High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

William, Wolife, & Andy: They're Art Cops

So anyway, today was designated Art Day by the Motion Picture Association of America. Or by me. Or something.

In other words, I headed down to the Museum of Contemporary Art, putatively to see the Warhol exhibit "Supernova: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters." Because I am pathetic, I haven't been to MoCA in, I think, 5 years. I tried to go in February, only to find that it, like all knitting stores in the greater Chicago area, is not open on Mondays. I double checked to make sure that there wasn't some fine "Open on Wednesdays, unless you are Matilda" print or anything, and I glanced at the current exhibits. There was the Warhol (to which I said "Yay!"), the Chicago series from a photographer who's been working her way through various cities (to which I said, "Yay."), there was a Chris Ware exhibit with pre-press materials for Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and Building Stories (to which I said "yay."), and some photography exhibit by a guy named Wolfgang Tillmans (to which I said "huh.").

And then, as it happened, my preferred Lincoln Square coffee shop was hosting an art show by children. (If I had known about this, I would have said "AIYEEEEE! RUN! RUN FOR THE HILLS!")

Those of you who got the memo that this is Entropy Day will not be surprised at all by the rest of this entry, so you can probably go do something productive. Among those of you who are, like me, enjoying the new surprises that early onset senility brings, no one will remain seated as I reveal the proportionate pleasure I got out of and/or time I spent on each of these artistic offerings.

So assuming, as usual, that the pre-1PM traffic reporter on WBBM-AM is a dirty, lying whore, I stayed on the Ryan all the way up to the Fullerton exit. The traffic report claimed it would take me 40 minutes from 95th to downtown. I was parked in front of the Sulzer Regional Library (which is about 6 miles north and 3 miles west of downtown) in about 30 minutes.

I then immediately hopped on the brownline train back south. And I got so engrossed in my knitting and music that I neglected to switch to the red line at either of my two opportunities to do so. Ah well, this is the way we build aerobic walking into our day.

Once at the museum (and I'd like to note that this is the second week in a row that I've actually avoided smoting, despite quite smote-likely weather), I hauled my backpack up on the glass credenza to pay for my ticket and very nearly brought the damned thing down on top of the lovely person working the register. She said, quite calmly for someone who had just very nearly become under glass, "Oh, don't worry, they're coming to fix it." I then dropped off my backpack at the Coat Check, and made a last-minute decision not to wear my iPod while wandering around. This would prove to be a mistake.

Immediately across from the coat check is a 2-story sculpture of vaccum-sucked plastic. It's white on white. It's very 60s. I'm not a fan. Moving quickly past this, I thought that I'd wandered into a hallway with a handful of pieces by this German Tillmans fellow. On my left side there was a piece that was probably 7' x 8' that looked rather like a high-magnification microscopic photo that had been fucked up. It was deep jewel-tone greens with slightly darker, feathery, vaguely flagellar sections. For something apparently photographic without an obvious subject, it was nonetheless oddly pleasing. (I also applaud myself on learning just now that this piece was called "Freischwimmer" so my flagellar thoughts are not too off base.) On my right were three black and white (basically) photographic pieces.

The first two were both called "Empire," though the first piece was subtitled "Avalanche" and the second "Christ." Avalanche was, as advertised, a highly contrasted shot of loose stones at the base of a hill, taken at such an odd angle that a stark line on the diagonal gave the strongest indication of change in topography (it reminded me, for whatever reason of my students' modern-state-of-nasca-line-sites drawing). "Christ" felt more immediately familiar, because it appeared to be a shot where the left-hand side of the image was outside in bright sunlight, whereas the right-hand side was thrown into deep shadow (for me it brings to mind images shot through the doorways of churches). In the shadows, the profile of a man, his back flat against a thick column or wall, is barely visible. His stomach bulges out, a parody of Christ's palpable ribs and concave abdomen, and the mind (rather than the image) suggests that the man's arms are stretched out laterally.

