Paul Michael Brown

Paul Michael Brown is a writer and curator based in Lexington, Kentucky. He currently serves as the Director of Institute 193, also in Lexington, and is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation/ Creative Capital Arts Writer’s Grant.

Arts

Studio Visit with Robert Beatty

Floating approximately halfway between California and Hawaii, spanning more than half a million square miles, is an “island” made up of mostly microscopic plastic. “Island” is in quotes here because the mass is mostly imperceivable to the naked eye and rarely impedes marine traffic but is nevertheless deeply impactful to both human and animal life. The waste that makes up this invisible island, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes primarily from the populations of three continents (Asia, North America, and South America) and is held in place by what’s known as a gyre, a relatively fixed system of ocean currents that collectively create a vortex of force that is difficult to escape. Across the globe, there are five such gyres. In each one, a similar whirlwind of trash swirls without end.

Studio Shot with Robert Beatty, photo by author

The phenomenon is relatively new. Most of the garbage patches were first observed in the ’70s and ’80s, about a half century after plastic was originally invented, and have continued to expand since. Although methods are being devised to clear them, little headway has been made to stymie their source: largely single-use consumer plastics and packaging materials, of which somewhere between about 1 and 3 million metric tons enter the ocean each year. The tiny bits of waste are the remnants of our water bottles, plastic bags, and other detritus worn by the sun, wind, and the waves but still permanent and active in our planet’s ecosystem. The bits are found ingested by marine and avian life in increasing concentrations as you move up the food chain. The chemicals that are byproducts of their decomposition affect the makeup of the ocean and its life. The comparatively uncommon but still present large pieces can choke or otherwise constrict body parts of those same animals. 

It may be an odd way to consider it, but I think of these massive, dispersed, nearly intangible islands as uniquely contemporary monuments to – and a record of – our way of life. If a population is measured and understood by what it leaves behind and seeks (consciously or not) to make permanent, then this is our Stonehenge, Great Wall, Chichén Itzá, or Great Pyramid. If those places held significance because of their function as sites of ritual or as indicators of state power, then the Great Garbage Patches reveal the altar at which we worship and the offices we are subject to. They are invisible, collectively and unconsciously made, more a stain than a mark, and more permanent than we could hope to be. They are a wonder of the world, maybe a terrible wonder, but a wonder nonetheless. 

Studio Shot with Robert Beatty, photo by author

These hulking and ghostly masses came to mind after a recent conversation with artist, illustrator, and musician Robert Beatty in his apartment and studio, both located in downtown Lexington, about his work across mediums. His apartment, upstairs in a 19th century building near Gratz Park, is a kind of gyre of its own. In his office, books on esoteric practices, ancient archaeology, and electronic music are stacked high on TVs and soundboards. A large computer monitor displays a commercial project he’s working on, surrounded by records, more books, a few coffee cups, and print projects published in the New York Times, the Oxford American, and elsewhere. Robert’s chihuahua, Blue Velvet, rests delicately on a cushion nearby, and follows us into the kitchen for tea.

Robert’s chihuahua, Blue Velvet, photo by author

Robert Beatty, ‘Place Holder’, 2019, a multimedia installation at 21c, Lexington, photo credit: 21c Museum Hotel

We start our conversation with a discussion of Robert’s most recent exhibition, Place Holder, which remains on view at 21C Lexington through January 2020. The exhibition spans one room on the first floor of the main street hotel, and is comprised of a large central plinth with closed circuit camera footage of the same room projected on the surrounding walls. On the plinth are small cement sculptures arranged in a city-type grid. Some of them are brick-like. Others are more organic. All of them are rendered in a medium, industrial gray. Security cameras surveil the scene from above and feed the footage directly to the walls around them. Although some of the cameras are broadcasting in color, the projections read as nearly monochrome. The small sculptures are reminiscent of architectural models. If rendered to full scale, they might bring to mind the blocky, imposing Brutalist style of the mid-century. Another look and they feel a bit like gravestones. Two of them are pyramids, so perhaps this is the scale model for a mausoleum, or a place for spirits to inhabit after they leave their bodies behind. From above, they seem like the brainchild of a dystopian city planner. The scene is devoid of human life. It could be a ruin or a scene from a future of which we are not a part. When seen through the lens of the security cameras around them, the structures become somewhat uncanny, rendered inhabitable by the confusion of scale until you as a viewer intrude on the frame to provide reference. 

