Accumulations, Courtesy of Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, Phalli’s Field

“Accumulations” are what Yayoi Kusama called these multiple soft sculpture phalluses that she patiently sewed and placed in rooms, in platforms mounted on floors and walls, and even in two rowboats. Kusama made these pillow-esque, polka-dotted, cartoon-like, engorged phalluses as a way to get over her fear of sex – and one vintage 1960s photo depicts her lying uncomfortably on top of a patch of them. Much of the wall text at Seattle Art Museum quaintly names them as “tubers”.

By the artist’s request, each installation room was accessible for a timed period, from about 20 – 30 seconds depending on the room. It was fairly disorienting and completely trippy to enter the room, and try to visually make sense of the lights and mirror reflections – literally, the smoke-and-mirrors of it all. The infinity-ness created by multiple mirrors, reflecting yourself in an endless field of phalluses (Phalli’s Field) was reminiscent of being at the Tulip Festival for example…phalluses as far as the eye could see. But I was more interested in the actual sculptures, rather than their reflections. These funny, bumbling things, with their red polka dots scream out as physical comedy. And there was certainly something funny about two lesbians being locked in a room with many dozens of them…

I knew someone once who also made soft sculptures of phalluses. Those were bigger, and more obvious, and clearly were stylized self-portraits of some kind. It was so personal that I was often embarrassed to hear this person talk about his work, because it was essentially like hearing him talk about his own penis. Cringe. (You too, Master of None, bringing your penis’s “gregarious” personality into conversation with women. I wanted to give up watching the show just for that). Kusama’s work was actually smaller (per each phallus), but felt bigger. As flashy as it was, it came from a humble, exploratory place, that was willing to laugh at itself, not a sling-it-around place that needs to stake some kind of claim.

Other accumulations (of memories and associations):

The demand for this exhibition exceeded the open hours of the museum, so we saw this show at about 11:00 PM one evening, when the museum extended their hours. The lines for each viewing room snaked around the larger room of the museum, and because of the wait time and repetitive nature of seeing the same people over and over again as the lines wound around, we found ourselves in lots of friendly conversations. While people had their phones out for photos, it seemed like folks were more engaged with other people in the line, not with staring at their phones. Mia wondered if this was part of the artist’s plan. Maybe it was the festive atmosphere of being in the museum at night. I don’t know why, just an observation.

Mia’s comment that maybe Kusama wanted to foster connections among the viewers as they waited to enter her environments made me think of the architect Paul Rudolph, who designed the buildings on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth campus. They are not attractive or stately; in fact, I’d consider them visually harsh. But I felt my heart soften toward them a bit when I learned that Rudolph deliberately created hidden or off-kilter building entrances and approaches, the better to engage the then-commuter students in dialogue with each other as they tried to make their way around.

We waited in line for several hours, sitting on the floor. Some people brought special stadium chairs and food, ready to camp out for the duration. I haven’t waited in line like that since sleeping overnight in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk in Washington, DC about 20 years ago. My friend Tribs and I went to see the Van Gogh show at the National Gallery. I’ll never forget the police officers kicking us through our sleeping bags to wake us up in the morning and get us vertical again to clear the sidewalk.

It was in this Kusama line (we were about 200th, according to a count done by one of the museum staff) that Mia and I mapped out the plan to move me into my new studio. If we hadn’t had that time, surrounded by our own and others’ palpable anticipation and excitement at seeing art, we might not have arrived there. Certainly not before she left for Italy, because there were too many other things to do that seemed higher-priority.

So I left this show feeling like I’d been to Infinity, the Tulip Festival, a carnival funhouse, my grad school days, a sidewalk in Washington, DC, and moved a little closer to my wife. I visited in my mind with a couple of old friends (and foes). We made new acquaintances, not friends for life, but friends for an evening, friends we were happy to see again elsewhere in the exhibition. Were these just ultra-personal dots I was connecting, the criss-crossing of random stories that tell me I’m rambling as I’m getting older? Was there something more going on that I was tapping into?

In one of the films, Kusama discussed her desire to add peace and love to the world, saying that each day is a “test for how much I can contribute to society”. If that’s the measuring stick, I believe that all these connections forged that night embody that desire, and prove it true.

You’re Invited!

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

To an exhibition of new paintings at the Knutzen Family Theatre in Federal Way, Washington.

