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Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

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Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

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Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.

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The Runway and The Slaughterhouse: In Conversation with Artist Tamara Kostianovsky

Full Original Article in Spanish Available in Vice-Versa Magazine.

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Buenos Aires, Artist Tamara Kostianovsky was affected by the strong culture of animal consumption in Argentina during her upbringing so much so that it became a main focus of her artistic practice. During her youth, Kostianovsky became fixated on the ubiquity of animal carcasses around her city, and came to view them as tragic and sacrificial entities that possessed a certain melancholic beauty.

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What’s more is that Kostianovsky’s experience surrounded by carnage from a young age didn’t stop at animals; her father was a plastic surgeon, and in a recent conversation, Kostainovsky explained to me that not only did she have a stint working at his office, but medical images of surgeries and dissected human body parts were commonplace in her childhood home, laying around casually, even on her kitchen table.

As an artist, Kostianovsky transitioned her career from focusing on painting to sculpture, and felt compelled to creatively work with her memories of the torn body and themes of consumption. Her 2014 collection of sculptures, “Actus Reus,” comprised a series of hanging “meat” and “animal carcasses,” which she would meticulously assemble using only her own discarded clothing (sometimes working around an armature).

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Continuing to experiment with these themes, Kostianovsky began to diversify her subject matter when a friend of hers suggested that she begin to work with birds. Kostianovsky liked this idea, and she started experimenting with feathers, ordering them off of the Internet, studying them and replicating them with fabric using new techniques.

One day, she ordered what she thought were feathers online, but what arrived instead in the package was a full pheasant for taxidermy. She looked down at the deceased bird in the box, and thought that it shared this certain tragic beauty to it that she had always felt inspired to work with. This launched her 2016 collection of hanging dead bird sculptures titled “Relic,” which she recently exhibited as a part of a group show at Y Gallery called “Natural Resistance” that dealt with the tension between violence and nature.

To note, by working with nearly exclusively recycled clothing, towels and blankets to create works that highlight how we consume nature and animals, Kostianovsky continually makes a conscious and dynamic political statement of “anti-consumption.”

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In the following interview, Artifactoid sits down with Kostianovsky to discuss her artwork’s connections to art history, the inspiration that arose from working with clothing and dead animals, and the artist’s current participation in the exhibition, “Weave Wars” at the Indianapolis Arts Center from September 23rd through November 19th, 2016.

Artifactoid: Many people have compared your sculpture work to imagery present in Flemish still life paintings. Was the connection intentional, and what is most important about its influence on your work in your opinion?

TK: The connection between my work and Art Historical Still Life paintings is intentional. For years, I’ve been enamored by the way Flemish artists were able to turn images of dead animals and flesh into complex mirages of luxury and excess. I’m drawn to the expressive and dramatic character of this imagery and seduced by the issue of wealth that these works present. In the 17th Century, owning one of these works was a strong status symbol. They perpetuated a “full plate” on the walls of a house, while reassuring noblemen of their class, as hunting was only reserved for the nobility at the time.

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As for me, I’ve come to the world of flesh from a unique experience. While living in Argentina as a teenager, I worked at a surgeon’s office at the same time that I was going to art school. The transition between work and school became quite seamless and I was able to connect the sightings of blood, ligaments, and fat I saw at work with my early experiences as a young painter. Since then, I’ve been interested in looking at images of torn flesh from that perspective, so when I came across the Dutch Still Lives, I recognized that impulse to make the inside of the body appear luxurious and seductive, and I was transfixed…

Artifactoid: At a recent panel discussion at Y Gallery you mentioned the idea of links between a meat slaughterhouse and a fashion runway. Can you please expand on your ideas about this comparison and how it inspires you artistically to explore?

TK: In recent years, research for my work has made me take a close look at both slaughterhouses and the fashion world. On a first look we tend to see these systems as complete opposites: slaughterhouses hide the abject, the disgusting, and the cruel, while the fashion world is involved with beauty and perfection. In my view, strong resemblances between these two systems exist, particularly in the rhythmic, mechanical way that bodies circulate in choreographed way around a space, a topic that fascinates me because of its connection to sculpture, to architecture, and to our most primal experience of existing as physical beings in the world. Because of efficiency, optimization, and organization, direct connections can be established between the diverse systems that dominate the production of goods across different industries in today’s world. I am interested in making work that inhabits this intersection, artwork that on some level articulates the contemporary experience of consumption, industrialization, and that questions the modern ways in which we’ve become “modern predators.”

