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Fortune Cookie Corners: A Review of Gonzalez-Torres Exhibit Curated By Andrea Rosen

In the midst of a global pandemic, the future can feel unpredictable and uncertain. The shift towards social distancing and our immersion into digital spaces due to COVID has forced the global community to reconsider how we communicate and interact with one another. Museums and galleries are adapting to this new normal through online exhibitions as opposed to in-person. While this might seem to be a limitation for curation, Andrea Rosen embraced this digital space as a way to connect a global community by presenting a live exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner) on the gallery website. With this exhibition, Rosen utilized this global, online platform to discuss the nuances of community in public and private spaces that Torres’ explored in his work.

Feliz Gonzalez-Torres was a renowned conceptual artist known for his sculptural installations that challenge traditional art spaces. Torres was born in Guáimaro, Cuba, in 1957 and earned his BFA in photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, in 1983. As an openly gay man who died from an AIDS-related illness, Torres created work that addresses the intersection of public and private life and his need for cultural activism. He used simple, everyday objects and an accessible visual language to explore issues relating to love, loss, and sexuality.

Many of these sculptures involve wrapped candies or other objects assembled into a pile in a corner or spread over a floor. One of his most well-known candy works, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), consists of 175 pounds of brightly wrapped candies placed in a corner of a room.

“Untitled”(Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991. Installation view: Objects of Wonder: from Pedestal to Interaction. ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, Denmark. 12 Oct. 2019 – 1 Mar. 2020. Cur. Pernille Taagard Dinesen. Photographer: Lise Balsby. Image courtesy of ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum.

This number represented the ideal body weight of his partner when he was healthy, before he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991. With these installations, the audience is invited to grab the candy and eat it, thus engaging with a body that was stigmatized by a homophobic culture. Furthermore, Gonzalez-Torres asks the viewer to “defy the convention of art’s otherworldly preciousness” by touching and consuming the work. These piles are repeatedly replenished to form a nearly endless supply. When institutions put Torres’ work on display, there are guidelines laid out for how they should show the work, including this replenishment as well as the size/weight of the pile. In this way, Torres forces the art institutions to partake in his process in an active way as opposed to simply presenting a discrete, static work of art.

With her live exhibition of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Fortune Cookie Corner), Rosen extends this process by inviting 1000 people to participate to realize the project, with nearly 400 participants actually executing it around the world. Like much of Torres’ work, the guidelines for manifestation were clear yet open, allowing for individual interpretations from the participants. These participants were required to display between 240 and 1000 fortune cookies “in a pile” and allow individuals to take pieces from the work. Similar to Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), these piles would be replenished, though only once throughout the exhibition. With the show going from May 25 to July 5, each participant was required to fully replenish their pile on June 14; no earlier, no later. After July 5, the exhibition was over and any leftover fortune cookies were no longer considered part of the piece. These participants were also asked to document their iteration of the work as well as other compelling and relevant information, such as the installation process.

(Fortune Cookie Corner), 2020. Installation view: Cindy and Howard Rachofsky. The Warehouse, Dallas, TX, USA. 25 May 2020 – 5 July 2020. Cur. Andrea Rosen. Image courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery.

In the end, this process was published on the Andrea Rosen Gallery website and consisted of many different participants’ executions of the work. While the virtual exhibition is how most individuals will view the work, the website mostly serves as a documentation of this entire physical process as opposed to being the artwork itself. The online gallery displays images labeled with the location of origin. Once clicked, you are able to explore more about that specific manifestation of the work. When clicking through the gallery, it is clear that some participants shared more (and different) information than others. For example, Cindy and Howard Rachofsky from Dallas, Texas, submitted four photographs from June 2, while another participant, Michael Seiwert from Hamburg, Germany, submitted multiple photos and social media posts between May 25 and July 5.

Although some experienced the work via social media, the multitudinous ways that participants executed the work is even more clear when exploring the images in the online gallery. Like many of Torres’ pieces, the individual interpretations are widespread and varied. The piles of fortune cookies were displayed in houses, airports, restaurants, streets, and even on the beach.

(Fortune Cookie Corner), 2020. Installation view: Qi Li. Hongqiao Airport, Shanghai, China. 25 May 2020 – 5 July 2020. Cur. Andrea Rosen. Image courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery.

They were on the floor, on tables, in clear tubs, in baskets, and in planter boxes. From South Korea to Portugal, these unique iterations of (Fortune Cookie Corner) framed the work in divergent ways, yet also assert a sense of global community, which was a key part of this exhibition for Rosen.

