Friday, July 9, 2010

Reasons to visit St Louis besides beer

I saw from Hyperallergic that the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts is putting on a show for Ann Hamilton. I love Ann. I was introduced to her by the brilliant Ren Weschler. Ren and I were bouncing ideas around for a show we did back in 2007 and he was like, "You know who you should call? Ann Hamilton." I think I said something like, "Uh. How?" To which Ren was like, "Oh, here's her phone number." Which, still, to this day, kind of blows my mind. That guy's iPhone is golden. He pretty much knows everyone in the art world. The best thing about Ren though, is that there is no pretention. He's just really, wildly, intensely interested in art and artists. Ren gets it in a way that artist's tend to get it, that is to say, he's not an artist but he thinks like one. And of course, he really is an artist when you consider his writing, so, there you go. I love Ren's series about Hockney's iPhone paintings. He's one of a handful of people that much on the inside to recieve directly this work and I love that he shares.

Anyway. Ren set up a panel discussion that year for the Chicago Humanities Festival with Ann Hamilton, Lucy Lippard, and Tara Donovan (whom we ended up showing - Donvan, that is) and Ann came to our opening night. Much like my experience with Judy Pfaff, Ann was someone I simply did not want to let go. She was intensely engaging without being overbearing. I simply wanted to keep talking with her. About anything. I hope I get down down to St Louis before next year to see her new work. I hope one day that we might show some of her work. It's tricky, though, as she does a lot of installation. You essentially have to get up-front funding to pull that off. I'm looking at you major investors in Chicagoland. Let's make this thing happen here!

Gallery Hop River North Friday or Saturday

Tonight is a good night to gallery hop in River North. Openings at Addington, Andrew Bae, Carl Hammer, Ann Nathan, Perimeter, Printworks, and Ken Saunders. (For the record - that oxford comma - that's for you Liora.) Also, if you're in my neighborhood, I highly recommend the Iceberg. A private space run by collector Dan Berger, Iceberg is really unique and thoroughly unmatched in terms of quaintness.

So Ann Nathan is opening and I'll stop by for that since our openings often coincide, I rarely make them. Ann is, well, Ann. There is totally no one like her. Over this last Art Chicago, I stopped in her booth just to check it out and Ann was showing a client some work by Rose Freymuth-Frazier. Ann's assistant (sorry, I forgot his name - but then again - they could have that info posted on their site, but don't so . . . anyway) Ann's assistant was busy with another client and couldn't help get the work out of their little storage area. Keep in mind, Ann is, like, 84 or something and Fraizer's artwork is (often) giant. So I was standing there and Ann is trying to yank this, like, six foot piece of work out of her racks, so I, being the gentleman that I am, said, "Ann, I can get that out for you." So Ann turns around and looks me up and down, like, sizing me up, giving me a little bit of a look that said, "And who the hell are you?" I forget what she actually said, which is too bad because I remember it being kind of funny, but not the kind of funny where I was supposed to be laughing out loud, so I had to try to keep a straight face, but it was along the lines of "Do you know how to handle artwork properly and who the hell are you?" So I showed her my badge and she let me help her get the piece out. I don't know if they sold it but I hope they did. That would make me feel good. As of several weeks ago though, they hadn't sold (or at least were still showing) Frazier's piece Hounded. Now, this isn't normally the kind of work I jump at, but there is just something so strange and arresting about this painting. I really like it. And remember, you can buy it.

Rose Freymuth-Frazier, Hounded, Oil on linen, 72x58, available at Ann Nathan Gallery

If you can't make it out tonight for hopping, feel free to join me tomorrow morning at 11am for a River North Gallery Tour that I will be leading. Every Saturday morning Chicago Gallery News hosts a gallery tour which visits 4 galleries in the district. With over 40 to choose from, each week there's something new to see. Plus, each tour is led by a gallery representative (often owners and/or directors) and at each stop a representative from that gallery gives the history and background on the current show. It's always enlightening and I often hear at the end of the tours that people are surprised that everyone was so nice to them. We get reputations for being bitches, but that's all misconception. I mean really, for sake of argument, Dan Addington and Ken Saunders are two of the most outgoing engaging people in all of Chicago. It's fun, I promise. This Saturday we'll meet, as always, at the Starbucks at 750 N Franklin (Chicago and Franklin) at 11am and visit, Habatat, Russell Bowman, Catherine Edelman and our very own David Weinberg Gallery. See you there.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Do you buy it?

