3.21 / Best Of: Year Three

Year Three in Review: Editors’ Choice

By Art Practical Editors August 16, 2012

Image: Walter Robinson. Cure (orange, cherry and grape), 2012; polyester resin, wood, epoxy, metalflake; 36 x 6 x 6 in. each. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco

Alyse Mason Brill, Shotgun Review Editor

Since their inception, Shotgun Reviews have served as a platform for community engagement and as a public forum for thinking about art. This year in particular, a number of partnerships have pushed the Shotgun Reviews from a receptacle for community submissions to a more active cultivator of dialogue.

Six middle-school students from 826 Valencia’s “Art Smarts” workshop put their newly found art-writing skills to use in their reviews of Portraiture Post Facebook at Catharine Clark Gallery in Issue 3.12/We Are, I Am, You Are. Their assessments of contemporary cultural touch points from which they might have no objective distance demonstrate a healthy skepticism of artistic representation and its capacity for deceit. In his discussion of Scent of Mystery (2012), Aaron Bendich writes, “it appears to be a normal Facebook page, but if you look closer, you can see that it has many random details...that the real Elizabeth Taylor would not have liked.” Even as these authors so carefully note the nuances of the exhibition, their reviews ably integrate what they encounter on the gallery walls into their intellectual and material landscapes. For Irene Gerenrot, the “tall, awesome, imposing, dark building” in Al Farrow’s Skull of Santo Guerro (III), “belongs in one of Edgar Allan Poe’s creepiest stories," and for Lilah Beldner, the work in question challenges her notion of the familiar: “Even though candy is supposed to make you feel better, the lollipops in Cure actually scare you.”

These students are not the only authors whose work has reshaped Shotgun Reviews and their role in the community this year: eleven MA/MFA candidates from California College of the Arts (CCA) also submitted reviews as part of a class assignment; artists and writers from Kansas City, MO, contributed Shotguns as part of Art Practical’s first-ever regionally thematic issue; and finalists for the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium (ACAC-SF) Writing Fellowship submitted reviews as part of the application process. Just as Walter Robinson’s work provoked Beldner to look askance at comfort foods, so too has this stimulating pool of authors nudged my perspective on art writing, art writers, and an art publication’s role in the community. The year has been disruptive in all the right ways: not only has the profile of a Shotgun Review author shifted into new demographic brackets, but those profiles have come into focus as living, breathing members of an extended, art-curious community. Electronic communications may facilitate a hands-off approach to the transmission of ideas, but that doesn’t diminish the value in cultivating critical thinkers and writers by experiencing and tossing around big questions face-to-face.

These partnerships have inflected the landscape of Shotgun Reviews as much as they have challenged their authors to think and write about art differently. It’s a relationship that is mutually constitutive: from eleven-and-a-half-year-olds to graduate students and fellowship finalists, Shotgun Review authors are initiating connections between the publication and the community and broadening the geographic and intellectual scope of Art Practical.

Catherine McChrystal, Editor-in-Chief

Bill Fontana. Inside Sonic Shadows (2010); flash-embedded video; 2:52. Courtesy of the San Franciso Museum of Modern Art.

Art Practical’s thematic issues have always aimed to widen our scope of our coverage by providing detailed snapshots of practices invested in collaboration across boundaries and disciplines. While these issues spotlight prominent historical and contemporary Bay Area projects and resources, they also function as opportunities for experimentation on the site: the thematic issues break us out of our usual patterns and force our writers and editors to confront alternative models of production, new types of content, and an expanded scope for our archive. This year, issues on print culture and sound art challenged us to think about how arts publications interact with local communities of producers and what responsibilities are rooted in being a publication that aims to represent them.