This subversion of the traditional art space is a fascinating concept that Torres embraced with his pieces and that Rosen attempts to continue in her curatorial manifestation of the work. By creating an experience that is simultaneously physical and digital, as well as local and global, Rosen challenges the necessity of a singular site for collaborative artwork and exhibitions. With this online exhibition, in which each participant was required to get the materials and create the pile themselves, Rosen and hundreds of collaborators created an exhibition that occurred all over the globe all at the same time. Not only would this be impossible in a single, physical space, but in this time of social distance it provided a sense of being together while apart. Rosen brought together many divergent spaces to form a new type of art gallery: one that is not apart from the everyday, but of it. And, through this material, wishes us all good fortune.

This digital documentation of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ (Fortune Cookie Corner), 1990, is available online on the Andrea Rosen Gallery website. While the show lasted from May 25 to July 5, 2020, the gallery of images is still accessible as a record of the artwork. The website states that this list is still growing as more and more images come in from the nearly 400 participants.

Visit www.andrearosengallery.com/fcc-selected-documentation to view this exhibition.

Sources:

Rosen, Andrea. “FCC Selected Documentation.” The Andrea Rosen Gallery. www.andrearosengallery.com/fcc-selected-documentation

The Guggenheim Museum. “Felix Gonzalez-Torres.”
www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/felix-gonzalez-torres

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Studio Visit: Aaron Lubrick

I became acquainted with the work of Aaron Lubrick on a Zoom call of the Artists Breakfast Group, which has met weekly for over 30 years. Retreating online due to COVID, the group has taken on a new seriousness. Recent topics have included penetrating discussions of art world leaders like Vija Celmins and Martin Puryear, presentations of works by Louisville artists, valuable discussions on responsibilities incumbent on the creative community, and the relationship of art and politics. Aaron had been invited to show his work online by Tom Pfannerstill, the Zoom host and across-the-alley neighbor.

In early October I had the chance to visit his studio in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood, close to Cherokee Park. Aaron’s backyard studio is a white cinderblock building with high ceilings and wide clerestory windows to the west. It has a garage door opening on the east side, which was kept up and open for my visit. We moved chairs to the shade and talked outside before looking at the paintings inside. Aaron describes himself as a “perceptual painter” allying himself with other artists united by their belief in direct observation as the starting point in making art. However, slavish realism is not the goal. Scott Noel, a teacher of Aaron’s, has written: “We recognize rightness and one of the attractions of observational painting is the way visual truth is experienced as surprise…. A good picture specifies something about the conditions of relationship that prevail in an appearance and embodies these discoveries in the physical terms of the painting itself. From the outset, mimesis couldn’t be copying, but a reconfiguring of experience in terms of sculpture, painting or drama. In this sense, observation – a close attention to the phenomena – has been necessarily imaginative.”

Aaron was an undergraduate at the Columbus College of Art and Design and received his master’s degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He is currently an Associate Professor at Spalding University. What compelled my visit were the images he showed online of his Ohio River paintings; it’s an ongoing theme for him. His engagement with the river goes back to his childhood when he went fishing with his father and twin brother on his dad’s 14-foot boat with a 6-horsepower motor. He takes his own three sons out on the river on a Boston Whaler. He is particularly entranced by the openness and scale of the riverscape. 

“Dan Walking His Dog”, 2013, oil on canvas, 12 x 11 inches

One of his professors at the Columbus School of Art, Neal Riley, quoted Whistler, “…paint the air around the object.” Lubrick is a connoisseur of Ohio Valley August humidity. “The moisture tends to melt things,” he remarks. “Dan Walking His Dog,” 2013, is a good example of Lubrick’s depiction of the dissolution of form in the heavy summer heat. A man is seen in the foreground on the river shore accompanied by a dog. Chords of complementary colors, rose and aquamarine and blue and yellow, key the painting. The crepuscular light of sunset is rendered in thick ropes of pigment, fragmenting the form of the man and his dog in the foreground. Seen against the light, the figures are partially obscured.

The standing figure is to the right of the painting’s center, and his dog occupies the lower right corner. In the upper right corner is a tree atop a slight rise with more foliage. The foreground man, dog and fragmentary landscape on the right are juxtaposed against the left half of the painting with its broad expanse of river and sky. In the distance is a towboat with barges indicated economically with four or five strokes of white and blue. The opposite shore is reduced to bands of green and blue that anchors the left side of the painting but fade in the atmospheric perspective.

Lubrick’s practice can be roughly described through four aspects or principles (which seem to take place at once rather than sequentially): observation, the life of the medium, the artist’s heritage, and private narratives. 

