A Treasure Trove of Oddities and Timely Exhibitions at Oxford’s Ethnography Museum

September 14, 2018 in Hyperallergic

Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, the Pitt Rivers Museum has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful.

The Pitt Rivers Museum (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

OXFORD, UK — The Pitt Rivers Museum, located at Oxford University, is one of the world’s great museums — one you’ve probably never heard of. Originally defined as an academic museum of Anthropology and World Archeology, it has morphed into something much more extensive and meaningful. Pitt Rivers is a museum of “stuff”: the amazing things that people make, globally, from antiquity to today. It houses over half a million items, many of them displayed in inventive and original ways. It will blow your mind.

Founded in 1884 by the immodestly named Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, with an initial gift of approximately 30,000 objects, the museum has continued to grow; to this day it is actively acquiring items from around the world. In addition, it houses extensive collections of photographs, sound recordings, manuscripts and film, which are accessible by appointment. The sheer volume of its holdings is extraordinary. It has been central to the development of the field of Anthropology and the study of Material Culture.

Cases of various objects

Pitt Rivers was a relatively enlightened Victorian collector. Though problematic in a contemporary context, he saw the collection and display of objects from non-Western cultures as a way to understand the “evolution” of society. Following in the footsteps of Darwin, this was a flawed, but timely attempt to apply the startling new theories of biological evolution to other parts of human development.

Enemy skull

For me, Pitt Rivers is a stunning and archaic monument to the history of collecting, a kind of museum about museums. Plus, the objects are jaw-droppingly fabulous. Materials, craftsmanship and passion combine to present some of the most stirring objects you’ll ever see anywhere. For example, the building’s atrium is dominated by a 383-foot-tall totem pole made by a Haida carver from British Columbia. Acquired in 1901, this monumental, spiritual sculpture rises from the floor of the museum opposite a full-sized sailing vessel, suspended from the cathedral ceiling. The scale and depth of the collection are unsurpassed among ethnographic museums.

Most ethnographic museums struggle, both with their place in contemporary curatorial practice and with the simple fact that their collections are often largely the result of wanton colonialism. How does such an institution make peace with its history? The contemporary curators of the Pitt Rivers Museum have sought to address these issues in several ways.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

Resisting several ill-advised efforts to modernize the building and collections Pitt Rivers has added a separate, but attached building housing several new galleries devoted to changing exhibitions (as well as conservation labs, classrooms and archives). The original soaring three-level Victorian museum remains intact. The major move into the modern era occurred in 2016 when the museum  installed lighting. When I first visited seven years ago the building was almost entirely dark; visitors received flashlights to view the exhibits! While some of the mystery and thrill of discovery are somewhat tempered, the glories of the museum are definitely easier to see.

This summer the museum is hosting three exhibitions, each deeply moving in its own way. The space above the Haida totem pole now features huge black and white contemporary photographs of displaced Syrians living in Turkey in 2017. Entitled Syrians Unknown (through September 30), the photographs are accompanied by extensive details of the sitter’s life and displacement history in English and Arabic. Printed on Foamex by artist John Wreford, the faces of the displaced stare impassively at the vast museum below. It is monumental in many ways.

A second modern gallery is hosting a small but powerful exhibition of photographs entitled Kwibuka Rwanda (through September 28)This exhibition documents some of the 243 roadside monuments made by local residents to commemorate the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which five hundred thousand to a million Rwandan people were killed. The works portray the spontaneous expressions of members of a society, seeking to remember the violent past and memorialize those who perished. Kwibuka Rwanda gives potent voice to the makers and caretakers of these monuments.

Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (detail)

In the third temporary exhibition, Sunil Shah: Uganda Stories (through September 23)the artist explores his family’s roots as part of the Asian Diaspora in Uganda. When Idi Amin expelled 80,000 Asians in 1971, Shah’s family members became exiles from a country they had lived in for generations. Through vintage photographs and eloquent narrative fragments Shah recreates their journey and lives as displaced persons. Poetic and elegant, his work marries image and word, creating a visual narrative of memory and loss.

These days the museum’s collection grows primarily through donations. New acquisitions include Ghanaian carved coffins, First Nations moccasins embroidered with a Nike motif, and a plethora of East Indian advertising materials. Founded as an educational institution bound by its historic time and place, the Pitt Rivers Museum is a vibrant example of how a museum can morph and grow in the present, even as it delights in its quirky past.

Sunil Shah, “Untitled” from the Family Stories (2012) (© Sunil Shah)

The Pitt Rivers Museum is located at the Oxford University Museum Natural History (South Parks Road, Oxford, United Kingdom).



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Artists and Scientists Concoct Immersive Projects at the Wellcome

Published July 3 in Hyperallergic

The Wellcome Collection in London introduces four mixed-media installations in an immersive, collaborative show between artists and scientists.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm. (all photos courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic)

LONDON — The Wellcome Collection in London has long been known for some of the most innovative and daring exhibitions imaginable. The museum is dedicated to the confluence of art and science, specifically to health and medicine. Sounds like a dry mission statement, but the creative curators of the museum have taken this vision to new and unexpected places.

Founded in 1936, the Wellcome Trust, under whose umbrella the museum sits, is financially and politically independent, enabling it to tackle controversial subjects without limits. In 2011, I saw an exhibition they mounted entitled Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life that dealt with the world’s relationship with “filth,” aka: shit. It was brilliant in its scope and curatorial rigor.

The current exhibition, entitled Somewhere in Between, partners four visual artists with four scientists, each approaching a current issue in health or science. The exhibition features four very disparate subjects with which each artist has had personal experience. These subjects were matched with scientific experts in the respective fields. It is an ambitious undertaking with mixed results. There is no common thread between the four constructs, which may be part of the problem.

Maria McKinney, installation view of Sire at the Wellcome Collection

Sire, by artist Maria McKinney and scientists Michael Doherty and David MacHugh, is about the genetic engineering of bulls at an Irish stud farm. The bulls are genetically modified to emphasize the characteristics that will make these animals more efficient breeding machines. Ability to withstand climate change, increase in muscle mass, and lack of horns are desirable for future breeding stock. The artist has documented these bulls each wearing an intricate sculpture woven from insemination straws. She’s used traditional local corn weaving techniques to produce these futuristic fluorescent objects that the placid bulls each sport on their backs. Printed very large and in lush colors, the photos are oddly funny — big bulls meet DIY artisanal weaving. Several of these objects are exhibited as free-standing sculptures. They are very attractive. There is a passivity to the work that belies the undertone of the project. The back-story, presented in both text and audio to the public, bestows a much more ominous meaning upon the work, a story of genetic engineering taken to the extreme.

