Friday, October 28, 2011

[ 0 8 ] i n s i d e t h e w h i t e c u b e


Portland's Holy [Art] Space

I have come to a certain truth where in the most important rooms a person will walk into, in this life, are remembered from the information one inserts into it as opposed to being force fed the information. I remember my experiences in Portland while surveying its streets and array of gallery bravura. After the excursion, I came to realize that these white spaces, and thus the walls artists create their work inside, are a nexus between Earth and heaven with its own by-laws and intuitive government operating it. I infiltrate these white spaces and it moves me to discern some set of unwritten rules that are enforced in both gallery and holy church alike. Invented laws that I could think of may include “thou shalt not put hands on the grail/ pedestals” or “obey the context in which our thoughts are presented or do not enter henceforth”. To the typical John or Jane Smith who is simply admiring the work, it is an effortless, clear matter of obeying these commandments that instantaneously remove itself from reality. Yet for the artist to fit within the holy space, the idea of entrusting in a white walled context may conclude at discontent towards personal identity, disembodiment from original intent in a new simulated world, and the precariousness of losing sight of reality while pursuing art. In a post-modern age, art is most certainly about imitating life as life is about imitating art. Yet, in the pursuit of imitating 'reality', these attempts take on superficial forms themselves which can end up being self referential and often intolerant of the world outside of them. I think of the positive and negative connotations this might have in reference to convoluted spaces such as a gallery space or holy church. Brian O' Doherty's concepts in his book Inside the White Cube have just as much relevance in the art world today as religion does in the world today : a very substantial amount. I was invited after reading to reconfigure how I percieved both.

Over the period of three days, I adopted three galleries (respective to each day touring in Portland) for critical and practical reflection. I'll clearly establish each gallery as a simultaneous bio with criticism and why they are like the proverbial holy temple. Each of the three obtain a very noticable similarity for they all strive for ‘the neutral zone’. All the while, all three still have very separate notions of paperwork, bureaucracy, or even politics which surround keeping a gallery alive in midst of metropolitan overcrowding. This is one instance where my perception of these exhibition spaces change in regards to O'Doherty's theses on the white cube. Politics, in an age since the 90s (beyond O'Doherty's time), has begun to take over the art scene as a means of keeping it economically viable and commercial. Thus, the easier model between modernism and post-moderism for keeping this model afloat is the former. Modernism entails a sense of the artist absorbed into their own creative fantasy. This notion rejects the Marxist by-law that art should be a public affair outside of one's own romantic wishes. This is how I see both holy church and gallery operating in the contemporary age : for the most part shut out and convoluted from society. "Either be contextualized in the space or be excommunicated" is what the gallery walls beckon to artists. Naturally, with such a contained realm inside itself seeking monetary reward or some backing to keep itself alive, political gaming will come into play within its own walls which have no relevance to anyone outside of that magic circle. This is where I find the gallery space detrimental to the art in its pure context, in much kindred liking to the holy church where religion in America is not a part of state. It is up to the artist to interpret society with their own worlds and not the cathedral that houses them. When a gallery that houses work does this is when art becomes a precarious tool.

Evidence of the Modernist perspective reviving itself this prevalent day and age is The Museum of Contemporary Craft. The gallery is a successful place within the city repression with, as one would guess, a heavy legacy concerning craft and a very extensively framed solidarity towards history in lieu of progressive movement. O’Doherty writes that, “with postmodernism, the gallery space is no longer "neutral". The wall becomes a membrane through which esthetic and commercial values osmotically exchange (79)”. This statement does not implicate that Modernism is dead, but humorously enough, that Modernism is absorbed into Post-Modernism. Modernist commercial value, history included, may be marketed to the public eye for profit. The gallery currently houses four exhibits in a two-story building, of which, two I will select for reference. I will put a vignette on Cutting Her Own Path which is a retrospect highlighting the cut-out craft of Nikki McClure and Northwest Modern which is a self-reliant document of the museum’s ceramic displays from the year 1950 to 1964. Of the three galleries, I feel MOCC will most exemplify my vision of the gallery space being simultaneously holy and militaristic. In this scenario, militarism applies to an artist’s work and how it endures a brash recontextualization from studio to gallery or gallery to gallery. Just as a human cannot switch from religion to religion without understanding a monothestic law for both, the artist cannot go from a gallery to gallery without understanding the same autonomy as well. If it is a different space it is a different military for sake of the gallery.

