as much!

MoMA COnservation Lab

Lewis then opened up the discussion to questions about her career path as well as conservation techniques, etc. I asked what materials/artworks preserve the best and might theoretically hold up in say one-thousand years, as I just think it’s fun to think about the far future and what cultural heritage we might leave behind for future generations. I think it’s amazing that Lewis and the MoMA conservation lab have future generations of conservators and viewers in mind, as much of their conservation work isn’t just to make sure artworks look presentable for current exhibitions but much of it is preventative care so works last throughout the years.

As this was the last meeting with guests of Art Semester and my last entry, I think it would be fitting to close with some parting thoughts! It’s of course unfortunate that we couldn’t have these meetings in person and physically visit these studios, galleries, and museums, but the online format worked surprisingly well and I was still able to enjoy my time talking with these artists, curators, etc. As someone who usually focuses on pre-modern and pre-contemporary art, it was refreshing and illuminating to get a glimpse of the contemporary art world and the works being made today/the current artists working. All of the visits were fascinating, but some personal highlights include a very timely conversation with Eleanor Heartney about doom in art, as well as talking with Keith Allyn Spencer and Claudia Bitran! When things go back to “normal”, I’m ecstatic to visit some of the galleries and museums we touched upon in class in person!

Talking with Lumi Tan from The Kitchen

Last week, we met with curator Lumi Tan of The Kitchen! The Kitchen is a multidisciplinary, non-profit art space, hosting both gallery spaces for fine art as well as theaters for performance art, concerts, etc. The Kitchen has a long history in the New York contemporary art scene, having now existed for five decades since it was founded in 1971 as an artist collective primarily for the new realms of video and performance arts. With such a long history, star artists now essential to the art history pantheon have had their careers launched at The Kitchen, such as Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as famous musicians having performed there early in their careers such as Philip Glass.

In the future if things go back to “normal” and The Kitchen is operating normally again, I’m thrilled at the prospect of visiting. I love that this is a space for art’s sake, without the interference of money or the art market due due its non-profit nature. As these are works, pieces, and performances are made without the intention of being sold, I’m sure there’s potential for unbridled creativity instead of giving into the whims of what’s wanted in the market currently. And as someone who isn’t familiar with theater and performance art, I’m really excited to dive into these worlds, especially in a space that’s also tied to the more familiar visual/fine arts.

The Kitchen

Not having met with a curator yet, I was a bit intimidated going into the meeting, but it was very casual and Tan was extremely friendly and down to earth! She delved into her career beginnings, having graduated with a BA in art history, then working for-profit gallery jobs/internships, such as one abroad in France. She then began an internship at MoMA PS1, then gaining a full-time curation position there. It was really interesting and actually heartening to hear that she had never finished her graduate studies degree but nonetheless obtained these curation positions at PS1 and The Kitchen. I feel as though most jobs today in academia, the art world, etc. require multiple degrees (often for low pay and are extremely competitive), but it’s good to see that some employers value experience, skills, etc. rather than only degrees, especially in such regarded institutions. She also talked a bit about what a regular day at her job might be like, separating her days into two groups with the first involving installing shows/doing tech for performances, and the other days involving visiting artist studios as well as doing more administrative work such as fundraising, outreach, and thinking of future projects. I really admire how much she has on her plate in terms of the jobs she does at The Kitchen, but it also seems like two entirely different worlds curating fine art shows versus performances. 

Artist Talk: Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib

This week we met with our first collaborative duo of the class, Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib! Originally working in separate artistic practices though in the same realm of video art, the romantic couple eventually had decided to collaborate, and ever since most if not all of their work is made together. Before this I haven’t been very familiar with video art, but their practice successfully fuses elements of fictional film and documentary film into shorter videos that offer a “parallel-reality”. Their works feel almost like magical realism, often drawing on reality and history to create something that exaggerates these realities. The best examples of this would be their installation and video “Unsung”, which is inspired by the history of prostition and the red light district in Philadelphia, featuring a haunting and surreal video of singers projected onto the wall of an out-of-commision railway tunnel surrounded by fog, aiming to give a voice to these women. 

Unsung. 2016.