The third piece was called "Smoker," and the image is so underexposed that it initally appears to be a uniformly blue-black oblong. After taking it in for a moment, though, the faint outline of the subject is visible. His body is turned 3/4 front to the viewer, but his head is turned sharply away. The most striking components are the triangle formed by the straining tendons of his neck and the V of the fingers holding the cigarette to his lips. Also, because the photographic paper's natural gloss was in no way artifically dimmed, I could see the large microscope piece beind me in its reflection. Tickled by this, I went back to the green piece and viewed the mirror images of the three pieces opposite in it. (This technique seemed to be employed more explicitly and on a larger scale in one of the galleries where two walls at a right angle to one another had nothing on them except 3 rows of about a dozen 11x17 pieces of pitch black, glossy photographic paper on each, but you could see the reflections of the pieces on the other walls behind you.)

These pieces in the atrium had a fair amount of text about Tillmans. I didn't read the atrium text until after I'd spend some quality time with these four pieces. When I realized that the two flanking galleries were filled with his work, as well, I simply decided to follow the right-hand rule in viewing the rest. There was not a lick of text in either the right- or left-hand gallery, which I thought was kind of odd, but given the stress laid on Tillmans's "installations" I thought it was simply part of his schtick. It is, but there was also a map available on the wall the left-hand gallery, which I didn't pick up until I was more than halfway through the exhibit and didn't look at until I was on the train back up north. It contains little information about the artists or exhibit, but it's got titles and a map. In other words, I basically peformed the world's most comprehensive colonscopy of the exhibit, proceeding through it bass ackwards. But I am all all postmoderny and the owner of my own experience of art, so it's all good.

I didn't do any kind of count of the pieces as I made my way through the galleries, but an informal, postmigraine count based on the informative (in hindsight) booklet suggests that there were in the neighborhood of 250 pieces all told. I would have estimated more, frankly.

They're not kidding when they say that the installation is just as much a piece as the individual items are. One thing that struck me early on was that maybe 3 pieces in the entire thing were framed in any way, and those were in plain white box frames that blended into the gallery walls. Most of the large pieces were suspended from nails by binder clips (yes, literally binder clips) at the corners. Moreover, many of these pieces were clearly assembled from multiple components that were put together with subtle, yet clearly visible, strips of tape. Smaller pieces generally were stuck immediately to the wall. The clustering of the pieces was clearly done with great care, but there was little regularity to it and no obvious attempt to use the space efficiently. Often, I would be across the gallery, working on digesting another wall and I'd realize that I'd missed one or more pieces (sometimes quite large ones) that were hung more than 12 feet above the floor).

Many of the photographs were aerial shots of urban and suburban landscapes. Some were straight shots. Others subtley included a portion of the aircraft from which the shot was taken. Still others involved some chemical "spoiling" of the shot, as thought it had been misdeveloped. Deeper in the exhibit, there were numerous photocopies of pieces on Western action in Bosnia/Herzogovina, and interspersed with these were aerial shots, only now of the military "night vision" kind that I associate with the first Gulf War.

I had been prepared for the inclusion of photocopies by the atrium text and I brought my white trash skepticism to the party. However, I have to admit that the croppings, enlargements, artful blurrings, etc., felt meanginful in the context in which they were assembled, and when I got to the second gallery, I was fully on board with the legitimacy of the technique.

In keeping with the photocopying techniques (and, I suppose, with the chemical mistakes), there were also a number of panoramic photo series that deliberately exposed the margins of each shot. The different parts of each panorama were set near one another, but with a very deliberate margin breaking the frames as though they themselves were photocopies that included the gap where the binding is.

By no means were all the associations among the pieces clustered together immediately obvious, particularly in the right-hand gallery (which, remember, was the first I saw, but apparently intended to be the last in the gallery). Tillmans was apparently first recognized for his photos of friends, and I could see why in the images of ordinary people scattered throughout. Clothing was another photographic subject that occurred seemingly at random (most of the time---there were certainly more purposeful shots as well). He could do quite the series at our house, particularly when I'm teaching and my faux grown-up clothes explode off me the minute I walk in the door.

