2.23 / Best Of: Year Two

Year Two in Review: Editors Choice

By Art Practical Editors August 16, 2011

Image: Doug Rickard. #32.700542, Dallas, TX 2009, 2010; archival pigment print; 16 x 25 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco.

Alyse Mason Brill, Shotgun Review Editor

The short-format nature of Shotgun Reviews encourages a particular sense of immediacy, one that eschews dillydallying in favor of plunging headlong into the material at hand. The imposition of brevity compels writers to commit to a narrow and often highly speculative focus on the urgent questions a particular work of art raises. And so much the better. More often than not, this argumentative tunnel vision enables Shotguns to resonate more intensely with individual experiences, even as they remain accessible to a broad audience of readers.

In Issue 2.18/American Road Signs, Melony Bravmann’s review of Doug Rickard’s A New American Picture problematizes the voyeurism that Google Street View enables, advancing the discourse beyond reflexive outcries against the erosion of privacy. She reveals Rickard’s images to be more than just hyper-exposed versions of the snapshots by Google’s “robotic paparazzi” or reminders of the class divide that undercuts the experience of viewing art in a gallery or strictly representative of our panopticon-meets-hall-of-mirrors culture. Rather, she identifies Rickard’s images as foretelling the end times often proclaimed on billboards and fringe radio stations but less frequently identified as a consequence of the prolific production of visual culture: “there is also a vertiginous, surreal, haunting feeling...People are isolated and frozen in time like the victims of Pompeii, resulting in photographs with a post-apocalyptic quality that alerts viewers to their own demise.” The frenetic profusion and consumption of images begets absolute stillness. It’s a complex conclusion to arrive at, especially in fewer than four hundred words, but Bravmann does it with panache.

Larissa Archer also takes up voyeurism in Issue 2.18 in her review of Presences, Richard Learoyd’s portraits of subjects in private moments. Brief, evocative descriptions like “the degree of epidermal detail one usually only gets to see while making out under an interrogation lamp” place readers in imagined scenarios as exposed and exposing as those the subjects inhabit. For Archer, Learoyd’s elaborately staged moments of trespass enable a reciprocal breed of voyeurism: “The very ambiguity of the private thoughts exposed to this trespass allow one to project one’s own secrets, one’s own sadnesses, onto the subjects and to imagine oneself, utterly vulnerable in those moments of naked introspection, being scrutinized by strangers who sip wine and remark on one’s pimples before hopping on to the next gallery.” With the casual anonymity of wine-sipping strangers, Archer suggests that the exhibition might recondition these disengaged viewers—that they might resume their gallery hopping with an altered perspective on how spectatorship is never merely casual, never quite anonymous.

Models of viewer engagement are on Dorothy Santos’ mind as well in her review of Tim Roseborough’s Notes In/troducing Englyph in Issue 2.21/It Is Good to Think Good Thoughts for Everyone: “Roseborough’s [work] involves active questioning and engagement that supersedes retinal activity...the reader explores or relinquishes the desire to understand images alone.” Santos’ reading of Roseborough is a sound rebuttal of the passive act of viewing-as-receiving, implying that the experience of art is a necessarily participatory activity. And that perspective is one that undergirds the intent of Shotgun Reviews, the goals of Art Practical, and the very existence of arts criticism: to create inroads by which a viewing public might experience art in active, nuanced ways.

Catherine McChrystal, Associate Editor

Shahzia Sikander. The Last Post, 2010 (still); HD video animation; 10 min. Courtesy of the Artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.

In last year’s Best of: Editors’ Choice, Matthew Harrision Tedford explored how arts writing can overcome art’s sometimes seeming disconnect from everyday life. As a venue for such writing, Art Practical strives both to create and archive this connective dialogue while mirroring and historicizing the interactions between artwork and viewer, writer and reader. But to what extent can Art Practical serve as a sort of documentary archon while constantly evolving alongside its conversations? The reviews below grapple with malleable notions of history that continually influence and inform our interactions with art, and their writers prompt us to go beyond specific works to embrace ever-expanding interpretive frameworks by posing questions that we can return to again and again. As we reach the end of our second year, it’s the sustained relevance of these reviews that substantiate our cumulative efforts as bigger than the sum of their parts.

Michele Carlson’s review in Issue 11/Geography Lessons examines but does not dissipate the mystery within La Destitution de la Jeune Fille. The Old Boys’ Club “addresses a space where the residue of history may offer a refigured representation of certain pasts and, by default, futures,” taking “liberties with any sort of historical accuracy.” Carlson offers her readers a certain perspective but not a definitive explanation. She disarms us with the transparency of her thought process; it’s documented here in a way that encompasses the cryptic nature of the show, giving us the privilege and responsibility of forming our own perspectives.

