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Before I delve into part two of this entry, I'd like to share some thoughts about reactions to the first part. I was pleased to get positive reactions from everyone so far and several people expressed sympathy or compassion for my lessening art sales. I found this interesting because this was not the point of my post. The idea was that most of us are dealing with similar issues regardless of what line of work we are in. I don't think I am much different than many people today who are trying to deal with a shift in the paradigm. However, as artists I believe we need to keep in mind the level of privilege we enjoy just by being able to make art for a living. I don't mean to downplay the importance of what we do but I don't think we should start feeling too sorry for ourselves given the plight of so many people much less advantaged than we are. It's important to keep things in perspective, especially in this time of economic and political uncertainty.
So, aside from the rather mundane subject of meeting your financial obligations, how else does this period of change affect the contemporary artist? I think for some, there may not be much need for change, but my work is motivated by social, political and economic issues. See my first post for a rundown on the issues that my projects address. Although it is never this simple, much of my motivation has been directly related to the first election of George W. Bush, the events surrounding 9/11, the illegal war in Iraq, the second election of George W. Bush and the Bush administration's ongoing assault on the constitution and the bill of rights. Many of my artistic friends and colleagues have also cited these issues as motivation for their projects, even if the work doesn't appear political on the surface.
The election of Barak Obama and the widespread vilification of the Bush administration has raised so many questions for me that I don't know where to begin. One one level, I am still suspicious and skeptical that Obama can possibly live up to the expectations that have been thrust upon him. I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop but, so far, he seems to be doing a hell of a job and he isn't even president yet. So, what happens if he is what he appears to be? What if he's the catalyst that begins the change toward a new American paradigm that values people over money? This is what many of us have been clamoring for for years now, although I think few of us actually thought it would/could happen.
Essentially, what has happened is that we've gotten what we wanted…finally. Yes, of course, we still have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the specter of fanatical religious terrorism, a plummeting economy and a dim reputation in global politics. These are all issues that need addressing and will continue to be emotional inspiration to create artwork. But, what if Obama starts doing all the things we'd like to see done? What if he pulls out of Iraq and does his best to bring the Afghan issue to a close sooner rather than later? What if the government actually starts doing things we like? What if a national health care system gets established? What if the educational system is improved? What if, slowly but surely, most of the major issues I've had with the government in recent years get addressed and fixed? It's a bit of a pipe dream but it seems like it could be a possibility.
Let me digress for a moment with an apt, albeit trite, analogy. Growing up in Boston, I became a member of Red Sox Nation at an early age. For those of you reading from overseas, the Red Sox are Boston's beloved baseball team. I grew up watching my team fail, over and over, in increasingly more spectacular ways. We got used to disappointment and the struggle became a badge of honor among fans. In 2004 it finally happened. The Sox won their first World Series Championship in 86 years. They managed to win again in 2007. After the initial elation of the first taste of victory, many of my friends started to express that they liked the Red Sox better before they won the championship. I'm sure there's an appropriate psychological name for this phenomenon, but how dysfunctional can you get? We've wanted it so long, now we have it, and we're still not happy? I made a conscious decision not to be sucked in by that mentality and have instead chosen to cherish the victories for what they are.
I plan to do the same thing with the political change we seem to be seeing right now. I will maintain a critical and skeptical outlook but, so far, things look pretty good in terms of our leadership. I am concerned about many things in the world today but the core outrage that the Bush administration inspired in me is dissipating. The apparent collapse of super-capitalism leads me to believe we are witnessing the advent of major changes in the way economies and societies are structured. I can't realistically expect that all of my concerns are going to be addressed immediately, but as long as change seems to be happening, my emotional state becomes less angry and more hopeful.
Does this mean I am going to start making happy-go-lucky artwork that doesn't take a critical look at important aspects of our culture? I don't think so, but it does mean that I will need to shift my inspiration, and possibly my motivation, for future projects. Most of my work is multi-layered and investigates far more deeply than the issues I've written about here, so I'm not worried about being at a loss for creative energy or inspiration. I do feel different, though. It's a good feeling, so I am resisting the addiction to outrage and grasping the opportunity for a change in me, which I'm sure will change my artwork as well.
Just to be clear, I am well aware that there will always be plenty of things to be upset about. The current era of change we are probably entering into isn't going to abolish injustice, war, crimes against humanity, human rights violations…the list is endless. Of course, we need to remain aware and keep a sharp eye on the conduct of ourselves and others. The difference now is that our government may actually share our concerns, and they have the power to do something about it.
