Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Yellow Brick Road..?

(Late Review No. 2; revised.)

Dorothy's Tornado by Ron Balser. An inscription reads: "The yellow brick road leads only to your self."

"Electronic prose" by Ronald Davis Balser at Fay Gold Gallery. The granite bench at left is also by Balser. (Images courtesy of the artist and Fay Gold Gallery.)
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
- The Wizard of Oz

And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.
- Clement Greenberg, from “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”
Appropriating the vocabulary of finance, Ronald Davis Balser calls his new operation Balser Art Ventures. The name suggests, by phonetic similarity, a journey of “adventures.” His sculptures are functional; he makes marble benches engraved with motivational snippets of “fatherly advice.”
The clean lines and consistent typeset indicate the use of lasers. Although I’ll admit the craftsmanship in works such as See the World has improved, the sculptures are incredibly pedestrian overall. In an attempt at poetic aphorism, the inscriptions assume a surprisingly low level of literacy.

You can see a clear example of Ron Balser's electronic marquees on his website. The sample message reads:
Today’s rootstock is tomorrow’s harvest… sow with due care and deliberate haste.
Hoard from the spring vines the blossoms of love & life…
Even pessimist cannot deny possibilities.
Although Ron acknowledges inspiration from Jenny Holzer's famous truisms, he says her work is a little too "negative." Here's one of my favorites by Holzer:

Private Property Created Crime by Jenny Holzer. Yes, that is Times Square. This was a project completed in 1985.

Although the term "revolutionary" would be a bad pun, Holzer's work expanded the practical boundaries of public art.1 We all remember Daniel Canogar's Clandestinos... Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Holzer innovated the practice of politicized projections on public buildings and monuments. Plus that installation at the Guggenheim was fabulous. Nothing says "Big Brother" more than 360 degrees of propaganda. I wish I had seen it in person.

Jenny Holzer, Truism Bench.

Surprise surprise. I had no idea Holzer also made benches..! One of these is currently located in Columbus Park in Brooklyn, NY. The message facing us reads:
I suppose I can understand Balser's apprehension. Considering his background, Jenny Holzer's confrontational message is probably wholly incompatible with his worldview. Balser is the founder of Balsor Companies, an insurance consultancy located in Atlanta. His aesthetic training is rather recent, and it shows.

Holzer, on the other hand, is a member of the art circle descending from Second-wave feminism. Although feminists were, and continue to be, women of all colors and beliefs, the bulk of Holzer's truisms intersect with Leftist ideology. "Private Property Created Crime" is a position of historical materialism.

I'll keep my political opinions to myself, but I know I have more than one feminist reader, so I'm curious: Are these ideas dated? How do you separate the question of gender liberation in these works from the question of general liberation?

Compared to Holzer's deliberately subversive aphorisms, Ron's message - in terms of attitude and political subtext - seems like a diametric opposite:

This sculpture, Bill & Bernie's, can be seen at the Georgia Aquarium. It was created in honor of Bernie Marcus, the renowned aquarium mogul and CEO of Home Depot.

The Successful.

Ron Balser, Go Forth 2. This is a copy of the bench placed on the campus of Emory University, located at the Goizueta Business School.

Allow me to use the language of the financial world: if I was an Emory alumnus, this would not inspire me to donate to the Alma Mater. Balser's truisms are, by design, drained of all political content. If you ask me, they read a lot like corporate slogans. An appropriate lawn decor for the American robber baron.

Aesthetically, I find these sculptures boring. However, this is a statement that - by logical extension - I'm willing to make towards Jenny Holzer's bench. Her benches weren't very interesting either. But the physical form isn't what gives her work value. As in her Times Square piece above, her success is due to a combination of her textual content, its spacial placement within the public sphere, and, above all, the professional bravado involved in getting it up there. Balser's benches have no such redeeming qualities.

And then there's the question of originality. Balser's work is an awful lot like that of a well-known, established artist. Although the industry, for some time now, has looked favorably on the practice of mimicry and appropriation, I wonder: do these works qualify as an appropriately "recontextualized" use of someone else's ideas?

I'll leave this to my readers to decide.

I will say that the green sculpture in the middle, See the World, did show promise. The red glow from left glinted on the marble surface as I walked by. The asking price on Balser's website is $90,000... I'm no sculptor and I certainly have little experience with public art. Could someone educate me please?

The two exhibitions, Balser and a photographer named Arno Minnkinen, overlapped in this corner. The experience was surreal. A few people around me were talking about corporate dinners... It reminded me of back when I worked in this building.