The second gallery I highlight, following the day of observing MOCC, is The Disjecta. For scale comparison, The Disjecta is only one floor tall but makes up for that in the expansion of space across ground floor to equal that of the total mass of MOCC. Refurbished from an old bowling alley, the focus of The Disjecta frames itself in a manner toward public service and accessibility for both local Portland artists and established artists by special application, invitation, or both. Rather than a militaristic temple of art-holiness, The Disjecta serves as more of a sanctuary for the weary artist whom with the offering of an application may work in a miniscule penny-per-square-foot studio. The exhibition on display was an installation and mixed media set by Iranian-American, University of Oregon professor Tannaz Farsi. Her display illuminates what it means to live the American dream. Immigration, with themes of entering alienated realms, finds a home entering alienated spaces such as the art gallery. By natural situation, the immigrant finds his or her self already recontextualized being in another country apart from their own. I find it to be an intriguing sense of meta-art having an immigrant be an immigrant to the gallery space. I should think, ironically, the person who knows least about their surroundings (the foreigner in a gallery) is less susceptible that the religious laws which govern the gallery may be too demanding. I predict travel abroad not just for artist or missionary alike, but all educated people, will become wildly popular.

Lastly, we shift scale to a much more humble gallery in size with the Fourteen30. The smaller space, which is roughly the size of a gas station, emphasizes the importance of filling the white space with ‘thought’ versus ‘craft’ and how such a bantam exhibition ground is run by not a collaborative brain but a single, possibly objective, curator. On display at the time was a modest, but intellectually selective, painting exhibit by Grier Edmundson where in the lawful way of seeing the white wall was violated when the artist made his own darkly textured wallpaper to occupy the walls. This is in opposition to an eggshell white religiously washing the walls clean, giving false avenue of uncontextualizing space. The wallpaper put forth by the artist recontextualizes its own presence and derives the gallery of an opportunity to draw first blood with its own history. The Fourteen30 gallery is an almost sacrilege example of not the holy temple defining the disciples of artists within, but the disciples deciding what is preached. What they preach is simple : art.

I find it a great leaping off point to bring into discussion how the artist may alter their lucid, daunting surroundings with their work rather than becoming victim to them. I spoke directly with the curator of the Fourteen30 Jeanine Jablonski and she tells me that Edmundson was the first of her artist roster in a period of time to attempt the task of doing the wallpaper act. In reference to the initial Salon de Refuses instigated by painter Jean Courbet in 1855, O’Doherty explains, “I suspect he did nothing startling; yet it was the first time a modern artist (who happened to be the first modern artist) had to construct the context of his work and therefore editorialize about its values (24).” I critique that the decision of Edmundson to mask the white away from the status quo of white walls was simultaneously hysterical and dynamic, just as much as it was for Courbet when he first did so as a rejected dreamer of Modernism. I conclude that Edumundson’s decision to perform this act was not birthed out of rejection but as an accepted rejection. This artist rejected the by-laws of the holy temple and did not become governed by unwritten passages which dictate them. The eye is betrayed because the formality of presentation, much like the morning shower routine, is cast aside. Staying with that metaphor, its like taking a long, hot bath when you have to be at the office in ten minutes. Meanwhile, the romantic spectator whom reports as an outsider and not with insider knowledge becomes bewildered since there is context behind the wallpaper decision outside of their grasp (or at least content they cannot understand). The context of which is nearly immature irony; the paintings themselves were simply blunt, colorful lines on a big canvas. “The Eye looks down on the spectator; the spectator thinks the Eye is out of touch with real life. The comedies of the relationship are of Wildean proportions; an Eye without the body and a body without much of an Eye usually cut each other dead (O’Doherty, 50)”. Edmundson finds a helix of solace in the midst of this civil war. The eye is flabbergasted as its religious monocole snaps in two whilst the spectator has no earthly clue what to make of it from heart (without intellect) alone. As an artwork, I find his exhibition abysmal. Yet, for rejecting the holy temple considering the exhibition as a work of art in itself, it is glorious. Form is certainly content if there is an effort made to connect dots from discovery to realization. In many ways, it is the mantra of post-modernism. At times, we don't know if we can classify this wallpaper act as art because it emulates so tightly the notion of life. This undeniably creates a magicial entity, altering in one stroke our considerations of how to analyze not just the artwork in a holy space but the holy space itself. The space around the artwork should not be exempt from the artwork, and it would be naive to excommunicate as so.

