A Conversation with Joshua Shannon

On December 2, 2014, University of Maryland Professor Joshua Shannon delivered a lecture entitled “Photorealism: A History of Surfaces” as part of the Institute of Fine Art’s Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series.  (A recording of his talk can be viewed here.)  The theme of the Silberberg lecture series this year is “failure,” and Professor Shannon’s presentation on photorealism took the failure of credibility suffered by humanist painting in the late twentieth century as a point of departure.  IFA Ph.D. Candidate Claire Brandon interviewed Professor Shannon following the lecture.

Joshua Shannon's lecture, "Photorealism: A History of Surfaces," in the lecture hall of the IFA.
Joshua Shannon’s lecture, “Photorealism: A History of Surfaces,” at the IFA.

In the beginning of your lecture, you mentioned 1968 as the starting point for your study.  What was happening with the practice of photorealism during that moment?  How do you see it as marking such a major shift in painting?

Photorealism made a rather sudden appearance in painting in 1967-68.  Most of the photorealists had been making other kinds of realist painting in the years just before then, but it is amazing to see how suddenly—and simultaneously—many of them began to make paintings that acknowledged, even exaggerated, the fact that that they were based on photographs.  This struck me as a fact needing some historical explanation.

Why have you chosen to focus on Robert Bechtle?  How can his work be differentiated from the other photorealists you brought up, such as Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and Ralph Goings?

I just think Bechtle made many of the richest and most revealing paintings.  The photorealists are united by the fact that they all make clear that they have painted from photographs, but the kinds of photographs they work from are actually quite diverse.  While Estes, for example, uses urban architectural photography and Close uses portrait photographs, Bechtle works from snapshots.  His paintings are deliberately exploring amateur photography, even mediocre amateur photography.  Bechtle is interested not so much in precision or in dryness as he is in posing.  His paintings are about self-presentation, and about what counts as a good or meaningful picture.  As such, Bechtle has his fingers on many of the most important problems in visual representation over the past several decades.  We have so much to learn from his paintings.

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Augmented Reality Enters the Conservation Laboratory

On October 22, 2014 at the Institute of Fine Arts, Jens Stenger gave a talk titled “Non-Invasive Color Restoration of Mark Rothko’s Harvard Murals Using Light from a Digital Projector” on behalf of his team (Santiago Cuellar, Rudolph Gschwind, Ankit Mohan, Yasuhiro Mukaigawa, Ramesh Raskar, Katherine Eremin and Narayan Khandekar).

Stenger presents the team's target image, the compensation image, a painting's present faded state, and its appearance with the projection in the IFA Lecture Hall. Photograph by the author.
Stenger presents the team’s target image, the compensation image, a painting’s present faded state, and its appearance with the projection in the IFA Lecture Hall. Photograph by the author.

Like many conservation chronicles, this riveting lecture on the recent restoration of Mark Rothko’s storied Harvard Murals had all the elements of a blockbuster drama. The story’s stakes ride not only on the status of the artist—an immeasurable giant of post-war modernism—but also on the works’ conservation history. The five paintings on canvas that comprise the murals were completed in 1962, making these Rothko’s first site-specific grouping of paintings (they were followed by his canvases for Houston’s 1967 Rothko Chapel). The Harvard Murals, as they are known, were made for the boardroom of the university’s new Holyoke Center, designed by Josep Lluís Sert, then Dean of the Graduate School of Design.

The Holyoke Center’s conference room boasted excellent natural light, and over the years the paintings—originally grounded in a deep, winelike crimson of Rothko’s own making, with a different intense hue in each canvas’s foreground—faded abysmally. In the 1980s, a team of conservators determined that the main culprit in the fading was Lithol Red, a highly fugitive pigment that provided the backbone of the murals’ striking crimson. Following this discovery, the paintings were put on public display for the first time in 1988—to general outcry. The paintings that had languished in seclusion during Rothko’s canonization now struck art historians, critics, and the artist’s heirs as withered corpses, shadows of their original glory. After this debacle, the paintings were kept in storage, rarely to be seen again. Until, that is, Stenger’s team proposed a radical new solution.

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EXPAND//FOLD//COLLAPSE// Sculptures by Marta Chilindron: A Conversation with Great Hall Exhibition Curators, Susanna Temkin and Katharine Wright

The following is a transcript of a conversation between IFA PhD candidates Susanna Temkin and Katharine Wright and Master’s student, Caroline Barnett. Temkin and Wright are the co-curators of the Great Hall Exhibition program for the 2014-2015 academic year. The interview took place on October 27, 2014.

