Year in Review: Editors’ ChoiceAugust 18, 2010
Art Practical’s editors see their role as one of collaboration with our writers: encouraging them to find new modes of description and criticism and further define their voice. In the process, they spend a lot of time reading. What follows are their reflections on what makes Art Practical work. Each has highlighted a distinct strength of the site’s content: the highly individual voices; the attentiveness the writers pay to the works on view; the sense of community that emerges; and the prevailing concern with the broader social impact of art. By highlighting some of their favorite selections from the past year, the editors also reveal Art Practical’s capacity to bring visibility to the wealth of artist practices in the Bay Area.
Morgan Peirce, Managing Editor
First Thing, existence: the felt experience of being alive. Second Thing, art: beautiful in its persistent, futile attempts to capture and represent the First. Third Thing, art writing: an invocation of rational language (probably more futile, usually less beautiful) to contain and deconstruct the First and Second.
By making work, an artist brings a new entity into existence. The piece is built of physical material and whatever thoughts that inspired and instructed its composition. It sits or hangs where nothing did before. It is a response to the artist’s experience and an ongoing offering to interpretation: a living document.
And then it gets put in storage or thrown away. So what’s the point?
Art writing is an opportunity to respond, to help avoid the “tree falls in the forest” scenario that happens postpartum of art making. The writing completes a circuit, validating the artist even if it finds fault with the work. All the better if it can do so publicly—if a tree falls in the forest, and you read about it in The New Yorker, it was loud.
I am so pleased to have the opportunity, along with the writers of Art Practical, to bring continued visibility to projects in the Bay Area and beyond. It is my hope that the writing we publish starts a dialogue that can develop on the site and elsewhere in the real world. What follows are some examples that I think reflect that aspiration.
“In Country,” by Brady Welch
Issue 18: Hippy Dippy Dreamy Druggy
In his review of Jennifer Karady’s photography, Brady Welch took on the enormous task of relating the experience of war. He endeavored to put Karady’s work into words, which required careful reflection on the images she composed after interviewing Iraq war veterans about their experience. In order to assess the photographs, Welch had to describe the war directly without the rich visual vocabulary of the images themselves, and he did so artfully and ambitiously. He writes,
Soldiers bring their wartime burdens home with them. They unwittingly share them with family and friends. By further exposing such traumas to a wider audience, Karady helps these veterans spread their pain and grief. They give that to us, and they are less burdened.
“Wordsmith,” by Lea Feinstein
Issue 13: Critical Mass
This is an essay on critical practice itself. As a seasoned writer, Lea Feinstein offers advice for mastering the tools of language and explains her own motivations to view and apprehend art. I love this piece because it encourages others to take up the practice and drops the veil on the process of writing itself. In my favorite line, she touches on the critic’s role as an observer and a witness, someone with an opportunity to complete a circuit, so to speak, with their testimony or response.
As I perceive it, a work of art is a call, communicating an inner attitude, an inchoate feeling or a carefully considered proposal. If no one responds, why make the work? At its best, criticism is a carefully measured response to that call.
“Re: Carnival of Light," by Liz Wing and Kevin Killian
Letters to the Editor
The Letters to the Editor make up the most exciting element of the site for me. I relish the idea that our writers are tastemakers in some sense, and I firmly believe that bringing visibility to work is beneficial to an arts community, whether the criticism is negative or positive. By no means, however, do I imagine that the opinions on our site are the final word in any conversation; just the opposite, in fact. It is our goal that the reviews published on Art Practical might begin an ongoing dialogue, and I am pleased that some of that conversation has a visible place on the site.
My favorite example should be read in its entirety to be appreciated. It documents an exchange between Liz Wing and Kevin Killian, written in response to a review by Bruno Fazzolari. It is a perfect example of healthy debate, featuring strong, clearheaded opposition as well as civil, flexible engagement from all three parties involved. I would love to see more of the same (hint, hint).
