SculptureX 2018: Igniting Change

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All art is Social Practice rang out as some of the last words of this year’s symposium, spoken by Saul Ostrow, curator and co-founder of SculptureX.

The event’s ninth year iteration, titled Igniting Change, took place over two days at the Toledo Museum of Art and Bowling Green State University. The focus was on the concept of Social Practice, a way of working in art that often gets traced back to the 1990’s. During his talk, Ostrow pointed out that the emergence of Social Practice began as early as 1913 with the Russian Constructivists (with the rejection of autonomous art) and can be seen later in the 1930’s with Social Realism (in work by artists such as Diego Riveria and Dorothea Lange).

Despite discrepancies regarding its origins, Social Practice is rising in popularity, both in art and academia. Taking this into account the question of whether or not artists can make an impact arises. Is the whole notion of Social Practice just exploitation hidden behind cheap spectacle and a jumble of buzzwords that don’t do anything besides raise awareness? Or can artistic intervention actually accomplish meaningful change?

The works of the keynote speakers, Mel Chin and Laurie Jo Reynolds, provide proof of the latter. Both their works give power back to the communities they engage with. The gesture of giving back – a statement that is always found somewhere in the script of activism – is a sincere one. An actual exchange of power and a shifting of dynamics takes place within how these two help facilitate resources to those who need it – whether it’s victims of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan or individuals dealing with the damaging effects of solitary confinement in prisons or criminal registries and their stigma.

Why do you, an artist, understand our struggles but others don’t?

A question shared by Chin during his gallery talk; asked to him by his translator while he was working on The Saharan Sand Dollar Exchange Machine, a project considered an extension of the Fundred Dollar Bill project.

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Mel Chin during his keynote talk at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion on Friday.

Are artists more empathetic to the plights of others? This idea does play into the cliche of the artist as an emotional, in-tune being that is keenly aware and sensitive to the world around them. Many of the artists who spoke at the symposium were careful to consider their positions and privilege to figure out how they can best serve the communities in which they were engaging. This act provides a stark contrast to the other side of Social Practice, where communities are exploited and their tragedies are used to create art. An act of taking rather than one of exchange.

Chin spoke of people within the communities he visited and their concerns: asking him how an artist can help them with their problems and telling him he’d never be back once his “work” was done. Projects like Flint Fit and The Fundred Dollar Bill project return the power to the communities Chin works with by giving them ownership over parts, if not most, of the project.

In addition to the keynote lectures, there were two panels during the second day that covered a wide spectrum of socially engaged art. From talks on publicly disruptive installations to running a political campaign, the artists presenting revealed that the umbrella of Social Practice is far reaching.

Ideas of Disruption, a panel featuring artists Jimmy Kuehnle, Lauran Samman, and Jova Lynne spoke to the idea of artists stirring things up and using their power to dispense information and provoke interaction. Kuehnle’s work asks forgiveness rather than permission. The artist works in installation and sculpture utilizing colorful inflatables. He talked about wanting to have fun in life and that’s reflected in his space-invading installations and fantastic spectacles that include group-powered bicycles that invite public participation.

Identity and myth were the main topics during Jova Lynne’s talk. Specifically that of the black superwoman, a myth that alienates African American women by painting them as monolithic, seemingly non-emotional care-givers. Lynne finds strength within softness in her work and constructs sites of power through collaboration with women from her familial home of Jamaica. Lauran Samman shared about her process of collecting data and presenting it to an audience to tell a story and allow them to process it as they wish. Her work is currently dealing with environmental issues, specifically those brought on by the production of palm oil.

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Jova Lynne talking about her work at Bowling Green State University on Saturday.

Without Boundaries, the second panel discussion, featured Lisa Austin, who is also a co-founder of SculptureX. Through her work with the CIVITAS initiative, Austin, along with others, stage functional interventions in public spaces. She spoke about their ongoing campaign to save the McBride Viaduct, a structure crucial to the safe passage of suburban commuters to the waterfront in Erie, Pennsylvania. Austin’s work in social sculpture can also be viewed as performance as she recently ran for mayor of Erie, PA due to her work with CIVITAS.