The Oak and the Cypress

…And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Excerpt from “On Marriage” by Kahlil Gibran

This body of work is about being married, or in a long-term relationship. The first step toward this theme was a technical one: I challenged myself to begin using pattern in more conscious ways in my paintings. This technical consideration soon turned metaphorical as I began to consider the patterns (specifically behavioral ones) in my daily life. Around this time, maybe because of this train of thought, I suddenly realized that my eight-year relationship with my wife can now be considered “long-term”. We’re not honeymooners any more, and sometimes we’re both surprised to realize that. On top of this, we traveled to Italy last summer, the first time we’d been there since we went together as a brand-new couple. This trip provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom. It also caused me to revisit some of my earlier artwork, since I was inspired by Italy at that time. The warm Italian palette, crusty textures, sense of the passage of time, and found objects such as Italian wall posters frequently featured in my compositions, and I’ve returned to some of these themes to explore marriage.

The exploration of the figure is a departure from my usual abstract paintings, and a move into more personal territory and themes. Only two paintings have ever been shown before in public.

The Oak and the Cypress
On view at Knutzen Family Theatre
3200 SW Dash Point Rd.
Federal Way, WA 98023
Monday – Friday, 9 to 5
Through August 16, 2016

Real Art in the Real World

Unknown, found at the mall
Unknown, found at the mall

I love finding real artwork outside of a museum. Just like when I see real, live flowers on a restaurant table or in an office, no matter how simple the arrangement, my opinion of the place goes up a hundred fold. I found this print (a real print, not a poster!) when I was waiting in line for the restroom at a mall in Bellevue, WA.

Behind the Scenes, Part 2

Tangier Overture
Tangier Overture

“What does it mean?”
“What were you thinking about when you painted this?”
A few times: “I see a golfer”.

It’s amused me to think of doing a series on golfers to give the people what they seem to want, but I don’t really care for golf. So instead, here’s what I was thinking about when I painted this painting:

As I mentioned earlier, this painting already existed as another painting, until I decided I needed to return to it and improve it (which I hope I’ve done).

In the exhibition where that original version was shown, someone started a conversation with me about pattern in my work. Specifically, he said that he noticed that I used a lot of pattern, but that I always cover it up with fields of plain color. He asked me why I did that, and I didn’t have an answer because I hadn’t even thought of it that way myself. From that conversation, I challenged myself to consciously use pattern, and to resist what I now know is my temptation to bury it. This has led to some interesting developments for me, and a new (to me), labor-intensive way of deliberately creating patterns, such as stripes. I’ve used a lot of tape in the process, laying it down, painting stripes, blow-drying them, removing the tape, and starting again with the next stripe.

This mindfulness, and taking pains with details, came at a time where my wife and I suddenly woke to the fact that, Hey, we’ve been together a while now; this is now what you’d call a long-term relationship! We’re not honeymooners any more. Time has a way of creeping up like that.

In my mind, I started to examine these two things side by side, the attention to my process, and the attention to my marriage. Both go better when you’re mindful. Both go better when you take the time. Both need a lot of attention.

Also around this time, we took a long vacation, the first since our honeymoon. Among our stops, we revisited Italy, where we had gone together in the very early days of our relationship. Going there again provided a natural comparison and opportunity to look at our relationship at its beginning and at its current bloom, seven years in.

As an artist also, there was an irresistible comparison to revisit old themes, since Italy had provided me with such inspiration for my work a few years ago. I’ve started working with Italian wall posters again, as well as other found objects. Bruce Springsteen and many others have revisited past material and made it fresh again, for example, rearranging Born to Run, a song he wrote at age 23, to reflect a mid-life perspective, or touring this year solely on the back of an album, The River, that he wrote at age 30. There is the possibility for an increased richness of perspective and self-knowledge and of course – better work! Which is really what us artists are after all along.

So these are the thoughts that are influencing my work right now. For this painting specifically, I was also thinking about some experiences in Morocco. The blue and white color palette, as well as the suggestion of Arabic writing evoke a little of the visuals of Tangier, where we spent a couple of days.

You may or may not know that being gay is illegal there, and there is an active effort, in some locales more than others, to bring gays to “justice”, which is harsh. I wasn’t concerned to travel to Morocco, as I’d had quite a bit of experience in the Middle East, and we were going to Tangier, a major city located within sight of Spain. The sophistication of a big city and its familiarity with Europeans made me feel completely comfortable, and honestly, we can “pass” as straight whenever we want to. (We don’t usually do this, but sometimes it’s safer). Mia, though, had some hesitations about ways that we might accidentally reveal ourselves, and was anxious about getting “caught”.

