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Studio Visit: Lakshmi Sriraman

For nearly two decades, Lakshmi Sriraman was known in Lexington primarily as a teacher and performer of the traditional Indian dance known as Bharatanatyam. This dance uses a strictly coded set of movements, postures, gestures, and eye-shifting facial expressions to tell the stories of ancient India, with themes and lessons still pertinent today. Growing up near Chennai, in southern India, Sriraman (pronounced Shree-RAH-men) had studied the intricate, highly structured style of dance since she was a little girl of 7 or 8, often performing in school programs. “I think I was naturally drawn to dance,” she recalls in an interview at her home near Masterson Station Park in west Lexington. “Anything you taught me, I would do it right then. So I picked it up very fast.” At some point, like most Bharatanatyam students, she was expected to perform a two-hour debut recital, called an arangetram, with a full orchestra. “It literally means ‘ascending the stage,’” she recalls. “But at that time my father said, ‘I don’t have money for this.’ So I quit learning at that time, but I never quit dancing.”

When Sriraman moved to the United States in 1994 to get an MBA at the University of Texas at El Paso, and from there to Atlanta to work as a business consultant, she resumed her dance training and gave her arangetram at the age of 33.

A decade later, after relocating to Lexington with her husband and son, she began performing at venues around town to enthusiastic audiences composed largely of the city’s burgeoning Indian American community, whose parents flocked to Sriraman, begging her to teach their daughters. And so, the Shree School of Dance was born. Suddenly Sriraman was giving weekly lessons in a rented space to as many as 40 girls, young women, and a few older adults from around Kentucky, passing along a 2,000-year-old art form that, although it predates Hinduism by more than a millennium, remains flexible enough to consider startlingly modern topics.

“The kind of subjects that I choose for my dance are anchored in things that I want to talk about – the topic of gender, for instance,” she says. “Gender traditionally is a binary, male or female, but there is an iconographic image in Hinduism that is half man, half woman – half Shakti, half Shiva. The left half is Shakti, the right half is Shiva. There are many layers of understanding and philosophy within that imagery. One of the things it says is that nobody is fully masculine or fully feminine. Whatever your body’s gender is, we all hold energies of both masculine and feminine – the one that’s nurturing, the one that’s doing. To me on a lot of levels it talks about gender fluidity, it talks about the ability of humans to bring forth what’s needed. It cannot be put in a box of masculine or feminine. I use that iconography, then, to frame it, in a way. I’m not proselytizing, I’m not saying this is what it is. I’m asking how do you talk about this? What does this mean to you? What does it awake in you?”

This went on for several years.   Then, about four years ago, two things happened.

The first was that Sriraman accepted, finally, that it was time to stop running a large dance school built around herself as the sole instructor. “The students were thriving, but I was not,” she admits. “For three years I wanted to close my school down, but I couldn’t because I thought I was abandoning all these children, right? I had to take a look at: What is my life’s purpose? Am I furthering my purpose? And I realized that so much of my energy was going into keeping the school running, and I was cutting off a lot of my own creative work. I was constantly tired. And I came to a point where I was resenting it. And I said no, I can’t resent this. This is a great gift in my life, to be able to teach. So I thought it was time to quit with the school, to not do it the way I was doing it.”

The second thing that happened was that Sriraman went to a rock-painting workshop, where she learned the dot painting techniques associated with Australian Aboriginal artists.

“I came home from that workshop,” she says, “and I just couldn’t stop painting.”

***

Sriraman threw herself into the work, quickly making dozens of paintings. Many were inspired by Indian mandalas, using the dotting technique, whose application she found unexpectedly meditative. “I found the practice of dotting a mandala so calming, grounding, balancing. At that time that I was going through a lot of inner changes, including some relationship stuff, and doing the mandalas helped me heal from a lot.”

She was entirely self-taught. “I’ve not had a single class,” she says now. “I’ve just taught myself a lot by watching, by practicing, by working on my own, making mistakes and learning from them. It’s just, How about this? How about that? It’s intuitive, and I’m not following any prescriptive method. And that is very liberating for me, in part because on the one hand, I’m practicing this traditional art of dance that takes years of training [she still has a few private dance students whom she taught, during the pandemic, on Zoom] and on the other hand, I’m totally experimenting with visual art, making it up as I go.”

As with her dance training as a child, her progress as a visual artist was swift. Before long, Sriraman was selected by a jury to participate in the annual Kentucky Crafted art show, “which opened a lot of doors for me,” she says. She began to exhibit her work in galleries. “When I first saw her work in 2018, I was immediately impressed by the beauty and the sincerity and the thought process behind it,” says Mark Johnson, president of Art Inc. Kentucky, a non-profit arts incubator that recently opened a retail gallery, ArtHouse Kentucky, in Lexington’s East End. “Almost from day one, we felt her work was ready to be displayed, in part because it’s so distinct. When you look at her work, you know it’s hers.”