1 You can read more about public space and Jenny Holzer here.

* - *

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

More on Terence McKenna; Warren Ellis

From Iron Man Extremis, by Writer Warren Ellis and Artist Adi Gradinov. Comic books aren't just about explosions and wacky powers. Notice the calculated, cinematic flow from panel to panel.

Funny. While I was thinking over Sam Parker's review, I found another, wholly coincidental, mention of Terence McKenna in the Iron Man Extremis graphic novel. If you've seen the movie starring Robert Downey Jr., this is one of the books that provided primary inspiration for the film.

Above: this is a scene that forms the "moral center" of the story. Tony Stark and his scientist colleague, Maya, visit one of their mentors, a sagely hippie researcher named Sal. It's rather quiet; they discuss the ethics of technology, military funding, and the problem of "using one's talents" for something genuinely good. Despite the science fiction content, Warren Ellis writes some rather believable dialog.

Their conversation is visually juxtaposed with scenes of violence. Maya has developed a sort of biological weapon called "Extremis." It's a virus that basically gives you superhuman strength and reflexes. The young man in gray-green - a member of an American right-wing militia - uses the virus to kill dozens of military guards and innocent civilians. The scene is an excellent example of pastiche or what Frederic Jameson calls "blank parody." It's an appropriation of a scene from The Matrix, but without the heroics. Guns are useless.

So, while the group in one scene discusses the consequences of their research, the other scene shows us in terrible detail. The mention of psychedelic drugs and Terence McKenna is given by, interestingly, the comic's "voice of experience." Sal explains:
Drugs are technologies, Tony. In places where humanity first arose, there were psychedelic mushrooms. It’s a medical fact that those mushrooms improve visual acuity. That would make early humans better hunters.
That Iron Man suit you built, Tony – It has sensors, zoom lenses and the like? … Same thing. Whatever moron you stuff into that suit can see better. Same with early humans who had mushrooms in their diet.
Of course, I would never encourage the use of illegal substances. Remember: Just Say No!

But the discussion is meaningful to me, since by citing anthropology and history, it makes optimistic speculations about the future. I can dig that. Plus, it was terribly interesting to see something like McKenna pop up locally in Sam's pictures and then to experience it in a completely different context the same week.


Iron Man Extremis (June 2007). ISBN# 0785122583.

Images above copyright 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. If you're interested, Iron Man Extremis is available at Oxford Comics on Piedmont and Book Nook in Decatur. I also have a copy. You can borrow whatever you want. Adi Gradinov's illustrations are excellent, and Warren Ellis is still one of my favorite writers - inside or outside of comics.

: )


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Frieze Magazine

So I sent out a submission for the 2008 Frieze Magazine Writer's Prize for art criticism. The basic idea was decent, but I can already see two or three very ugly sentences. Grrrr...!

Here's an excerpt from an early draft - probably the only section I really like:
Her “scalp” is covered with a crown of cigarette filters, a found-object simulation of a hairstyle achievable either through chemotherapy or, as the subtext implies, extreme neglect. The sculpture is one of two child-sized figures entitled Young Americans by Marcus Kenney. Despite her proportions and cartoon features, the woman depicted is certainly an adult. Her skin – also made from cigarettes – looks like the hide of some impossibly pale reptile. The sculpture is a caricature, although quite possibly observed from life, of what is known in the US as a “cracker” or “white trash.”
To be honest, I was really nervous through the whole process. It wasn't nearly as fun as the writing I do here.

But I'm interested in starting over and possibly retooling the whole thing. Maybe for a regional publication? I wonder if I'm a little too late for that now...

We'll see. : )


Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Road to Excess

Preemptive Strike by Sam Parker. (Courtesy of Young Blood Gallery. This image is much larger than its thumbnail. Please click?)

I paint a lot of Asian imagery as well as hearts and skulls - classic icons.
- Sam Parker, interview with Pine Magazine, Jan. 2007.
It’s been more than 15 months since that interview, and - in a genuinely good way - it shows.

Parker’s latest series of drawings, The Road to Excess, feels like a significant leap forward. Although the show is purely monochrome, nothing important was lost with the lack of color. In each of these tightly executed and highly affordable drawings, Parker compensates with an acrobatic arsenal of imagery.

The clich├ęd Asian themes are mostly gone. In works like Preemptive Strike, dragons and Ukyo wave motifs have been abandoned in favor of pure pop and Mesoamerican myth.

Preemptive Strike, detail.

