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In/Visible: The Good, the Good, and the Ben Davis: Some Light Topics for Cocktail Parties

Posted by on February 17, 2011 at 12:50 AM

Portraits of newly minted Egyptian martyrs. A pair of Italian artists who hijacked a million Facebook profiles for an online installation. The Republican anti-art agenda and the failure of art people to show up as a united progressive force. Hyperreality and Google Art Project. The end of art itself (a revisitation). The rise of art news over art criticism.

This photo had to be stolen from Daviss Facebook page, because look at that dog.
  • This photo had to be stolen from Davis’s Facebook page, because look at that dog.
This is what Ben Davis, Seattle native and author of the much-discussed “9.5 Theses on Art and Class” (grab it on Google docs here), has been writing about in the last, oh, month or so in his new position at Artinfo.com (his author archive here).

His aptly named weekly column, Interventions, comes out Wednesdays. It tackles the big questions, blending theory-based eggheadedness with an insistence on real-world events and concerns outside the presumed confines of art. Davis is also a really fine writer.

So I thought it might be fun to talk to Davis about all this, especially the two subjects he’s become known and criticized for: Art and class, and the shifting landscape of art critics, writers, and bloggers.

I caught him at home in New York. The audio is the best we could do given the involvement of iPhones—I apologize in advance. It’s worth a try, I think.


In/Visible: The Exit Interview with SAM’s Contemporary Curator

Posted by on June 16, 2010 at 10:29 AM

If you only listen to one art interview in Seattle this year, let this be it.

You could hear the cries from all quarters when Michael Darling announced recently that he’s leaving Seattle Art Museum to become chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. With shows like Target Practice and Kurt, he’s the rare person whose work piqued the interest of artists, audiences, and administrators alike, and he spoke freely and frankly in this exit interview at his small office inside the Chase tower, looking out at the high-rises of southwestern downtown and the industrial waterfront. He praised big donors and dissed the University of Washington’s art grad school, he described what the museum’s bought lately, he revealed what works and what doesn’t about the renovated downtown building, he named names of local artists to watch, and he gave his take on whether SAM’s unwieldy three sites are sustainable given the collapsed economy and WaMu’s demise.

He’s bound to stir up controversy, but that’s not his goal. These considered opinions are his parting gift to the city as someone who still cares about it, and we’d do best to use them in that spirit.

Thanks for the memories and the observations, Michael Darling. (And P.S.: Keep Seattle artists on your radar!)

Whiting Tennis, Bovine, became part of SAM’s collection during Michael Darling’s tenure, along with other works of art by Seattle artists, including Jeffry Mitchell, Eli Hansen, Gretchen Bennett, Dan Webb, Roy McMakin, and Cris Bruch.

In/Visible: The Morisons: It’s Not About What You Have, It’s About What You Know

Posted by on June 2, 2010 at 4:47 PM


The art of Heather and Ivan Morison seems left behind from another world: a jacknifed semi-truck with cut flowers spilling out the back; a cabin in a park where visitors meet a Host who has a limited vocabulary; and, now, a giant sculpture made of charred, sooty wood, shaped in the form of a kite. It leans on the architecture of the Bellevue gallery Open Satellite, seemingly having fallen onto this place. But from where? Why? Can we use it to get back there?

Listen in as Heather talks about ruins, Arthog (the ancient wood they bought in Wales), and the failure of British prisoners to survive in Tasmania. The starting point is Frost King, the sculpture at Open Satellite named after the first kite ever to lift a person (1905; it was designed by Alexander Graham Bell). If you could escape, where would you go? If you couldn’t, do you know how to survive where you are?

(My written piece on Frost King here.)

In/Visible: The Teaching Artist

Posted by on March 23, 2010 at 11:38 AM

Each pair of glass eyes embedded in the sculptures correspond to one of the members of K.O.S.

The story of Tim Rollins and the Kids of Survival in the South Bronx is, by now, legendary. They’re the subject of an exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, and last week Rollins and K.O.S.er Angel Abreu talked onstage at the museum to a packed room and an overflow crowd of 40 watching a simulcast in the museum’s education wing.

What really happened all those afternoons in the broken-down public-school studio, with Rollins determined not to let these kids flounder and these kids wondering what the hell this white guy was trying to do?

Hear about it in this interview, taped at the Frye just before the talk. My review of the show is here.

(One P.S.: I forgot to ask on tape why there haven’t been more girls in the group. It’s a common criticism of K.O.S. Rollins answered candidly when I brought it up after the interview. He said, one, parents didn’t want their girls running around with boys after school, and two, when there were girls, there was sex. A girl would go to the bathroom, a boy would go to the bathroom, and they’d come back a half hour later. There never were restrictions on who could join, but Rollins could get more done just with the boys, he said.)

