Sunday 30 November 2014


The New Republic has just released a (beautifully laid out) 100 Years 100 Thinkers, which includes five artists: Picasso, Matisse, Calder, Balthus and Mondrian.

No Duchamp, no Malevich; no Kahlo, Bourgeois or Abramovic; no Warhol, Hirst or Koons; no photographers. Lists, huh?

Friday 28 November 2014

Shock value

At the NDF conference this week, the audience was divided* by the final keynote, MONA lead designer Leigh Carmichael, who talked about how the museum is driven by David Walsh's vision and personality, how it eschews traditional marketing in favour of spectacle and spectacular events, and nudity and vaginas.

MONA is clearly an adult museum, and - though I haven't visited yet - I like that about it. It is definitively not for everyone, and proudly so. Walsh seems to me to be a fantastic hedonist, and the collection and experience he has built reflect that.

Still, Carmichael's slides and videos - slick, black, and on the artful side of explicit - raised hackles both on the basis of being hard to read from a distance, AND full of content that some felt was NSFW/conference. (The slide titled 'Cunts ... and other conversations', after one of the works in Walsh's collection, in particular.) Not to mention some sanctimony around the funding source for the museum (Walsh's gambling syndicate income, which - if you read his recent bio - he's trying to pull back from so the museum can through its various revenue-generating activities, be sustainable).

I was startled by the level of outcry. Sure, there was bravado and bombast, but that's MONA. But to instantly jump to the 'porn not art' and 'what a load of pretentious wank' discounts both some very good art, some very skillful museum making, and some outstanding (whatever you call it) marketing.

But shock value drives MONA. I was reminded of a story I read when I was researching my thesis on Peter Tomory, second director of the Auckland Art Gallery. When the Gallery brought in the Henry Moore show in 1956 Tomory, concerned the exhibition would get the visitor numbers they wanted, got one of the staff (I think, from memory, Peter Webb, but I might be wrong) to call the Mayor's office and phew outrage done the phone line over the barbaric art going on display at the Gallery. The Mayor predictably decried the show to the newspapers, and the Gallery sat back and counted the river of visitors.

And I was reminded again when I read this article by Alastair Sooke on the second showing of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary in New York. Fifteen years ago, when the work was shown at Brooklyn Museum as part of Sensation, then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described the show (sight unseen) as "sick stuff", called Ofili's work out as particularly offensive, and suggested the Museum's funding should be cut off.

Now part of a mid-career survey at the New Museum, Ofili has received nothing but praise. The curator suggests it may be that the work is better contextualised within his practice; or that the true elephant in the room was the depiction of the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Sooke's thread is that Giuliani dominated the media cycle - there was no coming back from "people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary". Words and images, huh?

*Divided is a strong word. The tweet stream carried a lot of condemnation, but the insta-outrage of the quick-fingered on Twitter is one of the reasons why I'm going off it.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

The pull flower

Ms. Ventimiglia was referring to a moment that is now almost standard in the curtain-call ritual, whereby after receiving her bouquet, the ballerina pulls out one flower, kisses it and presents it to her partner. (“City Ballet ballerinas don’t do that,” Ms. Koolish said dismissively.)
Red pins at dealer galleries aside, the art world is kind of low on rituals. Which might be why I liked this NYT article on the protocols of giving flowers to dancers so much. That, and a lingering love for Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes. 

Tuesday 25 November 2014

You’re nobunny till somebunny loves you

Like some kind of WASPy counterpoint to Simon Denny's The personal effects of Kim Dotcom, this NYT account of the auction of Bunny (Rachel Lambert) Mellon's household goods makes strangely transfixing reading.

Sunday 23 November 2014


I've been sitting on these four tabs for weeks now, trying to come up with the appropriate response. And after those weeks, my overall response is - meh. "Crowd-curated", or public-picking, exhibitions are a bit of a thing right now - intrinsically, I don't think they're any more harmful than exhibitions themed on colour, or animals, or size, or any other topic that doesn't tend to generate much deeper thought about the artworks included.

I don't think this is a big trend, nor a "risky" one. In contemporary art, at the very least, when working with living artists (which is what New Zealand galleries spend the majority of their time doing), participatory practices tend to be initiated or adopted by the artist/s involved, not that institution.

In late October the Wall Street Journal published an article by Ellen Gamerman on crowd-sourced exhibitions. She gives a number of examples of exhibitions, ranging from the contribute-your-own-work genre to the vote-for-your-favourite vein, and canvases museum professionals who are pro, anti, and undecided on the topic. The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, helmed by Nina Simon, is prominently discussed in the piece, which states
The trend is sparking a growing debate among artists, curators and other art-world professionals about everything from where to draw the line between amateurs and experts to what even constitutes a crowdsourced show. How far can museums go in delegating choices to the public? How tightly should they control the voting on exhibit content? And at what point does a museum start looking too much like a community center? 
In a long blog post Ed Rodley takes Gamerman to task for creating "this false tension between scholarship and popularity/financial gain" and featuring "a ton of generational baiting", but notes that it also contains "some fascinating observations about the museum industry today". He summarises
Probably the biggest takeaway a novice museumgoer might glean from the article is that there’s this conflict going on in museums between curators and people interested in art and learning on one side, and young popularists, interested in…something… on the other side. The dominant narrative is that proponents of participatory projects are only interested in getting bodies in the door.  
Paul Orselli also tackled the issue, drawing, I think, a false dichotomy between generations of museum professionals - stuffy hanging-on-by-their-fingernails traditionalists and innovative newer professionals desperately banging their heads against the baffled and baffling management class. He writes
When I first started working in museums over 30 years ago, I thought I could I could just "wait out" the Old Guard, but in some ways, I feel like I'm still waiting.  There's an obstreperous and intransigent lot that seems like they'll never get off the stage and give the younger people coming up behind them a chance to help the museum field grow and evolve.
To which I'd say that in my experience the philosophies of museum professionals tend to be less driven by age than by the ideas and experiences they chose to value and give their attention to. Take, for example, if you were there, Anthony Byrt and Sarah Farrar fighting for the value of the encounter with the physical object in the physical museum when Jim Barr dropped the 'surely museums are just going to become defunct in the internet age' provocation on them at a panel discussion in Simon Denny's show at the Adam a few weeks ago.