Maria McKinney, Sire series, C-print, 147 X 220 cm

The second of the four pairings sets out to examine the newly discovered neurological phenomenon of “mirror- touch synesthesia.” Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the senses are blended. That is, you may associate letters or numbers with colors, or words and sounds with spatial locations on a consistent basis. This has been widely studied and documented. “Mirror-touch synesthesia” appears to take the notion one step further. To quote the exhibition catalogue, “A person with mirror-touch feels other people’s sensations of touch, both painful and pleasurable. When they observe touch, they sense it in their own body, as if experiencing it themselves.”

Daria Martin, At the Threshold (2014–15), 16-mm. film, 17.5 min.

Daria Martin has chosen to explore this phenomenon in two related 16-mm films: Sensorium Tests and At the Threshold. The former seeks to recreate the first tests that led to the discovery of this condition. The latter investigates the fictional relationship between a mother and son who share the condition. For Martin’s own reasons, she shot the second film as a 1950s-style melodrama. The films are being shown in two separate rooms that share a common entryway. I watched both of them twice and was unable to connect with the films, the subject matter, or the narrative, if there was one. The exhaustive text that accompanies this and all four of the projects is what finally gave me a hint as to what I was watching. Michael Banissy, the scientist with whom she collaborated, presents his work in an accompanying paper. It made me long for the writing of Oliver Sacks, who wrote extensively on these types of neurological oddities in a most erudite but accessible voice.

Daria Martin, Sensorium Tests (2012), 16-mm. film, 10 min.

For me, the installation’s extensive written annotations lead to a larger question about this kind of didactic museum exhibition. Can the art stand without the text?  What happens when you have a visual art project that necessitates lengthy text to convey meaning to the viewer? While text can give additional insight into the work, the politics, or the artist’s intent, I prefer to be walloped by what I see. Having to then turn to the written explanation sucks the magical experience of looking at art right out of the room for me.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, large paintings, acrylic on un-stretched canvas, various dimensions

Luckily, the final two projects in this exhibition stand more securely on their own as powerful visual statements. Alien Sex Club is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors, seeking to mimic the architecture of gay cruising spaces (according to the artist’s description). This multimedia, at times almost psychedelic, installation explores a sub-culture of gay sex behavior post-HIV anti-viral treatments. This project was done in tandem with a primary infectious diseases researcher and a team of sexual health professionals from many parts of the UK. This installation is as excessive as the first two artistic pairings are spare. Videos, sex toys, viewing booths, drawing, wallpaper — this is a dizzying array of ideas, colors, and objects.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

John Walter has created a vibrant universe of “post-HIV” gay life from an admittedly personal point of view. In his work, text is used as a dictionary for explaining some of the imagery of the Alien Sex Club, rather than as an explanatory crutch. The artist envisions a kind of parallel universe to ours, populated with “bugs”(the virus) and the rigid geometry of the retro virus pills, as well as icons like Keith Haring and Alistair Crowley.

John Walter, Alien Sex Club, drawing from Big Book, mixed media, 120 x 150 cm.

The installation in its entirety is a giddy romp; I found the most affecting pieces to be a series of mixed-media drawings in a piece entitled “Big Book” that acts as an instructive and informative “Bible” of the Alien Sex Club. The drawings are beautiful, wry, and sometimes sad. They pack an emotional punch that isn’t present in any of the other pieces.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

The final installation in this quartet is quite literally breathtaking. Martina Amati is a free diver. That is, she free dives deep into the Red Sea without an air supply. She has trained her body to withstand the physiological and psychological pressures of doing something that is life-threatening and arguably insane. Her immersive installation of three wall-sized projections is entitled Under. They explore the three ways that free diving is measured — time, distance, and depth. The artist appears in each of the videos, which are shot and projected in such a way that you feel you are in the water with her. She sinks deep into the sea. She dances seemingly in elegant slow motion around a guide rope. The moving images are mesmerizing and incredibly beautiful. Meanwhile, my mind is racing: “Oh my god, how is she that deeply under the sea without any air?” The beauty of the videos belies the danger of the act. It is literally death-defying art. Two films are shown simultaneously in one room, the third on its own. There are accompanying still photographs from the videos exhibited on their own.

Martina Amati, Under (2015), 3-channel video projection, 5-channel audio, color, 11 mins., looped

Amati’s collaboration with scientist Kevin Fong was clearly one that really clicked. Each has written a succinct and poetic essay about their experience of working together. In this case, the art works completely independent of the text. The text becomes an additional poetic device to discuss both the mysteries of what the human body is capable of and the poetry of collaboration.

Though a bit of a mixed bag, the Wellcome Collection doesn’t disappoint in its eagerness to embrace new artistic possibilities at the growing intersection of art and science. In this era of blockbuster, crowd-pleasing mega-shows it is a delight to experience a cultural institution that is willing to challenge its audience.

Martina Amati, stills from Under (2018), C-prints, framed

Somewhere in Between is on display at the Wellcome Collection (183 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London) through August 27.

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Artists Who Unlocked the Modernist Grid

published April 11, 2018 in Hyperallergic

A gallery show that turns the form of the grid inside out, shedding more light on this iconic 20th-century favorite.

Arshile Gorky, “Still Life” (c.1930s), oil on canvas, 8″ x 10″ (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

For the past 100 years or so the basic geometric grid has proved an irresistible form for many visual artists. Perhaps there’s something about the possibility of ordering the world and the restless nature of the artist’s mind that has fueled the allure and ambivalence of this relationship. Sometimes the simplest of concepts prove to be the ones most ripe for interpretation.

The current show at Lori Bookstein’s new gallery on the Upper East Side takes the notion of the grid as artistic palette in a delightfully different direction. The show entitled Unlocking the Grid focuses on artists who for the most part have chosen to take the “grid” apart, that is to work against its ordering qualities and screw around with the possibilities that this liberation affords. It is an impressive showing of some great 20th century painters including Arshile Gorky, Joaquín Torres-García, Adolph Gottlieb, and James Siena. The range and degree to which each of these artists has played against the grid underscores the fascinating possibilities of such a seemingly simple gesture.