It's a unique and unfamiliar situation for the politically motivated artist to be in. I really don't know what the future holds for us but I am proceeding with hope, optimism and a healthy trepidation. Let's enjoy it while we can.
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As artists, I think there are very few of us who haven't spent a great deal of time thinking about the current economic atmosphere and what it means to us as creative people. I definitely fall into that category so my next two post will be a two-part series about what it means to be an artist at the end of the first decade of the third millennium. In today's post I will write about the practical, economic side of the issue. How do we remain art professionals and resist the pressure to get that job waiting tables to pay the mortgage? The second post will deal more with the creative side of art making and how the economy and the recent presidential election could/should affect the way we make art.
I will assume for a moment that most people reading this are not Chuck Close or Damian Hirst. We are not superstars on the world scene and most of us do not sell work purely on name recognition and reputation. Nor do we command the exorbitant prices we saw at Sotheby's in September as Hirst circumvented his gallery and sold new work directly through the auction house.
Although this move struck fear and concern in the hearts of many gallerists world wide, it was liberating and empowering to the individual artists who have to struggle with the paradigm of the gallery and museum system. Of course, the galleries have little to worry about just yet since most of us do not have the star power to get away with such a bold move. The major financial meltdowns in October further subdued the buzz as Hirst's pieces became harder to sell and were commanding lower prices at auction.
More recent auctions have not boded well for art sales. November auctions at Christie's have seen some blue chip artists selling for their estimated value while others sell for much less or don't even sell at all.
Even the wealthy Russian billionaires are skittish. The massive purchasing power of the Russian nuveau-riche has been a major boon to art markets over the past five years. It looks like that party might be dwindling for the moment.
National Public Radio reported recently that the big auction houses at lost tens of millions of dollars in October on guarantees to sellers. This means that the auction house grossly over estimated what buyers were willing to pay for the pieces and were forced to make up the difference
Auctions are only one part of the grand equation that comprises the art market. Art Basel Miami opens tomorrow and the predictions are dower. The fairs are a broader litmus test for the art market due to a much wider range of artists and prices. Some are predicting as much as a 30% drop in art sales in Miami this year while some hotels are struggling to fill their rooms. If this prediction rings true, it will be a stark contrast to previous years that have seen a veritable buying frenzy that cut through all tiers of economic art. People wanted the hot, young unkowns as well as the Candida Hofers and Andreas Gurskys. It appears that this party may be over too.
National Public Radio has been airing frequent pieces on the art market and how it is being affected on All Things Considered and The World. The reactions and predictions are mixed but most feel that the mid-range artists selling for between $4000 and $15000 will be hit the hardest. The collectors in this range have been hit very hard by the stock market and do not have the massive capital to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, I fall directly in this range and just opened my largest solo exhibition to date in Berlin last month. I was drinking wine at the vernissage while German banks were collapsing. Probably not the best historical moment for a giant exhibition. The show has been very well received but so sales to date.
So how to we get by as artists at this point? The same question is being posed by the galleries. One strategy has been to shy away from the large-scale, small edition pieces to place more emphasis on the small prints at much more affordable prices. Jen Beckman in New York has had remarkable success with her 20x200 series. Artists have been clamoring to be the next 20x200 artist with almost guaranteed sales and a widening of their exposure. Some have been critical of this approach proposing that not selling the edition out is sometimes worse that not doing the edition at all. As always, there are multiple sides to every issue.
Galerie f 5.6 in Munich will be unveiling a similar project idea on December 4. They have created a set of prints at an edition of 50. Each represented artist has contributed an image that isn't part of any project or edition. Most of us have these kinds of images that we really like but just never fit into any of our over riding projects. It's a great idea for sales but it also makes available to collectors images that would otherwise never see the light of day. I've heard that several have already sold even before the unveiling.
It remains to be seen how these strategies will pan out but it's clear that all parties involved are scrambling to find creative solutions to the growing sales problem. Economics are forcing us to rethink the way we market our art and may ultimately affect the creative process itself. More on that in the next post.
For the moment, I am still getting by but sales are getting harder and harder to come by. If the trend continues, I will be forced to make some significant changes in the way I work. I am one of those artists that teaches part time to keep a steady income. The teaching income is relatively small so I do rely on art sales to meet most of my artistic expenses. My wife and I have already been discussing the possibility of relocating for a tenure track position elsewhere but we are both reluctant to leave our beloved Chicago and our local creative network. We have committed to sticking it out for another year which means tightening our belts a bit.
I'd love to hear comments and idea about how others are dealing with the current situation.
Keep an eye out for part two by the end of the week.