The first is observation. Joan Didion famously wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I am thinking, what I am looking at, what I see and what it means.’’ Similarly, Lubrick paints to give what he perceives its fullest possible expression. Compositionally, “Dan Walking His Dog” invites you in as far as the towboat in the distance and then escorts you back to the surface because of the frontality of the figure and the density of the pigment. The viewer’s passage through the painting is a protracted exploration. Although his smaller paintings are done from life, his contemplation is digressive rather than following a linear path. Lubrick quoted the late William Bailey who remarked in a lecture in Louisville that “painting is like having an argument with a really close friend. The result is a compromise between you and the friend.” Lubrick added, “I do a lot of talking. I ask the picture what it wants.” 

A second aspect, or principle, of the Ohio River pictures is their engagement in the life of the pigment, an aspect of the artist’s digressive, searching approach to building the paint surface. The artist has noted, “If I am not seeing the medium in a new way I can’t make a painting.” During his time in Columbus, Aaron frequented the Columbus Museum of Art. His favorite works were the George Bellows oils in that collection, with their rich and rugose surfaces, and Edward Hopper’s “Morning Sun” with its broad planes and coloristic exactitude. The skin of the model (Hopper’s wife) bears hints of green, reflecting the wall color of her room.

In “Dan Walking His Dog” the wedding of sight to touch is apparent in the juicy squiggles of paint to denote passing clouds, and the overlapping pink, blue and white strands suggesting the Ohio’s current and the reflection of the setting sun. In contrast, the stasis of the figure of Dan is indicated by extended strokes of brown and red-orange defining his contours. Lubrick’s painterliness is especially evident on the edges of the surfaces he is depicting; overlapping colors and brush marks modulate the corporeality of the man, emphasizing his role as an object lesson in the reflection of light.

“Pole Leaning Toward the Ohio”, 2015, oil on canvas, 24 x 17 inches.

The enrichment and variegation of Lubrick’s surfaces adds to the here-and-now/present tense quality of his work. He treats his panels and canvases as a zone of incidence. He does not see detail in his work as transcription of a physical fact but a mode of viscous color fiction. In “Pole Leaning Toward the Ohio” the series of marks mediate between visual data and its free transcription, yet always seem to bear witness to Lubrick’s commitment to the optical truth of the painter’s experience, especially as conveyed in the kinesthetic impressions of the motions of the brush. An improvisatory quality is linked, surprisingly, to evidence of painstaking craft – the work in the work of art. But Aaron admits that when his paintings are finished, they have not necessarily reached “certainty.” But invariably they do achieve a distinctive paint character.

“Autumn Bathing with Passing Barge”, 2014, oil on panel, 21.5 x 45.25 inches

A third step, or principle, is to remember the conventions that are the artist’s inheritance. The art incorporates information from other realms besides perception of the landscape. For example, the proportions of the figure of Dan – defined shoulders, narrow waist, muscular legs – recall 5th century BCE Greek kouros sculptures of young men. Comparably in “Autumn Bathing with Passing Barge,” the pose of the woman in the foreground echoes one of the figures in Renoir’s “Grand Bathers” in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When someone remarked that some of his paintings of the American West had a 19th century color palette, Lubrick took it as a compliment. In the foreground of “Pole Leaning Towards the Ohio,” there is a brilliant passage of curves and dashes in pink, orange, magenta, luminous red, and yellow. To my eyes it recalls the gestural calligraphy of Jackson Pollock’s 1940’s paintings, “Male and Female,” and “Pasiphaë.” But Lubrick’s far-ranging palette always serves the end goal of being precise about the quality of light in his landscapes.

A fourth aspect of Lubrick’s Ohio River paintings is their metaphorical content, or private narrative. Lucy Lippard wrote in her 1997 book, The Lure of the Local, “Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political.” Lubrick’s Ohio River paintings are freighted with public and private narratives. Individual works appear to be in a state of continuous evolution, as if perpetually in the middle of a process. To that end, Lubrick’s practice seems to me to stay open to emotional inflections, quite apart from their descriptive function. “Farewell to Harvey,” is acrylic on canvas and the largest (60”x 72”) of Lubrick’s paintings I have seen. It was inspired by a visit to the Gavin Brown Preserve, a wetland adjacent to Hays Kennedy Park in eastern Jefferson County. The Preserve has 1500 feet of Ohio River waterfront, and has a rich profusion of plant life, including green ash, red maple, native pin oak, swamp dogwood, water primrose and plantain. In wet weather the pathway to the water’s edge is frequently impassable.