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Artifactoid: Who are some of the other talented artists working with fabric who inspire or influence you?

TK: Discussing textile art can be conflictive. From a Latin American perspective, fiber has a rich, ancient tradition that speaks of nobility, community and a spirit of collaboration with the animals of the Andes. From a contemporary Latin American art point of view, fiber is often a material of choice that can successfully articulate with sensibility and humbleness some of the sociopolitical and economic problems of the region. Within a more international contemporary art perspective, textile art is often linked to “craftiness”, “softness”, and the “feminine”. I reject the notion that I make “soft sculpture”– there isn’t anything “soft” in what I intend to say or the way I say it. In using fabric, I see an opportunity to expand the scope of what this material can do, but most mostly an opportunity to redefine the gender notions that still haunt women artists.

I came to fabric through surgery, and because I use mostly my own clothing to make art, I see this material as a second skin, a surrogate of my own body. Janine Antoni has been a big referent for me in the way she used her body to activate sculptural processes. Louise Bourgeois comes to mind as well, but mostly because of a kinship to a dramatic sensibility, not so much because of the material choice.

Artifactoid: What are you most excited about regarding your participation in the “Weave Wars” exhibition?

TK: I’ve recently discovered the artwork of Ben Venom, whose work is featured alongside my own at the new exhibition “Weave Wars” that opened on September 23rd at the Indianapolis Art Center. I’m excited about his very alternative and badass quilts but mostly about having my work featured within an incredible group of artists who are thinking of ways of pushing the limits of fabric as material. Because I am a little fatigued of media-specific exhibitions, I tend to not participate in fiber-art shows, but this one seems to be energized, radical, and original. I’m excited about what curator Kyle Herrington has put together.

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Tamara Kostianovsky was born in Jerusalem, Israel and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally, as well as presented in solo and group shows at venues including: The Jewish Museum (NY, USA), El Museo del Barrio (NY, USA), Nevada Museum of Art (NV, USA), Socrates Sculpture Park (NY, USA), The Volta Show (NY, USA), Maison et Object (Paris, France), and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (MI, USA). Kostianovsky is the recipient of several grants and awards, including: The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, two Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, and a grant from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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What Makes a “Keeper”? New Museum Curator Natalie Bell on Collecting as Art

Original article published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art

The New Museum’s current show The Keeper, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, pushes the boundaries of the definition of art by exploring practices of collecting and preserving objects as the subject of a museum exhibition.

The Keeper features expansive collections of items compiled by artists, scholars, collectors and hoarders over the past century which provide viewers with opportunities to muse on how the things that people amass and safeguard speak to their identities. How does what we decide to keep reflect upon who we are? Themes of memory, struggle, loss, the need for comfort, and the passing of time also pervade the four-story exhibition.

keeper2Installation view of The Keeper, featuring a sculptural installation by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa, and paintings by Hilma af Klint

Included are works like Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendele’sPartners “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), which comprises more than 3,000 antique portraits of people and their teddy bears, Shinro Ohtake’s manic collaged scrapbooks (1979-2016), and Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie” (2007-2008), an audio work sounding the voices of the speakers of twenty-five extinct or dying languages.

While many of the collections of items included in the show are impressive and thought provoking, it’s not difficult, as a viewer, to wonder: Is simply compiling a quantity of something enough to call it art? Jose Falconi, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, critiques:

“Some of the pieces, most notably Ydessa Hendeles’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” are pieces which do not have much more merit than the mere act of collecting itself. An act that is, as we all know, one of the most basic tricks in the artist book: any object starts acquiring new meaning when they are collected — just as any object starts acquiring a new meaning when they are rendered in a different scale (very big, very small). In that way, The Keeper does very little to show that there is anything beyond putting into motion such a trick and conflating many different possible readings of the works gathered in it. What is, for example, the critical difference between hoarding and collecting? Is one simply the result of an impulse gone astray?

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 Installation view of Ydessa Hendele’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002)

Supposedly the show is about showing that behind such repetitious acts there is something else lurking around, but I didn’t see it; the exhibition almost presents as mere celebration of collecting without any criticality. In other words: it suffers from what it is trying not to show.”

