Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Has Bill T. Jones Lost His Mind?

…or just his politics?

A Quarreling Pair (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) is a strange, disturbing show – and not in a good way. Bill T. Jones latest is an extravaganza with a vaudevillian premise. One of the musicians announces company members in various acts, as burlesque performers, acrobats, and the titular sisters. But right now, anyone in New York City can see contemporary, sometimes titillating, often erotic, queer, and overtly political burlesque (if you're lucky, all at the same time) for the cost of a few drinks. So simply presenting a vaudevillian frame is far from cutting-edge, or even very interesting. Something has to be done with that cabaret frame. Yet Jones neither takes it over the top, nor challenges its politics. Instead, he simply gives us bad vaudeville – Asli "Boom Boom's" burlesque is both tame and trite (Jones could have called Brown Girls Burlesque for something sexier), and the "acrobats" are unimaginative and unimpressive (he could have called lava for something more interesting and, well, actually acrobatic). Adding to the confusion, the performers are sometimes set in an early 20th century context, and sometimes in the 70s or more recently, as with two go-go-ing young men (whose section is way too long) in briefs and sneakers.

If the frame is weak, the narrative inside it does not hang together any better. Is it a behind-the scenes story of sideshow characters' "real" lives? Is it a simple variety show? Early on we are told that one of the "quarreling pair" speaks to the dead – but we see no evidence of this, and at the end, when the dead speak to her, she seems either dazed or confused. And why would this woman run away from her sister to become a famous singer, then botch her performances by taking the sister's calls on stage? The seemingly random mash-up of times, stories, and styles simply does not make sense, either as a narrative piece or as a postmodern collage. The audience cannot see ourselves in these confused scenes any more than we can understand the characters themselves. And while the dancing is, of course, lovely and engaging – nothing has diminished Jones' status as a master choreographer – there is too little of it to keep the audience's interest. In short, none of the concepts or characters were strong enough for Jujustring to care.

But if A Quarreling Pair was just a poorly conceived performance, JJS would not have bothered to write about it at all. Everyone, especially stalwarts such as Bill T. Jones, are allowed an "off" piece. (Baryshnikov is, evidently, allowed more than one.) What was more shocking and upsetting was the offensive politics of the performance, which endorses the cliché that avant-garde creators who, as they age, question the efficacy of – or get tired of – addressing "issues" in their work. You couldn't fault Jones if, after the explicitly political Still/Here, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Blind Date he just wanted to create something lighter. The problem is that his "fun" comes at the expense of black women and nonheteronormative figures.

The following questions are roughly in order of the occurrence of the events in the piece; their order does not necessarily correspond to their offensiveness. Why does a white man turn his partner and equal, a previously "mystical" black man, into a horny, pissing dog? Why is women's intimacy reduced to a stereotypical heterosexual male erotic (but not sexual) fantasy? Why is playful, affectionate, intimacy almost exclusively reserved for heterosexual pairs? Why is eroticism or intimacy between men almost nonexistent? Why is the biggest joke of the piece a stereotypical caricature – a cursing, Mexican transvestite who is terrified of women's genitalia? Why is that same transvestite scripted as repeatedly verbally, and then physically abusing a black woman until she is near death? Why does that black woman – who was strong enough to defy her domineering older sister and leave home – too feeble to even fight back? And how did Jones get here from the 1945 Jane Bowles play that inspired him, and is full of "irony" and "lesbian sensibility"?*

JJS does not actually think Bill T. Jones has lost his mind. A Quarreling Pair probably would have been much more interesting if Jones was older and senile. JJS isn't even completely willing to say he's lost his politics. But clearly, he has lost his perspective. Major amounts of money were obviously poured into this show – constant costume changes, a multimedia set, and of course the hard-working dancers and musicians. Perhaps Jones would do better without the bells and whistles – not to repeat the dances he's done before, but to go back to basics and focus on craft and concept, to put more dance back into his dances and not rely on stock characters and stereotypes. Or perhaps this is simply the beginning of the denouement of his career. For the sake of audiences who appreciate beautiful and thoughtful dance, we hope not!