“Farewell to Harvey”, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches

Aaron’s larger paintings are done in his studio and typically take a year to complete. “Farewell to Harvey” is constructed with receding bands painted with staccato vertical strokes. In the foreground underbrush is conveyed in long passages of blue, gray, carmine and mauve, alternating warm and cool tones. In the middle ground beige and taupes dominate. At the edge of the river are scumbled blacks and the Ohio itself is azure and cerulean blues. At the top of the painting is a band of passing black storm clouds with white clouds breaking through. The painting walks a tightrope between representation and abstraction. To me, the barrier between the viewpoint and the river suggests an allegory of an aspirational goal hindered by an impassable pathway, or alternately, the sense of resolution when sunlight returns after a storm. Open-ended as to possible readings, Lubrick poses the question of the unseen in the seen: the synthesis of observation and memory in “Farewell to Harvey” speaks to an introspective meditation that uses as metaphor a place prominent in his biography.

Works-in-progress, studio of Aaron Lubrick

Like another contemporary Ohio River painter Ray Kleinhelter, Aaron Lubrick is re-interpreting the river in very personal terms. It is an assertion of the specificity and particularity of a given geography, as opposed to the Amazon Prime homogeneity of much American life. It is also an assertion of a regional place in the global art dialogue, by working at the highest level of ambition and using the Ohio River’s many characters – by turns enigmatic, portentous, threatening or merely picturesque – as the departure point for an internalization, transformation and intensification of raw data to make memorable art.

Photo credits: Aaron Lubrick

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Review: “This is America*” at UK Art Museum

“This is America*” at the University of Kentucky Art Museum makes its first and best move right at the start. As you walk into the gallery from the ticket counter, the first thing you see is a pairing of two artworks whose explosive juxtaposition becomes more and more highly charged as you look at it. On the left is Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portrait of George Washington (c. 1795), so central to the concept of American identity that you probably have a miniature copy of it – on a dollar bill – in your wallet right now. On the right is “George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday),” Michael Wong’s time-release recording of his iPad drawing of the black man killed on video by Minneapolis police this year, setting off social justice protests around the world.

This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, Gilbert Stuart, 1795 (after), ‘Portrait of George Washington (Atheneum Type C)’, oil on panel; and, Michael Wong, 2020, ‘George Floyd (Blackout Tuesday)’, iPad drawing time-lapse recording. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.

It’s impossible not to draw an invisible line between these two Georges. It’s a timeline of sorts, jagged like an EKG, on which we see both how far we’ve come as a nation – which is to say, not very far at all in key respects – and how much farther we have to go. For all its high-flown rhetoric, the American experiment was riddled with contradictions from its inception. The Father of Our Country, so benevolent and wise in Stuart’s portrait, enslaved other humans for over half a century, calling for the abolition of slavery in his later years but never in his lifetime practicing what he preached. (Unlike most of the other founders, he did make arrangements for the emancipation of some of his slaves after his death.) And can anyone doubt that the legacy of slavery includes, on that jagged timeline, what happened to Floyd? As his face – currently rivaling Washington’s in familiarity and symbolic potency – slowly coalesces over and over in Wong’s drawing, we see in it the nation itself stuck in a loop, still engaged in the Sisyphean act of realizing the Pledge of Allegiance’s vision of “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

These are the sort of thoughts you have while viewing “This is America*” (yes, the asterisk is intentional). Shrewdly curated by Museum Director Stuart Horodner, this exhibit packs a considerable aesthetic and political punch, with a mutually illuminating mix of works by nationally known and local artists.  According to Horodner’s unsigned wall text, the exhibit was initially envisioned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election but took on additional layers of meaning in light of the protests that erupted worldwide in the wake of the Floyd killing. Dedicated to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights leader who died in July, the show is a rare opportunity for a museum to respond to events in something like real time, using politically conscious artwork of the recent past to reflect the present and recontextualize the iconographies of earlier American art. This up-to-the-minute aspect of the show, by the way, is reflected in a gesture – the gallery walls have been roughly painted in a way that evokes urban streetscapes, painted-over graffiti and protest art – that may strike some viewers as too clever (or perhaps too half-hearted) for its own good. It’s subtle enough not to do any real harm, however, and effective enough to connect us, however subliminally, to the jarring events still unfolding just outside the pristine white walls of every museum and gallery in America.