The answer to the question of the validity of collecting or amassing objects as art may certainly be up for debate, but one idea that seems to be paramount in understanding the value of a show like this, according to Writer and former New Museum Technician Matthew Blair, could be considering curating as the art form itself:

The Keeper either raises the status of curating to a form of art-making, or blurs the lines between collecting and creating; between curating and art-making. The curators at The New Museum have always had an interest in mounting shows that tend to [utilize] more than just content and juxtaposition. They organize shows that put more of the onus on the curators — changing the role of curating to being the dominant mode of exhibiting.”

Therefore, in part, it could be said that it is The New Museum’s commitment to allowing for experimental curatorial practices that is one of the elements most on display in The Keeper, more so than any individual work.

keeper4Shinro Ohtake, “Scrapbooks” (1979-2016)

keeper5Reproduction of drawing from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz” (original drawing included in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), (ca. 1943) 

In the following interview, New Museum Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, who collaborated on The Keeper with Mr. Gioni provides further insight on collecting, identity, and explorations of preserving and protecting as art.

Artifactoid: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the most important things that The Keeper reveals in regards to how collecting objects relates to our identity? Are there any works that you think make some of the biggest statements? Which ones and why?

Natalie Bell: Well, almost by definition, any collection is going to reflect its collector, whether it’s merely a matter of taste or representative of a unique philosophy or set of beliefs.  In this show, of course we were interested in collections that tell a story about someone’s beliefs, or an unlikely faith that certain objects and images could prove or validate an otherwise irrational or obscure idea, which is not true of everything in the exhibition, but is a significant recurring feature of many of its “keepers.” The first that comes to mind is Roger Caillois, a French theorist who collected rare stones because he believed they could reveal a shared cosmic history — which is not such a far-fetched thought if you think about the cosmic scope of geological formations. Or Wilson Bentley, who pioneered microphotography and amassed over five thousand negatives of snowflakes to prove his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. But these are instances in which collecting relates to identity, if identity is understood as one’s beliefs, which is not always how we think about identity.

keeper6Oil on canvas paintings by Hilma af Klint (1914-1915)

Which works make the biggest statements? An important footnote to Hilma af Klint’s luminous abstract paintings from 1914-15 is that she had stipulated, at the time of her death, that they be withheld from the public, or basically kept secret until twenty years after her death. So essentially she believed that her work, which was not so well received in her lifetime, would only be truly appreciated in the future. But maybe the most powerful work for me is one that combines a belief in a future discovery and an enormous moral imperative to bear witness, which are the drawings from an author known by the initials “MM,” which were found hidden in a bottle in the barracks near the gas chambers at Auschwitz and are among very few images made in Auschwitz that actually depict the atrocities of abuse, torture, and mass extermination. Clearly, the artist who made these knew the severity of punishment he would encounter if he was caught making these images, and he took enormous risk to document what was so impossibly horrific and was otherwise being assiduously hidden by the Nazis.

Artifactoid: In what ways is the idea of collecting and quantity important in art? When we call a collection of things art, what, in your opinion, are the effects or significances of that?

NB: Personally I don’t think quantity or collecting are virtues in themselves, but one way to think about how collecting or quantity have importance in art is that a dedicated accumulation of anything reflects someone’s passion, and maybe at times, their obsession — and alongside that, we tend to regard an artist’s zealousness or compulsiveness as a creative virtue. In a sense, this exhibition is maybe guilty of exploiting the legacy of romanticism, but the effect is perhaps visitors come away from the show with a new way of thinking about what it means to be creative. But it wasn’t a particular agenda of ours to anoint these bodies of work or collections as “art,” but rather to reflect on what is essential and universal about our emotional attachment to things, and how forming bonds with things helps us cope with our mortality.

keeper762 consecutive annual studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, collected by photography collector Tong Bingxue, (1901-1963)

Artifactoid: When considering the compiling of objects as art (which I was speaking about with Jose Falconi about), are there some important distinctions in your opinion about the practice of collecting versus hoarding?

NB: There are important distinctions, some of them arguable, but first of all I think you could call collecting a practice in the sense that it’s intentional and a collector might have to make decisions about what to acquire and what not to acquire, what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. Hoarding, on the other hand, is regarded as a pathological condition, and people who hoard have a compulsion to keep everything and suffer enormous anxiety about parting with anything. In other words, it comes down to being judicious about what you surround yourself with and having a capacity to refine one’s collection, rather than just keeping everything.