Marta Chilindron, Cube 48 Orange, 2014, acrylic, dimensions variable: closed: 48 x 48 x 48 in., Courtesy Cecilia de Torres, Ltd.
Marta Chilindron, Cube 48 Orange, 2014, acrylic, dimensions variable: closed: 48 x 48 x 48 in., Courtesy Cecilia de Torres, Ltd.

CB: So, tell us a little bit about the show. What can we expect to see?

ST: We’re going to be installing a total of eight works by the artist Marta Chilindron, three of which are large-scale. Chilindron creates manipulable sculptural works using transparent and multi-colored plastic-based material. For the show, we are installing works throughout the Great Hall. We wanted to make as much use of the space as possible, so they will be in the vestibule, the lobby space, and on the marble table on the platform right below the staircase. But, right now things are tentative. We’re giving this interview before we do the installation, so we will have to see how everything plays out.

CB: It’s appropriate that the installation is in flux – expanding and collapsing like the title.

ST and KW: Yes!

CB: What were the challenges of curating a show in the Duke House? I imagine it has a lot of limitations.

KW: One of the challenges is the nature of the space…there are a lot of things you have to work around. It’s a place of major circulation; everyone who comes in and out of the building has to go through there at some point – there are classrooms, offices, our lunch room. So that really hinders where you can exhibit things.

ST: This is not a traditional exhibition space. It’s challenging: we had no walls, we had to really respect the building, people have to be able to use it, it’s not climate controlled, etc., etc.

KW: But that’s why Chilindron’s work is so exciting because it dictates that kind of movement and manipulation of space; it can fill it or contract as need be. For example, right now we are involved in discussions about the work, Green Pyramid (2006). Depending on how we choose to install the piece, it can stretch from a hexagonal shape with a diameter of eight feet to a much more condensed, triangular form that uses about half of the floor space.

CB: You can’t change the lighting, can you?

ST: Yes! The building staff will help with spotlights. However, one thing that is important about Chilindron’s art is how the nature of the materials she works with – transparent acrylics and other plastics-based media – interacts with the light effects of the space. I’m really excited to see how the works we install near the staircase will reflect light filtering in from the Duke House’s skylight. For students, I think it will be nice to see how the works change throughout the course of the day or with the weather, for example.

CB: Are you two continuing the program into the spring?

KW: We’ve been tasked with organizing the spring exhibition. I should explain that we’re co-organizers and co-curators of this year’s Great Hall Exhibitions, but Susanna has taken the lead on this show in the fall, and I’m going to take the lead in the spring. We’re still in the process of negotiating what the next exhibition will entail.

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Notes from the Street: Charles Simonds at the IFA

On October 7, for this year’s inaugural Artists at the Institute lecture, Charles Simonds delivered an energetic and astute summation of his career to date. He began with his earliest Dwellings—miniature architectural structures, made of clay, sand, and small bits of wood—which in the early 1970s seemed to emerge organically from the gutters, broken walls, and empty lots of downtown New York, springing up wherever the city’s crumbling infrastructure afforded a place for their putative inhabitants, whom Simonds dubbed the “Little People.” Simonds’s rich practice, which incorporates elements of sculpture, architecture, urban planning, craft, performance, conceptualism, narrative fiction, and social engagement, has taken many forms in many places since those early breakthroughs. Yet even today, viewers seem perpetually drawn back to the original Dwellings, which remain landmarks of his artistic practice and of the downtown scene though they exist only in photographs and in memory.

Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.
Dwelling, East 6nd Street, New York, 1974, clay, sand and wood. Photo courtesy www.charles-simonds.com.

There are many reasons for this consistent focus on Simonds’s early work, not least the powerful charm exerted on us by things that are gone. The Dwellings’ loss helps establish them as a kind of founding myth—both for Simonds’s mature work and for the narratives he wove within it. But at play here is also the art world’s typical exhaustion with itself, the self-disgust that has, since Duchamp, drawn art irresistibly toward things it hasn’t yet absorbed. For that reason viewers may think that the Dwellings’ natural habitat is the city, and the white walls of the museum can showcase only taxidermied specimens, removed from both context and life.

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Blowing Up                                                   The Koons Effect

The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.
The Koons Effect, A Symposium at the Institute of Fine Arts, September 12, 2014. Photograph by Jason Varone.

