Adrian de la Peña: The LESS ART Interview

Adrian de la Peña was one of the lesser-known artists I chose for inclusion in Some Paintings (The Third LA Weekly Annual Biennial) at Track 16 Gallery in 2008, though one of the most conceptually intriguing. Back then he was making individual works – mostly abstract paintings – that were meant as fragments of a larger, extremely experimental science fiction narrative that was ambiguous as to its strict fictionality.

In de la Peña’s current show Before the Veil, Beyond the Veil: The Veil at Cornelius Projects (operated by former T16 director Laurie Steelink), curator and international man of mystery Antonio Beecroft includes “works constructed from a narrative that was revealed to him while viewing an exhibition of netsuke at LACMA in the 1990s… ‘downloaded’ from a supernatural or extraterrestrial consciousness. The results are paintings on transparent acrylic which the artist suggests are relics of creatures drawn from the narrative who await the reanimation that will occur as the story unfolds.”

So that’s still a go. Continuity is good. But the show is a bit of a mini-survey, and Adrian’s idiosyncratic diversity is frontburnered with a couple of jubilant CoBrA-esque canvases dating back to the turn of the Millennium, a suite of post-Painterly dropcloths from five years later, excerpts from an almost 2-decade video project involving the POV of an art museum janitor’s mop, a cluster of meticulously plotted hard-edge geometric abstractions, and the aforementioned alien candy-slime artifacts. And there’s more!

We caught up with de la Peña in his negative-orgone-proof underground bunker and interrogated him about the directions his work has taken him in the interim.

vLMx Head 2003 Acrylic on plaster 8 x 5 x 41/2 inches

LESS ART: I think your works incorporating multidirectional grids resulting in an omnidirectional plane are neat! Where do you get your ideas?


ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: generally speaking, i get my ideas by keeping open to what comes my way. if i come across something that triggers me aesthetically  or spiritually i will often file it in my head/heart to work with later. what turns out to be a good idea is one that pulls various interests of mine into it, like the multidirectional grid.

From the series The Quartering: The Tree of Knowledge Appears in the Mind; The Tree of Knowledge Appears on the Land; The Robot Savior as a Young Faun Beneath the Tree of Knowledge; Atomization of the Land/Mind; The Land/Mind Shifts in Flux – All 2005-2006 Acrylic, spray paint, ink and paint marker on drop cloth All 25 x 36 inches

LESS ART: Can you elaborate on the multidirectional grids, and maybe outline some of your “various interests?”

The recent “Oval” handbag from the iconic BAO BAO ISSEY MIYAKE line

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: one day i saw an ad for a purse designed by issey miyake that was really cool. it was a sculptural, geometric thing. i don’t know why but i was triggered and i immediately envisioned some kind of painting. one of my favorite processes as an artist is figuring out how to get the image in my head to a physical art piece. the multidirectional grid came out of that struggle. and it’s turned out to be a really useful and fruitful and interesting thing. 

LESS ART: So this was more of a design inspiration than sacred geometry revelation?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: like i’m saying, at first the multidirectional grid was just a visual thing for me. i saw something in my head and i wanted to make it in the real world and the grid was like a tool. but i’ll back up a bit, because my first intention was actually to make not as much a painting, but a way of making paintings. i’ve worked in craft and art production for jobs in my past, and i really gained an appreciation for the way systems are created and used in order to produce efficiently.

i once worked in a ceramics studio where they made things using liquid porcelain in molds. it was in the upper haight.  i remember my first week working there was intense because of the way i was being trained. they would like make me sit in a certain position, put my arm on the table a certain way and hold my hands in a specific manner, etc, breathe calmly, while i assembled pieces. it was like an extreme micromanage.

i thought they were crazy especially because they were all getting stoned and i was being left out of the huddle. but i’m laughing now thinking about how they eventually let me join the huddle and when i went back to work kinna fucked-up like that their training made total sense because as fucked up as i was, i was fine to work because as long as i did shit the way they trained me to, it was easy to do and done correct. but anyways, through mostly jobs i’ve had i’ve gained a real appreciation for the art of creating a kind of streamline production.

Carlyle SphinX 22 2019-2022 Acrylic on plaster 8 x 8 x 5 1/2 inches

so anyways that was my first intention, to make a way of making paintings. the miyake purse was the spark that made me understand what kind of painting i wanted. it seemed to want to be a geometric thing, not crazy, but busy and calm at the same time, something that had a way to play with color with, something that hung well in a room. i wanted a no-worry painting, a no worry, just enjoy painting.

Illustration of the Avatamsaka Sutra at Songgwangsa in Suncheon, Korea. Joseon dynasty, 1644.

LESS ART: It seems like there’s something distinctly contemplative about these works (not to mention the slipcasting mindfulness retreat.

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: so to start, a grid was an obvious structure to play with, to hang color on. but that issey miyake purse, which i only really saw a couple of times in an ad, i remember had diagonals, so i added them. on raw canvas with a pencil. that’s how i got to what i sometimes call an unconditional happiness grid, or a queer grid, this multidirectional grid. really, it started with a want to streamline art production, triggered by a high-end fashion accessory, but hanging out with this grid now for a number of years, it turns out that i’m fucking around with the structure of the universe.

Robot RocketShip Robot & Giant Colossus, both 2000, acrylic on canvasboard, and 36 X 24 ins

LESS ART: The very structure of the universe?!

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: i mean that literally and jokingly. but i love this grid like that. we go deep sometimes. way way back in my past when i was active in the oto i remember studying the book of the law and reading somewhere in there about the center being everywhere and the periphery nowhere. that’s what this grid feels like to me. because really if you extend the grid like it wants to be, you’ll find these centers everywhere, with no edge in sight. there seems to be something just true about that.

like, when i look at other people it’s me, this center here, looking at other centers over there and over there. centers everywhere. but this grid is also a just great structure to fuck around with. slap some blue tape on there and break out the spray paint and see what happens with color and layers, obstruct and reveal, freeze it when it sparks joy, or keep going to see what else joy looks like.

Large Repeat Signal from Project Blue Beam 2011 Acrylic on paper;
MOF (man of fire) 2005 Spray paint, acrylic and graphite on enamel over wood 86 x 38 inches

LESS ART: Can you explain more about the long-term janitorial video project?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: when i was working doing maintenance and facilities at the orange county museum of art i started documenting my work with my iphone, creating this series of videos and photographs that i called the subatomic gestalt. basically i was sharing the perspective of a maintenance worker at an art museum, of a worker pretty much at the very bottom of the art hierarchy. being an artist working as a janitor at an art museum could have been a mind fuck – talk about strugglin’ – instead i found myself performing it as an artist, and recording it. not constantly of course. i can talk about the influence of zen buddhism here too, mindfulness etc, here too. but yeah. it was fun making art on the job. anyways, the title of the series, the subatomic gestalt, i know is kind of silly. but it felt right giving it this weighty and a bit obnoxious title, giving my janitor-self and how i made my living some kind of bump-up. but at the same time the title is legit. there’s this thing that goes on beneath the surface that has it’s own kind of meaning.

LESS ART: Earlier you spoke of searching for ideas that pull your “various interests” into them. Can you elaborate?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: as far as my various interests i guess i’ve been talking about some already. art making. making things. discovering new ways to make things. making ways to make things. fashion and design have always prompted work. i love interior design. i love experiencing what other artists do, when it’s good and great.

i love music though i feel lost right now and listen mostly to classical ragas according to the time of day, and alice coltrane’s turiya sings. the kind of bad thing and good thing about all this is that i can’t help trying my hand at all these things and not just be a fan.

my love of anime and writing and science fiction is where one of my series of artwork comes from. rachel rosenthal was my teacher for a couple of semesters back in the day and she’d tell me disgustingly about being a jack of all trades, don’t be one. i can’t help it though. i love it and i want to do it.

Giotto, St. Francis Preaching to the Birds, c. 1299, fresco, Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

but above and beyond all that, when i was a kid i wanted to be a saint. probably because i was in catholic school starting from kindergarten and you’d always see pictures of sweet little sparrows hanging out with saint francis and saint domanic. they’d fly away from me though. i wanted to make the scene. i still do, shit.

but really, beyond the glamour of it, spirituality is what calls me the most. and that more or less means that no matter what the struggle is, what the joy is, what the question is, the answer is always the same: just here with god. ultimately my life will be about a journey into the center proper. i don’t talk about it much though. certainly not in my work. but it’s usually the conclusion to any of it, if you take any of it to its final conclusion. i decided recently that maybe i should talk about it a little.

LESS ART: What do you mean when you refer to God?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: when i say god i’m talking about the ultimate gestalt. when i’m saying “god” i’m saying “everything”, the one big thing.

so yeah, i was raised a roman catholic, i wanted to be a saint, but then i found out that I’m gay, and then i found out that god hates fags. so i looked and looked for something besides that weird god who I feared more than I loved anyway. then i was on the road that eventually led me to buddhism, hinduism, ritual magic, i don’t know, whatever has been clever navigating this self-managed evolution. it can be a real ego nonsense kind of journey, and there’s that whole carrot and stick aspect of it. but right now i’m in love with both the carrot and the stick. i’ve had lots of teachers, or people i follow in one way or another. at this very very moment i’m not listening to or following anybody. “just be”, “simply be” i guess are the gods i’m vibing with right now.

LESS ART: Apart from “Don’t follow leaders,” are you involved in any specific spiritual practices or studies at the moment?

ADRIAN DE LA PEÑA: i’m about to do a week long retreat at the new camaldoli hermitage in big sur. i did it last year too. it’s run by catholic monks. i look forward to the silence. i really really mean that.

when i say, me here with god, i mean me here positioned in my correct place. my first psychedelic revelation, when i was nineteen, was that if god created everything from itself then everything was god and i was as much god as everything else. forty years later there is no modifying the fact that revelation exposed to me. so when i say, me here with god, i’m talking about being in that proper place where you just know. because there is god and there is the denial of god, which apparently we are all inheritors of. the denial is what fucks things up and makes us feel like crap. finding the divine in everything feels really really good.