Vicky Gannon, Copy Chief
Copyediting Art Practical means I get to read everything we publish—closely, and often more than once. As such, I’ve had a front-row seat to our writers’ evolution over the course of this first year. In some notable reviews, everything—writer, voice, subject, language—seems to converge to create something like a tour de force. These reviews are unique not because they rise to an ultimate ideal of the art review, but because they truly reflect the writer’s unique relationship to both words and the artworks. In these texts, the writers sound most like themselves; their language is personal and forceful, their topics nimbly handled and shining like prisms.
“Secret Welcome of Space and it’s Prehistoric Future,” by Carol Anne McChrystal
Issue 18: Hippy-Dippy-Dreamy-Druggy
Carol Anne approaches her subjects from a dark and complex place.1 Her language veers stylistically from academic to street to slang. Somehow, in this stew of words, she encapsulates the messiness and transcendence of modern life. With an intimidating knowledge of theory and artists’ practices, she is able to move seamlessly from a crowd’s-eye description of a noise-rock show to a multifaceted discussion of Baudrillard.
In this review, Carol Anne brilliantly describes the contemporary moment in Bay Area art—the peculiar mixture of cynical hipster irony and ’60s idealism that occasionally expresses itself in a visual culture of purposefully vapid hippie symbols and knowingly inaccessible references. Recounting the pitfalls of Ellen Black and Ellen McMenimen’s work at Sight School, she uses a stream of words to pin down something seemingly fleeting.
At worst, this stylistic variation reads as an Urban Outfitters look common to young artists in the Bay Area—sort of ’90s, sort of ’60s, sort of hippy-dippy-dreamy-druggy-headshop-digital-new-age-spectral-slacker-pop-cum-rudimentary-geometry.
In typical Carol Anne fashion, she moves from this imprecise, yet incisive, thirteen-word hyphenated construction to a discussion of epistemology and cause and effect.
If Black and McMenimen are attempting to make a statement about epistemology, the ramifications of this gesture are underdeveloped…. These sculptures, photographs, and videos are akin to a rough draft for a solar system of ideas that orbit around finding an excuse to make art objects. The show evidences a collapse in temporality: cause and effect are reversed. Here, humankind’s own fascination with the very possibility of little green men equates a priori with evidence of little green men.
I’m so glad someone finally addressed the proliferation of self-satisfied pyramids and triangles taking over Bay Area art.
“Beg/Borrow/Steal,” by Elyse Mallouk
Issue 14: May Days
Elyse Mallouk uses language in a way completely peculiar to herself. She easily transitions from academic analysis to poetic subjectivity, capturing the temporal and ineffable qualities of art. Using imagery and subjective language, she guides the reader to a made-up place where analysis and aura intermingle.
In this review of Stephanie Syjuco’s exhibition at Catharine Clark Gallery, Mallouk builds a persuasive argument, punctuating her more formal language with a judicious and effective use of the first person. Likening the black surfaces in Syjuco’s work to the black-market economy, she describes the artist’s photographs of a market in the Philippines. Notice the sharp turn she makes to the first person in the final sentence.
[W]omen display and peruse commodities in a supposedly illicit Philippine market. The objects of interest are excised from each picture, leaving behind a flat black surface. Only the bits of street and figure not obscured by the blacked-out objects are available to view in full color. In the glossy expanse between discernable images, I could see my own reflection.
Mallouk asserts her physical position as seen in the artwork itself, highlighting her dialogical relationship with the work she’s viewing through a manipulation of narrative perspective.
“Jordan Kantor,” by Zachary Royer Scholz
Issue 15: Future Perfect
As with many Art Practical writers, Zachary Royer Scholz is also an artist. Here, he displays his formidable knowledge of craftsmanship and art-making techniques as well as his grasp of the conceptual, expressing himself in clear and convincing prose.