*from http://www.glbtq.com/literature/bowles_ja.html

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Scary Gorgeous: Virtual Studio Visit to LauraSplan.com

Laura Splan's work is beautiful, delicate, and disturbing.  (An alternate title for this posting could be "Blood and Beauty Products.")  Her website showcases sculpture, photos, videos, other digital art, and works on paper that make you cringe while also making you want to lean into the screen, looking closer and closer until you fall into her world.

JJS examined this website from the bottom up (largely bypassing the section titled "installation views," which shows not installation art but the installation of other artwork on the site).

Because she mostly magnifies and alters materials we all own, particularly blood and skin, there is a natural fascination with Splan's art.  You'll want to continue to look, though, because of the skill with which she examines and manipulates her materials.

For instance, in the video "Disbursement & Accumulation" the initial beautiful burst of blood-like fluid evaporates into a more disturbing residue left behind.  According to the artist, another work, the photographs "Underneath (1-4)" display what we see when we peel back the layers of our hopes, fears, and ambivalence towards the human body.  A perfectly reasonable interpretation, but the surgical drawings on skin can also be read as humans' precise, beautiful attempts to understand the body through science and cosmology (the drawings look a lot like astronomical charts).

Given Splan's subject matter, the more tactile her work is, the more successful it is.  More conventionally-produced work, such as the photographs "Exam Gown" and "Simple maneuvers" are not as compelling as the "Underneath" series or "X-ray Visions and Morphine Dreams" photo collages.  Ironically, her 2-d prints and drawings pulse with life, not only because many of them use her own blood, but because they appear to be microscopic organisms caught in action.  And many of the drawings are actually based on scientific forms which, of course, have their own beautiful design.  The second and third "Reflexive" drawing series particularly stand out with thin forms that appear to crawl across the page as you watch.

Splan's sculpture wisely veers away from trying to portray the body to presenting everyday objects – especially medical tools – in extreme form.  Her 25 foot-long functional stethoscope, four foot-long tongue depressors, and huge functioning catheter make us cringe in a different way than the blood-soaked drawings and prints.  But the sculptures' impact does not go far beyond shock value, while the drawings and print images linger and call the viewer back for third and fourth looks.

The question of whether Splan's work would be as compelling if we did not know that she is using blood or representing the body is moot – the whole point of her work is its relationship to corporeality.  When considering her wallpaper and doily designs painted with blood, we cannot separate the material and the image.

The website is impeccably organized and extremely user-friendly.  And the art images themselves flow together well partly because Splan's subject matter is so consistent across media and representations.  Finally, it is great – and rare – to read an artist statement that accurately describes how someone other than the artist might view the work.  Splan, who seems to have been honing her craft for years, understands the inside and outside of her own artwork as much as she understands the body's surface and inner systems.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Colors of Craft

This posting could ask why crafters of color aren't more visible – but that question has been asked so many times of so many arenas, over so many years.  It's an important, relevant question, but not the most interesting one.  

The more interesting question is why the craft aesthetic is so uniform. The overwhelming images are of 1950s and 1960s kitsch – brightly colored, geometric (mostly round) shapes, and semi-ironic pictures of women in dresses with crinoline.  In fact, lots of "craft" reminds me of what a Washington Post journalist once said about USA Today: "Just like Fisher Price toys, it's appropriate for small children - all bright colors and soft edges."  The particular nostalgia shown in these craft motifs reinforces stereotypes about gender, race, class and sexuality.  And if the bored housewife theme isn't your thing, it's also monotonous and annoying.

Bright colors and softness are great – but where is everything else? Where are the objects that aren't afraid to speak a direct message, that draw on more recent - or older - inspirations, the ones with a darker sense of humor, some sharp and pointy edges?