Another great example is their more recent project “Moon Viewing Platform”, featuring a narrative short film divided by the 8 lunar phases, each represented by a different “gardener” played by real artists, activists, and even their daughter. What I enjoy about their work and this project especially is their sense of ambiguity and nuance, in that they don’t tell the viewer how to feel and leave room for interpretation. This is done primarily through a lack of dialogue, at least in “Moon Viewing Platform”, as well as original ambient music and enigmatic imagery. This project was created just last year in a time of political unease (that has only gotten worse), but the duo didn’t want to do the obvious thing and comment directly on these anxieties and modern politics, instead opting to create a piece about healing and “respite from our troubles and troubling world”, which I think is beautiful and a reminder of art’s therapeutic nature. 

Moon Viewing Platform. 2019.

And while their works are obviously collaborative in nature, I love that they extend beyond just the couple and incorporate other artists, performers, actors, musicians, the local community, etc. Many of their works are installation based such as the “Moon Viewing Platform”, and for the few weeks that the video and accompanying garden were up, multiple performances by other artists and musicians were presented at the site. For another project “Ghosts of Philadelphia Industry”, a video about the city’s industrial past projected onto the side of a building in downtown Philadelphia, the duo had local high schoolers act in segments of the film as workers. Oftentimes I think that the nature of video art requires multiple participants for technical help, actors, etc., but you can tell that collaboration is something Nadia and Matthew value beyond what is needed and enjoy working with others, especially in strengthening community ties. After listening to their talk, I feel very inspired by their collaborative processes and I want to attempt making art together with friends. While they were honest saying that collaboration isn’t always easy, resulting in squabbles and compromise, seeing their finished products proves that it’s worth it in the end. 

Final Project Proposal

For my final project, I plan to explore some of the problems and hegemonic forces at play in the global capitalist art market, then examine possible solutions to these issues and ways to restructure the art market. One of the biggest issues with the market is in supply and demand, with the market only supporting a small fraction of the many working artists today, as only a few “star artists” are able to sell their works (sometimes for astronomical prices)  while most artists are excluded from the market and many are forced to find work in outside fields. These artists ranging from Indigenous artisans to non-working art graduates face similar problems having been excluded from the art market, such as appropriation of their art and the simple fact that they are unable to make a living on their work alone, forced to use other means of survival such as finding unrelated work or depending on government welfare.

In the project, I plan to look at a few case studies examining how communities deal with these problems, such as Native-American artisans reappropriating means of production to create their own companies and artist collectives creating self-sufficient, Marxist communities outside of the global market, and maybe use the mapping features to create a geographical map of these communities. I could also look at the types of art and movements meant to counter the global art market and existing outside of this commodified sphere, such as public art and protest art.

The 21st-Century’s Answer to Pop Art: Claudia Bitran

Even before our meeting with Claudia Bitran, I was extremely excited about her work and eager to hear her elaborate on her ideas and practice. Bitran, a multimedia artist working with painting, animation, installation and video, primarily makes work dealing with popular culture and how she and the general public consumes it. While she isn’t the first to bridge the gap between high-brow and low-brow art, with Andy Warhol and the Pop Art movement bringing popular culture into a fine art context, I think Bitran’s work is a natural progression from her precursors and she has a lot to say about the increasingly escalated, virulent relationship between our culture and celebrity worship that Warhol hinted at decades ago. 

Dramatic Holidays, 2009, 500 paintings of a road trip, oil on canvas on wood

Soon after this massive painting project, Claudia auditioned to be a Britney Spears impersonator on a reality TV show out of her earnest love for the star, at the time not really considering this to be part of her larger artistic practice. I found this extremely fascinating and to be a completely unexpected background for a fine artist, but meeting with Bitran, she does exude a lot of energy and a star-like quality, so it does actually make sense. I also really appreciate her earnest love for popular culture, whereas a lot of art about popular culture seems to hide behind a layer of irony and detachment. Bitran isn’t blind to the problems of popular culture and celebrity worship and definitely includes these critiques in her work, but like her I think there is a lot of joy and value to be extracted from popular culture and mainstream media. For example, there’s a lot of pushback on pop music such as Britney Spears’ for being “manufactured”, and while some of these critiques may have bits of truth to them, this doesn’t cancel the fact that people can find joy and solace in it, and that there is a real living person creating these works. Claudia actually later incorporated Britney into her artistic practice when she went to RISD, recreating Spear’s music videos with cardboard shoe box sets and inserting videos of herself dancing Britney’s choreographs, perhaps in part commenting on the star’s autonomy that was constantly breached by the media.

