Dmitry Strakovsky

Dmitry "Dima" Strakovsky is an Associate Professor on the faculty of the University of Kentucky School of Art & Visual Studies, where his focus is art intermedia. He is the Founder of Infinite Industries, a non-profit cultural events promotions platform free to all users.

Arts

Joe Light at Institute 193

“Hobo # Birdman” at Institute 193 is a show that gives us beautiful glimpses into the personal world of Joe Light. The artist who, after much travel, made his home in Memphis, Tennessee, died in 2005. His work is in a number of major collections around the United States, most notably the Arnett Collection who collaborated in bringing the show to the Lexington audience. The paintings on view are direct and playful, full of bright colors and everyday media of house paint and discarded wood. When I stood in front of the work (the gallery is open, maximum capacity of five, bring your mask), I was instantly presented with an image of an artist driven by the inner need to get the work out into the world. Here the paintings present themselves not as cerebral academic exercises but as direct streams of consciousness that dare the viewer to react. Name your emotion. Push it forward. Dance with it. Sing it. Make it your own.

Hobo # Birdman, Installation view, Institute 193

When situating the work within the narrative of Joe Light’s complex personal history, one realizes just how much of the spiritual core of his work is reflected in it. His story, early struggles with family, several incarcerations, conversion to a self-constructed version of Judaism that initially prompted prison authorities to place him in a mental health institution, and the eventual construction, through his art production, of a sacred space around his house, speaks to both the transformation of an individual and the uniquely American context of racial segregation and syncretism. “Renouncing the Baptist Christianity of his youth, he developed a personal faith conditioned by the racial prejudice he experienced in the pre-civil rights era South, as well as suspicion toward Christianity’s effects on colonized peoples,” states Gerard Wertkin in the Encyclopedia of American Folk Art.

The artwork that comes out of this context is split into two bodies, statements written on yard signs (not featured in the show at the Institute) and paintings on found materials and architectural structures. Both point to a set of deeply personal religious convictions that were rooted in Light’s interpretation of the Old Testament and navigation of his own identity as a descendant of both Africans and Native Americans. His figures are quite intentionally multi-colored and, in the case of the Birdman cycle of works, refer to the universal nature of his spiritual project. It must be noted that he perceived this “universality” through direct experiences and ancestry of his own body. This is not a generalized message of unity but rather one that leads with the internalization of life experience and its transformation into a life work of an artist.

Joe Light, Birdman #1, Birdman #2, Birdman B, 1980s, house paint on wood, 25.5 x 7.25 inches

The Birdman, one of the namesakes of the show’s title, is an image of a human with a bird on their head. This has personal significance, as a bird flew into the window of Light’s jail cell during his conversion experience. The artist described the event the following way:

“I said, ‘If you’re God, prove it.’ He said, ‘Step up to the cell door and I’m going to let a bird land on that window sill, and you take control of him. Tell it what to do and it will do it.’ And sure enough, the bird landed on it.”

The bird becomes quite literally a symbol of the divine in Joe Light’s work. It is important to note that in the artist’s self-portrait there is a space left for the bird to land on his own head as if to tell the viewer that he is indeed waiting for his personal enlightenment.

Joe Light, Joe Light, 1980s, house paint on plywood, 22 x 13.25 inches

Another image that hovers in the space between an archetype and a personal symbol is that of a traveler, or Hobo. The traveler evokes mythologies from Mercury to Eshu and readily references Light’s own wandering days. This journey can be a spiritual one, leading us to the Promised Land of the Old Testament, or one that navigates the complex socio-economic landscape of the American South. Regardless of the setting, the Hobo becomes a visual focus of the narrative constructed by the viewers; deserving of our empathy, and seemingly ready to sit down and tell us his story.

Joe Light, Wandering Hobo, 1980s, house paint on plywood, 35 x 48 inches

Each of the images described above repeats over and over again in Joe Light’s body of work. I find myself inevitably drawn to music metaphors to describe this visual experience – a way to translate the authentic reimagination of the pop culture by a Black American pushed outside the boundaries of the dominant culture. These recurring visual motifs are very much akin to blues licks – recast, reinvented, reshaped by life experience. They rely on soul and imagination; slight variations on color or duration of a note speaking to more possibilities than a symphony. Here the direct pulse of the work allows us to enter into a dialog with a unique vision of the artist and the sanctuary that he built to his version of the sacred.

All images courtesy of Institute 193

“Joe Light: Hobo # Birdman”, is on view at Institute 193 in Lexington thru July 31st.