For his show at Ratio 3, Jordan Kantor included a series of paintings that served as commentary on painting itself. Scholz engages with the show’s deeper implications, cogently describing a complex idea. Describing Kantor’s depiction of film leader, the punctuated material on the edges of a film strip, Scholz alludes to other artists’ treatment of this subject in order to highlight Kantor’s approach.
Painting from photographs or film stills is commonplace in current practice, but using film’s incidental artifacts rather than its captured images short-circuits this practice’s implied realism. Paintings made from lens-based images are typically assumed to cleave, at least partially, to the reality that their source material depicts. Kantor’s film-leader paintings, on the other hand, convert one medium’s incidental marks into another’s intentional gestures. This recapitulation converts an accidental image into a calculated simulacrum.
While such explanations can potentially become confused and inaccessible, Scholz skillfully and knowledgably leads the reader through the maze.
At its worst, art criticism can be formulaic and pedantic. But, as these three examples show, it is at its best when writers eschew entrenched formulas and use language in striking and unpredictable ways, privileging personal idiosyncrasy over convention or expectations.
Megan McMillan, Editorial Assistant
A certain vitality exists in the best of Art Practical’s criticism that enables readers to revisit the work as if continuing a conversation and that renews readers' appreciation. The writing delicately balances careful judgment and great sympathy. These articles are not superficial appeasements; on the contrary, they
have a toughness, a daring, even a grittiness about them, which makes one recognize that their authors have some hard-earned experience as artists. This dual vision of the artist and the writer carries the analysis to new heights and presents an extended view.
In addition to affording a more comprehensive depiction of the artwork, Mary Anne Kluth’s knowledge as an artist makes her well-suited to recognize the significant historical, psychological, and nationalistic values found in Issue 8’s “Situation Critical.”
Though her meticulous painting and drawing style suggests an earnest exploration, the images cumulate into an impression of the effort and anxiety involved in forming a necessarily unstable cultural and personal identity. Talepasand’s personal and oblique approach to the cultural tension between the United States and Iran allows for a complex and nuanced understanding of cultural identity, an understanding increasingly scarce in current popular political discussion.
This passage employs a style that is appreciative of complexity and committed to the articulation of both facts and emotions. By prioritizing the particulars, Kluth’s article encourages readers to develop a corresponding sympathy for the extraordinarily complex moral situation.
To offer insight, a critic must simultaneously stand apart to survey the larger outline and delve in closely to point out the subtle details that give the piece its relevant vitality. They must be at once detached and immersed. Genevieve Quick’s response to “Wonder Box,” Issue 16, demonstrates an extraordinary skill for seizing on the important details while surveying the broader aspects of the artwork as a whole:
While stunningly executed and formally satisfying, Palladino’s The Rapture (2010) lacks the compositional and spatial complexity and layered imagery of the exhibition’s other works. The strong horizon line creates a rather straightforward interior space with a clearly delineated foreground and background. In the background, men and women raise their arms in exaltation to a central figure, appearing as a backdrop to a group of skeletons and a clothing rack. While the horizontal banding within Space Shuttle Columbia creates interesting hierarchical levels of meaning and a sense of a repeated narrative cycle, here it appears simplistic.
With an artist’s practiced eye, Quick slowly brings details before us until at last an image forms in all its complexity, complete. The distinctive emphasis on imagery widens our gaze and shifts our patterns of focus.
In this way, the unique perception that criticism often provides can compel important cognitive and effective responses. Laura Cassidy’s response to “Presidio Habitat” in Issue 17 solidifies this point:
On one side, four overlapping panels covered in black tar paper hang at acute angles, like shingles on a house. The sliver of space between each panel allows the Yuma Myotis bat to enter and roost, protected from predators and inclement weather. The actual roofline is more delicate, with a long cantilevered perch specially designed for the Black Phoebe. It activates an interesting dialogue with the nearby streetlamp, whose parallel geometries resonate as another potential perch for the birds.