But in the framework of our thinking about the show, maybe the matter of preserving and protecting opens up something more contentious — which is that people who hoard often believe that they’re preserving the things that they keep for some future opportunity, and that their guardianship is essential. And there’s also maybe a shared psychological impulse in which amassing things can be a way of coping. But the arguable difference in my mind is that if you hoard, you’re constantly compromising your capacity to actually take good care of the things you have. That, and the fact that no one wants to become a hoarder. It’s considered a condition for good reason!

Artifactoid: There was a connection of several of the works to World War II and the Holocaust. Who decided to include multiple of those works, and why do you think that the idea of “collecting” is important related to that period in history?

NB: There are a few works that may stand out because of their relationship to the Holocaust, but I don’t think the idea of “collecting” is more related to that period in history than to others. Of course, it’s interesting generally to think about people’s relationship to material culture vis-a-vis larger historical events. It can manifest as a pragmatic approach, like how many Americans who came of age during the depression and remember the rationing of WWII have a tendency to reuse and salvage things that we might otherwise consider disposable. But this is more a trauma of poverty or scarcity that spurs collecting as a preventative measure. In other words, is my grandpa’s drawer full of golf pencils the product of his emotional attachment to these objects? Not really, considering that he has the same attitude toward saving ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.

keeper8Detail from Henrik Olesen’s “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870″ (2007)

keeper9The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (1993-2008)

But, that said, in this exhibition we weren’t so interested in the idea of collecting in a broad sense, but in something quite specific, which is a desire to preserve and protect and care for certain objects and images, so rather looking for instances where there’s a certain desire or love that’s motivating someone to action. This is a very different sort of mandate — and one that’s as subjective as it is emotional. But to return to the parts of the show that touch on the Holocaust, I think that there are potentially a lot of connections to collecting. Obviously, collecting as a form of bearing witness takes on a real urgency when there is a genocide that attempted to leave no evidence of mass exterminations, but on an emotional and psychological level, forging emotional attachments to objects is a common way of coping with the trauma, so it should be no surprise that WWII and the Holocaust stand out as something of a focal point in a show whose historical scope includes the last century.

Floors 1-3 of The Keeper will be on view at The New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002) through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. The fourth floor of the exhibit will be open through Sunday September 25th.

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Vanitas and Explorations of Eroticism in Consumer Culture: In Conversation with David Baskin

The art scene in Bushwick is of the most thriving in New York, and it attracts artists that span the spectrum of early-career through well-established. David Baskin is an artist of the latter category. He is a conceptual sculptor who has exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, Sculpture Center, and NYC’s Grace Building lobby (commissioned by Arts Brookfield), among other recognized institutions both in the US and internationally. While Baskin’s sculptures range from structures as ornate as antique chandeliers to hyper-simplified monochromatic mold-like forms, they all share the common thread of being comprised of recognizable everyday objects.

Following a v cool studio visit to Baskin’s Bushwick creative space, Artifactoid sits down with the artist to discuss his work in connection with the 17th century Dutch artistic traditions that inspired it, as well as its relevance in contemporary society, problematizing the relationship between human beings and material possessions throughout the ages.

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What inspired you to work with the art historical idea of vanitas?

The Vanitas project began with the idea of using art historical models to address contemporary issues, specifically consumerism. Many of the Dutch vanitas paintings were made during the Dutch Golden Age, roughly spanning the 17th century. I saw a relevant connection between this period and our present day culture. The Dutch created the first modern market economy, which can be seen as a model for our capitalistic system. The East India Company was the first multinational corporation and was financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. To finance the growth of trade and the economy, the Bank of Amsterdam was established, a forerunner to the modern central bank.

Obviously, every work of art is a product of the time period in which it was created and I see the Vanitas paintings as having a particularly unique connection with the socio-economic climate of the Dutch Golden Age.

An abundance of commodities based on mercantile trade comprised much of the objects on display in these paintings. I saw this as having a direct relationship to our current consumer culture. One of the Flemish painters who exemplified this connection the most was Adriaen van Utrecht. His work depicted a sumptuous and abundant display of objects, ranging from exotic fruits, flowers, dead animals, glassware and foreign and local luxury items that were available in the 17th century Antwerp markets. These paintings, depicting a range of “consumer goods,” brought to mind retail stores and malls where a seemingly endless amount of products are on display to entice consumer desire. Clearly these historic works can be seen in a contemporary consumerist light.