Adolph Gottleib, “Nostalgia for Atlantis” (1944), oil and tempera on canvas, 20 x 25 inches

“Nostalgia For Atlantis” (1944) by Adolph Gottlieb is painted with a sense of whimsy that I’ve never associated with him. Gottlieb, in the mid-1940s, was in the midst of developing his pictograph series, loosely defined as a system of visual images that serve as clues for “reading “ a painting. This Gottlieb piece is a series of comic and emotional faces and expressions, interspersed with bold gestural marks. It’s lightly variegated blue and neutral-tone palette is shocked into animation by one gorgeous streak of brilliant cadmium red. There are other artists in the show working within the “pictograph” formula including Torres-García and Fonseca, but this Gottlieb painting, with a hint of humor in its narrative flow, is the standout.

                                  Anonymous, Kuba Peoples, early 20th century, Central Africa. Textile, 36.5″ x 24.25″

An unattributed early 20th century textile made by a member of the Kuba peoples from Central Africa is a brilliant addition to the show. I’m always intrigued when someone makes a significant visual connection between Western and non-Western art, and the inclusion of this piece certainly does that. Not knowing any more than what can be visually observed (the image appears to be painted onto a linen–like fabric) one can only marvel at the beauty of this piece. Rhythmic patterning changes as it dances across the wheat-colored surface, punctuated by several hits of a lighter tone. I love how it is both orderly and disorderly at the same time. The eye wants to create a repeated neat pattern, but the maker has slyly tweaked the design so that is never possible. Unfortunately this piece is hung in a narrow corridor outside of the main exhibition, lessening the impact of its presence in the exhibition.

James Siena, “Large Manifold, Second Version” (2016), graphite on paper. 20″ x 25″

“Study For Mural Based on Egyptian Motifs” (1955) by Louis I. Kahn is another surprise in this show. Though I’ve seen many drawings of Kahn’s plans for building projects, I had never seen anything quite like this. Meticulously drawn in fine charcoal the piece is highly structured but shows the presence of a free hand, the charcoal is allowed to drift across the paper in gentle tones.It is a mosaic-like composition, which reads as both something and nothing. Observing close up, you notice the mark making, the irregular edges of the drawn tiles. However when viewed from afar the shapes all coalesce into the abstracted features of a portrait. There’s a playfulness in this beautifully rendered drawing that is, to my mind, delightfully unusual for Kahn’s oeuvre.

The exhibition is a candybox of terrific 20th century blue-chip artwork, with the sole exception of a rather tepid Jennifer Bartlett. (“Swimming Pool,” early 1970’s). It’s an odd inclusion of work from an artist who has worked extensively and very innovatively with the grid structure. But Bartlett aside, it is a delight to see such a disparate group of painters nestled under the curatorial construct of the “grid.” I loved the process of both ordering and disordering the world that unites all of the work in this show.

Unlocking the Grid continues at Bookstein Projects. (60 East 66th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until April 14.

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Tantalizing Quilts Woven with Poetic, Political Messages

published March 13, 2018 in Hyperallergic

The artists in Piecework embed intriguing, coded messages into their quilts.

Vanessa German, “Delia Quilt 1” (2015), silkscreen on found quilt (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Pavel Zoubok gallery is currently hosting an intriguing show entitled Piecework. Riffing on the traditional women’s work of piecing fabric together, the five artists in this exhibition have produced quilt-like works that belie the traditional definition of the genre.

Using a wide variety of approaches, though mostly sticking to a rectilinear format, the artists all share an interest in embedding messages into their quilts. The origins of this practice have been traced to the American urban myth that quilts made in the 17th and 18th centuries had escape directions for slaves “coded’ in their patterns. There have been many historical attempts to debunk this urban myth, yet it persists. The idea of conveying messages with fabric, however, remains an enduring and intriguing jumping-off point for artists.

Installation view of Piecework at Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Diane Samuels’s “Poetry Quilt” (2017), measuring a mighty 87 by 90 inches, is constructed of paper and backed with fabric, while the surface is covered with poems that have affected the artist’s life. The giant panel is constructed of hundreds of strips of painted and drawn-upon paper, which she painstakingly pieced together and then wrote over, in the tiniest font imaginable, the poems that have been meaningful to the artist throughout her life. From far away everything merges into a rhythmic sea of jewel-tone colors. It’s only upon very close inspection that one sees the writing (a magnifying glass would have helped) and is able to make out the words of some of the most beautiful poems in the Western cannon, including ones by T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Adrienne Rich.

Diane Samuels, “Poetry Quilt” (2017), paper, paint, craypas, ink, glue, backed with cotton fabric, 87 x 90 inches

There are two chilling pieces by the artist Joe Lewis made of Kente cloth, a Ghanaian woven fabric that has traditionally been used as a message of identity — the patterns of the cloth signal who the wearer is, their tribe, and their status in the world. Lewis has made two “Juvenile Body Bags” — literally. He covered one side of the plastic body bags used for children (the bags are shockingly small) with the cloth associated with Africa and the African diaspora. In the center of each is a clear plastic window with a blank “toe tag” — that is, the tag used to tie to a corpse to identify it. The tension between the beautiful hand-woven cloth and the shocking message of the bags is powerful.

Joe Lewis, “Juvenile Body Bag 2” (2018) ( detail), kente cloth, plastic boday bag, paper toe tags

Donna Sharrett’s two pieces in the show, from her series Tailored Herbaria(2018), appear to be in the decorative tradition of textile work. The pieced, embroidered, and embellished groups of stylized tree leaves make for very attractive wall pieces. However, upon doing some research, spurned on by the pieces’ mysterious titles (like “41°10’8”N 73°49’15” W”) I found that the pieces refer to the exact geographical location of flora endangered by climate change. The coded message becomes a tangible alert to parts of the natural world we are in danger of destroying.

Donna Sharrett, “201.8 41”2’5” N 73”58 46” W”, clothing, jewelry, guitar strings, guitar-string ball-ends, fabric, thread

If anything, this exhibition is slightly frustrating because it is small and left me wanting more. Pavel Zoubok Gallery is hoping to expand the exhibition in a different space and this would indeed be a welcome development. Piecework is a tantalizing taste of the possibilities inherent in what was once only considered “women’s work.”