Bitran impersonating Spears on reality TV

Bitran very recently revisited this idea of women’s autonomy being infringed upon by media and society in her newest works, creating animations of women being filmed while drunk and at times, near-death from alcohol poisoning. She’s removing these videos from their original context, in which they were likely posted on social media as humorous, and forcing the viewer to examine our relationship with these videos and see the disturbing underside of them in which these young women are being harmed as we passively watch. She also talked about her ambitious project to recreate every scene from the Titanic but with set rules, such as using different mediums and actors for each scene, and not spending money. While she hasn’t finished this project yet, everything I’ve seen so far is extremely inventive and brings out touching and human themes that may have been glossed over in the big-budget movie. In all, talking with Bitran has genuinely inspired me in terms of art-making and general philosophies about life, and I’m super excited to keep track of her future works. 

Frenzy, 2020.

Artist Talk: Jessica Stockholder

This week, our class met with artist Jessica Stockholder! Stockholder is primarily an installation artist, creating sculptural pieces made of found objects that are often attached to the architecture of the gallery space or installation site. While it may not be immediately apparent as her works are made from these mass-produced, synthetic materials, there’s something touchingly human about many of her pieces as the objects often rely on each other for support such as in her “assist” pieces. In these works, objects may be tied or attached to one another in extremely fragile setups, providing a symbiotic relationship where they support each other, but if one object is moved the entire work falls apart. Through these cold, detached objects, her works speak to me about the complex relationships between humans, in which we need each other and prop one another up, but these relationships can always teeter on destruction.

Jessica Stockholder, Assist #3: A Chord, 2015. Painted metal, ratchet clamp with yellow webbing, felt (if needed), some kind of found sup- port to clamp the work to. 74 x 90 x 48 inches.

Before we actually met with Stockholder, I read in an interview her thoughts on beauty, which these works embody: “I don’t worry about defining it; I experience it. And it shifts. For me, it has something to do with struggle. Things that are beautiful are beautiful because they are difficult. It has something to do with stretching and expanding what I know.” I think the word “struggle” perfectly summarizes what beauty should mean. Even something as cliche as a rose, a widely-recognized symbol of beauty, can contain many conflicting ideas such as life versus death and the ephemeral nature of beauty itself. 

As for the meeting itself, Stockholder was well-spoken and provided very interesting responses to the questions. She was brutally honest (not in a rude way!) and almost shot down some of the questions asked. She didn’t specifically say this, but I think it could be her way of challenging misconceptions about her artwork. One of the biggest shocks and takeaways from this meeting was her need to supplement her art practices with teaching. This in itself is normal for many artists, but it was surprising to hear and in some ways disheartening that such a big player in the art world, with many accolades and shows, can also have problems making money in the art world. I’m also a bit surprised that many artists with teaching jobs that we’ve met with such as herself and Kenny didn’t go into the field with education in mind. Without having taken classes with them obviously, I think they would all make great professors, but I suppose I always had a misconception that most professors/teachers go into education because of want rather than need. 

Lastly, our class got into an interesting discussion about her use of plastics and non-biodegradable materials. Some were upset, seeing this as a contribution to the large-scale pollution and degradation of the environment, while she saw her works as partly a commentary on the inescapable nature of these materials in our daily lives. While I definitely see why people could be upset by this, I saw her works as at least recycling these materials rather than releasing them into the environment as they undoubtedly otherwise would have been. Not only this, but I agree that plastics and similar materials are almost impossible to avoid, especially to the working class, and the blame should be shifted from individuals to the large corporations producing these materials.

Artist Talk: Keith Allyn Spencer

This week’s virtual talk began rather unexpectedly, with our visiting artist, Keith Allyn Spencer, explaining to us the definition of a “meme”, then continuing to sing us the entirety of The Star-Spangled Banner. This however isn’t a criticism as Spencer was a breath of fresh air, being able to be silly then extremely thoughtful and eloquent at the flip of a switch. Spencer himself is a multimedia artist living and teaching in Ohio, whose works come in a wide array of mediums such as painting (on canvas and three-dimensional sculptures), animation, site-specific installations, and much more.

