Having tired of explosions and fist fights strung along mindless plots and unwilling to sink into a morass of saddles and beaded buckskin in print, I’ve been exploring the documentary films available on Netflix. For the last two evenings I’ve watched a half-dozen hour-long explorations of contemporary artists, grouped loosely into concepts like “structure” or “oppression” or “transformation.” Very abstract. Each artist explains their work. Sometimes parents or children talk as well.
by Kiki Smith
Some are pretty well-known: Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial; Richard Serra who makes giant cor-ten steel shapes; Kiki Smith who makes body-centered images. One has to go to specialty publications to find others, unless you live in New York City or Taos. None of these works will ever show up at the Charlie Russell Auction, I guarantee you!
Gradually one becomes very aware of several aspects. One is the materials, of course, which range from very elaborate electronic gizmos, like a wall-size segmented face that changes its expression by moving the parts via little servomotors that are guided by images on an old black-and-white TV that has a grid of suction-cup light-sensitive monitors attached to its glass. A Korean man, lonesome for his parents’ timbered home where he grew up, duplicates it all in silk, an exact three-dimensional replica that can be hung up -- then folded into a suitcase. A man challenged to fill up a huge space the size of a football field, creates inflated shapes captured in nets and then goes on to make them play music in the same way as a player piano (intervals on tape), using pressurized air. Another man creates his work out of trash on the street which he brings home, piles up, then rakes through to find the shapes and colors he wants.
The artist explains the thinking behind it. Paul Pfeiffer explains his wavering, tapered ladder by describing primitive ladders that were only a split sapling with rungs of wood or rope between the two halves. There’s more but he doesn’t talk about the axis mundi of Eliade and the anthros which relates to the ladder that reaches down into a SW Indian Kiva. He could. On the other hand, it is absorbing just to look at the tapered floating ladder. Vija Calmins explains her canvas of stars in terms of how it makes her feel, her hunger for the interaction while she makes it, sands everything off, then makes it again. Some of these works are accessible to observers, but some of them are only interactions within the person, something they are working out neurologically or psychologically.
by James Turrell -- not the cow, a building attached to the crater.
James Turrell does earthworks and has been working for decades to get the sun to act on a constructed space next to an asteroid impact crater in order to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. This is an ancient art form. There are prehistoric works that depend upon sunlight piercing clefts or casting shadows around a circle, many more everywhere in the world than the famous Stonehenge. Since he had to buy a huge swath of land in order to work on it, he raises cattle which -- in the better years -- pay for the art.
Marina Abramovic casts her own body and uses the molds to make a classic bust of herself in soap and another in chocolate. She washes with the soap and licks the chocolate to blur the image. At one point she is visiting a ranch with old bathtubs for watering troughs, so she gets into one to see if the cows will still drink around her. In one photo the cow appears to be nursing from her, reversing the usual pattern. Following this idea, she casts her body on hands and knees, takes the hide freshly skinned off a cow so that it’s still malleable, and drapes it over the form she made, tightly enough that it shows her body. One cast foot sticks out at the back. When the hide has dried stiff, she takes the form out “so both the cow and I are missing.”
By Walton Ford
Walton Ford paints in conventional, colorful, realistic representations -- in fact, imitating Audubon’s giant double-folio books of birds, except that the birds are doing things that are QUITE unColonial: killing, screwing, dying in agony. (When we look at Audubon’s elegant depictions, we forget that he acquired his models by killing them and they lay on his table grotesquely distorted until disemboweled, skinned, and mounted.) Birds extrude eggs which are seized and broken by other birds, all crowded together as the 19th century passenger pigeons were when they came in such numbers that they broke limbs off trees. An avian Hieronymous Bosch.
by Maya Linn
Some of these artists work on an industrial scale so that they need industrial machines and a crew of people to create and place them. Maya Linn’s Vietnam memorial was so memorable that she has occupied an ambiguous space between monuments and architecture, though in her video segment she was cutting up old atlases in see-through circles so that turning the pages directs one’s attention. Every artist was a person capable of intensely focused attention on something not everyone even notices, and then somehow expands that point of focus.
Asked to create a “monument” for the neglected corner of an old decade urban park, Lin began with the idea of the pre-existing ice skating rink and then added to “ice” the idea of water vapor and a pool -- the latter two as fountains among trees. The new round ice rink was embedded with stars. She had to work around requirements imposed by the city: a rest room, a warming shed. The sequence of development began with the reality, analysis developed the idea of the three stages of water, and then these abstracts moved back into existence through practical requirements. In the end, skating at night on these stars among the trees and fountains is inexpressibly magical.
The minority artists who had been sharply compressed by prejudice, poverty, militarism, and injustice, were often the ones with the more striking and vital works. Kara Walker, beginning from “Gone with the Wind,” has developed a vocabulary of silhouettes that are shockingly outrageous: sex, infanticide, murder, torture and cannibalism mixing with bonnets and hoop skirts, top hats and handlebar mustaches. Ranging around a room in a cyclorama, they are enough to give anyone nightmares. Reread “Gone with the Wind” carefully. The horror is there.
No one talks about prices or galleries or sales to individuals. The context is always museums, spectacle and size, often spacious enough to walk through, sometimes with opportunities to participate somehow. In these hour-long episodes we enter the worlds of the artists in that way people now seem to crave: intimacy with artist’s lives, though it can only disrupt their work, which is art at the level of obsessive painting deep in a cave, art at the level of primal constructs in the brain most people are unaware exist at all.
Art.21 turns out to have a website: www.art21.org where all the episodes are archived. You don’t need Netflix. Go to www.video.pbs.org/program/art-21/ There are some I want to see again and I want to see all of them eventually, but I’ll have to ration myself to one a day. And now, inspired by Louise Bourgeois who cast her own forearms and hands and mounted the resulting bronzes on black stone plinths for a park in Chicago, I’m going to make me some miniature forearms and hands of Fimo, some pink, some dark. Maybe some striped.
(It was difficult to find images that would download because following these names will take you many mysterious and image-laden places, often protected by copyright. Use your search engine.)