Kate Levy presented clips from her documentary films, a way she uses her affluent background and privilege to show different communities’ plights. Levy talked about the closing down of schools in Detroit, as well as the water issues effecting there and Flint, showing the devastating consequences it has on the children and parents of the community. Her films highlight the absurdity and hypocrisy coming from those in power.

Shanna Merola acts as a witness to protests in places such as Ferguson and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Merola is not only an artist but an educator, holding workshops to inform people of their rights as witnesses and documentarians of such events. Like Levy, she takes an active step back and allows people and communities to speak for themselves.

With more and more educational institutions creating courses and programs centered around socially engaged art, there is a concern that must be addressed: what does it mean to teach and promote Social Practice within a system that perpetuates similar hierarchies and power dynamics that many socially engaged artists strive to protest and change?

What does it accomplish to operate within existing systems? Does it do more harm than good? Many of the artists that spoke create work that uses existing systems for subversion in order to enact change. Can institutionalizing Social Practice – creating a curriculum, crafting rubrics, assigning a grade, etc – make a difference or does it bring into reality some of the skeptical sentiments of the communities artists insert themselves within?

This issue wasn’t addressed formally at the event – it was discussed in one of many conversations that occurred after the day’s activities were done. This highlights the lack of questions and critical dialogue during the panels, an issue that was mentioned by Ostrow in the closing talk.

Without exchange there is no useful dialogue and without challenging conversations there is no moving forward. Socially engaged practices are built on that foundation and without that act of exchange and empathy, Social Practice just ends up being another empty gesture that is more about appearances and less about meaningful action.

SculptureX 2018 was a great introduction to the variety of processes that exist within Social Practice and without a doubt sent the attendees – and even the presenters – away with a lot to consider.

Information regarding SculptureX 2019 will be coming soon. For more information on this years’ symposium and participating artists visit http://www.catoledo.org/sculpturex or http://www.sculpturecenter.org/about-sculpturex/

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“Matter, Matter, Object, Wall” @ Ann Arbor Art Center

Concerns and concepts of space are compelling topics in art, especially with the advent of social practice and activism as forms of expression. Taking art outside of institutions isn’t anything new, the interrogation of the “white cube” gallery space became popular in the 1960’s with the rise of Minimalism. Works were no longer restricted to the wall, they migrated to new spaces and demanded a deeper interaction with the audience. The curatorial foundation of Matter, Matter, Object, Wall is inspired by this decades old premise, presenting works that deal with these familiar concerns that are just as relevant now as they were when they were first explored.

The Minimalist idea of stripping away expressive excess and letting the materials and space evoke a moving experience for the audience is recapitulated in this body of work by various artists — all Cranbrook alumni. The pieces are highly formal and consist primarily of industrial materials, some having an intimate feel to them that plays well off the more impersonal pieces. Investigations of space span from architectural to personal with works that reference domestic space, designed space, and furniture.

Shelly McMahon’s grouping of various pieces takes inspiration from the Design Museum’s 1993 exhibition, Ideal Home. The concept of “good design” is explored through sculptures that come together to mimic a maquette, creating a space where the viewer can enter but never really find a sense of comfort. McMahon’s interest in one’s emotional dependence or bond with a space is evident through hand-constructed items found throughout the staging: an ashtray, sleeping bag, necklace, and a lamp. All the makings of home are present, though that notion is subverted through an alienation of the viewer and even the objects themselves.

While McMahon’s works explore connection with a space, Ruth Koelewyn does the opposite by referencing objects and places that create a feeling of disconnect. Blue Triangles consists of repeating prints of windows that are bathed in the neon blue light of Sky Shape, an accompanying neon sculpture. The prints are aligned in a grid formation, a favored tactic of Sol Lewitt. The repetition of the work is calming and familiar – like home – while at the same time giving off the cold, lonely feel of a cityscape enveloped in the light of signage.