Studio Shot with plastics and cement, photo by author

Studio Shot with plastics and cement molds, photo by author

Robert tells me his process for making the sculptures, of which I was totally unaware despite seeing a few iterations of this body of work in the last year, first at the Parachute Factory in an exhibition organized by Alex Brooks, and then at the Atlanta Biennial held at the Atlanta Contemporary curated by Daniel Fuller and Phillip March Jones. The monolithic pyramids, three-dimensional trapezoids, and somewhat colonic tube structures are not, as I thought, cast from artist-made molds, but instead are created from plastic blister packaging. Even if you don’t know what blister packaging is (I didn’t), you’ve certainly dealt with it before. It’s the close-but-not-exact-fitting, often clear, interior packaging element encasing things like batteries, headphones, appliances, speaker cables, toys, and so on. The resulting shapes are remarkably abstracted and unrecognizable, a negative image of the byproducts of our culture’s consumption. Robert notes that what initially drove him towards these forms is their availability. As an artist who works regularly with technology both new and old, he has a lot of gear, and all of it comes wrapped in this stuff. When we move to his studio later in the conversation, he pulls out two large containers brimming with them, big, small, and everywhere in between. 

I mention to Robert that I recall seeing he had recently taken trips to the Great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, and to Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England. Both of these landmarks have potential astronomical and ritual significance and somewhat indeterminate origin stories. It’s not clear how or, ultimately, why they were built. Also up in the air is who is responsible for building them in the first place. Much of Robert’s work, including what’s on view at 21C, is similarly enigmatic and esoteric. He mentions that both places also served as inspiration for that work, and that the forms and their arrangement are meant to mirror archaeological sites somewhat, though the forms are of course derived from contemporary objects. 

Robert Beatty, Atlanta Biennial, 2019

Robert Beatty, Atlanta Biennial, 2019

A related body of work displayed at the Atlanta Contemporary is made up of small stone-like objects also cast in concrete. On the surface of the stones in low relief are squared, pixel-like arrangements that are reminiscent of written language but completely illegible. In the exhibition, they were arranged on a bright orange background meant to echo the way artifacts are commonly presented in museums. Similarly suggestive and inscrutable are a pair of flat plates with metallic etching. The language-like elements are replicated, along with linework making them appear as oversized computer chips or, as Robert mentions, Lakhovsky plates used in radionics (a form of alternative therapy that uses electromagnetic waves to diagnose and treat disease). Those plates are just one of a number of pseudoscientific or quasi-spiritual practices that interest Beatty, though not because he believes in them per se. In fact, at one point in the conversation he posits that perhaps he is drawn to the strange and arcane because he feels jealous of the ability that some have to commit so deeply to something so unobservable.

As I get up to leave, we discuss how we think our time might be remembered through an archaeological lens. What judgements would be made about us and what conclusions would be drawn from the things we leave behind?

“And that’s the thing– most of what’s going to be left when we’re not here anymore is going to be plastic. That’s what people are going to find, all this trash. It’s weird that that’s what will outlast us. And that’s part of it, a kind of tongue in cheek thing of taking that stuff and filling it with concrete, giving some weight to it… I really love the way artifacts are shown in a museum. The way that they’re presented. They’re mounted on the wall in these plexiglass cases, this stuff that was probably just trash. But it’s old trash, so it’s… important for some reason?”

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Las Desaparecidas de Juarez

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by Paul Michael Brown

Today was suited for reflection. A dense, gray pallor hung low in the sky as I made my way by train from New York City to Union, NJ. I was headed to see ‘Las Desaparecidas de Juárez: Homage to the missing and murdered girls of Juarez’, an exhibition by Lexington-based artist Diane Kahlo, now showing at Kean University’s Human Rights Institute Gallery through January 15th.

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The exhibit functions as a memorial to the women and girls, now in numbers estimated at more than 1000, who have disappeared from the city of Juarez in the last several decades.

Juarez is a Mexican town that sits on the border, a stone’s throw from El Paso, Texas. Maquiladoras, factories infamous for low wages and poor working conditions on which the U.S. relies for products reliant on cheap labor, dot the landscape and employ much of the town. The majority of the work force at these factories is made up of young women, who are favored because they are less likely to complain about long hours and tedious, repetitive work than men.

Juarez is also one of the major sites through which drugs are trafficked to the United States. Relatedly, extreme gang violence has led the city to be dubbed as one of the most dangerous in the world.

A particularly heinous grouping of murders dubbed as ‘femicide,’ or violence directed explicitly towards women with no discernible motive other than their gender, has come in two major waves, one peaking in the mid-late nineties, and the other more recently in 2012, but has never completely been completely stifled since it’s beginning.