In/Visible: In Neverland: Marc Dombrosky’s Trip

Posted by on January 14, 2010 at 1:06 PM


Crooked Castle (2009), embroidery on found paper, 8 1/2 by 11 inches

The day Tacoma-based artist Marc Dombrosky moved to Las Vegas and started a job at a furniture warehouse, the furniture warehouse went out of business and Michael Jackson died. Dombrosky and his wife, artist Shannon Eakins, found themselves lost in the desert. Dombrosky’s new show at Platform, Neverland, came out of the sensation of that day and the scavenging and repairing that followed. (Review of the show here.)

Dombrosky is a great talker; you definitely want to listen in.

In/Visible: Tannaz Farsi: Art, Iranian Revolution, and Forgetting

Posted by on December 8, 2009 at 4:07 PM


One white wall of OHGE Ltd. has been turned into a white billboard with a slightly different-colored-white area inside it where a message might have once been.

A megaphone hangs inside the left side of this cloud. On the right side is a small thicket of gleaming white fluorescent lights leaning against the wall. Colored roses coated in glitter lie in a heap on the floor.

There’s another room parallel to this one in the gallery, approached through a door. In that congruent room, large white block letters spell out “I FORGOT” so that, if the wall were removed between the rooms, the letters in one room would appear in the same position as the empty area of the billboard in the other room.

The billboard has been divided from its message, and all that remain are two incomplete halves. There is only silence that might once have been, or might yet become, speech. The kind of silence that wants breaking.

This installation is called The future belongs to crowds (a line taken from Don DeLillo), and it’s by Eugene-based, Iranian-born artist Tannaz Farsi. She made the piece after the Iranian demonstrations this summer.

Listen to her talk about it just before the opening on December 3. It’s up through January 14, 2010.


In/Visible: Josh Faught: Sculpture Is An Imperial Force

Posted by on November 10, 2009 at 10:32 AM

The stringy weavings leaning on the wall outside the elevators at the Seattle Art Museum look at first like they are semi-spent stuff on its way out of the galleries, to somewhere else. But once you spend a minute with them you begin to see they’re their own place. The artwork is called Endless Night, and it’s by Josh Faught. It consists of imperfectly woven, window-sized afghans derived from a 1-inch-by-1-inch pattern of a view out a window at night. The afghans (the nights) grow increasingly darker from left to right, having been dyed in indigo. A little pink candle on one is trying to cast some light. Next to it is what Faught refers to as a “failed” weaving, an afghan wrapped around a post and tied messily like a frayed flag.

Endless Night is an intriguing, unusual work of art by the relatively unknown artist who won this year’s Betty Bowen Award. Turns out his other works—incorporating weaving, political pins, video, found objects, books, photographic imagery, nail polish, and spraypaint—are intriguing, too. They use deliberately modest means to wrangle with some big questions about sculpture, authority, materials, gender, tradition, and power.

He speaks from his home in Eugene, Oregon, where he’s been teaching since 2007, after getting his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (He cites influences you can check out here, here, and here—those first two, notably, have Northwest roots of sorts. His work is also on the Grizzly Bear albums “Horn of Plenty” and “Friend.”)

Listen in.


In/Visible: Finding Robert Mapplethorpe in a Box on a Shelf

Posted by on October 26, 2009 at 5:57 PM

Sylvia Wolf was curator of photography at the Whitney Museum of American Art when she discovered a trove of unknown Polaroids by Robert Mapplethorpe in a back room at his foundation. The artist, who died in 1989, only shot Polaroids for a few short years before moving on to his better-known, tighter, neoclassical style.

Now, almost a hundred of the Polaroids Wolf found are the subject of a breathtaking, tender, revealing exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle—having already visited the Whitney and museums in Chicago and the UK.

This conversation with Wolf is the story of how they—and Mapplethorpe—came out.

In/Visible: Stelarc: The Man with the Ear-Arm

Posted by on October 9, 2009 at 3:16 PM

A smart man recently asked me, “Why does Stelarc have an ear on his arm?” I replied that it has to do with ideas about how the body is not located where it’s located anymore; that in this wild world of instantaneous reproduction and projection and distribution, we are located in several places at once. The ear won’t ever hear—it’s eventually just going to have a microphone that will be connected to the web so that anyone anywhere will be able to hear what it hears. It will be the listener’s ear, not Stelarc’s ear. You’ll have an ear on his body. It will also be Bluetooth enabled, so you’ll be able to call the ear and the receiver will be implanted inside Stelarc’s mouth. If he closes his mouth while you talk to him, your voice will only be projected into the inside of Stelarc’s head. If he opens his mouth, your voice will be heard by anybody Stelarc is standing near.