I noticed the lovely Kathryn Born blogged that you should be reading my blog. Well, shit. I suppose that means I need to be writing more. I recently took a break from writing to think more carefully about what this whole thing represents. I am not only passionate about art, but I have a commitment to honesty. Now, it may sound like there's not any particular relationship there, or that if there is, it would be self-evident. But it's not that easy or pretty to be honest in this art world. If I could actually say what comes to mind sometimes, especially in those moments of passion, I would probably manage to get myself reprimanded at work (possibly for good cause) and I would certainly burn some bridges (intentionally and otherwise). This art world is small. So there is the struggle. What do you want to hear? And if I tell you, and it pisses someone off, does that matter?

Here's the deal though. Get ready for the truth. The real truth.

You need to buy artwork.

That's it. You need to buy artwork. I know that sounds self serving and to a degree I acknowledge that it is, but arts communities are not surviving and will not thrive the way they should without patrons. This is not to dismiss diy communities, since artists will always create them and innovation is going to happen with or without direct injections of cash. Art will find a way. But what does that mean for galleries? What does it mean for artists who are outside of those specific communities? How do artists find ways to support their creations while balancing their (often razor thin) finances?

I fundamentally believe that art is an integral part of our culture; of who and where we are in time. It's of staggering importance and lots of people overlook the fact that traditionally, historically, the arts is supported by wealth. Chicago is, even in this economy, rich with private wealth. But it is definitively not flowing to the arts as it should if you ask me.

I hear people say that great art succeeds no matter what. If it's bought or not. If it "shows" or not. But the reality is that sales make artists. Without sales, artists toil and struggle and make, but you won't know about it. Even great galleries can't help great artists if no one buys. I don't have enough fingers for the number of great galleries that have closed in Chicago - mainly due to lack of sales. And even right now, there are too many great galleries showing too much great artwork in relation to how much those galleries are selling.

This is not to say I know the books of my fellow gallerists. I don't. My sincerest, deepest hope is that they are all doing well. But I know all of them want to sell more. This isn't just some way to make money. Ask gallerists. It's a bad way to make money. We are all in this because we love art and we love artists. Our measure of success ultimately depends on your contribution.

So this is where I'm standing now. It's not new ground. It's the backbone of ArtLetter. Time and time again, Paul tells you to buy something. He's right. It is not just good for the artist, or the gallery or just for you. It's larger than that and you must, underline must, get involved. Gallery hop. Shake a gallerists hand. Hell, shake my hand and ask me how to get started. We want to get you involved. Not because we are dirty and capitalistic and money-hungry, but because you are the engine that keeps our passion moving. We want to share it, I promise you.

I was talking with Tamara English the other day about all this and I told her that I was thinking of just posting about what I'd buy. Keep in mind, I do buy, but I can't afford everything I want. But you can buy. You can just buy one. Or if you have the means, I suggest you buy a lot. It helps more than you know.

On that note, I effing love Adam Ekberg. Go buy his work at Thomas Robertello Gallery. Here's an example of a piece I saw as a postcard and it was the reason I fell in love.

Adam Ekberg, A splash in the middle of the ocean, Inkjet Print, 2006

Sunday, April 11, 2010

empirical evidence of why I don't tweet

The other night I was honored to take part in a panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. The subject was "Galleries, Artists and the Market" and included, along with myself; our gallery owner David Weinberg; owner of the Rhona Hoffman gallery, Rhona Hoffman; founder of Three Walls, Shannon Stratton; and well-known collector, Larry Fields.

