Visual Arts > Visual Arts
It's not you, it's me
Art fatigue at Artpace
Maybe the heat has gotten to me. San Antonio's brutal, cognition-withering blast furnace this final July CAM seems enough, even without the previous weeks of arduous, near continual art-viewing, to make a girl weary. Equally confounding and airless: Artpace's International Artist-In-Residence New Works 09.2 show, which will haunt the venue till September, and was curated by Kitty Scott, "Director, Visual Arts, Walter Phillips Gallery, Banff International Curatorial Institute, The Banff Centre, Canada." This list of bona fides struck me, at first glance, as not unlike a child's word-map denoting place in the cosmos: me-bedroom-house-street-city-state-continent-planet-Universe. And herein lies what may also be some of the problem: Scott's final, universal location is CANADA, which, in the fantasyland of my particular mind, is our polar opposite. Further investigation reveals that from 2000 to 2006 Scott acted as curator of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, and in the intervening years between that gig and her Banff one, spent time as the chief curator at London's famed Serpentine Gallery. Impressive shit, doubtless. It can't have been easy, curating what she was likely at pains to establish as a cutting-edge contemporary visual-art exhibition in the wild equatorial badlands of South Texas for a bunch of (perhaps secretly Dubya-worshipping?) yahoos during a white-hot drought. That's how I'd feel, and I'm from here.
So I felt for Scott, and for New York-based Artist-in-residence Anne Collier, too — both intelligent and able professionals well-versed in arthistorical context and in artmaking processes — as they stammered under the impenetrably stern gaze of Artpace Director Matthew Drutt, who joined them, arms crossed, for the "Artists' Conversation" panel on the evening of the opening. This (non-)
"conversation" struck me as brutally interminable and almost comically un-illuminating, a fiesta of contemporary jargon and semantic struggle to find labored connections between the three very diverse artists. Collier's artists' conversation, sadly rather like the show itself, presented a re-hashed choreography, a walled-in architecture, a closed circuit. (Artpace fellow Silke Otto-Knapp was literally closed-circuit, beamed into the panel via TV screen, the audio shortcomings of which rendered several of her impermeable explanations also literally inaudible).
I've witnessed some good panel discussions (I must have!) But it seems to me that Artpace, in its understandable zeal to posit itself as a "laboratory for the creation and advancement of international contemporary art" (which is from its mission statement), seems in this show to have lost its way in fulfilling this bit of the mission: "Artpace believes that art is a dynamic social force that inspires individuals and defines cultures." Judging by this artists' conversation, Artpace also believes that "art, when talked about by those who make it, has the power to force people out of the room." I afterwards spoke to several artists about the petrified panel: One ventured that stagefright is a harsh mistress, and that panels exacerbate it with their (usual) rigid formality. Another ventured that "it would have been a lot better if they'd structured it more like $20,000 Pyramid."
At any rate, the presentation only served to highlight how confined the entire exhibition feels. Let's start with Collier, an intellectually curious, exuberantly canny artist whose photographs of quotidian objects — including photographs themselves, wrinkles and all — unsettle the viewer by combining the artifacts of consumer culture (a photo of Madonna, say, or, in my favorite of her works, "Despair," an unspooled audiotape bleeding out its celluloid) with evidence of their use, with their human residue. That unspooled audiotape symbolizes all sorts of coming-apart, as well as the material vulnerability of our cherished media. In the Artpace promo pamphlet, they call Collier's ouevre "a form of photographic still life. " Collier's best images, though, in their emotional immediacy, call forth what Yeats dubbed "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."
Collier's Artpace project, Woman With a Camera (35 mm), consists of a slideshow. The slides are of a woman with a camera, an ongoing preoccupation of Collier's, who seeks to explore women as makers and subjects of media, of their sexualization and the ambivalent potential of their self-regard. In the Artpace slideshow, an attractive eye peers over a camera lens, expressing surprise in frame after frame, an endless loop re-creating a single shot from the 1978 Faye Dunaway movie Eyes of Laura Mars. What? I don't know. It's looking about looking about seeing about looking about seeing. I sat and watched it for about 20 minutes, semi-enjoying the nearly forgotten whirr-click of an old-fashioned slide projector, watching the eye, watching the camera as eye, watching the eye meet my eye. The "I." OK.
Collier must know the project is derivative; she obtained a print of the movie to convert this scene into slides. So calling Woman With a Camera (35 mm) unoriginal doesn't mean anything; the work is so densely armored that it resists engagement. That's the problem: I sat there, struggling in my own halting panel discussion.
Meanwhile, German-born, London-based Silke Otto-Knapp's contribution, The full moon this fall, All night long I have paced around the pond, consists of 14 monochromatic intaglio prints, created with light-reflecting silverish powder, of a female figure whom — I gathered, from Otto-Knapp's discussion comments and artist's statement — is meant to evoke both architecture and choreography: "varying angles of light and the movement of the viewer produce the perception of a figure in constant flux." And while it's true that she manages some shiny effects, I felt compelled to no further movement of my own than it took to keep walking. About her handling of the figure, curator Scott asserts "[Otto-Knapp] wants to distinguish the body from space and at the same time keep them as linked and united as possible." Again, this circular self-regard hangs inert. To bastardize Yeats one more time, we cannot know the dancer from the dance, possibly because we cannot be persuaded to pay attention long enough. Perhaps if the artist had confined the figures into one pane, or increased the scale, or made some connection between the ponderous title and the decorative, parabolic body encaged in 14 different frames, like the imprisoned eyeball of Collier's subject, I could've found room to breathe.
Hearteningly, it's the San Anto artist of the triad who undertook the most fruitful and interesting investigation during his Artpace residency. Not coincidentally, Charlie Morris also came across as the most colloquial and thoughtful of the panelists. Where everybody else was all "negotiating the tension between formal experiments and the Other" and whatnot, Morris used words like "hemlock" and "democracy" and "Athens" and "freedom of speech." Ah, there's a story! Hemlock being, after all, the chosen self-extinguishing method for oppressed democracy-seeking Athenians. Nifty! But far from leaving it at that, Morris spoke of growing hemlock (!), and of meditating on endangered speech using various means, from the tender, fatal plants in photos and black-and-white video (looking for all the world like baby shoots of cilantro) to illustrated de Sade texts "edited" with a blade. For me, the highlight of the entire show consists of his "Half to Whole," a gorgeous and terrifying set of bisected Army-officer hats, cast in white plaster and laid on a smooth, white, meticulously constructed pallet. Why is each cut, or was cast, in half? Do they suggest the inherently divided nature of authority, the cracks in an oppressive military façade? And how do these white monuments resonate against those delicate, death-giving shoots, or the bizarre figures excised from their notorious book? Morris, thankfully, provides poetry, danger, and questions, a messy and essential lifesblood.