Brandon Brown guides us a little bit further in Issue 14/Helter Skelter with his review of Pablo Guardiola’s Jet Travel. His own “narrative seductiveness” (as he coins it) and refreshingly flippant treatment of ancient history vie with his efforts to edify his readers: “You know how Herodotos is always like, ‘The Parthians like to eat stewed turtles and their wives pick nuts and stir them into the stew,’ or whatever; scribe-travelers like Herodotos return home with a marvelous story to recount; they try to instruct their fellows and sisters who might one day travel to such lands.” Brown writes like he’s the scribe-traveler, exploring and reporting back with a mysterious and menacing account for us to do with what we will—we can either take him at face value or venture out to explore for ourselves.

Both Carlson’s and Brown’s reviews dissolve already fluid boundaries of the past and geography (something of a looking glass to Art Practical’s own development in the last year), while John Zarobell locates us in “the space in between history and the present” in his review of Shahzia Sikander’s The Exploding Company Man and Other Abstractions in Issue 19/Hindsight. In describing how the nature of a painting forces viewers to situate their understanding within what they already know, he exhorts readers to also become viewers: “[Q]uestions abound in this exhibition, and they are the best reason to go see it. The meaning is not found in the picture itself, but in the dialectic between image and viewer.”

In exercising Art Practical’s mission, our writers always work within that dialectic, and our editors work with them to negotiate the space between their personal experience and interaction with readers. It’s our hope to bring you, the reader, into the dialogue that connects and reconnects art with everyday life, enabling each issue of Art Practical to briefly make these moments one and same, again and again.

Matthew Harrison Tedford, Associate Editor

Wafaa Yasin. Imaginary Houses of Palestine, 2010 (still); video. Courtesy of the Artist.

A lot has changed at Art Practical since the editors last wrote this column one year ago. It has been a great time of experimentation and development. We have pushed our content out of the digital and into the corporeal with public programming at various museums and galleries. We have expanded our pool of editors and writers. And we have broadened the scope and form of our writing. One important site of this experimentation has been our semiannual thematic issues. With these, we have allowed significant departures from our normal conventions for content and form.

For Issue 2.5/The Food Issue, Elyse Mallouk penned her essay “The Dragon in the Room: Art, Eating, and the Aesthetics of Mission Chinese Food.” Though this essay bears witness to Mallouk’s ongoing interest in socially engaged art, it bears little resemblance to a typical Art Practical review. Couched in an issue entirely about the intersection of food and art, the opportunities for transgression were ripe, as our readers are only so patient in reading essays on Campbell’s soup cans. “The Dragon in the Room” outlines the aesthetic nature of the use of food at Mission Street Food, a pop-up restaurant. Combating centuries of sensual Puritanism that prioritizes viewing as the primary sense, Mallouk infuses the gustatory with the same critical power so easily granted to gobs of paint on canvas. She makes an argument for serving a Chinese donut stuffed with duck as a form of social practice on par with a work of art, if not a work of art itself. In doing so, she throws a great wrench into the works of any art publication.

In our second thematic issue, Issue 2.15/Performance: The Body Politic, Jeanne Gerrity profiled local performance artist Wafaa Yasin. Gerrity’s essay also deviated from our typical content in that it was neither a review of an exhibition nor an interview, which is the closest thing to a profile we normally publish. Gerrity’s essay astutely combines elements of biography, review, art history, and philosophical analysis. In arts writing, in which people are often segregated by discipline, Gerrity provided an excellent example of a holistic approach to an artist’s work that grants them the nuance they deserve. Gerrity grounds Yasin’s practice in her experiences as a Galilee Palestinian, but also draws a relationship between her work and that by artists Joseph Beuys, Mona Hatoum, and Francis Alÿs. The depth of this analysis allows the reader to understand Yasin’s work as neither inherently Palestinian nor divorced from the conditions of her past and present.

Mallouk and Gerrity, taking advantage of the flexibility the thematic issues offer, diverged from our standard forms and created texts that either broadened the subject matter under consideration or the mode of consideration itself. But these diversions, along with those of others, tread ground that will help shape the future of Art Practical and the possibilities therein. The beauty of an all-arts publication is that there is no need to strike a specific, neutral tone or approach. From issue to issue our readers hear a melodic cacophony of differing voices and approaches, and with our thematic issues we actively seek experimentation that keeps our publication dynamic and engaging.