In Issue 3.13/The Sound Issue, Marc Weidenbaum gives a much-needed outline of the overlaps between experimental music, sound art production, and the tech-driven culture of the Bay Area in "Sonic Infrastructure." The results, he says, are collaborations that not only produce cutting edge sound art but also generate both investment in the local community and the capacity to “carry elsewhere the cultural DNA of the Bay Area’s indigenous sound explorations.” By way of example, Weidenbaum notes how artists have utilized Arup SoundLab’s ambisonic chamber, which he describes as a sort of “holodeck” that enables absolute sonic immersion. Only by using the 360-degree sound capabilities are these artists able to confront what he calls the “sheer imaginary promise” of their works. Weidenbaum asserts that because of such opportunities, San Francisco is expanding into an “arts-infrastructure center,” whose creative producers are capable of rewriting and transmitting the cultural DNA of a place rather than simply repeating it.1

Keturah Cummings also tackles this idea of transformation in Issue 50/The Print Issue while applying it to forms that endure. In "Radical Access and Obscurity," she describes how we use technology to survive in and adapt to an ever-changing environment and homes in on how the flexible nature of zines allows them to persist as an effective mode of communication. Part of their success, she notes, is the tendency to go beyond the “safe environment of the art world.” Her article highlights important points about sites of action and meaningful discussion in saying that it is precisely the paper format of the zine that allows for “a gestation period in which alternative perspectives evolve into socially advantageous ideas that can affect society in a positive way.” She challenges online media’s efficacy in the development and proliferation of ideas all while complicating the issue by using the platform of an online magazine.

More than anything else, the year’s thematic issues emphasize how transformation and experimentation can foment staying power for forms and media. Looking back, I see the efforts of Art Practical’s writers and editors to experiment with our content, make better connections, and inspire more dialogue with each issue. I also see our ongoing evaluation of production and publication models and contemplate whether we’re able to truly reflect and represent the many projects that make up the Bay Area’s cultural sphere. In Issue 3.10/Kansas City, our regionally themed issue, Victoria Gannon writes about the possibility of a “third space,” one that’s not “delimited by [the] competing subjectivities” that we create out of our own perceptions.2 Whether or not Art Practical has succeeded in becoming such a third space among the Bay Area’s cultural production remains an open question. Our representation and record of the art community over time has expanded into a multifaceted entity that might be akin to a hall of mirrors, but—as Gannon muses in her article—may also provide a more accurate reflection than that of a pure facsimile.

Kara Q. Smith, Managing Editor

Torreya Cummings. Documentation of Small Craft for the Anthropocene, 2012

Torreya Cummings. Documentation of Small Craft for the Anthropocene, 2012; archival inkjet prints; 17 x 22 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: H.R. Smith.

Social geography is a multifaceted term that is readily applicable to artistic interventions in physical sites. Starting from a point of geographic inquiry, artists can make histories fresh, create new levels of engagement, and help viewers situate their individual experience of a place, both for those who have a fixed notion of the site and those who may discover it for the first time. The following reviews engage with work activating and drawing upon social geographies. Both writers display a perceptive understanding of the nuanced relationship between themselves, the artist(s), site, and audience, and recognize how their words can create a frame of reference relative to these projects.

In her review of the exhibition How We Leave and Return: Intersections of Art and History in Issue 3.16/Nomadic, Michele Carlson delves into the ways in which the included works parlay historical and contemporary information about Angel Island—the subject and site of the exhibition—into unique insights for visitors. Unearthing layers of narratives and activity as they pertain to works such as Imin Yeh’s Carved Out Loud (2012), which bridges gaps between Chinese-speaking and Spanish-speaking undocumented immigrants, Carlson asserts that in the ensuing decades since the first waves of people arrived, daily realities haven’t changed much for these populations. Cumulatively, her review fits the stories behind the highlighted pieces into a cohesive reading experience that, while giving a sense of how art informs place, results in an urge to get on a ferry and embark on a journey across the bay to Angel Island primarily for the purpose of returning to the city with a renewed perspective. Most importantly, Carlson remains hopeful that readers will recognize the works in How We Leave and Return as “an atlas to the present and perhaps the key to how we might envision the future.”

Victoria Gannon also delves into the histories of a site in her interview with the artist Scott Oliver in her feature “Living Happily Ever After at Lake Merritt,” in Issue 3.15/Bruno. Gannon and Oliver discuss several installation-based and participatory projects he has created as part of his Oakland-based public art project, Once Upon a Time, Happily Ever After (2009-ongoing). The beauty of this interview is how naturally they evince information through their organic and inviting dialogue surrounding Oliver’s detailed undertaking, which includes maps, plaques, and audio tours. In one section, their banter unfolds to reveal behind-the-scenes knowledge about the inspiration for the audio tour component, beginning with a story about Leon Olson and leading to an exchange about a former zoo near the lake. Contextualizing the project through such social geographies as personal, historical, and political narratives draws the reader into the conversation without veering into a didactic description of what participants can expect or an esoteric hovering around the concepts at hand.