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Considering its themes--the ethnographic gaze, colonialist knowledge/power systems, the ineluctable battle between culture and nature--Lothar Baumgarten's show at Marian Goodman Gallery would seem to have no right to be beautiful. Almost as a rule, when one confronts this kind of exhibition it is wise to gird oneself against a coming onslaught of boring work bolstered by dry, grinding pedantry or (worse) boring work justified by way of obfuscatory warblings lifted from a litany of fashionable "post-"s (structuralism, modernism, colonialism, feminism, etc.). Nevertheless, Baumgarten's show is subtle, considered, and ravishing.
For those viewers who are familiar with Baumgarten's practice, of course, this comes as no surprise. He has been producing insightful, often gorgeous work addressing colonialism and post-colonialism, Western perceptions of the Other, and the devastation and disappearance of tribal cultures (particularly those in North and South America) since the 1960s. But familiarity with past practice proved inessential to the viewing of this show, as its two centerpiece works, The Origin of Table Manners (1971) and Fragmento Brazil (1977-2005), provided a quick (if incomplete) history lesson.
One of Baumgarten's early works, The Origin of Table Manners is a wry illustration of the way in which colonial conquerors conflated Western notions of civility with notions of the civilized as part of their alibi for domination. Inspired by a text of the same name by the structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, the work consists of a table draped in a crisp, white tablecloth and set with fine china, with porcupine quills and the feathers of large birds standing in for silverware. When it was first shown, it was installed in a tony French restaurant near Baumgarten's Paris gallery. The work certainly survives its transplantation into the gallery space, but one can only imagine, ruefully, that this original outing really knocked some socks off. Regardless, the work's main function in the show is to work in tandem with the more recently realized Fragmento Brazil, which looks at the role that cultural disparities played in colonialist domination through a slightly different lens.
Like The Origin of Table Manners, Fragmento Brazil is a kind of relic from Baumgarten's artistic past, but of a different sort. The work is made up of numerous slide projections that cycle through over five hundred images culled from points in Baumgarten's career stretching back over the past thirty years. Some of the images are black and white landscapes that Baumgarten took on a five-month walk across the Rio Caroni, Rio Uraricuera and Rio Branco regions in Venezuela and Brazil in 1977. For the most part, though, the slide images were taken from two sources, which are juxtaposed in diptychs: On the one hand, there are details from Albert Eckhout's mid-17th century paintings of Brazilian birds, which were produced in Holland after his return from a lengthy tour of the Brazilian colonies. Removed from the birds' indigenous landscape by a distance spanning oceans, Eckhout choose, strangely and, Baumgarten implies, tellingly, to paint these vibrant specimens against Dutch, rather than Brazilian, landscapes. On the other hand, there are details of drawings made by Yãnomãmi people of Venezuela and Brazil, who Baumgarten lived with for eighteen months from 1978-1980. According to Baumgarten, before his arrival the Yãnomãmi had never before used, or even seen, paper of the kind on which the drawings were ultimately rendered. As a result, the drawings might be more accurately described as transcriptions--transfers of the decorative markings used in the everyday life of the tribe onto a foreign medium.
What is most immediately striking about these pairings is the way in which the markings made by Yãnomãmi seem (admittedly, in some cases more than others) to imitate the markings on the birds in Eckhout's paintings. This could, perhaps, be billed as a minor anthropological discovery on Baumgarten's part, but what is most interesting is the way he allows the disparities between these two systems of representation to speak to their corresponding attitudes toward nature. This is not to say that the fundamental argument being presented is novel. The idea that the West tends to dominate the natural though the imposition of rational systems (such as taxonomy) that provide an illusion of control and, by extension, an alibi for destruction, while those cultures that adhere to alternate systems of thought tend to view the natural as inextricable from the warp and woof of existence, is an old one. However, this is beside the point. The reason that Baumgarten's work succeeds where comparable works fail is that Fragmento Brazil does not fall prey to the self-negating trap of the illustrative that entangles lesser work. Instead, Baumgarten allows space for the rich ambiguity of the visual, making sure that conceptual understanding, once reached, does not render the visual element tautological. And, it should be said, you don't have to be an expert in the field of conceptual art to know that this is a somewhat rare achievement.