On top of this dynamic, in the airport when we left, I was pulled aside for an additional, private inspection by a female security agent. This never happens to me, so it was notable. It became even more notable when this particular inspection made up for the previous lack of attention. When I tell the story in person, I make it sound very funny and act it out with some degree of abandon. But that funny version sort of minimizes the underlying scare of it, because when you’re gay in a time and place where it’s illegal to be, you don’t have any power. I made the conscious decision to not object in any way to any part of the inspection, because I had my own fears about what would happen if I had. If I had suggested that the inspector was somehow wrong, or had gone too far, I’d be making a public declaration. By saying I was uncomfortable, I’d be saying that there was something inherently sexual in what had happened. Because we were both women, that would make it illegal. If I put her back up against that hypothetical wall, her only defense would be to lash out. And if she lashed at me, she’d hit her mark, because after all, I really am gay, and my wife is standing right there to prove it. Suddenly, or in my mind anyway, we’d both be going to jail, while the inspector is filling out paperwork and making jokes in the backroom. No thank you.

So these relationships – between visual elements in the painting, between Mia and me, between our current relationship and our younger relationship, between the agent and me, between my current work and my previous work, between a foreigner and a new city – were in my mind while I worked.

Then, one day while I was listening to classical music in the car, I heard the title of a piece, which was Algerian Overture. [Lately, I’ve been enjoying this fun game that I play with myself, which is that I get ideas for paintings from mis-hearing the titles of classical pieces. My favorite is that I heard Music of 10,000 Fernandas, which had so many possibilities to a lesbian, but when I checked the playlist later, I realized that they’d said “Music from Antonio Fernandez”, the classical guitar player. Which I can’t help but think isn’t nearly as interesting]. Although I’d heard Algerian Overture correctly, I knew then that I’d found my title if I just changed it to “Tangier”.

365 Days of Art: December 5 – Dieter Roth Receives Award for Artist Books

Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage), 1969, Ground pages of Halbzeit by Martin Walser, gelatin, lard, spices, in natural casing
Dieter Roth, Literaturwurst (Literature Sausage), 1969, Ground pages of Halbzeit by Martin Walser, gelatin, lard, spices, in natural casing

December 5, 1960

Dieter Roth is awarded the William and Noma Copley Foundation Award for his artist books.

He’s credited as the inventor of this genre, where the book isn’t meant to be read in the way we might read a paperback novel, but to be appreciated as a work of art. For Roth, books don’t need to have text. They don’t need to have bindings or pages either.

Humor and wordplay are a staple of his work. He gleefully titles one book Schiesse (Shit). What author does this? A favorite pun is the proximity of his last name to the term “rot”, and he frequently works with food to emphasize this connection. Another book contains no pages per se, but labeled envelopes, inside of which are bits of vanilla pudding and mutton.

In the work above, Roth grinds up real pages of a book called Halbzeit by Martin Walser, then adds gelatin, lard and spices and puts the meaty mess in a casing. Voila! A book sausage, or a Literaturwurst.

Needless to say, his works are either a dream or a nightmare for art conservators. I went to a show at MoMA several years ago and the sweet smell of chocolate was surprisingly prevalent in the gallery, even 50 years after the creation of the works. There were stained and rotted sausages and cheeses, but thankfully I couldn’t smell those. Other exhibitions aren’t so sweet: there are stories of museum guards having to stand outside the gallery because of the putrid smell of rotting food.

I love this guy!

365 Days of Art: September 9 – Director John Waters Discusses Art Collecting

Art collector John Waters (photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)
Art collector John Waters (photo courtesy of Walker Art Center)

September 9, 2003

Director, photographer, writer and art collector John Waters declares on the television series “ART:21”:

I love collecting art because it makes other people insane”.

He buys his first piece of art (a reproduction by Miró from a museum gift shop) at eight years old, and realizes the power of art when his friends can’t see in it what he sees. He finds this reaction repeated throughout the years, especially related to contemporary art.

365 Days of Art: September 1 – Amy Cutler Show Opens in Sweden

Fermentation, Amy Cutler, 2011

September 1, 2011

A solo show of new works by Amy Cutler, one of my favorite artists, opens at Galleri Magnus Karlsson in Stockholm. Her very mysterious, yet funny, paintings often feature groups of women engaged in group activities that simultaneously bring them together, yet show the rifts and competition in their dynamic. There is a sort of fairy-tale jousting metaphor that plays out more than once, whether it’s women riding ponies and fighting with umbrellas or going at it on top of dining room tables, with dining chairs strapped to their heads, antler-style.

There’s a sort of anachronistic timelessness that reminds me of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, and also the film Dogville by Lars von Trier, both of which have the same undercurrent of ruthlessness and group-think. Strange, powerful stuff. Something feels universal but very off in her work, like suddenly realizing in middle school that not everyone is going to be friends anymore, and that things just got a little dangerous.