Misleading Experts, oils on woods panels. Size: XS. 2020

He first showed us a slideshow presenting his works as well as giving a studio tour located at the school he teaches at. This gave us the opportunity to see some recent and in progress works of his, such as painted, sculptural works of abstract forms, digital animations, and my personal favorite being a series of observational paintings of objects and landscapes. While he wasn’t sure how to feel about these recent paintings, feeling as though they were boring, they were technically very skillfully made and the inclusion of painted car covers on top of a car within these paintings felt very meta and flattened the forms in a really interesting way. He then explained that his more abstract works, a mode he tends to work more in than these naturalistic paintings, feel as if they are “cartoons of paintings” and that he way “maybe laughing or scoffing at modernism” and the discipline of painting, which allowed me to his works in a new light. 

What I found most invigorating about this week’s visit was Spencer’s relaxed attitude towards artmaking and life. While he takes his practice very seriously, he places a lot of importance on enjoying life outside of the art field as well and spending time with loved ones. This trickled into his artwork with many works being collaborative processes with his family, such as his son providing beatboxing audio for a digital animation, and his wife suggesting he paint a car onto a car cover, prompting him to do exactly that. He also tries to work from home when he can so that he can take breaks from his work and play with his children, cook, etc. This honestly made me reconsider my own philosophies on artmaking, as I think spending time with others while creating and partaking in collaborations could inject new life into any creative endeavors, and sometimes making art can be very lonely and insular. And while he recognizes he’s privileged in having a secure job, something that can be rare in the art field, he doesn’t have many qualms about one day maybe leaving Ohio and his teaching job to move back home where his relatives and roots are located. Not just in the art field, but I think in general there are unhealthy expectations placed on workers in regards to a work-life balance and a pervasive culture of extreme careerism, and I’m happy to see someone challenge that, even if that isn’t his direct intention. Anyhow, this has been one of, if not my favorite artist visit, and I really wish I could take one of Spencer’s painting classes!

Art Review: “David Hockney: A Life in Drawing”

Currently exhibiting at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, “David Hockney: Drawing From Life” showcases 125 of the renowned artist’s portrait drawings of loved ones, ranging from a variety of mediums such as pencil, charcoal, ink, printmaking, composite polaroids, and digital iPad drawings. These drawings span Hockney’s life and career, one self-portrait collage in particular being made in 1954 when the artist was only 17 years old and studying at the Bradford School of Art, and another drawing made as recently as 2019. We follow a close selection of friends, family, and lovers throughout this decade-spanning stretch of time as they age, since the exhibition only includes five figures: the artist himself, his mother, his one-time lover and longtime friend Gregory Adams, the textile designer Celia Birtwell, and collaborator Maurice Payne. In reviewing the show for the New York Times, Roberta Smith writes “each has embraced aging a different way — Ms. Birtwell most buoyantly, her open face reflecting the artist’s own unfailing curiosity.” 

Morgan Museum and Library

Roberta Smith begins her review of “David Hockney: Drawing From Life” by tugging at the heartstrings:

Whether we’re related by blood or not, our loved ones have been very much with us these last several months. Some have been physically with us, at our elbows, sheltering at home, strengthening and sometimes straining the ties that bind. Or they are with us in absentia, in yearning, across great distances, sometimes oceans. Others are no longer among the living; their absences may have been caused by the current pandemic, leaving a fresh painful void and the suspicion that they died in vain.

While it may be somewhat trite at the moment to center the show and her review around the pandemic, it’s nonetheless an effective and relevant opening. The last few months have resulted in the average person becoming overly sentimental towards loved ones, and rightfully so, perhaps making “David Hockney: Drawing From Life” the perfect show for a time when it’s important to contemplate on close relationships as Hockney does in this treasure trove of portraits. 

David Hockney, My Parents and Myself, 1976, Oil on canvas with masking tape 72 x 72”.