You can't see clearly in the detail, but the word balloon contains a quotation from George Orwell's 1984: "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH". The phrase forms part of the propaganda mantra that reappears throughout the book:
War is Peace;
Freedom is Slavery;
Ignorance is Strength.
1984 calls these phrases "doublethink." Doublethink is an authoritarian tool that, by uniting opposing ideas in endless repetition, wipes out our ability to think for ourselves. The distinction between "freedom" and "slavery" loses its meaning. I can't recall any specific examples from our current administration, but I'm sure they exist...

Parker made an interesting choice here: the quotation is given by a fighter pilot. The plane, which certainly appears American, is decorated with Nazi swastikas and armed with the latest in weapons technology: arrows. Yes - as in "Squanto shoots arrows at the white man" sort of arrows. Although I'm not sure, it appears to be a deliberate appropriation of Roy Lichtenstein's Whaam! (which was already an appropriation from an old DC comic...).

So the unicorn at the center (see first image) is locked in the direct crossfire of arrows and a penis-deployed thunder bolt (below). Parker explains that this is how he sees the propaganda of "The War on Terror." Take Bin Laden for instance. He certainly exists, and many other terrorists - that is, groups of all colors and nationalities - exist around the world. But sometimes it seems like we're on some never-ending search for a mythological beast.

Poor horsey! But who's to blame!? Maybe it was this crazy bastard:

Skulls and skeletons usually bore me... But not this one. He makes me wanna go sacrifice virgins. To the Sun.

The figure vaguely resembles Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld.

But the artist has skillfully hidden his tracks. Parker’s skeletal shaman-king – or, He Who Ejaculates Lightning – doesn’t precisely match any one historical source. Instead, it seems more like an assemblage of Mesoamerican motifs from Aztec, Mayan, and other mythological sources.1 Usually, it's best to not draw attention to the exact source of your imagery.

Although I'm not qualified to speak in detail, the headdress knots and his seated posture suggest the shaman's status as a traditional Mayan lord. Coupled with his claws and that ridiculous erection, the signs contribute to an overall theme of paternal authority and conquest.

The symbolism also alludes to mystical visions and ritual bloodletting. Bloodletting, in a way similar to ingested psychedelics, could induce hallucinations - including apparitions of the spirit known as the Vision Serpent. Incisions were typically made in either the tongue or the penis.

Note the scales and the reptilian fins lining the shaman’s exposed spine. It reminds me of the Indian concept of chakras, the seven energy centers located in the spine. Kundalini, the flow of enlightened energy, was sometimes represented as a serpent.

Origin of Language (Left)
Too Holy May Not Enter (Right)

Normally, I'd avoid suggesting such remote or mystical influences. But considering the anthropological themes of The Road to Excess – namely, psychedelic drugs – I think the parallels aren't far off. From that perspective, Origin of Language is a beautiful statement on the evolution of human civilization. Parker explains that the title was inspired by a lecture by Terence McKenna.

McKenna, an American anthropologist and ecologist, argued that psychedelics were instrumental in the development of human language. He also considered mushrooms to be a supreme "technology" that could help teach human beings to use their intellect and productive powers for harmony instead of conflict:
We have the technological power, the engineering skills to save our planet, to cure disease, to feed the hungry, to end war; But we lack the intellectual vision, the ability to change our minds. We must decondition ourselves from 10,000 years of bad behavior.
- Terence McKenna, This World...and Its Double. (From the Wiki)
Although the two pieces weren't created as a diptych, Too Holy May Not Enter was presented side-by-side with Origin. Together, the collision of mad symbolism and virtuoso, almost calligraphic lines struck me as a strong combination. Drawings like Too Holy work well because the various forms - the triangle cap (a repeated motif in Parker's series), the pentagon, the black swell of flame, and the robes - suggest something familiar without solidly committing in any one direction.

Another gallery shot... Nice layout. : )

Banner, "Scene 2" - also known as "Signify Nothing."

Notes from opening night...2 I wonder how many times in my life I'll be scribbling down stuff like "Big Ass Streamer... wolf w/ big titties and erection."

I actually have very little to say about Parker's banner. Here, the automatism that provided the groundwork for the smaller drawings - a skeleton of wild circles and slashes that were erased and carefully inked over - has given reign to the play of words. The upside-down message at the top of "Signify Nothing" reads:
It reminds me of Michi's Eyedrum show; there's something about using art as a chance to "vent" or express the frustration of "struggling to make it" as an artist. What do you guys think?

And then there were the banner's intellectual themes - "Signify nothing" (semiotics), "Debord died for our subservience" (Situationism), and "We are the simulacra" (hyperreality, implosion). Although I was glad to see it, the philosophical content served mostly as an extra spice to the main course. It wasn't exactly an "interpretation" of theory, or even an "application." It was more what you'd call a "rumination" - that is, a visual display of the artist's chewing or digesting of certain ideas.

