Friday, January 28, 2011

Contemporary Art CANNOT Mean Anything You Want It To.

Admittedly, there is much in mainstream media media regarding the arts that frustrates me, but the notion that Contemporary Art is open to mean anything the viewer wishes simply pisses me off. I read this claim again recently in a story introducing an upcoming collaboration between the Cincinnati Art Museum and the 21C Museum Hotel in Louisville, KY.

Prefacing stories about Contemporary Art with this claim permits reporters with no art knowledge to feel their way into the story, and gives them license to say whatever the hell they want about art. Oftentimes, this means omitting any meaningful or even basic information about Contemporary Art from the story. Deborah Dixon continues her story by singling out "cool" pieces of art in the show without offering a single attribution to an artist. One is a French artist, another is a "young artist who invited black men into his Harlem studio..." And the third? We don't know, but according to Dixon, the work looks like a Rice Krispie treat.

I'm sure the museum provided all of the artists' names to Channel 12, but if Contemporary Art can mean anything, the names of the artists mean nothing to Ms. Dixon.

The truth is, Contemporary Art deals with a number of very important themes and forces us to respond to not always so easy questions. It is becoming more common here in Cincinnati for Contemporary Art to be presented as a mere party favor for the masses.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Home Is Where the Art Is

Last week I had the opportunity to interview local advocate and writer, Gregory Flannery after visiting Isolation and Togetherness at The Carnegie. While I continue to engage the subject of homelessness and the arts, I wanted to also highlight the work by a few other artists showing as part of this show. Like the photographs in the main gallery, these artists explore images and notions of home through painting and sculpture.

Marcia Alscher is easily one of my favorite local artists. After 25 years as an architect, she began painting. Her small paintings of houses are expressions of color and geometric form. But while they are minimalist in style and exhibited together they may seem to be exercises in abstraction, each of these paintings are portraits. By eliminating the decorative elements of a building, Alscher reveals through color and line its core beauty. Normally we tend to look at architectural ornamentation that offer hints of history and culture. However, Alscher's precisionist approach exposes a culture of everyday life. This becomes much more apparent with this group of paintings that include not only 19th Century buildings in Covington, but also portraits of buildings in Italy. Architectural elements such as the dome of Florence, Italy set these buildings apart from those found near her studio. But the palette also changes. The colors recall for me the glow of the 17th Century Italianate landscapes. In these paintings, the color as much as the line help us to see the essence of home.

The work of Mallory Feltz also deals with notions of home and space. These works center around the familiarity of the two places the artist has lived, Cincinnati and Baton Rouge. Noting each city's tie to waterways, images and symbolism of bridges dominate the gallery. Her focus on familiar spaces though recognizes that home is not just the architectural building. Her assemblages are made of found pieces that reinforce the domestic space. Embroidery, yarn and fabric are elements highlighting the homemade. Feltz is also interested in our movement and interactions in these spaces. This is highlighted especially well in the repetition of bridges as symbol as well as actual spaces in both cities. Moving through the gallery space from images of Cincinnati and those of Baton Rouge seems to be an invitation by the artist to join her as she makes connections between the two cities, between objects and space, thus forcing a new familiarity on our connection to home.

These artists and others like Dominic Sansone, Sherman Cahal, Patrick Meier, and Alan Grizzell as well as the photography exhibit make Isolation & Togetherness at The Carnegie a remarkably engaging show exploring our connection to home and each other.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Cincinnati Artist Spends Time with a President

Cincinnati's history of art patronage is grounded in recordings of relationships between politicians and artists. The venerable Taft Museum of Art stands as perhaps the grandest link between the arts and a president even if in family name only (Charles Phelps Taft, who lived in the mansion from 1873 until his death, was the half-brother of President William Howard Taft).

But before Taft there was a relationship cultivated between a Cincinnati artist and a President-elect. Until now, I don't believe I've ever heard of Thomas Dow Jones. In the NY Times you can read a wonderful story of the sculptor's work on a bust of Abraham Lincoln. It is an interesting bit of history that captures a relationship between an artist and his subject and the importance of portraiture. Interesting too is the dance between the mediums of sculpture and photography.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Cleveland Museum of Art Sends 32 Paintings to the Auction Block

In three sessions over two days starting Jan. 27, the Cleveland Museum of Art will offer more than two dozen European old master paintings in the largest sell-off from its collection in more than a half-century. The 30 lots from Cleveland, with 32 works overall, will be part of an auction of "Important Old Master Paintings" at Sotheby's in New York.