That's why Crafty Chica is so refreshing.  Kathy Cano-Murillo's empire (you think that word is too vast?  The Chica's got products in Michael's, her own crafty cruise, a web-video show, and an eye-popping website to tell you all about it!  Check out craftychica.com) – Where were we?  Her empire is awesome – and it's based on a wide variety of crafts, many of which draw on her Chicana cultura.  She'll give you directions to DIY Day of the Dead altars and sell you Latina Power Bracelets and Mighty Mujer Purses.  And she'll also tell you about her "Hip Home Décor," ribbon frames, and a multitude of ideas that aren't as culturally-specific.

There's a sincerity, a joy in her website that makes you think Crafty Chica is just being herself – making things based on whatever inspiration hits her in the moment.  In a recent post, she wrote  "Empanada pin cushions! After seeing so many fiber artists have their way with cupcake pincushions, I thought I'd throw a little needle love to Mexican puff pastries."  She points out a trend that could be read as benign, annoying, and/or ethnocentric, but instead of dwelling on it, she does her own thing.  Craft on!

With a little hunting (and a lot of looking at pages other folks' link to), JJS found some other poc crafters with a little edge.  You can start with the Black Crafters Guild, based in Canada, which features folks who make jewelry, paper, soap, "edible art," and other crafty types - blackcrafters.ning.com – Some individual sites are:  SistahCraft (for needlework) - sistahcraft.typepad.com – and Black Purl magazine – in print and online at www.black-purl-magazine.com - Are the knitters and crochet-ers more organized or just more searchable than other crafty types?  And where are the API (Asian/Pacific/Islander), Arab, and Native crafters?  Drop a comment and tell JJS about other crafty poc.

So remember those questions about invisibility and racism?  As tired as these questions are, they continue to exist because the inequities that cause them continue to exist.  In a brief post at http://www.sheeptoshawl.com/blog/index.php?blogid=1&query=crafting  blogger Donna Druchunas asks "Is the crafting world prejudiced?  It's good that a self-described "pasty-skinned" person is asking this question.  It's good that people all over and of all backgrounds continue to ask these questions, and it's even better when they try to answer them or try to change the existing answers.  JJS does a lot of that off the 'net, so this space looks more at how race and other issues function within art than at how they function in larger societies.  Ok, ok, here's an answer:

Crafters of color are everywhere – you can see them on the subway knitting or crocheting.  You will see them in craft stores buying their supplies.  You may see them less often in classes, galleries, and museums, and hardly at all in the media, markets, or on the internet – that web that's so wide you get lost in it and forget what you were looking for.  This marginalization, this invisibility is about access and money and who owns and controls what.  It's true that story's been told; unfortunately, it repeats itself over and over so that it must be told again and again.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Virtual Studio Visit - Sonya Clark

Sonya Clarke – www.sonyaclark.com

I first came across Sonya Clarke's work in the "Pricked" exhibit at the Museum of Art & Design.  In it was her great little piece, "Afro Abe," a five dollar bill with the esteemed president sporting a righteous fro.  The best work on view on Clarke's website, shows the same playfulness and attention to detail.  The website organizes Clark's art by medium, date, and concept.  Jujustring chose concept for this virtual studio visit (although browsing by date gives you a better sense of how the work has developed).

Clark describes the first section, "Hands," as elegies to other craftspeople in her family.  The beaded sculptures "Little Hug," a necklace, and "Golden Touch," tiny gloves made to fit on the fingertips have a great sense of humor.  Other pieces, such as the hand with plant-like roots entitled "Growing" and "Handy," a collection of tiny hands linked to a photograph of human hands, are more poignant. "Fingerprints," images silk screened on cloth, is also very effective and is the only piece in the series that does not involve beads.

None of Clark's work is precious, a criticism often levied against fine craft.  Interestingly, though, her less compelling pieces are often on a larger scale.  It seems as though the bigger the object, the harder the artist seems to be trying, and the more obvious the message becomes. In contrast, with the smaller works not only is her fine workmanship evident, but somehow the link between creativity and message seem more effortless.