Celeste Lewis, executive director of the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center, was also struck by the sheer velocity of Sriraman’s development. “Lakshmi’s come a long way in a short amount time,” Lewis says. “She’s soaked up so much information just by experimenting with different colors and different textures, and she’s not just experimenting and flailing and falling; she’s experimenting and hitting it hard. As someone who went to art school and spent years trying to hone my craft, it amazes me that she has picked this up and is running with it, like an athlete. No, she doesn’t have years and years of training, but she’s really good. And she has a depth to her work that, to be honest, really surprised me – not because I didn’t think she could do it, but because I thought it would take her longer to get there.”

Lakshmi Sriraman, L to R “Curiosity and Stillness”.

Now Sriraman is among the most-exhibited of Lexington artists, with large- and small-scale work, including paintings, prints, cards, jewelry, and coasters currently or recently on view at ArtHouse, Base249, the Downtown Arts Center’s City Gallery, ArtsPlace, the Kentucky Theatre, the Artique Gallery, and the Kentucky Artisan Center in Berea. The City Gallery plans to mount a solo show of her work in August and September of 2023.

Lakshmi Sriraman, coaster.

“I’m thrilled to death,” Lewis says, “to watch her becoming the visual artist that she is.”

***

Now in her early 50s, Sriraman paints in total silence, on canvases laid flat on the table in the dining room that she has converted into a home studio. “I don’t like to listen to anything when I’m painting,” she says. “I go into the silence and into the process. I have an intent to bring a certain energy to it, but it’s not a concept. I’m not thinking where to place the dots. It’s like tai chi, right? You know the movements so well that you are not in the movement anymore. You are in the space between the movements.”

The movements, in her case, are mainly of two sorts: first, the brushstrokes with which she lays down backgrounds (often black) and large shapes (often red, blue or yellow), and second, the small, delicate, precisely placed dots of acrylic paint extruded from a small tool with a metallic tip. None of this is planned, she says, and that, in turn, is by design. “I don’t think in terms of visual weight,” she says. “I don’t think in terms of balance. I don’t want to visually make those decisions up front. I don’t have a picture in my mind of what it will be. It just all happens as I’m doing it.”

Instead, Sriraman works in a state of mind that she describes as a kind of concentrated presence that is also, paradoxically, a form of absence. This manifests itself in her work as a performer – in which she always leaves room for improvisation, surprises, random discoveries – and as a painter. “I always want to be available to that,” she says. “As a photographer, you know if you go to photograph a wedding, say, and all of a sudden you see this child enjoying her cake. You are not there to photograph that, but that moment is so special, and if you are present, you will be able to photograph it. And to me, painting is like that. If I decide how this painting is going to look right now, I have cut out an immense capacity to create right in that moment, because this is how it’s going to be. I don’t know if this is how it’s going to be. Right now, this is a possibility. Right now, this is an opportunity. Right now, I know that this is a place where I can disengage so that I can engage. And so my work is a purely intuitive process. I go into it, and many times I don’t know what I’ve got until I come back to myself.”

Where do you go, I ask her, that you must come back from?

“I don’t know,” she says, and laughs merrily. “I’m in the dark, mainly. In the dark.”

***

Equally unplanned and mysterious is the matter of imagery in Sriraman’s paintings. The dots line up in serpentine rows like flowerbeds in a garden or, more often, in concentric circles like tree rings or ripples in a lake. They swirl and surge and accumulate, filling the spaces between the bulkier masses in the paintings. Sometimes the dots clump together so densely that they become masses of their own; sometimes they form great spinning whorl shapes like those in the starry night skies of Vincent van Gogh, or stack on top of each other in a way that evokes rock cairns or, as some of her titles suggest, Buddha. Other times they conjure landscapes, often with bodies of water flowing through them – an archipelago in the ocean here, a stream bridged with stepping stones there, or deserts, vaguely reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s southwestern landscapes. Still other times, they bring to mind fossils and geologic layers at an archaeological dig.

“They seem all very landscapey to me,” Lewis says. “She used to do things that were more spacey-looking, much more cosmic. I saw stars, the moon, the Milky Way. Now it’s gotten much more terra firma. I see a lot of boulders.”

To Sriraman’s eye, while she’s painting, there are almost never skies or galaxies or islands or oceans. “In my mind they are abstract,” she says. “I think the landscape idea is an interpretation of my abstraction. I do not seek to paint landscapes.” The large painting in progress in her studio on the day of our interview features several large red masses suspended in an expanse of black. It makes me think about blood cells passing through an artery, or a solar system of red planets glowing like Mars. It makes me think, too, about the color-field paintings of Mark Rothko, who is said to have had a complex system of meanings and feelings that he associated with different colors, in particular black and red, as dramatized in John Logan’s 2010 Broadway play “Red.”

The red masses in the painting, I say to her, are they stones in a dark lake?

No, she says.

Are they red planets in a night sky?

No.

What are they, then?

“They are red surrounded by black,” she says.

Once the paintings are completed, Sriraman does sometimes give them titles that suggest imagery. One of the most striking “landscapey” works recently on display at Base249, for example, is called “Oasis,” while two other very recent works find her applying the dotting technique to images of leaves.

Lakshmi Sriraman, “Oasis”.