Nadege Roscoe-Rumjahn’s work uses a dialed-down grid structure while retaining a personal, softer edge. Materials and processes often used in fiber are paramount in Roscoe-Rumjahn’s work. They evoke the idea of craft and the human hand, referencing Post-minimalism and its rebellion against the machismo that was inherent in most Minimalist works. North American Wildflowers emphasizes nature and tenderness through imagery of botanicals and techniques of hand-cutting and sewing.

The works of Sophie Eisner also carry on this sentiment. Soft and Heavy (Vignette #5) acts as a hybrid between sculpture and furniture, constructed of fiberboard and fleshy silicone. The modular formation of the silicone component harkens to the works of Eva Hesse, who was known for her material studies. The choice of materials and techniques throughout the show bring to mind ideas of craft and its position in the realm of fine art (which is always a hot, and at this point, worn out debate).

Victoria Bulgakova’s база (baza) elegantly rides the line between craft and fine art with a series of emotionally evocative works. база, translated means “base,” which leads the conversation to ideas of foundation and where one comes from. The objects appear to be manipulated thoroughly by hand, giving them a fragility that isn’t typically attributed to copper. This series encapsulates an idea of what it means to belong, concisely summarizing an overarching concept of the exhibition: what are the roots of creating and viewing art works and how have they, as well as their space, evolved throughout time?


Ideas of privileged space within art are being challenged with happenings such as coalitions rallying against galleries gentrifying neighborhoods (https://hyperallergic.com/314086/anti-gentrification-coalition-calls-for-galleries-to-leave-las-boyle-heights/ ) and museums being called to own up to their exclusionary histories (https://hyperallergic.com/446082/museum-protests-attacks-op-ed/). Is it enough to safely reference past concerns and interrogate them in a safe space? Perhaps it’s time to move beyond the dilemma of the “white cube,” or at least figure out what that has evolved to be in contemporary art.

Artistic engagement can always be more and there’s demand for it to be more (however you wish to interpret that). Matter, Matter, Object, Wall is a fantastic introduction to these ideas of the politics of space and interaction, but in the contemporary artistic climate, it becomes just an echo of the concerns of the 1960’s, which comes off as an overdone, but beautiful gesture.

Visit https://www.annarborartcenter.org/exhibitions/matter-matter-object-wall/ for more information about the curator and artists.

“Heterogeneous: States of American,” Josh Byers, David Cuatlacuatl, and Faith Goodman @ River House Arts

What is the American identity? We are experiencing a time of intense debate when it comes to who and what is considered American. As the push against the United States’ melting pot heritage continues, three Toledo-based artists’ works are brought together to examine what it means to be American; a concept which can be encapsulated by a single word: difference.

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Works by Josh Byers, David Cuatlacuatl, and Faith Goodman.

A mix of painting, collage, and ceramic sculpture from Josh Byers takes a trip down memory lane by presenting a nostalgic, yet sharp, look at formative years. Sketches and doodles of pop-cultural icons and consumables litter the work: Hustler, Penthouse, and Playboy covers, Etch A Sketches, and Trapper Keepers. Images of buxom celebrities, and manly heroes of the seventies and eighties exude a distinct masculinity that was a hallmark of the their time, as well as echo the male anxiety that was a defining feature of Reagan’s America. Byers’ work speaks of the quintessential American infatuation with pop-culture and its fads, trends, and advertising that, to this day, is still growing strong.

American identity can’t be boiled down to consumption alone, there’s also aspects of rejection inherent within it. Faith Goodman’s work deals with a rejection of identity due to not meeting the expectations of one’s culture. Goodman processes this struggle through use of stereotypes and foods commonly associated with Black culture, appropriating typically racist caricatures to subvert expectations built from decades of ignorance. Mixed media and paintings confront the viewer with issues that many would rather just ignore or erase: imagery of watermelons with seeds in formation of how slaves were packed into ships as they were abducted, sculptures created from weaves, hair and tar, and depictions of voluptuous and vicious feminine forms. The confrontational work is timely, echoing the struggles – historically and contemporarily – that Black Americans are facing in this time of intense opposition.