It was a blast for me because I really respect all of these individuals. I know it's a little early to be making this kind of statement, but by the time this year is over, I think I'll still be saying that the Richard Rezac show at Rhona's gallery was easily one of the best of 2010. I went back to that show five times and was fascinated every time, although I'm still a little shocked that, as of the last day of the show, most of the sculptures were sold (I suppose what you'd think of as signature style Rezac work) but none of the drawings had sold. Not only were the drawings exquisite and delicate but, frankly, they were affordable. I was surprised nobody snagged them.

Richard Rezac, Drawing for 05-04, 24.5 x 30.5, image from his website and works available at Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Three Walls is easily one of the best not-for-profit spaces in Chicago and Shannon does an incredible job with it. You can often find Cassi and I at their openings, events and lectures. I've donated money and I've purchased work from them. There needs to be more spaces in Chicago that are as pragmatic and far reaching as their program.

And Larry was a real treat. He works at the Merc and clearly loves what he does. Which is wild, because if you listen to him describe what he does, it sounds a little like art. Except it's all analytical and mathematical and feels very left-brain, but he's really seeing elegance in systems that I would guess, to him, feels more right-brain. Which is probably why he also seems deeply engaged in the intellectual depth of the best artworks.

In general the panel discussion rested on the concept that we would impart some logical and practical information to the curious graduating student body at SAIC. I hope we did. If I'm honest though, I think it would have been more fun for Rhona and I to duke it out a little more (figuratively.) It was clear that we had some theoretical differences concerning how to run a gallery and which artists to focus on. What would have been nice about a more spirited debate is that I don't think either of us would have been "wrong." We just see it differently and I think that's largely due to where we are in our respective careers.

Rhona was, I think, a little surprised that I consider whether or not I think I can sell work from a given artist before I move forward with a show. To some this may seem a logical step. If I can't sell the art, I can't pay my bills - or myself - and therefore have no gallery. Pretty simple and really the crux of my argument.

Rhona though, was surprised at that kind of thinking - and said so (sort of off mic). She said (I paraphrase) Oh, I just show what I like and figure other people will like it too. Which is also what I do, I just also consider the economic reality of what I like, which can limit what I show. In other words, I never show anything I don't like, I just don't show everything I do like. And mostly, the stuff that I like that is wickedly complicated, difficult to install, giant, heavy, insanely expensive or some sort of new media usually takes a back burner because I'm still building that niche clientele. I think Rhona's perspective is that if it's good art, it will sell, but I know for a fact that that is not true.

There is proof of this concept all around the art world, and, in fact, in Rhona's own gallery. For example, Rhona will soon be mounting a solo for Chris Garofalo. Chris' work is really really great stuff. Also really affordable (at least it was last time Rhona showed it) and should sell well. But prior to Chris showing with Rhona, she showed with Aron Packer. I'm sure Aron sold the work well, and I'm not suggesting that the only reason (or that it was a reason at all) that Chris left Packer for Hoffman in 2006 was that she felt that she could get increased sales at Rhona's, but come on. She (Chris) can rely on the name of the Hoffman gallery, which, no offense to Aron (because I adore him and his gallery) is better known outside of Chicago (Rhona is one of only 5 Chicago galleries who is a member of the American Art Dealers Association.)

So, is the work selling because it is good work? Yes. Is it selling because Rhona likes it? Yeah, sort of - I suppose. Is it selling because of the awesome history that Rhona has established? Undoubtably. But it is also presumably (I have absolutely no proof of this, by the way) selling better at Hoffman than it was at Packer. So if Aron showed the work because he liked it (because he did) and didn't sell it like Rhona can or does, then how much of that value is added due to the simple fact of which gallery's walls upon which it hangs. I'd say quite a lot, and this is why I have to consider deeply how, and if, I can sell a piece or not. Rhona has the luxury of history (and it's a great one that she worked hard for and has earned.) I hope to create that for David's gallery, myself as a dealer, and for my artists, but it takes time. And Rhona is the first to admit (because I've heard her admit it) that the art world was a very different place in the 70's when she started.