Adrian de la Peña: BEFORE THE VEIL, BEYOND THE VEIL: THE VEIL
Curated by Antonio Beecroft
June 18–August 28, 2022
Day-before-closing slow happening reception Saturday, Aug 27, from 11:30 AM – 5 PM
with live international improvised audio collage broadcast of The Mannlicher Carcano Radio Hour
from 11:30 – 1:30: all are welcome to join.

Robot RocketShip Robot
2000
Giant Colossus

CORNELIUS PROJECTS
1417 South Pacific Avenue
Gabrielino-Tongva Territory, San Pedro, CA 90731
(310) 266-9216
corneliusprojects@gmail.com
https://corneliusprojects.com/

Guest WTF Thursday: Kevin Mutch on Dingbat Calendars

As I get (even) older, I have a little hobby where I try to track down dimly remembered bits and pieces from when I was a boy – a list of books mostly, but also drawings, movies, and so on – things that left a deep impression on me but which I can’t recall with clarity. Some of them have been easy to track down thanks to Google, but others have eluded me for years.

One of the hardest nuts to crack has been this memory: as a little kid in Winnipeg, whenever my mother would take me to see our pediatrician I’d be entranced by some posters he had on his office wall — richly detailed fairytale style paintings of a bunch of elves or gremlins all doing funny things. I tried googling “old elf paintings” or “old fairy tale illustrations” and assorted other permutations for years and years, and never found the images.

Then, last weekend, my wife and I were at the fantastic antique market in Aberfoyle, Ontario and in a ramshackle booth, sitting in a dusty frame, was one of these long-sought pictures! Much more recent (from the 80’s) and therefor a lot less charming, but unquestionably the same characters: according to the title, they were called the “Dingbats.” I wrote down the name and googled it as soon as I got home — and, on the website of the Niagara Apothecary Pharmacy Museum, I finally found out the story of the paintings and why they’d be in a Canadian doctor’s office but almost nowhere else.

The end of the story — the explanation for why they were ultimately discontinued — is classically Canadian. “From 1915 until 1996, health professionals all across Canada received a calendar which featured the healing efforts of the Dingbats. Charles Edward Frosst founded the Canadian company that bore his name until 1965 when it was taken over by a major American manufacturer to become Merck-Frosst.

Charles Frosst engaged the artist, William Dudley Burnett Ward, to paint an appealing calendar for distribution to his firm’s audience. Over the course of 81 years there have been a long succession of artists following Ward… The Dingbat calendars were discontinued as a result of a Canadian industry’s association decision that the Dingbat promotion was unfair competition.”

More info and images here and here.

Kevin Mutch is a cartoonist, digital artist, and painter from Winnipeg, Canada. He received an MFA in painting from the University of Victoria. His graphic novel Fantastic Life received a Xeric Award in 2010 and was excerpted in The Best American Comics 2011. His second graphic novel, The Rough Pearl, was published by Fantagraphics in 2020. http://kevinmutch.blogspot.com/

Guest Column: Peter Clothier on Michael Brewster

Mount Wilson Observatory is launching a new Arts @ the Observatory program with a special exhibition of Acoustic Sculptures created by the late Michael Brewster, Saturday and Sunday, August 13-14, 2022 at 3 and 6 PM, with an additional event combining Brewster’s installation with followed by a night of observing through the 100-inch telescope is scheduled for Saturday at 7:30 PM. Within Sound: The Acoustic Sculptures of Michael Brewster, will be presented in the historic and acoustically phenomenal Dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mt. Wilson Observatory. A lecture by Homer Charles Arnold (Archive Manager for the Michael Brewster Trust) will be presented at 4:15pm, between the two performances, and light refreshments will be served. Tickets are $50.00 each ($100 for Sat night) and are available for purchase online in advance or at the door. For more information visit https://www.mtwilson.edu/arts-the-observatory/brewster. More info and examples of Michael Brewster’s work can be found on his website http://www.michaelbrewsterart.com

Listen, from Different Points of View: The Acoustic Sculpture of Michael Brewster

Where am I?

What is
the nature of this place
I occupy
in space,
so strangely present?

What is this body that transports me here and there?

What am I doing here now?

And where do I go next?

These are among the fundamental questions that challenge us at the deepest level of our consciousness, once we strive to get past those seductive—some would say illusory— surfaces of the material world that so easily distract us. They are the questions, too, with which Michael Brewster uncompromisingly confronts us in his acoustic sculpture, if only we can clear our heads long enough to pay attention.

A visit to the studio can sometimes yield unusual insights into an artist’s work. Visiting Brewster’s, we first pass through the remarkable forest of his bamboo garden, now twelve years old and growing. He has planted more than twenty different species, from gleaming, ebony-stemmed giants to soft, green, sensual stems that are velvet to the touch. We can hardly walk through the quiet setting of this abundant grove without being aware of how alive it is with subtly shifting sounds—a luxuriant, natural, outdoor counterpoint to the interior studio space, austerely artificial, in which he creates his artworks. Bamboo plants are surely among the most eloquent in nature: they click, clack, and whisper constantly in the breeze, chatter quietly among themselves, and sometimes orchestrate whole symphonies of shimmering, arrhythmic sound.

Inside the studio, we soon become equally sensitive to sound amid the silence—but in a quite different way. In contrast to the lush, green growth outside, it is pristine and white here; the sound is controlled by a concealed stereo stack and a Juno 106 synthesizer. Brewster has always been intrigued by the artifice of art, and since the 1970s his work has played on that essential quality. There may be metaphorical references for individual viewers— the whistle or chirp of birds, for instance, or the throb of a human heartbeat. But the actual sounds he works with are insistently artificial, calling our attention to the created quality of the experience. They could not be described as precisely musical, however, and certainly not melodic. They have no standing outside of the specific, spatial environ- ment they define. They are simply the physical medium he employs, as others might use stone, wood, or bronze, to create the three-dimensional entities that he appropriately calls sculpture.

Nothing in art appears in a vacuum, and Brewster’s radical concept for his acoustic sculpture is no exception. Already in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were pioneers searching for alternatives to traditional art forms that seemed at the time to be in danger of exhausting their potential. In France, Yves Klein evolved the concept of art without form or substance, selling “zones of immaterial sensibility” in exchange for gold, which was thrown into the Seine, leaving nothing but a spiritual record of the transaction. In the United States, artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and Walter De Maria were investigating spaces other than the gallery or the public plaza as locations for the three-dimensional sensibility, and were exploring the media of the phenomenological world.

In California, Robert Irwin led the way for a group of artists who would soon be known under the rubric Light and Space—artists as diverse as James Turrell, Michael Asher, and Eric Orr, whose primary medium was light itself; and Mowry Baden, an important precursor for Brewster, was pioneering work in which viewer participation and body awareness played significant roles. The purpose, for artists such as these, was no longer to create an aesthetic object but rather to awaken the observer’s consciousness to the nature of actual experience.

It was in the context of this ferment of experimentation that Brewster came to believe, as a young artist, that his own sculptural sensibility was not well served by that medium’s traditional visual qualities. His mission was no less than to save sculpture as an art form. “You never really see a sculpture,” he explained in a recent interview. “Sight is frontal. What you get is a sequence of frontal views. You can’t perceive it all at once, like a painting. I wanted [the viewer] to see the inside of things, and sculpture showed only the outside.” Abandoning the figural efforts with which he had started out, he began to experiment with installations of small lights, flashing in sequenced patterns out in the desert, defining fields of space. But this proved disappointing. “It was always less than what I wanted,” he comments, from this distance in time.

The transition from light to sound came in part on the inspiration of a single moment. Brewster recalls hearing, from the dinner table, the unmistakable, quirky sound of a friend’s old VW bug as it shifted into third gear on the street outside, and the sound brought with it a flood of simultaneous information about the world out there—from gearbox problems to marital disputes—in a quasi-Proustian epiphany: “It all came to my ears at once,” he remembers. And that continuum of information, that all-at-once quality of lived experience, was precisely what he had been reaching for in his art. Prompted by this awareness of the holistic embrace of sound as a sense perception, he began to speculate about its potential as a medium for sculpture and to experiment with the effects it could create.

The first outcome was a piece that involved thirty- five clicking devices—Brewster’s MFA exhibition at Claremont Graduate School in 1970. This was the first of a series of increasingly refined investigations into the possibility of creating lines in space by activating the directional extensions of sound, in a white-walled, three-dimensional environment that was otherwise devoid of stimulus. A simple click from a concealed device in one location, answered by a second click from an opposing wall, would prompt the observing mind to follow the path of its own imaginary line. Producing clicks from a number of sources, whether at regular or irregular intervals, would thus set up a complex though invisible “drawing” that would encompass the attentive viewer, engaging his or her full consciousness. The experience was one of being inside the drawing and of finding one- self, as one moved, in a different spatial relationship to different lines. The viewer could then, in a real sense, participate in the creation of the drawing at each instant by the simple act of changing his or her own location.

From this initial series of sound drawings Brewster moved on, in the 1970s, into the more richly textured field of acoustic sculptures. Given the way a sound travels through space, resonating and reverberating, bouncing off walls and ceilings in a slow process of decay, he found that it was possible to construct a kind of internal architecture that could be perceived by the human ear alone, without the lim- itations of sight. Starting first with single tones, then adding a second tone and a third, he worked over a period of years to refine and expand the perceptual potential of his ear and his understanding of how sound works in space.

The resulting pieces were exhibited in a number of museums and galleries, and were evidence of this increasing sophistication. Most, initially, were site specific. Visiting the proposed site in anticipation of a show, Brewster would take along an oscillator—an audio frequency generator that projects one sound at a time anywhere along the range of the audio spectrum—and put it to work to identify the acoustic properties of the space. Returning to his studio with this scientifically gathered information, he could then “build” his sculpture around the appropriate frequencies and ready it on audiotape for eventual installation.

In the course of three decades, there have been various technical improvements that have enabled Brewster to refine his capabilities. The purchase of the Juno 106 synthesizer in 1985 gave him the ability to work with several sustained sounds, for example—created by placing weights on the appropriate keys; and the transition from analogue to digital sound technology in the late 1980s increased his capacity to produce the rock-steady sound that gives his pieces their authoritative “solidity” today. Computers played their part: first a tiny Commodore 64, and later a Macintosh 8600 gave him greater precision and flexibility in editing.