“Yes, but why does he have an ear on his arm?” my friend continued.

And it was a fair question.

Stelarc is the name (his last and first names conjoined) of an Australian artist who has been making performances that involve technological extensions to and experiments on his body since the 1960s. His most famous project is the as-yet-unfinished ear-on-arm, but he’s done many others, including throwing the products of his and a fellow artist’s liposuction into a robot-like blender for a gallery installation and being suspended by his skin 25 times.

I’ve never seen any of Stelarc’s work in person—except when I sat down to do this interview with him. Meaning: I’ve seen the arm.

It was hidden under a black jacket (DO NOT HIDE YOUR ARM-EAR UNDER A BUSHEL!), so I asked to see it, which felt slightly dirty. It looked like it looks in the photographs with one important distinction: the two large scars near it. They produced in me that queasy-stomach feeling that makes me uncomfortable in my own body out of something like extreme empathy.

For me that was the best part, so I tried to ask him about queasiness. I tried to ask him slightly more personal and loosening questions. (Is your body completely covered in scars under there? What are you going to do with your body when it stops living?) He’s an academic and has quite a set script, which I don’t mind too much—but when I asked questions that went further, I didn’t get too far. I left with the impression that Stelarc is a lovely person of great intellect, but perhaps more Cartesian than he’d want to let on. A great artist? I’m not yet convinced.

Listen in and see what you think.

In/Visible: Paul & Richard, The Podcast

Posted by on September 14, 2009 at 3:41 PM

On September 3, Paul McCarthy and Richard Jackson flew up from LA to give what turned out to be a hilarious and historic talk at Seattle Art Museum—but a few hours before that, they sat down in a brightly lit conference room upstairs at the museum for a private conversation with a tape recorder and me.

McCarthy starts right in with a story about his liquid bodily functions, which seems right enough.

This is Paul McCarthy in a performance, but in real life, his hands are pretty much that big. Yup. Really.

And the writeup of the later talk—again, basically a classic—is here.

In/Visible: Alice Wheeler: I Tried to Contain Myself But I Escaped

Posted by on July 14, 2009 at 10:19 PM

In Alice Wheeler’s smart and tight but generous new show of photographs and a video, Women Are Beautiful—named after Garry Winogrand’s series but reframing it completely—she’s hit a stride. You can hear it in the way she talks, too, about the 60s, old Seattle versus new Seattle, places she calls “Man’s Lands,” and her subconscious pursuit of green eyes. Wheeler’s a rock-hard feminist with a record of being underestimated. It’s about to end.

Don’t miss this interview.



Posted by on June 24, 2009 at 2:47 PM

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Posted by on June 24, 2009 at 2:43 PM

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In/Visible: Making Art While Nervous: The Plein-Air Prisons of Buddy Bunting

Posted by on June 2, 2009 at 12:06 PM

Buddy Bunting stakes out prisons. He parks by the sides of their roads to sketch, photograph, and videotape them in a hurry, before he gets caught.

Nobody is supposed to look too closely at a prison. Bunting does it in part because prisons are what he knows. Growing up in a Maryland area where a prison moved in and provided plenty of jobs, Bunting’s regular friends were prison guards as well as prisoners. He knows the in and the out, so he stands at the border and makes art. (Click images to enlarge.)



The first image above is a bowed panorama view (the gallery wall doesn’t actually curve leftward) of Bunting’s 30-foot ink and pencil portrait of Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Oregon.

The second image is a detail of the part of the painting that depicts the “work” building (those four vertical doors), where private businesses can “rent” the extremely cheap labor of prisoners for a time.

This 30-foot painting—without weather or plant life, or any signs of life at all, punctuated by insanely erect lampposts—is the centerpiece of Bunting’s solo show High Living at Crawl Space, which is full of stark, colorless scenes that convey a powerful, tense sense of place and time. He’s nervous while he works, he says, and that comes through. But his images also are made with a cold observational eye. They take no stands, testify to nothing, cannot be convicted or exonerated.

Listen to the artist talk.