Smith goes on to elaborate some of the main themes she found within the show, such as friendship/intimacy of course, “the glory of drawing in various materials and styles”, and time as “Drawing from Life” is divided into five chapters in chronological order, showcasing his loved ones aging in different moods and settings. I think that the decision to focus on a small core of intimate relationships helps make this show even more poignant, as Smith’s description of these five figures makes it sound as though we get to know them on a personal level as they age, and including too many people in the show wouldn’t pack quite the emotional punch. Smith writes about Gregory Evan in particular as “he begins as a tall boyish beauty with cascading curls (depicted with fine, Matissean sparseness), and is almost unrecognizable as an imposing older figure, heavier and scowling through eyeglasses in a large ink drawing at the show’s end.” While Smith doesn’t explicitly say it, it seems like the show inherently deals with our fear of death and of loved ones aging, again helped by Hockney’s choice to portray a select few individuals, many of whom begin as youthful and fresh-faced in the drawings, physically age through the decades. 

David Hockney, “Gregory”, 1979, ink on paper.

Smith doesn’t necessarily offer a definitive review of “David Hockney: Drawing From Life” and throughout the article mostly examines the themes of the show and a few select pieces rather than offering conclusive judgements, but I would say she overall speaks of the show extremely favorably and doesn’t pose any criticisms. The way she talks about “Drawing From Life” in such human, emotional terms makes me seriously consider journeying to the Morgan Library and Museum even if I wasn’t already a fan of Hockney’s works. I think the most successful art is able to conjure poignant emotions in the viewer and arise a visceral reaction, which it sounds like happened to Smith while viewing the show. In that way, I think Smith’s review of “David Hockney: Drawing From Life” was successful. However, I would have liked her to describe her experience of viewing the show in a more tangible manner rather than just focusing on its emotive qualities, such as describing and critiquing how the show was curated and how its location enhances or detracts from the artworks, going more in depth into the materials and techniques Hockney used, and perhaps talking about what going to a show and viewing art in person is like in a COVID world. Nonetheless, “David Hockney: A Life in Drawing” ends on a strong, touching note with Smith saying: “Approaching paintings in terms of impact, these latest portrayals attest to Mr. Hockney’s undiminished ambition for the medium so central to his achievement. They also attest to the endurance of love in our lives and the role of art in making us see it.”

Sarah Crowner and the Importance of Mystery

This week, our class had another virtual artist talk, this time with Sarah Crowner! Crowner is a multimedia artist that primarily works in painting, though employing a unique approach to the hard-edge painting style of the mid-century by sewing canvas together, as well as ceramics and installation art. We were given the opportunity to take a look into Crowner’s studio as well, giving us a better understanding of what her art-making process is actually like. Not to stray too off topic, but her studio is absolutely gorgeous. Not only does Crowner have a huge amount of space needed for her large canvases, but the combination of natural light from skylights and windows as well as very strong artificial lights was incredible. The environment artists work in, even if it is not visually reflected in the works they make (such as Crowner who is not making observational works), definitely can affect an artist’s workflow and headspace. I have a hard time creating art in poor lighting conditions as practically, I cannot properly see what I am doing, but a lack of sun or strong light worsens my mood and I can quickly lose focus, so I have a feeling Crowner’s lighting setup is working wonders for her. Sorry to ramble, at any rate we were able to take a look at the large-scale, industrial sewing machines Crowner uses to create her works as well. While she isn’t using sewing in terms of a fashion-oriented process, seeing it more as a means to an end, I love that Crowner is finding new ways to create paintings rather than layering paint in a traditional model. 

Crowner’s Studio

It was also fascinating to hear Crowner’s philosophies on art. What struck me most was her emphasization of mystery in art, as she described “instinct” as what guides her art, sometimes rather than a specific narrative. I personally think the academification of art has taken away a lot of the mystery of art, and I don’t think art is something that needs to be explained. Art, at least fine arts, is a visual experience, and a lot of art aims to represent what words cannot. As someone who doesn’t consider writing or talking their strong suit, I take refuge in art as a space where I should not have to explain myself, instead allowing what I create to do the talking. 

I also loved Sarah’s ideas on how one’s body should be engaged with art. She believes that art is best viewed in person, as one can move closer to the art, view it from different angles, realize the different textures and materials, and even touch it (maybe don’t do that in a museum or gallery however). She was once commissioned to create a large-scale painting installation and scenery for a ballet, set to sit behind the dancers as the ballet was performed. While the audience couldn’t move from their seats to view it closer or from different angles, she saw the painting as ephemeral as the lighting and the interaction with moving performers transformed the painting throughout the ballet. In addition to being physical works , I admire that her pieces not only cross medium boundaries, but entire fields such as dance. 

American Ballet Theatre: Sarah Crowner