But Brewster’s work, though generated by sophisticated technology, is not about the technology that produced it. Rather, it is about human perception and experience. For a while—in line with the “cool” of Minimalism and the heady intellectual discipline of Conceptual art—he chose to distance himself from any emotive associations, but more recently he has come to value them as a part of the richness of the experience he offers. He refuses, however, to make things overly seductive for his audience, setting out to engage sounds that might at first seem provocative, even confrontational. Some will be vaguely familiar, “like a vacuum cleaner,” he says, “or an airplane taking off.” Others will seem as alien as sounds from the far end of the universe.

Because these sounds may not be immediately appealing—and because he insists on viewer participation —Brewster typically uses an “On/Off” switch to activate the piece; he locates it on a wall removed somewhat from the entrance, hoping to capture our attention before we can make too hasty an exit from the space. It takes time to absorb the sounds, and more time still to see how they build a perceptible structure. This strategy also makes it harder for us to remain in one position, stationary, as we might in front of a painting or a sculpture. With Brewster’s work, movement is critical: “To ‘see’ an Acoustic Sculpture,” he once wrote, “we must shift our viewing habits from the ‘stand and look’ behavior to an exploratory ‘walk and listen’ approach, slowly walking our ears instead of moving our eyes.” On his compact disk, All of Before: Three Acoustic Sculptures (1996), he introduces each piece with the same quiet injunction: “Listen, from different points of view.”

And this is quite simply what we are called upon to do. The experience, like all profound art experiences, resists all attempts to reduce it to the grasp of language. It is, in truth, indescribable. Brewster’s work entices, rejects, embraces, puzzles, challenges—and eventually simply wins us over. If we listen, we are there. Thus, with oh so pretti, a recent work completed for the 2001 faculty exhibition at Claremont and included in the present show at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, we enter the space and find ourselves enveloped in dim light, in silent emptiness. The small black box of a wall-mounted audio speaker is the single visible object, aside from the small button nearby that says simply, “PRESS ON.” Follow the instruction, and the space is soon suffused with a single, sustained note, joined moments later by a second, slightly lower, then by a third. A fourth note shortly joins the mix, setting up a rich, apparently constant tapestry of sound.

If we step away from our first position, however, we find that the sound is anything but constant. Here, in our new position, is a whole new construct: different qualities of sound are suddenly audible, while others drop away or fade. If we shift, even from foot to foot, swaying our bodies through the length of their natural arcs, we notice these subtle changes. We begin to get a sense of the architec- ture of the sound, its different volumes and spaces in between. We walk ahead a few paces to another area, and the audible world is completely different again: what was a sustained, harmonic hum transforms into a surprising throb, taking our heartbeats along with it. Sound achieves human scale. And, as with all sculpture, we notice our own bodies now, the different weight and heft of them as they move through the different volumes of pure sound. If we pay close attention both to the sound and to our bodies, simultane- ously, we may notice how they begin to sing in harmony.

This is not easy work. It requires a willingness to drop out of our normal consciousness and into a state of heightened awareness. Adjusting to its peculiar demands, we are encouraged to slow down the usually frenetic pace of our lives, and pay undistracted attention to the here and now. Otherwise, the work will pass right over us, or through us, without affect. If we pay attention, though—as we might in nature to the subtle sounds of the breeze in a bamboo grove—we are rewarded with that great sense of the lightness of being, and of the awesome presence of what gives joy and meaning to our lives beyond the material. This is the eventual gift of Brewster’s acoustic sculpture, and the one we can take home with us once we have seen it: to offer us a whole new way of apprehending sound and silence, and of understanding how this simple awareness can contribute to our sense of where we stand in time and space. It helps us discover more about who we really are.

Peter Clothier is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is the author of David Hockney (Modern Masters series, Abbeville Press, 1995) and has published scores of articles and reviews of contemporary artists in international magazines. His current series of special events, “One Hour/One Painting,” has been sponsored by museums throughout southern California. https://peterclothier.com/

Originally published in the catalog for Michael Brewster: See Hear Now — A Sonic Drawing and Five Acoustic Sculptures at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) between February 16 and April 20, 2002. The exhibit was curated by Irene Tsatsos and initiated and sponsored by FOCA (the Fellows of Contemporary Art.)

Guest Column: Pierre Picot (from the Great Beyond) on Strategy

Pierre Picot passed away a year ago today, and LESS ART would like to mark this anniversary by publishing a text in which he explores his creative process in terms of strategy, intention, intuition, clarity, and chance…


There is a popular word in the art world which has been in circulation for some years now… that word is strategy … by which I have understood to mean the way in which one positions oneself, one’s work, one’s issues within the precise context of the moment, making oneself and one’s work seamlessly at one with that moment and it would be hoped at one with the future … in an attempt to forecast the next shift, to anticipate continuously the next position appearing on the horizon.


A bit similar to wondering whether or not skirt lengths are going up or how low the pants are coming down. To strategize oneself into that place which cannot be foretold, that which defies definition … strategy in harmony with theory, theory as a means to defining artistic endeavor … one which by definition is incapable of defining itself.


So that’s how I started this text, wanting to be serious before the fact, but in truth knowing full well that I would arrive at some coherent statement sometime after the fact. In short I have no strategy … intentions and results somehow manage to eventually add up to something concise, finding their coherence in the make up of their individual parts. You see, I know that my personal beliefs and the way in which they find some sort of public expression come together almost by accident. One thing follows the other, through some undefined inner logic, but certainly not through a conscious and objective rationale.


I ask myself some questions, do some research, watch a movie, set up guide lines, get an ice cream, ask the opinion of others, read a book, take some time off to go earn a living, incorporate stimulation from aspects of play and work, while seeking out answers which will eventually make sense … or not … and if not now, then maybe later. This is not to say that I am relaxed, casual, easygoing, living in the moment, sipping away on my tropical drink (the one with the little umbrella) and playing the fiddle while Rome burns, which of course it is … burning.


I want things to be the way I wish them to be … to be master of my destiny … to be a part of the zeitgeist and so on … but as any rational and self deprecating person acting in good faith knows, wanting and getting don’t necessarily follow one another. I do not have a sense of entitlement.


Actually I am insecure and hope for the best. Oftentimes I feel just like a cook who finds his kitchen stripped bare but for the essentials and then proceeds to make the best of it, given the skills at his command to perform in the clutch.


So what do I do, who am I? … well as I like to say, I am primarily a painter, and along with my girlfriend (wife since 2012) Wendy, we are quick and dirty perfectionists. I am not a specialist nor a careerist, yet I have been involved with the art world by showing my work, and writing about the work of others. In 1985, I quit the scene, left my gallery, although never stopping painting. By then I had garnered enough of a reputation so that I was able to teach.


For the past 2 years I have been working with the image of a boat. Found in Berkeley, at the studio of an old friend of mine … this boat, measuring about 5 inches long, was made of 3 pieces of wood… has become the inspiration for a multitude of cardboard versions, many drawings, paintings as well as etchings, one actually containing 1000 boats in a chaotic traffic jam.


What do those 1000 boats mean and represent? Are they an image of the current social order, an image I have observed casually and am regurgitating unconsciously? Perhaps, but most likely more. Am I conscious of it? Somewhat, but its meaning does not drive my process of making.


A boat, as in the sea, water, freedom, a house in the middle of the ocean, isolation, safety in the void … most likely … but the making is more interesting than the thinking about it. Instead, I will let the meaning come to me, out of its own creation, with time and with the working out of the image, via any medium I and it chooses for itself. Last year, after spending a total of 30 minutes at the Whitney Biennale, I then went to the Metropolitan where I spent the same amount of time looking at an 18th century Chinese hand scroll of water hyacinths.


It was then that I realized that I was truly bored with Contemporary Art, that I finally had had it with all the redundant generations of Duchamp clones, and the endless monochromes in search of an elusive perfection based on abstract principles of purity and that what I was looking for I had already discovered whenever I could be honest with myself and therefore with others. Honesty brings about clarity.


I am like you, I think that we are all the same. In the best of all worlds, in these momentous times, we seek nothing more than the lack of tension between artistic intention and artistic production. I feel that they are one and the same. The work, whatever form it takes, is a reflection of its maker, his travels, her upbringing, his conflicts and her resolutions. Medium is meaningless, attitude and understanding is everything while cause and effect are just the result of not trying that hard.

Pierre Picot Presentation to Remnant Society LA Cathedral, October 18 2005

I’m a Negative Sheep I’m a Negative Sheep I’m a Negative Sheep and I’m Cloned

John Geary: The LESS ART Interview

LESS ART: I think your sheep are neat! Where do you get your ideas?

JOHN GEARY: I never considered sheep as a subject for my art. It all happened accidentally. I was working in my studio late at night in a haze of heavy marijuana smoking. I threw a sheepskin rug over two ottomans on a table and I saw a headless sheep with two rear ends. I was compelled to create my vision, the “Push Me – Push Ewe”, a sculpture of a headless sheep with two rear ends. A key detail is lifelike silicone genitals hidden under the tails. 

LESS ART: We’ll get back to that later. How did your vision transition to drawings and paintings?

JOHN GEARY: While working on the sheep sculpture I began thinking about sheep mutations, I remembered seeing photos of a two headed sheep. I decided to draw two headed sheep to balance out the headless sheep sculpture. Those mutations led to using images from my home printer malfunctions as inspiration. Sometimes it will run out of a color and something interesting will happen, unusual color combinations and other distortions. I worked these oddities into my drawings and paintings. This brought me to digitally manipulating found images of sheep which led to the negative sheep.

LESS ART: When you first started posting the sheep to social media I was surprised, because virtually everything I’d seen by you had been B&W, and these employ a really sumptuous color palette. I had thought you were colorblind, like most sculptors.

JOHN GEARY: The first sheep drawings were black and white using graphite and charcoal, my usual media at the time. Around this same time I had begun dabbling in color, using pastels in my drawings. As I was experimenting with color, I kept using sheep as my subjects. When I decided to try some paintings I continued to use sheep. I found them to be a good subject to experiment with. I was consciously trying to loosen up my technique. That’s something new for me.


