Tag Archives: Cressman Center for the Visual Arts

Arts

John Begley’s Un-Retirement

John Begley: My DIY Retirement is a one-person show that was on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for the Visual Arts from March 12 to April 30, 2021. It travels to the Janice Mason Art Museum in Cadiz, Kentucky, to be on display from June 8 to August 14. Since 2014, John Begley has made daily cellphone drawings, now totaling more than 2500 works. (A complete portfolio can be seen at https://www.Blipfoto.com/jpbegley.) While it chronicled Begley’s online artmaking for the past seven years, in many ways the show read more as a manifesto of artistic democracy than a retrospective exhibition.

The show broached several themes in contemporary artmaking, including the influence of the DIY (Do It Yourself) aesthetic, the broad accessibility of everyday apps for sophisticated craft projects and artmaking, the interplay of high tech and intuitive processes, an insistence on physicality, and the artist as a  postmodern, style-shuffling middleman/mediator. Art, art history, commerce, and materiality intersected at the Cressman. Humble recycled materials were prominent, re-enforcing the paradigm of artmaking within easy reach. Despite the serious questions the show raised, it was light-hearted and often humorous, and incorporated a surprising boutique for custom-designed clothing, bedding, and accessories.

The artist noted about his art, “…these drawings have been done on my iPhone and present a visual journal. They are visual responses to daily activities, stimulations, and interests.” Most departed from observation, but few escaped further improvisation. The artist primarily uses the readily available app Brushes XP, following the lead of David Hockney. (Begley saw a show of Hockney iPhone drawings in Yorkshire, England in 2013.) Begley elaborated: “In My DIY Retirement, I have made the daily digital drawings I complete into vector graphics for printing in traditional analog printmaking techniques, and into digital print forms sometimes known as giclée prints, onto canvas, metal, acrylic, ceramic, stone or glass. I have also been printing on handmade papers.” Although occasionally using a stylus, Begley likes the feel of drawing with his finger. Doing so provides an opening to the promptings of chance, since the width of his fingers and the small size of the 4” x 4” screen means that he cannot immediately see the results of his mark-making.

Introductory Wall for “MY DIY Retirement” Installation, 9 feet by 18 feet, 2021. 29 works of art seen against three different wallpapers, all images generated digitally and output to a variety of surfaces, including wallpaper, glass, metal, handmade paper, fabric and a variety of commercial papers. Photo by Ted Wathen

In a wall text and artist’s statement, Begley referred to the art historian Caroline A. Jones, who chronicled a shift in the 1960s from the existentialist musings within the abstract expressionist’s studio to the “internalization and incorporation of the discourse of technology into artistic production.” In the work of Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Robert Smithson, and other artists of the 1960s, Jones detected “the performative technological sublime,” a linkage of technological representation and quasi-industrial methods. Begley’s take on this heritage was evident in the introductory wall outside of the gallery at the Cressman. The presentation surveyed a profusion of digital print applications. It featured 29 of his works of art, framed graphics, glass, and other printed surfaces, all seen against his three different digitally printed wallpapers. A very clear demonstration of the naturalization of technology, the wall showed new media harnessed for a wide variety of expressive purposes. The dominant theme was emancipated circuitry; computer chip or motherboard patterns liberated from their functions to freely meander, loop, encircle, and act out labyrinthine paths.

“Generational Collaboration” (left) Fabric Installation, approximately 6 feet by 10 feet as installed, 2021. Heirloom crazy quilt, recycled fabric, handmade paper. Photo by Ted Wathen  “Heaven and Earth” (right), Fabric installation, approximately 7 feet by 11 feet as installed, 2021. recycled rug, parachute, kite. Photo by Ted Wathen

In contrast to the sophistication and technical finesse of the introductory wall, inside the gallery, two signal installations occupied the center of the most prominent wall in My DIY Retirement. The first was made up of a worn quilt, a tablecloth, a sheet of dyed purple handmade paper, a black cloth, and hanks of yarn. The second consisted of two parachutes, an old rug, and a kite. The installations had color, shape, mass, and a variety of tactile surfaces; these scavenged materials provided multi-textured sensory stores of experience. The installations registered an insistence on materiality as a core component of Begley’s sensibility and extended the message of democratic artmaking. A gallery is a contextual zone of expectations, and here associations with tapestries or wall hangings logically followed, providing validating art historical resonance to the assemblages. The principal validator appeared to be the free hung canvases of Sam Gilliam. (The artist cites Salmon Rushdie’s remark, “in the absence of genius, imitation is an acceptable alternative.”) Begley’s two constructions served as a democratic model for Everyman to make art.

