Growing up in Southern California, nearly every summer vacation included a family trip in the station wagon to visit relatives in Missouri and Arkansas. The route we traveled on was always the old Route 66, another story all by itself. The drive was mercilessly boring so the least little thing would amuse me and my six siblings as we made our way eastward.
Looking out the car window for something to entertain us was a good way to pass the hours. The giant jackrabbit signs perched on hills above Route 66 for Jack Rabbit Trading Post were a spectacular sight. They taunted us for miles while we imagined all the wonderful curiosities that the Jack Rabbit Trading Post held – I mean, arts and crafts – I was THERE! And then finally, we would spot the one that read, Here it is! Oh, the pain as we sped by each and every one.
But the absolute best sighting was the Burma-Shave signs. These were a brilliant ad campaign for shaving cream featuring six sequential signs that passengers in cars could read as they passed – they were spaced far enough apart that the sentence was read naturally. Here is one message from 1963, the last year Burma-Shave used this promotion:
Our fortune / Is your / Shaven face / It’s our best / Advertising space / Burma-Shave
This has been so woven into our collective culture that artist Norman B. Colp created a public art installation inspired by the Burma-Shave signs installed in the 42nd Street subway tunnel. Called The Commuter’s Lament, or A Close Shave, the installation is a series of signs attached to the roof of the passageway, with the following text:
Overslept, / So tired. / If late, / Get fired. / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.
At this point, you realize that I am fascinated by popular culture and how the influence spreads into art, collective memory, and history. So imagine my delight when walking down the street today and spotting a series of painted rocks with little hand-lettered messages. Each one was carefully placed to make sure pedestrians would see them. While these did not have the clever poetics of the Burma Shave signs, they spoke with a more gentle and encouraging voice:
It’s October 1st, the humidity is gone and it’s Sunday – time to go up to the attic which hasn’t been cleaned since we moved in during the summer. This 1870 house was owned previously by one family for nearly all of its existence, and there are piles of photographs, tarnished silver-plated spoons and forks, and other detritus that people can’t bear to throw away scattered across the attic floor. It is always the sentimental Christmas greetings, graduation cards, death notices clipped out of brown newspapers that are hard to put in the trash. But what I found today was weirdly coincidental, a handwritten wedding invitation for Victory Milano and James Scott for October 1, 1950.
There are only a few facts I can relate about this invitation – it was mailed for a mere three cents one week before the wedding. Kingston was so small at that time that the sender only needed to list the addressee, street, and city for it to arrive. The church where the wedding was held was founded in 1845 and attended by a strong Irish immigrant population and continues to operate today.
Initially, I was puzzled over the name Victory, but that is a Latin derivative for the woman’s name, Laura, stemming from the laurel branches placed on the victor’s heads during Roman times. I wondered if Victory went by Laura or Victoria as she lived her life.
The place where they planned the reception did make me pause – the Kozy Tavern operated one block from this house for decades. After closing, the place is now operating as The Beverly, a place where I frequently hold artist meetings. The current owner kept the old wooden bar, painted murals above and tin ceilings when he reopened. Now I am imagining how Victory and James came here after their wedding on October 1, 1950, and were congratulated by family and friends.
The annual summer exhibit at The Wassaic Project was inspired by a 1901 photo discovered by Wassaic Project co-founder Jeff Barnett-Winsby. The photo shows young adults posing holding a banner that reads, “VTK.” Handwritten on the back of the photo were the words, “Vagabond Time Killers, 1901, Wassaic NY.” The photo inspired the name of the exhibit, Vagabond Time Killers and this photo is on display at the entry of the 7-story grain elevator/gallery. The faces of the young adults in the photo show delight in the forest setting – allowing us to imagine the story we could weave about how this merry group met upstate at Wassaic every summer for summer fun.
The exhibit riffed off the feeling of freedom, the great outdoors, and the adventure of imagining something new. The first floor included Margeaux Walter’s Digital C-prints. Walter described the process as originating from large-scale installations inspired by consumer culture and domestic scenes. The patterning created by staging a floral printed tablecloth with plates filled with pastries and four diners posed in a four-cornered directional map created an embellished, balanced universe.