I had been drawing the same way with the same medium, charcoal and graphite on paper, for twenty years. My idea was to draw things as realistically as I could, rejecting any stylization or expressionism. I wanted to take all the art out of them. I wanted the drawings to be artless, without any commentary from me. 


When I decided to play with colors, I got into a whole new way of thinking. My attempts at using realistic colors always seemed to fall short, so I really got into finding unusual color combinations. I enjoy experimenting and putting colors together to get at something new and exciting. I’ve been trying different techniques as well, including overlapping transparent washes to blend colors. 

LESS ART: Was there something about sheep that inspired the move into color?

JOHN GEARY: The sheep were very strange subject matter for me. They don’t have the same relationship to humans as wild animals or pets. They are also cute, but at the same time they spend their lives being controlled, manipulated and ultimately doomed. This happens to be the case, but I wasn’t consciously thinking about that when I began the series, though it may have been intuitive. 

Beyond the subject matter, the sheep works mark a departure from my usual techniques as well. I began incorporating color into the drawings and then I began the series of paintings. This was a very experimental time for me. I was much more willing to try  new ways of working which I wasn’t comfortable with. I never considered myself a painter and I hardly had painted at all. I embraced the opportunity to fail and learn by doing it. I was intentionally loosening up


As an artist, I think it’s important to get out of your comfort zone. I get my ideas from everyday life as well as intense drug trips. Ideas come to me and I write them down or sketch them out. Sometimes I’ll see something or read something and I will be reminded of something else and that gives me an idea. While I’m working on a piece I’ll usually get ideas for what I want to do next and I just keep going. I guess that’s how most artists do it. 

LESS ART: What was the initial impulse that moved you towards animals as the subject for your drawings?

JOHN GEARY: I always loved to draw. When I was a child in grade school, I was into King Kong and I had a sketch book full of gorillas. Years later, when I went to art school I would be the last one out of my drawing class because I couldn’t stop drawing. I drew all of the usual academic things, figures, shapes, fabric, skeletons, plants, shells,…. I just loved the process. 

While I was in art school, my family dog died and I drew a portrait of him for my parents. My mother cried she when she saw my drawing. My parents had it framed and they hung it the entrance of their house.

I majored in sculpture and that was my focus but I never stopped drawing. I went on to draw my girlfriend’s dog, then her sister’s dog. I love animals and I love drawing. I really didn’t give it much thought. 

While I was a graduate student I decided to revisit drawing animals, but this time more intensely and more photo realistic. I made a series of wild animal drawings based on photos I found in books and magazines. These drawings were odd. People didn’t know how to take them.  I followed that series with an even more photo realistic series focused on apes, just like when I was a kid, but at this point I was doing it to confound. The ape drawings to me, were like the Mona Lisa. They are almost human and there is something unknowable going on in their expressions. I saw this as a metaphor for the mysterious intent of the art.

LESS ART: Many of your recent works — I’m thinking of kittens, mostly — play on the border of Kitsch, while these sheep are a little bit terrifying, not reassuring at all. What’s your feeling about the realm of sentimentality, anthropomorphism, and cuteness? And its opposite?

JOHN GEARY: I went on predominantly drawing apes for nearly twenty years. One day a collector of my work asked me if I would do a portrait of her beloved pug. This led me to a series of pugs. Now I was drawing domestic animals. This led me to try a series of intentionally cute domestic animals, including large scale kittens. I had been avoiding anything one might consider kitsch, now I was flirting with it. But I did it my way and my intentions were not kitsch. And thought they were cute, I would like to think they were also much more complex. I think it ultimately comes down to the nuances of the actual handling of the medium, the way in which something is drawn, the pace, the rhythm, the things that are beyond words.

As far as sentimentality, anthropomorphism, cuteness, and the opposite, I use these things to set up and manipulate the experience for the viewer.  I’m aware that my audience will bring their own biases and project common stereotypes onto my work but I have hope and a certain amount of faith that the work itself will confound those expectations.

LESS ART: I was particularly delighted by the anatomical correctness of the Push Me Pull Ewes! Why was that necessary?

JOHN GEARY: Your delight is exactly why it was necessary. But seriously, the details needed to be addressed and it was the details which brought the Push Me-Push Ewe together and completed the piece. For me, the anatomic detail took the PushMe-Push Ewe from furniture to someplace deeper. The fact is, the private parts are not visible unless someone was to lift up the tails. What would someone be looking for under the tail?  This is nature, this is how we are all conceived and born, this is the origin of life, this is something which brings us together as animals on earth, as God’s creatures, and I think it’s beautiful. If there is any taboo or controversy in the workings of nature, that is a battle worth fighting. I feel it is my duty as an artist to stand up for truth, beauty, and nature. If my art affords me the privilege of poking a taboo, I’m honored. 

LESS ART: The sheep and lamb are pretty loaded symbols in Judeo-Christian culture. Is there any sort of nose-tweaking of religious zealotry intended in your transformations?

JOHN GEARY: I had no conscious intentions of any religious commentary in this work. Sheep and lambs became subjects accidentally and I just ran with them. They were particularly freeing for me for some reason. I was able to let loose artistically with them.They were just there for me to use. That may be an inherent feature of sheep, they are malleable. They get used by humans for so many things. Their flesh is used for food, their fur is used for textiles, their Hydes are used as rugs, we count them to fall asleep, farmers use them for sexual relief, they are used in religious sacrifice, etc…  Any social or religious connotations are an unintended bonus.

LESS ART: The 2nd-generation inversions of the finished sheep images that are framed by studio clutter multiply the layers of removal from Nature exponentially. Is that intentional? You grew up pretty urban, didn’t you? Have you ever actually met a sheep?

JOHN GEARY: That’s an interesting take. You mean the negative sheep paintings? The negative process photos from my cluttered studio illustrate how the negative paintings positively come to life in a negative world. I never meant the negative connotations, as in bad.

When I apply the term “negative” to the sheep, I am just describing them matter of factly. I started rendering the negatives for purely aesthetic reasons, as a way of achieving unusual and unexpected color combinations. One day my friend’s 10 year old son, Wolfgang, was at the studio and he had a kid’s toy camera which had a negative feature. When he took a photo in the studio the positive image of the sheep painting emerged while the rest of the image was in negative. This to me showed the painting as a portal, a metaphor for another world lurking beneath our perception, a metaphor for the subconscious.

I grew up in a small beach town adjacent to Atlantic City, called Ventnor, NJ. There were no farms there, but a few miles inland there were small farms with farm animals and 4-H clubs. I was not around farm animals much but I always had a love of all animals.  I don’t have any particular memories with sheep, but I know I must have encountered them at some petting zoo at some point in my childhood. Maybe I buried some traumatic sheep memory deep down in my subconscious!

CLOSING RECEPTION for Negative Sheep (& Georganne Deen’s The Lyric Escape)

Saturday Aug 6, 3 – 6 PM

Rory Devine Fine Art 3209 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90018 (213) 566-1929

https://www.rorydevinefineart.com/

PS: In case you don’t get the joke in the title (or just for the heck of it!):

Lyrical Gangstress

Georganne Deen: The LESS ART Interview

LESS ART: I think your disorganized lyric novel is neat! Where do you get your ideas?

GEORGANNE DEEN: They come for me. I draw, I noodle around, not understanding what or why and the reasons and words drop into my mind when I’m not trying too hard to understand. And likewise the paintings conjoin in a narrative I never could’ve conceived.

LESS ART: The show (as well as one of the works in it) is titled The Lyric Escape. What’s with that?

GEORGANNE DEEN: In an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti published by the NYT shortly before his death he was asked how he dealt with his unhappy childhood. He replied that he escaped it by lyricism, and has always adopted the lyric escape when life got too awful. I borrowed Ferlinghetti’s phrase, not bc life was too awful but bc it characterized my amazement at being paroled from a lifetime in the browns. The paintings can be viewed in the context of a disorganized lyric novel documenting the psychic complexities of life in the joint. 

LESS ART: Nailed it! Your visual style seems to have remained more or less consistent over your career, but the tone of your recent work seems to have moved past a certain personal psychological anguish to something more open and positive. Is that accurate? If so, please explain.

GEORGANNE DEEN: When I was young and overwhelmed by melancholy, unable to establish any degree of ambition beyond survival, I decided to keep an ongoing report of my personal experiences as I meandered the world of shadows. Because I knew that what I was experiencing was very common but not spoken about. And I knew I was going to figure out how to escape that mental malaise someday and when I did I’d have a record of it. These paintings still carry vestiges of that dark era but they’re transformed into accounts I can accept without sorrow or regret or shame or fury or fear because I looked all of that out of them.

LESS ART: That’s hopeful! DO you think that the artmaking itself was the escape route, or part of it, or just a record? Was moving to the desert the escape route?

GEORGANNE DEEN: All of that image making for sure, but also I credit the info acquired from personal experiences, and not just the good ones. Failure’s a bottomless cup of useful information if you can stand the taste. And learning meditation practices to stabilize the churning psyche.

LESS ART: Would you care to be specific about what brand of meditation you practice?

GEORGANNE DEEN: First I used a breathing technique I invented myself to bring everything to a standstill. But later I was taught TM and I prefer it. We’re given a Sanskrit word that has no meaning; it’s sole purpose is to take the mind into a state of silence. They refer to this as bliss but to the Vedic mind, bliss is a state where the mind is so saturated with peace that it no longer wants for anything. If you ever want to learn it, please find the teacher with the most impeccable credentials bc the days will come when you doubt if it’s worth keeping it up, and if you had a great teacher they will have explained how we sabotage the practice and will have taught you plenty of ways to get back on it. I never could’ve figured this out so don’t feel bad if you haven’t been successful at it on your own.

LESS ART: Duly noted. On a historical note, Lee Baxter Davis seems to have had a very singular influence on several generations of Texas artists — what was it he imparted that allowed you, Panter, Hancock, Schumann, et al to pursue such different but related paths?

GEORGANNE DEEN: Lee went into the ministry after l don’t know how many years of teaching people to listen to & follow their own impulses. Maybe he was speaking to our souls! One day he told a smart mouthed student that the merit of his painting depended on whether it was motivated by the need to be on the cover of an art magazine or to push the wheel of evolution. That’s when I got the idea to start the graphic novel (altho such a word was unknown to me). I thought it might be useful to someone in the future looking for a way out of madness, as an alternative to pharmaceutical drug taking.