The rest of the exhibition continues Baumgarten's investigation of the fraught relationship between nature and culture, though outside of the environs of South America. His series of photographs made in Serralves Park in Porto, Portugal from 2003-2006, collectively titled Concordance, begs to be read as an investigation of the spurious claims that manicured and stewarded park spaces have on the natural (the suggestion being that that the "concordance" between the natural as it is presented to us within the space of the park and as it exists elsewhere is largely an illusory one). Regardless of whether or not this interpretation is congruous with Baumgarten's intent, the photographs can be appreciated for their elegant understatement, which speaks of nature not in the sublime register of the vista, but in the quiet voice of the close-up, incidental view. (This is, perhaps, not insignificant as the vista painting was an artistic trope used by colonial conquerors to denote mastery and ownership.)
This quiet, humble regard of nature continues into the show's final piece, Matteawan / Fishkill Creek (2004-2008). The work is an eighty-minute sound recording made over the course of a single night in April 2007 at Denning's Point, a peninsula that juts into the Hudson River near the Southernmost boarder of Beacon, New York. Derived from previous and identically titled series of site-specific sound works that Baumgarten installed on the heavily wooded peninsula, this incarnation provides gallery-goers with a cool, dark, pillow-strewn sanctuary from the urban bedlam four floors below. Ensconced in these welcoming environs, you can contemplate the symphonic ebb and flow of nature's night sounds, punctured only occasionally by the distant clatter of human life.
It could be argued that, in and of itself, Matteawan / Fishkill Creek is little more than an elaborately conceived equivalent of those CDs of natural sounds designed to sooth the frazzled modern mind into some semblance of sleep. However, taken in the historical context of the recording site, the piece can be read as a kind of warning, which gets, I think, to the heart of Baumgarten's concerns.
As Baumgarten points out, Denning's Point was once inhabited by various Native American tribes, but was transformed at the beginning of the twentieth century into the original site of Denning's Point Brick Works (DPBW), one of the area's largest brick producers, which had a hand in building the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center. Though DPBW relocated in 1939, Denning's Point remained an industrial site until it was purchased by New York State in 1988. Since that time, nature has been allowed to reclaim the peninsula, though it remains littered with traces of it's industrial past. As a result, what we are listening to in Matteawan / Fishkill Creek is not the sound of Edenic nature, of the kind purportedly found on earnestly titled CDs in your mall's requisite nature-themed store. Rather, we are listening to the sounds of a resurgent nature, which has thrived amidst the ruins of human progress.
With this in mind, Matteawan / Fishkill Creek can be read as a kind of aural equivalent of the garden follies popular in Europe in the nineteenth century--fabricated castle ruins in the gardens of the nobility and on grounds of royal palaces that were built, at least in part, as a warning against hubris. It is a variation on this warning--that we ignore the natural and our place within its order at the risk of great peril to ourselves and others--that acts as subterranean thread connecting Baumgarten's work, whether he is in the jungles of South America, the manicured parks of Europe, or the tangled woodlands of upstate New York. If we listen closely to the sounds of Denning's Point, we can hear echoes of the wild noises that will haunt our future ruins, unless we are careful.
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In a country where the sole possession a camera can jeopardise the bearer's integrity, being a photojournalist is not only an act of resistance but also one of faith. Faith in that the acknowledgement of such a situation by a wider audience will somehow improve it. In that by showing it to the world, capturing it in a still frame, it might become less real, less dangerous. As in a place far away from the witness.
This, however, certainly almost never happens. In fact, the situations and scenes that are usually depicted by the five Guatemalan photographers whose work is on display, fill the newspaper's pages as much as the citizens' nightmares with sights of death and sorrow. And yet, it has to be done. History, visual history, cannot but help us understand better; it makes us stop, reflect, and ask ourselves what is there to do about it. Perhaps it even makes us understand that society, and the other, is also our business. What usually happens is that, because of a constant bombardment of visual production from about every aspect of daily life, these images often loose their primary objective. Instead of denouncing atrocious stories, they become mere illustrations to which jaded eyes pay little or no attention.
In a small but sharp exhibition curated by Cuban specialist Valia Garzón and presented at the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala City, photography has been removed form the newspapers' and magazines' pages and displayed together in a attempt to make of these five readings of Guatemala's past and present, a sensible account of what has been happening to this poignant Central American country over the last 30 years. Indeed, Rolando González's work refers to the civil war that thrashed the country for over three decades while Doriam Morales presents in an up-close and personal way, that violence that has, once again, taken the country to its knees over the last few years. In that way, some of the indifference that has slipped into their reading by its constant presence on the local media has been re-presented to the same daily viewers. The refreshing setting thus renewing the images' effectiveness.
Other works in the exhibition include: Jesus Alfonso's investigation on the cult to the hybrid Maximón saint, Emerson Díaz's depiction of the children that live and work in the city dump and Moisés Castillo's portrait of pain and catastrophe.