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(Above: Still Life with Bouquet and Skull by Adriaen van Utrecht)

Describe the connection between consumerism and vanitas present in your work– ideas of vanitas in our contemporary culture. How did the intersection of these concepts lead you to develop your different series of works, including your still life pieces and fountain?

I initially became interested in the notion of the “still life” through my interest in consumer culture and retail display strategies. Abundance is a central theme to the historical still life and it seemed to me that the notion of the contemporary “still life” was more relevant in a retail context than solely in an art historical context.

I also saw the 17th Century Calvinistic message to renounce earthly possessions as a kind of early consumer critique. The historical vanitas paintings represented a moral lesson that would have been understood by early Dutch viewers. The message had religious overtones that emphasized the transience of life and the need for moderation and temperance, particularly when it came to amassing wealth and possessions. The irony here was that many of the paintings were commissioned by the merchant class and became commodified and highly prized as valuable possessions in themselves. A kind of meta-fetishization occurred, reinforcing the idea that an artwork isn’t separate from a market economy.

The “still life” sculptures that I make incorporate these ideas by bridging the historic model with our contemporary consumer culture. All of the objects in the sculptures were store bought and my active role, on one level, is as a consumer. I selected chromed objects to emphasis a false sense of desire and value, most items arranged in the sculptures are kitsch and ersatz products that are ubiquitous throughout the retail landscape.

The fountain sculpture is also an extension of the Vanitas project. Instead of chromed metal, all the objects on display are made of glass and crystal. I was thinking about the original purpose and function of a fountain as a source of drinking water for residents of villages and how now it can be seen as a symbol of personal and corporate wealth, power and excess.

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What is your selection process like for the different items/elements that go into each of your still lives?

Some items directly reference objects and symbols that one would find in the historical work… a skull, flowers, and animals. But mostly, I was looking for a cross section of consumer goods that everybody could identify and relate to. Some items create vignettes within the larger group of objects and all were made either in China, Mexico, South East Asia and India, reflecting the current international manufacturing hubs based on globalization and free trade policies.

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What led you to create the works, “Still Life (Cosmetic Bottles),” and “Dove Bottles?” What did you learn about consumer culture from creating this project, and in which ways was the result of the piece either different from or similar to your original imagining of the work?

The sculpture “Still Life”(Cosmetic Bottles) was the first work of art I made that addressed the still life as subject. It comprises a selection of store bought cosmetic bottles that were cast in pigmented urethane rubber. A mold was made directly off of the original manufactured forms. By re-contextualizing the products in a fleshy colored rubber and by stripping them of their brand recognition, logos, or semiotic labeling, one begins to see the high aesthetic quality of these objects and what was once a latent eroticism now becomes quite overt. By revealing the “naked” forms of the bottles one can see the strategies and narratives designers incorporate to sell products and act upon the subconscious desires of consumers.

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Similarly, the Dove Bottle piece follows the same strategies as “Still Life” (Cosmetic Bottles). A variety of colored cast resin Dove bottles were installed in the window of the gallery, Carriage Trade, NY, NY, for the exhibition: Market Forces, Consumer Confidence. As with retail shelving and window displays, the objects on view were meant to engage the viewer on a purely visual level. Referencing planned obsolescence and the endless quantity of consumer products the bottles also become stand-ins for minimalist sculptural strategies. The window installation inside the gallery intentionally set up a dialog with the external retail environment in Soho, once the center of New York City’s art world.

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How did you decide to show your works inside display cases? How does this decision affect the experience of the work?

Once I began making the sculpture I was confronted with the issue of presentation. The objects in a traditional still life were always on a table or some sort of substrate and there was a great deal of attention paid to the arrangement and relationship between each item on display. It was a type of stage setting, a mise-en-scene that created a space of intentionality. I brought these ideas into my sculptures and decided a vitrine would be the best framing and display device. On one level, the pieces are a kind of Wunderkrammer or Cabinet of Curiosities. The vitrine creates a literal and conceptual border for the objects and artifacts. I also was very much aware of the role of the vitrine in institutional museum display and it’s relationship to retail window display. Each serve to heighten the intrinsic or aesthetic value of the object and can be seen to have a direct relationship to the shop window in the rise of commodity culture going as far back as Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace and the Parisian Arcades in Walter Benjamin’s theoretical writings.