GEORGANNE DEEN: Also – unrelated but noteworthy: getting paid for reporting was important to me because it was gross work and no one else seemed willing to take it on. This is the theme of the painting New Alchemy from Shit City, which exhorts us to turn every ugly bit of misfortune to gold, to make it pay for bringing us down.

CLOSING RECEPTION for The Lyric Escape (& John Geary’s Negative Sheep)

Saturday Aug 6, 3 – 6 PM

Rory Devine Fine Art 3209 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90018 (213) 566-1929

https://www.rorydevinefineart.com/

Guest Column: Margaret Wertheim – Documental Stimulation & Art World Alterities

Notes on Documenta 15 and art experiences in Germany

What can art do for human experience? What can it add or contribute?

I’m not interested in answers relating to the Kantian sublime or Schiller’s vision of the arts as a salvific force to liberate man-kind from our supposedly inherent ‘savagery.’

Fuck the ‘form drives’ of modernism.

Something was weighing on my mind during my recent trip to Germany. Everything seems so elegant, precise, ‘beautiful’ – calibrated to maximize aesthetic nicety. The food’s superb. Architecture is on show (Capital A). There are well-tended parks, grand plazas, functional railways, wi-fi, cafes, good coffee. I don’t even drink coffee but I did there, it’s so nice! Of course, I had an elite experience. Super-elite. I was there for the art. I was there because I make art. I was there because I was privileged to have my work on show at an elite German gallery. I didn’t see any banlieurs or refugees or poverty. I had the ultra-experience of a well-educated white English-speaking artist.

But as a well-educated white English-speaking artist I was bothered. Art in Germany is so controlled. For two weeks I visited museums in Baden-Baden, where my own work was being exhibited, then Kassel and Berlin. I saw museums for contemporary art, modern art, ancient art, Renaissance and Medieval art; science and anthropology museums; institutions big, small and enormous. It’s all so well-funded. German financial support for culture from both the state and private individuals seems to be unparalleled. How heartening to see a nation so committed to cultural enrichment. But after a while, I needed some letting go. I wanted to see some un-control, to experience some wild.

That’s why Documenta resonated for me – it’s out of control. At least the best parts were. Most parts in fact. It’s the places where the control set in – local German curators poking in their theory-laden fingers – that I liked less. For the most part it was a mind-expanding explosion of non-Western exuberance embedding ‘art’ in a network of genuine social activism and offering a window into the lives and imaginations of sectors of humanity rarely seen in the modern white cube.

The bales of rubbish plonked down on the lawn of an imperialist palace by Kenya’s Nest Collective; Gudskul scrawling over the walls and inviting audiences to teach one another; columns of the Friderichianum defamed by graffiti; Richard Bell’s Aboriginal Tent Embassy, now celebrating 50 years of continuous indigenous protest, blasting out audio of protest marches from a gummy old tent. The mess and chaos. The absence of frames and Artspeak – except in a few German-curated sub-sections. The insistence on process and in-situ evo-lution. The lack of reso-lution. Give things a chance. Let them BE.

Chaos with a purpose. The Nest Collective calling out Western dumping of second-hand clothes in Africa and the destruction of local textile industries in the name of giving Africans aid, all the while avoiding filling our own landfills with fast fashion and foisting our crap onto poorer nations who are drowning in it. That there’s now a fleet of lobbyists working on behalf of ‘recyclers’ to ensure Congress keeps the channels open says it all. And then punishing Rwanda for daring to close its doors to any more. Rwanda. The documentary film screening inside the Documenta rubbish-bale pavilion, titled Return to Sender – Delivery Details, should be on permanent loop in every Western clothing store. Buyer be damned!

The Britto Art Fund from Bangladesh, who’s playful installation of a local food bazaar offers up exquisitely crafted ceramic fish morphing into torpedoes and tomatoes and a slew of other sly monstrosities, along with crocheted strawberries and woven Campbell’s soup cans, as a commentary on the industrialization of our food supply, genetic engineering, gastronomical commodification and the entanglements of militarism with agriculture. It’s a display so delicate and quiet, even while being monumental, it would be easy to skip over its devastating critique.

And one of my favorite works, by the Wajukuu Art Project based in the Mukuru slum of Nairobi – a curtainlike sculpture constructed from thousands of knives. At once drop-dead beautiful and glittering with menace, it also calls to mind the powerful ritual objects of traditional Congolese artisans impaled all over by nails. A vast collection of these magnificent pieces is on display at the Humbolt Forum in Berlin, crammed by the hundreds into glass cases screaming out to be free. To Germany’s credit, there are now serious discussions taking place about the possibility of repatriating many pillaged culture-objects back to their homelands.

At Documenta there is also, inescapably, Taring Padi, an Indonesian collective in the eye of a storm, accused of antisemitism. Just as the exhibition opened, two figures were discovered among thousands in a vast plethora of hand-made imagery: a pig-headed soldier wearing a scarf with a star of David and a helmet emblazoned with ‘Mossad,’ the name of Israel’s security agency; plus a figure with pointy teeth, side-locks and an ‘SS’ insignia. This is Germany, where antisemitism is illegal, and someone should have removed these figures, or the entire piece containing them – a 20-year old, 60-foot long canvas, with scathing references to many regimes. Next to the Mossad solider was another whose helmet spelled out ‘ASIO,’ the security agency of my home country, Australia. [* See postscript.]

Taring Padi and Documenta’s curators, the Indonesian collective ruangrupa, have both issued apologies. The former has explained that the figures were never intended as a comment on Jewish people; the contentious mural, called People’s Justice, is instead “part of a campaign against militarism and the violence we experienced during Suharto’s 32-year military dictatorship in Indonesia.” [1] The whole canvas has been removed, and there’s so much remaining work no-one who’d not paid attention to the press would have any idea there’d ever been any more. It’s a mind-blowing amount of stuff. Most of it focused on calling out murderous regimes – particularly Suharto’s and his many international allies, among them Australia and the US – demanding social justice, and most importantly, offering a way forward through an enactment of resistance via participation at all levels of society.

This is what the German art elite seem to have missed: the idea that citizen participation matters. Taring Padi may be artists, but first and foremost they are activists. Their art is not about aesthetics – though it’s graphically brilliant – it’s about social change. It’s about overthrowing tyranny. Suharto’s regime went on for three decades and according to Transparency International he was one of the most corrupt leaders in modern history, having embezzled up to $30 billion from his people. By some estimates his security forces killed over a million people and imprisoned many more. They tortured, plundered, and stole from their society with support from the international banking community. These artists and their families grew up under this regime. They’re fighting/advocating/activating for an alternative society. They walk the walk with their commitments and practices. They are in the streets protesting; they’re working with farmers, fisherman and local Indonesian communities; they believe art can be a tool for social change whilst maintaining a “progressive and militant character.” [2] We artists in the Euro-American West don’t have to think about actual militancy.

For sure Taring Padi made a mistake showing the offending piece in Germany; curators should have flagged it in advance. But it bears stressing that the canvas in question was two decades old – originally exhibited in Australia in 2002 – and was not made within or for the context of Documenta, or a European setting. 2002 was just 14 years after the end of the Suharto regime when Indonesia was mired in corruption and poverty, the nation of 275 million people (the worlds 4th largest, more than Germany, France, Italy and Britain combined), was the hardest hit by the Asian financial meltdown of 1997 due to vast cronyism between Suharto’s inner circle and the world’s financial institutions. Moreover, the two disputed figures were two among thousands in which many nations and regimes are critiqued. Not just Israel, which is no longer referenced at all, but Australia, the US, the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and very prominently, China – there are lots of pig-headed people wearing Mao caps. Mostly these artists’ work is about corruption, of which Indonesians have seen way too much, and alliances between money, the military, and oppression. Why isn’t this being talked about at Documenta?

Frankly, as a woman, I had a few criticisms myself. There is an overarching male-ness to a lot of Taring Padi’s imagery and a tendency to depict women as mothers, whores or goddesses. Indeed, my one gripe about Documenta overall is the lack of feminist perspectives, with a few notable exceptions such as the brilliant Archive of Women’s Struggles in Algeria, and a general ambiance in too many places of women being sidelines to political struggle. Let’s be clear: many of the social practice art methodologies celebrated at Documenta were pioneered by feminist artists. I don’t mean to say feminist artists invented political action; what I mean is that feminist artists are the ones who first recognized that political struggle and the work of social maintenance could and should be seen as Art. So much of what’s on offer in Kassel is social practice – cooking, growing, cleaning, sharing, teaching. if you believe in this vision of art, then feminists should be given much more due. Yet I am capable of looking beyond this lacuna and seeing a picture of Documenta that is mostly insanely admirable and urgently needs expression.

The spirit of collectivity and communal activism on show here is what world requires today. How can WE the people, gather together and support one another, against oppressive forces be they militarist, capitalist, corporatist, religious, or rightist of all persuasions? This is a primary question of our time. Allied to this is the issue of how can we overthrow the tyranny of ME and the cult of individual ‘genius’? How can we get beyond the insanity of an Art World that pays attention to a tiny few ‘stars’ and treats the vast bulk of humanity as detritus, at best to be ignored, at worst to be derided? I call this ‘attention deficit disorder.’ The Art World – TAW in Doug Harvey’s terms – pays insane attention to a select few and literally does not see everyone else. For me this is the over-riding issue. How can I help to participate in an art practice that visibilizes people – not just a few people, but all people?

This was clearly the motivating spirit behind Documenta-15 and the German government is to be applauded for making such as astonishing mash-up of cultures and peoples and non-Western arts available. It’s a €40-million public gift they perhaps now regret. Documenta’s director has resigned and the culture ministry has announced that henceforth all proposals will be audited before funding is agreed. Given the furor, it’s improbable anything like this will happen again in a long time, at least not in Europe, but for those lucky enough to get to Kassel it’s a vivifying vision of an ‘art world’ imbued with generosity and committed to social change, not just in name and on wall-texts ‘gesturing towards’ issues, but by concrete human action.