Of the more obviously themed sections that I can remember (one thing I forgot to bring was my notebook, so this is all from my postmigraine head at this point), his twisted still life efforts caught my fancy. A number of these seemed to be taken on the same window ledge, featuring mason jars and mismatched glasses with cuttings of herbs, cast off cigarettes, empty bowls, etc. On the larger scale but a similar theme, many of the clusters seemed to deal with liminal living spaces---places into which people had just moved or were just leaving (e.g., in one a vase of dying mums is featured in the foreground of a nearly empty room in which late evening sun suffuses a polished hardwood floor, and a lonely cordless phone and answering machine cowers in the distant corner). I wish that I'd had the opportunity to get back to some of these. Some were hopeful, some were melancholy or wistful, but I didn't have a chance to work out what elements conveyed those things.

Commercialism/marketing was another preoccupation in the right-hand gallery. There were some spaces walled off to be quite small (and claustrophobic if one happened to be stuck with apparently grown women who were giggling like 2-year-olds over the PENIS in a completely different area---one of the many reasons I wish I'd had my iPod with me so I could have retreated to my happy place. My happy bunny shirt only takes me so far). There were shots of absurd/disgusting/amusing/ironic advertising from Tiajuana to Frankfurt, from the streets to photocopied labels from household products like "Promise" spread and "Homo' milk.

Uh, you realize that I'm not even out of the first gallery yet? So allow me to skip ahead to gallery #2, which was, apparently, the first gallery that the master-installation dude wanted me to see. However, I think if I had gone in this one first, I'd have never made it to the other. This is not a criticism of the artist, this is an admission that I am a dumbass. This is not something to be seen when you have 2.5 hours, total, to spend. I still feel like information and impressions are dribbling out my ears and on to the page. So allow me, briefly, to dribble about this gallery.

First of all, once again, I went through it the wrong way and saw the first of the subsections of the gallery consisting mostly of large photographs of people, including the striking "Moonrise in Puerto Rico" (If you go to, it's one that scrolls by---the one with two men [one seated, one standing] in the foreground, and the sun setting/moon rising over the water in the distance). If I had then turned left as the booklet suggests I ought to have, I would have gotten to the large portraits that necessitated that warning that adults attending with children should preview the exhibit first, lest their children be exposed to breasts, penii, labia, lactation, and other dangers peculiar to modern life. Oh, and people indiscriminately showing one another affection. The horror. The horror.

But I didn't go left, I went right and found myself wandering through a maze of tables (in the most minimal sense of the word---plywood tops nailed to saw horses) with dozens and dozens of photos and photocopies arranged into groups under glass. The first of these that I went through dealt with HIV and AIDS in Africa. Most of the photographs were of members of groups promoting education on the topic and how to manage the disease. Interspersed among the photos were clippings and photocopied materials (they kind of looked like wire summaries, maybe?) about former South African President Mbeki's denial that HIV causes AIDS. The content he chose starkly juxtaposed Mbeki's assertions that poverty, poor nutrition, etc., cause AIDS, his suspicions about western drug companies profiting from the sale of expensive, patented medicines, and his denial that there is any epidemic.

Several of the other tables dealt with religious extremism (of all stripes) and protests against it. Among the most interesting tables within this section contained a variety of pieces questioning whether or not moderate belief provides any traction against violence and hate in the name of religion. In fact, there was a particular text blow up that stuck in my mind (well not entirely, as I can't seem to recall the exact wording): "Moderate belief provides no bulwark against the violence of religious extremism." [I am an intellectual slug. It's been nearly 8 months and I've only just now tracked down the source of the quotation and the actual wording. It's from Sam Harris's The End of Faith. Here's the original: "While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence."