Uncategorized

Dmitry Strakovsky: The Art World After COVID – The Last Days of the [Centralized] Art World.

We’ve asked a number of people to write brief reaction pieces to art critic Jerry Saltz’s recent piece in Vulture,“The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One”. The writers were also asked to comment about the effects the virus and resulting mitigation steps have had on their work. We will be publishing these pieces over the next several months.

Image courtesy of Dmitry Strakovsky

The art world that Jerry Saltz is mourning in the Vulture is one that outsiders don’t really experience. To be fair, it is quite welcoming but rather hard to find or to keep up with. Its threads connect the world’s political and commercial centers via the paths of global capital – most of these intersect in New York. I “heart” the city but I also recognize a certain myopia that it fosters whenever we talk about art. For example, the previous catastrophic events that the author refers to reflect the contractions in the market for contemporary art. These are not felt particularly strongly outside of the commercial gallery nexus; a feature absent from the landscape of most American cities, to say nothing of rural areas. New York, LA, sometimes Chicago, sometimes Houston, Miami once a year, that is where the art world lives. It is beautiful! It is amazing! It is full of my favorite people. It is also absolutely crippled by its own economics.

Saltz’s assessment that the finances are concentrated “in the hands of a lucky, mostly white 1500 people” is spot on. This is precisely what has been leading the trend of ever-increasing centralization: smaller commercial galleries going out of business and larger galleries getting significantly larger, also mentioned in the article. It is an unsustainable arms race that involves moderate expansions in the rosters of artists and gargantuan growth in the amount of real estate a gallery has to occupy to try to keep up. Consequently, it is increasingly complicated for an artist not represented by a mega-gallery to gain access to financial resources needed to produce their art. Major museum and other large public-venue-type shows by living artists without commercial gallery representation are virtually non-existent in the United States.

The art world, much like the rest of the economy, is overly centralized. We are stuck in the endless loop of complaint that there is not enough money for art and bemoaning the fact that the market, back to the 1500 people mentioned above, is ruining the art world. This was an unsustainable scenario before the COVID-19 outbreak and the current pandemic is just accelerating the destructive process.

Now, after nodding my head to yet another denizen of the art world pointing to the obvious issues without providing any real solutions, I would like to simply say that chasing the same group of rich collectors around the globe is probably not a way forward. We need to expand the audience in a meaningful way; embrace contemporary technologies beyond the corporate fold of Instagram and try to see what “scales up” in the cultural sphere.

It must be noted that the idea of scale can be incredibly destructive: fast-food franchises give us scale but not necessarily a pleasant dining experience. Pushed to its extreme “scale” is simply another way to refer to bland monoculture. However, if we are careful, we can use the software development tools and marketing solutions of the internet age to make connections to new audiences and expand the base of participants in our cultural experiments. This brings me to a project that I care deeply about: a non-profit that I helped to start about three years ago.

Infinite Industries is a project designed from the beginning to try to expand the audience for contemporary culture in general. When the virus hit, the focus of what we do hadn’t really changed: provide a unified platform for cultural producers to distribute information about their events. It is a pretty funky mix of technocratic and idealistic approaches: provide a single comprehensive platform but make it free and easily hackable so others can use it. We needed to make technical adjustments on the fly but we are a small volunteer tech team (BIG Shoutout to Chris Wininger and Matthew Gidcomb!) so we could pivot very fast.

Art, theater, dance, music worlds are super welcoming places but we constantly fail at getting information out about what we do to the rest of the world. The simple truth is that unless one is judiciously looking on Facebook, and is friends with all the right people, and is subscribed to at least a couple of listservs, they are not going to find much about what is happening in a town even as relatively small as Lexington. In order for us to thrive, we have to expand the audience. We have to be more visible! We have to be more vital! We have to diversify the sources of eyeballs and cash!

The art world and, by extension, a larger culturally active world that I would love to see on the other side of the pandemic is one that embraces technology to create resilient and decentralized networks that are open to an ever-increasing number of patrons.

Top image photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

Arts

Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

Approaching Institute 193 on North Limestone in Lexington, I peer through the storefront window to make my first encounter with Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings. A New York resident with deep roots in Lexington, Kentucky, Ludwig Shaffer treats us to meticulously rendered scenes which engage with visual elements traditionally relegated to second-class citizenship, or else, to the merely “decorative.” A braid adorns a side of a building. A topiary wall pushes forth, and seemingly through, a canvas surface. Plants, in various arrangements, populate the works. As I step into the space, the architecture of the work presents itself. The painted surfaces, at once, acknowledge their illusionistic nature by offering flat color passages and push us into masterfully modeled surreal spaces, wherein the difference between interior and exterior constructions oscillate and meld.

