THE WORK OF CHAU HUYNH, IAN WEAVER, CECILE CHONG, AND JOHN DOUGLAS POWERS
Some of the stresses and permissions offered by our wonderful, frightening world are evident in the work of four recent MFA graduates. These artists of diverse backgrounds and experiences connect through a shared sense of chronophobia - an acute sense of historical unknowing coupled with the sense of an accelerated pace of life that outstrips attempts to understand the present. Together their work argues for questioning the here and now to the point of making a here of nowhere (a questioning of displacement), of making a now of when (a questioning regarding the passage of time), and of making a strong voice of someone from the concerns of myriad nobodies. The artists this essay will discuss are Cecile Chong, Chau Huynh, John Douglas Powers, and Ian Weaver.
Chau Huynh and Ian Weaver make objects that write down history for people whose voices have been silenced or buried by political forces. Huynh literally uses the image of a boat she draws on canvas in order to give shape to words that record the recollections of a single survivor of en masse emigration. The subject of Huynh's investigation is a person seeking asylum in the US from Communist controlled Vietnam. Huynh, a recent immigrant is inspired by her cultural past and the struggles of Vietnamese people who arrived in the US before her. That many of these people left Vietnam in make-shift, often unseaworthy boats is not lost of Huynh whose images are based on a paper boat that she has crudely fashioned from the leading communist newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact Huynh is replacing the text of the state controlled newspaper with a personal account that is beyond the control of the state.
Ian Weaver is similarly influenced by the cultural past of a part of Chicago once populated by a predominantly African American community. This area (the "Black Bottom") of the Lower West Side of Chicago was rezoned to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway and the University of Illinois, Chicago, in the 1950s and 60s. Weaver's project creates fictive artifacts of this disenfranchised community that he cobbles together from historical knowledge acquired through anthropologic and ethnographic research. Weaver then takes the work a step further by placing his objects, such as his "Black Power Helmet" and "Black Bottom Quilt," in museums and institutions that empower the objects with the mystical status of "Art" giving them the authority to speak for the dismembered community. Looking at Weaver's inventionsand noting how they seem to be composed of accidentally joined parts not only shows his angle of perception and his feelings and ideas about his subject, but also constitutes his style.
Cecile Chong, an artist of Chinese descent, born in Ecuador and living in New York City, makes paintings that relate to the entanglement of culture, history, and place and the interpretation of these themes in her own identity. Chong's paintings communicate with an economical short hand about cultural assimilation and alienation that effects people from the time of birth. An image of a tightly wrapped baby placed into an oversized shawl or blanket and strapped onto the mother's back is a familiar scene throughout the Andes as well as in Chong's paintings. These "guaguas" or "thumb babies" suggest a blank slate, ready to witness and experience cultural hybridity, as these babies are often accompanied by images elegantly borrowed from traditional Chinese painting as well as with cannibalized and repurposed electronic circuit boards. Chong's very personal paintings place her somewhere between these two types of images. In her paintings she never pictures herself but the image of her consciousness is still somehow present within the colorful voids and landscapes in which her rootless images appear.
John Douglas Powers' objects also suggest bodies and his own consciousnesses without directly depicting such things. Between the two images in his "Self-Portrait" is a tube radio with an electric motor and mechanism connected to the tuner knob. The mechanism scans back and forth through radio stations, emitting bursts of speech, music, and static. The diversity of sounds reaching out into space beyond the images and the object itself suggest a phantasmagoria that imbues the sound sculpture with a sense of disembodied projection and the impossibility of stabilized identity in the current state of media saturation. The rapidity with which things fall in and out of consciousness in this work, allow what is there and what is not there to become central structuring themes.