But as I stated before, The Road to Excess was a grand improvement overall. The next question, though, is can he pull off this sort of precision... in color?


1 Special thanks here to my lovely colleague and Mayan culture enthusiast, Luciana, for help in an area where I have no real expertise...
2 Also thanks to Eugie Foster for providing a scanner and general moral support. Eugie's new short story collection will be published sometime next year.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Too Holy May Not Enter

Samuel Parker: a solo show at Young Blood's newly opened location on North Highland. Amazingly, the gallery gets pretty silent once you take away the live DJ...

A multi-scene banner spanned the length of the wall, hanging just above Sam's smaller drawings. This "scene" alludes to the political philosophy of Jean Baudrillard, author of Simulacra and Simulation.

This one, on the other hand, is sandwiched in between the adjacent scenes of "Fishes" and "Pigs." ...FIGHS!! ...Get it!?

The caption here, in similarly ironic fashion, mentions another theorist of consumer society: Guy Debord, a founder of French Situationism. Does this add up?

Sam Parker, Too Holy May Not Enter.

And what about the smaller drawings?
What are we trying to say?


Monday, June 09, 2008

War & Peace (also

known as "Late Review No. 1" ...Sorry folks.)

Alcove's gallery attendance straddles an impressive age demographic. Apparently, "hip" and "young" are not mutually exclusive... (Photo by Kristin Quackenbush)

War and Peace: an exhibition of four artists named, perhaps fittingly, after a 2,000+ page novel. Although there was nothing overly cerebral about Alcove Gallery's latest show, it certainly upped the ante - both visually and conceptually.

Canteen by Sid Watters. (Courtesy of Alcove Gallery)

Influx by Leslie Ditto.

In the main exhibition room, Sid Watters' vaguely Civil and World War-themed still lifes were directly juxtaposed with Leslie Ditto's aggressively stylized allegories. It seemed like an unusual choice, considering the understated "quiet" of Watters' canteens, rifles, and cavalry sabers – armaments of warfare rendered in the style of Caravaggio and presented with the pungent silence of grandfather’s closet. It gave the show an unexpectedly traditional twist.

Helmet by Sid Watters.

Watters' entries to the show are much more subdued than his previous work... The images on Alcove's website look like action-packed scenes from a graphic novel, reminiscent of the recent adaptation of The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

(Though to me, Watters' paintings - by fine art standards and by comic book standards - are superior to anything I've seen in The Dark Tower so far... If you click the fifth thumbnail from the top, there's a painting of some kind of robot Jedi. Riding horseback. Wow.)

But compared to the art seen at Alcove over the past year or two, it was a refreshing change of pace. At a gallery that throws an annual event called Cartoon Madness, the repeated saccharine of happy-go-lucky can potentially overwhelm. Pairing Ditto with Watters seemed like an appropriate curatorial move (see gallery image above); the contrast really worked.

Humiliating End by Benji Williams.

RRAAaaarrhhH!!! You'll never destroy me!
Not sure on the title of that second one, but somehow I hear it saying to me:
I am Western Imperialism.
I am the Oil-devouring Cthulhu!
Run you little bastards! Run!!
...Or maybe not.

I'm not too familiar with Benji Williams' work, but it certainly benefits from a slightly political upgrade. Although there's nothing terribly wrong with fun, whimsical art, I don't find paintings of cartoon scientists or costumed dogcatchers to be very compelling.

(Please forgive my ignorance; I've obviously taken these works out of context without regard to their purpose. I'm sure they were commissions of some sort.) On the other hand, I believe Williams' somewhat psychedelic triptych of schoolgirls "riding the snake" is still hanging up at Alcove.

And his war allegories are an excellent follow-up: Nazi platoons marching with smiley faces on their shoulders, maniacal commanders, and tanks laid to ruin by the serpentine "arms" of Nature (above). I especially liked his use of botanical forms - abstracted in varying degrees of flatness - in works like Life in Death.

Freed by Leslie Ditto.

Leslie Ditto's work uses an eclectic iconography. Although her paintings appropriate from fairly recognizable pop culture and art historical sources, she understands how to own her symbolism.