To it, I add this, which is the essence of what moved me in that barely glimpsed quote:
Religious moderation, insofar as it represents an attempt to hold on to what is still serviceable in orthodox religion, closes the door to more sophisticated approaches to spirituality, ethics, and the building of strong communities. Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience.
] Tied in with these (loosely in some cases, more pointedly in others) were images and materials about the war on terror (I refuse to capitalize that) and the erosion of civil liberties in its name. My favorite placard was one replicated in numerous images: "The Axis of Evil Runs Right Through W's Juicy Manhole."

Another theme sandwiched in among these was the mythic compassion of the 90s compared with what is shaping up to be a decade-long fuck you to issues of social justice. Tillmans includes some of his own writings in here, claiming that our nostalgia for the 90s fails to recognize that any revival of activism is difficult to disentangle from marketing opportunities for MTV, Benneton, etc. One table set at a particularly awkward angle dealt with questions of capital punishment, particularly in Texas. It was positioned to connect the 90s/activism/compassion/capitalism materials to the ruminations on extremism and the war on terror.

The tables could easily have been an exhibit all on their own. I probably spent an hour trying to absorb just a small portion of the texts, and wound up feeling overwhelmed. In fact, I'm surprised that I can recall much of anything about the artistic and installation aspects of them. Again, this is mostly me being a dumbass, but I can't see really getting a handle on this entire exhibit in a single visit. It didn't help matters much that the last thing I did on this level was wander into a small, darkened room (black, partially sound-proofed walls). There was a screen at one end of the room and projected on to it was video of robotic concert lights synchronized to the wacky techno beat. I think that's when my migraine started. (Uh, no offense, Herr Tillmans, it's not you, it's me.)

I had genuine angst leaving the exhibit. I was exhausted and drained, but I still felt like I ought to revist a number of places. However, Andy, my putative reason for going to the damned museum in the first place, was calling. I made my way up to the second floor, and popped briefly into the small room housing most of the Ware exhibit. I have fond memories of following "Jimmy Corrigan" in New City and/or the Reader, and I like what I've seen of "Building Stories" (which is not a lot), but I was physically incapable of viewing the panels (soooo very dense with art and text as they were) in any way that would do them justice. With regret, I headed up yet another floor . . . and I seem to have experienced missing time. Tillmans on 1, Ware on two . . . what the frilly heck was on 3? Not a clue. Andy was on 4, though.

So the Warhol exhibit was called "ANDY WARHOL/SUPERNOVA: Stars, Deaths, and Disasters 1962-1964." As it turned out, there really wasn't a whole lot of call for me to have set aside a huge amount of time to go through it. Still, I probably needed more than the 25 minutes I spent jetting through it. I was not a huge fan of the layout of the exhibit. The first oddity was that the soup cans were down on the first level with a glut of text. I get that they're not part of the main projects they were showcasing in the exhibit, but separating them from the rest by three floors seems excessive. Furthermore, there was an entire room within the exhibit dedicated to a silent documentary about the Elvis paintings and their exhibit at the Ferus Gallery in LA that had optional accompaniment (via a couple of sets of headphones) by an interview with Irving Blum in which he talks extensively about the soup cans.

But I admit that the exhibit was about two classes of Warhol paintings during a very specific time period, and my soup doesn't make the cut. So I'm shutting up about it. For now. Probably. So the paintings under consideration were Andy's images copied (often literally, once he got into silk screening, and always multiply) from iconic photographs of folks like Troy Donahue, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marilyn Monroe. To the exhibit's credit, they borrowed liberally from Warhol's own writings to explain why he was moved to produce numerous copies and isolated elements from these images and what the hell was up with the garish eye and lip colors. I think that's a better option than engaging in a lot of academese, which is highly anti-Warhol to begin with. Nonetheless, they also did a good job highlighting the ground first and/or most spectacularly trod by Andy and hangers on at The Factory. Of particular relevance to the Tillmans exhibit, of course, is Warhol's love for mechanically produced art and his insistence that things like the Elvis images were, in fact, paintings. Also, having detailed information on the original sources of the images was a great addition.