The artworks of Cecile Chong, Chau Huynh, John Douglas Powers, and Ian Weaver question their own existence, and these artists invest their objects and intentions with a self-questioning nature in order to seek an understanding of the present. They are investigating the various social, technological and philosophical revolutions that help us to understand the nature of making art and the nature of art's place in the world by framing an eloquent and compelling argument for the importance of questioning at this time of great crisis and hope for change. Their questioning participates in the reassessment of the value of individuals and smaller communities at the heart of the healing necessary to our reshaping the world in a sustainable image.
VISUAL ARTIST, WRITER
Arnold J. Kemp's writing has appeared in Callaloo, Three Rivers Poetry Journal, Agni Review, Mirage #4 Period(ical), and Art Journal. Kemp has exhibited internationally, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and Chisenhale Gallery, London. He lives in San Francisco and New York.
THE WORK OF CALEB TAYLOR, ASAD FAULWELL, JOANNE SCHIAVONE AND KIMBERLY FALER
At first glance, Caleb Taylor's paintings recall a moment in the trajectory of modernist abstraction in which the function of gestural brushwork shifted from bearing an expressivecontent to limning the literal flatness of the painted surface. Evoking James Brooks, pre-geometric Al Held, and certain of Ellsworth Kelly's early studies, Taylor's paintings seem to declare their historical allegiances emphatically.
But time spent with the works demonstrates that formal similarities can hide different intentions. In Taylor's paintings, large, monochrome, vaguely organic shapes are painted over more intricate multi-hued compositions underneath, the contours of which are only perceptible via the low relief of textural inconsistencies in the surface of the paintings. These shapes, stretching from edge to edge of the canvas in at least one direction, read first as gestures of defacement or obfuscation: the artist has painted a painting, and then blocked most of it out. But Taylor's description of his work, full of references to growth and the body, as well as to the physical properties of paint and ceramic glazes, implies a different interpretation of this formal strategy. "I choose to cover my work to conceal my process history under a skin-like surface..." Taylor writes, suggesting that what we're likely to see as a violent cancellation is more properly understood as an integral part of an organic whole: the final layer which holds the rest of the work together. The description Skin-like is the key to these paintings - for example, one would never speak of the skin as "defacing" the organs of the body. Taylor's conception of painted space is less about the obdurate flatness of surfaces than the depths we imagine underneath them.
If Taylor imagines the canvas as a body constructed and displayed, for Asad Faulwell it is a field in which multiple bodies are marked and arranged - less an organic whole than an unstable social aggregate. The central theme organizing Faulwell's dense, hectic collages is the collision of codes: both the graphic conventions of various art traditions (western gestural painting, traditional Islamic patterning, Arabic and Farsi text, punk-rock-ish photocopy collage) and the ideological positions that those conventions can be made to represent.
Faulwell's compositions begin maximally, and continue upward in complexity. Patterns are layered over patterns, held together by casual, Ab-Ex-derived brushstrokes in bright, acidic colors. Obsessively-arranged cut-out photographs - often portraits of Middle Eastern politicians - form psychedelic starburst shapes that echo medieval Islamic tilings. Occasionally, sections of Faulwell's delirious compositions are dropped or décollaged out, allowing the viewer moments of much-needed visual rest before traversing the intricacies of the paintings' more saturated areas.
In his pursuit of a visual metaphorics that can adequately convey the experience of historical and cultural dislocation, Faulwell sidesteps a typical pitfall of contemporary painting. Rather than attempting to banish decoration in favor of a more rigorous mode of representation - placing the decorative in a false and joyless dichotomy with the conceptual - Faulwell embraces it as a rich, ready-made language of visual signification, capable of evoking, if not entirely spelling out, the authentic tensions of social life and historical experience.
Joanne Schiavone's sculptures and installations share a thematic focus - the ecosystems of oceans, rivers, and lakes - and a diverse but interrelated set of strategies. Her art is dedicated both to exploring its subject matter and to maintaining a degree of self-consciousness with respect to its own methods. For example, Jetsam Lace, a sculptural representation of ocean foam made out of crocheted plastic bags, sets up parallel plays on site-specific sculpture and environmental degradation. Photographed in situ at the water's edge, the work generates a tension between its representational content and its material presence. This sculptural interloper in the tidal zone is positioned at the midpoint of different binaries: the water and the land, the natural and the man-made, creative production and littering. The work alludes both to the liminal zone of the beach - the state changes between solid, liquid, and gas which occur continually at the water's edge - and the often disastrous effects of human intervention on its fragile system.