Appropriately, much of the art – not all of it, more on that later – focuses on race, racism and the struggle for social justice. Just to the right of the Stuart/Wong pairing is Mike Howard’s massive acrylic painting, “Charlottesville A Crime Scene” (2017), a vivid depiction, almost in the style of graphic novels, of a white supremacist plowing his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of peaceful protesters. (This event, you’ll recall, was made doubly infamous by President Trump’s insistence on there being “very fine people on both sides” of an attempted, partly successful, massacre.) It hardly needs saying how relevant this event continues to be in this country, how long a shadow it still casts. Yes, this is America. Making your way along the gallery to the right, you find yourself confronting a magnificent trio of iconic pieces: Gordon Parks’ photograph “Invisible Man, Harlem, New York” (1952), Frank Weathers Long’s woodcut “John Henry” (1941), and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s lithograph “Dama negra” (“Black Woman,” 1935), all of which capture aspects, concrete and ineffable, of the black experience. These too are America, this and this and this.

This is America*, gallery wall view. Mike Howard, 2017, ‘Charlottesville A Crime Scene’, acrylic on canvas. Photo credit: Kevin Nance.

Across the gallery on the facing wall is another striking lineup of works that Horodner has placed together, like the host of a formal dinner with assigned seats at the table, in lively, fruitful, perhaps heated dialogue. To consider John Wesley’s eerily vacant “Portrait of Daniel Boone” (1962) in the same field of vision with Andy Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)” (1986) is to traverse an art-historical Trail of Tears, the myth of American exceptionalism colliding with the reality (to borrow another Trump phrase, uttered in a different context) of American carnage. Two smaller works that separate Boone from Sitting Bull – “Flag” (2003), Bulgarian-American artist Daniel Bozhkov’s video of an immigrant answering citizenship questions, and “I Pose Problems” (2010) by the writer-turned-painter Wayne Koestenbaum, known for his literary explorations of LGBTQ identity – reinforce the show’s overall conception of a national chorus of multiple voices crying out, meekly or angrily or stoically, to be heard.

This is America*, wall grouping. L to R, John Wesley, ‘Portrait of Daniel Boone’, oil on canvas; and, Daniel Bozhkov, 2003, ‘Flag’, single channel video; and, Wayne Koestenbaum, 2010, ‘I Pose Problems’, acrylic on canvas; and, Andy Warhol, 1986, ‘Cowboys and Indians (Sitting Bull)’, screenprint on Lenox Musuem Board. Photo Credit: Kevin Nance.

“This is America*,” like the country it seeks to define, is far from perfect, demographically speaking. Women’s voices are egregiously underrepresented in this chorus. Most galling is the fact that two of the best pieces in the show by artists of either gender – Barbara Kruger’s prophetic “We Will No Longer Be Seen And Not Heard” portfolio (1985) and Carolyn Young Hisel’s electrifying deathbed scene “Passage” (1987) – hang not in the main gallery but in an outer hallway next to the elevator. They deserved better. Then there’s the matter of the physical and thematic overstuffing of the show, which seems to want to include everything and the kitchen sink, too, including “Pieces of String Too Short to Save” (1998), Donald Lipski’s sledgehammer indictment of American wastefulness, and Joseph Peragine’s “Hand” (2010), a series of four oil paintings depicting hand-washing. The Peragine paintings now seem prescient in light of the coronavirus pandemic, among other things, but their cumulative effect is diluted by the puzzling decision to break them into two pairs hung on different walls.

On balance, however, “This is America*” (which continues through February 13) is a powerful dot-connecting mechanism, showing, as the best museum exhibits do, how works of art speak not only to us but to each other, and how we can benefit from eavesdropping on those conversations. We see Sheldon Tapley’s tranquil street scene “Midwestern Alley” (1987), for example, in a new way when it’s paired with Elliott Erwitt’s photograph “Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina” (1950). There’s much to be gained, as well, from the non-hierarchical display of works by Kentucky artists – including Tapley, Hisel, John Lackey, Louis Zoellar Bickett, Frank X Walker and others – alongside some of the biggest names in American art, past and present. If the hairs on your forearms prickle at various points along the way as mine did, it’s a sign, I think, that (a) you’re alive and (b) this is an unusually fine art show. My advice is to go and see it.

Top Image: Sheldon Tapley, 1987, Midwestern Alley, pastel on Stonehenge paper. Courtesy of UK Art Museum.

“This is America*”, curated by Stuart Horodner at the University of Kentucky Art Museum, is on exhibit through February 13, 2021. More information is at https://finearts.uky.edu/art-museum.