Down the train-line in Baden-Baden, an exhibition of my own work was just finishing up and what I saw at Documenta restored my faith in the collaborative feminist practice at its heart. The Crochet Coral Reef project I do with my sister Christine Wertheim – on show at Museum Frieder Burda and overlapping with Documenta by a week – is also about visibilizing and enabling the creative energies of ‘ordinary’ people. [3] 4,000 women (and a few men), from all over Germany participated with us in making a vast submarine fantasy world consisting of over 40,000 crocheted corals. It was a mind-blowing amount of stuff constituting well over 100,000 hours of (mostly) female labor. Every one of the participants names was on the walls in one of Germany’s top-tier galleries. All of them were credited as co-artists with Christine and I. This is an art world I want to be part of – one that includes rather than excludes, one that, in the spirit of living coral reefs, celebrates work made by myriad individuals. This is an art world Documenta envisions: cooperative, communal, collaborative, intersectional, intercultural, intergenerational, and truly international. No wonder the German art elite has reverberated against it. It could have blown Kant’s mind if only he’d been open to the concept of a sublime experience created by human collectives.

[*] Postscript
For the record, my father’s family were Jews, as were my mother’s maternal grandparents. My grandfather was the first, and for a long time the only, Jew admitted into the Australia Club, at a time when being Jewish in Australia was widely deemed an insurmountable social barrier.

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/antisemitic-mural-removed-from-documenta-art-show/a-62216554

[2] https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/lumbung-members-artists/taring-padi/

[3] https://crochetcoralreef.org/exhibitions/museum-frieder-burda-baden-baden-germany/

Margaret Wertheim is a writer, artist and curator whose work focuses on relations between science and the wider cultural landscape. A two-fold perspective animates her work: on the one hand science can be seen a set of conceptual enchantments that delight our minds and senses; on the other hand science is a socially embedded activity intersecting with philosophy, culture and politics. Wertheim aims to illuminate both dimensions of science and mathematics through her books, articles, lectures, workshops, and exhibitions.

Wertheim is the author of six books including Pythagoras’ Trousers, a history of physics and religion; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, a history of scientific concepts of space; and Physics on the Fringe, a ground-breaking exploration of outsider science. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Aeon, Cabinet and many others. In 2003, with her twin-sister Christine, she founded the Institute For Figuring, a Los Angeles based practice devoted to the “aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics.” Through the IFF she has designed art & science exhibits for galleries and museums around the world, including the Hayward Gallery (London), Science Gallery (Dublin) and Art Center College of Design (Pasadena). Margaret and Christine’s Crochet Coral Reef project is a global participatory art & science endeavor that has been seen by more than two million people and exhibited at the Helsinki Biennial 2021, 2019 Venice Biennale, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburg), Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Deutsches Museum (Munich), the Smithsonian (Washington D.C.), and other international venues. Throughout her career, Margaret has been a pioneer in communicating STEM subjects to women. She lectures widely at universities, colleges, and conferences. With degrees in physics (University of Queensland) and mathematics (University of Sydney), she has worked on all seven continents and stood on the South Pole.

Summers of Our Discontent

Young Summers’ Collage Work

When I first encountered Young Summer’s work, it consisted primarily of quite accomplished figurative portraiture and landscape painting. Summers — a mature artist who was then escaping a creatively unrewarding career in advertising layout – embarked on a trajectory that folded the physical cut & paste technologies of pre-digital graphic design into her strongly developed aesthetic vocabulary, then exploded it from within, resulting in the rapid stylistic evolution visible in the gallery survey Finding Me III.

While Summers work has continued to include painting and drawing, it also encompasses experimental printmaking, multimedia, and relational aesthetics. But her most substantial oeuvre, and the focus of this show, has been her collages. As a lifelong collage artist myself (among other things) I may be biased, but my understanding of art history places collage at the fulcrum of Modernism, both in the “actual-oilcloth-in-the-cubist-still-life” sense and the “human consciousness has now disintegrated into a constantly shifting mosaic of infinitely mutable fragments” sense. Summers’ last decade of cut paper assemblages comprise an object lesson in both senses.

She began her deconstructive arc with a splash, translating her well-structured academic seascapes into an astounding series of meticulously compiled Beach Rocks collages. These large-scale works carefully rendered three-dimensional forms and space – often possessing a vertiginous Northern Renaissance clarity – using the inherent illusionistic depth of her source images, but also their strictly formal color, tonal, and textural qualities, sometimes even operating at odds with the pictorial content of the original image.

The relationship between the source materials and the collage image is complex. Cloud and water photos are cut apart and reassembled to depict cloud and water. In the same landscape, however, rock formations may be made from sea creatures or human skulls and tidepools out of galaxies. Closer inspection reveals tiny incursions of fragmentary architectural details, musical instruments, machinery, and most frequently human figures that often warp the initial perspectival illusion, opening portals into incongruous dimensions.

Summers’ subsequent series have pretty much abandoned reliance on a mimetic master image while retaining the symbolic play and exploring the tension between spatial illusion and the flatness of the picture plane. The pictorial sources themselves have evolved towards glut-tacular consumer objects, perhaps partly in recognition of the nature-as-commodity subtext already lurking beneath the surface of the Beach Rocks series (“Sous la plage, le marché!”)

But more to the point is Summer’s increasingly critical attitude towards wasteful materialism, and her attempt to calibrate her artistic process into a literal and metaphorically oppositional operational stance. Her visually dazzling gem series, her clotted fields of grocery flier food images, her various other maps of home shopping purgatory – each is an attempt to short circuit the desire-inducing mechanisms of the visual language of advertising by intensifying the attention paid to the ostensibly disposable desire triggers and transforming them into saturated distillations more exquisite than the potential possessions or experiences they index.

At the same time, these works testify to the astronomical abundance of these symbolic desire triggers in contemporary visual culture, the horror vacuii bombardment of the average citizen’s attention with tantalizing icons and avatars, and the resultant devaluation of attention, desire, and the objects of desire. Moreover, these works bear witness to the cavalier waste of real physical resources entailed in the production and distribution of junk mail and advertising-driven print media.

This last function is also at play in Summers’ collages that focus on repurposing unsolicited junk mail of a less visually seductive appearance; her elegant abstract arrangements of security envelope lining patterns and illegible blocks of fine-print disclaimers. These works, drained of color, offer a more elegiac version of Summers’ critique of Consumer Society, emphasizing the hidden costs, terms, and conditions, and exposing its Janus-face as the Surveillance State.

The works are elegiac in another sense, as Summers lost her mother, husband, and most tragically, her son (a gifted young pianist with an undiagnosed heart condition) in rapid succession during this period. Her grid of intimate portrait drawings of her mother undergoing dialysis are countered and augmented by later collages that forego the meticulous image-based works for fields of visual information torn asunder by the irrationality and unpredictability of life, the creative life.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable in Summers’ later work is the retention, even amplification, of her playful humor. I’ve made these artifacts sound grim and even self-righteous, but they’re quite the opposite. In a master stroke of logical absurdism that seems inevitable in retrospect, Summers extends her critique of consumerism to herself and her own behavior – putting her money where her mouth is by turning her repurposing vengeance on the detritus of her own existence – the leftover trimmings of her collage process, return address labels, the dried scabs of paint from her old palettes, the shells of consumed peanuts, the sheets of charcoal-on-newsprint imagery from figure drawing sessions, and so on.

Never less than visually arresting, life-affirming and experimentally adventurous, the collage work of Young Summers’ has, over the course of a decade, recapitulated the formal Modernist progressions that dismantled the authoritarian academicism of the 19th century (and preceding 500 years), then brought it to a point of personal and political immediacy that can’t fail to resonate with any artist confronting the dilemmas of contemporary culture, even pointing towards a possible way out. I guess we’ll just have to wait for Finding Me IV.

Young Summers Finding Me III

July 31- Sept 4, 2022

Opening Reception Sunday July 31, 3-7PM


IVAN Gallery, 2701 S Robertson Blvd Los Angeles
Open TUES WED THURS SUN, 12-5, and by appt: (323)533-6021

WTF Thursdays: Pyro Sluts Gone Wild!

This is a roundabout post about graphic design, but embedded in a few onionskins of performative relational aesthetics, so hold tight. So I was minding my own business here at the Sunland-Tujunga branch of Whippets Unlimited around 9:30 PM on July 18th when I heard this weird percussive noise outside that sounded like a sudden thundershower.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been some strange weather lately, and although this was like nothing I’d heard of, I figured “Maybe….” So I stuck my head out and confirmed my impression of a tiny super-intense thunderstorm with no clouds, moving at an unnaturally high speed from the street behind the facility, seemingly passing overhead, then away towards the freeway. I went out front, thinking there might be another unpredicted 2-minute soaking of art supplies to deal with, but everything was bone dry. MA said she saw lightning-like flashes. Weird.

It was time to perambulate the whippets anyway, so we head out and just as we’re leaving we see a fire truck cruising up the street, lights but no siren, and start wondering if some rowdy gourmands hadn’t maybe gone off the Res celebrating National Caviar Day by setting off fireworks from the back of their speeding white Silverado. Which turned out to be closer to the truth than my cryptometeorological hypothesis.

At the turnaround point of our dogwalk, next to a highly flammable hillside of dead vegetation, we found the drenched remains of 5 boxes of discharged pyrotechnology, where they’d apparently been dumped after their whirlwind tour of the hood. It’s pretty dark at that end of the street, and I didn’t have a phone with me, but Tuesday when I was coming back from Ralph’s with my WooHoo Turtle cookies, I did. I saw the boxes were still there, and thought I’d check them out and document them. Mostly for the Nextdoor thread I started trying to find out WTF, right? “Did anyone else hear that cloudless superfast freak thunderstorm? I am not high.”

I’m very glad I did, because I kind of live for the sort of conceptual/aesthetic brainfreeze moments you get from, for example, a used-up box of Virus Terminator brand fireball launchers. Does Fauci know about this shit? Or have the Democrats been keeping it from us? Sure, the Novavax doesn’t “shoot flaming balls” but the Viral Terminator doesn’t reprogram your mitochondria to produce adrenochrome for Bill Gates. It’s about Freedom of Choice, sheople!