Chris Garofalo, detail of work to be included in aquibotanous zoolatry at Rhona Hoffman Gallery from 5.21.10 to 6.30.10

But in this world, one in a deep recession, one where, if you don't have a lot of clients to rely on already, you are forced to cut through this nasty fog to find them, it simply becomes more of a risk to show work that you might not sell. One example for me is R. Justin Stewart. I love this guy's work. I've been checking back in on his website for well over a year now, working on identifying just one client ahead of time so that I could bring some work in. (I've done all of this with out once contacting Stewart.) And while Rhona might have the clients to buy this, it would be a major risk for us. I mean, who wants a 24 hour 3-dimensional diagram of the Twin Cities Metro Transit System from 2am to 2pm Sunday morning? I love this thing - it's awesome - but where's it gonna go? Seriously?

R. Justin Stewart, 2am-2pm, copper, wood, thread, steel, dimensions variable, 2008 - image from his website and works available from Plus Gallery (Denver)

There are people who can not only afford this kind of stuff, but frankly should jump at it, but I'm still figuring that part out. And it is clear the clientele is out there. He's got commissions by Esquire and JESNA NY to name a few, but, again, in this economic climate - man - it's hard. So I'm sitting and waiting. And quietly searching for those niche clients to compliment the one's we've already got buying paintings and photos. And once I do, trust me, I'll pounce. But I can tell you that right now, I just don't have the stomach to trust that, just because I show great work, it will sell. I've got a responsibility to my artists regarding sales. The most rewarding part of the job is paying the artists. It's super gratifying and I take it seriously.

In the end though, I loved being a part of that discussion. It's always an honor to get to brain-pick some of the best artistic minds in Chicago (or in Rhona's case, anywhere) and I love that she has dedicated so much of her time to the intellectual side of stuff. I still have a ton to learn from people like her and Roy Boyd and Cathy Edelman and Kavi Gupta and Tony Wight and a lot of other great Chicago gallerists. I love that there is such diversity here and that we are all pushing really great work really hard.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Recently I came across one of the most ridiculous pieces of unintentional art that I've ever seen. I call it "unintentional" because it's not meant to be art. What it is is a memorandum distributed by Clear Channel to it's radio stations shortly after 9/11. The document was a list of songs that were determined to be "lyrically questionable."

Now, really, I don't get my mind blown much these days. I work in the arts. I see a lot of shit, good and bad, and, well, I just don't get surprised by much. But when I stumbled upon this, I have to admit that I was slack jawed with disbelief. It took me a while to digest that this this was for real.

It is that reality that makes it art for me. Unintentional though it may be, this list is a wild, if not at times, miraculously stupid ride into the realm of conceptual art. The thing makes me laugh. Like, I'll be siting on the train and something from the list will pop into my head and I'll just start laughing. I mean, this thing is some mind-bendingly ridiculous stuff. I mean, like, unfathomable, except for the fact that there it is.

From the wikipedia page where I found it: "The list contains 166 songs, including "all songs" by Rage Against the Machine and songs recorded by multiple artists (for example Knockin' on Heaven's Door by Bob Dylan and the same song by Guns N' Roses). In some cases, only certain versions of songs were included on the list—for example, the cover of Smooth Criminal by Alien Ant Farm is on the list despite the fact that the original version, sung by Michael Jackson, is not, while J. Frank Wilson's version of Last Kiss is included but Pearl Jam's cover is not."

Oh-ho my god. Seriously. Seriously. Can you imagine being at the table where these songs were discussed. Oh man I wish I could have a video of the idiots that sat around trying to figure out what constituted "lyrically questionable." And while there's definitely a tone difference between the Alien Ant Farm version and the original, have you heard Pearl Jam's cover? It's pretty faithful. So why would the Wilson version be inappropriate, but not Vedder's?