Piecework continues at Pavel Zoubok Gallery (531 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 21.

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The Story Behind Northern India’s Breathtaking, Disappearing Frescoes.

In Hyperallergic-January 23, 2018

The Shekhawati region covers almost 5,000 square miles and hosts an estimated 2,000 frescoed buildings built from the 17th to the early 20th century.

A ceiling fresco in a haveli in India’s Shekhawati province (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

MANDAWA, India — Some artistic wonders have been unearthed as buried treasures. Others are hidden in plain sight. India’s Shekhawati province is in the northeastern Rajasthani desert and more than seven hours by car from Delhi. The region covers almost 5,000 square miles and hosts an estimated 2,000 frescoed buildings built from the 17th to the early 20th century. Many of them are abandoned and most are breathtakingly beautiful. Arguably the world’s largest collection of outdoor painting, Shekhawati is a treasure trove of startling architecture and adornment.

The view over Madwana

Driving through Indian agricultural towns, you can spy these buildings, called “havelis,” through the dust. Decorated with historic frescos, many are in a state of gentle but inexorable disintegration. The owners — almost all of the havelis are privately owned — have either abandoned the properties or rented them out to local people.

The Shekhawati region sits strategically in the middle of what was once the major trade caravan or “Silk Road” between modern-day India, Pakistan, China, and beyond. Over several centuries local merchants became rich in the trade and transport of opium, cotton, and spices. These communities became collectively known as “Marwari,” referring to the wily traders who brought commercial savvy and great wealth to the district. As a public show of their success, the Marwari commissioned ostentatious homes — the more elaborate the haveli, the richer and more prestigious its owner. As overland trade routes shifted to the seaports of Mumbai and Calcutta, the traders followed, moving their families, but maintaining and continuing to commission frescos for their Shekhawati havelis. Think of it as the Hamptons of Rajasthan.

Inhabited haveli
Detail of a haveli

Havelis were almost always built in the same basic form: two-storied with two to four inner courtyards, all in rectangular layout. Each courtyard and the rooms surrounding it were used for specific purposes; the first was always for men and their public business dealings. As one entered deeper, the rooms and courtyards became more intimate, used for various family purposes.

Looking down into the courtyard

The frescos that adorn these buildings are a triumph of artistic expression and of the luck of climate, materials, and isolation. The dry heat of the desert and the use of 100% natural pigments in the plaster have proved surprisingly archival. The colors have remained rich and vibrant, although the interior exposures are much better preserved than the exteriors. The oldest of the frescos are painted using ochre, red and white lead, cinnabar, indigo, lapis, copper carbonate, Indian yellow (made from cow’s urine), lamp black, lime white, red stone powder, and saffron orange. The result is a vivid palate, augmented in some of the interior rooms by 22-karat-gold leafing. Later frescos incorporated synthetic pigments imported from Europe.

An unfinished fresco

I visited the two main towns of the region, Mandawa and Nawalgarh, where there is a large concentration of havelis, but they are everywhere in the surrounding region. A few havelis have been preserved as small museums, where for a few rupees one can freely wander around the rooms and explore the labyrinth of courtyards, stairways, and balconies. The Haveli Heritage Trust in Nawalgarh is one of the best known and organized. Many havelis stand largely empty or barely used, but some are still inhabited.

In Mandawa I visited a haveli rented to a local family. After passing through a courtyard, I was ushered into the family bedroom. I looked up to find the entire room — walls and ceiling — painted with a mythological love story and gilded in 22-karat gold leaf. There was no electricity in the building, but the sunlight streaming through unglazed windows gave the room a brilliant glow.

Meeting of the gods and goddesses
High fresco of Krishna

For the most part the frescos tell glorious tales of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. Mythological armies march across ceilings, goddesses perch on the walls, and elephants dance in the corners. Ganesha, the Hindu god associated closely with money and wealth, is honored many times over. Border motifs tend to use either decorative designs common to the era, or portray local flora and fauna, which give us a catalogue of the region’s natural history. Many display great playfulness, portraying the patron of the house and his family delighting in the interplay of two-dimensional painting and three-dimensional architecture.

Detail of a fresco depicting British soldiers

In the more recent havelis (dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries) we see the appearance of trains, hot-air balloons, and white people. The English colonizers make their appearance in the frescos as awkward figures. There is a sly political statement embedded in these funny, stiff depictions of the British, set against the elegance of the Indian gods and goddesses. The English are wearing way too much clothing for the heat of the Rajasthan desert; they stare with empty expressions at one another. One could argue that the painters were merely recording what they saw, but as one often finds in the art made under oppression, the painters and their patrons were likely proclaiming their views of the colonizers.

Detail of a fresco depicting English women

While remarkably intact for their age, these national treasures are being lost over time to neglect and reckless modernization. Local guides say there is an effort afoot to put this region on the UNESCO list of heritage sites, a complex and unlikely prospect given the havelis’ private ownership and their vast geographical span. (Hyperallergic reached out to UNESCO for comment, but received no response.) The Shekhawati frescos are off the well-worn Indian tourist path and difficult to get to, but you should see them if you can. They won’t last forever.

Looking up at a goddess and Mughal emperor
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Corrected Version- Please ignore previous post!

Do to some technical weirdness only half of the review posted. Please ignore that- here’s the full piece. Sorry about that!!!


At MASS MoCA, sculptures by Lonnie Holley and Dawn DeDeaux reflect the environmental and political state of the earth today. In Hyperallergic on September 7, 2017Dawn DeDeaux, “The Mantle (I’ve Seen the Future and It Was Yesterday)” (2016–17), aluminum mantle with objects, and “Broken Mirror” (2017), transparency on convex mirror (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, it’s a bit eerie to walk through MASS MoCA’s Thumbs Up for the Mothership. This two-person show addresses Lonnie Holley and Dawn DeDeaux’s artistic responses to the state of the earth, both environmental and political.

Curator Denise Markonish has paired the two artists, noting the common points of connection in their lives. Both were residents at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island, Florida, although not at the same time. As Markonish observes in the show’s press release, both are southerners, they are the same age, and each has experienced traumatic losses. But these facts seem superficial in light of the more potent underlying thematic interests they share. Both artists work with found objects that are fabricated into sculpture, although DeDeaux has also worked extensively in digital media. While joined in time and theme, the two approach their narratives from decidedly different life paths and directions — a tension that highlights the strengths of each body of work and makes the exhibition as a whole successful.