Visitors could follow the music and sound coming from the back of the gallery, where Minhee Bae’s silk organza artworks hung like welcome banners to a world of experiential art. Haley Lauw and Erik Pedersen’s installation of “Junk Mouthpieces” paired with a loop of samples from the Music Masters basement created an environment inviting visitors to proceed upstairs. The installation of musical instruments continued on each floor and was viewable through cutouts seen as you climb the stairs.
Eleanor Sabin’s neon work “Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire” was installed a few levels above – the neon flame burned from logs placed in typical campfire fashion – the burned wood is a fitting melding of contemporary and historical. Continuing upward, Jen Hitchings’ work is all about interpreting the summer camp out. “Red Forest” shows a camping scene with a dangerous sloping geography painted in neon blues and oranges.
Continuing up to the next level, Matthew Gamber’s images are inspired by “transcendentalist thought in the New England Landscape.” The artist created the images with a large format camera, printed as three-dimensional anaglyph prints that could be viewed with the 3-D glasses available in the gallery.
Upwards on level 6, see Tatiana Arocha’s captivating installation, “Impending Beauty.” The artist has reimagined the entire small floor as a parlor, perhaps inspired by the 1901 photo when parlors were a means of civil discourse. The walls have been papered in a moody dark forest scene with birds and forest plants – the settee has an elaborate snake coiled, ready to strike. The table has been set for tea with a tea set that has also been elaborately decorated with the dark, flora, and fauna of the jungle. The artists’ work is influenced by her native country, Columbia, along with the symbolism of 19th Century opulence and what it took from nature.
For the hardiest visitor reaching the top floor, Elias Hansen’s installation, “Looking Down the Tunnel for the Way Out” took over the entire space. The glass viewers placed in front of the windows invited viewers to look down over the scenery below – the glass created a funhouse viewpoint of the scenery below, reinforcing the idea of being in another world.
Traveling back downstairs through eight floors of the grain elevator, visitors could appreciate the works placed on each landing by collaborative artists, Ghost of a Dream, where they used several iterations of romantic travel posters with cut out words, Forever. The artists shared this additional information about this work in their interview: “The stairwell allows for a slow and intimate reading of the work as the viewer ascends or descends the stairway. Repetition is a thread that runs through all our work, from drawings to installation. We feel that when you are dreaming about something you think about it over and over, sometimes for years.”
This essay is an expanded version of the original publication for the Poughkeepsie Journal Enjoy section Friday, August 25, 2017. Vagabond Time Travelers is up through Sunday, September 24, 2017. The Wassaic Project is located at 37 Furnace Bank Road, Wassaic, NY.
This past week I heard an article on NPR that discussed the new use of flute in hip hop music and other more contemporary music made and performed today.
My mind immediately went flying back to 1970 when Gil Scott Heron produced many of the works that defined the groundbreaking work of merging spoken word poetry, music, and popular culture. If you listen to The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, you will hear the flute weaving throughout this performative piece that referenced the popular slogan among the 1960’s Black Power Movements in the United States. Mentioning popular culture references from television series and ad slogans from that time, talking about what the “Revolution will not” be or do, many listeners today may not understand the popular cultural references that are mentioned: white lightening, white tornado, Natalie Wood, Steve McQueen, Bullwinkle, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and
If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the difficult times when Nixon, Spiro Agnew, and other political miscreants were causing angst in our country. Gil Scott-Heron really put his finger on the reason why life was out of control for those that were forced into the margins of the American life at that time, drawing comparisons to the hijinks of elected officials and contrasting it with popular culture amassed in 1970’s ads and programming on television and radio.
Today, over 47 years after this song first broadcast on the airwaves, we see the same situation where we can insert different names into the spoken word poetry. Gil Scott Heron was a groundbreaking artist creating the voice of truth for the artists and citizens that had no voice.