"These are pictures that probably don't have a place in the Cleveland Museum of Art context, but could have a happy life elsewhere," C. Griffith Mann, the museum's chief curator, said of the works to be sold.

Some of the hottest recent controversies in the art world have involved cash-strapped institutions selling artworks to pay operating or other expenses. But the Cleveland sale is unlikely to cause a ruckus. Most of the individual works to be sold are by minor masters; few have been exhibited in recent years.

Sotheby's estimates the total value of the Cleveland works to range from $706,000 to $1,022,000. The auction could attract bargain hunters; out of the 30 lots, 21 are priced with low-end estimates of $10,000 or less.

For more about the this sale and the CMA collection, see The Plain Dealer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Who Sees (Portraits of) Homelessness?

There is no doubt that art allows us to address societal issues by providing a perspective that is often overlooked or simply ignored. Isolation & Togetherness at the Carnegie Arts Center is one such exhibition. The show includes a number of beautifully shot photographs, portraits of homeless individuals throughout Greater Cincinnati. The programming accompanying this exhibition include artwork by local artists dealing with definitions of home, awareness and advocacy for the homeless, and collecting non-perishables for Be Concerned. While events like this one are admirable ones, I wonder if such portrait exhibitions really work to draw the attention the artists hope.

In order to address my questions of social value of such exhibitions rather than aesthetics, I’ve asked Gregory Flannery to participate in a discussion with me. Here, I am less an art critic than a cultural or social theorist interested in learning more about how we look or don’t look at our communities and define our notions of home and homelessness.

Gregory Flannery has worked in local journalism in Greater Cincinnati for 30 years. He is the former news editor at CityBeat and the former editor of Streetvibes, published by the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. His work exposed illegal wiretapping by the Cincinnati Police Department and led to the successful prosecution of three Catholic priests for sexually abusing children. Among the awards he has received is "Best Feature Story," from the International Network of Street Papers in 2009.

1. Greg, first I want to thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. I wanted to start by saying the portraits are very nice. They add monumentality to each of the individuals and even a dignity that is not often associated with homelessness. Each photograph captures well the individuality of the subject, the person. As such, the photos avoid presenting homelessness as a simple or single definition. These photographs and those like them reveal a various images of homelessness. Would you agree this is the ultimate goal of such exhibitions?

Capturing the individuality of the subjects and avoiding presenting homelessness as a monolith are goals that I support. It’s also worth noting that the opening reception was a benefit for the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, and visitors were encouraged to donate food.
This matter of dignity is interesting to me in that homeless people live such undignified lives, exposed to public view, denied privacy, prosecuted for doing in public things that people do everyday indoors (drinking alcohol, evacuating bodily waste, sleeping). Is dignity inherent in humanity, or is it a cultural construct? Should one be embarrassed (i.e., feel undignified) for sleeping on a park bench? Should one feel proud for being able to endure? Do mental illness and addiction, which often attend homelessness, diminish dignity?

2. There are a number of local art events like this one that devote time to the subject of homelessness. Do you see the visual arts being particularly effective in drawing attention to homelessness? Are there events or projects you would like to see sponsored here? Are there programs in other cities you see working or healthier dialogs we could engage in here?

I am working on a project that involves documenting conditions in homeless camps in Cincinnati over the course of a year. The project is somewhat controversial among social workers who serve homeless people because they fear that our work will either ennoble homelessness, lead to hate crimes against people living outdoors or lead well-meaning persons to provide assistance (food, water, blankets) to people living outdoors, thereby enabling them to stay outside longer, instead of accepting help in obtaining treatment and housing.
I think the visual arts are effective in drawing attention to the issue of homelessness; but the larger issue is how accurately the photographs capture the essence of homelessness, which is, of course, a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The goal of imputing dignity, for example, runs the risk of prettying up a condition rife with hazard, disease, isolation and deprivation.