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One to Thirty-One: A Calendrical Exhibition

Curated by Adam Carr and hosted by The Museum of Private Collections, the virtual exhibition 1-31 (pronounced “one to thirty-one”) considers time and how we move through it. Thirty-one artworks by thirty-one artists were assembled and posted on social media once a day for a month, essentially building a calendrical exhibition one piece at a time. Ranging from minimalist-inspired sculptures to satirical conceptual works, 1-31 covers a wide range of thought-provoking approaches to time. At a glance, the exhibition’s artwork seems almost thematically incoherent. A closer look reveals a deep undercurrent of concern for the future and nostalgia for the past, not to mention a certain disdain for the present, certainly relatable to viewers in the age of COVID-19 who wish for this moment to pass.

The Museum of Private Collections, also known as Collecteurs, puts unseen art on view, displaying artwork that would normally be locked in storage or hidden away in private collections. Their exhibitions are completely digital and well-executed from the website development down to the user interface. As the viewer scrolls through the desktop version of 1-31, artwork appears on the left-hand side of the screen while related information appears on the right. Each work remains in place while the viewer scrolls through these materials, making it easy to visually reference the art while reading about it. However, the desktop experience is only half of the exhibition, made to chronicle and neatly display the collection. Instagram is where the real fun happens.

As the world’s first collective digital museum, Collecteurs focuses more on their social media presence than your average art gallery. Their Instagram account (@collecteurs) mingles memes with modern art, offering context on select posts in their descriptions. This back-and-forth tone has gained them a follower base of over 300,000 and thousands of likes on each post. Each artwork in 1-31 was published as a three-piece carousel post. These digital triptychs begin with the artwork, followed by a blue and white illustration of the corresponding calendar date and artist, and sometimes followed by the exhibition logo (a calendar with dates marked off). The captions contain context, labeling information, and hashtags. These captions pay careful attention to each piece’s medium and process to help the viewer understand what they’re seeing, since they will likely never be in the same room as the artwork.

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Collecteurs. Carousel Instagram post. April 5 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/B- mi_gSJLaN/?igshid=106o9z4ih2q7i

Collecteurs. Carousel Instagram post. April 5 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/B- mi_gSJLaN/?igshid=106o9z4ih2q7i

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Collecteurs. Carousel Instagram post. April 5 2020. https://www.instagram.com/p/B- mi_gSJLaN/?igshid=106o9z4ih2q7i

The artwork varies widely, but all were made recently enough to be called contemporary and seem inspired by various strains of conceptualism. The exhibition’s very first artwork, by Adriana Martinez, investigates the global fruit economy and trade. A plastic banana covered in fruit stickers simply titled “Bananas,” Martinez’s 2016 artwork, examines the troubled history of the fruit, specifically reflecting on the Colombian Banana Massacre. Martinez’s ready-made objects point out a dark past behind ubiquitous items and implore the viewer to seek out more information.

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Martinez, Adriana. “Bananas,” plastic banana with fruit stickers, 2016. In 1-31, curated by Adam Carr.

 

While Martinez’s work considers how trade histories impact the present, Simon Denny’s consider the present and future of our global economy. Appearing on day three of the exhibition is Denny’s 2019 work titled Document Relief 3 (Amazon Worker Cage Patent). This piece highlights the mysterious motivations behind the multi-billion-dollar company headed by Jeff Bezos.

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Denny, Simon. “Document Relief 3 (Amazon Worker Cage Patent),” inkjet print on archival paper, glue, custom metal wall mount, 2019. In 1-31, curated by Adam Carr.

 

Using a 3D paper printer to build up layers and layers of archival paper, Denny sculpts abstract reliefs into the surface of 1250 sheets of the US patent US9280157B2. The patent is for a “human transport device,” or a cage that was designed to transport Amazon employees to previously off-limits areas of their factory, where heavy machinery moves at high speeds. This protective measure has yet to be implemented in Amazon’s warehouses, but the bizarre concept has not escaped notice and critique in the consumer world. Denny’s piece asks: is this metal cage truly meant to solve a safety issue, or is it to establish a hierarchy of power and control in the Amazon warehouse? To what extent will we allow corporations to dominate their low-level employees? To what dark place is the future of work automation heading?

Huyghe, Pierre. “Timekeeper” site-specific wall installation, 2002. In 1-31, curated by Adam Carr.

Whereas Martinez and Denny consider the consumer world, Pierre Huyghe’s critique is closer to home in the art world. His 1-31 feature, titled “Timekeeper,” comes in at day twenty-one in the exhibition. The work at first looks like the rings of a tree in technicolor, betraying the passage of time over the tree’s life. If this was your guess, then you weren’t far off. The rings are actually the layers of a gallery wall, each coating of paint evidencing a former exhibition repaint, down to the wall’s concrete core. Huyghe gently sands away twelve years of exhibitions, uncovering layers of spackle, drywall, and paint. Notice the large bands of white between bands of color and black, making for a veritable excavation of the white cube. Huyghe is interested in what is left behind from previous actions, allowing this gallery’s past to intermingle in the present in what Collecteurs calls a “retrospective” of exhibitions.