As Gannon notes, “It’s nice when things happen like that—when physical relationships or facts correspond to more abstract notions.” They take readers on a journey through motives and caveats and ultimately peak curiosity to bring one’s imaginations and personal histories to Lake Merritt to create new relationships to and identities of the space.

Matt Sussman, Associate Editor

Jae-Rhim-Lee-Death-Suit.

Mikey Siegel. Prototype illustration for Jae Rhim Lee's "Mushroom Death Suit" from Infinity Burial Project, 2009-present. Courtesy of the Artist.

What generative possibilities arise when categorization and regulation are defied? Two of my favorite pieces from the past issue year explore artistic and curatorial practices that thrive off the limits of structure, be it ontological or economic.

What makes Elyse Mallouk’s feature “Species Being,” from Issue 3.16/Nomadic Tendencies, such a bravura piece of thinking and writing are the dexterous connections she elucidates between interspecies dependence, radical mycology, and the false choice of weighing proposition against result in evaluating socially engaged art. In quicksilver prose, Mallouk shifts from discussing Jae Rhim Lee’s Infinity Burial Project—a series of proposals in which humans prepare their future cadavers to become regenerative mushroom logs—to a startlingly lucid gloss of Marx’s concept of species being via Donna Haraway’s proposition that all species identity is relational. From there, Mallouk brings readers to a call to rethink social practice not as a categorical imperative but as a process capable of eroding the efficacy of categories themselves.

“When a work is embedded in the world,” she writes, “trying to determine which parts are the art parts is something like trying to distinguish where cultivation stops and where decomposition begins.” Mallouk powers deep into this conceptual fuzz to delineate each of its constitutive elements while modeling her argumentation on and appropriating the occasional linguistic spore sample from Lee’s theoretical framework. The result is a cross-pollinated poetics of decomposition and regeneration that is as readable as it is bracing.

A colleague once quipped to me that art was probably second only to drugs as the least regulated market in the world. It wouldn’t take a Securities and Exchange Committee hearing to bear out her claim. A glance at some of the top art-related news stories of 2012 offers more than enough evidence of the damages wrought by a free market: The Scream (1893) netting $119.9 million at auction; the conflict-of-interest cloud that has dogged Jeffrey Deitch throughout the unfolding Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) debacle; and Occupy protests at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), to name a few.

Illegitimate Business, Will Brown’s modest group show of questionably obtained works and the stories of how the anonymous collectors came by their spoils, presented a more personal side to the narrative of unchecked acquisitiveness writ large in the aforementioned events. In Renny Pritikin's review from Issue 3.10/Thinker, Sailor, Collector, Thief, he characterized the show as “a litany of art world opportunity crimes,” whose perpetrators were guilty of “succumbing to minor temptations and the love of art” rather than status seeking or avarice.

Pritikin smartly points out how the public display of purloined goods functions as a kind of collective mea culpa while recognizing that this dynamic of confession is not exactly industry standard for an industry that is anything but standardized. Indeed, when aesthetics and economics are so inextricably tied together, it can be that much harder—and thus all the more critical—to keep separate means from ends.

Matthew Harrison Tedford, Visiting Artist Profile Editor

Tammy-Rae-Carland-Lesbian-Bed-13

Tammy Rae Carland. Untitled (Lesbian Bed #13), 2002; c-print; 40 x 30 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

In year three, Art Practical presented readers with a new column, the Visiting Artist Profile. With the goal of bringing attention to visiting artists, curators, and writers, the column, which is funded by the Kadist Art Foundation, profiled Stelarc, Fo Wilson, Holland Cotter, Walid Raad, and thirteen other individuals in its inaugural year. The introduction of this column represented an evolution of Art Practical’s content, and we consciously allowed writers to play around with the format to produce something compelling.