Matt Sussman, Associate Editor

Michael Guidetti. Bell, Book, and Candle, installation view, 2010; mixed media. Courtesy of the Artist and Jancar Jones Gallery, San Francisco.

Besides the breadth of its coverage, one of the things I appreciate most about Art Practical is the sensitivity its writers display when discussing the larger stakes an exhibit, installation, event, or performance might hold for both its maker(s) and audience: that persistent, if not always articulated relationship between the work and the communities it addresses, whether explicitly or otherwise.

Perhaps such a consciousness should be expected, given that Art Practical’s contributors tend to wear many hats, writing as critics but also as practicing artists, curators, community organizers, gallerists, or some multi-hyphenate of the above. Yet such an expectation doesn’t diminish the electric crackle of a writer who can tell you what it’s all about and continually underscore why it all matters.

In her Issue 2.20/From a Distance review of Formerly Known As, an evening of performance by male and trans sex workers, Victoria Gannon succinctly maps the many discursive trajectories, as well as a few shaky limbs, ventured by the participants, while eloquently conveying just how volatile, exhilarating, and difficult talking about sex can be.1 “A set of performances that doesn’t include sex itself performed by people who have sex for work must focus on the act’s non-physical dimensions instead,” Gannon writes. “And they are many.”

She goes on to compare passing through sex’s many “border zone[s]” to “crawling through a barbed-wire fence.” The image is visceral, and it’s hard to shake because it’s true. Love may be a battlefield, but sex is something more, although not necessarily worse. The intensity of the sensations it provides and activates always calls for our immediate presence, not arbitration or disquisition, even if such “shop talk” is necessary in its own right. “There’s so much to talk about,” Gannon exclaims, “it’s amazing anyone ever gets around to doing it,” which is precisely why a forum such as Formerly Known As is so important: the telling is as much the point as what is told.

Although tackling a far more cerebral object of inquiry with Michael Guidetti’s show Bell, Book, and Candle at Jancar Jones Gallery in Issue 2.2/Entertaining Wonder When Rationality Seems to Fail, Elysa Lozano never loses sight of the broader implications of Guidetti’s transformation of the city’s smallest white cube (which has since decamped for Los Angeles; San Francisco misses you guys, by the way) into a green-screen “studio” that re-presents the gallery itself as a deceptively blank canvas. “More than civic funding initiatives for the arts that reward community-based activities or the current predilection for audience participation,” Lozano writes, “[Guidetti’s] project has a concrete foothold in the objective to develop self-actualized singularities.”

But Lozano also cannily notes the ghosts in the machine: the very technological mediation required for realizing this objective doesn’t fully rid the space of its “gallery-ness” and all the associative specters that come with it. The virtual nature of Guidetti’s proposed clean room only serves to point out the cultural detritus the viewer can’t help but track in. Lozano, however, sees these spooks as a net plus that help Guidetti, “to demarcate [the gallery] as a free-floating, neutral, blank zone,” even if that zone only exists conceptually, to some degree, as a proposition still on the table. Lozano’s reading offers a reminder that the potentiality staged by Guidetti’s perpetual ghosting machine doesn’t have to be a stalemate. As our writers make note of and attempt to prove, there’s room for the living in even the most haunted of art’s institutions; we need only redraw the floor plans.

Morgan Peirce, Associate Editor

Eva Hesse: Studiowork, installation view, UC Berkeley Art Museum. Courtesy of the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film.

Artists expend considerable effort on the acts of looking and seeing, concentrating on their subject with an intensity that rivals art making. Their investment and investigation comes across whether that subject is a nude in repose or an intangible, even fleeting concept. It’s only fair then to expect that a reviewer should attend to an artist’s work with the same degree of interest.

My favorite writers study their subjects at length. Their portrayal of the work is honest, not idealized or dismissive but considered, ruminative, and real. In undertaking the act of seeing the work as seriously as artists endeavor to see their subjects, these writers assume a similar obligation to create an accurate representation. They are not rivals or fans of one another; they are co-conspirators.

Lea Feinstein’s review of Paul Wackers’ Idle/Idol in Issue 2.16/Attempting the possible is not terribly exciting. Attempting the impossible is exhilarating, feels more like a heart-to-heart between the two painters, a private shop talk that readers, by some fortunate accident, have stumbled upon. The writer’s preternatural understanding of Wackers’ formal and conceptual process directs her experience of the work, and her recollection of it is stamped with that empathy. She is not ignorant or uncritical of his shortfalls, but she regards them patiently, trusting in the artist’s circuitous process as a means to a more perfect end.