I met the artist at an opening in Providence, and she herself is a delight.

365 Days of Art: January 31 – Mike Kelley Commits Suicide

Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and the Wages of Sin, 1987

January 31, 2012
Mike Kelley, described variously as “one of the most influential American artists of the past quarter century and a pungent commentator on American class, popular culture and youthful rebellion” by the New York Times, and as a proponent of “clusterfuck aesthetics” by the Village Voice (which I think was a compliment), commits suicide.

His work involved found objects, drawings, assemblage, performance and video. He expanded the repertoire of artist materials by incorporating items like crocheted blankets, and especially, children’s toys into his work.

Kelley’s work is complicated, layered with meaning, and challenges the idea of What Art Is. (Because like it or not, that’s changed in recent decades, and one of the people you can credit–or blame–is Mike Kelley). He was extremely well-read and could intelligently talk about his influences and ideas. In fact, he said the reason he took to writing about art was because so many art critics got it all wrong, particularly when discussing his work.

He worked with contrasts like high and low, fine art vs. crafty/crappy materials like blankets, photocopies and room deodorizers, and other contrasts, such as a video of Superman reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. A superhero reading Plath’s melancholy classic? That’s Kelley. But that the reading was part of an elaborate, ongoing installation that involved architecture students sending him cardboard models of Superman’s home on the planet Kandor, which he scaled down, created multiple versions of, enclosed in glass bottles and installed with items like bedroom furniture and Greek columns? That’s even more Kelley.

His work, which was inspired by diverse sources including politics, philosophy, the working middle class, art history, and underground music, could be shocking, and caused a stir more than once. Many people were unsettled by his use of crocheted blankets and plush toys. He created fictional environments with these childhood symbols, which led to a psychological reading by many critics and viewers that his work was about childhood abuse (he said it wasn’t, nor was he personally abused). But no doubt, the toys caused a visceral reaction to the work, since most of us have a strong personal association with toys like these. In 1988, there was an outcry over his installation called Pay for Your Pleasure, which featured a gallery of portraits of cultural and artistic geniuses — poets, philosophers and artists included — subverted at the end by a painting created by a convicted criminal.

Complicated work that needs some time and doesn’t give an easy reading. Some of it is in fact pretty disturbing, especially involving the plush animals, but I won’t get into that here.

He was also an influential teacher. One of his students, Jennifer Steinkamp, is currently exhibiting a digital work that is in honor of Kelley. Made while he was still alive, it depicts a digital tree, projected on the wall, which grows and sheds leaves, and twists and turns according to its own natural, but sped-up and exaggerated, cycle. It’s called “Shimmering Tree” and is meant as a portrait of Kelley. You can see it at Tacoma Art Museum.

365 Days of Art: January 19 – Cindy Sherman Born

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #228, 1990

January 19, 1954
Cindy Sherman, American artist, was born. She is known for playing multiple roles in the creation of her photos, such as serving as her own make-up artist, hairdresser, and model, as well as photographer. Additionally, although her portraits are of herself, they aren’t truly self-portraits, since she takes on another persona. For example, she posed as 50s-style actresses in her film stills, or painstakingly reenacted famous paintings from art history by donning prosthetics as necessary, or posing as males.

Fun Fact: Cindy Sherman is the stepmom of actress Gaby Hoffmann (the little girl from Field of Dreams and Sleepless in Seattle, the girlfriend in You Can Count on Me–probably my favorite movie, most recently seen on TV in Louie and Girls).

Art + Celebrity Gossip = My Favorite Thing

copyright Andy Warhol, 1980, 40 in x 40 in

Ryan O’Neal won custody of a painting that hung over his bed for almost 20 years. A jury decided that the Andy Warhol portrait of Farrah Fawcett belonged to O’Neal and not the University of Texas.

Long story short, Warhol was a friend to O’Neal and Fawcett and painted two slightly different versions of the painting, in the Pop Art style of his signature celebrity portraits like those of Marilyn Monroe. It was in 1980, when Farrah was the star of Charlie’s Angels, the number-one rated TV show. A pop culture sensation, Farrah’s portrait sitting was covered on TV by 20/20. Warhol gave one finished painting to Ryan, and one to Farrah. He was also friendly enough with them that he once decorated a tablecloth with doodles of their names.

The couple never married but were together for years. Even after breaking up in 1997, they co-parented their son fairly amicably. When Farrah died in 2009, Ryan was by her side and had been since she received the diagnosis.