 Clark's "Roots/Biology" section references science, history and, of course hair.  Most of the pieces here are not beaded, but instead use wire, cloth, and human hair.  And even when it's not made of hair, much of the work in this section references black hairstyles.  "Two Trees," a half-dome that is both landscape and disembodied scalp is both amusing and slightly disturbing.  The heads of "springy pair," "brown pair," and "black pair" featured in a later section titled "Pairs" are similarly affecting.  Easily moving from sculpture to wearable art, "Roots Necklace Green" and "Hair Necklace" are both beautiful and functional, if you're a bit daring.

Sculptures such as "Synapse" and "Mitosis" are less notable not because they more directly reference science, but because they merely illustrate science, rather than adding the twist or commentary that appears in Clark's other pieces.  A few sculptures that have the depth evident in the artist's best work are:  "Chromosomes," which consists of several dozen assorted beaded Xs and one Y; "Plexus," which is a beaded landscape; and "Dendrite," made of crocheted cotton and copper leaf, and resembling both a sea organism and an outrageous hairstyle. 

 Developing from the hair theme, after the "Roots" section comes "Head," which is broken down into the subsets "Wigs" and "Yoruba."  Unfortunately Clark's wigs are too literal to be very interesting.  The standout here is "Gossiping Hairdressers," in which the open eyes of two large-eyed ceramic heads are connected by a chain of beads.  Similarly, "Wigs" is one of Clark's larger groups of work, and though it is meticulously made, much of it is repetitive – again we see the half scalp with different hairstyles created in thread that first appeared in "Roots/Biology."

The Yoruba section is much more interesting – the shapes are more uncommon, the colors more vibrant, and the materials more varied, from felt, to beads, to velvet, grass, and nails.  While the shapes seem to largely be modeled on actual headdresses (and some will be familiar to those knowledgeable about West African religions), their unusualness in everyday life – and in contemporary fine art – makes them compelling.

 The final thematic section, "Combs," however, is an absolute revelation.  Using plastic black combs, the work recalls Chakaia Booker's use of another humble material to create moving, arresting, and technically outstanding sculpture.  It is hard to single pieces out of this wonderful set, but the curves of "Wavy Strand," and "Waves," are especially compelling.  The viewer doesn't need to read Clark's artist's statement to understand the cultural information and moments these pieces are referencing – or to appreciate the work's beauty.

For some reason the video pieces found under "Medium" do not appear at all under "Concept."  While Clark has been professionally creating art for almost 15 years, these shorts are all from 2003-2005.  They seem to be an exploration of the medium by someone who is more comfortable in the material world.  The videos are pretty straightforward, and are more interesting as part of Clark's evolving oeuvre than as individual works of art.  If she continues working with the moving image, perhaps she can imbue it with the nuances of humor, politics, and skill that her objects employ.

(By the way, if you enjoy Clark's work as much as JJS, don't neglect to check out her very reasonably priced catalogs.)


Virtual Studio Visits are just what they sound like.  They are an opportunity for JJS to examine – in as much depth as the artist's website allows – artists whose work was seen in a gallery, museum, or magazine.  It is also a way for you to interact with JJS – you can see all of the pieces discussed, and leave feedback about whether you agree or disagree with JJS' judgment.  If you know of – or are – an artist that you think JJS should conduct a virtual studio tour of, let JJS know!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Le Sacrilege du Printemps

If you want to see the most rank, the oldest and ugliest stereotypes of Africans, all you must do, evidently, is go to the Joyce Theater.

Heddy Maalem's restaging of Le Sacred du Printemps, choreographed specifically for a group of African dancers, was a bad idea from the beginning.  (If you don't know why Maalem, a (white-skinned) Algerian-Frenchman, is almost always referred to as Algerian, while his (all very dark) Nigerian, Senegalese, Togolese, and other dancers are always referred to as Africans,  you don't know as much about stereotypes as JJS thought!)  JJS almost didn't go to the performance.  But curiosity is a powerful draw.

When Stravinsky's harsh score was first performed in 1913 to Vaslav Nijinsky's risqué (often called – then and now – "primitive") choreography, there was a riot in the theater.  What happened to the good old days when audiences let artists know how they felt?