And occasionally, imagery emerges unexpectedly and yet so clearly that even the artist cannot deny it. A large canvas painted in connection with a women’s festival at the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center, for example, surprised her by manifesting not just communities of women represented by dots, as she had been thinking, but individual women: several of them. “After I painted it, I thought, I see a face looking down,” she recalls. “And then I started seeing a lot of other women’s faces. I did not make these faces, but they started popping up.”

She titled the painting Many Faces.

***

Sriraman’s predominant focus on abstract, non-representational work does not mean that it lacks content, however ineffable and difficult it may be to articulate, or that it’s without context. True, it has few conscious art-historical influences. When people tell her that a painting of hers reminds them of some famous artist’s work, she says, “Who’s that?” “And then I go and google that artist and see, oh yeah, there are a lot of similarities,” she says. “But my work is not intentional that way.” Asked whether the dots are in any way inspired by the work of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, who employed dots of paint to create masterpieces such as Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), Sriraman shakes her head. “From what I’ve seen of his work, he uses dots to create not abstract paintings but landscapes, which is not my intention.”

Lakshmi Sriraman, “Champagne Time”.

So what is Sriraman’s work about? It’s no reduction to say that it’s about her – all that she was and is and is becoming, as an artist, a woman, a feminist, an environmentalist, an activist. “I believe that we’re all inspired by everything that we see and experience,” she says. “I have integrated a lot of the things I have seen.”

These include her increasing involvement with contemporary social issues, such as social justice for women, minorities, and the poor, and the push for diversity and inclusion in many parts of society, in America and her native India, particularly during the pandemic. “So, with COVID, when so many societal structures – structures that we have sort of grown numb to, like how healthcare works – started falling apart, it gave me so much to think about: the paradigm of racism, the paradigm of the haves and the have-nots, all these things on a large scale. How do we as a society deal with these things, how does the culture deal with it, humanity deal with it?”

For example, in southern India where her elderly parents and other relatives still live, she notes that the pandemic has been a disaster that has disproportionately affected migrant construction workers. “A lot of construction stopped during COVID, but the people who hired them made no provisions for them to go back home, so you had millions of people walking for months to reach their home. And many died on the way as well.” Locally, Sriraman recently served on the advisory committee for CivicLex’s new Civic Artist in Residence (CAIR) program, concentrating on ensuring diversity among the selected artists. (You can learn more about the CAIR program elsewhere on UnderMain.) Her Facebook page has many references to activism of several kinds, including social and racial justice and LGBTQ issues.

And if her art is informed by these outward observations of the world, “My work is also inward-looking,” she says. “I’m always looking at what it is that I’m creating, why I’m creating it. So many things made me think of my role in all this, and wondering how I can use my art to ask questions about all this. I don’t have all the answers, obviously. But I’m part of the problem, so I’m trying to be a part of the solution. For me, it starts with asking questions of myself and of others. And I believe that the world I create for myself and for those who I touch, will only be as vibrant as my questions are, is only going to be as deep and meaningful and love-filled and equitable as my questions are.”

Most of all, perhaps, Sriraman’s art expresses her desire for healing – for people, for the planet, for the universe. “When I apply the dots, I think about all the things that need healing, all the things that I’m grateful for,” she says. “For example, I’m grateful for the women in my life – my mother, my sister, my teachers. I think about that woman I met in the grocery store. Or I might think about women who are suffering from breast cancer, or who have lost their child, or whatever it is. I think of all those things and make them into a painting. So it becomes a prayer for healing the feminine. It becomes a prayer for women.”

Her website, https://lakshmisstudio.com/, has several of her early canvases listed in a variety of categories including “Prayer Dots,” “Buddha Dots,” “Frozen Fire Dots” and “Pebbled Dots.” “I need to update my website,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve come to understand that all my dotted paintings are prayer dots.” She compares the intention of her painting process to that of Reiki, a Japanese form of alternative medicine whose practitioners are said to heal their clients by channeling energy through their palms. “I’m not a practitioner of Reiki, so I don’t know,” she says. “But what I do know is that to me, these are prayers that are alive: prayers to God or whoever you recognize, something that’s beyond what we can see. They are my calls for healing to the universe.”

***

As if painting and dance weren’t enough for this multi-faceted artist to juggle, Sriraman spent much of the pandemic year finishing the creation of Neeri, a solo performance piece funded by a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Originally intended to be performed live at the University of Kentucky and Berea College, Neeri was instead recorded without an audience at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center’s Black Box Theater and broadcast on Zoom by Berea College in May.

In the part-scripted, part-improvised piece, created in collaboration with the Tamil theater director Srijith Sundaram and the Lexington writer and activist LeTonia Jones, Sriraman takes the stage as an Indian woman who begins by announcing, “I come bearing a river.” When, she wants to know, can she ever put it down, and where? “As long as I’m a woman,” she says, “I’ve been carrying this river.” Neeri – whose name is a version of the Tamil word neer, meaning both water and feminine energy – is at once a specific woman, an Everywoman, and the embodiment of rivers and, more broadly, of nature itself. All are threatened by decision-making processes dominated by men: an imbalance, among other things, of Shiva and Shakti.