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If you are in the US, see Baskin’s work this fall in Brooklyn at Smack Mellon, “20yrs,” from November 12 -December 31, 2016, and if you are in Europe, at the MU Museum, “For Play,” from October 7th – November 30th in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

About David Baskin:

David Baskin received a BFA from The Cooper Union in 1987. Solo exhibitions include Arts Brookfield, Grace Building Lobby, NYC,  Freight+Volume Gallery, NY, NY; Sculpture Center, NY, NY; Ingalls & Assoc., Miami, Fl and Black and White Gallery,  Brooklyn, NY. Selected group exhibitions include the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, NY; Marianne Boesky Gallery, NY; Carolina Nitsch, NY, NY; Pavel Zoubok Gallery, NY,NY; Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, NY; Triennale Design Museum, Milan, Italy; Musée de Design et d’arts Appliqués Contemporains, Lausanne, Switzerland; Carriage Trade, NY, NY; Galerie Erna Hecey; Brussels, Belgium; Lesile Heller Gallery, NY, NY; Rudolf Budja Gallery, Vienna, Austria; Flag Art Foundation, NY, NY. Honors and awards include McDowell Fellowship, NH; Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Yaddo Fellowship, NY; Commission through Brookfield Properties for a lobby installation at the Grace Building, NY, NY. He has taught at the Cooper Union School of Art, New York Institute of Technology and was a visiting critic at the School of Visual and Arts, NY, NY; Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, and the University of Buffalo, NY. David Baskin was one of the original members of the Brooklyn based non-profit art organization Smack Mellon and he lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

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Culture Beach: There’s More to See at Fort Tilden than Katharina Grosse’s Painted House

The Rockaways: Your friends might all be going to The Hamptons or Fire Island – hey, maybe you are too! But you might also be stuck thinking (like I am many times), the only way I’m getting to the beach this weekend is by taking the subway and bus. And you know what? I’ve learned it’s pretty darn awesome. Especially when your day can be filled as filled with arts and culture as it is with seashells and waves. And that’s what brought me to Fort Tilden.

Fort Tilden is an historic district next to Jacob Riis Park. Its initial building was constructed during the War of 1812 as a part of the “2nd system” of defense to protect the area from the possibility of British attacks coming from the ocean. The fort wasn’t expanded and reactivated again until World War II, and remained active during the Cold War, but was officially deactivated in 1974 when it became an official national recreation area.

While Jacob Riis Park is now a lot of fun with eclectic food stands, live music, a bar or two, and a diverse family-oriented crowd, Fort Tilden beach is more like a quiet, hipster, adult beach where (ladies) you can freely go topless without anyone bothering you as if you’re in Europe, and check out a variety of artistic interventions thanks to MoMA PS1’s Rockaway!, the Rockaway Artists Alliance, the Jamaica Bay-Rockaway Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, the Central Park Conservancy, NYC Parks & Recreation and Rockaway Beach Surf Club.

MoMA PS1’s Rockaway! has become a known program in New York City over the past couple of years since its inception in 2014, and deservedly so. It came to life as a collaboration between MoMA PS1 Director Klaus Bisenbach and Patti Smith, a Rockaway resident who has been visiting Fort Tilden beach since the 1970s with Robert Mapplethorpe. Rockaway! celebrates bringing the area back to life after it suffered destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, two weeks prior to which Smith had bought a house there (queue Alanis). The debut of Rockaway! included a large-scale, site-specific work by Smith titled, “Resilience of the Dreamer,” along with projects by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas, Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and a Walt Whitman poetry reading performed by Smith together with James Franco (a friend of Bisenbach).

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This year’s main attraction is the site-specific project created by Katharina Grosse, a mid-career German artist with a hefty CV whose painted post-Hurricane Sandy ruin is generating ubiquitous buzz this 2016 summer season. So much so, that it appears to have sealed the deal making her the latest addition to the Gagosian Gallery‘s roster (which looks like it could be confused with a hall of fame of sorts but could seriously use a few more female artists in the mix). Grosse’s Rockaway! exhibition will be on view through November 30th, 2016, and her first commercial solo show with Gagosian is expected for early 2017.