The piece is a disaster.  While the choreography seems to be trying to tell a story, the narrative is too disjointed to be coherent.  The dancers often are out of sync with each other.  The light and video components are simply distracting rather than adding to the feel or narrative of the dance.  And the costumes – colored underwear and bras – manage to reveal the dancers' bodies without flattering them.

Unfortunately, JJS does not believe in walking out of pieces early.  You know, curiosity is a dangerous thing.


û  û  û

Now, JJS rarely reads other reviews before posting on this blog.  But that rule was broken for this posting, just to make sure JJS didn't miss a flash of brilliance when checking the time left in the piece or looking around to see if the rest of the audience as a whole was similarly horrified.  (For the record, the audience – as a whole – didn't seem to be.)  The reviewers, though, largely concur with what is written above.  See for yourself:  the New York Times review at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/12/arts/dance/12spri.html and the Village Voice review at http://www.villagevoice.com/2008-06-10/dance/two-groups-tell-stravinsky-what-s-up-these-days/.  But these reviews also shocked JJS because none of them mention race.

A "primitive" dance originally created for and by Europeans is reset specifically for black African dancers – and no one mentions race.  The choreography consists mostly of the dancers either attacking each other or simulating orgies – and no one mentions race?  The choreographer goes so far as to have this dark ensemble repeatedly bare their teeth at the audience while some crawl across the stage – and no one mentions race!

Given the history and prominence of the original piece, given the choreographer's claim that his work is inspired by modern Lagos, and given his admitted fascination with dark-skinned African dancers, the color of the dancers seems, in this instance, to be at least as important as the lighting or the costumes.  If the choreographer can admit that he sees race – and that it is in fact an integral part of his performance – then reviewers should be able to see and discuss it as well.

         JJS is curious as to why race does not appear once in the major reviews of Capmagnie Heddy Maalem's performance.  JJS is curious as to why the Joyce didn't choose to present an African company or choreographer that sees something other than race in black African dancers (such as Germaine Acogny, Faustin Linyekula, or Nora Chipaumire).  And JJS wonders why, if Joyce programmers could not see that this Le Sacred du Printemps is offensive, that they could not at least see that it is just bad dance?

Curiosity, dear reader, is a dangerous thing…

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Problem with Performance Art

       Of course, there are many problems with performance art.  Self-indulgence, pointless obscurity, unearned gravity – and being boring, perhaps the greatest sin for art. (A hilarious send-up of these travesties is one of many reasons to see the musical Passing Strange.)
       This piece, however, is about the problem of documenting performance art. It's an issue JJS has run into not only while watching and sometimes creating performance art, but also while wondering about performances only heard of by folks such as Eleanor Antin, Penny Arcade, William Pope L., Nicolas Dumit Esteves, and others. The question "How should performance art be documented?" was ever-present in the recent show Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the 
Americas, 1960-2000 at El Museo del Barrio. (El Museuo's definition of the word "action" includes mail art, interactive art, and "interventions" as well as "performance art.")

     The exhibit presents a very wide spectrum of "documentation."  There were, as would be expected, videos and photographs – but there were also instructions, manifestoes, schematic drawings, props, and media coverage (often negative) of performances.
     Upon entering, in fact, no video was visible, which was disappointing at first. But by the time JJS reached the end of the exhibit and had looped around again, it was clear that video is often not the best way to experience archival, non-proscenium performance art. In fact, some of the videos were somewhat alienating – you can feel as though you're missing out on the energy of the work or its relationship to its social, political, or temporal context. Surprisingly, an object can sometimes convey more of the performance's energy.
     For instance, seeing the shiny, 8+foot-long blonde wigs worn by twins in an interactive performance bring the work more alive than a black and white photograph of the performers. Similarly, a typed manifesto from the 70s provides insight in to the performers' perspective and goals that may not be obvious in a video.
     Many of these non-video artifacts were probably exhibited because video from the 40 years of the works was not available. But even when it was available, video was often not ideal. Most of the performances were not in theaters, so the lighting and sound were often bad. And because many public performances – and the responses to them – are unscripted, the videographer can have trouble keeping up with the action. Ironically, objects and media that are incapable of capturing the full audio-visual experience can actually provide a better feel for or sense of the work.