Neeri is aware that some consider her ridiculous. “There are many that laugh at me,” she says. “They follow me just to mock me.” She turns on the unseen oppressors, fixes them with a stare. “Stop it!”

Sriraman says now:  “My theater work comes from the space of asking questions of patriarchy. The river is a metaphor for dreams, aspirations, joy, celebration, life itself—of the feminine in this world. It’s also eco-feminism, the literal rivers we are trying to safeguard. Humanity doesn’t take care of these natural resources very well. We take it for granted. So Neeri asks, Where is it safe for me to place this river? When can I just let go and say, okay, the river will flow fully from here on, and I don’t have to take care of it?” She frowns. “These are things that have been stewing in my mind and in my process for a very long time. Who safeguards the interests of those who don’t have a voice? Who stands up for them? Who speaks for them?”

The performance expands to include the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice themes expressed in spoken-word pieces by Jones, who’s now collaborating with Sriraman on a second creative project for Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) women writers. “There was something magical about hearing my words on Black Lives Matter, for example, as part of a show about a South Asian woman,” Jones says. “It helped me see that the struggles of communities of color are universal. I can’t just pay attention to the oppression that’s happening here in America. I have to see it as global, as transcending boundaries, and it’s Lakshmi’s spirit that does that, connecting women’s voices across race.”

The most electrifying moment in Neeri, as I experienced the video, comes as the protagonist is musing, with mounting anger, about the objectification (and through it the belittling) of women.

“They say women are beautiful,” she says. “Sweet as honey, soft as silk.”

And here she laughs loudly, derisively, bitterly, chillingly.

“I’m beautiful, yes,” she tells us. “But I am so much more than that.”

All Photo Credits: Kevin Nance

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Review: Deborah Whistler’s “A Siren’s Kiss”

Familiar, idyllic faces are the focus of Deborah Whistler’s new series A Siren’s Kiss now on view at Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky. Replicating figures from well-known historical paintings – Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, and Fragonard’s The Swing – Whistler has pulled these female figures out of their original environments and used them as the characters in a new mythology of her own making.

It’s disarming, the way you instantly recognize the figures Whistler has recreated. Entering Moremen Gallery, the first images you see are life-size reproductions of the young woman from Fragonard’s The Swing and Botticelli’s Venus. Titled Flirting with Danger and Taming the Sea, the works are shown as a diptych. Perfectly copied from their original environment, the two figures feel pasted in their new frames, united by a pattern of waves that crash around them. Amongst her other drawings, the Venus figure shows up again surrounded at times by cut paper or a cornucopia of flowers. Other characters from Botticelli’s Primavera also make their appearance including his Graces and the nymph Chloris. Aesthetically we can appreciate Whistler’s replication of these famous portraits – and it is easy to lose oneself in her fine lines and swirling patterns – but apart from an aesthetic triumph the why remains. Why would Whistler choose to spend so many hours recreating the figures of these old masters – what is she attempting to prove or trying to gain by replicating and relocating these female figures?

Deborah Whistler, “Taming the Sea”, 2020. Pen and ink, framed 67″ x 48″. Photo courtesy of Moremen Gallery.

Outside of the replication of these famous faces, there are clues that hint at an underlying storyline existing amongst Whistler’s new series. Repeating vines of flowers and insects and a recurring circular shape serve as a gentle hint of the interconnectedness of the works, but it is the accompanying text that assists the audience in identifying the key features of the story. For each of her pieces, Whistler has written a short poem to help narrate and to allude to small hidden details that may initially be overlooked.

Deborah Whistler, “Flirting with Danger”, 2020. Pen and ink, framed 67″ x 48″. Photo courtesy of Moremen Gallery.

Within Flirting with Danger the image of a swan has been carefully drafted into the folds of the swinging female’s dress – an easily overlooked detail if not for Whistler’s line: “Not only will she miss the crashing of this Great Wave but she will use the vacuum caused by this surge to ditch the swan hidden under her skirt at the same time.” This same – decidedly unwelcome – swan is seen again in Clipping the Wings of the Siren, where its previously docile nature is exposed as a trick. In Clipping the Wings of the Siren the swan’s head rears, its body poised to attack. An arm springs from its breast as if it transforms from animal to human. In this work, Whistler has succeeded in creating a dramatic and emotionally charged piece, using a vine of flowers to guide the audience from the swan, around to the screaming face of the siren and under its wings. In this image, the “siren” has been recreated from a sculptural work by Rodin. Here the head of Rodin’s The Scream is presented in profile to represent the pain as the Siren loses its wings.

Deborah Whistler, “Clipping the Wings of a Siren”, 2021. Pen and ink, framed 36″ x 33″. Photo courtesy of Moremen Gallery.

The next line Whistler writes in the Flirting with Danger text: “Her focus is on one spot that she balances between her fingers” serves as the translation for the recurring circular spot seen through Whistler’s works. This spot is meant to serve as a guiding source of strength for the swinging figure and it appears again in Vulnerability where the portraits of Botticelli’s Graces have been recreated. Removed from their lush garden, here they rest on a flat white background, their gazes fixed on this tiny circular spot.  In this instance the spot seems similarly to be representative of strength, serving as a guide for the Graces or a hope of freedom from their endless dance.