3. While visiting the show and recognizing the beauty of the each of the photographs, I was still concerned as to how this helps the viewer rethink homelessness? In other words, while the photographs are beautiful, how does this show or help us to be aware of see homelessness?

I don’t think the photographs by themselves can accomplish either of these things. Beauty has no place in the daily lives of most homeless people, whose daily routine is defined at best by the struggle for sustenance and at worst by the desire to escape through substance abuse.

4. One of my favorite film quotes comes from Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King. The scene takes place in New York’s Grand Central Station. The character played by Jeff Bridges is speaking with a homeless Vietnam Veteran when someone in the crowd tosses a quarter only to miss the homeless man’s cup. Jeff Bridges’ character says, “He didn’t even look at you.” The homeless veteran responds, “He pays so he doesn’t have to look.”
Do photo exhibitions like the one at The Carnegie really bridge this disconnect or simply accept this tendency to ignore the issue as an ill of humanity hoping to capture a single moment or attract at least one more advocate for the homeless?

We tend to fear that which we don’t know. I think there is value in capturing the individuality of homeless people but I’m skeptical that this does much to change other people’s behavior toward them. If some of the homeless people whose portraits are in the exhibit were present to tell their stories to visitors, that would more likely humanize them to the public at large and perhaps motivate people to interact with them in meaningful ways.

5. One would think the visual arts would be a perfect medium to draw attention to our homeless population. Though while the photographs are beautiful, I cannot help but to recognize the gallery as a safe place to address images of homelessness. In the gallery, visitors can view the photographs while enjoying a glass of wine, food, music, friends, and then maybe stop somewhere for dinner before heading home. I suppose my greatest concern is the possibility these exhibitions permit us NOT to see homelessness. Do these photographs shield our eyes? Do they permit us to look so we don’t have to see?

I think you nicely summarize the limitations of this kind of exhibit. The artist’s stated purpose is telling: “The purpose behind making these images was to illustrate the humanity of these individuals, as well as to provide an opportunity for the observer to gaze upon those who are often rendered invisible in plain sight.”
The problem, of course, is that homeless people aren’t invisible at all; the opportunity to “gaze upon” them is manifold, but we are unwilling. We avert our eyes precisely because what we see is not beautiful, not dignified. Homeless people are poorly dressed, have unpleasant odors, are gap-toothed, ask us for money and often display the disturbing effects of mental illness: These are not the kinds of characteristics that make “normal” people want to engage with them. Yes, putting their photos in a gallery makes it safe to look and perhaps to feel compassion from a distance. At best, that makes the viewer feel a certain self-satisfaction, but it does nothing to help the people who are the subjects of the exhibit. If the subjects were cancer or AIDS patients, would viewers be inclined to go out and do something to help? Unlikely. If the subjects were children orphaned by war, would viewers rally to cut the defense budget? I think instead what this exhibition does is make people feel a kind of detached sympathy that ultimately produces no practical change in their behavior.
Art for its own sake is a worthwhile pursuit but it isn’t usually a tool for changes in public policy.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cincinnati Art Snob Featured Art Tours

Cincinnati Art Snob will now make available a selection of featured tours. Unlike the tour series, these tours are generally a single-venue events lasting 2 hours or less. Of course you are welcome to pair them up to create your own tour series package.

You can make reservations right now for either The Art of Love in February or Art for the Foodie in March and April.

See the Cincinnati Art Snob website for descriptions, times and dates for each of these tours.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Taft Show Again Draws Intense Emotion, Wonder

The last two times I was moved to near tears in a gallery, I was at the Taft. This is a good feeling that lasts well after the visit, well after the exhibition closes.

Since finally seeing Francisco Goya: Los Caprichos at the Taft Museums of Art, I've been haunted by the challenging subjects illustrated in the show. Critical of the ruling class as well as common societal practices that victimize women, children, and the working class resulted in a series of images that are either horrific (Todos caerán)or in some cases comical (Asta su abuelo). While walking through the gallery I found myself either turning away in knowing disgust, looking more closely (the gallery provides guests with magnifying glasses to better look at the detailed prints), or uncomfortably laughing at Goya's commentary.