Adding to the ever-increasing influx of (add preferred noun here: airtime, hype, prestige, simple volume of written or spoken words) about Koons’s work in the wake of the Whitney’s current retrospective, the joint IFA-Whitney symposium, The Koons Effect was a game participant. Unlike much of the other dialogue around the show, however, The Koons Effect aimed for tough methodological questions from the start; indeed the symposium could be said to have centered on the question of whether Koons’s work proves itself beyond the pale of established historical interpretative frameworks and vocabularies, warranting something “new.” Two points were immediately clear: facile and default recourse to models (like the commodity fetish) or to figures (like Duchamp and Warhol) bear little fruit in the collective effort to advance the discourse on Koons, and the lighter the reliance on the artist’s own manicured explanations and language of self-presentation, the deeper the insight.

Rather than synopsizing the conference here, however, what follows are abbreviated summaries of four of Friday’s eight presentations, in part to signal their diversity (I consider only part two of the event, the September 12 proceedings, which were fully recorded and are available online). The challenge of precisely summarizing any individual talk points not only to the complexity of the ideas grappled with and the lines of inquiry opened up, but—and maybe more importantly—the supremely unresolved state of current thinking on the artist. Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf’s show is revelatory for bringing the full trajectory of Koons’s production into view, enabling—unbelievably—for the first time what one hopes will be a spate of ambitious art historical work based on direct experience and study of the objects.
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Watch this space!

Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect in construction, 1975.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s Conical Intersect in construction, 1975.

Right now the CAC blog is undergoing some exciting transitions, which we hope to share with you in 1-2 months. Keep us on your radar, and thanks for all the engaging conversations you’ve given us so far!

Kristen Gaylord and Rachel Nackman, editors

Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium

When Carroll Dunham loaded his PowerPoint presentation for his Artists at the Institute lecture, “Carroll Dunham Speaks About His Recent Work,” at the IFA on March 22, he requested that the projectionist leave the screen blank before he began his talk. My guess is that he didn’t want to scare away the audience with his first image–either Hers/Dirt/One (2009) or a similar painting–-which is part of his most recent series and features a naked female figure bending over. Sometimes bathing, sometimes just bending over, usually with face obscured and arms spread in a landscape setting, his characters’ genitalia (often depicted in “shockingly pink” colors) are typically the central focus in these paintings.[1] Clearly self-conscious and a little embarrassed about the direction his art has taken, Dunham began his lecture by saying that he “knows very little about it.” His lecture, followed by a provocative Q&A session, was the personal account of an artist who has seemingly let go of artistic agency and has become something of a medium, passively channeling his expression.

Hers/Dirt/One (2009). 51 x 66 inches. Mixed media on canvas.
Courtesy Carroll Dunham website.

This female series is not the first time that Dunham has steadily riffed on a theme for many years during his career. For roughly a decade, from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, Dunham’s work mostly centered around a cartoony male figure with a top hat and phallic/pistol-like nose. In describing that series, Dunham curiously verged on speaking in the third person. He said that at a certain point this male character–“a simple, dumb figure”-–entered his work and after a while he couldn’t imagine a painting without it. Following the compulsion to depict this subject matter, he began to “close in” on the character, cropping it in different ways, adding new elements, and even eliminating color, in hopes of eventually ridding his canvases of the invasive figure. Continue reading “Carroll Dunham: Artist as Medium”

The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA

Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, "Already Been in a Lake of Fire_Notebook Volume 38," 1999. Digital color print.
1 of 9 plates, 30 x 42 cm each. Via The Atlas Group: http://www.atlasgroup.org/

My internal conversation with the work of Walid Raad began as I paged my way through a monograph of his work, entitled Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: Some Essays from The Atlas Group Project (Cologne: Walther König, 2008), before the artist’s recent lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts on February 23, 2012. A Lebanese-born artist and associate professor at The Cooper Union, Raad is perhaps best known for his work under the guise of The Atlas Group, a fictional collective founded to examine the political, social, and psychological effects of Lebanon’s Civil War through archival documentation.

This archival documentation takes on a variety of forms, ranging from photographs of Raad’s personal collection of bullets, found during his teenage years in Beirut, to reproductions of documents attributed to (fictional) figures like Dr. Fadl Faukhouri, a leading historian of the Civil War until his death in 1993. The assembled contributions of Dr. Faukhouri and others seem to treat the war somewhat objectively by focusing on minute details and empirical data. In actuality, however, they suggest both the extreme psychological effects of the war upon the Lebanese people and the concomitant difficulty of portraying this people’s experience of war. For example, notebooks in The Atlas Group archive that belonged to Dr. Faukhouri show that the historian would obsessively walk the streets of Beirut in search of intact versions of models of cars recently destroyed by car bombs. He would then photograph his finds, to document the frequency with which certain makes and models were used in these bombings.