Deborah Whistler, “Vulnerability”, 2020. Pen and ink, framed 39″ x 40″. Photo courtesy of Moremen Gallery.

In this way, her recreations also feel like an attempt at rescue. Is the spot the source of their transference from one environment to another? In her work A Siren’s Kiss, the composition focuses on the head of Chloris – as depicted in Botticelli’s Primavera – at the moment of her abduction by Zephyrus (God of the West Wind). The vining flowers escaping her open mouth allude to her eventual transformation into the Goddess Flora. In the original myth, Zephyrus rapes Chloris, makes her his wife, and then as a gift grants her dominion over flowers. Pulling Chloris out of Zephyrus’ grasp removes her from the storyline of having to be abducted and raped before she can become a goddess. Instead, in Whistler’s depiction, she seems to transform of her own volition or, in other words, she is able to use her own strength to give life, her own breath to pollinate the world.

Deborah Whistler, “A Siren’s Kiss”, 2021. Pen and ink, framed 33″x 36″. Photo courtesy of Moremen Gallery.

In paintings that were once about the female figures as objects to behold, Whistler’s copies of them are meant as an attempt to allow them to reclaim their power. To shed their objecthood and become autonomous in their own stories:  as givers of life, as sexual beings, but mainly as strong women. She has even reclaimed the mythical figure of the Siren – once a monster disguised as a woman to lure men to their deaths – now a deity of Spring. To accompany her drawings of the women, Whistler has created beautifully drafted drawings of bees and cicadas hinting at the continued cycles of life and death, spring and winter, and the cycles of women and the ability to give life.

Through all of this, Whistler’s exhibition celebrates the feminine. A feat she accomplished by, as noted, removing her female characters from their original spaces. In their original environments, their space was inherently masculine – disguised as an ocean view or a lush garden – but meant for the male gaze and meant to restrict the movement and control the figures being represented. In relocating them, she transfers them to a no-place, an environment devoid of background or context, but one that is still not without its inherent dangers. The Siren, after all, still loses its wings.

The curatorial text for A Siren’s Kiss notes: “In a cultural climate where female sexuality and beauty is often constrained by political correctness, Deborah Whistler’s works burn through conventional ideals with all the fiery passion of the siren’s kiss.” It is difficult to reconcile this line in an exhibition about “burning through conventional ideals” when the figures recreated are all from representations of ideal beauty. And perhaps this is why it feels so difficult to get past the continued copies of these idealized masterworks and focus on the underlying theme of the exhibition.

While Whistler’s goal was to celebrate female empowerment and sexuality, one cannot help feel that it falls short by constraining that female empowerment and sexuality around idealizations of beauty. In fact, repeatedly using the figure of Venus feels more like it is reinforcing that traditional female tropes – beauty, fertility, love – are inherently fragile, and that only those who fit into these idealized forms are worth empowering. While it is noteworthy to create a body of work that seeks to celebrate female sexuality, by holding on to these original idealizations, even after relocating the figures she maintains the point of their original creation – to serve as ideals for the male gaze.

Deborah Whistler’s “A Siren’s Kiss” is on view at Moremen Gallery in Louisville, Kentucky, through July 17, 2021.

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WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS, The Evolution of Net Art

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many art institutions to limit attendance to exhibitions and even close their doors to in-person events. Museums and galleries relied heavily on internet resources to remain relevant and available to the public. Interactive virtual reality tours and walkthroughs of their exhibitions became commonplace. The viewer was left alone to tour a depopulated simulation of a gallery space. Although viewers got to see a simulation of the show, these reimagined exhibitions simply did not provide the same experience as physically attending the exhibit, and probably reinforced the loneliness of our self-isolation.

In contrast, some institutions did away with the digital exhibit that reformats the art and the gallery space into the virtual realm, and instead created exhibitions that are born-digital and engage with our networked condition. The online images of the ’90s have evolved into a new form in the 2020s.

WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS, curated by Zhang Ga of Chronus Art Center, exemplifies this. It is an international virtual exhibition that not only demonstrates the need for Internet Art (Net Art) but also showcases the evolution of Net Art amidst the ongoing public health crisis. This exhibition evokes a sense of community and cohesiveness in a time of instability and anxiety through its linkage of numerous art institutions, artists, and viewers. It addresses how multimedia communications have enabled people to be simultaneously alone and together in this networked age and time of isolation.

Screenshot of curatorial text on WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS homepage

When viewers visit the website, an interactive window featuring the curatorial text pops up on the screen. They are then able to change the font type, the font size, and maximize the window. The homepage functions as a nostalgic, interactive mock-up of a Windows ’95 desktop. By clicking the “Start” button on the bottom left of the screen, the viewer can change the language, restart the page, view the screensaver, and navigate through the collection of artworks. The viewer can choose among 22 file folders containing artworks and projects, each of which refers to some form of native Net Art such as The Thing BBS. Once the viewer clicks on the file folder, three windows appear on the screen. One window contains the artist’s statement, another contains an interactive preview of the artwork in question, and the third window includes a link to the website of the work. In other words, this virtual gallery space is an immersive artwork within itself rather than an environment simply constructed to host the artwork.