In science, catalytics speed up a chemical reaction while undergoing no permanent change. Recently this premise is actively being tested at the Arts Mid-Hudson gallery – two Hudson Valley curators Emilie Houssart and Xuewu Zheng are launching a series of artistic dialogues through group art exhibitions. Houssart explained that this is facilitated “by getting artists together so that we might ‘collide’ with each other in interesting ways.”
Altogether, eight artists are exhibiting work that could be wildly diverse without this premise. For instance, in Jinkook Hwang’s “Sushi Nam Yeo” series, rice is seen as the object of happiness and love, stemming from his cultural background. In “Couple Sushi,” the artist draws a man and woman resting on a bed of rice that has been magnified to signify its importance in his life.
Hayoon Jay Lee also creates work responding to food, which can be seen in many of her performance pieces and artworks. Hayoon said, “I try to communicate the tension points surrounding personal conflicts and social inequities. However, a central core and a function my work is an active collaboration by artists to inform and support underserved communities.” Hayoon exhibits “Silent Witness I,” where viewers can consider the artist’s rendition of a beautifully rounded spoon, filled to the brim with rice and contemplate the idea of what is enough.
Emilie Houssart and Xuewu Zheng both use their artistic practice to make sense of contemporary culture. With Zheng’s practice of rolling and tying newspapers, the work reflects his fascination with history and the idea that we create a new history as we live our lives. Zheng’s practice can be summed up in his succinct statement about his work: “My goal is to take the treasures of the people in my left hand and the masters of yesterday in my right hand and to clasp them together. I then want to blend them to create the Zheng Xuewu of today.” His installation “Century Text” placed in the center of the gallery features thousands of pages rolled and tied, reminding us that history is made up of thousands of tiny details from each day.
Houssart’s work “Spaces” responds to the different perceptions of value in society. Similar to Zheng, Houssart has a darkly humorous approach to contemporary culture, adding it all into the mix and allowing everything to exist side by side in a vaguely chaotic presentation.
Marieken Cochius exhibits her recent ink and shellac drawings on paper. The artist may be influenced by the natural world: her abstraction of color and bold line stands out as a direct emotional response articulated with paper and inks. While Cochius presents ethereal line and shading, Leigh Williams exhibits “Vessels,” two forms that can be viewed as positive and negative space. The hand-built wood-fired clay has delicate colorations that defy their dark, organic shapes.
Joe Radoccia’s larger than life portraits show a dignity and gravitas in each face. Each portrait features underpainting in the background that adds to the depth and nuance of each face. Radoccia places the soul of each person on display using a grand scale and the direct gaze of the subject.
Sumi Pak examines human emotions of happiness, sadness, fear, and curiosity through his daily portraits of his cat, Kopi. Pak’s gestural line and colorations describe the ordinary life of his cat, and perhaps our own lives as we go about our daily business.
This essay was originally published in print: the Poughkeepsie Journal – March 10, 2017
Every year I head to the spring art fairs in New York City – including Volta, Scope, NADA, ADAA, and The Armory Show. This year the trend I noted was – gasp – textile! They were everywhere and the trend was seen in the gallery booths from around the globe. The textile artworks at The Armory had a variety of approaches – from sewn fabric strips arranged in color patterns to silk-screened silk panel (Robert Rauschenberg!) to some pieces that appeared to be inspired by the quilters of Gee’s Bend.
Several artists have taken up creating tapestry editions such as Kiki Smith’s artwork manifested as a Jacquard tapestry. The deer in the forest is the main image that you will notice in “Fortune,” a series on the seasons. The tapestry features borders that have a collage effect, the earth under the deer’s hooves is another world below the forest floor.
Although Kiki Smith‘s work is fairly recent (2011), another item of note about all the textiles was that some of them had been created decades earlier – in the 1970’s and 1980’s, as seen in Robert Rauschenberg‘s work.
For all the artists that I saw at The Armory Show, looking at the work and wondering when their art would be featured here, I wished I could tell them to continue making your work regardless whether it is fashionable for that season – be patient – your time will come.