You may have to zoom in on this photo to appreciate the nuances – note the winged halos on the health care providers, and the urine-colored sweat oozing from the cartoonishly cute anthropomorpized coronavirus. You can’t make this shit up. But if you do, you deserve a D&AD Impact Award!

The other boxes weren’t quite as mindboggling. The Massive Defense package is what I would have predicted. Charred Monster Babies is just central-casting capital-D Disturbing. Don Suggs, who introduced me to the wonders of Stephen King’s Dark Tower oct-and-a-half-ology, would have been amused by the Gunslinger crossbranding. And though lacking in snappy graphic design (at least from what was left of the packaging that I could see), you can’t really top “Pyro Slut” for good old back-to-basics marketing copy! In conclusion, I would like to say “God Bless the United States of America and our ever-vigilant first responders!” But maybe I’ll just go water the oleanders.

Guest Column: Judy Vida on Margaret Keane

“So—What is it About Those Eyes?”
(How pain becomes Kitsch)

by Judith E. Vida, M.D. in collaboration with Gershon J. Molad

“It is by finding out what something is not that one comes closest to understanding what it is.”  (Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2000, p. 25)

These remarks are an enlarged version of my essay in Tyler Stalling’s catalog for Laguna Art Museum’s recent (2000) examination of the work of Margaret Keane as a cultural phenomenon. That essay was a highly condensed treatment of the interface between this exhibition of Margaret Keane and some ideas I have been developing, both independently and in collaboration with Gershon J. Molad, about trauma, its irreversibility, and the role of “witness.” (Vida & Molad, 2000, 2001; Vida, 1999; 2000a; 2000b; 2000c)   And in fact, Molad’s contributions make him virtually a co-author.  Before I go further, I want to state explicitly that surface questions of judgment about the exhibition and about these works are not what interests me. These questions, such as “Is it good? Is it bad? Is it art? Is it kitsch? Should we like it? Should we not?”  will not be addressed.

The years 1965-1968 were the seminal time for the paintings of Margaret Keane. For a brief moment in America, we were drawn, almost viscerally, to look into those eyes. The eyes of her waifs gave us a sudden-shock recognition of something—what? But in almost the next instant we found ourselves called upon to repudiate the experience as “self-conscious,” “self-indulgent.”  “Those eyes” which began as an arresting image rapidly became a cliché, reviled in elitist circles for an allure that spread through a whole population.  Their relegation to kitsch-status coincided with the rise of low-brow imitators, the so-called “Big-Eyed Masters.”  By the early 70s the entire phenomenon had waned.  And in the mid-70s, Margaret Keane herself disavowed the struggle that her own autobiography reveals.  In undergoing a religious conversion to become a Jehovah’s Witness, she says she found peace, an end to uncertainty, and an answer to the world’s suffering…and she went on painting.

So what, in that first instant of vision, did we recognize in those eyes?  After a long pause for reflection, I begin to think that we lost ourselves in them as “black holes” into which everything disappears and is gone forever, with no light left to reflect or to see. At the same time we saw them as “wholes,” containing a condensed microcosm of every bad thing unseen and unacknowledged. This is a simultaneous recognition of a thing and its opposite. In those eyes are places and contacts of simultaneous total ignoring and recognition. It is the self-recognition of “the victim,” a self-recognition in the darkness, in the absence of light that is black. Black, which appears to have no identifying characteristics of its own, is the ultimate color of projection.  Projection is the psychological mechanism whereby we attribute parts of ourselves to another, most commonly parts that are hated, feared, and unwanted. 

Sophie Calle, in her project, The Blind, reminds us that blindness is when you look at things and realize that you cannot see.  This is the same blindness that afflicted us with the video of Rodney King’s beating at the hands of police: as the video was slowed down, more and more, it became impossible to see that any blows had connected with King’s body.  This was the same blindness developed in the O.J. Simpson trial, when the closer the jury looked, the more argumentatively and arguably the microscope was applied to the evidence, the more impossible it became for them to see anything.   In Margaret Keane’s early paintings, those children’s big black eyes reflected how small our mutual vision of recognition really is.

American popular culture has moved on since the 60s and 70s—relentlessly, some would say— with seemingly new concerns, new ideologies, and new holy cities in the age of information and technology.   But in the aftermath of WWII (the Cold War, Korea, McCarthyism, civil rights, Vietnam) San Francisco and the Bay Area was the acknowledged West Coast seat of culture, as well as its center of social protest. In a certain way, Margaret Keane can be thought of as partaking of both those traditions.  She made paintings that the cognoscenti regarded as not-art, and, in going her own way, she made protest that was appropriated as kitsch. Her early paintings can be construed both as giving witness to an encrypted layer of universal suffering and at the same time contributing to a universal disavowal of that suffering.  Giving witness:  at the time these paintings were first made, in the mid- to late-60s, there was an absent-suffering in the culture that could only be glimpsed and then had to be put away, as something not yet able to be thought-about by a traumatized public barely aware of its wounds.

Giving witness, as I have used the phrase tonight, is simultaneously expressing a thing and its opposite. When Margaret Keane reached her personal limits of representation and living, she became a Jehovah’s Witness. In the peace, resolution of uncertainty, and answer to the world’s suffering that she found is a new self-imposed blindness.  In the paintings she has made since her conversion, we can see the effects of this blindness, a blindness that fails to register even a flicker of recognition of another’s trauma (as well as her own). (Molad, 2001) 

 Margaret Keane appeared to find a way to “get over” her difficulties, the suffering that she has alluded to only in a general way that led to the making of her paintings in the first place.  And of course there was other suffering, the exploitation and defamation she endured at the hands of one who was supposed to have loved her, the husband Walter. But with trauma, the trauma that fractures one’s sense of the self and of the world as one thought one knew it, I think there is no “getting over it.”  I am reminded here of the impassioned commentary of Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, who deplored the mass-marketing of Holocaust narratives (Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List) as something that inevitably contributed to a general expectation for “getting over it.”   Speigelman objected to such mass-marketing for its diminishing of the actual horrors by daring to represent them with false verisimilitude to a public vulnerable to mistaking them for the real thing, to confusing the mediation of film with a real-life experience.  A mutual, shared, true dialogue of survivors is to be compared with Spielberg’s kind of false dialogue that expresses simultaneously guilt and avoidance.  (The bigger the eyes, the bigger the avoidance.)

It would require, more than two decades after the rise of Margaret Keane, the mass-seduction by another Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan (1998) to un-closet what in the culture at large, at least in part, those eyes of Margaret Keane’s may have been addressing. I am referring to the unspoken, unspeakable trauma of soldiers in battle in WWII. A trauma that, driven underground, unacknowledged, contributed to a national “illness of mourning” (Torok, 1968).  The notion of an “illness of mourning” does not mean that we fall ill from mourning.  It is the opposite: that we are ill from not-mourning, and as such it points to another layer of the false dialogue of guilt and avoidance. The “illness of mourning” is set in place when a trauma is disavowed, for any reason, for the guilt of one’s own participation, for the shame of vulnerability, for the humiliation of exposing one’s suffering and uncertainty and harm.  The trauma is not “gotten over,” it is merely “put away.”  It is “put away” in a tomb, in a crypt in a deep, unconscious psychological space inside us which psychoanalysts call “intrapsychic.” 

On the surface, in external life, we are “fine.” But inside us, in the crypt, the trauma is “not dead” but walks at night, so to speak, haunting our dreams and, in disguise, our waking relations, in ways that are unrecognizable, but which afflict others as well, and thus are passed on, the ghosts of one generation disturbing the sleep of the next.  This “illness of mourning” cannot be recognized for what it is. When there is no recognition of the harm and loss that can never be set right, that can never be restored, neither the dead nor the maimed have been claimed and given a proper burial. It is the recognition of harm and loss that is at issue when I refer to the importance of holding, of recognizing another’s trauma and one’s own. (Molad, 2001.)  This “illness of mourning,” I think, had a not-inconsiderable role in generating the paranoid-solutions of extreme anti-communism. Paranoid solutions are a time-honored way of preserving the undead in the crypt; the problem, the difficulty is out there, in them, not in us.

Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan opens with a long sequence of bravura film-making that had critics and audiences gasping for breath, the gaping untreatable wound of existential horror that was Omaha Beach. What could not be ignored was the utterly impersonal randomness of the carnage. It was clear that there could be no answer to the question “why was he blown up and not me?” For those opening moments of the film, it was as clear to us as perhaps it was to those who were there.  But, as with Margaret Keane’s eyes, the window through which to view, to reflect upon, to absorb the absence of individual meaning in these horrors was soon slammed shut by the manipulated, personalized emotionality of the ensuing narrative. The climax of the film came with the disguised sadism of the exhortation flung by a dying Captain Miller at the hapless Private Ryan—“Earn it!” Poor, rescued Private Ryan—his own survival now became a gaping, untreatable, existential wound of a different order. 

“Earn it!”—it took the earnest mien of a Tom Hanks, surely America’s most loved and trusted actor since Jimmy Stewart, to burn these words into our flesh.  For “earn it!” is a death-cry, a curse that blights not only the lives of those who survived but the lives of the generations following them. There can be no “earning” of a random survival. The acts, the accomplishments, even the existence of the next generations can in no way atone for or justify those who were sacrificed, and cannot ease the daily torment of those who were not. “Earn it!” contributes to that twilight state of undead-ness that neither buries the dead nor allows the living to live. It bears repetition to say that with severe trauma there will be something permanently not-all-right for survivors. It has taken more than half a century of struggle to reach this awareness with and about the Holocaust. But the traumatic battle narrative of WWII is still far from such a state of sober understanding.  And in the wake of Saving Private Ryan, younger generations are now shamed by their discovery of the horrors veiled by the reticence of their fathers and grandfathers. What is easy to miss is the “kitsch” of it, that theirs was a socially prescribed and socially enforced reticence, a reticence required to protect the jingoistic cliches of post-war, post-traumatic rhetoric: “bravery,” “courage,” “sacrifice,” the substitution of nationalistic slogans for personal meaning, or, more properly, for the absence of personal meaning.