Coincidentally, the Museum of Contemporary Craft has its own cyclical battle with the Wildean proportion of chasing one’s own ass. Take for instance the dual exhibition in MOCC of Nikki McClure’s signature paper cut outs and the historical, self-reference of its own ceramic exhibition history. The issue, respectively, with each is that it either represents such a barbaric retreat to a spectator sport of craft enjoyment or celebrating the eye that commands the holy church/gallery. The fourteen-year document of ceramics in the MOCC involves the display of large, vintage photographic prints of jurors analyzing these pots, ceramics on pedestals arranged aesthetically, and books of recorded information surrounding the installation and destruction of each piece throughout the years. To my critique, this is meta-art in the distasteful sense. The idea of a curator celebrating the work of a curator in a live gallery while hundreds, if not thousands, of ambitious artists are waiting their turn in the wing to express their wares are left space-less is a crime of limiting creativity. With the limitation of creativity comes the rise of bureaucracy and politics which will in turn become a new sliding scale on how artworks will be accepted in the future towards these holy temples. The idea of this gallery regenerating within itself apart from life as a whole almost alludes to academia where the teaching happens nowhere but within itself. Ben Shahn writes in The Shape of Content, that galleries “become almost monastic in the degree of withdrawal from common society; and thus their art product becomes increasingly ingrown, tapping less and less the vital streams of common experience, rejecting more and more the human imperatives which have propelled and inspired art in past times (6)”. Ironically, through the celebration of Modernism in a Post-Modern age, adulthood in contemporary society suffers from losing support to this form of ingrown politics that artists must go through in order to survive. I consider exhibition spaces as a public service that should be equivalent to law enforcement or health care. I do not give my full support to these spaces which deem itself holy unless they serve artists more than they serve its invisible commandments. My goal as an artist is to not fall into commodification of this force. Not for the sake of my wallet (clearly) but for the sake of my art which is my own invisible law and family. I would not sell out my religious beliefs for another religion hastily, and I will not do so with my artwork. It is my hope that fellow artists will not fall into the militaristic vein as well.

On a less heinous note, Nikki McClure in the MOCC was more a celebration of the successful artist whom crafts with the nearly non-existent arsenal of an x-acto knife on black paper. With nothing, she created an empire for herself. The gallery was arranged on the bottom floor with a superfluous arrangement of rectangles and squares framing each “cutout” (some were prints of cutouts) around the white wall space. It is already well monkiered in society that her craft is extravagant and the work itself occasionally presents political commentary that is well masked beneath a veneer of Modernist repetition. I give kudos for remaining so formal and yet subtly radical in that aspect. I deem it as disobeying the temple in order to propose a better operation.

Yet, McClure does what Edmundson did : She recontextualized the walls of the space she inhabited. The way she performed this celestial feat was obnoxiously simple : fame. 
This is the idea of the [art] celebrity, with established technique, rejecting the holy temple that essentially defined her. McClure enters into a mode of being a representation of herself. What this means is similar to the situation with the Museum of Contemporary Craft’s display of ceramics. What has become successful will become a representation of itself and commodified for further success as far as the holy temple of gallery spaces is concerned. Only what has been made successful goes out into the world, and upon reminiscent when it returns, it returns as a God that must alter the space it inhabits. If this successful art form or God does not get its proper parade in white walls, there is no recognition of its initial success or history thus leaving time to start again foolishly. In an age where galleries need to profit for itself or succumb to relocation or refurbishment, I believe such institutions as the Museum of Contemporary Craft need to ride out a recollection of its own history long enough and create representations of its own importance to re-feed the eye and trick the proletariat into thinking its feeding itself. The holy temple of this gallery is essentially retelling the same story that has existed since the early 20th century. Many in the 21st century still believe the hoax as it appears fresh and bedazzled. This may very well be the definition of Guy Debord's "spectacle". The church empahasizing its own image rather than religion.