The story of the murders and disappearances is difficult to pick apart, obscured by poor information, police corruption, and lack of adequate resources to properly assess and investigate the crimes.

Initially, the disappearances were thought to be the work of one or more serial killers, but as time progressed, numbers of those dead or missing climbed steadily, even after prime suspects were apprehended and tried.

Blame was placed on disparate groups by a public and a police force desperate to find someone to hold accountable. Suspects ranged from a group of bus drivers, violent husbands and fathers, to corrupt policemen, the international sex trade, and the gangs who have dominated the town for years.

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Bodies of women and girls, some in their early teens or younger, are continuously found, often mangled beyond recognition, sometimes in mass graves, many bearing evidence of sexual assault. The local and federal authorities have been criticized for botching the investigations.

Bodies are not always recovered, leaving many families without necessary closure. A significant number of the cases remain open, with a bleak outlook for justice. This has pushed Kahlo, and other artists (most notably street artist Swoon with her memorial to the women realized in 2007) to create work celebrating the lives of these women and bringing awareness to their deaths, making sure that we do not forget the incredible loss to the community of Juarez and to the global community at large.

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Kahlo’s memorial has been shown across the country even as the disappearances continue to occur, keeping the situation in Juarez on the minds of many. According to some sources, the homicide rate in Juarez has been on a steady decline since 2012, prompting those who were wealthy enough to flee temporarily to El Paso during the height of the killings to make their way back home and begin to resume business as usual. Abandoned storefronts are beginning to reopen, people are slowly becoming comfortable enough to walk along the ‘safe corridor’ of well lit bars and restaurants at night.

Heavily armed guards, however, still man the entrances to the freshly reopened, neon-illuminated night clubs.

The cause of this shift seems to be related in large part to the end of the power struggle between the two major gangs vying for power in the area, the Sinoloa and Juarez cartels. The war is believed to have been won by the Sinoloa cartel, but only by a narrow margin. Many of the leaders of both groups have been killed or jailed in recent years, significantly affecting the manpower needed to sustain a war of such violence.

Many residents are doubtful of the permanence of this peace, fearing a swift return to dangerous conditions if the Sinoloa cartel is challenged again. Additionally, because the perpetrators of the femicide seem to be not only linked to the drug war, quelling one potential source of the violence and ignoring others will not likely ease the minds of the people in Juarez.

Kahlo’s work allows us to begin to mourn those lost; to attach names to a number of missing and dead that is hard to comprehend.

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On the right hand wall of the gallery hangs a grid of small painted portraits on a background of gold leaf, framed in deep purple, with the names of those depicted carved in shallow relief. The work is reminiscent of Christian icons, casting the women in a heavenly light, requiring us to get very close to the image to see it in detail, inspiring intimate, personal reflection. To have one’s entire field of vision occupied by hundreds of those who have had their lives cut short in such a way, to see the extreme youth of many of the victims, inspires a profound and guttural response.

One girl, Silvia Elena Rivera Morales, is depicted in her quincieñera (sweet sixteen) dress, smiling brightly. Images of small birds, sacred hearts, and butterflies stand in for victims whose photographs were not available.

References to both Christian and pre-Colombian spirituality tie conceptual and visual threads between the works, which show distinct mastery of several media by Kahlo.

Two grids of skulls decorated with intricate patterns of sequins face opposite the ‘Wall of Memories’ making reference to Dia de los Muertas, originally a celebration of indigenous peoples (likely Aztec) which has been co-opted by Christian tradition. The skulls serve as a symbol of death and rebirth surrounded by Mexican marigolds which are meant to attract the souls of the dead to the offering. Between the two grids is affixed a large embellished coffin decorated with the sacred heart, of Christian origin which implies both suffering and redemption, and a large sun reminiscent of the Aztec calendar, again calling into mind the cyclical nature of existence.
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At the focal center of the exhibition is hung a large, densely colored Mandala (a form mirrored in both Aztec and Christian traditions, among many others) constructed from bottle caps, small trinkets, and junk jewelry Kahlo collected from flea markets, objects cast off or lost, assembled and organized to make a beautiful, shining whole. This is Kahlo’s most subtle, poetic, and effective work in the show. It brings together disparate visual references to the spiritual and material realities of the women affected by the situation in Juarez, and provides an intensely beautiful space for reflection and healing.

The memorial is successful in tying the specific struggle of these women to issues endemic to women worldwide. We are able to mourn the loss of these women and girls, and through them begin to understand the parallel struggles of our mothers and sisters, to gain insight into violence and inequity directed towards them.