And clearly there's an unimaginable amount of songs that could be added to this list, but it seems the jokers at Clear Channel were clearly aiming at "popular" (or whatever their concept of popular is) songs rather than all songs that could be deemed questionable. Like, they only banned one Dylan song. Have these guys heard Dylan? Tom Waits, Woody Guthrie and Billie Bragg aren't even on this list but Skeeter Davis is? Really? And they suggest not playing Travelin Band by Creedence, but Bad Moon Rising is ok? You'd seriously rather hear Fogerty sing "I hear the voice of rage and ruin" but you want to avoid him singing "Seven thirty seven comin out of the sky"? What's the difference. Of course there is a staggering major difference in the fact that Travelin Band is about a freaking band that travels from place to place by plane and Bad Moon talks about the end of the freaking world. But Bad Moon is alright indeed.

Speaking of which, why wasn't Bad Moon banned during Katrina for it's "I hear hurricanes ablowing / I know the end is coming soon / I fear rivers over flowing" section? Should we not have been listening to Scorpions Rock You Like a Hurricane? Stormy Weather by the Pixies? (Which btw, is a song that I actually like to put on when a good old midwestern thunderstorm is about to clap.)

The mix of vapidity and irony is fairly staggering and every time I take a look at the list it makes me laugh. There's something new for me every time. Of course, Michael Moore did actually use What a Wonderful World in his doc Fahrenheit 9/11 over the video of the planes crashing. And yes, it is a little sick. But that's the point. And who the hell is Clear Channel to tell us what is questionable in the first place. (Not like this is the first or last thing that Clear Channel will do wrong. Practically everything they do is wrong.) I was likely walking around depressed out of my mind listening to Elliot Smith the whole time right after 9/11.

I could literally write a criticism of every single song on this list and either argue how incredibly dumb it is to call it "questionable" (which was essentially Clear Channel acting as America's Sensitivity Censor,) or argue that of course no one would freaking play it anyway. And if they did, someone would yell "too soon!" and Gilbert Gottfried would swoop down and do so some damage control with some good old American blue comedy, Aristocrats-style.

Also in is-this-really-for-real news, Kerri recently showed me this video for the Art Institute from the 80's. It's one of those so-bad-it's-good things. Check it out for a giggle.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taking my own advice

I'm going to stop apologizing about the fact that I don't blog daily. Maybe I will some day. Maybe I won't. And I'm not going to think about whether the entry is long or short. It will be what it will be. That said, I'm hoping to write about a slew of new things I've seen recently and I'll be gallery hopping soon, so there will be that too.

In the meantime.

I was talking to Helen Maureen Cooper the other day, rather fortuitously and unexpectedly. She was shooting a little event we hosted for SAIC freshmen to get them oriented with the gallery world here in Chicago. So she and I start chatting and she gives me her card and I suddenly recognize the name (which, was fun for her). She had a great shot on the announcement card a couple of years back announcing the grad show for SAIC. I always loved it and I've been quietly looking at her work ever since.

So we were talking and I was telling her that she ought to check out the work of Michael Ratulowski. Which is advice I myself followed and checked in on Michael's work again.

So let's just cut to it. Michael's work kicks ass. I showed MIchael in our Who Gets What political show last year and our gallery 3 has never looked better, in my opinion. I'm still pretty much kicking myself for not purchasing Optional?.

Optional? won't translate here very well because it's pretty large. It's one of those pieces that once you start peeling away layers - don't let the simplicity fool you - there's a ton of layers - it can go for a while. We showed this prior to the election and if you want to start talking about race, well, lets start talking.