I always know that I’ve seen a groundbreaking art exhibit when images from that show continue to play in my mind. This was the case with the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the Met. Arriving on Friday night on the closing weekend, I wasn’t surprised to wait in a long line, and there was something wonderful about standing with hundreds of people excited about seeing the artworks inside the doors. As I got closer to entering I could see the faces of those that have seen the show exiting the museum. One woman commented to me, “Don’t worry – it’s worth the wait.”
Kerry James Marshall has done masterful artworks for decades, and this exhibit, Mastry, was significant in that viewers could see 80 artworks arranged on two entire floors of the Met Breuer. During the Met’s video on the exhibit, Marshall was interviewed and stated, “Mastery is an important concept. It implies having achieved a certain level of proficiency that gives you the freedom to do what you want, without fear of the consequences.”
Marshall was born in Alabama during 1955, but his family moved when he was a small child to South Central Los Angeles. This interested me greatly since we are around the same age, but living very different lives 75 miles apart.
The exhibit was curated using different rooms featuring Marshall’s work arranged around themes. His most well-known paintings use portraiture and reference art history using depictions of African Americans featured as the central figures in each painting. The people of Marshall’s paintings are black – making the word black into a statement that is more than the color used on the canvas. Seeing 80 works of art where all of the figures are black in a major museum is startling and gratifying.
Marshall’s work is also a reflection of the socio-political time he was growing up in the South Central Los Angeles area. With few opportunities for blacks during that time, in every facet of life: housing, jobs, education, and political representation, there was growing resentment about the inequalities that resulted in actions across the United
States. In Los Angeles, this came to bear as the Watt’s Rebellion that happened during 1965’s hot August days. My memory as a young teenager was seeing the black billowing smoke from the fires in Watts and then watching the news on television. For those who didn’t directly experience what led to those days of Americans fighting against other Americans, we can reference Marshall’s paintings to see a clear roadmap.
Marshall paints about the frustrations and limitations of being constricted to living in housing projects with genteel names, such as Rockwell Gardens, Wentworth Gardens, or Altgeld Gardens. In each of these paintings the African-American residents of these projects are depicted as caring for the grounds or doing domestic tasks, such as planting flowers, but there is no sense of joy or pride in their faces. In fact, the faces are all depicted with dead expressions.
Although these paintings were finished years after the 1965 Watt’s Rebellion, they reflect feelings of subsumed anger over circumstances that African-Americans were forced to live during that time. The Watt’s Rebellion erupted as just one of many that ricocheted across the US in the coming years.
In most of the major world museums, masters that have been collected are primarily Europeans. We can think about Renoir and his well-known painting, “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” showing a leisurely Sunday afternoon on the river with friends. Kerry James Marshall uses a narrative style and subject matter that parallels this painting. In “Past Times,” Marshall depicts African Americans spending a relaxing day at a park. The painting is large (9.6×13’) and viewers will see an idyllic park scene where black people are playing golf, croquet, and riding in a powerboat on the lake.
A woman sets out a picnic on the blanket spread over the grass and music by the Temptations is depicted as coming out of the cassette player, with lyrics written as a stylistic banner; “But it was just my imagination, runnin’ away with me-It was just my imagination runnin’ away with me,” resulting in an uneasy feeling that we are all looking at a fantasy. Further examination of the painting shows the housing projects clearly visible in the background. Marshall stated this in the Met video: “In the entire narrative of art history as we know it, there is not a single black person who has achieved the title of master, certainly not an Old Master. Mastery means that one is able to self-determine, to determine how one wants to be represented, how one wants to be seen.”
For me, an especially touching artwork was Marshall’s depiction of one of his artist-teacher idols, Charles White. The artist met him when he was attending Otis Art Institute as a 7th grader and while visiting this working artist’s studio, understood for the first time that he could become an artist.
The show is traveling to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (March 21 – July 2, 2017) and is worth every penny to travel and see if you haven’t experienced Marshall’s Mastry exhibit.