“Pillows, Duvets and Blankets”, dye sublimation printed fabric, sizes variable,
2020-2021. Images generated digitally, output in a variety of sizes. Photo by Ted Wathen

Extending the contemporaneity of the outside introductory wall were a variety of artworks in the main gallery demonstrating digital printmaking as an inexpensive alternative to traditional processes. The luxuriant overall tenor of the gallery was set by the prints to be worn, sat upon, or slept under. Scarves, pillows, jackets, and leggings joined the pictorial applications on flat and curved glass, plastic, aluminum, and wallpaper. For the uninitiated, it was an eye-opening demonstration of the range of applications that could be executed with homemade digital designs – now so commonplace that Walmart is a purveyor. The textural richness of draped and knotted cloth and a heightened sensitivity to touch were leitmotivs linking the range of both coarse and fine stuff in the show.

Printmaking’s democratic heritage is important to Begley, especially its origin as a means of extending access to images that would otherwise be unaffordable to a wide audience. While he has worked as an arts administrator, gallery director, and professor, his core discipline is printmaking, which he studied as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico and as a graduate student at Indiana University Bloomington. As an assistant printer, he worked at Landfall Press on editions by William T. Wiley, Chuck Close, Jack Tworkov, Claes Oldenburg, John Baeder, and Peter Saul. As director of the New Harmony, Indiana, Gallery of Contemporary Art, he ran a print studio and taught printmaking through an affiliation with the University of Evansville. It was a period of intense interaction with other Indiana arts and crafts programs, including weaving and ceramics workshops. For 19 years he was director of what is now Louisville Visual Art. Thereafter for 13 years he taught at the University of Louisville and launched its Critical and Curatorial Studies Master’s Degree program. When Sam Gilliam was a visiting professor at UofL in 1997, Begley was a member of the team working with him on several prints.

“Proposed Solipsism”, digital drawing on dye sublimation printed fabric, 80 inches by 61 inches, 2019. Photo by Ted Wathen

Proposed Solipsism was a wall hanging approximating the size of Mark Rothko’s standard vertical format, but followed from very different premises. It was a five-layer digital print made with Brushes XP. Ripples and folds fell freely. Densities of the imagery varied greatly, although all were translucent. Geological and vegetal references shifted across the cloth. Spontaneous linear digressions and wispy cirrus clouds of red, green, yellow, purple, and violet played against more studied passages resembling slices of geodes. Indeterminate, open-ended, resistant to allegorical readings, the hanging posited that a phenomenology of color, line, and texture is appropriate for abstraction originating in the range of effects in digitally based printmaking.

“Abstraction, Figuration and Appropriation” inkjet printed digital drawing on archival paper, 18 inches by 18 inches, 2020. Photo by John Begley

Begley constantly plays with the surface of his smaller prints. New World Metamorphosis was printed on paraffin-waxed handmade paper and has the set-into-the-surface quality of a monoprint or stained glass (think of John Lafarge). In contrast, For MFedderizzi, an inkjet print on archival paper, took advantage of the crisp clarity of digital generation. As a traditional lithograph or silkscreen, this print might require dozens of pulls through a press. Economy of production is another of Begley’s democratic biases. Lost Idol, also on handmade paper, was reminiscent of the surrealism and interest in the automatism of the printmaker Stanley William Hayter.  In Abstraction, Figuration and Appropriation, an inkjet print on archival paper, an abstracted still life varied from hard- to soft-edged shapes. It is a pastiche of several artists’ autograph moves:  I saw references to Matisse, Hofmann, and Hockney for starters. The structural components of image-making are dissected and joyously re-ordered and endowed with a humorous pitch. Begley possesses a variety of artistic identities through his daily practice, evading the shackles of a signature style. His diversity of manners and eclecticism echo Duchampian and Fluxus evasions.

In all of these experiments, one sees Begley’s joy in mark-making and, in parallel, pleasure in manipulating cloth. Begley’s abstract line is continuously varied in its gait or motion of progress, at one moment sharp and angular and at another moment gliding with ease. (This was especially evident in abstract videos in the show.) The iPhone line allows precise clarity and crispness or alternatively, melted edges and gradations of color and tone. The billowing folds, knots, and droops in his printed cloths function as low relief sculpture. “The mutability of the digital artifact,” Begley’s recurring theme, reverberated especially in the cloth pieces, and reinforced the notion that art could no longer be static and fixed.

“Menacing Window”, digital drawing on dye sublimation printed fabric, found window casing, 78 inches by 32 inches, 2020. Photo by Ted Wathen

Several works in the exhibition juxtaposed Begley’s printed cloths with colored papers or framed prints. Some of these used recycled picture frames or doors, which were juxtaposed with fabrics printed with Begley’s abstractions. The cloths swirled around or wrapped the frames: it seemed as if traditional pictorial imagery had escaped the imaginary world within the frame, but remained to honor in retrospect the illusions that once occupied the dimensions within. One of the wrapped frames was formerly a cabinet door and the jagged broken glass on its edges may serve as a reminder of the protests in honor of Breonna Taylor, as well as a material danger to the printed cloth – by extension, to the creative process.