But I was really happy to see Michael's new Anniversary Series. I think you can draw a tangent from his earlier April 29, 1992 piece to the Anniversary line of thinking. April 29 is an On Kawara style work (in fact, it's a direct homage) that does something completely different from Kawara. What Kawara does, i.e. paint the date in white on black (usually - sometimes white on blue or brown, etc), on the actual day of the date, becomes a meditative statement on awareness and living in the moment and proof of life and you can travel down a whole buddhist / existential road there. And I have to admit, that I've liked Kawara's work ever since it was introduced to me by Pat Renick (see earlier entry) my freshman year. But I'd never had the opportunity to see a room full of them until I went to Dia:Beacon where they had one from every year that he'd done them. For me, Kawara's project sort of changed a little and became more satisfying. It's one thing to know that he does a lot of them, but I'm used to seeing just one in a museum or just one in print and they take on a life, since that's what they represent, when they are together. But so you allow the randomness of the project (and concept - and individual date) and allow it to be bigger as a whole rather than forcing some sort of false importance on the particular date. But so, I'm getting there, the importance of the date is the point in Michael's work. But that's the thing. We know 9.11. We may know D-Day or or V-Day or birthdays or whatever may be important to us. But really, I feel like the average person, and maybe now I'm talking about the average white person, or the average person outside of LA, or maybe outside of South-Central or possibly the average non-Sublime fan or whatever, but the average person is just not going to know what April 29, 1992 is all about. So this isn't about teasing you. It's the date of the Rodney King riots. And maybe we should know that.

Michael Ratulowski, April 29, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 30x40, 2006

On Kawara, OCT.23,1989, acrylic on canvas, 26x36, 1989

But so, lets talk about the Anniversary Series. Because like I said, there's a line from April 29, 1992 to there. I had not seen these images until today and they are great. In classic Ratulowski style, if there can be such a thing (stylewise) since Michael is young, these works are funny and possibly sad and maybe deadly serious and maybe, just possibly, social commentary and very likely a little (lot) more than that. They are also scary simple. But I usually love that. The simple stuff. Like, for example, simplicity-wise, the most fun piece at the Olafur Eliasson show was the hanging fan on a wire. So damn simple and yet, pretty great because in its simplicity, it's wide open for interpretation. But so, these are essentially (like the way a fan on a wire is essentially just a fan on a wire and can only be more with your mind and observation) images of Michael pouring out beer from a 40. For those not in the know, which in terms of this blog is possibly only my mother, when a homey dies, you will often pour some beer on the ground in remembrance. I think the Irish do this with whiskey. Whatever. So the gesture is there. The pouring of beer on the ground and the works are titled with dates and length of anniversary, i.e. February 7, 2009, 9th Anniversary. So to start, you know that someone died 9 years ago as of February 7, 2009 and you begin to ask yourself what the context is and what the connection is. I know many of us when presented with this might simile and move on or say we get it or just not ask any questions, but hopefully for those of us who don't know, and I'm not saying everyone won't know, just a lot of people won't know, that you whip out an iPhone or find someone with one and start searching. I recommend a healthy combination of google and wikipedia. So you'll find that February 7, 2000 marked the death of rapper Big Pun. Now, for the record, no, I don't know who that is, and yes, I'm hoping to find more out, but I find it fascinating that this is something that, regardless of actual caring on Michael's part, which I'm guessing is genuine, is remembered and marked and cared about. Also, as side note, currently from the Anniversary Series that are posted on Michael's site as of this blog entry, 3 of 5 are shooting deaths, but Big Pun died of a heart attack and at time of death was reportedly 698 pounds.

Michael Ratulowski, February 7, 2009: 9th Anniversary, 2009

I have little understanding of the music involved in these Anniversary's other than March 9, representing the Notorious B.I.G., which arguably I really don't know that much about either. But I found myself wondering what April 8 would look like if I made it. It would have me in it and I would know what it's about, but I wonder who else would know. And no, this isn't a tease either. That's Kurt Cobain's death. And I can tell you where I was and how confused I felt and how most years I really do remember his life and his passing. Which is all confusing anyway, because Cobain's death is actually listed as the 5th, but he wasn't found until the 8th.