Thumb’s Up for the Mothership, installation view

The title is based loosely on an ongoing project, started in 2012, of DeDeaux’s, which was included in Prospect 3, the more-or-less biennial founded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a means to help the city regenerate. The artist lost her home and studio in the storm, and as a result, her work has become intensely focused on the stewardship of the earth and the results of ignoring that obligation. Holley’s work is more broadly and overtly related to the contemporary political pulse — the environment in a rather different sense.

While there is indeed synchronicity in the lives of these two artists, their differences are perhaps more striking. Holley, a self-taught artist, grew up in the Jim Crow South. The seventh of 27 children, his life story is complex, heartbreaking, and compelling. With limited schooling but a powerful intellect and creative drive, he evolved into a musician and visual artist whose oeuvre is political, funny, and poignant. Working with found objects, Holley creates sculptures that reflect a sensibility, no doubt born of his life experiences, that nothing should go to waste. Like a mad handyman, he cobbles together sculptures from unlikely elements. In doing so, he creates poetic pieces that ache and sing and stay with you for a long time.

Lonnie Holley, “Another Blue Ribbon First: America’s Chemistry Project” (2016), wooden powder keg, oil can, White House Vinegar bottle, kerosene can, Blue Ribbon lubrication oil can, brass house faucet, water can, oil-changing can

Each of Holley’s sculptures is accompanied by a paragraph or two of wall text in which he explains what he was thinking when he made the piece. Often I find that art with a backstory can be over-dependent on such text to import power to the work, but not here. In his texts, Holley takes the opportunity to both lead viewers through his associative process and expound on his artistic and societal concerns. He speaks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the need for young people to vote — also expressed in his knockout short video “The Grip of Power” (2016) — the environment, and music. He explains with no irony or pretense how each of the sculptures came to be and what memories were triggered for him in the making of it.

For example, in “Weighted Down by the Hose” (2008), we see a beat-up old upholstered chair wrapped in a massive fire hose, preventing the chair from its intended use. A piece of an old tattered quilt sits neatly on the chair, a small box nestled in its folds. The huge, forceful shape of the hose is both a strong abstract gesture in space and a reminder of how serpentine and destructive such a thing can be.

Lonnie Holley, “Weighed Down by the Hose” (2008), found rocking chair, old quilt, heart-shaped box, rubber hose

Here is what Holley says about the piece:

                                 “The fire hose wraps the rocking chair like a memory. Even though we     are many years past the events of the Civil Rights movement, the memory of the struggle still envelopes us like a quilt. I used an old rocking chair from a house in Birmingham, Alabama that had a quilted pillow. Someone set it out by the road, and I saved it. The little tin heart is like a container for memories in the act of love.”

Holley’s sculptures are muscular, bold, and raw, but their accompanying text conveys vulnerability and a longing for peace, equality, and respect. Word and object are a potent combination.

Lonnie Holley, “Do Not Write on This” (2007), found pallet, straw, stuffed animal, commemorative photo, nails, wood

Lonnie Holley, “Crafted with Pride in USA: Trying to Water Myself” (2015), water can, faucet

DeDeaux’s portion of the show is a mixture of digital photography mounted on sheet metal and found and fabricated objects. Her work is decidedly more calculated.  She is a contemporary artist drawing upon a variety of fabrication techniques to tell her story of the fragile Louisiana environment and her plans for escape in the “Mothership.” Many of her pieces fit together in service of this overarching narrative. There are museum vitrines filled with “souvenirs” of the earth, found urban detritus, soil, ash, and water. While Holley reconfigures found objects into sculptures that are more than the sum of their parts, DeDeaux presents objects in an untouched, precious manner. Like artifacts in an archeological museum, they are carefully displayed and catalogued. Along this same theme, her works’ titles reference extinct civilizations of Babylonia, Athens, Rome, and Luxor. While the work is visually compelling, its presentation can come across as a bit forced, especially in contrast to the unguarded Holley.

Dawn DeDeaux, “Souvenirs of Earth: Assorted Objects” (2005–17), oil drill bit, large screw, fencing mask

A series of huge fascinating portraits of creatures shrouded in what look like space suits loom large over DeDeaux’s section of the show. The most beautiful are the ones entitled “The Vanquished Series: Force of Gravity” (2016–17), made from hundreds of strips of digital photographs affixed carefully to a backing. Close up, they read as pure abstraction of air and light. It is only when you move farther away that the images come together to form something vaguely human. The work succeeds both visually and as a sort of parable about distance and perspective.

Dawn DeDeaux, “The Vanquished Series: G-Force #1” (2016–17), digital drawing on archival paper mounted to metal, and “The Vanquished Series: Force of Gravity #1” (2016–17), digital drawing on archival paper mounted to metal

The pairing of these two artists is an interesting conceit for a show. Each artist takes the viewer on a narrative journey, unlike anyone else’s on Earth. Their narratives about our future are very different, but they are united in their passion for our Earth, our “Mothership.”

Thumbs Up for the Mothership continues at MASS MoCA (1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams) through May 2018.

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Miniature Universes Constructed from Archaeological Fragments

In his current exhibition TERRAoptics at Sepia Gallery, Vivan Sundaram has created tableaux with ceramic pottery shards from an archeological dig at Pattanam, in the Indian state of Kerala.

June 13, 2017Vivian Sundaram, “Terraoptics Split Open” (2016), 30 x 30 inches, Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta paper, installation view at Sepia Eye (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

In his current exhibition TERRAoptics at Sepia Gallery, Vivan Sundaram poses a series of questions about the nature of representation and photography, merging what is real with what has been staged for the camera. The possibilities of “reality” are fluid in a medium that lends itself to almost endless technical manipulation.

Sundaram, a well-known conceptual artist living and working in India, has long explored the intersection of memory, culture, and social justice issues. In his projects, he uses a diverse array of materials and aesthetic approaches — he was first a painter before turning to video and photography, where he oftentimes incorporates materials from fashion and trash, for instance. All are connected by an ongoing intuitive and intellectual curiosity about his surroundings. Sundaram’s work is never self-centered; indeed, he is an artist who seems to be constantly and consistently looking out at the world.