In/Visible: Art and the American Way: SAM Curator Patti Junker Talks

Posted by on May 12, 2009 at 5:41 PM

‘I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry, and Porcelaine.’ —John Adams, in a letter to his family, 1780

6e68/1242174994-9-trumbull.jpgWhat is the trajectory of early American art? From a time of war to the Gilded Age? That’s the question subtly raised by the exhibition Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery at Seattle Art Museum through May 25 (pictured is John Trumbull’s self-portrait, with paintbrush and sword). Although the exhibition is an idiosyncratic study, based as it is on a single collection (Yale’s), it’s also a proposition about the possibilities of art in a new democracy—art as a tool of political rhetoric, art as a sign of wealth, art as a way of memorializing, art as a way of promising better things to come, art as a display of national ambition.

In this podcast, SAM American art curator Patti Junker talks not only about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness—especially its trajectory, as in the Adams quote above (which is painted on the gallery wall at the entrance to the show), from struggle toward enlightenment (which resulted not only in great early photographs but also in not a few ostentatious sofas!)—but also about SAM’s entire season of Americana. That includes exhibitions by contemporary artists Titus Kaphar, Corin Hewitt, and Mary Simpson and Fionn Meade; a show of relatively controversial paintings of Native Americans by the 19th-century Victorian George de Forest Brush, who couldn’t stand to look; SAM’s own Bierstadt painting of Puget Sound; and SAM’s recent acquisition of a Louis Sullivan elevator facade from the Chicago Stock Exchange building.

34f9/1242174641-11-townsend.jpgThe exhibition is just generalized and crowd-pleasing enough not to dwell much on the unhappier, or more hypocritical, aspects of early American life. But there are hints in and among the hits. A series of intimate pencil drawings of the Amistad captives, by William H. Townsend, is touching (pictured is “Grabo,” ca. 1840; click to enlarge).

Junker shares her own theories about several things—why de Forest Brush stopped looking, why Bierstadt’s Puget Sound isn’t as laughable as we all thought—even as she explains why it’s impossible to do an 18th-century portraiture show except in New Haven. Listen in.

In/Visible: Corin Hewitt: The Desire and Anxiety of Reproduction and Decay

Posted by on April 22, 2009 at 4:39 PM

SAM-Hewitt-7.jpgCorin Hewitt does not think of himself as a performance artist in the traditional sense: his performances are always in the service of demonstrating how images are made, and—perhaps sending up the way that performance art finds this end no matter what—they result in an ongoing series of images.

In 2007 at Small A Projects in Portland, Hewitt set up a space for himself that was part-kitchen and part-photo studio. Visitors could watch him from an aperture in the wall. What they saw when they looked in was him cooking up his food at the same time as he was cooking up his photographs using materials he’d brought with him. He did an earlier version of this in Redhook, N.Y., and a later version at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which has a great video and photo archive from the project here.

SAM-Hewitt-8.jpgFor the Portland project, he brought with him various cooking implements, foods, plasticine, patterned fabrics he’d bought in Portland, and printed-out images of Native American baskets in the collection of the Portland Art Museum. He set to work, sending each of these materials through a process of continuous transformation pictured in (and effected by) photographs taken by four different cameras: a 4-by-5 traditional format camera, a Polaroid, a 35mm, and a digital camera.

He might weave a copy of the museum basket out of multi-colored pasta, set the pasta basket down on a backdrop of vividly patterned (woven) fabric, and take a photograph. That photograph might make its way into another photograph of the artist eating a bowl of the pasta, which might also include, in one corner, a camera not being used but still sort of standing there and watching the moment.

48-32630033.jpgThings that get consumed in Hewitt’s performances often reappear in another form. He might take a bite of a pear, sculpt a perfect copy of that bitten pear, and then take a picture of the two together. That picture might appear again in another image, and so might that pear’s core appear in a photograph of the installation’s compost pile. (Every Hewitt performance includes a compost pile.)

At the Whitney, the outer walls of the built studio-in-the-gallery served as an exhibition space. Hewitt would change out photographs every so often, as he made new ones. There is no such thing as a final photograph in Hewitt’s work; something that appears on a gallery wall now may later appear in a photograph sitting in a compost heap. What do we decide to keep and what to let go of? How do we decide what’s worth taking a picture of, and what should be left on the periphery?

Hewitt’s work playfully and poignantly points to the way that photography transfers matter from one form into another through desire and anxiety about reproduction and decay.

46-29080016.jpgThe Portland performance did not have enough space for gallery walls, so the current SAM exhibition is serving as the second half. Titled Weavings, it’s an installation of 75 photographs of varying sizes, styles, and techniques (remember, there were four cameras). They’re a hodge-podge; there’s no linear order to them, which is an invitation to the viewer to form his or her own ideas about what they’re looking at and how it got there. And another version of this exhibition—transformation is Hewitt’s calling card—exists in a new, hardcover book of the 75 photographs published by J&L Books. In the book, the scale of the varying prints and the sensation of looking into a building through 75 individual windows is lost, but the qualities of each image—this interplay of sculpted and edible pieces of food, that patch of slimy shine on a rotting melon—are heightened.