Also in the series is February 10, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, representing the passing of J Dilla who died of a rare blood disease; February 15, 2009: 10th Anniversary, representing Big L, who was shot to death; and April 11, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, representing Proof, who was, like Big L and Biggie, shot to death. There is a solemnity involved in all this. These aren't showy, which, for artwork - at least the successful kind - is bold and strong and dangerous (non-showy-wise). And as far as I can tell, they don't lie. Which I love (when not-lying is a concept). They are all in (seemingly very) different places and with a vision unto themselves, visually speaking. My favorite (also visually speaking) is April 11. Really, I don't want to be laughing at the work - really, I want to be laughing with the work, but that would presume that I belong with the work, which I probably don't, (or that there were anything to laugh at in the first place) which also means I shouldn't be laughing and maybe it's exposing the reality that I laugh as a defense mechanism, but I do think there is something (for me) that is funny about this photo. There's a strange over-seriousness about it and also, unlike the others, includes a car, which I (again probably ignorantly), think of as rather hip-hoppy, basically for color and rim reasons. But you really wouldn't want to be caught laughing in the moment. It would be radically rude. But then, that's just how I feel. Or maybe it wouldn't matter. Like, I wouldn't get pissed if someone laughed at me (I think - or hope) mourning Cobain. I guess I'd just assume they either didn't know about it or didn't connect with it the way I did. Which, I guess is how Michael's work is succeeding - making the connection.

Michael Ratulowski, March 9, 2009: 12th Anniversary, 2009

Michael Ratulowski, April 11, 2009: 3rd Anniversary, 2009

Oh. And I also love the Aphorism Series. Take, for example, Untitled (Aphorism Series #4) and Untitled (Aphorism Series #6). Both are attributed to Dante Terrell Smith. #4 goes like this:

If white boys doing it, well, it's success
When I start doing, well, it's suspect

and #6

The po-po stop him and show no respect
"Is there a problem officer?" Damn straight, it's called race

Michael Ratulowski, Untitled (Aphorism Series #6), inkjet print, 36x48, 2009

These "Aphorisms" are culled from popular hip-hop and rap songs, stripped of sound and presented as white text on a black background. The isolation of the words, both visually and from their original context, creates a new dialogue between the viewer and the artist(s). And so again, in the Aphorism Series, Michael expects you either to know or to do the research and find out the Dante Terrell Smith is Mos Def. As an aside, I was once asked if I could have anyones voice to sing with and I answered Neko Case, which would be odd as it would obviously be a woman's voice and would (I think) appear weird coming from me and also bypassed the question and essentially answered the different question of "Who's voice do you most love to hear singing?" Which either way, I later amended my answer (which might also take care of both questions) to Mos Def. All that being said, I didn't know Mos Def's given name.

I find those two particular aphorisms to be interesting because they are essentially the punch-line to the the joke of "driving while black." We see plenty of that activity in our neighborhood to the point where it's an uncomfortable joke/truth. But it also points to why Obama has certain hills to climb and certain critics to attempt to silence. And what's more, is that it's not really answering anything, it's just pointing. And we're gonna get a lot of that this administration - the pointing out of the obvious with (possibly) nothing getting actually answered (about race, at least.)

If you haven't figured it out by now, I really could go on and on about Michael's work. I pretty much unabashedly love it and I'm proud to have shown it. I'll stop now, but please, by all means, get me started again. He's great.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Kurt Kuenne's Dear Zachary

Those of you who know me, know that I don't really spend much time on the question of "what is art?" I find the question boring or pedantic or completely irrelevant to most situations. I'm happy to suggest why a specific piece of so-called art is total crap, but I'm not going to sit around and suggest that it's not art outright.

I'm saying all this because I started this blog to talk about "art." The good and the bad and the economics of it and the reality of artists lives and to maybe give a glimpse into the oft not so glamourous side of the art world. But I never intended to write about movies. Not because they're not art, because they are, (and, as a side note, often a narrative structure helps people engage in a really relevant visual and philosophical discussion when they otherwise would not have,) but because I figured I'd probably be focusing on more "purely visual" experiences. Which, of course, would include tons of incredible films, from Gus Van Sant's amazing Gerry, which has a loose, quiet and close to non existent narrative structure, to something like PT Anderson's There Will Be Blood, among many many many more. Maybe I was thinking I'd write about something more like Nick and Shelia Pye's work. Or William Lamson's Monument Valley Flight Attempt or his series of balloon "Actions." Something that would be hard to call a movie outright. Something that would more likely to be called "video art." Which is an argument maybe we'll have at another time.