Farrah’s will left her artwork to her alma mater, the University of Texas. After her death, Farrah’s Warhol was duly given to the school and the trustee of the estate also returned Ryan’s Warhol to him. The University didn’t know about the existence of the second Warhol, Ryan’s, until it was glimpsed in the background of a documentary about Farrah’s battle with cancer. The University sued him for it, saying that her property was willed to them and that they had no legal choice in the matter but to make sure her wishes were carried out. Fair enough.

At the trial, her inner circle of friends testified that it was common knowledge that the second Warhol was Ryan’s. On the other side, the University’s suit was driven by three men with an axe to grind: Farrah’s college boyfriend, a reality show producer who was miffed at having his participation in the above-mentioned reality show reduced, and a personal assistant of Farrah’s who had been fired. The producer will face defamation charges in the spring for, among other things, saying that Ryan stole the painting, and feeding rumors to the tabloids. Besides the tabloid nastiness, there was additional star power as well: Jaclyn Smith, one of Farrah’s Charlie’s Angels co-stars, appeared in court and on the courthouse steps to support Ryan.

Much of the suit turned on the reliability and motives of these witnesses, and also on Ryan’s own testimony. One holdout juror changed her mind after praying about the case at a nearby church during a lunch break. She returned believing that Warhol had gifted one painting to Farrah and one to Ryan. It was the same church where Farrah’s funeral was held.

I think this will become a Lifetime movie in less than three years.

Shadow Art

Tim Noble and Sue Webster, Self Imposed Misery, Stepladder, discarded wood, light projector

This work caught my eye. Collaborators Tim Noble and Sue Webster make what they call “anti-art” sculptures from garbage, and then use projectors to cast their shadows on the wall. It seems almost like alchemy how the work changes from random pieces of garbage to recognizable imagery.

Brian Murphy: Invisible Self-Portrait

Brian Murphy, "Invisible Self Portrait"

This painting has been a real favorite of mine recently. It’s a large work on paper, with wrinkles, imperfections and all–no frame to keep the paper from buckling. Its ability to express sadness and resignation, and ultimately a stubbornness to be seen and known, kind of takes my breath away. It says so much with so little paint.

Image courtesy of Brian Murphy’s website; please check out his other work.

Eyes As Big As Plates

Ever since spending part of my honeymoon in Helsinki, I’ve been in love with everything Finland. This amazing body of photographs takes me a little farther down the path of Suomi love.

Photographers Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen believe that the best way to understand a culture is to understand its stories, so they cast real Finns in the roles of characters from Finnish folklore.

The result is a body of photographs, Eyes As Big As Plates, populated by charismatic nymphs, sprites and sea creatures. They are seen in unguarded moments, as if we humans stumbled upon them in a clearing in the woods. These protagonists are fierce, self-sufficient, and intelligent. They are completely at home in nature, yet other-worldly, often meeting our gaze but making us feel that if we blinked, they might recloak themselves in mist and disappear again.

Images courtesy of Lara Sanchez’s blog.

The Four Justices

The Four Justices, by Norman Shanks

The first four female Supreme Court justices–Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan–are depicted in a gorgeous new group portrait, called The Four Justices, by Norman Shanks. The portrait is on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery for three years.

The first thing I love about this painting is its depiction of Justice Ginsburg, she of the fierce steeliness that radiates from the canvas. “Skim milk marriage“, indeed!

Next is the composition. The artist and others have suggested that this painting will be a touchstone for young girls, with the aspirational message that anything is possible. For me, the negative space is equal to the subject matter in broadcasting that message. Think of typical portraits of justices and attorneys, and you might think of floor-to-ceiling law books behind the subject, who is seated behind a desk.

In this portrait, instead of that claustrophobic wall of law journals, we see lots of light and space. There is no desk in front of the justices, nothing to physically pen them in. The mirror on the wall behind the justices reflects the rest of the room back to us, making the space seem even bigger. In the mirror, we can glimpse a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. On the right of the painting, we can see out a window, overlooking a sort of courtyard where two wings of the building intersect. An additional six windows, three facing us and three facing toward our left, can also be seen. Best of all is the slice of blue sky that grows slightly bigger as it reaches toward the viewer. This is a portrait that is about the environment, as much as it is about the figures in it. Light sources like the chandelier and the sky are symbolically enlightening. There are many viewpoints, literally, contained within this work: the viewer can look left and right within the room, use the mirror to look behind, use the window to look out. The viewer can try to look into the windows straight ahead and on the right, and can also look up into the blue patch of sky.

Curious eyes, maybe those belonging to young girls with ambition, can probe in and around the room, out the window, into the building next door, even as high as the sky. What an uplifting, contemporary take on this group portrait.