Screenshot of Vaporwave Room from Breitbart Red by Ubermorgen

Ubermorgen’s Breitbart Red consists of three rooms: ASMR, Superdry, and Vaporwave. In each room, the viewer is presented with a plethora of conflicting images and texts that move rapidly across the screen to the point of almost being indecipherable, ultimately paralleling the bombardment of hyperbolic messages in the Information Age. In each room, the viewer is able to control the rate of the images and music with how fast they move the mouse. If the viewer stops moving it, they are soon prompted to proceed, keeping the viewer from staying in one place or focusing on one image for too long. The room ASMR conjoins these flashing images with unsettling yet somehow relaxing ASMR sound effects, invoking a simultaneous state of tension and calm. Breitbart Red exposes the expansive possibilities of digital media while examining the mass amount of contradictory information that is circulated through daily life. That virtual noise is instrumentalized by polarized media outlets (such as the far-right Breitbart) to provoke a strong sense of anxiety. Ultimately, this work stresses the state of uncertainty that the world is experiencing due to the global health crisis and how pre-pandemic conditions have exacerbated this pervasive sense of unease.

Screenshot of net.art generator by Cornelia Sollfrank

In Cornelia Sollfrank’s net.art generator, the viewer takes over the role of the artist. By clicking “Create” at the top of this page, this interactive web-based installation allows the viewer to generate their own Net Art. The title chosen for the work functions as a search term, which then pulls various images from across the internet and forms a collage. A blog is built into the website where the viewer can see the top ten Net Art creations that were developed through the generator, in addition to the ten that were most recently created. Through collective collaging, this interactive digital installation constructs a sense of community during this time of disconnect and underscores the value of Internet Art.

Screenshot of chat playback from Later Date by Lauren Lee McCarthy

Lauren Lee McCarthy’s Later Date is a two-part performance in which the viewer becomes a participant,  engaging with the artist through an interactive chat feature. In the first part, during the chat, both the participant and artist imagine meeting on a later date, discussing where they will go, what they will do, and what they will say. The second part happens when it is safe to meet in person again. McCarthy will send an email to the participant with a transcript of their chat, which will serve as a script for when the two meet. This interactive performance offers a break from isolation as the viewer and artist can discuss their own experiences in lockdown while also looking forward to an optimistic future post-COVID.

WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS demonstrates the need for Net Art, as it can generate a sense of community while grappling with the underlying anxieties of a pandemic. However, this virtual exhibition serves as much more than a reclamation of Net Art. As art institutions reevaluate ways to engage the public via digital formats even when their physical location reopens, they can look to WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS for inspiration. Similar to other online exhibitions of Internet Art like Well Now WTF?, co-curated by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills, and Wade Wallerstein, Cassie McQuater’s Black Room, and the New Museum’s First Look: Artists’ VR, this exhibition suggests new ways of connecting with the public virtually. WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS is indicative of a shift within the art world in which exhibitions, much like Net Art itself, are designed to be less hierarchical and exclusionary and reach a broader public by operating sideways.

To access WE=LINK: SIDEWAYS, browse to http://we-link.chronusartcenter.org/.

Top Image: Screenshot of We Link Sideways Homepage

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Ghosts and the Clothes They Wear: Mike Goodlett’s Life with Art

It’s been a week or so since I visited Mike Goodlett in his sanctuary.

“Sanctuary” is one of those go-to words I never go to, but I’m going to it now, after having experienced its manifestation in real life.  Where Goodlett makes art is simply that: a place of refuge, of safety, sort of sacred but also a little scary, like a hiding place you go to in dreams when you are being chased by blurry creatures you may not be able to remember but then wake up and try to draw.

In this case, “sanctuary” is an anonymous farmhouse with a gravel road leading up to it tunneled in trees and vines.  The day I visited was all crystal-clear blue sky, a beautifully strange shine on and coming from everything, like a photograph that never gets taken but somehow still is a photograph.  The house is white-sided, two-storied, and gray-roofed, with multiple front and back doors, lots of windows, and all around it is yard going off into land, some of it barren, some of it treed, grass just now sprouting into life.

Mike Goodlett’s Studio

I parked and got out of my car.  There wasn’t any wind, just that bright chilly air.  Even though I had never been here before, it was like a returning.  Meeting Goodlett was like that as well.

He is tall and unassuming, very polite, and we shook hands after I called him on my phone, confused by which door I should knock on.  We both were awkward at first, but almost instantly we got down to business.  I was here to see his art, and this is where he makes it, so we went on in, an automatic transfer from reality to ghostliness.  Nothing unnerving at all about it though.  There wasn’t an abandoned-house fustiness, or even a feeling of loss; it was the smell and ambience of lives having been lived, dusty but clean, sunlight baking old wood and plaster into an atmosphere.