The focus on liminality and artifice reappears in Tidal Pools, in which Schiavone transports the system of correspondences operative in Jetsam Lace into the gallery space. The artist constructs a geometric composition of found wooden pallets and water-filled plexiglass boxes, which the viewer navigates literally by walking over and around. Sculptural elements similar to those in Jetsam Lace, and photographs of various water conditions placed beneath the actual water in the boxes, set up a multi-leveled experience in which the real and the representational are conflated.
Though ostensibly a crafter of sculptures, Kimberly Faler could be more aptly described as a director of tableaus. A weatherbeaten barn oozes pink tulle from between its rotting boards. A sheet of drywall is ripped from ceiling to floor like a sheet of paper. A flattened bicycle made of yellow paper is left on a city sidewalk in the snow. Though clearly evincing a concern and comfort with repetitive handwork, this aspect of Faler's interventions seems to recede behind a narrative of domesticated magical realism: the semi-enchantment of the banal. Like Schiavone's, many of Faler's works dabble in the realm of trompe l'oeil, with meticulously-crafted surrogates taking the place of everyday objects. Faler seems agnostic with respect to the mode of presentation: whether documented photographically, presented on site, or installed in the gallery, the focus is less on the phenomenological experience of sculpture than on the encounter with an idea.
Beyond simply creating uncanny situations, Faler's sculptures and installations also investigate the aesthetic possibilities of media confusion. Sculptures act like drawings, and vice-versa, facilitated by the intervention of the photograph. The pink tulle in the barn, is it more like graffiti or some kind of phosphorescent fungus? The flattened paper bicycle discarded on the street: a flattened sculpture, or a drawing in space? These meditations on the ambiguities of making and looking stand in for a broader program: to transform the dulled experiences of everyday life into potential sites of exploration and reverie.
Roger White is a painter and co-editor of the contemporary art journal Paper Monument. He exhibits his work at the Rachel Uffner Gallery in New York.
THE WORK OF MAIA PALILEO, MYEONGBEOM KIM AND SUNAURA TAYLOR
"During my second semester of graduate school," writes Maia Palileo "I converted my studio into a life-size re-creation of my Filipino grandparents' living room in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Christmas, 1985..." The boxes of photographs Palileo pored through to create this installation inspired a series of loosely figurative paintings, many of which are set in that living room. The family members (recognizable as such through their cursorily painted crops of black hair and their flat, beige - often blank - faces) appear amidst a series of recurring backdrops: Palileo's grandparents' lumpy brown couch and kitschy wall-hanging featuring a series of white birds in flight against a two burnt orange stripes, for instance.
Palileo concludes that she chose that specific Christmas because it was her "first experience of nostalgia." Coined in 1668, to refer to the newly emerging (as more people left home for longer periods of time) experience of homesickness, the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek roots nostos "returning home", and algos "pain". The term has since been significantly diluted, and now refers generally to "a wistful yearning for the past." Palileo provides us with cumulative, layered, associative, fragmented imagery that repeats so often that we internalize it. And whether or not we share her memories, a midwestern upbringing - a Filipino heritage, growing up in the ‘80s, the celebration of Christmas, there is room to graft our own memories onto hers. For me, Palileo's works conjured the smell of artificial pine, a clove-studded ham that has been baking all day, and unwrapping the Duran Duran record that I ended up listeningto so much it wore out my Fisher Price player.