Still, the staging of the exhibit took some wrong turns. In the very first room, the Troy Donahue "cameo" painting was at a right angle to a Liz, which seems off given that the Liz was what set him off down this particular path. At the opposite end of that room was the famous Marilyn with the less well known painting of the multiple copies of Marilyn's lips in isolation. That juxtaposition worked pretty well (the snarl of the lips out of context really brings out the sadness and desperation of her eyes in the whole face), and the multiple lips/multiple Troys go together like peanut butter and chocolate, but the Liz just belongs in the other room with the the Lizzes (Liz from National Velvet and Liz from Cleopatra), ya know?

Then right around the wall from Liz, there were two of the 10 Most Wanted series across from the Elvii and at a right angle to "Little Race Riots" (multiple, sometimes nonidentical copies of Charles Moore's photos from Life of a black teenager being attacked by a police dog). That entire room just didn't hang together at all for me, especially given the erratic text within it. For example, there are substantial quotes from Warhol on the 10 Most Wanted images, as is appropriate given the fact that this contsitutes a hilarious story about him doing several projects for exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair, each of which were rejected (including a mural that was actually completed, then painted out). But there's zero comment from Andy on the Elvii on the race paintings.

To add insult to injury, pompous, museum-generated text questions whether Warhol sees the protestors or police as the aggressors and whether he really understood what was going on. Given that, in the original photo, the dog is tearing at the seat of the guy's pants, I've always taken this as Warhol making an explicit, ironic (if not entirely in good taste) connection to the classic Coppertone Ad where the dog pulls down the little girl's bikini bottom, exposing her tan line. Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to Warhol going for the cheap laugh.

After the Elvii was the room with the Elvii documentary, which was quite closed off from the rest. I suppose that's needed, but it made the last room somewhat awkward. This was divided in half, one side devoted to the Jackie Kennedy images, the other to the rest of the "Disaster" paintings. I'm totally on board with putting the ladies who died of tunafish botulism cheek by jowl with Jackie's pillbox hat and grieving profile, but I don't get separating them from the race and "most wanted" paintings. I don't have a lot to say about the Jackie stuff except that the exhibit included one piece not familiar to me---the "round jackie," which was done in browns and framed in something like a needlepoint hoop. The end result was of a dowdy, forgotten throw pillow, and it was rather touching.

I haven't been as exposed to the disaster paintings they included as I have to most of the other things. The tunafish piece with its accompanying quote from Andy that he just thought it would be "nice" if the deaths of these people got noticed by people who normally wouldn't care about them was a gem and one thing I wish I had spent more time on. As it was, I gave it more attention than the car crash victims (three paintings devoted to this, all kind of appalling, but in the way he intended), although I do note that no adults were warned to preview the exhibit to be sure that their children weren't upset by them. After Andy, I barely had time to motor through the Chicago exhibit and smile at all my familiar places.

But my greatest artistic experience of the day came long after I'd left the MoCA. I hadn't really eaten much all day, so I popped into the grind for an iced tea and a bagel. They rotate art through there pretty regularly, and at the moment, they're featuring an exhibit by children (ranging in age from 18 months up to 7, from what I could see). Now this could be horrible, but for the most part it's cute. And then there was the beauty of "THE ALIEN COSTUME: Part 1 of 5)!" A comic book by William! With 3 new superheroes! Slime Man! The Sandman! And SuperWilliam! BATMAN WILL MEET SPIDERMAN! It was seriously awesome. The kid knows the value of a lurid cover and a snappy TUNE IN NEXT TIME, even if he did only sandwich in about three panels' worth of action constituting the whole of Part 1. But they went to the moon. And found a strange black rock. And brought it back. THEN IT ATTACKED!

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