As Garzón states in her introductory essay, being a photojournalist in Guatemala requires not only technical expertise but also enough cold blood to capture a reality marked by violence and pain. Further, the images are captivating and convincing, and for these reasons, the craftsmen of the daily image deserve recognition and the acknowledgement that the truth they provide is essential to understanding a country's reality. In addition they remind us of that decisive moment on which photography once poured its foundations.
'La mirada constante' is on view through November at the Centro Cultural de España in Guatemala City, Guatemala
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Remarkably enough, this is my first ever blog entry. Most of my friends and colleagues have their own blogs but I've resisted the pressure to start my own. When Brian Ulrich asked me to participate in this blog for Daylight, I felt that the timing was perfect. For one, I really like the idea of a specific time frame to work in. There is a clear beginning and end to the process which should end up encapsulating this short time period in a definable work. It also happens to coincide with one of the most interesting, worrisome, frightening and hopeful times in world history. I have a BA in history from The University of Vermont so history has long been an integral part of my consciousness and has helped immensely in shaping my world and artistic view.
There are several issues I would like to write about in the next fours weeks. Much of it will deal with the many thoughts I've had recently regarding art, economics and politics. I am particularly interested/concerned about how the current major changes in the world order will affect art, both on the macro scale (galleries, museums, auctions) and on the micro scale (the individual artists). As blogs are intended to be a forum, I would also like to address issues or questions that readers are thinking about.
For this first post, I thought I would begin with an introduction in order to give some context. I was born in 1972 in Chicago but I was brought up in the Boston area. I spent seven years in Burlington, VT, four of which were spent getting my BA from The University of Vermont in history and geography. The next three years were spent in Canton, NY where I worked full-time as the University Photographer at St. Lawrence University. It was these three years in a remote area of New York State that gave me the impetus to apply to MFA programs ultimately bringing me to Chicago and Columbia College in 2000. I finished my MFA in photography in 2003 and I've been working as a professional artist and educator ever since.
My work as a commercial photographer in my early career has greatly influenced my personal artwork. I fumbled about in graduate school for a couple of years before finally finding my voice through The Untitled Project. The project is a deconstruction of systems of communication in the public space through the use of photography and digital imaging. Each piece is comprised of two elements: one photograph with the text digitally removed from the image, and one graphical text piece that maps out the removed text on a white field. The project has helped me to explore and understand the complexity of the myriad forms of communication used to inform, influence and control large groups of people.
Untitled #35, 2006 from The Untitled Project.
Untitled #35 (image)
Untitled #35 (text)
The following project grew out of The Untitled Project as I directed my artistic attention toward text and signage. Floating Logos may not have come about if I wasn't living in the midwestern United States where the land is flat and the signs are extremely high up. The mountainous and forested landscapes of New England do not lend themselves to tall signs like these. The signs are photographed where they are (they are not super-imposed) and I have digitally removed the support structure. Series I is comprised largely of verticals with the ground left out of the image in order to emphasize the disconnect. Series II is taken in a traditional landscape format where the signs are allowed to float in context with their surroundings.
Burger King, 2004 from Floating Logos Series I
Leroy Merlin, 2006 from Floating Logos Series II
As I continued to think about visual and literary communication as well as marketing and branding, my appreciation for the power of commercial art and design grew. The Compare to… project seeks to deal directly with these issues by using generic or off-brand products found in grocery and dollar stores. By mimicking the visual elements of the major brands, these companies reinforce a set of visual signifiers that have become culturally ubiquitous. Certain colors, shapes and designs have come to signify, not only a brand, but now the product itself. The products are presented on a graphical backdrop created in Photoshop to give the aesthetic of an advertisement. Many of the products do not have brands attached to them at all giving way to the idea of the product itself being advertised rather than the abstract notion of the brand.
Mouthwash, 2006-7 from the Compare to… project.
As Compare to… began to move away from photography by creating a graphical space rather than a window into 3D space, I moved a step further away from photography by working with words alone. The Lists series (working title) does something similar to Compare to… but uses the names of products rather than their packaging to help us think about the ways in which they are marketed to the public. It also becomes a somewhat nerdy study of language and semantics.
Detergent (left) and Drugs (right) from the Lists series.
This should give a good sense of where I am coming from and how I got to where I am now. My work tends to feed on itself with one project leading directly into the next. The threads are usually very clear when the work is placed in chronological context. In the coming weeks, I will make postings about some of my work in progress that should make more sense in context with the earlier projects.
I will be away for a few days this week for Thanksgiving but I will post again when I get back on Sunday or Monday.