There are no clear protagonists within these subtle dreamscapes, no clue to privilege in any one of their quiet actors. When we are finally presented with the human form, it is that of two monochromatic grey, female sculptures, with arms outstretched in a gesture of refusal—the “No-No dance.” This term, coined by the artist, contributes to the titles of the painting and the show “From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance” joined with reference to a French garden design feature.

From The Ha-Ha Wall Comes The No-No Dance, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 65 inches

Ha-ha is a wall structure that acts as a physical separator without breaking the visual flow of the landscape. Aside from grounding the references to gardens and greenery, which abound in Ludwig Shaffer’s work, this term allows us to speak about “control” as one of the themes explored on the painted surface. Much like the Ha-Ha wall’s ability to assert a boundary while preserving a certain viewing and traversing of the landscape, many of the painted elements govern the viewer’s eye without announcing their presence. This runs the gamut from more literal renderings of walls and hedges within the painted naturescape, to utilizing the physical dimensions of the canvas to interrupt the flow of the composition. Here, meticulously-rendered realism strains against the two-dimensional surface. These compositions effuse a careful balance, presenting elements which both challenge and control one another. This facilitates a productive tension, drawing this viewer back into the painted surfaces in an attempt to discern the visual flows suggested within them.

Another aspect of the works on view that echos control and tension in an intriguing way is Ludwig Shaffer’s treatment of the female body. It is denied specific personhood and, as mentioned earlier, does not function as a protagonist of any narrative suggested in the paintings. It is an object, just like any other within the space of the composition, and in a visual culture that often both centers and objectifies its female subjects, this visual strategy provides an understated yet quite empowering alternative.

R & R & R, 2019
Acrylic on paper
22.5 x 30 inches

When preparing to write about the work, I quickly scanned through a number of historical French garden images. The most famous of these, the Gardens of Versailles, somewhat ironically bill themselves within the two-dimensional space of the webpage as, “The art of perspective.” I find this to be a really interesting point of entry into Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings due to the visual complexity of the interior and exterior spaces that she renders within her work. Although the architectural edges are carefully taped off and delivered to the viewer in a pristine semblance, the actual geometry is compromised: the viewer experiences an amalgam of possible perspective points within a single composition. This signals a very careful and intentional game played by the artist, one full of intriguing visual nuance.

Up Out In, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 96 inches

During the exhibition opening, I spoke briefly with Ludwig Shaffer, about possible links to Giotto paintings or perhaps Uccello: visual spaces where the technique of perspective was explored but not equally controlled over the whole of the composition by painters steeped in iconographic traditions. The artist brought up another early source of inspiration, Roman and Greek sarcophagi friezes, where the viewers encounter implied interior spaces which travel between the physicality of carved stone and the illusion of perspective. Upon further communication, Ludwig Shaffer brought up another exciting line of visual influence, Persian miniatures; illustrative works on paper that emerged in the region after the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and subsequent introduction of Chinese scroll painting tradition. Presented within album or book format, the miniatures allow for a completely different way to organize the composition that eschews standard perspective practices of Western painting. These constitute truly intriguing points of departure for the exploration of the painted surfaces, particularly in the art world that is often more concerned with referencing its own mercurial trends, than maintaining deeply-rooted dialogs with the past.

Giotto, Feast of Herod
Fresco, 1320
110 x 177 inches
[source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/giotto/feast-of-herod-1320 ]

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama (Book of Hamza),ca. 1570
Attributed to Kesav Das
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on cloth; mounted on paper
29 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
[source: Met collection https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/447743]

 

It is important to mention, at this point, another aspect of the show, the collaboration with the Michler Family Florists and Lexington-based architect & designer Jason Scroggin, who teaches at the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. Scroggin’s studio designed and built a custom bench seat with planters, which in addition to function, complemented the show by extending the motif of architectural space. This was a feature that many a gallery visitor appreciated during the opening and one that, perhaps, suggested the potential domestic settings the paintings could go on to inhabit in their future lives.

Overall, this is a show that presents us with smart, carefully-balanced, painted constructions. They are not loud. They do not demand our attention. But if attention is given, they are like good books; reminding us how easy it is to lose oneself within tightly crafted layers full of visual games, historical allusions, tactile enjoyment, and nuance.

Emily Ludwig Shaffer: From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, runs thru June 8, 2019, at Institute 193 in Lexington.