In Freed (above), an homage to Salvador Dali's melting clocks dangles from the outstretched hand of a fiery warrior woman. She's dressed, although minimally so, in the garb of a modern soldier, while her hair billows in voluptuous waves and curls reminiscent of Botticelli's Birth of Venus. You can imagine a gust of scorching air blowing from what appears to be a ravine of hellfire in the background.1

The fire, the melting pocket watch, and the ashes of our heroine's dying cigarette occupy the same conceptual plane. The combined message - something to the effect of "at edge of apocalypse" - is completed yet complicated by that pathetic paper crane floating above the heroine's palm. It's made of newspaper. The "apocalypse" is caused, at least in part, by disinformation.

I'm probably putting words in the artist's mouth, but to me, the suggestion doubles the irony of Dali's title - The Persistence of Memory. War and peace? History? Why do we forget so easily?

The origami crane also sympathizes with Ditto's other War and Peace submissions, particularly the ones that meditate on the regretful legacy of the Pacific War and the development of the nuclear bomb. I wasn't able to find any good images, but she entered two other pieces named Little Boy and The Fat Man. Playful yet wholly demented, they were cartoon personifications of the devices that detonated, respectively, over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Similar Sorrows.

Take this piece for instance. Similar Sorrows - in terms of scale and tight execution - was certainly one of the most impressive pieces of the show. I don't think I can completely "unwrap" this painting at the moment, and really, I don't think it's necessary. Through what appears to be a very calculated balance of symbolism, coupled with a healthy dose of "psychotic" imagination, Ditto achieves a very potent visual metaphor.

There's a lot going on here: yin and yang expressed in human flesh, complimented by the flags of former enemies, and united by some bizarre industrial specter reminiscent of H.R. Giger. Emotions collide, rolling from sympathy (enjoined arms) to apocalyptic dread (melting skin and bone), a sense of erotic "invasion" and the vulnerability thereto, and, of course, mourning and regret. The woman on the left clenches a set of military dog tags.

Asian diptych by Leslie Ditto

When I think of Ditto's earlier works... it all makes sense in retrospect, but I wouldn't have expected this turn of direction a year ago. Here, the details - other than the attention paid to the texture of silk and the attempt to capture the feel of Japanese ghost stories - aren't too concerned with accurate, "ethnic" features.

Compare with the female lead of Lady Snowblood, an early yakuza classic, or with Takashi Miike's disturbingly beautiful Audition. Neither the left nor the right side of the diptych completely fulfills what you'd call a "true to life" representation. But it's clear that each woman is a mirror reflection of the other. The paintings, as in Similar Sorrows, are abstractions dealing with themes of womanhood and the alienation of self and other.

So maybe now it makes sense why these images

Little Secrets, from 2007.

register as a logical leap from works like Little Secrets, painted only last year. Ditto is based in Alabama, and although she's certainly no "greenhorn," her career in Atlanta began in earnest only recently. In just a year's time, she's demonstrated a surprising vigor and range of subject matter.

When I first saw her work, with her very feminine yet morbid themes and her intentional or accidental use of vanitas symbolism (fruit, open flowers juxtaposed with death), I immediately

Wheel of Fortune by Audrey Flack.

thought of Audrey Flack. Very exciting stuff. But when I asked Leslie about her influences, the first two artists she cited were Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo. You know, the guy who

Poster illustration by Boris Vallejo.

did all those Amazon chicks on the covers of old fantasy novels. You can read Ditto's artist statement here. Not at all what I expected.

Damn... It seems my intellect has failed yet again. Oh well.

::: )


* Unfortunately, I couldn't acquire images by the fourth artist of War and Peace - Cynthia Tollefsrud. Here's a link to her website. Her work was fairly fanciful, and it generally seemed to center on a message of peace and tranquility. Sorry.
1 Although this is probably a far tangent, the red-haired figure in Ditto's Freed also reminds me of the legend of Mad Meg, as painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The folklore described her as a girl of superhuman size who was so fierce she led an invasion into the Hell itself. Perhaps a proto-feminist even...


Friday, June 06, 2008

The Accursed Share...

This image is actually very large. The flyer uses a pretty intricate satellite "map" of Atlanta.

Catch and Land: A Participatory Environments Network. Does anyone know what this is? It looks terribly interesting, but I'm completely at a loss as to what they're trying to do. There are five events total, starting tomorrow in East Atlanta.

See y'all there?

Also tomorrow: more Indie Craft Experience(s).

I think this one may have broken into the mainstream; there were people at work talking about it this week... It always helps to have names like backing your organization. Plus, it doesn't hurt to have the support of Young Blood Gallery, which, of course, is throwing an opening of Sam Parker's Mayan/Inca inspired drawings later tomorrow night...

I'll be thinking about George Bataille (again), and wondering if I'm being way too intellectual or "high brow" (yet again).