The Disjecta illuminated what appeared to be a hope for evolution beyond a convoluted, Modernist state (and with it, the wonderful crafts contextualized by the chambers of prayer). While there were apparent flaws in its execution, as this is an obstacle that arrives to a new gallery that has relocated several times, its intentions were pure and to build on. Jumping off the previous record of the MOCC, The Disjecta realizes the danger of representing only itself within curatorial and academic circles and wishes to extend its focal lens to a broad, all-comers scope. This movement includes actual studio space in catering toward the up and coming artist in Portland and amateur space for the novice (non-professional). The novice space is far too small and meager in comparison to the cave of wonder which is the gym sized area for professionals. To me, this is playing ‘lawyerball’ with battling the galleries’ need to realize its self-importance. It takes advantage of a notion Guy Debord points out in Society of the Spectacle in relation to Brian O’ Doherty. The spectacle's estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual's gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere (Debord, 7). In other words, The Disjecta makes good on its promise to advertise independence to its disciples, yet also makes it its victim in white walls. Like a false religion or God promising good will to the disheartened, the gallery only proposes the simulation of sanctuary to the amateur artist. In the end, the artist is lied to, but I suppose this goes for all advertisement-consumer relationships. This relates back to my issue with the self contained, white walls : that it can be self-referential and should be a precarious consideration for exhibiting works in a contemporary age.

The Disjecta may simply be a practitioner of good business while also applying practicality in human survival. In a disaster situation, businesses may commit bad situations to opportunity, taking advantage of human need. While The Disjecta is non-profit, it also certainly is encompassing the lust for public exposure and prestige in the art world, once again contextualizing not the artwork only but the non-superficial artist for aligning with the gallery space in question. Once again, the danger in this being that while artwork has broken free of the horizontally primed frame, the frame only just became bigger to encompass things that only ‘appeared’ to break free. We could even extend this metaphor wider from the gallery to the entire city of Portland. The artist in a wide city might seem lost and report to the holy temple of the Disjecta for a new path in art, nonetheless only committing themselves to another set of (city) government where it is perfectly legal to exhibit. For example, a public park may be a good locale for this type of artist. 

At this juncture, in order for the artist to incinerate the chains of stolen identity and rebranding, they must alienate themselves from the idea of belonging to anything but the self. It often feels as if we can no longer experience anything if we don't first alienate it. In fact, alienation may now be a necessary preface to experience (O’ Doherty, 52). Life experience is commonly dubbed in society as those dynamic situations without end we dangerously advance toward. In this scenario, it is advancement outside of an institution and into urban freedom. Artists, as much as they can, must find this muse outside of institutions desiring to contextualize the intent of art. My goals as en exhibiting artist shift into not finding the holy island which will consume me and my artwork, simply by association. My goal as an artist is to have association with the world and not be commodified by gallery as holy church or business alike. I want my art to imitate the most core sense of life, beyond simulation, in this contemporary age just a O'Doherty warned I should.

In simile to McClure, the only true way to be a chaplain of an art temple is to be its recognized God from success out the gate. It is at this point one questions if they even want to make successful art in the mold of a status quo. I feel this is the light wave of reactions to Post-Modernism constantly revisiting art institutions where nobody desires to have their identity and persona confiscated by artificiality. The only thing artists want to be confiscated by is life, which from birth, the artist is a victim to. In the unified breath of art and life, Alan Kaprow writes, “The old daring and the charged atmosphere of precarious discovery that marked every hour of the lives of the modern artists, even when they were not working at art, vanishes. Strangely, no one seems to know this except, perhaps, the "unsuccessful" artists waiting for their day (22)." There is no waiting for discovery, as whoever was destined to be discovered has been discovered. It solely depends on a curator with an ultimate monolithic vision, often hard to be tampered with. Life contextualizes the person and their art as does a gallery. I simply cannot call a gallery ‘life’. This brisk visit in Portland has refocused my lens through which I see the ostensibly neutral space of white. It may appear pure, but the bureaucracy and theatricality behind it ultimately drags a history behind it ala post modernism, and that history will never fade. My own work has always questioned in the virgin space through a judgmental eye. Coincidentally, my work will not entirely change, for my suspicions have only been strengthened of the precariousness of what my career beholds. Society, local or global, contextualizes everything into an eye of providence which sees all. At each opportunity, like everything in life, I shall survey the fine print and make sure I am me. The challenge in life is to live full. The challenge in art is to create full, with no exterior assistance.

Works Cited

O'Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkley  & Los Angeles, California. University of California Press. 1999. Print.

Shahn, Ben. The Shape of Content. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Harvard University Press. 1957. Print.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Canberra, Australia. Treason Press. 2002. Print.

Kaprow, Allan. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life.  Berkley  & Los Angeles, California. University of California Press. 2003. Print.

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