û  û  û

     An exception to everything written above is a new video installation in the one-man show Work by Bill Shannon, better known to dance aficionados by his breakdancing name, Crutchmaster.
     To experience the major video installation of the exhibition, you sit in a chair with two very large screens to your left and right, forming and arc with another directly in front and one behind you. It's digital video surround-style, showing various NYC street scenes. If you get a chance to see this installation, stick with it; after a few minutes you realize each screen shows simultaneous footage of the same location from different angles. Shannon taped the footage by skateboarding through the streets with six hidden cameras. While the artist realizes – and often styles – the very presence of his dis/abled body as a kind of performance, he himself is visible in only one of the sequences. In it, he dances alone, at night, in an empty city intersection. It is a lovely moment, a quiet contrast to the other crowded, bustling street scenes.
     The work is itself compelling, but it is also useful for thinking about performance documentation. While Shannon's installation obscures the artist, the performer, and his specific performance, the simultaneous video also highlights the performance of everyday activity, and immerses the viewer in that auditory and visual experience. Because the video literally surrounds you, you can feel that you are in the scene and not just watching it.

û  û  û

     So, what is the best way to document performance art?  There is not one best way.  If the performance is meant for a traditional proscenium stage, then a straightforward video might approximate the live audience experience. (Though I'm sure there was an energy present during, for instance, Yoko Ono's Cut Piece that isn't palpable in the video.) And as compelling as 360° video may be, it is only appropriate and feasible for a small number of projects.
     Aside from demonstrating that performance art and other creative "actions" neither originated in nor were dominated by Europeans and North Americans, the greatest achievement of Arte ≠ Vida is to reveal how much notes, schematics, and other physical artifacts can convey the experience of performance art. After all, most of this genre is not meant to be viewed days or years later; it is meant to be experienced immediately, in the zone that artist Gabrielle Civil calls "performance time." Those of us who miss the actual experience are lucky to get whatever residue or documentation we can.

See: elmuseo.org, virtualprovocateur.com, gabriellecivil.com

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Arturo Lindsay's LOVE

Love.  Are you rolling your eyes already?  Trite, clichéd, annoying – we think we've heard everything about love.  But love among people of color is still hardly discussed outside of magazines and private conversations.  And it is rarely the subject of visual art.

Thankfully, in his refreshing exhibit at MoCADA (the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts), Panamanian-American Arturo Lindsay gives us a wide and thoughtful range of work.  His humorous covers of a fictional men's magazine – all featuring him, of course, provide a light interlude between much more serious work.

The lush installation in the back room ties earthly human love to religious and spiritual love.  Thousands of shells are layered with other objects beneath floating feathers.  On the perimeter of the circle are four pillars topped with religious symbols from Yoruba-derived practices.  The entire piece is almost enclosed by white gauze, leaving just enough room for one person to walk in and pay her or his respects – if, of course, we were allowed to touch the artwork!

This gorgeous installation leaves you in a peaceful, quiet mood at the end of the exhibition, meditating on the different expressions of love in African/diaspora communities.

But quiet meditation was not the mood at the opening of the exhibit.  Several generations of the Panamanian community turned out to support their son with traditional singing, dancing, food, and lots of energy.  Even Laurie A. Cumbo, MoCADA's director and curator, was surprised by the turnout.  I hope she encourages more community-oriented openings.  Though the place was completely packed, that just forced people to mingle rather closely and have even more fun.

Several weeks after visiting the exhibit, Jujustring saw Lindsay give a talk at "Here & Now" a conference on African-American art and African film.  He was incredibly dynamic, pouring librations for the ancestors and speaking in English, Spanish, and everything in between.  He talked a lot about his own arts activism - check out the art colony and collective he founded in Colon, Panama via his website, www.arturolindsay.com

For more info:  mocada.org