I shouldn't be surprised by the mixture of emotion this series draws. I've seen many of these and taught about Goya and his struggles late in his career over the realization many of his earlier paintings celebrated the very class he grew to dislike. But Goya's questioning of humanity itself is most jarring. Ironically, even the most cynical person walking through the gallery recognizing similar societal ills as part of contemporary American culture would be moved to wonder and perhaps hope things are better now.

Even with the threat of the Inquisition, Goya faced truth, even if privately, and continued with his account of the atrocities of war with his Disasters of War series. This viewer's hope is that cynicism does not bar today's artists from an honesty that may even draw tears.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Art Tour Packages at Cincinnati Art Snob

With the new year I've included a list of art tour packages I will offer throughout the year. While I am still happy to custom design tours to your particular interest, these packages are ready and available to reserve for your group immediately. Tour descriptions are here.

Cincinnati Art Snob will also feature specially designed tours beginning next month. Watch for February art tour offerings soon.

Architectural Drawing Contest

The Architectural Foundation of Cincinnati has issued a call for entries in an architectural drawing exhibition. The juried competition is open to architects, architectural students, landscape architects, interior designers, and individuals associated with the architectural discipline in the Cincinnati region. Students must be currently enrolled.

Selected works will be shown in an exhibition at the AFC Race Street Gallery, which opens with a reception and awards ceremony February 23, 5 p.m. until 7 p.m.

AIA, Cincinnati Chapter, joins AFC in sponsoring the competition. Prizes include best in show, $500; best student work, $250; and best professional work, $250. Entry fees ($15, student, $40 professional) include admission to the reception.

Competition rules and entry materials are available here. Entries must be delivered to AFC headquarters, 811 Race Street, on February 9 or 10, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Reservations for the February 23 reception ($50 patron, $10 regular) may be made on the Web site, by email to or by telephone (513) 421-4469.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

If the CAC Doesn't Want to Listen to Me, Perhaps They'll Listen to ArtNews

Robin Cembalest's letter, Between a Cross and a Hard Place in the current edition of ArtNews recounts the controversy surrounding the removal of David Wojnarowicz from Hide/Seek and calls on art professionals to be more proactive in this debate:

"But arts professionals need to be proactive now if they want to forestall a new culture war. Anti-censorship statements on websites are fine—the AAMD released one condemning "unwarranted and uninformed censorship from politicians and other public figures"—but does the general public read such statements? So far, the opponents of "Hide/Seek" are getting most of the media attention. While bloggers and newspaper cultural critics have kept the story alive online, why aren't museum directors showing up on op-ed pages and talk-show stages? After all, Ellen DeGeneres herself is a protagonist in the controversy. If museum advocates want to change the public conversation, they have to become part of it." (my emphasis)

Monday, January 3, 2011

Art also Separates These Two Speakers

A comparison in the Enquirer between two speakers from Cincinnati, John Boehner and Nicholas Longworth is clearly meant to paint Boehner in the wonderful light of the common man. Unlike Longworth who was "as elite as they come," Boehner "toiled as a janitor among other things..." to work his way up.

Though as may be expected from the Enquirer today (which devoted 6 pages to Longworth's life when he died) the story neglects to mention the other difference between the two speakers. Nicholas Longworth is from a family of Cincinnati's greatest patrons of the arts. His grandfather's (also named Nicholas) support of the arts helped propel Robert Duncanson and Hiram Powers to international success. Frankly, strong patronage to the arts by the Longworth family is the foundation of the arts in Greater Cincinnati. John Boehner, on the other hand celebrates a series of actions meant to undercut the arts. Most recently was his call to pull the work of David Wojnarowicz from the National Portrait Gallery.

So while the Enquirer does what it does to celebrate its conservative golden boy, a man who works against the arts is not a man of the people.

Happy New Year: Women and Their Food

As I begin designing new tours to offer this year that include topics like female bodies, love, and food, I see this set of stock photos of Women Laughing Alone with Salad.

I guess salad is funny....or fun.

What's more, pictures of women with candy usually show women eating candy as we see here.

Good luck with your New Year's Resolutions.

I'm laughing my way off to the gym.