Vivian Sundaram, “Terraoptics Burnt Mound” (2016), 48 x 34 inches/ 48 x 34 inches, Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta paper, installation view at Sepia Eye

TERRAoptics is an offshoot of an enormous, site-specific installation that Sundaran created for the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. For the work, entitled “Black Gold,” Sundaram constructed a giant city from 100,000 ceramic pottery shards from an archeological dig at Pattanam, in the Indian state of Kerala. He photographed the installation and then ultimately flooded it with water and black pepper. The resulting three-channel video is an essential part of the project. Lest you think this some odd artistic conceit, the history of the region bears directly on the project. The shards are attributed to the now-lost city of Muziris (100 BC–100 AD), a grand port that reportedly exported hundreds of thousands of tons of black pepper to the world before it was wiped out in a cyclone. Knowing the backstory is crucial to understanding the sense of utter loss that this video conveys.

Installation view of Vivan Sundaram: Terraoptics at Sepia Eye

For TERRAoptics, Sundaram has taken these same artifacts and reconfigured them into a series of small tableaux. He then photographed them in a studio setting, using artificial light. Resembling landscapes, complete with intimations of rivers, mountains, and valleys, they are, upon first sight, confounding. These miniature universes were photographed from above, in the mode of aerial photography. As with landscapes seen from the air, our perception of the scale of objects becomes altered. Upon moving closer, what seemed like a lunar landscape is now identifiable as a sea of broken pottery; the purely visual becomes both nuanced and historical. Step back and the photograph recomposes itself into an elegant abstract composition of texture and color. Adding another layer are strands of fiber optic color, brilliant streaks of light, often resembling long swaths of wildfire, running through the compositions. The photographs move cleverly back and forth between two visual realities, as the viewer is caught a little off-balance by what they are actually seeing and what the photographs are said to depict.

 Vivian Sundaram, “Terraoptics #077” (2016) (detail), 30 x 30 inches, Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta paper, installation view.

Sundaram’s work changes in the viewer’s eyes upon learning about its backstory — “Black Gold” became a much more powerful piece for me after I understood its historical framework. As such, the exhibition poses the classic question of whether the need for context makes an artwork more or less compelling. There are those who might prefer to take the work at face value and see it simply as a body of work about line, texture, and color. Personally, I think that the backstory is critical to fully understand the work. Sundaram leaves both doors open for the viewer, and I admire his understanding of that duality. Because just as his projects are visually arresting, they are conceptually complex, and they are most provocative when viewed not only with the eye but with the mind.

Vivan Sundaram: Terraoptics continues at Sepia Eye (547 West 27th Street, 608, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 24. 

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A Photographer Captures the Sumptuous Loneliness of American Subcultures

posted on May 12, 2017 in Hyperallergic

In his show at Garvey Simon Art Access, Timothy Hursley presents photographic investigations into Southern funeral homes, Mormon sects, and empty brothels.

Timothy Hursley, “Joe and Sally Conforte Suite, Mustang Ranch” (1987/1991), dye transfer print, 16 1/2 x 21 in (all images courtesy of Garvey Simon Art Access)

What do the interior design of Nevada brothels, the storage caves of fundamentalist Mormons, Southern funeral homes, and Andy Warhol’s Factory all have in common? They are all part of the disquieting and beautiful photographic investigations by Timothy Hursley in Tainted Lens, currently on view at Garvey Simon Art Access in Chelsea.

Known primarily as a commercial photographer specializing in architecture, Hursley has an ongoing series of personal photographic projects that he pursues between commercial gigs. This exhibition presents a mixture of images from several of those series, including Brothels of Nevada, Funeral Homes South USA, and Polygamy/FLDS. Though disparate in location and subject matter, they all share a common thread: Hursley has taken a deep dive into off-the-grid American subcultures. These are worlds that we have seen glimpses of in the films of David Lynch, Larry Clark’s iconic book Tulsa, and the photographs of William Eggleston. But a critical difference strikes you as you stand in a room of Hursely’s photographs: There are virtually no people in his work. While the aforementioned artists — and so many others who have sought to capture bits of eccentric America — work with images of people, Hursley writes visual narratives that are devoid of them.


Timothy Hursley, “Pocahontas Arkansas” (2016), C-print mounted on Dibond, 26 1/2 x 34 in.


Timothy Hursley, “Polygamist Girls, Bountiful, British Columbia” (2010), C-print mounted on Dibond, 27 1/2 x 34 in


And what stories he tells! Some of the most moving work in the show is of empty brothel rooms, architecture designed for artificial gaiety, sex, and commerce. They are laden with heavy, hot color, garish furnishings, and utter loneliness. There are four related photos from brothels in Nevada hung next to each other that tell a short story in pictures. They all share the same decorating scheme: cheap gold furniture that, to some, might convey a dream of luxury, and light filtered through heavy red curtains drawn lazily against the desert sun. In “Girls Parlor” (1986/1990), we see the off-kilter bodies of two women on a couch — just their bodies, from neck to floor. They sit, carefully placed apart on a white couch, a space wide enough for a man to sit between them, their sagging breasts and passive flesh clothed in negligees. We peer through the base of a coffee table in “Chicken Ranch Parlor” (1986/1990). The ornate decorative golden nude women holding up the marble tabletop don’t look sexy; they look like slaves.

Timothy Hursley, “Girls Parlor Chicken Ranch” (1986/1990), dye transfer print, 16 1/2 x 21 in


Timothy Hursley, “Chicken Ranch Parlor, Pahrump, Nevada” (1986/1990), dye transfer print, 16 1/2 x 21 in


Timothy Hursley, “Kids Room, Carlin Social Club, Carlin, Nevada” (1988/1990), dye transfer print, 16 1/2 x 21 in


The image that completes the story is “Kid’s Room, Carlin Social Club” (1988/1990). Here we see three sides of a room, two painted a sickly pink and the third with the veneer of a log cabin. There is no furniture, just ubiquitous red carpeting strewn with discarded and broken toys. We don’t know if this is a place to park your children while being serviced or a “playroom” for the children of employees. Either way, the message is grim.