It’s probably pure conjecture, but Feinstein’s self-assured assumptions about Wackers’ methods seem gospel enough. Along with careful formal descriptions of each of his paintings, Feinstein peppers her discussion of Wackers’ technique with presumptions about his conceptual trajectory, speculating that his move from the Bay Area to New York may have shaped the content of his work. Because she pays such generous attention to his efforts, the reviewer and the artist appear as confidants, and readers are made privy to Feinstein’s seemingly insider knowledge.

In her review of Eva Hesse: Studio Work in Issue 2.12/Legibility, Jessica Brier extends a similar spirit of camaraderie, in this case to the curators Briony Fer and Barry Rosen. Brier attends to the premise of the show as if she is studying a game plan devised by her own teammates, passing her insights along to readers afterward. Together with Fer and Rosen, Brier partakes in the endeavor to invest Hesse’s legacy with new meaning.

Brier’s writing reveals the breadth of her art historical knowledge, on par with that of the curators. Her knowledge is not limited to Hesse alone; it extends to the sculptor’s Minimalist and post-Minimalist contemporaries as well as the artists that followed in her path. Because the reader can appreciate Brier’s expertise, her positive assessment of the curators comes with a hard-earned vote of confidence.

As an added bonus, Brier’s formal investigation is equally compelling. Rather than focus on conceptual content alone, she offers beautiful descriptions of the artwork’s material qualities, acknowledging that the two are not so separate after all. This investment in the look and feel of each piece grounds her appraisal and discloses the effort she spent observing the work at close range. For both Brier and Feinstein, close reading is an integral part of the writing process, and their reviews invite the reader to look closer as well.

Tess Thackara, Managing Editor

Leonardogillesfleur. In To You Phase 1, 2011 (still); 3-channel video installation; edition of 3 + 2 AP; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

I like an art review to digress or, at least, for the writer to pay respect to any avenues that beckon when viewing a work of art. Writing is my own mode of inquiry into art and into broader life experiences, so I find it more interesting to witness the thought processes than the polished thoughts of another art consumer. This works best if any digressions or references are anchored in the writer’s experience of a work of art. In Spencer Young’s review of SNOWBALL in Issue 2.14/Helter Skelter, the writer stays close to what he is seeing, but his language is rich with references and quotes from his own reading.

For instance, one paragraph begins: “In California, irreconcilable differences are grounds for a no-fault divorce. Irreconcilable Differences, on the other hand, has no chance of such a split.” I like how Young subtly anthropomorphizes the two cars that make up the sculpture, giving the reader enough context to feel the frustration and tension that permeates the cars’ inseparability.

Young’s descriptions are also vivid and poignant. In the same review, he notes, “[A] model car is driven vertically into the roof of another and begins to resemble the sensuously strained contour of a ballerina’s foot en pointe. The ensuing, achingly slow, contorted collapse of one car into the other carries with it a graduating sexual tension as, little by little, the metal bends and snaps, the glass cracks and pops.” I love the image of the ballerina’s foot this conjures, particularly as it successfully marries a clunky, metal car to a nimble, delicate dancer. The tension that the writer perceives in this artwork is transmuted into his language, so that the sentence develops its own crescendo of tension.

I also think it is important for the writer’s reaction to an artwork to be present in the tone and language of a review. In Matthew Harrison Tedford’s review of La Llorona Unfabled: Stories to (Re)tell to Little Girls, also in Issue 2.14, his absorption by the work translates into rousing and evocative language. His excellent conclusion reads, “La Llorona Unfabled is fierce and intrepid, but it is not naïve. The Latina body is under assault—from culture, labor, and policy. La Llorona persists. The exhibition does not ignore these impediments to a liberated life. Instead, it tackles them head-on.” A reader can tell Tedford has been moved by this exhibition, as he conveys immediacy and clarity in language that suggests his sense of injustice the Latina faces. His conclusion is tight and precise, conveying emotions that are strong but measured and grounded.

The best art-viewing experiences are intensely personal. While writers who channel pure emotion risk producing an unwieldy work of exaltation or disparagement, ones who do not shy away from placing themselves in a review offer a more tangible reading experience. Tedford’s review gives us a final image of the writer leaving Galería de la Raza and ruminating on the works contained within. As he steps out onto San Francisco’s colorful Twenty-Fourth Street, readers might relate to the experience of leaving a gallery and seeing the outside world through an ever-so-slightly different lens.

 

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NOTES:

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

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