For Untitled (2006), Myeongbeom Kim placed a glass bowl containing several goldfish on a beach. Similarly, in Elevator (2006), he "planted" a yew tree in a couple feet of sod in an elevator, and for the Robert Smithson-esque Immigration, (2006), Kim had an oak tree moved by boat from Pado-ri, South Korea to Gaui Island. These pieces seem less like performances than interventions. They also pleasantly disarm us by upsetting our expectations.
South Korean born, Kim finds inspiration in the classic mid-century Korean poem, Kkot (Flower), by Kim Ch'unsu:
Until I spoke his name,
he had been no more than a mere gesture.
When I spoke his name,
he came to me,
and became a flower.
The poem is an apt touchstone. Like the poet, Kim is not interested in sentimentalizing, rather he manifests the unforeseen potential of things we take more or less for granted. In the goldfish piece, the action of placing the fish on the beach is meant to be the work, however, the color photograph documenting it demonstrates Kim's refreshing spin on Romanticism. He provides the viewer with all of the hallmarks of a classic Romantic landscape - the golden hues of the fish are reflected onto the wet sand, the horizon line of the ocean is refracted in the glass bowl - but it is really the goldfish, not the viewer, that have the possibility of transcendence.
In the spirit of Nikolaus Geyrhalter's documentary film Our Daily Bread (2005), an unblinking look at factory-farms, Sunaura Taylor's paintings evidence the chilling effects that assembly-line efficiency has had on the way we process our food. It is a timely concern. Taylor, however, portrays a unique slant. Rather than Geyrhalter's cool objectiveness, which emphasizes the factories' clinical, machine-like uniformity, Taylor makes a compelling case for contemporary Realist painting by showing us where this uniformity breaks down. In Chicken Truck (2007), for instance, Taylor depicts each chicken as an individual, and records the specific quirks of each of the small cages that house them.
Taylor is vegan, so the issue hits home for her, but she is perhaps equally invested in the medium of painting. There is an intimacy in her paint handling, the delicate application of which reveals an empathy and a knowledge of the history of the medium. Downed Dairy Cow (2008) recalls John Constable's bucolic bovines, though Taylor's cow is too oddly splayed to be in repose and there is no green in sight. Similarly, the slack figures portrayed in Dead Calves on a Conveyor Belt (2008) instantly bring to mind Chardin's Still Life with Dead Hare (c. 1760) - though her calves are in no way idealized. Taylor's treatment perhaps has most in common with the empathetic rendering of animals in Courbet's hunting paintings - except, of course, Courbet's wild creatures had a fighting chance.
Amoreen Armetta contributes regularly to artforum.com, and has written for Time Out New York, Untitled, and NYFA Current. Armetta occasionally organizes exhibitions and is curious about the intersection of text and image in magazines, literature, artists' books and new technologies. She is based in Brooklyn.
THE WORK OF AMANDA NELSEN, MATTHIAS PLIESSNIG, ANDRIA BIBILONI AND SUSAN KIRBY
Found objects of every description - from junk mail and skateboards to apples and denim jeans - achieve impressive balancing-acts in the work of Amanda Nelsen, Matthias Pliessnig, Andria Biblioni and Susan Kirby. While these artists all mine the formal qualities of everyday materials to produce playfully inventive assemblages, they also consider the conventional uses and associations of their sources. Sculpture and installation, in other words, become departure points for Nelsen, Pliessnig, Biblioni and Kirby to meditate on issues ranging from advertising and ecological conservation to cultural stereotypes.
A seasoned knowledge of the techniques and history of bookbinding underpins Amanda Nelsen's artful handling of sales circulars, coupon books and other contemporary paper-based media. November 5 Boston Globe (2006), for example, consists of an entire copy of the Sunday edition of Boston's main newspaper that the artist confined to a traditional, raised cord binding. It's startling to see Nelsen treat as low-grade a material as newspaper with the reverence of a bound book, an effect that draws attention to its quality of paper and strong reliance on embedded advertising, as well as to the very different ways a book and a newspaper arrange information for readers.