But, so, anyway. The other night I watched Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father, a documentary film by Kurt Kuenne. From Kurt, about the film: "When my close friend Dr. Andrew Bagby (1973-2001) was murdered by his ex-girlfriend, Dr. Shirley Turner, I decided to make a film to memorialize him for family and friends. When I learned that Shirley Turner was pregnant with Andrew's son, whom she later named Zachary, my project took on a whole new meaning. My mission became to make this film for Zachary, as a letter from all of Andrew's loved ones to him, which he could one day view and get to know his father."

The emotional impact of this film, I am pretty sure, will always haunt me. By the end of the film, I (as a self-proclaimed buddhist leaning atheist) found myself praying for spiritual peace for the entire Bagby family. The suffering that Andrew's parents have survived is incredible. I won't say unimaginable, because there it is. There they are. They continue. And the reality is that even though this is a story of barely bearable sadness, the film has, at its core, a giant heart. It is undeniable - the strength and love that the Bagby's have lived with and embody. They are models of what we can endure and why humanity is important.

Again, Kurt's words; "The most compelling argument I could make was to tell this story from the trenches. To tell it the way it happened to me, the way it happened to Andrew's hundreds of friends, his family and, most of all, to show the experience his parents went through during this travesty-laden miscarriage of justice. Murders are not news items. They are not statistics. They are gut wrenching experiences that rip apart the fabric of lives and destroy reasons for living, creating a ripple effect that damages thousands of lives and leaves a chilling absence where there once was warmth and love. It is my hope that this film puts people right inside that experience and that no one will be able to come away from it unchanged."

I honestly don't know how you could walk away from this experience the same. You will sob uncontrollably. It will hurt. This thing makes Dancer in the Dark and Requiem for a Dream look like Bambi. That being said, everyone should see this film. It is definitively R rated, if nothing else, simply because of subject material, but it is something that I think definitely hit me hard now that I'm of a particular age. Not that a person of 17 wouldn't get this or sob uncontrollably, it's just that life experience, I think, plays a role in terms of how deeply one can really grasp the consequences of this story. And it hit me hard. And it will hurt the soul of any parent.

I can't think of many movies, or any documentaries, that had my heart pounding like this movie did. I remember crying a lot at Fahrenheit 9/11. I still haven't tried watching Paul Greengrass' United 93. But Dear Zachary is really something else altogether. The narration by Kurt is pitch perfect in its almost-forced-to-be-read-off-the-page-quickly style. There is an expedience, a desire to tell you the story, to catch you up. And there is one devastating point (a point that as I recall now brings tears to my eyes with its poignancy and pain) that as Kurt reads, his voice cracks and you will feel his loss. It is powerful. And frankly, it's a brilliant editing choice. I know it sounds crass to suggest that Kurt's editing skills should be praised while talking about murder, but it is a critical reason that this story is so compelling.

I urge you to add this to your queue or find it at a local store and rent it. Or for that matter, just buy it, as "proceeds from this film will be split between Andrew's two key memorial funds: the Dr. Andrew Bagby Scholarship in Family Medicine at Latrobe Area Hospital in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and the Dr. Andrew Bagby and son Zachary Bursary at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Both funds are intended to support and encourage physicians who are pursuing Andrew's calling of family medicine. [Kurt] will also provide copies of this movie to the funds' recipients in perpetuity, so that they can learn about the person who is paying for their education."

Check out the trailer here. You'll be blown away when, as you start the film, you will realize that much of the trailer is encapsulated in the first several minutes of the film, so that as you get deeper into the story, you become more involved with each person and their connections to this tragic series of events.

There is no doubt that this film is important and great art.

Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne and Dr. Andrew Bagby, April 1981