The gallery carefully played with color when installing this show. Immediately next to the “red” photos are two that are suffused in purple and green. “Desert Doll House” (1987/1990) is composed like a photo from an interior design magazine, looking through the doorway of one room into the eerie light of another. The far room glows with a most unnatural shade of green. Banal wood paneling and cheap white furniture appear in a haze. The outer room is in stale suburban décor, save for the fleet of kitchen timers lined up on a cabinet, waiting to be put to use by the ladies.

Timothy Hursley, “Desert Doll House, Hawthorne, Nevada” (1987/1990), dye transfer print, 16 1/2 x 21 in

The longer you look at these photos, the creepier they feel. It is with a keen sense of humor that the gallery hung Hursley’s quadriptych “Alabama Silo” (2008) next to the brothel imagery. Four photos that portray a tall grain silo in various states of deflation are an unmistakable comment on the irony of sex.

Timothy Hursley, “Alabama Silo, Hale County, Alabama” (2008), C-print mounted on Dibond, 23 1/2 x 60 in

About half the prints in the show are “dye transfer,” a photographic printing technique recognized by its deep, saturated colors. The color in these photographs is sumptuous: reds, aquas, and blues pop with hyperreal richness. Color underscores strangeness in Hursley’s interiors. Even the cooler-toned photos — shots of decidedly unsexy Mormon fundamentalist life and of funeral homes — are suffused with luscious tones. The beauty of the prints belies the deep loneliness of the worlds they portray, but Hursley documents these subcultures without judgment or comment. Despite their literal absence from each image, the occupants of these worlds are evoked with great eloquence by the spaces they have left behind.

Timothy Hursley, “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) Cave, Hildale, Utah” (2007), C-print mounted on Dibond, 28

Timothy Hursley, “Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) Cave, Hildale, Utah” (2007), C-print mounted on Dibond, 28


Timothy Hursley, “Dog Food Factory, North Little Rock, Arkansas” (2011), C-print mounted on Dibond, 30 x 34 in


Timothy Hursley: Tainted Lens continues at Garvey/Simon Art Access (547 West 27th Street, Suite 207, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 10.


Garvey/Simon Art Access Timothy Hursley


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The Inner World of a Man Who Taught Himself How to Draw

in Hyperallergic. March 6, 2017

The show at Kerry Schuss Gallery focuses on the later years of Ray Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), ballpoint pen, marker on paper, 14 x 17 in, RH044 (all images courtesy Kerry Schuss Gallery unless otherwise noted)

Kerry Schuss Gallery is currently showing a retrospective of the short career of a self-taught artist named Ray Hamilton (1919–1996), and it’s a beautiful, delicate exhibition of one man’s inner world. The show focuses on the later years of Hamilton’s 14-year art career, the time period that he worked after suffering a serious stroke in 1990.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH133

Although the facts of Hamilton’s life are sketchy, we do know that he was born in Columbia, South Carolina, had a career in the Navy, and ended up living in Brooklyn. After his stroke, he started attending adult classes at a not-for-profit organization called H.A.I. (Healing Arts Initiative) that works with adults with developmental issues. Given rudimentary drawing tools — ballpoint pens, graphite, and colored pencil on plain paper — he communicated his observations of the worlds both inside and outside his body.

There is something about the thin, hard line of a ballpoint pen that must have appealed to Hamilton. Many of his drawings consist of pen lines so dense that they have embossed the paper, creating a dimensionality that is palpable. The push and pull between blue ballpoint pen lines and the softer marks of graphite and colored pencil help to create a figure-and-ground relationship atypical of self-taught art.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1992), watercolor, pencil on paper, 17 x 14 in, RH134

Many of Hamilton’s drawings bear a striking kinship to contemporary art. All of the pieces in the show are untitled, identified only with a gallery index number. “RH128” reminded me instantly of a Jasper Johns drawing. Hamilton had a singular way of making shapes that were both something and not something. They refer to an object, in this case a pair of men’s shoes, but are simultaneously a pair of elegant abstract shapes. They are slightly staggered, as if the walker were a tad unsteady on his feet, perhaps the feet of the artist. Drawn in dense, soft graphite, they are surrounded by a sea of lightly drawn words, the logic of which was known only to Hamilton. Most of his drawings have this gentle background of abstracted language, some discernible, some words too faint to read. Perhaps this helped to organize his daily reality and thoughts. It’s hard to know what damage he suffered as a result of the stroke, but the incessant categorizing that occurs in all of his drawings feels to be almost mantra-like. He writes his name over and over again, as if to say, “I am still Ray Hamilton; this is who I am.”

Installation view of Ray Hamilton: Drawings at Kerry Schuss Gallery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1989), pencil and ball point pen on paper, 15 x 22 in, RH128

I find these drawings of hands and feet to be some of the most compelling in the show. It is noteworthy that in both “RH133” and “RH 134,” the left appendages appear normal, but the right-sided ones are twisted and unnatural. I can’t help but read this as a self-portrait of Hamilton, presumably affected by stroke on one side of his body.

Hamilton had the remarkable ability to tread the line between abstraction and figuration, as evidenced in his works where he traced objects. He would often, as in “RH005,” make multiple tracings of an object, each a little different from the previous one, each imbued with individual energy, pulsing next to the others. There is an innate sense of design and composition that is consistent throughout Hamilton’s work. In this piece, as in others, the objects are stripped down to their essentials with just the right amount of space between them so that they relate to one another on the page in a most potent way.

Ray Hamilton, “Untitled” (1990), pencil, colored pencil, ball point on paper, 22 x 30 in, RH005

Hamilton portrays bits and pieces of his life, seemingly random shapes, that may have had deeper significance for him. He captures the visual tidbits that one sees in an ordinary day — animals, a lamp, a window, a pear. While each drawing stands beautifully on its own, together, these fragmented observations make a portrait of an artist recording his daily life and invite us into his inner world.

Ray Hamilton: Drawings continues at Kerry Schuss Gallery (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 12.  

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Peace and Grief in the Art of US Veterans

Feb 13, 2017 in Hyperallergic

The exhibition Not Alone provides access to a complicated and difficult subject matter that intends to open up and bridge dialogue between civilians and those who have served.

Installation view, Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces (photo by Phillip Maisel)

SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco War Memorial Veteran’s Building hosts an eclectic group of arts organizations. For many years it housed the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, several theaters, the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) gallery, and an array of Veteran’s organizations. Today the art museum is long gone, but several arts and veterans-service organizations remain.