“I’ve always wanted to be left alone,” Goodlett said.  It was sort of a joke, but I think he meant it as a solemn introduction too.

“I mean, I can’t find a group I want to be a part of.  So being out here for me has made a lot of sense.”

The house is actually his grandmother and grandfather’s. They died 30 or so years ago, and since then Goodlett has used the rooms, and the vicinity, as his studio and headspace, creating batches of artworks made from the humblest of materials (concrete, plaster, thread, ball point pens, pencils, crayons, and spray-paint) but that exude a sophistication that belies the humility of their construction.

Goodlett escorted me through each room of the house, which is gutted mostly, emptied of hominess so it can supply this new form of utility.  The wallpaper is shredded at points, but still covers many of the walls in a handsome form of pentimento, like a shirt half torn off.  A small black wood-burning stove occupies the middle portion of the house, releasing that warmth and smell from my own backwoods childhood: wood-smoke almost like a cologne.  In the kitchen a long table covered in stacks of books, drawing paper, pen and pencils, a coffee urn.

In each of the rooms Goodlett displayed works he wanted to show me.  We started out, though, in a cold little side area where he was experimenting with spray paint and cut-out stencil-like netting.  There were chunks of sculptures in here as well.

He walked around showing me what he was trying to figure out, and then told me, “I love changing materials, figuring out what they can do for me.  Ideas, too. I move from one body of work into another that way.  I know a body of work is finished really when I don’t have any more energy for it, and when it has a place to go.  Energy and interest are kind of linked that way.”

This house itself was like his manifesto in a lot of ways: objects and ideas half-formed, trying to find each other.  An exuberance flashed out of everything that’s not finished, that was looking for a way to be something else.  At one point he showed me some homemade lace he’d constructed from thread, pastel cobwebs shaped into socks and little hats, creepy and droopy but also innocently tattered, as if made to be used by ghosts.

Goodlett walked us through a hall and into another first-floor room, which was crowded with more sculptural works, as well as pages and pages of his drawings spanning across the gray-painted wood slats.  His three-dimensional objects have a tenderness you can’t name, concrete/plaster-formed mainly biomorphic and/or humanoid shapes that have evolved from the drawings.  And conversely, the drawings often vacuum in the shapes of the sculptures, a sort of aesthetic circle-jerk that reminds you both of angelic visitations and, well, group sex.

Or, as Goodlett likes to call it, the intersection of “whimsy” and “pornography.”  That’s one of his main themes, he told me, a way of trying to figure out the meaning of those two usually unintegrated penchants, often seen as polar opposites.  Whimsy in visual art often can become a twee exercise in flirtation, pornography a way to shock or display street cred.  The drawings, on paper and cardboard, created through an enmeshing of ink and pencil, needle and thread and paint, get at that merger without losing a sense of vigor and intimacy.  They are shapes pulled from gestures and moans that have ballooned into myth.  Through that clarification process, whimsy connects to porn, and abstract goes concrete.

In a drawing from 2011 titled “Dress Socks” (from a show called “Dress Socks and Other Diversions” at Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky), Goodlett gets down to the whimsy of porn and the porn of whimsy through a delicate fetishization of everydayness.  It’s an abstracted image of socks, given a veil of obsession, but a delicate ritual line informs every aspect of the drawing, like a Spirograph finding its way to language.  The drawing’s beauty comes from Goodlett’s dedication to finding what makes something erotic when it is not, what makes something endearing when it’s just an object you slide your feet into.  That investigation is done without words but through an adherence to what drawing can mean and do, a visual language that does not ever need a thesaurus.

Mike Goodlett, Dress Socks, 2011, ballpoint pen and thread on paper, 19 x 15.5 inches

We went upstairs.

Witnessing all of Goodlett’s rooms on display in his own personal museum up on the second floor, I kept thinking of Philip Guston’s jazzy delinquency and Georgia O’Keefe’s penchant for curves – all of that aestheticism laid bare through a need to make something personal, to find relief.  Throw a little Dichirico in there too, especially when taking in Goodlett’s objects: that stony sense of stillness matched with a yearning for songs of love.

In a piece I saw in one of the rooms, “Untitled” (from the 2015 exhibit “Human Behavior” at the John Goodlett Kohler Art Center), the connection to all of the above references comes through clearest.  The shape is chandelier crossed with internal organs, all of that turned to stone and then clothed in gauzy spandex, like something a mummy-stripper might put on to take off.  The muted color gives it dreaminess and pallor, but also highlights the stalagmite seriousness of its existence.  The solidity of it is an elegant joke too, like a lead balloon, but also you feel enlightened by its sense of holiness somehow.  It’s something you might worship, like an Egyptian artifact after the fact.

Michael Goodlett, Untitled

Goodlett mentioned Osiris in this room upstairs. The Egyptian-ness of his pursuit.

“It’s like inviting something supernatural to come and visit,” he said.  “Like I’m making vessels to contain them.”

One of many Osiris’s many identities is “Lord of Silence.”  He also goes by “Ruler of the Dead,” probably the first Egyptian deity to be associated with the mummy wrap, containing the dead in supernatural fabric to protect them as they made their way out of themselves.