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If you aren’t yet aware, Grosse painted a similar dilapidated house in New Orleans’ 9th Ward following Hurricane Katrina as a part of their 2008 biennial, so this Fort Tilden installation following Hurricane Sandy can be viewed as the second in a series. According to the New York Times, Grosse’s 2008 project actually humiliated one of the hurricane’s survivors. I have yet to find more details on that story, but learning that that happened piqued my interest. I wonder how that individual felt about the art, and what his or her perspective was.

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To me, something that was important while visiting was to pay attention to the fact that PS1’s Rockaway! is not the only cultural attraction to participate in in the Fort Tilden beach area. There are additional cultural centers and installations to check out that have a beautiful local vibe and help you feel the soul of the community and more intimately connect with it.

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These include The Rockaway Artist Alliance gallery, and The Rockaway Theatre Company, a thriving center for the performing arts which was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts this June.

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Dan Guarino, president of the Rockaway Artists Alliance, was kind enough to give me a great tour of the space and a special peek into a rehearsal for “La Cage aux Folles,” which opened at the theater last weekend to great success.

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John Gilleece, Artistic Director of the Rockaway Theatre Company and Director of “La Cage aux Folles,” notes:

“Rockaway Beach, New York is a beach community with a summertime feel. Sun and surf take precedence over many other pursuits.  But, what makes the Rockaway arts community unique is that the art does not begin on Memorial Day and stop after Labor Day.  The two major arts groups, the Rockaway Theatre Company and the Rockaway Artists Alliance, offer year-round shows, exhibits and events. Nineteen years ago, when the RTC started, Rockaway Beach was very much underserved in the area of local, live theater.  But endurance and hard work bore fruit. Today, our reputation for Broadway-quality musicals has enlarged our audience base so that we have people coming from all over the New York area.”

At the Rockaway Artists Alliance art gallery, you can currently enjoy an indoor/outdoor art show including a display of sizable paintings from the exhibit, “Forbidden Fruit: Street Art in a National Park,” and enter the large abandoned locomotive repair space where Patti Smith’s 2014 project was staged. At the theater, “La Cage aux Folles” has three upcoming performances on August 19th, 20th, and 21st, and you can get tickets here.

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The Austrian Cultural Forum New York: A Hidden Treasure near the MoMA

For the first time, I recently visited the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City’s midtown. Situated on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue, it is close to the MoMA and is a special cultural site in an area filled with mainly retail stores and corporate offices. If you are in the area shopping, visiting the MoMA, or the south side of Central Park, I would recommend stopping in at ACFNY.

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The ACFNY is a multi-faceted destination that offers many more than one reason to visit. First of all, the physical building stands at 24 stories and is a unique and known architectural achievement in the city. It is a very deep yet narrow building that soars high with walls of windows that provide a sweeping view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which will remain, because the air rights between the two structures are privately owned by a prominent New York family. To note, the building was originally a smaller, townhouse-style structure but was eventually re-done. Co-curator Prem Krishnamurthy of current ACFNY show “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” comments,

“The ACFNY is a sliver of Austria inscribed within the complex real estate relations of Manhattan. The building is significant architecturally, as it negotiates a narrow 25-foot wide site and multi-tiered program. It’s the particularities of this architecture — both positive and challenging alike — that inspired the specific approach of the show I worked on there.”

Secondly, the ACFNY was founded in 1942 by Austrian Jewish families who fled Austria during World War II and were seeking to establish an institution to preserve Austrian culture in a place where it could flourish. In addition, there are a network of Austrian Cultural Forums globally, and the one in New York is a member of this group. I personally feel strongly about the survival of the arts during World War II, specifically the perseverance of Jewish artists who were persecuted or the recuperation of artworks seized by Nazis, like Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” which I mentioned in my previous article about Jewish Czech artist and concentration camp survivor Jan de Ruth, of whom I own a work titled “Daydream.”

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But, the ACFNY is anything but a cultural relic from the 1940s. The institute is currently showcasing two contemporary art exhibitions, including Ulrike Königshofer, “Sense and Record,” on view until 7/28, and the previously mentioned “DIS – PLAY / RE – PLAY” put together by internationally revered curators including Krishnamurthy (of P! and Project Projects) and Walter Seidl, on view through 9/5. And, believe it or not, the next concert being held in the ACFNY’s petite, clean and modern theater will be a house music performance in September.