As a curator, Laura Cassidy brings an extensive critical background to her observations. Her carefully considered perspective is appreciative of complexity and it invites readers to similarly make an intimate reading of a work of art.
These writers represent three perspectives into how readers might develop a corresponding appreciation of contemporary visual arts and art criticism. If we reflect carefully on their similarities and differences, we can discern what approach might be most helpful in comprehending a work of art and can join with confidence in the ongoing discussion.
Matthew Harrison Tedford, Associate Editor
Art can be an esoteric thing. Often it seems disconnected from everyday life. But can an artwork overcome this and influence the material existence of those who don’t participate in the academic or professional dialogue about it? Can an artwork be an agent of political or social change? And in what way does arts writing facilitate or serve as a conduit for this possible role of art?
In its first full year, with over forty feature articles and over one hundred reviews, Art Practical has addressed these questions numerous times. Many of our writers show a commitment to art that is not “art for art’s sake,” but “art for society’s sake.” These writers educate their readers on the nature and possibility of socially conscious artworks. For me, this is truly compelling arts writing.
In Issue 19, Hou Hanru’s interview with Dan and Lia Perjovschi, accompanying Dan’s concurrent show, “The Institute of Drawing,” at Walter and McBean Galleries, explores the questions of art as ideology and commodity, but also the artist’s role in everyday political issues. Of his own exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute’s galleries, Dan says, “I know that the students are learning to do engraving and silkscreen, but the spill on the Gulf of Mexico is still going on, so we have to think about that.” He continues to argue that an artist must understand the context in which he/she works.
Dan and Lia possess art practices incubated in the overtly political environment of totalitarian Romania. As both a mirror and a reversal of this environment, their work is overtly political, but it aims for critique and provocation rather than control and suppression.
Hou’s interview underscores the relationship between artist and community. Many Art Practical reviews and features question this symbiotic relationship. In Brian Andrew’s Issue 17 review of “Open Engagement: Making Things, Making Things Better, Making Things Worse,” an academic conference at Portland State University, he asks his readers, “If a work successfully helps a community in need, is the artist obligated to continue the work indefinitely, or can he abandon the effort when the artwork has run its course?” This question and several others posed by the conference go unanswered in the review. And while atypically forgoing any mention of specific artworks, it emphasizes the powerful role artwork can have on a given community or social system. By merely asking questions, Andrews suggests there are answers. And these answers may just have the power to impact lives.
Writing about socially oriented art practices, however, needn’t be limited to abstractions and hypothetical questions. Whereas Hou’s interview makes clear the communicative aspect of Perjovschi’s art practice, Patricia Maloney and Brian Andrew’s interview in Issue 18 with Natasha Wheat demonstrates the active nature of her art practice. Some artists report on injustice in the world, others respond to these reports. Wheat speaks of her ongoing Project Grow. Brought in an as an art instructor at a factory that worked with developmentally disabled adults, Wheat created an art studio and functioning farm adjacent to the factory. But most interestingly, Wheat says of the participants, “None of the behavioral problems that existed while they were working on the assembly line have been in evidence in Project Grow.” This interview is a moving chronicle of the power art has to actively shape and better the lives of those in the community in which it operates.
The “writing” that is a transcribed interview is just as much the writing of the interviewer as it is of the interviewee. Yet these dialogic and inherently collaborative texts grant artists the opportunity to speak for their own work on our pages. Reviewing an academic conference is certainly not prototypical of art reviews, but its inclusion within Art Practical’s oeuvre highlights our commitment to posing the deeper questions that art can ask. If art has the power to affect the world outside gallery walls, so must arts writing. Art Practical prides it self in being a publication that “enriches critical dialogue” of the arts, and this selection is proof-positive.2
Catherine McChrystal, Associate Editor
As a relatively new transplant to San Francisco, the idea that I was becoming part of and contributing to a community during a transformative moment particularly resonated with me. The formation and development of Art Practical coincided with my initial explorations of the Bay Area, and what I perceived as a parallel evolution eased some of the homesickness that comes along with living in a new city.