Goodlett also explained to me that he works in cycles. Each cycle gets determined through exhaustion and external deadlines.  He is constantly pursuing obsessions, materials, and subject matter with an eye toward perfecting what he can, reinventing what he invents, and repurposing what he gets rid of.  (Right beyond the back porch is a beautiful pile of tossed-aside concrete and plaster pieces, a little encampment of future shapes, ideas, connections.)

In each room upstairs, drawings and sculptures waited for us politely, leaned up against the walls, ready for whatever.  My mind went to J. F. Sebastian from the movie Bladerunner.  He’s the genetic engineer left behind on Earth after most people have gone to colonize other planets, and because of dystopian loneliness and boredom he creates a generation of toys and androids to help him feel a little less alone.

I’ve always considered J. F. Sebastian a beautifully realized portrait of an artist without the normal baggage associated with “being an artist.”  His connection to what he makes is sincere and real, and yet he also understands the purpose of his practice in a pragmatic, unadorned way. He needs to make things in order to have someone there at the end of the day to greet him, to break away from a world that may no longer be there for him.  He creates an ecosystem out of bits and pieces, and in a movie filled with bleakness and doubt his existence feels the most hopeful and ironically the most grounded.

At one point, in one of the rooms upstairs, Goodlett brought in a bunch of drawings and laid them out on the floor, an overwhelming overspill.  You could tell he doesn’t like to talk about his work until he starts talking about it. But once he got going, he seemed relieved to be able to say what he wanted to say.

“Solitude appeals to me,” he said.  “But I also know I need to have a place for all of this stuff to go.”

He mentioned Philip March Jones as one of those external factors who’s assisted in understanding where he might fit in the world outside of here.  Jones, funder of Institute 193 and currently its Curator-at-Large, visited Goodlett here ten or so years ago and would not take no for an answer after asking Goodlett to have a one-man show.  Now dealers and curators often come to him.

All of my talk about J. F. Sebastian and solitude and sanctuary might make you consider Goodlett an “outsider artist.”  I truly hope not.  I don’t really think those old-school rules of arbitrary classifications apply here or basically anywhere now.  Goodlett graduated from an art school in the 1980s (Cincinnati Art Academy), and he has had exhibits at a lot of high-end joints, write-ups in national media (BOMBmagazine and Artforum, just to name a couple).  His outsiderness really is not something to focus on or to conjure.  He is an artist living his life, using what he makes to keep his life and energy and interest going.

At the end of our visit Goodlett told me he had to go to the grocery store next.  He explained how he’s one of the only family members left who can take care of his elderly mom and his aunts.  He spends a lot of time making sure they are doing okay, and then he comes out here to pursue what he needs to pursue.

This farmhouse from his childhood is not Paradise Gardens, or a version of Watts Towers.  It’s just where he has wound up.  Somehow the journey and the destination have merged into both an artistic practice and a reason to live.  Making art, whoever is making it, weaves the inner-world into the outer-world in a way that allows you to recover and replenish and continue.  This rooms in Goodlett’s farmhouse are always evolving, changing, and he always struggles to figure out what fits where.  What drawing can give birth to three dimensions, what object can be sucked into two.  This space has given him permission to do the work he needs to do: making clothes for ghosts, making ghosts so he can make clothes for them.

“I guess you’d call everything I do part of an ongoing installation that never ends,” he told me.

Eventually, we went outside and did a little tour of the yard and surrounding area.  Just beyond his front yard is a thicket of tall trees where he’s installed a couple of sculptures.  One of them, sprouting from the mud like the hardened teats of a buried cow, is the perfect example of whimsy sliding into something a little less than charming and more guttural.  It’s ridiculous but also makes perfect sense.

Goodlett’s pursuit of art is converging the need to be seen with the need to disappear.

Right before the end of our visit, Goodlett talked about his legacy in terms of where all this work might go.  He told me he had a dream that he would have all of his works stored in an anonymous storage shed, and he would give the key to someone, right before he passes.  He smiled.

“The only problem is – who do I give the key to?”

I nodded my head.  We said goodbye.

The night  before visiting Goodlett, I went to an Iron and Wine concert, so I was playing Iron and Wine songs all the way here and all the way back.  When I arrived, and when I left, the song I was listening to was “Resurrection Fern,” from the 2007 album The Shepherd’s Dog.  The music is steel-guitar languish blurring into folk-rock lament.  Sam Beam’s voice has a cadence and warmth to it, like a voice you hear only inside your head when you’re dozing off in church.

“Resurrection Fern” starts with these words:

In our days we will live
Like our ghosts will live
Pitching glass at the cornfield crows
And folding clothes.

I won’t be able to hear that song now without thinking about the depth and amount of Goodlett’s work, the place where he makes it, and the life he’s lived in order to be able to do it.  There’s a poetry to his pursuit you can’t write poems about; you can only acknowledge his lifelong project by knowing his work is a journey toward making more work, and more work, until all of it will need to a final place to exist – a pyramid, a museum, a storage unit, or a haunted house. It doesn’t matter.  Wherever it all goes it will be called “home.”

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