The aforementioned monograph, Scratching on Things I Could Disavow, published on the occasion of the exhibition The Atlas Group (1989-2004): A Project by Walid Raad at Culturgest in Lisbon, contains reproductions of articles, interviews, and documents that relate to Raad’s work and to the archive formed by The Atlas Group. Following Raad’s practice of exhibiting photographs of documents and objects, rather than the documents and objects themselves, the book comprises a series of overhead scans of papers, magazines, and articles. Each is related to Raad’s oeuvre in some way, although his role in their authorship is not always immediately clear. Even when he explicitly states that the Group is an imaginary foundation, as he does often in exhibitions and lectures, he notes that his audience sometimes fails to grasp the “imaginary nature” of the Group and its documents.[1] For Raad, “this confirms to me the weighty associations with authority and authenticity of certain modes of address (the lecture, the conference) and display (the white walls of a museum or gallery, vinyl text, the picture frame), modes that I choose to lean on and play with at the same time.”[2] I would add to this list of confusingly authoritative documents the monograph he has published.

Raad’s remark sets the stage for my comments on his recent lecture at the IFA, “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow.” Continue reading “The many authoritative faces of Walid Raad: Thoughts from the lecture hall at the IFA”

A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 2

For someone interested in Los Angeles art, Pacific Standard Time (PST), the Getty Initiative that connects over 60 Southern California cultural institutions and museums in an 11-month exploration and celebration of postwar Los Angeles culture, feels like a limited-time offer for an all-you-can-eat buffet. I have been visiting my parents’ home less and less over the past few years, feigning adulthood, but the advent of PST has rekindled my interest in visiting the old ancestral stomping grounds. This school year (2011-2012), I am capitalizing on my family connections and making three trips to Southern California—over Thanksgiving break, winter break, and in February for the CAA conference—to take in as much of PST as possible. Here, I’ll report on my pilgrimage in a series of three posts.

Las Palmas Dr. in Fullerton on 28 December 2011

Itinerary: 24 exhibitions
Money spent on parking: $37.75
Money spent on tickets: $56.50
Tanks of gas: 2ish
Freeways traveled: the 5, the 57, the 55, the 73, the 133, PCH, the 60, the 10, the 710, the 605, the 110, the 105, the 210, the 91
Exhibition catalogs purchased (so far): 3
Tchotchkes purchased: Eyebolt, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville (1972/1978) from Otis Continue reading “A Pacific Standard Time Travelogue, Part 2”

2012 Varnedoe Lecture 1: “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism”

Okwui Enwezor gave his first talk of the Kirk Varnedoe Lecture Series on Tuesday, February 21, called “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism.” His series is titled “Episodes in Contemporary African Art,” which foreshadows a methodology centered not on grand narratives but on case studies that can enliven our understanding of an emerging field behind which Enwezor himself has been the driving force.

Today, we are all well aware that contemporary art has become a “global” phenomenon; from Chelsea to Venice we confront cutting-edge works by non-Western artists. William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Ghada Amer have all held significant retrospectives in recent years, in addition to countless others featured in group exhibitions. However, the “globalization” of contemporary art didn’t happen overnight, and as art historians we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the transition from “traditional” to “contemporary” in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Hence, Enwezor’s inaugural lecture, aptly titled “Setting the Stage,” offered a timeline against which the emergence of contemporary African art can be set.

William Kentridge, Drawing from Stereoscope, 1998–99. Charcoal, pastel, and colored pencil on paper (47 1/4 x 63 inches). Image courtesy Museum of Modern Art, NY.
Yinka Shonibare, MBE, How to Blow up Two Heads at Once (Ladies), 2006. Two mannequins, two guns, wax printed cotton textile, shoes, leather riding boots, plinth (93 1/2 X 63 X 48 inches). Image courtesy James Cohan Gallery.

Enwezor premised his talk around an inversion of the dictum that begins E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art—“There is no art as such, there are only artists”—proposing that when it comes to Western reception of African art, the reverse is often assumed; namely, that there are no African artists as such, only African art. African art has often been associated with ritual and collective production, in opposition to Western art history’s preoccupation with artistic genius, the “Master,” and individual oeuvres.
Continue reading “2012 Varnedoe Lecture 1: “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism””