Sunday, February 28, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Faith in the Arts" (on "Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College: 1933-1957")

faith in the arts
by Douglas Messerli 

Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson (curators) Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College: 1933-1957 / Los Angeles, Hammer Museum, February 21-May 15, 2016, I saw the show, with Thérèse Bachand on February 26, 2016

If there was ever a grand imaginative moment in American education it was the creation of Black Mountain College in North Carolina in 1933. Founded by four faculty members who had been dismissed from Rollins College—John Andrew Rice, Theodore Dreier, Frederick Georgia, and Ralph Lounsbury—the school based its philosophy of learning on the ideas of American philosopher John Dewey, who argued for an emphasis on inquiry, discussion, and experimentation that featured the arts, instead of offering them as secondary elements in a liberal arts education. 
          There were no required courses, and students were encouraged to work collaboratively and to develop cross-disciplinary and independent areas of study. Members of the community, moreover, were made responsible for its day-to-day upkeep, including building maintenance, farm work, and cooking, which surely helped them to identify the institution as their own.

      The most remarkable thing about this grand experiment, however, was not just its radical positioning of the arts, but the faculty it quickly began to gather around its core founders. In its Lake Eden campus, from 1941 to its closure in 1957, the   school drew on a faculty that included Josef and Anni Albers, Eric Bentley, Ilya Bolotowsky, Josef Breitenbach, John Cage, Harry Callahan, Mary Callery, Fritz Cohen, Robert Creeley, Merce Cunningham, Edward Dahlberg, Max Dehn, Willem de Kooning, Robert Duncan, Buckminster Fuller, Walter Gropius, Trude Guermonprez, Lou Harrison, Wesley Huss, Alfred Kazin, Franz Kline, Tony Landreau Jacob Lawrence, Richard Lippold, Alvin Lustig, Beaumont Newhall, Charles Olson, M. C. Richards, Albert William Levi, Alexander Schawinsky, Ben Shahn, Arthur Siegel, Aaron Siskind, Theodoros Stamos, Jack Tworkov, Robert Motherwell, Peter Voulkos, Emerson Woelffer, Stefan Wolpe and others, while inviting figures such as Albert Einstein, Clement Greenberg, Bernard Rudofsky, Richard Lippold and William Carlos Williams to lecture.

      Among its notable alumni were Hazel Larson Archer, Ruth Asawa, James Bishop, John Chamberlain, Fielding Dawson, Elaine de Kooning, Ed Dorn, Joseph Fiore, James Leo Herlihy, Ray Johnson, Karen Karnes, Basil Ling, Gwendolyn Knight, Jane Mayhall, Robert De Niro, Sr., Kenneth Noland, Josel Oppenheimer, Arthur Penn, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Rockburne, Michael Rumaker, Kenneth Snelson, Deborah Sussman, Cy Twombly, Cora Kelley Ward, Susan Weil, John Wieners, and Jonathan Williams.

      Not only did the college offer standard visual arts and literature courses, but included the applied arts such as weaving, pottery, jewelry making, as well as architecture, music, film, theater, and dance.    
     Much has been written about this remarkable gathering of creators, including Martin Duberman’s important Black Mountain: An Exploration of Community and books by Vincent Katz, Eva Diaz, Christopher Benfey, Mary Emma Harris, and Anne Chesky Smith. And a museum devoted to the institution exists in nearby Asheville, North Carolina. 
     Now, in what claims to be the first “comprehensive museum exhibition in the US,” Helen Molesworth and Ruth Erickson have curated Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957. The show at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum brings together a large sampling of art, artifacts, and photographs, all beautifully grouped, as well as numerous performances and lectures centered around the actual productions and products that the school’s faculty and students produced, which is such a glorious sampling that one simply feels overwhelmed by the creativity of the place.

      Although Molesworth and Erickson have attempted to give some equal due to all the arts, obviously painting and sculpture tend to dominate, while poetry, dance, music, and film are, understandably, given lesser space. Without a thorough understanding of the artists themselves, moreover, it is often difficult to perceive the multitudes of inter-connections that obviously occurred among faculty members and students. Presumably the quite expensive catalogue ($75) brings some of these relationships into focus, but the very quantity and the high percentage of now  recognized artists the show contains helps to make the exibit more of an anthology than an illustrative representation of what this kind of educative experimentation actually generated.
      Yet one can observe some of the abstract forms and colors weave their way from Albers through early works by Rauschenberg, Bolotovsky, Ossip Zadkine, Robert Motherwell, Elaine de Kooning and others. Photographers such as the young and talented Hazel Larson Archer used the bodies of dancer Merce Cunningham and others as subjects for her art; and the young poet Jonathan Williams beautifully captured photographic images of fellow writers such as Dan Rice, Robert Creeley, and musician Lou Harrison.
       Perhaps more than anything else, one perceives in viewing this show the overwhelming power of the creativity Black Mountain had by intentional accident brought together; and, as you wander through its several rooms, you feel as though you have been invited to a wonderful party where everyone has absolutely amazing things to express.

     My museum-going companion of the day, Thérèse Bachand sighed, “Oh how I wish I might have been able to attend such a school!” But perceiving that most of artists we were viewing—several of whom I had personally known—are no longer living, I wanted to answer, “but then you probably wouldn’t be here to see this show.” 
     What is most sad is that, despite a few other such Utopian-like institutions (CalArts was and imagines it is still such a place), there have been few other attempts in US history to make such a grand gesture as to “leap before looking,” to have such faith in the arts as to imagine that something miraculous might happen just by bringing those who created and those who might want to create together into an isolated spot where they might explore wherever their imaginations took them.

Los Angeles, February 28, 2016

Friday, February 26, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Pounding the Television Screen" (on Kienholz Televisions)

pounding the television screen
by Douglas Messerli
Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz Kienholz Televisions / LA Louver gallery, Los Angeles, the show Howard Fox and I saw was on February 24, 2016.

On a visit recently to a friend’s house, during which we watched a CNN interview of a particularly knuckle-headed Republican governor speaking in support of a presidential candidate, I observed the friend, after a few minutes into the conversation, violently flicking his nail against the speaker’s face on the television set, which momentarily left the screen in a confusion of digital colors and distortions. I was a little shocked, but then I remembered that I had often wanted to do the same thing, to actually react to the opposing figure I saw upon the screen, imagining the strange possibility that he or she might actually suffer my futilely hostile response through the airwaves of the television screen.
       In the most recent show at LA Louver gallery in Los Angeles, Edward Keinholz and his collaborator Nancy Reddin Keinholz have done precisely that, over a long period of years, through his and her presentations of “Televisions,” in which the important Los Angeles artists question, time and again, the terrible effects of the television media on thought and expression. 
     In his early works from 1965 and 1969, Solid State and Cement TV, Keinholz is satisfied by simply displaying the early television monitors, with their boxy, quite frightening modular models able to me moved about houses with the possibility of viewing through any open outlet. 
      But by 1976, with The Death Watch, these amazing machines were already presented as dangerous contraptions whose images affect the very way we receive reality, and to perceive it as a intertwined interchange between the everyday and an actual destruction of the natural world, as a ram’s horn appears to be engaged with a life-and-death struggle with an ordinary chair. 
      Several of the Kienholz’ satires have to do with the enshrinement of these machines in the very structures of our ordinary home lives, represented in this show in the works such as Queen Anne of 1980, where, upon a small antique side-table, which the owner has covered with a lace table covering, a particularly macabre television apparatus has been placed. 
      In Home Sweet Home of 2006, Nancy Reddin Kienholz (as a singular art contribution) presents us with a perverse vision of the American hearth, with the television set itself serving as the central fireplace of the (apparently not-so-) comfy American homestead. Except for the vaguely religious painting topping the television shrine, all else appears to be embraced in a lead-constructed encasement of American values.
     In the Keinholz’ Drawing for the Hoerengracht Nol 1, the television set is tucked into a cold, isolate portraiture of a young woman who seems to be trapped in a kind of refrigerator world of light and frozen spaces.   
     But increasingly in these works, the Kienholz’ began to question the terrible effects of the media and its projection through the TV set. Even the titles of several of their works reveal their disdain, as in Chicken Little (1992) and All’s Quiet (1986). But increasingly the results of what the media presents come into focus.
     In the Kienholz’ Useful Art No. 1 (chest of drawers & tv) of 1992, the homey chest of drawers, draped by an inexplicable dripping of wax across its surfaces, is topped by a television shrine which oozes from its screen piles of ceramic shit. 
    A more careful look at All’s Quiet reveals a battle of a corroded army helmet and a small figurine of a dog perhaps poised to attack the already dead. The remarkable The Newses of 1993-94 represents a group of three religious zealots (or newscasters), their metallic ties stretching even outside of the picture frame. These figures, cast in bronze, have no other possibility of expression but their own cast-metallic personalities, not so very different perhaps from the same kind of figures in today’s Fox network or more locally-bigoted TV celebrities.

      The most powerful work in this small, but absolutely revealing show, is Bout Round Eleven (1982), which, from its title, might suggest the male viewer, his own face locked in the plate-glass window through which he has projected his leaning head, is watching his TV with the mad adherence of a sports fanatic (presumably boxing, in this case). But what this particular television scenario reveals is not a sports scene but a mad dog dangerously jutting out of the screen, a metaphoric depiction of what the media truly is representing. His wife, looking off, is herself locked away in her own television projection of herself, while their separation is conveyed, quite poignantly, with the imprisoned vision of what appears to be a young woman on the wall (perhaps their daughter, a lost child, or, even, the woman herself at an earlier age, since the position of her arms is repeated in her sculptural representation), while before the husband sits the possible tools of his own soon-to-be burial, a rusted trowel and shovel, hinting here of his dinner utensils.    
     Surely these already “crossed out” figures represent one the saddest views ever represented in art of the limitations and restrictions of American life. Even Arthur Miller, and later, Edward Albee could not have better expressed the end of the American Dream. The empty chair that sits outside of their imprisoned space represents not only the viewer but the (im)possibility of their escape.
      During a before-opening tour with gallerist Elizabeth East, I naively asked, “Do any of these televisions work?” She gracefully smiled, responding, “Yes.”  But I quickly realized they were all quite charged up with their metaphorical messages, some actually emanating vaguely electronical passages from the past of Western music and garbled conversations from TV history, but every one of them speaking quite eloquently, with their silently and terrifyingly accurate expressions of their impact upon our lives.

Los Angeles, February 25, 2016