Additionally, Kahlo has provided a vessel in which to put this awareness; to move from understanding to concrete action by the inclusion of a list of organizations dedicated to ending the violence and ways to help them in their efforts.

Previous to this exhibition, the show has travelled across the U.S. and has been utilized as a tool to both raise awareness and inspire action. Mexican activist group Yo Soy 132, in solidarity with the mothers of some of the disappeared women, used the exhibition to raise money to offset legal fees and living expenses of those left behind.

Kahlo has also partnered with documentary filmmaker Lourdes Portillo to create a short documentary outlining the situation in Juarez (also on view at the gallery) and calling for an immediate end to the violence.

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We can make sure the names of these women are not unsung and celebrate the lives they lived, but such a memorial would be hollow without an opportunity to act. We should not only tell of the lives of the women affected, but are obligated to call out the individuals and larger social structures that allow this and other analogous offenses against women elsewhere to continue.

We should recognize that United States policy has shaped much of the economic and social reality of this place. We have taken part in an economy that depends on cheap, exploitative labor. We must see that these same economic structures often make drug trade an attractive option when faced with the realities of one’s own survival and the survival of one’s family; that when people feel disempowered socially and economically, they sometimes resort to violence against those who are more vulnerable than them to maintain some sense of power and agency.

These are of course not excuses for the actions committed against these women, but they are the structural underpinnings against which our anger and our action should be directed if we seek real and lasting change. Kahlo’s response to this situation provides an initial step in understanding and combatting this complex issue.

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This is All Forked Up!

Advances in 3-D Printing Bending All the Rules

by Paul Brown

Harry Abramson has been doing exactly what our parents and cafeteria monitors have demanded we not do, under threat of sinister penalty: he’s been ruining the silverware, forks specifically, bending them by hand to the point of no return for 15 years. No longer are they fit to pierce the thin flesh of an English pea or serve as assistant to serrated knife in the earnest dispatch of a 16 oz. Porterhouse.

fork2The fork sculptures are precarious, organic, fluid, and unexpectedly elegant in both their active, energetic forms and their blatant disregard for their initial function. Tines reach longingly for handle, twist and splay to make themselves distinct from their three twin brethren attached at the hip. Spines rotate in impossible curly Q’s, seemingly in preparation to leap from diminutive platforms on which they lay frozen and bound. Finally, several pieces intertwine in knots simultaneously signaling intimacy and constriction.

Abramson presents the work in two ways, both meant to amplify scale and make more direct the formal implications of these previously functional and now artfully altered objects. First, he photographs the work, generally in black and white or in a very muted color scheme, and enlarges them. The resulting work forces engagement from the viewer beyond simple object associations that would be present were the work presented at original scale.

fork3The second method is considerably more complex, using several cutting edge technologies to render chrome plated scale models of the original twisted forms. Recently, Abramson constructed a six foot sculpture that is a perfect scale reproduction of one of his hand bent forks. The process begins with a 3D capture of the original object. Abramson employed Direct Dimensions (www.directdimensions.com), a company that specializes in this kind of imaging (he also works there) for this part of the production. The company has done similar work for big name artists like Jeff Koons (whose retrospective is now on as the final exhibition in the Whitney Museum’s current location) and Rob Pruitt. This part of the process collects cloud point data, a process that works a bit like those ‘pin-art’ toys many people had when they were young (think black board with a bunch of blunt nails that you would impress your hand, face, or other things against to see the impression on the other side.) Once that data is present, the model is scaled up digitally to any size needed.

After the digital model is ready to go, the file is sent to a manufacturer, in this case Abramson worked with Jason Dickman of American Precision Prototyping (www.approto.com). The original file was cut into six pieces that were small enough to be printed by APP’s machines. Fused Deposition Modeling (or FDM, basically using a nozzle to pipe liquid plastic material in progressive layers like watching a jawbreaker get eaten in reverse) was used to fabricate each piece using ABS plastic, which is the same material used to make Legos®. The pieces are then cleaned, assembled, sanded, polished, and finally chromed to make a perfect, though considerably larger, replica of the original sculpture.

In both methods, scale functions to highlight implications of form only made possible by intentionally obscuring the original shape and rendering it functionless, at least in a traditional sense. The photographs and sculptures are conceptually interesting, raising questions of production, form, object associations, and use, and are just plain neat, to boot.

One question, of course, remains: where do I find a piece of cherry pie large enough to match?


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