Finally, Nina Simon wrote a response to Gamerman's article, in which she pointed out that director and curator voices are prominent in the piece, but none of the people who form "the crowd". She also struggles to find a better capture-code for this kind of activity, seeing the 'crowd' bit as somewhat cynical (driven by boosting ticket sales or visitor numbers).

After reading all the articles several times, and again just now, I once again conclude - meh. It's a topic worth talking about, I agree, but best discussed in the context of ALL the different ways we - whoever 'we' is - might make exhibitions. Single it out and it stops making much sense. Contextualise it, and we might have more of a conversation.

Monday 10 November 2014

Long read

This New Yorker article by Alec Wilkinson on Anne Marie Gardner, founder and editor of 'Modern Farmer' magazine, is fascinating on two levels.

The first is her description of the publication as 'less a magazine than an emblem of “an international life-style brand"' - a device that pulls together a bunch of similar niche audiences she refers to as 'rurbanistas'.

The second is the detail Wilkinson got around Gardner's battle with VC funder Frank Giustra for a second capital injection six issues into the magazine's (money-losing) life.

I haven't heard of a VC-backed publication in New Zealand (though I'm happy to be better informed). I occasionally daydream of what a new visual arts periodical might look like - this article is a solid reminder that dreams are free but staff, printing and distribution really aren't.

Friday 7 November 2014

Panhandling or performing?

Dance articles are my kryptonite. I know bugger all about dance, but I love reading about it - from street style to notation for choreography. So, in that vein, a long piece about New York's subway dancers and the legal issues now surrounding this practice under Bill de Blasio's mayorship.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Yup, that'd be the boss

"Mr. Penny’s body language, sighs and restrained impatience make it obvious that he is the boss"

From a NYT review of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary about London's National Gallery.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Monday 3 November 2014

termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art

The chief objective of a exhibition review is to give you a reason to see the show, and points to test your own viewing against while doing so. (IMHO, anyway.)

Two [p]reviews I read this week certainly met that objective. The Rhode Island School of Design's exhibition 'What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, from 1960 to the Present' sets out to present an alternate history of the visual arts in America over the past 50 years, one that is funnier, livelier, more niche, more figurative, more unsettling. From the RISD website:

What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular image-making from 1960 to the present that has been largely overlooked and undervalued. At the heart of What Nerve! are four mini-exhibitions based on crucial shows, spaces, and groups in Chicago (the Hairy Who), San Francisco (Funk), Ann Arbor (Destroy All Monsters), and Providence (Forcefield)—places outside the artistic focal point of New York. These moments are linked together by six influential or intersecting artists: H. C. Westermann, Jack Kirby, William Copley, Christina Ramberg, Gary Panter, and Elizabeth Murray. 
All of these artists ran against the modernist grain and its emphasis on theory. Rather than distancing their art through irony or institutional critique, the artists in What Nerve! seized imagery and ideas from vernacular sources as diverse as comics and pottery, pulling and reshaping material from their environments to tackle a variety of subjects with equal doses of satire and sincerity. What Nerve! looks at their distinctive idioms, shown in works that are often earnest, sometimes narrative, frequently transgressive, and always individualistic.
An article on Huffington Post piqued my interest, but Ken Johnson's review in the NYT blew it up.  It's an incredibly satisfying read, that opens with a brio (with a brio that makes me want to use the word 'brio', even) that matches my perception of the energy of the show.

The brio, however, is fueled by another life force, and it's this source that has been my real revelation. Johnson frames What Nerve using a dichotomy coined by film critic Manny Farber in 1962 in an essay titled 'White Elephant Art and Termite Art'. Johnson writes:

In 1962 the film critic Manny Farber published the provocative essay “White Elephant Art and Termite Art,” in which he distinguished two types of artists: the White Elephant artist, who tries to create masterpieces equal to the greatest artworks of the past, and the Termite, who engages in “a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor” that “goes always forward, eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” 
While White Elephant artists like Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons and a few other usually male contemporary masters still are most highly valued by the establishment, the art world’s Termite infestation has grown exponentially. They’re everywhere, male and female, busily burrowing in a zillion directions. They’re painting, drawing, doodling, whittling, tinkering and making comic books, zines, animated videos and Internet whatsits — all, it seems, with no objective other than to just keep doing whatever they’re doing.

Farber's essay is one of the most fun things I have read in a long time. Largely about film, it opens with an attack on exactly the names What Nerves deviates from:

The special delight of each painting tycoon (De Kooning’s sabrelike lancing of forms ; Warhol’s minute embrace with the path of illustrator’s pen line and block-print tone, James Dine’s slog-footed brio, filling a stylized shape from stem to stern with one ungiving color) is usually squandered in pursuit of the continuity, harmony, involved in constructing a masterpiece. The painting, sculpture, assemblage becomes a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition; far inside are tiny pillows holding up the artist’s signature, now turned into mannerism by the padding, lechery, faking required to combine today’s esthetics with the components of traditional Great Art.

But it's this phrase that  I know I'll keep returning to, the one that sums up this relentless, burrowing, wonderful 'termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art':

The best examples of termite art appear in places other than films, where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.