John Begley: My DIY Retirement blurred the traditional line between fine and applied arts by appropriating craft techniques and materials. Delegating fabrication to a computer app positions the artist, not as a peripheral loner isolated in his or her studio, but as a participant in global discourse and in a constantly evolving network of information and technology. In this exhibition, consumer goods were a means for an emancipatory message about the democratization of creative activity and the new ability of the computer-enabled artist to reach far beyond the constraints of more traditional practices. Begley’s affirmative self-presentation as a digital artist interrogated older shibboleths about the nature of artistic identity. How does one make art in 2021? The only answer is: as a full participant in using every possibility of the present moment.

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Arts

Experiments in Art History

University art galleries have the potential to serve as science labs, whether through experiments in curating or experiments in art making. While some experiments in creativity yield cautionary tales, others reveal new methods that may be used to test and develop existing hypotheses. Unlike their white cube relatives, these galleries are sites where paradigms may be revealed and challenged—given the right conditions.

New Monuments—a new exhibition series at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for Visual Arts—attempts to revise the traditional “monuments” list that serves as the basis for art historical education, utilizing the university gallery setting as both laboratory and classroom. For each installment, New Monuments will feature a single artwork produced or completed in the past year that involves recent social, political, or aesthetic issues.

For its inaugural exhibition, New Monuments presents Sanford Biggers’s Laocoön (2015)—a ten-foot inflatable sculpture created in the likeness of the cartoon character Fat Albert. Instead of standing upright, Fat Albert is lying belly-down on the gallery floor; his head is turned to one side, his arms are unnaturally extended along his bulbous torso, and his palms are turned upward. A pump provides air that intermittently inflates and deflates his vinyl body, creating a sound that is mechanical (similar to a ventilator) and hauntingly human. Allusions to the death of Eric Garner—who died due to a combination of a New York Police officer’s chokehold, chest compression, and his own poor health—are not lost through this auditory experience.

Biggers is an established figure in the contemporary art scene, rendering New Monuments an important milestone in the Cressman Center’s exhibition history. His interdisciplinary practice takes inspiration from history, yet questions the process of historicizing. Many of his works depolarize perceived facts and fictions, revealing the power structures that have come to shape our collective consciousness. Biggers works to unearth the ways cultural symbols evolve over time, and his Fat Albert inflatable—although superficially caricatural—is a meditation on a classical emblem of pain, suffering, and fallen heroes. As the creator of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is set to stand trial for sexual misconduct, the plastic Laocoön stands as a reminder that history and heroes are rarely set in stone.

Biggers references and updates the ancient marble sculpture Laocoön and His Sons—the perceived prototype that captures the intersection of suffering and beauty in Western art history. According to Greek and Roman mythology, the gods dispatched serpents to kill Laocoön for attempting to reveal the Greek threat concealed within the Trojan horse. Unearthed and placed in the Vatican in 1506, the sculpture has been the subject of analysis for centuries—its lengthy bibliography includes poets, critics, scientists, and philosophers: Pliny the Elder, J.J. Winckelmann, Charles Darwin, and Clement Greenberg, to name a few.[1]

In the Cressman Center, Laocoön once again becomes the subject of investigation, but is contextualized by large, sprawling wall quotations from books and essays that reference the marble version. According to the exhibition’s printout, these passages are intended to provide “points of departure” so viewers may situate the work, rather than look to descriptive object labels. This experiment may result in alienating its audience or, on the contrary, leave viewers with just enough information to embark on their own research; results may vary.

When Elaine Scarry wrote that bodily pain escapes language—that it “resists verbal objectification”—she also observed that physical suffering becomes wrapped up with political representation.[2] We hit an impasse when attempting to describe pain, and in turn, fail to translate its descriptors. Biggers’s Laocoön is recognition of this phenomenon, stripping the historical sculpture of its famous twisted face; Fat Albert updates these classical signifiers of pain, assisting viewers to confront the irony of apathy. The exhibition brochure prompts the question: “could there be a Black American version of the Laocoön? If so, whom would he depict, and why would he suffer?”

Laocoön is not a panacea to historical tensions, but rather a work that destabilizes a one-fits-all approach to the standard canon. We asked to consider how the spectrum of human suffering has been represented throughout history, and how art historical survey courses can fail to provide intersectional analysis. For its first installment, New Monuments is an experiment in education—one that has the potential to change outmoded pedagogy.

New Monuments: Sanford Biggers: Laocoön runs through July 2nd.

[1] Nigel Spivey, Enduring Creation: Art, Pain, and Fortitude (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 25-37.

[2] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 12.

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