For the ambitious Kinkade Recycled (2008), Nelsen and a handful of helpers folded and tied over 40,000 pieces of junk mail into two-inch cubes, which operate, like individual pixels, to collectively recreate a bucolic painting by Thomas Kinkade. Though the work's shifting tonality and massive scale are immediately captivating, the identity of Kinkade Recycled's constituent parts is never far from mind - nor, for that matter, is the sheer quantity of paper repurposed to create the piece. Nelsen's choice to source a work by Kinkade, a painter whose worldwide popularity is largely reliant on his Christian-infused landscape renderings, is also wholly on point, reminding viewers of the present distance between such idealized representations of nature and the real toll taken by our continuing exploitation of its resources.
Matthias Pliessnig also makes recycling a central part of his practice, though he draws his inspiration from the discarded items populating street and studio. Matchbooks, wood scraps, Q-Tips, toy soldiers and hundreds of other collected items fill a box in the artist's studio, waiting to be transformed into his elegant, miniature "Adlib" sculptures. In many ways, Pliessnig's working method arises from his other identity as a maker of complex furniture, for which he has earned considerable accolades. As his furniture design is incredibly labor-intensive and time-consuming, the "Adlib" sculptures offer Pliessnig an alternative production speed, with each piece, he writes, revealing "a small moment of tension, compression, and play." Indeed, works like Rehabilitation (2008) and Greetings (2008), comprising wood, wire and string, are exemplary formal experiments that seem to operate both as fully realized artworks and as sketches or models for the artist's intricate furniture designs.
The objects and imagery of Andria Biblioni's work are steeped with strong cultural associations and frequently engage communities in and around Philadelphia, where the artist lives. Building on conversations with a family about an incarcerated son, for example, Biblioni installed a linoleum tile floor rendering of a boldly-colored, charging horse as a permanent installation in its home (El Caballo (The Horse) (2007)). For Blasterbike (2007), the artist retrofitted her own bicycle with feathers, beads, blue cathode tubes, and an amplified speaker box that loops a five-minute mélange of rock, reggaeton, metal and Latin music. Biblioni powered her electronics with AA and rechargeable batteries, allowing this sculpture to function as an actual, operable vehicle - and referencing the actual men and women who cycle around cities like New York and Philadelphia on tricked-out, audio-blasting rides. The large mix of musical stylings and material accoutrements featured in Biblioni's vehicle, however,moves Blasterbike beyond the realm of familiarity and closer to standing in, as a metaphor, for the noisy profusion social archetypes throughout American popular culture.
Susan Kirby also exhibits an interest in consumer items, albeit one focused on conventional staples of femininity. The artist bedecks an ironing board with various types of chintzy ribbon arrangements and fabric flowers in Remnant (2008), all of which encircle a video montage of bridal imagery, followed by a scene of the artist, in a wedding dress, tossing her bouquet at a row of plastic mannequins.
In Three Little Bears (2008), Kirby outfits the different drawers of a children's dresser with real fur and leather, while an accompanying Mickey Mouse television set shows a pair of hands gradually shearing three faux-fur, stuffed-animal bears. If the Disney-brand monitor allude to the company's 1922 animated version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," as well as to its target audience, Kirby's video concentrates on darker readings of the tale, including Goldilocks's symbolic emasculation of the Wee Bear, by eating his porridge and sleeping in his bed, and the broader portrayal of this female protagonist as a trespasser. Yet as Kirby's larger sculpture reveals, the faux-fur cut from the bodies of the bears is replaced by real fur adorning the dresser, a subtle substitution that transforms an act of violence into one of craft, and in so doing illuminates various historical conceptions of womanhood - positive and negative alike.
Tyler Coburn is a contributing editor of ArtReview and has written for Rhizome, The Highlights, and Vitamin 3-D. Coburn's videos have screened at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; and Guild & Greyshkul, New York. He has recently exhibited and performed at SculptureCenter, Queens; Renwick Gallery, New York; and John Connelly Presents, New York.