In that sense, Saving Private Ryan is not only a code to the Keane oeuvre, it is identical to it. Both share a stylistic exaggeration that reveals and disguises at the same time. The stylistic exaggeration of Keane, is, of course, “those eyes;” in the film, it is the spectacle of Spielberg’s false compassion, the extreme verisimilitude of battle played against simplistic, stereotypic characterizations.

Missing photograph: Mr. and Mrs. Cicurel in front of the town hall, Brazzaville, 1954.

I want to change direction here, for the moment, to bring in a novel by Ronit Matalon, The One Facing Us, originally written in Hebrew and now translated into English.  In a unique way it illuminates and elaborates the falsenesses of both Saving Private Ryan and Margaret Keane, and in that sense it provides a counterpoint to the exhibition. This is a story of dislocation and the difficulties of seeing.  Matalon uses photographs, both absent and present, to take up the elusive, encrypted history of a once-grand Egyptian-Jewish family. The narrator, “the niece,” is seventeen years old. Before being sent from Israel to West Africa to stay with relatives she has never met, she used to describe these photographs to her now-blind grandmother. The niece confides to us, “I helped her; I was her eyes. ‘You are my eyes,’ Nona would say. ‘Look good and hard for both of us…we are one soul, you and I.’ ” (p. 64)  But, of course, even as they are “one soul,” they are not: what one saw (or sees), the other cannot, and once again there is a gap between the revelation and the disguise.

The photographs are the basic armature of the novel.  Some of them are present, reproduced in black-and-white and in color for our eyes, and maddeningly, some of them are absent, in the form of blank photograph-shaped spaces over the identifying details, who was in the picture, where, and when.  It is these “missing” pictures that draw us in to the family’s story as nothing else can: we too find ourselves longing for their (unrevealed) secrets in the same way the older and middle generations of the family long for their disappeared past.

These photographs, we learn, are disappearing almost as rapidly as is the older generation, those who can decipher their contents:  “In the siblings’ neglect, in their prodigal disregard for the few photographs left, there was something brazen, as if they were rejecting the burden of proof, denying the need to record who they were and where they came from…The few surviving photographs left great gaps in the story—empty spaces that the family filled with words, gestures, childhood yearnings that had become tainted by later hues, a desire to link past and future, for the people they had been in other days, and for a place that had never been a homeland but that they had called home.”(p. 113-4)

Throughout the novel, what is conveyed is the simultaneity of what we see and what we don’t, and with that, the difficulty of seeing anything at all.  Characters wear glasses, break them, have clouded vision, and focus on what they think they are seeing in others instead of self-reflect (this is projection, too). Another character tells us that seeing may not be the most useful or satisfactory mode of self-discovery and self-awareness, anyway:  “At last we recognize ourselves in events that happened through us, not only to us, though we grieve that the wicked sorcerer has cast his shadow between our dreams and our deeds and that none of us can turn back and start again.” (p. 185)

Matalon’s deeper concern is about a more profound hazard in seeing, when it is other than our dreams, or our projections, that we must look at.  At the end of the novel, there is a dinner party, to which one of the newest foreign arrivals is invited, with his wife, to join the small group of expatriates and exiles. He is a veterinarian gratefully received by the others who are relieved of the tedium of hearing the same stories all over again.  The veterinarian tells his enthralled audience of being drawn in to perform surgery on the eyes of blind children in Malawi, because there are not enough formally qualified doctors.  So he, the veterinarian, is enlisted to swell their numbers, to remove the environmentally-caused cataracts of legions of afflicted children. But he goes on to reveal a most extraordinary outcome: almost as soon as the bandages are removed, the children at once attack their restored sight with sticks and glass—to restore, instead, their blindness.

Let us leave these insights of Ronit Matalon’s, for the moment, over here on the side, and return to our basic subject.  What is of abiding interest in both Keane and in this Spielberg  (the Saving Private Ryan Spielberg) occurs in that instant, in that infinitesimal flicker of the gap that exists between the revelation and the disguise.  For that flicker of an instant we can glimpse the uneasy relation between presence and absence, between the living and the dead, between the smallness of the person in the present and the pressure of a vast unfathomable past.  “Kitsch” is what we call it when we belittle with contempt that which frightens us, that which unnerves us for our utter inability to contain its contradictions.  And “kitsch” is what we make it when we close down the struggle, the uncertainty, and the suffering.

There is a gap between what we saw when we first came upon “those eyes” (when we too were open and unprepared) and what we saw when our defenses (and when Margaret Keane’s own defended-eyes) shut us down.  There is a gap between the larger social purpose for which WWII was fought and the millions of individual lives sacrificed or deformed to attain that purpose.  In any circumstance of warfare, there is a gap between the avowed or constructed social purpose of that war and its effect on any single given life. For an instant, “those eyes” of Margaret Keane looked into that gap. For a brief instant, we were drawn, viscerally, to look into those eyes as though through a window of suffering. It was what was visible through that window that caused Margaret Keane herself to shutter it almost as rapidly and resolutely as the Malawi children did to their own restored vision.  It was what started to be visible through that window that turned us into a blind audience watching the blinded.

Children as the recipients of our emotional projections are located somewhere between kitsch and pornography.  In the arena where children, sex, death are mingled, which is the arena of war, the cry is “kill these boys, fuck these girls (Molad, 2000).” People, soldiers and civilians, now identified as “the enemy” are utterly depersonalized and we are blinded to the reality that each one of them is somebody’s child.  Instead they are drained of commonality with us, objectified, set up and ready to be killed or used.

(Note: This is not the image from the original slide lecture, which our research staff is still attempting to locate)

This Vietnam-era “Thrift Store Keane” looks gender-confused, which contributes to its oddness as an object.  There is both a faked helplessness (“I’m not afraid, just lonely”) and the desecration of a culturally prescribed manliness. Which is the greater trauma, the threat of death, or the exposure of girlish sentimentality? Is this the use of Keane-ish stylization to reject another’s trauma by unwitnessing? Or is it an odd brave effort to declare that at heart, we are all man-and-woman, always a child as well as an adult, and all the time both afraid and lonely?

 Saving Private Ryan was a mass-operation to remove the cataracts from the children of the now-dying, now fading-away generation of veterans of World War II.  But what became barely visible was shut down within the movie itself.  This is how watching becomes a “cheap ticket,” a cheap sad trick.  “The one facing us” is not really there, since we turn our back on him. Within the film of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg turned his back, “the one facing us” became “the one with his back to us,” and we were turned away as well.  In Margaret Keane’s own life, Walter Keane, supposedly “the one facing her” turned out to have had, all along, his back to her.

It is when we become too frightened to go on looking that we blind ourselves. In Matalon’s novel the Malawi children who rapidly, resolutely, and violently put out their newly-repaired eyes are a metaphor for the characters who blind themselves to the unbearable present, unable to absorb, to claim, or to bury the losses and irretrievable traumas of their past. And they are a metaphor for us, too, when we discover that we cannot tolerate our own vision.  It is when we become too frightened to go on looking that all we can see are our own projections.  That’s what we see in these big black eyes, the black that is the ultimate color of projection.

References

de Botton, A. (2000). The Consolations of Philosophy. London: Hamish Hamilton, p. 25.

Matalon, R. (1998).  The One Facing Us (Trans. M. Weinstein.) New York: Metropolitan

Books.

Molad, G.J. (2000).  Molad-Vida Correspondence, June 6.

Molad, G.J. (2001).  On presenting one’s case: embraced trauma and the dialogue

between analysts. The Psychoanalytic Review, 88: 95-111.

Torok, M. (1968). The illness of mourning and the fantasy of the exquisite corpse. In: N.

Abraham & M.Torok, The Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis,

Vol. 1. Ed., trans. and intro. by N.T. Rand. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Vida, J.E. (1999). Which Ferenczi is it? Discussion of panel “Contemporary Applications

of Ferenczi,” papers by Martin-Cabré, Hoffer, Cohen, and Molad. Israel

Psychotherapy Association’s 23rd Annual Conference, “Sándor Ferenczi, The ‘Mother’ of Modern Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy,” the Fifth International Sándor Ferenczi Conference, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 8.

Vida, J.E. (2000a). The “what,” the “how,” and the “who”: a case-study in the

development of ideas in psychoanalysis.  Discussion of “Sándor Ferenczi today: reviving the broken dialectic,” by Emanuel Berman, Ph.D.  Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies (University Synagogue), April 27, 2000.

Vida, J.E. (2000b, and in press). Ferenczi’s “teratoma”: a result, not a process. Presented

to International Association for the History of Psychoanalysis, VIIIth International Conference, Versailles, France, July 22; and The International Forum of Psychoanalysis.

Vida, J.E. (2000c). At the frontier of psychoanalytic understanding: in conversation with

R.D. Stolorow, Ph.D. and J.M. Schwartz, M.D.  Conference sponsored by La Vie Counseling Center, “Contemporary Psychoanalytic Perspectives on Trauma,” Pasadena, CA, September 23.

Vida, J.E. & Molad, G.J. (2000, 2001). The psychoanalysis that is (a way of) life: the

Ferenczi experience. Presentation (by J.E. Vida) to “Evolution and Revolution in Psychoanalysis: 100 Years Since Freud,” program sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in association with the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, in conjunction with the exhibit “Freud:

Conflict and Culture,” HUC-Skirball Cultural Center, April 15.  A revised version was presented under the title “The Ferenczian Dialogue: Psychoanalysis As a Way of Life,” to “The Lost Childhood,” conference sponsored by the Sándor Ferenczi Society of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary, February 25, 2001.


Revised and expanded version of an essay by the same name in Margaret Keane and Keaneabilia, ed. T. Stallings.Long Beach, CA: Laguna Art Museum in association with Sympathetic Press, pp. 14-15, 2000.

Presented to International Federation for Psychoanalytic Education Twelfth Annual Interdisciplinary Conference, November 2, 2001, Fort Lauderdale, FL, as part of panel “Mourning and (Anything But) Melancholia,” with Douglas Maxwell. An earlier version was delivered at Laguna Art Museum, Thursday, October 12, 2000, as part of program, “The Mystery Behind the Eyes,” with Doug Harvey; introductions by Tyler Stallings.