Tag Archives: Louisville

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.

Arts

You Are Here

 

A Review of Great Meadows: The Making of Here

When a book is truly exceptional, it can transport its readers elsewhere. For a moment, physical place and imagined location are unhinged — the reader is no longer bound to their sofa or chair, but can wander freely through another world. The mind is at once absent and present: taken from one location and placed in another. Great Meadows: The Making of Here acts as a portal not only to The Shands’ residence and collection, but a testament to the tenor within its walls. Indeed, it is more than a book — it is an extension of the Shands’ life and home.

Al Shands is an Episcopal Priest and author, as well as an award-winning filmmaker, with over thirty-five documentary films to his credit. His late wife, Mary Norton Shands, an activist in cultural affairs, co-founded and was first President of the Kentucky Art and Craft Foundation (now KMAC).

Great Meadows presents an intimate look in to the making of the Shands’ residence, and provides a comprehensive backstory to the architecture, collection, and collectors. The book avoids a pedantic introduction — readers are instead encouraged to “dive right in” through excerpts from A Career and Selected Projects by the architect, David Morton. Part of Morton’s allure is his simplicity: he comments that the Shands’ residence was graphed by pocket calculator, pencil, and paper — no computers or technical drafting aids. The completed project is prodigious yet modest: Great Meadows can accommodate up to one hundred and fifty guests for dinner, but at the same time, remain intimate enough for two people.[1]

Small yet powerful gestures contained within the book’s pages hide in every nook and cranny — “easter eggs” for the reader to stumble upon. In between two pages of Morton’s excerpts is a copy of Reverend Shands’ penned speech from the opening reception of Great Meadows in September 1988, printed on the same delicate paper and typeface one might encounter in a bible. Before he began collecting with his late wife Mary, Shands founded an Episcopal church in Washington D.C., and these inserts, which continue throughout the book, stand as physical reminders of his history.

Spearheaded and edited by independent curator and contributing author Julien Robson (previously affiliated with the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Speed Art Museum), Great Meadows boasts essays from critics, curators, poets, and artists — all whom have connected, in some time and place, with the Shands. This includes but is not limited to such figures as Peter Morrin, former director of the Speed Museum, Glenn Adamson, author and critic, Alice Gray Stites, current director of 21c Museum Hotels, Maya Lin, sculpture and landscape artist (and designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.), and sound artist Stephen Vitiello. Each essay is specific to the book — they are documents of their respective authors’ connection and relationship with Alfred and Mary Shands.

Perhaps the most poignant essay is authored by John Yau, renowned poet and writer. Although the book is lined with vibrant color photos, “In Time, With Al Shands” is even more vivid — Yau’s imagery is a transformative journey, allowing the reader to silently accompany. Indeed, I forgot where I was for a moment while reading his words; I was observing a conversation between friends, weaving through the beautiful architecture that makes one feel as though they are both inside and outside at the same time, and slowly coming to understand the relationship between the art, the home, and the collectors.

Blurring the lines between art object and book, Great Meadows features stunning high-resolution photographs in addition to architectural drawings and artist sketches. Capturing the essence of site-specific artwork is no easy feat, but the photographers convey both the texture and presence of each installation. The office, home to Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1082 (2003) is presented through fifteen images, varying in size and scale. The proceeding blank page is representative of the white space above the office door, only visible just before exiting the room. Truly, these small details are what render this project an “index of experience” rather than a book.

Entire pages of Great Meadows are devoted to a single color. The intensity of Anish Kapoor’s yellow concave disc, Untitled (1999), can be partially experienced on page sixty-five through a full-color experience – sans its warping of sound, which is only evident through encountering it in Rev. Shands’ first-floor walkway. It is as if every angle of the home is carefully documented, acting as a record of the artworks’ interaction with the architecture, and vice versa.

Each work, both inside and outside of the residence, is carefully selected and thoughtfully placed to engage with both the architecture and the viewer. Indeed, Rev. Shands is a mindful collector; you will find no large art storage area within the walls of Great Meadows. Although some works migrate throughout the house from time to time, they each have a space and that space is documented throughout the book’s bright pages.

Perhaps this is why the making Great Meadows is so important: the book will serve as documentation of site — a physical reminder of what was — when the artwork is separated from the home upon the passing of its owner. Rev Shands has bequeathed his collection to Louisville, Kentucky’s Speed Art Museum, and one day it will make the journey to its new permanent home on South Third Street. “A vital part of the collection is the way that you share it with others,” he states in the book’s conversation with Alice Gray Stites.[2] Indeed, the entirety of Great Meadows: The Making of Here fulfills that very statement.

Great Meadows: The Making of Here is available in limited edition through Hatje Cantz.

[1] David Morton, A Career and Selected Notes in Great Meadows: The Making of Here (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014), 12.

[2] Al Shands, “Excerpts from a Conversation with Alice Gray Stites” in Great Meadows: The Making of Here (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2014), 121.