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Additional features of the ACFNY institution include a full library filled with preserved Austrian literature (if you are a lover of “old book scent” like I am, this is the place for you!), and a friendly, engaging and passionate staff led by ACFNY Director Christine Moser. For a free guided tour of the space and current exhibits, stop by on a Wednesday at 4PM.

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Marks of Permanence on Paper and Skin: In Conversation with David Sena

In NYC’s Little Italy, nestled into the west side of Centre Street near Grand Street, you’ll find one of the neighborhood’s cultural gems: David Sena’s tattoo parlor and art gallery, Senaspace. Sena, a world famous tattoo artist and fine artist known for using pyrotechnic techniques to create large-scale wall pieces, recently invited Artifactoid to his workshop at Brooklyn Art Studios to catch a glimpse of some of his latest projects and techniques. Check out our Q&A with exclusive video footage below, and stop by Senaspace for the latest show or some fresh ink.
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Artifactoid: Tell me about your background using pyrotechnic techniques in your art. How did they evolve and lead to “Colored Smoke?”

DS: I began using the pyrotechnic techniques in my art work about 20 years ago… I was in art school at The Cooper Union and one day was at a gallery in SoHo where I saw an artist that had done some “paintings” or drawings on canvas with candle soot.  For one of my 2D Design assignments we were to do a self portrait using the grid system to breakdown the image into small squares and then assign a value to each square. Then, the portrait was made with the collection of values in the grid, similar to a Chuck Close painting.  Remembering the candle soot drawings, I thought to use a lighter to burn in different values from light to dark on the grid layout.  This was my first experience using fire to make art.
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The following year I was in a drawing course, and was looking for new ways to make marks on paper.  Traditional mediums such as pencil, charcoal, and ink weren’t giving me the look or aesthetic I was looking for and my thoughts went back the lighter portrait.  As a child I had a big fascination with fire and always loved lighting off fireworks.  I remembered from experiences how the fireworks would sometimes leave behind burnt marks on the concrete or wooden surfaces I would light them off on.  So I had an idea to get some fireworks, light them off on a sheet of paper and see what happened.  I acquired some fireworks in Chinatown, did some experiments, and right away had found what I was looking for.  Since then I have built a large selection of techniques using fireworks and other volatile materials to make my art.

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Artifactoid: Describe how you created the mechanism you developed to make the “Colored Smoke” pieces. 

DS: The “Colored Smoke” pieces  were created by using a few different tools, i.e, a compass, which the colored smoke bombs can be mounted on, then used to draw lines on the paper with.  The smoke bombs emit colored smoke and saturate the paper when directed at the surface.

Artifactoid: What are some of the biggest challenges that come along with making this type of art, and how did you overcome them?

DS: I would say constantly being cautious and safe with using fire in a controlled environment is one of the biggest challenges.

This is constantly on my mind – to be aware of what I’m doing and not let any particular process or fire get out of hand to where an unwanted fire is started. Fire can obviously be dangerous, so I rigorously remain alert to any prevent any accidents.

Artistically, the challenge is to make art and not wind up with simply a burnt piece of paper. I am exerting different amounts of control over the process but not everything can be foreseen so I have to be open to the marks the fireworks make and use them to best accomplish the desired design and composition.  The process builds upon itself and I am always finding new techniques as I work with different pyrotechnics and tools.

Artifactoid: How does your career as a tattoo artist influence your additional artistic practices?

DS: My career as a tattoo artist has coexisted well with my studio work. I feel they are very similar in their very direct and permanent means of making marks on paper or skin,  just as I cannot erase a tattooed line, I cannot undo a burnt line on paper.  The tattoo imagery I work with has also come to be included in some of the more illustrative subjects of my fire drawings.  Luckily my career as a tattoo artist has provided me with the time and resources to keep making my fine art, all the while keeping my hand and mind in creative practice.

Artifactoid: What are some other ideas and techniques for pyrotechnic art you’re looking forward to testing out in the future?

DS: I would like to start doing larger-scale projects and installations with my pyrotechnic techniques.  I would also like to incorporate light and video projections as I did in some early work.

Tonight, Thursday, July 14th 2015 from 6PM-9PM, is the opening reception for “New Amsterdam, Photographs by Richard Koek” at Senaspace, 229 Centre Street, New York, NY. Look forward to seeing you there!