These works only scratch the surface of 1-31’s diverse message. Some artwork in the exhibition explores calendar iconography, such as Felipe García López’s 8.554 days or Mungo Thompson’s World’s Greatest Mountains 2019 (March). Lòpez’s artwork (day 28) creates a long tear-off calendar beginning on the day of his birth and finishing on the day the artwork was made, examining the unchangeability of the past. Thompson’s artwork (day 31) utilizes an LED Lightbox to illuminate the image of Mount Fuji, overlaid with a reverse and upside-down calendar page, as if the wall calendar is closed on itself but still viewable. These artworks dissect the passage of time in the context of the gallery space as well as in the artist’s own life.

Other works in the show employ numbers to explore time, such as Gabriele de Santis’ artwork To spot the Number can take up to 60 seconds (day 27). This work is a list of famous celebrities who all passed away at the same age, in line so that their names spell the age in question. In a different fashion, Reyes Santiago Rojas uses found objects with digits printed on them to explore number sequences, including carton boxes and wrappers of consumables like cigarettes. Rojas’ Magic Square 24 Mercury (day 24) arranges these discarded numbers into a number series lifted from Buddhist Yantras – a mystical diagram where the number 24 is significant in its relation to the planet Mercury and helps structure how the related ritual unfolds.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic affected so many American lives with each passing month of 2020, we have been struggling to reconcile our relationship with time. While some are plagued by the anxiety of having too much time on their hands, others are more overworked than ever and can’t seem to find enough hours in the day. Either way, most people cannot wait for this current moment to end, even as they may feel guilty for not living in the present or for being nostalgic for the good old (mask-free) days. Adam Carr’s 1-31 highlights this tension between then, now, and soon, and every moment in-betweenproviding a space to explore one’s own ambivalences and frustrations with time at this challenging moment in history.

References:

https://www.collecteurs.com/interview/1-31

https://www.instagram.com/collecteurs/?hl=en

Sources:

Carr, Adam, curator. “1-31.” (2019). https://www.collecteurs.com/interview/1-31

Collecteurs. “About Us.” Accessed September 27, 2020. https://www.collecteurs.com/about-us

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Review: Fenton Johnson’s Meditation on Solitude as a Way of Life

In this pandemic year of lockdowns and social distancing, many of us have spent more time in solitude than we ever have before — or would ever like to again. Events have been canceled and gathering places shuttered. Close encounters with others feel strangely uncomfortable, even risky.

But for some people — especially creative people — solitude has always been a way of life. Many writers, artists, musicians and thinkers prefer to spend long periods of time alone. In silence and reflection, they draw on their imaginations to create.

Fenton Johnson has always been one of those people. The Kentucky-born author of seven books, including three acclaimed novels, explores this idea in a timely and beautifully written new book, At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life (W.W. Norton, $26.95).

Author Fenton Johnson (Image by Hannah Ensor)

Like the concept of solitude, Johnson’s book is hard to label. It is part memoir, part philosophical musing and part biography. While exploring his own lifelong relationship with solitude in almost lyrical prose, Johnson profiles a diverse cast of 11 famous creative people from the 19th and 20th centuries and examines how solitude shaped their lives and work.

“The word single, which is what we commonly use, has no meaning outside of marriage,” Johnson said in a recent interview via Zoom from Tucson, Arizona, where he is an emeritus English professor at the University of Arizona. “Solitary is something completely different.”

Johnson noted that many solitaries are married or in relationships. Many of them like to be social and spend time with others — just not all the time. Solitude, he said, is very different from loneliness.

“We don’t like to believe this, but loneliness is an invention of capitalism,” he said. “The word lonely prior to 1800 is used to mean something like what I mean with solitude: a noble, exalting place from which one can look at the world and nature. Take Wordsworth’s poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” He’s comparing being lonely to this beautiful floating independent phenomenon. Then industrial capitalism comes along, and people are forced from the countryside into cities and the alienation that arises produces a phenomenon that we in English call loneliness. It’s interesting to note that the word loneliness is almost unique to English. French, which I speak pretty fluently, has no equivalent for it, nor does Italian. They have only solitude, which I use to mean that place of deliberately choosing to be alone in order to explore your own thoughts, the beauty of the world, your relationship to the infinite however it is you define that. All of those grow out of solitude.”

Solitude is especially important for creative people.