With his trademark wit, Brandon Brown exemplifies this experimentation in his profile of Gabriel Sierra, an artist-in-residence at the Kadist Art Foundation, in Issue 3.18/May the Force Be with You. “One of the many allegorical lessons from Star Wars (1977),” the article begins, “is that sometimes the most minor act of resistance can bring sovereignty to its knees.” Brown threads the Star Wars allegory throughout the profile as a means for grounding Sierra’s critique of architectural space. This tactic is not one of irreverence or pop culture fetishism; instead, Brown grounds the complex and potentially abstruse nature of architectural critiques of capital with something well known and demystified. Brown avoids academicism without succumbing to patronization. Most importantly, he strikes a balance between enjoyable and intellectual writing, insisting these two are not dichotomous.

In her profile of photographer Tammy Rae Carland in Issue 3.15/Bruno, Lia Wilson turns away from the galactic, and offers a poetic and deeply intimate assessment of Carland’s oeuvre. Works such as the Lesbian Beds series (2002) are themselves incredibly personal, with Wilson noting “Viewers are confronted with the home life of subjects who have been relegated to societal inequality because of their choices of people to share their life.” The profile mirrors Carland’s artistic approach, and creates an experience not unlike that of the artworks. Wilson creates the feeling of a private experience without inviting the reader into her own life. At times the sincerity of Wilson’s writing suggests that the experiences Carland documents are similar to her own, but her refusal to say so relegates this to the realm of speculation. By disallowing herself to usurp the subject of her profile, Wilson demonstrates the strength of Carland’s work: it is intimate without being conspicuous.

Tess Thackara, Senior Editor for Reviews

Tani_Radsjarmrearnsook

Araya Radsjarmrearnsook. The Class, 2005; single-channel video; 16:25. Courtesy of the Artist and 100 Tonson Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand.

Art writers vary widely when it comes to critical distance. Some are unabashedly personal in their responses, making intuitive associations, and allowing a subjective experience of art to infuse their language. Others maintain a longer view, ruminating on an artist’s intentions, an exhibition’s degree of success in achieving its goals, or its place in the context of art history. Sometimes, writers manage to stand at various positions; they not only draw from their own perspectives, but they also see a collection or exhibition against the backdrop of the institution, its individual curators, and the community at large.

It is from this kind of panoramic viewpoint that Ellen Tani approaches her review of Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past at the Asian Art Museum included in Issue 3.16/Nomadic Tendencies. Although she does not reveal much about her personal interests or background, we have the sense that she steps into the exhibition with openness, ready to meet the exhibition on its terms as well as her own, thereby lending her observations a personal tone. She begins her review with a central metaphor that underpins the entire piece: "To respire is to inhale and exhale, exchanging old air for new air. In many belief systems, breath is a vital form of energy; it fuels the soul, circulates through body and spirit, and, in turn, connects the self to the universe." Tani immediately invokes the atmosphere of the exhibition and the ethos espoused by its curators, in which mythologies and spiritual belief systems are emphasized. Beginning with an experience that is common to us all—breathing—Tani’s voice is instantly inclusive. She continues with an overview of the exhibition: "Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past harnesses the vitality catalyzed through the aesthetic exchange between new and old, activating the Asian Art Museum with over sixty contemporary artworks from thirty-one artists," and throughout her review, summons language that evokes the sensory experiences of the exhibition. She deconstructs those experiences, closely analyzing individual works of art, and stepping further away to take in the bigger picture.

Tani sets this exhibition’s grand ambition in the context of the Asian Art Museum’s recent financial difficulties and struggle for relevancy, including a closing anecdote in which she finds herself viewing an artwork alongside the museum’s director, Jay Xu. She perceives a note of relief on Xu’s part during their ensuing conversation that a project of this scope has finally been realized. This hint of narrative and human drama surrounding the Asian Art Museum brings another captivating layer to Tani’s analysis.

There is a nice circularity to Tani’s piece as she returns to her respiratory metaphor in the conclusion: “Phantoms reveals the museum’s potential as an ecosystem for the exchange of vital energies between worlds divided by centuries and continents.” This is perhaps the revelatory moment of Tani’s experience, in which the fluid systems she finds in Phantoms of Asia are reflected in her written structure.

 

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NOTES:

1. This is also a topic that Jess Brier and Patrick Gillespie explore in Issue 3.10/Kansas City, as they discuss what goes into creating a cultural sphere by examining artist practices in the West and the Midwest in "Kansas City, Here I Come."

2. Disclosure: Victoria Gannon is the Copy Chief for Art Practical as well as a contributor.

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