Throughout the year, our writers’ contributions increasingly migrated toward the theme of community. Some writers spoke to it from their personal spaces—both literally and figuratively—and through this chorus of separate voices, the theme grew into a many-veined and intertwined network.
“A Letter from Home,” by Adrienne Skye Roberts
Issue 2: Nomads and Residents
Adrienne Skye Roberts’ introspective feature straddles the space between the public and private, mixing a personal reflection of her own work with her views of San Francisco as a point of gravitation, where people come to build or rebuild culture and community.3 Her text invites readers to explore how they can uniquely contribute to these processes, and Adrienne approaches the notion of collectivity from an engagingly personal perspective:
As we continue to move towards our own ideas of home, it is my hope that this inherently personal understanding of place and belonging translates to a sense of civic responsibility and political action … the city is dependent upon a collection of stories and multiple definitions of home.
Though Adrienne casts the redevelopment of San Francisco neighborhoods through eminent domain in a negative light, it is clear from her reflections—and the personal accounts that follow in our first issue year—that we can reinvent the definition of eminent domain as one that builds what is individually our own into a shared and supportive movement.
“Music from the Mountaintops in ‘Alchemy’” by Victoria Gannon
Issue 13: Critical Mass
Victoria Gannon is not a cynic.4 She pins down readers’ hearts and pinpoints the heart of this collaborative work with her Shotgun review of "Music from the Mountaintops (2010)," which blurs the distinction between the individual and the collective atop San Francisco’s hilltops. She sticks to her personal account:
"Music from the Mountaintops" reminded me of our persistent isolation and our equally persistent and timeless desire to connect with something beyond ourselves … It made me want to go out and give everyone a hug.
Vicky’s is an introspection turned inside out; by sharing her personal desire to create connections she manages to pull us in. And on top of it all, she’s right—who doesn’t deserve a hug?
“Conversation with Michelle Blade,” by Bad at Sports
Issue 9: Birds Flying By
“Conversation with Michelle Blade” incorporates these introspections into a productive dialogue that is both reflective of the current state of the Bay Area art community and hopeful for the future. The aspirations and challenges of living and working here come through in the discussion of Blade’s storefront hybrid exhibition space and studio, Sight School.
As Patricia Maloney reflects, “[collective] activities happen around spaces. I think it makes a lot of sense that, Michelle, you would talk about creating your niche in the Bay Area via creating a space.”5
Along with the other dialogue pieces in this year’s issues, the discussion around Michelle’s personal need to create her own niche through Sight School exhibits a hopefulness and will to create a stronger, more critical conversation in the Bay Area; a conversation that can continue outside the space of print publications.
“The Bitter Valise” by Christian L. Frock
Issue 15: Future Perfect
This supportive nature is reflected in Christian L. Frock’s review of Joseph del Pesco’s "The Bitter Valise" (2010), as she chronicles a gesture of solidarity with and support for an artist in his home. This experiential account of an otherwise undocumented event embodies the nature of a community that survives through collaboration.
[T]he conversation, while rueful at a few points, was generally light and infused with laughter … Although ostensibly a private encounter, the core experience and public knowledge of the Bitter Valise arises from the commonality of rejection among artists and curators. Both projects seek to reinvent singular, or rather personal, experiences as public programs.
From my own collaboration with our writers, I’ve learned that by sharing our homes and spaces, conversations, and writing (as well as a few drinks), we can create a space where collaboration is strengthened by individual points of view, property is shared—not seized—and our collective publications provide room for distinct personal accounts that inform our critical perspectives. At the end of the year—after introspective contemplation and a desire to make connections, hopeful conversation, and the support of a community—I’m able to count myself as one among the chorus, finally easing out of the notion of being a transplant.