The instability of existence, whether it’s due to social, economical, or political circumstances, is dealt with through issues of boundaries and mobility in David Cuatlacuatl’s work. Paintings and mixed media collage feature figures from pop-culture and found objects, giving them new meaning and life in disjointed compositions. The work is simplistic, an intentional move that takes a jab at the idea of value and hierarchies, which seem to constantly shift. Concepts of conquest – of nature, body, and consumption – are depicted on flat, matte surfaces, never following a linear path. The elements in Cuatlacuatl’s work come together to form snippets of a story, never presenting the full version, though we really don’t need it.

We’re currently in a time where the idea of what’s American is a polarizing issue. These three artists’ works meld together to show that the American identity is more complex, complicated, and varied than most would care to admit. This exhibition serves as a timely reminder that identity, American or otherwise, is always in flux and comprised of so many elements that the only constant factor is difference.

Heterogeneous: States of American is on view until March 4th. For more information visit http://www.river-house-arts.com/

“The Conceit of Memory,” Brittany Ann Campbell & Zachariah Szabo @ Walter E. Tehrune Gallery

Memory is a tricky thing; we put so much faith in something so malleable. We are always so confident of our memories, of their authority and our ownership of them. The Conceit of Memory, features the works of Brittany Ann Campbell and Zachariah Szabo. These two artists challenge our conception of memories and put into question their perceived truth.

The exhibition is comprised of photographic work and sculpture. Brittany Ann Campbell’s installation of found gloves hanging from tree branches is a memorial, reminiscent of disregarded pairs of shoes found hanging on telephone lines or in trees. The act of gathering the forgotten gloves is a tender gesture, the result of a year’s worth of collecting. The series of portraits next to the installation, featuring the gloves interacting with a disembodied hand, gives the objects life and presents an intimate moment. The prints are created from scanning the interaction between glove and hand, flattening the image and allowing us to witness a simulacrum of a moment we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

 

Whereas Campbell’s work confronts us with tenderness and the collection of disregarded or lost memories, Zachariah Szabo’s work acts as a chameleon, taking on other people’s memories and making them his own.

Szabo creates still lifes through arranging objects that mimic ones he encountered throughout his childhood in other peoples’ homes. The photographs, printed on adhesive paper and mounted directly to the wall, are loaded with patterns, pastel colors, and floral imagery. The tchotchkes featured in the work evoke nostalgia. They seem like the same ones that lined the shelves and dressers of your grandparent’s house. These compositions and their parts are familiar without ever actually existing – an implantation of memory.

On the floor of the gallery is a collection of glass blocks with a strip of white paint on the sides, resembling thick books. Perched on top of the neat pile is a pink ceramic figurine, a kitschy foil to the clear architectural glass. This sculpture acts as a physical manifestation of the content presented in the photographic prints.


Szabo’s works seems to span from childhood to death with no in-between. Slabs of granite, each with its own vinyl epitaph mounted on the surface, are lined up on the floor. Statements such as “I don’t understand you, you’re a cold person,” “Throw away your family tree books, it’s just paper to you,” and “You attended a mass for me under duress,” are words that seem like many we’ve often thought but would never say, rendered in a material that isn’t meant to last. The series of slabs present a sardonic eulogy to someone we’ve never met, and at the same time, all the people we’ve ever known.

There are moments of tenderness in this exhibition but upon closer inspection many of these moments are fabrications with a certain edge to them. It’s moments like this within the exhibition where the artists’ challenge of the idea of memory is apparent, revealing that it isn’t all that we thought it was. None of these memories are the artists’ own, but rather moments and mementos collected and displayed for us to reflect on the idea of memories and their value. And ultimately, their fallacies.

The Conceit of Memory is on view until February 17th. More of the artists’ works can be found at their websites: http://brittanyanncampbell.com/ and http://zachariahszabo.com/