When Hewitt came to Seattle for the opening of his show, he sat down for this podcast, and turned out to be a master of ungodly eloquence. Our talk ranged from Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency to the death of his father when he was young to a photograph’s dual role in providing a model for future behavior and a document of the past. When we began to talk about decay, a fleet of sirens drove by. You’ll hear.

In/Visible: Titus Kaphar, Pushing His Own Damn Boat

Posted by on April 13, 2009 at 2:57 PM

Titus Kaphar is a black artist who doctors history paintings so they’re not so quietly (or unquietly) racist anymore. He takes this, for instance,


and turns it into this.


The original Thomas Eakins oil painting, Rail Shooting on the Delaware from 1876, is part of the Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery exhibition visiting Seattle Art Museum right now. (It’s often cited as an example of a good, relatively equitable relationship between a black man and a white man, which Kaphar understandably finds a little hard to take.)

Kaphar made his response, Push Yuh Own Damn Boat, especially for the occasion of his simultaneous show down the hall at SAM.

The frisson of the direct response is powerfully specific, and its presence in the museum at the same time as the Yale show cracks open some of the under-explored issues in the history exhibition simply by inserting the doubt of an alternative perspective. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is richer because it shares a space with Kaphar, the history-painting explorer.

Kaphar is the first recipient of SAM’s biennial Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence and Jacob Lawrence Fellowship, which is devoted to supporting black artists.

But it would be a mistake to see his work as limited to the context of race. Every cut he makes into one of his paintings—copies and interpretations of old European and American paintings—is different. He might cut out a woman to release her from the man she’s standing next to; he might slice away a warrior and lay him on a pedestal in order to give the man some deserved rest; he might turn some figures toward the wall and others out into the room in order to engage with the basic questions of modernism in painting. He also uses tar to redact entire areas of a painting.

“I still don’t know how it ended like this, but it began when one of the older women called her blackness into question” (2007)

How does Kaphar think about his own work, and how does he feel about being celebrated as a black artist? Listen in.

In/Visible: Going Out of Plumb

Posted by on March 23, 2009 at 12:36 PM

And for his next trick…

Stranger Genius Alex Schweder makes performance architecture. He’s interested in relationships, in permeability, in the way bodies and buildings affect each other, in the way artists and audiences interact even. But he also knows that “audience participation” can easily turn into an excuse for an artwork to become one-shot entertainment. You get it, then it’s over.

So how does he handle performance architecture? In this podcast, he talks about his priorities and his hopes, his fears and his promises. He especially addresses Stability, his latest work, in which he and artist Ward Shelley are living on a teeter-totter trush at Lawrimore Project for a solid week. The artists will knock each other off balance every time they move or receive any supplies (you can take them supplies from their “Needs List” here).


Stability is part of a larger exhibition called Stability and Other Tenuous Positions, running through May 2 at LP.

What else is Schweder up to? Much.

1. He has a show coming up in Berlin in June, at Gallery Magnus Müller, called This Form Follows Your Performance, in which he changes your living space according to how you behave in it. (His description reminded me of Hadley + Maxwell’s awesome Decor Project.)

2. A new version of his A Sac of Rooms Three Times A Day, first seen at Suyama Space in 2007, will be part of an exhibition called Sensate at SFMoMA.

3. Simultaneously he’ll have a solo show at Jack Hanley Gallery in SF.

4. This one is something he’d like to do, but not something he’s actually working on already. You know about the woman who married the Berlin Wall (and consummated it) and the woman who married the Eiffel Tower (profiled in a documentary called The Woman Who Married the Eiffel Tower)? Well, Schweder would like to design spouses for these and other “objectum sexuals,” or people who fall in love with inanimate objects.

It’s good to see that his genius is being recognized all over the place.

Dear Science: Dear Science: Stem Cell Liberation

Posted on March 10, 2009 at 11:38 AM

It’s stem-cell liberation week!

In/Visible: Those Indian Paintings: Now Hear from the Curator Who Discovered Them

Posted by on March 4, 2009 at 9:49 PM


The 17th-to-19th-century Indian paintings visiting Seattle Asian Art Museum this winter have made perfectly rational people drool. On normally empty weekday afternoons, the galleries are full of clumps of people clutching magnifying glasses and craning toward the miniature details, rapt. (My review here.)

Now hear the curator of the exhibition, the wondrously named Debra Diamond, talk about the paintings.