Monday, July 26, 2010

Star Wars Highbrow: Thesis Antithesis Synthesis

Joshua Glenn's final revision of my Star Wars Klein group diagram 

Above is another variant on my Star Wars Klein Group Diagram. I heard from's Joshua Glenn. turns out the first version of his Star Wars Semiotic Square I posted was pretty close to the mark, but I got some things mixed up. I left that first version up but guided by his corrections here is the final "fully functional" Joshua Glenn Star Wars Semiotic Square
In addition to describing the square above Glenn's original post also discussed his choices for the cardinal points at some length in terms of a "highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow-nobrow-hilobrow schema." It is a scheme he has charted elsewhere, admitting that "aesthetic and lifestyle choices aren't entirely independent of social class." Until I read Glenn's criticism it hadn't consciously occurred to me to think about lowbrow vs highbrow in any systematic way. I suppose if I thought about it at all, I figured that what I have been doing with my Star Wars & Modernism project is some sort of highbrow take on a lowbrow film, or a lowbrow take on highbrow art and architecture. In his post however  Glenn calls Star Wars "George Lucas’ attempt to cobble together a middlebrow entertainment following Joseph Campbell’s template" and calls Lucas himself a sentimental middlebrow. Once he brought it to my attention, it made perfect sense, lowbrow is not the term of derision, middlebrow is. Posting on the middlebrow (Farting in Church) wet my appetite. The term turns out to be so loaded with connotations, not just of social class, but ideas about cultural and racial superiority left over from the waning years of the age of imperialism, and Star Wars is the perfect vehicle to unpack the biases shadowing the judgement of both high and low.
A  diagram I made according to Joshua Glenn "highbrow-lowbrow-middlebrow-nobrow-hilobrow schema."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Towards The Development of a Terminal Site: Artist's Statements

"It's a Trap!"

I spent the morning working on a couple applications. One was for the Guggenheim's YouTube show. I decided to submit the short test I did with the help of my digital animation friend Teddy Gage Spiral Jedi. I misread the instructions on the submission. I thought they wanted a thousand words - turns out they only allowed a thousand characters (spaces included). Rather than throw away 4,447 carefully arranged characters I thought I would use them as a post, but I have a reservation. I am always interested to read artist writing, but I very seldom enjoy reading artist statements. They tend to sound bloated and pretentious - my own included - it's the nature of the beast.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Farting in Church: Charting the Middlebrow

Dante Alighieri, Robert Morris, Venti III (1983)

Anyone who has ever attempted to read Dante's Divine Comedy knows all the fun stuff is in the first book - The Inferno. Hell as turns is hilarious, full of sex, lies, farting and the most cruelly scatological punishments imaginable (as I remember there was a lot more bathroom humor than blood spatter) I battered my way through the holier-than-thou geographies of Purgatory, but was stopped cold by the the totally ponderous descriptions of Paradise. 

If the Modernist had designed the universe (that finally was their goal), Paradise would be just as ponderous, but the ranks of singing angels (or whatever, I really didn't read much of that book at all) would be replaced by the clean utilitarian lines that Mies van der Rohe championed as less is more and Robert Venturi mocked as 'less is a bore.'

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In The Future We Will Speak With Pleasure

Over heard as I was entering the Subway:

A beautiful young couple (17 max), him crowding her towards the wall, her defiant but pleased.

Him: Yes you is.
Her: No I am not.
Him: Yes your are.
Her: No, I ain't.

Tonight: Livestream screening and discussion of Episodes 2 & 4 of the Artist Commentary

Clare Brew, Jedi Powers (2010)

Tonight at 8PM NYC time I am screening two episodes of my Artist Commentary, Star Wars and Modernism, and giving a talk with the composer/artist  R Luke Dubois, who is scoring the series.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Crisis in Criticism: Star Wars is not Literature, it is an Object.

Look how sad Luke is; critics need to sort out a better way to decide what lowbrow media they will consider with the precincts of highbrow scholarship.

Joshua Glenn recently posted an interesting critical response to my Star Wars Klein group diagram (which you can see above) on his website HiLoBrow. I explained my original diagram in a post titled  Rosalind Krauss is a Jedi, and Glenn's response is called Star Wars Semiotics. The titles themselves signal two very different approaches to the same problem. Glenn admits to being “wary of structuralist heuristic devices” but dives right in, and does a great job reworking my diagram along more the more orthodox literary model used by Fredric Jameson (who uses the term “Greimas or Semiotic Square”). In my post I likewise freely admit my own limits, which after reading Glenn's post are clearly far more limiting than his (kinda bums me out that Glenn didn't find time to explain what the terms "complex" and "neuter" indicate). So it's not surprising Glenn believes his Star Wars Semiotic Square improves on mine. In the interest of intellectual good will I did my best to answer his requests that “Someone good at drawing or Photoshop should send me a diagram…” I’m not especially good at either, but I've done my best:

Star Wars Semiotic Square according to Joshua Glenn (plus or minus my best effort - turns out the Sith are really hard to draw)