Honoring and advancing the building’s legacy, SFAC Director Meg Shiffler and co-curator Jason Hanasik have installed a powerful new exhibition in the Arts Commission Gallery. Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces forges a bridge between the public at large and the Bay Area veteran’s community. Organized thematically, the exhibition begins with work related to the Vietnam War but has a stronger focus on America’s many conflicts from the 1980s to the present, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Shiffler and Hanasik have included artworks made by veterans as well as by their siblings and spouses. It is a deeply affecting exhibition and one that has evoked a strong response from the community. “The veterans who attend have been moved,” Shiffler told me, “and many have been back multiple times to spend more time with the show.” She added that the SFAC staff has been doing significant outreach to the general population. “Unlike other exhibitions, we’re finding that most visitors want to engage with the staff in various ways. We are a municipal gallery dedicated to engaging artists and artwork in exhibitions that promote civic dialogue, and Not Alone is anchoring an incredible foundation of respect, information flow, and open dialogue.”

Installation view, Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces (photo by Yuqing Max Luo)

A tremendous amount of thought has gone into this show. “This is not an exhibition about war or the military-industrial complex,” Shiffler said. “It is about people who have served — about their hardships, pride, fears, relationships, and so much more.” The timing of the exhibition is intentional as well: It opened around Veterans Day and will remain on display through mid-March — coinciding with the beginning of the Trump presidency. “The reason this exhibition is so important in this extremely political moment is that it provides access to a complicated and difficult subject matter through the vehicle of storytelling that intends to open up and bridge dialogue between civilians and those who have served, individual to individual.”

Suzanne Opton, from the “Soldier + Citizen” series (2005): Soldier Wright, 366 days in Iraq; soldier Jimenez, killed in Iraq; soldier Hipwell, 382 Days in Iraq; soldier Kubalewski, 390 days in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of the artist)

The journey through this exhibition is intense and demands some time. Though not exactly a joyful show, it is one filled with beautiful and affecting works. Photography in particular is a stand-out medium with which to express the profoundly mixed emotions of war and peace. Suzanne Opton’s large-scale black-and-white photos from the series “Soldier + Citizen” (2005) are close-up portraits of American soldiers in between deployments, each of whom is being gently touched or embraced by a loved one. The hard, unwavering eyes of the soldiers looking away from the camera are a sharp contrast to the soft hands that touch their faces, hair, and necks, as if the warmth of a loved one’s embrace could break the spell of war. These are clearly posed portraits, and each has a delicacy and elegance of design that belies the underlying sadness of the subject.

Jessica Hines’ project “My Brother’s War” (2007–16) is the artist’s sensitive attempt to reconcile and artistically reconnect with her brother, who committed suicide 10 years after his return from Vietnam. Using his letters and “souvenir” photos from the 1960s, Hinds went to Vietnam to retrace her brother’s steps. She has combined his now-vintage photos with imagery from her trip and snippets of his letters to create a visual narrative that weaves their two stories together. Many of the photos have the slightly “blasted” look of overexposed Kodachrome, and often the light is deliberately a bit too harsh, the color a little off-kilter. But the imagery is

Jessica Hines, from “My Brother’s War” (2008)(photo courtesy of the artist)  

delicately constructed — echoing, perhaps, the elusive nature of memory. As part of the gallery’s ongoing public art installation along Market and Van Ness Streets, the curators have used these images to create 36 posters for outdoor public display on kiosks Printed large, they look like an almost psychedelic journey.

One of the most original projects in the show is by ceramicist Ehren Tool, who enlisted in the Marines in 1989 and served in both the Desert Shield and Desert Storm conflicts. After his discharge, Tool used the GI Bill to go to Pasadena City College and the University of Southern California. He then went on to receive his MFA at UC Berkeley in 2005.




Ehren Tool working in his studio surrounded by finished cups (photo by Yuqing Max Luo)

Tool has set up a potter’s studio in the SFAC gallery. He is in residence almost every weekend, throwing hundreds of cups, which, at the conclusion of the show, he will give away to the public. Onto these prosaic objects, he collages the imagery of war. Tool has invited the pubic to bring him imagery of violence, war, and trauma, as well as advertisements and ephemera of popular culture and news. Personal memorabilia from strangers and other veterans are turned into decals and used to decorate the surface of the vessels. Glazed with very typical ceramic colors — blue, brown, terra cotta — these cups seem ordinary, but when you look closely at them, the subject matter that emerges grabs at your heart. I asked Tool why he made cups and his answer was as eloquent as the work is powerful:

    “Peace is the only adequate war memorial. Everything else is at best a failure and usually something that glorifies war. I started making paintings and drawings and prints about the surreal experience of going to war and coming home and seeing your gas mask sold as a toy for children ‘ages 6 and up.’ Somehow, for me, the cup seems the appropriate scale to talk about war: hand-to-hand, person-to-person. Things get confused with scale. A cup is personal. Stalin said one death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. I think a million war dead is an incalculable tragedy. Making cups is a pretty small gesture in the face of all that is going on around the world, but it is what I have. I don’t think anything I do will change the world, but nothing in the world releases me from my obligation to try.”

In a separate area of the gallery, Shiffler and Hanasik have installed a show within the show: a separate but related project entitled The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes. Within a highly structured set of guidelines, the curators asked 90 artists (both veterans and non-veterans) to play the Exquisite Corpse game: Three artists each worked on a total of 30 drawings, each one illustrating a different part of the same human image. The critical point here is that each artist was tasked with drawing the body parts of a real person, someone dead or alive who had been in war. The results are visually beautiful, but once you understand the details of the game, a chill runs up your spine. They are literally exquisite corpses.

“The Exquisite Corpse of the Unknown Veteran,” organized by Jeanne Dunning and Aaron Hughes, ongoing (photo by Phillip Maisel)

All in all, Not Alone is a very ambitious undertaking. I admire the curators’ commitment to an often overlooked segment of the Bay Area community, and in the midst of this incredibly divisive time, any attempt to bring disparate groups together in conversation is welcome. It helps that the level of discourse presented here is sophisticated, respectful, well-curated, and emotionally rich.

Not Alone: Exploring Bonds Between and With Members of the Armed Forces continues at San Francisco Arts Commission War Memorial Veterans Building (401 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 126, Civic Center Historic District, San Francisco) through March 18.

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