“The playing field of the imagination is silence, is solitude,” Johnson said. “Our lives are like water. If we don’t have a vessel to pour them into, they dissipate and are lost. What you do in those moments of silence and solitude is effectively you create the vessel into which you pour the material of your life. Otherwise, experience, as we all know, slips away from us.”

Johnson grew up in Nelson County, the youngest of nine children in a working-class Roman Catholic family. Despite that — or perhaps because of it — he realized early that he was a solitary. Being gay also had a lot to do with it.

Johnson had good role models for solitude. Despite presiding over a hectic household, his parents each found time for their individual pursuits — his mother raised orchids, cacti and founded New Haven’s public library. His father, who worked for a bourbon distillery, loved to tinker. His passion was building a remote cabin in Grayson County, near Rough River Lake.

“They spent long stretches of time alone,” Johnson said of his parents. “In my imagination, the ideal relationship is to have parallel lives, where you have two people who enjoy their time alone, have separate lives and then come back together and have the pleasure of ‘show and tell.’ In the most profound relationship in my life, with my partner who died of AIDS in 1990, that was the nature of our relationship, and it was very satisfying.”

Johnson’s best early role models for solitude were his famously solitary neighbors, the monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani, and especially the late Thomas Merton, the famous writer, thinker and mystic. Johnson was named for two of the abbey’s monks, who often joined his family for dinner. As a boy, Johnson knew Merton and often visited the abbey. Later, as a writer, Johnson would make monks characters in his novels. His 2004 book, Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey, was based on time living with Catholic and Buddhist monks and exploring Eastern and Western contemplative faith traditions.

In 2003, when Johnson turned 50, he applied for a writing grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. “I needed something to put down,” he said of trying to decide what to explore with the grant. He realized that much of his work revolved around ideas about solitude. So he proposed a memoir that also would include traveling to the haunts of famous solitary creatives.

“I also realized a demographic fact, that people who live alone are one of the fastest growing demographics, not just in the United States but throughout the developed world,” he said. “Especially women. If they’re given the economic opportunity to live alone, they will frequently do so. So what’s that about? One of the pleasures of being a writer is that one gets to pay attention to circumstance.”

While the most poignant and beautifully written parts of this book are about Johnson’s Kentucky childhood, his profiles of eleven famous creatives open new windows onto their lives and work. Many of his choices are no surprise: the writers Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Eudora Welty and Henry James were well-known loners. So was Bill Cunningham, the quirky street fashion photographer for The New York Times. But who knew the French painter Paul Cézanne, who lived and painted alone, visited his wife and son only one afternoon a week? The writer Zora Neale Hurston was a solitary, despite many stormy relationships, as was the singer Nina Simone. And then there is Rod McKuen — “the poet that critics loved to hate,” as Johnson describes him — whose lived a solitary life, yet had rich working relationships with other artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Dolly Parton.

One profile subject unfamiliar to many readers is Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the Bengali poet, writer, painter and composer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Johnson writes about a fascinating journey he made to India in search of Tagore’s legacy.

Johnson spent many years writing this book. The manuscript was finished months before the killer virus emerged from a wet market in China. It is terrible timing to publish a book at the beginning of a global pandemic, when bookstores are closed and in-person readings and signings are banned.

But, in many ways, this book is timely, which is why his publisher had him write a new epilogue for a paperback edition that will be released next March. That gave him a chance to put the book in context — not only with the pandemic, but with Black Lives Matter protests and other events.

“The biggest philosophical question is, can we learn from experience?” Johnson mused. “We need to confront our history — racism, class, misogyny, homophobia. We aren’t going to figure out a response to that unless we sit down and shut up and really think about our society and our particular individual place in it. Addressing these issues is an act of imagination. You’ve got to imagine a better world before you can act to achieve it.”

Johnson’s book is a rich examination of solitude — something many of us tend to avoid, at least when we’re not forced into quarantine. Even if you don’t consider yourself a solitary, this book can help you see value in personal reflection, contemplation and enjoying without shame time spent alone with your imagination. At the Center of All Beauty is a good book with which to shelter in place.

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UnderMain book reviews are provided in partnership with the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning where Tom Eblen serves as literary liaison. Eblen, a journalist, writer and photographer, was metro/state columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader from 2008 to 2019 and the newspaper’s managing editor from 1998-2008. He returned to his hometown in 1998 after 14 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and five years with The Associated Press. Tom has won many awards, including the 2013 media award in the Kentucky Governor’s Awards in the Arts. He was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 2016. He was a contributing author for the  book Bluegrass Renaissance: The History and Culture of Central Kentucky, 1792-1852 (University Press of Kentucky 2012).