Glenn's post is good natured and whip smart - but he's dead wrong. While he is no doubt the superior semiotician (even if his heart is not fully committed to structuralist heuristic devices, his brain is clearly able to wale away unaffected) and I can't hope to outsmart the guy, mine is the better diagram. The reason is that he is diagramming the film as literature, and I am diagramming it as an object. His is the more conventional reading of Star Wars, but mine is the more revealing and interesting of the two perspectives. Glenn's post deserves a rebuttal - and his while his critique has not made me revise my position, it has mad me aware that it needs to be clarified. But before I revisit the reasoning behind my diagram I want to address the convention approach of film as literature. What I find most interesting about the difference between Glenn's diagram and my own is how quickly the difference manifests itself. His is peopled by characters - stormtroopers, droids, and non-human aliens - mine is constructed out of places and things - ships, farms, and space terminals. This is a telling difference.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 4/4): Rosalind Krauss is Dead

Valerie Jaudon, Yazoo City (1975); Barnett Newman, Broken Obelisk (1963); Valerie Jaudon, installation photo (1977)

The feminist art historian Anna Chave is critical of Michel Foucault's idea of power and it is not hard to imagine why. For most of history, in most peoples minds power has been almost wholly associated with the masculine - up to and including Chaves own historic moment. For instance, in his widely read 1972 book Ways of Seeing, John Berger began an essay on the female nude in the European oil painting tradition as follows: 
According to usage an convention which are at last being questioned but by no means been overcome, the social presence of woman is different in kind from that of a man. A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence... By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her... One might simplify by saying men act and women appear. Men Look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
Judging by his tone, Berger seems to have sincerely believed he was outside the "usage and convention" he was commenting on, but all the same he comes across as very much a man of his time, when he writes, "If a woman makes a good joke this is an example of how she treats the joker in herself and accordingly of how she as a joker-woman would like to be treated by others. Only a man can make a good joke for its own sake."

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 3/4): Killing Rosalind Krauss

Death and the Maiden: Rosalind Krauss, Ingmar Bergman,s The Seventh Seal, Clement Greenberg

The reason Clement Greenberg was inconsistent on the subject of sculpture is because in constructing his formalist theories he had conceptually painted himself into a corner. He insisted that the ideas in  Modernist Painting were never intended to be prescriptive, but he had successfully mapped a generation worth of artistic production, starting with Frank Stella's black painting (which he evidently didn't much like), right up through to the minimalist (who he down right disliked), and dribbling out among the earth artists (those guys were totally formalists - see PMD 2/3). That is no small achievement, even accounting for the mixed results (in Greenberg's opinion). His rejection of minimalism wasn't arbitrary - he clearly hoped to extend his influence for another decade or two.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 2/4): Killing Clement Greenberg

Mary Miss, Perimeter/Pavilion/Decoys (1978), Rosalind Krauss, Kline Group Diagram (1979)

Just as artists had "entered a situation the logical conditions of which can no longer be described as modernist," some time in the late sixties and early seventies, so too had Rosalind Krauss. her Klein group diagram elegantly signaled two things: that she was orienting her thought by means of the "undecidable" mix of intellectual disciplines that was just beginning to coalesce at the time; but more importantly, the diagram was a visual rebuttal to the modernist theoretical framework that had dominated the New York art world for decades. Like the cartoonist Thomas Nast lampooning Boss Tweed, Krauss constructed a visual tool that her constituents could easily understand, but Krauss's target was the modernist critic Clement Greenberg. Like Tweed, Greenberg might have yelped, "Let's stop them damned pictures, I don't care so much what the papers write about—my constituents can't read—but damn it, they can see pictures." In all probability however, Greenberg may have never understood that his most important constituents were artists, or how effective Krauss's diagram would turn out to be in undoing his legacy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Killing Fields (Part 1/4): Killing Modernism

Anne Truitt, Southern Elegy (1964), Rosalind Krauss, Incomplete Klein Group Diagram (1979)

At the Sculpture Center’s panel, Expanded. Exploded, Collapsed? held this past April in celebration of the 31st anniversary of Rosalind Krauss's essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field (I did not ask, but one wonders what they will do for the 53rd jubilee), the sculptor Josiah McElheny playfully quoted some anonymous snark (almost certainly Michael Fried) as saying, “We all just discovered Klein groups at the time, we thought the essay was just to show she knew how to use them.” Never mind how dismissive this is of Krauss’s intellect; it ignores how effective Krauss’s use of the Kline group diagram was. The curator Fionn Meade's introduction to the panel focused on what was left out of the the Field (civil rights as monument, the Judson Group as sculpture, Joseph Beuys as persona non grata) but made clear that even thirty years later the Expanded Field, no matter how imperfect, remains a "hinge" between the modern and postmodern. Krauss's diagram of the Expanded Field was machine built to kill and bury Modernism:

Friday, July 9, 2010

Comic Books are Dead II: Seduction of the Innocent

Thích Quảng Đức (1962); Howard the Duck

I should have grown up with a pile of moldering golden age comic books at my bedside, but because comic books had become a collector's item I grew up looking at them in glass display cases. The first comic book store I can remember was a young guy named Rick who had taken over a single glass display case at the used book store up the street from my mom's house. Rick kind of looked like Mick Jagger. He couldn't have been too much older than me at the time, probably still in his teens, but he was easily past the crucial six years mark. His counter top display would eventually become a really big comic book store - I can remember at least three increasingly larger shops at different locations over the years. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 3/3): The Final Solution

Frank Stella, Detail of notes for Pratt Lecture (1960); Tony Smith, Die (1962)

When Rosalind Krauss wrote that sculpture was "a historically bounded category not a universal one" her aim was to establish territory for the new art work that had developed out of minimalist "practice." She was not however being entirely honest intellectually. If she had been, she would acknowledged the full dept minimalist art and post-minimalist art owed to painting. She would not have defined sculpture in terms of "artistic practices" - an expanded, but still finite field. If Krauss had been totally honest she would have been forced to consider sculpture in terms of a much larger field, artistic reception - an admittedly far more difficult set of relationships to chart within a Klein group.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 2/3): Framed.

Laocoön and His Sons (160-20 BCE), Frank Stella, Newburgh (1995) 

As counter-intuitive as it is to think of sculpture as painting, that is in fact the steady state; the status quo, not the exception. In her book, Passages in Modern Sculpture, Rosalind Krauss quotes the the 19th Century theorist Adolf von Hildebrand, who writes:
All separate judgements of depth enter into a unitary, all-inclusive judgement of depth. So that ultimately the entire richness of a figure's form stands before us as a backward continuation of one simple plane, whenever this is not the case the unitary pictorial effect of the figure is lost.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Painting Must Die (Part 1/3): Backing into Murder

Frank Stella, Hyena Stomp (1962), Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)

Barnet Newman's quip that, "sculpture is what you bump into when you back up to see a painting,” has become a cliche no self respecting art historian would quote. So it's a curious pleasure to find it in Rosalind Krauss's essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field. (It's like coming across a knock knock joke in a Walter Benjamin essay.) Like all humor, Newman's joke is funny because it is a little cruel, and it is cruel because there's some truth to it (one of my pieces was damaged that way once - my friends all laughed). As a sculptor it is painful to admit this, but by all accounts, for most of history, painting has driven art. That’s why we discuss the death of painting, and (almost) never the death of sculpture. The harsh truth is, no one much cares if sculpture dies because sculpture is thought of as a kind of painting; a parasitic twin carved in stone.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Comic Books are Dead: The King & I

Comic book burning bastards; John Byrne, Galactus (FF #257)

Jack Kirby was an early master of a bastard genre. Kirby is the artist who gave us The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Captain America, and The X-Men. His art is brash. He took the limitations of cheap printing and even cheaper paper and stretched them into an epic career, leaving behind enough material to be explored by generations of American artists. Kirby combined acid colors with great heavy bands of black to stunning effect. All the angst, agitation and action of modernism are on display in Kirby’s art. His comics combine strange Freudian undertones of fetish, with the mourning alienation and wild-man machismo of the lost generation. The worlds he imagined are impenetrable chrome and anodized masses of cylinders, cubes, and spheres. Figures are likewise massively built in a way alien to most comics today – these guys weren’t carrot shaped Fabios, they were great garbage can men with arms and legs like tree trunks sheathed in ringed metallic skins of purple and green. Great stuff.

Die Die Die

Sculptor Carl Andre's family plot in Quincy MA; John Powers, Rampart Division (2002)

Just posted a photo essay Die Die Die: A Survey on Hyperallergic's site. 
Until recently I hadn't given much thought to how morbid my imagination is. I think it is the nature of my profession. Sculpture is ALL about death. My studio is next to the rear entrance of the Greenwood Cemetery and in nice weather I like to walk to the grounds. For anyone who has never visited Greenwood, it was designed by Fredrick Law Olmsted, the same landscape designer that designed Central Park. One of the artist Robert Smithson best essays is on Olmsted's theories of the picturesque. I believe the cemetery is hands down New York's most beautiful green space, it is also one of its largest (its HUGE) and least visited, which it too bad. 
The grounds are peppered with a labyrinth of mortuary cul-de-sacs. Instead of McMansions on hills however, these are dug out fjord-like turn-arounds with hilariously grand stone entrances built in to steep hillsides. They are like a mash up of the Acropolis and a Hobbit village. 
The trails through the cemetery feel like a wilderness, not at all a part of New York City. They are covered in years of accumulated pine needles and miniscule pinecones. Best of all, the place is a dogpatch of weird 19th century architecture and statuary. There are at least a half dozen pyramids - in Brooklyn. They are not Great Pyramid big, but they are big. One is at least two stories tall (belonging to the Hoyts or the Schermerhorns, I can't remember which) and made of black polished stone - CRAZY. There are little cathedrals, fully realized in the round, the way a full size cathedral never could be. The the Civil War dead are buried there - there is a strange monument to them on top of a hill. Even if I didn't have a soft spot for a clean quiet place, this place is has some of New York's best architecture and art rotting away for all to see.